The Merchant of Venice
Directed by Michael Radford
(written by William Shakespeare)
Sony Pictures Classics
The reason Jews make good Shakespearean villains is at the heart of what drives the Bush Administration’s torture policy: Christian mercy trumps Jewish justice. Michael Radford’s new film adaptation of The Merchant of Venice opens with a brief social history of the persecution of Italian Jews, a background that serves to situate Shakespeare’s most problematic comedy in a political context. At least it’s a problematic comedy for us, since anti-Semitism isn’t quite as side-splittingly popular now as it was in Shakespeare’s day. Though the play’s Jewish bad guy may specify its historical moment, its underlying debate over the merits of justice and mercy continues to be relevant, and helps explain the rationale behind the widespread use of torture as a tactic in the war on terror.
The play concerns a debt owed by Antonio, the merchant in question, to a Jewish usurer named Shylock. Antonio has borrowed 3,000 ducats in order to finance his friend Bassanio’s courtship of the fair and loaded Portia. Unfortunately for Antonio, his mercantile endeavors all go bust, and he is unable to repay Shylock. Even worse, the terms of their contract were uniquely offbeat: if Antonio forfeits the bond, he must pay with a pound of his own flesh, a penalty that Shylock is fiercely determined to exact. Shakespeare had never written any Jewish characters before, but Christopher Marlowe had just had a smash-hit with The Jew of Malta, so clearly it was worth a try. While Shylock gets a few sympathetic moments, such as the famous “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech, his wild-eyed lust for the pound of flesh wasn’t far off from the then-widespread rumor that Jews fed on the blood of Christian children — a myth which inspired regular violence against Jewish communities (along with a franchise of Dracula movies).
Though the stereotyping of Shylock draws parallels to the Bush Administration’s post-9/11 rounding up of Arab men with no apparent terrorist links, the theme in The Merchant most relevant to politics today is not its treatment of underrepresented minorities as victims of prejudice. After all, Shakespeare wrote a better play, a full-fledged tragedy no less, about the persecution of a Muslim: Othello, the Moor of Venice (there’s no backdrop for bigotry like the canals of Venice). The Merchant ’s central question is one of justice vs. mercy: a dichotomy that can be found at the very core of the Bush Administration’s torture policy.
In Act IV, Venice’s high court is deadlocked over whether to allow Shylock to cut off a pound of Antonio’s flesh, or violate contract law. Luckily, Portia, Bassanio’s wife-to-be, shows up in drag — remember, it’s a comedy — and poses as an esteemed Doctor of Law. She hears the arguments, and admits that the court must enforce the terms of the contract. However, she appeals to Shylock to be merciful, delivering the famous lines:
The quality of mercy is not strained:
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven […]
It is an attribute of God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. (IV.1)
Poetic though her speech is, Shylock is unmoved. He demands what is owed him, seething, “I crave the law.” Just as he is about to have it, however, Portia reminds him that justice will allow only what is stipulated in the contract, meaning that he must cut one pound of flesh, no more and no less, and may not draw any blood. Shylock, realizing he has painted himself into a juridical corner, tries to recant. The court finds him guilty of seeking the death of a citizen of Venice, a crime punishable by death. Shylock’s life is spared and he is ordered to give half his wealth to the state and the other half to Antonio, who offers to let Shylock keep it, providing that the Jew “presently become a Christian.” Shylock’s (Jewish) justice is shown to be ultimately self-defeating, unless administered by the higher (Christian) virtue, mercy.