Over the last few weeks, students in the senior-level Shakespeare course in the English Department attended Seattle Shakespeare Company’s production of The Merchant of Venice, one of Shakespeare’s darker comedies. Is the anti-semitism on view in the play a comment by Shakespeare on the unfair treatment of a minority tolerated in Venice’s ghetto (the first of these horrid enclosures) for their role facilitating the city’s storied mercantilism? Is the play a comment on Christian hypocrisy, shown in the majority-Christian characters’shameful behavior toward the other in their midst, while thinking they are performing justice? Does their failure to sustain healthy bonds even among themselves question every human being’s capacity for fidelity?
Shakespeare asks, but does not answer, these questions. Students came to realize one thing for certain, in reading and then viewing The Merchant of Venice: Mercy is necessary but not sufficient to human flourishing. The bonds we create with one another are fragile, subject to anger, whim, or feelings of misplaced love. Forgiveness is hard but indispensable.