Shakesy-P and Semitics

Out of the multitude of Shakespearean plays I’ve read, The Merchant of Venice is one of the more interesting ones. In modern media, anti-Semitism is something that is actively frowned upon and not commonly broadcasted. With the Holocaust having been less than a century away, Jews are still healing and still suffering despite the lack of coverage in the media. Yet in the era of Shakespeare, anti-Semitism was to die for — literally. Jews would be hanged and stoned and, in this case, taken to court. In a few centuries, will we be back to square one, or are we already there? Christianity has been the rising religion for many a year, and the power it holds was ever-present in a time of Jewish need. 

“A Jewish Reading of the Merchant of Venice,” by Aviva Dautch is a compelling article I came across in my hunt for blog and presentation source material. Now, I found this article especially interesting because of how Dautch describes her relationship with the anti-Semitism in the play and how it affected her family personally. 

As a non-Jew, or a goy, as it were, in Yiddish and Hebrew, I definitely do not have the experience nor the right to speak for Jews and their marginalization. However, I would like to express how essential it is for a non-Jew to be aware of the affect of anti-Semitism in modern day England. Aviva Dautch, originally from the UK, was made to play Shylock in her school’s rendition of The Merchant of Venice. This would not be so bad if Dautch was not one of the only Jewish girls in her class nor actively belittled for her religion in place. As Shylock, Dautch was forced to act maliciously. “…During the trial scene, the instructions were to lick my lips in anticipation at the blood I was about to spill and generally make Shylock as malevolent as possible until we booed him like a pantomime villain.” (Dautch, “A Jewish Reading of the Merchant of Venice”)

Dautch’s family was, understandably, furious to hear this news. They called it the “horrible, anti-Semitic play,” and rightfully resisted Dautch’s casting role. With Dautch’s experience being set in the late 20th century, the Holocaust was still a fresh wound prickling at her and her family’s skin. Dautch goes on to say, “…the slights Shylock endured comparable to those many of our friends and relatives had experienced a few decades earlier in Second World War Europe, his forced conversion tragic, too painful to watch in the face of what they’d been through.”  She, however, would not be let off the hook so easily.

With her mind bogged by the incessant screeching of Shakespeare, Dautch would not let the scenario go untouched. Dismantling the plot, she decided to pick apart pieces of which she was familiar. One of the most important parts to Dautch was the disconnect between Christianity and loyalty. She mentioned how Jews were ever-faithful and family-oriented, so when Portia and Nerissa taunted Antonio and Bassanio and they caved in, Shylock could not believe it. Marriage is an eternal bond between those in love and is meant to serve as a grounding safe place you can return to when you’re wounded. The fickle-minded behavior of Antonio and Bassanio served as an excellent dichotomy to how Shylock’s turmoils had been unfurling. Shylock’s daughter had just run away with her lover, stealing the ring of his late wife, Leah. This tortured him from day to day, and in addition his money and pride being thieved tore him apart as well. Shylock strove to be the best and most trustworthy businessman possible, yet his mind was pulled from all edges leading him to vengeful intentions.

Jewish marriage-ring

This is an elaborate Jewish wedding ring that was most likely from Venice. Rings are a very important part of the play, symbolizing faith and honor to one another. As I mentioned, marriage is sacred in Judaism as well. Thievery of Shylock’s ring was a direct insult from his daughter as well as her late mother. Rings, symbolizing love and devotion, were also a term used for a vagina. Stealing a ring … Taking one’s “virginity”…. You get the gist.

Does this pardon his previous behavior? No. Does it allow the audience to relate to his character and present him as an accurate human being? Yes.

Dautch is very particular about how she connects with Shylock’s humanity. He is, overall, trying his best despite his presented flaws. His character is rounded and whilst not all of his actions are justifiable, he is realistic. As a devoted father, husband, businessman, and friend, it’s completely understandable to have a vendetta against those who’ve wronged you. Portia’s boldness to take over the role of a lawyer was inspiring to Shylock, for the two of them shared similar caged freedoms. Dautch brings up her tactics more than once in her article and I can only attribute the hopelessness Shylock feels to his admiration for Portia. I believe that, perhaps, he was hoping she might feel something toward him as well — empathy, pity, what be it. Alas, the Christian values Portia followed followed her into her actions in supporting her husband despite his blatant infidelity and interest in her money.

Portia: “This is my boyfriend, Bassanio. And this is Bassanio’s boyfriend, Antonio.”  Shylock is Leslie, of course, not knowing what is going on at any point in time and simply trying his best. 

Now, of course Dautch’s experiences aren’t going to relate to everyone, especially Jewish people. But, taken from the text, I feel it’s safe to say that the blatant anti-Semitic values from Shakespeare (whether or not he believed them) (although I’m sure he did) had an incredibly powerful effect on his audience. Yes, it was a bit before his time with the Holocaust, but the emotions tied to The Merchant of Venice have stuck for the centuries post-mortem. In Dautch’s case, they were still a present trial faced even in her childhood. Her family’s opposition to her role in the play will be forever justified — just because there is an opportunity to place a marginalized person in a spot they might be “familiar” with doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Especially if you’re white.

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