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We should explain, or banish, Shylock

When the world commemorates the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death on April 23, he will be celebrated as the greatest writer in the English language.

The Bard's linguistic power and beauty permeate his 38 plays and 154 sonnets, works unsurpassed for their keen insights and nuanced characters, including Hamlet, Lady Macbeth, King Lear, Ophelia, Othello and many others.

But one play, "The Merchant of Venice," and one character, Shylock, have cast a shadow over Shakespeare for more than four centuries. At the center of the play, first performed in 1605, with its frothy romance, hints of homosexuality and cross-dressing, lurks the venal Shylock, the stereotypical Jewish moneylender.

The actual "Merchant" is the Christian Antonio, who defaults on a loan from Shylock and calls his Jewish creditor a dog and twice spits upon him.

Many historians believe it unlikely that Shakespeare ever met a Jew because King Edward I expelled Jews from Britain in 1290 and it was not until 1656 that they were allowed to return.

Life in 16th-century Venice, the scene of the play, required Jews to live in a confined fetid area that gave the Italian word ghetto to the world. Jews were not allowed to travel after dark and were grudgingly tolerated because they performed a vital service: Christians in that era were forbidden to lend money at interest. But if Venice was to remain a a prosperous city-state, someone had to do it. That unpopular task fell to the Jews.

Scholars and actors have struggled to portray Shylock in a positive way to prove Shakespeare was not an anti-Semite.

"The Merchant of Venus" is artistically radioactive.

For 400 years, Shylock's toxic character has poisoned Christian-Jewish relations, inflicting pain and contributing to mass murder during the Holocaust. As a result, there are often calls to ban the teaching of "Merchant" in schools and to boycott performances on stage.

Ironically, in 2012 there were attempts to bar Habimah, Israel's National Theater, from presenting a Hebrew-language version of "The Merchant of Venice" at London's famous Globe Theatre. .

In his book "Shakespeare and the Jews," Columbia University Professor James Shapiro wrote that "censoring the play is always more dangerous than staging it.

I agree with Shapiro. "Merchant" can provide a "teachable moment" if the play's historical context is fairly presented. My suggestion? A note of caution before each performance and a panel discussion after the play ends.

Reach Rabbi A. James Rudin , the American Jewish Committee's senior interreligious adviser, at jamesrudin.com

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