Racism, feminism, power, religion, justice and mercy; Shakespeare’s complex moralistic notions fill an eventful and crucial scene in the play-“The Merchant of Venice”. The first scene of the fourth act completes the separate storylines and brings them all to an end, producing a scene with immense impact and a frenzy of morals. However the audience’s perception of the characters can only be determined by the director’s analysis of the flexible personas and judgments the characters possess.
I think that the play, scene one act four especially, has a wide range of possibilities for different styles of acting and the director’s opinion will have changed a lot since Shakespeare’s time. As we have evolved, we have become more aware of feminism, justice and racial issues, the modern view on social equality has matured a great deal, which means that the director of today would probably play the characters’ actions to be less racist then would be accepted for Shakespeare’s audience, but did Shakespeare intend for the play to be interpreted as a moralistic piece which was trying to teach the people of his time a lesson in prejudice, and therefore showing that Shakespeare’s views were way ahead of his time? Or did he intend for a racist play using women and different religions and cultures as an example of humour?
There are many questions the director has to ask himself before he starts this scene, for example how shall he portray Antonio and Shylock to the audience? Which one shall be illustrated as the victim and which one as the villain in the scene? If I was the director I would portray Shylock to be the villain in this scene, I think Shylock has great potential to be such an evil character, and it would be an effective image on stage to have evil Shylock’s power, rise and fall dramatically.
The association the audience will have formed for Shylock by this scene will be one of dislike. Therefore when Shylock is defeated by the Christians the audience’s views will change dramatically, adding a twist to the story and changing the focus of hate from Shylock to Antonio and the Christians, leaving the audience to feel extremely sorry for the poor, defeated Jew. The audience may even feel emotions of guilt for mistaking Shylock for an evil character.
Shylock is arguably a “true” villain in this scene, he has a very evil image, but does that only exist because of the influence of the other characters in the play? I think that Shylock has been transformed into a villain by the hatred of others. Although Shylock may seem cold blooded as he sharpens his knife in the court room, and refuses to show mercy for the sake of Antonio’s innocent life; racist comments from the other characters throughout the play, towards bitter Shylock tell us that he may have a reason to seek revenge.
“As the dog Jew did utter in the streets”
It is only Shylock’s increasing bitterness towards the Christian faith that leads him down such a merciless and brutal path to revenge.
I think that Shylock seems “evil” because he is continually being handed that image by the Christians, who occupy a great deal of the cast in the play (with a cast of one Jew and a crowd of Christians Shylock is bound to be an outcast and therefore a brilliant opportunity to grab the audience’s sympathy). Not only is he portrayed as this type of “evil” character to the audience, but because he is so widely hated and tormented he is driven into becoming this wicked, bitter creature himself.
I feel sorry for Shylock because he has lost his only family to his enemy religion, all of his money was taken whilst he was fighting for power against the Christians, his daughter stole a great deal of his wealth, and worst of all Antonio took Shylock’s right to continue with beliefs as a Jew.
The Christians constantly refer to Shylock as “Jew” in the play, instead of his name.
“Tarry, Jew” “Why doth the Jew pause?”
These racist comments mean that the “Jew” is seen upon as a religion and not as Shylock, a person with feelings and respectable beliefs. I think this confirms that the Christians are battling with an enemy religion; therefore Shylock has every reason to dislike the Christian faith and try to gain power as an individual.
The Christians racist behaviour on stage, in Shakespeare’s time, would have been accepted (as well as welcomed as an act of humour); whereas on today’s stage, the racist behaviour would be strongly frowned upon, and would stir up a lot of arguments with the viewers in the audience. I think that Shakespeare was trying to be moralistically clever by making the audience laugh at racist humour, and then showing them how wrong racism is. By doing this, the audience will feel guilty for being racist and will therefore turn their complete affection towards Shylock, sending them into a frenzy of emotions!
Before Shylock has his dramatic fall in power, Antonio’s character was most commonly perceived as the victim in the play:
“I am a tainted whether of the flock,
Meetest for death; the weakest kind of fruit
Drops earliest to the ground and so let me.”
Antonio tells the court room to let Shylock win and to take his pound of flesh because he is worthless and useless to anyone. I think that Antonio at this point seems very depressive and weak; he is willing to die for a friend as he was willing to give his money.
“You cannot better employed Bassanio,
Than to live still and right mine epitaph.”
Shakespeare’s interpretation of Antonio at this point seems to be as though he wrote Antonio as the victim of the play and is trying to influence feelings of sympathy from the audience, But as we see later on in the play, Shakespeare’s complex morals round off the play with an interesting twist of roles.
I see Shylock and Antonio in this scene as two children playing on a see-saw: At the beginning of the scene Shylock puts Antonio on the see-saw and sits on it himself. When Shylock rises on the see-saw, Antonio falls, and when Antonio rises, Shylock falls. When Shylock is feeling extremely powerful and full of glory, he is pushed off the see-saw by Portia and Antonio now rises higher than Shylock and kicks him while he’s down.
When Shylock is in full power he speaks and gloats around the stage, as he basks in his supremacy
“A Daniel come to judgement; yea a Daniel!
O wise young judge, how do I honour thee!”
But when Shylock falls to great pity he hardly speaks at all
“Why doth the Jew pause?”
I think that Shylock’s great fall in power could be illustrated by staging Shylock at the top of steps sharpening his knife when he is at full power, but when Shylock’s power is gradually lost, he should gradually walk down the stairs and end up begging for mercy at Antonio’s feet. Such a strong image will have great impact from an audience’s point of view.
Portia, being the interfering women in Shylock’s plot for revenge, and also for mercy, is a strong and powerful character to the scene. As a woman Portia represents the power of femininity, she shows the audience that women can be just as good as men, if not better. She outwits her husband and uses her intelligence to manipulate her way around the law in the court room, and she does all this whilst pretending to be a man. This would have been a very strong image in Shakespeare’s time, as women were not allowed to be on stage, all of the women characters were played as men, and when the women characters (men) had to dress up as men, the crowd would have been amused by the concept. This sexist humour that Shakespeare introduces is another example of a morel the audience will learn by the end of the play.
The image the other characters give Portia is a very high status, she is said to be beautiful and goddess like.
“And she is fair, and-fairer than that word-
Of wondrous virtues.”
When given such a high status, it is possible (although debatable) that Portia is a very arrogant and conceited woman. I think that this interpretation of Portia can only be chosen by the director. If I was the director I would choose to portray Portia as a powerful and modest woman, who does justice to feminism and puts across the moral correctly to the audience.
Portia could easily portrayed as the villain of the play, she shows examples of arrogance and of merciless cruelty in the court, she shows acts of racism towards the Moroccan Prince by sarcastically remarking on the colour of his skin (“fair”)
“Yourself, renowned prince, then stood as fair
As any comer I have looked on yet
For my affection”
Bassanio lends money from Antonio, which puts Antonio’s life greatly at risk, so that he can lie about being wealthy to the beautiful Portia. It is questionable that Bassanio was only interested in Portia for her money
“In Belmont is a lady richly left”
When speaking of how special Portia is, the first thing Bassanio mentions is her wealth. He takes Antonio’s money and lies about being wealthy, so that he can profit from Portia’s riches.
I think that “love” is a trivial part of “the merchant of Venice”. In all cases of love, romance is exceeded by the importance of money and Religion, or in some cases marriage is just seems something to do. Jessica marries Lorenzo so that she can be accepted by Christians, and to get Lorenzo to “love” her more she feels it necessary to offer him her father’s wealth of money. I think Nerissa only marries Gratiano because she has just lost her best friend to marriage and is lonely, and Portia sees marriage to Gratiano an escape route from endless choosing. Bassanio is apparently in love with Portia but I believe that he is in love with only the money Portia will bring him.
Another trivial part to the play is law. Rules and bonds that structure the law seem to be insignificant, and the biased, racist court room seems to bend the law to suit their pleasing and Christians seem to abuse the quality of mercy.
I don’t think that justice is done in this scene. I think that justice is an unbiased compromise, represented by a fair, balanced duke. In act four, scene one justice is not done for Shylock; he is entered into a court room full of people that are all against him, even his lawyer figure is out to defeat him. I think the lack of importance of the law in this scene shows that Venice is a very prejudiced town, the minority are frowned upon immorally, and I think that Shakespeare was trying to establish this to his audience; he was, in a way mocking the system in which Venice lived by in his times.
In my opinion Shakespeare sympathises with everyone in this scene: Shylock “the Jew” by giving him some sympathy from the audience, Antonio for giving such a weak character a moment of power and control, and Portia for giving her the chance to shine as a women and outdo her husband. Shakespeare shows us evidence of the Christian’s lack of mercy towards Shylock, even when he is on his knees and begging for his life, but we also see Shylock’s merciless and eagerness for blood and revenge against Antonio. I think Shakespeare is trying to show his audience how vicious people can be no matter what religion, and that we are all equal no matter what religion or sex we are.
Racism, feminism, power, religion, justice and mercy. Shakespeare teaches his audience a lesson in all of these years ago, and we can still learn from them today, as the characters direction is left open for development as the years go on.