365 Days of Shakespeare

That's right – the Bard in a year.

259. The Merchant of Venice

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It is hard for me to talk about “The Merchant of Venice” without going on many tangents about antisemitism (or lack thereof, since it really is up for debate), but I will attempt to stay on topic.

One of the plays listed under the comedies, yet with a dark and serious overtone, Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” is one of the more problematic of the canon. It is not tongue-in-cheek enough to be a black comedy, dark enough to be a tragic, or light enough to be a romance, and yet there is something about it that keeps up its popularity despite these difficulties.

Following the story of the Jewish moneylender Shylock, “The Merchant of Venice” himself, Antonio, puts down a pound of his own flesh as collateral. While to an audience it may be clear he is just asking for trouble, Antonio seems certain no harm will befall him. Shylock is painted as a despicable character, hated not only for his faith but for his personality as well, though it is also made clear that he may be a victim of the circumstances. In a sympathetic moment, Shylock cries out, “hath not a Jew eyes?” in the face of two men who hate him and spit at him.

There is another plot concerning the beautiful lady Portia, whose marital fate is put into the hands of a game of chance by her late father. She meets several suitors before coming across the one she truly loves, a friend of Antonio’s named Bassanio, and it is usually with her that the familiar Shakespearean lightness comes through. Her servant, Nerissa, helps to provide Portia with the fuel for some razor-sharp witticisms in the general direction of the unpalatable suitors come to court.

Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, is also prominently featured. She does not love her father and runs away from him to be married, coming across the bumbling idiots known as Old Gobbo and Launcelot Gobbo, a father-son team of foppish, foolish servants to Shylock.

Though many of the conventions of comedy that Shakespeare helped to revamp and popularize – cross-dressing, mistaken identities, the presence of a fool (or two), romance, and a happy ending for the “good” characters – are all present, there is still the underlying problem with Shylock that makes this play difficult to take. He may be viewed as a pure villain when played a certain way, or he may be a sad and pathetic old man, bitter from being hated all his life (this is similar to the choice faced by actors portraying Richard III). Either way, the scene in which he is legally stripped of his faith is often one that is heartbreaking, and it is perhaps this scene that makes “The Merchant of Venice” such a problem.

Despite its many laugh lines and moments of light-hearted fun, and its undeniable beauty and command of language, “The Merchant of Venice” will always be stained with the inky blackness of hatred and prejudice.

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Written by Caroline Mincks

June 17, 2010 at 2:38 PM

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