Back in mid-October, I went to see “Shakespeare In the Park”, here in the Dallas area. They were putting on “The Merchant of Venice”, which I had never seen before, and I didn’t study it in high school, so I knew nothing about the plot.
I always had trouble understanding much of Shakespeare’s dialogue in high school, which made studying it (or pretending to study it) a rather frustrating endeavor. I was therefore curious to see whether I could follow one of his plays, and I thought that seeing “The Merchant of Venice” would be a good test. Rather than trying to understand every single word and every single reference, I found it very helpful to just “get the gist” of every scene, so I was constantly thinking: “Okay what is going on here? What are these people doing, and what is their motivation?” Then, as a scene would end, I would mentally sum up what the scene was about in one or two sentences. This methodology worked quite well, and I was able to follow the plot line.
After about an hour of watching it, I was able to look back over the previous scenes and characters in my mind, and get a good idea of what the over-all message or theme of the story was. For those who haven’t seen or studied it, “The Merchant of Venice” explores issues of keeping promises, obligations, justice, revenge, and mercy. Some of the scenes and situations seemed rather cliché by today’s standards, but they probably were “cutting edge” at the time. For instance, when Portia’s suitors have to choose between three chests, one gold, one silver, and one lead, and only one of them contained her likeness, which was the key to her hand in marriage, I’m sure any modern American is going to say: “I don’t need to hear the riddles, just pick the lead one, because it’s the least obvious.” But, at the time, I’m sure this was a huge surprise to your average 16th Century British person. Also, the portrayal of the character of Shylock seems downright uncouth by today’s standards, especially when you throw in several scenes where Antonio and his companions basically say: “Well, what can you expect from Shylock? He’s a dirty Jew.” But, I took the character of Shylock not primarily as a literary attack on a minority group, but as a member of a persecuted minority group, who may have some legitimate grievances, but who chooses to redress those grievances in an irrational way, probably because he is such a tribal mentality himself that he essentially wants to punish all members of the ethnic majority for the bad acts of a few individuals. I think that this is the basis of his motivation to seek revenge on Antonio by taking his “pound of flesh”, even after he is offered several times what the original loan to Antonio was for. I also found Shylock interesting because his motivation was so opposed to anything rational. At several points others note that a pound of Antonio’s flesh will serve absolutely no useful purpose for Shylock, but he persists in his desire to carve it from Antonio’s body, because I believe he is motivated by a sort of desire to get revenge for his tribe or ethnic group, rather than by self-interest. Shylock is a perfect example of a collectivist of the ethnic or tribal variety. The explicit dialogue of “The Merchant of Venice” would lead one to believe that the overall theme of the story is something like “One must temper justice with (Christian) mercy.”, but, based on the fact that Shylock seems to acknowledge the total irrationality of his desire for his pound of flesh, I see the theme as closer to: “Justice serves man’s life, otherwise it is revenge.”