PTS 014/087: Looking into the Abyss

monster in mirror

PTS read-through:  The Merchant of Venice, Act IV

          Sooner or later, it’s perhaps inevitable that readers of The Merchant of Venice confront one question:  is this an anti-Semitic play?  In fact, lots of people seem to have a view without having seen or read the play.

          The answer is yes – and no. 

          And the answer lies in us, because as I’ve said before, ‘you don’t read Shakespeare, Shakespeare reads you’.  Anti-semitic things happen in the play, but we can either be repulsed by them or encouraged to act in the same fashion.  It is our ‘reader response’ that condones or condemns; rejects or rejoices; permits or promotes.  We choose.  This applies to all texts; all injustices.  And it leads me down an interesting side-street later on …

          As Act IV begins, I’m struck by the Duke’s partiality.  Were I on stage, I’d remind him later of these remarks:

‘A stony adversary, an inhumane wretch,

Uncapable of pity, void and empty

From any dram of mercy.’ (IV.i.3-5)

And ask him how Christian Venice is different.  That, by the way, is the first of eleven uses of the word ‘mercy‘ in this act.  Then, when Shylock arrives, the Duke’s pressure is nothing short of bullying.  His suggestion might be an opening gambit in negotiations, but I’m outraged:

‘Shylock, the world thinks, and I think so too,
That thou but leadest this fashion of thy malice
To the last hour of act, and then ’tis thought
Thou’lt show thy mercy and remorse more strange
Than is thy strange apparent cruelty;
And where thou now exact’st the penalty,
Which is a pound of this poor merchant’s flesh,
Thou wilt not only loose the forfeiture,
But, touch’d with human gentleness and love,
Forgive a moiety of the principal,
Glancing an eye of pity on his losses,
That have of late so huddled on his back,
Enough to press a royal merchant down,
And pluck commiseration of his state
From brassy bosoms and rough hearts of flint,
From stubborn Turks and Tartars, never train’d
To offices of tender courtesy.’ (IV.i.16-32)

          The close readers amongst us might remark on the length of this sentence: either its rhetorical weight and passion, or the way it acts almost as a judgement, precluding interruption or argument.  Either way, let me get this right – because Antonio’s having a bad time, Shylock should drop his suit and contribute to his enemy’s relief fund by giving up half the original debt?  Aid a man who in Act 1 said that he’d continue to insult, spurn and spit on him, utterly unrepentant of his conduct?  A demand for superhuman forgiveness that a Pope might struggle to achieve?  Even the speech ends with a dig:

‘We all expect a gentle answer, Jew! (VI.i.33)

With the adjective ‘gentle’ playing not only on a level of civilisation, of the gentleman, but riffing on ‘Gentile’.  Paraphrase: ‘we expect you to behave like us, like a decent Christian would.‘ Note also that we’re no longer on first-terms.  My sympathies remain with Shylock.

          So, then, who are the ‘we‘ the Duke refers to?  Whether that includes the audience or not provides a further answer to the anti-Semitic question.  Reject or rejoice.  Condemn or condone.  Does Antonio deserve to evade justice?

Roy Baty: easily more likeable than Antonio …

On stage, the dreary Antonio, like one of Philip K Dick‘s replicants in ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep‘, seems to have lost his will to survive.

I am a tainted wether of the flock,
Meetest for death; the weakest kind of fruit
Drops earliest to the ground; and so let me. (Iv.i.113-115)

But unlike Roy and Irmgard Baty, I feel no empathy for him, and haven’t since the play began.  Anyway, he’s surrounded by plenty of allies. Bassanio enquires:

‘Do all men kill the things they do not love?’ (IV.i.45)

… and again I’m minded to remind him of this attitude later on.  Back in my halcyon university days, I wrote a polemic against what I described as the ‘Conspiracy of Silence’ in Stevenson‘s Jekyll and Hyde:  lawyer, doctor, MP, ‘man about town’ (whatever that means), cooperating in a huge cover-up of their collective sins and scandalous habits; simultaneously waging war against a character that is at least unabashed and straightforward in his villainy.  That’s what this scene is like – Shylock’s attitude is truculent and unpleasant, but it has a fundamental integrity and logic.  The law should apply to all or to none, right?  And the men’s attitudes to their presumed-absent wives displays how the range of their unpleasantness extends beyond anti-Semiticism:

I have a wife, whom, I protest, I love.
I would she were in heaven, so she could
Entreat some power to change this currish Jew. (IV.i.286-288)

Wow.  Maybe, though, I just always, always, shout for the underdog …

Leaving ‘the ring’ aside, let’s head down that tempting side street now: the one I mentioned earlier, courtesy of Clare Asquith.

At all periods, and in all societies, oppression gives instant rise to covert forms of communication. The longer the period of repression lasts, the more complex and allusive the hidden language becomes. Recent studies have revealed the speed with which literature responded to Henry VIII’s stringent requirement for loyalty. Equivocation, allegory, and code proliferated right through the sixteenth century. One scholar, Annabelle Patterson, has gone so far as to state that ‘literature, in the early modern period, was conceived as a way round censorship’, and she and others demonstrate the widespread use, by the mid-sixteenth century, of a ‘cultural code … by which matters of intense social and political concern continued to be discussed in the face of extensive political censorship.’ [c]

Asquith’s book quite seductively politicises Shakespeare’s longer poems, ‘Venus and Adonis‘ and ‘The Rape of Lucrece‘, as subtle expositions of the treatment of Catholics during Elizabeth’s reign.  In this vein, might this play not really be about Jews at all?  Might this be a coded critique of Protestant treatment of the Church of Rome?  I suggest this as a firmly lapsed Catholic with absolutely no axe to grind in defending the faith.   I like this theory: legally-endorsed and punitive robbery, enforced conversions and pious hypocrisy of the ‘winning’ side all feature in the play and in Elizabeth’s England.  There were, are, and always will be worse punishments than death, and the seeming clemency of the victors within and without the play masks the shame of a life foresworn to your faith.

This theory does not necessarily or automatically make Shakespeare a Catholic, by the way.  As I said earlier, we condemn or condone, permit or promote.  Speaking out against sexist behaviour doesn’t make me a woman, or actually a feminist.

          Overall, my view is that the play exposes disgusting prejudice.  It reminds me of the hypocrisy involved in religion – what we see in Act IV is the pack mentality of Christians (New Testament, ‘turn the other cheek’ types) rounding on a single, isolated Jew (Old Testament, ‘an eye for an eye’ type).  Shylock isn’t blameless, but the Christians go too far in ruining him, and as I’ve posited before, my feeling is that deliberate cruelty is not forgiveable.  No matter who is perpetrating it, and against whom.  If, to channel Nietzsche, the assembled Venetians believe they are fighting a monster, they’ve fallen into the trap and become monsters themselves. 

‘Anyone who fights with monsters should make sure that he does not in the process become a monster himself. And when you look for a long time into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.’ [c]

If they are analogues of Catholics persecuting a Protestant, that still holds true.  Or, indeed, as I have suggested above, if they cunningly represent late 16th-Century Protestants persecuting Catholics.

          So, reading the play does not make me anti-Semitic.  Nor does condemning the actions of the Christians make me anti-Christian or especially pro-Jewish.  I’m neither.  What it does, is give me a tiny platform to advocate for fairness.  Not to seem a saint.  This – surely – is part of being an educator.  Giving people chances.  Refusing to judge.  Offering my skills uncritically.


[a] William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice (ed. John Drakakis), (London:  Bloomsbury Arden, 2013)

[b] Clare Asquith, Shakespeare and the Resistance, (New York: Public Affairs, 2018)

[c]  Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (1886), available here

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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