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Set in 16th century Venice, William Shakespeare's timeless comedy/drama follows the fates and fortunes of Christian noblemen and their interactions with Jewish moneylender Shylock (Al Pacino). Antonio (Jeremy Irons) borrows money from Shylock to help his young penniless friend Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) in his quest to win the hand of the fair Portia (Lynn Collins). Bitter at Antonio's insults, Shylock stipulates very specific terms if he defaults on the loan. When the loan falls due, Shylock claims his forfeit in the form of a pound of Antonio's flesh. As Bassanio desperately tries to save Antonio from this fate, miraculous help comes from an unexpected quarter. Written and directed by Michael Radford (Il Postino).

 Shakespeare and the Jews

Would you call Do the Right Thing a racist film? Or Bend It Like Beckham? Or Ken Loach’s new film Ae Fond Kiss? All these films deal with the tense relationships between immigrant communities and the broad majority, but none of them would be considered racist just because of the subject matter. Why then has Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, which deals with the relationship between the Jews and the Christians in sixteenth century Venice, been tainted with accusations of anti-Semitism?

Is it because we know the Nazis took the play and used it for their own purposes? Yet we know that any great play is susceptible to being coloured by the age in which it is performed. Surely we have gone beyond that. Already, in the twentieth century, many great Jewish actors have taken on the role of Shylock– Jacob Adler, Anthony Sher and Dustin Hoffman amongst others–and made it their own. Surely this tells us something.

So what is it that continues to plague us? Is it the fact that Shakespeare appears to have written it as a comedy? That the Christians, despite their behaviour towards Shylock, are treated sympathetically? That Shylock was meant simply to have been a figure of fun? If this is so, why then has Shakespeare given Shylock some of the most beautiful speeches he ever wrote? These speeches are directly about the nature of being Jewish, the nature of being a despised immigrant in society. Could such a man be an anti-Semite?

Of course we shall never know what Shakespeare really intended, nor in the long term does it really matter. We have the play before us now, and, if we respond to it, we can only do so through the eyes of our own society. We do know certain facts however. We know that the play was written in and about the time of the execution of Roderigo Lopez, Queen Elizabeth I’s doctor, one of the few Jews in London, and a man wrongly accused of conspiring against her. We know that there was an outburst of anti-Semitism in London at this point. There is no doubt too that historically, Christians were intolerant of the Jews both for their perceived part in the death of Christ and for their money lending activities. They were an immigrant community who kept their own customs and were therefore to be treated with the darkest suspicion. And yet, and you can see it in the play, there is a familiarity between the Christians and the Jews, born of doing business together, living together in the same community. Two different cultures, living in the same community, the majority despising the minority. How many times have we seen this as a point of strife in our modern world?

So what then? Is it a comedy? Well, clearly it is much more than that. None of Shakespeare’s other comedies contains a character remotely like Shylock. How did this happen? Again, nobody knows. There is recent speculation that Shakespeare, who wrote The Merchant of Venice in the wake of the success of Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, attended the trial of Lopez and was so appalled by the taunts of the crowd that he went back to his play and wrote the great speeches which give Shylock such dignity. It is not hard to imagine him seeing the humiliation of Lopez and writing: “Hath not a Jew eyes? organs, dimensions, senses...?” Whatever the historical facts, and they are shrouded in the mists of time, there is no doubt that something major happened with the character of Shylock. This man, destined to be a minor character in a comedy (he appears only in five scenes), becomes one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations. In fact, he becomes the first of Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes, to be followed by Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, Othello.... Clearly, in this person, he saw the beginnings of something extraordinary: something so human and so touching that he could not avoid but create, in the middle of what was supposed to be a light comedy, a great tragic figure. A man who is flawed, as all great tragic figures are, but blessed with dignity and humanity as all great creations are.

This dignity and humanity infects the play. Although left with the so-called comic plot, suddenly all of the characters seem both flawed and yet so human in their flaws. Shakespeare is much more than sympathetic to one side or the other. He understands them all: Antonio with his fatal love for Bassanio; Portia, a spoilt child growing in wisdom; Bassanio realising his own shallowness. All of them trapped in a world which does not allow them to see the other side clearly, which allows them to behave with great tenderness at one moment and with appalling cruelty the next. Like all of us. Two cultures who do not understand each other. Is that not something very recognisable in the modern world? Shylock, a father who has spent his life as an immigrant, suffering all the insults over the years, cannot accept his daughter falling in love with someone outside his own community. Jessica, his young daughter, a second generation immigrant, tired of the stuffy, oppressive world in which she lives with her father, desperate to go out and have fun in a world which she feels she belongs to more than her own. Does that not sound the stuff of modern drama?

The Merchant of Venice is a story set very specifically in its own time and yet it is timeless. The facts of the story are sixteenth century facts. The subtext, the meaning, is absolutely modern. And what a subtext! It is here that you can clearly see that the play is not anti-Semitic. It is about anti-Semitism. The elements of comedy do sometimes sit uneasily with the tragedy, but its greatness lies in the humanity that continually springs forth with a power that cannot be denied.

Finally, I ask you this: Could a man who wrote: “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die...?” or “You, that did void your rheum upon my beard, and kick me as you spurn a stranger cur over your threshold–money is your suit. What should I say to you? Should I not say: Hath a dog money? Is it possible a cur can lend three thousand ducats?” or “You have amongst you many a purchased slave. Shall I say to you: Let them be free...?” Could a man who wrote these things possibly be an anti-Semite?

The answer is of course no. It is absolutely impossible. This is not just a nice bar of music written by a man who hated Jews (as Wagner did). This is not just a poem in the abstract, written by a Nazi sympathiser (like Ezra Pound). This is a deeply considered piece about humanity, written from the core of his soul. Could such a man be a racist? I don’t think so.