“Let not the sound of shallow foppery enter my sober house.”
C.S. Lewis wrote the following -
“An Illyrian Duke spoke, in an air which had just ceased vibrating to the sound of music, words that seemed to come out of the very heart of some golden world of dreamlike passion: but all this was spoiled because the meddlers had told me it was the portrait of a self-deceiving or unrealistic man and given me the impression that it was my business to diagnose ... instead of submitting to the charm. Shakespeare offered me a King who could not even sentence a man to banishment without saying:
‘The sly slow hours shall not determinate The dateless limit of thy dear exile.' (Richard II, I, iii, 50)
“Left to myself I would simply have drunk it in and been thankful. That is just how beautiful, willful, passionate, unfortunate kings killed long ago ought to talk. But then again the critic was at my elbow instilling the pestilential notion that I ought to prize such words chiefly as illustrations of what he called Richard's weakness, and (worse still) inviting me to admire the vulgar, bustling efficiency of Bolingbroke. I am probably being very unjust to the critics in this account. I am not even sure who they were. But somehow or other this was the sort of idea they gave me. I believe they have given it to thousands. As far as I am concerned it meant that Shakespeare became to me for many years a closed book. Read him in that way I could not; and it was some time before I had the courage to read him in any other. Only much later, reinforced with a wider knowledge of literature, and able now to rate at its true value the humble little outfit of prudential maxims which really underlay much of the talk about Shakespeare's characters, did I return and read him with enjoyment ...
“A good example of the kind of play which can be twisted out of recognition by character criticism is the Merchant of Venice. Nothing is easier than to disengage and condemn the mercenary element in Bassanio's original suit to Portia, to point out that Jessica was a bad daughter, and by dwelling on Shylock's wrongs to turn him into a tragic figure. The hero thus becomes a scamp, the heroine's love for him a disaster, the villain a hero, the last act an irrelevance, and the casket story a monstrosity. What is not explained is why anyone should enjoy such a depressing and confused piece of work. It seems to me that what we actually enjoy is something quite different. The real play is not so much about men as about metals. The horror of usury lay in the fact that it treated metal in a way contrary to nature. If you have cattle they will breed. To make money - the mere medium of exchange - breed as if it were alive is a sort of black magic. The speech about Laban and Jacob is put into Shylock's mouth to show that he cannot grasp this distinction and the Christians point out that friendship does not take ‘A breed for barren metal'. The important thing about Bassanio is that he can say, ‘Only my blood speaks to you in my veins ' and again, ‘all the wealth I had Ran in my veins '.
“... The whole contrast is between the crimson and organic wealth in his veins, the medium of nobility and fecundity, and the cold, mineral wealth in Shylock's counting-house. The charge that he is a mercenary wooer is a product of prosaic analysis. The play is much nearer the Märchen level than that. When the hero marries the princess we are not expected to ask whether her wealth, her beauty, or her rank was the determining factor. They are all blended together in the simple man's conception of Princess. Of course great ladies are beautiful: of course they are rich. Bassanio compares Portia to the Golden Fleece. That strikes the proper note. And when once we approach the play with our senses and imaginations it becomes obvious that the presence of the casket story is no accident. For it also is a story about metals, and the rejection of the commercial metals by Bassanio is kind of counter-point to the conquest of Shylock's metallic power by the lady of the beautiful mountain. The very terms in which they are rejected proclaim it. Silver is the 'pale and common drudge ‘Tween man and man '. Gold is ‘Hard food for Midas ' - Midas who, like Shylock, tried to use as the fuel of life what is in its own nature dead. And the last act, so far from being an irrelevant coda, is almost the thing for which the play exists ... If I err, I err in childishness, not in sophistication."
- C.S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays, pgs. 94-97
Often have you heard that told.
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.
Fare you well ... but your suit is cold."
- Portia's Father
Michael Radford's 2004 film version of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice is perhaps not quite as exuberant or showy as other Shakespeare films. But it isn't all comedy. Indeed, along with All's Well That End's Well, Measure for Measure, Timon of Athens, Troilus and Cressida, and The Winter's Tale, The Merchant of Venice is often classified by critics as one of Shakespeare's “tragic comedies" or “problem plays." In other words, it encompasses elements both of tragedy and comedy - elements that any good drama or romance ought to contain. However, this is the Shakespeare play that gets much analysis, discussion and controversy from the critics based on modern interpretation.
“Gratiano speaks an infinite deal of nothing, more than any man in all of Venice."
This is the play that leads critics to wonder if William Shakespeare was anti-Semitic. It's the play that theater and film producers wonder if they should change or edit in order to make it more palatable for the modern audience. Much discussion is had over which characters in the play are anti-Semites, over whether Antonio is really good or bad, and over whether Shylock is really the villain or a sympathetic and tragic hero.
If you want to analyze the play by deciding which characters are anti-Semites (or whether Shakespeare himself was) you are entirely missing out on something of far more value. There is a charm and beauty to this play that, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, you will lose by overanalysis (whether you are politicizing it for ideological reasons or psychologically evaluating each character). This sort of thinking also annoyed G.K. Chesterton extremely, who wrote -
“The play called The Merchant of Venice happens to be about usury, and its story is a medieval satire on usury. It is the fashion to say that it is a clumsy and grotesque story; but as a fact it is an exceedingly good story. It is a perfect and pointed story for its purpose, which is to convey the moral of the story. And the moral is that the logic of usury is in its nature at war with life. In other words, if a creditor can always claim a man’s tools or a man’s home, he might quite as justly claim one of his arms or legs. This principle was not only embodied in medieval satires but in very sound medieval laws, which set a limit on the usurer who was trying to take away a man’s livelihood, as the usurer in the play is trying to take away a man’s life. And if anybody thinks that usury can never be got to lengths wicked enough to be worthy of so wild an image, then that person either knows nothing about it or knows too much.
- G.K. Chesterton, The New Jerusalem (1920), pgs. 278-280
Think over some of Shakespeare's other villains. Did their race, class or religion really ever matter? Don John from Much Ado About Nothing was Spanish, but so was his good brother, Don Pedro. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are Scottish. Claudius (like most of the characters in Hamlet) is Danish. Joan of Arc is obviously French. Iago (like most of the characters in Othello) is Italian. Tamora from Titus Andronicus is a Goth (but almost every character in that play is bad). Aaron is a Moor, but so is the sympathetic tragic hero of Othello. Edmund from King Lear and Richard III are both English. In fact, I think all the rest of Shakespeare's bad guys are English. So why should Shakespeare be antisemitic just because the money lender/usurer bad guy in The Merchant of Venice is Jewish (an obvious stereotype of the time period)?
Distracted by all the racial and political analysis of the play and film, critics can forget that The Merchant of Venice is actually an enchanting, nuanced and complex story. Different meaningful themes run through the play and Radford picks up on all of them. There's the problem of things and people not being what or who they first appear to be. In other words, appearances are deceiving. (Each girl main character, typical to Shakespeare, at one point or other dresses up as a male to fool other characters.) The appearances and messages in the three chests are not what they first seem to be. Antonio and Shylock both don't always follow the religions they at first seem to hold to. The hopefully profitable act of borrowing money on credit is not what it first appears to be. This is a story filled with trickery and deception. The young people interested in love have to carefully navigate this world in order to win success. The older people interested in wealth have to manipulate and work through risks and dangers in order to be successful.
"So may the outward shows be least themselves.
The world is still deceived with ornament.
In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt
but being seasoned with a gracious voice
obscures the show of evil?
In religion, what damned error
but some sober brow will bless it
and approve it with a text,
hiding the grossness with fair ... ornament?
Look on beauty and you shall see
'tis purchased by the weight."
Radford's film adaptation is so good because he understands the crisscrossing themes of the story. The Merchant of Venice is a reflection on the nature of man, the requirements of real love, and the difference between justice and mercy, law and grace. Radford, early on, chooses to show how the Jews are being treated unjustly. They are not being treated in this society as they deserve. He even explains in the opening credits, essentially, that Shylock is a moneylender because Venetian discrimination has left him with no other choice. In the opening scene, a Jewish Shylock (forced to wear a red hat like a badge of identification) looks for sympathy or mercy from Antonio while other Christians are assaulting other Jews. The Christian Antonio has one response - he spits in disgust in Shylock's face and turns his back to him.
"He hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million,
laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains,
cooled my friends, heated mine enemies, and what's his reason? 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? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.
If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge.
If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be
by Christian example? Why, revenge.
The villainy you teach me I will execute.
And it shall go hard but I will better the instruction."
This is what makes Shylock a more interesting Shakespearean villain than most. His insistence on something that is evil is in rebellion to the evil with which he has been treated and enslaved. He is simply turning the tables on the society that has mistreated him for so long. There is a very logical method to his madness. Al Pacino plays him straight and passionately without any need to overact or be in any way flamboyant, and by doing that, Pacino even makes the character a little likeable. You identify with his rage against injustice. And in this rage against injustice, he insists on what the unjust society he lives in calls justice. And by doing that, he becomes unjust himself. He uses the law created by his oppressors against his oppressors. In this sense, Antonio is a symbol of everything Shylock has suffered against his whole life.
Like Chesterton, Harold Bloom also wrote (in Shakespeare - The Invention of the Human) that there was something different about Shakespeare's Shylock - "There is an extraordinary energy in Shylock's prose and poetry, a force both cognitive and passional, which palpably is in excess of the play's comic requirements." (pg. 171.) "... if only Shylock's voice and presence would stop reverberating, which they never have and never will, four centuries after Shakespeare composed, and in the centuries to come ... Shakespeare, we can assume, was Shakespeare's greatest critic, and he would have been aware that Shylock, comic or not, was a grander achievement than Antonio could be." (pgs. 178-179.) "... no previous figure in the plays has anything like Shylock's strength, complexity, and vital potential." (pg. 182.)
With this in mind, Jeremy Irons' melancholy suddenly makes more sense. While Shylock is oppressed by the law of Venice, Antonio accepts the same law and follows it almost blindly. He takes no pleasure in his role, and he accepts the risks of his profession passively and almost fatalistically.
"I hold the world but
as the world, Gratiano -
a stage where every man
must play his part, and mine a sad one."
When he binds himself to the pound-of-flesh-pact-with-the-devil, he practically considers it a joke. And when the consequences of borrowing on more credit than his diminishing resources can support look to turn lethal, he still passively accepts the system in which he lives.
"The duke cannot deny the course of law.
For the commodity that strangers have
with us in Venice, if it be denied,
will much impeach the justice of the state."
In purposeful contrast, the lovers of the play are also dealing in vows, promises and risks. But they are taking these risks and making these values in pursuit of one another. The danger in the story is that their vows and promises actually mean something. In the society in which we live today, people are living above their means with huge, overcharged lines of credit and debt because the promises our society makes about borrowing money have ceased to be meaningful. We currently have a government working under the philosophy that you can pay back your debts by taking out more debts. The consequences of this slavery to debt are just beginning to hit us.
In the same sense, in the society in which we live today, romance, dating and marriage relationships are no longer taken as seriously. Vows you make at a wedding can be terminated at any time. There is no risk in taking a marriage vow, or in promising to be faithful to a romantic partner, if modern society doesn't expect you to be able to follow them anyhow. We currently have culture of countless failed and failing relationships. The consequences of this low view of marriage and romance are still just beginning to hit us.
Anthony Esolen explains -
"‘Greater love than this hath no man’, says Jesus, prophesying his death, ‘than to lay down his life for his friends.’ In The Merchant of Venice, the merchant Antonio, apparently bankrupt, is willing to die for his friend Bassanio yet wins no credit from the modern audience. Why so? I concede that, after our recent miserable century, the most tolerant Jewish reader might not stomach [what happens at the end.] Yet Shakespeare knew little about Jewish piety, perhaps as little as the typical secular theatergoer today. There were, basically, no Jews in his England. But there were loan sharks; wherever there are cities and idle young men, you are going to find that predator prowling about, seeking whom to devour. And there were Puritans. If the Jew reminded Shakespeare’s audience of anyone they might meet as they stumbled home after the show, it was the sober, circumspect, thrifty, self-righteous Puritan.
"That too is liable to be misunderstood by the modern audience ... The Puritans of old often mistook innocent merriment for lust. We have advanced beyond that. We no longer know ‘innocent merriment.’ All is lust, and lust is good. A glance at our mass entertainment will show that we have combined the vices of the precise, scheming, bet-hedging prig with the dissipation of the debauched. We do not know what is wrong with Shylock, because what is wrong with Shylock is wrong with us; nor do we know what is right with all the adventurous lovers in the play ..." (pg. 183.)
Esolen is arguing that our understanding of this play is hindered by our modern cultural values. He continues -
'I am glad ‘tis night, you do not look on me,
For I am much asham’d of my exchange.
But love is blind, and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit,
For if they could, Cupid himself would blush
To see me thus transformed to a boy.'
"... Both hazard and forgiveness - hazard of body and soul, forgiveness of debts and follies and sin - are essential to the comic vision of this play. It is not simply that we are frail but that our strength lies in openness to the wound. He who would gain his life must lose it ... ‘Who chooseth me’, says the message on the leaden casket, ‘ must give and hazard all he hath’."
The romance of the characters in Shakespeare's play is not the romance most of us are encouraged to experience in modern society. In fact, there is an argument to be made that Elizabethan romance is dead. Dating and relationships are crafted today in the attempt to avoid the natural risks inherent in older romantic relationships.
Our society frowns upon most rules. We now prefer to possess all the intimacy, self-esteem, sex and pleasure that goes with a romantic relationship without paying the costs of commitment and self-sacrifice naturally inherent to it. Why bind ourselves to future self-sacrifice, if we can experience the all the hedonistic benefits cheaply instead? The result is that romance is destroyed, integrity is scoffed at, the value of the other person is lessened, and we are denied the joy that was meant to accompany the commitment of your entire life and being to another, come what may. Even if we still know the good that we are giving up, we still choose immediate self-gratification regardless.
"If doing were as easy
as knowing what were good to do,
chapels had been churches,
and poor men's cottages princes' palaces."
And yet, as Esolen reminded us, she is also gaining something from the rules as well. The actions and choices of the men who pursue her have lasting and meaningful consequences. Even accidents could change the entire path of their lives. By committing yourself to a meaningful vow, you are sacrificing the freedom you would otherwise enjoy by not doing so. But by committing yourself to a vow, you are also setting a higher value to the moral choices that you or another person makes. Bassanio has to make the right choice because it is in making the choice that his entire character is given any worth at all. There would be nothing special about Bassanio if he didn't commit himself to the risks inherent in the test of the three chests.
The film is worth viewing (and play is worth reading), if nothing else, to help us see the romance inherent in these parallels. Antonio is enslaved by the law enforcing his debt. Portia is enslaved by her dead father's rules. Antonio's slavery brings him up against a legal consequence that reveals the corrupt nature of the society in which he lives. Portia's slavery brings her up against consequences that reveal the moral character of her suitors. But that's not entirely true, the romance of the story is incredibly enhanced by the music of the language.
"Look how the floor of heaven is
thick inlaid with patterns of bright gold.
Is not the smallest orb that you behold
but in his motion like an angel sings?
Such harmony is in immortal souls.
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
The man that hath no music in himself
nor is not moved
with concord of sweet sounds
is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils.
The motions of his spirit are as dull as night
and his affections are as dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music."
It is not a coincidence that, while Jessica's father obviously "has no music in himself", neither is Antonio moved by anything in the least sweet. He's consistently sad and depressed throughout the entire play. Antonio's spirit could be said to be just about as dull as Shylock's. But that doesn't make him stupid. Irons still plays him as understanding and perhaps even sympathizing with Shylock being the way that he is. And neither is Shylock unknowing of the intricacies inherent in the system that has oppressed him like it has.
This makes for a great confrontation towards the end in the courtroom scene. Shylock is a Jew and therefore legalistically insists upon the full import and consequences that are demanded by the law. Justice, as the law demands, makes Antonio the Christian guilty. And he even acknowledges that this insistence on the law may morally damn him -
I crave the law,
the penalty and forfeit of my bond."
His insistence and pursuit of what amounts to Antonio's death seems evil. In fact, it is evil. But his desire is purposefully modeled upon the evils that he has experienced in what is supposed to be a Christian society. He lives in a society where the law oppresses him, where he is discriminated against, where he is forced to wear a badge that marks him as a Jew (that marks him, in the eyes of the Venetians, as an inferior human being), and where his insistence upon the Venetian law being applied, without hypocrisy, upon Antonio leads to the Christian characters treating him with hate all the more. This reveals the words and questions of the otherwise pious sounding Duke to be something perhaps other than they at first appear -
Duke: "How shall you hope for mercy, giving none?"
Shylock: "What judgment should I fear, doing no wrong?
You have among you many a purchased slave,
which like your asses and your dogs and mules,
you use in abject and in slavish parts
because you bought them.
Shall I say to you, let them be free?
Marry them to your heirs.
Why sweat they under burdens?
Let their beds be made as soft as yours.
Their palates seasoned with your food.
You will answer, 'The slaves are ours.'
So do I answer you."
Shylock, in other words, is something of a genius. And in his humanity, you can't help but sympathize with this turning the oppressive system on its head. The law is not merciful. Justice is not mercy. And, when the law is used to oppress the weak and the helpless, it binds the users to applications of the law the strike the good characters in the play as wrong. To argue that Shakespeare did not write the play this way intentionally is to underestimate Shakespeare.
"Shylock really does mean his ghastly parallel: one pound of Antonio's flesh is enslaved to him, and he will have his bond. What startles and delights us is Shylock's shrewd indictment of Christian hypocrisy, which he makes earlier in the play, but not with this shocking force. The Venetian slaves, like all slaves, are so many pounds of flesh; no more, no less." - (Bloom, pg. 189.)
Thus, when Portia argues for mercy instead of for justice, we are confronted with some of the most explicitly and authentically Christian theological lines that Shakespeare has ever given us.
"The quality of mercy is not strained,
it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed -
it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
'Tis mightiest in the mighty.
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 sceptred sway.
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 your plea,
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."
Portia's view of the law is tempered by her Christianity. She understands God's mercy because of her own experience with rules that could have determined her own fate. Because of nature (as exhibited by both Antonio and Shylock), if any of us do experience true justice, we are doomed. Grace and mercy are things we do not deserve. And yet, because we are offered mercy in spite of ourselves, then that ought to affect how we view and treat others. While Antonio may legally deserve to pay the price he contracted to pay, offering him something other than what he deserves would be, for Shylock, a change of moral character. The choice that Shylock ends up making ... and the consequences of the choice that he makes in the eyes of the law ... well, let's just say that it is perhaps not quite what he expects.
Whether Antonio and Shylock are ultimately just or merciful is one of the questions this film and play asks the audience to consider. And their choices result in consequences that may or may not have been deserved. It follows from this scene that we have a final showdown concerning the keeping and breaking of promises. It is significant that all three of the main women characters have, all three of them, rings that symbolize far more than commitment. In romance, the possibility of irrevocable commitment, of choices that determine the fates of the decision makers, adds a depth and value to what would otherwise be cheap and meaningless. Again once again, as the director, Radford does something with the third ring that isn't necessarily in Shakespeare's play. But it is meaningful nonetheless. And I like to think that it means something valuable for the person who has chosen between keeping or not keeping this ring.