BOOK (play): The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
SYNOPSIS: Most people must know the plot of the play. But I'll include a short synopsis. It's a controversial comedy that introduces to us the prejudices of Shakespeare's time towards Jews while seeming to perpetuate them. A merchant of Venice named Anthony borrows money from a moneylender named Shylock (who's a Jew) for his friend Bassanio who needs it to court Portia who is a rich heiress. When all of Anthony's assets have sunken, he has to grant to Shylock whatever he desires in place of his money.
After reading any of Shakespeare’s plays, I usually watch some production of the play before reviewing it, but I really wanted to write about this, so I’m putting off the watching part for a little bit.
I love Shakespeare, but I found this play difficult to read because I did not like any of the characters and nothing *really* seemed to be interesting me, and that made me want to give it no more than three stars, but here’s why I’m giving it four: it’s the mastery of Shakespeare that has once again awed me.
How, you ask? He seems to be saying one thing to the Elizabethan audience, but we, as modern readers, can interpret it as a completely different thing. For one, the Christian characters talk about mercy, love, and charity but their actions are never consistent with what they say. Portia’s speech about mercy represents how Christians viewed mercy, and yet not one Christian actually showed mercy in the play. Portia has the opportunity to show the mercy she talked of, but she doesn’t. Antonio’s decision not to seize Shylock’s goods as punishment could have been considered as a merciful act by the Elizabethan audience, but considering he takes away his religion from Shylock, we cannot view it in the same way. Neither can we call him forcing Shylock to convert merciful. Moreover, by forcing Shylock to convert, Antonio disables him from practicing usury, so his “mercy” of saving Shylock from damnation seems to stem from self-interest.
And then there’s the character of Shylock himself. He’s more than just a comical Jewish stereotype. He claims time and again that he is doing what he is doing because of the persecution he has endured at the hands of the Christians, and while showing his cruelty, Shakespeare gives us a glimpse of his humanity as well.
So, here’s the thing: The strictures of the age demanded that Shylock be a merciless villain, but by masking the Christians’ own cruelty underneath what they proclaimed to be, Shakespeare presents a powerful and subversive condemnation of antisemitism, and it is because of the significance of this masked condemnation that I have to give it at least four stars.
Do I recommend it? Most definitely! It's Shakespeare!
Published by Mahima Kapoor