Shut up, Shakespeare, Part 2

It’s not looking great for Shakespeare. Should he ripped out of textbooks in the Holy Land? Depends on whom you ask.

William Shakespeare (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
William Shakespeare
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
If you’re holding a magazine, or reading this on a screen, slide your eyes sideways and check out the colour of your hands.  (Do this only if you’re Jewish; don’t bother if you’re Ethiopian.)  The object of the exercise is to validate a recent claim floating about in the United States that all Jews are “white Jews” – i.e. white supremacists – thus unable to relate to issues like marginalization and oppression. 
Jews, traditionally at the forefront of social change and forever fighting for causes such as feminism, have now been branded privileged and different and unwelcome by people like Tamika Mallory, leader of the Women’s March. If it wasn’t so weird, it would be funny. 
What would Shakespeare have said? 
Many a time and oft, when I talk of Shakespeare, I am told that he was antisemitic and should never be quoted in polite company.  In the years immediately after the Holocaust, “The Merchant of Venice” was tacitly banned in the United States; in light of what Jews had recently suffered it was deemed too terrible to showcase a money-grabbing Jew strutting the stage in quest of his pound of flesh.
It is certainly easy to paint a picture of Shakespeare as a Jew-hater.  Miri Regev, Israel’s Minister of Culture and defender of public morals, would have no problem, (assuming she knows the plays), pointing out that Macbeth’s witches intone “liver of blaspheming Jew” as they pop another vile ingredient into their poisonous potion. “O! What a Herod of Jewry is this!” cries Mistress Page, reading a love letter from the lascivious Falstaff in “Merry Wives.” The list goes on and on.  Othello weeps about being a “base Judean” after he murders his own wife; Benedict, the good guy in “Much Ado,” declares that if he doesn’t love Beatrice, he is a Jew.  A servant of one of the two Gentlemen of Verona agrees.  If you don’t join me for a drink, he tells a friend, you are a Jew.  Being a Jew, it appears, was not a good thing.
It’s not looking great for Shakespeare.  Should he ripped out of textbooks in the Holy Land? 
Depends on whom you ask.
See, it’s always complicated to start lacerating literature.  First those that ban have to know the context of the piece of work, and the nuances.  Shakespeare was writing in an England that hadn’t been home to Jews for three hundred years; King Edward I kicked them all out in 1290, possibly because he could never repay his debt to the Jewish money-lenders who’d bankrolled his Crusader habit. 
For Elizabethans, who hadn’t seen Jews for ten generations, the Chosen People were the devil in disguise.  Some sixty plays on the Sixteenth Century London stage showcased Jews as demonic, smelly boogiemen, who would cut off your whatsies if given half a chance.   Marlowe wrote about well-poisoning Hebrews in “The Jew of Malta.”  Any playwright worth his quill had to jump into the conversation; Shakespeare was compelled to write a Jewish play to keep up his credibility.
So he gives us Shylock, a relentless Jew who uncompromisingly demands his pound of flesh, refusing all financial incentives to reconsider his verdict, and ignoring all pleas for mercy. “Flesh,” by the way, was Elizabethan slang for the male genitals; audiences would have erupted with laughter at the line.  Jews were known to circumcise their own; how much they must adore slicing even more of the familiar organ off their enemies.  In the event Shylock covets the flesh nearest to Antonio’s. heart, with possible Christian theological implications for preferring the symbolic “circumcision of the heart” to the real deal – but that’s another article.
Shakespeare would have been out of a job if he’d fashioned a gentle Jew, a kind Jew, a Tom Cruise Jew whom Elizabethan audiences secretly wanted to be, or to marry.  It would be the equivalent of a popular playwright today proclaiming that date rape is great; a script that accords all power to powerful men who molest.  Unthinkable.
So, yes.  “The M of V” can be seen as horrible, highlighting the horror of Jewish intransigence.  But there is another way to approach the play; one which we would certainly not want to censor.
“The Merchant of Venice” is a play about difference.  Jews and Christians is only one of the binaries; the play pits men against women and blacks against whites.  And in each case Shakespeare shows how differences can be erased. 
Take the Prince of Morocco, for example, “a tawny Moor dressed all in white,” who comes to woo peerless Portia in her island palace.  “Mislike me not for my complexion,” begs the black man, sensing her distaste.  The burnished sun, which heats his country, has shadowed the Moor’s skin more than those living in northern climes, where Phoebus’ fire scarce thaws the icicles.  But, the black Prince suggests, trying to win her unimpressed heart, “let us make incision for your love / To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine.”
Portia is not convinced.  The prince fails to win her hand, by choosing the wrong casket in the mandatory test, and she dispatches him with the disparaging words: “A gentle riddance! Draw the curtain, go / Let all of his complexion choose me so.”
In the days when racism was not even a concept, Portia is clearly a white supremacist.  But the line about blood has been spoken; Shakespeare quietly drips radical new ideas into the public space.  Underneath our clothes, and underneath our skin, all men are equal; no-one’s blood is blue.  It was a crazy thought. 
The play is radical in other ways: it can be viewed as a Feminist Manifesto.  At a time where women were simply objects owned by their men, Portia smashes the stereotype.  Although she declares that prior to loving Bassanio she was “the lord of this fair mansion, master of my servants, / Queen o’er myself,” she willingly hands over “this house, these servants, and this same myself” to her new husband.  But it all comes with a caveat; she gifts him with a ring to seal their love, informing him that if he loses the jewel he will lose his mastery in their marriage
It only takes a day, of course, for her to trick him into parting with the ring; instantaneously putting him firmly in his place.  (‘Ring,’ too, had obvious sexual implications; Portia is control of the money, and the bedroom, and everything in between.)  To bang home the message that women rule the world Portia literally wears the pants, cross-dressing as a man to save the day and save Antonio from Shylock’s wrath.  It is Portia, the supposedly meek and gentle wife, who disguises herself as a lawyer’s clerk and finds loopholes in Shylock’s case, toppling his claim to a pound of Antonio’s flesh.
In an age when the nurture/nature question about women’s place was beginning to surface, Shakespeare comes out clearly on the side of the fairer sex.  It’s not that wives are not capable of achieving anything outside the kitchen, he suggests, it’s just that they don’t have equal opportunities to fly.  Give them a chance to slip out of their skirts and they will sort out any man-made mess.
This is heady stuff.
And if blacks can equal whites, and girls can be boys, what about Jews and Christians?
Here too, it can be argued, Shakespeare took a giant leap for man-and-womankind.  Underneath the Talit and headcovering  of “the other,” he seems to say, with breathtaking bravery, Jews are just like anyone else.
The fabulous, shocking “I am a Jew” speech makes this crystal clear.  When Venetian hooligans Salarino and Solanio taunt him about his daughter, who has run off with a Christian, and berate him for wanting his pound of flesh, Shylock explodes.  What is the reason that Antonio disgraced Shylock, and hindered him half a million; laughed at his losses, mocked his gains, scorned his nation, thwarted his bargains, cooled his friends and heated his enemies?
I am a Jew. 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? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute—and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
This is a cataclysmic paradigm shift in English literature.  For the first time a Jew is voicing the anguish of being forever an outsider, and for no good reason. Shakespeare’s Jew has a motive for his lack of mercy; why should he show mercy when his world has been so cruel? 
This point is clanged home by a cunning plot twist:  Portia pleads angelically for Shylock to show the quality of mercy which is not strained, and which droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.  She claims that mercy is twice blessed: it blesseth him that gives, and him that takes. And it is mightiest in the mightiest – those powerful people who can get away with murder show God’s own spirit when they pardon the poor.  She sounds so saintly, so sincere.  And then she gets the chance to put her money where her mouth is.  Does she shower Shylock with the mercy which she so sweetly extolls?
Does she, heck.  She goes for the jugular like a cougar for the kill: cleaning him out of his cash without batting a mighty eyelash.  Shylock will gift money to his traitorous daughter. Shylock will be penniless.  Shylock will become a Christian.  No attribute to God himself peeks out from under her disguise, no mercy seasons justice.  She is cold and ruthless to the core.  Jews, Shakespeare seems to claim, are not angels.  But neither are their Christian counterparts.  People are people are people – everyone is basically the same.
Once, giving a lecture on ‘Shakespeare and the Jews’ in Brussels to a group of British expats, I got to this very point, and elaborated.  Why did Shakespeare fly in the face of accepted wisdom that Jews were stinky and stingy and slimy as hell?  One possible reason, I suggested, was the credible evidence that Shakespeare had a Jewish lover, one Emilia del Bassano, an Italian Marano Jewess.  “And now,” I continued, “Literature scholars in Israel are working hard to prove that Shakespeare, himself, was   Jewish too.”   My attempt at injecting some stand-up humor did not go down well; the room well-nigh rocked with shock.  I had to explain, lamely, that I was joking.
Whatever the explanation for Shakespeare’s inclusiveness, his “Jewish” play, sensitively directed, is clearly a welcome break for Jews.  What a pity to ban it, no? 
“Not all that glistens is gold,” says the tawny Moor, with the reddest of red blood, towards the beginning of Act II. And not all that seems seditious at first glance actually is.  We need to tread carefully when barreling in to ban literature. And we need to take care when cutting out cartoons. We might just have missed the point.
Dr. Pamela Peled lectures at the IDC and Beit Berl. She can be contacted via