Balawal Rehman 4/10/04
English/English Literature coursework
How does the modern audience responds to Shakespeare ‘The Merchant of Venice?’
The modern audience respond in a very negative way. Some of the things which make them respond in this way are the racism and the not so funny jokes.
The open racism is a very sensitive subject due to what happened in world war two and the modern audience is not very appreciative of it. When Antonio talks to Shylock about borrowing money he is not kind and polite but is rude and very anti-Semitic towards Shylock. You can tell that Antonio and Shylock hate each other by looking at act 1, scene 3, line 39 where Shylock says ‘I hate him for he is Christian ‘. Lower down on the page he also says ‘He hates our sacred nation, and he rails even there where merchants most do congregate, on me, my bargains, and my well-won thrift, which he calls interest. Cursed be my tribe if I forgive him’. This tells you that Antonio and Shylock have hated each other for a long time and they also dislike each other because of their religions.
This argument continues and Shylock starts to use sayings from the Old Testament. The story of Jacob grazing his uncle’s lambs is Shylock’s excuse for charging interest. Antonio says in Act 1, Scene 3, line 55, ‘The devil can cite scripture for his own purpose’. This means that even the devil can use sacred writing for his own needs. By saying this Antonio is calling Shylock a devil. At the start of line 103 Shylock reminds Antonio of his past abuse towards him. For example in line 108 Shylock says ‘you call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, and spit upon my Jewish gabardine’. This is more proof that Antonio is really anti-Semitic and this would seem quite abusive to the modern audience, especially Jews.
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Another aspect of the racism is the way Portia speaks of the Prince of Morocco, ‘if he have the condition of saint, and the complexion of the devil, I rather he should shrive me than wive me’. This means that Portia does not care if he is as kind and well-behaved as a saint if he is black, she would never want to marry him. Once having read this it comes to mind that Portia is a bit snobby and is quite racist, which at that time was apparently acceptable, as she is obviously meant to be a good character.
Another negative point to this play is the way in which Shakespeare uses the stereotypes of the nationalities in the play, except the English. For example, he writes about the French as if they can not control themselves and that the County Palatine is not funny and that Portia would rather marry a skull than him, but he writes that the English baron was good-looking but couldn’t speak any language that Portia could understand. So that was the reason why Portia doesn’t want to marry the English baron. The modern audience does not like to see or hear something which could be insulting to their different relatives and friends from other nationalities that would be abused by this play.
Even though Shylock is subjected to a lot of racism through out the play, he can not justify his desire to kill Antonio just because he spat at him and called him names such as “misbeliever”, “dog” etc. I think that Shakespeare intended to make him seem a heartless person, so when they punished him the audience would not feel sorry for him because of his behaviour throughout the play.
Shylock also, in the trial scene, is made to look ruthless and unforgiving so the audience doesn’t feel sorry for him when he is punished. He is offered three times the original amount but he doesn’t accept it so this gives the audience the idea that all Shylock wants to do at the moment is kill Antonio.This makes the audience feel sorry for Antonio and it makes them dislike Shylock even further.
Antonio and his fellow Christain friends also punish Shylock by converting him into a Christian, by doing this they believe that they are saving Shylock from hell.
Shakespeare does however make the audience feel sorry for Shylock, for a little while only though. This is when his daughter has gone off with a Christian with all of his money. Almost immediately afterwards Shylock, when he finds out what has happened says ‘two thousand ducats in that and, and other precious, precious jewels. I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear. Would she hearsed at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin’. This means that he would rather have her dead and have his money returned to him. A father in today’s times would rather have their daughter back than money, so the modern audience responds negatively to this also.
Shakespeare also writes ‘Hath not a jew eyes? Hath not a jew hands,organs,dimensions,senses,affections,passions?fed with the same food,hurt with the same weapons ,subject to the same diseases,healed by the same means,warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, asa Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die?. This tells the audience that Shakespeare understood that many people were racist towards the Jews and this speech tells you that Shakespeare thought that Jews were no diiferent to anyone else. The speech also gives Shylock reason to want revenge.
As for the jokes, which in Shakespeare’s time were supposed to be hysterically funny; they are not very funny at all. None of them except for the odd one or two are funny and the modern audience would not be impressed with them. Personally, I think the funniest jokes come at the very end, when Bassanio and Gratiano come home from Venice to Belmont. It is when Portia and Nerissa both start to tease and mess around with Bassonio and Gratiano that some things that are said are funny. For example, when Nerissa says that she will sleep with the clerk of the lawyer because he has the ring, Gratanio replies that if he catches the clerk with her he will cut his ‘pen’ off. This type of joke is known as a dirty joke and is mainly used for an adult audience.
To sum things up I think that the modern audience would; out of a hundred percent; about fifteen percent would like it. These types of people would like it because they are either a Shakespeare fan or a Christian who was very anti – Semitic and thinks what Shakespeare wrote is still acceptable in the present time and moment.
As for the percentage of people who did not like the play is probably because of the racism and the stereotypical nature of the play. To make things worse instead of better are the jokes except the odd one or two, so not liking the play is not a big deal, because you have loads of valid reasons not to like it.