BB: Merchant of Venice, Act III

30 Jun

Following a hiatus of a few weeks in which Daniel has much improved his French, the brawlers return en force for The Merchant of Venice, act III.

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In act III, scene 1 we have what is probably the most famous speech of the play: “Hath not a Jew eyes…” This comes right after Shylock has heard of his daughter’s disappearance with a good sum of Shylock’s money. It seems unclear from the scene whether he’s more upset at the theft than at Jessica’s eloping with Lorenzo but he is intent on revenge against Antonio. One of Shylock’s friends, Tubal, then arrives with news of Jessica’s activities. It’s never clear if these are just rumours or if this is the truth, which is interesting because what Tubal next tells Shylock – that Antonio’s ships have all been lost –  turns out to be false by the end of the play. We’ll see Tubal again, particularly in courthouse scene, when he’ll seem much less interested in fanning the fire of Shylock’s vengeance. (Another excellent line from this scene: “I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.”)

In act III, scene 2 we have our final casket scene, where Bassanio picks the lead casket and wins the hand of Portia. In true Shakespearean comedic style, Gratiano immediately declares his intention to marry Nerissa during Bassanio and Portia’s ceremony. Their happiness is short lived, however, as Bassanio receives a letter that tells him Antonio is going to die at Shylock’s hands for forfeiting the bond. Portia sends Bassanio to Venice with a bunch of money to pay back Shylock and save Antonio. The women give their paramours each a ring as a sign of their new relationships. These rings will become very important in the next two acts.

After a brief scene in which we Shylock basically tells Antonio he’s a dead man (and Antonio seems not to bothered by his impending death), we see Portia and Nerissa slip away from Belmont. They plan to dress up as boys and make their way to Venice to see what their husbands are up to. Portia is clearly intending to take an active role in the events to come, however, as she sends some letters for legal counsel to a cousin of hers in Padua. (Not sure how she knows she’ll need the help.)

The last scene is a strange (funny? disconcerting?) scene involving Lancelot, Jessica and Lorenzo on the subject Jessica’s conversion. With Bassanio and Portia gone, Lorenzo and Jessica take their place as interim rulers of Belmont and some of the potential cracks in their relationship start to be hinted at.

I wrote in the last post about the source of the three caskets love test in The Merchant of Venice. I mentioned it in general terms, but there are a few interesting differences between the source and its treatment in Shakespeare’s play. In the Gesta Romanorum the lottery is designed to test the virtue of a woman who wishes to marry the king’s son. In The Merchant of Venice, it is the men who are being tested: by the caskets but also – as we’ll see in the following acts – by their wives. If the casket test is a sort of moral test (as it is in the original text), it raises the question of what do we discover about Bassanio’s character? Or about Portia’s? If we look closely at song in act three, scene one, there is a conspicuous rhyming scheme that seems to suggests that Bassanio might have been tipped off…

The principal source for The Merchant of Venice, however, is the tale of “The Merchant of Venice” from Ser Fiorentino’s 14th century collection of stories, Il Pecorone (The simpleton, loosely). Most of the main story elements are found in the original, with some differences. For instance, the Bassanio character needs to win the Portia character by spending the night with her without falling asleep. He’s eventually helped out by the Nerissa character who tells him not to drink the drugged wine. A night of crazy sex ensues and he wins the girl and the kingdom, saving his merchant benefactor in the process. Added bonus, the merchant gets to shack up with ‘Nerissa.’ (As the merchant in this version is also ‘Bassanio’s’ uncle, this is slightly creepy.) The main difference though is Shylock. The Jewish merchant in the original seems to have no personal reason for wanting to harm the merchant, his hatred is stereotypical. In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare goes to great lengths to humanize Shylock. The story provides him with ample reasons for despising Antonio: Antonio prevented Shylock from collecting interest on loans by bailing out his friends who were late with their payments, he regularly spits on him (and promises to keep doing so) and he was accessory to his daughter’s elopement. Further, Shakespeare gives Shylock some of the most compelling lines in defense of his actions and feelings.

I’ve mentioned this passage before, and I think it’s worth citing it in its entirety:

SALARINO:  Why, I am sure, if he forfeit, thou wilt not take
his flesh: what’s that good for?

SHYLOCK: To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else,
it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my
bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies; and what’s his reason? 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? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.

Perhaps most provocatively, as we see in this passage, Shakespeare opposes Shylock’s catalogue of reasons for hatred with Antonio’s one: the Shylock is a Jew. It’s enough to make one wonder at the nature of the Christian charity which ‘triumphs’ at the end of the play.

Keep on brawlin’ on!

(I tried to find an English translation of Il Pecorone online but after about an hour of searching I wasn’t able to find any that included the “Merchant of Venice” story. If anybody finds one, please let me know and I’ll post a link to it.)

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