In 16th century Venice, when a merchant must default on a large loan from an abused Jewish moneylender for a friend with romantic ambitions, the bitterly vengeful creditor demands a gruesome... Read allIn 16th century Venice, when a merchant must default on a large loan from an abused Jewish moneylender for a friend with romantic ambitions, the bitterly vengeful creditor demands a gruesome payment instead.In 16th century Venice, when a merchant must default on a large loan from an abused Jewish moneylender for a friend with romantic ambitions, the bitterly vengeful creditor demands a gruesome payment instead.
I also appreciate the good intentions of director and screenwriter Michael Radford. I think he did the best he could to bring out the humanitarian vision within the play and overcome its anti-Semitism.
However, anti-Semitism is almost as fundamental to this play as sexism is to Taming of the Shrew. It simply can't be transformed into something else, and ultimately the play does not offer an insightful glimpse into the corrosive effects of racism/anti-Semitism.
Shakespeare never interacted with any Jews or Jewish community because Jews were expelled from England before his time. His play was written based on what he learned from the society around him and, from there, his "enlightened" interpretation of the anti-Semitic myths about the Jews. But an "enlightened" interpretation of lies and projections of villainy, giving the fabricated scoundrel of the anti-Semitic imagination some "humanity" and complex motivation, is still founded on lies and projections.
It isn't enough to "understand" Shylock's bitter and murderous behavior, because the portrayal didn't refer, even metaphorically, to a real dynamic in the behavior of severely oppressed Jews toward their gentile oppressors.
Antonio's more lofty behavior in the end was Shakespeare's dramatization of the commonly held belief in Christian moral superiority, a belief widely held to this day. This belief was maintained despite (and because of) widespread anti-Semitic Christian behavior toward Jews, which at that time did not just consist of spitting and insults, but of rape and persecution and murder. The pursued pound of flesh was Jewish.
Shakespeare brings the play to conclusion with his (and his intended audience's) idea of justice. However, the depiction of the brutal intentions, which reverses the historical dynamic between Christian and Jew, is fundamentally unjust. It brings "understanding" to an unreal phenomenon for which there is no need for understanding. Shylock is a fabrication created from the threads of anti-Semitic myths; the character is not a historically valid representation of a Jewish man.
The filmmakers and actors argued that the play/film is a valuable exploration of the corrosive effects of anti-Semitism and racism. While the effects of racism is a very worthy subject to explore through film, an honest depiction will reveal that the effects from injustice, degradation, and danger are most often directed toward one's own. Today that dynamic is seen in impoverished inner cities where the victims and perpetrators are usually from the same communities and families. Nevertheless, there is the contemporary, paranoid mind of the oppressor which imagines the oppressed is "out to get us."
It's also important to note that the effects of oppression are complex, and are not solely negative. Some of the most creative American traditions have come from the inner city. There is the experience of danger and poverty, but there is also laughter and vibrancy that are largely missing in the American suburbs and the wealthier parts of a city. Similarly, Jewish men and women have created and sustained nurturing communities, vibrant culture(s), and have made creative and intellectual contributions to the larger world disproportionate to their numbers. These positive aspects are probably due in part to having to cope with and overcome the harmful effects of oppression.
Of course, Shakespeare doesn't depict the treasures of Jewish community and culture. And while he depicts some of the pain, frustration, and outrage, the depiction of these feelings simply taking the form of vengeance is not valid.
That doesn't mean I think this film shouldn't have been made, or the play shouldn't be produced. However, I don't think that it should be presented as NOT anti-Semitic. I think an accompanying critique of the inherent anti-Semitism of the play, and the historic anti-Semitism in England, is the only conscientious way to present it. There is no need to pretend that Shakespeare rose above the racism and sexism of his time. He didn't. He had many moments of profound, humanitarian insights, but those moments shouldn't be used to argue he was something he wasn't.
- Jan 30, 2006