I have been updating The Merchant of Venice with additional items (Let’s Explore, Let’s Play, etc). I’m beginning to wonder what the play’s about.
I’ve never acted or directed The Merchant of Venice so I don’t know it that well. Of course, I’ve seen a number of productions, and my general impression of the play is that the play tells the story of the conflict between Antonio, the merchant, and Shylock, the moneylender, when Antonio defaults on his loan. And then there’s this rather strange folk tale like sub-plot of Portia and the three caskets which seems to have very little to do with the main plot, apart from Portia playing the key lawyer’s role in the trial of Antonio.
Whilst I’ve been working on the play, for various rather indefinite reasons, I’ve begun to wonder whether I’ve got the right take on the play. That sometimes happens and when it does, I tend to check what I’m thinking against some hard data – not the text which is always interpret-able in so many ways, but things like number of lines.
So the first thing I do, is look at the number of lines by character, and then the number of lines in each scene. I think this helps to get a feel for which characters the playwright thinks are important, and which scenes are key to the play. Why? Well I don’t think any playwright is going to spend lots of time writing lines fro an unimportant character, or for an unimportant scene.
Using our edition (which is easy to analyse, but can be mis-leading if there’s lots of prose, which there isn’t in The Merchant of Venice), I get the following summary figures for the principal parts:
Now there’s some interesting stuff here:
- One might guess that Portia had the largest part in the play – but 500 lines? That puts her well ahead of Viola in Twelfth Night, and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, and only 100 lines behind Rosalind in As You Like It.
- The biggest surprise for me was that the second largest part is Bassanio with 318 lines. Of course he’s the romantic lead, but in terms of presence in the play, he seems well behind Shylock and maybe even Antonio.
- Shylock is the third largest part in the play though, in most of the productions I have seen, he takes centre stage. In fact many people I’ve spoken to think Shylock is the merchant of Venice.
- And Antonio the actual Merchant has less than 200 lines, only 8 more lines than Gratiano who barely seems to be a principal in the play
And if we look at the play by scene there are some more surprises. Here’s the top ten scenes in terms of number of lines:
|Act / Scene||No lines|
|Act 4 Scene 1: The Trial||447|
|Act 3 Scene 2: Bassanio chooses the lead casket and Portia / Nerissa give their spouses rings||321|
|Act 5 Scene 1: The lovers are reunited and row over rings||305|
|Act 1 Scene 1: Antonio is sad & a merchant; Bassanio wants to borrow money to court Portia||181|
|Act 1 Scene 3: Antonio asks Shylock to lend him money. He agrees and puts in place the bond||167|
|Act 2 Scene 2: The clown teases his father and leaves Shylock for Bassanio||141|
|Act 2 Scene 7: Morocco chooses gold||79|
|Act 1 Scene 2: Portia is sad and discusses her suitors with Nerissa||75|
|Act 3 Scene 1: Shylock bewails the loss of Jessica and thnks Antonio may default on loan||74|
I guess it’s no surprise that The Trial is the largest and most significant scene. But there are still some surprises:
- A3S2 (the lead casket) and A5S1 (the row over rings) which cover the weddings and the row over rings are over 600 lines and each provides Portia with nearly as many lines as the trial scene, and Bassanio with more than half his lines.
- ArS1, that moving scene where Shylock bemoans the loss of Jessica and wonders if Antonio will default is only the 10th largest scene with only 74 lines. This may be influenced by the fact that most of the scene is in prose which skews the line counts somewhat.
This has made me think of the play rather differently than before this analysis. It now seems to me that the play Shakespeare wrote was an early version of his Classic comedies complete with: female(s) disgusised as males; fathers making life difficult for their daughters; confusion between the lovers before eventual resolution and happiness.
In this comedy, for an Elizabethan audience, Shylock introduces the darkness that Malvolio introduces to Twelfth Night; Don Pedro ibrings to Much Ado About Nothing; and Jaques to As You Like It..
For a modern audience, of course, history from the second world war onwards shifts the focus of the play from the romantic comedy to Shylock, the conflict between Christian and Jewish cultures; and his attempted revenge on Antonio.
If I was still directing, and was directing The Merchant of Venice, it would be interesting to try and bring these two themes of the play into a better balance for a modern audience. As it is, I hope these thoughts will influence our exploration of the play in Let’s Play & Let’s Examine.