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11 June 2012

The Merchant of Venice

I saw the film version (with Al Pacino as Shylock) of this on television recently. It seemed reasonably faithful rendering (in fact, too faithful to be a memorable film) and it reminded me it's a play I've barely thought about for many years. But what had struck me in the courtroom scene was the way it embodies some of the presumed conflict between early Christians and the Jewish establishment. In some ways it's an exposition of St Paul's thoughts on the attitude to The Law. In the play, Shylock adheres to a rigid interpretation of his bond, while Portia puts the case for mercy.


The other thing I wanted to check was the way the chant "Tell me, where is fancy bred?" is used. I can't remember where I saw the suggestion that this is a blatant bit of cheating. Bassanio has to choose between three sealed caskets, of gold, silver and lead. If he chooses correctly, he wins Portia's hand in marriage and all the fortune that goes with it. Portia clearly fancies him, and she's already seen that gold and silver are the wrong answers. And while Bassanio is pondering (Act III, scene 2) she sings:
Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart, or in the head?
How begot, how nourished?
Reply, reply.
where the three lines all rhyme with "lead". Once this has been pointed out, it's so obvious, but it seems to go unnoticed quite often. For example, Tony Tanner in his Prefaces to Shakespeare is as always enlightening about many aspects of the play, but doesn't mention this. Is it just too obvious? Is it just me who finds it remarkable?

Whatever, it suggests that Portia is willing to bend rules to get the right outcome, which prepares us for the courtroom scene. Here she initially tries to persuade Shylock to be merciful, but when that fails she hoists him on his own petard, with a ridiculously to-the-letter interpretation of the bond: the famous pound of flesh must be exactly a pound, and must contain no blood.

And then, in her disguise as a lawyer who has been brought in as an independent expert by the Doge, she accepts a gift from Bassanio, one of the litigants. Which can't be right.

OK, it's clear we're not dealing with moral certainties. And so we come to Shylock, and things get even more difficult. In the courtroom scene, it's difficult not to feel intensely antagonistic towards him, but I think this antagonism is always based on his behaviour, not on the fact he's a Jew. Until this scene, his Jewishness has (to a modern audience, which is the only one there is these days) provoked sympathy for him. His hatred for Antonio arises from Antonio's prejudiced mistreatment of him - which nobody begins to deny. Similarly, it's clear that he's suffered from institutional racism of the state of Venice. He has legitimate causes for complaint, but as an individual - a Jew, not the Jew - his proposed remedy is disproportionate. By whatever means the play has to bring about restoration of appropriate responses. And yet it goes further. When Shylock refuses to risk enforcing the bond, with the inevitable punishment by death that would follow, he loses everything. There's no legal logic to this. His bond, however wrong-headed, was, as everyone accepts, perfectly legal. What law has he broken that all his goods should be forfeit? Finally he is punished for disrupting the assumptions of what reasonable behaviour is. The logic of the play means he must be punished. So, it is a comedy, after all. A largely happy ending reassures us that there can be sensible answers to terrible situations. But the world in this play is unsafe in the long run and non-conformity can be costly. The word "happy", after all, once meant "lucky". And the fate of the awful Gratiano, who ends the play with a bawdy pun, reminds us that unworthy people sometimes prosper.

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