I read The Merchant of Venice years ago in college. I remember not liking the play that much. When I picked it back up, I began to remember why. The semester before reading this play as part of class on Shakespeare, I had taken a senior-level psychology lecture course on the social psychological causes of the Holocaust. It was most intense course I’ve ever taken. Needless to say, learning about what happened during the Holocaust in such detail did not make The Merchant of Venice go over well.
Of all the plays by Shakespeare, this one may be the one most affect by time. What I mean is that to an Elizabethan audience, this play was probably very funny. There was a universal detestment and hatred for the Jews during this time. They would have been caricatured liked Shylock in this play. The problem for The Merchant of Venice is the Holocaust. It is no longer acceptable to act this way toward Jews (or any ethnicity for that matter). What happens is a farcical, classic Shakespearean comedy becomes dark and almost intolerable.
Shylock is stereotype of what Jews were thought of during this period and somewhat even today. He is greedy and stingy. His disdain for others, especially Christians is epic. He quotes the Old Testament, is a loan shark, and even apparently has a big nose. In the end his punishment is to lose his wealth, home, and religion. He is forced to become a Christian because of his act in trying to kill Antonio.
Back in the day, Shylock would be a wonderful villain. He may even be worse than Iago from Othello. He desires revenge against a man who has slighted him so much he seems to evoke God to be on his side. Yet, nowadays, he is the sympathetic character.
I still do not like The Merchant of Venice. For one, taken as a comedy as it is intended, it has all the clichés. A woman dresses up like a man. She gives something prized to her husband and he gives it away to her. There are weddings. There are jokes about the English and Scottish, French and Moroccan that makes no sense to today’s audience. Then it has the evil judgement against Shylock at the end of Act IV. The beginning of Act V is a playful banter between lovers. It is an ill-fitting play that today may be better played as a tragedy leaving the focus on Shylock.
“My Ducats. My Daughter.”