Wednesday, March 05, 2014

William Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice

29/10/00 - Alone in the flat - I revert to atavistic behaviour - reading Shakespeare, whose plays I’ve neglected for ages. The last time it was The Merry Wives of Windsor - this time The Merchant of Venice - a better play, indeed intermittently gripping (I.3, IV.1). Questions unanswered: Why is Antonio sad (I.1)? Is Shylock’s speech supposed to sound “foreign”? What does “The quality of mercy is not strained” mean, exactly? Why does Portia deny Shylock his principal? (She has saved Antonio - what else matters?)


Yes, there’s no doubt Shakespeare keeps us waiting in the Merchant - in fact, it’s our main posture. Hate and financial embarrassment are significantly more interesting than love in this play. So Act I builds with a dramatic force and logic like the swiftest tragedies. Portia appears as a lively prattler - her good sense is a benefit of economic independence - you can hardly foresee how instrumental she will become in the major plot.

In I.3 it must be said that Antonio behaves with dignity; his outburst of anger surely appeals to us as a principled rejection of usury. In fact we have only Shylock’s word for Antonio’s anti-Semitism, and if Antonio acts imprudently here it is from the practical and productive motives of love (Antonio not denying his previous bald rudeness, but not displaying it either). If his later explanation of Shylock’s hatred is countenanced, it seems that the play intends us to think that Shylock is morbidly over-sensitive. Which is how inconvenient oppressed minorities are usually described by their oppressors.

Whatever may be justly said in extenuation, I think the Merchant is seen most accurately as fundamentally anti-Semitic and also (in David Nirenberg’s terms) anti-Judaic - an author working within the general climate of opinion. If Shakespeare for the most part restricts coarse racial insult to the lips of Graziano, that is more from manners than principle - Graziano is a great joker (so no harm done, then?) and is within the fold of the righteous - fit to marry Nerissa.

In the nine scenes of Act II the primary actions stand still - dramatic vigour is hijacked by the rumbustious yet disquieting elopement of Lorenzo and Jessica. In II.5 Shylock is portrayed, to our eyes, very sympathetically - the logic of the story places him in the position of one sadly deceived; not a monomaniac or domestic ogre, but one who militates against the festive values of comedy. Shakespeare allowed some sympathy, as he would for Malvolio, confident that prevailing anti-Semitism would keep this in check. For us, of course, the effect is quite different, not dissimilar to how we react to Beckmesser’s humiliation in Meistersinger. Yet perhaps it’s unfair to stain Shakespeare with Wagner. He must have more or less believed that to be a Christian meant salvation, to be a Jew damnation. For all his sympathy to Shylock’s racial/cultural sensitivities, Shakespeare probably accepted that his play showed the salvation of human beings (Jessica, then Shylock) rather than the degradation of Jews.

If that’s true, though, I have to admit that the speech “Hath not a Jew eyes?” proposes in its very universalism an entirely different (apparently modern) way of conceiving human existence - universalist in its living reality not its spiritual destiny. A dramatist who ranges through time and space for materials - who makes Cleopatra speak, Othello and Caliban - is perhaps likely to find himself developing a broader idea of humanity.

Yet these words are in the mouth of Shylock, not Portia. Perhaps she would respond - “Hath not a Jew an immortal soul in need of salvation?”

Act V gives me a curious sense of how the graceful life of the economically emancipated can perhaps have a moral value despite its roots in the murky labours of the Rialto - a mercy extended to the rich. Perhaps the rich invented mercy for themselves.

(2000, 2014)



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