Perhaps Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” is really just a mess. For all his brilliance, the Bard stitched together four different plots, threw it all together, writing for the actors he had on hand, and the result is a hodgepodge of a play. If it is a comedy, then is it simply a comedy of errors?
To make good use of our time in isolation we’ve indulged in a Shakespeare film season, and for the Bard’s birthday we watched Merchant of Venice. The last performance I had seen of the play was a delightful production at Bob Jones University attended with Joseph Pearce who reviewed the play in these pages.
The most recent film version, directed by Michael Radford, is beautifully filmed and acted. Al Pacino is at his simmering best as Shylock and Jeremy Irons plays Antonio with that melancholy wistfulness he first displayed as Charles Ryder in the ITV adaptation of Brideshead Re-Visited. As it usually is for film adaptations, Shakespeare’s script is heavily cut, but this makes for the faster pace and running time demanded in a motion picture.
Watching the play again, one is reminded of the continued conversation about the play: Is it a serious comedy or a light-hearted tragedy? Mr. Pacino and Mr. Irons played out the drama between Antonio the Christian and Shylock the Jew with great intensity, and the famous courtroom scene was directed and acted with perfect suspense. When the darkness of Mr. Pacino’s quietly snarling Shylock was illuminated by Portia’s “quality of mercy” speech, the effect was mesmerizing. Portia’s radiance and poetry set off Shylock’s misanthropy as morning sunrise scatters the gloom of night.
But what has this high drama to do with the high frivolity of the rest of the play? How does the scene with the three caskets and the comical suitors fit with scheming Shylock? Shakespeare inserts a jester in Lancelot Gobbo and a typecast rustic in his blind father, Old Gobbo. The usual wordplay and hijinks ensue, and then we are treated to another Shakespearean comedy trick: girls disguised as boys. That the “actresses” in the Globe would have been boys anyway adds to the fun. There are the usual mistaken identities, farcical frolics and practical jokes. How do they fit into this dark drama of racism, bigotry, and bloodshed?
In modern productions of Merchant of Venice the fun of a typical Elizabethan comedy is dampened by the seriousness of anti-Semitism and sexism. Directors cannot resist taking the bait of political correctness. Not only are our sympathies shifted to Shylock, but Bassanio and Gratiano seem like typical male chauvinist pigs. Portia and Nerissa become feisty feminists—justified in getting their revenge—even if it means trapping their husbands with a lie.
Contemporary productions therefore cast us into a contradiction. Is this a serious play about serious issues? Are there more politically-correct themes lurking within the Bard’s brainchild? Antonio loves Bassanio. Is Antonio gay? When he is nearly killed, is Antonio therefore a victim of homophobia? Is the casket scene a subtle condemnation of vanity and human trafficking? Does Lancelot Gobbo’s abuse of his father echo Shylock’s abuse of Jessica? Is the catastrophe of Antonio’s shipwrecks a comment on unbridled capitalism? With a bit of imagination one could cook the play to produce a smorgasbord of seriousness.
Perhaps the play is just a mess. Shakespeare, for all his brilliance, stitched together four different plots, threw it all together, writing for the actors he had on hand, and the result is a hodgepodge of a play. If it is a comedy, it is a comedy of errors.
I think not. The answer to the puzzle of the play is to see it for what it is. When the play was first published in 1600 it bore the title, The most excellent Historie of the Merchant of Venice, but on the next page appeared another title, The comicall History of the Merchant of Venice. The play is a comedy. The characters and main plot line are the typical romantic heroes and heroines. All the conventions are observed: mistaken identities, cross-dressing, a fool, rustics, comics, lords, and ladies. To add shadow there is a devious villain and a dastardly subplot.
We see this mixture in Much Ado About Nothing. The main plot line is the romance between two couples: Claudio and Hero, and Beatrice and Benedick. Don John and his henchmen provide the villainy. In Twelfth Night the main plot is the romance between two more couples: Duke Orsino and Cesario/Viola, and Olivia and Sebastian. Malvolio provides the comic villain. When Merchant of Venice is compared to the other comedies, it becomes clear just how well it fits Shakespeare’s comedy template and how distorted are our modern interpretations of the play.
We have inverted the play and made it all about Shylock and Antonio. It is difficult to resist because Shylock is such a juicy role. and Shakespeare’s insights into his character and villainy are so profound. However, the moneylending plot is the subplot and Shylock as a villain is really cut from the same cloth as Don John and Malvolio. In other words, he is not a deeply profound character with a fascinating backstory from which we pull great torrents of sympathy.
Shakespeare’s Shylock is a cartoon, mustache-twirling Dick Dastardly, and I suspect at the Globe he would have been played as a comic villain rather like Fagin in Oliver! singing “Pick a Little Pocket or Two.” Anti-semitism? This is Elizabethan England, where everybody took it for granted that the Jew was a cursed, money-grubbing thief who was rightly cursed for killing the Lord of Glory. Sympathy for Shylock? The vegetable-throwing groundlings would have jeered at Shylock’s self-pitying speeches and cheered at his downfall. They would have roared with laughter when he gets his comeuppance, as a child might howl with delight when Captain Hook is swallowed by the crocodile or Cruella de Vil slips into a pile of poop.
The problem with taking the play too seriously on a surface level is also present in Trevor Nunn’s film production of Twelfth Night. Without reviewing the entire film, it is spoiled by overt attention to the underlying themes. To be sure, the serious themes lie beneath the surface in all of Shakespeare’s comedies, but that is where they should stay. The serious themes are all the more powerful for being understated and veiled in riddles and ambiguity.
Shakespeare’s fools are the ones who give us the clue to solve the conundrum of his comedies. Each one of them speaks truth in jest, reasons in riddles, and reveals wisdom in wordplay. In so doing they should teach us how to interpret and play Shakespeare: Let the comedy be comedy and allow the darkness to lie below the surface where it belongs and where it retains its greatest power.
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The featured image, uploaded by user TBradac, shows Alyssa DIanne Bradac as Gobbo, Jen Findley as Nerrissa and Michael Nehring as Shylock in Shakespeare Orange County production of The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. It is licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.