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The Merchant of Venice (Folger Shakespeare Library)

The Merchant of Venice - William Shakespeare If you spend enough time on GoodReads, you start to see certain topics come up over and over again in reviews and on the threads... cannibalism, the Federal Reserve Bank, whether various books have strong female characters, etc. That's by no means a complete list, and I'm not making commentary here on any of these things, other than to say that these subjects come up because they are on peoples' minds. That last one (strong female characters) comes up often, but not exclusively, in association with YA reviews. Well, readers out there looking for strong female characters will definitely want to include The Merchant of Venice on their to-read list. Even though most of the story revolves around the titular merchant Shylock, it is young Portia of Belmont who really steals the show. I don't want to go through an entire plot summary here, but Shylock lends money to Antonio, and Antonio can't pay. The terms of the loan are unusual: if Antonio defaults, Shylock is entitled to take a pound of his flesh. That's not a figure of speech; Shylock actually wants the legal right to carve a one pound chunk out of Antonio's body. The unspoken implication is really that it means Shylock can kill Antonio, because... sure, if a skilled surgeon took a chunk of muscle from Antonio's thigh, successfully avoided major arteries, and kept the field sterile enough to avoid infection (this being the 1400's), then Antonio could live; but suppose Shylock decides he wants the one pound to include Antonio's heart? The average adult male heart typically weighs between 8 and 14 oz, after all.Could he do that? Could Shylock really ask for the heart? Yeah, he could, so basically Shylock can kill Antonio, if he wants to. And he does want to. As a Jew in Venice in the 1400’s, Shylock has been living his whole life under a humiliating sort of apartheid system, in which Jews were only allowed to reside in a designated part of the city (i.e. a ghetto), which was locked up at night like a cage. Beyond that, a whole host of rituals and regulations add to the denigration of Jews in the course of daily Venetian life. Even Shylock's hard-won material wealth isn't enough to elevate his status to par with the lowliest of Christian folk in the city. That's the institutional part of the shame. Antonio comes along and makes it personal. He makes of show of despising Shylock, and even spits unprovoked in Shylock's face in the public square. There's no two ways about it: Antonio is a sad, insecure, racist bully who uses the institutionalized framework of anti-Semitism to make himself feel like a big man. Part of me really wanted to see him get his heart ripped out, and maybe even tortured a bit for good measure. It’s not like Shakespeare wasn’t capable of delivering the gore- go check out [b:Titus Andronicus|72978|Titus Andronicus|William Shakespeare|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1347806542s/72978.jpg|275237]; The Bard was a loose cannon when it came to gratuitous violence. If he were alive today, Tipper Gore would probably have him rated "X" for violence.So that’s the set-up. Then a bunch of other things happen, but the crucial scene in this play is the adjudication of the contract in the court of the Duke of Venice. This is the O.J. Simpson trial of its day; the talk of the town. Everybody's got an opinion about it, and the prevailing consensus (predictably) is that Shylock is a monster, and that the Duke- as a God-fearing man- cannot allow the contract to be fulfilled on Shylock's terms. The historical context you have to know here is that Venice of the 1400's was the seat of immense wealth and power, which rested on its status as a center of commerce. In turn, Venice's commercial might was supported by several pillars: (1) its stable and secure banks; (2) its well-administrated business-friendly laws and tax codes; and (3) its mighty commercial fleet positioned favorably on the Adriatic Sea, which dominated the trade routes of the Western world. The Duke of Venice's power thus depended on him maintaining a fair and predictable business-friendly environment. Specifically, he needed all onlookers to see that his courts upheld and enforced the private contracts in his jurisdiction. On the other hand, the Duke also had to satisfy the prevailing community standards of his subjects, and didn't want Venice to get a reputation for savagery. The Duke is in a bit of a bind here, and he plays the situation exactly the way you'd expect: first, he tries to persuade Shylock to willingly release Antonio from the contractual killing. When that fails, he tries to buy Shylock out of the contract, at twice the cost of Antonio’s debt. Again, no luck; Shylock's revenge is more dear to him than the money. Just as it appears the Duke will be forced to rule in favor of Shylock, a brilliant young lawyer shows up from Rome to take up Antonio's defense. It’s like a last-minute stay of execution- who knew Shakespeare did courtroom drama? But he does! And it's great! Can I spoil it for you? Oh, what the hell... I put up spoiler warnings already.The Roman legal eagle comes up with the brilliant two-pronged defense, telling Shylock: (1) The contract says “one pound of flesh”, so you better be sure you take precisely 1.000000000 pounds. We'll weigh it with the best scales in the land, and if you're even the tiniest detectable amount off, you will be guilty of breaching the contract, and you will be legally held responsible for murder.and (2) The contract says you can take flesh, but it does not say you may take blood. We all know that man is made of flesh and blood, but you have only contracted for the flesh. Thus, if you spill so much as a drop of blood, you will again be guilty of violating the terms of your agreement, and you will be a murderer. BAM! In a stunning upset, the letter of the law [contract] completely routs the spirit of the law [contract]. Or maybe this is a cautionary tale about the hazards of signing poorly-written contracts. Anyhow, Antonio is saved by ridiculously hair-splitting interpretations which would never reasonably be applied to other contracts (e.g. what if Shylock was buying a pound of butter and it was off by the smallest detectable amount? Would any reasonable court find the contract of sale to be breached?) Shylock has no choice but to beg off the whole scheme. As a reader, I found this to be a very bittersweet outcome, because you know the system screwed Shylock, and you know Antonio is an asshole who completely deserved a comeuppance of some sort, if not death. It's ambiguous. Well, Shakespeare always leaves a lot of pieces for the discussion groups to pick apart in the aftershow, doesn’t he?But what of this mysterious lawyer from Rome? Who was this genius masked man, who saved the undeserving prick Antonio, and -more importantly- preserved the legal foundations of Venetian commercial primacy? Why, it was none other than the lovely Portia... wealthy local heiress, and wife of Antonio's dear friend Bassanio! She showed up a whole courtfull of men, including the illustrious Duke, using nothing but her brain. By "nothing but her brain", I mean to say that for as lovely as she is, nobody can steal her glory here by claiming she used her looks or her feminine charms to sway the audience, because she was disguised as a man the whole time. And she fooled them! There’s sort of a weird trade-off going on here, because on one hand it’s a big day for Girl Power, but on the other hand, Shylock didn’t get to win his (admittedly misguided and vengeful) strike back against anti-Semitism, and these two issues are directly related. In fact, Shakespeare has kind of rigged it to be a zero-sum game in this instance, so it’s one minority (well, women aren’t technically a minority, but you probably get my meaning) stepping on another minority’s toes, on the march towards empowerment. That’s not ideal, but I think that happens, and it’s important to be mindful that it happens. If you’re in a disenfranchised group looking for empowerment –and you may be soon, even if you don’t realize it- it’s best to make as many allies and as few enemies as you can, before you face down your oppressor. But enough about that. This play is a big score for the ladies, and I probably don’t spend as much time thinking about gender issues as many other people on GR do, but if I had a daughter, I can’t think of a book offhand I would be more excited about giving her, to show her a great literary role model. Portia uses her brain, she overcomes the gender bias of her situation, and she isn’t intimidated by a rich and powerful opponent who appears to have a stronger legal position. She goes into that court AND FUCKING OWNS IT. And she does it all in the service of what she thinks is the right thing to do. My heart would burst with pride if I raised a daughter like Portia. And more importantly as role modeling goes, The Merchant of Venice seems grounded in reality. Sure, it’s set in Venice of six-hundred years ago, but it’s a legal battle. It’s one person making a difference in the machinery of society. I don’t want to bust too much on warrior princesses or demon slayers or anything like that, because fiction is supposed to be fun, and that stuff all has its place… but sometimes it seems (and this is for both genders) like quite a lot of role models these days are of the physical fighting ilk, and that just seems very limited. Is my perspective just skewed by what’s popular on GR? I have two nephews, and I’m trying to find books with characters more like the people who influenced me the most growing up; the role models I admired and wanted to emulate. None of them were steroidal ass-kickers who used physical force to achieve anything; they were people struggling with the insidious challenges of living, which never seemed to present as physical confrontations, but always as a string of tests of endurance, intellect and integrity. That’s how my real-life role models were My Dad worked for a factory which downsized him out of a job when he was 38. He took some very thankless odd jobs after that to make ends meet, while he put himself through school to make himself more employable. For two years, he was always either looking for a job, working, at school, or studying. And he was always tired. He’d have his books spread out on the dining room table, studying when I got up in the morning, and he’d be there after he got home at night, when I was going to bed. Then there’s a teacher I admired, whose enthusiasm and inquisitiveness was an inspiration for so many of his students. Then there’s my grandfather, whose hard work, intelligence and tenacity (and probably some luck) saw his little shop business through the worst years of the Depression, when so many others in his town went under. and I want to give my nephews books with characters more like that. I’ll definitely give them The Merchant of Venice, when it becomes age-appropriate, because it doesn’t matter that Portia is a girl; she’s got brains and courage, and she does what she thinks is right. Any boy would do well to emulate her.