Robots in Disguise

I watched The Merchant of Venice a few weeks ago, the one with Al Pacino (Shylock) and Jeremy Irons (Bassanio). It’s really an outstanding film. I just wish it didn’t have period prostitutes in it so I could show it to my class.

I had forgotten just how tautly Shakespeare draws the tensions in that play. We have on one hand a Jew who has lived under persecution his entire life. So when he gets the chance to even the score a little (lending money to Bassonio and possibly getting a pound of his flesh out of the deal), he’s happy to do so. But then his daughter runs away from him (admittedly, he was a despot) with a Christian, no less, and trades a family heirloom for a monkey. This sends Shylock over the edge, and rightly so. His rage is completely justified.

On the other hand we have a man who has participated with the rest of Christian Venice in persecuting Shylock and his kind. He takes out the loan, despite its strange terms, to help a friend win a wife. However, Bassonio’s ships are all lost at sea, and he can’t pay Shylock back.

When the court is held, the judges beg for mercy on Bassonio’s behalf, but Shylock demands justice according to the terms of the contract which Bassonio had voluntarily signed. Antonio offers to pay Shylock back three times over, but he won’t accept it.

This is where things go crazy, and where Shakespeare’s genius resides.

Portia comes in disguised as a judge and turns all the tables on Shylock. He can take a pound of flesh according to the contract, but not one drop of blood. Shylock admits defeat and tries to leave the court, but no, there’s more. The law says that anyone who conspires to take the life of a Venetian is to die himself and relinquish his entire fortune to the state. But, Portia says she will have mercy on Shylock, a gift he was unwilling to give to Bassonio, she will grant his life. But only on the condition that he forsake Judaism and be baptized a Christian (presumably to save his soul).

In other words, Portia destroys him. The movie does a very good job showing just how devastated Shylock is: how he values his life as nothing now that he has been forcibly divorced from his people; and how ignorant (deliberately or not) the Christians are about what they’ve done to him in the name of mercy.

All of us are Shylocks in some way. We have been hurt and cry out righteously for vengeance. And then, we are also Portias, sincerely pleading for goodness, but blindly destroying if we get the chance.


  1. anon says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughtful analysis. I am mostly Portia – ready and willing – eager – to baptize anyone under any circumstances. I guess we could argue whether this amounts to “blindness” or “destroying” – but, that is an argument that writes itself out to ultimate point of disagreement.

  2. There is a phenomenon of historic proportions taking place world-wide each Monday evening that EXACTLY addresses Stephen’s question in this excellent post.

    For those of you not yet tuned in, get ready for a transformative shift in your thinking when you check out the sixth of ten live internet interactive discussions next Monday between Eckhart Tolle and Oprah on Oprah[dot]com at 9 pm ET on Mondays, regarding Tolle’s most recent book “THE NEW EARTH, Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose”. You won’t be the same after you read the book and view these interactive discussions. Two million viewers are shifting their awareness as we speak.

  3. NateHousley says:

    The genius is in Portia’s act of “mercy.” The Christian virtue of mercy is seen to trump the Jewish virtue of justice. But Christianity is supposed to be a blessing to humanity, not to be a superior ideology. How merciful is it actually to rub your superiority in the face of someone who’s been kicked by it his whole life? It’s something Christians, especially those in a dominant culture should think about.

  4. Gordon Hill says:

    And exactly what does this have to do with Mormonism?
    And when will we be talking about Cordelia in King Lear?

  5. Gordon: Do you not see EXACTLY that: “We have been hurt and cry out righteously for vengeance… And then, we…sincerely pleading for goodness, but blindly destroying if we get the chance”, describe egoistic behaviors of both collective and individual Mormonism?

  6. don says:

    Eugene: No, I do not see EXACTLY that. I do not for a moment believe it describes egoistic behaviors of collective and individual Mormonism. I believe such statements are nothing more than intellectual sophistry. Are there those that this DOES describe? Sure. Among all people in all places and all religions & beliefs. However–to ascribe such view to collective Mormonism? Please, enlighten.

  7. Don, your challenge has activated my ego. Thanks for demonstrating my point and consider my use of EXACTLY as now being eaten by yours truly.

    When I saw your comment, I had a gut reaction. But then realized immediately that I was EXACTLY experiencing what Tolle [see my preceding comments of April 3 & 6] described as exemplifying ego behavior. As I disengaged and watched this reaction run its course, it dissolved into a humorous awareness. This then brought peace.

    My original boast was in response to my enthusiasm for what I was learning from Eckhart Tolle’s new book “A New Earth”, because of its synchronistic application to an intense family discussion I am having with one of my sons, who has grown up without a Mormon background.

    As you point out, Stephen’s original assertion that we all are both “Shylocks” and “Portias” in some way, applies not only to us as individuals and to our Mormon culture, but to humans in general and to all other cultures. Mormonism, individual or collective, has no exclusive claim on egoistic attitudes and behavior. But for you to get defensive about this suggests you might not REALLY want to be enlightened. And does my saying this not give YOU a gut reaction? Gut reactions are NOT intellectual sophistry!

  8. Valerie Hoyle says:

    I am neither a Shylock nor a Portia..I could cry out for vengeance..BUT how destructive is that?
    What delicious words Shakespeare shares with us and what beautiful costumes and scenery are presented in this play? AND .. you couldn’t show this film to your class because there were prostitutes in it? I cringe at the thought.. of my 9 & 11 year old grandchildren in a class where the teacher banned the play.. the younger just finished studying MacBeth and enjoyed all the gory details…

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