September 28th, 2012

I Wash

The Best Chest is the Worst

Sometimes I wonder if bigots are ever bored by two dimensional portrayals of the target group of their bigotry, or if they would simply delight in having their feelings supported repeatedly over the course of two or three hours. The question over whether Shakespeare's portrayal of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, in The Merchant of Venice, was motivated by anti-Semitism is complicated somewhat by the complexity of his portrayal--he has a legitimate grievance with Antonio, who routinely spits on him and then fails to honour an agreement made for a three thousand ducat loan. Expecting a pound of flesh, Antonio's life, in payment does sound extreme, but how many designedly sympathetic characters in Shakespeare's works are motivated by vengeance? Certainly we're not meant to take Hamlet as an evil creature.

Whatever Shakespeare's actual motives with the character were, a sympathetic portrayal of Shylock yields a fascinatingly disturbing work. I watched last night a BBC production from 1980 in which Warren Mitchell delivered a pretty heartbreaking performance as Shylock. Just the moment where he learns his runaway daughter Jessica has traded a ring precious to him for a monkey makes you feel for him, his reaction is of someone so deeply wounded--at 5:33 in this clip;

It all makes the measures taken by the protagonist characters seem grotesque, making it a nightmare version of one of Shakespeare's other comedies, particularly with the light-hearted ending. Mainly it's a play about contracts, not just the contract between Antonio and Shylock, but the peculiar ceremony Portia requires of her suitors, having them swear to the rules of a puzzle involving three chests just as she's bond to marry the one who chooses the right one. Even after she gets a husband agreeable to her by this means, she still initiates a contract with him about a ring she gives him that if he part with it for any reason whatsoever their marriage is annulled. I sort of wonder if this is Portia attending to her pride after the revelation that the winning chest was the lead one.

In any case, the fact that she lets Bassanio off so easily when he does give the ring away makes the consequences of Shylock's contract even more terrible.