This play takes place in three settings: in Renaissance Venice, in Elizabethan England, and in 21st-century New Jersey, in a minivan that smells like gummy bears. I’ll begin with the most important setting, the one with the gummy bears, because that is the only one that includes a person I love.
The person I love is my ten-year-old son, though he is not always an easy person to love. Insistent, demanding, obsessive, morbid, and often too smart to be pleasant, he needs to get his way, and for a few recent months I was trapped in the car with him during a daily commute, forty minutes in each direction. We survived by listening to podcasts, which I downloaded by the gigabyte. Fortunately for me, he was fascinated by Radiolab. Fortunately, that is, until the hosts’ banter during an episode about organ ownership devolved into a tangent about a certain famous play, involving a certain famous character who insists and demands, obsessively and morbidly, on receiving default payment on a loan in the form of a pound of flesh.
My son was riveted. “We need,” he informed me, “to download that play.”
I felt slightly ill—both at the prospect of The Merchant of Venice, which I had not read in twenty-five years, and at the prospect of yet another showdown with my son. “It’s Shakespeare,” I tried to deflect. “The language is really hard. I don’t think you’ll understand it. Besides,” I gulped, “The Merchant of Venice is—”
“Wait, it’s Shakespeare?” He had heard of Shakespeare; he was aware that Shakespeare was Important. “If it’s Shakespeare, then we totally have to do it! You can always pause it and explain stuff.”
I tried to deflect again. “If we’re going to read Shakespeare, there are better plays. Macbeth, Hamlet. This one is—”
“This one is about a pound of flesh! I want a pound of flesh!”
He would have his pound of flesh. What happened next is shameful, and the shame is my own.
Late that evening after my children went to sleep, I tooled around online and found a well-reviewed BBC Radio production of The Merchant of Venice. Before downloading, I hesitated. I remembered the visceral feeling of physical nausea I had while reading that play as a student long ago.
As I hesitated with my phone in my hand, I had a sudden brainwave. A quarter century had passed since I had read any criticism or scholarship about the play. I had aged, and so had the world. Perhaps Shakespeare was now wrong!
I quickly discovered that Shakespeare was still not wrong. In seconds, I located the enormous volume of scholarly and popular articles published about The Merchant of Venice in the years since I first read it. This corpus explained once more, now with an added frisson of wokeness, why the play wasn’t antisemitic—not if you really understood it, as vulgar and whiny people often failed to do. It was really a critique of capitalism. It was really a commentary on the Other. It was really a tragedy buried in a comedy. It was really a satire of antisemitism. (Because it’s a comedy!) The Christian characters in it were just as bad; therefore it was really condemning Christianity. In fact it was a recognition of our common humanity. Shakespeare was the greatest writer who ever lived, and he was simply incapable of creating a character who wasn’t fully human.There is a terrible bond at work here, tying us inexorably to a long history of ugly caricatures and spilled blood.
There were a few outliers in this discussion, like the Yale professor Harold Bloom and the British trial lawyer Anthony Julius. But those who thought the play was irredeemably antisemitic were, the consensus went, vulgar and whiny—and, completely coincidentally, they were also Jewish, which somehow magically invalidated their opinions on this subject.
Staring into my phone, I sank into my own insecurity, which took the form of a belief that centuries of Shakespearean scholars, and Shakespeare himself, must surely know more than I do. It was a familiar feeling from being a teenage girl, except now it was worse, because now I was feeling it not for myself, but for my son. Wasn’t it impressive, after all, that a ten-year-old wanted to listen to a play by Shakespeare? How could I, as his parent devoted to educating him, not to mention as an English-language writer myself, shut down my child’s earnest desire to share with me his first experience of Shakespeare, the epitome of Western civilization? Wasn’t Shakespeare the epitome of Western civilization, especially for an English-language writer like me? Wasn’t that the whole reason that a ten-year-old wanting to read his work was impressive in the first place?
To my eternal shame, I clicked “Download Now.” The next morning in the minivan, we began.
The next scene in this play takes place in Elizabethan England, where a man named William Shakespeare, for supposedly obscure reasons, decided to write a five-act verse comedy—yes, a comedy—whose events unfold largely due to a bloodthirsty Jew.
The reasons are supposedly obscure because Jews were expelled from England in the 13th century and were only invited to return in the 17th—and thus Shakespeare, the Wikipedia-level thinking goes, is unlikely to ever have met one. But Shakespeare frequently wrote about places he’d never been and types of people he’d never met; Shakespeare’s plays appear to be inspired not by personal experiences but by earlier works. This is clearly the case for The Merchant of Venice, whose characters and plot are lifted wholesale from a single source, a 14th-century Italian story collection called Il Pecorone (“The Simpleton”) by Giovanni Fiorentino.
It’s all there in every tiny detail: the young man who falls in love with a rich lady in distant Belmont, the young man’s merchant friend who fronts the money for his lovelorn pal’s journey, the avaricious Jewish moneylender from whom the merchant gets a loan, the Jew’s demand for a pound of flesh in case of default, the trial at which the lady from Belmont disguises herself as a male lawyer, the decree by the “lawyer” that the Jew may take his pound of flesh provided he draw no blood, and even the hijinks involving the woman’s ring. The only major difference is that Shakespeare’s lady is far nobler than Fiorentino’s: in Merchant, Portia unhappily fulfills her father’s requirements of her suitors, while in Il Pecorone, the lady enjoys drugging her suitors and robbing them blind. By removing this detail, Shakespeare removed the suggestion that malicious schemers come from all walks of life. In Merchant, there is no such confusion.
It also seems unlikely that Shakespeare was unaware of actual Jews in England, given that one of the biggest news stories in the years immediately preceding the play’s composition was the public trial and execution at the Tower of London of a converted Portuguese Jew named Dr. Roderigo Lopez, chief physician to Queen Elizabeth I, who was accused of being paid by the Spanish monarchy to poison the queen. Dr. Lopez, one of the most respected physicians of the 16th century, had indiscreetly revealed that he once treated the Earl of Essex for venereal disease. The earl took revenge by framing Dr. Lopez for treason and arranging for his torture; while on the rack, Dr. Lopez “confessed”—though “like a Jew,” as the court record states, he denied all charges at trial, while the attorney for the Crown referred to him matter-of-factly as “a perjuring murdering traitor and Jewish doctor.”
His execution on Tower Hill in 1594 was accompanied by chants of “Hang the Jew!” from the raucous crowd. But as befitted traitors, Dr. Lopez was not in fact hanged to death, but was rather hanged until partially strangled, and removed from the gallows while still alive. He was then castrated and disemboweled, and his genitalia and intestines were burned before his eyes. After that he was beheaded and pulled by horses into four pieces; these segments of his drawn-and-quartered corpse, along with his severed head, were publicly displayed in separate locations until they decomposed.I strained to recall all the merciful interpretations of the play’s richness, its “nuance.”
It would be vulgar and whiny to overlook the nuances of this situation. After all, the historical record gives Queen Elizabeth a cookie for dawdling on signing Dr. Lopez’s death warrant; her doubts about his guilt even led her to mercifully allow his family to keep his property, not unlike the equally merciful Duke of Venice in Shakespeare’s play. And it is of course entirely unclear whether this trial and public humiliation of an allegedly greed-driven Jew attempting to murder an upstanding Christian, rapturously reported in the press with myriad antisemitic embellishments, had anything at all to do with Shakespeare’s play about the trial and public humiliation of a greed-driven Jew attempting to murder an upstanding Christian—which Shakespeare composed shortly after Dr. Lopez decomposed. Most likely these things were completely unrelated.
Our next scene takes place in Renaissance-era Venice, where a fictional man named Antonio needs cash, and borrows some from another fictional man, a character in this Venetian verse play who has a non-Italian name and often speaks in prose. Shylock is certainly a fully human character, what with his speaking in prose and having a non-Italian name, and a familiar human character at that. He is insistent, demanding, obsessive, morbid, too smart to be pleasant, and needs to get his way—or as he puts it, over and over, “I will have my bond.”
In reality, Shylock having his bond was never up to him. Whether a person like him would even be permitted to breathe in Renaissance Venice was subject to a charter that had to be renewed every few years; non-renewal was a real possibility, as the Jews discovered during two separate expulsions. In 1516, with Venetian treasuries starved from an expensive war, city authorities looking for new sources of revenue invited Jews—restricted to a few professions including moneylending and running pawnshops—to live in the neighborhood that gave the world the word “ghetto.”
Our final scene unfolds in 21st-century New Jersey, in the minivan fragrant with gummy bears, where I decided to prepare my son for what he was about to hear.
“There’s something you need to know about this play,” I told him as we pulled out of the driveway. “The guy who wants the pound of flesh is Jewish. And the way this play shows this guy is . . . well, it’s what we call antisemitic.”
The BBC production was vivid and engrossing. To my surprise I only needed to pause the playback occasionally to explain 16th-century puns, along with the concept of “usury,” which baffled my son: “Don’t people need to be able to borrow money to buy houses and stuff? Why is that bad?” I had no answer for this. But with the entrance of Shylock, there was far more to explain.
Shylock enters with the words “Three thousand ducats,” and then says of the noble Antonio, “I hate him for he is a Christian; / But more for that in low simplicity / He lends out money gratis and brings down / The rate of usuance here with us in Venice. / If I can catch him once upon the hip, / I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.”
“Pause it,” my son demanded from the backseat. “What does that mean?”
“Um, which part?” I asked, stalling. There was no good part.
“The part about why he hates the guy. He hates him for being Christian? That’s dumb. But what’s his other reason?” he asked, clearly hoping the other reason was a better one.
It wasn’t a better one. “Because Shylock wants more money,” I said.
“I thought you said he’s not just a greedy bad guy.”
“He’s not,” I claimed. “It gets better.”
It did not get better. Soon I was forced to explain Shylock’s self-serving interpretation of the biblical Jacob (a story my son knew in a sacred context), Antonio’s fondness for spitting on Shylock, Shylock’s deal for the pound of flesh, and numerous other verses that were painful to elucidate for one’s Jewish ten-year-old son, such as “The Hebrew will turn Christian; he grows kind.”
I drove in a daze, stunned by the sheer awfulness of it, dreading every verse my son would ask me to explain. The quality of mercy is not strain’d, the play’s heroine famously says, but I strained to recall all the merciful interpretations of the play’s richness, its “nuance.” It was damned hard to hear the nuance while parsing lines like “Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnal,” or “My master’s a very Jew; give him a present, give him a halter,” or explaining what Shylock meant when he planned to “go in hate, to feed upon / The prodigal Christian.” About an hour in—after Shylock’s daughter escaped her evil father (“Our house is hell”), but before Shylock declared that he’d rather his daughter be “dead at my foot . . . and the ducats in her coffin”—we made it to Shylock’s famous monologue, the part that makes it all OK.
I hit Pause, knowing I needed to build this up. “This speech changes what you think of Shylock,” I told my son. “It makes him more human.”
My son put on his game face. “OK, let’s hear it.”
The actor began the brief soliloquy that every English-speaking Jew is apparently meant to take as a compliment: “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? . . . 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?”
“Wait, that’s the part where he’s more human?”
I hit Pause again. “Sure,” I told my son, game-facing him back in the rearview. “He’s reminding us how he’s like everyone else. He’s a normal person with normal feelings.”
My son laughed. “You seriously fell for that?”
I swallowed, sickened. “What do you mean?”
“Shylock’s just saying he wants revenge! Like, ‘Oh, yeah? If I’m a regular human, then I get to be eee-vil like a regular human!’ This is the evil monologue thing that every supervillain does! ‘I’ve had a rough life, and if you were me you would do the same thing, so that’s why I’m going to KILL BATMAN, mu-hahaha!’ He’s just manipulating the other guy even more!”
“No, he’s—” I fumbled, remembering the monologue’s final words: The villainy you teach me, I will execute; / and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction. For the first time I heard the unspoken phrase that followed it: Mu-hahaha. I’d been trolled, betrayed, like Shylock at court.
“You’re not supposed to fall for the evil supervillain monologue! What idiot would fall for that?”
What idiot would? I would. I did. I stared at the road in shame. My son is insistent, demanding, obsessive, morbid, too smart to be pleasant. It had not previously occurred to me that those traits are also his greatest strengths, the sources of his integrity.
“That was pathetic,” he muttered. It was unclear whether he was referring to the play, or to his mother. “Are there other parts where he actually acts normal? Or is that it?”
Was that it? I reviewed the other moments scholars cite to prove Shylock’s “humanity.” There were two lines of Shylock treasuring his dead wife’s ring, unlike the play’s Christian men who give their wives’ rings away. But unlike the other men, Shylock never gets his ring back—because his daughter steals it, and becomes a Christian, and inherits what remains of his estate at the play’s triumphant end. Then there was the trial scene, where modern actors often make Shylock seem tragic rather than horrific. But that was performance, not text. Finally, scholars point to the many times Shylock explains why he is so revolting: Christians treat him poorly, so he returns the favor. But for this to satisfy, one must accept that Jews are revolting to begin with, and that their repulsiveness simply needs to be explained. None of it worked. And then I saw just how deep the gaslighting went: I felt obligated to make it work, to contort this revolting material into something that excused it.
The trial scene was agonizing. We listened together as Shylock went to court to extract his pound of flesh; as the heroine, chirping about the quality of mercy, forbade him to spill the Christian’s blood as he so desperately desired; as the court confiscated his property, along with his soul through forced conversion; as the play’s most cherished characters used his own words to taunt and demean him, relishing their vanquishing of the bloodthirsty Jew. My son stopped asking me to explain. Twenty minutes of congratulatory hijinks followed Shylock’s final exit, as the cast reveled in their victory and his seized assets. At last it was over.
The minivan fell silent. Then my son announced, “I never want to hear that again.”
“You will definitely hear that again,” I said.
It’s true. “Censorship” is beside the point, the insane extremes of “cancel culture” extravagantly irrelevant, because this double helix of hate and art is built into our world. My son will read this play in school. Or he will hear about a new performance; it’s one of the most performed plays Shakespeare ever wrote. He will encounter headlines and jokes using the phrase “pound of flesh.” He couldn’t even make it through a season of Radiolab without it. There is a terrible bond at work here, tying us inexorably to a long history of ugly caricatures and spilled blood. And there is also a much subtler and more insidious bond, tying us to the need to justify and accept it. But unlike me, my son insists on integrity, demands it. He is not afraid to be unpleasant; he knows evil when he hears it. He is ready for this bond.
I told him, “At least now you know.”
“Yes,” he said, and smiled. “Next can we download Dracula?”
Excerpted from People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present. Copyright (c) 2021 by Dara Horn. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.