The Merchant of Venice
By: William Shakespeare
Format/Source: Mass bound paperback; my copy
Bassanio, a noble but impoverished Venetian, asks his friend the merchant Antonio for a loan to impress an heiress. Antonio agrees, but is forced to borrow the sum from a cynical Jewish moneylender, Shylock, who forces him into a chilling contract, which stipulates he must honour the debt with a pound of his own flesh. But Bassanio’s beloved is not as demure as she seems, and disguising herself as a lawyer, Portia proves herself one of Shakespeare’s most cunning heroines, in a witty attack on Shylock’s claim.
I first encountered this play in grade 9 English class and it holds a special place in my heart and amongst the Shakespeare titles as it is the first full play by him that I’ve read and studied. I guess in a way it’s fitting then that this is the last of his plays that I’m revisiting 🙂
You know, it was pretty exciting re-reading this book. The storytelling was pretty tight, moving from one storyline to another without a dull moment in between or dragging it out longer than it should. The drama and the stories themselves were also pretty interesting, from Portia’s situation at the beginning of the story to Shylock’s dual story of his daughter leaving him and his antagonism with Antonio. I can see how Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (review) influenced The Merchant of Venice with regards to the titular character and his rebellious daughter, but the comparisons end here; I feel Shylock is a far more nuanced and sympathetic character, turned bitter by people’s treatment of him and has these fleeting moments where we find out there’s more to his character than his own pent-up hates and grievances and quest for revenge, such as the mention of his wife’s ring. Yes, he puts emphasis on his ducats but not in the same lengths as Marlowe’s Barabbas. Plus of course there’s his speech in Act III of the lack of difference between Jews and Christians (did I mention I had to memorise this speech in high school? Another reason it holds a special place for me). So yeah, there were times where I did feel sorry for him, even though I understood why Jessica fled her father’s house and even though Antonio & co. are deemed the protagonists of this story.
The themes of love and friendship also play a major role in this story, especially towards the end when Portia more or less calls Bassanio out on his love for Portia and his friendship with Antonio and which he deemed more important. I guess it’s not fair to pit the two against each other because Bassanio does care for both of them, but his speech does make things confusing, especially when he said that the world isn’t all that great if Antonio were to die (which of course Portia picks up on). I kind of wish the play had dropped hints how they met and how Bassanio became such an important part of Antonio’s life because Antonio was pretty resigned for Shylock to take his pound of flesh (Antonio from the first page actually reminded me a lot of Orsino from Twelfth Night (review) only he’s just morose in general) and very willing to put everything on the line for Bassanio. I was surprised that the storyline with Shylock had concluded at the end of Act IV, leaving this theme of love, marriage, and friendship to wrap up in Act V.
Other stray observations: I love how clever Portia is and how she had a comment for every suitor who dropped by early in the play. The little scrolls included in the chests were also pretty clever.
It was nice to revisit The Merchant of Venice. The story gave plenty food for thought and the plot was pretty fast-paced and interesting from start to finish, not to mention it features plenty of staple features of Shakespeare’s plays, haha. Overall a good reminder of why I love this play so much and why I highly recommend it if you’re a reader of the classics and/or Shakespeare 😉