Thursday, February 26, 2009

Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice

First of all, The Merchant of Venice is a racist play. Wikipedia debates the idea, but it seems pretty clear to me. First, there's the Prince of Morocco, who is presumably black. When he loses the game which I'll describe below, Portia hopes that all people with his colour fail to win her in marriage.

Then there's Shylock. He is a bad person, and he is a Jew. These things are not are not a coincidence in the play. Everyone refers to him as a Jew, and treats him poorly as a result. He claims that this mistreatment turned him into a bad person, but it's a facade. Even in his private thoughts in his very first line, he wants to see Antonio dead simply for being Christian, and for lending out money without interest, thereby cutting into Shylock's money lending business. He even says that he wants to see Antonio dead on behalf of "his tribe". When he leaves a scene, he's heading to the synagogue. In this play, being Jewish, and being a villain are inextricable.

Shylock has a famous speech where he says he is still a human being, including the line, "If you prick me, will I not bleed?" So if anyone talks like that, you could call them a Shylock, if you wanted to confuse them.

There's an odd contest in the play: Everyone wants to marry the beautiful Portia, and the father is being careful about who he gives his blessing to. He won't let any old Prince or Duke courting her to have her hand, he'll only let someone who can guess the right choice in a cryptic riddle. He made three coffins, made of gold, silver, and lead, respectively. Each one has a vague riddle that doesn't help on the outside, and one has a statue of Portia inside. If you choose the coffin with Portia's image inside, you win! If you choose the wrong one, you can never marry in the remainder of your life. Come to think of it, Portia's father is a bit of a dick. By the way, the lead one was the right one. This isn't really a spoiler, since we saw the other two be picked incorrectly before hand.

This play has a classic Shakespeare trick: women dressing as men. Since women were played by young men back then, this means that the actor was pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man. Shakespeare really seemed to adore this idea, since he does it so often.

In all, I thought this one was pretty good.

15 Down, 22 To Go
Next Up: King Henry IV, Part 1

God of Shakespeare, I know I don't pray to you often, but please make these plays about Kings named Henry interesting. If they're not, it's going to be a long slog. Three in a row!

Now playing: Rachmaninoff, Sergei (1873-1943) - Piano Concerto #2
via FoxyTunes

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