Author: William Shakespeare
Many years ago I believed this play to be an early experiment in tragi-comedy featuring Shylock, a nemesis of almost tragic proportions, who–both because of the sympathies he evokes and the evil determination he represents–unbalances the play, making the last act in Belmont seem like a hollow exercise in formal completeness. More recently, I believed that Shylock was essentially a comic villain, one dark splash on a predominately sunny canvas that embodies f0r us the fallen world of Venice transformed by the magic of Portia’s Belmont. (I also believe our knowledge of the Holocaust makes it impossible to appreciate the play fully in this way).
Now-after my recent re-reading–I’m no longer sure what to think. For one thing–taking the title seriously this time–I feel that Antonio the merchant, both in his unexplained sadness, his love (whether erotic or paternal or both) for Bassanio, and his unredeemed solitariness, is extremely important to the meaning of the play. I think that Antonio and Shylock, in their preoccupations and loneliness, are similar, but that Antonio–unlike Shylock–is able to look beneath the surface of things, to peer beneath “our muddy vesture of decay” and hear the music of the spheres as it echoes in the human heart. Thus Antonio becomes capable of love and mercy through choice, in much the same way that Bassanio chooses the right caskets and Portia chooses the mature way to respond to Bassanio’s giving away of her ring. Shylock, however, by willingly suppressing his compassion for another and insisting strictly on justice puts himself beyond mercy and beyond love.
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