The last two acts of The Merchant of Venice are very short, but also very powerful. Although I feel that I don’t have anything of substance to say about this play myself, I would like to muse on some of the things we discussed in class.
Portia – Portia’s courtroom scene – where she disguises herself as a lawyer, and destroys Shylock – is really the scene where she shines the most. She tries to reason with Shylock, and gives him a lecture on the nature of mercy. Her words have no effect on him, however – he will have Antonio’s pound of flesh no matter what. Portia, being as clever as she is, finds a loophole in the bond: nowhere did the contract state that Shylock would be entitled to collect any blood.
“Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh: But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed one drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate unto the state of Venice,” she says.
Shylock quickly backs down – he’ll have the three thousand ducats instead. Bassanio is willing to give him the money, but Portia dishes out justice in an ironically unmerciful fashion. Just before, she had been going on about the divine qualities of mercy. But how is she any better than Shylock now? Shouldn’t she have just let him take his money and leave with his tail between his legs?
This scene doesn’t make me hate Portia, but it does prevent me from really loving her the way I love other stand-out Shakespearean heroines. There is a hypocritical quality about her, unfortunately, that I just cannot overlook.
Shylock – why doesn’t Shylock back down from the bond? My response to this was simple: why should he?
On-stage, Antonio loves to play the poor little victim. I genuinely dislike his character for this reason. Off-stage, it has been said that he has treated Shylock badly for being Jewish. And when they made the contract, it was agreed that this was a contract between enemies.
Somebody suggested that Antonio took the pound of flesh nonsense as a joke – because Shylock couldn’t really be serious could he? If this is true – and it could be played like this, if the actor was so inclined – the fault is still Antonio’s. I say this because I know that Shylock is not the sort of character who says things lightly. When he said the cost would be a pound of Antonio’s flesh, he meant it. And if Antonio has been awful to him in the past, why should he feel sorry for him?
I want to note that I do not think that Shylock is a good person, necessarily. I don’t think he’s 100% bad either. I think he’s very set in his ways and unable to express a lot of emotion (particularly toward Jessica, who I think he does really love in his way). He has clearly suffered a lot of abuse in his life, and so his disposition isn’t really much of a surprise. I think everybody can agree that Shylock isn’t blameless in this play – but I think we can also agree on one important thing: we pity him.
We pity Shylock in a way we do not pity Antonio, or any other character in the play. When he is forced to convert to Christianity at the end of the play, the sadness and anger you feel for him are very difficult to ignore. I do not think Shylock deserved what he got. I think Portia should have just let Bassanio give him the three thousand ducats. I know Shylock would have left filled with shame – and I would have accepted it. But stripping him of everything he has – and even of his Jewish faith – is too much. Because of this, I cannot love any of the characters in this play. I can only pity Shylock.
The merchant – we did not really discuss this in class, but who is the titular merchant of Venice? Many people think it is Antonio, and in my edition of the play, it even lists him as ‘the merchant of Venice,’ in the dramatis personae.
But I think Shylock is the merchant of Venice. Despite his faults, he is one of the most powerful characters in the play. He remains with a reader long after they’ve returned the play to their shelf, and with an audience member long after they’ve left the theatre. I think Shakespeare was very aware of the kind of character he had created – a character powerful and impactful enough to be referenced in the title.
I’d say it is in reference to Antonio…if this were The Martyr of Venice. But it isn’t, so Shylock it is.