Merchant of Venice: Excellent Exegesis

What if the triune God never revealed Himself? Who would I worship?

Probably Virginia. Even if Virginia only included Augusta, Rockbridge, and Botetourt Counties, I would worship it. But it includes all the other counties, too! Especially Franklin and Henry.

Godlike in splendor. Idolizable if anything ever was.

…Had the opportunity to see a performance of Merchant of Venice at the American Shakespeare Center. The company executed the task with the usual aplomb. If they camped it up a bit, or indulged in tasteless physical comedy, they only did it to try to convey the humor of the text to their predominantly high-school-age audience.

The company also over-indulged, I think, in actually spitting on Shylock and Tubal. Does Shakespeare direct the actors to spit? No. The on-stage spittle only distracted us audience peoples. (Overheard in the bathroom: “Do they get paid extra since they spit on them?”)

The words, my friends! The words have more than enough bitterness of their own. The imprecations savor with plenty of verbal venom. Frinstance:

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart:
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!

or

Let me say ‘amen’ betimes, lest the devil cross my
prayer, for here he comes in the likeness of a Jew.

The key to the play? The fact that it explains the Parable of the Unforgiving Steward. (It explains the whole New Testament pretty well.) And Shylock’s humanity.

The usurer’s avarice, his malice against Antonio, his stubbornness: none of these are literally monstrous. His daughter breaks his heart by eloping–and taking the family jewels with her. He rails against the monetary loss with a lump in his throat. What really pains him? Jessica’s betrayal. And the fact that none of the other Venetian fathers can be bothered to give him the tiniest doit of commiseration. They think nothing of treating the Jew with hard-hearted contempt.

Of course, Shylock’s heart hardens to stone. His maniacal craze for vindication—for justice! my bond!—paints the perfect caricature of blinkered, zealous man: Absolutely dead to rights, within the point-of-view of the rifle-sight. Shylock’s bond has all the force of law, and who could really gainsay his legal reasoning?

But, outside what the scope takes in: an agent of justice stands with an axe, an axe that will fall on me, and his claim on me has much more to it than my claim does.

Where did the Venetian hard-heartedness begin? Did Shylock wrong a Christian first, or did a Christian wrong him first? The profoundest truth of the play rests on the fact that it has no interest whatsoever in answering this question.

In the end, the ladies turned lawyers, Portia and Nerissa, manage to turn the central theme of the tragedy—just retribution—into comedy. Their men, who protest their honor too much, wind up reduced to unimpressive and unconvincing stammerings to explain their own untruth.

Justice? Please. For man it is impossible. Better to try to make friends. With unassuming gentleness. Maybe even love.

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