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Home :: Archive :: 2011 :: July ::
Merchant of Venice in a Las Vegas Setting


The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 22.0150  Monday, 11 July 2011

[1]  From       Evelyn Gajowski < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
     Date:      July 10, 2011 10:50:36 AM EDT
     Subj:      MV -- Shylock as Tragic Figure

[2]  From       Arthur Lindley < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
     Date:      July 10, 2011 11:53:22 AM EDT
     Subj:      Re: the Merchant and the Madam

[3]  From:      Erin Weinberg < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
     Date:      July 10, 2011 3:38:34 PM EDT
     Subj:      Re: Merchant of Venice in a Las Vegas Setting

[4]  From       Carol Barton < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
     Date:      July 10, 2011 8:43:40 PM EDT
     Subj:      Re: Merchant of Venice in a Las Vegas Setting


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:         Evelyn Gajowski < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
Date:         July 10, 2011 10:50:36 AM EDT
Subject:      MV -- Shylock as Tragic Figure

Dear Fellow SHAKSPEReans,
 
I’ve been reading the comments on the RSC production of MV with interest.  While I’m not going to presume to comment on a production I haven’t seen, I would like to point out that the onstage representation of Shylock as a tragic figure is not new.  The representation of an idealized Shylock was popular on the Victorian stage, culminating in Henry Irving’s celebrated representation, as Don Wayne notes (n. 10) in his contribution, “Power, Politics, and the Shakespearean Text,” to Jean Howard’s and Marion O’Connor’s collection, Shakespeare Reproduced (Routledge, 1987).  For those interested in pursuing the matter, more research and more recent research in this regard must surely exist in the annals of Shakespeare scholarship / theatre history.  Wayne cites Toby Lelyveld, Shylock on the Stage (Routledge, 1961).  Both Lelyveld and Wayne attribute the early-20th-century shift away from Victorian idealization to “sociohistorical” factors – i.e., changing demographics, increasing Jewish populations in London and NYC.   
 
All the best,
Evelyn Gajowski
University of Nevada, Las Vegas

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:         Arthur Lindley < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
Date:         July 10, 2011 11:53:22 AM EDT
Subject:      Re: the Merchant and the Madam

I haven't seen the RSC Merchant yet, having been put off by just about everything I've read about it.  I can certainly concur with John Drakakis, however, about their version of The City Madam: an underrated play given a first-rate production.  See it now; it may be fifty years before you get another chance.

Regards,
Arthur

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:         Erin Weinberg < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
Date:         July 10, 2011 3:38:34 PM EDT
Subject:      Re: Merchant of Venice in a Las Vegas Setting

I would like to offer a response to Donald Bloom’s post, titled “Concerning MOV.” The issue I take with Bloom’s argument is that it reduces this highly ambivalent text to one of a black-white moral binary.

While I agree that turning The Merchant of Venice into a “Tragedy of Shylock” reduces the text to one side of its inherent ambivalence, to call it “ugly and silly,” Bloom offers no explanation regarding how doing so diminishes the text’s richness, and neglects how one-sided the text would be if it were likewise reduced to the “Triumph of Antonio.”  This is not to say that perhaps Merchant of Venice was originally performed as the latter, but the chief reason why the play is still produced in today’s more politically-correct Western world is because we choose to tap into the moral complexity of questioning when vengeance and mercy are acceptable in themselves or acceptable to forgo. The beauty of the play’s vague title is that one cannot be sure to whom Shakespeare is referring, and if the referent is the protagonist or antagonist.

Bloom suggests: “the play is not about either bigotry or guilt,” suggesting that its sole theme is “mercy (and so, also, about love, generosity, agape).” This diminishes the text’s rich meaning once again, focusing too deeply on the qualities superficially exuded in the world of lovers at Belmont. Likewise, it pulls focus away from life on the Rialto, the “Venice” in which the “Merchant” or, to be more exact, merchants, conduct their lives and business. Bloom argues that “The antithesis of this quality of mercy is a man motivated by hate, vengefulness, and spite (mixed with greed),” but these qualities are not only manifested by Shylock, but by Antonio and the ostensibly love-driven Bassanio, as well. Antonio risks his life out of love for his friend, but this risk comes from making a deal with somebody whom he has wronged in the past. The text cannot be clearer in providing the audience with Shylock’s rationale for hating of Antonio:

Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
 About my moneys and my usances:
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,
For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gabardine,
 And all for use of that which is mine own.
 Well then, it now appears you need my help:
 Go to, then; you come to me, and you say
' Shylock, we would have moneys:' you say so;
 You, that did void your rheum upon my beard
 And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
 Over your threshold: moneys is your suit
 What should I say to you? Should I not say
'Hath a dog money? is it possible
 A cur can lend three thousand ducats?' Or
 Shall I bend low and in a bondman's key,
With bated breath and whispering humbleness, Say this; 
'Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last;
 You spurn'd me such a day; another time 
You call'd me dog; and for these courtesies 
I'll lend you thus much moneys'?

Antonio trades spite for spite with the Jewish moneylender. He responds:


I am as like to call thee so again,
 To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.
If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not 
As to thy friends; for when did friendship take 
A breed for barren metal of his friend? 
But lend it rather to thine enemy,
 Who, if he break, thou mayst with better face
 Exact the penalty.

Antonio recognizes that a penalty must be exacted upon a defaulted loan, and welcomes Shylock to “exact the penalty”; Antonio goads the moneylender with further threats of bodily harm, which he fully acknowledges puts himself at risk of penalty. How could Antonio hope for mercy when he shows full awareness of his crimes and accepts his potential punishment? Does he not seal this agreement through a notary? The play offers a clear double standard: the foreigner attempts to obey the letter of his notarized agreement, and is accused of committing a crime because he has not been more lenient with the Venetian Antonio, who breaks the agreement that he himself has signed.

I strongly disagree with Bloom’s argument that “no decent person could have the slightest sympathy for a man who insists on the death penalty for a defaulted loan payment, especially one that could be easily repaid.” Shylock is not requesting the death penalty: he asks for “an equal pound / Of [Antonio’s] fair flesh, to be cut off and taken / In what part of [Antonio’s] body pleaseth [him]” – Antonio has the opportunity to change the terms of the agreement before signing with the notary. Bassanio even tries to prevent his friend from making this deal for his sake, but Antonio laughs it off, saying:

Why, fear not, man; I will not forfeit it: 
Within these two months, that's a month before 
This bond expires, I do expect return
 Of thrice three times the value of this bond.

Ironically, Antonio speaks of his money multiplying, sounding uncannily like his enemy, whom he hates, spurns, spits upon and beats for making money atop of the money he lends. Too add even further irony to dispel Bloom’s implicit suggestion that the “greed” comes only from the Jewish quarter, this money is borrowed for the sake of Bassanio, who needs a small portion of capital in order to multiply his own fortunes through marrying the heiress Portia. Although she is best known to speak upon the “quality of mercy,” her economic language purveys the same images of multiplying “moneys” in the lines:
 
What, no more? 
Pay him six thousand, and deface the bond;
 Double six thousand, and then treble that,
 Before a friend of this description
 Shall lose a hair through Bassanio's fault.    

It is difficult to be sure which characters have influenced which on the notion of money (re)producing more money, but I would like to suggest that Shylock’s unabashed status as moneylender makes him the chicken that lays the egg. He leads, and they follow, like a youth wishing to ignore the fact that he has, indeed, become just like his father. In the most poignant line of the play, Shylock coldly but rightfully threatens: “The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”

In saying that “the simple truth is that Shylock is a horrible villain whether he gets insulted and spat upon or not,” Bloom neglects the essential truth that violence breeds violence in selfsame way that the gentile party of the play chooses to ignore but enact the fact that money breeds money. The characters in this play do not live in a vacuum of black-white morality: in being merchants of Venice, Antonio and Shylock must co-exist. Therefore, although mercy is best demonstrated by example, villainy is, too, a trait that is learned from others and will, likewise, be turned against its enforcers.

Thank you for your time,
Erin Weinberg
Doctoral Student
English Literature
Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario, Canada

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:         Carol Barton < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
Date:         July 10, 2011 8:43:40 PM EDT
Subject:      Re: Merchant of Venice in a Las Vegas Setting

There are those who would laugh to hear me tarred as an intellectual liberal, but I fail to understand how anyone--even a distinguished scholar--can make definitive pronouncements about "what MoV is about"--or uncharitable comments about those who subscribe to alternative interpretations. I can see the play both ways, rather like an Escher print--and while I'd agree that it's about mercy (vs. justice) I am not as sure as Professor Bloom that it extols the virtues of the Christians who should embody it (none of whom strikes me as particularly merciful to anyone external to the inner circle). The contemporary populist vision of the stereotypical Jew is certainly present in Shylock--but he doesn't begin his association with the title character full of hatred or resentment or anything else resembling a Nazi profile . . . it is only when the Christians who have come to take advantage of him as a non-entity who has something they need openly display their contempt that his rancor is stirred. Shylock is not a pretty character--but he has been wronged, within the context of the play, as none of his "victims" have been. Those who nominally subscribe to the New Testament mete out a "justice" almost as cruel as the one he seeks--what does that make them?
 
I think perhaps Shakespeare is a bit more subtle in his crafting of this play than some might be willing to recognize--because of their own ingrained prejudices?--which is potentially the point. Sometimes the mirror held up to nature reflects images less attractive than those we wish to see. All of the problem plays--so-called in my day at least--seem to have that more darkly bifurcated vision of humanity that leaves nothing cut and dried.
 
I recognize that I am baiting the hounds of hell, but for Hardy's sake, I hope the gentles and scholars among us are capable of recognizing that the sniping at and ad hominem flogging of those who dare to disagree with the "regular" authorities on this list in the past have driven many of us lesser beings away. I hope to gain insight from scholarly disputes . . . not to come away from them sickened and dismayed by what passes for debate.
 
Best to all,
Carol Barton


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