Sunday, September 5, 2010

Discussion: The Merchant of Venice

The play: The Merchant of Venice

The plot tweet: Antonio borrows money from Shylock so Bassanio can woo Portia. Bassanio succeeds; Shylock tries to claim "pound of flesh" but is outwitted.

My favorite line:
In sooth I know not why I am so sad.
It wearies me, you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn.
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me
That I have much ado to know myself. (Antonio)


It is, perhaps, now impossible to understand Merchant of Venice in the way Shakespeare intended. After the horrors of the Holocaust, we simply can't view Shylock as the purely comical character that Shakespeare might (or might not) have intended. In the midst of culture wars over gay marriage, we can never understand the Antonio-Bassanio relationship in the same way that Shakespeare's contemporaries would have done. And, in a post-feminist era, we find it difficult to interpret the spunky but also submissive Portia. Reading Merchant today is like falling into Alice's rabbit hole: It is endlessly fascinating, but it leaves us feeling a bit upside-down.

Even the name of the play sometimes causes confusion. Ask the casual Shakespeare fan who the "merchant" of the title is, and he or she is likely to answer "Shylock." (I once made that mistake on a crossword puzzle.) The right answer is, of course, Antonio, the merchant who becomes the target of Shylock's murderous plot. This is not Shylock's play: He appears for the final time in 4.1, and he actually speaks very few lines. Yet he is the character we often remember and discuss, and after he exits, the rest of the play can feel rather empty.

Shylock would seem to be more at home in a tragedy, and perhaps the character got away from his author. His defeat in the courtroom scene is so total -- and so difficult for a post-Holocaust audience to watch -- that it seems Shakespeare was determined to crush him and get back to the comedy he intended to write.

I also find Antonio endlessly fascinating. I could fill a whole post with my questions about him. Why is he so sad at the beginning of the play? Why has he treated Shylock badly in the past? What is his romantic history (if any) with Bassanio, and why does he risk everything for him? What are his feelings about Portia? How does he feel at the end of the play, when the paired-off lovers exit without him? For each of these questions, I can think of at least three possible answers, and every answer offers a whole new interpretation of the play.

One thing modern readers can understand about this play is the Venetian culture of wealth and credit. When Antonio says he is sad, his friends suggest that he is concerned about his investments. When Bassanio wants to woo Portia, he must borrow the money to do it in style -- a theory no one ever bothers to question. The language of this play returns so often to words like gold, treasure and wealth, we would hardly be surprised to see Paris Hilton make a cameo appearance.

One critic has suggested that Antonio is sad because he alone recognizes the emptiness of the Venetian lifestyle, and that he hates Shylock because the money lender embodies what Antonio hates about his own friends. Perhaps so.

Just as I don't know what to think of Antonio, I can't make up my mind about Portia. She is contemptuous of her suitors, often in a racially charged way, and her much-lauded "quality of mercy" speech is merely a hypocrisy, since she soon afterward refuses to show any mercy to Shylock. She is spunky and independent but also bows to the will of her late father and her new husband. She is generous with her friends, but perhaps only because she takes her wealth completely for granted. She has been praised as one of Shakespeare's great heroines and dismissed as a spoiled brat; my own opinion is probably somewhere in between.

One of the wonderful things about Shakespeare's work is that we often come away with more questions than answers. Reading a play like Merchant is like looking into a kaleidoscope; the view keeps shifting every time you consider a new possibility. For that reason alone, Merchant is among my favorite Shakespeare plays.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this wonderful post, Ashley. I appreciate the "kaleidoscope" image. I also love this play, probably in large part precisely because I come away with more questions than answers. For me, Shakespeare is at his best when his characters are complex human beings - never pure good, and never pure evil, but conflicted and inconsistent as all of us flesh-and-blood mortals actually are.
    I did find myself particularly fascinated this time by Antonio's sadness. It is the topic of conversation at the very beginning of the play, and seems to motivate much of his action throughout. He is depressed enough that he doesn't even put up much resistance to the prospect of being cut open. Why? What has dragged him into such despair? Does he perhaps even agree to this bond suspecting that he may very well have to forfeit, thereby effectively arranging his own death? He's enigmatic - yet he drives the plot forward.