By John Hudson
Special to the Clyde Fitch Report
Running Nov. 28 through Dec. 20, the York Shakespeare Company will mount a repertory of The Merchant of Venice and Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta at the Manhattan Jewish Community Center (344 Amsterdam Ave. at W. 76th St.). Jewish groups have a long tradition of Merchant hostility: As recently as 1981, the Anti-Defamation League attempted to stop the PBS transmission of a BBC production of the play, much as the New York Board of Rabbis had done with a proposed national broadcast of Joe Papp’s production 19 years earlier. This repertory, at a Jewish venue, therefore deserves some consideration.
In 1998, an international survey of 1,000 teachers carried out by the education arm of the Globe Theatre found 61% did not find Merchant to be anti-Semitic. Some 20% were unsure: they felt anti-Semitism in Merchant resulted from directors presenting the play in a certain fashion, not from what is inherent in the text. Just 17% found the play anti-Semitic.
It is important not to judge Merchant, and the matter of it perhaps being anti-Semitic, by the arguably anachronistic standards of the 21st century theater. Rather, it is important to consider the play by the standards and the context of the time in which it was written. In Elizabethan England, Jews were routinely referred to as dogs or worse; you can read more about this in Kenneth Stow’s Jewish Dogs: An Image and Its Interpreters. On the Elizabethan stage, the traditional depiction of the Jew was as a stage-devil; the presentation in The Jew of Malta was very much in that vein. Merchant, however, goes a step beyond this. And the author borrowed much of the plot, including the man who goes to a Jewish moneylender to help a friend and is asked for a pound of flesh should the money not be repaid on time.
The source material is Ser Giovanni Florentino’s The Big Sheep, a collection of stories available only in Italian as Il Pecorone (1558). In Florentino’s story, the Shylock character is limned as highly legalistic, demanding the exact terms of his fiscal agreement be fulfilled. In a culture that considered Jews to be dogs or devils, the character’s demand that he be accorded basic rights as a human being, that Jews be seen as subject to the same passions, diseases, organs, dimensions and affections as Christians (III.i.49-61), represents an extraordinary, amazing plea for equality. When Merchant was written, Jews were banned in England. They had to practice in secret (they were called Conversos or Marranos), lest they be imprisoned, tortured or, on occasion, executed.
To understand the real meaning of Merchant, as with all sophisticated Elizabethan literature, one must look beyond the honeyed sweetness of the verse and solve the underlying allegories of the play. The name Shylock resembles Shiloh, which is mentioned in the Talmud as one of the names of the Messiah. It is derived from Jacob’s blessing in Genesis (49:10) — which is why Caleb, a contemporary European messianic candidate, was called Caleb Shilocke.
As Anthony Brennan notes in The Three Trials in Merchant of Venice, unlike the simple trial in Il Pecorone, the author of Merchant puts Shylock through three of them. The first: before the Duke (IV.i.16-118). The second: before Portia, ending with Shylock’s declaration to leave (IV.164-344). The third is the judgment (IV.i.345-98).
After echoing the traditional anti-Semitic slander about Jews eating human flesh — “to feed upon/The prodigal Christian” (II.v.14-15) — Shylock is condemned. If he does not convert to Christianity, which is obviously contrary to his beliefs, all his property will be confiscated. At the end of the play, he sends a “special deed of gift,” leaving all of his possessions to his Christian daughter and her Christian husband (V.i.293). So what do these characters, Jessica and Lorenzo, receive? They refer to themselves as “starved people” (V.i.294). There has been a reference to a choir of cherubin (V.i.62), alluding to the Te Deum sung during the Eucharist, in which “cherubin and seraphin continually do cry.” The ceiling, oddly, contains golden communion plates or “patens” (V.i.59). Whatever they receive is described as “manna” for starved people (V.i.293-4). The word “manna,” as stated in Exodus 16:15, means “What is it?” This is indeed the key question for the audience to answer because, using a technical legal term, all of which Shylock “dies possess’d” (IV.i.385) or “dies possess’d of” (V.i.293) is his naked body.
We do not have to look far for a parallel example of a Jewish Messiah associated with the motif of eating human flesh. Or one who undergoes three trials: one among Jewish leaders, a second by Pontius Pilate, a third by Herod. Or one who is unfairly condemned. Or one who leaves his dead body to be a feast, eaten off golden patens to the singing of the Te Deum. Unless someone can come up with a better explanation, it looks very much as if Shylock is a fairly blatant allegorical parody of the Last Supper as a cannibal feast. This is not anti-Semitic, quite the opposite. It is an anti-Christian satire. And it is not the Jews who are depicted as the cannibals.
In today’s Off-Off-Broadway theater, one in which a cannibalistic production of Twelfth Night, made for Halloween in 2007, was greeted with full houses and a New York Times review, perhaps the time is near when the cannibal satires in Shakespeare can finally be presented. That would be as interesting, and perhaps more, than inventing new ones for Halloween — and Merchant would be a good place to start.
John Hudson is a strategic consultant who specializes in new industry models and has helped create several telecoms and Internet companies. He has recently been consulting to a leading think tank on the future of the theater industry and is pioneering an innovative Shakespeare theory, as dramaturge to the Dark Lady Players. This fall he will be Artist in Residence at Eastern Connecticut State University. He has degrees in Theater and Shakespeare, in Management, and in Social Science.