I discovered this piece about Jewish identity and The Merchant of Venice in the Huffington Post several days ago, but refrained from writing about it until I had digested it fully. It’s a piece about someone who saw The Merchant of Venice on Broadway, only to be disgusted, as he always is, at the portrayal of its Jew. But this article touches me particularly, because its author talks about trying to find his Jewish identity while being a non-believer. And I’m an atheist Jew.

The question is, what does it then mean to be “Jewish”? There have been circles where I avoided calling myself “Jewish” — rather asking that I be called an atheist who was raised Jewish — because there is so much popular confusion between Judaism as an ethnicity and Judaism as a religion. For example, people often like to list religious scientists, and cite Albert Einstein as a Jew. Yet there’s no real indication that Einstein was a Jew in any religious sense.

But, back to Shakespeare. My difficulties with Jewish identity have never driven me to a particular revulsion to Shylock, or to the play in which he appears. Perhaps this is due to the fact that, unlike Mr. Sims, I’ve never had to deal with any severe anti-Semitism. Some comments here and there, but the article’s author apparently bunked in the Air Force with a Mississippian who had thought Jews had horns. (Yes, this is a real belief in some places.) And while Mr. Sims claims to have made some progress with this man, the bunkmate continued to make anti-Semitic remarks.

If I had had to deal with anti-Semitism of this magnitude, I can imagine I’d be more sensitive to The Merchant of Venice. But I’m not. I find that Shylock is too complex a character to be relgated to simple Jewish stereotype. Of course, let’s not be so naive as to pretend that Shylock isn’t a stereotype at all. The stereotyipical view of Jews in Elizabethan England was not just that they were money-hungry, but that they were so because they were incapable of understanding connections like love, compassion, family, etc. They only understood material things, not human emotions. And we can see this when Salarino and Solanio report about his rant when Jessica leaves him:

I never heard a passion so confused,
So strange, outrageous, and so variable,
As the dog Jew did utter in the streets:
‘My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!
Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!
Justice! the law! my ducats, and my daughter!
A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats,
Of double ducats, stolen from me by my daughter!
And jewels, two stones, two rich and precious stones,
Stolen by my daughter! Justice! find the girl;
She hath the stones upon her, and the ducats’ (II.viii.12-22).

Shylock is no more upset about losing his daughter than losing his money. (Though let’s keep in mind that we don’t hear this from Shylock’s mouth; Solanio, himself an anti-Semite, relates the story.) But in one of the more overlooked moments of the play, Shylock violates the stereotype. Tubal tells him that Jessica gave away a ring of his for a monkey. His reaction:

Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal: it was my turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor: I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys (III.i.111-14).

Who now can say that Shylock can’t see past the material into the human? He wouldn’t exchange an item for more than its face value, because it reminds him of a person he loved. And while this scene, in which he meets Tubal, is full of stereotypical Jewish money-love, we see the complexity of the character.

People often ask the question, “Was Shakespeare an anti-Semite?” when they read or see The Merchant of Venice. My answer to this is, “Shakespeare was a white middle-class man, living in Europe in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. I don’t need a play to know how he felt about Jews.” But even on Shakespeare’s worst day, he didn’t create two-dimensional characters. Othello is a Moor, and Shakespeare more than likely had some negative views of the Moors, given the general view of the society in which he lived. But is Othello a simple stereotype? Or is he a partial stereotype? Surely he’s anything but simple.

So how do I, a Jew, absorb The Merchant of Venice? I look at it for what it is. It’s a play that, at least in some ways, promotes anti-Semitism, and in other ways discourages it. It’s a work from an era when anti-Semitism was the norm. But it’s also brilliant, complex and deep. I see the anti-Semitism in it, and while I hardly approve of that attitude, I can set it aside, knowing it’s a product of its time, and enjoy the play and all its marvelous poetry. Maybe that means I can compartmentalize better than some other Jews. Maybe that’s a good thing, and maybe it’s not. But I can’t imagine a world where I’m incapable of enjoying The Merchant of Venice.