If you prick us – Shakespeare’s cure for xenophobia

Stephen Greenblatt is an English professor at Harvard and he enlightens us with his personal experience as a freshman at Yale in 1961 (then all male) and his analysis of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” which ghetto the author’s never understood or interested in…


When a professor asked him to be his research assistant, the interview with the financial-aid office was surreal:

“Greenblatt is a Jewish name, isn’t it?” the financial-aid officer said. I agreed that it was. “Frankly,” he went on, “we are sick and tired of the number of Jews who come into this office after they’re admitted and try to wheedle money out of Yale University.” I stammered, “How can you make such a generalization?” […]I slunk away without a job.

For my parents, the world was rigidly divided between “us” and “them,” and they lived their lives, it seemed to me, as if they were forever hemmed into an ethnic ghetto.

I wasn’t going to allow myself to be crushed by the bigoted financial-aid officer, but I wasn’t going to adopt my parents’ defensive posture, either.

We learn that the Venetian ghetto takes its name from the site of a former copper foundry ‘geto’ in Venetian. It proved to be a remarkably durable arrangement and abolished, under Napoleon, only with the fall of the Serenissima in 1797.

To audiences in England—a country that had expelled its entire Jewish population in the year 1290 and had allowed no Jews to return—those everyday interactions were the true novelty. […] For an Elizabethan, Venice signified an astonishing, even bizarre cosmopolitanism. Hence Shakespeare could not imagine Shylock’s house set apart in a locked ghetto; he emphasized, instead, that it was on a “public street.”

And that

Venice, as a commercial entrepôt with wide-ranging trading partners, depended upon “the liberty of strangers.” In order to protect property rights and preserve confidence, its legal system had to treat contracts as equally binding upon Christians and others, citizens and aliens. The Jew, as we see in the dispute over the lapsed bond, has to be formally regarded as someone who possesses full legal standing in the eyes of the court.

Shakespeare, at the level of the plot, pursued the idea of equality before the law.

The legal principle upon which Shylock insists has nothing to do with tolerance or human rights. It is strictly a defense of property ownership. The narrowness is important. Outside this carefully demarcated sphere, there is no underlying trust, no assumption of shared values, and no presumed equality.

Greenblatt tells us the

uncomfortable experience I had when I was seventeen—the troubled identification with the play’s villain, even in the midst of my pleasurable absorption in its comic plot


What Shakespeare bequeathed to us offers the possibility of an escape from the mental ghettos most of us inhabit.

And concludes with

Such language isn’t a substitute for a coherent, secure, and humane international refugee policy; for that, we need constitutional lawyers and adroit diplomats and wise, decent leaders. Yet these words do what they can to keep before our eyes the sight of “the wretched strangers, / Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage, / Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation.” For a long moment in dramatic time, the distance between natives and strangers collapses; walls wobble and fall; a ghetto is razed.