Written by William Shakespeare around 1597, The Merchant of Venice is a "comedy" about a bitter and detested Jewish moneylender (Shylock) who seeks revenge against a Christian merchant who has defaulted on a loan.
Merchant's controversial and painful subject matter has earned it a reputation as a "problem play" that continues to ask a series of difficult questions 400 years after it was first staged:
Before we can even address these questions, it's important to know about the historical circumstances of the play. For Shakespeare, writing to an English audience about a Jewish moneylender might have seemed unusual. Officially, there were no Jews in 16th century England because they had been banished in 1290 under the Edict of Expulsion. Some studies suggest there were fewer than 200 Jews in Elizabethan England (only about 100 have been identified by historians). Most of these Jews were outwardly practicing Christians and many of them were probably Marranos (Jews who practiced their religion in secret).
So how were Jews perceived in the imaginations of Elizabethan audiences?
Jews were a popular target of hatred in Shakespeare's England in large part due the trial of Queen Elizabeth's personal physician, Rodrigo Lopez, a converted Portuguese Jew (and a Marrano). In 1594 Lopez was convicted of plotting to poison Queen Elizabeth I and was executed as a traitor – meaning he was hanged, cut down (while still alive), and mutilated before a crowd of vengeful spectators.
The Lopez trial and execution inspired the revival of playwright Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta (1589), in which the play's title character is a Jew named Barabas, a greedy, cunning, and murderous stereotype. In other words, Barabas fit the bill of "stock" Jewish characters that Elizabethan theatergoers of the time loved to hate.
Since there were no actual Jews publicly living in England, the worst kinds of stereotypes and legends about the entire group could prevail unchecked. Jews were accused of everything from sacrificing kidnapped Christian children on Easter to killing adult Christians for their blood to be used in Passover rituals. Christopher Marlowe's play, and his inexplicably evil Jewish villain, sparked English thinking about the long-absent English Jews.
Shakespeare, with his pulse on the popular interest, presented The Merchant of Venice around 1597, hot on the heels of the Lopez trial. What's interesting about Shakespeare's Jewish merchant, Shylock, is that, depending on how you read the story, he is not a caricature of all-things-evil like Marlowe's Barabas. Shylock is deeply flawed, but he's also complex and deeply human. When he famously asks, "if you prick us [Jews] do we not bleed?" (3.1.6), he insists on the fact that Jews and Christians share a common humanity, despite the fact that he's been spit upon, kicked, and railed against for being different.
Let's say that you, circa your kindergarten days, make a deal with your younger brother in which, if the Tampa Bay Rays win the World Series, he has to stick his finger in a light socket. He's fine with the deal because, hey, the Tampa Bay Rays could never, ever win the World Series. And you're OK with the potentially devastating results, since he recently put glue in your macaroni and cheese.
Then somebody in Florida sells his soul to the devil, and, before you know it, your little brother is facing a pretty lively light-socket. He insists that you let him off easy because it's the merciful thing to do, but you counter that the two of you had a bargain, and you want justice.
Interesting word, justice. What does it mean, exactly? Justice according to the law? What if there were a law saying, for example, that white men were allowed to own black men? Or that a man can beat his wife, who, incidentally, isn't allowed to vote. Since those laws actually existed in United States history, does that mean they were just?
OK, not so much. "Justice" is clearly tied to something other than the law. Perhaps it's based in religion? Are we talking about divine law? Ahem, the Crusades, ahem.
So there's obviously something else going on in our heads when we think about justice, something like ethics or morality. But what do you do when justice according to the law is not the same as justice according to religion, which is not the same as justice according to morals or human decency? The point is, "justice" is not a word you can throw around like "glue" or "light socket." And yet "justice" has been used to justify a slew of actions – like cutting a pound of flesh from a man's chest. Is this the new Tarantino? No, it's The Merchant of Venice.