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NA288612 - SHAKESPEARE, W.: Merchant of Venice (The) (Unabridged)

William Shakespeare
The Merchant of Venice


The Merchant of Venice is a comedy that produces a sense of creeping uneasiness in an audience watching it today. It is a play with complex themes: the broad humour of the young men getting into trouble for losing their wives’ rings; their wives in turn cross-dressing as lawyers to save the life of their husbands’ friend; the beautiful Portia wooed by ludicrous suitors; all mix unhappily with the persecution and cruel treatment of a human being because he belongs to another culture—of Shylock, a Jew. In this age of multi-culturalism we find the prejudice of the Christian majority at times offensive to our 21st-century susceptibilities. But this is a modern reaction that Shakespeare would not have recognized.

Many misconceptions have arisen about the character of Shylock and his relationship to the Christian society in which he has chosen to live. The Elizabethan audience would have had a very different theatrical experience from that of a modern audience. For a start, the Jewish moneylender (or usurer) was a recognizably comic figure to them, and Shakespeare endorses this. The first words Shylock speaks are about money: ‘Three thousand ducats—well’.

The impression immediately is of a man obsessed—fixed on one thought. His stilted flow of language and his foreignness of speech are immediately obvious when set against the easy babble of those gilded Venetian flies, Salerino and Solanio. The very idea of the bond, to be sealed ‘in a merry sport’, proposed by Shylock, is grotesquely comic. Nevertheless Shakespeare was incapable of creating a stock character without humanity. Before the bond is proposed, he provides a psychological justification for it:

‘Signor Antonio many a time and oft
…you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances:
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug
For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe…’

Shakespeare gives a certain reality to Shylock: he is a serious man, intense, who uses words judiciously, by which he will later stand or fall. Antonio, Bassanio and the other Christians by contrast are impulsive, irresponsible and trust to chance. Bassanio takes a chance on his wooing of Portia to clear his debts, whilst Antonio, already chancing his fortune in trade, takes a greater risk by agreeing to a loan from Shylock, the terms of which threaten his very life. By contrast, Shylock respects money, whereas the Christians don’t. He hoards it, as he hoards his words; they waste it. It is a theme repeated endlessly in the play: thrift versus chance.

But did Shakespeare intend us to despise the Christians and respect the Jew? In fact, Shylock as the unjustly persecuted victim became a theatrical tradition only after the actor Edmund Kean, in the early 19th century, chose to abandon the traditional comic red wig of the stage Jew and appeared instead with black hair and a complementary dark and brooding characterization. Later in the 19th century, the actor Henry Irving imbued Shylock with so much dignity that it unbalanced the play and he ended the play after the trial scene. This was ‘romanticising’ Shakespeare, distorting his intentions. That Shylock is a ‘comic’ character is important to the action of the play. His comedy is both grotesque and uncomfortable, typified by his anguish between the loss of his daughter and the loss of his ducats. It is this grotesque extremity that provides the humour. The often quoted speech: ‘Hath not a Jew eyes…’ (Act III Scene1) when put in context, and not quoted as proof of Shakespeare’s sympathy with his plight (which is very much a 20th- / 21st-century view of the play) shows that Shylock’s motivation is not social justice but revenge:

‘If you wrong us shall we not revenge?
– if we are like you in the rest we
resemble you in that…the villainy you
teach me I will execute, and it shall go
hard, but I will better the instruction.’

It’s true that his obsession for revenge is born out of gross injustice—a truth that Shakespeare observes—but obsession corrupts, and Shylock’s relentless pursuit of revenge, reiterating the letter of the law (but not its spirit), leads to his downfall.

During the trial, Shakespeare maintains a comic tone for Shylock’s obsession with his bond: ‘Is it so nominated in the bond?…I cannot find it, ‘tis not in the bond.’ This is comic, but it is the comedy of life, where aspirations and ambitions are continually thwarted by unforeseen circumstances.

Not that the Christians escape criticism. Portia’s famous ‘Quality of mercy’ speech is heavily ironic in its context: when Portia herself says at the end of the trial: ‘The Jew shall have no mercy’, and Antonio insists that Shylock must reject his faith, they show little Christian mercy to the defeated Jew. Typically, Shakespeare leaves it to us to decide who comes off best in the trial. He merely presents things as they are, and every generation since the play was first performed has had a different response.

If Shylock represents the darkness at the heart of this play, then Portia shines throughout like a beacon of love. If too, Shylock is thrift, then Portia is chance. Her very future and happiness depend on it. By the terms of her father’s will she will become the property of whomsoever chooses the correct casket. The game of chance works in her favour and she wins the suitor of her choice, but aware that money, a dominant image in this play, had a lot to do with Bassanio’s quest, she ‘values’ herself in monetary terms, as a ‘reckoning’ or a ‘bargain’ and talks of ‘the full sum of me.’ But her true value is shown in the saving of her husband’s best friend Antonio. It is an act of love. For Portia, love is the only wealth, and it must be generously shared for it to grow. Portia displays her generosity too towards Lorenzo and Jessica in giving them a home at Belmont, and as the play draws to a close the young men, Bassanio and Gratiano, used to Venetian ways, begin also to learn that love ultimately is more powerful than money.
Money dominates this play, but Shakespeare is by no means intent on showing that wealth has benefited the Christians. In contrast to Shylock, they may use their money and buy pleasure with it, but Shakespeare shows this pleasure to be idle and unsatisfying, and many characters express their discontent with their lot: ‘When shall we laugh? Say when?’ Bassanio asks his fellow Venetians; and this sense of the emptiness of pleasure for its own sake may in part contribute to Antonio’s sadness. The wise Nerissa sums it up perfectly: ‘They are as sick that surfeit with too much as they that starve with nothing.’
The Venetian Christians look at Shylock, corrupted by his obsession with money, and they see themselves; what they could become. He is the unacceptable face of Venice’s deeply materialistic society, and they hate him the more for it. This explains the public vehemence against Shylock shown by pleasure-seekers like Gratiano at the trial. Standing in the garden at Belmont at the end of the play, the three young married couples have learnt that love is more precious far than gold or silver and if nurtured and ‘kept safe’ will be the basis for a happy future.

The message of love is carried by the imagery of music throughout the play. Music is integral to the text; its rhythm and melody are in the verse throughout the play, but the imagery is specifically used to lift Act V after the dramatic trial scene.

Act V contains Lorenzo’s eulogy to the spiritual power of music. Jessica listens, and her presence reminds us of her father stopping ‘his house’s ears’ against music, and speaking negatively of it: ‘The vile squealing of the wry-necked fife’. Lorenzo’s reference to a man who has no feelings for music could be a description of Shylock himself:

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils,…
Let no such man be trusted…

Thus at this point the two opposing worlds of the play are finally reconciled and harmonized through music. It is the lyricism of Act V that saves the play from being a tragedy.

Notes by David Timson

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