The Merchant of Venice

Remember that whole thing I said about there being no wrong way to read a story?  It’s kind of my motto.  Sure, it helps if you can back up your interpretation with what’s actually in the text, and learning about a story’s background may affect how you approach the subject matter. Ultimately, though, we all read things differently and in the end, it doesn’t really matter what the author intended – all that matters is how the story affects us and how we react to it.  (At the risk of starting a flame war, I refer to the example of the Bible.  For better or worse, fact or fiction, regardless of what the original writers intended, etc., it is difficult to deny the Bible’s influence on shaping the history of the Western world.)

That being said, I acknowledge that an Elizabethan audience would react differently to The Merchant of Venice than I do.  Does that make my reading of it wrong?  Nope.  Does it mean my reading is the more enlightened one?  Nope.  But since this is my blog, you’ll either have to settle for my perspective or find something else to do.  End of disclaimer.

As the curtain rises, we begin our play with the merchant of Venice, Antonio.  Antonio has a sad and he doesn’t know why.  Fortunately, he also has a couple of friends around to try to cheer him up.  (I’ve always assumed they’re twins since their names are Salarino and Salanio.  Are they really?  Who knows.  Either way, they’re pretty much interchangeable.)  In that obnoxious way that friends do, they try to guess why Antonio is sad.  One suggests “Maybe you’re sad because your merchant ships are out at sea, leaving your livelihood in potential turmoil,” in such a way that establishes our background quite quickly and will in no way become a future plot point.

Antonio shrugs this off with a very eloquent “Meh, I don’t put all my eggs in one basket,” by which he means that his ships are spread out so that losing one won’t hurt his overall ventures.

Since it’s not a money issue, the logical conclusion is, “Oh, then you’re in love” and Antonio protests with a mature “NUH-UH!”  Nobody really seems to believe him.

(Full disclosure here:  I concur with the 57 academics who punched the air whilst watching the Shakespeare episode of Doctor Who.  For those of you who aren’t hopeless nerds, it was a reference to Shakespeare’s possible bisexuality.  As evidence, I direct you to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 20, which I have unpoetically summarized as “Dude, you’ve got a face like a woman but without the attitude.  No, seriously though, you’re hot. Too bad all the girls love you.  I would totally be in the running for a piece of that, if only you didn’t have heterosexual dudebits.”  This sonnet has a bit of an influence on how I read Antonio, so let’s get to that.)

Enter Bassanio and his posse, and all their friends comment on Antonio’s sadness with a wink and nudge at Bassanio before departing (OK, so I may have imagined the wink).  Now that they’re alone, Antonio asks Bassanio about his secret girlfriend, and Bassanio tells him about his troubles pursuing her because he’s spent all his money.  Again.  Fortunately, Antonio is single, loaded, and woefully smitten, so he offers Bassanio his purse, his person, and anything else he wants, really.

Bassanio, a little oblivious to friendzoning the pal who just offered himself on a platter, asks for just the money, please, and continues on about his fair Portia of Belmont, who apparently reminds him of a golden fleece with many Jasons pursuing her (Which is a weird metaphor and causes me to ponder who Medea is in this situation.)  Antonio, it turns out, doesn’t actually have any cash on him, and goes off to borrow some.  And in this play, kids, we will learn why banks are the root of all evil.

The scene changes to the aforementioned fair Portia, who philosophizes with her handmaid Nerissa about her own sadness (I spy parallels!)  Her sadness is pretty easy to figure out, though: she is being raffled off by her dead father.  Now, her dad was a religious guy, but when confronted with the dilemma of finding her a good husband after his death, he opted for the carnival model instead:  “Step right up, gentlemen.  I present to you, three lovely chests – one of gold, one of silver, and one of bronze.  Pick the right one, you get the girl.  Pick the wrong one and not only do you have to leave immediately, you must remain single forever.” (I’m not sure how this rule is supposed to be enforced, but I assume it’s there for dramatic effect.)

Portia handles the situation fairly well, joking with Nerissa about all of her suitors thus far, tossing in as many stereotype jokes as they can think up. (The Germans are always drunk!)  Okay, so everyone’s a little bit racist.  It’s a theme in this play.  Their talks turn eventually to that Bassanio guy (and wasn’t he a nice one, wink wink, nudge nudge) before they are summoned off to the next man to try his luck at the guessing game.

Meanwhile, Bassanio is negotiating with his friendly neighborhood Jewish banker, Shylock, to borrow 3,000 ducats for 3 months, with Antonio being held accountable for it.  Now, I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a questionable way to do business – “Oh yeah, put it on my friend’s bill.  No, he totally knows I’m doing this, I swear.”  Fortunately, Shylock agrees with me and asks to speak to Antonio before they actually go through with it.  Bassanio invites him to dinner and Shylock rolls his eyes and declines sarcastically (“Sure, let’s go eat pork.  Yeah, never mind the fact that I’m Jewish, I love pork. Then maybe tomorrow, we can go to church and share a cup of Jesus blood while I tell you which disciple is my favorite.”)  There may also be some minor religious conflict in this play.

Bassanio probably has no idea he’s getting the stink-eye, but is fortunately saved by the chance to introduce Antonio to Shylock.  Unfortunately, it looks like they’re already acquainted.  Shylock informs the audience in voiceover that he’s not a fan of Christians in general, but hates Antonio in particular because the guy lends money without interest, which jeopardizes Shylock’s job.

I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to assume from Shylock’s aside that he is an evil Disney villain, but I can’t help but bring up a point of context:  If I remember right, at the time, Jewish people weren’t allowed to do many jobs – they had a curfew and were segregated into ghettos most of the time; Judaism was also illegal in parts of England during Shakespeare’s era, so he probably didn’t know anyone himself.  Banking was one job Jewish people could take because “good Christians” weren’t allowed to be usurers (i.e. loan money with interest).  They could make a living off of the interest, which in turn brought around the stereotype of the “money-grubbing Jew.”

So when Shylock mentions the interest rate, the others naturally protest on grounds of “Friends don’t charge friends interest!”  Shylock in turn brings up his valid complaints of them not being friends.  We learn that Antonio is also an anti-Semitic bully – calling him a dog, spitting at him, kicking him, etc.  Not much of a reason for Shylock to do them any favors.  But Shylock offers the olive branch, saying they can be friends and he’ll lend money without interest.

On one condition.

If the money doesn’t get paid back in 3 months, Antonio owes him a pound of flesh from whichever part of his body Shylock wants.  (I think, perhaps, Antonio should stop offering himself on a platter and giving people ideas.)  Most people think he’s joking.  Bassanio is the only one who thinks this is moderately creepy, but he is ignored and they head off to sign the bond.

We get a brief interlude in which Launcelot Gobbo the clown plays a trick on his blind father by pretending that he is dead.  It’s pretty mean.  I have no idea why this scene is in here, but apparently Shakespeare realized that he was writing a comedy and comedies need clowns.  (To which I answer: No, they do not.  No one needs clowns.  Clowns are terrifying.  These days we are entertained by cats on the internet, so please send away the clowns.)  At any rate, Launcelot is the servant of Shylock, and as they run into Bassanio, he relates the woeful tale of having to serve him. What exactly that woeful tale is, I’m not sure.  Apparently having a Jewish master is self-explanatory.  Bassanio tells him to ditch Shylock and hang out at his own house so he can be a good Christian.  No wonder Shylock hates these guys.

While Bassanio prepares to go to Belmont to woo Portia, Launcelot goes home and starts his own packing, saying his farewells to Shylock’s daughter, Jessica.  She is also distraught about being Jewish and we suddenly learn that she is in love with Bassanio’s friend Lorenzo (and I wonder how often these characters would actually get a chance to interact).  Later, while Antonio and Bassanio are having dinner with Shylock (guess he gave in to the pork after all), their friends plot to kidnap Jessica to save her from her Jewishness.

Shylock gets home from what I assume is an awkward meal.  He is most displeased that people outside are wearing masks, drinking and engaging in what humans generally refer to as “having fun.”  He doesn’t appreciate drunken hoodlums, so he tells his daughter to shut the doors and stay in with him so they can be sober and bored together.  This is the last straw for her.  That night, Jessica grabs a small fortune, sneaks out wearing men’s clothes (as one does), and runs away with Lorenzo.  This will end well.

The scene changes and we cue the carnival theme music.  (Or should that be Carnevale? I guess we are in Venice after all.) Portia is hosting the Prince of Morocco, who is pontificating grandiosely whilst contemplating the caskets.  Which will it be, good sir?  Gold, silver, or lead?  He eventually concludes that the golden casket is the only one worthy of such a lady, but when he opens it, he finds a skull inside instead.  Portia’s dad must have been fun to have at parties.

Time passes, and the twins have the expository role of informing us of Shylock’s anguish of losing his daughter and his money, as well as Antonio’s loss of one of his ships, followed by his heartbreak as Bassanio left for Portia’s place.

But cue the carnival music again!  Portia is showing the caskets to the Prince of Arragon.  What will he choose?  Oh, and he goes for silver and gets another consolation prize – a painting of a clown, which will look very nice in his bachelor pad’s  man-cave.  Sound the buzzer, friends, this one is also gone.  Better luck next time!  By process of elimination, we now know that the grand prize is in the lead casket.  But which one will Bassanio choose?  (I think we already know.)

We get more ill tidings as we learn from the expository twins that another ship of Antonio’s is wrecked.  I wonder if this is the work of various jilted princes venting their frustrations as they sail home after losing a casket-guessing game.

Meanwhile, Shylock is Not Happy.  He is so Not Happy that he ignores all pleas for mercy on Antonio’s misfortunes.  He’s lost everything that matters (much like Antonio – do you see the parallels, too?) and he points this out with his famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech. (In that speech, I am nodding solemnly with him up to the point where he asks “if you tickle us, do we not laugh?”  Then I get sidetracked wondering if a big tickle fest could have averted all that trouble – maybe even have prevented the Holocaust?  I guess we’ll never know.  Anyway.)  Shylock becomes a very sympathetic character in his plea for equal treatment.  Shakespeare doesn’t always create nuanced characters, but here he succeeds.  He starts with the Jewish villain stereotype and then paints him into a real person.  I would love to know how the character was originally played on stage, and how the Elizabethan audience reacted to his humanization.

Shylock is informed by a friend that his daughter has been spotted around.  In his grief, he wishes his daughter were dead and he had the money back (Okay, so maybe he doesn’t want my sympathy after all).  He perks up a bit hearing about Antonio’s further misfortune, but falls back into depression upon learning that Jessica traded her mother’s ring for a monkey.  And let’s be fair, here – a monkey is not a wise investment, especially when you’re just starting out as newlyweds and your finances are so unstable that you’re relying on bartering heirlooms you stole from your dad.  I mean, I get that he’s a bit of a penny-pincher, but that doesn’t mean you have to overcompensate, girl.

Cue the carnival music once again!  (Is anyone else getting whiplash from these scene changes?)  Drum roll please!  Bassanio is up to bat, so everyone give the man a round of applause!

Portia is among those giving Bassanio an especially big round of applause, as well as a few nudges along the way.  No favoritism here, no siree.  She encourages him to put the game off for a while so that they can hang out before he chooses wrong and has to leave.  (And what faith she has in him!) Bassanio is on a schedule, though.  He immediately casts aside the gold and silver caskets for being gaudy and goes straight for the lead, which has an inscription that reads “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.”  I find it pretty ironic, considering everything he’s risking is Antonio’s anyway.  Inside, he finds Portia’s portrait, as we suspected he would. (Though I think it would be a great twist if her dead dad had made all three fake and the real casket was hidden somewhere else entirely.)

Bassanio is happy with the outcome, Portia is happy with the outcome, and we assume there is a happy ending.  Portia gives him her ring, and with it, her house, her servants, herself, etc.  Bassanio puts the ring on his finger (And are their fingers the same size or what?  Does Portia have man hands?  That certainly alludes to future events…) and swears that if he parts from the ring, he will die.  This promise will in no way turn around and bite him in the butt later.

We know this is a Shakespearean comedy because suddenly Portia’s handmaid Nerissa and Bassanio’s companion Gratiano are also getting married (regardless of the fact that they’ve never interacted before).  And to make absolutely sure it’s a comedy, in come Lorenzo and Jessica.  They’re also together!  Happy ending for all!  Cue the triple wedding and –

Wait, what’s this?

One of the twins appears with a letter from Antonio.  Oh yeah, him.  We were all ready for our happy ending, but we almost forgot our Venetian merchant!  Bassanio reads the letter and it’s not good.  He confesses to Portia that he’s actually broke and on top of that, borrowed money from his best friend, who in turn had to borrow it from his arch nemesis.

According to the letter, not one of Antonio’s merchant ships has come in, and Shylock now demands his pound of flesh.  Portia hears how much he owes and waves it off like a sugar mama, offering to pay triple that.  (Various unreliable internet searches inform me that 3,000 ducats is equivalent to anywhere from $3,000 to $500,000 today.  Even on the low end, this begs the question: who needs that much money to visit someone’s house and open a box?!) Bassanio reads the letter to her thusly:

“Sweet Bassanio, my ships have all miscarried, my creditors grow cruel, my estate is very low, my bond to the Jew is forfeit; and since, in paying it, it is impossible I should live, all debts are clear’d between you and I, if I might but see you at my death. Notwithstanding, use your pleasure; if your love do not persuade you to come, let not my letter.”

Even if it’s just a bromantic plea and not an epistle of love, it’s a bit mournful.  Portia sends Bassanio off to help Antonio, saying they can celebrate their marriage when he comes back.  Then things get awesome.  Whereas a normal star-crossed woman might bemoan the absence of her love, Portia has better things to do.  She leaves her house in the care of Lorenzo and Jessica and says she’ll run away to a nunnery with Nerissa for a while.  No one bats an eye, so I guess this is a common thing to do whilst waiting for one’s husband.

But get to a nunnery, they do not.  Instead, Portia follows in Jessica’s footsteps and opts for the solution used by nearly every strong female character in Shakespeare:  She dresses up like a man.  This is a tried and true catch-all solution to many kinds of problems.  Visiting a lover?  Dress up like a man.  Need to escape detection?  Dress up like a man.  Stranded on the shores of a hostile country?  Dress up like a man.  Is it really necessary?  Who cares.  Now people will take you seriously.  (And since there were no female actors in Shakespeare’s day, I guess it got the boys out of their corsets for a while.)

Though I do wonder why Portia is going in the first place.  Does she assume her husband is too incompetent to save his best friend?  Does she want to be sure they’re not just making excuses and running off with her cash?  Is she really just bored of being stuck at home watching people pick a box, any box?  Whatever the case, it’s more interesting than a nunnery.

Antonio’s trial finally rolls around, and we see that the Duke presiding over the case is less than impartial.  He implores Shylock to show mercy because, really, what is a pound of another man’s flesh worth?

It’s worth sweet, sweet revenge, replies Shylock (rubbing his hands together gleefully, one assumes).  Bassanio offers him double the money, but does not realize that this point, it’s no longer about that to Shylock.  He’s had a very bad three months.

Thus begins a nice long verbal battle (my favorite thing about Shakespeare) in the form of a court scene.  The group pleads again for mercy, and what can he really do with someone’s flesh anyway?  Shylock points out that many of them have slaves and do what they want with them because they own them; likewise, he owns that pound of flesh just over Antonio’s heart.  They wait for the lawyer.  Bassanio tells Antonio to cheer up, Antonio considers himself fit to die, and Shylock not-so-subtly sharpens his knife.

Enter Portia and Nerissa, dressed like men, wielding a letter that states that the doctor of law everyone is expecting is otherwise preoccupied, but Portia is totally competent, honest.  We cringe a little and hope that she’s at least spent her youth familiarizing herself with law books, trying to find loopholes in her dad’s ridiculous will.  Whatever the case, she manages to convince the court that she’s a professional.

Her first move is to insist that Shylock be merciful, but everyone’s tried that one already and he’s not budging.  So Portia grants him his pound of flesh as being perfectly legal under the terms of the bond.  Everyone braces for impact, and it’s all very dramatic.

Antonio holds Bassanio’s hand and professes his love.  He hopes Bassanio will tell his wife how much Antonio loves him (which is kind of a weird passive-aggressive move).  Bassanio in turn offers to sacrifice his wife, his life, and the whole world for Antonio.  It would be a very sweet moment were Portia not standing right there.  Gratiano doesn’t help matters when he wishes his own wife were dead if it meant he could change Shylock’s mind.  I am with Shylock as he exclaims “These be the Christian husbands!”

But, come on, what’s a wife or two among friends?

Of course, Portia does not let Shylock murder the little home-wrecker.  She lets them all sweat awhile and in the nick of time, she points out the fine print.  Nowhere in the bond does it say Shylock can take any blood.  In fact, if he sheds one drop of Christian blood, the state of Venice gets all of his goods, lands, etc.

Gratiano echoes the audience as he exclaims, “Ohh, snap!”

The tide turns.  Shylock quickly accepts that this is the law, declines his pound of flesh, and offers to take his money and go away peacefully.  Bassanio is quite all right with that.

Portia is not.

Portia, I imagine, is not having a good day.  Sure, she saved everyone’s bacon (ha ha, did you like my anti-Semitic joke, huh, did you), but she realized her husband is kind of an unreliable guy and that she just might be spending the rest of her married life as a beard.  So she insists on Shylock taking his bond. (“Only the flesh, remember!” – no blood or hairs or nipples.  Do nipples count as flesh?  Is that mentioned in the bond?  The jury demands clarification.)

Shylock is trying to throw in the towel and bow out, but Portia still isn’t done.  She calls him back because apparently death threats against Venetian citizens are against the law.  For these threats, the victim gets half of the perpetrator’s goods, Venice gets the other half, and the Duke gets to decide if a death sentence is in order. (Though I wonder, if this is the case, wouldn’t the bond have been illegal in the first place?)

The duke declines the death sentence and says the amount of Shylock’s goods owed to the state can be driven down to a fine if he plays nice.  Antonio wants Shylock to keep half his goods, with the other half going to Jessica and Lorenzo.  And as a teensy little side note, Shylock also has to become a Christian.  (An Elizabethan audience probably thinks this is an excellent and charitable ending.  I’m a little bit queasy when it comes to forced religious conversions, not to mention the fact that he’s probably going to lose his job.)  Shylock has no choice but to accept all this, and goes miserably on his way.  That’s the end of him.

Everyone thanks Portia for her work (still thinking she’s a man, of course) and wants to take her out to dinner, but she declines.  Bassanio insists on giving her a parting gift, but she declines that too – until at last she concedes and insists on taking Antonio’s gloves and Bassanio’s ring.  I have no idea what the gloves symbolize, but we saw the ring foreshadowed so we knew it was coming back to haunt us.  Bassanio refuses to give it to her, calling it a trifle (you are in so much trouble for that, mister) and off she goes in a huff.  At Antonio’s insistence, he changes his mind and sends Gratiano after her.

Portia is a little disappointed to get her ring back, and because these ladies are a little bit evil, Nerissa conspires to get her own husband’s ring.

Meanwhile Lorenzo and Jessica are being schmoopy and loveydovey and no one really cares about them until Portia and Nerissa return (not acting suspicious at all, no siree).  Their husbands return soon after with Antonio in tow.  Portia invites him into the house, but she sounds a little jealous as she claims that his welcome “must appear in other ways than words.”

Suddenly Gratiano and Nerissa start up a lover’s quarrel because she’s “discovered” that he gave away her ring.  Portia’s biting commentary is something along the lines of “Good thing my husband would never give away the ring he took with an oath.”  Upstanding fellow that he is, Gratiano points a tattletale finger at Bassanio, who cowers as he realizes his wife is a little bit of a sadist.  Meanwhile Antonio stands awkwardly in the middle, chiming in with a weak “This is my fault guys,” and, because it worked so well last time, offers himself as a bond to ensure that Bassanio will never break faith again.

Portia takes him up on the offer and gives her own ring to Antonio to give to Bassanio, saying that she got it by sleeping with the lawyer.  Eventually she puts him out of his misery and admits to the crossdressing.  Rather than getting upset by all the tests, Bassanio’s reply is “Sweet doctor, you shall be my bedfellow: when I am absent, then lie with my wife.”  They’re going to have an odd, interesting sort of marriage.

Antonio has recovered enough to thank her for everything, and a mysteriously appearing letter informs him that some of his ships have returned.  Nerissa makes sure Jessica gets her dad’s money, and all the newlyweds retire to their chambers.  Now we have our happy ending.  …I guess?

A punny person once said that “all comedies end in marriage,” which is why I wonder why a play called The Merchant of Venice does not end with a marriage for said merchant.  In fact, the characters who seem to get the worst deal here are Shylock and Antonio.  On the one hand, Shylock loses everything important to him – his daughter, his religion, most of his money – but we expect this outcome because he is the “villain” of the piece.  What has Antonio gained for his troubles?  Yes, I suppose he is wealthy again, but he has gone above and beyond the expectations of friendship and is not really rewarded for his heroism as one might expect in comedy, where, if nothing else, he would normally get a wife.  Is the whole point of him supposed to be an embodiment of “Christian charity” that is its own reward?  I don’t know.  But to me it makes sense that, if he is a gay man in Elizabethan times, he doesn’t get a happy ending for cultural reasons – because he can’t get the guy, no matter how good of a person he is otherwise.  It’s a complicated mess that doesn’t have an easy resolution and for me, at least, it adds a fascinating layer to the character, the play, and to Shakespeare in general.

What do you think?  Comments, questions, suggestions?

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One response to “The Merchant of Venice

  1. Pingback: “The Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare | Books On Trial

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