Did Shakespeare hate Jews or was it just a bit of drama?
The hero is a man who spits on Jews in the street. One of the romantic leads is praised for winning, and converting, a young Jewish woman. The rousing climax involves the entire cast exulting in the humiliation of a Jew being forced to convert to Christianity. And this is the story of one of our great romantic comedies.
The Merchant of Venice (a new production of which opened in Dublin yesterday) is an extraordinary play -- extraordinary because of the vehemence of the hatred of Jews in it.
The lead character, Antonio, the merchant, is "one in whom the ancient Roman honour more appears than any that draws breath in Italy." Yet this is the same man who, as Shylock says, has spat at him and "did void your rheum upon my beard".
Unreliable evidence? No: Antonio is happy to confirm it; he is "as like to call thee so again". Some honour.
Shylock himself is an exoticised caricature of a medieval Jewish outcast. No opportunity is lost to frame his words or actions in the context of Jewish (or anti-Semitic) cliché: the Sabbath; the synagogue; the prohibition on eating pork; his hatred of Christians; his imperviousness to prayer.
Shylock makes a famous appeal for tolerance: "Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?" he cries. But even this is couched in anti-Semitic cliché: his appeal culminates in a further demand for revenge.
When Shylock discovers his daughter has eloped, he is moved not so much by her loss, as by the loss of a diamond she has stolen. "I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear."
The great moment of anti-Semitism in the play comes at the climax. Antonio's life has been spared and Shylock has been humiliated. And then Antonio demands that Shylock convert to Christianity; Shylock accedes, with barely a whimper. How they must have cheered!
Again, Shakespeare uses the structure of the play to emphasise how lightly he takes what today is an extraordinary offence against a faith. Moments later, we are plunged back into the romantic comedy for a finale of reaffirmed love between young couples.
Shakespeare himself is not an anti-Semite, though he is prepared to indulge it in his audience. Shakespeare is a genius. He placates his audience with comic Jewery, but at the same time makes Shylock a character who is surprisingly beguiling (for someone so consumed with hate), and gives him one devastating speech in which he turns the bigotry of the play on its head.
"You have among you many a purchased slave," Shylock tells the court. "Shall I say to you, let them be free, marry them to your heirs?" Shylock is no abolitionist: again, his argument is simply about his right to the "pound of flesh".
For those who wished to see it, Shakespeare was telling uncomfortable truths about a popular prejudice.
Shylock fails to persuade the Venetian court, and likely failed to persuade Shakespeare's contemporary audience. For all the tragic resonance in his character, he functions as a comic foil for the play's romantic heroes. This makes the play almost impossible to stage satisfactorily today.
For all that, it is an intriguing play, and Shylock is a magnificent character. The mark of the success of this new production, by young company devise+conquer, will be how they handle the overriding issue of the play: its hatred.
The Merchant of Venice is being staged by devise+conquer at The Complex, Smithfield, until Saturday next. See www.deviseandconquer.org.