Review: The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mercy and Music

Giving The Merchant of Venice a quick read before going to see the play tonight, these two themes emerged.

First mercy. Shylock the Jew demands justice from the court, refusing to extend mercy to his debtor. He will not forgive but wants revenge. "If you prick us, do we not bleed?... if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?" The wise woman Portia warns him to extend mercy, "In the course of justice none of us should see salvation: we do pray for mercy." But Shylock says he has no need of mercy for he has never done wrong. Fortune quickly turns against him when wise Portia, disguised as the lawyer grants him his "pound of flesh," but not a drop of blood. This takes away his revenge, but wisdom (Portia) goes on to prosecute the merciless and mercenary prosecutor. He has sought the life of his debtor without cause, the penalty of which is death. By justice, he must die. But Shylock receives mercy. He loses half his wealth to his debtor, instead of his life. Had he not pursued revenge his loss would have been far less. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. TO the shrewd, God shows Himself shrewd. The last act continues the theme: the wives point out the fault in their new husbands, giving away their rings, and hold the power to judge or extend mercy.

Music makes a couple appearances in this play, and old Billy hails "the sweet power of music" with one of my favorite Shakespeare quotes:

"The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov'd with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;...
Let no such man be trusted. - Mark the music."

Shakespeare's treatment of "the Jew" is intriguing. He is generally considered an agent of the devil, and a mercenary lover of money more than family. In the middle his daughter leaves him and becomes a Christian, and in the end Shylock himself converts to Christianity as an alternative to death. The culture had no qualms ascribing negative vices to individuals because of their race. There may be a theological point in it all, that Judaism appeals to the law of Moses, while Christianity is based upon mercy.

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