Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Book Review: The Merchant of Venice

I can get the gist of the Shakespearean plays, but the clever word plays, etc., are often lost on me without good annotation. The version I read (Penguin Popular Classics [1]) had notes in the back, which is inconvenient. On top of that, it had a glossary behind the notes. So if I was unfamiliar with something in the text, I had to check two places to see if I could figure it out. Editions with footnotes instead of endnotes are vastly superior. Even then, I'm hard pressed to understand why Shakespeare's plays were so wildly popular in his day. The play generally has an anti-Semitic tone to it, and perhaps this was appealing to the audiences of Shakespeare's day. However, the play's most famous character, Shylock the Jew, is sometimes portrayed in a sympathetic light.[2]

My verdict: As an evaluation of justice versus mercy, it's quite penetrating. But what I perceived as a fundamental failing of the plot rendered the whole thing unbelievable to me: I'm not really sure why Shylock was able to demand Antonio's "pound of flesh".[3] True, Antonio had lost his merchant ships at sea, but the duration of the loan was for three months and the ships were reported lost after only two. Thus when Bassanio offers to provide Antonio with enough money to pay the debt, Shylock is legally bound to accept it, since the loan is not yet due and Antonio entered into the debt on Bassanio's behalf. Besides that there were a few scenes that I wasn't fond of: the opening of one of three chests had some good poetry but contributed little to the overall play; and the finale where the men are chided for giving away their rings was amusing, but a bit pointless, I thought.


[1] I bought it at the Pioneer Book Brown Bag sale. On the back it had a sticker that said 20.00. I was a little shocked that anyone would pay $20 for a 121-page paperback book. Then I noticed the currency: ¥. That made it about 25¢, which is what I ended up paying for it at the Brown Bag Sale.

[2] In fact, at the end of the play he is forced into a Christian baptism, which would seem a 'happy ending' for the largely Christian audiences of that time. See of venice#The antisemitic reading.

[3] If you're unfamiliar with the play, allow me to explain: at the beginning Antonio borrows money from Shylock and agrees that if he fails to pay it off within three months that Shylock may carve one pound of flesh from any part of his body.

Image attributions:

The photo of Venice is by Simon Tong, available at 

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