His Pound of Flesh – The Merchant of Venice

As I was sitting in the theatre watching this play a part of me was wondering if there is actually much more that I could write about this play than the obvious – racism, feminism, and maybe homosexuality. In a way these three aspects seem to dominate the Merchant of Venice, with some critics simply writing it off as some anti-semetic rant of Shakespeare’s. In a way I can understand why people see it that way because our Jewish anti-hero does come across as vengeful, greedy, and quite unforgiving.
The reason I raise this is because, other than the play that I recently watched, I also have a performance on DVD that was staged at The Globe, and there is also the movie where Al Pacino plays Shylock, and a part of me doesn’t want to undermine subsequent viewings simply by writing everything that I could write about the play in this one sitting. Yet, a part of me also feels that maybe, just maybe, if I leave this play for a while and then return to it at another time, I might be able to look at it afresh. The other issue also comes down to when I actually publish this post, since this is one of many posts that I have yet to publish (which, as it turns out, is the Monday after I saw the play).

A City of Merchants

It wasn’t until I went to university that I discovered that Venice sat at the top of an incredibly powerful, and wealthy, mercantile empire. Actually, it is funny how the story of our history slowly unfolded as I sat in that class and read our text books. Up until that time the only thing that I knew about Venice was that it was this city that was built on a estuary, has no cars, and people travel about via boats. However, that semester I discovered that there was much, much more to Venice that the canals and the gondola’s, including it being a merchantile republic.

I’ve noticed that many of Shakespeare’s comedies are set in Italy, which was the birthplace of the Renaissance. In a way it was here that we saw the birth of the modern world, not just with art and literature, but also with banking and political theory. As such I’m not surprised that many of the comedies have been placed here because it is symbolic of high culture, and the domain of the rich. Not only that, but Italy is sunny, and pleasant, and sophisticated, unlike England and France at the time.
The play itself deals with the machinations of the merchant Antonio, who is trying to drum up some investment for some trades that he wants to do. The problem is that this is Christian Europe, and as such people don’t technically lend money (which isn’t entirely true because the Medici’s built an incredibly powerful, and quite profitable, banking empire), and the only person that he could approach was the Jew Shylok. The problem is that Antonio’s contempt is pretty well known, and Shylok really doesn’t want to lend him the money. However, he does, but on the condition that if he is not paid back then he can take payment in the form of a pound of flesh.

To cut a long story short, the trade turns out badly, and Shylock comes knocking, demanding not only his pound of flesh, but his pound of flesh from the region of the heart. However, through some clever legal maneuvers, the contract is deemed null and void, Antonio goes free (and then discovers that his trade came through anyway), and Shylok slinks off back to the ghetto.
Like a lot of Shakespeare’s plays, there is a second plot running alongside this one, and it involves a romance. Portia is quite wealthy, and has a lot of suitors, however to become her husband they have to pass a test – there are three boxes, and one of them contains her photo, and the suitor much select the box with the picture. If the suitor fails, then to bad so sad. The problem is that Portia is in love with Bassiano, a friend of Antonio’s, but she can’t actually play favourites.

Anyway, these two plots eventually become intermingled, and Portia finishes off the play by entrapping Bassiano to her will even further. However that, and her rather scheming plan to free Antonio from Shylock’s contract will be a discussion for a little further on.

That Banker!

So, the question comes down to whether Shakespeare is being anti-semetic or not. The thing is that Marlow also produced a play, The Jew of Malta, where the antagonist is also a Jew, but the thing is that it seems to fall two ways here. In one sense you could say that Shylok is being type-cast, but then when we look at the huge amount of influence Shakespeare has had upon our culture, it could be that this type cast is more us being influenced by Shakespeare than Shakespeare being influenced by the culture of his time. Honestly, back then Jews weren’t particularly liked, and in fact there weren’t even any in England. Those that did live in Europe were confined to ghettos where they would be required to return to every night.
The other thing is that there was the idea of ursury, that is the rule that a Christian could not lend money to a Christian and charge interest. Actually, the idea is that it is supposed to be lending money at unjust rates of interest, though that is a whole different ball game (and I could then go down the road of the advertising industry that takes money from credit card companies to encourage people to go into debt). Since Christians couldn’t lend to Christians, if somebody wanted a loan they would have to look elsewhere, and the story goes that the Jews were more than happy to lend to them, and had no problems charging interest as well.
However, the story here is not so much about lending money and charging interest, but rather about people’s treatment of each other. Shylock is naturally suspicious of Antonio, particularly since we are told that Antonio really doesn’t treat Shylock all that well – in fact he is downright contemptuous of him. However, Shylock returns kind with kind, and seeing Antonio’s desperation, takes advantage of it by agreeing to loan him the money, in return for a pound of flesh if he can’t pay back. This, of course happens, and Shylock becomes so determined to get his pound of flesh that he even refuses to take double the original loan. In the end, this doggedness results in him getting nothing.
Of course, Shylock claims that he is well within his rights, and in a way he is (ignoring the fact that the contract would be null and void on the grounds that you simply cannot enter into a contract that gives somebody else the right to kill you, though I am not taking Euthanasia into account here). He even justifies his actions by claiming that he is doing what anybody else in his position would do – yet there is a problem – vengeance never actually gets you anywhere.
I guess this is where the whole issue with Shylock comes down – it is a question of vengeance, and in seeking vengeance against Antonio, despite having been wronged by Antonio, only ends up causing more problems for him. As such, I don’t think Shakespeare is being deliberately anti-semitic, but instead is using the Jew, a character who has a legitimate grievance against people, as an instrument to remind us that vengeance for the sake of vengeance never gets people anywhere.

And the Judges

Shakespeare seems to love to have strong female roles in this plays, particularly women who enter into the world of men and have a significant impact therein. This play is no exception, and follows the tradition of cross dressing characters. Mind you, since women weren’t allowed on stage anyway, female roles were played by boys, and thus you end up with the situation in As You Like It where you have a boy, playing a girl, playing a boy, who is pretending to be a girl. However, in this play, we don’t have the situation where the woman must disguise herself as a man for her own protection, but rather she is taking the role of a man to outwit the men – and does it in two ways.
First of all Portia takes the role of the judge. From my understanding, she waylays the original judge, and takes his place, with her friend taking the role of the clerk. It seems as if right from the beginning she has a plan to get Antonio out of his contract, however I note that she doesn’t jump right into her plan, but lets the case play out for a bit. In a way she is making Antonio sweat, as a reminder that in the future it might not be the best of ideas of give one’s enemy such power over one’s life.

The other interesting thing is the way they wrap their husbandz around their fingers. In a way Bassinano doesn’t come across as the smartest of chaps – in fact none of the males in this play (with the exception of Shylock) come across as being all that smart. They seem to have the habit of shouting their mouths off, such as when Bassiano offers to give the judge whatever he wants as a reward, and literally puts his foot into it when she asks for the ring – the ring that he promised not to give to anybody. Yet, it goes to show how well Portia knows about people, and how to manipulate them in a way that brings her out on top.
The same goes with the three chests – she knows that the suitor that she wants is going to pick the correct chest, because the suitor she wants sees beyond the outward appearances – all that glitters is not gold. The suitors that go for the gold and the silver caskets show a rather shallow aspect to their personality, yet the one that goes for the base metals shows that they see more to a person than one’s outward appearance. This is the nature of marriage – it is for life, and in a way one’s youthful good looks aren’t going to stay with you forever (unless, of course, you happen to be Tom Cruise – does that guy ever age?).

Final Thoughts

A part of me was a little worried that maybe I was getting a little tired of watching Shakespeare plays, but this one was thoroughly enjoyable. I guess a part of it has to do with The Merchant of Venice being one of my favourite plays, and also that this is the first time I have seen it performed live. On the other hand, it was one of Bell Shakespeare’s better productions, though I do note that some theatre snobs refuse point blank to see anything by them, but that has more to do with Australian Theatre than any particular organisation.
The performance itself was fairly minimal, but then again pretty much all of the Shakesperian plays tend to be fairly minimal when it comes to problems (and in some cases I have seen plays where there is basically a single prop – a chair in the middle of the stage). The other thing was that all of the characters were on the stage throughout the play, and when they weren’t in the action they were either standing to one side, or sitting on one of the benches (the props consisted of a tree, some benches arranged in a horse shoe shape, and some confetti falling from the ceiling). This gave the impression that the entire play was being performed in the public arena, and in a sense there wasn’t one scene that was in private.
I probably should mentioned that it was a full house as well, though I’m not entirely sure whether this was because it was a Friday night performance, or whether it is normally a full house. Mind you, when I consider musicals such as The Book of Mormon, where you have to book months in advance to actually get a seat, then maybe this play isn’t as much of a full house as some of them are. However, it does go to demonstrate that the theatre, and Shakespeare in particular, is still quite popular – it is just a shame that you don’t get as many of his contemporaries’ plays being performed as well.
Creative Commons License
His Pound of Flesh – The Merchant of Venice by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s