People coming to our production of The Merchant of Venice at Rockledge ranch follow a lovely winding path from the parking lot to our tent. On they way they may see and read four small signs in blue letters on white boards. I had them made and I put them there. The signs were meant to be provocative, but I confess I had did not know they would be the hottest buttons pushed at Shakespeare's button pushing play, but so it has proved. At a very lively discussion with members of the Jewish community, the signs were a principal reason for a gentleman accusing me of being "morally reprehensible." This morning I have had two long phone calls from people asking me to remove them, and a message from from Rabbi Glazer telling me he has already received six very angry calls from congregants about my insensitivity.
What do these signs actually say? Each one is a Biblical injunction against moneylending. Here are the quotes:
"If you lend money to any of my people . . . you shall not be like a moneylender to him"--Exodus 22:25
"And Jesus entered the temple... and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers" Matthew 21:12
"Lends at interest and takes profit; shall he then live? He shall not live"--Ezekial 18:13"
"You shall not charge interest on loans"-- Deuteronomy 23:19
The signs are designed to introduce the audience to the world of this play, whose social and religious values are incarnated in the play's title character, Antonio, the Merchant of Venice. Antonio is not only a Christian, he is a Christian vehemently opposed to lending money at interest. You don't actually hear much of that these days, at new Life Church, First Pres, St,.Mary's or anywhere else. It seems to me that any reasonable person reading these words might be struck by how oddly they ring now. Should we really eliminate the people who charge interest, as Ezekial suggests? Are banks, credit unions, credit cards, and home mortgages evil because they charge for lending money? How many venture capitalists these days carry picket signs in front of the banks asking, rhetorically, "when did friendship take a breed of barren metal of his friend?" These are Antonio's words, the Warren Buffett of Venice, violently opposed to using money to make money. He is a character almost impossible to imagine today. In this respect Venice is not us. These Christians read and value a different Bible from the one we read now. The signs are there (as if placed by Antonio's congregation) to introduce the audience to a Biblical injunction we now largely ignore and dismiss, but which is actively present in Antonio, and which indeed is responsible for his radical anti-semitism (The Jew, as we all know, is the moneylender, and because of this--not his religious belief--Antonio finds him worthy of being kicked and spat upon).
But obviously, at least in some quarters, my design seems deeply flawed. The signs have been seen and taken as further expressions and even sanctioning of the virulent anti-semitic stereotyping still all too present today. That this involves a clear misreading (the antiquated injunctions are not simply Christian,they are Biblical--three are from the Old Testament) is perhaps irrelevant. The Merchant of Venice is rife with anti-semitic feeling, and the signs have been seen as adding insult to injury since the play already features a greedy money minded Jew, a real villain. The play is more than suspect. It understandably makes Jews very uncomfortable, and the signs have made it unbearable.
I will now risk further insult and injury by suggesting that Jews may not be this play's ideal audience. Certainly they were not when it opened at the Globe since there were no Jews, not even Sam Wanamaker, attending. The play was not written to be seen by Jews, any more than Huckleberry Finn was written to be read by black people. But this does not mean that the play promotes, foments or encourages anti-semitism. Quite the contrary. What the play does is represent a world of pervasive and casual anti-semitic expression and feeling. the word Jew ricochets through the play, its u sound echoing in "choose" and "use"--two other words sounded over and over Jews are devils, they are dogs, they are Jews. The habit of Jew mocking may easily extend itself to the audience, who may find themselves laughing along with the jokes, as many of us have at jokes made at the expense of people not of our race, gender or culture (lots of good--I mean funny-- jokes are exclusionary--made by "us" about "them"). Shakespeare begins with a stereotype familiar to his audience and he fufills their expectations of the part the stereotype was created to play. Shylock is indeed an incarnation of the greedy evil Jew. If Shakespeare stopped there, his play would indeed be morally reprehensible.
But he does not stop there. After fufilling our expectations he does what he always does, he goes beyond them. At the midpoint of the play, when everyone has become almost too comfortable with the play's anti-semitic feeling, Shylock is given the most moving and most indelible speech in protest of anti-semitic stereotyping ever spoken on the stage. The play stops. The air changes. His indictment extends beyond the play to the audience, to those of us who have been complicit with the pleasures of its cheerful dehumanizing generalities. It is a truly astonishing event, and the play doesn't stop there. Shylock's forced conversion in the trial scene again fulfills our hopes and expectations to a point that makes us uncomfortable---you want to see a villain defeated: watch this! It's what we were hoping for--but suddenly this is not what we wanted. Not at all. The villain we wanted to lose has become the victim of a brutalizing society, a society rather like our own. Jews don't need to know this. They already know it all too well. But the rest of us, well, we learn.