Saturday, March 16, 2013


The Shakespeare play that I know best is The Merchant of Venice. This is because it was part of the syllabus for the ICSE Std. X Board exam so I had to study it for a couple of years in the course of which I had memorised much of the play.  Though he appears in very few scenes, the most riveting character in the play is Shylock. In contrast, Antonio, who is the merchant in the title of the play. is a droopy character who sets his melancholy tone in the opening lines of the play:

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.

Antonio's reply to the second speech of Shylock that I quoted in an earlier post was (in Shylock's first appearance in the play - in this video from 3:24 to 13:00):

I am as like to call thee so again,

To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.

If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not

As to thy friends; for when did friendship take

A breed for barren metal of his friend?

But lend it rather to thine enemy,

Who, if he break, thou mayst with better face

Exact the penalty.
This the good guy? I was not impressed. Shylock on the other hand, has the best lines in the play and his constant denigration by his rivals evokes chords of sympathy in the audience. The eponymous character in the play is often mistaken to be Shylock instead of Antonio. Stephen Greenblatt writes in Will in the World:
The Merchant of Venice has a host of characters who compete for the audience's attention: a handsome, impecunious young man in search of a wealthy wife; a melancholy, rich merchant who is hopelessly in love with the young man; women - three of them, no less - who dress themselves as men; a mischievous clown; an irrepressible sidekick, an exotic Moroccan; an absurd Spaniard. The list could be extended. But it is the Jewish villain everyone remembers, not simply as villain.  Shylock seems to have a stronger claim to attention, quite simply more life, then anyone else. 
 Greenblatt writes that The Merchant of Venice would have been one of Shakespeare's lesser works like The Two Gentlemen of Verona were it not for the resplendent character of Shylock. The question is: Why did Shakespeare make the Jew such a riveting character in his play?

About 300 years before Shakespeare's time, the entire Jewish community was expelled from England and forbidden to return on pain of death. That is why the play is set in Venice and not in England. Shakespeare never saw a Jew. Though the Jewish community had disappeared, they continued to exist in the imagination, in fables and jokes. Myths about them flourished - that they murdered children, poisoned wells, controlled a huge international network of capital,  plotted a secret war against the Christians....Shakespeare used the figure of a Jew without moral compunctions to depict the outer limits of human behaviour.

But there were complications. The Jews were after all 'the People of  the Book'.  In Elizabethan society, where weekly church attendance was compulsory, ministers regularly read passages from the holy scriptures of the ancient Israelites. Thus a people who were  reviled were also exalted figures in the holy book of the population. The intertwined histories of Jews and Christians could not be ignored. The conflict between mockery and identification is depicted in The Merchant of Venice.

Then there was usury. Christians were prohibited by canon law from taking interest. Since there were no Jews in England and since the realm's mercantile economy depended on money lending, some people were allowed to lend money and charge interest. Usurers were thus simultaneously despised and played a key role. Shakespeare loved such a contradiction of contempt and centrality.

Relying on such contradictions, Shakespeare creates a play in which the audience laughs at the Jew but is also uncomfortable with the laughter. (Witness Shylock's alternating between pleasure and pain in this video till 6:57.) Shylock is not the typical villian that you love to hate. In the court scene (from 10:13 in this video, the whole of this video and till 8:15 in this video)Shylock is crushed and even loses his identity. Even though relieved that he is prevented from executing his diabolical bond, the audience cannot help feeling some sympathy for Shylock. It is his mockers who are shown in poor light. In Will in the World, Stephen Greenblatt says:
This generosity makes theatrical trouble; it prevents any straightforward amusement at Shylock's confusion of his daughter and his ducats, and, what is more disturbing, it undermines the climactic trail scene.  That scene is the comedy's equivalent of the real-world execution: it is meant to reach satisfying legal and moral closure, to punish villainy, and to affirm central values of the dominant culture.  All of the elements seem to be in place: a wise duke, an implacable Jewish villain sharpening his knife for slaughter, a supremely eloquent appeal for mercy, a thrilling resolution. Yet this scene, as the experience of both the page and the stage repeatedly demonstrates, is deeply unsettled and unsettling.  The resolution depends upon the manipulation of a legal technicality, the appeal for mercy gives way to the staccato imposition of punishments, and the affirmation of values is swamped by a flood of mingled self-righteousness and vindictiveness. Above all, without mitigating Shylock's vicious nature, without denying the need to thwart his murderous intentions, the play has given us too much insight into his inner life, too much of a stake in his identity and his fate, to enable us to laugh freely and without pain.

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