Phoebe and Jonathan Pryce Credit: Manuel Harian

And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out . . .

—Matthew 18:9

There are always people ready to pluck out what offends them. Consider Steven Frank, a lawyer whose attack on The Merchant of Venice has been bouncing around the Internet, in various drafts, for a while. The latest version turned up in the Chicago Tribune on August 4, the day Jonathan Pryce opened as Shylock in a touring production of the play produced by London’s Shakespeare’s Globe and presented at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

Agreeing with Harold Bloom that Shakespeare’s 1598 romance is a “profoundly anti-Semitic work,” Frank argues that it’s “time to say ‘never again’ to this historical aberration,” apparently in the interests of social hygiene. “Every time it is produced,” Frank writes, “the play introduces new audiences to vile medieval tropes of anti-Semitism that might otherwise have dissipated over time.”

The idea that Shakespeare may be singlehandedly responsible for the survival of hoary slanders against Jews seems mighty peculiar, but Frank is right about one thing: The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic, not just in its language but in its structural bones. The Globe staging, however, offers a fierce, smart, cunning rebuttal to Frank’s contention that the only correct response is therefore to pluck it.

Shylock is, of course, the iconic Jewish moneylender. He’s made his fortune letting ducats at interest, and just about every character onstage damns and abuses him for it—including his daughter, Jessica, who, as played here by Phoebe Pryce (yes, Jonathan’s daughter), seems to find her very proximity to him excruciating. Excruciating enough, in fact, that she takes radical steps to distance herself from him. Jessica elopes with a noble goy, Lorenzo, using the old man’s strongbox as a dowry.

Yet that’s not the worst of it. Hoping to help out his friend Bassanio, who needs money to woo the fair and clever Portia, an overextended merchant named Antonio begs a loan from Shylock. It’s a fraught negotiation, Antonio having a reputation as a Jew hater as well as a history of shaming Shylock publicly for what he calls usury and Shylock calls “thrift.” Shylock hates Antonio and his whole Christian tribe right back. So in joshing earnest, he gets Antonio to accept a famous rider: If Antonio should default on the loan, Shylock may claim a pound of his flesh in compensation.

Needless to say, Antonio defaults and Shylock refuses to renounce his pound of flesh, setting up a trial at which the Jew gets a brutal comeuppance calculated to send Elizabethan audiences out of the theater feeling that all’s right with the world after all. No mistake—in the context of the play, Shylock is a villain. A money-grubbing, Christ-rejecting, vindictive son of Abraham. More to the point, he’s relatively trivial. Just part of a subplot contrived to forward the mechanics of the narrative and provide comic relief from Merchant‘s true subject: the rocky romance between Bassanio and Portia. Frank would probably have his way, the play dismissed as an embarrassing relic, if Shakespeare weren’t incapable of writing a flat character.

But he really couldn’t—a fault that yields odd, empathic anomalies like Shylock’s “hath not a Jew eyes” speech, forcing us to take second and third looks at who the character is and what goes on in his world. And what we think of it.
Director Jonathan Munby doesn’t use those anomalies to mitigate or excuse the prejudice in (and of) Merchant. To the contrary, we’re made vividly aware of every horrible epithet Shylock’s antagonists throw at him. The moneylender’s beard is pulled, his gabardine spat on, his pocket copy of the Old Testament thrown on the ground. He’s greatly tormented even in the context of what was considered acceptable behavior in Venice circa 1600.

He’s not a victim, though. As unpretentiously embodied by Pryce, Shylock has the guarded quality of anyone living among strangers who nevertheless need him. But he’s neither frightened nor shy (in fact, it’s his confidence in the power of the law to protect him that leads him to his doom)—nor particularly lovable either. Rather, he’s calculating in the manner of a chess player: cool, pragmatic, emotionally remote yet nursing a core of self-righteous heat. Jessica might’ve found him inaccessible even under less trying circumstances.

No, this Merchant isn’t out to transform Shylock into the protagonist he was never supposed to be. It’s out to achieve something more subtle and disturbing, that Frank certainly didn’t imagine. That something is in the music and dancing, the festive partying that opens the show and punctuates it throughout; in little passages of comic audience participation. The cast get us clapping and laughing along before they let the hate flash out. And then we’re left sitting there, uncomfortable, implicated. v