Before I read this play I knew only a few things about it: there’s a character named Shylock, the play is said to be anti-Semitic and Judi Dench “loathes it.” As I read it and thought about it, I wanted to tweak it, to change this emphasis or those words. I wanted to make it acceptable to modern audiences. In the end I decided it stands best as it is.
There are two parallel plot lines. The play begins with Antonio offering to help his friend Bassanio secure a loan. Antonio has a bunch of ships that he expects to come into Venice within the month but he currently has no cash. He offers his physical self as collateral to Shylock, a moneylender. Shylock agrees to loan him the money interest free but his terms are a pound of Antonio’s flesh should he be unable to pay the debt.
The second plot has to do with Portia, a rich woman living not far from Venice in Belmont, a kind of Club Med community. Portia’s father’s will stipulates that she may marry the man who chooses correctly among three boxes: The gold box grants what many men desire, the silver box grants what one deserves, the lead box claims to requires him to give all he has. The lead box is the correct choice. Portia is on pins and needles watching a string of suitors open the gold and silver boxes. She knows she wants to marry Bassanio.
Bassanio also wants to marry Portia but he thinks he needs Antonio’s money to make himself attractive to Portia. He intends to pay Antonio back with his wife’s money once he has married. Portia offers Bassanio enough hints that he chooses the lead box and so they marry.
Meantime the debt has come due, Antonio’s ships have not returned and Shylock is demanding his pound of flesh. The deal goes to court. Portia dresses up as a man and passes herself off as a doctor of letters in order to maneuver the outcome in Antonio’s favor.
That’s the laundered version. Here are some of the stains:
Shylock is presented as a loathsome individual, hated and derided because he is Jewish. In the end he loses almost everything, is forced to convert to Christianity and forced to say “I am content.”
Portia is being controlled by her father from his grave. His will has made no provisions for what Portia herself may actually desire. Even though Portia has initiative and energy within women’s marginalized position in society, she doesn’t do anything with it beyond her own immediate self-interest. Though she has a famous speech about mercy, she doesn’t have any for Shylock.
The other characters are boring, rich and shallow. None of them appeal to me, none of them are likeable. Everyone pretends to be something he or she is not with varying degrees of consciousness about how they all use each other. They all extract their own pounds of flesh from each other in different ways.
I actually dislike Shylock the least, not because he is especially likeable but because he is so badly treated that I feel righteous pity which is in its own way demeaning. I expect that for Elizabethan audiences it was meant to be the other way around. Or maybe the play was meant to be the disturbing thing that it is but the disturbance is felt differently depending on who sees it. It’s like those boxes. The choice of box reveals something about the chooser.
It’s exciting to have a shiveringly bad villain in a play. It’s fine if that villain also happens to be Jewish, or gay or female or black or Asian or Muslim. It’s when a person is considered a villain purely because of his race or religion or gender that stereo-types are born and bigotry flourishes. But Shakespeare has not presented (or created) a stereo-type unless one chooses to see it that way, which is why I think the idea of the boxes is so interesting. He exposes fault lines if one wants to open those boxes. When Shylock is defending his legal right to take his pound of flesh he says:
*You have among you many a purchased slave,
Which like your asses and your dogs and
Mules you use in abject and in slavish parts,
Because you bought them. Shall I say to you,
‘Let them be free!’. . . you will answer,
‘The slaves are ours.’ So I do answer you.
The pound of flesh which I demand of him
Is dearly bought, is mine, and I will have it. (IV, i)
This is a shrewd point but there’s no evidence that any character in the play takes it.
The final point of Shylock’s other powerful speech is often omitted when it’s quoted but I left it in because I think it makes the point almost better than the “prick us, do we not bleed” bit that Shylock is a human being, a person.
*He hath disgraced me and hind’red 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 is 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? (III, i)
Here are more great lines:
*The devil can cite scripture for his purpose. (I, iii)
*It is a wise father that knows his own child. (II, ii)
*. . .in the end, truth will out (II, ii)
*All that glisters is not gold. (II, vii)
*The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. (IV, ii)