The Merchant of Venice Study

Director- Good evening Chris, lets begin thinking about Act 4, Scene 1. It’s crucial we get this bit perfect as it’s such an important part of the play.

Chris- Indeed, I’m excited about learning more about such a complex and intriguing character.

Director- Good, I’m sure you already know this scene explores and develops many controversial and important themes created during the play. Also this is the climatic scene of the play, which brings together the two different plots of Venice and Belmont.

Chris- Yes, then it finally reveals the outcome of the bond agreed by Antonio and Shylock previously in the play.

Director- Right lets get started look at the start of Act 4, the first thing I notice is the Dukes clearly biased from the start. He describes Shylock as “an inhuman wretch, uncapable of pity, void and empty” Rather than call Shylock his real name the Duke prefers to use discriminating insults to try and undermine and demoralize him. This all reflects the Dukes racist attitude towards Shylock.

Chris- He isn’t the only one to share this anti-semitic opinion though.

Director- Very true, throughout the play we see many characters being openly racist to Shylock and Jews in general.

Chris- Yes take Salerio for example in Act 2, Scene 8 he calls Shylock ” the villain jew… the dog jew”

Director- He does, however at the time in which the play was written this may have been completely normal, for example in England there had not been any Jews living there for three hundred years and it wasn’t only England, many other European countries such as Spain had banished all Jews also. One of these reasons was because of what Christians called “usury” this was lending money and charging interest; a perfectly normal thing by today’s standards. Nevertheless in a Christians eyes usury was a mortal sin but as Jews were already going to Hell, it didn’t matter in the eyes of the Church. Christians may have been jealous of the money Jews made out of “usury” which could have been another reason for their racism.

Chris- Venice, however was different.

Director- Yes it was, It was the richest city in renaissance Europe despite it having no natural resources. Venice was incredibly tolerant of different nationalities and denominations compared to other countries back countries and cities back then. However this was solely for economical reasons, Venice was located where products from Asia could be conveniently exchanged with Arabs, Africans and Christians. This meant that the greater tolerance of diversity promoted business in Venice as everyone could expect fair treatment. We see Portia is aware of this when she tells Bassanio ‘It must not be, there is no power in Venice Can alter a decree established.’ When he asks her to break the law to save Antonio.

Chris- Yes I understand now. We see at the start of the scene Shylock has been waiting at the door for a while, this gives me the impression he’s looking forward to the trial and he’s confident he will have his pound of flesh.

Director- Yes I agree, Shylocks this confident because he believes the laws on his side. He knows that Venetian law must seem fair to everyone because of the reasons we have just discussed. He shows in what he says to the Duke ‘If you deny it, let the danger light Upon your charter and your cities freedom.” This means that if the Duke denies him his pound of flesh, then there will be severe economic repercussions at the expense of his and his cities expense.

Chris- You can see Antonio is also aware of this by what he previously says “With us in Venice, if it be denied, Will much impeach the justice of the state” He knows the consequences of denying Shylock his bond are to great to sacrifice for him, he seems resigned to his fate and probably just wants to get it over with.

Director- When Shylock enters the courtroom the Duke begins to attack and question him for his motive of wanting his bond and on the 20th line the idea of mercy is introduced.

Chris- In a way the Duke seems hypocritical to me in the way he asks for mercy from Shylock yet is still openly racist towards him. ‘A stony adversary, an inhuman wretch’

His ignorance towards Shylock seems mainly to be that hes just a Jew.

Director- Yes he has quite obviously sympathized with Antonio and thinks he’s the victim in all this. “Thou’lst but leadest this fashion of thy malice… a pound of this merchant’s flesh” One reason for this is because hes a Christian just like him and another could be that he just doesnt like Shylcock.

Chris- Quite true, why dont you think Shylock wont justify his reasons for showing mercy though?

Director- Yes the obvious is reason is he’s sworn an oath to God, ” And by our holy Sabbath have I sworn To have the due and forfeit of my bond.” he believes now if he doesn’t get his bond he will go to hell, but I think there may be more than just that.

Chris- Yes, another reason might be that he just wants to frustrate the Duke, it seems trivial but he obviously despises the Duke and from what the Duke has already said to Shylock he does for a good reason.

Director- His reasons for wanting his bond on the other hand seem clearer. He definitely shows some reasons in Act 3, scene 1 “He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked my gains, scorned my nation… and what’s his reason? I am a Jew.” In this paragraph we see Shylocks intense hatred towards Antonio and his burning desire for revenge for all the reasons just listed. Antonio sees and treats Shylock as something subhuman just because he’s a Jew and Shylock shows he is aware of this when he says “Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?” He hates Antonio because of the discrimination he receives from him just like at the start of the play when he spits on him, solely because he’s Jewish.

Chris- Yes but there could be other reasons, Antonio pays off debts and lends money just like Shylock. “He lends out money gratis, and brings down The rate of usance here with us in Venice. Antonio is bad for Shylocks business as he lends money without interest, with him gone there is less competition for Shylock.

Director- Some people, especially Shakespeare’s audiences may have thought Shylock was just an evil, cold-hearted person using Antonio for a scapegoat to feed his own anger because of this daughter leaving.

Chris- True his need for revenge will definitely have been heightened when his daughter left. But on the other hand he might not be the cold-hearted villain that Shakespeare’s audiences at the time would have seen him as. The hatred and discrimination he receives from everyone around him could drive him to do things he doesn’t want to do, he backs this up when he says ‘The villany you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.’ Shylocks obviously very misunderstood and could be a victim in this just as much an Antonio.

Director- Certainly, at this point Antonio has given up any hope he had at this point, he accepts his fate and seems dignified and heroic in the face of death. “Make no moe offers, use no farther means, But with all brief and plain conveniency Let me have judgment, and the Jew his will.” Because of this maybe the audience begin to sympathize with Antonio even more. However when looked at from a different angle Antonio shows great arrogance. “My patience to his fury, and am armed To suffer with quietness of spirit, The very tyranny and rage of his.” He doesn’t even know what he’s done wrong and think Shylock is probably doing this just because he’s jealous of him. He never apolagizes to Shylock even though he asks for money earlier in the play and even says he’ll probably spit on him again. He doesn’t even know what he’s done wrong and thinks Shylock is probably doing this just because he’s jealous of him.

Chris- After that the Duke begins to talk about mercy showing some Christian teachings. He asks Shylock “How shalt thou hope for mercy, rendering none?”

Director- Yes and Shylock’s response to this is to attack the hypocrisy of Venetian Christians, he talks about them keeping Slaves and compares their slaves to his bond. “You have among many a purchased slave…shall I say to you, Let them be free…You will answer ‘The slaves are ours’; so I demand of him Is dearly bought, ’tis mine and I will have it.” I think Shylock is trying to say that having his bond is no worse than owning slaves. He may have included this because members of the audience at he time may have owned slaves and brings up an important moral debate of whether slavery is right or wrong. This would’nt have been to controversial at the time as slavery was not really introduced until a while after the play, he might have been trying to stop slavery before it happend by trying to make people at the time see it as morally wrong.

Chris- Yes, I also notice that despite everyone in the courtroom is attacking Shylock he’s still very confident of getting his bond.

Director- Indeed Shylock believes in a law without mercy. He follows the Old Testament saying “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” But is this justice or revenge? What do you think?

Chris- I don’t know although I’m quite certain Shylock would have seen what he was doing as quite justifiable. This does though illuminate fundamental differences between the Old Testament followed by Jewish people and the new. Jesus’ taught mercy he claimed people should turn the other cheek, rather than seek revenge. Shylock represents a type of law that does not allow mercy which follows the teachings of the Old Testament, which seem to dissociate justice and mercy. Everyone else in the courtroom wants Shylock to spare Antonio and take the money so to show a type of law that has room for mercy so and follows Christian and Jesus’ teachings even though these chracaters don’t even follow the teachings of Christ themselves!

Director- Yes, in some ways one of the themes of the play is the differences between both religions. The Christian chracaters seem to value human relationships over business, they lend money without interest and even put themselves at risk for those they love, while Shylock appears only to be interested in money and even seems to value it more than the loss of his daughter. ‘O my ducats! O my daughter!’ However he does show some human relationships matter to him more than money when he insitsts he’d rather have his pound of flesh than any amound of money, his resentment is much stronger than his greed.

Chris- Certainly, now lets talk about Portia’s disguise and the effects it has as a dramatic device. To start one example of Shakespeare using dramatic irony for humorous effect is when Bassanio says “I would lose all, ay sacrifice them all Here to this devil, to deliver you.” He does this because an audience at the time would have found it amusing as Bassanio has no idea his wife is listening when he says he would sacrifice her for Antonio.

Director- Quite right, but her disguise is not only used to create dramatic irony, it touches upon the theme of appearance and reality as does the casket task in Belmont, also this task reflects Venice in some ways it presents the same oppurtunities and rules to men of various nations, ethnicities and religions.’You must take your chance…Or swear before you choose, if you choose wrong Never to speak to lady afterward.’ Shakespeare does this because this concept of appearance and reality is strongly linked with racism something which I think he wanted to bring up many issues about such as whether it is right or wrong to his audiences which at the time, were incredibly racist towards Jews.

Director- When Portia begins to describe “the quality of mercy” she uses a lot of biblical language “It is an attribute to God himself”. She thinks human beings should be merciful as God is, therefore is greater than power, majesty or law. She repeats many of Jesus’ teachings like in Matthew 5 when he says “Blessed are the merciful, For they shall obtain mercy.” This can be related to when she says ” We do pray for mercy, And that same prayer doth teach us all to render The deeds of mercy.” By this she means that we should all show mercy if we accept to receive it because no ones sin free and justice was done then nobody would be righteous enough to obtain salvation. I think this idea can be linked to other stories in the New Testament like The Woman in Adultery (John 8) “If any of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” I think Antonio could represent the accused woman and Shylock the men wanting to stone her. I think Portia is promoting, what would have seen at the time to be a pro-christian, anti-jewish agenda as people at the time would have understood the Old Testament, as well as the New one and Portia is telling Shylock to show mercy to Antonio instead of punishing him as said to be nesscessary in the Old Testament.

Chris- That’s true. Shylocks response to this is “I crave the law, the penalty and forfeit of my bond.” Shylocks making it worse for himself, maybe Portia’s trying to lead him into a trap.

Director- Yes at the point Portia begins to weave a web to trap Shylock, he shows great cruelty in the way he refuses a surgeon “I cannot find it, tis not in the bond.” Maybe if Shylock had shown more mercy, Portia would have not manipulated Shylock in the way she did. An audience at the time would be outraged at this and their hate and resentment towards would certainly heighten.

Chris- When Shylock realizes he’s lost he tries to take the money but instead of letting him do that Portia goes on to completely destroy him showing anything but mercy seeming to have forgotten what she previously mentions about the value of it. “He hath refused it in the open court. He shall have merely justice and his bond. This isn’t the first time we see Portia act cruelly though she’s just as much racist as the others in the court which we see in Act 1 Scene 2 when she says “If he have the condition of a saint, and the complexion of a devil I had rather he should shrive me than wive me.” She shows she thinks Prince Morocco to be savage, lustful and devilish. I think what Shakespeare’s trying to say through the way Portia is represented that once again nothing is what it seems by showing how cruel Portia can be even though she doesn’t look like it because of her beauty.

Director- Yes, when we see Shylock having justice we see the introduction of new Venetian laws that discriminate against outsiders and are quite clearly racist. This leads to the question whether Venice is the fair society it seems it appears, which once again leads to the theme of appearance and reality. This brings up the issue of the concept of law and its relation to power and control, are these laws necessary to help enforce a safe and fair society, or do they simply oppress and discriminate. I think the only purpose some of these laws serve is to do discriminate and oppress outsiders and I think Shakespeare is trying to present the fearful possibilty of how the law can be misused and how without proper guidance, it can be used to horrible things.

Chris- Without his wealth Shylock believes he’s nothing and would rather die, but Antonio offers him the chance to gain some of it back on condition that he becomes a Christian and he gives half his wealth to Lorenzo and Jessica. But is this mercy, after all he has given Shylock the opportunity to gain some of his wealth back.

Director- I don’t believe it is, Antonio knows that Shylock thinks becoming a Christian will mean him going to hell and after what he was put through by Shylock before I very much doubt Antonio was trying to be merciful.

Chris- Yes, but in Antonio’s eyes Shylocks going to hell for being a Jew, maybe he is showing mercy by trying to save his soul?

Director- Yes Portia however seems to gloat at Shylocks misfortune and does not seem to show mercy in the slightest.

Chris- Shylock isn’t just a simple villain with a one track mind like many people think, he’s a very complex and misunderstood character. Throughout the play the way in which the audience react and view him as a person with him changes, I’m sure you recognize this. What do you think Shakespeare is trying to say about Shylock.

Director- I don’t believe Shakespeare shared the same anti-semitic views that most people had at that time, In parts of the play he tried to show Shylock in a good light and as in some ways as much a victim in all this as Antonio. Maybe he was trying to open the mind of his audience to less racist views but without trying to do it too controversially as he still showed Shylock at many parts of the play as the stereotypical villain Jew, who was after all partly responsible for the position in which he found himself.

Chris- Yes I completely agree, I think when staging this in order to create a intimate relationship between the audience and characters we should use a thrust stage, like Shakespeare would have done.

Director- Great idea, It’s getting on now so we shall continue this discussion tomorrow, you don’t have any questions that need answering do you?

Chris- Nothing that can wait for tomorrow, I will see at the playhouse at 10:00 as usual.

Good night.

Director- Good night Chris