Antonio, a wealthy merchant and a generous man, has a friend, Bassanio, likeable but reckless, and now penniless. Bassanio loves a beautiful lady, Portia, who lives at a distance. He wishes to woo and win her, but lacks travel money, and proposes to borrow from Antonio.
Unfortunately, all of Antonio's money is invested in merchandise now on ships at sea. When the ships return in two months with the profits from the voyage, then Antonio will have an abundance of money, but in the meantime he cannot help Bassanio, who does not feel that he can afford to wait two months. Antonio therefore proposes to go to Shylock the Jew and borrow the money from him.
[It should be explained that the common view among Christians in Shakespeare's time was that it was immoral to charge interest on a loan. Jews are allowed by the Law of Moses to charge interest when lending to Gentiles (see Deuteronomy 23:19f), and in many countries found that this was almost the only way of making a living that was open to them.]
Shylock says (I paraphrase): Why should I lend you money? You are no friend of mine. I know that you do not like Jews. You spat at me yesterday.
Antonio replies: I am not asking for a favor. This is strictly a business proposition. Three thousand ducats for three months, at your usual rate of interest.
Shylock says: Forget the interest. Instead, agree that if you fail to repay me in full by the deadline, I am entitled to one pound of your flesh, said pound to be selected by me. Why? Call it a whim. Take it or leave it!
Antonio takes the loan, and soon Bassanio is off to Belmont, the country estate of his lady. She loves him, and readily agrees to marry him. Her maid Nerissa likewise agrees to marry his servant Gratiano. Each woman gives her suitor a ring as a token of her love.
Meanwhile, back in Venice, Shylock's daughter Jessica, his only living relative (her mother is dead), falls in love with a Christian youth called Lorenzo, and he with her. She becomes a Christian, and the two of them elope together, with Antonio's assistance. Shylock is furious, and when he hears that Antonio's ships have been wrecked and that Antonio is bankrupt, he determines to exact vengeance.
Antonio sends a letter to Bassanio at Belmont, telling him what has happened. Portia gives her new husband money and sends him back to Venice in haste to rescue his friend, telling him to spare no expense. Bassanio dashes off, and Portia determines on further action. She and her maid Nerissa disguise themselves as men, and travel to Venice to take a direct hand in the proceedings.
In Venice, the court assembles, with the Duke of Venice on the bench. Shylock presents his claim. Portia and Nerissa enter, disguised as a learned Doctor of Laws and his clerk, and offer their services on behalf of Antonio.
Portia says: Here is the money, three times the money, ten times the money. Take it and tell me to tear up the contract.
Shylock says: The deadline is past. I am entitled to one pound of flesh. I want what the contract entitles me to, neither more nor less nor other.
Bassanio says: What is the problem? No one here (with the one obvious exception) wants to see Antonio hurt. So, let us just throw Shylock out of court, and all go home and forget the whole thing.
Portia says: Impossible. You cannot simply ignore the law when its strict application is to your disadvantage. That is the same as having no law at all.
Shylock says: Well spoken. You are a wise and upright judge.
Portia says: It is for you to be merciful.
Shylock says: I do not find anything in the contract obliging me to be merciful.
Portia says: Mercy is not something you show because a contract requires it. It is an act of generosity, done when you do not have to do it. (Shakespeare's words follow:)
"The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed. It blesseth him who gives, and him who takes... It is an attribute to God Himself; and earthly power doth then show likest God's when mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew, though justice be thy plea, consider this, that, in the course of justice, none of us should see salvation. We do pray for mercy; and that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy." (IV,i,184-202)Shylock says: You are wasting your time. I want what my contract entitles me to.
Portia says: Very well. Your contract entitles you to one pound of flesh, but not to a single drop of blood. So start cutting, but if you shed any blood, your life is forfeit. There is more. You have conspired against the life of a citizen. Your wealth is forfeit to Antonio and to the state, and your life lies at the mercy of the Duke.
The Duke and Antonio agree to spare Antonio's life, and to let him keep half his goods, with the other half going to Jessica and her new husband, on condition that Shylock put his daughter back into his will, and that he become a Christian. The Duke agrees, and Shylock is led off to be baptized.
Bassanio is profuse in his thanks to the "Doctor of Laws," and promises to pay whatever he is asked.
Portia asks for the ring that Bassanio is wearing. Bassanio is dismayed, but trapped. Nerissa similarly acquires Gratiano's ring. They depart.
The scene shifts to Belmont, where Lorenzo and Jessica have sought refuge. We see them in the garden, where Lorenzo says (Shakespeare's words here):
"How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank! Here will we sit and let the sounds of music creep in our ears. Soft stillness and the night become the touches of sweet harmony. Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold. There's not the smallest orb which thou beholdest but in his motion like an angel sings, still choiring to the young-eyed cherubim. Such harmony is in immortal souls, but while this muddy vesture of decay doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it." (V,i,54-65)Soon Portia and Nerissa join them, having rushed back from Venice ahead of their husbands. The husbands duly arrive, and their wives first give them a hard time for losing the rings, and then produce the rings and reveal their part in saving Antonio's life. Bassanio and Portia embrace. Gratiano and Nerissa embrace. Lorenzo and Jessica embrace. Antonio smiles and nods. Everyone is happy. The End.
Now, how are we to interpret this play? If we are going to direct a production of it, how do we approach it?
One way is to treat it straightforwardly as an anti-Jewish play. There is precedent for this. We know that some early productions had Shylock as a red-haired hunchback, which is the way that Judas Iscariot usually appeared on stage. Villain plots to kill hero, villain is foiled. Happy ending. Where is the problem? The problem is that Shakespeare does not treat Shylock as simply evil for evil's sake. He makes him human. He has good reason to resent Antonio. He says:
"You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog, and spit upon my Jewish gabardine, and all for use of that which is mine own." (I,iii,112ff) "I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?" (III,i,50ff)Another wrong is suddenly added to the list. His daughter is all he has in the world, and she is talked into running off. He hears a report that, while traveling through a distant city, she has spied a monkey that she fancied, and used a ring to purchase it. His comment: "That ring--I had it of Leah (his wife) when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys!" To him, the ring stands for the bonds of affection and loyalty that ought to unite a family. It stands for what he has received from the past. But thanks to Antonio and his friends, his only daughter (like Esau trading his birthright for a mess of pottage--Genesis 25:29-34) has learned to despise her heritage and to throw it away for a trifle. And he is cut to the heart.
These scenes simply do not fit comfortably into an anti-Jewish play. It might be well to omit them. But the need to ignore part of your data to save your theory is always a danger sign.
Approach Number Two is to treat this as an anti-Christian play. Shylock is despised and persecuted for being a money-lender. But the Christians are happy to have him around when they need to borrow money. It is when the time comes to repay that they complain. When the law appears to be on the side of the Jew, Portia is eloquent in speaking of the beauties of Mercy, but when the shoe is on the other foot, it is cold mercy indeed that she and the other Christians have to offer Shylock. The play is full of passing references to the hypocrisy of Christians. Bassanio says in court, that he would gladly sacrifice his own life to save Antonio's. So? He has a dagger in his belt, and he is only a few feet away from Shylock. He has only to draw his blade, stab Shylock, and hang for murder. Again, as Shylock points out, the Christians of Venice have slaves. If they are so enamored of mercy, why do they not free their slaves? Again, we may contrast Portia's courtesy to her unsuccessful suitors with her ridicule of them behind their backs. And so on. Yes, it would be a pleasure to do this as an anti-Christian play.
But with this interpretation, the whole final scene at Belmont is a problem. It is full of moonlight and roses, and lovers reunited. Everything about it moves us to rejoice with the newly-wedded. If we are full of indignation at the cruel way that the Christians treated Shylock in the preceding scene, how do we react to the final scene? Do we simply wipe our memories clean and rejoice in the happiness of the oppressors? Or are we supposed to boo at them throughout the garden scene, and take the whole thing as ironical? Once again, the scene simply does not fit. Perhaps we should cut it altogether....
But there is a Third Approach. Throughout the play, but particularly in the trial scene, we are told that the issue is one of Justice and Mercy.
Shylock, the Jew, is the spokesman for Justice. He will have what is his by right, under the law, under the terms of the contract that Antonio freely negotiated with him, under the terms of the natural right of a wronged man to seek a just retribution for his wrongs. Portia, the Christian, is the spokesman for Mercy, freely given, not because of the worthiness of the receiver, but because of the generosity of the giver.
Now, every educated Christian in Shakespeare's day knew that Justice and Mercy are both attributes of God, and every educated Christian had been taught to associate the Old Testament with Justice and the New with Mercy. The word of God to His people through Moses was: "Keep my laws and you will live. Break them and you will die." (See Deuteronomy 30:15-20) The problem was that no one kept the Law perfectly. (See Psalm 19:12) But the word of God in Christ is: "Be of good cheer--your sins are forgiven." (See M 9:2 = P 2:5 = L 5:20) The epistles of Paul are full of passages that contrast Law and Grace, and that associate Law with the Synagogue and Grace with the Church.
But Justice and Mercy are not simply contrasted--they are reconciled. In the poem Piers Plowman, written in the late 1300's, the issue of God's pardoning the sinner while still satisfying the demands of Justice is argued out (Passus B XVIII) by four characters known as the four Daughters of God: Mercy and Peace on the one side, and Truth and Righteousness on the other. They get their names from Psalm 85:10. "Mercy and truth will meet; peace and righteousness will kiss." The same four characters appear in The Castle of Perseverance, a play written in the early 1400's. In the play, Man has died, and his soul is on trial. Righteousness and Truth demand his damnation as the only just verdict. Mercy and Peace plead the Incarnation, and Man is accordingly saved.
Thus, an audience in Shakespeare's day would be familiar with the idea that Justice and Mercy are both good things, both attributes of God, and that the apparent conflict between them finds its resolution in the Incarnation, in the perfect obedience of the Son which satisfies the demands of Justice, in the blood of Christ which cleanses us from sin. They would be open to the idea that Shylock's insistence on Justice is a commitment to a good thing, and is to be honored as far as it goes, but that it is defective in that it fails to take one thing into account--the blood of Christ. And they would be familiar with the presentation of these ideas in the form of a trial, with prosecution and defense. And in the end, Justice is not simply put out of court. It is reconciled with Mercy. Shylock is to be baptized. The Law itself is to be made Christian. Thus, the final scene in the garden at Belmont is simply the triumphant conclusion of the trial scene. Here we see Jessica and Lorenzo, Jew and Christian, united in love and marriage, and talking about music, Shakespeare's customary symbol of harmony.
Some readers may object that they do not see any reconciliation in the Trial Scene. Shylock is not brought into harmony with the Christians. He is simply converted at sword-point. Back of this objection, in most cases, is the notion that any religion is acceptable to God if sincerely held. The Elizabethans did not, for the most part, think in those terms. They interpreted quite straightforwardly the words of Christ: "No one comes to the Father except through Me." (J 14:5) Some theologians of the period may argue for an implicit acceptance of the Gospel, but the popular view is that Shylock baptized has some sort of chance of salvation, while Shylock unbaptized has none at all. We may be uncomfortable at the idea of Shylock's distress at being forced to give up his unfamiliar way of life, but what an Elizabethan playgoer would see is that Shylock has endeavored to take away Antonio's earthly life, and that Antonio has responded by doing all in his power to bestow on Shylock life and joy unending.
At this point the reader may be restless and want to ask: "Are you saying that the characters in the play are not to be thought of as real persons at all, but only as symbols, as stand-ins for various theological concepts? Ought Antonio helpy the audience out by wearing a placard reading, Mankind, while Shylock is labelled Justice, and Portia Mercy, and the Duke God? If so, then what is on Nerissa's placard, or on Bassanio's, or Jessica's, or Lorenzo's?"
Rest assured that I am not arguing for the play as an allegory in that sense. It is not that Justice and Mercy are acting out their functions on stage unded the aliases of Shylock and Portia, but that Shylock and Portia, considered as actual humans, by being what they are, exemplify the themes of Justice and Mercy and their respective claims.
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