Mario's Reviews > The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
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's review
Oct 18, 11

liked it
bookshelves: drama, shakespeare, comedy
Read from September 27 to 29, 2011 — I own a copy

** spoiler alert ** This, I think, is a very much misunderstood play, mostly because we have a much different picture of Jewish people now than in Shakespeare's time, when they were not even legally allowed in Britain.

First, it's a comedy. It isn't a tragedy, it's not even a tragicomedy. Sometimes people mistake it for a tragedy, but that is because they treat Shylock as a real person, when in the story he is used solely as a source of humor and a plot device. We are meant to sympathize with the Italian Venetians only. The foreigners are merely there to be laughed at.

And they are laughed at. Right in Act 1, Scene 2, Portia is discussing a series of foreign suitors, and each is derided for that which makes them different. For Morocco, the "tawny Moor," it's particularly ugly; this isn't the Shakespeare of Othello. Only the Englishman gets off easy (for obvious reasons), ironically for being unable to speak multiple languages. Shakespeare mocks England's insularity while partaking of it himself.

The Shylock of the play is not a hero, and is not misunderstood. He's a villain, plain and simple. It's true that he describes past abuses that he has suffered, particularly at the hands of Antonio, but Shakespeare includes these not to excuse him, but to provoke him. It's easy to miss this today, as the cues for us to hate him (he is both a Jew and a moneylender boo! hiss!) no longer resonate as terrible sins with modern audiences.

His (and possibly Shakespeare's) most famous speech (starting with "Hath not a Jew eyes") sounds very sympathetic, particularly given that the people who quote those lines cut it short, as it ends quite differently. While the beginning words are often used as a call for mutual respect, the full speech is really a call to arms: "The villainy you teach me I will execute, and [. . .] I will better the instruction. More even than an eye for an eye, in other words.

If there is any question about how Shylock was to be viewed, it should be answered by the end. First he finds out that he will not be able to collect on the debt in the way he intended, then he cannot collect at all, then he loses half of everything he owns, and is forcibly converted to Christianity. Hilarious! A happy ending for everyone, I guess.

Without the character of Shylock we would be left with a fairly mundane play about crazy mix-ups and circumstances keeping lovebirds apart, and a (possible gay?) merchant whose story goes nowhere until, at the very end and for absolutely no reason, his fortunes turn around.

In truth, I very much prefer the modern way of thinking about the story and Shylock's role. But that isn't the play Shakespeare wrote, and pretending that it is does a disservice to the text itself.

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09/27/2011 page 95
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