1. The Merchant of Venice has long been a controversial play, especially in the post-Holocaust era. The Nazi regime in Germany, for example, used slanted productions to stir up anti-Semitism in the 1930s, and that particular history has tainted the reputation of Shakespeare's work. More recently, the play has occasioned an outpouring of critical sentiment, seen partly in these websites:

Shakespeare and Anti-Semitism: The Question of Shylock

Trevor Nunn's Merchant

"Redeeming Shylock"

"A Second Daniel: The Jew and the 'True Jew' in The Merchant of Venice"

"Law and Love in The Merchant of Venice"

"Shylock Is Us"

"Contract in The Merchant of Venice"

Plot Summary and Scholarship in The Merchant of Venice


2. We will be looking mainly at two versions, Trevor Nunn's production and the recent film directed by Michael Radford and starring Al Pacino as Shylock. In both we get a strong sense of Venice as a somewhat decadent, cosmopolitan place which is at once worldly and narrow, open minded and bigoted. The sense of symbolic worlds, so strong in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet a year or two earlier, here is manifest in the fairy tale kingdom of Belmont, a polar opposite to the gritty realism of Venice. Indeed, Shakespeare's imagination was again taken with Venice in Othello a few years later, where it is a very different polar opposite to the dreaded Ottoman Empire poised at the gates of Europe.

3. In the end, however, the play comes down to Shylock. One can speculate endlessly about Shakespeare's intentions for this character who is both victim and villain. Here is an excerpt from Pierre Lasry's documentary Shylock, produced for the National Film Board of Canada in 1999. It includes rare footage of Orson Welles as Shylock, clips from Jonathan Miller's production with Laurence Olivier and his later BBC version (directed by Jack Gold), and a final word from Miller himself. It begins with some of the stage history of Shylock.



Interpretation: performance and the text.

4. The first two scenes show us melancholy characters: Antonio and Portia. Beyond what humours may afflict them, they are discontented with their lives. Antonio has no family and no prospects for one, and Portia is prisoner in her fairy tale Belmont to her father's magic caskets. Antonio's Venetian acquaintances can only assume that this merchant (the title character) is worried about his financial ventures. Venice is wholly preoccupied with money and trade, and Antonio's ships are threatened by storms, sandbars, and rocks.

And in a word, but even now worth this,
And now worth nothing? Shall I have the thought
To think on this, and shall I lack the thought
That such a thing bechanced would make me sad?
But tell not me! I know, Antonio
Is sad to think upon his merchandise.

Antonio does not know the cause of his sadness; Portia is "aweary of this great world" (2) in the opening of scene 2:

But this reasoning is not in the fashion to choose me a husband. O me, the word "choose"!
I may neither choose whom I would nor refuse whom I dislike,
so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father.
Is it not hard, Nerissa, that I cannot choose one, nor refuse none? (20-26)

The fates of these two will soon be startlingly intertwined in the person of Bassanio.

5. Trevor Nunn's production is set around 1930, and exudes an atmosphere of decadence and moral exhaustion. The opening two scenes set the tone. Bassanio and Antonio meet in a dim nightclub reminiscent of Cabaret. Although Portia is described brightly by Bassanio as he seeks to borrow money for his wooing, in the clip that follows this speech she hardly seems to fit the text:

In Belmont is a lady richly left;
And she is fair, and, fairer than that word,
Of wondrous virtues. Sometimes from her eyes
I did receive fair speechless messages.
Her name is Portia, nothing undervalued
To Cato's daughter, Brutus' Portia:
Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth,
For the four winds blow in from every coast
Renownèd suitors, and her sunny locks
Hang on her temples like a golden fleece,
Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchos' strond,
And many Jasons come in quest of her.

She is fantasized as a treasure whose wealth will fill Bassanio's emptied purse. Nunn makes her a depressed brunette.


6. Michael Radford's film begins with a portrait of a Venice marked by the accoutrements of urban wealth and style (complete with courtesans), but also brutal to its Jewish population.


Shylock enters in the third scene and makes his weighty presence felt. Henry Goodman in the Nunn production and Al Pacino in the recent file play to very different Antonios:



Both versions establish Antonio as a typical Venetian, bigoted and utterly materialistic. He represents the hypocrisy of condemning money lending in a society like Venice which depends on venture capitalism for its very existence. Shylock pierces this veil with his story of Jacob's clever device to increase his store of lambs:

The skilful shepherd pilled me certain wands,
And, in the doing of the deed of kind
He stuck them up before the fulsome ewes,
Who then conceiving, did in eaning time
Fall parti-colored lambs, and those were Jacob's.
This was a way to thrive, and he was blest;
And thrift is blessing if men steal it not.

Antonio. This was a venture, sir, that Jacob served for,
A thing not in his power to bring to pass,
But swayed and fashioned by the hand of heaven.
Was this inserted to make interest good?
Or is your gold and silver ewes and rams?

Shylock. I cannot tell; I make it breed as fast.
But note me, signior.

Antonio. Mark you this, Bassanio,
The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
O what a goodly outside falsehood hath! (1.3.81-92)

Antonio does not note Shylock, but clings to the natural law argument that only living things can be bred, not money. Does Shylock's "merry sport," the penalty of a pound of flesh in case of forfeiture, have real meaning at this point? Antonio calls him "gentle," a pun on "gentile" (used thirteen times in the play), but Shylock has not yet been robbed of his treasures.

7. Shakespeare matches the alien Prince of Morocco in 2.1 with the crass subplot clowning of Launcelot Gobbo in 2.2. Both contain or set up the reflexive prejudice towards outsiders in the play. (Portia later says, "A gentle riddance. Draw the curtain, go./ Let all of his complexion choose me so"[2.7.78-9].) Gobbo has a comic monologue (presented as nightclub standup by Nunn) where he equivocates that Shylock is the Devil:

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 command, I will run. (2.1.21-30)

Gobbo's cruel joking at his blind father also associates him with Jessica's running away from Shylock:

Launcelot. Adieu! tears exhibit my tongue. Most beautiful pagan, most sweet Jew, if a Christian do not play the knave and get thee, I am much deceived. But, adieu! These foolish drops do something drown my manly spirit. Adieu!

Jessica. Farewell, good Launcelot. [Exit Launcelot.]
Alack, what heinous sin is it in me
To be ashamed to be my father's child!
But though I am a daughter to his blood,
I am not to his manners. O Lorenzo,
If thou keep promise, I shall end this strife,
Become a Christian and thy loving wife! (2.3.10-21)

They are linked again by her planned escape. Nunn plays up her tortured feelings about her father:


8. Act 3 is the pivotal moment for the interpretation of Shylock. Al Pacino explains his approach to the role and we see his most famous speech:


Later in 3.1, Shylock and Tubal commiserate:


Shylock is emotionally broken by Jessica's betrayal, and for the rest of the play he cannot control his anguish and rage.

9. Abruptly Shakespeare throws the action back to Belmont, where Portia awaits Bassanio as her third wooer. Morocco and Aragon have chosen the gold and silver caskets and are dismissed, and we await the fairy tale moment in this distant, enchanted world. Nunn and Radford have different takes on this scene. Nunn's setting is again a somewhat decayed aristocratic world with a world-weary Portia, while Radford has a brilliant Portia and a communal rejoicing. Note the hint to Bassanio by the rhymes with "lead" in the song, emphasized by camera angles.



10. The major conflict in The Merchant of Venice is resolved in Act 4, making this a most unusual structure for Shakespeare. We have already seen Pacino's courtroom appearance, and now will look at Olivier in Jonathan Miller's first production and at Nunn's version. The proper preamble to the courtroom scene is Antonio's acknowledgment that Venice's reputation as a trading center for the Mediterranean will stand against him:

The duke cannot deny the course of law;
For the commodity that strangers have
With us in Venice, if it be denied,
Will much impeach the justice of his state,
Since that the trade and profit of the city
Consisteth of all nations. (3.3.26-31)

Shylock cuts to the heart of Christian hypocrisy with his remarks on slavery in Venice, and his tortured stance can only be blunted by a trick of the law invented by the disguised Portia. In fact she entraps him into proceeding, then turns the law to his destruction:

Of a strange nature is the suit you follow,
Yet in such rule that the Venetian law
Cannot impugn you as you do proceed. (176-78)

The law hath yet another hold on you.
It is enacted in the laws of Venice,
If it be proved against an alien
That by direct or indirect attempts
He seek the life of any citizen,
The party 'gainst the which he doth contrive
Shall seize one half his goods; the other half
Comes to the privy coffer of the state;
And the offender's life lies in the mercy
Of the duke only, 'gainst all other voice.
In which predicament I say thou stand'st,
For it appears by manifest proceeding
That indirectly and directly too,
Thou hast contrived against the very life
Of the defendant, and thou hast incurred
The danger formerly by me rehearsed.
Down therefore, and beg mercy of the duke. (346-62)


11. Herein lies the emotional crux of the play. Both Nunn and Redford show members of Shylock's community disapproving of his extreme measures. In fact, the end of the Pacino interview (above, MV_Pacino_on_Shylock) shows a scene where Shylock is locked out of his synagogue. In the text, however, the courtroom scene is replete with anti-Semitic venom, especially from Gratiano. Are the directors distorting the scene to make the play at least marginally acceptable in our post-Holocaust age? Jonathan Miller directs Olivier in a chilling version of the end of the scene, where the Christian boardroom realizes it has gone too far.


12. Faced with the conclusion of the main plot, Shakespeare now has to bridge to Act 5. Perhaps searching for a comic tonality, he constructs a subplot where Portia and Nerissa in disguise beg the wedding rings from their husbands. This provides a comic tension that can be resolved back in Belmont as the play concludes in that otherworldly realm. Jessica and Lorenzo introduce 5.1 with lyrical passages about moonlight and music, although modern productions tend to mute their happiness and find sadness in Jessica's realization of her broken bond with her father. Those passages also contain some striking ironies and images of diminution. After images of false and tragic lovers (Troilus and Cressida, Pyramus and Thisbe, Jason and Medea, Dido and Aeneas), we hear:

In such a night
Did Jessica steal from the wealthy Jew,
And with an unthrift love did run from Venice
As far as Belmont.

Jessica. In such a night
Did young Lorenzo swear he loved her well,
Stealing her soul with many vows of faith,
And ne'er a true one.

Lorenzo. In such a night
Did pretty Jessica, like a little shrow,
Slander her love, and he forgave it her. (14-22)

Portia's lines appear quite ironic when the original punctuation replaces the exclamation in line 90 with a comma, making the image less than optimistic:

That light we see is burning in my hall;
How far that little candle throws his beams!
So shines a good deed in a naughty world.

Nerissa. When the moon shone, we did not see the candle.

Portia. So doth the greater glory dim the less.
A substitute shines brightly as a king
Unto the king be by, and then his state
Empties itself, as doth an inland brook
Into the main of waters. (89-97)

13. The main purpose of the final scene, however, is to lighten the mood, which Shakespeare does with jokes about disguises and the missing rings. The last lines are even a coarse double entendre. In crafting this comic closure, Shakespeare injects a metadramatic joke entirely typical of comedies from this period of the mid-1590s. In Two Gentlemen of Verona, he wrapped up a camp ending with incredible dispatch. Love's Labor's Lost denied closure to the audience, and A Midsummer Night's Dream parodied Romeo and Juliet with "Pyramus and Thisbe," but also brought the magic fairy world back in to bless the ending. Portia here produces a letter with practically a slight-of-hand gesture and announces:

Unseal this letter soon;
There you shall find three of your argosies
Are richly come to harbor suddenly.
You shall not know by what strange accident
I chancèd on this letter. (275-79)

This is perhaps an appropriate joke, since Antonio has just wagered his life once again on Bassanio:

I once did lend my body for his wealth,
Which but for him that had your husband's ring
Had quite miscarried. I dare be bound again,
My soul upon the forfeit, that your lord
Will never more break faith advisedly. (249-53)

In keeping with other recent productions, both Trevor Nunn and Michael Radford mute the final celebration and acknowledge Jessica's sense of loss.






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