The Merchant of Venice


Why This Play?:

Right now, the first months of 2017, is the strangest time in politics and government that I have ever witnessed.  I know, I know.  I already did a Trump comparison of a Shakespeare play.  I promise this isn’t going to focus on a specific person in power…more the idea of power itself. 

The Merchant of Venice is a love story, a friendship story.  But it’s equally a tale of power, prejudice, commerce (both monetary and emotional), and negotiation.  The plot hinges on laws and how to interpret them.  Oppressed Shylock tries to use the law to his advantage and fails.  As many laws are up for reinterpretation or change here in the States under a new administration, I wondered how fair Venice’s laws were to its people.  What happens when the law doesn’t exactly protect or serve the citizens?  What are we supposed to do then (i.e. now)? 

So What Happens?:

The titular merchant, Antonio, mopes around Venice.  He claims he doesn’t really understand the cause of his depression (many directors/actors/scholars love to conjecture the reason).  His friends Solanio and Salerio guess it’s about the ships of his goods that are out at sea.  Clown Gratiano spouts of some nonsense about how they should all be laughing all the time.  Enter Bassanio, Antonio’s best bud.  He has a favor: he’d like to borrow some cash from Bassanio so he can woo a rich lady, Portia.  Antonio is low on cash at the moment, given that he’s waiting for his sea-trade to go through.  No worries, though – he’ll find a way to secure the dough.  Anything for his bosom buddy!

Over in lush Belmont, Portia is unhappy about the men who have come to court her.  The German’s a drunk, the Englishman doesn’t even try to speak any other languages, another is a little too into his horses.  Plus, her late father imposed a weirdo test: each suitor must choose from one of three caskets (gold, silver, lead).  If the casket contains Portia’s picture, they can marry; if he chooses wrongly then he vows never to marry.  Nerissa, Portia’s servant, reminds her that her father’s wishes are her duty.  Back in the Venice marketplace, Antonio approaches local usurer Shylock, a Jew.  Shylock remembers all of Antonio’s past insults and slights (something he has long indured in a very anti-Semitic society).  He also resents that Antonio loans money to friends at no interest, which drives down Shylock’s business.  But he decides (for any number of reasons, up to interpretation) to agree to enter in to a no-interest loan.  Antonio can have the money for Bassanio…but if it can’t be paid back after a set amount of time, Shylock claims a pound of Antonio’s flesh.  Despite Bassanio’s protests, Antonio agrees to the bond, confident that his ships will offer payment in time.

Antonio's swimming in it when it comes to Bassanio!

Antonio's swimming in it when it comes to Bassanio!

The Prince of Moracco comes a-courtin’!  Portia reveals the caskets, and he submits to his promise to never marry if he chooses wrongly.  Cut back to Venice, where a servant named Launcelot longs to part ways with his master, Shylock.  When Bassanio arrives on this scene, Launcelot offers up his services and Bassanio welcomes his new servant.  He also allows Gratiano to tag along to Belmont, provided that he can keep his impertinent tongue in check.  Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, learns that Launcelot is leaving.  Turns out she will be bailing too – she has plans to run away to marry a Christian, Lorenzo.  Shylock reluctantly heads off to make nice at dinner with Bassanio and Antonio, he leaves the house and goods in Jessica’s care.  The second he’s gone, Lorenzo comes around with (fun coincidence) his friends Gratiano and Salanio.  Jessica escapes the house, disguised as a boy with all of Shylock’s wealth in tow.  In Belmont, the Prince of Morocco wrongly chooses the golden casket.  The two S’s talk about how Shylock was furious to discover his daughter made off with his loot.  The Prince of Arragon comes to call, chooses the silver casket, and leaves forlornly when it doesn’t yield Portia’s portrait.

So long, Prince of Arragon; see ya never.

So long, Prince of Arragon; see ya never.

Salerio and Solanio run into Shylock, and they cryptically tease him about Jessica’s flight.  Shylock counters that their buddy Antonio may be in for a rough time if the bond of the pound of flesh has to be collected.  They ask him why he’s so keen on such a strange collection that has no monetary worth, and Shylock responds that it’s the ultimate revenge.  He gives an earnest speech (that can truly evoke a lot of audience sympathy) relaying the mistreatment he has suffered by Antonio because of his faith.  He compares Jews and Christians, indicating that both are human creatures who feel both joy and pain.  Shylock’s friend Tubal confirms that Jessica has run away with much of his money and other treasures.  Shylock rages, then comforts himself with news that Antonio’s ship and wealth are lost – he’ll get his revenge, at the very least.

Shylock, rocking some evil hands at the news of Antonio's financial ruin (if you're watching a straight Shylock-as-villian interpretation of the play)

Shylock, rocking some evil hands at the news of Antonio's financial ruin (if you're watching a straight Shylock-as-villian interpretation of the play)

Bassanio is in Belmont, oblivious to Antonio’s misfortune.  Portia wants his company a little longer, but Bassanio wants to get down to choosing caskets.  Portia calls for music, a song that offers some lyrical clues for Bassanio.  He selects the lead casket and low and behold – Portia’s portrait is within and they can marry!  Everyone’s happy, and Gratiano proclaims that’s he’s smitten with Nerissa as well.  Woo, multiple engagements!  The fun comes to a halt when a message arrives that Antonio’s ship was lost at sea, and his pound of flesh is owed.  Portia gets right down to business, first ensuring a double wedding – she gives Bassanio a ring with the instructions that he must treasure it always.  Once Bassanio has left to support Antonio, Portia plots to help he husband’s dearest friend.  She asks Lorenzo and Jessica to housesit in Belmont.  While she spreads news that she and Nerissa are going to a monastery to await their husbands’ return, she really heads to her cousin Bellario to school her in matters of the law.

Nerissa & Portia, rocking their finest

Nerissa & Portia, rocking their finest

The Duke of Venice presides over the court.  He immediately expresses sympathy to Antonio, but says he’s there to uphold the law.  He implores Shylock to show mercy and not collect on the bond of debt.  Shylock holds fast, stating that he has his reasons for hating Antonio, and the bond will be collected.  Even the promise of a higher monetary payback (now that Bassanio is swimming in Portia’s cash flow) won’t sway him.  Before the case can close, Nerissa arrives, disguised as a male law clerk.  The Duke requested that legal great Bellario give advice, and she bears a letter stating that he’s sick but a young lawyer named Balthazar is coming to weigh in.  Portia enters, disguised as “Balthazar”.  She argues that mercy is the most essential human quality, but Shylock is not swayed: he wants his rights to the bond under law.  “Balthazar” then changes tactics, arguing that technically, the bond does not allow for the spillage of blood.  She rules that Shylock can only extract a pound of Antonio’s flesh if he does not spill any blood in the process.  LAWYERED!  Shylock realizes he’s outwitted and tries to backtrack to obtain the money owed him instead.  Only, “Balthazar” now argues that because he tried to take the life of a Venetian citizen, Shylock’s property is forfeit to the victim (Antonio) and the state.  Antonio proclaims that Shylock can keep his money…IF his will states it be passed on to Jessica and Lorenzo and IF Shylock converts to Christianity.   Subdued and sick but meekly agreeing, Shylock exits the court.  Grateful Bassanio offers payment to “Balthazar”, who only claims his wedding ring.  Antonio convinces him to give it up.  Disguised Nerissa gets Gratiano to give up his wedding ring as well, and the ladies head back to Belmont to challenge their husbands’ loyalty.

Portia, posing as "Balthazar"

Portia, posing as "Balthazar"

Belmont is bathed in moonlight, and Jessica and Lorenzo romantically revel in it.  They even call on musicians to entertain them as they await Portia and Nerissa to return.  The ladies arrive from their travels, and they too are struck with the loveliness of the music and moonlight.  But enough of that – Bassanio and Antonio come up soon after and the wife officially meets the bosom buddy.  Nerissa berates Gratiano for giving up the wedding ring he swore to keep and cherish, and Portia (slyly) proclaims that Nerissa is right to be angry, as no faithful husband would ever break his word to his wife.  Bassanio sheepishly admits that his ring is also gone.  The ladies pretend to be angry and threaten that they will sleep with the new owners of the rings as revenge.  He tries to explain his way out of the doghouse, and Antonio comes to his defense and swears Bassanio will be a true husband forevermore.  Joke’s on the dudes, though – Portia and Nerissa reveal that they were “Balthazar” and the clerk.  The men are astounded, and Gratiano is sort of excited to sleep with a law clerk.

Bassanio, basically

Bassanio, basically

Check This Out:

I watched the 2004 film by Michael Radford.  It was definitely one of the better Shakespeare films I’ve seen.  Radford stages it beautifully, keeping it set in late 16th century Venice and tying in many historical elements (costuming, treatment of Jews in Venice at the time, etc).  The cast is excellent, and the script was left well intact with thoughtful omissions or silent visuals to portray plot/character devices.  All the characters are played as flawed people, which helps shoulder some of the blame on Shylock’s viciousness.  It knows its place as a romantic story, but doesn’t apologize for its rough setting and society.  Also, I really appreciated that Jessica is a complicated character here, who struggles with the fact that she abandons her father and faith.

Thug Notes, as always, has a funny and insightful recap of the play and its themes.

The RSC has a brilliant write-up on the history of productions of The Merchant of Venice and how the roles were interpreted and thematic focus shifted over the years.  I highly recommend that anyone studying or performing in the play give it a read.

And, personal side note: the play’s notion of Belmont as a luxurious paradise makes me laugh because I actually live in a suburb called Belmont.  It’s a lovely place to live (great schools, awesome parks and library!), but it’s mostly filled with overpriced, slightly shabby ranch homes from the 1950s.  Potholes abound on our little streets, and there is a decided lack of sidewalks.  A very nice little town, but doesn’t exactly have the visual glisten and polish that I (and many productions) associate with Portia’s home. 

Thoughts and Themes:

The Merchant of Venice, for me, dredges up so many questions.  I feel pulled in many directions on which topics to address (God help directors on this play!).  Do we grapple with male friendship being prioritized over marriage?  What about the fact that it takes a woman to pull these bozos out of the dumb situation they created for themselves (and what exactly does she see in Bassanio in the first place)?  Never mind all the issues of prejudice and religious hypocrisy. Does Shylock enter into the bond with evil intent or is he trying to extend a gesture of (jesting) friendship that gets flipped because of the oppression he endures?  How about the plot that revolves around the law and following it to the letter – and what saves Antonio is the fact that the law omits a key element; it’s not detailed enough! 

All the characters in this play have some major flaws.  Antonio may be a good friend, but he revels in playing the martyr for his buddy and he treats Shylock horribly (the names, the spitting) due to his religion.  Bassanio is a handsome, mostly worthless charmer who relies on everyone else to provide for him or help him out of a jam.  Portia is brilliant and sensitive, but she’s also a pedagogue who pushes everyone to extreme limits to teach them all lessons (Shylock the importance of mercy, Bassanio about fidelity, Antonio the matter that a wife should trump friendship).  Shylock is strong and steadfast and good at business, but he is blind to his daughter’s unhappiness and to the idea of mercy.  The common trait in all of them is their compliance: they are all law-abiding citizens, no matter the circumstance.

This blog is meant to connect Shakespeare’s themes and characters to the 21st century, through the (sometimes limited) lens of the life of yours truly.  One of the most prevalent things going on in my life, in seemingly everyone’s life, currently is the daily blast of news about anything to do with the Trump presidency.  It’s everywhere – on my local morning news program (NBC Bay Area has a segment on Trump’s First 100 Days trying to breakdown claims vs fact), in every social media I use, in arts and culture websites I read, in passing conversation with other parents during school drop-off.  You can’t escape it.  So why shouldn’t I address it here too?

At the time I am writing this, there has been an upsurge in anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim rhetoric and behavior in the US.  It’s not exactly hard to connect that to my reading of this play.  Some outlets blame this on the presidency and his administration.  We’ve heard for months about the supposed desire for a xenophobic Muslim ban, which we’ve now seen attempted (twice!) to be pushed into law.  We’ve got proposed laws to dismantle healthcare and other social programs.  And thankfully, we have a court system (just like in The Merchant of Venice!) that is meant to interpret those laws and to bat them down if they’re found to be out of line with our overall declared legal rights.

In democratic society, are all laws made in good faith and do they always protect the people they’re meant to serve?  Some laws are outdated or favor certain groups over others.  In the US right now, citizens are driving change by showing our chosen representatives where our priorities lie, and by pointing out situations where the written law is not properly applied to us all.  How do we fight for what we know to be right while staying within the bounds of law? Shylock turns to Venetian law to exact his revenge, finally seizing an opportunity to allow the law to work FOR him (when Venetian law has kept him from owning property and has confined him to live in a ghetto).  Shylock has just lost his daughter and much of his wealth – I think he goes all-out in his quest to fulfill the bond because he doesn’t have much else to lose (or so he thinks).

Portia seizes opportunity as well, studying the law with Bellario to ensure she knows how it works.  In being educated, she’s able to re-interpret that same law to protect Antonio from bodily harm, getting him off on a technicality.  It’s astoundingly clever in its simplicity.  Portia uses the law to keep people safe, and that’s the example we should follow. 

Representative John Lewis speaks of getting into “good trouble” to exact political and social change; he’s been an example of that for over 50 years.  The past few months, I’ve been working on ways to get into some good trouble and to change the policies and leadership that don’t align with the values of a country (or state or county) I want to live in.  The best thing I’ve done is to join a Women’s March Huddle made up of women in my neighborhood and their connections.  We meet every few weeks to discuss new political issues that have arisen and how we can help address them.  If you're interested in doing the same, you can find a local group at that link and join up, or start your own.

1) My Huddle group makes me feel less alone.  We see how we can make an impact on national issues, but sometimes the best impact we have is local.  We are writing targeted mail to certain Congressional reps on certain issues (ACA repeal, immigration, DAPL, etc) and making calls.  We share info/plans for upcoming marches and town halls. But we also take concrete action, such as donating items to a local domestic abuse support center in honor of International Women’s Day or helping to fund a local school’s need for supplies for children of immigrants/refugees.  As we learn more about specific issues and local resources, we’ll develop better ways to help or to exact change.

2) I am really trying to avoid get into an “us vs them” mentality about any group or political party I don’t agree with (besides, there are plenty of militant or nutso people who share my views who aren’t much better).  This means following viewpoints that don’t always align with my own.  It’s as simple as following social media accounts from people with different backgrounds or political ideals or checking out op-eds from folks more conservative or libertarian than myself.  Some people call it knowing your “enemy”…I think of it as not living in a bubble.

3) I now make it a point to only pay attention to factual, source-based news media. This includes making sure that any articles I share with others are only from verified news sources.  I prefer radio, TV, and online/print news that interviews parties from multiple sides of an issue (when available).  I prefer news programs to talking-head opinion shows, and I try to keep my reading of op-eds at a minimum.  My go-tos are PBS Newshour (the BEST!), NPR (and my local affiliate KQED), BBC World News, and the Washington Post.  While I love me some John Oliver, his show is not my main/single source for any facts or opinions.

4) I’m paying much more attention to my buying power.  Given that our current president has many unknown business dealings that could be a huge conflict of interest with running the nation (and given that investigations into such matters have been horribly suppressed), I can’t in good conscience support companies that support his businesses.  For more info on that subject, check out Grab Your Wallet.    

5) Making donations to organizations larger than me to enable them to do the good work that I can’t do myself.  Among others, I support the ACLU and my local PBS/NPR affiliate. 

This isn’t all I can do, by any means.  But I don’t want to just rage indignantly like Shylock (even if you sorta believe he was justified in doing so).  I’m taking the time to educate myself on the laws, just like Portia did.  I’ll learn how to do more, to offer greater help, to be louder, and to make good trouble.

“Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” — Martin Luther King, Jr., April 16, 1963 (Letter from a Birmingham jail)


I'm feeling this comedy groove right now, but I need a less problematic one. I'm happy to announce that Twelfth Night is next on the agenda!