Monday, April 12, 2010

Shakesblogging: The Merchant of Venice

What I love about this play: It is so, so much fun to teach, especially 1.3., the scene where Shylock and Antonio maneuver each other into the bond that is bound to be disastrous for at least one of them. (I suspect Antonio has some inkling of how things are going to play out, and is quite willing to die as long as he can bring Shylock down with him. I know this is true of Shylock.) Oh, the gamesmanship! The manipulation! And the money, and all the complicated meanings it accrues! Students always want to argue about who has the upper hand, and who’s the real villain here, and it’s fabulous. And there’s all kinds of sly verbal stuff going on, like the multiple resonances of “kind,” and the moment when Antonio takes the kid gloves off and switches from “you” to “thou,” which make it my go-to bit for teaching demos.

In Bob Dylan’s eloquent phrase, “money doesn’t talk, it swears” – and the characters in Merchant use it to swear at each other, all the time. (Incidentally, I think one of the reasons why Shylock is so bitterly, corrosively, angry at Jessica is that he recognizes that in stealing his money and jewels, she has effectively stolen her own dowry and forced him to give his symbolic blessing to a union which he doesn’t sanction. There is nothing more intimate than wealth in this play, and the theft is a violation of that intimacy on a grand scale. And poor Jessica – her promise to “gild myself / With some more ducats” seems to speak to a fear that Lorenzo won’t love her without them.)

Genre-wise, I think it’s a heck of an interesting experiment, if not a totally successful ones. Most of the villains in the comedies are cardboard cutouts, like Don John and Duke Frederick; Shylock is an antagonist with real character and motivation who calls Christian Venice out on all of its hypocrisies, and he's so compelling that he pulls everything else in the play out of orbit. (My students always want to know how in the world this is a comedy. My quick, glib answer is “Because there aren’t any bodies on the stage at the end,” but of course it’s a play that resists quick, glib answers; the ending is steeped in doubts and loose ends and shades of grey, and the love-plots that all seemed to be resolved in Act 3 are already coming unthreaded. Bassanio and Gratiano choose homosocial bonds over their wives, much to the wives’ chagrin; Jessica and Lorenzo, who know each other slightly better than the other couples, have that lovely “In such a night as this” exchange, which reveals a touch more distrust than trust on her part.) Merchant anticipates the thorny, knotty late comedies, like Measure for Measure – making it an uncomfortable play to watch, but a fun one to wrestle with.

Favorite memory: Portia was my first favorite Shakespearean heroine; I’d even go so far as to say my first Shakespeare crush. I was eleven. Most of the uglier and more problematic aspects of the play went straight over my head; I just wanted to be friends with this girl who said witty, mocking things about her suitors and outsmarted a courtroom of learned men and played practical jokes on her husband. I kind of miss the purity of that love, as much as I also love being able to see all the additional layers.

Bonus YouTube video: Monsters of Venice


Susan said...

It was seeing this play at the Globe which taught me about the role of the fool in Shakespeare plays. (Also, we were pretty sure we saw Salman Rushdie -- still in hiding -- among the groundlings!

Fretful Porpentine said...

That is awesome! (And would be totally lost on me, as I haven't got the foggiest idea what Salman Rushdie looks like.)