David Sarkies's Reviews > The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
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Feb 03, 14

bookshelves: comedy
Read in February, 1998

One of Shakespeare's more unusual plays
11 February 2012

To call this play unique would be a misnomer since Shakespeare was hardly original with the subject matter of his plays. I believe that the only play that came entirely from Shakespeare's imagination would have been The Tempest. Most of his other plays he had either borrowed from historical events or earlier works, usually both. There is even some suggestion that a number of plays (particularly Hamlet) were based on older plays, and Shakespeare basically compiled and rewrote them into the form that we have today. The reason that I suggest that The Merchant of Venice is unique is because it does not seem to follow the pattern that most of Shakespeare's other plays follow.
But first a synopsis.
The play is based around two plots, the first plot being a romance and the second being a claim for a debt to be paid. The main characters of this play are Antonio (a merchant), Shylok (a Jewish money lender), Portia (a beautiful princess), Jessica (Portia's friend and Shylock's daughter), Bassiano (a suitor to Portia and a friend of Antonio), and Lorenzo (the suitor to Jessica and a friend of Bassiano and Antonio). Portia has quite a lot of suitors, so to pick the right one she has three chests, one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. Inside one of the chests (the lead one) is a image of her, and the suitors must chose the correct chest to win her hand in marriage. Pretty much all of the suitors pick the wrong chest, going for the gold and the silver, however when Bassiano comes (and Portia is in love with Bassiano, but everybody must play the game), he picks the correct chest, and they go off and get married. However, this is halfway through the play (and is odd because in most Shakespearian comedies, the marriage comes at the end).
Getting an audience with Portia is not cheap though, so to do that Bassiano approaches his friend Antonio, but all of Antonio's money is tied up in investments, so to help out his friend, he attempts to borrow money from Shylock. The catch is (and there are always lots of catches in Shakespearian comedies) is that Shylock hates Antonio because, to put it simply, Antonio is an anti-semetic pig. So, seeing Antonio's desperation, he agrees to lend him the money with a pound of his flesh (in the region of the heart) as surety. Unfortunately for Antonio, disaster strikes and he pretty much loses all of his investments which leaves him with no money and a Jew banging on his door demanding payment.
This is all resolved at court, and while it appears that all is lost, and Shylock refuses to show mercy, since he now has his enemy over a barrel, a doctor's apprentice and his servant enters (who turn out to be Portia and Jessica in disguise), who, through clever legal argument, point out that while the bond is solid and Antonio must give up his pound of flesh, the bond does not give any right to take any blood, and further, no Jew may spill a drop of Christian blood, on pain of death. So, the tables are turned, Antonio escapes his debt, and Shylock is punished.
It would seem that the play should end here, however it doesn't: there is at least two more scenes afterward. In payment for their services Portia (in disguise) convinces Bassiano to give up a ring that he had promised Portia never to let go, and Jessica does the same with Lorenzo. When they return, they are then confronted by their respective ladies as to the location of the ring. This is Shakespearian comedy at its best, especially how both Lorenzo and Bassiano sweat over how, in such a short time, they have betrayed the trust of their loved ones.
I am hesitant to say this, particularly since with a looking at a 16th Century play, that it appears to be about racism, and I will quote one of Shylock's lines below, but I find it difficult to conclude that it really is racist. Indeed, Shakespeare does make some comment on how despite their beliefs both Jews and Christians are still human, yet Shylock is still considered the antagonist, and it is his refusal to show mercy, even if he were to be paid 10 times what is owed, that causes us to lose all sympathy for him. Granted, the play does appear to be anti-semetic, but we must remember that this was what was happening at the time. I do not believe Shakespeare is deliberately targeting Jews here, and especially since it was illegal for Christians to lend money to Christians and charge interest, the only way people could obtain loans were through the Jews. In fact, the Jews were the bankers of the Middle Ages (though this medieval attitude must have changed early on in the Renaissance where the Medicis, a Christian family, were considered to be the founders of modern banking).
What about women's liberation? Lets us consider this aspect of the play: Portia is a very strong willed and dominant character; she keeps her suitors at bay with a test that they may pass; she has demonstrated that she has superb rhetorical ability; she is incredibly knowledgeable; and incredibly mischievous; her trick with the ring pretty much has Bassiano wrapped around her finger - in a flurry of kind words, she binds him to a promise, and within a day, forces him to break that promise; She then forces Bassiano into submission through the use of guilt over how he not only broke a vow that he had made to her, but that a day had not even passed before he broke that vow. While it is true that women of the middle ages were not all beaten into submission, the actions and the ability of Portia is staggering. She is able to interact within the world of men just as well, or even better, than most dignified men could. I find Portia to be an amazing character, and considering the date of this play, to be somewhat ahead of her time, though we should remember that this was also written during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, a classic example of a woman doing a man's job, and doing it rather well at that. Maybe, just maybe, Portia represents Elizabeth in demonstrating that a woman can do just as well as any man in the world of men.

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 villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.
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