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What’s going on in The Merchant of Venice?

As you may have noticed, I’m in the process of updating The Merchant of Venice  at the moment with additional items (Let’s Explore, Let’s Play, etc). I’m beginning to wonder what the play’s about.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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Part Scenes Speeches Lines
Portia 9 117 520
Bassanio 6 73 318
Shylock 5 79 313
Antonio 6 47 180
Gratiano 8 48 172
Lorenzo 7 47 162
Clown 6 44 100
Morocco 2 7 100
Jessica 7 26 78

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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

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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.

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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..

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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.

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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.

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.Let’s Play!!!!.
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Before you go, we re-start play-reading in September, for our fourth year, and we’re hoping some other groups around the world will join us play-reading Macbeth or some other play. You can find out more about this initiative by looking at our checklist of activities to prepare for the play-reading:
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Richard Forsyth
‘The Director’
Players-Shakespeare.com

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6 Responses to "What’s going on in The Merchant of Venice?"

  • Richard Forsyth
    August 7, 2017 - 8:54 am Reply

    Jon-Michael Lindsey wrote as follows:
    In terms of Bassanio having the second largest amount of lines, you have to understand that he’s the catalyst for all the events that follow. If he wasn’t so financially reckless in the first place, he wouldn’t need Antonio’s help, who wouldn’t then needed to have strike a bond with Shylock, and so on. Even in the court scene, he still makes a last ditch attempt to placate Shylock with firstly double the money, then his own life in return for Antonio’s so he’s still a prominent figure in the scene.

    As for themes, don’t overlook the underlying theme of the love that Antonio harbours for Bassanio. In some productions this is seen as nothing more than a paternal love, but in the RSC’s most recent version, the audience were left in no doubt that it was a genuine love, but simply not requited by Bassanio sufficiently. What starts out as an “innocent” favour being asked in order to restore his fortunes by way of marriage soon gives way to Bassanio leaving behind Antonio once he’s in a position to do so in preference of Portia. For me, that relationship between the two men needs to be demonstrated, as it goes some way to explain why Antonio is willing to pay the ultimate price at the end. In my work with Bournemouth Shakespeare Players next to Benedick in Much Ado, Bassanio has been my favourite Shakespearean character to play so far.

  • Richard Forsyth
    August 7, 2017 - 8:55 am Reply

    Richard Forsyth replied as follows:
    Very interesting. The best production of ‘The Merchant’ that I’ve seen was directed by Trevor Nunn and starred Henry Goodman as Shylock. In it Antonio was filled with unrequited love for Bassanio.

  • Richard Forsyth
    August 7, 2017 - 9:00 am Reply

    In response to a question from Richard Forsyth as to whether the song sung whilst Bassanio chooses the casket, in which every line in the first verse of the song rhymes with ‘lead’ was a heavy hint from Portia:

    Jon-Michael Lindsey replied as follows:
    Bassanio, whilst being somewhat reckless and devil-may-care in most aspects of his life, is smart enough to realise that everything is on the line when he faces this challenge. He realises that the gold casket is there to be a distraction, “The seeming truth which cunning times put on To entrap the wisest” Gold is too obvious and he won’t fall for that. Silver, he classes as “thou pale and common drudge
    ‘Tween man and man” showing he feels that it is no more than a representation of coin, which no Father would rightfully value his daughter against. Lead has a number of meanings; it has an everyday use in Shakespeare’s time, so is a constant (even in death, when it was used to line coffins in some instances). He is also aware that both Gold and silver are superficial, they are what they seem to be. The lead casket, however, hides what it may house in something everyday, thus showing that the true worth is what’s inside, rather than it’s flashy exterior. He hopes that Portia will feel the same about him. He may not have the status of a Duke or the wealth or a rich man, but he offers love, which should the higher value. (Ironic, in a sense, considering that when he first suggests wooing her to Antonio, it’s to clear himself of debt – “In Belmont is a lady richly left;” but once he’s in her company, I believe he falls headlong for her.)

  • Richard Forsyth
    August 7, 2017 - 9:05 am Reply

    Then to the question as to what relationship there is between the Shylock / Antonio plot with the Bassanio & Portia marriage and exchange and loss of the ring plot…

    Jon-Michael Lindsey replied as follows:
    Thirdly, the rings. In our production we played on the fact that Bassanio is obviously feeling guilty at his reluctance at handing the “clerk” his ring, but at the same time he knew he must never part with it, in accordance to the vow he makes to Portia. This, all changes, however, when Antonio suggests “My Lord Bassanio, let him have the ring:
    Let his deservings and my love withal Be valued against your wife’s commandment.” Our Antonio really emphasised the “and my love withal”, to which my Bassanio understands just how much he has really laid on the line for this venture, including both the love and almost the life of someone that truly loved him. We also changed the emphasis of the ending a little. Rather than, as I have seen in a few productions, including the RSC’s, leaving Antonio isolated as each of the couples go off together, we walk away to leave, but Portia stops me, looks towards Antonio, then we go to him together and invite him to join with us. It was a pleasant moment to do, in an attempt to make amends for Bassanio’s faults in this journey.

  • Richard Forsyth
    August 7, 2017 - 9:08 am Reply

    Topher Cooper makes a good point about the sub-title of the play:

    Worth noting that when it was registered for copyright in the late 16th century, it was entered with “The Jew of Venice” as an alternate title.

    This seems to make clear that Shakespeare considered the Shylock plot at least as important as the Romantic comedy of the marriage of Portia and Bassanio and the giving away of the ring.

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