Societies shudder, absorb and finally embrace with pride their enfants terribles. The Merchant of Venice is beyond embrace. Whoever clasps it must bleed.
Second to Hamlet it is the most performed of all Shakespeare's works. Why? The play's fascination is manifold. Actors and directors worldwide seem thrilled by it as some old men are thrilled by a brazen whore whose reputation for wickedness promises delicious fear. My view is that it's a commercial pot-boiler exploiting the cheap thrill provided by popular villains for the easy rewards of instant audience-frenzy.
Time and again productions betray a mixture of guilt and bravado. Two weaknesses flaw the play. First, Shakespeare chose the less important of the two major causes of antipathy towards Jews: their ability to handle money. Mistake! Jews are more hated for their cleverness. The people who invented God question all things - not a comfortable race for the applause of groundlings. Shakespeare chose easy hatred. The second weakness lies in the much vaunted "hath not a Jew eyes" speech. Of that, later.
No character is chosen arbitrarily by a writer, but for his embodiment of the characteristics the writer wishes to set in opposition to other characteristics. Shylock, the Jew in Shakespeare's play, is meant to embody what the playwright wishes to despise. As Shakespeare's fame spread through the centuries and across national frontiers so Shylock followed and became the most famous - or infamous - Jewish character in world literature. His name has entered the language as a general noun, which the dictionary defines as "a very grasping person".
The Shakespearean myth of the Jew as evil usurer has its source in Italian literature. Ser Giovanni's 14th century tales Il Pecorone contains the story of Ansaldo, a rich merchant of Venice, who borrows money from a Jew so that his godson, Gianetto, can seek his fortune. A bond is struck - that if the money is not repaid by a certain day, the Jew may take a pound of Ansaldo's flesh from whatever part of his body pleases him.
What resonance the story has! Woven into the theme of greed is the image of sacrificial flesh - the Jew as money-grabber and Christ-killer. It is a powerfully pernicious myth that has saturated Western civilisation and slithered snake-like through the barriers of other cultures - Arabic, Icelandic, Zulu, Gujerati, Catalan, Welsh. Shylock as a synonym for the sinister international financier is, like anti-Semitism and stupidity, here to stay.
John Gross, critic of The Sunday Telegraph, wrote a scholarly book on the history of Shylock in performance in which he asks: to what extent is Shakespeare responsible for the pernicious myth? Which Jew did Shakespeare draw: a cruel Jew or the Jew as victim? Is Shylock noble but wronged, or is he contemptible and beyond pity?
In the 400 years since The Merchant was written answers have come in many forms. Actors answer through their renderings of the role of Shylock; directors answer with their productions; academics answer with essays, books, and lectures; playwrights answer with other plays, taking up the lives of Shakespeare's characters where he left off; critics answer by commenting on the answers. Perhaps the most striking answer lies in the title page of the First Quarto that tells us unequivocally that this play is: "The most excellent Historie of the "Merchant of Venice". With the extreame crueltie of Shylocke the Jew towards the sayd Merchant in cutting a just pound of his flesh, And the obtining of Portia, by the choice of three Caskets."
By Shakespeare's time a Jewish "Golden Age" had passed. In 1492 the Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal. Throughout the 16th century they suffered further from both the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation resulting in a major exodus East. The Ottomans welcomed them, and they found refuge in Poland and Lithuania. By the 1570s new economic thinking enabled Jewish mercantile intelligence to resettle in Germany and Holland, but not England. At the time The Merchant of Venice was written, about a hundred crypto-Jews, known as Marranos - outwardly Christian but privately Jewish - were able to employ their skills to help Elizabethan trade. Shakespeare could have built his portrait of Shylock only from hearsay and mere brushes with Jewish shadows. Hearsay is the conduit for stereotypes. Did Shakespeare create a stereotype? Gross reminds us that Shylock is present in only five of the 20 scenes, and adds: "for the purposes of the plot, it would have been enough for him to be mean and vengeful - which he is. But he is also remarkable for pride, energy, quickness in argument. He has an abrasive sense of humour, and a large capacity for being hurt."
Well, yes, maybe. I fear Gross is scraping the bottom of the barrel in an attempt to be as fair as he can before his final judgement - Shylock's pride, energy, intellect and humour are questionable.
It is generally accepted that the strongest evidence supporting the view that Shakespeare didn't create a stereotype are the famous lines that he gives the otherwise relentlessly cruel Jew to plead his humanity. "Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die?"
Few, not even Gross, challenges that speech itself or the way it is perceived. For him, as for everyone else, it is a noble piece of writing. Not for me! I hear those widely trumpeted lines as self-pitying, patronising, and deeply offensive. As Cynthia Ozick observed: the same could be claimed for a monkey. Far from vindicating the play they betray it, reveal its central flaw. Implied within them is medieval Christian arrogance that assumed the right to confer or withdraw humanity as it saw fit.
Jews do not want apologies to be made for their humanity, they ask for no special pleading. If they are unexceptionally like all men then they need no exceptional portraiture. Their humanity is their right, it is not for anyone - not even Shakespeare - to bestow it upon them as a gracious privilege.
Anti-Semites feel comfortable with Shylock because he conforms to the myth they love and, to help assuage any guilt they might be experiencing, he is given lines of redemption; they can breathe freely as he utters his apologia to help them feel merciful and generous while enjoying their cherished image of the cruel Jew.
Though Gross misses the breathtaking cynicism of those hallowed lines, nevertheless his conclusions are unambivalent and powerful: "Shylock is meant to be a villain. There can be arguments about his motives and his personality, but there can be no serious argument about his behaviour. Given the opportunity - an opportunity which he himself has created - he attempts to commit legalised murder. He is also a Jewish villain. He did not have to be: Christians were moneylenders too, and the story would have worked perfectly well with a Christian villain ... He belongs, inescapably, to the history of anti-Semitism ... At no point does anyone (any other character) suggest that there might be a distinction to be drawn between his being a Jew and his being an obnoxious individual. The result is ugly ... The ground for the Holocaust was well prepared."
I would like to think that Shakespeare today would be ashamed of contributing to the world's image of that poor, battered race.
`The Merchant of Venice' is in rep at the Cottesloe, National Theatre (0171-452 3000) to Dec