The fun of Serpents and Shylocks and Moors and Poe

Daniel J. Rowe

Christopher Moore’s menage of Othello, Merchant of Venice and the Cask of Amontillado  is so much dang fun that it would smite my place as a bard brawler not to recommend picking the book up and diving in. Just beware of sea monsters.

Christopher Moore gets from the Bard to Poe to a sea serpent in style in the Serpent of Venice
Christopher Moore gets from the Bard to Poe to a sea serpent in style in the Serpent of Venice

The story begins with three men waiting in Venice for a fool to arrive. The plot is laid for them to off the fool, so they can proceed to reap the bounteous fortunes that await them. They even took care of the monkey. One poisoning later, and the Fool is chained to a wall and being sealed in brick-by-brick by the father of the his sister-in-law. Ba-da-bing and we just got from William Shakespeare to Edgar Allen Poe and we’re only in the second chapter.

And the sea snake hasn’t even showed up!

Christopher Moore’s The Serpent of Venice is a great read that thumps from cover-to-cover with the funny, clever, sometimes really gross rhythm welcome on any Bard Brawler’s shelf.

The book follows the Fool (King Lear’s fool), as he wanders through a Venice haunted by a sea creature that does dirty things to the Fool and deadly things to those you want deadly things done to. The serpent is one of the few characters Shakespeare did not have in either of the plays the plot follows, but I’m sure the bard would have welcomed her presence. At least I hope he would.

Edgar Allen Poe’s short story kicks the story off, and the rest of the novel follows the plots of Othello and Merchant of Venice more or less with a cameo from Marco Polo.

Okay, now you’re showing off Moore.

The book is the ultimate response to the comment, “I want to read Shakespeare, but I don’t understand what’s going on.” The book is simple to follow, and incredibly fun. Iago, Othello, Antonio, Jessica, Shylock and Lorenzo are all there, and Moore is damn clever in twisting the plots together so it reads like one clear novel about a poor Fool trying to avenge the murder of his wife Cordelia? Yep, Lear’s youngest married the Fool in the end. Why not? The speeches are there, as is a general commentary on the plot lines complete with modern swears, sexiness and a bit with a monkey.

Moore also does what all who watch Shakespeare plays secretly want to do: scream at the characters and question their motivations. Why can’t enough be enough Macbeth? Why do you have to think so much Hamlet? Or as the Fool says to Othello in Moore’s book:

Fine. So you would accuse your lady of being untrue – your lady, who did throw all of Venice away for you, stood up to the most powerful men in the republic, for you, Moor,; she you would accuse, without any evidence but the comment of another, yet Iago, who you know to be a villain, a cutthroat, and a traitor – for him you need proof beyond my word? Respect my judgement in this, Othello, if in nothing else, or thou art a fool.

Yeah Othello. Think before you act.

The book also cleverly works in the soliloquies and famous lines from each play ad-libbing here and there, and adding reaction from other characters so that even those who don’t know a lick of Shakespeare will give that, ‘huh. I’ve heard that somewhere,’ or better yet, an ‘oh. I get it now.’

The Serpent of Venice was a joy to read. It adds the flare and seduction of the Bard with the page-turning joy of a clever modern fantasy tale. And how can you not be happy to read what happens to Lorenzo. I’m always sad when I hear sweet music indeed, Jessica. Boom.

The joy of reading Shakespeare is not always an easy sell, and so it’s a pleasure when someone like Moore comes along and makes it come off so easily.

I feel like Moore would be a great bard brawler, and thus could do nothing but commend him for his efforts with the Serpent of Venice. Those students struggling through either Merchant of Venice or Othello would do well to pick up a copy of Moore’s book, and you’ll be well on your way. Of course, you could always just listen to the Bard Brawl podcast, and that would do just as well. Either way.


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The Merchant of Venice (2004), Michael Radford (director)

Andre Simoneau

The Merchant of Venice is a tragicomic tale of hypocrisy, pride and revenge, and Michael Radford’s beautiful production is a subtle and faithful interpretation of Shakespeare’s ambiguous and highly controversial play.


Though ultimately it serves as a compelling case for mercy and the value of love, The Merchant of Venice has, over the centuries, come to be seen as one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays, thanks in no small part to the cruel and complex depiction of the Jew Shylock, portrayed by Al Pacino.

While he acknowledges the inherent judeophobia of the time, Radford (1984, Il Postino) takes great care in bookending the piece with scenes that help impart a deeper context than may have been evident to modern audiences in the original text.

In a written prologue added by Radford, we are told of the pitiful conditions in which the Jewish community lived in 16th century Venice, confined to guarded ‘gettos’ and forbidden from owning land. Shylock himself describes in detail the pains which he has suffered at the hands – and feet – of the Christian bourgeoisie. In fact, there are several passages in the play which point to the hypocrisies of the ruling class and which highlight the humanity of the oppressed. All this only serves to amplify the ambiguity of Shakespeare’s villain and to further the case for Shylock as a tragic figure.

The infamous debt at the heart of the story involves Antonio, a nobleman who has agreed to take out a loan from Shylock on behalf of his bankrupt young friend Bassanio, to help him in the pursuit of the beautiful Portia. Though highly sought after, Portia may only select a suitor by means set out to her by her late father, and Bassanio wants to make a worthy impression. Meanwhile, Shylock’s daughter Jessica runs off with one of Bassanio’s men, never to return, and they all sail to Portia’s court. As Bassanio wins Portia’s hand in marriage, Shylock slips into a depression. When Antonio is unable to repay his debt, Shylock vows to avenge the injury dealt to him by exacting the horrific – though lawful – execution of his bond.

In his portrayal of Shylock, Pacino is at the top of his game, delivering the famous ‘hath not a jew eyes?’ speech with empathy and his trademark unrestrained passion. He is aptly matched by, the sexually ambiguous Jeremy Irons as frail Antonio, the title merchant who is sworn by bond to deliver a pound of flesh to his creditor. The cast is rounded out by the excellent Lynn Collins as Portia, who delivers an equally well-known speech on the ‘quality of mercy’, and Joseph Fiennes as her suitor Bassanio (Antonio’s lover?). There is also a number of highly skilled comic actors who step in to fill the play’s many clown parts.

Add to that an exquisite production design by the late Bruno Robeo and costume design by Sammy Sheldon to imbue the story with texture and atmosphere. Venice’s inimitable canals and unique architecture are on full display here, and lend an authenticity to the film which enhances the moral and historical undertones of the source material.

The Merchant of Venice is a problematic play for a variety of reasons, and poses many challenges to would-be performers. Little wonder then that it had never been filmed (with sound) before this. With his production, Radford and co. succeed in delivering a nuanced and intelligent reading of Shakespeare’s text, while managing to create a detailed visual palette to serve as its backdrop.

Andre Simoneau is a first line bard brawler and regularly reads for the Bard Brawl podcasts.

Andre Simoneau

BB: Merchant of Venice, Act II

The Bard Brawlers go through Act II of the Merchant of Venice.

Listen to the podcast – here -. Download the podcast.

(and, yes, you do hear Daniel J. Rowe say “Bard Ball.” The play on words still works.)

A lot of scenes in this one, but most of them pretty short.

In scene one, the action returns to Belmont. While most of the suitors have left the estate, the Prince of Morocco has remained and intends to try his luck. The conditions of the game are made explicit for our (the audience’s) benefit: if he picks the box with her picture in it, he wins the girl, the estate and all of her father’s fortune. If he fails, he has to leave and can’t ever marry. This thread is continued in scene seven where he actually makes his choice.  It works out great for Portia, so poorly for him. In scene nine the second suitor, the Prince of Aragon, makes his choice and doesn’t fare any better. The way is now clear for Bassanio’s big move.

A common complaint about the Merchant of Venice concerns the contrived nature of the three casket test to win Portia. There’s a very simple reason for that. Shakespeare adapted that aspect of the story from a tale in a collection of medieval romances called the Gesta Romanorum. This was a long collection of stories originally compiled in Latin but eventually translated into most of the vernacular languages of Europe. These stories were supposed to serve (among other things) as exemplars of morality in Christian sermons. Therefore, they were not expected to be realistic. It is very likely that many people in Shakespeare’s audience would have understood the reference to the Tale of the Three Caskets as well.

In scene two, Lancelot – Shylock’s servant – debates to himself whether he should stay and serve a bad master, or break his promise to serve Shylock and flee to a new master. He plays a trick on his father and together they ask Bassanio to allow Lancelot to serve him. He embarks with Bassanio and Gratiano for Belmont on the evening tide. (I’m not sure what happens to Old Gobbo in the end. Hmm…)

Scene three is very short but introduces us to the character of Jessica for the first time as Lancelot says his goodbyes to her.

In scene four – one of the many ‘dude scenes’ – Lorenzo explains to his buddies how he intends to steal away with Jessica and enlists their help to sneak her away from her father and Venice.

Shylock takes his leave of Jessica in scene five when he leaves to meet Antonio and some of the others for a supper he has no desire to attend. Shylock instructs Jessica to lock the doors and windows and to ignore the masquers outside. He has no idea that she intends to run away.

In scene six Salerio, Solanio and Gratiano are waiting on Lorenzo who is late to meet them. When he finally arrives, they go together to steal Jessica away. She brings a bunch of Shylock’s money with her and they run off and eventually meet up with Bassanio and company at Belmont.

Scene eight has Solanio and Salerio discussing Shylock’s reaction to Jessica elopement with Lorenzo. They describe Shylock walking through the streets screaming and crying about his loss of his daughter and of his money. Antonio and his ships are mentioned, which recalls the bond he has agreed to for Bassanio’s sake.

Some characters appearing in this act for the first time:

  • Morocco and Aragon: Princes and suitors to Portia. (She’s not a big fan for either).
  • Lancelot Gobbo: He’s Shylock’s servant, though the nature of his duties is not entirely clear. He leaves Shylock’s service in order to serve Bassanio. The dramatis personae often describes him as a clown. I can’t imagine his name is an accident but I’m not sure what the connection might be.
  • Old Gobbo: This is Lancelot’s father. He’s mostly blind and deaf and he seems to be senile as well. I suppose we’re meant to laugh at him but I can’t help feeling sorry for him.
  • Jessica: Shylock’s daughter and Lorenzo’s wife to be. She converts to Christianity and abandons her father in order to follow Lorenzo.

We’ll talk about the relationship between Lorenzo and Jessica a little more as it develops in subsequent acts (particularly in acts 4 and 5). However, I would pay very close attention to the exchanges between Lorenzo and Jessica throughout the play. Even in the very first scene where we see them together, there are signs that their relationship is off to a potentially rocky start. What’s surprising about Jessica is not only does she give at least as good as she gets in these exchanges but she also seems to suspect Lorenzo’s motives and sincerity right from the get go. I think Shakespeare’s asking us to seriously consider the costs and risks of love and trust. After all, this relationship is an invention on Shakespeare’s part and he doesn’t tend to invent lightly. I think he intends us to compare Lorenzo and Jessica to Bassanio and Portia (and maybe Antonio and Bassanio as well). Think about what Jessica is risking in running off with Lorenzo: if he should leave her, she would be left with nothing. And notice how flippant Lorenzo seems to be about the whole thing (douche!). In this respect, Jessica’s plight (and Antonio’s too, for that matter) is similar to the test with the caskets: the inscription on the lead casket says: “‘Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.”

Bard on!

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