Monday, January 31, 2011

The Merchant of Venice: Act 1

I have never read The Merchant of Venice before, and I am not quite sure what to make of it's plot so far. I find myself to be apparently like many other classmates in feeling both strangely sympathetic toward Shylock and strangely dumbfounded by Portia's father's game. I also find myself saying, “What did I just read?” quite often. There are certain nuances of the dialogue which both startle me, but make me think. For example, after Shylock laments how his peers spit on him and call him names for being a Jewish (speaking generally but also specifically of Antonio), Antonio responds with force and wickedness.

ANTONIO: I am as like to call thee so again,

To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.

If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not

As to thy friends; for when did friendship take

A breed for barren metal of his friend?

But lend it rather to thine enemy,

Who if he break, though mayst with better face

Exact the penalty. (1.3.125-132)

To me, the entire context of this situation seems to be part of an all too easily-created bias towards Jewish money lenders. It is against the Christian religion to charge interest on loans, however it is a profit-earning practice that makes sense when realistically dealing with large sums of money. Why would anyone lend so much to someone without there being anything in it for their peace of mind? There needs to be an incentive for someone to be timely with repayment, and it sounds to me like the rule of not charging interest is an outdated one meant for those like shepherds lending tools to neighbors instead of business men like Shylock and Antonio lending money to Bassonio. Now, that is not to say that when a close friend asks for a small to medium amount (less than a day's or even up to a week's worth of profit), I will never think of charging him interest, but when dealing with strangers, that is just an impractical standard to uphold for a merchant. But going back to my injection-of-religious-bias point, I feel like Antonio is acting manipulatively with his beliefs in order to discredit Shylock's character in front of his counterparts/his audience. It seems to me like an easy way for Christians to say, in essence, “look at your evil practices, you are morally unjust and greedy, and I am neither of those things because I am a Christian.” Further, we see more bias coming from Antonio later:

ANTONIO: Hie thee, gentle Jew.

The Hebrew will turn Christian; he grows kind. (1.3.173-174)

We see two things being stated here: that Jews are not inherently gentle or inherently kind, and that Christians inherently are both. Antonio refers to Shylock as a gentle Jew as opposed to just a Jew (and instead of calling him by his actual name), forcing us to think not of Shylock the person, but of Shylock the Gentle Jew who has the ability within himself to perhaps be more Christian and righteous someday.

I do not think it is easy for me like Antonio.


Caitlin LaShomb said...

I completely understand your position on being unsure of the plot beginning in Act 1; but that is also because I usually have a hard time reading Shakespeare, which repeats that question, “what did I just read?” Anyhow, Antonio is not necessarily a character I can like. I like the explanation you give about how you feel about charging interest and I agree about strangers. But not necessarily do I think of strangers but it almost seems like a business proposition. Because of lending money with no interest, Antonio is careless that he is cutting into Shylock’s profits. The fact about Shylock being Jewish is true as well. I also dislike Antonio because he is offensive and arrogant towards Shylock. Antonio shows a great deal of bullying in this scenario because he only seems to do it towards Shylock and not necessarily to the Jews around Venice.

Clifford said...

I agree that the culture's rampant antisemitism rears its ugly head in Antonio's words and attitude toward Shylock. Antonio suffers from an odd depression whose source has yet to be revealed, but I don't think it would be wrong to say that part of his psychological instability arises from his conditioned, hateful estimation of a person's worth based on superficial things like ethnicity and where s/he resides in the hierarchic social institution. With that said, I detect a duplicity in Shylock's words. I don't think he's the innocent victim he purports to be in lines 1.3.102-124 when he tells Antonio that despite the fact that his humiliation, he will lend him the money--under the condition, of course, that if Antonio fails to return the loan, he can cut a pound of flesh from anywhere on his body. What's more, Shylock had just said to himself "I hate him for he is a Christian" and that he could never forgive him (1.3.38-47). The hatred that smolders in Antonio’s heart also festers in Shylock’s. He has allowed his victimization to breed a profound hatred not only toward his oppressors but the world at large. While it is not surprising that he’s become embittered by his culture’s abhorrent antisemitism, the ancient law tells us, hatred can never dispel hatred. I think we should reflect on what Shylock and Antonio show us about how people bear their burdens and struggle with their demons, which we all do, and ask ourselves whether they are praiseworthy or ultimately self-destructive.

Unique_Loner69 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unique_Loner69 said...

I didn't like Antonio either, like at all...but at this point I think this is Shakespeare's intent. I don't think he wants us to sympathize with the character. The way he treats Shylock is so completely prejudice and doesn't treat him like a human being. The play even references him as being basically just the "Jewish character." By doing this, it brings us more into the world and, while we won't sympathize with Antonio, we'll understand the world and see how Shylock feels.
The way they treat him will shock us, but the shock is what will have us sympathizing with Shylock over Antonio. The fact that Antonio thinks all Jews are bad, and that the only way Shylock will be good is to turn Christian pretty much. Antonio states "The Hebrew will turn Christian; he grows kind," (1.3.174-175). This really shows how much of a dick Antonio is. I think Shakespeare is trying to get us to hate his character. I don't know the play, but maybe he is doing this to set us up for later on in the play to watch Antonio change, or get worse. We'll have to see.

Mark Petersen said...

I think Antonio's behavior represents the European mentality on race. Incidentally, race in the European sense concerns religion (and culture) rather than the American sense of skin color. Antonio is honest with Shylock about his intent and directly displays his disdain. He is kind only to those who are of his kind (in the senses of class, creed, and culture), and later seems willing to accept Shylock if he would convert to Christendom. You can actually witness this kind of behavior in Borat regarding the Gypsies (as well as the Jews). It is not that Borat and Antonio are evil racists like the American educational system would emphasize, but they have been raised in a culture that fears the Jew as an outsider. Antonio is not so much an evil racist as he is wary of those who are alien to his culture; he is honest with both his friends and Shylock, and generous to those of his kind. He is not necessarily a terrible person, but shares a fear of usury (breeding money from money). Shylock himself is wary of the Christian that spurns him, loathe to lend to him. Shylock's motivation seems to be to expose the contradictions of the Christian culture rather than make a profit. He offers friendship to show that Christian mercy is limited by class and race (religion). He does not charge interest but negotiates for a 'pound of flesh' should the payment be reneged. It is not that he actually wants the flesh: he outwardly states that it's in fact useless to him. I believe that it connects to the idea of "breeding money" in the sense that the Christian is supposed to be opposed to the conversion of human life to lucre, yet merchants of Antonio's type dealing in spices would have some part in the triangle trade of the time which did involve the exchange of entire human beings as property with a monetary value assigned to them. Shylock demonstrates a reversal where for him money is distinct from humanity and friendship while the Christians pretend that it isn't for them. Bassianio wants this money to essentially purchase Portia's affections, while Antonio indulges in overspending to essentially buy Bassiano's friendship. They fear something that is within themselves, and Shylock wants to expose this, saying that they are not really so different. Shylock himself adheres to the letter of the law because it protects him from a culture that fears him and is liable to lash out. He also does not lie about his disdain for the Christians who treat him with the same disdain. The scene, while abhorrent to contemporary American ears, was actually quite cordial considering the setting.