UnReviews:The Merchant of Venice

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Douglas "Backgammon" Rolfe reviews one of the most well-known—and one of the few comprehensible—Shakespearean comedies.

When I first heard that Shakespeare actually wrote comedies, I actually let out a cry of sheer credulous joy. After all, most of his plays that I studied in school involved almost everyone dying, and I'm sure Shakespeare would have killed everyone off if he hadn't needed needed someone left alive to tell the story. So it was a great relief to hear that Shakespeare wasn't always a maniacal serial character killer doubtless on a quest for fictional vengeance against who knows who, and that sometimes he actually wanted his audience to die of laughter.

But surprise, surprise—Shakespeare's supposed "comedy" is an utter disaster. Full of overused devices, questionable resolutions, and elements that make me question how this play could ever have been green-lighted, Merchant is one play you should avoid for as long as you can.

Cquote1.png 'Honestly, looking at the script cover above should tell you a lot about Merchants quality. When your playwright starts confusing his s's with his f's, fire him Cquote2.png ~ Douglas "Backgammon" Rolfe

For goodness' sake, it's Scarface playing Shylock! You don't borrow money from Scarface unless you want to die.

The Premise

The story begins in 16th-century Venice, where Antonio is a wealthy merchant and has a friend, Bassanio. Bassanio is a noble, and wants to woo a noblewoman named Portia. The travelling expenses, however, would come to three thousand ducats, and Antonio doesn't have that cash on hand because "all of his ships are at sea". Frankly, that's the worst excuse I've ever heard for not letting your friend borrow any money from you. Not only that, but why is Bassanio spending that much money to travel? Is he leaving Venice in a diamond-and-pearl-encrusted gondola made out of solid gold? Actually, that wouldn't surprise me at all, since we already know he squandered his entire estate at age twenty-something, probably having spent it on renovating the kitchen and the maids.

But the play actually hasn't even started to really insult its audience's intelligence. Antonio actually agrees to cover a bond for his friend—who's probably going to waste all of the money on a new plasma television set anyhow—and Bassanio goes to a Jewish moneylender named Shylock. First of all, Shylock hates Antonio; second, he'll only lend Bassanio his money if he gets a pound of Antonio's flesh if he doesn't get his money back. Any normal person would slowly back away from this maniac and maybe report him to the police. But no—we're supposed to believe that this idiot squandered all of his inheritance on kitchen renovations or such, needs three thousand ducats just to get to Portia's mansion, and agrees to put his friend's flesh up as collateral. Really? I suppose next Shakespeare's going to take the low road and go with the cross-dressing shtick.

The Worsening

In any case, Bassanio accepts the deal and goes off to see Portia. Here comes perhaps one of the most blatant rip-offs in the history of literature. Portia has three vessels ranging from really shiny to made of poison, and suitors have to choose between them. If they choose the right one, they can marry Portia; if not, they lose their chance of marriage with anyone, which is marginally better than death. Does this sound familiar or what? You could just have Portia standing there watching as the Prince of Morocco rapidly ages and dies, and quipping "He chose ... poorly"! So obviously Bassanio takes the carpenter's cup, er, lead casket, and gets Portia and presumably a bout of lead poisoning that kills him right after the play.

Here's when Shakespeare decides to pull a twist out of nowhere and decides to strand Antonio's ships and leave him insolvent. That was not predictable at all! I mean, surely all the ships were going to be just fine and Shylock would get his money back without having to tear Antonio a new one?

Yes, of course everyone saw this coming from a lightyear away. To make matters worse, Shylock's daughter runs off with a Christian! Shock! Horror! Inter-religious eloping! You might claim that things were different in Shakespeare's time, but I'd just ignore you. So Shylock goes completely insane and goes on massive rants:

                    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.
Then again, there's Captain Picard and Hercule Poirot playing Shylock. I suppose there's a pretty fair rationale for everyone treating him like a wimp.

Does he not know that he got the point across at "Hath not a Jew eyes?" already? And what is this man's problem? He's obsessed with Antonio's flesh more than he is about the money—he rejects twice the amount he originally lent! What is this, the Demon Moneylender of Fleet Street?

Anyway, while Bassanio and Portia are getting married, and Bassanio's friend Gratiano and Portia's handmaid Nerissa are getting married—god, this is like the conclusion to some bad romantic comedy—Two Weddings and a Trial—Shylock essentially sues Antonio for his pound of flesh, and we go off to the Duke of Venice's court.

Here's where the play really crosses the line.

Where the Play Really Crosses the Line

Shakespeare must have been completely out of ideas by this point, because he brings out every cliché in the book—cross-dressing, incompetent government, and the worst of them all: the smallest quibble from the contract! I don't want to spoil the ending for you or anything, but not giving him the pound of flesh because he'd also have to spill blood while getting it? That's the best you could do, Shakespeare? This is worse than that time Macduff said he wasn't "of woman born" because his mum had a C-section. Why is it worse? Because I can actually understand this one!

And if Shylock really, really wants this pound of flesh so badly, what's a little quibble like this to stop the man from just saying that the blood's clearly implied in the contract and presumably ripping the heart out of Antonio? For goodness' sake, you'd think he'd have actually thought about it when he drew the contract up?! And why does Portia rely on such a small, insignificant quibble and get away with it? Is it because he's Jewish? Oh.

Whatever. The case moves on as cross-dressing Portia, still pretending to be a magistrate, decides that Shylock can't take the six thousand ducats offer now because he refused it once before. Oh really? I suppose I should have refused to see this play because then that means I wouldn't have to see this play ever again! But no, it gets even worse. Portia actually cites a law that says that a Jew that attempts to take a Christian's life forfeits his property and leaves his life at the hands of the Duke, a Christian. What could possibly go wrong? I suppose if a Christian attempted to take a Jew's life, he'd just have to "pray for God's forgiveness" or some other balderdash!

Cquote1.png You can tell how low the production values on this are. They didn't even bother with a matte painting—I'm sure the black background makes everything look artsy, but it's still cheap Cquote2.png ~ Douglas "Backgammon" Rolfe

Thank goodness the Duke actually has some sense of mercy, because he spares Shylock's life and only forces him to convert to Christianity and thus makes him an outcast from both the Jewish ghetto and the Christian community. What a saint.

The Only Funny Part

This is where Shakespeare actually sort of remembers that he's writing a comedy, and tries to be sort of funny—and to be honest, he actually succeeds to some extent. So I'll just gloss over this really quickly, since I make a living from spewing vitriol, not writing generous reviews.

Portia and Nerissa actually manage to get the marriage rings out of Bassanio and Gratiano—since we men are idiots who can't tell transvestites apart from real men—and later on, at Portia's estate, they blame the two idiots for everything. This is sort of a nice twist on the whole cross-dressing shtick, and it's creative and even well-executed, until Shakespeare blows up the comedic timing and has Portia and Nerissa reveal themselves as the magistrates way too early. What a shame. To make things even more saccharine, Antonio finds out that some of the ships he thought were lost were actually found out at sea, so he has that back too. God, I can't stand these saccharine endings. They're too happy—I can't feed on that! I feed on vitriol!

The Verdict


Cquote1.png Let me reiterate that for subtle emphasis: THIS IS THE WORST PIECE OF ELIZABETHAN THEATRE I'VE HAD THE DISPLEASURE OF SUFFERING THROUGH! Cquote2.png ~ Douglas "Backgammon" Rolfe

For a comedy, it never made me laugh—forget the actually sort of funny part, I'm trying to be angry here—and the only thing that made it resemble a comedy was the happy ending, which isn't what makes anything a comedy. There are throwaway jokes here and there, but they're so out of touch and gross that you'd think he wanted anyone at all to see these plays. And this play actually manages to be more politically incorrect than North, and that offended half a dozen ethnicities! That's right—this play is as offensive to the Jewish community as North was to half a dozen communities. What's wrong with you, Shakespeare? Can't your audience take a good Jewish character?

I suppose this play is more progressive in terms of its attitude towards Jews by contemporary standards, seeing how Shylock's characterisation actually reflects all of the abuse that he's suffered from Christians, but it's less than subtle. Why does he need to take a pound of Antonio's flesh? Why so specific? Portia didn't even need to argue about the blood; she just needed to say "if you're off by a millionth, you're nicked"! He could also just have made up a contract saying "I get the money back or Antonio gets to be thrown in the lion's den and not my problem if he gets injured, spills blood, or dies" and let the lawyers figure that one out!

But ultimately, none of this excuses Shakespeare for being so out of touch with modern society. Sure, he wrote this hundreds of years ago, but if he's such a literary genius he surely could have figured out that someday we'd stop hating major religious groups and start hating various ethnic minorities instead! Come on—if he allegedly is still relevant on fundamental themes, why can't he be relevant in superficial aspects too?

Overall, the play is the worst thing I've seen in my entire life, and I'd advise everyone to stay away from it as far as you can. However, since this is Shakespeare and I don't want to look like a complete idiot, I'll give it 5 out of 5 stars.

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