The Merchant of Venice is one of William Shakespeare’s more famous plays and is best known for being the play about “the Jew” but little more is said about this extremely complex and nuanced play. I was so glad to actually get a chance to reread it and attempt to examine the layers in this story.
What is always so powerful to me in the reading and rereading of Shakespeare’s plays is what these stories from hundreds of years ago say about the world we’re living in now. I couldn’t help but draw many connections between the anti-semitism in the play and racism and othering of Black and Brown bodies, and those that practice Judaism and Islam, that has been on full display in The United States in the last few years.
In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock, the Jew, lends out money and it isn’t repaid per the terms of the loan, and Shylock is ready to collect on the debt he is owed (pound of flesh anyone?). However once it turns out that he plans to fully collect everyone becomes incredulous and begs him to show a little mercy and compassion. This is an extremely common narrative in today’s society. After the murder of nine Black people at a church in Charleston, SC there was an immediate cry for the Black community to forgive the White Supremacist who murder these innocent people. We even saw the Black President of The United States, Barack Obama, sing “Amazing Grace” in his eulogy. This cry for mercy and forgiveness is often asked of “the other”.
Shakespeare is essentially asking his audience if it is fair to ask more of the aggrieved if they are outside the systems of power of the given society, weather it be Whiteness, Christian, or male?
He compounds all of this when the person who comes to defend the White Christian patriarchy in The Merchant of Venice is Portia disguised as a young male lawyer. She is the only person clever and even tempered enough to see a way around Shylock’s contract and save the day. Of course its very complicated because her actions essentially lead to humiliation for Shylock, who, while maybe a little rigid (or vidictive), is only following a contract he and his debtor agreed to.
When we talk about the power of the arts to change the world, I think, without sounding too hyperbolic, this play certainly has that ability. It asks the viewer (or reader) to look around and see the hypocrisy that we allow into our everyday life. To see that we are only willing to cling to the rule of law when it serves those in power. When the laws favor the marginalized we see the calls for mercy and forgiveness. We see the vitriolic language of hatred that leads to violence, embarrassment, and more internalized othering of those who are our most vulnerable.
There is a lot more that could be said about The Merchant of Venice, so far in my journey through Shakespeare’s cannon (#ShakeTheStacks Challenge) it feels like the most layered play. It feels urgent and painful and unfortunately more timely than I would like.
If you’ve seen or read this play I would love to hear you thoughts in the comments below.
- Paperback: 103 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Classics; Reprint edition (August 1, 2000)
- 4/5 stars
- Buy The Merchant of Venice on Amazon or IndieBound
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