The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 8.1265. Wednesday, 31 December 1997.
Date: Monday, 29 Dec 1997 10:01:08 -0600
My friend Thomas Johnson had these kinder remarks to make about the
referenced comments - I have suppressed the harsher ones. I thought the
group might be interested in his reaction to the original notes posted
to this site, and so forward them here.
Sent: Sunday, December 28, 1997 6:40 PM
... But I do not intend to take time to play Ann Landers. I am hunting
elephants. It is their(Spencer and Gross) inane remarks about The
Merchant that prompts me to my business. Let me sight the evidence.
Gross: "Is it still worth bothering with the Merchant of Venice? Some
aspects of the plot are so primitive and unpleasant that if you consider
the play in the abstract you may well wonder. But read it, or see a
decent production, and your are soon put at rest. Its poetry, dramatic
energy and fascinating ambiguity combine to give it lasting value." Let
me summarize: First two sentences. If you have never read or seen the
Merchant you might find parts of the plot primitive or unpleasant.(He of
course is describing all Greek plays and at least all of the Bard's
Tragedies).Second two sentences: It is more than a good play. But that
involves a tedious technicality---you must actually read or see a
How does one "find" the play anything if one does not read it or see it?
And how about Spencer? "Despite its enduring popularity at the box
office, The Merchant of Venice has always struck me as being one of the
least satisfactory of Shakespeare's plays.
"He set out, I think, to write a romantic comedy in which Shylock would
be merely a comic villain. But such was his human sympathy that the Jew
cracked the confines of the comedy."
This is the typical response to Merchant. Our contemporary emotions are
so moved by Shylock's treatment(the underdog) we ignore the text. In
fact the single most important fact or event in the play is the marriage
of Portia and Bassanio. Not what happens to Antonio and Shylock. It is
the marriage that prompts the loan from Shylock, that sends Portia to
the rescue and,among other events, the play ends with Portia exacting a
pledge from Antonio to obligate himself to her marriage with Bassanio.
And Portia teaches Bassanio that he had an absolute obligation to his
marriage vows that precluded the possibility of any other obligation. He
has no right to surrender the ring to any one not even in payment for
saving Antonio's life. It is the symbol of their union and takes
precedence over even his obligation to Antonio.
The world of Antonio is the world of the confident gambler. Both Shylock
and Antonio engage in activities inimical to social order. Shylock by
usury and Antonio with the risk to his own property and therefore the
risk to the disruption of property in general. It is a contemporary bias
that even though entrepreneurs (and bankers)periodically disrupt the
economic order(the current roiled markets in Southeast Asia)with great
harm all around, the good they do out weighs the bad. Shakespeare most
certainly had no reason to be as sanguine as we are.
To allow Shylock to dominate the foreground of our perception of the
play is to ignore-by actual count-most of the words of the play. An
unwise approach to reading Shakespeare. He could on occasion say what he