GCSE English: The Merchant of Venice

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The following essay was written for my GCSE English course in February 2001 and relates to the William Shakespeare play “The Merchant of Venice”.  It’s released here under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales Licence. I can’t vouch for it’s completeness: the only copy of the essay I have includes “PASTE HERE!” after the 4th paragraph and a section in red towards the end. I am also unsure of the title or question of the piece as this is also not in the document. I hope it will still be of some use to someone!

William Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ addresses some very important points in term of religious and social views. The play centers around the idea of antisemitism in society and the way the Jewish community has been, and to some extent still is, persecuted for their religion. Due to this the play is of a controversial nature and so one which it is hard to put on in today’s multi religious society. The objections raised today are mainly about Act Four, Scene One – the court room scene.

At the time of the plays conception (around the end of the 16th Century), society in Britain was, as a whole, a very anti-Semitic, Christian one. Therefore the play had to conform to peoples ideas and feelings before it was aloud to be performed. This was still a time when plays and other public works had to be authorized by the kings Lord Chamberlain before being shown, and should it be found to be less than satisfactory it could be denied a license and the author even executed. This idea included the portrayal of the Jewish as caring, feeling and even non criminal, as usury, a common occupation of the Jewish community, was seen as a sin. For this reason Shakespeare had to make Shylock look like a villain. Shakespeare did, however, attempt to put across a different side of Shylock’s character – he attempted to make him look like a victim, a side to the character which can be played up by a modern director to make the play acceptable in modern day. The idea that anyone who broke the law must be punished also had to be portrayed by all plays, and so if the play involved a crime (or what was at that time seen to a crime), the victim had to be caught and brought to justice, usually making the play a tragedy. Shakespeare did, however, make some plays which did not fit into the categories of comedy, tragedy or historical play. He wrote four ‘problem plays’, or dark comedies in which a crime was committed but the criminal did not die, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is one such. Instead the criminal is punished in a different way, but is still seen to be committed for the crime.

Today peoples ideas have changed and it is seen, by most, to be unacceptable to behave in an anti-Semitic way, using comparisons of Jews to both animals, “for thy desires / Are wolvish…”, and in some cases even in-animate objects, “You may as well forbid the mountain pines / To wag their high tops…”, is simply unacceptable. So this play often arouses the anger of both the Jewish community, and others, causing protests outside theaters at which it is being performed. It is now perfectly acceptable to show a criminal escaping the law and conviction and to have a crime which is seen to be unresolved. Nowadays, however, to avoid protest while not damaging the original content and feelings of the play is a difficult balancing act for modern day directors and actors alike.

The scene is a hard one to try and direct. The swings from the audience seeing Shylock as a villain to him being put in a light which makes him look like a victim make any attempts to direct his character one way or the other futile. One minuet Bassinio calls Shylock and “Unfeeling man”, making the audience feel that he is not being treated fairly by the Christians, but then to being asked why “I rather choose to have / A weight of carrion flesh than to receive / Three thousand ducats”, he replies by saying it is his “humor” – that he simply feels like it.

I believe that in this scene Shylock should be played as, I think Shakespeare originally intended – as a victim who has had enough of the treatment he has had from the other characters, and so had turned into a villain, so both he original feel is kept and so that a new edge is put on the scene. I think the image that Shakespeare is trying to convey is that Shylock is, at heart, a good man trying to earn a living from usury but who is persecuted due to his religion to such a point as when he gets chance to reap revenge on any Christian, he seizes it with both hands. Having said that it seems that Shylock is surprisingly calm in this situation, almost as if he has become de-sensitized to their attacks, Shylock simply appeals to the law for protection and help in situations where he could have become far more worked up. The constant exchange of verbal blows from Bassanio and Shylock would add weight to this point, at one point during the scene there is a dialogue of criticism and aggression between the two, with Bassinio asking “Do all men kill things which they do not love?”, and Shylock replying “Hates any man the think he would not kill?”. I believe that this would also re-enforce some the images connected with the plays main themes – that of hatred and revenge, appearance and reality and, to some extent, that of justice and judgment.

However, I would not have Shylock’s response to this be as it is played by most – desperate for the Christians blood. I believe that he should be played as a calm figure who is not as blood thirsty as he seems. For example, in his reply to Portia telling Antonio that he must prepare his “bosom for his knife”, Shylock says, “Oh noble judge! O excellent young man!”. This can be played in two ways – playing up the side of Shylock which shows him as an evil man simply after Antonio’s blood, or showing that Shylock is being perfectly reasonable and calm, thinking that Portia is on his side. I believe that the second of these options should be exploited in an attempt to portray the more reasonable side of Shylock.

To help show this I would not use the stereotype Jewish image that the people of Shakespeare’s time would have used. I would, in contrast, show Shylock as being the same age as Antonio and Bassinio. This, I feel would aid in breaking the stereotype of the elderly, haggard old man which adds to the anti-Semantic feel of the play as a whole. This view can be backed up by the comment made by Portia when she enters, in which she states “Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?”

I would also have the parts of the scene where Antonio and Bassinio are, in effect, picking on Shylock played more strongly – I would make more of the fact that Shylock is being wound up to feel the way he does. I believe that adding more emphasis to, what might be known as ‘throw away’ lines, such as when Bassinio says “To excuse the current of thy cruelty”, will help the audience to understand what is going through Shylock’s mind at this time. Having said this I believe that it is also important to keep some emphasis on the things Shylock says and the things that Shylock does, for example, towards the end of the scene he is asked by Portia if he has brought scales to weigh the flesh out on, and indeed he has, he tells her “I have them ready”, a comment which makes you think that he has villainous intentions ever since he laid the bond down. Dropping this aspect to the scene would have the effect of changing the story line considerably, and I believe that it is important that it is not changed in this way. The story puts across some very important lessons for society and I believe that without this part of this particular scene some of the lessons are lost, making the argument for not performing the play more valid.

Shakespeare plays are all written to a formula, they follow the pattern of an Exposition, Complication, Climax, Resolution. This scene, the first of Act Four, is an important component in the formula – it brings the climax to a peak, and is also the resolution of the story line, so any major changes to the scripting and/or way the scene is played may make a big impact on the story as a whole. For this reason I have no doubt that the scene should not be changed, but only the way each of the characters reacts and interacts with each other should be altered.

Finally the resolution of the scene appears to show the Christians to give Shylock mercy, however, it can be argued that this is not the case at all, that they actually administer a punishment worse than death, by taking away Shylock’s right to religion, they effectively end his life, by forcing him to live as an Christian and work for Christians they are destroying anything that he has ever achieved and ever accomplished in his life. I believe that this point should, again, be played up. I have no doubt that the play would be both more dramatically effective, and more morally acceptable if this were the case. Just this small section of the scene rounds up the whole play – its themes of appearance vs. Reality, hatred and revenge, and justice and judgment, and it caps off the story. It is for this reason that I believe it is of vital import to play this section in a way which will show the unfairness of the decision, and the continued persecution which certain people in society still suffer.

Posted on Monday 28th September, 2015 at 9:28 am in School Work.
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