Lessons from Shakespeare
The Merchant of Venice
As I get older, I have the desire to read some of what I was supposed to in school. One of those required readings in literature class was Shakespeare. Today, I focus on the lessons that I have gleaned from the play entitled ‘The Merchant of Venice”.
In the play, the merchant of the story is a wealthy man named Antonio. He is a businessman who has financed several merchant ships and the bulk of his fortune is in the hull of those ships full of cargo. Antonio is a Christian living in and doing business in Venice where there are two classes of people, Christians and Jews. Society at that time was predominately Christian and the Jews were considered a second class citizen. Many Jews found an acceptable form of business by being what we today would call loan sharks, but in actuality it is just a modern-day banker. Loaning money at an interest, termed usury. Not legal but not illegal practices, but in the shadows of the law and tolerated by the law at that time. One such Jewish businessman was named Shylock, and yes, this play by William Shakespeare is the source of the derogatory term shylock that is used today. Shylock is a wealthy man and well known in Venice, yet still classified and known as a Jew.
Enter Bassanio, a very good friend of Antonio. In his youthful exuberance, Bassanio has squandered his wealth and we see that Antonio is not only a friend to Bassanio, but has more than likely loaned money to his friend. It is Bassanio himself who admits that he owes Antonio much and loves him. I can imagine that Antonio see Bassanio much like a son and loves him as such and that Bassanio has a childlike love for his friend Antonio but one can also surmise that it is Antonio that may feel romantically towards Bassanio. But, now that Bassanio has squandered his money on wine, women and merriment, he has fallen in love with a beautiful maiden named Portia. Technically, she would be considered an orphan as her father is dead and we hear nothing of her mother, so we can only assume that her mother had passed long ago. Her father has left his large estate to his daughter, but with a very strange condition. Her suiter must choose from 3 boxes, one gold, one silver and the other lead. The condition is that she, Portia, can not prevent anyone from attempting to choose the box that would force her to marry the first suiter that picks the correct box, nor can she cheat and tell which box is the correct ‘casket’ to the suiter that she is attracted to. Now Bassanio wants to try his luck at choosing the correct casket thereby winning the right to marry Portia and inheriting the vast wealth that her father left in the estate.
So being is a state of financial flux, Antonio sees that Bassanio has fallen in love, not lust. It must be true love because the additional stipulation to Portia’s father condition is that if you choose the wrong casket, you agree to never marry anyone, such is the price for the attempt to marry Portia. So even though Antonia has invested all of his money on cargo which is in the hull of several ships, he agrees to cosign a loan, or rather borrow the money and give it to Bassanio for the purposes of trying his hand at winning the right to win the honor of marrying Portia. 3000 Ducats is approx. the equivalent of half a million American dollars, for each Ducat was approx. 4 oz of gold coin which was the currency used at that time. And the loan shark that picked up the loan was none other than Shylock. Now Shylock found it interesting that Antonio, a well known and liked businessman in Venice would come asking to borrow money from him, since Antonio has belittled and poorly treated Shylock for his business practices. So, after a little conversation in which Shylock points out that Antonio has spit upon him, verbally abused him and at times kicked him like a stray dog, all he wants is friendship of Antonio, or at least not being belittled in Venice by Antonio. So he will loan him the money interest free with one caveat added as a joke… if he defaults on the loan, Shylock will be due one pound of flesh from Antonio’s body. A bond is written, a kind of legal I.O.U. and sealed at a notary. The loan terms are now legal.
It is after this encounter that Shylock’s daughter secretly leaves him to marry a Christian whom she has fallen in love with. This infuriates Shylock and I believe the culmination of a lifetime of hatred begins to seethe inside of Shylock. Shylock blames Christians for belittling him and his people, forcing them to live as outcasts, using them when needed all the while accusing them of usery and finally it is the Christians, most notably one Christian that stole his daughter away from him and even condemning his daughters soul to hell for converting from Judaism to Christianity. While there are other aspects of the play, ultimately Antonio looses his investments by various means (ships sunk during a storm or lost to piracy etc.) and is unable to pay back the loan. Now, Shylock sees that a clause in his contract placed in jest may be his way to exact revenge on Christians, or more to the point one specific Christian named Antonio. By Venetian law, he can not murder a citizen of Venice but he can force the terms of his contract and extract a pound of flesh from Antonio’s body by choosing to remove the flesh from the breast area closest to the heart. Even after being offered twice his original loan amount, which would be over 1 million dollars in todays US $, he rejects it and demands his ‘pound of flesh’. He has become so blinded by hatred, that he does not see that the trap he thought was set accidentally for Antonio is actually being set for himself which will ultimately destroy him. We see, at the end of the play, a broken man who may actually think death is preferable to life. He has lost his wife, his daughter, his worldly treasures, his house and is literally a man with no place to live. The Jews will probably pity him yet hate him for making the rest of them look even worse, and the Christian Venetians will still treat him as an outsider and someone to avoid personally and in business.
Out of all the players in the play, I gravitated to Shylock as a character to pity. A victim of societal norms and building a very successful banking business despite the challenges of venetian life who became so enraged, that he became blinded. By refusing mercy on Antonio, he had very little mercy shown on him. By rejecting a payment of twice the loan, he forfeited any monies due. By focusing on the letter of the law, he did not see the spirit of the law. By knowingly choosing a part of the body that would almost guarantee death, he became guilty of attempted murder. By focusing on the mistreatment of himself and others of his religious beliefs and not on what he could do to benefit his people and himself, he stained his soul with a dark, indelible ink. By trying to destroy his enemy, he destroyed himself. A successful man in the beginning is discovered to be nothing but a looser in the end. Hatred and blind revenge has exposed the inner character of failure
The first lesson of this multifaceted play to me is, hatred is destructive and blind hatred with a focus on revenge destroys yourself. As I heard once said, if you go to exact revenge, first start by digging two graves, one of them is for yourself.
As a Christian, I am reminded of what is said in Romans chapter 12 verses 17~21
Repay no one evil for evil. Have[e] regard for good things in the sight of all men. 18 If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. 19 Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 Therefore
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
If he is thirsty, give him a drink;
For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.”
Lessons from Shakespeare