John Mahon and Ellen Macleod Mahon. Eds. 2002. New Critical Essays: The Merchant of Venice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. xxiv + 456 pp. ISBN 0-415-92999-7. 65.

  1. In 'virtually every production', co-editor John Mahon claims, Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice provokes 'reaction and counter-reaction'. It is well known that this enigmatic, haunting play, like its author's later Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, has provoked a great deal of critical controversy and unease. Its reception is unavoidably complicated by the weight of the Nazi Holocaust upon collective memory, but the apparent demonization of Shylock was questioned long before that, by interpreters ranging from the actor-manager Henry Irving to the writers Charles and Mary Lamb. Perhaps this is because deconstruction of The Merchant touches upon questions perhaps more volatile than whether Shakespeare complied with or challenged sixteenth-century Judeophobia. Namely, the debates that have enveloped The Merchant threaten to cut at least a pound of flesh from the myth of the 'timeless' Shakespeare, 'our contemporary'. While the operation may be necessary for us to understand and relate to the Shakespearean canon, it is possible that liberal humanist Bardolatry will not survive it.

  2. Calling for more historicist approaches to The Merchant, John Drakakis (1996) emphasized that in order to understand the thematic and generic design of The Merchant, we must recognize that its author wrote it not 'for all time' but for his time and its momentary concerns. Several of the essays in Mahon and Mahon's collection take up Drakakis's challenge, not least Drakakis's own meditation on the anxieties Jessica raises in reading and performance. Drakakis, Murray Levith, R.W. Desai, and others offer persuasive, original readings drawing upon reconstructed or reconsidered sixteenth-century contexts. These, together with John Mahon's wide-ranging introductory overview of the play's histories of performance, criticism, and appropriation, and several essays specifically looking at recent revivals should attract the interest of theatre artists as well as scholars of English literature and cultural studies. The volume continues to fulfil the mission of the New Critical Essays series as discussed by Terri Bourus in Renaissance Forum's Winter 2003 review of New Critical Essays: Hamlet.

  3. In 'Shakespeare's Merchant and Marlowe's Other Play', Levith contends that Shakespeare was indebted for The Merchant's defining themes, 'ideational structure', and generic identity not only to Marlowe's Jew of Malta, but his Faustus and its probable main source, the 'English Faust Book'. Levith's discussion of the German legend that the original Johan Fust was Jewish is particularly fascinating. Levith follows the theme of devilry in Venice to reveal parallels with Reformation propaganda images of Rome, nonconformist Protestantism, and Judaizers (alleged converts from Christianity to Judaism). In Levith's reading, 'the Jew' is indeed an 'ideological figure', to use Slavoj Zizek's term but one that signifies several Elizabethan stock 'aliens', including, most prominently, the stock Puritan. I would have liked to know more about the extent to which The Merchant echoes Faustus yet differs from other morality plays, but Levith's article illuminatingly traces some of The Merchant's ideological orientations.

  4. Another substantial and persuasive interpretation can be found in Corinne S. Abate's 'Nerissa Teaches Me What To Believe'. Abate closely examines the decisive, significant actions of Portia's lady-in-waiting, a character usually relegated to the background in both staging and criticism. A complex and active figure, the Nerissa whom Abate recovers is essentially a female composite of the stock types of the good counsellor of didactic drama, the crafty servant of Plautine tradition, and the biblical metaphor of the Steward. As Nerissa greets each of the nine suitors and reports on them to Portia, she possesses the power to influence or determine her mistress's marital destiny and the ownership of the Belmont estate. Nerissa steers Portia away from the foreign suitors, Abate surmises, because she knows that her mistress's removal from paradisal Belmont will necessitate her own, and therefore her abandonment of Gratiano. She also teaches Portia how to be an agreeable yet assertive wife, and to exact from her bridegroom the same orderly behaviour she practises herself. Nerissa's reward for her matchmaking and property management efforts is her own marriage to Gratiano, and ability to stay with him at Belmont. If Portia's crafty salvation of Antonio makes her heroic, so does Nerissa's quieter yet equally effective salvation of her lady.

  5. In ' ''Mislike Me Not For My Complexion": Whose Mislike? Portia's? Shakespeare's? Or That of His Age?' R.W. Desai posits that The Merchant depicts light-skinned characters desiring darker ones, revealing 'what may be Shakespeare's own unfashionable predilection for "black" that would run counter to the taste of his time' (305). Portia is attracted to the Prince of Morocco, Desai argues, though she ultimately suppresses and conceals that desire. At the same time, she is herself devalued by other suitors on account of being darker than them. When the six 'Northern' men who refuse the casket trial, including the English Faulconbridge, reject Portia, they act within the social order that associates geographic origin with phenotype and ranks light above dark. Sixteenth-century racism, Desai contends, is not a binary but a staircase. Moving beyond The Merchant, Desai shows that love of lighter for darker characters in contravention of social expectation is a persistent theme in the Shakespearean canon. He revisits Shakespeare's revolt against Petrarchan aesthetic convention by lauding the 'dark lady' with hair like 'black wire' and a 'dun' complexion. Desai also mentions the 'Indian child' of A Midsummer Night's Dream and its deceased mother as objects of Titania's desire. 'Was he going against the grain of his age', Desai asks, 'by expressing his own personal preference for the dark complexion?' Desai shows that Shakespeare created a stage-world in which desire opposes the socially determined hierarchy of 'complexion', suggesting that the same can and does occur in reality.

  6. While Desai persuasively undermines long-standing assumptions about Shakespeare's context and texts, Joan Ozark Holmer's thematically intriguing essay 'Jewish Daughters' is somewhat weakened by a neglect to define terms. Holmer examines Marlowe's and Shakespeare's respective representations of the 'Jewish daughters' Abigail and Jessica. She argues that both Jessica's portrayal and Lorenzo's treatment of her are more 'philo-Semitic' or less 'Judeophobic' than has traditionally been credited, and considers why Shakespeare would portray 'intermarriage' between a Christian man and a Jewish woman favourably. She contends that it is necessary to recognize 'the often underestimated originality of Marlowe and Shakespeare in creating for the stage essentially good contemporary Jewesses' (108). 'For the stage', yes but John Gross (1992) notes that mediaeval exempla often feature conversion stories presented as romances between a Christian hero and a Jewish innamorata. These Jewish heroines, Gross observes, 'tend to be shown in a fairly favourable light' (Gross 58). Holmer concedes that it is possible for Christian men to desire Jewish women while hating Jews in general. She cites the example of the Nazi officer played by Ralph Fiennes in Steven Spielberg's 1993 film Schindler's List. 'Unlike Lorenzo' in The Merchant, 'whose love crosses all putative boundaries and places Jessica in his 'constant soul' (, Commandant Amon Goeth cannot bring himself to cross the supposed racial barrier' and so 'physically beats' his Jewish servingwoman, 'violence denying desire.' Lorenzo might not be physically violent, but his desire for Jessica does not mean that he loves a 'Jewess'. For Goeth, a 'Jewess' is a member of a racial group, not a religious or cultural one. This distinction is important because an individual's religion can be changed by rejection or conversion: it is a cultural marker. 'Race', on the other hand, is hereditary, certainly in Goeth's view. What sort of collective is Judaism for Shakespeare and his characters religious, cultural, or 'racial'?

  7. Citing G.K. Hunter's insistence that it was a religious designation, and James K. Shapiro's conclusion that it was racial, Holmer claims to incline to the latter connotation. More recently than Hunter's and Shapiro's publications, Paul McGinnis and Arthur Williamson show that in late-fifteenth-century Iberia, and increasingly throughout sixteenth-century Europe, the idea that meaningful national identities are determined immutably by inherited 'blood' began to take hold and, in England and Scotland, to be hotly debated (McGinnis and Williamson 2002). In The Merchant, Jessica herself enters this discourse against the 'blood' fatalists. Of Shylock, she says, 'though I am a daughter to his blood, / I am not to his manners' (II.iii.18-9) and resolves to marry Lorenzo and '[b]ecome a Christian' (21). Jessica's conviction that Judaism is an ideological (and therefore mutable) rather than ethnic and unchangeable quality means that Holmer's understanding of Jessica and Lorenzo's union as 'intermarriage' cannot hold. In any case, Shakespeare repeatedly emphasises that Jessica becomes a Christian upon her marriage to Lorenzo. In II.iv., she and Launcelot Gobbo discuss predestination, raising the possibility that salvation via conversion may be Jessica's destiny. If, upon marriage, a Jew's daughter becomes a Christian wife, then as long as Lorenzo intends to marry Jessica, he courts not a Jew but a proto-Christian. In this scenario, 'intermarriage' is an existential impossibility. In spite of these complications, Holmer raises an interesting question that demands further pursuit. She wonders why Shakespeare's 'intermarriage' involves a Christian bridegroom and Jewish bride, especially given that sixteenth-century English records show more marriages between Jewish men and Christian women than vice versa. Holmer does not touch upon one possibility suggested by a passage she quotes from the marriage service in the 1559 Common Prayer Book. This passage, addressed to God, asks that the groom 'may love his wife, according to thy Word (as Christ did love thy spouse the Church)' and that the bride 'may be loving and admirable to her husband as Rachel,' while also demonstrating the virtues of 'Rebecca' and 'Sarah'. The model husband is Christ; the ideal wife is a composite of Old Testament Hebrew women.

  8. In the following essay, Drakakis returns to the subject of Jessica. Having, in 1996, examined Shylock and Venetian paternal and patriarchal relations through the lens of Roland Barthes's Mythologies, Drakakis now looks at Jessica's role in her social system and its myths. Having surveyed late-twentieth century stage interpretations, Drakakis finds Jessica perennially upstaged by Portia. Nevertheless, he contends, the Jew's daughter is intriguingly 'troubled and troubling'. An imperfect comic heroine, her dilemmas remain unresolved and her own behaviour is ethically ambiguous. Her contentious relationship with her living father contrasts with Portia's obedience to the will of her dead one. Jessica chooses her husband; the passive Portia silently allows herself to be chosen. The lord of Belmont lives through his daughter by choosing for her. Jessica's father's infidelity, in the religious sense of the word, releases her from obligation to keep faith with him. However, this fissure is not permanent. In Act IV, Jessica's rebellion leads indirectly to her father's salvation: her faithlessness paradoxically brings him to accept the only correct faith. Using Derridean terms, Drakakis sees Jessica as 'the medium in which opposites are opposed'. Jessica is the carnivalesque looking-glass in which social relations in Venice and Belmont are distorted and revealed. Finally, Drakakis points out that in contrast to Portia's passivity, Jessica's agency brings about the play's comic resolution and returns some sense of order to the characters' familial and economic relations. Jessica appears to be an anarchic 'danger', but in her story Venice's superstructures are elucidated and regenerated. 'Shylock represents an externalisation', Drakakis wrote in 1996, 'of a force that Venice finds necessary' for its everyday functioning, and demonizes in reaction to that despised need. Similarly, the Jew's renegade daughter inspires anxiety because Venice needs her and knows it.

  9. One stated emphasis of the New Critical Essays series is to examine the plays as performance events, including in contemporary incarnations. Mahon and Mahon fulfil this aim, though, captivated by the play's controversiality, John Mahon somewhat sensationalizes its twentieth-century negative reception. Oversimplifying the positions of those who have questioned The Merchant's alleged timelessness and freedom from ideological bias, he states that its 'alleged anti-semitism has inspired some to call for its permanent banning'. As his cited evidence for this statement is Rhoda S. Kachuck's wish to 'discourage its perennial production', his reaction seems extreme. There are leagues of difference between complete censorship of a work and frustration with its 'perennial' staging, to the neglect of other plays. The question should be not 'should The Merchant be staged at all?', but 'what questions or experiences does it address more engagingly than other plays do?'

  10. Near to the end of the volume, twentieth-century 'censorship' of The Merchant is revisited in Gayle Gaskill's 'Making The Merchant Palatable to U.S. Audiences'. According to Gaskill, 'didactic and sympathetic' portrayals of Shylock and Jessica, with comparatively chilly Portias, Lorenzos, and Bassanios dominate the current American stage. Unsubtle critiques of racism and exploitative capitalism, Gaskill argues, make the play 'palatable' at the expense of interpretive accuracy. Frustratingly, Gaskill does not examine why U.S. audiences in particular should be averse to The Merchant unadulterated assuming it is even possible to recover and stage an interpretation unaltered by immediate cultural contexts. She offers no evidence to support statements such as 'Kahn's work was perfectly palatable to a U.S. audience' and '[to] represent him [Shylock] as a foiled perpetrator of violence against non-Jews would be unpalatable to a U.S. audience'. Nowhere does Gaskill cite actual audience responses, outside of reviews and directors' commentaries. Nor does she demonstrate that 'U.S. audiences' parallel contemporary American racism against African Americans with sixteenth-century European Judeophobia. Given that African American writers and characters are generally under-represented in American theatre, and that in spite of 'colour-blind' Shakespeare casting, African American actors still often find themselves under a glass ceiling, it is unclear that theatre producers are in fact acutely sensitive to racism. In short, Gaskill represents 'U.S. audiences', broadly defined, as cranky consumers whose aesthetic appreciation of The Merchant is regrettably inhibited by the application of an inflexible morality to art. Her admission that several of the revisionist American stagings copy revisionist British stagings, which can be traced back to Irving in 1879, undermines the argument that such revisionism is a peculiarly post-Holocaust American phenomenon. Mahon's introduction suggests that The Merchant is a difficult play to sell and to watch no matter where or for whom it is presented.

  11. Is this because modern audiences are over-sensitive, or because Shakespeare's portrayal of Jews and other 'aliens' in this play embarrasses us more than in others? Perhaps The Merchant unnerves us in part because it has the potential to expose the present-day persistence of seemingly archaic cultural misunderstandings. In 2001, I saw a faculty-directed undergraduate production of The Merchant, which was presented to many school audiences as part of the Shakespeare in the Schools project. The director made a conspicuously painstaking effort to engage with the legacy of the Holocaust, yet ended up recycling some of the confusions about Jewishness and cultural exchange that fuelled it. The action was removed to the 1930s, and the Jewish characters were marked with yellow star patches. Shylock spoke with a bizarre, unplaceable affected pronunciation, curiously not shared by his daughter, which the student actor playing him later told me was 'a Jewish accent.' When I questioned him about the inspiration for this pronunciation, he said that he had never met anyone who is Jewish, but assumed that Jews talk this way.

  12. This actor and his director would have benefited from exposure to New Critical Essays. Upon reading Levith, Drakakis, and Desai, among others, they might have been provoked to reconsider the ideas about alterity, culture, history, and 'race' that influenced their muddled Merchant. If revival of this 'problem play' dredges up the irrational phobias of Shakespeare's age and our own, it may also help us to exorcize them, particularly when informed by the historicist approaches of Mahon and Mahon and many of their contributors.

List of Works Cited

Drakakis, John. 1996. 'Historical Difference and Venetian Patriarchy.' In The Merchant of Venice (Theory in Practice), edited by Nigel Wood. Buckingham: Open University Press, 23-56.

Gross, John. 1992. Shylock: Four Hundred Years in the Life of a Legend. London: Chatto.

McGinnis, P.J., and Williamson, A.H. 2002. 'Britain, Race, and the Iberian World Empire.' In The Stuart Kingdoms in the Seventeenth Century, edited by Allan I. Macinnes and Jane Ohlmeyer. Dublin: Four Courts, 62-93.


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