November Books 3) The Merchant of Venice

3) The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare

I remember seeing the BBC version of this many years ago, and not being terribly impressed; the fault must have been in the production, because it is a good play (and to get the Arkangel bit out of the way, their version is pretty good with Trevor Peacock as Shylock and David Tennant, Scottish again this time, as Launcelot Gobbo the clown).

It scores over The Taming of the Shrew in that Shylock is a much more interesting character than Katherina. His grudge against the Christian characters is understandable; they have subjected him to racist abuse, and then they encourage his daughter to elope, stealing large amounts of his money, as well as undercutting his business. He gets one of the two great speeches of the play. (“If you prick us, do we not bleed?”)

Having said that, I am not comfortable with the depiction of the character, which remains stereotyped (and there are numerous other stereotypes in the play), and his final fall and punishment are excessive. But it seems a bit more like an honest effort on Shakespeare’s part to have a villainous character with some depth. And Shylock’s punishment is explicitly for his failure in regard of the other great speech of the play: he fails to show mercy. (Not that the Christians show him much mercy either.)

It is a good play, but not a great one. The plot about Portia and the caskets is just silly, and the subplot of her and Nerissa and the rings is a bit heavy-handed in its humour. But I liked it more than I had expected to.

Henry VI, Part I | Henry VI, Part II | Henry VI, Part III | Richard III | Comedy of Errors | Titus Andronicus | Taming of the Shrew | Two Gentlemen of Verona | Love’s Labour’s Lost | Romeo and Juliet | Richard II | A Midsummer Night’s Dream | King John | The Merchant of Venice | Henry IV, Part I | Henry IV, Part II | Henry V | Julius Caesar | Much Ado About Nothing | As You Like It | Merry Wives of Windsor | Hamlet | Twelfth Night | Troilus and Cressida | All’s Well That Ends Well | Measure for Measure | Othello | King Lear | Macbeth | Antony and Cleopatra | Coriolanus | Timon of Athens | Pericles | Cymbeline | The Winter’s Tale | The Tempest | Henry VIII | The Two Noble Kinsmen | Edward III | Sir Thomas More (fragment)

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1 Response to November Books 3) The Merchant of Venice

  1. nwhyte says:

    I fear that the truth is more awful than that.

    I have found what appears to be a pirated ebook of the original self-published edition on a Ukrainian site. The paragraph which I think we are concerned with here, in its original form, is:

    And thou art aware of only a small fraction of the measures used to contain me. All thou sees art the walls, guards, and the abyss. There art also magical forces at work. Magical locks art on all the doors here, just as ’twas on the door through which ye entered the gaol. They disappear upon closing. ’Tis the same enchantment on the bridge ye came across. Go look and ye wilt find it so. ’Tis no longer there. ’Tis not invisible—’tis gone.

    Compare with the version quoted by Bourke from the Orion edition:

    Measures thou see art but trifles. Walls, guards and the abyss stand least among the gauntlet. Lo what works of magic ensnare me! Magical locks claim all the doors here as smoke and dream they vanish with passage.

    The first version is not good; “all thou sees art”, “there art”, “locks art” and “ye wilt” are all wrong (and “’twas” is a bit dubious if referring to plural locks). But the second version is far worse, and it looks very much as if the author has consciously and deliberately revised it between the two editions.

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