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.