Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant of Venice’: Perpetuating stereotypes or sparking much-needed conversations?

Matthew Boston as Shylock in "District Merchants," a variation on "The Merchant of Venice"
Matthew Boston (Shylock) in District Merchants, a variation on Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Folger Theatre, 2016. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice ends badly for Shylock, with the court ruling against him and his claim on Antonio’s “pound of flesh.” He loses half his property to Antonio and agrees to convert to Christianity to avoid losing the other half to the state. The play may be a comedy, but there’s nothing funny about Shylock’s situation.

Can justice be served centuries later? This past week in Venice, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and four other judges reversed the play’s ending in a mock appeal, The New York Times reported.

After about two hours of arguments and about 20 minutes of deliberations, the judges issued a unanimous ruling: To remove the question of the pound of flesh — “We agreed it was a merry sport, and no court would enforce it,” Justice Ginsburg said — to restore Shylock’s property, to restore the 3,000 ducats that he had lent to Antonio, and to nullify the demand of his conversion.

Ginsburg and company may have righted the wrong, but Shakespeare’s play endures on the stage today, despite audience members’ aversion to and even outrage over what they see as its anti-Semitic language and characterizations.

What are we to make of The Merchant of Venice? And does it still even deserve our attention?

This discussion is not a new one, but the question has bubbled forth once more with the touring Shakespeare’s Globe production of The Merchant of Venice. Its visit to the Kennedy Center last weekend provoked a Washington Post opinion piece by Steve Frank that argued for the play’s removal from the modern theatrical repertoire.

It is time to say “never again” to this historical aberration. Every time it is produced, the play introduces new audiences to vile medieval tropes of Jew-hatred that we should have long ago left behind.

Weighing in on the controversy, Moze Halperin counters that The Merchant of Venice unsettles audiences in a much-needed way, in an article on FlavorWire.

Whether Shakespeare wanted to perpetuate or interrogate the stereotype of the “stingy Jew” cannot be known beyond speculation, but the beauty of continuing to perform this play is that the more “woke” society becomes to the nature of oppression, the more deeply complex the play becomes as a work that now shakes the very core of its originally happy comic resolution. Which is to say that even if it were written from an antisemitic mindset, that doesn’t make it any less worthy of performance today. The question shouldn’t be — and thankfully often isn’t anymore — “Is this play antisemitic?” but rather, “How can this play that sympathizes with people who do things that now seem unjust be used to scrutinize the nature of oppression?”

Earlier this year, Folger Theatre presented a new variation on The Merchant of Venice called District Merchants, set in post-Civil War Washington, DC, with the conflict between African-American and Jewish merchants.

CrossTalk DC, a Folger-led community engagement initiative supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, has used scenes from District Merchants and The Merchant of Venice as starting points for conversations in Washington, DC, about race and religion, identity and difference.

In a CrossTalk DC companion essay, District Merchants dramaturg Michele Osherow writes that The Merchant of Venice “though a comedy, can make us uncomfortable in its poking fun at stereotypes—not only of Jews, but also of blacks, foreigners, poorer folk.” She continues:

I am disappointed when audiences—any audiences, but particularly Jews—attack the play, claiming it perpetuates stereotypes and should not be read or staged. But I think a play that exposes the hypocrisy of a world obsessed with cash and credit, that links love to merchandise, that confuses virtuous talk with virtuous action is a play that deserves some attention. It reveals how misguided are our own priorities, and signals the danger of intolerance.

Several of the Folger’s Twitter followers weighed in on whether The Merchant of Venice should continue to be performed, responding to the Post opinion piece. What do you think? Tell us in the comments.