Friday, May 30, 2008

If you prick us, do we not bleed?

When I first started teaching, I had noticed that The Merchant of Venice was on the approved reading list for sophomores (which I taught at the time). I had rememberd it from when I was in college, and I remembered liking it. I especially remember liking the character Shylock, as it's difficult to not feel for the guy. Also, I thought that it had one of the most tension-filled scenes that I had ever read with the trial and Shylock's insistence on his pound of flesh from Antonio.

While discussing the play with a senior member of the department, he told me that he'd never teach it because he just couldn't get past the anti-Semitism in it. I could see where he was coming from, but that didn't sway me. After all, is it anti-Semitic? Certainly by today's standards, it would be pretty hard to deny that it is. There are many moments where Shylock acts like the stereotypical Jews, bemoaning the loss of his money. And the resolution at the end is that he has to become a Christian - and this is seen as mercy by the main characters.

For me though, this only made me more eager to teach it, as there certainly were lessons about prejudice that could be learned from this play. After all, Shakespeare probably hadn't met a Jew in his life (as I believe it was King Edward who had kicked them out of the country a few hundred years before). But more importantly, and this speaks to the brilliance of Shakespeare as a writer, he just can't seem to have a major character be a tw0-dimensional villain - which is what the audience would expect from a Jewish character back then. I'm sure that his audience must have been surprised to have a Jew, who were basically seen as boogeymen back then, have actual human emotions, and at many times run counter to the stereotype.

I haven't taught this play in years, but every so often I'll rewatch the movie version that came out a few years ago with Al Pacino as Shylock. Oddly enough, he isn't my favorite part of the film. I think that Jeremy Irons does a great job playing Antonio. Most people interpret his reason for being sad at the beginning of the play is that he is in love with his friend, Bassanio, who is off to marry a woman named Portia. I have no problem with this interpretation, and it certainly does make sense. However, in a couple of versions that I've seen, the actor who'll play Antonio really, for the lack of a better expression, gays it up. There was a PBS version where the guy was an almost over-the-top fop, and his performance was quite annoying to say the least. With Irons though, the love for his friend is understated. It's definitely there, but they don't beat you over the head with it.

Lynn Collins, the actress who plays Portia, does a great job as well. She's beautiful enough to fit the part, and she's a good enough of an actress to really make you believe that she's probably the smartest character in the entire play. Of course, Pacino does a great job, and Joseph Fiennes does a solid job as Bassanio. There are a lot of other great parts in the play (especially Gratiano) but the movie has to cut a lot of their lines.

Anyway, I think that I did a good job of teaching it, as I went into the history of anti-Semitism and gave the play some context. I know that a lot of students really got into it (of course, some of them didn't - but you get that with everything). An essay topic that I assigned asked them to determine whether the play was anti-Semitic or not, and I remember being quite impressed with how nuanced I got my sophomores to be with their responses. Many of them concluded that while there certainly is anti-Semitism in it, to simply label it thusly is to oversimplify the issue. I also think that a lot of students can relate to Shylock, especially those who feel as though they don't belong amongst their peers.

Man, I just realized that I've already rambled on for quite a bit, and there are still a million more reasons why I love this play. Let me just try and wrap it up though. Other stuff that I like include the dual worlds of Venice and Belmont. Venice is a place of real-world problems, whereas Belmont is like a fairy-tale kingdom, and Portia even has a fairy-tale problem. I also think that his has, hands-down, some of Shakespeare's best poetry, including Shylock's famous speech:

and Portia's speech about mercy (note: she's dressed like a dude here):

Basically, like all of my favorite Shakespeare plays, I can't get the damned thing out of my head. Even after having not taught it for years, I still find myself mulling it over in my brain. It has so many layers to it, and it addresses so many timeless issues that it almost makes me want to teach sophomores again.

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