Thursday, 12 June 2014

A Quick Overview of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice

In many ways, The Merchant of Venice is a tale of love
The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare's earliest comedies, thought to have been penned between 1596 and 1598. 

The play tells the story of Antonio, the wealthy merchant of the title, who offers to lend his friend, Bassanio, money so that he may travel to Belmont to woo the "fair Portia". 

Unfortunately, all of Antonio's current assets are at sea, but desperate and determined to help his friend, he goes to a usurer, Shylock, and asks for three thousand ducats. 

We discover, during their battering, that Shylock has been the victim of  Antonio's anti-Semitic abuse, and so he agrees to the deal on the understanding that, if Antonio cannot pay back the money within three months, Shylock will extract a pound of flesh as payment. 

Some time later, Antonio hears word that all his vessels are lost or wrecked.

Shylock can be played as a villain,
but is he really?

The Merchant of Venice as a Problem Play

Although The Merchant of Venice is classed as a comedy, and there are undoubtedly comic moments within it, it could also be described (at least in part) as a tragedy.

Therefore, it is often known as one of Shakespeare's 'problem' plays, meaning that it does not fit comfortably in one genre. 

It is worth mentioning that the word 'comedy' in Shakespearean (and earlier) terms was not necessarily used to indicate something which was funny, it simply meant that the play ended 'happily' - with one of more marriages.

The principal modern difficulty of the play is the character of Shylock, and there has been much debate about whether he is a sympathetic character, or the unmitigated villain of the piece. 

Part of the problem here is that the play is now so far out of the context of its own time. 

How do You Solve a Problem Like Shylock?

And, of course, the play was particularly sullied when it was used as Nazi propaganda. However, if we examine the context in which the play is set, it seems that Shakespeare has done something really quite extraordinary. 

Henry Goodman gave us a sympathetic Shylock
The only other theatrical representation of a Jew at that time would have been in Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, in which Marlowe offers the fairly two-dimensional character of Barabas. 

Shylock, on the other hand, is clearly complex, multi-faceted and, I'd argue, not motivated by cruelty.

The portrayal of Shylock depends greatly on the choices made by both actors and directors. But, there is evidence in the text to indicate Shakespeare's intentions. 

For example, during the conversation about the proposed bond, Shylock states, "Signior Antonio, many a time and oft/In the Rialto you have rated me/About my moneys and my usances:/Still have I borne it with a patient shrug/You call me misbeliever, cut throat dog,/And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine"(I.iii)

This clearly depicts Shylock as a man who does not act out of unmotivated malice. Antonio even says, "I am as like to call thee so again,/To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too."(I.iii) Therefore, it appears that Shylock's agreement to lend the money is, in of itself, a really rather decent gesture considering his treatment.

In addition, the 'pound of flesh' clause could simply be, as Shylock calls it, "a merry sport"(I.iii) 

Perhaps it is only after the Christians have wronged him again, by stealing his daughter and his assets, that he claims his revenge. As Shylock says, in one of the most famous Shakespearean speeches, "If you prick us do we not bleed?/If you tickle us, do we not laugh?/If you poison us, do we not die?/And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?/If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that/The villainy you teach me I will execute"(III.i)

Portia is another one of Shakespeare's
cross-dressing girls

The Women of The Merchant of Venice

Another particularly interesting part of this play is, as with almost all Shakespeare plays, the female characters.

The women of the play are not only fascinating, but also strong individuals - and, let's face it, forces to be reckoned with. 

Portia, in particular, is a woman of action and, like Antonio, leaps to Bassanio's aid when required. 

Furthermore, it could be said that she is the most intelligent character of the play, for it's she who discovers the loop-hole in Shylock's contract.

Two Worlds Collide

The Merchant of Venice is, essentially, a play of two halves and it is only towards the very end that the two worlds of Venice and Belmont converge. Belmont, where the women of the play spend most of their time, is similar to a fairy tale. For instance, we have suitors vying for Portia. And the three chests that the men have to pick from is very reminiscent of fairy tales.

Henry Goodman, Derbhle Crotty and Trevor Nunn
Furthermore, Belmont seems to be the world of romantic love. While Venice, on the other hand, occupies the world of money and commerce. 

Love and money, therefore, appear to be the main themes of the play, and it is interesting to note that they are both bartered for in a similar fashion. 

The contract of love between Bassanio and Portia is very like the bond drawn up between Shylock and Antonio, for example.

To enhance this didactic view of the play, Shakespeare gives us an odd parallel between Portia and Antonio. This is illustrated by their first lines, Antonia laments, "In sooth I know not why I am so sad."(I.i) In the meantime, over in Belmont Portia states, "By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world."(I.ii) 

Neither, has an ostensible reason for a sadness that immediately draws a connection between the two. And, of course, the other thing they have in common is a great love for Bassanio. In fact, Antonio seems to believe that he has the greater love when he tells his friend, "Say how I lov'd you/when the tale is told, bid her be judge/Whether Bassanio had not once a love."(IV.i)

The Merchant of Venice's 'Happy' Ending

The play ends on a light note, with Bassanio and Gratiano discovering that they gave up the rings, which they promised to always keep, to Portia and Nerissa in disguise.

Shylock and Portia are two of only three
characters who stick to their 'bonds'
However, there is a sense of melancholy in the final scene. Portia claims that, "Nothing is good, I see, without respect"(V.i) She's referring to the music being played in the house, but it could indicate undertones of sadness over the events that took place in court.

The Merchant of Venice is a complex play in its constant questioning of morality. It also questions a world in which money is the highest commodity. 

It's a story which tells of great loss and sadness as well as joy and love. 

More importantly, it deals with the difficult issue of human principals and whether actions always mesh with those principals. For example, the play portrays Christian men behaving in a very unchristian way.

Ultimately, it seems, Shylock, Portia and Nerissa, are the only characters who actually uphold their bonds.

If you'd like to read more about The Merchant of Venice, check out The Casket Trial and Clever Portia and The Quality of Mercy.

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