Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Merchant of Venice

We finally finished it. Merchant of Venice. I don't think anyone here is going to ask me who the author is. This was my daughter's first introduction to Shakespeare.  She wanted to start with Hamlet, but I prevailed and we started with Merchant of Venice and plowed through it about 60% faster than we had planned because she loved it so much. Wonderful was the time we spent talking about Europe of that time. About the way people lived, the social strata, prejudice, the worldview as people had back then.  Unfortunately some school districts have banned Merchant of Venice, due to the racist issues contained therein,  but I have always felt that banning a book, story, or play, steals the opportunity to learn from it, to discuss, and does more harm in the end.

Shakespeare's plays are a commentary on the relationships people have with each other. The relationships on a large scale, such as the interaction between people of 'class' with the menial classes. The relationships of men and women, as related to romance, and as it relates to how women were seen and treated as little more than mere ornamentation and breeding vessels. Why, in fact it wasn't love that had Bassanio so obsessed with obtaining fair Portia's hand in marriage. It was her wealth. As was customary then, a woman could never be mistress over her own fortune. If she wasn't under her father's guidance, or her husband's yoke, a proper lady was under the guidance and protection of another male relative. After Portia's father died, it became imperative that she be married with haste. Clearly though, the man had high enough an opinion of his daughter that he didn't marry her off to the most suitable match and title that could be had, but designed a test of character, if you will, which would weed out the money grabbers. Interestingly enough, then, that it was greedy Bassanio who managed to see past the gold and silver.

The idea, that Portia and Nerissa were forced to take on the guise of young men, in order to plead Antonio's case, amazed and bemused my daughter.  It also speaks about the relationship people then had with other people of the world. The typical insular British mentality is shown in Portia's soliloquy, where she discusses, nay dissects, her suitors, preceded by her words, 'I know it is a sin to be a mocker, but...' All the suitors are foreigners and discarded as such. The only one who gets off with relative minor bruising to the ego is the Englishman, who is, however, mocked for his lack of languages other than his own. Arragon, and Morocco, are targets because of their skin color. In fact, Shakespeare's set directions, clearly demanded, that the actor be a 'tawny moor dressed in white.' Of course, what helped Missy understand the play and jokes, was knowing who the target audience was in Shakespeare's time. Although, some higher placed members of society watched the plays, it was primarily middleclass citizens (not a very accurate description but it will have to do for now), and the 'groundlings', people of decidedly lower socio-economic stature and usually illiterate. This helped her understand some of the bawdier jokes, as well.

It is noteworthy that the insular 'people-from-other-countries can-be-placed-into-preassigned-pegs' notion hasn't gone away. We have just changed the way we portrait it.Watch movies and sit-coms and really evaluate how someone from another country is type-cast into a particular role. And we train our kids from a young age  to see things this way, even on the Disney channel, characters are typecast according to country of origin. Don't worry though, we aren't the only ones who do this. You should see the unflattering light in which the 'ugly American' tends to be type cast in other countries. I couldn't resist but digressed and discussed why this 'stereotyping' according to appearance, coloration, language etc, evolved and how it aided our early ancestors to survive millions of years ago.

Delving back into Shakespeare, let us discuss briefly how Shylock was portrayed. Many opinions about the portraiture of Shylock have been written, and I too felt compelled to take extra time to discuss Shylock with my daughter. I always felt that he was one of Shakespeare's more tragic figures. Shylock was never really portrayed as a human being with feelings and emotions. A person deserving of courtesy and kindness, something even the 'wonderful' Antonio never did. In fact Shylock even mentions being treated quite abominably by Antonio. Apparently the lovely, and oh-so honorable Antonio even spat at him more than once. Of course, Antonio accused him of un-christian usury. The double standards therein are noteworthy. First of all, in truth, Christian lenders exacted interest as well, and the Jews were not allowed to have any other occupation. They were banned from the guilds, were banned from owning or farming land, were banned from all other occupation, other than lending. When Shakespeare did give Shylock mention of humanity in the famous lines: 'Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands?...if you prick us, do we not bleed?' it wasn't meant in a context of eliciting compassion, but in Shylock demanding that his idea of perverted justice be carried out. Even when his daughter runs away with Lorenzo and elopes, stealing his property in the mean, he is mocked rather than pitied. Jews, having been banned in England since long before Shakespeare's time, it is unlikely that he ever met many. While some Jews persisted and remained in England, they were subject to pervasive and endemic racism. I spent considerable time with Missy, discussing what that meant, and what they experienced.  How can a people be understood and integrated into society when they are outcast, living at the perimeter of society, in their own enclaves and small communities.

Merchant of Venice was my first introduction to Shakespeare. Sadly enough (and because it was a school) we didn't discuss the story behind it. We didn't discuss racism, prejudice, male chauvinism, or European history of that time. What an opportunity, therefore, to get to experience it all over again with my daughter, in the way it could and should be. Not merely a lesson in Elizabethan English and Mr. Shakespeare's play crafting, but a lesson in that, and so much more.

1 comment:

Karen said...

Too bad you weren't able to spend more time on the play! There are so many more things to talk and think about!