William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice
The three versions of the Merchant of Venice which I have watched are:
1. Channel 4 television version for their Schools Broadcasting
2. Trevor Nunn's version
3. National Theatre Company version directed by Jonathan Miller and
starring Laurence Olivier as Shylock
Act IV scene 1 is an intense scene in the play where we see many of
the play's main themes such as justice and mercy, money and status,
revenge, loyalty, love and prejudice and tolerance.
Shakespeare presents a harsh character in Shylock the Jew, but the
fact that he also gives him the chance to speak more than any other
European playwright preceding him would suggest that his portrayal is
not conventional but much more complex for example in his words in Act
III scene 1, lines 57-58: "I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a
Jew hands, organs, dimensions?" Much of Shakespeare's enduring appeal
has been in his amazing portrayal of the complexities of the human
condition for example Hamlet or Macbeth. Traditionally Jews were the
evil villains of Elizabethan drama, frequently Machiavellian or greedy
but unlike his contemporaries Shakespeare's characters were never
simply 'good' or 'evil' but embody the complex mix within each of us
that makes us human.
The main dilemma in staging this play today is in the consideration of
Shakespeare's possible anti-semitism and/or sympathies towards his
character and indeed whether Shylock only represents the Jewish people
or whether he is symbolic of oppression of minority races in general.
Through Shylock's forced conversion in this scene we are reminded of
the conversions of other religions according to the ruler of the time
such as Henry VIII. This would suggest that Shakespeare is using
Shylock as more than a symbol of 'Jewishness'. In this piece of
coursework I will be examining mainly how sympathetic or unsympathetic
the various versions seem to be and how each Director has succeeded in
making the character of Shylock worthy of Shakespeare's realism.
Jews were traditionally viewed as outsiders and were not citizens.
Christians as far back as the 11th century could not lend money
without interest and many Jews earned a living from this 'profession'
as they could not join the artisan guilds. As they became their own
debt collectors they soon became the target of resentment. A myth was
born; with which Shakespeare's audience would have been familiar, of
ritual murder or 'blood libel' that Jews would kill adult Christians.
It is to this myth to which Shakespeare seems to allude in the 'pound
of flesh' incident in this scene. Shakespeare is original in showing
us the extent to which Shylock is oppressed by Christians surrounding
him and it is through this that Shakespeare succeeds in...