From Stereotype to Character:
Wesker’s The Merchant as an Antithesis to “The Jew” Stereotype
Mati Turyel (Ege University, Izmir, Turkey)
William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice was written in the absence of an active Jewish community in England. This absence and anti-Semitic ideology of the era concomitantly worked for the creation of the wickedest character of the stage that is well known with his name Shylock. To claim, however, Shylock as a character is a mistake for Shylock is a stereotype, and as the construction of stereotype requires Shylock is silenced; he does not have his own voice, the reader/audience does not know the reasons behind his actions, and they hear and see the reflections of the anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitic ideology in the play manipulates the actions of Shylock so far as to make Shylock ask for “one pound of [human] flesh” as the forfeiture of the bond he made with merchant Antonio. While the expression “one pound of flesh” was embedded into English language, it also cherished and strengthened the anti-Semitic idea in the English culture.
Anti-Semitic idea and the stereotypes in The Merchant of Venice was confronted by Arnold Wesker in his The Merchant. In this play, Wesker adds some new Jewish characters but uses the same plot and even the famous “one pound of flesh” with a slightly different finale. Thus the old plot becomes a palimpsest for the new one. In Wesker’s The Merchant Shylock now Shylock Kolner is built as a character again a usurper, who however, now cares for his cultural heritage and knowledge and his daughter more than his money. He is a charitable character who helps his people expelled from Spain. Wesker’s Shylock becomes the antithesis of his predecessor.
In The Merchant, Wesker intervenes the canonical text and this interruption causes Shylock’s transformation from a stereotype to a character which gives him his own voice and the reader/audience finds out the motives behind his actions. Through rewriting Wesker tries to negotiate with the strength of the canon and to give voice to the most fiendish stereotype of the stage. Moreover, Wesker who was born in a ghetto tries to reflect many difficulties of the ghetto life, monetary problems, anti-Semitism that Jews had to face and so on, issues that Shakespeare did not reflect ideologically.