"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Merchant Of Venice

The first thing that comes to mind when The Merchant of Venice is mentioned is Shylock. He is not only Jewish, but THE Jew, everyone’s stereotypical Jew, putting money over everything else, even his daughter.  Although anti-Semitism is less virulent than it was in Elizabethan times, it is no less prevalent; and the figure of Shylock, the Christian-hating, money-grubbing Jew still conjures up hateful images.  Harold Bloom writes:

One would have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to recognize that Shakespeare’s grand, equivocal comedy…is nevertheless a profoundly anti-Semitic work (Invention of the Human)

Yet Shylock is no one-dimensional character, nor a cartoon or caricature.  It is not the ‘pound of flesh’ that is important to Shylock, but the importance of the law.  His defiance of the court and his ridiculing of it’s easy dismissal of legal principle for the sake of Antonio is antagonistic, spiteful, and right.  Shylock represents Jewish Talmudic tradition while the court – wrong in his mind – embraces the Christian value of mercy, a theme that Shakespeare takes up in Measure for Measure, his next play.

Shakespeare, therefore, demands that we take Shylock’s demands seriously because he is raising many issues at once – the Christian nature of the Venetian court, and the cultural bias of the legal system; the place of mercy within this system, if any; the value of a legal contract (“I’ll have my bond”); proportionality – the bond and the effects of its forfeiture relative to the risk; the culture nature of the financial system (Jewish interest/usury vs. Christian no interest loans); and the nature of anti-Semitism itself. 

Shylock’s famous soliloquy is eloquent in his attack on anti-Semitism – sarcastic, revealing, angry, and threatening.  In the last sentence he vows to use all the calumny and hatred that Christians have for Jews and turn it on them:

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’s animosity and as Bloom says “his shrewd indictment of Christian hypocrisy…with shocking force” is seen in the following soliloquy where he flatly, unrepentantly, and aggressively attacks the Christian powers of Venice:

What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?

You have among you many a purchased slave,

Which—like your asses and your dogs and mules—

You use in abject and in slavish parts

Because you bought them. Shall I say to you,

“Let them be free! Marry them to your heirs!

Why sweat they under burdens? Let their beds

Be made as soft as yours and let their palates

Be seasoned with such viands”? You will answer,

“The slaves are ours.” So do I answer you.

The pound of flesh which I demand of him

Is dearly bought. 'Tis mine and I will have it.

If you deny me, fie upon your law—

There is no force in the decrees of Venice.

I stand for judgment. Answer, shall I have it?

This is all quite amazing given the fact that Shylock has only 360 lines in the whole play, but his presence is rarely absent.  He is the focal point for others’ follies, and brings into relief the dilettante, idle rich world of Venice; and the impossibly unrequited homosexual love of Antonio for Bassanio and the male-female dynamics between Portia-Bassanio-Antonio.

Bassanio, desperately in love with Portia but without the financial means to pursue her, pleads with his friend Antonio to lend him the money needed to woo and win his intended.  Even though Antonio is wealthy and has a fleet of ships on the seas returning from a profitable voyage, he is at the moment cash-poor and must go to Shylock for a loan.  Bassanio may or may not understand the depth of feeling Antonio has for him, but senses that his friend will indeed lend him the money.  Given the crassness of Bassanio’s character it is very likely that he knew very well that the besotted Antonio would give him anything he wanted.  Antonio, perhaps the only morally unsullied figure in the play agrees to the loan even though it means facilitating the removal of his friend to the heterosexual world forever in a marriage to Portia.

Portia herself gets embroiled in the Shylock affair as she dons the disguise of a lawyer and goes to the rescue of Antonio and to the destruction of Shylock.  She is transformed – perhaps rather too facilely – from indolent aristocrat to influential, canny lawyer who uses the law not out of respect for it, but for its loopholes.  She twists the law to bring down the hated Jew and to save the pure Christian.  It is only Antonio who saves the day by insisting, charitably and in an act of mercy, that only half of Shylock’s wealth be taken from him.

The story takes a new and important turn in this complex drama.  Antonio tells Shylock that he can keep half his fortune if he converts to becoming a Christian.  Shylock, in a famously disputed line, agrees and says, “I am content”. In that one short line, Shylock does the unthinkable – he rejects the very Jewishness which has given himself meaning for the sake of money; and thus Shakespeare, many say, shows his true colors – ‘Once a Jew, always a Jew’.  Bloom himself is perplexed and is unwilling to admit this failing of Shakespeare:

Shakespeare thus demeans Shylock, but who can believe Shylock’s “I am content”?  We can sooner see Falstaff as a monk than Shylock as a Christian.  Agreeing to become a Christian is more absurd than would be the conversion of Coriolanus to the popular party, or Cleopatra’s consent to become a vestal virgin at Rome.  It will not do; Shakespeare was up to mischief, but you have to be an anti-Semitic scholar, Old Historicist or New, to fully appreciate the ambition of such mischief

More honestly, Bloom surmises that Shakespeare put in the conversion for purely theatrical reasons (one must always remember that Shakespeare was in the business of selling tickets:

Once I believed this (Shylock’s conversion) to be a relatively rare Shakespearean error; now I suspect otherwise.  Shakespeare needs the conversion, not so much to reduce Shylock as to take the audience off to Belmont (Portia’s sumptuous residence far from the ghetto) without a Jewish shadow hovering in the ecstatic if gently ironic final act.

Although this play is often referred to as a comedy – it has the usual disguises, deceived and duplicitous lovers, and the happy ending – Bloom and others put it into the category of ‘Problem Plays’, and it probably belongs there because the character of Shylock destroys whatever goodwill and romantic hijinks there may be.  Shakespeare does develop a secondary plot – the love of Bassanio for Portia – and devises the farce of the wealthy international suitors coming to solve the riddle of the caskets; but it is really not essential to the plot, the central themes of the play, or the final denouement.  The Portia portions of the play are silly comedic distractions and deal with her toying with “two Venetian playboys [Bassanio and Lorenzo] in search of heiresses:

It is true that all of Shakespeare’s heroines marry down…Notoriously, Portia’s play, and Portia herself, and her friends, are all about money.  Belmont is delightful, and obviously very expensive, and Portia, while wiser than Jessica [Shylock’s daughter], Nerissa, Lorenzo, Gratiano, and Bassanio, requires no loftier company than these well-dressed sophisticates

The casket scenes are reminiscent of other Comedies where the likes of Rosalind and Beatrice run rings around their male suitors, make fun of their male pomposity and overblown sense of themselves; but they remain in that tight category within the larger context of the play.  For that reason the play to me is imperfect and lacks the cohesion and thematic integrity of Shakespeare’s other works.

The ‘Comedy’ never rises above its mean-spiritedness.  Portia is cynical and power-hungry.  Who doubts that her intercession at the court is not about the law but about ruining Shylock and getting his millions for Antonio and via him, Bassanio?  Jessica is, in Bloom’s words an not very attractive ‘Jewish Princess’ who steals her father’s money and jewels and then goes over squandering them on crass interests.  Bassanio is a money-grubber, Gratiano the most spiteful of anti-Semites.  Only Nerissa, who is just a vehicle for advancing the plot, and Antonio come out reasonably well.

Because of the character of Shylock and the moral, ethical, legal, and romantic predicaments his presences provokes, the play is a success.  Shylock is unforgettable – perhaps the only truly unforgettable character in the play (who, outside of academics and Bardolaters remember Nerissa or even Portia for that matter?) – and the intensity of his hatred, his rectitude, and his defeat at the hands of the Christians makes him one of a kind.

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1 comment:

  1. hey my names bob one time I ate a dog :)

    ReplyDelete