The Merchant of Venice

“In sooth, I know not why I am so sad,/It wearies me.” (I,i,1-2)sighs Antonio existentially to open this play titled for him, the said merchant. I’d argue that he’s sad and tired, in part, because of the effort that it takes to hate and discriminate against Shylock, the infamous Jewish money lender he will soon deal with. It indeed takes a village, and this one, like the one in Frankenstein unite against him based largely on the superficial. Both Frankenstein’s monster and Shylock crave validation and acceptance, as do we all. And both are ostracized because they are different. In the monster’s case, because of his rather gruesome looks. Oh and because he is a corpse brought back to life. In Shylock’s case, because he’s a Jew. But in both cases, and persistently in society today, this bias and prejudice turn the men into the monsters their village perceives them to be. It’s a sad self-fulfilling prophecy.

It would be easy to dismiss this play as a gross injustice against the Jewish race, but that would be too facile. While it may accurately reflect the population (very few Jews lived in Elizabethan England) and socially accepted opinions of the era, it forces us to look at the deleterious effects of our own deep-rooted prejudices and teaches us important lessons about them. Even the seemingly most upstanding and high-minded characters succumb to that which they despise in others, and look no better than the basest characters as a result.

Shylock agrees to lend Antonio money to bankroll his friend Bassanio’s quest to woo the heiress Portia. But he demands a “pound/of your fair flesh.” (I,iii,149-50) as collateral. He makes this demand rather than taking the usual material possessions to secure the loan simply because “I hate him for he is a Christian.” (I,iii,41) His outrageous and inhuman terms only reinforce their negative view of his race. They’re all caught in a black hole of bias. Act I lays down the Christian v. Jew gauntlet, and the battle rages on throughout the play.

Shakespeare provides a breath of unpolluted and prejudice-free fresh air in Act II in the person of Portia. Her recently deceased father has rigged a scheme, almost as foolish as Lear’s estate plan, to marry off his only child (and her substantial fortune). Regal suitors come from near and far to play Let’s Make a Deal (is the prize behind Door Number 1, 2, or 3?)game of chance to seal her fate. One of three trunks (gold, silver, and lead) contain her likeness; the suitor who selects that one wins her hand. Despite her dying dad’s absurd denial of her free will, Portia remains remarkably open-minded and bias free. Her first suitor, the Prince of Morocco, is a Moor. Like Desdemona with Othello, Portia sees his character more than his color.

“Mislike me not for my complexion,” (II,i,1) he pleads, but he need not have. Portia quickly assures him “In terms of choice I am not soly led/By nice direction of a maiden’s eyes.” (II,i,13-4) Finally, we think, someone who sees through the facade of race and religion down to the deeper qualities that define a person.

Sadly, Antonio’s ships do not come in, but sink, leaving him unable to meet his bond and Shylock comes gunning for his pound of flesh, which he aims to cut squarely from Antonio’s chest. Antonio, like Claudio in Measure for Measure, accepts his fate with quiet resignation no matter how absurd and unfair it seems.

Bassanio is bereft. He will have to watch his dear friend who financed his courtship die at the Jew’s hands. The Duke’s (hands, that is) are tied. It’s all perfectly legal and he cannot estop it. Shylock, driven to violence as was Frankenstein’s monster, is beyond listening to reason or exhibiting empathy, having been shown none. He refuses even double and triple the principal borrowed in lieu of the joy of exacting the pound of flesh out of pure hatred: “I can give no reason, nor I will not,/More than a lodg’d hate and a certain loathing/I bear Antonio.” (IV,i,59-61)

Venice has, like the Frankenstein villagers, created and angry monster with blind, shallow hatred and prejudices of his own. And like Frankenstein’s monster, who only craved love and acceptance, Shylock rebels and goes for the jugular. Or more anatomically correctly, for the aorta. Those convened in court cannot comprehend Shylock’s lack of compassion, but they should; they created it with their own.

But they fail to recognize themselves in him or to correct the error in their ways. After they see the evil it has wrought, they pour salt in their societal wound by encouraging and perpetuating, rather than breaking the cycle in their treatment of Shylock.

When it comes the Christians’ turn to turn the other cheek, they dissemble, and the only thing they turn is the tables on the despised Jew. They opt, instead, for an eye for an eye.

A cross-dressed, disguised Portia and handmaid Nerissa come to court to serve as expert witnesses before Shylock starts hacking away at Antonio’s chest. Portia cleverly resolves the situation by pointing out that extracting the skin will put him in jeopardy because:

“This bond give thee here no jot of blood;
The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh.’
But in the cutting it, if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are by the laws of Venice confiscate
Unto the State of Venice.

But she doesn’t stop there, even after Shylock backs down and accepts the reimbursement rather than the epidermis. It’s her turn to go for the jugular, so she continues, like a slow, torturous drip of water, to humiliate him and strip him of all of his possessions, position, stature, and even identity. In her coup de grace she requires that he convert to Christianity.

Despite her initial open mindedness in the suitor scene, she shows her true colors here, and the crowd cheers her on. Her prior plea and paean to mercy ring hollow now:

“The quality of mercy is not strain’d
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”

She gives no mercy, only demands it of Shylock. She eviscerates and humiliates him, leaving him to withdraw into exile like Frankenstein’s monster. So no one is the wiser. There is no lesson here except that hate begets hate.

This disturbing resolution taints the happily ever after ending in Act V. Antonio and the amorous couples may plan to skip serenely into the sunset, but that sun is setting on a land still beset by the belief that difference = evil.

It’s hard for me to see this play as a comedy, particularly with the backdrop of the troubles that bias and prejudice have caused in our country and our world. But it’s not a classic tragedy either, because no hero sees the light, even after it is too late. It’s not hard at all to see why Antonio is so sad. The villagers may have driven the monster out of their midst, but in doing so have only planted the seeds for more strife in the future.

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