The Moneylender of Venice:
In Shylock, a Different Play Struggles to be Born
The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s poorer plays. It has three of his unique soliloquies, a lyrical love scene, a couple of vehement dramatic situations, and two strong characters in Shylock and Portiabut it never catches fire as a work of art. The reason is that Shakespeare, who certainly never saw a confessed Jew in England, and very probably never was in Italy in his life, gives us a Shylock in The Merchant of Venice who is so complex that he destroys the comic unity of the play.
Shakespeare’s comedies, it is true, are never simple; they abound in ambiguities and hard philosophic comments, generally in the ironic-pessimistic vein of Jaques in As You Like It (“All the world’s a stage . . .”). For the comic point, perhaps best communicated by the epigrammatic clown or fool, is the classic liberation of objectivity. It is as though the ludicrous motley gave the wearer license to stick a healthy finger through the interstices of the moral garb. The difference between the clowns in Shakespeare’s comedies and those in his tragedies is mainly one of intensity—their functions are the same: to reveal the human rigidity behind the rich social folds.
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