The Merchant of Venice | 2013
San Jose Youth Shakespeare invited several alumni to return for this special presentation in August, 2013 at the Historic Hoover Theatre.
About the Play by John Dunlap
Dated about 1597, The Merchant of Venice is approximately the fourteenth of Shakespeare’s 37 attested plays, composed when the Bard was firmly in the stride of his genius. The play moves forward with the brisk assurance of a master storyteller.
Antonio, the prosperous merchant of the title, is approached by his friend Duke Bassanio, a goodhearted young Venetian nobleman of high social rank but low financial estate owing to his spendthrift habits. Having put the touch on Antonio several times before, Bassanio this time is more urgent. He has fallen genuinely in love with the wealthy Belmont heiress Portia, and he needs 3,000 ducats (very roughly, about $7,500) for his expenses as a suitor. Antonio, his fortune tied up in shipping investments, is for the moment without ready cash, but he offers to serve as a guarantor to any loan Bassanio can secure. Bassanio turns to the moneylender Shylock, a bitter personal enemy of Antonio’s, and Shylock agrees to extend the loan, even without interest, on the single gruesome condition that if the principal is not paid by the date due, Antonio must forfeit a pound of his own flesh.
The English stage actor and critic Harley Granville-Barker (1877-1946), apparently undecided about its dramatic type, shrugged and called The Merchant of Venice a “fairy tale”. Yet Shakespeare gives us no such direct simplicity in his intricate weaving of plot strands amid displays of seemingly effortless character development.
Antonio’s vaguely expressed melancholy at the start of the play, although never explained, is a gentle presentiment of something about to go seriously haywire. Portia’s brilliant exchange with her waitingwoman Nerissa, ticking off the shortcomings of Portia’s suitors one by one, prepares us for her celebrated show of insight and wit in the climactic trial scene. Shylock’s keenly articulated grievances against his humiliating mistreatment by the otherwise good Antonio at once lends depth to Antonio’s rather placid passivity and allows us to see that Shylock himself, for all his disreputable loan-shark antics, is more a tormented anti-hero than a villain, and is thus in harmony with the comic register of the play.
And that seems to be what The Merchant of Venice is about. Not just a fairy tale, but a true comedy, faithful to life’s complexity: “So may the outward shows be least themselves.”