John Nathan’s interesting article raises the old question whether The Merchant of Venice is too offensive to stage.
I’m pleased that he comes down on the side of continuing to perform it, in spite of the discomfort it might cause to some members of the audience.
Is this just because the play is by Shakespeare, and therefore inviolate? I don’t think so. Shakespeare never gives audiences or performers any easy answers, and the play contains more than its fair share of scenes questionning how people should behave. Shylock’s extremism is balanced by the humour of another Jew, Tubal. Just about all the Christians behave badly, Gratiano in particular displaying an appalling yobbishness. Even Portia has a racist moment.
In another play which raises uncomfortable issues, All’s Well That Ends Well, an unnamed Lord puts it like this:
The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together: our virtues would be proud, if our faults whipt them not, and our crimes would despair, if they were not cherish’d by our virtues.
Audiences leaving any good production of The Merchant of Venice should go home with questions about who’s right and who’s wrong. In our post-holocaust world it’s become difficult to raise the subject of anti-semitism, but Shakespeare allows, even encourages, us to talk about it. And that has to be a good thing.