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Shakespeare and Music One of Shakespeare’s best known and longest passages on music appears near the beginning of the final scene of The Merchant of Venice. As Lorenzo and Jessica speak of their love under a starry sky at Belmont, Lorenzo explains to his bride the theory of the music of the spheres. Writers in Shakespeare’s age interpreted literally the phrase in Job 38:7 suggesting that at God’s creation Òthe morning stars sang together.Ó Accordingly, they believed that the planets in motion create tones that blend in beautiful harmony. Since the Fall of Adam and Eve, however, mankind has been unable to hear these heavenly sounds. Shakespeare’s passage goes on to extol music’s powerful impact on human feelings and the actions of beasts alike. Lorenzo’s lines also associate harmony in the heavenlies and in nature with the need for harmonious relationships in society. They suggest that the human who is not moved by the sweet sounds of music is a person who cannot be trusted. Shakespeare’s relationship to music does not end with his profound allusions to it in the plays. Music itself also plays a key role in many of his plays, including Merchant. In the final scene the music which greets the return of Portia to Belmont suggests peace and love, signaling the calm the three couples and Antonio will enjoy now that their ordeal in Venice has ended. Shakespeare’s dramas also have inspired more musical compositions than those by any other writer. Although no music originally written for Shakespeare’s lyrics has survived from his own age, since then thousands of composers, prominent and obscure alike, have undertaken settings inspired by the plays and sonnets. It is certainly a manifestation of the playwright’s universal appeal that a 1992 Oxford University Press listing of musical settings of Shakespeare’s lines and musical works inspired by them includes over 21,000 compositions. The 1998 Bob Jones University production of The Merchant of Venice is dedicated to the memory of Bob Jones, Jr. (1911-1997), founder of Classic Players. The June 1930 production of Merchant was the company’s premiere performance, designed by young Jones, who also played Shylock. SMART Enrichment Activity To justify his usury to Antonio, Shylock cites the Old Testament account in Genesis 30 of Jacob’s exploitation of his father-in-law, Laban. According to Shylock, Jacob succeeded in breeding sheep because of his cunning. Antonio’s view, a view shared by Christians and devout Jews alike, is that God blessed Jacob in spite of his wrongdoing. The discussion underlines the moral basis of Antonio’s disapproval of Shylock’s business practices. Among the sixteenth-century works in Bob Jones University’s Art Gallery is a wood panel adorned with oil paintings of four Jewish patriarchs attributed to Pietro Negroni: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Isaiah. The inscription on the portrait of Jacob reads, ÒThe scepter shall not be taken away from Judah until He come Who is sent.Ó The Merchant of Venice: A Showcase of Shakespeare’s Skill The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s most exciting and thought-provoking plays. It includes some of the most remarkable characters ever created and raises issues that are as pressing today as they were 400 years ago. If Shylock is one of Shakespeare’s most perplexing and repugnant figures, Portia is among his most charming, intelligent women. The play is also a showcase for some of the playwright’s most famous lines. Portia’s Òquality of mercyÓ and Shylock’s ÒHath not a Jew eyes?Ó speeches are among the most frequently-cited passages in Shakespeare’s plays. While the text teems with memorable characters and lines, the main attraction of Merchant onstage is its drama. The climax of the trial sceneÑPortia’s ÒTarry a little; there is something elseÓÑis as startlingly dramatic as anything Shakespeare wrote. Alongside the high drama and suspense of the pound-of-flesh plot, Shakespeare gives audiences broad comedy, sparkling wit, jests, music, and romance in two related plots. The play ends with lighthearted banter, pledges of love, and luminous poetry in a moonlit garden at Belmont, one of Shakespeare’s most delicate and joyful settings. The full range of Shakespeare’s remarkable talents finds no better showcase than The Merchant of Venice. The Merchant of Venice: Comedy or Tragedy? In The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare brilliantly weaves together three different sorts of plots to create a hybrid form of drama known as tragicomedy. Written around 1596, it is one of the playwright’s earliest efforts at combining serious and comic elements in one work. These plots come together in an extraordinary scene, the most famous in all English drama, the trial scene of The Merchant of Venice. It has given the Englishspeaking world the familiar phrase Òa pound of flesh.Ó This scene depicts a dramatic, ironic turn of events: the merchant Antonio enters the courtroom resigned to meet his death at the point of Shylock’s knife and exits with the loan shark in his debt. The climax of the pound-of-flesh plot does not consist of a conscious decision from Shylock to desist from his revenge. Instead it is Portia’s tricks of law that prevent a tragic ending to the plot. Interpreting according to the letter of the law that Shylock craves, the judge enforces two points: Shylock must cut off exactly a pound of Antonio’s flesh, not a bit more or less. In taking the flesh, he cannot shed one drop of Antonio’s blood. Thus Shylock himself becomes the victim of the letter of the law that he has so stubbornly insisted upon. His plan for revenge is foiled, and he faces financial ruin and even capital punishment for having conspired to kill a Venetian. Once Antonio’s legal dilemma has been resolved, the drama quickly moves toward a happy ending for all the major characters except Shylock. Yet it would hardly be accurate to say that the play is a tragedy for the Jewish moneylender, since he also goes free and benefits from Antonio’s generosity, although his plan for revenge has been utterly defeated. A final and controversial feature of the outcome of the pound-of-flesh plot is that Shylock is enjoined to become a Christian. Shakespeare’s audience likely regarded this enforced conversion as symbolic rather than realistic. The imputed righteousness that comes through faith in Christ is the only alternative to Shylock’s former legal righteousness. Also as a Christian, Shylock cannot continue to loan money at interest. The story of Portia and her suitors is derived from a medieval allegorical tale that illustrates God’s testing of those who would ÒwedÓ His Son. Bassanio’s role in Portia’s story makes this plot inseparable from the story of the play’s title character, Antonio, because it is Bassanio’s need for funds to court Portia that prompts his friend Antonio to do business with the Jewish moneylender Shylock. Shakespeare was not the first playwright of his day to combine the pound-offlesh and caskets stories in a stage play. An earlier play called The Jew is referred to as Òrepresenting the greediness of worldly choosers and the bloody minds of usurers.Ó After the plot of Portia’s suitors and the plot of Shylock’s attempt to take a pound of Antonio’s flesh have been brought to suitable closure, Shakespeare develops a third plot to add some merriment and to create a romantic ending for Merchant like those he employs in most of his comedies. The playwright derives the rings plotÑthe story of Portia and Nerissa’s accusing their husbands of infidelity after tricking them into giving away their wedding ringsÑfrom the same medieval Italian story that provides him with the plot of Portia and her suitors. Shakespeare ties the theme of this brief, witty plot to the motifs of love and gold in the Òpound of fleshÓ and caskets plots by implying that gold is worthless unless it serves or represents true love and faithfulness. The play’s marvelous ending transports the audience from the commercial world of Venice to the dreamy, joyous world of Belmont, where Jessica and Lorenzo set the scene with their romantic banter. Apart from the harsh commercialism of a city that operates solely on the principle of economic gain, Shakespeare’s three romantic couples enjoy talk of love, moonlight, and music. Thus with its joyful, harmonious ending, celebrating the love of three newlywed couples, Merchant belongs to the broad category of Shakespearean comedy, or plays that have happy endings. Because the play’s first four acts develop a serious threat against the life of the title character, however, this work is more accurately termed a tragicomedy. Plays in this genre usually include a villain who is displaced, virtuous characters who are rescued from threatening circumstances, clowning, courtship, and marriage. The Jewish Question and Shakespeare’s Themes in The Merchant of Venice For modern audiences, The Merchant of Venice is perhaps Shakespeare’s most controversial play, condemned by some for being anti-semitic (a work that is hostile toward Jews) and praised by others for fostering religious tolerance. Next to Hamlet, Shylock has provoked more discussion than any other character created by Shakespeare. Nazi atrocities against European Jews have made it much more difficult to ascertain Shakespeare’s meaning and fairly assess his accomplishment. Elizabethan audiences of Merchant likely experienced few qualms about the Jewish question. Although The Merchant of Venice issues from a culture that denigrated Jews, it is not an anti-semitic play. Shakespeare acknowledges the prejudice of the Elizabethan age and even draws from it for his own theatrical purposes, but Merchant is not a work about racial prejudice. In creating the figure of Shylock, Shakespeare uses the familiar medieval stereotype of a miserly Jewish moneylender as a form of dramatic shorthand. But rather than embodying religious or ethnic condemnation in Merchant, the playwright upholds love and friendship as positive virtues for all races and creeds. Merchant is a play about value, or relative worth, and values, or those qualities or things a person esteems. The play invites us to question the degree to which we treasure gold, love, and human life. Shylock is a negative player in Shakespeare’s plot not because he is a Jew but because he is greedy and vengeful. His daughter Jessica, on the other hand, is a positive character because she is vivacious and discerning. Shylock’s greed and materialism typify the usurer, a person who loans money at a high rate of interest, rather than the Jew as such. The practice of usury was despised in Renaissance Europe, based on the Catholic Church’s misapplication of Old Testament law and the common belief that minerals such as gold do not have the power to regenerate as vegetables and animals do. Judaism also condemned usury, citing the Old Testament law stated in Exodus 22:25: ÒIf thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury.Ó Nehemiah 5 labels as usury an interest rate of only one per cent. Before the play begins: In Belmont lives a beautiful heiress named Portia. Before her father died, he set down in his will strict instructions concerning who can marry his daughter. He has left three chests, or caskets: one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. One of the three contains a picture of Portia. The man who chooses this casket will win her hand in marriage. The only clues offered to Portia’s suitors are the inscriptions on the outside of each casket. In Venice live Antonio [photo 2], a rich merchant, and his friend, Bassanio [photo 3]. Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, despises Antonio, who reduces Shylock’s profits by loaning money at no interest. Shylock, whose motto is ÒFast bind, fast find,Ó keeps a tight rein over his money and his daughter, Jessica. As the play unfolds: Bassanio is in love with Portia, but he has no money to finance the courtship of a wealthy young woman. In an act of friendship, Antonio, whose money is presently tied up in ventures at sea, agrees to take a loan from Shylock on Bassanio’s behalf. Instead of assessing interest for the loan, Shylock proposes a Òmerry bondÓ: if Antonio does not repay within three months, Shylock will take a pound of the merchant’s flesh. Antonio agrees to Shylock’s terms because he is confident that his ships will return by the time the loan is due. Jessica, who disapproves of her father’s ways, elopes with Lorenzo, taking some of her father’s money and jewels with her. When Shylock discovers what has happened, he is torn between grief for the loss of Jessica and grief for the loss of his money. He finds comfort only when he hears the news that Antonio’s ships have been lost at sea. In Belmont, Bassanio chooses the casket containing Portia’s portrait and thus wins her hand in marriage. Portia’s gentlewoman, Nerissa, and Bassanio’s friend Gratiano also reveal their plans to wed. The women give the men rings and extract promises that they will never part with these tokens of their love. Bassanio receives an ominous letter from Antonio, stating that because his ships have miscarried, he will have to repay Shylock’s loan with his flesh. Thus Bassanio and Portia hastily wed offstage before he and Gratiano leave for Venice, taking more than enough money from Portia to repay Antonio’s debt to Shylock. Portia secretly arranges to appear in court herself, disguised as a young lawyer called Balthasar, who becomes the judge in Shylock’s case against Antonio. ÒBalthasarÓ admits that the moneylender ‘s arguments against the merchant are flawless, but ÒheÓ begs Shylock to show mercy. Shylock, however, refuses this plea as well as Bassanio’s offer to pay him three times the amount Antonio borrowed. Only the life of Antonio will satisfy Shylock’s thirst for revenge. As Shylock is about to make an incision in Antonio’s flesh, ÒBalthasarÓ warns him that the bond does not entitle him to shed one drop of Antonio’s blood. Defeated by the letter of the law he has insisted upon, Shylock is forced to forego his revenge against the man who loans money gratis. ÒBalthasarÓ then points out that as a foreigner who has conspired against the life of a Venetian, Shylock may be put to death and his fortune divided between Antonio and the state. Antonio, however, prefers to show mercy to Shylock. Thus the Duke and Antonio agree to let him live and keep part of his wealth if he will bequeath his estate to Jessica and Lorenzo. Antonio also asks that Shylock become a Christian. Shylock professes contentment and leaves the court. ÒBalthasarÓ is praised for the successful outcome of the court case. When pressed to accept a token of gratitude, the judge asks for Bassanio’s ring. Nerissa, disguised as the judge’s clerk, also will trick Gratiano into giving up his ring. The couples are reunited in Belmont, where Jessica and Lorenzo enjoy the beauties of moonlight and music as Portia and Nerissa tease their husbands about their missing rings. At last Portia gives Antonio news about his ships which contributes to the festive close of a play that ends in merriment for all those in Belmont. According to Jewish writers, usury along with the related professions of extortion, gambling, and tax collecting was detested by Jews themselves. Those who deliberately chose such a profession were said to be greedy and/or disillusioned with Judaism. Shylock’s false values directly contrast with the values of love and friendship exemplified in Antonio, Portia, and Bassanio, who risk gold in the interest of love and who give away gold as a token of their love. Shylock clutches his gold with all his might, yet he places no value on love, friendship, or family ties. Like the proud suitors Morocco and Arragon, Shylock regards as foolish those who take risks for love or friendship. Like them, he is also driven by the impulse to possess. The play suggests, however, that in order to gain love, one must give it away; that true love is characterized by risk and selfabasement; and that non-material values are superior to material ones. Shylock also scoffs at those who frolic and make music. He attempts to shut his daughter away from all such merriment, admonishing her to close the windows so she will neither hear nor see ÒChristian fools. Ó Jessica’s name, in fact, is derived from the Hebrew Iscah of Genesis 11:29, a name which means Òshe that looketh out.Ó Jessica metaphorically looks out from her father’s Judaism to the New Covenant of love and mercy found in Christianity when she falls in love with Lorenzo, a Christian. Her elopement is depicted as a type of conversion to Christianity. Jessica states her intentions to Òbecome a Christian, and [Lorenzo’s] loving wife.Ó In so doing, she abandons her father’s tyranny, hate, and greed for the love and happiness exemplified by Belmont. In a figurative sense she also gains salvation. The audiences for whom Shakespeare created the character Jessica did not think it was bad to depict Christianity as the one true religion. Theirs was an age in which men and women fought and died for their religious beliefs. When Jessica converts to Christianity, she is doing the right thing in the Elizabethan view. The Jews had rejected Christ and willingly refused His salvation. Shylock is so dehumanized by his greed that the loss he feels at Jessica and Lorenzo’s elopement seems more material than paternal. In his frustration he literally confuses his daughter and his ducats. Shylock’s desire for revenge also contributes significantly to the audience ‘s negative impression of him. Since revenge is a criminal passion that can destroy Roman, Dane, Moor, or any other type of character Shakespeare depicts, the playwright’s attribution of this obsession to Shylock cannot be interpreted as anti-semitic. Shylock’s desire for revenge is related to his greed, for he desires vengeance against his business rival, Antonio, because the merchant brings down the rate of usury in Venice by loaning money gratis to those in need. In the most famous and controversial speech in Merchant, ÒHath not a Jew eyes?,Ó Shylock equates vengeance with justice. Although many have taken these lines out of context as Shakespeare’s argument for the equality of Christianity and Judaism, they actually confirm the monstrosity of Shylock’s hate and his villainous desire for vengeance. As Shylock lists the abuses he has suffered, he concludes falsely that they have all occurred simply because he is a Jew. He sees himself as morally equal to Antonio because they possess the same body parts and senses. Ironically, as the audience realizes, so do animals. The speech is actually a defense of revenge, not of Jews. In terms of inhumane actions, Shylock vows that he will surpass all those characters who have wronged him; he will Òbetter the instructionÓ by his heinous plan to take a pound of Antonio’s flesh. As Shylock sharpens his knife during the trial scene in preparation to kill Antonio, he loses all audience sympathy. No amount of pleading or bargaining will soften his hard heart. He is a legalist, a would-be murderer, and one who has grown wealthy by exploiting humans in need. Shylock’s demand for strict interpretation of the law ultimately backfires on him, however, and the scene culminates in his downfall. Even then Antonio and the Duke offer Shylock mercy rather than revenge. In Shylock, Shakespeare has created a complex character for playgoers in today’s post-Holocaust era, who are predisposed to react sympathetically to all those who belong to a persecuted minority. If Shakespeare does momentarily invite us to see the human being inside Shylock’s skin, he certainly never asks us to excuse his conduct, nor does he make a case for the common humanity of all men and women. Instead, the playwright invites us to exercise sound moral judgment concerning the nature of evil as the conflict between Shylock and Antonio unfolds. Shylock’s hate and desire for vengeance must be condemned. If we pity Shylock at all, it is not because he is a member of a persecuted minority but because the would-be murderer has been justly punished. The Merchant of Venice is neither an anti-semitic work nor an argument for the equality of the Jewish and Christian religions. The play suggests that it is a person’s actions and attitudes, not his race or religion, that determine his character. Shakespeare’s Culture When Shakespeare penned The Merchant of Venice around 1596, England had been a country officially without Jews for 300 years. It is unlikely that Shakespeare himself ever met a Jew; there were only about 200 Jews in all of London at the time he created the character Shylock. Long regarded in England with suspicion and dislike, Jews were officially expelled from the country by Edward I. During the Middle Ages Catholic parishioners professed to hate Jews because they had hated and crucified Christ. This attitude reflects both historical and theological ignorance, for Christ’s crucifixion was ordered by a Roman ruler, and He died to atone for the sinfulness of all who repent, not only for the sins of the Jews.Christ Himself said of His life, ÒNo man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myselfÓ (John 10:18a). Nevertheless, hate for the Jew persisted in the hearts of some sixteenthcentury English men and women. The traditional Jewish profession of moneylending was also detested by many in Shakespeare’s culture, although others had recognized its necessity to the growth of the English economy. Shakespeare chose to set the conflict between a merchant and a Jewish moneylender in Venice, a place of trade and wealth where Jews were permitted to open banks for the lending of money around 1400. The theatrical image of the Jew in Shakespeare’s day both influenced cultural attitudes and was influenced by them. In 1589 Christopher Marlowe introduced The Jew of Malta, a play featuring a Jewish villain named Barabas. Marlowe’s protagonist is so evil that he murders his daughter Abigail after she converts to the Christian faith. There is no prototype in English history for this wicked character, who is the incarnation of lust for power and blood as well as gold. Barabas victimizes everyone who crosses his path, including nuns, priests, and knights. Five years after Barabas appeared on the Elizabethan stage, a Portuguese Jew, who had resided at Queen Elizabeth’s court as her physician, was convicted of attempting to poison the queen and executed. During the very week of Roderigo Lopez’s hanging, The Jew of Malta was revived for a successful run. Undoubtedly this 1594 revival of Marlowe’s play had a significant influence on Shakespeare’s writing of The Merchant of Venice. The character he created in Shylock, while drawn in part from the stereotypes of the day, is a more complex and less extreme figure than his predecessors, a human being who is gripped with an obsession that almost destroys him.
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