Introducing students to The Merchant of Venice is tricky, but directly confronting the issues that make it so can lead to several interesting and necessary discussions.
- What is anti-semitism and how has it appeared throughout history? It is important to take the time to identify the stereotypes and develop and understanding of how those stereotypes affected society throughout history.
- What is authorial intent and does it matter? Shakespeare was likely prejudiced against Jewish people and Shylock is intended to be the villain. However, Shakespeare fills his plays with deep characters, so Shylock can also be seen as sympathetic.
- How can different people read a text in completely different ways and still both be right? Each person will bring their own point of view to any text. The important thing is to provide evidence to support your point of view.
Addressing the complexities that students will face before diving into the text of the play, allows for continuous, informed discussion to take place throughout. It can help make the experience more meaningful.
Anti-semitism throughout History
This play is anti-Semitic. We should just start there and get it out in the open early. This play is anti-Semitic and Shakespeare probably was too.
What does anti-Semitism mean?
In the simplest terms, it means to be prejudiced against people of the Jewish faith. This can be on a personal level, a systematic level, or both.
What are the common stereotypes used?
There are physical stereotypes, such has large noses and droopy eyes. But, often the most insidious to society were the characteristic stereotypes. Jewish people were often characterized as extremely greedy, caring about money above all else. At the same time, they were labeled as cheap. They wanted to amass a lot of money, but not spend any of it. They were also considered dishonest and even treacherous.
How did anti-Semitism manifest throughout history?
Because of the negative stereotypes presented above, Jewish people often faced blatant hostility from individuals and governments alike. They were labeled as outsiders, even in the cities they were born and raised in. Some cities, such as London, went so far as to ban Jewish people. If they were allowed within a city, they were often forced to live in ghettos.
Many of the negative stereotypes arose from the most common occupation Jewish people held: moneylenders. Usury, or charging interest on a loan was deemed sinful by Christian leaders, so it was forbidden for most. However, the lending of money is necessary to the operation of a city, particularly one that depends on commerce, so Jewish people often loaned the money to merchants and charged interest. Today, that is essentially how banks operate, but back then, it was looked down on as sinful.
What does authorial intent mean?
Authorial intent is the meaning or interpretation that the creator of the work had in mind when they were creating it. It is a pretty common method for reading a text. By asking ourselves what the author meant, we look critically at the text for clues as to the meaning behind the words and the message being conveyed. It can be an insightful way to frame the reading.
But, does the author’s intention matter?
Most of the time we can’t really know what the author intended. This is especially true for authors like Shakespeare, who we know very little about. Once a work has been put out into the world, the author really loses control over it. They can’t control how readers will interpret their work.
One of the beautiful things about Shakespeare is that his characters have such humanity and depth, so it is impossible for a character to be strictly good or strictly evil. Shylock certainly has his evil tendencies, but he is also a sympathetic character. He has been the victim of prejudice his whole life, so his anger is justified. So, even if Shakespeare intended Shylock to be the villain, do we, as the reader, have to see him that way?
If authorial intent isn’t the final say, how should we read a text?
The key to defending any reading is to provide evidence from the text to support your point of view. You have to demonstrate that you have a logical understanding of the text, so it is also important to consider evidence contrary to your point of view.
Quite often an individual’s experience will influence how they read a text. A person who has experienced prejudice in their life is more likely to sympathize with Shylock than someone who hasn’t. A reader will find certain lines or plot points more poignant depending on whether or not it resonates with their life experience. It can lead to as many readings of a text as there are people reading it.
So…can a reading be wrong?
Yes and no. Again, it depends on the evidence provided. It may be better to say that some readings are weaker than others.
Shakespeare is a perfect example of how one text can be interpreted and presented in many different ways. No two performances of the same play will be the same because no two people will see the text in the same way. In some performances of The Merchant of Venice, it is presented as originally performed, with Shylock being the clear villain. In others, Shylock is at least a sympathetic character, if not a downright good guy. The words spoken don’t change, but the meaning behind them do. Both readings are legitimate because both have textual evidence to back them up.
As we are about to face a play that is difficult – even problematic – having tough, open conversation is critical. By presenting the issues and how to deal with them early, the reading experience can be more productive, particularly for younger audiences.