The most famous character in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is not in fact the merchant, who is the ill-fated Antonio whose ships will be wrecked and whose flesh will be forfeited to a vengeful money lender. That money lender, Shylock, is certainly the most lasting portraiture from the play, but even so, Shakespeare wrote a comedy in which a serious consequence is avoided, the villain deposed and the rest of the players go on to wed, bed, and be merry.
Merchant of Venice is only a tragedy to someone who cares about this man’s miserable fate of being stripped of his property, forced to give up his faith and knowing that his daughter will be married and join with those who are his enemies. Of course, for Jews, it is hard not to do precisely that and, when watching the play unfold feel like perhaps we are the only ones whose hearts arrest the moment Shylock feels the weight of his sentence and remain fixed on his terrible plight even as the comedy of wives tricking their husbands takes center stage.
That’s how I felt when I saw a production of the Merchant of Venice last Sunday and found myself leaving not only sad but, in part, angry that I watched a Jew ridiculed and condemned and worse, one whose actions were so contemptible and cruelty so blatant. The question arose in me and as a conversation among our family: is this play toxic or sobering? Should it be performed because it highlights how destructive hatred of Jews is? Or left on the shelf because the treatment of Shylock bolsters those who indeed paint Jews as villains, motivated by greed or cruelty.
While the play is inextricable from its virulent antisemitism, Shylock himself speaks to the question of being human. Do we laugh along with the happy Venetians who give Shylock a lecture on mercy before exercising a devastating sentence against him based on the ruling of a fake judge or do we escape from the false choice between letter of the law and the quality of mercy to see Shylock as a victim of those who do not see him as worthy of even pity let alone compassion?
This theme is found in the verses that are traditionally read on the day of Tisha B’Av, a day on which the people of Israel mourn the devastation of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians and later the Romans. The book of Lamentations attributed to the prophet Jeremiah cries out in anguish:
These words capture, not only loss and humiliation, but the vertiginous despair of having your suffering celebrated and your pain an occasion for mocking.
The scale of destruction in Lamentations and the great calamities of Jewish history now run like rivulets of blood into the vastness of the Shoah, the mass murder of millions of Jews at the hands of the Nazis. The Nazis unsurprisingly took up Shakespeare’s lasting calumny against Jews, making sure that Shylock’s words about the humanity of Jews were clearly meant as farce and the occasion for more derision. How could one address the famous words “Hath not a Jew eyes…” in the face of one who seeks only to pluck them out or insist on having “hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions” when those have been rendered fodder for the enemy’s delight and fuel for their insatiable furnaces?
As Tisha B’Av approached last week, once more we allowed ourselves to sit with these horrific and searing questions, not to attempt to answer them but to make space for the pain that attends them. Perhaps in this season known as “between the narrow straits” Shylock can speak to us after all. Not as a pathetic reminder of being hated and outcast, but as an enduring recognition that indeed the plight of this person and his people is recorded and his Lamentation echoes in all who are treated with cruelty and ridicule. While others may laugh and mock them, we hear their voices and take up their cause, even as they are forced off the stage.
Michael Bernstein, a Rabbi, has served since 2009 as Rabbi of Congregation Gesher L’Torah, a vibrant and dynamic Synagogue community in north Atlanta where each person’s story is embraced and Judaism is personal. He was ordained as a conservative Rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1999. He and his wife Tracie have three children, Ayelet, Yaron and Liana.