Friday, February 11, 2011

"The Merchant of Venice"

SOLANIO. Let me say amen betimes, lest the devil cross my prayer,
for here he comes in the likeness of a Jew.

Enter SHYLOCK

How now, Shylock? What news among the merchants?

SHYLOCK. You knew, none so well, none so well as you, of my
daughter's flight.

SALERIO. That's certain; I, for my part, knew the tailor that made
the wings she flew withal.

SOLANIO. And Shylock, for his own part, knew the bird was flidge;
and then it is the complexion of them all to leave the dam.

SHYLOCK. She is damn'd for it.

SALERIO. That's certain, if the devil may be her judge.

SHYLOCK. My own flesh and blood to rebel!

SOLANIO. Out upon it, old carrion! Rebels it at these years?

SHYLOCK. I say my daughter is my flesh and my blood.

SALERIO. There is more difference between thy flesh and hers than
between jet and ivory; more between your bloods than there is
between red wine and Rhenish. But tell us, do you hear whether
Antonio have had any loss at sea or no?

SHYLOCK. There I have another bad match: a bankrupt, a prodigal,
who dare scarce show his head on the Rialto; a beggar, that was
us'd to come so smug upon the mart. Let him look to his bond. He
was wont to call me usurer; let him look to his bond. He was wont
to lend money for a Christian courtesy; let him look to his bond.

SALERIO. Why, I am sure, if he forfeit, thou wilt not take his
flesh. What's that good for?

SHYLOCK. To bait fish withal. If it will feed nothing else, it will
feed my revenge. He hath disgrac'd me and hind'red me half a
million; laugh'd at my losses, mock'd at my gains, scorned my
nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies. And what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes?
Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections,
passions, fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons,
subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed
and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If
you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?
If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we
not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you
in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility?
Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance
be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me
I will execute; and it shall go hard but I will better the
instruction.

Alas, poor Shylock. Anyway, my point--if I have one--is that Shylock is initially presented to the audience as a typical Elizabethan stage character: the evil Jewish loanshark, declaring first that he hates Antonio because the man is a Christian. But Shakespeare moves immediately away from that as Shylock lists the insults and injuries he has received at the hands of Antonio and other citizens of Venice on account of his being a Jew. By the middle of the play Shylock has become the only fully-developed character and his planned revenge against Antonio seems entirely justified, at least on Elizabethan terms. What's remarkable--to me at least--is how Shakespeare takes the hoary old stereotypes of his time and uses them to create a character who should be the villain but is instead the tragic protagonist of the play. Yes, we have Portia's marriage plot (her father must've been a real piece of work to offer up Portia as prize in a fancy dress game of three-card monte) and she alone is good and pure in the world of the play, but her high-mindedness strikes this modern reader as a bit naïve and interfering. I'd let Shylock cut out Antonio's heart, frankly. He was asking for it.

2 comments:

  1. oohh- it was so lovely to read this after so long- I practically know this by heart (do you say by rote?) as we had it in school in the 9th and 10th grade. Shylock was the most loved character with almost everybody in the class and I sometimes felt like Shakespeare meant him to be so. Or maybe he was just trying to create a really well rounded villain. Antonio seemed so spineless in comparison. i really need to read more Shakespeare - i'd forgotten how lovely he can be.

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  2. Shakespeare is always simply beautiful, and I can't get enough of him. He puts the most amazing lines in Shylock's mouth. The scene where he's at home, asking his friend for news of his daughter? That's great stuff. Also great--in an entirely different way--is the scene where the Venetians are mocking Shylock the morning after his daughter runs off with a local boy and a bunch of valuables stolen from Shylock's safe.

    It's possible--though not provable--that Shakespeare was using Shylock as a sort of argument against the institutionalized religious persecution of England at the time. Shakespeare's own family may well have been Catholics who were forced to convert. The politics of the day were always present in Shakespeare's tragedies.

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