What to Cut?

In the past, we’ve discussed the concept of what to cut what to cut (especially in terms of the really long Richard the Third ). In that case, we were dealing mostly with the concept of length. In the case of The Merchant of Venice, however, it’s not so much the length (as it has fewer than the average number of lines) but a matter of focus that drives us to the question: What to Cut?

As I continue to read and re-read the play, I’m finding it more and more of a mess. Comedy? Tragedy? Who’s our main character? Antonio? (that would tend to make it a tragedy, I suppose) Bassanio? (comedy?) What about Portia? (is this why the work falls under the ill-defined genre of “problem play”?) What’s the tone?

It’s interesting that the three longest scenes of the play (and the once most in need of editing for pacing purposes) all take place after the midpoint of the play (which we’ll discuss tomorrow): Bassanio’s casket choice (filled long set speeches, a song, and not a lot of actual conversation), the trial (and if Antonio is not the main character, this scene isn’t about the main character), and the final “outfacing” of the husbands in the last scene.

What do we cut? If we cut too much from these long (almost begging to be cut) scenes, do we run the risk of throwing off the balance of the pacing? Do we run the risk of castrating the play?

This is not a pun.

There is a very interesting castration motif in the play.

At the trial, Antonio describes himself as “a tainted wether of the flock” (IV.i.114).  As we have mentioned before, the use of language here is fascinating, as a wether is “A male sheep, a ram; esp. a castrated ram” (Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0]).

Wouldn’t it be interesting, then, to cut two lines in particular, both from the trial:

  • Portia proclaims that “the Jew may claim // A pound of flesh, to be by him cut off // Nearest the merchant’s heart” (IV.i.229-231)
  • Later, Shylock also states the location of the cut: “Ay, his breast: // So says the bond” (IV.i.250-251)

Believe it or not, these are the ONLY to references to the location of the pound of flesh. Earlier, Shylock refers only to “what part of (Antonio’s) body pleaseth (him)” (I.iii.149).

What if Shylock’s intention is not killing, but humiliation of the merchant? What would be more humiliating than castration? And not just the metaphoric castration that Antonio already feels, but a true neutering…

Maybe THAT‘s what we cut…