2008: for a Shakespeare seminar
Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice was an attempt to outdo Marlowe’s Jew of Malta. In the early 21st century, the play is largely unplayable because of the deep scars left on Western civilization by the Holocaust. Yet, despite the cultural inability of the modern reader/viewer to see the work as Shakespeare might have seen it – a Christian play for a Christian audience – Shakespeare still manages to compel by pitting justice against mercy in the persons of Shylock and Antonio. The Merchant of Venice succeeds not because it is a true portrait of Jews or Christians, but because Venice and Belmont make the reader believe it is.
The three main characters of the play, Antonio, Shylock, and Portia, are all, as Shakespeare has ever crafted humans, full of contradictions. Antonio, for his cruelty to Shylock, thinking him an embodiment of a race rather than a human; Shylock, returning the favor by holding an “ancient grudge” against Antonio vis-à-vis his religion, rather than his person; Portia, for teaching us the quality of mercy and yet failing to extend it to Shylock.
Antonio begins this play in a Hamletian melancholy. We could easily put the young prince’s words in his mouth: “I have of late…lost all my mirth…what is this quintessence of dust?” Yet, to properly see him within the scope of his role as a merchant and later in his bargain with Shylock, we should begin with Shylock’s recounting of when he last saw Antonio: “…many a time and oft / In the Rialto…You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog, / And spet upon my Jewish gaberdine” (I.iii.103-109). This places the reader within a proper chronological timeframe. To this accusation of simple discourtesy, Antonio blithely replies: “I am as like to call thee so again, / To spet on thee again, to spurn thee too” (I.iii.127-128). It is clear to the reader that this is no Hatfield/McCoy feud. Antonio and Shylock mistake each other as types for their entire religion and race, respectively. To such an “ancient grudge,” as Shylock terms it, there will be no discourse of reason. Yet, fair it is that Shakespeare frets this entire play upon the interplay of justice and mercy. We will see more anon.
Shylock for his part refuses to out-Christian the Christian. In a position to show his quality and nobility as a man, he plays right into the stereotypes and fears that dominate Marlowe’s Jew of Malta. While we don’t hear such clownish, unrealistic lines as “I…kill sick people groaning under walls” or “Sometimes I go about and poison wells” we very darkly hear “I hate him for he is a Christian” and “If I can catch him once upon the hip, / I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him” (I.iii.39-44) at the very moment that Antonio enters Shylock’s place of business, asking for money. Yet Shylock is too shrewd to dash so madcap after a pound of flesh, hazarding any future commerce with all the Christians in the city. He is, like Lear, driven mad. And similarly, over a daughter as well. Jessica’s abandonment, reckless living with his “hard-earned thrift,” and on top of it all, elopement with a Christian, only fuels his desire to visit upon Antonio the centuries of Jewish resentment, which he famously claims in the courtroom months later is “more than a lodged hate and a certain loathing” (IV.i.60).
Shakespeare shows his quality by putting arguably the best lines of the play within the mouth of the comedic villain, Shylock. From the comedic pacing and wording of Act I Scene III (“three thousand ducats, well…for three months, well…) in which we can see Bassanio biting his lip, hoping for this ill-treated Jew to lend him money, and Shylock pacing and calculating, enjoying every minute of it, to the very gravitas and poignancy of Act III Scene I and the famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, Shakespeare has mastered the ability to create a believable character – beyond the typological (Marlowe’s “Jew”) or the superficial (anyone from “Two Gentlemen of Verona”).
Then there is the woman that stands between Antonio and Shylock, Portia. She too, like Antonio, is introduced to us in a lessened state. “By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is / aweary of this great world” (I.ii.1-2). She, incalculably rich on an Atlantean-style island resort, is aweary. We may sigh as well. The worries and cares of the rich are ever well-represented in all their foppery in these opening lines of Act 2, Scene 2. It is she who mediates between these two religions/men in the courtroom of Venice. If Shylock is the Old Testament (the letter of the law) and Antonio the New Testament (the spirit of the law), then it is well that a “Daniel come to judgment” shall interpret between the necessary demands of both.
Yet, we cannot help but choke on the irony of the unbelievable, and very problematic, forced conversion of Shylock in which she is the catalyst. Portia, ever plaintive for Antonio, not fearing a second or third assay to tease out mercy not lodged within the breast of Shylock (we can assume it cannot fit, given the large space given to the “ancient grudge”), utterly fails to repeat the same courtesy, as should fit her impartiality as a judge, when it comes time to sentence Shylock. After he is robbed of all his money by Antonio and the Duke, she does not call “peace, no more” when Antonio demands the thirty pieces of silver – Shylock’s forced conversion. Shylock’s compliance with this outrageous, unjust demand is a dark reversal of all his previous words. Shakespeare would have done better not to make his last lines “I am content” but rather the ones that come a little before “I am not well.” The perspective of half a millennia must necessarily shade our Western minds, but a forced conversion seems not merciful for the simple fact that all of Christianity depends on genuine disposition to faith, which Shylock clearly does not have – not in Christ anyway. Portia’s Christianity – a “Venetian Christianity,” as Harold Bloom calls it – seemingly does not imbue her with the mercy and charity of which she waxes so eloquently, and thusly we have an unjust sentence which mars the poetic complexity of this scene, and the soon to follow end of the play.
The end of the play, in fact, occurs in the dream world of Belmont. Belmont, where time magically passes and there are no consequences for its masters. Belmont, home of casket-games and lovesick men, so different from the life and death consequences of Venice, where men may die for forfeiting a bond. Here too Shakespeare succeeds as a dramatist and playwright. He has created a second world within the play. In this world, time moves magically – the forfeiture of the bond must have taken months, yet the arrival, choice, and winning of Portia happens within days, if not within hours, as does the seemingly light-speed return of Bassanio to the court and Portia/Bellario, by a completely different way. Time passes in Belmont as Portia’s melancholy – slowly. For her there is only waiting. And if we might rightly begin the narrative and story of Antonio where Shylock cotes him – mocking on the Rialto, so too we might see Portia coldly dismissing the many Moroccos and Aragons that have come before. Surely, she is aweary of this world, and more so of the game the men who pursue her (and her fortune) must play.
Shakespeare’s ability to create believable characters and put them into a time and place that speaks both forwards and backwards in time, carrying all the implications of discrimination (Portia’s dismissal of Morocco because of his skin) and hatred (what Antonio and Shylock feel for each other as proxies for their religions), is what makes this play a culminating event in Shakespeare’s writing. It is by no means, by any standards, his best work, but his artistic scope and maturity are in full bloom, and we are the beneficiaries. Hamlet’s Horatio, more masterfully than Antonio, will delicately tender love without homoeroticism. Iago will, better than Shylock, generate hatred and no sympathy as a real comic villain. But we will be hard pressed to find Portia’s better (though we may easily find her equal in Rosalind, or her evil foil in Lady Macbeth) in Shakespeare’s writing. Here he has given a woman equal power as a man (when Portia plays Bellario as the Daniel-come-to-judgment) both when she is in her own sex, and when she dresses as a man. But perhaps that is Shakespeare’s greatest lesson of the play, that Portia, who is the appointed arbiter between justice and mercy, must, as any human, always err closer to one than the other. In her justice she is not merciful, but mercifully, Shakespeare’s Merchant is just.
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