JESSICA I am never merry when I hear sweet music.
LORENZO The reasons are your spirits are attentive.
Having just seen a production of MERCHANT OF VENICE, I have to ask whether this is an acceptable play for school students or for those of us living in a pluralist democracy, even though our society is every bit as materialist as the world in Shakespeare’s drama. I feel these days that there is absolutely no point in doing a play if it does not have something enlightening to share with us about the time and circumstances in which we live. So what can this play possibly be saying to us?
After a discussion with my co-conspirator Tony Hegarty this morning, he opined that the play is not about prejudice, but about the question of value; the value of money, of vows, of love, duty and faith. It’s an attractive argument. What the play is not about, primarily, is prejudice. That fact however does not prevent the play being racist and anti semitic.
If indeed the play IS about values, then the final lines, and arguments about the test of the rings, have strong resonance. They have a ‘feeling of the whole’, to quote Chekhov, The final line is about the emotional value of the ring itself.
” Well, while I live, I’ll fear no other thing, so sore as keeping safe Nerissa’s ring.”
– But the truth is, that for an audience in the present day , the focus is on the central conflict between Shylock and Antonio, and the racial conflict so all engulfing, that these other matters are inevitably diminished.
It seems to me that it does not matter how viciously a theatre company embodies the society around Shylock , it neither justifies his behaviour towards Antonio, nor prevents him from being seen as a black-hearted villain. No sooner has the play begun than Shylock’s servant , the likeable clown, and Jessica , his daughter, are itching to escape him , and so we the audience, are encouraged to abandon Shylock too. He is clearly a bad and dangerous man. Even some of the more sympathetic speeches of Shylock, do not really get any sympathy because he appears more concerned about the loss of his jewels, than his daughter. Even worse, his obsession with his bond and his overwhelming desire for murderous revenge can make his choices understandable to an audience but not sympathetic. Shylock’s punishment is harsh, considering he is not even being examined by a real lawyer, and most particularly the fact that he is made to convert. It is worth considering however that in the time it was written, most of the audience may well have seen this as a compassionate move to save Shylock from eternal damnation, instead of a stripping of his identity. They would also have a good understanding of this converting for the law’s sake as it was a part of the social fabric in the religious ferment that was the Elizabethan period.
Ultimately though we have to consider what is the impression this play gives to us now in 2014? The message about Jews , along with the cheap laughs at the expense of the Princes of Morocco and Aragon, can only be interpreted as incredibly negative against all those of different colours and faiths. The final picture is of the self-satisfied happiness of the quartet of Christian lovers who end the play reconciled, dancing off to their young privileged lives.
A big problem with the racist taste in this play rests in the structural fact that Shylock does not appear in Act V. Many of Shakespeare’s ‘outsider’ characters, most notably Lucio in MEASURE FOR MEASURE, and Malvolio in 12th NIGHT, have their powerful moments in the fifth act of their respective dramas, which makes an audience question the apparently happy and resolved outcomes of the main plot. In Act V of THE MERCHANT , Shylock is gone. The bitter sweet issue of the rings is all that seems to be left to be resolved. The villain is gone and punished and we as the audience can relax into the comedy.
The key to making some kind of reconciliation for a modern audience I believe, lies in the playing not only of Shylock but of Lorenzo and Jessica. Jessica is an absolutely pivotal character in the way issues of race and religious intolerance are explored in the play. She is very underwritten of course, but what strikes me is that Jessica may not be happy in her relationship, nor with her impulsive decision. The powerful moment where Tubal relates to Shylock how Jessica is selling the jewels she has taken, conjures up an image of a young couple on the run with no money ,visiting a pawnbroker, sitting in front of him, and bartering. Where is Lorenzo’s money? Is he penniless? So the couple ends up at Belmont, impoverished, seeking the patronage of Portia.
It is not original to make Jessica pivotal in the final act, and make us question her decision in the play and the punishment meted on her father, despite the fact she has not one line after Portia returns, but what I am saying is that this would probably be the only palatable choice for me were I directing this play. Rather like Isabella in MEASURE who does not answer the Duke when he asks to marry her, Jessica says little about her father’s plight. In the opening of Act 5 during Jessica and Lorenzo’s scene, they name pairs of lovers, who all have met with tragedy. There is a deep dissatisfaction and sadness running through this opening scene, a section which culminates with the sublime speech about the music of the spheres, as Lorenzo tries to comfort her with a universal concept of harmony. People like Jessica who change their faith for expediency pay the price, because they are always outsiders in the world in which they seek to be a part. When Portia and the others return, that prejudiced world comes back on the stage and Lorenzo and Jessica slide back into the shadows. For me it is essential that we see her unease in some fundamental way, that her presence reminds us of the prejudice that she and her ‘tribe’ endure.