This is one of my favorite plays by William Shakespeare, and for me, one of the most quotable. My favorite character is, naturally, Shylock because he represents the so-called eccentric individual who must face society and the majority. Shakespeare had to no choice but to use this character as the antagonist because he had to cater to the anti-Semitic public of the time (how else is one to make a living but to cater to the majority!?) It is precisely against the tyrannical majority that Shylock must fight. Shylock is defeated in the end of the play, but his character triumphs in illustrating the perennial struggles of the individual against a corrupt society. Centuries after the play was written, Shylock continues to touch the audience with sympathy through his eloquence in this amazing speech in Act 3, Scene 1:
"To bait fish withal. If it will feed nothing else, it will feed
my revenge. 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 villainy you teach me I will execute—and it
shall go hard but I will better the instruction."
Shylock represents the weird kid who is picked on by everyone, and who finally stands up for himself, only to end up punished by the so-called "justice system" of the majority. Shylock cannot apply the Christian instruction of revenge because he is not Christian, and is therefore unequal to the majority at a subordinate level. Is this justice, my friends? Of course, for justice in the raw sense of the term is simply what those in power dictate, and in the case of the play, it is the Christian majority dictates, seasoned with an eloquent speech such as the sweet and phony speech delivered by Portia in Act IV Scene 1, in which she convinces the audience and Shylock that he ought to have mercy:
"The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven,
Upon the place beneath.
It is twice blessed.
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
It is mightiest in the mightiest,
It becomes the throned monarch better than his crown.
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
An 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 dost the become likest God's,
Where mercy seasons justice.
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That in the course of justice we all must see salvation,
We all 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 dost follow,
This strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence against the merchant there."
For this reason, Bassanio is one of my other favorite characters in the play because he is most correct to observe that
"In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt
But, being seasoned with a gracious voice
Obscures the show of evil?"
Portia is seasoned with a gracious and rhetorical voice, so she is able to have her way on behalf of the Christian majority and save Antonio from having to pay his debt. I suspect that if it had been the opposite, surely, Shylock would not have only had to pay the loan, but also the interest and a pound of flesh. However, the mere label of "Christian" mixed with a pretty speech saves the day for Antonio and adds insult to Shylock's already deep injury.
"Therefore then, thou gaudy gold,
Hard food for Midas, I will none of thee.
Nor none of thee, thou pale and common drudge
'Tween man and man. But thou, thou meagre lead,
Which rather threaten’st than dost promise aught,
Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence,
And here choose I. Joy be the consequence!”
One of my favorite speeches in Shakespearean literature is uttered by Bassanio in Act 3, Scene 2 just before he is about to select the one out of the three caskets in which he believes his beloved Portia's picture will be found. The correct answer will win him an instant marriage with Portia; but if Bassanio guesses incorrectly he is destined to lifelong celibacy, for such is the condition of playing the game of winning her hand. The three caskets before him are gold, silver, and lead, and the selected passage is an official rejection of the gold casket because he does not share in the world's habit of judging by appearances. It is always to a person's advantage to exercise more profundity than usual when making such a life-altering choice as this one. This is why when he is attempting to decide whether to choose gold, silver, or lead he must very carefully analyze what he is about to do and weigh his options with discernment. Bassanio exhibits his most judicious and forward thinking ideologies most particularly in this section when he is just about to choose between the three difficult options before him. Whereas the average person's first instinct in the modern world would be to select that which seems more immediately appealing to the senses and current notions of "good," Bassanio is wise enough to realize that indeed, not all that glitters is gold and that there may be more to less tempting caskets than most realize.
Gold, though valuable as currency back then, is indeed gaudy, and the lad is wise to recognize it as a symbol of artificiality with a tinge of the tackiness of the noveau riche. Silver, too, in its middle ground, is suspect. Lead, however, is most poetically romanticized, as Bassanio admits that its paleness moves him more than eloquence. Indeed, for the lad, thanks to his critical and analytical skills, and to his ability to see through the artificial-- joy was indeed the consequence!