The villains in Shakespeare’s plays always seem to have the best lines. It’s been more than 20 years since I first heard “The Merchant of Venice” on the radio, and I still remember Shylock’s “do we not bleed” speech. Few can evoke a stronger feeling of the brotherhood of man.
The Voice of Reason
What stands out to me, reading the play this time around, is the irrational nature of all types of prejudice, discrimination and phobia. Groups of people can be marginalized and disenfranchised because of external and accidental traits that bear nothing upon their characters and merits but are nevertheless branded as evil with derogatory names.
He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh?
In the same vein, Shakespeare also decries slavery and the hypocrisy of his generation, again, by the mouth of Shylock.
What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?
You have among you many a purchas’d slave,
Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules,
You use in abject and in slavish parts,
Because you bought them: shall I say to you,
Let them be free, marry them to your heirs?
Why sweat they under burdens? let their beds
Be made as soft as yours, and let their palates
Be season’d with such viands? You will answer:
‘The slaves are ours:’ so do I answer you:
The pound of flesh which I demand of him,
Is dearly bought; ’tis mine and I will have it.
It’s almost a pity that Shylock lost in court on a point of technicality, which could have been avoided by a competent lawyer. There is irony and contrapasso in it. Shylock, an usurer who was used to getting more for less, was forced by the court to get the exact amount of penalty, that is, one pound of flesh, no more no less, not even a drop of blood with it. He couldn’t do it.
The other thing that I find interesting is the three choices that Portia’s late father gave her suitors in the form of three caskets: gold, silver and lead. If someone chooses right, he shall have her as wife; if he choose wrong, however, he shall never marry.
Gold: “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.”
Silver: “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.”
Lead: “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.”
Anyone with some intelligence can tell that the condition itself already bids the suitor to hazard all: either he get the wife he desires or he gets none, so he might as well make the choice that expresses the same pathos. What I don’t understand is why Shakespeare thinks it foolish to choose “as much as he deserves”.