sexta-feira, junho 10, 2016

Old vs. New Testament in Shakespeare: "The Merchant of Venice" by William Shakespeare



The play is troubling and even disturbing. On one level, it's a comedy of love, with the ups and downs of courtship, a theme excluded from the casket story and taken up again at the end when the affair of the rings allows the wooing to start afresh. On another level, it's full of deep hatred, with Shylock's grisly demand of repayment in the form of a pound of flesh, and a play that asks searching questions about the value of things, with Portia at the centre of a plot about a grubby battle for money and life. Oddly, Antonio (a merchant in Venice) has a very small role, given the title of the play. Portia has by far the largest part. It's certainly a play that speaks to the contemporary world and seems very modern in its concerns about religious intolerance and conflict, as well as money, commercial exchange/trade, and conspicuous consumption. It’s a rather disturbing play. The lack of humanity with which Shylock treats Antonio, and the corresponding lack of humanity with which he is then treated by the Venetian establishment, seem to me to be evidence of a deeply fractured society. It is a difficult play to warm to but it falls into place when you realise you don't have to like Portia just because she is the notional heroine. She is clever and eloquent but she has a cruel streak-look at the way she puts the boot into Shylock (going far beyond her original brief which was to save Antonio) and torments her husband about the ring before the marriage has even been consummated. But to be fair, he is a shameless fortune hunter. I don't think their marital bliss will last very long.



I always liked the "The quality of Mercy is not strain'd" dialogue by Portia in the court scene. It suggests that the only way to confront racism or jealousy is to be merciful, the act of mercy can have bigger effect than violence.

Mercy is indeed the best way to disarm bigotry of any kind. Today we feel more sympathy with Shylock, but he was as religiously bigoted as the Christians around him (perhaps with greater cause though) and he mourned the loss of his gold as much as of his daughter. In Shakespeare's day, they might have thought that the court was doing him a favour by making him convert to Christianity. His daughter had already converted willingly for love.



Re-reading over the play now, I realised that there is a deeper conversation going on in it about the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament says that one is subject only to the Law and that the slightest deviation from the Law will lead to your loss of your inheritance in God's Kingdom - Shylock represents the Old Testament. In the New Testament, God's justice (which would condemn us all) is tempered by mercy, by which we are saved, though we be undeserving, and by which we then inherit everything. Portia represents God's mercy - available to all - and she repeatedly asks Shylock about his position. By his answers he insists on being judged by the law and eschews mercy. Hence all he has is forfeit.



I loved Act 1 scene 2, where loved Portia's summing up of her suitors. This is Shakespeare describing national stereotypes that still hold up today! Definitely a bit of light relief before the introduction of Shylock whose first three words introduce his obsession with money: “Three thousand ducats.” I think it would work in a modern reading if we substituted 'jew' with 'banker'! I rather like the idea of, 'and you spit on my banker's gaberdine'. Sorry if there are any investment bankers reading this review...



Some marvelous speeches, and complex issues to be considered. As I was reading it, I kept thinking of the negativity of hatred which stems from Antonio's previous attitude to Shylock and Shylock's resentment of this treatment. During his life it would have been unlikely that anybody would have had any mercy with him. Own property? No. Be part of the community? No. Now, this one chance, for him, for the other Jews in Venice, his one chance of justice or fairness. Gone. Poof. In the blink of an eye. And even worse: All his life, his beliefs, he as a person with his rituals and everything: Gone. They might as well have killed him.

This play is a satisfying one as it resolves so neatly. It all seems to turn on Antonio - the title character, the Merchant of Venice (really?) - Portia, and the lead casket. Antonio, an older, unmarried man, loves Bassanio dearly. In fact he is the only character in the play who can comply with the inscription "Who chooses me must give and hazard all he hath". For Bassanio's sake, Antonio is prepared to sacrifice all his money and his life too. Antonio is no saint, but his unlikable traits only serve to make him all the more human and his sacrifice the greater.  Bassanio, unwittingly, picks the right casket, but only because he has rejected the other two. In doing so, he releases Portia from the dead hand of her father so that she can go and rescue Antonio by using equity, a tempered and enlightened form of legal process associated with mercy. Shylock cannot show mercy and therefore has only basic law to fall back on. Finally, as everyone has held steadfast and true in love, even Antonio's missing ships come home to harbour. The only one left out is Shylock who could not show mercy, the sign of love. How can this happy-ending play not be a comedy?



After having seen the BBC version with Jeremy Irons and in the first scene, the play says Bassanio is a noble kinsman of Antonio. Gratiano also says he loves Antonio, so I don't think there is a homosexual relationship implied on the part of the younger men, but certainly Jeremy Irons as Antonio seems to indicate there is some homo-erotic desire on his part, but it’s maybe seen as a version of 'agape' Greek love between an older man and a younger one. There seems to be a long standing enmity between Antonio and Shylock which is more than just that between Jews and Christians. I think Antonio finally demanding that Shylock converts to Christianity is the essence of cruelty - to deprive a man of his religion, to make him an outcast among his own people, particularly the Jewish religion in the city of Venice with its ghetto, does make me sympathetic towards Shylock. On the other hand, in Pacino’s film, Antonio is much older than Bassanio, and he looks and behaves more like a father than a friend .There is no mention of a family and his resolution to put his wealth in the service of his friend is really touching (Act 1, scene 1). Shylock bears a grudge to Antonio and Christians in general for ill treatment and defamation. When reminded of past offense Antonio will persist in his arrogant and abusing attitude, although he has come to ask for a favour. Had he changed his approach, who knows, maybe Shylock's hatred of him had been contained and never given vent to (Act 1 , scene 3).  The prince of Morocco considers Portia a true gem and in his mind no other box than the golden one is suitable to hide her portrait.. He is a wealthy man, used to having the best in everything and this very way of life will prevent him from seeing things beyond appearances (Act 2. scene 7).  Shylock's heart is wounded and wisdom is lost on him now that he has heard about Antonio's bad luck. Revenge dominates his thoughts and he is all the fiercer in his desires now that his daughter has eloped and taken with her an important part of his wealth (Act 3, Scene1). I found this play powerful, shocking and - with reference to Act4 Scene 1 - horrible! I last encountered it nearly 30 years ago but can only recall the casket scene.

While I doubt that Shakespeare was completely above the prejudices of his times, I think his portrayal of Shylock is sympathetic and moving. Our reactions are shaped by recent history to some degree, but no doubt Shakespeare would have been aware of events such as the massacre of the York Jewish community at Clifford's Tower in 1190. I feel his portrayal was made in the same spirit as Milton's Satan, an enormously sympathetic figure.

I find the psychological depth of many of Shakespeare's characters fascinating and never fail to be impressed by the complexity and breadth of the issues his plays raise. Money, compassion, "worth", prejudice - all so relevant today.

And “So shines a good deed in a naughty world.” I read Act IV Scene 1 three times over and gained more wisdom from it each time. The argument is brilliantly crafted: first as the Duke attempts to appeal to Shylock's better nature and then, when that fails, Portia leads him on, arguing cogently and increasing the pressure line by line, until he's hoisted by his own petard. As the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for.” Reading it out aloud brought home to me the relevance of Grattiano's interjections, repeated like the chorus a refrain, in mocking imitation of Shylock's own “O upright judge, O learned judge,” as a sort of “Well you said it, Mate!”

We impose our own values and likes and prejudices on any work of art we interact with. It's inevitable, we can't help bringing the influence of our time and place. Writer's too are tied by the tide of opinion of their own times and only the greatest can think beyond these confines and produce the shock of the new. Modern artists are sensible if they refuse to discuss their work and remain enigmatic. Bob Dylan had the right idea, people of my generation were able to imprint our own meaning on his lyrics and personalize his songs. We live in post Freudian times and are still influenced by the notion we secretly love our mothers and want to kill our fathers. That any malady of the mind can be cured by analysis, counselling and discussion of the failings of our nurturing.. The Psychologists are inventing new complexes and syndromes every day, well it keeps them all in work, and perpetuating the idea that any cast of mind is due to the influence some past event. They will never accept that some things just are.

Re-reading this play in 2016 it also made think it’d be interesting to know a little more details about Venetian Law at the time. I find it absurd for the Duke and the others to sit back while Shylock holds Antonio's life at ransom, all contented that the law was in support of Shylock in endangering Antonio's life. I think that for every law in every country and in every era there is inevitably some loophole that had not been considered when the law was made and which a canny person can exploit for nefarious purposes - like Shylock - and everyone is bound by the law. It does seem ridiculous, but everyone works on the principle that if you begin to pick and choose which bits of the law you will follow at any one time, the entire legal edifice falls down, to everyone's detriment. The best we can do is review and amend the law after the event when a loophole has been exploited. One has only to think about some modern Mormon sects in America who practice polygamy, claiming freedom of religion, and get the US government to pay maintenance to finance their wives and children (though they curse the government as evil) and leave one wall of their house unfinished to avoid paying rates or taxes - and they still call themselves righteous.

It is interesting fact that Spanish and Portuguese Jews pursued by the Holy Inquisition left their countries and went to other places, including England, where they resided and started new life. It means that Shakespeare was able to have acquaintances or just occasional meetings with Jewish money lenders in London. The Jews represented the figure of Other in medieval Europe: different traditions and different religion, books with bizarre letters, etc. even their clothes was different (off-topic: David Liss represented a Portuguese Sephardic Jew in London in his "financial" novels).

It's interesting to also note that Shakespeare was influenced by a contemporary source in Marlowe's 'Jew of Malta'. Shakespeare brings more humanity to his Jew Shylock, maybe because he brings his reading of Montaigne's Essays to bear. Shylock becomes an almost tragic figure after the court judgement scene. He ends up as an outsider in Venice, miles away from his homeland, forced by Antonio's counter-revenge to renounce his own religion in favour of Christianity and so he is barred from Synagogues and at the same rejected by the traditional Christian community too. He is totally isolated, even from his own daughter Jessica too. It reminds me of “King Lear”. In some ways, Shylock is a man more sinned against than sinning... He's not entirely blameless, and clings too strongly to extracting his pound of flesh. But ultimately he suffers disproportionately badly at the hands of Antonio. Who is the Merchant of Venice really here? Again, these are not clear-cut issues.



An also interesting aspect of the play is the various father and child relationships. It would appear that Bassanio's parents are dead. Antonio is a kinsman and perhaps a surrogate father figure. Shylock would see his daughter dead. Antonio would die for his "son". Portia's father actually is dead but is trying to control her from beyond the grave. Even Lancelot Gobbo's father puts in a brief appearance. This play was probably written around the same time as Henry 4.1, where the king feels he hasn't the son he deserves, Hotspur definitely doesn't have the father he deserves, and there is the surrogate father Falstaff, who has the tables turned on him in the "play extempore". This theme of father-son pairs is revisited in Hamlet. I can imagine that Hamlet senior might have wished that Fortinbras was his son. It would have been a short play though. Claudius is Hamlet's "uncle-father" (and maybe his real father). Then there are Polonius and Laertes. So my current theory is that this play is also about children separating themselves from their parents. Antonio's duties as a parent are over, but his world hasn't ended. He hasn't lost everything after all, neither metaphorically nor literally. He can move on.
I really hope someone finds a sequel in their attic, “The Merchant of Venice II: The Merchants of Venice” where Antonio and Shylock have the same business interests and Shylock stomps round the place muttering darkly about people undercutting his prices for silk and Jessica rolls her eyes and tells people to ignore him. But then maybe Shylock meets a nice lady at church and they get married and then he's quite happy doting on his grandchildren and is only really enraged by the pet monkey which nicks all his fruit and pulls the plants up in his garden. I hope he gets his happy ending!



As for the “riddle” about who is the Merchant of Venice, even here, Shakespeare makes us wonder. I prefer to believe Antonio is the Merchant of Venice. He is the good guy. Shylock is the Wonga.com of his day. If he wasn't a Jew many of us would probably agree that Antonio was right to bail out people before they defaulted on Shylock's loans. Would an Elizabethan audience have thought Antonio went too far in physically and verbally abusing Shylock though? I don't know. Shylock has to be stopped from taking his pound of flesh, doesn't he? When Portia offers him the chance to be merciful, which he declines, is she just setting a trap? I don't believe that it was Shakespeare's intention, but I don't know. I like Stephen Greenblatt's idea that Shakespeare just couldn't write Shylock as simple villain, even if it meant "spoiling" his play. Whether for the sake of realism or out of sympathy, he cannot make Shylock a monster:

"Thou torturest me, Tubal: it was my turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor:
I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys."

I think Shakespeare mitigates Shylock's pursuit of his bond by making him swear an oath at the height of his grief. That is why he cannot go back in the court scene:

"An oath, an oath, I have an oath in heaven:
Shall I lay perjury upon my soul?
No, not for Venice."

Antonio represents the system, who is prepared by all means to preserve his status by calling on favours from his fellow nobility and a judicial system, in the famous scene with Portia, which is designed to benefit the Venetian establishment. The play represents two types of commerce, the unyielding, tough outsider Shylock and Antonio who plays the system and ultimately comes out on top. Shakespeare does not signal which of these characters he prefers, he presents them as characters and it is the audience who decides which one they most identify with. In a sense Antonio is the 'insider'/insider trading. Maybe Shylock represents today's financial traders working outside the traditional banking system??? Intriguing. One has to read “Time magazine” in the May 23, 2016 edition: “Saving Capitalism” by Rana Foroohar page 23-28 to see how Shakespeare can still look so modern to us.

Shakespeare's plays are ever relevant. Our modern world is always changing and the changes ask of us that we should re-examine our attitudes to one another, question our values and what we consider to be important, to reassess our positions in the world and the positions of others, and to put ourselves in the positions of others. Shakespeare's multifaceted characters and his posing of questions that he does not glibly answer for us helps to provide the start of many a necessary conversation within and between ourselves. 

NB: All pictures taken from my Rowse.

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