Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Merchant of Venice - Menacing the Virgins

Somehow I missed Mike's fine and central questions. I will get to them. For starters, however, I will toss in some opening thoughts I wrote a couple of weeks ago--after listening to the play:

One cannot make it through The Merchant of Venice without being overwhelmed by the prejudicial remarks mouthed by all its characters. Everyone dumps on someone else—with the cumulative effect of making Shylock’s more extreme sufferings (and hates) seem merely one more (particularly noticeable) element of a sickeningly prejudiced world none of us would wish to live in.

Parts of Merchant of Venice are also reminiscent of Two Gentlemen of Verona, the main difference being that a much higher number of the later play’s characters are considerably more singularly sketched—in other words, Shakespeare takes general care to see that each one’s defining traits are clearly set forth soon after we meet each.

Two Gentlemen of Verona’s trip afar to obtain a wife has been polished into the elaborate moral allegory of Belmont. Its friendship has been complicated into the Antonio-Bassanio relationship. Its Sylvia character has been changed to the socially-diminished Nerissa (with the echo of Jessica serving to make the single Sylvia into a poetically neat threesome). And the Trip-to-save-your-man has been enriched and moved from the realm of physical comparisons to the poetical/intellectual one (sorry, we’ve just had visits with three impressive lawyers).

Of course, it is hard to regard or direct the play with indifference, and if one wishes to make something of the proto-homosexual relationship between Antonio and Bassanio or of the injustice served up by a rigged capitalistic social order on Shylock, one can—easily and powerfully. I listened to the play while driving from Ithaca to Kingston, and, somehow, came away from it without feeling great sympathy for anyone from the self-indulgently morose Antonio to the racist (if tough and articulate) Portia. I felt a strange sort of indifferent objectivity.

All of which is not to say that I have not seen powerful productions—most especially with Olivier playing Shylock and Antonio and Jessica looking into one another’s eyes in the final scene at Belmont (and knowing the terrible things each has wrought regarding Shylock) .

Perhaps this is an old man’s slightly cynical response to a play that still seems the product of a Shakespeare somewhat short of maturity. Perhaps it is also fed by the comments of those who wish to make something of Portia’s feminist heroics or Antonio’s and Bassanio’s “homosexual” relationship. Having felt neither while listening to the play, at this moment I feel such concerns as having been “pasted on” by critics who could not, really, find deeper stuff in what was on the page.

Shakespeare’s most striking move, however, is his brilliant creation of Shylock, into whose backgrounds, attitudes, and causes he has gone quite extensively. Arguably, he is the near equal of Richard of Gloucester in that respect.

As I tried to say when talking about Bill Matchett’s discussion of “forgiveness,” it’s more as if the concerns which will later become “themes” arise almost incidentally. The theme of forgiveness and mercy is one. The theme of women having to take upon themselves the paying for men’s flaws is also.

Shakespeare’s dislike of puritanical narrow-mindedness is another. Although Shylock’s extensive development as a Jew gainsays this in some regards, I have always wondered how much of Shakespeare’s annoyance with Puritans (of whom he probably saw many more than he saw Jews) is not part of Shylock’s creation (sure, Marlowe was being revived around the corner and someone had said, “Hey Bill, can YOU write us a Jew-play?”). Here we have a real Old-testament figure as opposed to those Puritan sorts whose attempt to return to Old-Testament governance was seriously flawed. (And still is.)

I asked my sister if she thought my opening comments above were audacious, and she, very prettily responded: “Not audacious at all. On Friday, as we finished Romeo and Juliet, I asked my kids to promise me that someday each one would read King Lear. I was pointing out that Romeo's remarks upon seeing Juliet "dead" in the tomb would not gain their real meaning until ten years later when Shakespeare would write King Lear. Just as he would transform the Friar into Polonius in Hamlet, Shakespeare would transform Romeo's misery into something truly agonizing in King Lear. Carrying the dead Cordelia in his arms, Lear would look helplessly for signs of life in her features. The immature Shakespeare is a great wordsmith; the mature Shakespeare breaks your heart.”


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