Sunday, December 7, 2014

Classics Club: 1. The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice opens with Antonio wanting to lend money to his young friend Bassanio so that Bassanio can court the wealthy heiress Portia. However, he has no spare funds available so instead underwrites a loan from Shylock, a Jewish money lender. In place of the usual terms Shylock requests a pound of flesh from Antonio if the loan is defaulted on. Antonio agrees to these terms despite Bassanio's objections. Unfortunately, Antonio's ships are all lost at sea and it seems he will be obligated to give Shylock his pound of flesh. Thankfully Portia, disguised as a man, saves the day in the courtroom. Of course, in typical Shakesperian fashion, there are also plenty of sub-plots to keep things interesting!

I enjoyed this play and one of the main reasons was because of the complex character of Shylock. He's often written off as greedy, uncompassionate and unprincipled. After all he seems to value his ducats more than his daughter. Yet Shakespeare highlights the anti-semitism Shylock  faced which contributed to his hated of Antonio and his preference for revenge in the form of the pound of flesh rather than financial recompense (and more) which Bassanio was then able to offer. Shakespeare also highlights the softer side of Shylock when he mourns a ring given to him by his wife and subsequently taken by his run away daughter Jessica, for sentimental not financial reasons. While Shylock is not the most sympathetic, likeable character, neither is he a one-dimensional villain. And Antonio, the generous benefactor, is not simply an innocent victim either.

I also loved having a woman in a take-charge role. At the beginning Portia seems controlled by her dead father. After all she must marry whoever wins the game of his devising. Yet in the end it is she who comes up with a plan and then stands up in court, turns the law on itself , thus saving Antonio's flesh. She also plays a trick on  Bassanio, which should demonstrate to him that she will be a force to be reckoned with in their marriage.

Like most of Shakespeare's plays the language is wonderful, there is both humour and pathos  to be found, complex issues are raised and one reading is not enough to uncover all the treasure to be discovered. Highly recommended.


  1. I need to do more Shakespeare with the girls. I have a hard time reading Shakespeare, but I love seeing it performed.

  2. Shakespeare is meant to be viewed rather than read. I've found some plays are easier reads than others. We prefer to start with a story version first. I love Leon Garfield's Shakespeare Stories since they are well-written, use some of the original language but are easy to follow. This lets us get a feel for the main plot and characters. Then we read the play aloud- normally a scene at a time. A version that provides description and explanation is really helpful since it is easy to clarify as you go. I'm a big fan of the Oxford School Shakespeare series edited by Roma Gill. We normally get more out of a performance if we're familiar with the play first but I think we are a minority in that. Lots of advice is see a performance and soak it in and then read the play. It is meant to be easier then since you're already familiar with it.