Lesson #176: The Merchant of Venice (or Shakespeare’s Anti-Semitism)

That title might be more accurately worded, “Shakespeare was a product of his time.”

I’m in New York City visiting an old college friend of mine with whom I worked in the theatre, so we went up to Queens to see a friend of hers, with whom she works in another company, in a production of The Merchant of Venice.* It’s a very anti-Semitic play, but it turns out that in Shakespeare’s time, it was perfectly acceptable to treat the Jews like second-class citizens and dupe them out of what is rightfully theirs.** This is not really all that surprising, I suppose, if you know the history of Judaism, but for a Jewish character to be so openly mocked by someone like Shakespeare says something. It’s not a bad play, it’s just shockingly anti-Semitic. The number of times the word “Jew” is used with a demeaning connotation just made me cringe.***

There’s a very interesting discussion on the anti-Semitism of the play here.

*I’d never seen it before, mostly since I’m not a huge Shakespeare fan. It’s a very weird play. It’s like he took a comedy and a drama and mashed them together. Also, it has the typical Shakespearean women as deceivers for hilarity thing going and I freaking HATE that about Shakespeare. Every time I read/see one of his works where the women dress up as men and deceive their men for later shenanigans, I get annoyed and spend the rest of the time rolling my eyes at the men and sighing passive-aggressively. I always want to smack the men upside and ask, “HOW ARE YOU THIS STUPID?”

**I’ll be honest, I was on Shylock’s side the whole time. Basically, this guy spits on him and then demands Shylock lend him some money, is the reason his daughter runs off with a gentile, can’t pay back the loan, all but refuses to make good, has to have his friends come to his rescue and in the end is the reason why Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity when all he wanted was what was due him in the first place.

***I’m not alone in this. My friend’s friend was playing him and he said that because he had no experience as regards Judaism, he would rehearse it as if the term were “fag” because he understood how much that hurt.

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