Notes on Shakespeare's THE MERCHANT OF VENICE and its Sephardi Jewish Roots
The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare’s classic play on love, commerce, and bigotry, has been the subject of a great, enduring controversy concerning its depiction of Shylock, “…the Jew/ That Shakespeare drew (Alexander Pope?, 1741).”
Over the course of four centuries, different readings and productions of the play have ranged from accentuating “the extreme cruelty of Shylock the Jew” (Quatro of 1600) to showing a highly sympathetic figure who is driven by Christian anti-Semitism to become a “sad, sick, lonely wolf” after suffering the final insult of his daughter’s betrayal (Morris Carnovsky-Katherine Hepburn staging at Stratford, Connecticut’s American Shakespeare Festival Theater, 1957). These widely divergent portrayals arise from the underlying debate on Shakespeare’s view of the Jewish people.
In presenting David Serero’s Merchant of Venice, a production that “return[s] Shylock to his Sephardic, Ladino roots (Chana Leiba Rosenbluth, Jewish Voice and Opinion, 2015),” the American Sephardi Federation seeks to draw attention to the oft-unknown historical context, both within and without the play:
1.) Merchant, on account of its “ornament[ation] with the gayest masks, satires, and love episodes (Heinrich Heine, 1839)” and “happy ending,” is classified a comedy, and the earliest staging may have featured a ridiculously red-haired, hook-nosed Shylock. Perhaps, as Heine goes on to say:
Shakespeare had in mind to create, for the entertainment of the masses, a trained werewolf, a loathsome fabulous monster thirsting for blood, and thereby losing his daughter and his ducats, and becoming a laughingstock. But [through] the genius of the poet… it happened that he expressed in Shylock, in spite of all his glaring grotesqueness, the vindication of an ill-fortuned sect.
2.) Merchant accurately depicts how Jews faced legal restrictions (on where they could live, what clothes they could wear, and how they could earn a living) and informal discrimination in Venice. In 1516, the Doges (ruling council), in response to an influx of Jewish refugees from the Iberian Peninsula and elsewhere, established the Ghetto Nuova to further curtail already limited rights for the city-state’s Jews. Hebrew printing was banned for more than a decade after the Talmud was burned in 1553.
3.) While there were officially no Jews in Shakespeare’s England on account of King Edward I (Longshanks’) Edict of Expulsion (1290), a colony of conversos were living at London. Rodrigo López, a Portuguese converso, served as chief physician to Queen Elizabeth, until he may have falsely been accused of unfaithfulness to the crown and Christianity, was convicted of a conspiracy to poison the Queen, and finally was hanged, drawn, and quartered, in 1594.
Four decades after Shakespeare’s death (1616), another Portuguese Jew, Menasseh ben Israel, attended Oliver Cromwell’s Whitehall Conference, where he was instrumental in establishing the invalidity of the Edict, paving the way for the renewal of England’s Jewish community after over 365 years.
The American Sephardi Federation has in its collection relevant and rare period works from Venice and Amsterdam, which are stored in The David Berg Rare Book Room, including:
· Tzemach David, a Hebrew/Aramaic-Latin-Italian dictionary dedicated by its author, the Jewish physician David ben Isaac de Pomis, to Pope Sixtus V (Venice, 1587);
· Two works by Menasseh ben Israel: Biblia Hebraica (Hebrew-Latin; Amsterdam, 1635) and Conciliator (Spanish; Frankfurt, 1632); and
· Riti e Constumi degli Ebrei: Confutatii, a rabidly anti-Semitic track by the Christian neofito (convert), Paolo (né Moses) Sebastiano Medici, a priest and professor of Hebrew and Holy Scriptures at the University of Florence (Italian; Venice, 1752).
Some of these books were on display during the first production of David Serero’s Merchant of Venice in Sephardic Journeys, a Center for Jewish History with American Sephardi Federation exhibit that was on view in The David Berg Rare Book Room from April to June 2015.
Google’s Cultural Institute has now published an online version of Sephardic Journeys. Sephardim were driven—sometimes by choice, too frequently by force—to transcend borders and barriers. The rare books and artifacts in Sephardic Journeys reflect a rich scholarly tradition and invite reflection upon the physical, emotional, and spiritual journeys of Jewish history. Follow in their footsteps by clicking here.
For the reader’s further edification, we also recommend this excerpt from William Hazlitt’s celebrated Characters of Shakespear’s [sic] Plays (1818):
[The Merchant of Venice] is a play that in spite of the change of manners and of prejudices still holds undisputed possession of the stage. Shakespeare’s malignant has outlived Mr. Cumberland’s benevolent Jew. In proportion as Shylock has ceased to be a popular bugbear, ‘baited with the rabble’s curse’, he becomes a half favourite with the philosophical part of the audience, who are disposed to think that Jewish revenge is at least as good as Christian injuries. Shylock is A GOOD HATER; ‘a man no less sinned against than sinning’. If he carries his revenge too far, yet he has strong grounds for ‘the lodged hate he bears Anthonio’, which he explains with equal force of eloquence and reason. He seems the depositary of the vengeance of his race; and though the long habit of brooding over daily insults and injuries has crusted over his temper with inveterate misanthropy, and hardened him against the contempt of mankind, this adds but little to the triumphant pretensions of his enemies. There is a strong, quick, and deep sense of justice mixed up with the gall and bitterness of his resentment. The constant apprehension of being burnt alive, plundered, banished, reviled, and trampled on, might be supposed to sour the most forbearing nature, and to take something from that ‘milk of human kindness’, with which his persecutors contemplated his indignities. The desire of revenge is almost inseparable from the sense of wrong; and we can hardly help sympathizing with the proud spirit, hid beneath his ‘Jewish gaberdine’, stung to madness by repeated undeserved provocations, and labouring to throw off the load of obloquy and oppression heaped upon him and all his tribe by one desperate act of ‘lawful’ revenge, till the ferociousness of the means by which he is to execute his purpose, and the pertinacity with which he adheres to it, turn us against him; but even at last, when disappointed of the sanguinary revenge with which he had glutted his hopes, and exposed to beggary and contempt by the letter of the law on which he had insisted with so little remorse, we pity him, and think him hardly dealt with by his judges. In all his answers and retorts upon his adversaries, he has the best not only of the argument but of the question, reasoning on their own principles and practice. They are so far from allowing of any measure of equal dealing, of common justice or humanity between themselves and the Jew, that even when they come to ask a favour of him, and Shylock reminds them that ‘on such a day they spit upon him, another spurned him, another called him dog, and for these courtesies request hell lend them so much monies’—Anthonio, his old enemy, instead of any acknowledgement of the shrewdness and justice of his remonstrance, which would have been preposterous in a respectable Catholic merchant in those times, threatens him with a repetition of the same treatment— I am as like to call thee so again, To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.
After this, the appeal to the Jew’s mercy, as if there were any common principle of right and wrong between them, is the rankest hypocrisy, or the blindest prejudice; and the Jew’s answer to one of Anthonio’s friends, who asks him what his pound of forfeit flesh is good for, is irresistible— To bait fish withal; if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgrac’d me, and hinder’d me of half a million, laughed at my losses, mock’d at my gains, scorn’d my nation, thwarted my bargains, cool’d my friends, heated mine enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes; hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer that a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? why revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
The whole of the trial scene, both before and after the entrance of Portia, is a masterpiece of dramatic skill. The legal acuteness, the passionate declamations, the sound maxims of jurisprudence, the wit and irony interspersed in it, the fluctuations of hope and fear in the different persons, and the completeness and suddenness of the catastrophe, cannot be surpassed. Shylock, who is his own counsel, defends himself well, and is triumphant on all the general topics that are urged against him, and only fails through a legal flaw. Take the following as an instance— Shylock. What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?/ You have among you many a purchas’d slave,/ Which, like your asses, and your dogs, and mules,/ You use in abject and in slavish part,/ Because you bought them:—shall I say to you,/ Let them be free, marry them to your heirs?/ Why sweat they under burdens? let their beds/ Be made as soft as yours, and let their palates/ Be season’d with such viands? you will answer,/ The slaves are ours:—so do I answer you:/ The pound of flesh, which I demand of him,/ Is dearly bought, is mine, and I will have it;/ If you deny me, fie upon your law!/ There is no force in the decrees of Venice:/ I stand for judgment: answer; shall I have it?/
The keenness of his revenge awakes all his faculties; and he beats back all opposition to his purpose, whether grave or gay, whether of wit or argument, with an equal degree of earnestness and self-possession. His character is displayed as distinctly in other less prominent parts of the play, and we may collect from a few sentences the history of his life—his descent and origin, his thrift and domestic economy, his affection for his daughter, whom he loves next to his wealth, his courtship and his first present to Leah, his wife! ‘I would not have parted with it’ (the ring which he first gave her) ‘for a wilderness of monkeys!’ What a fine Hebraism is implied in this expression!….