Should The Modern Audience Reimagine Shakespeare’s Most Notorious Character?

DISCLAIMER: This article was originally posted on Odyssey.

 

Although technically, within theatrical jargon, the play The Merchant of Venice is characterized as a comedy, which meant during Shakespeare’s time a play with a happy ending–and the full title of the play is “The Comical History of the Merchant of Venice, or Otherwise Called the Jew of Venice“–that “comedy” label would only apply to some characters. Since Antonio is technically the “Merchant of Venice,” he clearly has a happy ending, while “the Jew of Venice,” which would be Shylock, has a tragic story. Although he does not die in the end–but it is implied–he does not have a pleasant point-of-view, for it is one filled with anger, resentment, exclusion, and the ultimately forced assimilation.

To provide a summary, “The Merchant of Venice” was written by William Shakespeare during Queen Elizabeth’s reign in 1594. It takes place in Venice. Antonio is a merchant who has sent his argosies to the New World, who is willing to pay for Bassianus’s debt to the usurer Shylock, who has a personal grudge against Antonio and is willing to lend him money in exchange for a pound of Antonio’s flesh lest he cannot pay Shylock back. Meanwhile, Portia is a wealthy heiress who has to choose a suitor based on which one chooses the right casket, according to her deceased father’s wishes; which Bassianus wishes to woo and choose the right casket. However, besides the basic comedy aspects, there is a tragic point-of-view that is taken by Shylock.

For some audience members who also belong to marginalized demographics, Shylock is the personification of their histories, and it would not be hard to see how, since Shylock’s occupation involves a trade no one in the majority is willing to do, he is the constant victim of prejudice by Antonio and his friends, he is biased against by the Venetian court, and he is forced to abandon his identity at the end of the play. In the IMDb page of the Maori translation of The Merchant of Venice, it explains how significant this film was since it was the first Maori-language film ever produced, and it depicts Shylock as a sympathetic minority character. Considering how the indigenous Maori were subjugated by the British when they colonized New Zealand, all of Shylock’s struggles can easily relate to theirs. It even begins with Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes” monologue at the beginning as he cries.

Definitely, that monologue Shylock delivers to Antonio’s friends is the prime component of determining whether Shylock is a sympathetic character or a bloodthirsty villain. It is especially important since he takes the opportunity to vent his reasons to Saleria and Solanio since they ask him what he intends to do with Antonio’s pound of flesh. Shylock does not want the pound of flesh itself, rather the means of getting it, in other words, he wishes to inflict pain upon Antonio. He goes on to say that he is trying to survive just like the rest of the Venetians and the only reason why Antonio is undermining his business and abusing him is that he is Jewish. Shylock concludes by saying that he will resemble the Christians in their desire for vengeance.

Within that monologue, Shylock provides his rationalizations not just to Antonio’s friends (and the nearby prostitutes in the Al Pacino version) but to the audience as well. Palestinian actor Makram J. Khoury especially highlights this as Shylock when turning from a laughing Salerio to the people around him and then back at Salerio. In this way, the audience along with the characters are given the opportunity to understand Shylock’s struggles in Venetian society.

Indeed, Shylock also points out the hypocrisy among the Christians in the trial scene when he tells them all that they are allowed to own slaves and not even treat them fairly. Outside of Shylock’s awareness, hypocrisy abounds the city-state of Venice as well as the rural Belmont. Portia preaches the “Quality of Mercy” when trying to convince Shylock not to take Antonio’s flesh, and yet she does not have mercy to suitors who choose the wrong caskets and condemns them to live the rest of their lives in celibacy. When audience members look at how the Venetians treat each other and Shylock, it is no wonder that they would be more inclined to side with Shylock than Portia, Bassiano, Antonio, or any of the other characters.

As Agnes Heller from the philosophy and social theory journal “Critical Horizons” and Brian Weinstein from the “Jewish Bible Quarterly” pointed out, Shylock is even more interesting than those other characters. He experiences a wide variety of emotions, from sadness to happiness to anger. Though even Shylock has a negative side since almost none of the characters in The Merchant of Venice appear to be absolvable. Not only is Shylock intent on possibly killing Antonio, and even hopes the argosies Antonio has sent to maintain his wealth are destroyed, he constantly abuses his clown-servant Lancelot. He gives him contradictory commands, which causes him to leave as soon as he is reunited with his long-lost father. So, there does not seem to be a way to rewrite Shylock’s relationship with Lancelot or the troubles he himself externalizes within his own household that causes his daughter Jessica to flee with Lorenzo with his ducats.

Without a doubt, The Merchant of Venice represents a lot of people the very definition of anti-Semitism. So much so, that the very name “Shylock” has wormed its way into the English language to mean “loan shark.” However, upon actually reading the play, Shylock actually cares less about money and more about his revenge against Antonio for his constant harassment. He even ignores the bond given to him–and more–and continues his attempt to take Antonio’s pound of flesh. In this case, his desire for revenge outweighs his desire for wealth. In another instance, Shylock relates to his fellow Jew, Tubal, how he kept a turquoise given to him by a woman named Leah, who was presumably his wife. Upon hearing that his daughter, Jessica, sold it to buy a monkey, he angrily states that he would not sell it for a wilderness of monkeys, thus showing the value he places on Leah which is more than the turquoise itself.

However, there is more to the conversation than the anti-Semitism that is typical within The Merchant of Venice. Shakespearean actor Patrick Stewart points out the complexities of portraying Shylock, who was either depicted as a comical villain or as a sympathetic minority character. Not only does Shylock’s dialogue give off hints that he has genuine grievances about Antonio kicking at, spitting at, and insulting him, but the original play does not dictate HOW the character should be portrayed or even how he is even dressed. A myriad of performances can paint Shylock in completely different ways, whether–as Stewart mentioned a reviewer who described them–as the “wolfish, murderous, bloodthirsty dog Jew (as Antonio, Salerio, and Graziano call Shylock)” or as the “noble, suffering, dignified member of a persecuted race.” Today’s society would definitely be more inclined with the latter portrayal of Shylock, especially in the post-World War II world when fairly recently in world history the entire Jewish nation was threatened with extermination during the Holocaust.

There have also been political implications in the productions of The Merchant of Venice. The blatant anti-Semitism that is largely associated with the play is most definitely found outside of the play since it was staged as part of Nazi propaganda. However, The Merchant of Venice was also played in Tel Aviv in the Habima Theater in a Hebrew translation in 1936, along with another production staged during the Arab-Israeli War (1967) depicting Shylock as the personification of Jewish oppression. Although fierce controversies emerge in Israel and Palestine as a result of these productions, what does remain is the fact that The Merchant of Venice continues to be staged.

Should there be an ethical, responsible way to re-interpret The Merchant of Venice as a play? I think it is important to understand that in the historical context when Shakespeare wrote this play, it was written during a time when Jews only recently were allowed to enter England under Queen Elizabeth. As for the background behind the original staging of The Merchant of Venice, it was shown to an English audience taking place in Venice, which Shakespeare himself has never been to. So, to understand how to re-interpret The Merchant of Venice is to understand that Shakespeare is not the demigod of the literary arts that he is mythologized into being, since although he developed really intricate, colorful characters, he had a narrow ethos when it came to the background. Brian Weinstein makes it a point that Shakespeare was completely unfamiliar with the teachings in the Talmud, which led to Shylock directly contradicting its basic teachings.

Of course, modern perspectives on Shylock also come into question. Although Weinstein points out the fact that Shylock strays from Judaism, the issue with his character is that he only seems to reference his Jewish teachings in order to legitimize his usury. Shylock does not act upon getting Antonio’s pound of flesh by Talmudic teachings, but by how he perceives is the Christians’ notion of revenge. He even concludes his famous monologue:

“The villainy you teach me, I will execute. It shall go hard, but I will better the instruction.”

No matter how much attention is given to the original interpretation of Shakespeare’s play, the result might be an imperfect rendition. Stewart attempted to replicate the original Shylock as the comical villain, but the reality is that the very posh that he used is itself a modern method of communication. The English language is spoken today, specifically Modern British English, is completely different from the Early Modern English spoken in Shakespeare’s time. A notable feature of both Stewart’s and David Suchet’s (who is Jewish himself) performances is the lack of rhoticity, meaning that they pronounced the words without the “r,” so “hurt” becomes [huht] and sir becomes [suh].

Stewart also seemed to have a simplified view of Shylock’s status, almost coming off as tone-deaf. Not to be too hard on Patrick Stewart because he’s–well–Patrick Stewart, but he argued too confidently that “Shylock is an outsider who just so happens to be a Jew,” which completely ignores the broader context that led to Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes” monologue. Although Suchet argued that he is an outsider “BECAUSE he is a Jew,” I can see where Stewart may have come to that conclusion. When Shylock searches for his ducats and his daughter, he manages to get Venetians to help him, which indicates that if Shylock really was excluded, no one in that society would care about what happened to his daughter or any of his possessions. In other instances, Shylock has access to go wherever he wants, since he has permission from the jailer to meet Antonio before the trial scene. He is also allowed to practice usury, practice Judaism (for most of the play), and go to the Venetian court. However, Shylock would not have been called “dog,” practiced usury, or be abused by Antonio if he was not Jewish to begin with.

If The Merchant of Venice is given new adaptations, then the re-imaginings would be less political and more contextual. Since Shakespeare is not as monolithic as we think of him as, we as the modern audience have enough creative liberty to interpret The Merchant of Venice differently from Shakespeare’s own interpretation. Since no preservation nor subversion seems to be suitable in producing the play, it would be best to let the character of Shylock become autonomous and let him speak from his own mouth and no one else’s. Plenty of Shakespeare’s plays were already re-interpreted, including “The Merchant of Venice,” either taking place in a different time period or having their themes entirely altered. Although John Barton of “RSC: Playing Shakespeare” TV series stated that Shakespeare’s characters were a mixture of black and white and that adapters tend to either solely focus on the black parts or the white parts, these characters need not reflect the issues at the time period in when they were created.

 

Images Attributions: TBradac. “SOC Merchant of Venice – Shylock.” Wikimedia. August 5, 2009. Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 4.0 International. Changes include adapting image of Shylock (played by Michael Nehring) into a personally designed background.

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