The Exit

We didn’t talk about this yesterday when we discussed the trial in The Merchant of Venice, but let’s touch upon Shylock’s exit from the trial… and the play.

After Antonio agrees to NOT take half of Shylock’s goods in exchange for the Jew’s religious conversion–and following the Duke’s revocation of his pardon unless Shylock agrees–Portia, in the guise of doctor of law Balthasar, asks, “Art thou contented, Jew? What dost thou say?” (IV.i.391). This line in and of itself is interesting. First of all, there’s the use of “thou.” As we discussed way back when we discussed way back when we were diving into another great Shakespearean villain, Richard the Third, there’s a tonal differentiation between the use of “you”–usually elevating the listener in status–and “thou”–usually slighting if not insulting the listener. When Portia begins her questioning of Shylock, she uses the former (“Of a strange nature is the suit you follow” [IV.i.175]), but by this time, the latter is in consistent use. Tonally, she leaves no doubt that Shylock is (at least now) an inferior. Then she uses the word “cotnented” which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM (v. 4.0), has a number of possible definitions:

  • Satisfied, desiring nothing more or nothing different
  • Willing, ready (to do something)
  • Satisfied with one’s present condition; not disposed to complain

Is Shylock satisfied? Is he willing to become a Christian? Is he willing to drop his complaint? All of these work. It’s a clear question, yet Shylock doesn’t complete her question with his answer in an antilabe (shared line). Portia must follow up with a direction to talk (“What dost thou say?”), again with the derogatory “thou.” Metrically, here, there’s something at work as well. Her second sentence kicks off with a trochee,

 /    ~   ~  /  ~    /     /   ~     /   ~  
Art thou contented, Jew? What dost thou say?

When Shylock doesn’t respond immediately, she jumps into another sentence with a stressed syllable (could this be a clue for the actress to not really even give him a chance to answer the first question?).

Shylock replies with a half-line, “I am content” (IV.i.392). What a great line, with so many possible readings:

  • purely iambic: i AM conTENT (resigned)
  • opening trochee: I am conTENT (pained)
  • opening spondee: I AM conTENT (almost defiant)
  • both spondee: I AM CONTENT (possibly a mixture of all of the above)

for this line alone, you can see why actors salivate at the chance at this role…

With no pause in the meter, Portia completes the line in antilabe, “Clerk, draw a deed of gift” (IV.i.392); it almost feels like Portia stops him from saying anything else. If she was afraid of Shylock saying anything, she needn’t have; Shylock delivers his final speech:

I pray you, give me leave to go from hence;
I am not well: send the deed after me,
And I will sign it.

— IV.i.393-395

He says he’s not well. There’s no reason to question his verity. And then he leaves. Never to be heard again.

How do you play this?

We’ve seen quite a few Shylocks this month… should Shylock collapse on stage? should he walk out, head high, almost defiant? shuffle off, crushed? What about the exit itself? Olivier gave a howl just off-stage, which chills any celebration.

Interestingly, Pacino’s Shylock is seen at the end of his Merchant, metaphorically lost in the street between Christian and Jewish worlds.

Ah, choices, choices…

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