Thursday, November 3, 2011

For Three-Word Wednesday and Sunday Scribblings

A few years ago a New York theatre critic wrote: “A snoozy Broadway season has been bolted wide awake by the arrival of a play drenched in juicy timeless issues -- racism, revenge and romance for dollars.”

“Forget that the work is 400 years old. The cause for cheers is the stirring version of ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ starring Al Pacino, a supernova you already know, as the moneylender Shylock.”

No matter what you think of Al Pacino playing Shakespeare, “Merchant” is a fascinating play. But what the play means is even more interesting.
After all, the plot is fairly well known. Shylock is a Jewish moneylender who lends dough to a Christian, Antonio, setting the security at a pound of Antonio’s flesh if the loan isn’t repaid on time.

Later Antonio, bankrupt, can’t pay back the loan so Shylock, acting like what we today might call an awful jerk, demands his pound of flesh. At the trial, the beautiful leading lady of the play, Portia, switches gender to play a “doctor of law” who tries to save Antonio’s life, arguing for mercy in a famous speech:
“The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

Shylock, however, “wins” the case and gets set to collect his pound of flesh. But Portia, at the last minute, punctures his balloon; she points out that the contract only allows Shylock to remove the flesh, and not one drop of blood, so the carnage is avoided. Antonio’s life is saved and the money-lender is defeated.
(By the way, the actual “merchant” of Venice is Antonio, not Shylock.)
As I suggested, what the play “The Merchant of Venice” has meant to audiences throughout the past few centuries is kind of fascinating. Is it an anti-Semitic play? Does it reflect not only the general anti-Semitism of the Elizabethan age but Will Shakespeare’s own anti-Semitism?
Or is it Shakespeare’s plea for tolerance?
The history of the play’s productions is interesting. In some versions Shylock has been presented as a cruel caricature: heartless, hateful, greedy. In others, he is a more sympathetic character.
The Nazis, by the way, loved the play. At the beginning of World War II, “Merchant” was playing in numerous German cities. They changed it a bit: Shylock’s daughter, who was of course Jewish, did not marry a Christian, as Shakespeare had written.

A question that has often been asked is, what did Will Shakespeare feel about the character he created named Shylock? Will lived in a society – 16th-century England – that was, from our twenty-first century standpoint, almost incredibly anti-Semitic. So his Shylock was seemingly greedy and heartless, as his audiences would have expected, but it’s worth noting that the playwright created a character, the money-lender, who also had pride, energy, even a sense of humor. He could be seen as an omen, what happens to a person who is scarred by years of never-ending persecution and discrimination.
Shakespeare wrote some of his best-known lines for Shylock to deliver:
“Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, senses, affections, passions? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”
An anti-Semitic play or a plea for tolerance? What’s your opinion?


Roger Owen Green said...

Yes. I think Will might have wanted it both ways, letting the bigots and the fair-minded see themselves.

BTW, one of my favorite songs ever is Michelle Shocked's Quality of Mercy.

ds said...

We were lucky enough to attend that production (my first experience of "The Merchant of Venice"). Pacino and Lily Rabe (Portia) were fabulous to watch: masterful performances by both. The set was striking--a series of iron grilles manipulated to convey the jail, Shylock's house, Antonio's garden, a bank--emphasizing just how contemporary the play remains. It was, I felt, a deliberately ambiguous production. But my sympathies were with Shylock, always. How appallingly he was treated; how much he lost; how he struggled to retain his dignity. So cast my vote for a plea for tolerance or whatever is beyond tolerance--empathy, understanding, the realization that Shylock is us.

oldegg said...

Money lending was one of the few itinerant occupations that a Jew could take up in the Christian Europe where there was always a chance that they would be moved on. Shakespeare was probably not bigoted but merely reflecting the standards for the age.

Leslie: said...

Racism and bigotry will endure until the end of time because man will never learn! I think Shakespeare was mirroring society of his time, but perhaps hoping that his audience might think before acting (out).

Berowne said...

oldegg: "Shakespeare was probably not bigoted but merely reflecting the standards for the age."
A conclusion I'd probably agree with...

Berowne said...

ds: "So cast my vote for a plea for tolerance..."
So voted. And seconded. :-)

Berowne said...

Roger O G: "I think Will might have wanted it both ways, letting the bigots and the fair-minded see themselves."
Interesting reaction to a complex issue. You may be right.

jaerose said...

Fantastic piece have such a unique reportage leaves me thinking..and such captivating images..Jae

Berowne said...

jaerose: "Fantastic piece, Berowne."
Always great to hear from my friend jaerose -- thanks.

Sheilagh Lee said...

Shakespeare was trying to illuminate the prejudice in society in his own way.His writing reflected the thinking and prejudice at the time.Portia's defense was brilliant,He however was trying to point out that we are all human. a great thoughtful piece Berowne.

Bee's Blog said...

This is such an interesting piece of writing Berowne which I enjoyed very much. I think our Will was reflecting on and writing on the feelings of 'Olde England' at the time. Interestingly, the more things change the more they stay the same.

I agree that “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, senses, affections, passions? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.” are simply some of the best words ever written and they tell me that Shakespeare understood humanity and was not prejudiced.

'The quality of mercy is not strain'd' is one of the most incredible speeches ever written. I think it's beautiful. I once played Portia.

Thank for this thought provoking piece - this angle was never discussed at school!

Kathy Bischoping said...

Pacino ruled! I saw him in the film, not the play, alas. But the film begins with a scene in which we see Shylock being spat at, if I remember it rightly, and I think does its best to show that Shylock will be ruined if he can't remain a moneylender, because of the restrictions on occupations for Jews in Venice.

Berowne said...

Bee's Blog: "Thanks for this thought provoking piece."
And my thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...

Berowne, having once been part of a Jewish family, I know they despised the play because they assumed it was anti-Semitic (this was just the one family, mind you. I do not speak for all Jewish families, and I'm Goyim anyway.). In much the same way, people today who plead for justice for the Palestinian people oppressed by the Israeli govt. are called "anti-Semites." Yet my ex was anti-Zionist. It's about politics there, not religion per se.

The play itself, I believe, was Shakespeare's wisest move: showing both sides of the story and making the audience think. My heart always goes out to Shylock, because although his terms were cruel, he was making a living the only way that was allowed (and Antonio was an idiot for agreeing to the terms, but no one talks about that). Anyone who's never been part of a minority subject to oppression can't really get this very well... Thanks for a GREAT post, Berowne. Amy

Berowne said...

"Thanks for a GREAT post, Berowne."
And I thank you, sharplittle. :=_

Margaret said...

Genious Shakespeare was showing both ... It allows for a fine conversation afterward! He had to write for society, but I think he through in hidden messages, hidden lessons, perhaps. I'm sure Pacino rocked this role. And did I see he did itmfor film? I'll have to Netflix it.

ms pie said...

words never grow whiskers or grow old.... fascinating....

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