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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: January ::
Re: *MV*: Act Five
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 0046.  Tuesday, 24 January, 1995.
 
(1)     From:   Bradley S. Berens <
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        Date:   Monday, 23 Jan 1995 09:36:22 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0042 Re: *MV*: Act Five
 
(2)     From:   John Owens <
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        Date:   Monday, 23 Jan 1995 10:58:00 -0800
        Subj:   RE: SHK 6.0042  Re: *MV*: Act Five
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bradley S. Berens <
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Date:           Monday, 23 Jan 1995 09:36:22 -0800 (PST)
Subject: 6.0042 Re: *MV*: Act Five
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0042 Re: *MV*: Act Five
 
Greetings all,
 
I just read my dear friend Matt Henerson's comments about recent productions of
Merchant and the inability of a modern audience to re-enter the romance in Act
V.  I have two responses.
 
1)  Was it ever that easy to wallow in the romance of Belmont?  We only even
GET there after that odd scene between Bassanio--who must be the biggest drip
in the comedies--and Antonio.  That tends to inflect it away from "happy" for
me both in reading and in the productions I've scene. Also, at least in the
current political atmosphere Portia's intense xenophobia in 1.2 makes her less
attractive.
 
2)  More importantly, I remember having a discussion a few years ago-- it was
probably with the very same Matt Henerson-- in which the other person suggested
that Shylock, characterologically speaking, got away from Shakespeare and
popped out into three dimensions when, functionally speaking, he should have
been more like Marlowe's Barabas.  Norman Rabkin says along vaguely similar
lines that Shylock was one of the first truly individual characters with speech
patterns all his own:  "At this point in Shakespeare's career his ability to
create characters with authentic voices and to effect mercurial changes in his
audience's emotions leaped beyond what he had been able to do earlier..."
(Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning, 6-7).  Now, what I'm interested in is
the uncontainability of a character like Shylock.  I am NOT particularly
interested in whether or not he was more easily contained in the 1590s. What
does it mean that a character so exceeds his function as villain, hero, etc?
Other candidates might include Mercutio, or Malvolio (who is the same as
Shylock anyway).
 
Yours,
Bradley Berens
UC Berkeley
email: 
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(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John Owens <
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Date:           Monday, 23 Jan 1995 10:58:00 -0800
Subject: 6.0042  Re: *MV*: Act Five
Comment:        RE: SHK 6.0042  Re: *MV*: Act Five
 
Another way out?
 
First of all, I agree that the antisemitism in MV may prevent audiences from
enjoying Act V in the form Shakespeare intended. That said, I cannot imagine a
truly attentive audience buying Antonio as a fascist. This is equally, if not
more, unsatisying. Can a play be enjoyed if its author's intentions are so
completely ignored?
 
Secondly, I want to address a tendency I have seen in this discussion to ignore
or minimize Shylock's villainy. "Not nice" and "unpleasant" are gross
understatements. At the risk of repeating the obvious, allow me to summarize
Shylock's behavior. He fully intends to publicly skin a living human being in
front of his friends. This is sadistic, not "unpleasant". Mutilation for the
sheer pleasure of killing is absolutely unforgivable, and Shylock should
alienate any unbiased spectator here if not for the idiotic antisemitism of
some of the Christian characters. Directors who play up this prejudice to the
point where Shylock appears to be a prisoner in a concentration camp are merely
shooting themselves in the foot. First, because it isn't true, and second,
because the play makes no sense once the deeply bloodthirsty Shylock is made
the hero.
 
One answer to the MV problem was investigated in a production some years back
where Tubal was shown to be deeply contemptuous of Shylock in their scene
together. Recognizing his brutal temperament, he intentionally toys with him,
bringing him up and down for his own amusement. Unfortunately, this doesn't
really set Tubal in a very good light.
 
I guess I am at a loss to understand how this play can be salvaged in a century
sensitive to the results of religious and ethnic intolerance. Make Shylock the
hero -- you turn the play inside out and glorify the sadism of his revenge.
Make Shylock a snarling villain, and you seem to buy into the genuinely
repulsive teasing of his enemies. Finally, have we no other choice but to
recognize the play as a failure, albeit a failure not lightly dismissed, with
fine poetry and fascinating characterizations?
 
Regarding the breakdown of Lorenzo and Jessica's marriage: You can, I suppose,
play any dialogue as an argument if you shout and stamp your feet, but the text
really doesn't seem to support this course.
 
John Owen
 

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