Monday, January 31, 2011

The Merchant of Venice: Act 1

I have never read The Merchant of Venice before, and I am not quite sure what to make of it's plot so far. I find myself to be apparently like many other classmates in feeling both strangely sympathetic toward Shylock and strangely dumbfounded by Portia's father's game. I also find myself saying, “What did I just read?” quite often. There are certain nuances of the dialogue which both startle me, but make me think. For example, after Shylock laments how his peers spit on him and call him names for being a Jewish (speaking generally but also specifically of Antonio), Antonio responds with force and wickedness.


ANTONIO: I am as like to call thee so again,

To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.

If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not

As to thy friends; for when did friendship take

A breed for barren metal of his friend?

But lend it rather to thine enemy,

Who if he break, though mayst with better face

Exact the penalty. (1.3.125-132)


To me, the entire context of this situation seems to be part of an all too easily-created bias towards Jewish money lenders. It is against the Christian religion to charge interest on loans, however it is a profit-earning practice that makes sense when realistically dealing with large sums of money. Why would anyone lend so much to someone without there being anything in it for their peace of mind? There needs to be an incentive for someone to be timely with repayment, and it sounds to me like the rule of not charging interest is an outdated one meant for those like shepherds lending tools to neighbors instead of business men like Shylock and Antonio lending money to Bassonio. Now, that is not to say that when a close friend asks for a small to medium amount (less than a day's or even up to a week's worth of profit), I will never think of charging him interest, but when dealing with strangers, that is just an impractical standard to uphold for a merchant. But going back to my injection-of-religious-bias point, I feel like Antonio is acting manipulatively with his beliefs in order to discredit Shylock's character in front of his counterparts/his audience. It seems to me like an easy way for Christians to say, in essence, “look at your evil practices, you are morally unjust and greedy, and I am neither of those things because I am a Christian.” Further, we see more bias coming from Antonio later:


ANTONIO: Hie thee, gentle Jew.

The Hebrew will turn Christian; he grows kind. (1.3.173-174)


We see two things being stated here: that Jews are not inherently gentle or inherently kind, and that Christians inherently are both. Antonio refers to Shylock as a gentle Jew as opposed to just a Jew (and instead of calling him by his actual name), forcing us to think not of Shylock the person, but of Shylock the Gentle Jew who has the ability within himself to perhaps be more Christian and righteous someday.


I do not think it is easy for me like Antonio.


The Merchant of Venice Act 1

In Act I of The Merchant of Venice I find that the strangest and most unexplainable element that exists is not necessarily the hatred for Shylock, but that with that hatred being present Antonio and Bassanio go to him for money. I wouldn’t think that the first person to go to for money is someone you not only dislike, but also have insulted and spit on. Especially because the hatred Antonio feels for Shylock is based purely on the fact that he is Jewish—wouldn’t that anti-Semitism steer Antonio away from Shylock? Conversely it doesn’t seem logical that Shylock would lend the money to Antonio—though he does seem to have an evil reason as to why he does, which may explain it.

One quote that may explain this strange transaction is from Antonio he says:

If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not

As to thy friends; for when did friendship take

A breed for barren metal of his friend?

But lend it rather to thine enemy,

Who if he break, though mayst with better face

Exact the penalty.

1.3.127-133

This quote seems to clear up the confusion by Antonio properly pointing out that it is harder to regain lent money from a friend than from an enemy, because a person would feel guilty for exacting penalty on a friend. However, Shylock seems to be plotting something with his next lines. He says they should be friends, and that he would forgive Antonio and would give him the loan interest free. Then he says that part of the deal will be that if Antonio is late in repaying the loan that he wants a pound of flesh cut from Antonio’s body from the area of his choosing. This part seemed very odd to me, perhaps this was common in Shakespeare’s times, however I found it to be extremely strange. What would Shylock gain from a pound of Antonio’s flesh? Would it simply be a trophy of Shylock’s victory over Antonio? Or is there some other significance/relevance to this? My best guess would be that it simply signifies Shylock, the Jew, defeating Antonio, the Christian. A victory that Shylock would be very happy with considering the hatred he displays for Antonio earlier in the scene in the lines “How like a fawning publican he looks. / I hate him for he is a Christian” (1.3.36-37). Although the play seems to illuminate the mistreatment of Jews, even at this time in history, it also seems to be pointing out a hatred of Christians by the Jews—which would make sense if they were truly treated the way Shakespeare has written. Ultimately the part that has come to the forefront in my reading has been the religious issues that have arisen. They seem as though they will be a large part of this play, and also a major moral issue of the play.

Is there a villain (yet)?

I have never read The Merchant of Venice before. My only previous knowledge is that the play includes a lot of anti-semitic undertones (or perhaps it was Shakespeare picking on social standards/beliefs, just as a previous blogger said) and that Shylock is the villain. The only appearance we get with him during Act I of the play is the encounter with Shylock, Bassanio and Antonio regarding the loan. I took notice of his dialogue and found that he doesn’t say much compared to the other characters. Shakespeare is known for writing long monologues for his characters and so far, we are not seeing that. Assuming that every detail is a conscious decision of the writer, this “less dialogue” decision could exist because Shakespeare wants to make Shylock appear as unfriendly, or mysterious.

However, I don’t find that Shylock is exceedingly cruel compared to the other characters, especially Antonio. Antonio is the one making an issue out of Shylock’s religion, and he has called him a “misbeliever, cut-throat, dog / And spit upon [his] Jewish gabardine”. Not only does Antonio acknowledge that he has said it, but he then states that he will most likely do the same again. That statement portrays recognition of an evil side of his own character—much like villains do in Shakespearean plays. I’ve noticed that in Shakespearean plays (for example: Iago in Othello), the villain characters usually share a trait in which they are aware of their evilness, and embrace it (usually in their asides). In this play, it seems that Shylock is completely oblivious to any evil nature he has, and believes that his opinions (regarding business, religion, etc.) are valid. Another trait I’ve noticed is that usually the villain (this is probably prevalent in plays that aren’t Shakespearean as well) tries to act caring, or loving, so no one will expect their betrayal/unjust action upon another character(s) later on. Shylock, as I mentioned before, doesn’t come off as incredibly harsh during his encounter regarding the loan, but he doesn’t appear to be kind or loving either. I feel like if he had a destructive plan in mind, he would act especially nice towards Bassanio and Antonio to ensure that he is someone who can be trusted.

It’s only the first act so my opinion can (and probably will) change, but during this encounter between Antonio and Shylock, Antonio seems more of a villain than Shylock does with his brutal attitude and dialogue.

Regarding the end of the scene: I have a feeling that this is where I should have perceived Shylock as a villain, but I interpreted his suggestion towards Antonio as a joke. Someone forfeiting their flesh if a loan is not paid in time seems ridiculous. Although this could be foreshadowing what is to come (it is a tragic comedy, after all).

Cymbeline and its echoes of Rape of Lucrece

Over the winter break I saw Shakespeare’s Cymbeline staged by Fiasco Theater at Theatre for New Audience. Fiasco Theater ’s production was many things: inventive, lo-fi, ensemble-driven, and: a fun plot swirling mess. But it had also had one thing that that any production of Cymbeline should have: the Iachimo/ echoes of Rape of Lucrece scene.

In Cymbeline, Iachimo, a soldier in the Roman army, questions the virtue of Imogen, the wife of Posthumous, and bets Posthumous that he can tempt her into adultery. Once in her presence, Imogen welcomes him in her home knowing that he is a friend of her husband. But Iachimo realizes that Imogen is indeed virtuous and he comes up with a plan to sneak into her bedchamber, marking the room and other specifics only a lover would have access to, while she sleeps.

Iachimo’s first words upon stepping out of hiding are “our Tarquin thus did softly press the rushes ere he wakened the chastity he wounded.” Shakespeare leaves no doubt of his point of reference. But I also find it interesting that Iachimo also remembers and employs Tarquin’s military and seize warfare imagery. In Fiasco Theater’s production (and other productions of Cymbeline I’ve seen in the past) Iachimo’s seedy presence in Imogen’s bedchamber while she sleep is scary and threatening. I’ve seen one production where Iachimo notes the irrefutable evidence of a mole on her left breast while he is standing over her on top of the bed. Fiasco Theater ’s Iachimo is not as bold but he is just as slimy.

There is no sexual violence or intercourse implied or real in this scene, a contrast with the narrative poem. Does this make Iachimo more sympathetic than Tarquin? Is this a false choice? Iachimo’s false representation of Imogen sets in motion a series of events that bring her shame and estrangement from her Posthumous. Imogen even demands that Pisano, Posthumous’ servant, take her life. An act that proves her devotion to Posthumous and her still virtuous heart. So instead of actually ruining her virtue, Iachimo lie threatens to ruin and end her life.

Cymbeline being a romantic comedy and The Rape of Lucrece being a tragic narrative poem offers another set of contrasts between Tarquin and Iachimo. In the story of The Rape of Lucrece, the image I have for Tarquin is more like a pounding and blunt hammer. He is forceful, single-mindedly driven. When he shows up to Lucrece’s bedchamber at night he does not put on any airs that he is there for anything but to violate her: “thy beauty hath ensnared thee to this night, where thou with patience must my will abide.” The image I have for Iachimo in Cymbeline is much more like a snake. He’s sneaks his way into Imogen’s bedchamber. And in earlier scenes, we see him shed different skins, different lies to Imogen in an effort to trick her. And he pounces on her like a snake to vulnerable prey.

In Cymbeline’s end, Imogen’s good name is restored, but not after Shakespeare makes fools out of the men, including Iachimo, who dared to question this great woman’s virtue. The Rape of Lucrece gets its tragic credentials by never giving Lucrece back her honor or her life.

Tendencies in Relationships: The Uncertainties and the Advisors

This is the first time I have read The Merchant of Venice, and in the first act, I am noticing similarities in character tendencies and relationships. The relationship between Antonio and Bassanio is similar to the relationship between Portia and Nerissa; both Antonio and Portia seem to be uncertain characters, while Bassanio and Nerissa act as the advisors to Antonio and Bassanio.

Antonio is unsure of the reasoning for his recent feelings, while Portia is unsure of her best action and decisions—specifically regarding marriage. Antonio actually opens the play with the line “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad” (1.1 1). He cannot find the cause of his sadness, or at least is unwilling to admit the reasoning (perhaps even to himself). Portia, on the other hand, describes the difficulties of choosing the best option—she is uncertain of not only what is the best choice for her personally, but also uncertain of how people are able to label one thing better than another. She says to Nerissa: “If to do were as easy to know what were good to do,/chapels had been churches, and poor men’s cottages princes’/palaces. It is a good divine that follows his own instructions./I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done than to/be one of the twenty to follow my own teaching” (1.3 11-15). Here, Portia explains that it is always best to do what one feels best for him/herself, but also that it is always easier to see the supposedly best decision for another. She is torn between deciding for herself and following the advice of “wiser” people. As for her husband, she is uncertain of whom she would like, yet is faced with difficulties: “I may neither choose who I would nor refuse who I/dislike” (1.3 20-21). She has no choice, and is confused at her father’s reasoning. How can wisdom or reasoning overpower the feelings of the bride-to-be when selecting a husband?

Bassanio believes he pinpoints the cause of Antonio’s sadness, and then takes action to attempt to help him. Nerissa listens to Portia and attempts to ease and comfort Portia. Bassanio and Nerissa both counsel and advise the other characters, striving for them to accept their position and work with it in the best way possible. Bassanio accompanies Antonio to Shylock, to take action in case there is a business problem. He tells Antonio, “In my schooldays, when I had lost one shaft,/I shot his fellow of the selfsame flight/The selfsame way, with more advised watch, To find the other forth; and by adventuring both,/I oft found both” (1.1 140-144). He understands Antonio’s situation, and helps Antonio realize it is better to prepare for every outcome to ease his mind. Nerissa speaks to Portia to help her understand her father’s decision, as he is not present to make it clear. Although she may not support the decision either, Nerissa listens and tries to bring to focus various aspects of the marriage suitor process. She does this by simply asking, “But warmth is there in your affection towards any/of these princely suitors that are already come?” (1.2 29-30). She then recommends to Portia the man she thinks would make the best husband—Bassanio.

Antonio and Bassanio’s relationship is similar to Portia and Nerissa’s, as Antonio and Portia are both distressed and uncertain, and Bassanio and Nerissa both work to first sympathize with Antonio and Portia, then offer advice and plans of action.

The merchant of Venice

In his introduction to The Merchant of Venice, Katherine Maus discusses the controversy that this writing elicits every time a new audience encounters it. She states that there are several ways to interpret the writing that Shakespeare put forth. One way being that he was incredibly anti-Semitic, and that his writing promoted the widely believed stereotypes of many in that time. Another way Shakespeare could have intended The Merchant of Venice to be read is as an ironic criticism of the stereotyping of Jews and Judaism.
I believe that as a playwright, who adequately used all of his resources to incorporate many different cultures into his writings, that Shakespeare intended The Merchant of Venice to be a criticism of antisemitism and even of bigotry as a whole.
By having his play take place in Venice, (which was one of the most tolerant places of its time) and showing Venice to be prosperous in its tolerance of many different cultures coming together to trade, Shakespeare is subtly pointing out that Venice is more prosperous because of this.
Another point to note is that while the character of Shylock embodies many of the racial slurs of the time such as focusing entirely too much on property and money. Also, sometimes to the audience it seems that Shylock may even be placing monetary gain before his own daughters well being. However, there are points where he comes to challenge such stereotypes. For example, when he is distressed over the loss of a keepsake of his deceased wife, this equates him to the audience as a person with feelings, just like everyone else.
Also, Shakespeare draws much attention to his criticism of anti-semitism in the quote; “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?”
Shakespeare intends The Merchant of Venice as a social criticism, and means to point out that in the end, everyone is human and deserves to be treated as such.

Act 1


     The Merchant of Venice is a play that I have previously read in High School, but feel like I never thoroughly understood everything. Still, I do not completely understand all of the language that Shakespeare uses. I feel like I understand all the “pokes” at religion more than I did in the past. In just one act, Shakespeare works to show the reader that there is a huge conflict between Antonio and his friends and Shylock. As previously stated by Aimee, I found myself feeling bad for Shylock, even though he is the said “antagonist” of the play. 

“…You call me misbeliever, cut-throat, dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gabardine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it appears you need my help.” (Lines 107-109)

 In this passage Shylock appears to be showing control over the situation. He now has the power to say “no” to an enemy in need of help. Like Antonio says, “But rather lend it to thine enemy…” (130) so that if the money is not repaid in full Shylock can pose consequences on Antonio. Had it been a friend, it would have been harder to threaten them with negative consequences.
      As far as Portia is concerned, I feel that because she finds flaws in all the suitors that are in the “running” to become her husband, she should choose the person that she wants. Yes, she feels it is her duty to do as her father “willed.” I don’t understand the relevance of picking the right casket in this segment either. What is the meaning behind the caskets? What does it mean if one chooses one and not the other? I guess I really do not understand what them picking these certain caskets means for Portia. Is it what is more important to them? But still how does she rate them? So many questions that I guess will be answered later in the play. I do feel that Bassanio has a shot with her when she says, “I remember him well, and I remember him worthy of thy praise.” (100)
         Another subject that interested me was the friendship that Antonio and Bassanio share. Obviously Bassanio takes many loans from Antonio and fails to pay him back and still Antonio is willing to take a loan and risk losing “a pound of flesh” for him. I’m assuming that Bassanio does not take the loan out himself because he knows it will take longer for him to repay than Antonio, considering Antonio has many “commodities” on ships. I find it funny though that Shylock loans him the money even though he does not agree with the way Antonio lends his money. 

“How like a fawning publician he looks.
I hate him for he is a Christian;
But more, for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis, and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.” (Lines 36-40). 

It’s almost as if he is betting on the fact that he will gain this “pound of flesh” if the debt is not paid. Almost hoping that he cannot pay his debt. Previously stated in the blog, I also feel that Shylock’s current greedy behavior is a result of the negative treatment that he has been dealt. Therefore, there is a bigger hatred between the two religions and classes.   

Respect for the Dead Who Disregard the Living

While reading I.ii of The Merchant of Venice, I paused to consider the ridiculousness of the nature of Portia's conflict. While it is her future that is in question, she has no say or participation in the process of finding her future husband. Instead, she feels the need to follow her deceased father's request for suitors to randomly guess which chest contains Portia's portrait. The "winner" who randomly guesses correctly is then able to marry Portia. In short, this would mean that Portia's father rather put his trust in the dumb luck of strange men than the thoughtful consideration of his own daughter. What does this say about Portia's relationship with her father? She is willing to put her future in the hands of a stranger's luck in order to please her deceased father when he clearly had no respect for Portia's personal wishes.

One may argue that while the process of finding a husband for Portia is based on pure luck in guessing, the men who guess have already agreed to never get married in the event of losing. Agreeing to those terms could show dedication and loyalty to Portia, which would be admirable traits in a future husband. Even though Portia has no say in the matter, at least she can have peace of mind in knowing that the men competing for her are willing to sacrifice their own future in order to chance being with her. In this way, the men would share a commonality with Portia: they both sacrifice their futures in order to please another whom they care about.

On the other hand, it is possible that those who agree to never get married in order to compete for Portia are not being honest. It is not said what the consequences are if they disobey this agreement. After all, Portia’s father is dead and would not be able to punish the men personally. Unless there are others knowledgeable of this agreement and feel inclined to bring justice over traitors, there is no reason that the men would not get away with getting married later, anyway. Regardless of these possibilities, all of Portia’s suitors end up leaving anyway, scared of the potential consequence of losing. Perhaps this was Portia’s father’s intentions in the first place. Maybe he figured that no man would want to risk his future in a game to win his daughter, leaving her to be an old maid. For whatever reason, it is possible that Portia’s father wanted her to never be married.

I think it is fairly safe to say that Portia’s father had no problem disregarding his daughter’s feelings and felt too self-important, even after death, to consider Portia’s input. It is tragic that a dead man’s wishes take precedence over a living woman’s wishes, even when the situation should only involve the feelings of the woman and the suitor of her choice. Nerissa asks Portia to reflect on her suitors, as if this reflection could make any difference in the outcome of the competition. Portia is purely an object, a prize, and strangely, this is what her father intended.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Where is the hero?

After reading Act I of The Merchant of Venice, what struck me as unique and odd is that, thus far, there appears no distinct, good-natured heroes in the story. Each character is someone self-involved and not extremely like-able. While one could argue that the character who comes closest to our hero is Bassanio, who needs money in order to fight for his love, I would have to disagree with giving him this title. Bassanio's primary interest seems to be in borrowing money so that he can ultimately gain more wealth. While he may care for Portia, he appears to have an equal interest in her wealth as he does in her looks and virtue. As he states:

"In Belmont is a lady richly left . . . /
Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth . . . /
O my Antonio, had I but the means
To hold a rival place with one of them
I have a mind presages me such thrift
That I should questionless be fortunate"

(1.2.161-76)

Bassanio uses words such as "rich," "worth," "thrift," and "fortunate," indicating that his mind is on money just as much as love, if not more so. This, as well as him easily accepting the terms of a deal in which his best friend, if he loses, will be forced to give a pound of his flesh, shows him to be a man who cares more about monetary conquests than love for those closest to him. Wouldn't a true hero object to this unfair deal?

We can neither classify Antonio as the hero of this play, due to the fact that he is wealthy, but whines about it rather than appreciating it. He is also clearly prejudiced against Jewish people, and has no problem treating them poorly. Yet when it is convenient for him, he solicits help from a man whom he has spit upon and insulted in the past. Even when he makes the deal with Shylock, he refuses to do it upon the basis of friendship, rather stating that he will continue "To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too" (1.3.126). This is hardly hero material.

Portia has yet to prove a heroine, based upon the behavior she displays thus far in the play. At the top of 1.2, we find her bemoaning her wealth and popularity amongst men. She states, "By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world" (1.2.1-2). She then asks Nerissa to list all of her suitors, so that she may state the reasons that each one is unworthy of her love. She hardly seems noble upon this first impression we glean from her.

Finally, Shylock is presented to us as an embittered old man who is bent on revenge towards Christians who have insulted his religion. Ironically enough, this character who is classically portrayed as the villain, seems to me to be the closest thing to a hero that we have in this play thus far. Shylock may be angry and wish ill upon Antonio, but this is only because Antonio has treated him like shit in the past. Later on, we will learn that he has other reasons for feeling dejected and spiteful. His daughter has rejected him and married a Christian man, and he is alone in the world. He even tells Antonio, after being scorned, that:

"I would be friends with you, and have your love,
Forget the shames that you have stained me with,
Supply your present wants, and take no doit
Of usance for my moneys; and you'll not hear me.
This is kind I offer"

(1.3.133-37)

This statement shows that, despite his poor treatment, Shylock is willing to make a friendly deal with his enemy. Of course, he could be lying in order to look noble, but we do not know either way. Therefore, I conclude that a true hero is thus far missing from our story. Perhaps one will emerge as we read further, but it seems to me that in this tale of money and deal-making, everyone has their own best interests at heart. Where's the heroism in that?

Contradictions

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As the Merchant of Venice begins it is already apparent how decisive the conflict will be between the supposed differences between Christian and Jewish value systems. However, what I found most poignant after finishing Act One was what I saw to be the irony between the way that Antonio sees Shylock to be a money hungry usurer, all the while denying his own preoccupation with the prospects of his business. While Antonio attempts to discredit Salerio’s belief that his melancholy derives from his worry over the safety of his vessels delivering goods over the dangerous seas, his conversation with Bassiano about the possibility of lending him money, makes it apparent that the state of his finances, is, in fact, on the surface of his mind. While he states to Bassiano that, “ my purse, my person, my extremest means/ Lie all unlocked to your occasions” (1.1. 138-139), he is also quick to refer to the reality of his situation, when he says, “Thou know’st that all my fortunes are at sea/ Neither have I money nor commodity” (1.2. 177-178). While Antonio may not fully embody Shylock’s aphorism that “…thrift is blessing, if men steal it not” (1.3. 86), he is, in my opinion, by no means the munificent and virtuously generous friend that he would like to see himself as.

Furthermore, Antonio continues to contradict his Christian values when he refuses to agree to Shylock’s wish to deal with him as a friend, as seen when Shylock states, “ I would be friends with you, and have your love/ Forget the shame that you have stained me with” (1.3. 133-134). Instead of abiding to the Christian tenet of universal love, Antonio continues to spurn Shylock, showing no remorse for the times that he spit on him and called him a “…misbeliever, cut throat, dog” (1.3. 107). Instead, Antonio wishes for the line to remain clear, between himself, the Christian, and Shylock, the Jew. However, in reality, Antonio’s discriminatory view of Shylock as the usurer who is only concerned with the collection of interest on his loans, is contradicted, when, instead of requesting monetary reimbursement for Antonio’s possible forfeiture of the loan, Shylock asks to be repaid by “…an equal pound/ Of your fair flesh to be cut off and taken/ In what part of your body pleaseth me” (1.3. 145-147). Instead of adhering to Antonio’s view about what characteristic behavior a Jew should exercise, Shylock’s decision to request flesh in place of money, is emblematic of the “…ancient grudge” (1.3. 43) that he attributes to the conflict between Jew and gentile. It seems then, that Shylock’s attempt to deal with Antonio as a friend, is not so much linked to his sincere desire to befriend him, but to his wish, however subconscious, to contradict the behavior that Antonio would expect from him.

Thus, the first act of The Merchant of Venice is riddled with contradictory behavior displayed by both of the main characters. Both Antonio and Shylock reveal their discriminatory view of the other while displaying a complexity of behavior contradicting the other’s narrow view of their group. As Act one ends and both characters agree to the sadistic rules of the loan, an ominous tone begins to foreshadow an escalation in the conflict between characters, religions and viewpoints.

Depression leads to acts of kindness?

I have never read this play before, but I found it quite interesting that a lot of the drama unfolded in the first act. Shakespeare is known for all of his characters to be interested in one another, and he has them play out into scenes which you need a chart to keep everything straight. Antonio I thought was an interesting character. "In sooth, I know not why I am so sad. It wearies me, you say it wearies you" (1-2). He basically explains to his friend that he is depressed and he doesn't know why. His friend Salerio responds, "Your mind is tossing on the ocean, There where your argosies with portly sail" (8-9). His friend believes his saddness is due to his worrying about his ship not making it across the ocean.
Antonio quickly denies this and denies that he is in love. I don't believe Antonio is not in love. I think he has love for one of the characters but he has yet to come forth and confess this. In the midst of this he lends his friend, Bassanio money to woe an heiress Portia. "That in your knowledge may by me be done, And I am pressed unto it. Therefore speak"(159-160). he is very kind and makes this grand gesture. Sort of a "hey don't worry about it" attitude. This surprises me because when you are sad or deressed, you don't want to lend people money. Especially since his friend already owes you money. The only reason I would think is that he understands the concept of love. His saddness is derived from such an emotion. He is willing to make this sacrafice.
Towards the end of act 1 Antonio has to talk to Shylock who is a jew because Bassanio needs to get a loan from him since Antonios riches are out at sea. "For the which, as I told you, Antonio shall be bound."(1.3 line 4). Bassanio explains here to Shylock that Antonio is god for the loana nd can pay him back. Shylock is reluctant towards him beacuse he has bad ties with Antonio. When Antonio enters and they all talk he strikes a deal with the devil. They now have to become friends and if Shylock doesn't get his money Antonio's life is on the line.
In conclusion I believe Antonio values friendship and went through all this trouble for his friend to find love with this heiress. Only a person who is in love with someone understands how important this must be. Antonio seems to have a full proof plan to help his friend and pay back Shylock. Maybe this will give him the motivation to come forth about his love problems.

Love and money...but mostly money

After the reader hears Portia’s plight over her inability to choose a husband she proclaims, "Whiles we shut the gate upon one wooer,/ Another knocks at the door" (1.2.112-113). Not to point out the obvious but perhaps this statement has as much to do with our hero Bassanio as it does with the Prince of Morocco. Although both feign noble intentions both are seeking Portia for her famed beauty and her fortune. Doesn’t this make Bassanio just as dastardly as Portia’s other suitors? Even though I am sure that Bassanio does in fact love Portia from their past meetings, he presents his wooing her as a business proposition and a way of clearing his debts. Such a romantic gesture leads the reader to believe that Bassanio has vastly different priorities then he claims.

In truth, some readers may be persuaded that Bassanio’s love lies more with Antonio then his would be fiancĂ©. With a full heart Bassanio declares, “To you, Antonio, I owe the most, in money and in love, And from your love I have a warranty To unburden all my plots and purposes How to get clear of all the debts I owe.” (1.1. 130-134). Bassanio uses the love between himself and Antonio to procure what he needs to woo Portia and regain his fortune. Antonio of course is more than happy to help his friend as he reciprocates all the love and affection that Bassanio places upon him. This is though, only after Bassanio refers to Portia in terms of a commodity and compares her to Jason’s Golden Fleece. In this instance Portia is nothing more than a prize to be won and a means of getting Bassanio out of debt.

As I continue to ask myself the question of whether or not Bassanio has true feelings for Portia; I am drawn to how Bassanio and Antonio refer to the other people that surround them. When looking back both characters are guilty of referring to people with monetary language. Antonio tells Salario that, “Your worth is very dear to my regards,” and later Bassanio discusses Portia in terms of her value (1.1. 61-164). Even in the beginning of the play readers see Salario and Salonio trying desperately (but still with jest) to find what is making Antonio so sad. The only rational explanation that they can come to is either money or love. The two are almost interlocked together. At the same time however, the world of money and Antonio’s finances are given a higher respect and a more thought out explanation, instead of the “Fie, fie,” response he gives about his love life (1.1. 45). It is possible that in the language of a merchant, speaking of people in terms of money, value, and worth is the same as showing affection. Shakespeare’s use of this language could be to point out a particular “sphere of discourse” in the community. The alternative theory that some readers may be persuaded to would be that Shakespeare is using subtle twists on words and double meanings to show the more cynical side of this love story and comedy.

Antonio's Relatioship with Bassanio

I have read this play in the past, but I really never paid enough attention to it. Aside from the obvious anti-Semitic views, and the ridiculousness of Portia choosing a husband by having them pick the right casket, I was really taken by the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio. It's hard enough for me to lend five dollars to a friend, yet at the drop of a hat Antonio is ready to take out a loan of 3,000 ducats to lend to his friend so he can woo some girl.

There is only one reason I can think of for someone to do this, and that is love. Especially when you take in to account that if Antonio should fail to repay the bond he will pay in flesh and blood. The level of this love is what has me wondering. It is very obvious that Bassanio is Antonio's best friend. At the beginning when Antonio is sad Salerio would have stayed to help him cheer up, but at the arrival of Bassanio he says," I would have stayed till I had made you merry If worthier friends had not prevented me." (Line 60) After Bassanio explains his situation Antonio says, "My purse, my person, my extremest means Lie all unlocked to your occasions." (Line 138) This shows the level of devotion and affection that Antonio has for Bassanio, also note that he pluralizes occasions, as to say that Bassanio is welcome to all he has on all occasions, not just this once. Antonio is offended when Bassanio asks for the money as if Antonio wouldn't just give it to him anyway, "And out of doubt you do me more wrong In making questions of my uttermost Than if you had made waste of all I have." (Line 155) He is hurt that Bassanio doesn't believe that he, Antonio, will just hand over the money no questions asked. Even when Shylock says he must repay in full or in flesh Antonio is still willing to make the deal for Bassanio's sake, though there are so many dangers that can happen to his ships, as Shylock points out.

While these acts may not seem like Antonio has deeper feelings for Bassanio, I just can't help but think that there is something there, and that it is one-sided. Bassanio seems to definitely respect Antonio, but he is also using Antonio to make him seem rich so he can make Portia like him. I guess as the play goes on, and as I pay more attention maybe their relationship will show more and allow for deeper investigation.

-Stephanie Wexler

The bigger you are, the harder you fall?

If I were to be creating a commonplace book for just Act I of The Merchant of Venice, a category that I think would be quite fitting would be that of "Suffering & Wealth." Typically, suffering is not something that one might attribute to being wealthy, but is something that is portrayed again and again throughout the three scenes in Act I. Graziano says it well when addressing Antonio who seems to be melancholy.

You look not well, Signor Antonio.
You have too much respect upon the world.
They lose it that do buy it with much care.
Believe me, you are marvellously changed. (1.1.73-76)

In this passage he is telling Antonio that people with too much invested in the world hurt and suffer more than others. Antonio is a very wealthy man with big ships carrying precious cargo all over the world. This kind of wealth gives one great power. However, what Graziano is saying is that someone that possesses as much as Antonio stands to lose more than someone without these possessions. I happen to think that he is right but still cannot help but to consider how ironic it is that we, as humans, strive on power and money. In fact, it is nearly impossible to live without money. Graziano's insightful advice to Antonio implies that having money and power isn't all that it is cracked up to be because the more you have, the more you can lose. We see another instance of this very principle later in Act I when we meet Portia and learn of her situation.

In 1.2 we meet Nerissa and Portia for the first time. Nerissa, while speaking to Portia, offers the same insight that Graziano had offered to Antonio.

You would be, sweet madam, if your miseries were in the same abundance as your good fortunes are; and yet, for aught I see, they are as sick that surfeit with too much as they that starve with nothing. It is no mean happiness, therefore, to be seated in the mean. Superfluity comes sooner by white hairs, but competency lives longer. (1.2.3-8)

Nerissa is telling Portia that one with too much fortune suffers just as much as someone with less fortune. She offers that it is best to be in the middle and that you'll live longer if you can find yourself in the middle. Portia, like Antonio, is a wealthy person. She is an heiress who also happens to be bound by her father's will after his death. She is someone that has so much and nearly nothing at the same time. She has great wealth and therefore power but it all means nothing because she doesn't have choice. She isn't able to choose the life she will lead since her father's death and she isn't able to choose her husband because her father has made it so he does it for her even after death. Like Antonio, Portia is a great example of losing more because you have more.

I also find it somewhat curious that both Graziano and Nerissa offer such insightful advice to Antonio and Portia. Curious because it is quite apparent that both Graziano and Nerissa are not as wealthy as Antonio and Portia and therefore their arguments may help them to find acceptance of their less-fortunate situations. It is also ironic that Graziano and Nerissa end up getting married later in the play. If they live by the logic they have set forth for Antonio and Portia, they should live happily ever after...I just wonder if Portia and Antonio will?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Shylock: A Prick by Nature or Environment?

I began reading The Merchant of Venice with little knowledge of the plot or characters beforehand; I knew the Shylock was a Jew, and there was references to religious quarrels, but that is all. After reading Act I, I was left with questions about Antonio's depression, or the ridiculous concept of Portia's husband being chosen by choosing the right casket, but I was most intrigued by Shylock himself; the thought that crossed my mind at the end of the act was "Wow, what a dick." (seriously, a pound of flesh? That's a bit extreme.) So I continued to read, and within a short period of time found myself concluding the third act and with a different idea of Shylock entirely. I must admit I feel bad for him. Other than slight references to his ways before the beginning of the play, I began to ponder if perhaps, just the tiniest chance a LONG time beforehand, that Shylock was a good and decent person, and that through torment and judgment by other merchants and Christians made him the "villain" he has become. He has a daughter (although she despises him), so apparently he was once married; whether by force or love is yet to be discovered, but it is proof that once upon a time someone could have thought him worthy. Or there is the possibility he was a miserable miser since the day he was brought to life and I'm giving him too much credit.

One must admit , however, that with continuous torment comes resentment and hatred. When Antonio and Shylock discuss the wages of the loan, Shylock states he would like this to be extended through friendship, regardless of the fact good-nature Antonio had continuously called Shylock a dog, other obscenities, and even spit at him, but Antonio refuses, saying they should agree on the terms as enemies because he was liable to insult Shylock again. Wouldn't you feel a bit insulted if you extended your hand and had it "bit" off?

There is also a rare moment of vulnerability in Shylock when in the third act (sorry for the spoiler) he cries most famously "I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes?......" (p. 1147, l. 49 - 61) and continues to express that he is a person, and feels the same emotions, has the same body traits, and endures the same joys and sufferings that Christians do. If a Christian has the right to harm a Jew, than a Jew should have the same right to harm a Christian. He is pissed because of a life full of discrimination, and he is hell bent on revenge and will except nothing less.

So what more can I say? His wife either left him or died (I either over read it or it wasn't stated), his daughter ran off with a Christian and stole his money in the process, he has lived a life of persecution for his faith, and there is a debt owed to him by a man he loathes, who has been a constant torment to him. He has a right to be a prick, and if I were him I would be as well. I have stopped my reading, awaiting to begin Act 4, but I am curious in learning if my opinion of him will change through the remainder of the play.

Elise Staats

The play begins with Antonio acting different/depressed and the others want to know what the cause of his depression is. At first, Salaerio and Solanio think he is depressed because of money and when they found that to be incorrect they then blamed it on love, but that wasn’t correct either.

Reading on, Gratiano notices Antonio’s sadness as well and tries to make him feel better by giving him a speech about life. Then, Bassanio starts distracting Antonia from his problems by telling him his own problems. Bassanio is in love with a wealthy, much desired woman and doesn’t feel like he’s good enough for her. Therefore Bassanio beats himself up over his issue of feeling like an underdog. Antonio, being a good friend, tells Bassanio he may borrow money and go see the woman he loves.

When Portia enters, she talks about how unhappy she is with her life, almost sounding ungrateful. It appears that she is depressed about her father’s death and the fact she is unwed. To be expected, all her complaining has left her with an unpredicted future. We learn that before Portia’s father passed he set up a scenario for her future husband; whichever man selected the correct chest would become her husband. It doesn’t come as much of a surprise to me, that Portia had something negative to say about each of the men that were chosen and in the end, none of them wanted to even take the chance at marrying her. After Portia realizes that none of the men selected wanted to marry her, she tries to think of whom else she could have; coming up with Bassanio. She illustrates her interest for him in line 100 when she says, “I remember him well, and I remember him worthy of thy praise.” (I was shocked that he was actually good enough for her).

Bassino wanted to borrow money from Shylock, but Shylock wasn’t so quick to give it to him unless he could be sure he would be getting it back. Bassino arranged for Antonio to help convince Shylock over dinner that he would be getting it back because it was his money that he was lending Bassino. Antonio and Shylock share some religious differences, which turns into a huge argument. Later on, Antonio and shylock make up and shylock extends his hand to become Antonio’s friend; Bassino has a weird feeling about what happened between them and warns Antonio.

After reading Act One, some of the things that I was unsure of was Antonio and Shylock’s argument. There were times where I was lost in what exactly they were arguing about; I mean I know it was all about money, but I was confused. Overall, I am really enjoying the play so far and can’t wait to read on!