The debate around Michael Morpurgo’s alleged censoring of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice because of the play’s antisemitic and offensive views (an allegation he has recently denied) may be, to quote Bassanio, ‘an infinite deal of nothing’.
Will Lloyd wrote on Unherd that the Merchant deserves to be cancelled because its antisemitism is real. Even Harold Bloom concurred, Lloyd noted. Defenders of the play emphasise Shakespeare’s humanism in Shylock’s famous ‘Hath not a Jew eyes’ speech. Antisemitism and humanism, credits and debits, draw the line, file the accounts. Quantifying value in literature and art is a dodgy business, especially when the goal is to keep investing in a product (i.e. keep the book on the shelves, continue staging the play) or to chuck it out.
If the Merchant is irredeemably antisemitic, so is most of medieval and early modern literature, when European antisemitic views were as widespread as to go unnoticed in every area of cultural production. Is Shakespeare expressing personal and original (not to mention strong) antisemitic views? I don’t think so. To me, Shylock is a figure of tragedy, not the protagonist of a classic all-ends-well, justice-be-done comedy, despite being classed as such. His misfortunes are the result of the human condition (exacting damages for damages done) and adverse cultural forces (finding oneself a member of a hated minority). In the end, Shylock may be too real for us to accept. Life is not always a comedy that ends well (for everyone, at least), but a mess where some go from bad to worse and then to worse still.
I get no feeling that Shakespeare hates Shylock when he allows him to suffer at the hands of his abusers, Antonio, Bassanio, Lorenzo, Venice, Christendom. And I get no feeling that Shakespeare is trying to redeem him of anything when he puts the famous speech in his mouth. Since we’re used to accounting positive and negative values and views, let us also apportion blame. Is Shylock guilty of cruel legalism? Is Portia guilty of fighting legalism with legalism and winning? Is Venice, its ghettos and its population responsible for producing Shylock’s resentment? The Merchant’s twisted world is also our own. One where the down-trodden gets trodden down still, where the spiral of hate and violence is endless and the ‘quality of mercy’ is but a distant ideal.