The liberals who tried to make The Merchant of Venice a pro-Jewish play weren’t doing Jews any favors. Those who do so tend to point to the “Hath a Jew not eyes” scene, where Shylock appeals to the humanity of the main characters, saying, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”
But in context, this speech is clearly an example of Shylock “cleverly” resorting to faux-universalist overtures in order to justify his need to literally get a pound of flesh because Antonio, the main character, was late in paying him back. People are meant to be reviled at the fact that Shylock is saying these things in order to justify getting a pound of flesh from around Antonio’s heart. It’s meant to show Shylock’s “chutzpah” — even though such a term would not have been familiar to Shakespeare, that’s the sort of behavior he is attributing to Jews.
Instead of trying to make Shakespeare a philosemite, it’s better to look at what Shylock’s monologue says about Shakespeare’s time. This speech is instructive because of what it shows about what English people already believed about Jews in Shakespeare’s time:
- Jews are whiny and histrionic.
- Jews dress up attempts to prevent our vicious behaviors (literally demanding a pound of flesh) in false appeals to antisemitism.
The word antisemitism didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s time, but clearly the belief was that if you tried to say to a Jew that they couldn’t have your pound of flesh, they would act like you hated Jews. That belief goes back at least to Shakespeare’s time, and surely longer. This is striking particularly because of the reality of the time, that Jewish money lenders were no more than property of the European nobility, whose money could be confiscated at any time and who they were more than ready to sacrifice in bad times. This status of Jews as property was justified based on the ancient Christian legal concept of Servitus Judaeorum, where Jewish servitude was divinely ordained as a way of proving the triumph of Christianity.
People will say “Shakespeare was so ahead of his time in his opposition to antisemitism” when, in fact, Shakespeare was perfectly attuned to the beliefs of the people of his time, and knew they would be appalled at Shylock making such an appeal in order to justify taking a pound of flesh, and would cheer when, in the end, he was forced to convert to Christianity.
When you try to make Shakespeare perfect, you eliminate the idea that someone could be extremely popular, loved, an unquestionably good author, and also extremely antisemitic. You’re relegating antisemitism to the realm of the grotesque and marginal when it is also found in the things and people that are widely viewed as beautiful and good. And this is Bad For The Jews™ because it severs the links between the antisemitism of Shakespeare’s time and the antisemitism of today.