Points to Ponder
The two most famous speeches in this play are Shylock's "Hath not a Jew eyes . . ." (3.1.55-62) and Portia's "The quality of mercy is not strained . . ." (4.1.181-199). Both are usually taken out of context and read with disregard to their function in the play. Shylock's speech is usually read as a noble plea for compassion for the victims of society's bigotry. Portia's is seen as a beautiful homage to a great virtue. But the workings of the play seem to suggest otherwise. Shylock's speech is actually given as justification for his rather horrible act of revenge. Portia's speech, in its references and its reasoning, is an appeal to a distinctly Christian sort of mercy, and thus reads not as a heartfelt appeal to Shylock but as a condemnation of Jewish, as opposed to Christian, ethics. One might argue that the traditional readings of both speeches neglect, or make palatable, what otherwise seems to be a deplorable anti-Semitism.
Can these speeches, in context, be reconciled what are normally taken to be their "messages"? How do these readings, or misreadings, relate to readers' understanding of the undertones of anti-Semitism in Merchant? If these are misreadings, is Shakespeare often subject to misreadings of this type, where lines are taken out of context to support a "message" that does not accord with the meaning of the lines within the play? (compare to Polonius' "To thine own self be true" in Hamlet)
Many modern readers have sensed undertones of homosexuality in this play. It opens with an old man saddened over what is, arguably, his unrequited love for a younger boy (see character description of Antonio, above). It concludes Graziano joking about going to bed with a lawyer's clerk. These suggestions of male bonding take place around a central scene of female cross-dressing: Portia and Nerissa's transgendered disguises.
Some readers would suggest that "homosexuality" is a concept unknown to the Renaissance, and that the strength of male friendship in that era can mislead readers into mistakenly perceiving homosexual relations. Further, they would argue that the scenes of "cross-dressing" are best understood in terms of Renaissance stage-conventions: in Shakespeare's theater, all women's parts were played by men dressed as women, since women were not allowed to appear on stage, and the courtroom scene in Merchant can also be read as an elaborate jest, inspired by, or at the expense of, that practice.
Does love in Merchant involve feelings that, if not explicitly homosexual, are certainly not heterosexual? Or are such readings guilty of misreading contemporary viewpoints into texts from a very different culture? Are these two views mutually exclusive?
The world of Merchant alternates unmistakably between two poles: Venice and Belmont. Venice seems to be a world of men, profit, law, and darkness; Belmont of women, music, mercy, and light. Readers have suggested a number of symbolic parallels to these two settings: city versus country, capitalist versus agrarian society, Hell versus Heaven. Others would argue that to treat settings as "symbols" is to read Shakespeare allegorically, a method that doesn't do justice to the nuances of his art. Are these settings best read as symbolic? If so, of what? If not, what is their function in the play?
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Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Scenes 1.2 and 1.3
Scenes 2.1, 2.2, and 2.3
Scenes 2.4, 2.5, and 2.6
Scenes 2.7, 2.8, and 2.9
Scenes 3.1 and 3.2
Scenes 3.3, 3.4, and 3.5
Scenes 4.1 and 4.2