I’m not the biggest fan of The Merchant of Venice. Except for that impossibly moving speech by Shylock, it’s a very hard play to love. I’m hopelessly unqualified to comment on the anti-Semitism that is rampant in the text. I grew up Catholic, nothing I know about Judaism and anti-Semitism is lived experience, and I’m not even a real student of Shakespeare. But it’s rampant. The blood libel. The forced conversion to Christianity. The feminizing of the outsider. The pitting of a sympathetic queer character against a villainous Jewish character. There’s zero that is comfortable about this play.
Luckily, real experts are out there. This Smithsonian story, “Four Hundred Years Later, Scholars Still Debate Whether Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” Is Anti-Semitic,” is a good place to start reading.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Always read your loan papers before you sign them.”
What happens in The Merchant of Venice
The Merchant of Venice, it turns out, isn’t Shylock. The merchant of the title is Antonio, who owns a shipping company.
Antonio’s friend Bassanio asks him for a loan so he can travel to Belmont and try to marry Portia. There’s a ridiculous contest going on for Portia’s hand in marriage, but Bassanio likes his chances and Portia likes Bassanio.
Antonio clearly also likes Bassanio and is suffering from a bad case of “in sooth I know not why I am so sad” because Bassanio is about to marry someone else.
Antonio doesn’t have the capital for the loan because all his ships are off at sea. He sends Bassanio to the moneylender Shylock for a credit loan, which Antonio will back with his shipments as security.
Shylock, who is Jewish, holds a grudge against Antonio for his history of displaying anti-Semitic behavior. He offers Bassanio the loan, but instead of charging interest, what he wants is a pound of Antonio’s flesh if the loan isn’t repaid within three months.
Shylock explains his reasoning with some of the most powerful lines in all of Shakespeare:
“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?”
In Belmont, Bassanio wins the silly contest and marries Portia.
Antonio’s ships have been lost at sea. He is now bankrupt. Shylock has Antonio arrested.
Bassanio, Portia and a few sidekicks return to Venice to help Antonio.
In the court in Venice, Shylock demands the pound of Antonio’s flesh. Portia appears in disguise as a (male) lawyer (all lawyers were men. Yes, you are correct that all actors were also men, you clever bardlet. Here we have one of those triple-points scenes, a man playing a woman playing a man). She argues on Antonio’s behalf, famously saying, “The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.” Shylock isn’t swayed. Bassanio, newly rich thanks to Portia’s enormous wealth, offers to pay the debt, but Shylock refuses.
Portia finds a loophole: the contract is for a pound of flesh, but there’s nothing in it about blood. Shylock can’t get the pound of flesh without shedding blood.
For the crime of threatening Antonio’s life, Shylock has to forfeit all his money to Antonio and Bassanio. Antonio refuses his share, but demands that Shylock convert to Christianity. Shylock leaves the court in defeat.
Antonio’s ships return safely after all. Happy ever after for (and this comes as no surprise) everybody but Shylock.