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.