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The Merchant of Venice by William…

The Merchant of Venice (1596)

by William Shakespeare

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I was only a few scenes into The Merchant of Venice when I realized that I was reading something much better and more fired with genius than I had been led to believe. I had heard this described as Shakespeare's most controversial play; an unfortunate indulgence of anti-Semitism – for you see, they pontificate, even the great artists have flaws and the prejudices of their time… Aren't we so much more sophisticated nowadays… Well, no. Just no. This was incredible. And it reaffirms my suspicion – crystallized by my reading of Nabokov's Lolita – that you should never doubt a master, particularly when he is being pilloried. For, like Shylock, it is more likely that he is just being miscast by his critics, those disingenuous and self-regarding folks around him…

I find it incredible that people are so dense as not to see that the play – a comedy, mark you – that gives us "All that glisters is not gold" and "The Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose" is a satire of Christian hypocrisy and not some crude anti-Semitic screed. Is it one of our first true satires, our black comedies? I find it a precursor to Lolita, which, in seeming to indulge in something awful (there paedophilia; here anti-Semitism) and firing it with inventive wordplay, knowingly shows us how contemptible that thing is and, more, exposes our complacency. The fact that the Nazis staged productions of this play in the 1930s is the darkest of ironies, and shows what crude, degenerate fools they really were. Thank God that Shakespeare, one of the real masters of our human race, had a sense of humour.

Look at the title. The Merchant of Venice. As Portia asks, "which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?" (pg. 90). Is it Antonio or is it Shylock? She cannot tell just by looking at them. Hath not a Jew eyes, and hands (pg. 68)? Shylock's degradation in the court and among his peers is unfair and it is complete. There is no triumphalism in Shakespeare here, even if there is from his 'Christian' characters, as Shylock is spat at in the streets simply for being a Jew and his daughter runs off with a renegade, stealing all his money to boot, and the 'impartial' courts do everything they can to rule in favour of Antonio. Shylock's behaviour is clearly exacerbated by the loss of his daughter and by others' mockery (and foreknowledge) of this. By the end, Shylock is defeated and degraded and pitiable. He is very much a man here, flesh and blood and a tired soul, and not the supernatural demon his financial enemies are wont to cast him as. Clerk, give him leave to go (pg. 96). The Jew is always onto a losing suit (pg. 87), no matter what he does. The audience – any audience, even a Tudor one – must be sympathetic to Shylock for this, even if the play's other characters are not. It would undermine the moral rightness of any play if they were not, even if – because of the mores of the time – it remains a secret sympathy. In fact, the play only works as a comedy if this is the case. How sweet the moonlight and the music, our happy protagonists soliloquise (pg. 101), but the audience/reader doesn't feel like sharing in their triumph. Shakespeare shows that the audience cannot take their characters – their purported protagonists – as guide. All that glisters is not gold.

The examples are so plentiful that one struggles to choose between them. There is the prominent theme with Portia's three chests – one gold, one silver, one lead – which she uses to determine her successful suitor. When Jessica, Shylock's daughter, elopes with Lorenzo and her father's wealth, Gratiano remarks that she has become a Christian now. By becoming a thief (pg. 59). The 'Christian husbands' of the play (pg. 94) are all too eager to give their wedding rings away in the face of mild pressure from near-strangers, but the more steadfast Jew Shylock has his heirloom ring stolen by his wanton daughter. Guess which of these rings is the only one not returned to its owner by the end of the play? Faith riveted to flesh (pg. 105), those rings, and it is so easy for them to break with their faith here, however self-righteous they are about Antonio's infamous 'pound of flesh'.

You see now why I am so incredulous that people dumbly label this a racist, bigoted play. That all-important line, "all that glisters is not gold", is followed immediately by "Gilded tombs do worms infold" (pg. 62). This is about the hypocrisy of Christians and of Christendom, that whited sepulchre. That equally important line, "The Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose" (pg. 44): note it well. Shakespeare expands upon the theme on page 72: "So may the outward shows be least themselves: The world is still deceived with ornament… In religion, what damnèd error, but some sober brow Will bless it, and approve it with a text, Hiding the grossness with fair ornament?" The roots of anti-Semitism are to be found in the New Testament, which places gentiles over Jews, and gives 'Christians' an excuse for anti-Jewish prejudice and bloodletting. The juxtaposition of Jewish Shylock and Christian (and Christ-like martyr) Antonio shows that the New Testament, which gets a better reputation than its precursor, is not so different from the fire-and-brimstone of the Old Testament, just as there is not so much difference, in practice, between a Jew and a Christian.

The reactionary dimness of some regarding The Merchant of Venice makes its reading all the more delicious for those of us not too tone-deaf to hear the true notes of Portia's song. She feeds Bassanio, her preferred suitor, unsubtle hints as to answer her riddle, just as later they all make a mockery of the Venetian judicial system, where – even with the deck stacked against Shylock – the Christians can only win by shamelessly subverting the court, by subterfuge and self-justification and, most ridiculously – this is a comedy after all – by Portia in motley. Note that most of the condemnatory lines cited above, about gross ornament and vice disguised as virtue, are said in the play by the Christian characters (just like all the anti-Semitic lines). Just as Shylock condemns himself by bringing his case to the courts, so do these 'Christians' condemn themselves by arguing their case in the theatre. The Venetian courts may be unforgiving to Jews, but the Shakespearean play is even more unforgiving to hypocrites.

The Merchant of Venice is not, funnily enough, a festering sore of provincial, anti-Semitic bile. Some people just can't see past the end of their noses, and some people just want to see racism everywhere. Hard food for Midas, indeed (pg. 73). It is a biting satire that Swift or Nabokov would be proud to own. It is more Mossad than Nazi: it is the Jew biting back. (You could have a dangerous modern rendition of this play set in an Israeli court, only Eichmann walks free.) It is the Jew throwing the casual anti-Semitic prejudice back at us. It is Shylock bringing us to our own constructions – our courts – and to our own sanctimonious pledges, and saying: Antonio, look to your bond (pg. 68). On page 89, Gratiano, of all people, who has helped Lorenzo steal Shylock's daughter and his wealth, asks the Jew to have a heart! "Can no prayers pierce thee?", he asks. Shylock's reply proves that he is not irredeemable, only that he does not believe his peers have it in them to redeem, to forgive – that fundamental Christian ideal. "No," Shylock replies, "none that thou hast wit enough to make." Let every man look to his bond. Shakespeare calls us out. ( )
2 vote MikeFutcher | Jan 9, 2018 |
many works of WS I have read and not seen, some seen and not read, some both, and then there is this play ... read, seen live, seen on film (Al Pacino & Jeremy Irons), heard on radio CD from Stratford Festival (Ontario, Canada) with Paul Soles
  frahealee | Dec 3, 2017 |
This play dangles precariously between a comedy and a tragedy. The story is pulled from various aspects of English culture, and the characters follow - and abolish - stereotypes that one would've laughed at in the 16th century. All in all, excellently written and wonderfully put together. ( )
  J9Plourde | Jun 13, 2017 |
Waffling between four and five stars for this. Four and a half, we'll say. The speeches, the characters, the ideas... so much that was beautiful and thought-provoking. I'm afraid that what I'm having a hard time loving is any of the characters. They are too... real. Their flaws are too visible and ugly, and their modest virtues fail to compensate. The character who inspires the most compassion, Shylock, is also the one who is most ruthlessly cruel, and Portia, the character who is presented as most clear-thinking, pure, and righteous, is also merciless, petty, and vindictive. The juxtaposition of comic and tragic elements, as when Shylock cries in anguish,

“Out upon her! 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.”

along with the mixture of cruelty and kindness in several characters, makes this, in a way, an exceptionally “realistic” comedy. It ends with weddings, but also with the fall of a larger-than-life character who is too sympathetic to be a proper villain.

I read the Oxford World's Classics edition of this, which has fine notes, generous margins, readable font, and excellent introductory material. Which I only skimmed because, as always, I started with Marjorie Garber's wonderful chapter on the play in Shakespeare After All. All her analyses are good, but this one seemed to me particularly so. I know I wouldn't have enjoyed the play nearly so much without her insights, anyway. Also, I highly recommend the Arkangel recorded performance of this – it's just fantastic! I'm not a fan of Shakespeare's clowns, as a general rule, but David Tennant's “Lancelot” is irresistible, and the other actors are also marvelous. ( )
1 vote meandmybooks | May 12, 2017 |
I first read this play back in 9th grade. At the time I remember being struck w/certain parts of it though I missed a lot of references, and many somewhat bawdy double entendres went over my head. Re-reading it as an adult was a great idea, as I was able to appreciate the story more. And I found too, after awhile, that understanding Shakespeare's English became easier as I continued reading.

One of my favorite passages was Portia's speech in Act IV Scene I, where she speaks to Shylock,

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.
But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute of God himself;
And earthly power doth then show like God's
When mercy seasons justice.

I had to memorize this for my 9th grade Lit class and was surprised to see how much of it I still remember after all these years.
I'm having my 9th grader read this play now for her Lit class. I hope I can help her to appreciate this more than I did at her age ☺ ( )
  homeschoolmimzi | Nov 28, 2016 |
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» Add other authors (605 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Shakespeare, Williamprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Andrews, John F.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Brooks, Harold F.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
D'Agostino, NemiIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Furness, Horace HowardEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gollancz, IsraelEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Halio, Jay L.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Harrison, G. B.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Holland, PeterIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jones, Pei te HurinuiTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lamar, VirginiaEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lodovico, Cesare VicoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lombardo, Agostinosecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lovett, Robert MorssEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mahood, M. M.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Merchant, W. MoelwynEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mowat, Barbara A.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Myrick, KennethEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rolfe, William J.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Serpieri, AlessandroTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Smith, ReedEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Taylor, George CoffinEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Verity, A. W.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Werstine, PaulEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wright, Louis B.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,
That I have much ado to know myself.
The quality of mercy is not strain'd;
It droppeth, as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blessed;
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes
When he is best, he is a little worse than a man; and when he is worst, he is little better than a beast.
My meaning in saying he is a good man, is to have you understand me that he is sufficient.
The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
It is a wise father that knows his own child.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
Disambiguation notice
This work is for the complete The Merchant of Venice only. Do not combine this work with abridgements, adaptations or simplifications (such as "Shakespeare Made Easy"), Cliffs Notes or similar study guides, or anything else that does not contain the full text. Do not include any video recordings. Additionally, do not combine this with other plays.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0743477561, Mass Market Paperback)

Folger Shakespeare Library

The world's leading center for Shakespeare studies

Each edition includes:

• Freshly edited text based on the best early printed version of the play

• Full explanatory notes conveniently placed on pages facing the text of the play

• Scene-by-scene plot summaries

• A key to famous lines and phrases

• An introduction to reading Shakespeare's language

• An essay by an outstanding scholar providing a modern perspective on the play

• Illustrations from the Folger Shakespeare Library's vast holdings of rare books

Essay by Alexander Leggatt

The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., is home to the world's largest collection of Shakespeare's printed works, and a magnet for Shakespeare scholars from around the globe. In addition to exhibitions open to the public throughout the year, the Folger offers a full calendar of performances and programs.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:23 -0400)

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Presents Shakespeare's dark comedy about young lovers and a Jewish money lender who demands a pound of flesh in payment for a debt. Includes explanatory notes on facing pages, scene-by-scene plot summaries, a key to famous lines and phrases, a modern perspective essay, and an introduction to the play and the language of Shakespeare.… (more)

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Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0140714626, 0141013958

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An edition of this book was published by Yale University Press.

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