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Merchant of Venice March 11, 2014

Posted by anagasto in painting, photography, poetry.
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There is a very short summary at the end of this post.

Basically, there are four people: A Jewish businessman called Shylock, a bankrupt Italien gentleman called Bassanio, his best friend Antonio, and a most beautiful girl called Portia who has inherited a fortune from her father. She lives in distant Belmont.

Below is the Rialto Bridge where in Shakespeare’s time the traders would meet to get the news.

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The Rialto Bridge by Nino Barbieri under the CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Venice_-_Rialto_Bridge_-_02.jpg
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It isn’t one of Shakespeare’s best plays. Most of it is in great verse, but nothing comes through unequivocally. Maybe Shakespeare  did not enjoy adding the indolence of the Portia tale to the desperate violence of the Jew story. So why did he do it?

The problem is that the two parts of the plot do not gibe. By the time you reach the end of the Portia fantasy, you forgot the tragic beginning, making the first act look gratuitous in retrospect.

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Canaletto: Grand Canal in Venice — in public domain at http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/canaletto/

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Shylock  is presented as a somber, but highly rational Jewish businessman who is surrounded by a troupe of cheerful Christian gentlemen waiting for a lucky day to somehow strike it rich.

Unless you read the play, you won’t notice that Bassanio remembers Portia because, well, he needs her money. He himself says so lightly; there isn’t any depravity in the idea. No qualms. — [1]

Lorenzo, too, relates with a smile that the Jew’s daughter will steal cash and jewels from her father before running away with him,  and  the girl actually says that she will gild herself  by taking more money.– [3]

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Canaletto: The Grand Canal in Venice — in public domain at http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/canaletto/

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Again, unless you r e a d the play, you won’t see that theft may be commendable if it allows the Jewish girl to become a Christian’s wife. This view is not explicit, but it is in the poisoned atmosphere of the play, its sunny environment that makes the viewer inattentive to what is being said.

The girl runs away with her boyfriend and a day later she seems to have sold a ring of her father’s to buy a monkey. Shakespeare makes nothing of this detail, but he invented it freely, mentions it freely, and it is a slur, and so he should have left it out or developed it — or let the reader suppose it was slander.[4]

…. Or is it maybe a later addition authorized by tradition? I would not think so, for it is too colourful, cruel,  imaginative, and memorable: it is  Shakespeare par excellence.

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Jewish information point in modern Venice under CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Info_Point_of_the_Jewish_Community_of_Venice.jpg

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Canaletto: Grand Canal and Rialto Bridge — in public domain at http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/canaletto/.

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The Greatest  Quotes

Bassanio invites Shylock for dinner because he hopes to obtain a loan from him.

SHYLOCK:

I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following, but I will not eat with you, …… nor pray with you.

The Merchant of Venice, 1.3

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Bassanio’s friend Antonio asks Shylock about the loan, and while Shylock considers the deal,  Antonio insults him to his face. Shylock says to him: “You want me to lend you my money, and yet

You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.

The Merchant of Venice, 1.3

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In his trial Shylock defends his claim, and when Bassanio censures him for his obstinacy, Shylock answers:

I am not obliged to please you with my answer.

The Merchant of Venice, 4.1

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The Court decides to confiscate Shylock’s cash. He answers:

You take my house when you do take the prop
That doth sustain my house; you take my life
When you do take the means whereby I live.

The Merchant of Venice, 4. 1

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Shylock’s absolute deference to the law (…) brings about his downfall. (…) Shylock’s (…) remedy in law is tragic.

Allan Bloom: The Closing of the American Mind
http://iwcenglish1.typepad.com/Documents/14434540-The-Closing-of-the-American-Mind.pdf

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Shylock mostly speaks in verse.  — When the others speak, more specifically Portia and her maid, it is kitchen prose.

Shylock’s prose is sterling quality. In the quote below he has to explain more exactly what he thinks of Antonio’s loan guarantee.

Notice the careful exactitude of his answer:

My meaning in saying he is a good man is to have you understand me that he is sufficient.

The Merchant of Venice: Act 1, Scene 3

That “sufficient”  does sound  a bit arrogant, but remember the kind of people he is surrounded by. The “sufficiency” refers to the loan guaranty.

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Canaletto: Grand Canal in Venice — in public domain at http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/canaletto/

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References

[1] Act I Scene I. — Bassanio tells Antonio that he knows of a beautiful heiress, and there are lots of suitors. “Oh my Antonio, had I but the means…. …”

[2] Act 1, Scene 3. — Shylock considers his terms: a pound of flesh for a two month loan. Maybe it was meant as a surreal joke on Venetian law ethics.

“…….. what these Christians are,
Whose own hard dealings teaches them suspect
The thoughts of others!—Pray you, tell me this:
……. what should I gain
By the exaction of the forfeiture?
A pound of man’s flesh taken from a man
Is not so estimable, profitable neither,
As flesh of muttons, beefs, or goats.

[3] Act 2, Scene 4. — Lorenzo tells his friend that the Jewish girl is letting him know “…how I shall take her from her father’s house,
What gold and jewels she is furnish’d with.”

[4] Act 3, Scene 1. — Shylock’s business acquaintance tells Shylock what he heard at the merchants’ meeting place, the Rialto:
“I also heard that your daughter spent eighty ducats in Genoa one night. …. … One of them showed me a ring that he had of your daughter for a monkey.

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Summary

In Belmont there is a rich beauty called Portia. To marry her you must solve a riddle.
In Venice there is a poor gentleman called Bassanio.

To travel in style to Belmont and court the lady, the poor gentleman Bassanio needs to borrow money. The Jewish merchant Shylock would lend it, but wants a pound of human flesh as a loan guarantee.  — He himself says that the idea is absurd.

However, one of Bassanio’s friends guarantees the loan.
Bassanio goes to Belmont, solves the riddle and marries Portia, but his friend’s business founders.

Shylock, outraged by his daughter’s behaviour, loses his wits and now insists on getting that pound of flesh.
In a panic, Bassanio travels back to Venice.
Portia secretly dresses up as a famous lawyer’s envoy to attend the trial in Venice.

She intervenes first as a consultant, but then she argues that Shylock may cut out a pound of Antonio’s flesh only if he can avoid spilling any blood.

Shylock cedes instantly when he is told that the law is not on his side.

The Court confiscates his accounts and he is ordered to become a Christian. —

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Postscript

At the time money lending was considered both sinful and mean-spirited. The reasoning was that you cannot expect to participate in the profits of a business unless you also assume all of its risks.

At the time nobody yet saw clearly that instant money is often more useful and always more reliable than money I might get next year.  For example, instant money may save lives, win an election or a war.
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Added April 2016

I have a Moslem friend who told me that the banks in Morocco still do not charge nor pay interests on loans.
I do not know whether she is right and how this would work.

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Comments»

1. Carl D'Agostino - November 6, 2012

good analysis


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