Thursday, February 15, 2007

Reading "The Merchant of Venice"

Like some of the other Shakespeare plays I’ve read, the play has many more themes and characters other than the one that stands out in the popular mind: Shylock. The Merchant of the title is named Antonio, and in the first scene he worries obsessively about his financial position. He has the same concerns as a Wall Street trader would today. His investments are tanking -- in iambic pentameter. He tells all to his friend Bassanio, who promises to try to help him.

In the second scene, we meet Portia, in a different location entirely. She’s stuck with an odd sort of lottery to determine which of her suitors she’ll marry. She is also trying to figure out who is a really honest, steady, and decent sort of man. This quest eventually puts her in a court of law dressed up as a legal expert (“doctor”) where she has her famous face-to-face with Shylock. The other scenes presenting her elaborate subplot, marriage issues, and charater are all less memorable than the courtroom scene.

Finally, back in Venice, we meet Shylock. Bassanio is asking him to make a loan to his friend. Shylock discusses various credit risks. Bassanio invites Shylock to dine, and Shylock makes his first speech that marks him as an alien: “I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following; but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you.” When Antonio enters, Shylock remarks in an aside the “ancient grudge” he bears because Antonio loans money without interest and “hates our sacred nation.” By the end of this scene, the famous bargain is complete: Antonio has his loan, and Shylock has the famous bond: if the loan is not repaid by a certain date, a pound of Antonio’s “fair flesh” will be “cut off and taken/In what part of your body pleaseth me.” (I, iii, 36-49 and 150-152)

Shapiro’s Shakespeare and the Jews has convinced me that Shylock fits perfectly into the Elizabethan stereotype of a nasty, unsaved Jew. Further, this characterization continued to feed anti-Jewish fantasies for centuries. In fact, it probably still does. But what struck me in reading the play is the enormous individuality of Shylock.

Shylock has individual problems, individual resentments, a world view about what made him like he is, and a problem with his rebellious runaway daughter. Never mind if we think he’s fundamentally evil or if he is reacting to his life in a way we can understand: he’s a fully developed 3-d character. This must be one of the brilliant Shakespearean features that Shapiro alludes to. Every individualized feature somehow becomes a generalized trait.

Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, hates him and can’t wait to run away and marry a poor man. Children and others in the street make fun of him: the Ducats-Daughter refrain is not put in his mouth, but in the crowd’s mouth as they mock his fury at her disapperance. He doesn’t treat the servants well (another subplot). Portia asks him first for disinterested, idealistic mercy, and he says no. Then she points out that he could be a lot richer if he was paid off than if he insisted on the “bond” – the famous pound of flesh. He still says no, indulging his hatred which by now we know he neither fully understand nor fully controls himself.

Shylock’s personality is of course difficult. He wants to trap and torment others. Shylock describes his hatred and says he doesn’t need to explain it. Of course his description of the emotion of hatred is so on-target that it’s one of the many famous quotations from the play. It’s painful that this individualized portrait became a stereotype of Jewishness in England and elsewhere.

The Shylock plot is complete at the end of Act IV, and then we go back to the subplot about Portia and her tricks on men. Portia’s experiences would be memorable if Shylock didn’t dominate the play, and if the question of how to deal with the most remarkable individual portrait of a stereotype wasn’t so troubling.

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