Saturday, 7 December 2019

Trading Games - A Merchant of Venice

One of the things that I don't like about seeing plays while I am away is that I don't always get a chance to sit down and write about them while they are still fresh in my mind. In fact that makes it even more difficult, considering all of the experiences that I'd encounter while wandering around the place means that I inevitably land up with so much in my head that it pushes the experience further back, and it is not until I have returned to my comfort zone (or my writing zone as I should say) am I able to think more about it. Then again, that isn't going to happen for at least a month, so while I am sitting on the train heading out to the Sunshine Coast, I probably should take the time to actually write about the third play that I saw - Merchant of Venice.

You know, some people call this one of Shakespeare's problem plays, and my response is - how so? The reason I raise this is that my collection of plays also have several academic writings after the play which helps me think about what was going on, and how the academic community interprets it. The problem is that people, particularly academics, love to put things into categories, and with Shakespeare, there are three - history, comedy, and tragedy. Now, a number of the history plays also double as tragedies, but the thing is that the general, non-academic, public see the difference between a comedy and a tragedy is that at the end of a tragedy everybody dies, and at the end of a comedy, everybody gets married.

Well, with Merchant of Venice, that doesn't actually work out quite that way. The funny thing is that the marriage, between four of the characters, actually occurs halfway through. The other thing is that the play doesn't necessarily end with a resolution of the problem, but rather once Antonio is cleared of his debt, all of a sudden Shakespeare throws in another quandary, and that is the question of the rings. Then again, after the marriage, when the rings were handed over, he did sort of set the stage for the final act.

The Loan

So, once again, I feel that maybe I should go over the play a bit, even if only so that we know what is going on. Not surprisingly, the play is set in Venice, but it is also set in Padua, which was sort of an inland colony of Venice (I say sort of because I am not quite sure if Venice set up Padua, but while having a maritime empire, it also had a land empire stretching inland to the Alps - sort of like a buffer zone. Anyway, Venice is a nation of merchants, and one merchant, Antonio, needs to raise some finances for an enterprise that he has. Unfortunately, at the time, Christians couldn't lend money to Christians - you know that whole thing with usury and all that. However, Jews could, which is why Jews have become connected with the banking industry (though, once again, Jews couldn't lend to Jews).

The problem is that Antonio doesn't particularly like the Jews - well, he wouldn't be the only one, but he is like that guy that tends to be incredibly outspoken and sort of not only makes his opinions known, but also takes every opportunity, especially when his friends are around, to diss the Jews. Now he finds himself in the situation where he needs the help of a Jew. Well, Shylock agrees to lend him the money, but on one condition - that if Antonio forfeits the debt then he must hand over a pound of his flesh. Antonio agrees and literally signs his life away.

It sort of shows a rather despicable type of character, but then again Shakespeare's characters are hardly flawless. He is basically one of those people who scorn us, that is they scorn us until they actually need something from us, and all of a sudden they happen to be our best friend. In a way they expect us to literally forget everything that they had done to us in the past - and we fall for it. Well, Shylock didn't, but then again you could say that he saw his opportunity for revenge and he took it. Yet I remember that I would fall over myself to get the attention of people that I really shouldn't have wasted my time with. Maybe it is because we shared interests, yet despite sharing interests we were never truly friends. In a way, it is a hard lesson to learn, especially if we are holding out for such a friendship, especially when such a person, when in a crowd, just comes across as so cool.

Another thing is the whole idea of ursury. It basically goes back to the Old Testament where the Israelites are told that they are not to lend to each other for interest. It is a very good rule because it prevents people from becoming debt slaves, and it also works to prevent a huge amount of income inequality. Yet, despite that, there was still a huge amount of income inequality in Israel. However, with the usury laws in place, how are people able to raise capital for economic expansion? Well, Islam seems to have found a way around it, particularly since there are numerous Islamic banks in the Islamic world. The problem is, that if the banks can't lend for interest then the only way of being able to make money is through fees and charges (which they do anyway). The thing is that interest is not only the main way they make money, but is one of the main ways they raise capital - you deposit the money into a bank with the promise of interest, and the banks then lends it out at a higher rate of interest.

The Romantic Interest

On the flip side, or should I say with one of the side plots, if there is such thing as a side plot in Shakespeare, because I'm not entirely sure when he was writing the play he said to himself 'I know, let's put in a side plot'. You see, all of these side plots, for want of a better word, end up being intricately entwined with the play. This isn't like one of those plots that are basically included for filler, like you see in some movies, and could be taken out and the movie would, well, make complete sense. No, that never happens in Shakespeare - if there is a plot in the play, then there is a reason for it to be there.

Anyway, we have this woman, Portia, and her handmaid (no, not that type of handmaid) Nerissa. Now, Portia has come of age, but the catch his that her parents are dead, so they left a trial for her suitors to pass. There are three chests: gold, silver, and lead, and in one of the chests happens to be a picture of Portia. Each suitor gets the option of opening one of the chests, and if they open the wrong one then they have to leave and never return. The catch is that Bassiano, Antonio's close friend, is in love with Portia, and Portia is in love with him - but the rules apply to everyone. Well, you can probably guess what happens - this is a Shakespearian play.

Though it does make me wonder - it is just so bleeding obvious that the picture is going to be in the lead box, but the question then arises, if I were living in those days, and I was a suitor to Portia, would I have opened the lead box

The thing is that I know this play reasonably well, which basically means that, with the value of hindsight, I would have opened the correct box. Yet, if I was in the same position, would I have done so? How about the original audience, would it have been obvious to them. Then again, as when the two previous, and not very attractive, suitors proceed through the process, we can imagine the tension that would arise, with the audience hoping, just hoping, that they don't end up being the suitors. Still, this is romantic love we are talking about, something that really only ever existed on the stage, and in literature.

Let us consider the ring escapade though because in a way it seems to be one of those add ons to the play, that it could be removed without affecting the play. Yet, in another way, it goes to show how strong a character Portia and Narissa are. In fact, it goes to demonstrate how much control they have over their husbands. This is the funny thing about love, because people who are in love will do anything for the person they are in love with. Mind you, much blood has been spilt because of them, but then again much blood has been spilt in the name of the patriarchy. Yet, could it be that the whole concept is absurd - a women holding dominion over a man? Shouldn't it be the other way around? Like, when Portia actually reveals that she was the judge, why did he just accept it - is it because it is a comedy, and nobody could ever expect such a thing to happen in real life. Yet, when we see something completely outrageous in a movie we simply have to comment on it. In fact, a whole Youtube Channel, Cinema Sins, has been dedicated to the absurd unreality of Hollywood movies.

Or is it that Shakespeare is actually challenging us that women are actually just as, or even more capable, than men. In a way, like the bond that Shylok holds over Antonio's head, Narissa and Protia hold the promise of the rings over the heads of Bassiano and his friend. In a way there is a mirror here - we are horrified at the fact that Shylock is demanding his pound of flesh, yet admire Portia and Narissa for the trick that they played on their husbands. Yet didn't they, unbeknownst that they were actually the judges, offer to give them anything in thanks. I guess there is a warning for us all there, and we need to be careful with the words that come out of our mouths.

The Pound of Flesh

While this is not the final act of the play, this is the scene upon which the entire play resolves, and that is the civil trial between Antonio and Shylock. In a way, both of these characters are flawed, incredibly flawed, but Shylock intones one of the greatest cries that I have heard on stage, even if we still claim that this play is incredibly anti-Semitic. In a way it is, it is very anti-Semitic, but in a way Shakespeare strips away his Jewishness to reveal that it is not the fact that he is a Jew that is his flaw, but rather that he is a man that is burning for revenge.

This is the thing here, it is Shylock's revenge that catches up with him. It is clear that he hates Antonio, and that he wants to see him suffer. That is why he refuses to take anything other than his pound of flesh. Remember, he is offered twice, three times, or even more of what is owed to him if only he will take it and walk away. He doesn't - he wants his pound of flesh, and he wants it from the vicinity for his heart. It is not the bond that he is tied to, it is the fact that this man, this man that has made his life a misery, is now under his thumb.

Interestingly, and I do admire how Shakespeare disguises Portia and Narissa as the judge and her envoy, but in a way, this is something that needed have been done. However, it is clear that they are working on the letter of the law - or should I say the letter of the contract. Sure, some laws relate to contracts, but in the end it is the wording of the contract that in the end holds true. She notes that it is a pound of flesh, so he is to take no less, and no more - he is to take Antonio's pound of flesh - oh noble judge - if he takes any more he is guilty of murder.

However, it works further than that in that there is another catch - the bond does not address the issue of the blood. In a way the blood is the life essence of the human being - in fact, the life essence of any living being (at least in the animal kingdom, to an extent). He has not claimed any blood, therefore he can not take any blood - checkmate. He cannot take his pound of flesh without spilling any blood, and if he spills any blood, then he has breached his bond - oh noble judge - oh magnificent Shakespeare. In his lust for revenge, Shylock has snookered himself.

Thus we find that Shylock is unable to fulfil the terms of his bargain, and it is too late to go back now - he did this to Antonio as well. This has nothing to do with Shylock being a Jew, and everything to do with his lust for revenge. Shylock thus must give up his heritage, his desire for revenge has undone him, though we shouldn't forget that his daughter has already looted his coffers and run away with a Christian man. Surely this was anti-Semitic, possibly it was, but is Shylock's Jewishness to blame. In fact, now that he is a Christian, he can no longer be a banker to the Christians - his life is destroyed - he is just a pale reflection of the man that he was.

Yet what about the judges? Did Shakespeare really have to have Portia and Nerissa take the role of the judges? Well, no, he didn't, but I feel that without that we suddenly no longer have this issue with the ring. Remember, this is a very similar event that occurred between Antonio and Shylock. Here we have them forcing their husbands to agree to a pact, and then having them put into a position that forces them to break that pact, and then explaining to their wives why it is that they don't love them, because by giving up the rings they have effectively made a statement that they no longer love their wives.

This is why we need to be very careful with the words that we speak and the agreements that we make because they can always come back and destroy us.

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Trading Games - A Merchant of Venice by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me at david dot sarkies at internode dot on dot net

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