Our first Shakespeare is different from the rest. It is a rite of passage. It remains through life as a benchmark not only for his other plays but also for literature in general. Mine was ‘The Merchant of Venice’. I still remember our classroom. We were twenty or so 15-year-olds, expectant but unsure how it would turn out. We had life and the ‘Merchant of Venice’ before us. And the GCE exam at the end of the year. The classroom was on the ground floor in the old school building in the Liberty. It looked over a large garden where you could still see the green paths marking the pattern of the Union Jack. It had been created by a previous teacher who had left long before and the paths were still mown even if the red, white and blue flowers that had once grown patriotically in their places had been outnumbered by the random wildflowers.
We loved the play. There were two minor characters, Salarino and Salanio. They appear in the first scene. Shakespeare didn’t trouble much with the names or the characterization of these two figures. Their role is little more than that of an anonymous chorus. They are hardly differentiated but we became so familiar with the text that we could usually identify which of the two made any particular speech. It became a test we gave each other to see how well we knew the play.
‘The Merchant of Venice’ is not a sunny comedy like ‘As You Like It’, ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ or ‘Twelfth Night’. There are no lovers’ fond misunderstandings and tiffs which the audience longs to see resolved. ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is somewhere in the middle. That’s something, I suppose. As Nerissa says to Portia “It is no mean happiness, therefore, to be seated in the mean”. It is grouped along with some other plays such as ‘Measure for Measure’ but it lacks the sombre choices that appear in that most underrated play.
As always, Shakespeare condenses in a few lines what we would go round about to say. Once you get used to this, you are halfway to enjoying and understanding him.
Take this example. Bassanio asks the merchant Antonio to lend him more money because he has spent what Antonio has lent him already.
“In my school-days, when I had lost one shaft,
I shot his fellow of the self-same flight
The self-same way with more advised watch,
To find the other forth; and by adventuring both
I oft found both.”
There it is. With a second loan he will be more careful and, he hopes, also repay the first. But the example is of finding arrows. Instead of saying “I took a similar arrow and used that”, we have “I shot his fellow”. How concise! Instead of “I looked more carefully the second time” we have “with more advised watch”. This is a marvel of economy of expression. It is also written in blank verse, by the way. Had you noticed? We have seen such economy already in Jane Austen. We can find it elsewhere too, but only in the great writers.
And the example is taken from childhood. It rings a bell. It is relevant. This is what children do. Here it is about finding an arrow, but any boy who has lost a cricket ball will have done the same thing. Perhaps golfers do it too.
Johnson complained that “Shakespeare seems to write without any moral purpose”. Well, Johnson liked teaching to be clear, as his own was. But Shakespeare’s praise and defence of mercy, given by Portia in Act IV, has stayed with me all my life, and, I hope, has influenced my actions. Surely this speech is a declaration of moral purpose if anything is.
Here it is. Shylock complains in court that he has no obligation to be merciful to Antonio, and Portia, as the lawyer, replies:
“The quality of mercy is not strained,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blessed;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.”
I wish Putin could this hear this speech today as he bombs Ukraine. But would he listen? Shylock did not.