The Disputed Point

San Vigilio en Pinzolo
Church of Saint Vigilius, in Pinzolo, on the Sentiero di San Vili, a 100-km pilgrimage hike

Since I will descend via train to the Adriatic seaport of Venice tomorrow, dear, patient reader, I offer you this (perhaps off-base) reflection…

Antonio signed the bond for one pound of his own flesh. If he defaulted on the two thousand ducats he borrowed from Shylock, after two months.

As The Merchant of Venice mounts to its climax, no one disputes that Antonio signed the bond. Venice’s reputation as the capital of commerce hangs in the balance. If the doge will not enforce a legitimate contract, then justice does not, in fact, rule Venice. And all the trade of the enterprising merchants of the world ought to go elsewhere. To some place where the government enforces legitimate commercial agreements.

Shakespeare ties the knot exquisitely tight. The whole city begs for Shylock to act with mercy, and accept late repayment, three-fold, in lieu of his bond. Portia, disguised as a Paduan lawyer, gives her famous speech:

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven,
Upon the place beneath.
It is twice blessed.
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
It is mightiest in the mightiest,
It becomes the throned monarch better than his crown.
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
An attribute to awe and majesty.
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.
But mercy is above this sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself.
And earthly power dost then show likest God’s,
Where mercy seasons justice.

But the canticle does not move Shylock. Give me justice, Venice! he demands. Give me my bond! Apparent existential checkmate. Justice demands a pound of Antonio’s flesh.

venice cargo ship
Venetian cargo ship

These days no one can perform, or even mention, Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice–without tripping over him- or herself, on the subject of anti-Semitism.

On the one hand, Shakespeare portrays Shylock in a thoroughly unflattering manner. Other characters repeatedly refer to him as “the Jew” and address him as “Jew.” At the end of the drama, he comes to utter grief. Only accepting baptism saves him from execution.

On the other hand, your heart breaks for Shylock. Everyone treats him unsympathetically, even inhumanely–including his own daughter. When she elopes with a Christian and leaves her father alone, a desperately solitary widow, Shylock¬†weeps not just for his lost jewels (which she thoughtlessly steals from him), but for her lost love, and the lost love of his dead wife.

When Shylock gives his famous speech, we sympathize with him:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands,
organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same
food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases,
heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter
and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If
you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?
And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the
rest, we will resemble you in that.

Once again, apparent checkmate. You cannot hate this Shakespearian ‘villain.’ If the play has a hero, it’s Shylock. When Shylock insists on having his bond, Shakespeare checkmates not only Venetian commercial justice, and not only medieval anti-Semitism. He checkmates human nature herself. She is unjust; she must lay down her king. There’s no solution, except…

Without entering into the interior, religious realm, the Merchant of Venice is just a shell. To answer the question, Is the play anti-Semitic? you have to engage the entire dispute between the Pharisees and the Christ (and His apostle, Paul)–all Jews.

Cima Tosa
Cima Tosa, highest peak of the Trentino Alto Adige region, as seen from the Via San Vili

What does mankind deserve from God? Without facing this question, the Merchant of Venice¬†remains an unsolvable puzzle, neither anti-Semitic nor philo-Semitic. Shakespeare takes us, in his play, to the places where St. Paul went, in his New-Testament letters. That’s where you have to go, to really get the play: you have to meditate on the mystery of the Redemption.

Same with the Council of Trent. It makes no sense, without a willingness to engage the fundamental religious reality. Where do we stand, in our relationship with God? How can we live in a state of genuine peace and friendship with Him?

One line of criticism of the Council holds that the fathers said too much, that they hardened the divisions between Protestants and the Catholic Church. Another holds that they conceded too much to Luther and betrayed Renaissance humanism.

But the alternative would have meant: failing to engage the reality that not only makes The Merchant of Venice a compelling play, but that also makes Christianity a coherent vision of reality. The Council preserved that coherent vision for subsequent generations.

Made in God’s image, we fell. Christ redeemed us and made us just. We receive that grace in His apostolic Church.

Trent Duomo nave rose window
west rose window of the Trent Duomo