The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare.

The Merchant of Venice is quite possibly my least favourite Shakespeare play, and I'm always amazed at how well-liked it is (a poll by Time even put it above Richard III!). There are, I must admit, some good moments in it, but I found it such an absolute effort to get through and I was rather relieved to finish it. As I've been re-reading Shakespeare's plays and reviewing them, and as this is my 33rd post on a Shakespeare play (35th if you include the apocrypha and 41st if you include the poetry!) I feel I have to push through this aversion and say something, however whatever I do come up with is going to be brief.

The Merchant of Venice was written somewhere around 1596 to 1597 but it wasn't performed until 1605 (in front of King James who apparently liked it so much he requested a second performance). The merchant of Venice of the title is Antonio: his friend Bassanio is in love with Portia and needs to borrow money in order to woo her. Antonio cannot lend his friend money, and allows Bassanio to borrow money from Shylock (a miserly Jew), naming him, Antonio, as the loan's guarantor. There is a history between the two: Antonio is vocal in his antisemitism and crossed Shylock before in the business of money-lending, and it takes some persuading for Bassanio to get his money. If he defaults, however, Shylock warns him he will take 'a pound of flesh'.

Meanwhile, Portia has a great many suitors, and in his will her father he has stipulated that in order to marry her a suitor must chose correctly one of three caskets of gold, silver and lead. It is Bassanio who chooses correctly: the casket made of lead, and so he will marry Portia. However all is not well: our merchant Antonio suffers a catastrophe when his ships are all lost at sea, which means he can no longer guarantee the loan. Shylock, meanwhile, finds his own household in disarray: Launcelot, his servant, has left to work for Bassanio, and his daughter Jessica is planning to elope with Lorenzo, Antonio's friend. As Bassanio makes the correct choice of caskets, Jessica is also in Belmont with Lorenzo, and when they learn of Antonio's misfortune they must quickly leave for Venice, Portia and Jessica disguised as pages (we've also seen female characters disguised as men in Twelfth Night and As You Like It) to save Antonio from being the victim of Shylock's revenge...

What it is I don't like about The Merchant of Venice I'm not quite sure. There is much antisemitism in it, but as a reader of the classics I've learned to put up with that, and as plots go this is not a bad one, I'd even say it's a good one. Perhaps I wasn't in the mood for it (though I thought I was), I just found it especially tedious. There were two excellent and famous speeches I admired though, firstly from Shylock:
... He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my
bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies; and 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 same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? 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. 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? Why, revenge. The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.
And this from Portia:
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:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there.
The portrayal of the clash between Jewish and Christian values was interesting, the idea that Jewish people value money above love was enlightening, as was the different concepts of justice (Shylock's being rather bloody and the Christians of the play based on mercy): I do believe there is a value to reading literature that attempts to justify prejudice (I say that cautiously: perhaps it would be more accurate to say the characters try to justify their prejudices) as one may understand those showing the prejudice more, which is perhaps a starting point to reducing intolerance in the world (very idealistic of me, I know). For that it is a worthwhile read. For entertainment, I personally would say no.

Comments

  1. Excellent review! I have read this one in school, then in college and later for enrichment and I cannot, simply cannot begin to like the play. I am not sure why, except perhaps, I guess my modern sensibilities of equality and an abhorrence of typecasting the "other" constantly in bad light gets me. I do understand your point about attempts to justify the prejudices, but I cannot still bring myself to like this one!

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    1. Thank you, and actually glad to hear I'm not the only one who didn't like it! I do know what you mean about the typecasting the "other", it's never pleasant. As I say I do find it useful to an extent (as a starting point for understanding prejudice, at the same time it's obviously abhorrent). But no, I did really dislike this play. Glad it's over with - I hope never to have to think of or reading this play again!

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