Perhaps we shouldn’t give Shakespeare too much credit for his plots, since they often don’t seem to be his – even fine scenes and satisfying moments of dramatic irony, he has pilfered from others. We might be inclined to think what a great idea – what a great dramatic situation – is at the heart of The Merchant of Venice, but it’s nothing that Shakespeare invented.
The ultimate source for this play is an Italian story from a work called Il Pecorone by Ser Giovanni, which Shakespeare either read or read at secondhand from some other source. It has in it the Jew, it has the pound of the flesh pledged by one man for the sake of another, it has the legal scene and the protagonist’s new wife who appears as a lawyer, it has the same outcome to the legal scene, the same argument, the same bits about rings (the same line, that Bassanio claims he gave the ring to a lawyer; Portia, that he gave it to some woman), the same conclusion. They are all in both Venetian merchants.
What then, if anything, does Shakespeare add (outside language)? – Well, the above only describes the second half of the Ser Giovanni version; the first half Shakespeare excises almost in its entirety. I think he correctly identifies here what’s interesting and what’s not, what works and what does not. A few ideas remain from this part: mainly, the idea of the fortunes of merchant ships being the catalyst for disaster; and the early Portia sections, though these are changed a good deal, making Portia into a more sympathetic figure (she comes across, more or less, as a pirate in the Ser Giovanni, a siren luring men to their doom – which doesn’t sit too well with her later lawyer antics: Shakespeare changes the fairy-tale challenge too, which he must have got from some place else).
His most significant change, though, is this. In the Ser Giovanni version, it is Bassanio’s adoptive father who pledges his pound of flesh for Bassanio’s endeavour, being himself bankrupt because of the failure of previous expeditions (in this case, also carried out by Bassanio). Shakespeare transfers this role to Antonio, a mere friend of Bassanio, whom he characterises as a good Christian who will lend a hand to someone in distress or need, who will ever treat his fellow man with charity – indeed, Antonio – The Merchant of Venice – is not merely a good Christian, he is Christ himself, or at least an imitation of Christ, a man who’s prepared to take on the debts of others and expiate them in death. Shakespeare can then run Antonio in parallel with Shylock, and come up with some instant depth of meaning and complexity to his play, all that stuff about charity and the quality of mercy and turning the other cheek and usury and man’s humanity to man.
Anti-Semitic or merely Pro-Christian?
It cannot be denied that Shylock is a Jew, and that he is a villain and beyond the pale, and that the evil of usury is strongly connected with Judaism. There are other things too: why at the end does Antonio insists on Shylock’s conversion? Why is Jessica condemned by the fool for her Jewishness, irrespective of her character? That the Jew is connected with evil and villainy, by the very fact that he is a Jew, seems very much to be there. – And yet, I find myself wondering if he is not so much a Jew, as a man void of Christianity – as a man void of the virtues which Christ put forward: he loans money for interest, prefers money to his own daughter, desires only revenge for the injuries he has suffered, shows no mercy. The conversion to Christianity is a conversion to this virtuous way of life.
Trevor Nunn’s version
I watched the film of Trevor Nunn’s stage version. He doesn’t bother with any of this Christian claptrap and portrays Antonio as a homosexual, betrayed by Bassanio for a woman, who offers money out of love and jilted is prepared to sacrifice his life. Indeed, there is something deeply unchristian about Antonio; he is as revenge-seeking in his way as Shylock, seeking for Bassanio to suffer as he does.
Is The Merchant of Venice a comedy?
Like a few of the other plays we’ve read recently, The Merchant of Venice has comic parts, but also has a strong tragic strain throughout. The revenge taken to some unpalatable extreme, which forms the main plot, was a favoured form of Euripides. But there is a clown, and a few other more comic characters; and the whole of the last act (along, I suppose, with the fairy-tale sections), all set in Belmont, have about them something of that enchanted world where Shakespeare likes to set his comedies.