Monday, January 30, 2012

Shakespeare's reoccurring "Debbie Downer"

After reading Act I scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice my first thought was “Oh wow, another one of Shakespeare’s male character sulking…what a surprise.”  Antonio’s sour mood immediately reminded me of Romeo’s lovesick depression in Act I, scene 2 of Romeo and Juliet, as well as Orsino’s glum demeanor in the opening scene of Twelfth Night.  Though the reason for Antonio’s depression differs from Romeo and Orsino’s, the readers are still introduced to an unsatisfied male character at the start of the play.  In fact, the first line of the play immediately informs us of this dissatisfaction: “In sooth, I know not why I an so sad.” (1).  

I find this reoccurrence of depressed, unsatisfied, or sulking men at the beginning of Shakespeare’s plays a very interesting topic of discussion.  And what’s unique about Antonio is that he doesn’t even know why he’s feeling the way he is.  It immediately introduces his character as whiny, indecisive, and a bit of a crybaby.  However, it seems that Shakespeare creates these characters just so he can later make fun of them through the mouths of his other characters.  And I think that this is brilliant and hysterical.  Shakespeare writes these heart wrenching and soul quivering poetic passages that describe his characters’ depressed and dejected dispositions and then immediately mocks it.  For example, in lines 77-79, Antonio says to Graziano: “I hold the world but as the world, Graziano—A stage where everyman must play a part, And mine a sad one.”  Graziano, in lines 79-104 , then proceeds to mock Antonio’s serious and over-analytical attitude.  My favorite part of this passage is when Graziano proclaims, “With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.  And let my liver rather heat with wine than my heart cool with mortifying groans” (lines 80-82).  Shakespeare is poking fun at Antonio and, more over, is poking fun at his own writing.  

Graziano’s aforementioned passage is definitely my favorite part of Act I.  He basically took the words right out of my mouth and said exactly what I wanted to say to Antonio (yet in a much more eloquent way, obviously).  I think that Graziano’s advice for Antonio is still so prevalent in today’s world.  A lot of people, like Antonio, need a friend to sit them down and give them the “take a chill pill” speech every now and then.  Nobody wants to be around the “Debbie downer.”  It was very refreshing to have the Shakespearean version of the “Debbie downer” put in his place.  Examples such as this really solidify my enjoyment of Shakespeare’s sense of humor in his writing.  He can create a beautiful character with depth and poetic solemnity…followed by another character that makes fun of him and his somber poetry.                                                    


While reading Act I of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Antonio’s character stood out to me the most. In all its simplicity, the opening line of the play: "In sooth, I know not why I am so sad" (1.1, 1) set the focus for the entire first scene. In scene i, we see more characters than in scene ii and iii combined, yet we focus on the feelings/inner workings of only one person’s mind –Antonio. Antonio is inexplicably saddened. In exploration of his sadness, a friend Salanio proposes: "Nature hath framed strange fellows in her time:/ Some that will evermore peep through their eyes/ And laugh like parrots at a bagpiper/ And other of such vinegar aspect" (1.1, 51-54). Salanio states that this just may be Antonio’s natural disposition. Before this, Solanio suggested Antonio may be in love, but Antonio brushed it off in an oddly brief way. When most people are faced with the idea of love, their reactions are definitively “no” or they'll pause to take a moment or two to reflect. This seems like a topic Antonio prefers not to deal with. Another friend, Graziano, suggests, "You have too much respect upon the world./ They lose it that do buy it with much care" (1.1, 74-75). Antonio may be overly-concerned with his business ventures, and if he worries too much, he will cause his own bad fortune --in this case, his depressing mood. Antonio denies this, claiming he is confident in his business ventures.

Finally, Antonio declares that the world is "a stage where every man must play a part,/ And mine a sad one" (1.3, 78-79). He feels he cannot change his sadness because he simply plays a sad character in the grand scheme of things. This can be a dangerous view because it leads to learned helplessness. Graziano touches on this concept when he alludes to men who enjoy dwelling on their burdens; these men utilize their pessimism to convince others of their wisdom and experience, which is detrimental to the human experience. This part of the text reminds me of a quote by Stephen Colbert: “Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us.” Having read this quote helped me understand Graziano’s point, regardless of whether or not Antonio was responsive to it.

After his friends leave, Bassanio asks Antonio for a favor. Bassanio is in love with Portia, and the only way he can compete for this heiress is if he takes out loans. He asks Antonio to be his guarantor since he has such bad credit. This is the first time we see Antonio perk up and speak definitively about anything. Antonio scolds Bassanio for even remotely questioning his loyalty as a friend and declares: "My purse, my person, my extremist means/ Lie all unlocked to your occasions" (1.1, 137-138). This is a surrender of Antonio’s entire being to his friend’s pursuits. Throughout Act I, Antonio is particularly attentive to Bassanio. He finds the motivation and passion for Bassiano, yet not for himself. Critics suggest that Antonio may be in love with Bassanio, and if this is the case, such a hopeless love could partially explain Antonio’s sadness. With this in mind, Antonio’s depressing comment about the world as a stage and people as fixed characters could be in reference to the roles of husbands and wives in society. The institution of marriage was unmovable at the time and was heavily intertwined with Christianity, which plays a huge role in Antonio’s life.

The only other time Antonio expresses strong feeling is when he encounters Shylock. He is unexpectedly cruel towards him because he is a Jew. Antonio, earlier depicted as a thoughtful, loyal friend is now irrational and off-putting. When Shylock claims Antonio is only being kind because he needs money, he alludes to all the nasty things that Antonio has done and said. Antonio simply replies, “I am as like to call thee so again,/ To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too” (1.3, 125-126). Antonio steps up and passionately defends his distasteful actions. He continues with, “lend it rather to thine enemy,/ Who if he break, thou mayst with better face/ Exact the penalty” (1.3, 130-132). Antonio heightens their dissonance and derives pleasure (for once) in doing so. Antonio’s religious intolerance is a sign of close-mindedness. From a psychological perspective, this is often associated with depression. In addition to a hopeless love, his intolerance of others could explain his sadness.

Aphorisms & Language

Molly Hone
1.2, lines 1-19. (I cut off the passage at line 19 for this post, before Portia’s predicament and suitors are fully discussed.)

In the first exchange between Portia and her waiting-woman, Nerissa, a simple expression of sadness by the former elicits advice from the latter in the form of multiple aphorisms. Portia responds to these aphorisms with aphorisms of her own that explain her inability and reluctance to follow the advice.
The aphorisms exchanged, such as “It is no mean happiness, therefore to be seated in the mean” (lines 6-7, 1.2.1125, Nerissa), and “It is a good divine that follows his own instructions” (line 14, 1.2.1125, Portia), could seem almost nonsensical to a reader because of their abundance and lack of segue. There are at least 5 clear aphorisms in this passage, and the language of the lines in between them are similar in structure, voice, and function (e.g. “They would be better if well followed” [line 10, 1.2.1125, Nerissa]), rendering the language of the passage mostly aphoristic.
This rapid delivery of the aphorisms, as well as the overall aphoristic tone, suggest that such general advice lacks meaning and importance. This setup could also serve to argue that general advice lacks an adequate applicability to reality. Shakespeare is playing with self-reflexivity in this passage, and instead of creating nonsense he is, presumably, foreshadowing the events of the play.
This self-reflexive setup also seems to comment on internal conflict and moral ambiguity. Portia remarks in the passage that it is not easy to do what one knows is right. Churning out aphorisms like an assembly line is very different from following them. Pondering the actions one may take in a given situation is very different from being in that situation and having to decide on a “right” or beneficial course of action. 
When Portia remarks that the advice will not be able to help her in choosing a suitor, having already previously put the responsibility on herself, not the concept of general advice, she is using the passive voice. Is this an illustration of the alternately weak/strong power that general, aphoristic advice can have? Or is she simply being sarcastic? It seems that her language (“But this reasoning is not in the fashion” [line 19, 1.2.1125]) is playfully, but contradictorially, disowning her previously-stated responsibility. It is interesting, too, how Portia’s words in this line sound so similar to the aphorisms in their passivity. 
This might be a total over-analysis of the passage, but I find that as I read, I have to remember that Shakespeare’s linguistic precision gives each word a lot of weight and purpose, and over-analysis may be difficult to avoid sometimes.
Why Shakespeare is seemingly putting the character of Portia at odds with her own language in this fragment is unclear to me. It might be just a flourish of language, or it might be an important foreshadow of events and themes. Again, I might be completely overanalyzing this short passage and its language. 

Unlocking Shylock

The Merchant of Venice is best known for its arguable antagonist, Shylock. In the shadows of the romantic babbling of the elite Antonio and his friends partake in the opening scene, Shylock works to make reality of their imaginings. Two scenes later, Shylock states, “Three thousand ducats. Well.” (1. 3. 1), establishing his identity through the loan request of Bassanio and Antonio. In the greater conversation between Jews and Christians, the perjury of the Jews through a long existing history of European religious reformations created a public character for society to use as a scapegoat. In establishing business interest with loans, Jews were demonized in their “unchristian” character in seeking economic benefits through the misfortunes of others.

The tension and explicate hate Shylock and Antonio have for each other seem to villainies both men versus creating a “good vs. evil” troupe. In detesting Antonio, Shylock says, “Cursed be my tribe if I forgive him” (I. 3. 46-47), alluding to the Christian ideal of redemption and how it’s beyond his Old testament vicinity. In contrast to the first scene, where Antonio friends try to soothe him with compassion and reasoning, this scene depicts a less empathetic side of Antonio. “I am like to call thee so again, to spit on thee again, to spurn thee too” (1. 3. 125-126), are not the words of your loving neighbor. In developing the character of these two men, it is impossible to separate their religious prejudices. In out right calling Shylock’s usage of the ram allegory as the working of the devil (1.3. 94-96), it seems exemplar knowledge of the Old Testament works against Shylock’s humanization.

In their compromise to give a loan, free of interest, under the promise that if not paid back in time will cost Bassanio one pound of his flesh reads as a violent and dated agreement. Like the hammurabi code and laws of the Old World, Shylocks “kindness” operates according to an economic exchange based off of mortality. Already we can see within the first scene that these men live in a material world distant from such realities, where their focus is on their emotions than on their physicalities. Living in the illusion of ports and transitions, Anotino lives in an international intersection of worldly goods, which may contribute to his stated unknown grievance. The introduction of such a fatal contract positions Shylock with a certain knowingness outside of Antonio and his men.

Of course under the humanizing lens of the 21st century, we cannot help but attempt to pull Shylock away from his villainous characterture and shift him towards a sociological light, a man who acts according to circumstance. I’m excited to see how his character develops in accord to the stage.


In the first scene of Act 1 we see Antonio asking his friends for help on how to get out of being so Melancholy.  He seems to be wanting them just to sit and discuss with him his depression as if it is something of incredible interest.  But he doesn't seem to want an answer.  His friends suggest the ships he has out at sail, but he pushes that away as if it is insignificant and tells them his wealthy is not in one boat.  But then they talk of love and he quickly rejects it and doesn't even give it a chance.  He is asking there help but not giving much feedback for them to work with.  Then when Bassanio comes over all their friends leave and they get to have alone time.  When initially he was just looking out for any friend to help him, he clings to Bassanio when he comes by.

And not only does Bassanio not talk to him about his grief but Antonio moves the conversation over to Bassanio and his positive, secret, sexy conquest for a lady. His interest only wains when Bassanio questions Antonio's ability to help him.  Antonio then goes into depth to show how much he will do to help Bassanio, even though much of the debt Bassanio has it to Antonio in the first place.  And Antonio will vouch for Bassanio with his wealth that he doesn't currently have.  It seems to me Shakespeare is trying to foreshadow the type of loving unhealthy relationship these two have.  Antonio seems to love Bassanio while Bassanio seems to think of Antonio as a dear friend and not a love interest.  

Then they go to Shylock where Antonio makes sure the loan of money needed is insured.  But while they are talking about the terms, Shylock and Antonio start up their long going feud with each other, and it seems like they are going to sign as enemies until Shylock makes a proposition.  He says they should do the loan on friendly terms with no interest, but if the money isn't given at the right time then Antonio will have to give Shylock "an equal pound of [Antonio's] fair flesh to be cut off and taken in what part of your body pleaseth [Shylock]."  (1131) This to me seems quite phallic and lending it self to be seemed like he will cut off his penis.  The whole conversation is about bravado and acting like the stronger, smarter, and more intimidating man.  And again Shakespeare ends this Act with the thought of Antonio's penis literally being on the line for Bassanio.  And with Antonio brushing it off and saying all his ships will return, and he's calm in the face of his friends fear.  He is the rock for his friend to lean on in hard times.  I'm interested to see how Antonio will try and win over Bassanio as Bassanio tries to woo Portia. 

Stereotypes in Merchant of Venice, Act I

(Posted for Darya Erenburg)

While reading the first act in The Merchant of Venice, I noticed Shakespeare’s stereotypical descriptions of certain cultures. The stereotypes, however, don’t match up with those of today’s cultural generalizations. For example, when Portia and Nerissa were discussing the suitors that had made their visit earlier, she mentioned how the German drank too much (which is now stereotypical of mostly Irish and Russian folk). She described the Neopolitan count as being too fond of his horse, the Palatine count as being too serious for her taste, and the Englishman as being too dull-minded to know any other romantic languages. I am personally not sure about the Neopolitan, Palatine and Englishman stereotypes, but in Act 1, Scene 3, when Shylock is introduced, the Jewish stereotype is pretty offensive in today’s culture. Shylock is very exact, in mind and speech. He thinks the deal through out loud, often repeating what Bassanio and Antonio say. He appears to have an accent, different from the rest of the characters in the play by the way he says “well?” after each repeated statement at the beginning of Scene 3. He is also very proud of his Jewish heritage, by the way he refers to his nation as “sacred” (1.3.42), and he holds a grudge over Antonio for the names he had called him; “You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,/ And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine” (1.3.109-110). He is harsh but fair in his business dealings, and agrees to lend the money to Bassanio in return for the exact sum of money, or a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Shylock also claims that Antonio had cursed and spat on his Jewish heritage in the past, which is not unusual for people to do in the present day, especially Christians. Towards the end of the third scene, when Shylock exits the stage, Antonio says to Bassanio that Shylock has become more generous, almost as though he has turned Christian. The generalization of the present day states that most Christians tend to believe that they are somehow more knowledgeable about God and heaven and the best way to get there, all the time hoping to convert more people into Christianity. It appears that Jews and people of other religions are more accepting of religions that are not their own, while at the same time remaining comfortable and confident with their own beliefs. I also noticed that in verbally stating what unfair actions have been committed against Shylock, and Antonio’s thoughts about his supposedly righteous way of behaving towards a Jew, Shakespeare is able to make fun of the Christian beliefs as well, at least towards other religions. I find this fascinating, in terms of the courage it must’ve taken on Shakespeare’s part to laugh at the Jewish and Christian religions by being so brutally correct in their beliefs, thoughts, words, and actions. Some of the ostensible stereotypes of the Elizabethan era stayed true to the present, and I marvel at how easily Shakespeare had written of them in his day, when some of us still cringe at the thought of making fun of another’s beliefs even today.

Portia and Bassanio: A complicated love affair?

The character of Portia in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, is one that is particularly interesting. She is described as being a beautiful and wealthy individual, characteristics that are commonly seen in the female characters of William Shakespeare’s pieces. Once of Portia’s most entertaining qualities seems to be her witty nature. This can be seen when Portia is engaged in conversation with her waiting-woman, Nerissa.
In the beginning of the play, Portia is describing the conditions in her father’s will which are controlling her decision to find a suitor. Portia describes her inability to choose a husband when she states: “I may neither choose who I would nor refuse who I dislike; so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father” (1.2 20-22). According to her father’s will, in order for Portia to marry, the men must choose from three chests, each being made of gold, silver, or lead.  In only one of the chests lies a portrait of Portia. The man who choses the chest which includes the portrait is the individual who will be honored in marrying Portia. In order to pay respect to her father, Portia agrees to adhere to the condition of her late father’s will, despite the slightly frustrating and tiresome process that she must endure. 
When conversing with her waiting-woman, Nerissa, Portia is discussing the reasons why she will not marry a various amount of men. Portia provides several flaws that these men have, some being entirely shallow and humorous. These reasons include men who seem to be too consumed with themselves, men who are too serious and men who indulge in alcohol too frequently. Although the readers are given no reason to not believe Portia, it is fair to question if these reasons for not accepting the various suitors are entirely truthful, or if they are simply excuses made by Portia. 
Regardless, Portia is fearful that she will never find a respectable man to marry. It is then, when Nerissa suggests that Portia consider Bassanio to be one of her suitors. Bassanio is one of the only men who Portia considered to be a respectable candidate for marriage, which can be seen when she says “I remember him well, and I remember him worth of thy praise” (1.2 100-01). This line serves in great contrast to Portia’s reaction to the other men. 
At this point, it can be assumed that Portia is unaware of the fact that Bassanio is in the process of attempting to obtain a loan in order to woo Portia. Because of the wealthy status that the other suitors possess, Bassanio feels the need to borrow three thousand ducats in order to be considered as a suitor for Portia. In order to do this, he must obtain a loan from Shylock. The audience later learns that this agreement is more complicated than it first appears, as Shylock has a great hatred towards Antonio, whom is supporting the loan. This can be seen when Shylock says “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 her with us in Venice” (1.3 37-40). It is clear at this point in the play, that the relationship between Antonio and Shylock may have a great impact on Bassanio’s relationship with Portia. 

Wolf in sheep's clothing

Shylock, the Jew, is the man that is introduced as the character who will be playing the role of the villain. All he is concerned about is money, what Antonio is worth (apparently 3,000 ducats is worth that much ~ though I am not quite sure how much that would amount to in currency that I am familiar with), what his own money is worth to him, what Bassanio is worth and so on. He is depicted as this cruel character that has no heart and could not possibly understand that Bassanio is just trying to obtain the love of his life and his best friend is attempting to help him in such dire straits. The wolf is revealed in such a way, but our hearts are opened for just a moment when Shylock is concerned about taking the offer. Again, we are aware that Shylock is of the Jewish faith and there doesn’t seem to be a great depiction of such people. Antonio even admits that he has spit on him, he has called him a dog/cut-throat/misbeliever and he goes so far to say that he would do this again when given the chance. Shylock at this point has done nothing but attempt to help this man out. As a reader I began to question the depiction of this villain, mostly can we consider Shylock to be one? There are readers who believe that this man has been given the role of the villain because of what he worships, not perhaps who he is as a person. This is where I myself am torn.

Offers of kindness are given out to Shylock. Bassanio offers “If it please you to dine with us” (27, 1.3), Shylock outright refuses to partake in any courteous adventures with these two men. Now is he being the cruel, evil self or someone who has been tortured for his entire life because he must eat certain foods and there are those who cannot seem to understand his faith. Not moments later there is an aside of Shylock who explains his hatred for Antonio because he is a Christian who gives money away without interest. Is the main source of hatred his religion or perhaps is it the business plan Antonio has is, to say with all cliché intended, sinking. This constant unsure nature of the character Shylock is unearthed in, what seemed to me is, the most unexpected twist in a business plan.

If Antonio goes back on his word with this loan, the price is a slab of his own skin. Now we are starting to see the true evil nature of this one man. A slab of the skin is the price to pay if Antonio does not pay back the debt to Shylock, not taking the threat seriously Antonio is sure that his boats will return soon enough and he will pay. He goes so far to think that “the Hebrew will turn Christian; he grows kind” (174, 1.3), and Shylock is doing this out of the good of his heart. I fear the worse for Antonio due to the fact that this poor Jewish man who we grow some compassion for is about to write out a blood bond for him. Stories of abuse and torture cannot derail the reader from seeing the true evil nature that is lurking under the surface. I can only assume that this deal is foreshadowing something terrible for Antonio and perhaps Bassanio as well.

Girl Talk in Merchant

     An introduction to the characters of Portia and Nerissa occurs while they ensue in Shakespearean girl talk.  It is interesting that he opens scene II with such an intimate setting of two women speaking of marriage, lust, and love.  Automatically one understands the importance of marriage in The Merchant of Venice and especially in Portia’s life.  Shakespeare expresses her passion against her father’s law of the three chests through superb use of opposites, animal imagery, and word choice.  By beginning the scene with Portia stating “my little body is aweary of this great world,” Shakespeare alerts the reader that Portia is a passionate and rather upset woman (1.2.1-2).  Her weariness stems from her father’s “cold decree” and her “hot temper” clashing.  “The brain may devise laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps o’er a cold decree” (1.2.16-17).  Portia’s zealous personality makes her a young woman disenchanted with the idea of being controlled by an order.  She needs to love in her own way but is conflicted as she understands what is correct.  She craves her passion to be a guiding light, not her dead father’s decree.  Shakespeare places the words “cold decree” or wise ruling in Portia’s speech.  Her father is dead, so he essentially is “cold” like his law, whereas his daughter is full of life and vivaciousness.  The conflict between Portia’s warmth and her father’s cold wishes are brilliantly paired.  By utilizing opposites, the reader distinguishes the severity of Portia feelings.  Much like the sexes have confided in one another in regards to love in numerous Shakespearean dramas, Nerissa is notified of her lady’s feelings of impinged desires.  Shakespeare places animal imagery in Portia’s dialogue by inserting “hare” – an image connected to lust and romance; two things this lady desires.  The animalistic reference signifies human’s natural desire for sex.  “…such a hare is madness the youth to skip o’er the meshes of good counsel the cripple” (1.2.17-18).  Again, Portia understands what is right to do and knows she will get caught in “the meshes of good counsel” although she deeply wants to be that careless, frisky hare.  An implication of her father as the “the cripple”- one who is prudent, but not alive in the fullest is referenced.  Her father was on his deathbed, so he was not alive in the full when the rule of his daughter’s marriage was created.  As Portia begins to ponder her status, she appears angered by the word “choose.”  Choose has implications of freedom and one’s own will guiding them.  “Oh me the word ‘choose’!  I may neither choose who I would nor refuse who I dislike…” (1.2.21-22).  There is no choosing for Portia.  Her father essentially chose for her with his plan of the three chests.  She is bored and distressed by this and at scene’s end she states:  “Whiles we shut the gate upon one wooer, another knocks at the door” (1.2.110-111).  Portia is “aweary” of her father’s scheme that she knows is sensible, but still cannot seem to make her abandon her passionate desires.  She is done with the repetitiveness of lovers coming and going.  She wishes for a permanent love that she can “choose.” 

Antonio and Shylock

In the opening scene of the play, the merchant Antonio is depressed but cannot figure out why. Salerio believes he is saddened because his "mind is tossing on the ocean,/ There where your argosies with portly sail..." (1.1.8-9) and Solanio believes it is because he is in love (1.1.46). Although Antonio never states why he is upset, I can't help but believe that he really has no reason to be upset. He is surrounded by friends that are trying to help him feel better, yet he does not seem to realize that. If anything in the first act of the play expressed a reason for Antonio to be upset it would be Shylock.
        The two men clearly do not get along with each other, let alone respect each other. The terms of the bet also speak volumes about the mens' characters. Shylock states "If you repay me not on such a day,/ In such a place, such sum or sums as are,/ Expressed in the condition let the forfeit/ be nominated for an equal pound/ of your fair flesh to be cut off and taken/ in what part of your body pleaseth me..." (1.3.142-147). The fact that Shylock would love to cut a pound of flesh off of Antonio if he is not re-payed shows just how strongly he dislikes Antonio. A pound of flesh is not valuable in any way, nor will he gain any benefit from it. This shows just how much hatred Shylock has for Antonio.
      Antonio also expresses a lot about himself through this agreement with Shylock. The fact that he is signing the bond alone ("Your single bond..." 1.3. 141) shows that he feels he needs no help to repay Shylock, even though the one benefiting from this agreement isn't himself, it is Bassanio. He also shows that he may be a little too overconfident by agreeing that he will let Shylock cut off a pound of flesh from what ever part of his body that Shylock wants to.Antonio is clearly so determined to pay Shylock back that is almost seems like it is a competition between the two. Even Bassanio, who is the person benefiting from this agreement, tells Antonio "You shall not seal to such a bond for me./ I'll rather dwell in my necessity" (1.3.150-151). Bassanio and Antonio close the scene by saying "Bassanio: I like not fair terms and a villain's mind./ Antonio: Come on. In this there can be no dismay./ My ships come home a month before the day." (1.3. 175-177). I can't help but feel like something bad will happen and Antonio will fail to repay Shylock. The fact that Antonio's last lines in act 1 are assuring Bassanio that he will re-pay Shylock forces me to think that Shakespeare is trying to foreshadow that something bad will happen. I haven't read the rest of the play, so I could be completely wrong in this feeling, but it just seems like it is too confident of Antonio to agree to this. It just seems like such a ridiculous agreement for anyone to make. The terms of the bond show many things about their characters.

How much for your foot? Merchant of Venice Act I

In the first act of The Merchant of Venice the characters seem to attach monetary value to certain emotions or human traits that cannot be measured. The characters in the story seem to conjure up specific sums for certain feelings that they have. This unparallel and unmatched comparison leaves the story pushing and pulling with itself. This theme creates a dramatic effect that carries through the entire first act (and I bet the second…) leaving the reader feeling like they should also know how much their love or flesh is worth.

Love is something that cannot be measured, however Bassanio swears that just 3000 ducats will help him get Portia. Antonio loves Bassiano and agrees to help him get the money. Antonio says, “My purse, my person, my extremist means lie all unlocked to your occasions (1.1.138)”. In that sentence Antonio mentions his money (purse), his person, and extremist (means which I think everything else falls into). This single sentence holds so much value for Antonio. There is nothing about him that he does not include in that statement. He is 100% rooting for Bassanio. Antonio is measuring his whole self and putting it on the table for Bassanio to see and inspect. Antonio wants Bassanio to know how invested he is. He wants to show Bassanio how valuable he is in every way.

Shylock decides that if Antonio does not follow the terms of the loan he is entitled to a pound of flesh. He says, “Of your fair flesh to be cut off and taken in what part of your body pleaseth me (1.3.146)”. Shylock wants whatever piece of ANTONIO’S body HIM. As is he knows what that pound is worth to Antonio. A pound of flesh is something very dear to Antonio, yet Shylock writes it into a legal agreement with no qualms. Shylock is assuming he knows how much a pound of flesh means to Antonio, but only Antonio can know that answer. The terms of the loan should have been in the same currency as the actual loan, not skin and muscle.

Portia’s father left her with three chests. When we first meet Portia she says to Nerissa, “By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world (1.2.1)”. Portia is comparing her “little body” to the “great world”. Portia is comparing the things that are not comparable. If Portia looks at her body, which is in proportion to everyone else’s body, and then looks at the world as a whole she has to feel tiny and exhausted. This comparison demonstrates just how tired Portia is. She lost her father and all that she has are the three chests he left her. Each chest is made of a metal of varying value. By Portia’s father leaving behind these chests he is assuring her that the right suitor will find her. Portia’s father is also implying that his daughters fate in love depends on the casket potential suitors choose. While this is a very romantic thread in the story, it is another place where Shakespeare compares two incomparable things.


Sam Montagna
Professor Mulready
Shakespeare II
30 January 2012

Antonio is saddened, yet he does not know why. His friends suppose that he is in love or his “merchandise” is making him upset (Shakespeare 40.1122). Antonio denies all of this. Antonio reminds me of a person who has everything going for them but is still depressed. He has friends who support him and he is not living in poverty. If I had to guess what was wrong with him, it would be that life has gotten him down. I think he is a little lost. He states that he does not know where the misery has come from and that he has a lot of learning to do inside himself (5-6.1121). Graziano's advice seems the best suited for Antonio's situation. He basically tells him to relax. “Why should a man whose blood is warm within sit like his grandsire cut in alabaster” (83-84.11230). Why should a man filled with passions and dreams sit still like a tombstone? Graziano, although there is little to no description about him, seems very wise and sensible. After Graziano leaves, Bassanio has a talk with Antonio. Antonio is a great friend. Bassanio owes him money and love and Antonio still agrees to help Bassanio out in winning the heart of the fair Portia. Bassanio wants to be in the same league as the other men that chase Portia, who is so beautiful and good, she is compared to Brutus' wife. Portia, on the other hand, is tired of the losers that want to marry her. I do not understand Portia's father's conditions for her marriage. Nerissa speaks of a lottery in which men choose their “meaning” (27.1126). According to Nerissa, the one who chooses correctly will be the one that Portia falls for. Portia also hears of Bassanio and knows that out of all, he “was the best deserving a fair lady” (99.1127). The fact that Portia mentions Bassanio is foreshadowing. It is clear, the two will eventually meet later in the play. Bassanio and Antonio meet Shylock to borrow three thousand ducats. I feel so terrible for Shylock. Shylock dislikes Antonio because he is Christian and he loans money for free. Also, Antonio has called him names and spit on Shylock because he is Jewish. Shylock agrees to loan Antonio money after all of the abuse. Shylock even offers friendship to Antonio. Shylock is a bigger person than Antonio. Although Shylock is the “jew,” the very thing that many people despise, he overlooks the hatred even after Antonio admits that he would spit on him again. It is fair of Shylock to impose such a harsh consequence on Antonio if he cannot pay him back. Antonio agrees wholeheartedly to the bond because he is certain that he will be able to pay the loan back without any problem. I believe this is foreshadowing as well. It is obvious that Antonio's ships will not come back in time and Shylock will have to take a pound of his flesh. Antonio's arrogance when it comes to paying back all the money will backfire on him.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Defending a Villain

It is clear that Shakespeare’s the Merchant of Venice is ripe with anti-Semitism. Shylock, the Jew, arises as the villain, and those who speak to or refer to him often only address him as ‘Jew.’ What I wonder is whether Shylock’s role as the antagonist arises from his Jewish sensibilities as Shakespeare portrayed him, or if his determination for that “pound of man’s flesh” arose from how he is treated by those in the play (I.iii.165).
There is no doubt in my mind that, in the end, Shylock is stubborn in his demand for Antonio’s debt, yet in the beginning he had no way of knowing Antonio would lay on difficult times. Though he could wish it so, Shylock could not have predicted the shipwrecking of all Antonio’s ventures. Yet, Shylock’s obstinate demand for that pound of flesh comes after he has lost his daughter and all of the wealth she stole from him when she eloped with the Christian, Lorenzo. After the discovery of their flight, Shylock bemoans his losses, and “all the boys in Venice” mock his shows of grief (II.vii.23). Feeding on Shylock’s distress, almost every character in the play is against him.
Was Shylock born to be a villain? Was Shakespeare’s intent as anti-Semitic as it appears? I argue that the fact that Shylock is a Jew is not as important as the anti-Semitic atmosphere of Shakespeare’s Venice. Many of the characters in the Merchant of Venice express hatred towards Shylock, and Solanio and Salerio laugh and make jokes at Shylock’s expense, his own servant, Launcelot, cannot stand working for him, and Antonio warns Bassanio that “the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose” and refers to Shylock as “an evil soul,” “villain,” and an “apple rotten at the heart” (I.iii.98-101). Shylock lists the ill will that Antonio has expressed toward him, calling him a “cut-throat dog” and “misbeliever” (I.iii.111), and Antonio not only does not deny this, but states that he is “like to call” Shylock those names again, and “to spet” and “to spurn” him again (I.iii.130-131). Face with this hatred and distain, is it that surprising that Shylock turns villain, and seeks revenge on the man who shows him no compassion and takes away customers?
By the time of the trial, everyone in town is against Shylock, and even the Duke, while forced to uphold the law, fights with Shylock and asks for him to quit his bond and take the money. In the end, Shylock is tricked into losing everything. I argue that, though Shylock ends a villain, he does not start as so, and his zeal to kill Antonio was not born from the fact that he was Jewish, but rather a result of a series of incidents of anti-Semitism directed towards him, and the elopement of his daughter. I do not here defend what Shylock did and tried to do, but rather offer an explanation of the development of his character.

Quibbling over Shakespeare's Characters - Portia & Shylock

Something I found interesting about the first act of The Merchant of Venice is Portia’s characterization, which is demonstrated in the predicament regarding her marriage.  It is very evident that Portia isn't exactly content with her father’s method of choosing a husband for her, and yet she is willing to go along with it, despite the fact that her father is deceased and no longer holds authority over her.  Nerissa tells her that her father was a virtuous man and that “holy men at their death have good inspirations,” referring to the lottery idea he devised to choose the proper husband for her (1.2.24-25).  The method behind it seems rather simple - her suitors will choose one of three caskets, one being made of gold, one made of silver, and the third made of lead.  One of them contains a portrait of her, and whoever chooses the casket with her picture within it (most likely the lead one) will marry her.  Her father’s assumption when he makes this arrangement is that the man who chooses the correct casket will be the one who truly loves his daughter, not seeking the wealth, but rather her love (which would suggest the lead casket contains her photograph).  However, this grand scheme leaves no choice up to Portia, who can neither choose who she likes or dislikes.  She says to Nerissa with much disdain, “So this is the will [wish] of a living daughter curbed by the will [testament] of a dead father” desiring to be in control of her life, but revealing her lack of strength and ambition to challenge her father's will (1.2.21-22).  I know the time period for this play definitely reflects the idea of the husband of the household being in charge of family matters, especially their daughters’ futures, but I do wonder why Portia doesn't try to take hold of her life when she is given the opportunity to do so, especially since she finds each suitor (excluding Bassanio) detestable in one way or another - the Neopolitan prince who talks too much of his horse, the brooding County Palatine, and the French lord, Monsieur le Bon, who she describes as being “every man in no man” and even going so far as to say that if she were to marry him she should marry twenty husbands (1.2.35-36, 40, 50, 52-53).  Her unhappiness with her father’s arranged method of having her wed must not be as strong as her compulsion to remain loyal to him.  I have my hopes that Portia will break away from the mold of the societal expectations of females for her time era, but only time will tell.  

As for Shylock, he seems to be have been crafted from the old stereotypes surrounding people of the Jewish faith, especially in their emphasis on monetary importance.  When Shylock says that Antonio is a “good man” Bassanio interprets him as meaning a person with a good head on his shoulders.  Shylock mocks Bassanio and answers “My meaning in saying he is a good man is to have you understand me that he is sufficient [of adequate wealth]” (1.3.13-14).  When Antonio first enters the scene we learn that Shylock hates him for being a Christian, but mostly because he lends out money for free, which brings down the rate of interest for the people of Venice (1.3.37-40).  It makes me wonder if Shakespeare was anti-Semitic or if he just wanted to depict the beliefs and prejudices of that time period as realistically as possible.  It seems a bit overdone in my opinion, but I want to know what someone else thinks about it.