Not taken at face value
Shakespeares The Merchant of Venice is about
the battle between ways of making money, not between Jew and gentile,
says Mike Rosen
For many, the play is too uncomfortable, particularly since 1945, when the world saw what a modern European state machine had done to the Jews.
As people have grappled with how this could have happened, the name of Shylock has often cropped up.
Along with thousands of other representations of Jews as vengeful, money-crazed, blood-sucking devils, Shakespeare has been accused of creating a frame of mind that helped the Nazis genocide.
In case you dont know the play, the deal is this: middle class Bassanio wants to get off with Portia, an upper class lady.
For this, he needs wealth, but he has spent what hes had, some of which he borrowed from his friend, the merchant, Antonio.
Antonio is a trader with ships ferrying all over the known world. He hasnt got the readies, so he goes to Shylock to borrow.
A deal is struck, whereby Shylock waives the usual rate of interest but says that if Antonio cant deliver on pay-back day, Shylock must have a pound of his flesh.
Meanwhile suitors are turning up to woo Portia, who has set them each a puzzle: they have to choose which of three caskets, gold, silver or lead to open. He who chooses right wins her.
Shylocks daughter, Jessica makes off with one of Bassanios pals (non-Jewish) and Antonios ships are reported as having sunk.
Shylock wants revenge for the loss of his daughter and says hell have his pound of flesh off Antonio. Up at Portias place, Bassanio chooses the right casketthe lead one.
In court, Shylock wont let Antonios friends pay the debt. He wants the flesh. Portia, dressed up as a lawyer, pleads with Shylock to show mercy.
When he doesnt, she says, go ahead, cut Antonio open but remember it must be exactly one pound and the deal doesnt mention blood. So do the deed without shedding blood. Shylock realises that he cant.
He makes to leave, but Portia says that as an alien who has threatened someones life, he must give up his loanlet Antonio use half his wealth, the other half goes to the state and its up to the ruler of Venice to decide if he can live.
The Duke pardons his life, Antonio asks the Duke to give up his half on condition that Shylock converts to Christianity. Antonio gives his half to the man who got off with Shylocks daughter.
Shylock must agree to write a will, leaving everything he has to his estranged daughter and husband.
Then, Bassanio marries Portia (as do each of their servants), even though Bassanio fails a test of loyalty concerning a ring. It turns out that Antonios ships didnt sink but are richly come to harbour.
Shakespeare has Shylock powerfully defend his right to be not persecuted and at the end we have a strong sense that he is humiliatingly impoverished and de-cultured.
If we typify the play as a morality tale about the treatment of Jews, it misses the real struggle going ona battle between two ways of making money.
Antonio is a member of the new rising class, the mercantile capitalists. He buys to sell. Shylock makes money out of dead capital, lending and getting back more.
At this stage in history, the merchant class, desperate for money to finance their adventures, struggled with the monopoly of the moneylenders and overcame it.
They abolished the Christian (not Jewish) taboo against taking interest on loans and set up their own credit houses.
Shakespeare shows us part of this very struggle and asks us to consider the values (its a word that crops up in the play many times) of the new class. He shows their waste, their deceits, their cruelty, even as they talk of mercy, and how even as they talk love, they talk money, taking care to marry into the aristocracy to assure their place in the ruling class.
He asks us, are they any better than those beastly Jews?
Its a question that assumes an anti-semitic standpoint. But in asking it, Shakespeare lets us see the values of the class rising to dominance wanting to be free of the constraints of a money market they couldnt control.
At this point in history, they didnt have Gordon Brown to help them.
From Socialist Worker