The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
My rating: 8/10
One Sentence Verdict: Although hardly comedic in its moments of moral teaching, this play translates brilliantly to the modern day and the near-caricatured portrayal of the characters is exceedingly intelligent
Ashamedly, I’ve not actually read that many of Shakespeare’s plays from cover to cover. I’ve been meaning to read The Merchant of Venice for quite some time, and so couldn’t resist picking it up in a second-hand bookshop in the market when a section of English books caught my eye.
I’ve also wanted for a long time, to get some context for the line, “Hath not a Jew eyes…”, featured in a scene from Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film, Schindler’s List, in the setting of the Second World War and tragic impacts of the Holocaust. Ironically, this line is spoken as part of a speech from the SS Kommandant of a concentration camp in Krakow, Poland, to his long-suffering Jewish maid, and so the background of this line having been spoken by Shylock, a Jew himself and more of a caricature than anything else, in a speech championing equality for his people, is more than a little ironic.
The action is set in Venice, here a poor nobleman, Bassanio, borrows 3,000 ducats from a friend, the merchant Antonio, to court Portia, an heiress. Antonio’s wealth comes from his business as a merchant, and much depends on his expeditions at sea. He borrows money to lend to Bassanio from the Jew, Shylock, who agrees to allow him a three month loan, but makes it a condition of their deal that he will take a pound of Antonio’s living flesh if the debt is not repaid in time. Bassanio wins Portia, whilst his friend Gratiano marries her maid, Nerissa, but then Antonio’s ships are lost at sea, leaving him unable to repay the debt.
Portia takes legal instruction to help her husband’s friend, and disguises herself as a lawyer, Balthazar, to try the case with Nerissa disguised as her clerk, in the court of the Duke of Venice. After much debate and Shylock’s showing himself as unwilling to accept more money from Bassanio instead of a pound of flesh from Antonio, Portia cleverly points out that there was no mention of blood in the contract, and thus if Shylock sheds blood whilst cutting away the flesh he is owed, his goods and lands would be forfeit to the state, as well as his life itself.
The Duke allows Shylock to live, but gives half of his property to Antonio, who gives it back to Shylock on the condition that he leave it to his daughter, Jessica, who has secretly wed Lorenzo, a clown of Shylock and another friend of Bassanio, and that Shylock must convert to Christianity.
Portia demands as payment from the two men, a ring which she gave Bassanio before he left for the court. Reluctantly, he relinquishes it, and Nerissa and Portia quiz their husbands about the loss of it when they return home. The two women then claim that they lay with the lawyer and his clerk, and produce the rings which the men gave away. Shocked and cuckolded, Antonio and Bassanio exclaim in horror. Their charade complete, finally Portia and Nerissa they reveal themselves to have been the lawyer and clerk who saved their husbands’ case, and all ends happily.
The minor characters provide a witty and engaging backdrop for the story, but it is with the main characters that Shakespeare excels. Portia and Nerissa are women before their time; Portia is not timid or eager to please, but an independent and strong-minded woman who stands up for herself and those she cares about. Antonio is not a hero, but rather quite self-righteous and not particularly sympathetic. It is the women who save the day, not the men, an ever-welcome change of custom!
Shylock is presented as a put-upon noble, and a victim rather than just a shrewd and money-grabbing Jew, despite his unusually harsh terms for the contract between him and Antonio. In this time, there was enormous intolerance towards the Jews, and so it is surprising that Shakespeare did treat Shylock reasonably favourably.
A stand-out scene and speech is that of Shylock in Act 3, Scene 1. He bemoans the injustices put upon Jews by Christians; “What’s his reason? I am a Jew… Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the food, hurt with the same weapons… If you prick us, do we not bleed?… If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge…. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example?” I believe these excerpts to be amongst the most powerful from that speech.
I would love to see this play performed, I enjoyed it more than I have many other plays I’ve read, and it was a great deal more interesting to read than Twelfth Night, which I imagine translates much better to the stage than the written word!