The Merchant of Venice is part of Shakespeare’s “controversial canon” of plays for today’s theatre-goer. Directors persistently wrestle with audience concerns about the playwright’s bias against the drama’s notorious money lender who is robbed of his religion during the final act.
Because Shakespeare most likely styled his play after Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (1589), he conceived of Shylock as an allegorical figure from medieval drama—a stereotypical bad guy that Elizabethan audiences had grown to expect in the 1590s, when Merchant was first performed. A lesser playwright would have imagined Shylock as a one-dimensional villain. Shakespeare, though, created a well-rounded anti-hero who roundly exposes Christian hypocrisy, and challenges the ignorant prejudices about Jews that were displayed by his countrymen.
Even from an Elizabethan perspective, Shakespeare’s Shylock becomes much greater than a comic stereotype. Shakespeare humanizes him, and uses him to frame a discourse between the merits of following the letter of the law and tempering justice with mercy.
I recently reviewed a production of Merchant at the Texas Shakespeare Festival. It proved to be sensitive, nuanced, and extremely satisfactory.