Capital's Punishment

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(292)

As a postscript to Moira Nolan's review of Al Pacino's Merchant of Venice (December SR), could I add that it would be a pity to overlook the fundamental clash that lies at the heart of the play?

This is not simply or only a matter of Christian versus Jew, but a clash between the new way of making money in the 16th century and the old. The 'merchant' of the title (Antonio) is in fact a mercantile capitalist. We gather this in the opening moments of the play when we hear that his 'argosies' (merchant ships), behaving 'like signiors and rich burghers', are out on the sea. Shylock the Jew meanwhile is a moneylender of the backstreet, medieval kind.

The outcome of the play is ambiguous (is Shylock justly or unjustly humiliated?) for a very good reason: Shakespeare was living at a time when the absolute victory of the merchant's capitalism over Shylock's methods was itself still in doubt. Shylock's cruelty is born of the desperation of a class fraction in crisis. The merchant's cruelty is born of a rising class and that's why it is able to impose its cultural values (conversion to Christianity) on Shylock. To argue about whether the play is anti-Semitic or not is one of many ways in which critics can avoid looking at the material nature of the conflict that Shakespeare puts before us.

Michael Rosen
London