The Merchant of Venice
Everyone loves a happy ending. In romantic comedies love always triumphs against adversity whether between or against the central characters, but real life isn't like a romantic comedy. In real life things get more complicated and the end result may not be as sweet as you thought it would be. In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare took a simple formulaic story of young lovers who strive against their older parents to be with the ones they love and gave it a dose of complicated reality. Though, the story ends with not one but three young couples in the arms of their beloved, the audience does not feel at ease with their final happy ending. Perhaps this is because of how they achieve their happy endings and the types of people who we are cheering for. Above all the play is, though its often overlooked today, a comedy, filled with hysterical dialogue and memorable characters, but it does make you think. The reason it makes you think is due to one very memorable and very human character, Shylock. Though he only appears in 6 scenes, he is a more fully formed person than larger characters in the show. His downfall is key to the success of the love story and while his own short sightedness leads to his undoing, you can't help but feel sorry for him and uneasy about the so called heroes you're supposed to be rooting for.
The play as it appeared in the 1623 First Folio
Bassanio, an opportunistic young man seeks a loan from his best friend Antonio, a prosperous merchant, to court the rich Portia, not for love but for financial gain. Antonio, not having the money, decides he will borrow the money from a man he despises simply because he is different, Shylock - the money lender. Shylock is despised because he is a Jew and because of the ill treatment he usually receives he is wary of anyone who is not of his group. He agrees to lend the money only if Antonio will give up a pound of flesh if the loan is not repaid. A subplot features Shylock's his daughter Jessica seeking to run away from her over possessive father and elope with her lover Lorenzo. Portia, assisted by her friend Nerissa, is stifled by her father's will that stipulates that she can only marry a man who correctly chooses among 3 caskets or chests made of Gold, Silver and Lead. Each casket contains a letter that follows a certain moral theme and each suitor must abide by the directive laid in the letter. Though Bassanio achieves in choosing the right casket, he learns that Antonio has defaulted on the loan and Shylock wants his pound of flesh. Through Portia's help disguised as a male lawyer, Antonio is spared and Shylock is ruined and all live happily ever after, but do we live happily ever after? This "happy" ending includes a man who is ruined both financially and spiritually, while a gold digging suitor, his bigoted friends and Shylock's own ungrateful daughter riding off into the sunset.
Merchant was a departure from its source material of Il Pecorone (The Simpleton) by Giovanni Fiorentino and other playwrights of the period such as Marlowe that featured Jews as money grubbing evil people. So dominating was the character of Shylock that contemporary references actually referred to the play as "The Jew of Venice". The play's anti-Semitism has fueled it's controversy and allure and has some accusing Shakespeare of having those very same views. However, as usual with Shakespeare, the work that causes controversy also cures the controversy. Shylock's famous "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech has been a rallying cry for Jewish commentators evoking their own humanity. While the themes of intolerance may resonate more now than in Shakespeare's time, he got his point across. Those alien to your culture are people as well and deserve to be treated as such. This is a theme that he would revisit again in Othello and his addition to the play of Sir Thomas More. Also, those beautiful people of the popular crowd aren't as savory as they appear to be but they are not all bad and you can find good relatable qualities in Bassanio and his friends. Conversely, Shylock is himself overbearing and needlessly vengeful, which hoists him by his own petard. Instead of heeding Portia's call for forgiveness in her famous "twice blest" speech and quitting while he was ahead, Shylock is figuratively hung by his own rope.
The title page from the play's first printing in 1600 featuring some of the play's high points.
Like real life, the play has many shades of grey. It can be enjoyed for its great comedy, struggling lovers, pathos or as a riveting courtroom drama. Above all, it makes you ponder on many themes, which is what Shakespeare intended. Merchant, written in 1596-97, is quite unlike the previous comedies of A Mid Summer Night's Dream and Taming of the Shrew, that it seems written for a more literate audience that would have gotten it's many nuisances. At the time of its writing, Shakespeare's company had just purchased a section of an old monastery called the Blackfriars, which they wanted to turn into a year round theater catering to London's elite. Merchant may have been intended as the debut show in this new upscale theater. However, this same group of patrons, fearing disreputable types littering their upscale area, petitioned the queen's government for the company not to be granted a license to play in the Blackfriars. The effort was successful and Shakespeare's company rented out the theater, not utilizing the space until a decade later.
What caused Shakespeare to have such a sympathetic view of Jews and other aliens to London? Could it be he empathized not being a native Londoner himself or could he have been influenced by a good friend? The leading candidate for Shakespeare's Dark Lady of the Sonnets is Emilia Bassano Lanier, the daughter of a Jewish Venetian musician who emigrated to England. Parallels in the play suggest that she may have been on Shakespeare's mind when he wrote the play. The main suitor is named Bassanio, the name of Shylock is derived from the Hebrew Shallach meaning usurer and was not commonly known unless to someone who was familiar with the language. Also, music plays a large role in the play as a disruptive, undermining force and as a healing force for love. Even the character of Portia herself, a women who wanted to live her own life and not be subjugated by her father's memory is very similar to Lanier's personality. Whatever the influence, Merchant remains one of Shakespeare's most popular and controversial works often suiting the intent of the person who is presenting it. To quote a line from the show "The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose" and such is the case with this multi-faceted play.
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