Revenge as Entertainment

Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” with Al Pacino as Shylock, has been wildly successful on Broadway, with sold-out performances, rave reviews, and, after a January hiatus, a month of extended performances starting in February. Last evening, I went with a friend, who had read the play in anticipation(a habit I recommend, but have a hard time doing myself.)

What struck me—aside from the fine performances of the primary actors, most especially Shylock and Portia—was how much resonance the play itself has for contemporary audiences. All three women characters are strong: Portia is smart, witty, outspoken, selfless in love, creative in problem-solving and one quick study in Venetian law. Oh, she’s also beautiful. Her maid, Nerissa, is a downstairs echo (like mistress, like maid), as if to show that these qualities can’t be limited to the noble-born). Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, is a lesser character, who steals her father’s safe when she leaves home to elope with a Christian. But she, too, takes life by the horns rather than sit at home with a money-obsessed father, who nurses his hurts.


 The play is a comedy in that everyone does not die at the end. There are also some very funny lines and characters, like the jester Lancelot, who is a Christian boy working for a Jewish moneylender until he can find “better” employment. Humor enhances the play’s serious themes and often bookends its most poignant scenes.

“Merchant” is also a tragedy, illustrating Christian anti-Semitism. Viewers see that Christians who can be very generous to each other exhibit revulsion toward Shylock the Jew. Amiable Antonio, for instance, puts up his own body as collateral to finance the courtship of his friend Bassanio. Yet Antonio cannot abide Shylock, calls him a devil and a dog and shows him no mercy at the play’s climax, even after his own life has been spared and Shylock is no longer any threat to him.

 Shylock himself is given few commendable qualities. He is not physically attractive, he is greedy, he shows little friendship or love toward others, even Jessica his only daughter. Yet his Jewish identity means much to him. Shylock has felt the sting of Christian anti-Semitism and he can’t forget or forgive any of it. He also articulates the hypocrisy of Christian slaveowners who justify their ill treatment of slaves because they “own” them as property. Just like them, Shylock contends that he owns his bond and has a right under Venetian law to his pound of flesh because Antonio has defaulted on the agreement.

Not only do audiences see how ugly and expensive revenge can be, leading to the loss of one’s family, one’s judgment, one’s humanity. They also see that Shylock is hardly the only vengeful character on stage. At the end of the courtroom scene, the tables have been turned on Shylock. The Duke shows him mercy, enough to spare his life. Yet the law takes half of Shylock’s assets for the city and gives the other half to Antonio. As if that isn’t enough, Antonio exacts a hateful revenge of his own, stripping Shylock of the things he treasures most: his Jewish faith, his daughter and his wealth. In the most moving scene in the play, Shylock’s forced baptism, the newly baptized, moneyless lender rises out of the immersion pool, picks up his yarmulke and puts it back on his head, sopping wet. As a Christian, I couldn’t help thinking of all the forced baptisms of Jews throughout history. Not to mention all the revenge setting family members, ethnic groups and religious adherents against each other all over the world today. Thank you, Shakespeare.





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Bridget O'Brien
8 years 1 month ago
Brett, the most charitable interpretation I can muster of your comments is that you are uninformed of the shameful and tragic history of the treatment of Jews by Christians. "Christian" societies were poisonous to Jews for most of European history. It's not "modern prejudice" that sees that - it's historical reality.  Venice is the first place Jews were legally compelled to live in a restricted area - the ghetto. The expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 is not a product of modern prejudices, but historical prejudices.  It's not modern prejudice, but rather medieval, that invented the blood libel which led to massacres of Jews in Christian towns and prepared the way for the expulsion of Jews from England in the 13th century. And so on. 

Yes, the current staging adds the on-stage portrayal of Shylock's forced baptism, but it does not add the element of forced baptism either to the play or to history.

The words of Fr. Edward Flannery remain true: "The pages that Jews have memorized have been torn from our histories of the Christian era."
Kang Dole
8 years 1 month ago
"Do we have a monopoly on self-aware literature?"

Yes. Christians have a monopoly on "self-aware literature." Well done!

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go count and recount my pennies and cry about the holocaust. Then maybe some nosh.
david power
8 years 1 month ago
Abe ,

apart from counting pennies and eating nosh there is also the great sense of humour.No?
The original was 

Do we have a monopoly on self-aware literature? :)
 There is a little smile there at the end. 
Kang Dole
8 years 1 month ago
Mr. Power, are you saying that the presence of your emoticon means that I shouldn't take the things you said before it seriously? If so, then I apologize for my oversight. If not, then your colon and paranthesis do not mean much.

Concerning Allen's article:

He himself points out that the Shoah was a pretty singular event in terms of its meanings and effects. That could in part be one reason why the persecution of Christians in the 20th century has received less literary attention than the holocaust: such persecution was real and serious (and really and seriously worthy of literature), but the holocaust irreversibly and utterly transformed the Jewish world, whereas persecution of Christians was more localized and context-specific. I suppose that part of what Mr. Allen is saying is that perhaps Christian identity should have been more affected by these persecutions, but since the persecutions were less all-encompassing, it's not totally surprsing that they didn't.

On a more immediate level, one reason why this body of iiterature hasn't appeared is probably because the persecutions occured ad occur in contexts where literary production is less than nourished. Shoah literature exists in part because its authors were able to produce it in contexts where it could be consumed and appreciated. It's rare enough for an American to read anything by an Algerian, persecutied Christian or otherwise. An immigrant to NY, London, or Paris, though? That person can publish in a way that will allow his or her writings to be dispersed and appreciated. Combine the more immediate accessibility of the literature with the indelible impact of the subject, and it's less of a wonder why it thrives.
david power
8 years 1 month ago
@ Norman,

Thanks  for the insights , I constantly read Shakespeare and moreso commentaries on his works. I could never scratch the surface as well as others and I am glad that there are others who have a very prominent minds eye.


My use of the emoticon was simply to say something that might have some truth in it in a tongue-in-cheek style as it is not such an important observation unless of course the contrary leads to untruth. The contary being that everybody assumes that because Christians are willing at times to investigate their failings ,which are many, they have to do so while the others sit on the sidelines filing their knives.
I agree that the sense of identity is a lot different in the two cases and I do not spend a second of my time thinking of Christian suffering but only human suffering and even then it may be only a glance of the mind. I hate self-absorbed nations or peoples.I distance myself from my countrymen when they go heavy on the self-pity and I disliked Poland for the same  reason. "Some of the best Jews are my friends" and they never betray a trace of the poison but the literature that is Jewish can often be found with a lack of reach concerning what is not Jewish. But there are others like Kafka and  Roth who go beyond. At least for me.      
Kang Dole
8 years 1 month ago
Mr. Power, I actually don't want to deny that there can be a particularism or even obsessiveness in a lot of Jewish writing (nor the tendency to sentamentalize).

I don't, though, necessarily think that it is necessary for literature to "go beyond" the reach of national, ethnic, or cultural perspectives in order to really be of value. I'm not speaking here of nationalism or chauvinism, but rather of works that really are solidly rooted in a particular (say, ethnic) context. For example, a book like Yoshe Kalb I.J. Singer (or the majority of his brother Isaac's stories) mercilessly plunges the reader into a very particular kind of cultural context-but I suspect (read hope) that it's not without meaning to non-Jews.

One thing that has often struck me is that when a Jew writes a book that is not necessarily of Jewish theme, then that book isn't necessarily thought of a Jewish literatiure. (I wonder of Baldwin had only written Giovanni's Room, if he would today be remembered as the master of African American literature that he is!) What I'm getting at is that when works are criticized for being overly bound by ethnic concerns, then this is often done by evoking supposedly more universal themes-but the "universal" is sometimes just a default, the mainstream, majority culture.
8 years 1 month ago
Bridget, I do not deny the history of anti-semitism in the West, I am merely stating my opinion that this new addition to the play does nothing to add to Shakespear's masterpiece and is more a result of modern anti-Christian attitudes (usually anti-Catholic) as found in the our media and arts these days than anything else.
8 years 1 month ago
"The pages that Jews have memorized have been torn from our histories of the Christian era."

Have you not been following the actions and words of John Paul and Benedict on this subject over the last 50 years?
Kang Dole
8 years 1 month ago
How is it anti-Christian to represent something that Christians did? You can argue that the added scene is unnecessary (say, because it is heavy-handed and plays no useful role in drawing out what is already there to be seen), but it's not as though it's an entirely alien addition to the play. I mean, a Jew is forced to convert-that process wold involve a baptism somewhere along the line, no? I mean, in the current staging, the washing gets plopped down there in front of the audience, but if yon Bard had chosen to have it in the original, would it have been something out of the blue?

It's a tricky play for the modern audience (presuming that said audience isn't down with anti-Semitism), because it represents anti-Semitism in a manner that doesn't necessarily speak against it with the force we'd like to see. Shakespeare's concerns weren't our own in this case.
8 years 1 month ago
"say, because it is heavy-handed and plays no useful role in drawing out what is already there to be seen"

I agree with your post, Abe; I was attempting to make this simple point, but I think I could have gone about it in a more sensitive manner.

In any case, why should more violent acts be attributed to certain characters of the play if they do not enhance the original intent of the playwright?  My opinion is that such additions are made not for art's sake, but for partisan or political points that reflect current biases or trends.
8 years 1 month ago
"It is known (there is no mistake about it) that Shakespeare is addressing anti-Semitism among Christians.  However, it is in a language and structure that is difficult for the average American Christian."

I am not sure I agree that the message is lost on the American playgoers - the tragic element for all parties involved should be more than enough to draw sympathetic and thoughtful reflections from the auidence without really forcing the point in the way that the new production seems to do.

I don't wish to marginalize the issue, but the story is about more than anti-Jewish sentiment - and perhaps focusing too much on one element detracts from the universal commentary and human weakness that the play is meant to address?

Are we denouncing one act of scapegoating and subsitiuting a more modern one?  Doesn't good drama focus on the line between good and evil that runs through each and every heart rather than one group vs. the next?
8 years 1 month ago
"If this were 50 years ago, Cardinal Spellman would have black listed theaters and play houses that showed or performed Merchant, the Producer's Cut.  Catholic would have been forbidden to attend, and he would wage financial warfare and take no prisoners."

Norman, how exactly can you might this prediction of past events??  Also, today is not 50 years ago - and I have no idea who Spellman is so let's please stick to the point.

PS - I think the word your are looking for is "homosexual," if that is indeed true about this man you seem to have a viceral reaction to...
8 years 1 month ago
Also, I thought we were supposed to "question authority." 

Questioning the message of the media mainstream and big budget Broadway productions is part of the process, right?
8 years 1 month ago
No worries, Norman -  Hasta manana ;)
Eugene Fisher
8 years 1 month ago
I commend America for this article.  Shakespeare's Shylock along with Dickens' Fagin have long been the cornerstones for literary antisemitism in the English-speaking world.  What Al Pacino has accomplished is to be true to Shakespeare's actual vision, distorted by Christian antisemites over the centuries, by adding a scene without changing the words.  Pacino's brilliant interpretation of the play and of the character, taking into account subsequent history that Shakespeare in his time was not aware of but would have been appalled by, bespeaks the deep moral character of Pacino as actor and director.  This version does not change Shakespeare, but interprets it as he would want it to be interpreted in this post-Holocaust world of ours.
Dr. Eugene J. Fisher
Distinguished Professor of Catholic-Jewish Studies
Saint Leo University
8 years 1 month ago
A good couple points by Dr. Fisher.

I am sure there have been many bad productions that have interpreted the play in an anti-Semetic fashion; however, over the years, have there not also been many productions that were faithful to the author without adding new scenes?

I still do not see how adding this makes the play "more faithful" if the original is clear about the stain of anti-Jewish attitudes and still manages to address the culpability of all parties and the weakness of human nature that exists in all men regardless of tribe or religion.

I will have to read this work again. 

david power
8 years 1 month ago
Dr Fisher ,

I disagree with you on two points. The first that we can interpret the Bard according to a running historical narrative which amounts to or could amount to chronological snobbery. The second that Shakepeare would most likely not have been appalled by anything.A reading of any of his works show an incredibly cool-eyed view of life that never allows itself to fall into moralistic rages. Nietzsche probably aspired to be as beyond good and evil as Shakespeare was. 
In Peter Ackroyds excellent book on Shakespeare he comments upon an incident during the Bards life where he was non-plussed about the division of a farmer's land. Modern commentators were offended by the seeming lack of artistic temperament on the part of "Gentle Will" ,how could he not scream blue murder? The answer is that he was far more of an artist than they could imagine.   Trying to fit our clothes onto him is a corruption of reality.  Shakespeare wrote about Man and it is hard to imagine anybody today capable of teaching him there,whereas it is easy to imagine anybody learning from him.
Another point I would disagree with is the classification of Al Pacino as a moral actor or director. I am sure he does not see himself in those terms. He is more ambitious than that.  
8 years 1 month ago
"Thank you, Shakespeare."

You do realize that the violent "baptism scene" was not in Shakespeare's original - rather it is a new addition to play to new, modern prejudices...

From the Times:

"The production, which takes a few venial liberties with the text, more radically interpolates two vignettes to make Shylock sympathetic, notably a harrowing baptism scene that shows his forced conversion to Christianity. But if this reading of the play has tragic elements, the tragedy is not Shylock’s but Venice’s. The production persuasively insists that everyone, to a person, is the product of the same poisonous society."

That poisonous society, of course, is Christian - or that is the modern interpretation.
david power
8 years 1 month ago
Brett makes a very good point.
Can you imagine if they tampered with the original Shakespeare play in a more anti-semitic way,what would the
New York Times make of that?
You can imagine.
John Allen asks a very interesting question in his friday article about the lack of literature on the Christian holocaust. There is practically none.

I am glad there is little of this or that we dont churn out films every year showing how our ancestors have suffered,being Irish I realize how propaganda works to draw us all back to the same guilt-ridden prison and the hatred of the Other. Who wrote in the new scenes?Is there a prize for guessing?
Shakespeare was a christian and to our knowledge formed in the Christian faith, the Merchant of Venice is a work of his,fiction,it shows a Christian examining the values and observing the failings of other Christians . Kudos to the Christian mind ! How many works by authors of other Religions can you name that do so? 
How many books have been written by non-christians about persecution of Christians? Do we have a monopoly on self-aware literature? :)
The film is very good and Pacino is excellent but of course Shakespeare went maudlin at the end with everybody being married off.    


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