I virtually never read plays during travel. But this time chanced upon a Merchant of Venice paperback at a hostel bookshelf and couldn’t resist, if but to contrast the monotonously grueling prose of Le Morte D'Arthur.
It’s been two years since I first encountered Shylock the Jew, Bassanio (the financially stricken nobleman), Launcelot (the hopeless fool) and Portia (the scheming damsel).
A bit of irony to Launcelot’s name. Though notable the contrast with the knight of the round table, come Sir Lancelot’s temporary loss of memory and wit, and he (the knight) does briefly act the court fool in one section of the Arthurian chronicle.
But concerning Merchant of Venice, however humorous the narrative, we see some polemic elements.
Shylock the Jew and moneylender (usurer) is subject to heavy stereotypical antisemitism (or some form of prejudice) from much of the cast, own daughter included.
And still the character’s rational and actions inspire empathy. I was personally never clear what to consider Shylock: an antagonist, a latent protagonist, or some shade of grey?
Then he carries matters too maniacally far in the spirit of vengeance, flipping the scale. And even so one can sympathize with the argumentation he issues forth with so much erudite rationale, so elegantly and sometimes quaintly.
And though he lives to become a villain, the behavior of the cast towards his downfall (and across the board) I can’t help but view as bigotry and hypocrite to the dot. Tough to spot a single universally likable character.
Then Portia and her servant Narissa, though a couple of controversial schemers, is that not what the circumstances call for under the intricate design? Not wishing to further spoil, I can’t fully articulate the reconciliation.
That aside, Portia exhibits some of the brightest display of cleverness across the dominant Shakespearean heroines. But even there her behavior spurs controversy between the words and the actions, the two forces whose dichotomy within fallible beings she herself makes clear effort to delineate early on.
Along with Launcelot (not the knight) and (to some extent) Shylock, Portia utters some of the finest dialogue, including the Bessanio priming speech (3.2.10 and 3.2.40), the nature of mercy (4.1.183) and the music interchange (5.1.93), the latter below reproduced.
As typical, Shakespeare embellishes the drama with parallel narratives of contrasting setting. That is, beyond the Venetian fiasco concerning primarily Bessanio, Shylock and Antonio (the Merchant), the stage transforms into the exotic (if not Arabesque) Belmont where reality, however already slippery, acquires an even more prominent aspect of a (1001) fable with the casket choosing device. My middle-eastern analogies are regretfully scarce.
Speaking of Antonio, I can conceive of no other play named after a character (a merchant) who doesn’t feel the focal point, but merely a catalyst. I could more sense make from the titles Bessanio, Shylock, or Portia.
Consensus: though not among my favourites of comedies or plays, it holds the ingredients. Pretty damn fine stuff.
A selection of cool passages:
Let me play the fool,
With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come,
And let my liver rather heat with wine
Than my heart cool with mortifying groans.
Why should a man whose blood is warm within
Sit like his grandsire cut in alabaster?
Sleep when he wakes? And creep into the jaundice
By being peevish? I tell thee what, Antonio,
(I love thee, and ’tis my love that speaks):
There are a sort of men whose visages
Do cream and mantle like a standing pond,
And do a wilful stillness entertain,
With purpose to be dress’d in an opinion
Of wisdom, gravity, profound conceit,
As who should say, “I am Sir Oracle,
And when I ope my lips, let no dog bark.”
O my Antonio, I do know of these
That therefore only are reputed wise
For saying nothing; when, I am very sure,
If they should speak, would almost damn those ears
Which, hearing them, would call their brothers fools.
I’ll tell thee more of this another time.
But fish not with this melancholy bait
For this fool gudgeon, this opinion.
Come, good Lorenzo. Fare ye well a while.
I’ll end my exhortation after dinner.
Thanks, i’ faith, for silence is only commendable
In a neat’s tongue dried, and a maid not vendible.
The brain may devise laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps o’er a cold decree; such a hare is madness the youth, to skip o’er the meshes of good counsel the cripple.
He is a proper man’s picture; but alas, who can converse with a dumb-show?
Yes, to smell pork, to eat of the habitation which your prophet, the Nazarite, conjured the devil into. I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following; but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you. What news on the Rialto? Who is he comes here?
… “Conscience,” say I, “you counsel well.” “Fiend,” say I, “you counsel well.” To be ruled by my conscience, I should stay with the Jew my master, who, (God bless the mark) is a kind of devil; and, to run away from the Jew, I should be ruled by the fiend, who (saving your reverence) is the devil himself. Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnation, and, in my conscience, my conscience is but a kind of hard conscience, to offer to counsel me to stay with the Jew. The fiend gives the more friendly counsel. I will run, fiend, my heels are at your commandment, I will run.
Let me choose,
For as I am, I live upon the rack.
We are the Jasons, we have won the Fleece.
3.5.1-7 ‘bastard hope’:
Yes, truly, for look you, the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children, therefore, I promise you, I fear you. I was always plain with you, and so now I speak my agitation of the matter. Therefore be of good cheer, for truly I think you are damn’d. There is but one hope in it that can do you any good, and that is but a kind of bastard hope neither.
So doth the greater glory dim the less.
A substitute shines brightly as a king
Until a king be by, and then his state
Empties itself, as doth an inland brook
Into the main of waters. Music! hark!
It is your music, madam, of the house.
Nothing is good, I see, without respect.
Methinks it sounds much sweeter than by day.
Silence bestows that virtue on it, madam.
The crow doth sing as sweetly as the lark
When neither is attended; and I think
The nightingale, if she should sing by day
When every goose is cackling, would be thought
No better a musician than the wren.
How many things by season season’d are
To their right praise and true perfection!
Peace! How the moon sleeps with Endymion,
And would not be awak’d!
Questions, comments? Connect.