“For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.”
Shylock, The Merchant of Venice, Act 1 Scene 3.
The lives of William Shakespeare and Sir Oswald Mosley are separated by more than three centuries, but they exist simultaneously in those corners of the Jewish mind where time, fact, and fiction are entirely relative. The Jews, it must be admitted, are a talented people. The strangest of these talents is the capacity to engrave into shared cultural memory a pantheon of grievances against individuals and events, many of which never existed. These shared fictions encourage ethnocentrism, tribal affiliation, and aggression towards perceived enemies. Take the Exodus story, for example. There is absolutely no evidence for any such event taking place in Egyptian history, and yet as the historian Paul Johnson remarked, Exodus, a kind of proto-victimhood narrative, “became an overwhelming memory” and “gradually replaced the creation itself as the central, determining event in Jewish history.” Now, just in time for Purim, a festival celebrating victimhood under, and victory over, Haman, yet another imaginary enemy, a new production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice will be set in 1930s London. What has been revealed about the play thus far suggests that it will be staged in such a fashion as to represent a revenge on both Shakespeare and Sir Oswald Mosley, Englishmen who stand side by side in the burgeoning pantheon of Jewish hatred.
The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) isn’t what it used to be. This year it plans to stage a play “exposing the blithe injustice of empire,” while another, Cowbois, promises a “rollicking queer cowboy show” and “a western like you’ve never seen it before”. It’s about a bandit whose arrival in a sleepy frontier town “inspires a gender revolution and starts a fire under the petticoat of every one of its repressed inhabitants.”
As well as producing such stunning and brave works as this, the RSC has helped produce The Merchant of Venice 1936. In this iteration of Shakespeare’s classic, the Jewish actress Tracy-Ann Oberman plays Shylock, “a widowed survivor of antisemitic pogroms in Russia,” who runs a pawnbroking business in London’s Cable Street, where Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists plans to march. Antonio, the merchant, and Portia, are British aristocratic followers of Mosley. The official advertisement for the play explains:
It is London in 1936 — fascism is sweeping across Europe, and Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists is threatening to march through the Jewish East End. Shylock (Tracy-Ann Oberman) is a survivor of anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia. A widow, she runs a small business from her dark and cramped terraced house in Cable Street, hoping to give daughter Jessica a better future. When aristocratic anti-semite Antonio desperately needs a loan, he makes a dangerous bargain with this woman he has spat on in the street. Will Shylock, bitter from a life plagued by racism and abuse, take her revenge? A vivid evocation of our history, and a warning for our times.
Note: This is an adaptation of the original text, which contains themes of racism, including anti-Semitism.
Framed in this way, the play acts as a salvo against two of the primary Jewish obsessions in the British context — the presence of perceived anti-Semitism in the English literary canon, and the largely mythical Jewish understanding of an event in English history known as the Battle of Cable Street.
The Merchant of Venice
It’s now ten years since I explored Anthony Julius’s Trials of the Diaspora, a huge and deeply compromised text exploring the history of a putative English anti-Semitism. For Julius, a literary scholar, English literature poses a special challenge for Jews, and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice occupies a particularly heinous role in the origins of English anti-Semitism. For Julius, and many other Jewish literary scholars, representations of Jews in English literature are unique because they represent part of a “persecutory discourse” which “puts Jews on trial” and fosters a “predisposition to think ill of Jews.” Julius complained that English “literary anti-Semitism has its own mode of existence. It has its own internal history…its own inner laws, its own distinct properties.” Julius blamed English works of literature, in particular Chaucer’s The Prioress’s Tale, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, and Dickens’ Oliver Twist, for the very fact that “literary anti-Semitism came into existence.”
Julius’s analysis of Shakespeare’s play is worth briefly considering again, in light of the new ‘1936’ production, because it encapsulates the way in which Jews ignore certain aspects of the play in order to maintain that it’s inherently prejudiced and anti-Semitic. Having done so, Jews are then forced to ‘deal’ with the play, normally through unconventional methods of staging it or by clever additions which cultivate more sympathy for Shylock (the 2004 movie starring Al Pacino is a good example).
Julius states that the play has been used through the centuries “to promote ignoble elation at the spectacle of a Jew’s humiliation.” The play is said to “show a bad Jew; it encourages us to think badly of him; it encourages us to regard him as broadly representative of all Jews, it encourages us therefore to think badly of all Jews; further, it encourages us to think badly of Judaism.” Julius doesn’t elaborate upon or justify this logically tendentious syllogism. Instead, in a section intended to enlighten us on the English reception of the play, he quotes a German, August Wilhelm von Schlegel, as saying that he could detect “a light touch of Judaism” in everything Shylock says and does. Hardly damning.
The problem with this citation isn’t limited to the referencing of a German who never set foot in England. In fact, that is the least of the problems. More serious is the fact Julius deliberately misleads his readers by selecting and cropping quotes. The quote in question is derived and cited as being from Jonathan Bate’s The Romantics on Shakespeare. I own the book, and the reference to “a light touch of Judaism” is only the latter part of a full sentence, the former being at odds with Julius’ thesis that the character is meant to be broadly representative of all Jews. It reads: “Shylock, however, is everything but a common Jew: he possesses a strongly-marked and original individuality.”
The slippery Mr Julius doesn’t quote the English Romantics whose comments on The Merchant of Venice are freely available in the same chapter because his thesis stands condemned by their analysis. William Hazlitt pronounced that Shakespeare’s “Jew is more than half Christian. Certainly our sympathies are much oftener with him than with his enemies.” Heinrich Heine, who watched a performance in London, had this to say: “When I saw the play acted at Drury Lane, a beautiful pale Englishwoman standing beside me burst into tears at the end of the fourth act, crying out several times, ‘the poor man is wronged.’ She had a classical face and large dark eyes which I could not forget, for they had wept for Shylock.”
Shakespeare’s play is in fact a complex work with much to say about morality and revenge. To reduce it to the level of simply being about, or against, Jews, is to ignore much of its worthwhile content. And yet Jews, for a number of reasons, have approached it purely as a kind of ur-text of anti-Semitism.
Jews only really discovered Shakespeare, in any significant way, in the 1890s, following the large-scale westward migration from Russia and other areas of eastern Europe. The first Yiddish translation of the play appears in 1894, in New York. From the beginning, Shylock was staged by Jews as a kind of Jewish hero, and the first Yiddish translation isn’t titled The Merchant of Venice, but rather, in Yiddish, Shylock the Moneylender.
After deeper study, the second, English-speaking, generation of Jews in the West began to realize the subtle implications of the play. They worried about its capacity for shaping ‘ways of seeing,’ and the cultural knowledge it imparted about Jews (involvement in finance, tribal affiliation, and concepts of tribal revenge). There’s an argument to be made that the play was the first subject of a ‘cancel culture.’ The first major censorship efforts began in the 1920s in the United States, then spread to the UK. This persisted through the 1980s, when the ADL started to peak in its power, with a rash of activity to ban it in schools across the United States. It was banned in schools in Midland, Michigan in 1980. In Canada it was banned in several schools in Ontario in 1986. And in 1988 it was banned in several school districts in New York. The play continues to be subject to strategic omission. For example, Michael Morpurgo, one of the most successful children’s authors of Britain, recently released a collection of Shakespeare’s plays rewritten for a nine- or ten-year old audience. The only play that was left out was The Merchant of Venice. Morpurgo, who claims a Jewish step-father, explained his reasons as being that the play was anti-Semitic.
What is the Play Really About?
The Merchant of Venice actually falls within the category of comedy. It does have tragic elements, but it’s predominantly a comedy. It’s an example of what’s called “New Comedy.” In ancient Greek times they had a form of play known as “Old Comedy,” for example the plays by Aristophanes, and these were satirical and heavily political. Aristophanes is understood to have been succeeded by a playwright called Menander. Menander initiates “New Comedy,” which orbits a fixed set of tropes. One of these tropes is the idea of young lovers outwitting their parents, and seeking “a happily ever after.” New comedy is something that Shakespeare was particularly attracted to. We see it most clearly in Romeo and Juliet, but we see it also in The Merchant of Venice. Although there is the antagonism between Antonio and Shylock, the primary narrative aside from this is a love story. It’s a love story between Bassanio who is Antonio’s friend, and Portia, a wealthy heiress, or princess, that Bassanio is desperate to be able to become a suitor for. In order to be a suitor, he requires funds from Antonio, his best friend.
Antonio is a wealthy and successful merchant, but all of his ships are out at sea. And when they’re out at sea they’re vulnerable. As Shylock himself ponders in the play, they’re vulnerable to storms that may destroy the vessels, and to rats that may devour their cargo. Of course, the play opens with Antonio himself sitting in church brooding over his wealth and its vulnerability, and although The Merchant of Venice has been viewed and decried by Jews as a riff on ‘Jewish greed,’ the play is a much broader meditation on avarice.
Since ‘New Comedy’ plays always have a ‘bad guy’ and in this case that person is a Jewish moneylender, this creative choice alone seems sufficient to trigger centuries of Jewish antagonism towards Shakespeare’s work. Primarily, the problem with Shylock is that he’s a Jew portrayed in a massively popular example of literary genius, as a villain and a moneylender. Moneylending is a huge part of the socio-economic history of the Jews that Jewish intellectuals have invested a lot of energy into rewriting. Furthermore, the play is understood by Jews to offer echoes of the so-called Blood Libel. The locus here is Shylock’s demand that the loan offered to Antonio will be secured with a pound of Antonio’s own flesh. And yet the apparently bloodthirsty pledge is not what it first appears. When Antonio asks for the loan, Shylock replies,
“O father Abram, what these Christians are.
Whose own hard dealings teaches them suspect the thoughts of others!
Pray you tell me this; If he should break his day what should I gain by the exaction of the forfeiture.
A pound of man’s flesh taken from a man is not so estimable, profitable neither.
As flesh of muttons, beefs, or goats. I say to buy his favour I extend this friendship.
If he will not take it so; if not, adieu;
And for my love, I pray you wrong me not.”
Even within the creative confines of the play it’s a purposefully unrealistic request, at least at first. Shylock only becomes obsessive about getting the pound of flesh once he realizes that Antonio has definitely defaulted. At that point he’s become so embittered that his daughter, Jessica, seems to have eloped with a Christian boy that he falls into a blood frenzy. At first, however, it seems that Shylock sets the bar so high because it’s a kind of hyperbolic peace offering. Even Antonio seems to perceive it that way, because he replies, “Hie thee gentle jew.” And once Shylock leaves, he says: “The Hebrew will turn Christian: He grows kind.” Antonio clearly interprets the demand for a pound of flesh not as a Jewish lust for blood, but as an olive branch in the conflict between the two. Later, of course, this is utterly destroyed, because after an important sequence of events Shylock reveals himself to be bloodthirsty. He reveals himself to be greedy for revenge, more so than for money. And this issue of revenge comes to the fore in the most famous speech in the play. Setting it up, Antonio confronts Shylock and asks him why he wants the pound of flesh. Shylock replies:
If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge.
He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what’s his reason?
I am a Jew.
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, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled 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, shall we not revenge?
If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.
If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge.
If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example?
The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
What Shylock is essentially saying here is: “There’s an antagonism that’s mutual between Jews and Christians, and for every time a Christian comes against me, I, the Jew, will pay him back even harder.”
In my view, this monologue encapsulates much of the dynamic of the Jewish-European interaction for the last 1,000 years, because it’s a pendulum. There’s Jewish action, followed by a European reaction, and so on. There is a constant to and fro between the two populations, even if it is rarely acknowledged, or permitted to be acknowledged, today.
Shakespeare is of course also saying here that Jews are human, and that their humanity does not detract from the fact that they can be at fault for their wrongs. This contrasts with Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, where Barabas the villain is a kind of two-dimensional, cartoonish, evil Jew. What Shakespeare is doing here, possibly as a direct response to Marlowe’s work, is saying that a caricature like that does not really have much moral agency or responsibility. You can impart more moral responsibility and agency to someone when you acknowledge their humanity. In other words, we understand that they have the same faculties as us, and yet have chosen, as an act of their own corrupt will, to undertake negative actions.
The fuel for this pendulum-like dynamic is a sense of tribal hurt and a consequent hunger for vengeance. Shylock uses the terms “my tribe” or “my nation” on several occasions to discuss the offense that he feels that Antonio has caused. Shylock’s tribe has been offended, and, nominated by fate as their representative, he will have his revenge on one of the city’s most prominent Christians on their behalf. He wants it to be painful, and he wants to literally take a piece of the man who slighted his people.
In Jewish understandings and stagings of the play, this pendulum dynamic is entirely lost. Shylock exists only as the passive victim of Christian aggression, forced into bitterness by relentless, unprovoked, and unfair persecution. Consider again the description of the upcoming staging of The Merchant of Venice 1936. Shylock is “a survivor of anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia. A widow, she runs a small business from her dark and cramped terraced house in Cable Street, hoping to give daughter Jessica a better future. When aristocratic anti-Semite Antonio desperately needs a loan, he makes a dangerous bargain with this woman he has spat on in the street. Will Shylock, bitter from a life plagued by racism and abuse, take her revenge?” [emphasis added]
This is the reverse of Marlowe’s Barabas. Whereas Barabas is cartoonishly evil, we now have cartoonish innocence: a survivor of unprovoked pogroms; a widow; the operator of a small business; living in humble surroundings; who just wants to provide for her child; and who has led a life “plagued” by “racism and abuse.” The three-dimensional character created by Shakespeare in completely lost, replaced by pure propaganda.
The Battle of Cable Street
Matching this new, false, Shylock is the equally neurotic staging of the play in the context of the so-called “Battle of Cable Street.” The Battle of Cable Street was a series of clashes that took place at several locations in the inner East End of London on October 4th, 1936. It was a clash between the Metropolitan Police, sent to protect a march by members of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) led by Oswald Mosley, and a motley group of anti-fascist demonstrators, including local trade unionists, communists, anarchists, Jews, and socialists. Mosley’s march had been publicly advertised, prompting the Jewish People’s Council to organize a petition objecting to it. The petition was then forwarded to the Home Secretary, John Simon, who declined to ban the march. In the build-up to October 4th, there was a blanket of propaganda depicting the BUF as violent terrorists. The anti-Fascist demonstration was sufficiently large, and the ensuing chaos so great, that the march was abandoned. The event has since gone down in anti-fascist and Jewish memory as a great triumph over a dangerous enemy. It’s use as the context for the latest staging of The Merchant of Venice is therefore full of political and cultural meaning.
In recent years, however, scholarship has revised the idea of the BUF as violent thugs who preyed on innocent minorities. If anything, the BUF has emerged as having been consistently victimized by Jewish-Communist violence and public relations tactics. Nigel Copsey, the foremost British expert on British anti-fascism, points out that “violence was instigated more frequently by anti-fascists than fascists.” Jews and Communists used the BUF’s reactive violence as a method of “denying the BUF political and social respectability.” In other words, simply by attacking BUF members and their demonstrations, anti-fascists were attaching violence to the BUF in the public mind, even if none of it was caused or initiated by the BUF themselves. This process was furthered by “deliberately overstating the extent of BUF violence.” Copsey explains:
Stephen Cullen has argued that one such occasion was the response to Mosley’s meeting at Oxford Town Hall in November 1933. At a protest meeting called by prominent Oxford dons to expose the violence used by the Blackshirts at Oxford Town Hall, anti-fascists alleged that fascist stewards thrust fingers up noses wearing gloves with metal rings and knuckledusters. There were also, as David Shermer notes, stories ‘told of needles being driven into the testicles of hecklers and of castor oil being forced down recalcitrant throats.’ As Cullen points out however, a local police report in the Home Office files makes no mention of any fascist stewards wearing knuckledusters, and where this report remained private, the anti-fascist version of events was heard publicly in a crowded meeting and was reported in the press.
The Battle of Cable Street, of course, wasn’t a battle between anti-fascists and fascists, but between anti-fascists and the police. The riot resulted in 73 injured police officers, and 80 arrested anti-fascists. Nor was it a triumph over the BUF, who very quickly returned to the area within days and held a number of successful mass gatherings. As one article in Haaretz concedes, “The Battle of Cable Street was not the great victory over British fascism as left mythologizers portrayed it. Membership of the BUF in London nearly doubled afterwards and a week later 200 black-shirts attacked Jews and burnt shops not far from Cable Street in what became known as the ‘Mile End Pogrom.’”
It’s difficult to see The Merchant of Venice 1936 as anything other than a crude expression of Jewish neuroticism and propaganda directed against those who, as Shylock exclaims, have “scorned my nation.” Shakespeare’s crime was to paint a portrait of a Jewish character using negative colors, sufficient in itself, in Jewish eyes, to place the text on a par with Mein Kampf or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. What we’re seeing is a kind of revenge upon the play. And since the play is fundamentally about unhinged tribal vengeance, I think if Shakespeare could see this production, he’d smirk at the propensity for life to imitate art.
 P. Johnson, A History of the Jews (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987), p.26.
 N. Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain (London: Routledge, 2017), 15.