Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Merchant of Venice - Shakespeare

There are two basic plots in Shakespeare's 'Merchant of Venice'.  The main plot has to do with a Jewish moneylender, Shylock, and the titular merchant, Antonio.  Antonio needs a loan and he goes to Shylock to get the money.  The merchant has been an incredible jerk to Shylock in the past, because he is Jewish, and continues to be a jerk even while asking for the loan.  Shylock agrees to the loan, but if it isn't paid off, he will take as debt a 'pound of flesh' closest to Antonio's heart (i.e. cut him up and kill him).
Antonio has several vessels out and if any of them come home in the next few months, he can easily pay the debt.  Unfortunately, none do and he has bad news all around.  The debt comes due and Shylock insists on the full terms.  He refuses to take payment from others, even if that payment amounts to several times the loaned amount.
They go to court and Shylock insists on the following the letter of the law.  A visiting judge (though not really) holds him to this and then points out that he is entitled to flesh, but not blood.  And he must take exactly one pound, no more, no less.  Also, it is against Venetian law to conspire to kill someone and if that's what Shylock really wants, he is in great trouble. 
Shylock is allowed out trouble only if he gives away his wealth.  He also must convert from Judaism to Christianity.  He agrees to this and exits the story.

The other main plot has to do with the marriage of Portia, a rich heiress.  Her father's will has stipulated that her suitor must pass a contest.  The suitor must open up the correct one of three caskets (gold, silver and lead).  If the suitor chooses wrongly, he must a) keep his choice secret, b) give up his suit and c) not marry again in the future.
A handful of wealthy men try this game and fail.  The suitor that Portia really wants to win is a man named Bassanio, a friend of Antonio.  He wins (natch), and Portia then helps him get Antonio out of trouble.  She is the disguised judge that I mentioned earlier.  There is then an act about a ring that was given away even though Bassanio had promised not to do so.  It amounts to another contest and the men fail but are forgiven.

The Shylock story is a difficult one.  He has obviously been badly treated before.  It's understandable that he'd want to get his 'pound of flesh' in return.  The question of whether he should be able to get that penalty is different though.  If someone calls you names and spits on you, should you be able to kill them?  What if the behavior is done over a period of time, does that make it ok?
Shylock loses in court and is tricked, really.  He loses the money that he loaned and maybe that's justice.  He then loses his own wealth and that seems excessive.  On top of that, he must give up his religion and that simply goes too far.  He becomes a sympathetic character.  (At least today.  I doubt that Shakespeare's actual audiences found him so.)

I simply love the game with the caskets, though I'm not sure why.  I doubt that I'll be able to convince my daughter to use that technique when she picks a husband...

The most quoted speech in the play is almost certainly Shylock's 'If you prick us, do we not bleed?' speech.  And rightfully so.  The idea that people are people and all have some innate dignity was just beginning to gain some steam around Shakespeare's time.  This speech probably gave some pause in the stands.  (In our current identity obsessed times, this speech is still relevant, though for slightly different reasons than before.)
My favorite speech was a different one, though.  I think it is fairly well known, though I didn't know it before this reread.  It comes from Portia when she is acting as a judge.  Shylock has been asked to be merciful and he wants to know why he should.  Portia responds:

The quality of mercy is not strain'd
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

The speech goes on to praise mercy in kings and queens but also points out that we don't know when we'll want to be on the receiving end of that mercy.  Shylock scoffs at this and then quickly finds himself on the other end of the punishment.  The lesson is plain to us all.

I think I read this play back in high school but I'm not completely certain.  I have a dim memory of not liking Jessica, Shylock's daughter, and in truth, I didn't like her this time either.  There aren't a ton of characters here to sympathize with.  I did like the play itself, however.  There is humor and wonder and it says some fairly important things.  What more can you ask for?

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