The Merchant of Venice is a funhouse mirror

The Merchant of Venice is a perfect example of one of Shakespeare’s key tricks: writing things that can be taken to be making entirely opposite statements, depending on your point of view. Is King Lear a misogynist play or a play about the damage done by misogyny? Is Coriolanus showing the dangers of a despotic ruling class or of mob rule by the people? Is Hamlet really mad?

What we can say is that Merchant asks its audience to think about the reality of what lies behind the surface image. The fairytale task of choosing the right casket and the nonsensical legal quibble about flesh being distinct from blood are vehicles for a question that is every bit as embedded in our lives today as it was in the lives of Shakespeare’s first audience – how do you reckon the value of a person?

In NSW Australia the final year of secondary school culminates in sitting for your Higher School Certificate (HSC), despite there no longer being such a thing as the School Certificate (a relic from when it was reasonably common to leave school at the end of year 10). There are various English level options, but they share one Common Module: Texts and Human Experiences. This module has a huge variety of set texts to choose from, one of which is The Merchant of Venice. This video is framed in such a way as to be pertinent to that module, but also fine for general interest watching.

One thought on “The Merchant of Venice is a funhouse mirror

  1. Is it an anti-Semitic play, or a play about anti-Semitism? It has always struck me, how callous the responses of the others to “I am a Jew / Hath not a Jew eyes?” is. Growing up on US television, I always kind of expected the rest of the characters to say, “you’re so right, Shylock!”

    And you’re right, I never think that much about Portia. But the “what am I worth” question and the “whose status means that he can do something with impunity” question to me seem very classic early modern problems (with Renaissance self-fashioning in mind). Maybe I should make my “intro to philosophy” students watch this; there’s a good dichotomy between virtue and deontic ethics that emerges from your presentation.

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