Class Notes – Overview of the Comical History of the Merchant of Venice
“All in all, this play has engaged me more and required more contemplation on issues raised by its reading than any other Shakespeare play that I have read so far.”
As Dr. Gurney, my professor, noted, this play leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. It is not your typical comedy, and certainly not a comical history of the unfortunate Venetian merchant!
There are some penetratingly beautiful passages and fun quotes in The Merchant of Venice. In fact, if I had to use only one word to describe this drama, I would choose the word penetrating. The Merchant of Venice is not light-hearted, it is perhaps not as deep as some, but it is incredibly penetrating for the very reason that is requires readers to step back, and penetrate through the characters’ words and actions to discern their true intentions or motivations. All is not as it seems in this play. Complexities compound, hypocrisy harries, and words weigh heavily.
I was unsuccessful in finding even one completely sympathetic character – they are all quite disturbing to me. Yet they are not totally inhuman villains either. Thatis one of the play’s redeeming qualities. That complexity (which requires penetration, and so provides penetration into our own souls) of characters and the constant tension between appearances and reality, truth and lies, selfishness and love. In particular, the theme of hypocrisy seems to be lurking throughout the play, surfacing frequently.
Mercy is another prominent theme also correlating with hypocrisy in demanding mercy of others but failing to show it to others. One cannot read this play and fail to ask himself what mercy’s definition and application is. I especially appreciated the courtroom scene. The mercy vs. justice theme had a deep implication for me as relating to salvation through works (the law) or through grace (or mercy).
Although Portia herself was entirely unmerciful, she effectively shows how the law is a double-edged sword: it can be both freeing and enslaving because we can never live up to it on our own. Through we may use it to bring down others, or demand that they give retribution to us, it all comes at a price. For, according to the law, nothing is free. Portia’s courtroom speech about mercy is one of the most beautiful I have ever read. But its effect is significantly lessened by Portia’s unmerciful, greedy plot to confiscate Shylock’s property. Again, the word penetrating comes to mind. Both the mercy speech and Portia’s actions are penetrating: the former is penetrating in that its beauty permeates the audience’s ear and heart, but the latter is penetrating because it clearly contrasts with the ideals expressed in the speech and forces the reader/viewer to decide whether mercy is being shown or not, and consequently what mercy’s definition is.
This play is also about marginalized peoples. There are people marginalized because of their race (the Moroccan prince), religion (Jews), gender (Portia), and social status (slaves). Slavery especially is mentioned by Shylock as being the same as taking flesh from other humans. This is an especially effective argument against slavery, and a rather early expression of anti-slavery arguments. But perhaps the greatest marginalization occurs (supposedly) because of religion. The tension between Jew versus the Christians is emphasized. While it is difficult to say whether Merchant of Veniceis explicitly anti-Semetic or not, it certainly presents both sides of the issue, portraying Shylock’s flaws as well as the hypocritical greediness of the nominal Christians.
All in all, this play has engaged me more and required more contemplation on issues raised by its reading than any other Shakespeare play that I have read so far.
It is not perhaps as humorously entertaining as other comedies, but it is highly evocative of thought on important spiritual and social issues, both of which are quite related, as this play illustrates. Regarding the work as a whole, I believe I would rather be a little “uncomfortable” while being stimulated to think than mindlessly entertained. Therefore, I highly recommend reading The Merchant of Venice.