Merchant Of Venice (The)
Antonio, a wealthy merchant of Venice, is approached by his friend, Bassanio, who wants to borrow money in order to woo Portia, wealthy heiress. Antonio agrees to help his friend, but since his own capital is tied up in a shipping venture he agrees to borrow the money from Shylock, a Jewish usurer. Certain that he can pay off the debt sooner than required, Antonio agrees to Shylock's terms: If he forfeits, he pays the debt with a pound of his flesh. Meanwhile Shylock's daughter, Jessica, disguises herself as a boy and elopes with Lorenzo, taking with her some of her father's money and jewels. Bassanio arrives at Portia's Belmont estate, where, to wim her hand in manage, he first must pass a test. Devised by Portia's late father in his will, the test calls for Portia's suitors to choose the casket, or chest, containing her portrait. Back in Venice, after discovering Jessica has fled, Shylock learns Antonio's ships have wrecked at sea and insists on payment of the bond. Antonio sends a letter to Bassanio asking him to return to Venice to attend his trial. Bassanio leaves Belmont and Portia, and returns to Venice to help his friend. Portia and her maid, Nerissa, disguise themselves and secretly follow.
The Merchant of Venice has been hailed as one of Shakespeare's most popular plays and one of his most problematic plays. For a contemporary audience aware of the Holocaust and the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East, antiSemitic sentiment implicitly or explicitly expressed in a production or a script is an emotionally charged issue. Reviews of recent productions have ranged from prying the decision to produce this controversial play to questions about the production's intention. For anyone approaching The Merchant of Venice for either study or production, it's easy to get lost in contradictory opinions. However, returning to the text and its historical setting offers insights into Shakespeare's play.
When Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice, England's law and economy were m transition. While Shylock may be understood as representative of the rising mercantile class, strong emotional reactions to the anti-Semitism, hatred and injustice found in the text remain. Many scholars, directors and students of the play have examined Shakespeare's intention, asking whether he wrote an anti-Semitic play or whether he wrote about anti-Semitism Dramaturgically, the playwright needed a villain his audience would immediately understand and he found his man in Shylock. However, according to CSF director Susan Gregg, "Shakespeare had a profound understanding of human behavior and made sure his audience, and ours, had an opportunity to grasp why Shylock is so unremitting; unforgivable things have been done to him, and are done to him, during the course of the p1ay." Perhaps in the casket scene Shakespeare offers a clue to how we are to understand our own reaction to the play. According to Portia's father's will, her suitors must choose from three caskets: gold ("Who chooseth me, shall gain what many men desire"), silver ("Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves") and lead ("Who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath") As Portia comes to realize, her father was wise m his design for choosing her husband; he who is not influenced by outside appearances makes the correct choice and wins her hand in marriage. Thus, the casket mirrors the chooser; it's the choice that tells about the man. The casket lottery serves as an objective correlative; what one feels, experiences, thinks, despises or pities in seeing or reading The Merchant of Venice tells more about the newer than it does the play. Shakespeare's Merchant still has the power to engage our emotions 400 years after it was written. Our lesson is to be found inside our own cognitive realm and is defined by our individual reference point. Regardless of Shakespeare's intention, the fact that The Merchant of Venice reminds us of our fallibility as humans underscores its continued relevance. When will we learn "the quality of mercy is not strained?"