I received your most welcomed letter today. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on William Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice. I find your words of wisdom both inspiring and thought-provoking. I shall return the favor by sharing with you my feelings of the play, particularly, in regard to the question of whether or not Shakespeare intended for the audience to hate Jews, or just Shylock .
After reading the play several times, I have decided that even though Shakespeare presented Shylock as a Jew and allowed other characters to make anti-Semitic comments, I am not convinced he intended the play to be anti-Jewish. In your letter, you, too, express doubt as to the nature of Shakespeare’s intention and dismissed it as nothing more than “a reflection of the times.” I agree with you.
I have often heard and repeated jokes which other people find to be objectionable--sexual, racial, or religious. But in each case, I had to know the stereotype nuance if I were to find the intended humor of the joke. Listening to, repeating, or even laughing at jokes, including those of an anti-Semitic nature, does not make me a bad person. Can a joke be hurtful? Yes, indeed! Did I ever fail to see the humor in jokes? Of course!
What I find interesting is the fact that Jewish stereotypes were developed long before Shakespeare’s time. In the Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare sets up the plot with banter between the different characters, hoping that the audience understands the stereotypical language and discovers the humor. Apparently audiences found the play funny; after all, it has outlived an unfathomable number of Christians and Jews. Unlike you, I found the play to be humorous after I read it for the first time a week ago.
My favorite character in the play is Shylock. He represents the ironies of life, not the caricature of the sons of Abraham or as you said, “a gross image of real people.” Had Shylock been a Christian in the play, and insisted on taking a pound of flesh, do you think that Portia’s veiled plea for mercy would have been irrelevant?
“The quality of mercy is not strained,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway.
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is attributed to God himself,
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When Mercy seasons justice. Therefore, [Christian],
Though justice be thy plea, consider this:
That in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea,
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.” (4, i, 180-201)
In sum, Beatriz, we are all fragile human beings created by one God. He gave us a unique gift by granting us free will. I chose to laugh.