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Shakespeare & Beyond

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

Shylock in District Merchants
Shylock in District Merchants
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?


The Merchant of Venice is my absolute favorite Shakespeare play, because it’s one of the most complex stories he ever wrote. To silence its message would be to lose so many valuable lessons that can only be learned in the grip of nuance, which Shakespeare so artfully rendered.

Shylock is both a victim and a villain, and no amount of championing for one exclusively will ever silence the other. And the crux of what sustains that duality is not his Jewishness, or avarice, or anything that relies on the caricature of bigotry. His villainy begins, and relies upon, his insistence upon murder–not money. He would kill a man to satisfy his own sense of justice–for all of the abuses and losses he has sustained. And yet, what is it that makes us look upon him with pity, and willingness to defend him? What allows us to champion him the way we do, with the values we have today? The fact that his religion is what targets him as a victim. It is Shylock’s Jewishness that inspires all of our empathy for him. His redeeming qualities–so readily apparent in his heart wrenching discovery of Leah’s missing ring–are all related to his Jewishness.

Shakespeare does this intentionally. He doesn’t create a fair trial, or a just outcome, for Shylock. The rage we feel at what happens to him speaks to the merit of what Shakespeare successfully accomplishes. We should be angry. We should leave the play feeling dissatisfied about Shylock’s end. It’s in that space that we learn the most relevant lessons that Shylock and Shakespeare have to teach us from this play in our time. To reject this play, for the sake of a public who has no eye for nuance and complexity, would be a horrible mistake.

Paradox — August 6, 2016

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