The Merchant of Venice
Considered a “problem play” by many critics, The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596-97) technically meets the criteria for generic classification as a romantic comedy. The romance centers on Portia, a young heiress of Belmont, and Bassanio, a suitor from Venice. Bassanio finances his pursuit of Portia through a loan from his friend Antonio, a Venetian merchant, who in turn secures a loan from Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. The terms of the contract between Antonio and Shylock specify that the moneylender shall be entitled to a pound of Antonio's flesh if the loan is not repaid on time. Attempting to enforce the contract, Shylock appears in court opposite Portia, who disguises herself as a male lawyer acting on Antonio's behalf. The trial concludes with Antonio's acquittal and Shylock's forced conversion to Christianity. The play, however, ends on a more positive note, with a happy ending for the lovers. Nonetheless, critics and audiences have been disturbed for centuries by the anti-Semitic nature of the play and the tragedy of Shylock's defeat in the courtroom—where he loses everything, including his faith.
Perhaps no character in the Shakespearean canon has generated so much controversy as Shylock. Long considered an anti-Semitic stereotype, the negative characterization of the Jewish moneylender has resulted in the play's almost complete exclusion from secondary school reading lists. Some critics have suggested that Shylock is vilified as a usurer rather than as a Jew. However, M. M. Mahood (1987) argues that “the Elizabethans would have brought a whole heap of prejudices to a play about a ‘stubborn’ Jew who is also a moneylender,” since just as Jews served as scapegoats of Christianity, the usurer served as the scapegoat of an emerging capitalist system. Michael J. C. Echeruo (1971) compares Shakespeare's characterization of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice with Marlowe's rendering of Barabas in The Jew of Malta, examining the relationship of both to stereotypes of Jews. Echeruo notes that critics are divided on the interpretation of that comparison, with some considering Marlowe's play more anti-Semitic and others suggesting that Shakespeare's sympathetic representation of Christianity puts Shylock in an even worse light than Marlowe's Jewish character. In conclusion, Echeruo warns against a sentimental reading of The Merchant of Venice that considers Shylock's ill-treatment to be directed at his profession rather than his religion, noting that “Shylock was before everything else a non-Christian, a Jew.”
Critical attention has also centered on Venice as the play's setting and on Elizabethan England's perception of the culture associated with that city. In his Marxist reading of The Merchant of Venice, Burton Hatlen (1980) views Venice as “a quintessentially capitalist society,” as opposed to Belmont, which he believes “exemplifies the qualities of an aristocratic way of life.” Elizabeth S. Sklar (1976) considers Bassanio the perfect representative of Venice and contends that “an understanding of Bassanio may thus provide some insight into the moral climate of The Merchant of Venice.” Sklar suggests that the character traits exhibited by Bassanio, the romantic hero of the play, are similar to those of Shylock, the play's purported villain. Sklar notes that both characters are devoted to material goods and the acquisition of wealth, and both confuse monetary worth with higher moral or spiritual values. Russell Astley (1979) also compares Shylock with another character as a means of exploring the moral world of the play. Astley views the moneylender and Antonio as opposites: Antonio finances the courtship of Bassanio and Portia, while Shylock refuses his daughter a dowry, forcing her to steal it; Antonio's loan is motivated by love for Bassanio as opposed to the greed and hatred that motivates Shylock's loan; and lastly, Antonio offers mercy freely, whereas Shylock is compelled to be merciful by law.
Despite the controversial nature of the play, The Merchant of Venice has remained one the most popular Shakespearean plays on the stage, ranking with Hamlet as one of the most frequently performed plays in Shakespearean stage history. Over the last four hundred years, Shylock has been played as both a villain and a victim. According to Charles Edelman (2002), the most successful productions have been those in which Shylock has not been treated as a vindictive monster. One such sympathetic representation of Shylock, reviewed by Chris Jefferey (see Further Reading), was Helen Flax's 2001 production in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. According to Jefferey, “it was a strength of this production that it set in opposition to Shylock a gang of swaggering leather-jacketed bullies who made it easy to see why he, or any reasonable person, should detest Christians.” The reviewer notes, however, that the production as a whole was a surface-level interpretation that neglected the play's more complex levels of meaning. In his review of director Shepard Sobel's 2003 Pearl Theater Company production of The Merchant of Venice, D. J. R. Bruckner (2003) also suggests a similar sympathy for Shylock. Bruckner notes that Shylock's “defeat at the end of the play is pitiable,” particularly when Gratiano yanks the yarmulke from the moneylender's head as he leaves the courtroom a broken man.
Shakespeare's intentions regarding Shylock, in particular, and Jews, in general, can never be known with certainty. Critical speculation on the subject has been ongoing, particularly since the nineteenth century. Lester C. Crocker (see Further Reading), who has surveyed the history of scholarly commentary on the subject, maintains that the intensity of the debate is increasing as audiences, unable to enjoy the play because of the unsettling representation of Shylock, look to critics for answers. Scholars, meanwhile, are anxious to rehabilitate Shakespeare's reputation, but are reluctant to alter the characterization of the moneylender in a way that would constitute a transformation of the playwright's original text. Crocker concludes that Shakespeare's true intention—whether endorsing or refuting prejudice against Jews—is unknowable. He contends, however, that “the semiology of anti-Semitism, ‘the Christian disease,’ is to be found in The Merchant of Venice, embedded into its texture.” Jay L. Halio (1993) also addresses Shakespeare's attitude toward Jews and the controversy surrounding his representation of Shylock. The critic notes that “[i]f Shylock is another version of the villainous Jewish money-lender, and like Barabas a comic villain, he is also something more—the first stage Jew in English drama who is multi-dimensional and thus made to appear human.”