Subscribe to Our Feeds

Current Postings RSS

Announcements RSS

Home :: Archive :: 2013 :: August ::
Merchant of Venice—Recent Essay & Question

 

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 24.0405  Thursday, 22 August 2013

 

[1] From:        Susan Rojas < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         August 12, 2013 10:19:52 AM EDT

     Subject:     Earlier SQ/Merchant Post - Further Observation 

 

[2] From:        David Basch < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         August 12, 2013 12:27:29 PM EDT

     Subject:     Re: SQ Merchant 

 

[3] From:        Donald Bloom < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         August 14, 2013 2:00:30 PM EDT

     Subject:     Re: SQ Merchant 

 

 

[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------

From:        Susan Rojas < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         August 12, 2013 10:19:52 AM EDT

Subject:     Earlier SQ/Merchant Post - Further Observation

 

Many thanks to all who responded to my earlier post, both on- and off-list. I’ve yet to do any sort of in-depth reading or research into Shakespeare’s use of Merchant as a commentary on religious intolerance/hypocrisy, but do I look forward to exploring that during my MA studies.  

 

One further observation: Emma Smith’s SQ essay speaks to the possible influence of immigration, but in Hannibal Hamlin’s response to my post, he suggests that “The Other” is a preoccupation unique to our times. This rather confuses me, however, as it appears from what I’ve read Elizabethan society was not that assimilated? Elizabethans may not have used the precise term “Other,” but as Hannibal states, there were “Jews, Moors, Turks, Africans, Irishmen, and Women.” That almost sounds as if there was no Elizabethan concept of “The Other” (or “The Different,” pick your label), but yet races/nationalities/religions were stereotyped, mocked, disparaged - Portia’s suitors, for example, in Merchant - and not just in Shakespeare. Are we simply debating the use of a specific term, or have I missed something? I am curious.   

 

Susan Rojas

 

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------

From:        David Basch < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         August 12, 2013 12:27:29 PM EDT

Subject:     Re: SQ Merchant

 

I take issue with Harry Berger’s assertion about Shakespeare’s belief about Jewish hard-heartedness since his play is more subtle than such a commonplace assumption of the fallen nature of the Jewish way. Berger writes:

 

   Jewishness would triumph over Christianity if Shylock’s

   call for judgment were to be repaid in kind, for then the

   Christians would be playing by Jewish rules and be untrue

   to themselves.

 

The fact is that, read carefully, Shylock is actually parodying Christian beliefs, showing Christians how he has learned to act out “the villainy you teach me.” It is Christian mercilessness that Shylock is imitating and mentions quite a few instances of this in their treatment of Venetian slaves, let alone the Christian hostility and unforgiveness of the Jews for the execution of Jesus, which, by the way, the New Testament tells was carried out by the Romans and, judging by the throngs coming out to greet him, was a punishment supported by only a small part of the people.

 

This scenario of the Merchant was proposed by actor-director Abraham Morevsky more than a half century ago in his book SHAKESPEARE AND SHYLOCK. Morevsky interpreted the play as depicting Shylock’s attempt to humble thehard heart of Antonio, getting him to plead for mercy from the Jew. Shylock was acting out what he saw as Christian villainy and hard-heartedness and that he had meant to renounce his “just claim” on Antonio in the bond before the open court. But, unfortunately for character Shylock, Portia pulls the rug out from under him before he can present his intended grand gesture that would show that he is unlike the Christians in their phony mercy and would show himself merciful as befits true Jewish sensibility.  Proof of this is the phony mercy that the Christians show Shylock.

 

In fact, Shylock is utterly beggered by Portia and the Court—yes, Portia is not one to follow her own teaching on mercy in her famous praise of mercy. The issue of the penalty against Shylock is somewhat muddied by the terminology of the terms used in the court and by Portia’s and Antonio’swords and is regularly, self-serfvingly, misunderstood.

 

Says the Duke and Portia:

 

    DUKE    That thou shalt see the difference of our spirits,

            I pardon thee thy life before thou ask it:

            For half thy wealth, it is Antonio's;

            The other half comes to the general state,

            Which humbleness may drive unto a fine.

 

    PORTIA  Ay, for the state, not for Antonio.

 

The Duke’s words, “Which humbleness may drive unto a fine” are opaque in meaning. Portia rejects whatever it means as applied to Antonio. That the Duke’s words, whatever they mean, give no relief to Shylock from the state is shown by Shylock’s plaint that this would knock out the supports of his life.

 

The Duke, apparently agreeing with Shylock about the implication of the penalty on him, than asks what mercy Antonio is willing to give Shylock. Says Antonio:

 

       So please my lord the duke and all the court

       To quit the fine for one half of his goods,

       I am content; so he will let me have

       The other half in use, to render it,

       Upon his death, unto the gentleman

       That lately stole his daughter:

 

What does it mean “To quit the fine for one half of his goods”? As we saw in the case of the state, there was no relief for Shylock. It means that Antonio is taking possession of that half. So Berger actually misreads the implication of this penalty. It does not mean “renounce” but to be paid out with this half—“quit” means to be paid out, remitted. Antonio goes on to seize the second half of Shylock’s wealth, to keep “in use,” to give to the rascal that “lately stole his daughter.”

 

I think we may draw a lesson from Portia’s parallel deal with Bassanio, in which she says, “One half of me is yours, the other half yours, / Mine own, I would say; but if mine, then yours, / And so all yours.”

 

It gets even worse for Shylock when on pain of death Shylock is forced to convert.

 

These terms are hardly mercy and is why commentator A.E. Moody can write about the play, “Christian values are represented in this play by their absence.”

 

I would also agree that Shylock’s, “I am content,” is resignation rather than submission or defiance. He had made a mess of things by trying to ape Christian behavior and got himself caught on the hook. He has been drawn and quartered by the court’s pseudo mercy and blames himself.

 

Shakespeare is exposing hypocrisy in a play whose underlying message is brotherhood. This is suggested by Gratiano’s praise of Jessica as she has robbed her father—“By my hood, a gentile and no Jew”—and in Morocco’s speech in which he declares that his blood is as red as that of the “fairest creature northward born” and by Portia’s callous dismissal of his sincere, ardent suit—“Let all of his complexion woo me so.” We saw it also in the matter of factness that Lorenzo “stole” Shylock’s minor daughter. We see it also in Portia’s failure to identify the Jew, meaning that, contrary to prejudice, Jews are not readily identified as other.

 

If most audiences don’t see these things, count on Shakespeare to have done so, to have indeed understood the implications of the words and juxtapositions he wrote into his play.

 

In sum, Shakespeare’s play is not your typical mystery play revealing what Christians believe about themselves, but a more subtle treatment directed to the conscience of future ages—as director Morevsky asserted in his analysis. It today remains a message that, except for some rare sensibilities, is dimly understood, self-criticism being hard to take and a point hard to make.

 

David Basch

 

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------

From:        Donald Bloom < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         August 14, 2013 2:00:30 PM EDT

Subject:     Re: SQ Merchant 

 

Harry Berger writes, “Despite her paean to the gentle rain, Portia responds to Shylock’s demands not with mercy but with strict justice. She respects his claim and treats the bond as seriously as it deserves. Since the forfeit in question would jeopardize Antonio’s life, she changes the charge to attempted murder.” 

 

1) His crime is attempted murder (and he would have done well to consult someone learned in the law before he proposed that bargain). The mercy he is offered is his freedom and his life. And I doubt very seriously he would have been so anxious to have the latter taken in lieu of half his wealth if he’d been taken up on his claim to the contrary.

 

2) I get very weary of the “poor little Shylock” reading of this play. How you can read IV, i without hating a man of such vindictive cruelty baffles me. He only wants his rival killed in an especially painful and public manner. It is a test of our capacity for mercy not to want something equally savage done to him.

 

3) The play is not a philosophical treatise, but is, in fact, closely related to the class of literature that includes folktale, fable and much of scripture.

 

4) The main thematic point of the play is the meaning and value of friendship. You could argue that it is, actually, love: friendship, romance and charity (in this case, mercy, but also generosity and self-sacrifice). But friendship comes first.

 

Cheers,

don

 
 

Other Messages In This Thread

©2011 Hardy Cook. All rights reserved.