The first thing that usually pops into anybody’s mind when Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice comes up is the cardboard stereotyped Jew Shylock. After Auschwitz, we cannot slip into enjoying this caricature the way earlier audiences might have if so inclined. On the contrary, we are apt to dismiss the play now that we realize how lethal such stereotyping can be. The second thing about the play that usually comes to mind is Portia’s set of three boxes where it is not the gold or silver covers that lead to her riches, but the unattractive lead cover. Appearances can be misleading and so perhaps it will be worth looking for what is beneath the ugly stereotyping.
It’s hard to find any gold under the ugly exterior of Shylock’s behavior, but it is equally hard to find any gold under the apparently more attractive exterior of Antonio’s behavior. Antonio is noble in that he is willing to give surety to a loan for his friend Bassanio, thus accepting the risk, but the way he treats Shylock is shameful. In one respect, Shylock is offering to do good to an enemy, but in another, he is hoping that the interest-free loan will lead to Antonio’s downfall by the extraction of a pound of flesh. It is important to realize that both men are mimetic doubles, rivals in the quest for increasing wealth for the sake of wealth.
In Shylock’s famous speech, when he is taken to task for his vengeful terms, he insists he is exactly the same kind of man as any of his Gentile rivals: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” Which is what would happen to Antonio if a pound of flesh is cut out of him. “If you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.” Shylock’s detractors are trying to distinguish themselves from Shylock because they are merciful, but mercy is conspicuously lacking in their treatment of Shylock.
Meanwhile, Bassanio is often thought to have proven himself wise by choosing the lead casket, which wins him the hand of Portia in marriage. The speech he makes before making the choice, however, shows that he is not wise by cunning and calculating in his own desire for wealth. “Thus ornament is but the guiled shore/To a most dangerous sea.” Bassanio is so used to disseminating that dissemination is what he expects of Portia. And he is right.
The famous trial scene features Portia’s famous praise of mercy: “The quality of mercy is not strain’d,/It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.” This is as golden a speech as any in Shakespeare. But—mercy is—again!—lacking in dealing with Shylock. By the end of the trial, he has lost his wealth, his livelihood and his religion. Portia’s words seem to echo Ecclesiasticus 35:20: “Mercy is seasonable in the time of affliction as clouds of rain in the time of drought.” But her actions belie the beautiful words, thus proving Shylock right when he says that when wronged, Christians revenge—just like Shylock. Unfortunately, we have a golden casket with nothing rich inside. The words, however, really are golden and invite any of us who rejoice in Shylock’s downfall to open our hearts to accept this gift from heaven.