“Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath”: the motto on the lead casket.
The Merchant of Venice tells a story about love, about finance, capital, and trade, and about hatred. If there’s anything linking these stories, it may be the question of value: How do people assess value, whether in material goods or in the people they love or hate? How do people act on those assessments?
Characters are continually giving multiple reasons for why they value things. Bassanio says he loves Portia because she is “richly left,” because “she is fair,” and/or because she has “wondrous virtues.” Shylock hates Antonio “for he is a Christian” and/or because “He lends out money gratis and brings down / The rate of usance here with us in Venice.” Shylock laments when his daughter Jessica elopes with a Christian because she has betrayed him and/or because she has robbed him; and he values the ring she has stolen because of its material cost and/or because it was a ring his wife had given him when they were courting.
Some characters don’t, or can’t, explain their feelings. Antonio never explains why he is so sad, or Portia why her “little body is aweary of this great world”; and Shylock refuses to tell the court why he hates Antonio: “So can I give no reason, nor I will not.”
And characters judge one another. Jews judge Christians, Christians judge Jews, and Portia judges her suitors. “So may the outward shows be least themselves,” Bassanio observes, when he takes his turn at selecting a casket: “The world is still deceived with ornament.”
But how do people value things? They value things by determining not just what things are worth, but what these things are worth to them. And people can determine what a thing is worth to them only by determining what they are willing to risk for it.
The world of trade, the world of finance, and the world of love are all governed by risk. Antonio’s ships venture on the open seas. Bassanio asks his friend Antonio to risk making a second loan to him, even though he has already squandered the first. Antonio stakes his own body as collateral for a loan. The suitors sign away their right to marry in exchange for the chance to marry Portia. Portia gives up ownership of her estates and of herself in exchange for the love of a husband. And Shylock risks perhaps more than he realizes in his desire to exact revenge. In exchange for these risks, people are asked to weigh what is most important to them: whether Shylock values revenge more than money, or whether Bassanio values friendship more than marriage, or his wife’s ring (and the promise it represents) more than his gratitude to his friend’s savior.
What might be at stake for all the characters is the very glue that cements people together, both the personal bonds that define love and friendship and family, and the social contract itself. In a world that is on the verge of changing, that is riven by hatred, and that is at risk of coming apart, the stakes are particularly high. When people are forced to choose between love and hate, between principles and complicity, and between the flawed world they know and a terrible new world of their own making, they must give and hazard all they have.
Some details about Jews in England, Italy, and on stage
1290: The Jews are expelled from England by order of King Edward I.
1516: The “Council of Ten” ruling the Venetian republic orders all Jews to live in a separate district, named the “Ghetto
” after the arsenal that once stood there. The word ghetto subsequently becomes a word for any district in which a particular ethnic group is confined.
1590: Approximately 10,000 “aliens” of various ethnicities and nationalities, including numerous Jewish tradesmen and professionals, live in London (of a total population of 150,000-200,000). Many of the Jews are “Conversos”--Spanish or Portuguese Jews who had converted to Christianity--or “Marranos”--converted “crypto-Jews” who may or may not have continuted to practice some form of Judaism. One such converso in London is Roderigo Lopez, a Portuguese physician executed in 1594 for allegedly plotting to poison Queen Elizabeth. From the time of the Spanish expulsion of the Jews in 1492 onwards, Christian Europe is eager to convert Jews to Christianity, and yet at the same time continually suspicious of the sincerity of any Jew who has converted.
“‘ware Tom, I advise thee,
And fly from the Jews, lest they circumcise thee”
Dedicatory poem to Thomas Coryate, Coryate’s Crudities (1611), recounting his efforts to convert the Jews of Venice to Christianity.
1630: An estimated 5,000 Jews live in the Ghetto of Venice, before the plague of 1630 that kills one third of Venice's population.
1656: Jews are officially readmitted to England by act of Parliament.
“It cannot be denied that the sight of this Jew is enough to awaken at once, in the best-regulated mind, all the prejudices of childhood against the race to which he belongs.”
German scientist and critic Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, on seeing Charles Macklin playing Shylock in London in 1775.
“Anything more impressive than the passionate recrimination and wild justice of argument in his ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ has never been seen on our stage.”
George Henry Lewes, recalling seeing Edmund Kean, who played Shylock from 1814 through 1833.
In 1858, in Bologna, Italy, six-year-old Edgardo Mortara is removed by authorities from the house of his Jewish parents because he had been secretly baptized by a sixteen-year-old servant in the household. Pope Pius IX defends the action in the face of international protest, and has the child conveyed to the Vatican where he is raised as a Catholic.
“I look upon Shylock as the type of a persecuted race; almost the only gentleman in the play, and the most ill-used”
Henry Irving, English actor, 1884.
“I have searched in vain for the slightest hint of anything resembling dignity in the part [of Shylock].”
Edwin Booth, American star actor, in a letter to theatre critic William Winter, 1884.
“If we side with [Shylock] in his self-defence, ‘tis because we have charity, which he had not; if we pity him under the burthen of his merited punishment ‘tis because we are human, which he is not,--except in shape, and even that, I think, should indicate the crookedness of his nature.”
Booth to H.H. Furness, editor of the New Variorum edition of The Merchant of Venice, 1888.
The smoky candle end of time
Declines. On the Rialto once.
The rats are underneath the piles.
The Jew is underneath the lot.
Money in furs.
T. S. Eliot, “Burbank with a Baedeker; Bleistein with a Cigar,” 1918.
1922: Benito Mussolini, whose socialist party took as its emblem the “fasci”--a bundle of sticks--establishes a fascist government in Italy, with Mussolini as “Il Duce.”
“The Merchant of Venice is a fairy tale. There is no more reality in Shylock’s bond and The Lord of Belmont’s will than in Jack and the Beanstalk.”
Actor-director-playwright turned literary critic, Harley Granville-Barker, 1930.
1931: 1,814 Jews live in Venice.
1933: Pope Pius XI signs a concordat with
Nazi Germany, negotiated by Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, Secretary of State for the Vatican: the government would allow Catholics to practice their religion freely in Germany, and the Vatican would refrain from being involving in German politics.
1937: Pope Pius XI issues an encyclical drafted by Cardinal Pacelli and German cardinals entitled “Mit brennender Sorge” (“With Burning Concern”), written in German rather than the customary Latin, condemning National Socialism.
“At a time when Jews are being driven to mass-suicide by unsurpassed brutalities, the spectacle of Shylock’s baiting becomes almost unbearable.”
The New Statesman, on John Gielgud’s Shylock, in 1938.
Pope Pius XI, in a speech delivered in 1938, asks himself “why in the world Italy, so unhappily, felt the need to imitate Germany” and goes on to affirm that “there is only one human race,” stressing that racism is foreign to Italian tradition.
1939: Eugenio Pacelli becomes Pope Pius XII.
June 10, 1940: Italy enters the World War as ally of Germany.
September, 1943: The Italian government deposes Mussolini and makes a separate peace with the Allied armies in the south of Italy. Germany invades and occupies northern Italy, and installs Mussolini, rescued by German paratroopers, as the nominal leader of a puppet government. In the eighteen months of German occupation, between 7,000 and 15,000 of Italy’s 57,000 Jews (including 205 from Venice) are arrested and deported to concentration camps. 5,910 of them die. The role of the Vatican in the deportation, and the silence of Pope Pius XII, has been hotly debated ever since.
April, 1945: After Germany surrenders in Italy, Mussolini and his mistress are lynched.
1965: The Second Vatican Council, convened by Pope John XXIII in 1962 and presided by Pope Paul VI, absolves the Jews of responsibility for the death of Christ. In the Nostra Aetate of October 28, 1965, Pope Paul VI declares, “what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.”
“We ask forgiveness for the use of violence that some Christians used in the service of the truth and for the behavior of diffidence and hostility sometimes used toward followers of other religions,”
Pope John Paul II, March 12, 2000.
May 6, 2001: Bashar al-Assad, 35, president of Syria, greeting Pope John Paul II on a visit to the Middle East, suggests that Christians and Muslims make common cause against those “who try to kill the principles of all religions with the same mentality with which they betrayed Jesus Christ.” Neither the Pope nor the Vatican issues a response.
“Only the Jews [were capable of destroying the World Trade Center] ... if it became known to the American people, they would have done to Jews what Hitler did.”
Sheik Muhammad Gemeaha, imam of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York City, quoted in The New York Times, November 4, 2001.