14. The Merchant of Venice
The Merchant of Venice is a play I haven’t properly engaged with since I studied it for GCSE English. I remember seeing an amateur production of it once and the film with Al Pacino but it’s definitely one of Shakespeare plays that I have seen and read the least and yet still feel I know quite well. Understandably, modern directors, producers and companies have been slightly wary of staging this play with its very famous and obvious anti-Semitism. Having read it again, however, I think there’s a lot that can and indeed should be staged from this play, as long as it is done with delicacy and empathy.
First of all, this is undoubtedly an anti-Semitic piece of writing. I have no doubt in my mind that Shakespeare envisaged this as a slightly comic story of the downfall of an evil Jew, who is greedy and merciless, and gets his just desserts when his daughter runs off with a Christian, loses all his money and is forced to convert to Christianity. What is remarkable, however, and does great credit to Shakespeare as a writer, is that despite all this, Shylock is an immensely complex and multi-layered character. Yes, he is merciless and cruel, but he is also persecuted and dehumanised in such a way that we understand his desire for revenge. I would argue that Shylock also has a quiet and subtle charm to him, that makes us strangely warm to him. By contrast, Antonio – the Christian merchant - who by rights we should sympathise with is frequently arrogant and most certainly prejudiced and abusive towards Shylock and the Jewish community. So, the play is much more complex than a simple evil Jew versus a good Christian; Shakespeare manages to create characters that are made up of many shades of grey, which makes it still a compelling story to a modern audience.
The anti-Semitism is undoubtedly problematic, but I do not think it makes the play unperformable. In fact, I would argue that the racial prejudices presented in the piece, how it creates some empathy and understanding of each side, and the way in which it shows how quickly these underlying prejudices can boil over into active hatred, abuse, subjugation and dehumanisation, are all the very reasons why this play should be presented today. These are all concerns we are very much still wrestling with, whether the marginalised groups be racial, religious, political or any other.
In fact, somewhat counterintuitively, the parts of the play that I think are hardest to stage or translate for modern audiences are those related to the romantic and comic characters in the play. As is often the case, the clown character, Lancelet, is now just desperately unfunny. But annoyingly for a modern director, he is more interwoven into the sub-plot than most of Shakespeare’s clown characters. Similarly, the whole casket set-up, whereby the would-be suitors to Portia have to pick the correct casket or never marry in their lives, feels a bit dated and contrived. Though that’s not to say that the issue of a woman’s right to choose isn’t still very much relevant!
In short, The Merchant of Venice is an inherently problematic play. It was written from a position of subconscious racism and sexism but that does not mean that the issues raised are not ones that should be discussed and this play, in the right hands, can definitely ask some important questions of our society today. As I say above, it is actually a massive credit to Shakespeare that, despite the engrained beliefs and prejudices of his time, he manages to create characters of immense depth and nuance. We can empathise with Shylock whilst believing he should be merciful; we can dislike Antonio whilst sympathising with his position. Similarly, Portia is placed in a position of powerlessness and yet manages to save the day, argue eloquently in court and secure the hand of the man she loves (albeit, having to pretend to be a man at times to do it). This is without doubt a play that has to be treated with caution and care, but it is also a play that has immense potential to have a real impact on an audience, sparking important and necessary discussion.