Sunday, November 04, 2012

Reader's Diary #888- William Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare is an interesting play, even if flawed and anti semitic. It's a story about a debt unpaid and a loan shark who is out for blood. This is very simplified, of course. There's also a marriage and a whole lot of religious intolerance and stereotyping.

Flawed is a matter of opinion but I would suggest that some elements were clear pandering to his audience. Specifically, the cross-dressing bit at the end. For some reason, Portia appears dressed as a male lawyer at the end. It's clearly just a plot convenience, an excuse to have a character in drag, when a an actual male lawyer could have made the very same points as she does. It's overdone in Shakespearean plays and more than a little silly that no one ever recognizes the person in disguise. Like Clark Kent's glasses.

One thing I found interesting was a bit about Portia's suitors having to choose the correct casket (between one filled with gold, silver, or lead) to win her hand in marriage. While I'm not sure of the logic as to why lead was the correct choice, it made me think of how often these kind of choices have appeared in literature, movies, and TV shows ever since. As for the anti semitism, I just knew that I'd be able to look online and find someone suggesting that that wasn't the case. We can't acknowledge that such a cultural and literary icon as Shakespeare may have disliked Jewish people, now can we? It does give me some hope that those who wish to whitewash history are in the minority and the majority seem to agree that yes, The Merchant of Venice with its stereotypically greedy Jewish Shylock character is anti semitic. The best defense one could give of the play is that at least Shylock has the opportunity, during his famous "hath not a Jew eyes" speech, to suggest that the Christians aren't much different.


Unknown said...

Actually, you're one of the few people I've read who's just admitted the play is anti-semetic and gotten on with it. Thanks.

I've long held that this play is both anti-semetic and pretty bad, but I have not found much company.

I do think that Shakespeare's audience had a different idea of 'realism' so the cross-dressing was easy to accept. Since all of the part were played by males and everyone knew this, you probably didn't have to do much to convey cross-dressing in a 'realistic' 'believeable' fashion.

John Mutford said...

C.B. James: And how about the ending? I found it very interesting that it's believed by many that the ending with Shylock being forced to convert to Christianity was Shakespeare's attempt at a happy ending, when with our 21st century values, it's offensive and even tragic.