“He hath disgraced me, and
hindered 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’s 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? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.”- Shylock, Act III, Scene I
The above quote is one of the most famous from William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” (I apologize for it being so long- I just couldn’t bring myself to cut it down.) Shakespeare, of course, was alive in the 15-1600s and is widely regarded as basically the best writer ever.
The Merchant of Venice is estimated to have been completed around 1597, because it was mentioned in a work by another writer in 1598 and so must have been familiar on the stage by that point. It’s classified as a comedy in Shakespeare’s First Folio, though it should be noted that the term ‘comedy’ really only means that nobody important dies in it. It’s most well known for the speech that I quoted above, spoken by Shylock: a Jewish moneylender. Shylock is perceived to some as a villain and to others as one to be pitied. Antisemitism is one of the widely debated issues surrounding the play.
I chose The Merchant of Venice as my piece of art to discuss for several reasons. In class, we pretty much decided that art is anything created with the intention of evoking feeling in the audience, whether the audience is an actual audience or simply the creator enjoying their own work.
The play, for those of you who don’t know, centers around a young, poor man (Bassanio) and his best friend (Antonio, a merchant of Venice.) Antionio goes to borrow money from Shylock, who agrees to lend them the money so long as his demands are met. Shylock makes Antonio agree that if the money is not paid back by a certain date, Shylock will be entitled to take one pound of flesh from Antonio’s back. (Just read the play. It’ll make more sense.) Bassanio, a wise and prudent young man, is not at all in favour of the deal, but Antonio accepts, knowing that he will be able to have the money returned in time. Fast forward, skip details, and basically Antonio doesn’t get the money back in time, but Bassanio’s wife pretends to be the judge at Antonio’s little trial and thwarts Shylock’s plan by saying that Shylock is totally welcome to take the pound of flesh, but with that pound of flesh he may have not one drop of Antonio’s blood, because that wasn’t part of the deal. (It’s arguably the greatest ending to a play ever.) Victory! Antonio is saved! Naturally, Shylock is super angry and basically the audience feels a lot of ambivalence for him, because he partially is very devious and nasty, but he also is disrespected and sided against throughout the play.
The Merchant of Venice, as well as pretty much all of Shakespeare’s works, is respected for its masterful writing. By normative standards, anything by Shakespeare is top notch art.
I love this play for so many reasons. Firstly, it’s just so riveting to watch as an audience member- or even to read. Honestly, it’s a nail-biter. It takes you on a journey, from the happy, dreamy beginning, down a little laughter-filled, sunlit trail that is the love story of Bassanio and Portia, and then into the pits of despair, where the reader/viewer sits on the edge of their seat and prays that Antonio will survive long enough to take his bow. Secondly, it’s just written beautifully. I adore Shakespeare’s plays. The Merchant of Venice is no exception.