I initially had a hard time with this this play. Even by the end, I didn’t find myself rooting for or even liking any of the characters. And yet, I can’t help but feel that it was a worthwhile read.
I found the relations between the Christians and the Jews rather unpalatable. The England of Shakespeare’s day was closed to Jews, and many of the English had never met a Jew; the prevailing myths of the day were that Jews practiced strange rituals, offering Christian flesh to their gods. Strange, yes? Nevertheless, Jews were feared and hated.
This play, though performed first in England, is set in Venice. Our Venetian merchant Antonio has a dear friend Bassanio. Antonio loves him so much that he willingly goes into debt to fund an extravagant venture for Bassanio to woo the rich lady Portia. Unfortunately, he borrows the 3,000 ducats from Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. If Antonio defaults the loan, Shylock will be paid back by a pound of the merchant’s flesh. And, super creepy, Shylock simply can’t wait to rip that pound of flesh out of Antonio’s breast.
Well, Shylock is simply a despicable person. He’s also a Jew. The Christians in the story all seem to blame Shylock’s nastiness on his Jewish status: he’s not a Christian, so of course he’s awful, they say. Even more tragically, Shylock’s own daughter falls into this notion, and shenanigans result there. Furthermore, the Christians, while vilely complaining about the evils of Jewry are guilty of most unChristian behavior towards the poor fellow. You can easily gather why Shylock ended up so nasty after decades of mistreatment at Christian hands.
The whole situation makes me want to tear my hair out and sing Kumbaya.
But, Shakespeare has a way of making you feel Shylock’s pain. Check out these lines:
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, as 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?
So yes, this play was a worthy read, even if it drove me bonkers with all the characters mistreating each other so egregiously. Shakespeare is still my favorite playwright of all time.