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Universidade de So Paulo USP

Faculdade de Filosofia, Letras e Cincias Humanas FFLCH

FLM0583 Shakespeare: Obra e Crtica
Vinicius Matheus Belvedere (8573331)

First Essay The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice is a Shakespeares play that rises many questions and
interpretations because of its form or because of its content. Regarding the first, we have
a play fitting the model and structure of a comedy. Regarding the second, we have a plot
involving subjects important at the time the play was written (and continue hot today,
even if in a different way), such as marriage lineage and subjects that became important
with historical and social change through the centuries, such as minority identities and
The form of the play follows the structure of a comedy: the tension in the scenes
falls then rises to end with a happy-ending (differently from the tragedy, which tension
rises then falls to end with an unhappy or even tragic ending. In summary, at the
beginning, we see Antonio lending money for Bassanio and Portia thinks of a way that
prevents her from choosing a husband. Then, as the deal between Antonio and Shylock
is made and bad news about Antonios vessels the tension grows, creating an expecting
feeling on how Antonio will solve his problem. Finally, Portia comes with the idea of
strictly (not) following the contract, the payment of the debt and three marriages, when
all problems seem solved
Thinking of the content, we have two main issues that arise for the readers of
21st century, in special: the queer and Semitic questions. Although it could be
considered inevitable not to see those questions in the play nowadays, we must first ask
ourselves the differences present in the context of the play creation and ours.
Thus, the Semitic issue is a very sensitive point, because, as appointed by
Garber, although Shylock seems ludicrous as a greedy, vindictive, bad Jew, his character
and its development is much more complex with the presence of very humanizing
features, as well. One of the highest points in the play is his monologue, for example,
that questions that unhuman characterization that Christian characters have given him as
Jew: it has an argumentative structure, creating a comparative thought between
Christian and Jews in their most human traces, such as hunger, pain and bleeding. In
other moments of the play, after Jessicas escape, Shylock is divided between the loss of
his ducats and the loss of his daughter and, although it can be considered cold-hearted
from his part (as his ducats are as valuable as his daughter), it can also be considered an
approximation between his ducats (the greatest and most important thing for him, in this
greedy characterization) and Jessica, thus making her as important the money lost.
We must also consider that Shakespeare and his audience did not have the same
perspective of Jew as we (that have seen the Holocaust and the wars in Jerusalem
territory) have. As example, we can consider Shylock as it is interpreted nowadays in
theaters or movies. Directors and actors tend to create much more human Jews
especially because their representation became a very complex issue in our time. It can
not be considered anti-Semitic to write a play with such a character in Shakespeares
time, but in ours, things are not so clear.
The queer issue presents very similar problems. Although there is a kind of
bromance or very close relationship between Bassanio and Antonio, we must read the
(and watch) the play thinking of how those questions were thought at the time
Shakespeare wrote it. As appointed by Sinfield, gay and homosexuality are terms
and concepts invented in much more recent times than The Merchant of Venice, just
as are our relation to them. Portias reaction to her husbands friendship with Bassanio is
an example of this: she does not seem outraged by its existence per se, but something
like jealous, as if it did not matter if it was a man or a woman. In the trial and final
scenes as well we have the other characters reacting very different from todays
audience: nobody seems to mind how the lawyer asks Antonio for his ring (regarding
here its representation of anal sex and of marital fidelity). Once more, at the final scene,
Portias behavior and speech do not show great surprise for the act of her husband
giving his ring to another man, but the act of giving it to another person.
All in all, The Merchant of Venice is a play that speaks very much to 21st
century reader, although we shall read it carefully, thinking of all the questions it
presents. Shakespearean society was different from ours in many aspects (although it
could be similar in others) and there must be some attention paid to those aspects not to
limit the reading we have, but to enrich it.