The Merchant of Venice

So, remember when Two Gentlemen of Verona had a fairly nonchalant stance on rape?  Well, Merchant of Venice has a similar problem with anti-Semetism.  However, Merchant has two incredibly fascinating and therefore redeeming characters: Shylock, the Jewish villain of the play, and Portia, one of Shakespeare’s best female characters ever.  Yeah, she’s racist, which is weird on top of everything else.  But the entire cast of characters is pretty flawed and bigoted in some way, which creates a pretty realistic portrayal of society.  Also, all of these forms of bigotry were socially acceptable at the time the play was written, and yet Shylock is the most profoundly human character in the cast.  The same way you start to sympathize with the monster if all of the teen lovers are vapid enough, the audience is likely to enjoy Shylock’s quest for vengeance.

Vengeance plots are fun.

And there is no shortage of vapid teen lovers in this play.  Portia is the least vapid and the most interesting, so I’ll come back to her later.  Her lover, Bassanio, is parasite and a horrible merchant.  He lives off of his older friend Antonio, and will likely live off of his new wife’s wealth ever after the play.  There are a slew of other young merchants and loudmouths who all blend together, but Lorenzo is worth mentioning simply because his lover is Jessica, Shylock’s daughter.  They run away with a good chunk of Shylock’s money and fuel his desire for revenge even more.  In a way, there are no redeeming characters in this play.  They are all bigots and fools, and the monstrous Shylock is the most sympathetic human being by the end of it.  He has one of the most amazing monologues in all of Shakespeare’s canon, declaring “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, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is?” while Solanio and Salarinotalk casually on their way to a Klan meeting or something.

This sort of behavior was socially acceptable just this last century. In case you didn’t know that Shakespeare was so far ahead of his time.

I could go on for hours, researching the roots of anti-Semitism and Europe, analyzing how Shylock would have been perceived in a pre-Holocaust Europe versus now, and even investigating the author’s intent with writing such a character.  But that would distract from what I’m trying to do here, which is presenting an argument of why and how this play should be performed today.  The point is: it is a great play, let’s figure out how to get around the fact that Portia hates black people so we can get an otherwise intelligent female character onstage opposite a beautifully written villain for once.

Along with one of the coolest plot devices ever.

Because Bassanio is a freeloader, Antonio takes out a loan on his behalf from Shylock.  Shylock jokingly names his terms: “in a merry sport, If you repay me not on such a day, In such a place, such sum or sums as are Exprest in the condition, let the forfeit Be nominated for an equal pound Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken In what part of your body pleaseth me.”.  However, Jessica runs away with that money, including her father’s engagement ring.  She sells it for a monkey (because she’s one of the vapid teens in this plot) and it breaks Shylock’s heart: “I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor: I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.” Yes, Shylock hates Antonio for many reasons, including an occasion when Antonio “did void your rheum upon my beard and foot me as you surn a stranger cur Over your threshold”, but Antonio has good credit and there is no way that Shylock could plan that the merchant (of Venice) would default on his loan.  The malice turns on the bargain because he suspects that all of the Christian merchants were complicit in stealing his daughter (which they really were).  Nobody mentions this in the script, because they are bigoted assholes.  They just hate the Jew, and the Jew hates them in return.

Historically speaking, it was not a good time to be a non-practicing Christian.

My instinct with most Shakespeare is to contemporize it, and that’s what I would do here as well.  I would give all of the merchants suits, and some of the scenes I really would give them Klan robes to wear.  Honestly, it’s a beautiful situation: they can be as likeable as possible, but those random racist lines are going to be weird.  So I would really just embrace them and let the audience know that these otherwise likeable characters have a fully evil side to them, just as the villain has a distinctly likeable side to him.  Portia is profoundly more intelligent than anybody else in the play, but I don’t think I would cut out her racist lines.  Unlike Two Gentlemen of Verona, which suddenly and unavoidably ends with a detestable plot point, The Merchant of Venice simply exists in a dark world where money controls everything.  Antonio even admits that his case cannot be overturned because of money: “For the commodity that strangers have in Venice, if it be denied, Will much impeach the justice of the state”.  Another line I would not cut in a modern adaptation is Shylock’s justification for demanding the pound of flesh: “You have among you many a purchased slave Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules, You use in abject an slavish parts Because you bought them: – shall I say to you, Let them be free, marry them to your heirs?  Why sweat they under burdens? Let their beds be made as soft as yours, and let their palates be seasoned with such viands  You will answer, The slaves are ours: – so do I answer you: The pound of flesh, which I demand of him, Is dearly bought, ‘tis mine, and I will have it.”  There are more slaves in the world today than at any other point in human history, so there is no need to awkwardly avoid that line in a modern adaptation.

However, a 19th century America would also be a great setting.

This play also possesses some of the greatest monologues in Shakespeare.  In addition to Shylock’s immortal speech, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh?  If you poison us, do we not die?” even Bassanio notes that “the world is still deceived with ornament,” when he is in the contest for the right to marry Portia.

There’s a lot of fun you can have with those scenes, by the way.

There is a lot in this play worth presenting to a modern audience, and I think that the best way to do that is by embracing the bigotry of the characters rather than shying away from it.  Anger is a major part of how these characters interact with each other, and bigotry is just a part of that.  The infamous courtroom scene, where Shylock tries to carve the pound of flesh from Antonio with full compliance of the law, is a great example.  Portia enters, disguised as a “young doctor of Rome; his name is Balthazar”, and delivers her famous monologue “The quality of mercy is not strain’d, – It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven  It’s a lovely sentiment, but obviously does nothing to hinder Shylock’s vengeance.  Then we see the true nature of these Venetians, when Bassanio laments: “Antonio, I am married to a wife Which is as dear to me as life itself; But life itself, my wife, and all the world Are not esteem’d above thy life: I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all to this devil, to deliver you.”  That is when Portia, hurt and offended, turns her vengeful anger upon Shylock through the letter of the law.  She shows how she is vastly smarter than any of the men in the play, but also crueler than the now broken Shylock.  His entire livelihood is destroyed, and he begs “Nay, take my life and all; pardon not that: You take my house, when you do take the prop That doth sustain my house; you take my blife When you do take away the means whereby I live.”  It’s a perfectly tragic end, but the play keeps going on because apparently this whole ordeal was a romantic comedy.  It’s that final scene that makes the play most problematic, I think, because we don’t care about the young lovers the way we did about the monster.  They are celebrating the defeat of the most human character in the play, playing with the spoils of the Jew’s fortune like Nazis in an Indiana Jones movie.

It’s disturbing, is what I’m saying.

I’m tempted to just go the slasher route, and end the play with Shylock slowly walking into the house after everybody with a knife in his hand.  I really don’t think it’s a cheap gimmick, since there isn’t much else for Shylock to do other than crawl up and die.  I’d prefer to think of him as a Queen Margaret sort of character, rising from the sewers to enjoy the demise of his enemies.  It would provide closure to a modern audience that will have trouble celebrating along with those young lovers who are selfish and careless.

Portia is the one girl who survives, of course.

The real trick, no matter what, is a good cast.  The play is populated with small characters from around Venice that will completely blend into the wallpaper if you don’t let their life shine through and let them become unique.  The strength of the play truly is the life of those characters, how they each have a chance to be fully rounded and profound through the lines that they have.  But I think those amazing lines make this play worth the challenge.  Nevertheless, I will end this week with another quote from Shylock’s amazing speech on his humanity: “If a Christian wrong a Jew, what is his humility? Revenge: If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example?  Why, revenge.  The villainy you teach me, I will execute; and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”

3 Responses to “The Merchant of Venice”
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  1. […] hath been most notoriously abused,” and it is a strange note to end the play on.  Much like Shylock, I find it difficult to really care about anybody else when this man is an injured outcast, […]

  2. […] offers a compelling feminist viewpoint in the play, mirroring Shylock’s famous monologue in Merchant of Venice: “Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace, Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands […]

  3. […] and the legitimate creepiness.  I was very impressed with our villain’s ability to seek a Shylock-esque believability, as well as the commitment of the actors to create depth and value to the […]

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