Post Holocaust Interpretation

Post Holocaust Interpretation


The Holocaust permanently changed the perspective from which ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is read. It ended the debate as to whether Shylock is a victim or a villain. Shylock is a victim, and to say otherwise would be wrong, both morally and analytically. There is no other way to view this play other than in a contemporary context. Modern society views Jews through the lens of history and as a result are more aware of their suffering. This makes ‘The Merchant of Venice’ in its original conceptualization a very difficult play to relate to.

Arnold Whisker, who wrote the play ‘Shylock’ as an alternative to Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, shares this view. In his ‘Preface to the Merchant’, he compares the Holocaust to a “ball and chain”. Like a ball and chain, it is entirely restrictive and cannot be removed. The audience is tied to this event and is unable to stop it from influencing their understanding of the performance. If the Merchant of Venice were a contemporary play, rather than a Shakespearean play, then it could never be produced. It is only survives on stage because it is the product of the greatest playwright in history. To view Shylock in the way that many believed Shakespeare intended, as a beastly Jew, is unacceptable today.

Whisker’s main ‘problem’ with Shylock was that Shakespeare’s Jew does not exist today. This ‘revengeful, hateful, ignorant’ character is unlike any ‘Jew I knew’, said Whisker[1]. Whisker recognized the outdated (and now inappropriate) nature of Shakespeare’s play and decided to re-write it. In his play, Antonio and Shylock are close friends and are bound by their dislike of their community’s anti-Semitic laws. Rather than the bond being created as a tool for Shylock’s revenge, they make it in defiance of the oppressive Christian establishment, and when Portia finds a legal loophole around their situation Shylock is as happy as Antonio. Whisker’s re telling of the story was limited by the ‘ball and chain’ of the Holocaust, and the result was a contextually appropriate production that maintained the essence of Shakespeare’s original play. Despite Shakespeare’s genius his plays are not timeless and Whisker’s re-writing is evidence of this.

‘The Merchant of Venice’ is now an artifact that can provide historical evidence about the oppressive nature of 16th Century Christian society. It is no longer a play that can be enjoyed as an art form in the way that it was intended. Shylock was the creation of an anti-Semitic society that has been on the decline since the end of World War 2. His character simply does not exist today, as stated by Whisker, and is as much a work of fiction as the Joker from the Batman comics. However, unlike Batman, the creation of Shylock is offensive to an entire race of people. This offensiveness was only brought into sight after the Holocaust and Whisker’s ‘Shylock’ is an attempt to re-package a Shakespearean story in a form that could survive the culturally appropriate atmosphere of society today.

[1] Arthur Horowitz, “Shylock after Auschwitz”, 2007