The Merchant of Venice

Shakespeare – the racist bits

“With memories of the horrors of the last ten years and forebodings about anti-Semitism, it is difficult to look objectively at a play in which the villain is a Jew.”

That’s Auden, in 1946, opening his lecture on The Merchant of Venice. This must be one of the earliest examples of anti-PC posturing, and much as I love Auden, it all goes downhill from there: he asserts that the play has “…no thought of racial discrimination.” Well, let’s see how Portia reacts when her Moorish suitor picks the wrong box:

Portia: A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go.
Let all of his complexion choose me so.

Objectively, the play is about as racist as can be; not because the villain is a Jew, but because he’s a villain because he’s a Jew, and the end of the trial scene is depicted as getting the come-uppance he jolly well deserves.

Also speaking objectively, apart from the two or three famous speeches, the play is not really that great, and Portia’s pick-a-box subplot is just silly.

[Edit – to students who are googling this page to find out what was in the three boxes: the first  contained cheese, the second just had some pencil shavings, and the third had a copy of The Merchant of Venice so that you could read the goddamn play and find out for yourself like you’re supposed to, you lazy idiot.]

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4 responses to “The Merchant of Venice

  1. I recently attended a feeble UWA graduate production of The Merchant of Venice. It was put on because it’s on the local high school syllabus, but the director and actors could find no excuse for the execrable anti-semitism of the play.

    They played Shylock as sympathetically as possible (making the other characters seem like maniacs and making a mockery of the expected emotional trajectory in the process) and then concluded with a bizarre and incongruous compensation in the form of a post-Holocaust dirge sung by Portia’s actor.

    ‘Twas hideous.

    Auden when he gave that lecture must have assumed that his own mind was clouded by the “PC” radiation emanating from Auschwitz, and that he should attempt a bit of activist disbelief. To claim it’s not racist is ludicrous.

  2. I think it’s an honest attempt on Auden’s part to justify the attention he gives to the play – he’s much quicker to write off The Taming of the Shrew as sexist, because he sees nothing of value in it.

    By contrast, the friendship between Bassanio and Antonio in TMOV is the sort of thing Auden really gets his critical teeth into. And he does have interesting things to say about it.

    But he overstates his defense badly. And that opening line is a sublime piece of condescending privilege in action.

  3. Oh, and that production you saw sounds absolutely excruciating…

  4. Yeah, it was a bad one. A bad production of what, as you point out, isn’t a terribly good play. The song at the end was like a unpology for the awfulness of the rest of it!

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