Prelude to the Trial

Not sure if one entry can do it (especially on a busy day like today), but let’s dive into the trial scene from The Merchant of Venice.

By far the longest scene in the play–dwarfing Act Three, Scene Two’s depiction of Bassanio choosing the right casket by nearly 130 lines–Act Four, Scene One is, at 455 lines, also the longest Act Four, Scene One in the Canon.

If any opening could further paint Shylock negatively (and Antonio positively) in preparation for the Jew’s comeuppance, this is it. The Duke of Venice announces his pity (“sorry” [IV.i.3]) for Antonio, and describes Shylock as

A stony adversary, an inhuman wretch
Uncapable of pity, void and empty
From any dram of mercy.

— IV.i.4-6

If that wasn’t enough, Antonio says that he is
To suffer, with a quietness of spirit,
The very tyranny and rage of (Shylock)

— IV.i.11-13

So basically we have a saint ready to suffer martyrdom at the hands of a devil. With that situation set, the Duke orders “the Jew into the court” (IV.i.14). Shylock’s name here is not used, just “the Jew.” At least, the Duke calls him by his name as he begins the trial. Of course, by the end of that first speech, the Duke back to referring to him as simply, “Jew” (IV.i.34). Not even “the” Jew… in a sense, Shylock has become ALL Jews. This is interesting. Why? Because Shakespeare de-individualizes Shylock throughout the scene. Shylock is referred to 30 times in this scene, but only six times by name–all the other references are variations on “the Jew.” That comes out to 80% of this scene’s references to the character being not to his name, but to his religion. Outside the scene, it’s not much better with 75% being non-naming.

Nothing de-humanizes like the generic naming of the individual.

If Venice is going to make Shylock nothing more than his religion, he’ll go with that: “And by our holy Sabbath have I sworn // To have the due and forfeit of my bond” (IV.i.36-37). By the next religious Sabbath day of rest, Shylock will have his bond. Of course, that’s how it is in the Second Quarto and the Folio… in the First Quarto, however, it’s not Sabbath, but “Sabaoth,” a Hebrew word meaning “armies” or “hosts” (Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0]). This is a much harsher, but still validly religious reading of the word. This is a threat.

When they ask Shylock to be merciful and to let Antonio go, Shylock goes on to ask them about their “purchased slave(s)” (IV.i.90), and how they own the slaves, just as he now owns Antonio. While some read this as an enlightened view, pointing out the hypocrisy of the Venetians (in a sympathetic reading of Shylock), this theory doesn’t hold water: Shylock, too, owned a slave (Lancelot), AND Shylock is not answering the question at hand, which was about MERCY not morality. Again, Shylock is demonized.

Of course, this view is furthered by Antonio’s repeated use of a martyr’s language:

I am a tainted wether of the flock,
Meetest for death; the weakest kind of fruit
Drops earliest to the ground; and so let me.

— IV.i.114-116

Antonio is a sheep, Christ the Lamb of God. You can see where this is going, right? Antonio, the good Christian, a Christ-figure, is about to be killed by the Jew, in a sense by ALL Jews.

but there’s a weird sexual undercurrent in Antonio’s statement… which is too much to get to today, but I promise we will… in about a week… I promise

Portia is introduced as Balthasar via letter.

A side note: Balthasar is described as “a young doctor of Rome…his lack of years…young a body” (IV.i.152-3, 160, 162)… is this a casting clue?  Should Portia be young enough to look like a young man?

And though s/he has been “informed thoroughly of the case” (IV.i.171), the first question is “Which is the merchant and which is the Jew?” (IV.i.172). How should this be played? as a joke like in the Nunn presentation? And from this point on, performance is the key… Does Portia relish her financial taking down of Shylock? Is that joy tainted at all by Shylock’s forced conversion? by Bassanio’s giving up of the ring?

What should the tone be?

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