"The Merchant of Venice" is a comedic play but it flirts willy-nilly with other genres and occasionally cannot resist more lofty ambitions.
It is said that Merchant can no longer be performed as Shakespeare intended. This is because the play's villain - Shylock, the Jewish moneylender - is constantly attacked with anti-Semitic remarks. In Shakespeare's time Jews were known but uncommon in England (one source estimates there were no more than 100-200 Jews in England). Anti-Semitism was a matter of fact, though it's worth noting that their brand of anti-Semitism had a different flavor than the all-out racial hatred seen in the twentieth century.
Business and commerce were looked down upon by the nobles - a civilized man would never work for a living - and everyone loathed Jewish moneylenders for charging interest for their loans. Charging interest was considered an entirely distasteful and un-Christian practice. And it would be a long time before even the pretense of acceptance of others and their faiths would emerge in British society.
So against this backdrop Shakespeare writes a play featuring a Jewish moneylender as his villain. What's the likely result? Christian characters looking down on the Jew simply for his faith. Everyone resenting the Jew for charging interest. Antagonistic "Us vs Them" attitudes. Does this make the play, and perhaps Shakespeare, anti-Semitic? By definition, the play, yes. Shakespeare? Doubtful. But is Merchant of Venice so offensive a work that it should be pulled from bookshelves and never studied and never performed? No.
Shylock, from the beginning, thrusts his Judaism into the faces of his Christian neighbors. He himself makes it a wedge that permanently divides himself from everyone else. He actively cultivates the Christians' dislike for him - so much that you have to wonder if they dislike him for his religion or dislike him simply because he is utterly dislikable. This is a crucial point.
If Shylock were a kind, open-hearted man that was still hated for being a Jew, then we would have hateful, anti-Semitic characters. Of course sympathy would then swing to Shylock and that clearly is not what Shakespeare had in mind. Then must we blame Shakespeare for choosing to make the Jew the villain and hold Shakespeare accountable for making Shylock a character so easy to revile? Is this evidence that Shakespeare was a raging anti-Semite?
I don't think so. Romeo and Juliet features two Italian families whose feud is so violent only the dual suicides of their only children can quell the fight. The families behave atrociously to each other and encourage and cultivate violence at nearly every turn, embroiling an entire city in their clash. The punishment to each clan (the deaths of Romeo and Juliet) is stinging and devastating. Is Sheakespeare anti-Italian? Does he have an agenda of disgracing the Italian people and their inherent violent tendencies?
It's an imperfect comparison - no one defames an Italian simply for being an Italian - but there is a difference between having a villain with particular characteristics vs attacking a whole people through a single representative. Shylock is attacked for being Jewish, and indeed all Jews may feel the sting at the remarks, but do all Jews thrust their faith so aggressively into other peoples' faces? Isn't it possible that Shylock's own actions are as much to blame as the other characters' prejudices?
Now is Shakespeare completely exonerated from the anti-Semitic remarks and the strong structural slant against his Jewish character? No, of course not. Is it completely acceptable to just say, "that's how it was back then"? No, of course not. But Shakespeare is not studied because he was a trailblazer in championning equal rights. He is studied for being an artist, and as an artist he is not held to the same standard as presidents, leaders, and world-shakers. If his work was grossly, consistently offensive, he would have faded from attention as the world grew more civilized and accepting.
Would it have been better if Shakespeare had been more progressive and produced a work that was more accepting of others? Probably. But should we discard Shakespeare because he failed to do so? Definitely not.
For those sensitive to anti-Semitism, this will be a difficult argument - and play - to accept. One person in my Shakespeare class got so emotionally involved in his attack of the anti-Semitism that it instantly became pointless to debate the issue with him. He was so desperate to savage the work that he couldn't finish one sentence before flying into the next. His incoherence and agitation brought him to a point that was clearly beyond reasoning. He's got a right to his strong reaction, but he accomplishes nothing by bringing the full weight of his baggage (or that of the Jewish people) into a realm that is only tangentially related.
Paraphrasing Shelby Steele (a sometimes controversial black writer who focuses on race relations), it's important to delineate perceived slights from actual ones. Is The Merchant of Venice an attack on Jews and their faith? No. Does it contain anti-Semitic content that might offend some people? Yes. Keeping a cool head is required here - you can't right all the wrongs ever committed against the Jewish people in a five minute discussion in a Shakespeare class.
Assuming one can get past the is-or-isn't anti-Semitic debate, the play itself is actually something of a jolly old time. It is one part fairy tale as Portia's worldly suitors contend with a riddle left by her now-dead father. It feels very much like a story lifted from the 1,001 Arabian Nights. Then there's the Shylock-Antonio storyline - the moneylender vs the loan-defaulting, anti-Semite, well-respected merchant. The hatred between these two men escalates to the point where Shylock is suing for the right to take Antonio's life (his "pound of flesh"), and indeed has the law on his side.
And yet through this wacky, over-the-top comedy, there are moments that stand out as entirely not comedic, not wacky, and not over-the-top. Shylock's famous speech, "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?" is profound, convincing, and quite moving (not to mention menacing). Those decrying anti-Semitism should take heed of this speech. If Shakespeare was such an anti-Semite, why would he empower Shylock with such an eloquent, effective counterargument to anti-Semitism?
The speech is, as I've said, seemingly out of place in a comedy. It's too beautiful and moving a moment. The insight and depth are too profound. Some describe it as Shakespeare losing control of a character - Shylock is too big for so small a play.
Another moment occurs later with Portia as she implores Shylock to grant mercy to poor Antonio. "The quality of mercy is not strain'd, / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest; / It blesseth him that gives and him that takes". She goes on to say that mercy is "is an attribute to God himself". But all of her concepts of mercy are grounded in Christian thinking. It is clear that Christian morality holds no sway with Shylock. He has seen too much Christian immorality in his lifetime. So Portia's speech is completely ineffective (as directed towards Shylock) and again is so eloquent that it's out of place in a comedy. There's no reason for this speech other than to allow Shakespeare to riff on the nature of mercy.
Bassanio gets a bad rap as a golddigging playboy (he's in debt and pursues the very rich Portia). But his feelings for her, and her for him, are genuine and endearing. Her money certainly plays a part in his interest in her, but I give him the benefit of the doubt because he seems, at heart, a good honest man. In fact, much is made of his deep friendship with Antonio. If Bassanio were just a shallow playboy, the depth and heart of his friendship with Antonio would suffer. It's clear that Shakespeare intends that friendship - and therefore Bassanio's potential for deep meaningful relationships - to be pure and undeniable.
It's also lightly debated that Antonio has a homosexual love for Bassanio. I think this is neither here nor there. It doesn't add nor subtract from the story to make Antonio gay or straight. A deep friendship bond with Bassanio achieves the same dramatic impact as unrequited homosexual love in this story. Since there's no additional dramatic leverage to be gained, it's simpler to assume they're just very good friends.
Portia, the amazingly talented, wickedly mischievous superstar of the piece is a bit much for me to take. Though she's supposed to stand head and shoulders above all others in this play, I found her simply too unbelievable. I'll grant that it's a comedy and therefore need not be a very serious portrayal, but she's just too much the superstar and not enough a real person to hold my interest. That she, with tongue-in-cheek, tap dances through most of the scenes - even serious life-or-death moments - just makes her a caricature of a person.
Overall Merchant is probably the easiest Shakespeare play I've read. The language and vocabulary are not nearly as challenging as some of the later works (King Lear was a slog for me). It also helps that Merchant is a very short, efficient play.