It’s Shakespeare’s death day today (died 23rd April 1616). This blog is NOT about Shakespeare. I’ll keep this brief – I write historical novels based in thirteenth century England. In 1290, the Jews of England were exiled by King Edward the First (274 years before Shakespeare was born in 1564). So there were, officially, no Jews in England when Billy Boy was born but anti-Semitism was still rife and so ‘The Merchant of Venice’ had to be set in Venice.
The reason I find the plight of the Jews so interesting stems from an English lesson when I was at school. We were asked to write an essay on the subject of “Was Shylock right in demanding a pound of flesh from Antonio?”
I wrote that Shylock had every right to enforce the terms of his loan. My English teacher went ballistic!!! Said I should not write such things and sent me to the headmaster to be punished! From that day to this I have had an affinity with the Jewish race. And so I wrote “The King’s Jew” series available here. Enough of this frivolity – TO THE BLOG and below is a brief synopsis of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE and my thoughts on the same.
A young Venetian, Bassanio, needs a loan of three thousand ducats so that he can woo Portia, a wealthy Venetian heiress. He approaches his friend Antonio, a merchant. Antonio is short of money because all his wealth is invested in his fleet, which is currently at sea. He goes to a Jewish moneylender, Shylock, who hates Antonio because of Antonio’s anti-Semitic behaviour towards him.
- Actually, Antonio was an out-and-out racist and abused Shylock whenever he could. To quote Shylock –
“Seignior Antonio, many a time and oft In the Rialto you have rated me about my moneys and my usances: Still have I borne it with a patient shrug, for sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, and spit upon my Jewish gabardine, and all for use of that which is mine own. Well then, it now appears you need my help: Go to, then; you come to me, and you say ‘Shylock, we would have moneys:’ you say so; you, that did void your rheum upon my beard and foot me as you spurn a stranger cur over your threshold”
Shylock nevertheless agrees to make the short-term loan, but, in a moment of dark humour, he makes a condition – the loan must be repaid in three months or Shylock will exact a pound of flesh from Antonio. Antonio agrees, confident that his ships will return in time.
- Note the reference to ‘dark humour’. To Shylock, it was more of a ‘jape’ than an actual threat!
Because of the terms of Portia’s father’s will, all suitors must choose from among three caskets, one of which contains a portrait of her. If he chooses that he may marry Portia, but if not he must vow never to marry or court another woman. The Princes of Morocco and Arragon fail the test and are rejected. As Bassanio prepares to travel to Belmont for the test, his friend Lorenzo elopes with Shylock’s daughter, Jessica. THUS a Christian stole his daughter (and she took his money). Now nothing will satisfy Shylock except the legal fulfilment of the bond. Bassanio chooses the lead casket, which contains her picture, and Portia happily agrees to marry him immediately.
- Notice here that Shylock’s daughter is eloping with a Christian AND they STEAL Shylock’s money!
Meanwhile, two of Antonio’s ships have been wrecked and Antonio’s creditors are pressurising him for repayment. Word comes to Bassanio about Antonio’s predicament, and he hurries back to Venice, leaving Portia behind. Portia follows him, accompanied by her maid, Nerissa. They are disguised as a male lawyer and his clerk. When Bassanio arrives the date for the repayment to Shylock has passed and Shylock is demanding his pound of flesh. Even when Bassanio offers much more than the amount in repayment, Shylock, now infuriated by the loss of his daughter, is intent on seeking revenge on Antonio. The Duke refuses to intervene.
- So Shylock is seeking ‘revenge’ well wouldn’t you? You’ve lost your daughter. Your money AND the 3,000 ducat loan is also lost.
Portia arrives in her disguise to defend Antonio. Given the authority of judgment by the Duke, Portia decides that Shylock can have the pound of flesh as long as he doesn’t draw blood, as it is against the law to shed a Christian’s blood. Since it is obvious that to draw a pound of flesh would kill Antonio, Shylock is denied his suit. Moreover, for conspiring to murder a Venetian citizen, Portia orders that he should forfeit all his wealth. Half is to go to Venice, and half to Antonio.
- Hmmm! It’s against the law for a Jew to shed the blood of a Christian but not against the law to destroy the livelihood and family of a Jew! AND Portia is pretending to be a man so – in my mind – this is a classic case of a legal-eagle acting under false pretences. She’s not even a lawyer!
Antonio gives his half back to Shylock on the condition that Shylock bequeaths it to his disinherited daughter, Jessica. Shylock must also convert to Christianity. A broken Shylock accepts. News arrives that Antonio’s remaining ships have returned safely. With the exception of Shylock, all celebrate a happy ending to the affair.
- Note how Antonio gives the money back but it has to be then paid to Jessica who has ALREADY robbed her father. THEN poor old Shylock has to renounce his Jewish faith and convert to Christianity! THEN Antonio’s ships turn up safe and sound and we end up with one totally destroyed character (Shylock) and a group who have won everything by stealth, subterfuge, robbery and false pretences (Antonio and his fellow conspirators).
In Conclusion – Happy death day to Shakespeare and an official pardon to Shylock comes from me.
My book “The King’s Jew” features a main character that has a propensity to ‘help’ the Jews of thirteenth century England and I must thank my erstwhile misguided English teacher for planting the seeds of the novel in my mind so many years ago.