On The Merchant of Venice

by Sophia Nugent-Siegal ©

Shakespeare got it right: “If you prick me, do I not bleed?” And the thing is, Shakespeare saw this, even though he makes Shylock an unlikeable character.

The reality is, of course, that everybody in The Merchant of Venice is unlikeable. There are no ‘good guys’. No, I don’t like Portia. Did she really love that gilt-edged jerk, Bassanio? Hmm, I wonder. Keep in mind that Shakespeare, veteran of a host of legal disputes, wasn’t overly fond of lawyers (think of, “Kill all the lawyers!” for example). Her combination of high-sounding phrases and legalistic slipperiness may, therefore, be susceptible of a more complex interpretation (it’s Shakespeare, of course it’s complex).

The Merchant of Venice is a world dominated by the language of commerce (check out the imagery, Shakespeare always gives us hints through the language he uses), where every human interaction is reduced to calculation. Shylock is a creature of this place, a shadow of it, and a shadow of the other characters themselves.

So, no, contra many interpretations, I don’t think The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic—Shakespeare was too honest in his perception of human beings to be so one-dimensional.

As Shakespeare makes clear through the power of Shylock’s famous speech, Shylock’s likeability is irrelevant. Moral judgement is not to be based on the likeability of the judged. Richard III is a wonderful evocation of that immutable truth. The horrifying thing about Richard, after all, is his insidious charm.

Shakespeare was probably one of the world’s greatest users of irony. Very rarely is anything just what it seems. It is no accident that the judgement of Shylock is set within the context of the supposed “Christian” charity of his sentence—which is revealed, of course, to be absolutely heartless in its actual cruelty.

Come on! Are we really meant to think that, after the rocket-fuelled intensity of Shylock’s speech, Shakespeare just thinks everything is now fine and dandy? I think not. Shakespeare’s Venice is a place where you feel like you need a good shower afterwards. It’s all a bit seedy and corrupt—and everyone, everyone, from Portia to Jessica to Shylock is enmeshed in its toils.