A Grossly Villainous Stereotype and a Wise Woman
This week I finished The Merchant of Venice. There is a lot to appreciate in this play—it leaves much to think about, some great quotes, at least one great character, but . . . I’ve got to stop there till I’ve ranted a bit:
In 2012, the one idea that oozes disgustingly from this work more than anything else is that Shakespeare must have been in this play reflecting, promoting and increasing the horrendous antisemitism that existed in England circa 1600. Judging from Shylock’s—the wealthy Jewish merchant—words, deeds and the way others treat him and scorn him, there was a lot of hate directed at the Jewish community. I came away with the impression that Shylock was a personification of what Christian England saw when they imagined someone Jewish and the Jewish religion—after all, they probably didn’t actually see many Jewish people in Shakespeare’s day since Jews had been expelled from England for 300 years. I cannot like this play because of this ignorant, biased, vicious caricature of a religion and people. I wonder if our current culture doesn’t offer direct descendants of this approach, just tuning the mocking of religion and groups of people to the ear of a modern audience.
The amazing contrast in this play to the unkind portrayal of a Jewish merchant is Shakespeare’s treatment of women. The true hero (almost a super hero), the savior of nearly everyone else in the play, is Solomon-wise, independent, pleasingly manipulative Portia who is most kind and loving—except toward Shylock. Of course, she had to be manipulative because she had to exercise all her wisdom, influence and control indirectly, secretly and subtly in the culture where Shakespeare placed her.
The themes that I saw as I read The Merchant of Venice are justice versus mercy—we must give and hope for mercy–and the importance of keeping oaths and promises —all taught to us by Portia.
Quotes that appealed to me for various reasons (and a brief thought on a few of them):
Antonio: “I know not why I am so sad: It wearies me; you say it wearies you; but how I caught it, found it, or came by it, what stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born, I am to learn; and such a want-wit sadness makes of me that I have much ado to know myself.”
Gratiano: “You have too much respect upon the world: They lose it that do buy it with much care.”
Bassanio: “Gratiano speaks an infinite deal of nothing…His reasons are as two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff: you shall seek all day ere you find them; and, when you have them, they are not worth the search.”
Nerrissa: “…they are as sick that surfeit with too much as they that starve with nothing. It is no mean happiness, therefore, to be seated in the mean….” (One of the first arguments for the middle class?)
Portia: “If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces. It is a good divine that follows his own instructions: I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching.” (Talk is cheap.)
Gratiano: “All things that are, are with more spirit chased than enjoy’d.”
Shylock: “I am a Jew! Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?” (A powerful argument against all race and creed-based prejudice, after all, in the oft-quoted words of John Donne: “No man is an island … each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main….”)
Bassanio: “The world is still deceiv’d with ornament.”
Bassanio (later in the same monologue): There is no vice so simple but assumes some mark of virtue on his outward parts.
Bassanio (later in the same monlogue): …Thus ornament is but the guiled shore to a most dangerous sea; the beauteous scarf veiling an Indian beauty; in a word, the seeming truth which cunning times put on to entrap the wisest.
Portia: This comes too near the praising of myself; therefore, no more of it….
Duke: How shalt thou hope for mercy, rend’ring none?
Portia: The quality of mercy is not strain’d; It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath: it is twice bless’d; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes: ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes the throned monarch better than his crown, his sceptre shows the force of temporal power, the attribute to awe and majesty, wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings; but mercy is above this scepter’d sway,—It is enthroned in the heart of kings, it is an attribute to God himself; and earthly power doth then show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew, though justice be thy plea consider this—that in the course of justice none of us should see salvation: we do pray for mercy; and that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy. (Wonderful discussion of mercy and why we need to “render” it.)
Portia: …As thou urgest justice, be assur’d thou shalt have justice, more than thou desir’st. (I am sure none of us really want what we deserve. We crave mercy for ourselves. How then can we not proffer it? Reminds me of the great exchange from Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband”: LORD CAVERSHAM: You don’t deserve her, sir. LORD GORING: My dear father, if we men married the women we deserved, we should have a very bad time of it.)
Portia: That light we see is burning in my hall: How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.
Portia: He is well paid that is well satisfied.
Bassanio: Pardon this fault, and by my soul I swear, I never more will break an oath with thee. (Would have been better if he had never broke an oath to her. Tough to re-establish trust when we once break a promise/oath.)