By Jason Rabin
What happens when commerce dominates the soul of a society? Shakespeare had some thoughts. It’s a central subject of his The Merchant of Venice, a comedy of the marketplace, obsessed with trade, bonds, high stakes gambling, precious metals, cold hard cash and what really has value.
That Merchant is Shakespeare weighing in questions around money-dirtying hands is often overshadowed by the fact that its chief moneylender is a villainous Jew. The fact is, a Jewish moneylender treated poorly by his Venetian Christian associates was in many ways a perfect lighting rod for showing the way the latter had compromised their own principles when money was involved.
Money-lending at interest, a cornerstone of our own economic system and a fixture of our daily credit card toting lives, is forbidden by most major world religions, but there has always been high demand. Venetian Christians in Shakespeare’s day were forbidden from the practice, but if they were intent on a loan, they could go to the city’s Jews, who were forced into gated ghettos and treated like aliens.
It was the equivalent of Bostonians driving to Connecticut Indian reservations to gamble at casinos. Both are enterprises rich in bizarre irony. The allure of fast money draws the dominant group to circumvent its own laws, only to put itself at the mercy of the oppressed and persecuted group, for whom the venture is the one chance at gaining back some power.
For Shakespeare’s audience, the class of foreign usurers were not Jews (who had been expelled from England a couple of centuries before Merchant was produced), but rather a much maligned group called the “Lombards”—Italians. It was Italians whom Londoners went to for their shady loans and therefore hated and scapegoated.
Venetian merchants therefore were probably not natural heroes. You can bet a pretty charged atmosphere greeted this story of Antonio the melancholy trader, Shylock the Jewish moneylender, Bassanio the venture capitalist and Portia the coveted heiress in danger of falling into any number of alien hands.
Any audience’s feelings about commerce are aroused not only in watching the conflict over the infamous bond, but also the game show for the girl and all the money, in which contestants reveal their philosophies by assigning the proper value to gold, silver or lead, and the comedy that unfolds around the getting, keeping, losing and trading of lovers’ rings.
Look for shades of Wall Street in the Darko Tresnjak staging, March 29-April 10 at the Cutler Majestic.