“Certainly, the Jew is the Very Devil Incarnate”: Rethinking Antisemitism in the Merchant of Venice

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January 19, 2011

It has been argued perhaps for four hundred years whether The Merchant of Venice is an antisemitic play or an anti-antisemitic play. That argument misses the point. The point of the play, with regard to antisemitism, is to explore antisemitism. Shakespeare brings us to the theater to provide us with a psychological portrait, not of the Jew, but of the antisemite. The play reveals that antisemitism relieves bigots from guilt and shame while at the same time helping them achieve a selfish goal.

It’s true that Shakespeare uses “the longest hatred” to make the audience laugh, cry, feel anger and sympathy. He appeals to bigots who buy theater tickets to make fun of the Jew. He also appeals to the thoughtful who question antisemitism. Too often, directors have skewed the play in one direction or another in an attempt to fulfill a particular audience’s expectations (whether pro or con) rather than to focus on the problem of antisemitism itself. Thankfully, both the 2010-2011 production on Broadway of Merchant starring Al Pacino, and the forthcoming 2011 production in London starring Patrick Stewart, grasp the essence of the play.

It is an early monologue in the second act of The Merchant of Venice that reveals the deepest insight into the psychological and functional motivation of antisemitism. As in most Shakespeare plays, this profound speech is delivered by a clown, in this case, Launcelot Gobbo, Shylock’s servant. Too often left out of productions, the speech gives us the inner workings of the antisemite.

Launcelot tells us that he thinks he could do better working for a Christian. He also fears that if he continues working for a Jew, he will become a Jew. Yet, as a servant, his main duty is loyalty to his master. TThe result is that his internal argument about whether to continue working for Shylock does not take place between “devil” and “angel” (as Renaissance allegory would lead us to expect), but between “fiend” and “devil.” Launcelot’s “Fiend” is that part of himself that wants him to leave Shylock—a desire that his class conscience tells him is disloyal and wrong. This “fiend” should be opposed by the angelic voice in favor of his employer, but Launcelot is too much the antisemite for that. Instead, he decides that “the Jew is the very devil incarnate,” and thus his employer is much worse than Launcelot’s (his own) inner “fiend” ever was. He is thus free to follow his most selfish, “fiendish” desires, leave Shylock, and take a better job:

Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnate; and, in my conscience, my conscience is but a kind of hard conscience, to offer to counsel me to stay with the Jew. The fiend gives the more friendly counsel: I will run, fiend; my heels are at your command; I will run. (Merchant of Venice Act 2, Scene 2)

NY Daily News

With the Jew as a foil to conscience, any behavior that advances the self becomes justified, even when that behavior breaks the social code, as does Launcelot’s decision to leave his master. His conscience has become unplugged. (It might be noted that the clown is named after a much more famous code-breaker and conscience-evader). This dissolution of Launcelot’s conscience becomes a model and explanation for the gruesomely inhuman and entirely selfish persecutions put upon Shylock by the antisemites of his own class.

The Launcelot Gobbo monologue demonstrates that Shakespeare understood thoroughly a bald faced truth about antisemitism - antisemitism works! It is a practical psychological method to get what you want and do away with guilt at the same time. Freud would later describe this method - the isolation of personal qualities (desires, feelings, actions, motivations, etc.) that can not be consciously assimilated into to the self - as projection. The “bad” attributes we do not want (the “fiend”) are assigned to the other person or group. Thus the unwanted characteristics are distanced from the self and the relief of self judgment and shame associated with them is achieved.

Launcelot’s psychological magic trick of dissolving the conscience does give momentary relief to shame and guilt. But it turns the antisemite into something worse than his original fears of associating with the evil Jew. He in fact becomes the evil he projected.

The Merchant of Venice ends as a comedy full of laughs with a promise of “happily ever after” in the air. But anyone who has not traded their conscience for some relief of guilt still feels the painful reverberation of Shylock’s destruction in the penultimate act. In the fourth act, the Christian conceit of being merciful toward Shylock becomes a parody as these Christians torture the Jew. Shylock has money and his profession taken from him. His daughter abandons him and he is humiliated in a forced conversion to Christianity. He would rather have been sentenced to death. The last scene challenges the audience to forget the antisemitic destruction of Shylock and laugh along with the perpetrators. Like Launcelot, we are asked to cast aside our conscience for the sake of the selfish gain of a laugh.

Good productions of The Merchant of Venice provide not only an evening of theater but a chance to examine the psychological and practical reasons for the virulent hatred of Jews. Those productions that include Launcelot Gobbo’s comedy bit, the often missing monologue, provide an incisive dissection of the dynamics of hate.

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