I think that I first read this play many moons ago when I was an undergraduate at university studying Shakespeare’s wit. I studied almost all of Shakespeare’s comedies, tragedies and tragi-comedies so I must’ve read this one too … but it clearly didn’t make much of an impact because my copy of the text is bare of notes and highlighting … or perhaps I didn’t read it after all as it is clearly the type of text that should make an impact, or at least would make an impact on anyone who was paying attention while reading it!
So, fast forward to 2011, June, and here I am, rereading this play aloud with a student and I am struck by how much it truly is one of Shakespeare’s problem plays. Problematic in so many ways! Firstly, here is a play which displays clear racial slurs and religious antagonism toward a Jew, a person whose religion Shakespeare seems to know about but couldn’t possibly know about because all Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and the edict of expulsion was only reversed after the performance of this play (1656). Records indicate that there were perhaps 200 Jews living in England at the time of Shakespeare’s writing. At a minimum the awful stereotypes of Jews lasted throughout the period of their absence in England – such is the power of the word.
Conveniently, Shakespeare sets this play in Venice – he tends to set the plays which deal with problematic issues abroad. Meet Shylock, a Jewish money lender who shifts between eloquent speeches about the injustices done to his “tribe” and blatant disregard for his daughter who has run away with Lorenzo, a Christian, and stolen some of Shylock’s wealth.
Shylock is a money lender and has signed a contract to lend one good Antonio a sum of 3000 ducats which Antonio plans to lend to Bassanio who is trying to win the heart of the fair Portia. The bond that Antonio agrees to provide is a pound of his own flesh should he be unable to repay the money borrowed at the required time.
Needless to say, Antonio’s wealth literally sinks in a storm and he is unable to repay his debt and so the drama unfolds with all sorts of name calling and discussion of mercy and the like as the court decides in whose favour to rule – Shylock, who has a legal contract or poor Antonio who is up to lose a pound of his flesh.
As is Shakespeare’s way, the action is neatly resolved with a little subplot and some dramatic declarations of love.
There are some wonderful, if not unsettling, speeches in this play and many ironies. I am always intrigued by Shakespeare’s over-riding interest in identity and disguise and for modern audiences, the image of a young boy playing the part of a girl who is dressed up as a man is always food for a giggle.
I will have to trawl through my old notes to see whether or not I did actually consume this play at university!