Swans Commentary » swans.com March 10, 2014  



Islamic Extremism And The Merchant Of Venice


by Catherine Rosario





(Swans - March 10, 2014)   As Shylock leaves home to agree his fateful loan to the merchant Antonio, he hears that a bunch of revellers will be charging past his house that night, and warns his daughter Jessica not:

To gaze on Christian fools with varnished faces;
But stop my house's ears - I mean my casements.
Let not the sound of shallow foppery enter
My sober house.

But the curious thing is that Shylock's home should be well away from such wild partying, since in 1515, eighty years before Shakespeare wrote The Merchant Of Venice, the city state had ordered that all Jewish people had to be removed "e corpore civitas" ("from the body of the city") and made to live on an island that had formerly been an iron foundry (a geto), where they must return each day before nightfall.

While it seems doubtful that Shakespeare ever visited Venice, there were popular travellers' accounts available that described the exclusion of the Jews, such as Thomas Coryat's Crudities (1) where Coryat presents himself as a kind of English Borat of the sixteenth century, who has to make a run for it after getting into a row with a rabbi and is pursued by an enraged, 50-strong crowd. Perhaps Shakespeare never read such tales. Or perhaps he intended the play to be set in the past, pre-ghetto. Then again, maybe he knew but was not concerned about this inaccuracy in the siting of Shylock's house, because he was less interested in Venice as an actual place and more as a psychological space where he could explore with greater freedom concerns closer to home. Could this scene be as much about an English puritan looking down with condemnation at the very activities that Shakespeare and his friends relied on for a living, as it is a Jewish man condemning the revelries of Roman Catholic Venice?

There had been no Jewish people officially living in England (except those who had converted to Christianity) since Edward I ordered them to leave the realm in 1290, but there were plenty of puritans. The puritans believed that the Protestant Reformation had not gone far enough in ridding the Church of Popish influences and they had grown from a persecuted sect to having an increasing influence that would have its zenith in the establishment of a puritan state in Britain in 1649, under Oliver Cromwell, although the triumph was short-lived, with the monarchy restored to power in 1660. The puritans' distrust of theatre is understandable, bringing together as it did under one roof bawdiness, laughter, word-play, and deception. In short order, they banned theatrical performances and for good measure demolished Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.

The affinity between Judaism and English puritanism is exhaustively documented by John G. Dow in his 1890 essay "Hebrew And Puritan," (2) where he explores how they are both "animated by an intense spirituality" and both share a history of persecution. This connection was recognised by the puritans themselves. The puritan period may not have been a good time for theatre but, as Dow describes, it was an excellent time for the study and translation of Hebrew literature, and such was Oliver Cromwell's sympathy for the Jews that Manesseh ben Israel convinced him to end the prohibition on Jewish people living in England.

Now that a new form of puritanism is gaining ground in the West, that of Islamist extremism, maybe the time is ripe for an adaptation of The Merchant that foregrounds not so much Shylock's Jewishness but the battle in the play between licentiousness and ascetism. At the time that Shakespeare was writing, the English conception of Islam was actually largely of exotic lasciviousness, owing to the perceived sexual freedoms allowed under Muslim law, as Daniel Vitkus explores in "Turning Turk": English Theater And The Multicultural Mediterranean. (3) But how that has now changed, at least when it comes to Islamist extremism. The bugged conversation that Jawad Akber had with Omar Khyam, regarding plans to blow up a nightclub (which lead to his and Khyam's conviction for conspiring to cause explosions in Britain), surely comes from the same stable as Shylock's speech about the masques:

"A big nightclub in central London, no-one can put their hands up and say they're innocent -- those slags dancing around," said Akbar.
"If you got a job in a bar or club, say the Ministry of Sound, what are you planning to do there then?" asked Khyam.
"Blow the whole thing up," replied Akbar. (4)

An obvious difference, though, is that Shylock's solution was less radical: simply to close his shutters. But how appropriate that Akber and his associates should chose The Ministry of Sound, a place whose very name, in its mocking of Orwellian visions of authority, maintains that tradition of laughter and irony that sets itself up in opposition to the forces of puritanism.

Art, music, word games, laughter, dissembling: isn't a life stripped of these a life stripped of what distinguishes us from other animals? It seems the puritan vision of what makes an authentic human -- a being able to bring themselves closer to God -- also brings us perilously close to losing what makes us human, to making us like any other animal.

So can it be a coincidence that for sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English puritans (and their North American compatriots), this border between us and other beasts had to be unambiguously determined and severely policed? The extraordinary obsession with witchcraft that plagued both continents betrays a terror of this border being undermined: of witches under the cloak of darkness, deep in the woods, consorting with animals, shapeshifting, making evil potions from a heady brew of human and animal parts.

To use a solely human parallel appropriate to The Merchant, Jewish people had to be excluded from the population, had to wear identifying hats or badges (a practice that has gone on for over a millennium, and has also been used in early Islamic countries to identify Christians), not because they were too different but because they weren't different enough. In puritan England, as humans and animals mutely toiled together, they too were perhaps not different enough. It seems that "human" is a fragile category when not bolstered up by laughter and frippery.

The refusal to accept the reality of death, of our ending, pervades the whole of The Merchant: the ceaseless laughter, dressing up, and verbal jokes a constant assertion of what separates us from our animal and, therefore, our mortal, selves. Even the play itself seems to refuse its own ending, finishing with what could be a snatch of conversation, to be continued: Gratiano, a minor character of minor status, telling a bawdy joke where a ring is code for a vagina and where fidelity and infidelity are ingeniously expressed simultaneously, since the doctor's clerk is also Gratiano's wife in her earlier male disguise:

But were the day come, I should wish it dark
Till I were crouching with the doctor's clerk.
Well, while I live I'll fear no other thing
So sore as keeping safe Nerissa's ring.
(5.1. 322-325)

Amid this, Shylock appears like the spectre at the feast. Instead of being out of sight in his rightful, excluded place in the ghetto, he is there looking down at us -- the play's audience -- in contempt, an unbearable reminder that play, in all senses of the word, is an impossibly feeble defence against death. Is it this that has excited such a ferocity in the gentle character Antonio that he had been moved to kick and spit on Shylock? Is it this that drives the court to insist that Shylock's ultimate punishment should be that he must cease to be himself and convert, thereby erasing his unnerving presence? What draws our wild teenagers to give up the sex and drugs and convert to fundamentalist forms of Islam? Why do they want that submission? Is The Merchant a play we can use to try and work out what is going on? Because while the revellers appear to hate Shylock and all he represents, there seems simultaneously to be a longing for that puritan dream of silence and simplicity. Why else does Shakespeare introduce the riddle of the three caskets of gold, silver, and lead? Not only is the siting of Shylock's house a geographical inaccuracy, but Shakespeare has created a whole fairytale kingdom called Belmont just a short sea journey from gritty, real, capitalist Venice, where Bassanio is called upon to choose the right casket in order to win Portia as his bride. Why does a play that appears to be a celebration of sensuality and superficiality have at its centre a stern moral test? And one that the charming, feckless Bassanio -- who wants to marry partly so he can get his hands on Portia's wealth and so pay off the debts he has run up through decadence -- amazingly passes? Pondering in which casket Portia's father might have put Portia's portrait, Bassanio rightly dismisses both the flashy gold one and the silver one, made of a metal used for the sordid manufacture of money:

[...] thou gaudy gold,
Hard food for Midas, I will none of thee.
Nor none of thee, thou pale and common drudge
'Tween man and man [...]

Then he turns to the final, lead casket:

Thou meager lead
Which rather threaten'st than dost promise aught,
Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence,
And here choose I - joy be the consequence!

The riddle of the caskets is not just a remnant from Shakespeare's source material that he happened to leave in: the caskets don't even appear in the story that Shakespeare based his play on, The Merchant by Ser Giovanni Fiorentino, but were deliberately imported into it by him from a collection of fairytales called the Gesta Romanorum. Their effect is to seriously disrupt the play. The "meagre lead" casket acts as if it were the play's unconscious, bearing a message that the rest of the text fights to suppress. Why is it that even if we can neutralise the external presence of Shylock, we cannot entirely escape the deeply buried presence of our own puritanical yearnings?


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About the Author

Catherine Rosario is a playwright who is taking a practice-based PhD in theatre at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her area of research is adaptations of Shakespeare's two immigrant plays, both set in Venice -- Othello and The Merchant of Venice -- with a particular interest in proto-absurdist nineteenth-century burlesques of these texts.   (back)


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1.  A copy is available online. The incident happens on p. 375 [accessed 17 February 2014].  (back)

2.  Dow, John, G. (1890) "Hebrew And Puritan", The Jewish Quarterly Review, October 1890, pp. 52-84. The quote is from p. 53.  (back)

3.  Vitkus, Daniel (2003) "Turning Turk": English Theater And The Multicultural Mediterranean, 1570-1630, New York, Palgrave Macmillan.  (back)

4.  http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6149788.stm [accessed 18 February 2014].  (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published March 10, 2014