I had a hard time getting through this play. I tried four times to get into it, and eventually I got enough out of it to get what was going on…somewhat.
Maybe it’s just been a bad month. I know I’ve been way behind on reading lately and my goals will suffer for it, and maybe a bad month for Shakespeare in general…or maybe not. But this is one I know I’ll have to tackle again another day. It’s one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays outside the monarchy plays and could use a secondary look.
The Merchant of Venice of the play is supposedly Antonio, who instigates a lot of the action without being very actionable himself. He is a risk-taker with his fortune in trading, and much of it is tied up in the latest trading venture. He wants to help his much poorer friend, Bassanio, who tries to pass for a much wealthier man so that he can woo Portia, a lady he adores whose father has just passed and she can’t marry anyone who doesn’t pass the man’s “ironclad” will’s stipulations. This puts Antonio in debt to Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, who if Antonio fails to repay, he’ll want his pound of flesh from the man.
That’s the basic conflict or setup. Of course things go badly for Antonio, but that’s the general arc. Otherwise, the story has several interacting characters whose relationships aren’t all that connected until act 5. Honestly, I felt you could’ve had two or three different plays with all the relationships and things going on in this one. I forgot what the point of the play was on several occasions, going along with one group here, and another there.
I also, as a modern reader, found it a little disconcerting of the treatment of Shylock, by the characters and the material. He’s not a boogeyman, per se (I think they were trying to avoid that), but he’s not really meant to be sympathetic. Antonio, certainly, has issues with Jews and doesn’t hesitate to spit on and curse Shylock when he sees the man (and other Jews, it’s hinted), prior to their bond arrangement at the beginning of the play. It’s no wonder Shylock will want his pound of flesh if things go wrong.
I guess what made me have to start and re-start a few times was wrapping my head around the many times I saw the word “Jew,” used in a derogatory or matter-of-fact style. Shylock is barely addressed by name by the characters, but kept getting referred to (at least til act 5) as “the Jew.” I swear in two pages I think I saw that word more often than in some of Hitler’s speeches I had to research in school.
The mockery and disgust (mostly mockery) made it a bit hard to get through, and I was relieved when other character arcs came about in new scenes, just to get over it.
Other characters, especially the female ones, are more deserving of their own play, rather than being lumped together in this ensemble. Portia, the heiress, is too interesting and clever, and I’m glad she at least had a large part in the events. It does make me question her taste in men, though, just a bit.
Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, is one I wanted to know and understand better, because she’s a mystery. She apparently hates her father (I’d love to know why) and wants to run off with Lorenzo, a Christian man. But she takes a great deal of money with her and even her deceased mother’s ring, which is really what upsets Shylock when he finds out. There’s some snippets of thought regarding Jessica, about how being born Jewish may still hurt her prospects for the afterlife even if she marries a Christian. You could probably have a whole play on that topic alone.
In pieces, The Merchant of Venice had something going for it, but apparently, I’m just not in the right frame of mind to appreciate it. Perhaps another day when I take another crack at it.