Guest post

On “The Merchant of Venice” and good Christian values

A guest blog by Omer Shaik, a local actor playing Lorenzo in Theater in the Rough’s current production of The Merchant of Venice: in motion. Featured photo by Merav Blum.

The Merchant of Venice has a weird ending. 

I mean, every play by Shakespeare has some interesting kinks to its ending – there is no comedy that he ends cleanly – and yet, you can tell an ending is especially unusual if Shakespeare feels the need to point it out. The unsatisfying ending of Love’s Labour’s Lost is commented on in the play (“Our wooing doth not end like an old play. Jack hath not Jill…”). In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck apologizes directly to the audience. And so does Merchant end when Portia says: 

It is almost morning,
And yet I am sure you are not satisfied
Of these events at full.

– V, i

Then Gratiano cracks a dirty joke, and that’s it. All of the characters finally enter Belmont again (that entire last scene happens before they even enter the house) – and the play ends. 

It’s a weird ending, but especially weird for this play because it feels like this play already had its perfect ending – the trial scene. At the end of the famous trial scene the titular merchant of Venice is saved, the villain Jew is defeated, and the audience learns a lesson about Christian morality (and Jewish cruelty). There are a few things left for the play to do: revisit Lorenzo and Jessica, reveal that Portia was the doctor, and most importantly – confirm all the marriages, but the one thing it shouldn’t do is the thing it immediately does – introduce more conflict.

The play is almost entirely wrapped up when Portia insists on unwrapping it again by asking (as the doctor) for Bassanio’s ring, and Bassanio seals the play’s fate by actually giving it to her. Were he to refuse, that would’ve been another proof of Christian morality, but instead he falls for her trap, leading her to viciously scold his hypocrisy in the final scene (“even so void is your false heart of truth!”) only to then reveal it was all a big joke on his behalf. Why? What does it mean? At first glance, this play feels almost like a parable, determined to teach us some ‘good Christian values’ (and bad Jewish cruelty), but if this is what the play wants to do – what is the point of this ending? What does this ending want to teach us? 

Well, to understand that I think we’ll need to answer first what values does this play wish to teach us, and how well does it choose to do it. Let’s start with obvious one: 

“Tell me where is fancy bred…”

– III, ii

The three caskets (crafted by Sara Levene). Photo by Merav Blum.

The fairytale-like engagement challenge Portia is bound to is clearly orchestrated to teach us a lesson. That lesson? Stop chasing things like material wealth and beauty. The material world is dead and void of meaning – heaven is the place of meaning, and so the most important thing in this world is the thing that will get you to heaven – moral deeds. There are three caskets – gold, silver, and lead, and the ugliest one is of course the right one, because outward beauty is meaningless. A good Christian moral. You see it clearly in the famous poem the prince of Morocco reads after wrongly choosing the golden casket – 

All that glisters is not gold – 
Often have you heard that told. 
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outsides to behold. 
Gilded tombs do worms enfold. 
Had you been as wise as bold, 
Young in limbs, in judgement old, 
Your answer had not been inscrolled
Fare you well, your suit is cold.

– II, vii

Morocco’s fault is choosing by the eye the thing he feels is most valuable. But he only beholds the outsides. Inside the casket there’s a carrion of death – a skull, for outward beauty is not eternal – its fate is to die. and “gilded tombs do worms infold”. And Portia seems to know it – When it’s Bassanio’s turn to choose a casket, Portia sneakily teaches him the answer to her late father’s riddle with a song: 

Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart or in the head?
How begot, how nourished?
Reply, reply.
It is engender’d in the eyes,
With gazing fed; and fancy dies
In the cradle where it lies.
Let us all ring fancy’s knell
I’ll begin it, –Ding, dong, bell.

III, ii

Fancy – wealth, beauty, where is it bred? in the eyes. And so it dies in the cradle where it lies. When Bassanio chooses correct, the poem he finds in the leaden caskets begins by calling him – “he who choose not by the view”. The moral is clear – don’t chase things like wealth and beauty, they only seems valuable in the eyes, but this value quickly dies. a good Christian value, and that value follows for the rest of the play – Antonio the good Christian merchant is known for lending out money gratis – without fee – and the greedy jew is there to counter him with his blind love of money. Right?

Well, no. There are some big problems with that reading. 

Firstly, Bassanio did go to Portia for her money. It’s obvious. When Antonio asks Bassanio to tell him about the lady he swore a “secret pilgrimage” to, Bassanio starts by talking about his money troubles. When he finally describes Portia, the first thing that he says is that she’s “richly left”, followed by her physical beauty (“and she is fair”). He tell us those two details before he even tells us her name. He doesn’t even seem to hide his intentions. And yes, the casket calls him “he who choose not by the view”, but that’s immediately after he praises and deifies Portia’s physical beauty. In the end, it’s hard to argue that he didn’t choose his mistress “by the view”. And Gratiano follows suit, picking Nerissa as his wife with his eyes alone – 

My eyes, my lord, can look as swift as yours:
You saw the mistress, I beheld the maid.

III, ii

Even Portia herself doesn’t seem to learn that lesson. When the prince of Morocco – a “tawny moor” – first meets her, he immediately asks her to mislike him not for his complexion. His darker skin is not as strange in his home country, and he would like not to be judged for it. Portia assures him she doesn’t mind his color, and yet the moment he leaves for choosing wrong, she says without shame – “may all of his complexion choose me so”. Immediately after “All that glisters is not gold”, this moment doesn’t feel just like casual racism but like cruel, cruel irony. So much for not choosing by the view. 

In fact, society in this play is extremely obsessed with money – you can see it from the start, when the merchant struggle to think of a non-financial reason for Antonio’s sadness. Ironically the venetian who arguably obsesses the least about money is Shylock, the supposed greedy moneylender. In fact, his entire plot would not make sense were he to value money above all else. The whole bond he suggests is financially ludicrous – he gives Antonio a loan with no interest at all, and as a forfeit requests a thing that he himself admits is financially worthless – a pound of Antonio’s flesh.

When Antonio can’t pay the bond, Portia tries to pay him thrice the sum and he repeatedly refuses, which shouldn’t have been a surprise to her – his daughter already told her that he would rather have Antonio’s flesh than twenty times the value of the sum. Because he doesn’t want the money. He wants to kill Antonio. 

But Portia and the other Christians either don’t listen or don’t really believe it. They cannot believe a jew will refuse money, and so they see Shylock as a worshiper of money even when that doesn’t make any sense. When Antonio is jailed he knows that Shylock seeks his life, and yet only manages to give a fiscal reason for it – he thinks it’s his habit of paying off people’s debts to Shylock is the only reason he is hated by him.

But as Shylock’s famous “if you prick us” speech shows, his hatred runs way deeper than that. He operates not out of greed (which is an entirely villainous drive), but out of revenge and a sense of personal honor (a drive he shares with Iago and Hamlet alike). The viewing of Shylock as a greedy money loving Jew seems to be almost entirely the invention of the Christian characters. In fact, Shylock arguably has a much more grounded view of money than the Christians. When the duke “spares” his life while taking away all his fortunes, he says – 

You take my house when you do take the prop
That doth sustain my house; you take my life
When you do take the means whereby I live.

IV, i

That’s what money is for him – the means whereby he lives. The Christians in this play chase money. Not the Jews. 

Okay, so it seems this play fumbles a lot trying to teach us how a Christian should view wealth and fancy. but Shylock plays a bigger role in teaching us another Christian value – mercy. 

“The quality of mercy is not strained…”

–     IV, i

Maya Blank as Portia, here disguised at Balthazar the lawyer. Photo by Michael Sager.

It is a fairly common (and wrong) Christian belief that while the Jewish old testament was all about law and Justice, the Christian new testament is all about forgiveness and mercy. As an antisemitic comment I read once said – “Moses would have had Jesus stoned to death”. It’s in that context, and also in the context of the actual process of Jesus’s death, that a stereotype was born – that of the cruel Jew obsessed with justice and the law and the forgiving Christian who knows mercy.

And in that context the trial scene seems to work perfectly – the cruel old Jew demands Antonio’s death, as he believes is his right by law. Portia tries again and again to persuade him to be merciful, even giving a whole beautiful monologue in praise of mercy, and yet Shylock craves justice and the bond, and no more. Antonio, Jesus-like, is ready to die by Jewish cruelty, until – twist! – Portia finds a loophole in the law. The tides are turned, and now the Jew needs to beg for mercy from the duke. And the duke uses that to teach the Jew a lesson – 

That thou shalt see the difference of our spirits,
I pardon thee thy life before thou ask it

IV, i

And yet, there’s a problem with the mercy he’s proposing. The duke pardons his life and yet takes all his money, and Shylock answers that that’s essentially the same fate. Antonio’s mercy that comes immediately after seems better – he suggests only half his money will be taken, as long as Shylock converts and at his death gives all his fortunes to his daughter and her new Christian husband – but that mercy has some cruelty of its own. The forced conversion, of course, but also the fact that he is pressed to give half of his money now and all of his money at his death “unto the gentleman That lately stole his daughter” – that’s not me saying, that’s how Antonio chooses to phrase it, which tells me he is aware of the cruelty of this mercy.

You can say that by converting Shylock he has given him a spot in heaven but that also has some problems in the play – when Jessica, his daughter, runs away, elopes with the Christian Lorenzo and willingly converts no one treats her as a Christian. She’s still being called an infidel and still being told the gates of heaven are shut to her because if she’s still her father’s child she is still, deep down, a Jew (and if she’s not her father’s child, than she’s damned for being a bastard). Jessica! The willing convert! the one the merchants repeatedly call “gentle” – a play on the word “gentile”. Gratiano says it best – 

now by my hood, a gentle and no Jew

II, vi

 And even she, when converted, is told that she is damned.

Elisheva Greenberg as Jessica and Annabelle Landgarten as Shylock. Photo by Merav Blum.

What hope is there in Christian heaven for Shylock? Looking more deeply at Portia’s handling of this lesson she gives to Shylock, it seems that to teach Shylock the cruelty of law without mercy, she becomes as monstrous as him. When Shylock understands he cannot win, he repeatedly requests to just take the money instead, and she repeatedly denies him and mocks him in the court. 

Soft!
The Jew shall have all justice; soft! no haste:
He shall have nothing but the penalty.

IV, i

Yes, it is all to teach him how monstrous justice can be (“For, as thou urgest justice, be assured Thou shalt have justice, more than thou desirest.”), but becoming the monster you see in others is not exactly turning the other cheek. In fact the Jewish Talmud, that sees the act of shaming someone in public as akin to spilling blood, will not see any mercy in this act. And to be honest, when I read Portia’s lines here, I cannot help but feel like she’s enjoying it. The fact that this Christian court of Venice even has a law that immediately bankrupts any “alien” who is proven to seek a Christian’s life, “by direct or indirect attempts”, is also not exactly turning the other cheek, is it?

In fact, throughout the entire play the Christian treatment of Shylock is anything but merciful. Antonio especially, while trying to seem like a Jesus figure and turning the other cheek in the trial, has made a habit of bad-mouthing Shylock in public, spitting at him, calling him dog and being generally cruel to him, with no reason other than the fact that he’s a Jew. Yes, he sees his way of life as a Jew as a moral failing, especially in regard to lending money with interest, but still his cruelty seems too severe.

You may say that judging Antonio for his mistreatment of Jews is only a modern read, but the mistreatment of jews was actually a grievance Martin Luther (one generation before Shakespeare) had against the church. He called the Christian treatment of Jews not just cruel and unchristian, but counterproductive. He said that were he a Jew, and saw how Christians treat him, he would rather have become a pig than a Christian. He would later turn and become very antisemitic himself, but that sentiment he preached in his early years is not modern – it’s brave and controversial, but a product of the time. And Shakespeare goes one step further – he chooses to suggest in his famous speech that the cruelty of Shylock is not really Jewish at all. It is taught by Christian example. 

If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

III, i

Far from the arbiters of moral value, Shylock sees Christian society as the thing that taught him cruelty. When he defends his right to cut Antonio’s flesh, he likens it to the Christian “right” to own slaves and treat them poorly. And when Bassanio fears Shylock’s suggestion of the bond, Shylock is ready with his scathing critique – 

O father Abram, what these Christians are,
Whose own hard dealings teaches them suspect
The thoughts of others!

I, iii

When Launcelot Gobbo (a servant clown of Shylock, cut from our version of the play) decides to leave Shylock for Bassanio, Shylock has this to say to him – 

Well, thou shalt see, thy eyes shall be thy judge,
The difference of old Shylock and Bassanio

II, v

And really, truly, what’s the difference? When Portia enters the trial, she can’t even seem to tell the Christian Antonio and the Shylock apart from each other. 

which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?

IV, i

“But we’ll outface them and outswear them too.”

–     IV, ii

Maya Blank as Portia with Naomi Altschuler as Nerissa. Photo by Michael Sager.

So the play on the one hand teaches us good Christian values that are supposedly opposed to immoral Jewish behavior (Christian humbleness versus Jewish greed, Christian mercy versus Jewish cruelty), and yet shows us Christian characters failing to live by those values, and a Jewish villain who doesn’t really behaves that different from them. Why? Well, here we finally reach that peculiar ending. 

Portia, disguised as the doctor, just saved Antonio and plans to leave, but Bassanio begs her to let him pay her with something. She refuses at first – “he is well paid that is well satisfied” she says – but then decides to ask for the engagement ring she gave him. He, after some persuasion, agrees, even though he swore that “when this ring parts from this finger, then parts life from hence”. And so he proves his hypocrisy – his mouth can swear one thing, but he will do another. While this seems like a surprise to Portia, there’s one person who will surely not be surprised by that display – Shylock. 

There’s a moment in the trial scene when Bassanio and Gratiano proclaim that they would sacrifice not just their lives but their wives to save Antonio. Their wives, who unbeknownst to them are in the room disguised, criticize them for their proclamation but its Shylock’s condemnation that cuts the deepest – 

These be the Christian husbands. I have a daughter;
Would any of the stock of Barrabas
Had been her husband rather than a Christian!

IV, i

This would have been a scathing critique on its own, but the play goes one step further and chooses to prove him right with the whole rings situation. It’s hard to see Bassanio and Gratiano pitifully excuse their breach of trust without thinking on that comment Shylock said not long before that. Because in the end, Shylock does seem to find one key difference between the Christian and the Jew in this play – hypocrisy. The Jew and the Christians are just as bad as each other (Portia even kind of admits it when she says that “in the course of justice none of us shall see salvation”), but the Christian chooses to brag about his pure moral values and then not commit to one bit of them. When Launcelot Gobbo thinks to himself whether he should run away from his Jewish master or stay and serve him, he identifies the voice that urges him to stay as his “conscience”, and the one that tempts him to leave his “fiend”. And yet – he knowingly chooses the fiend and runs away. Out of all the other characters, this pitiful servant is the truest face of the Christians in this play – the one who teaches you what’s moral, and then goes and does the opposite of that. 

When the Christian husbands’ unfaithfulness is so easily forgiven, it leaves a bad taste in our mouths. When Lorenzo and Jessica receive the deed of gift “from the rich Jew” (although Shylock is mentioned in that last scene, his name is absent) without anyone telling Jessica what happened to her father, when Lorenzo thanks the ladies and she stays silent – it leaves a bad taste in our mouths. And I think it should. Because the aim of this play, I believe, is not to teach us good Christian values, really. It’s there to teach Christians to follow up on those values, which, as us jews know, are not exclusively Christian. This is a harder, but a more important lesson to be taught. In fact, in a seemingly throwaway line in her first scene, Portia says it best – 

It is a good divine that follows his own instructions:
I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, 
Than to be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching.

I, ii

– Omer Shaik

You can see Omer in the role of Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice: in motion.

August 17, 18, 23, 24, and 25, at 17:30 in Bloomfield Gardens, Jerusalem. Suggested donation: ₪40.

You can also continue the conversation about the play with two in person talks in Jerusalem, with Dr. Katherine Aron-Beller on August 21 (at the Shutaf office, Talpiot Industrial Area) and Gila Fine on August 22 (at Howard & Freda’s house in Baka), both at 20:00.

For more information and to reserve your spot for the show and/or the talks, visit https://theaterintherough.co.il

The cast of The Merchant of Venice: in motion. Photo: Yitz Woolf, costumes: Bayla Lewis.

1 thought on “On “The Merchant of Venice” and good Christian values

  1. Of all the fifth acts, that in Merchant is the weirdest. As best I can see it is there for formal reasons only. As a comedy, structurally, there has to be at the end a reconciliation of star crossed lovers. In your production you left out one pair, thankfully. And in Shakespeare’s comedies this reconciliation follows the mocking and downfall of clowns, as in Dream. Merchant is a bit like Henry IV part 2, where Falstaff and Shylock should structurally be these ridiculed clowns but actually morph into tragic figures

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