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YMMV: The Merchant of Venice
  • Acceptable Targets: Jews were this in Shakespeare's day. And note that Shakespeare was nice about it, compared to his contemporaries.
  • Alternative Character Interpretation:
    • The character of Shylock is open to lots of it, largely because he's not drawn as unambiguously evil as other Jewish characters of the same time (Marlowe's The Jew Of Malta comes to mind.) Is he a greedy bastard who cares for nothing but money? Is he a hard-nosed businessman who knows that his only protection from those who would like to see him ruined is his reputation as a bastard? Is he the victim of repeated bullying and abuse who finally gets what he believes is a chance to take revenge on the person who has abused him the most — and do it legally?
      • The 2004 movie basically turns Shylock into the tragic protagonist of the play, with the anti-Semitism of the time made a central theme, and all the romantic and comedy elements are pushed into supporting roles.
    • Portia is one of Shakespeare's very best villains. After getting Shylock to give up his demand for the pound of flesh she, along with the Duke and Antonio twists the law around so much that Shylock has to give up all his wealth to the state and his ungrateful daughter (who, by the way, left his house by stealing his money AND a ring from Shylock's deceased wife), and also has to convert to Christianity, or die. Then she tricks her husband's ring from him, pretty much just so she can hold it over him as being "unfaithful."
      • Either that, or she's the ultimate heroine, brains and beauty combined, who bravely disguises herself as a boy to save her husband's best friend. She sympathizes with Shylock, trying to talk him into being merciful on a level they both relate to (as a Christian and a Jew, they both believe in the same God) and only felling him with the letter of the law when he insists that she follow the bond exactly as it was written. (In the Laurence Olivier film, she looks genuinely sad after Shylock leaves the court scene — and, after all, it wasn't her idea to insist on his conversion.) She tricks her husband out of his ring partly as a joke and partly just to see if she can do it — and when she realizes that he only gave her the ring because Antonio insisted, she understands and forgives.
    • Is Antonio in love with Bassanio, and essentially being asked to finance his own heartbreak? In that case, maybe he's happy to die because that way his love for Bassanio will always outshine Portia's. With that in mind, Bassanio can be a clueless dunce or a callous one, cruelly taking advantage of his best friend's romantic feelings for him.
    • Is Jessica a self-centered brat, or a sweet, loving girl who's genuinely sad at having to leave her father to be with the one she loves? For that matter, do she and Lorenzo really love each other or are they just stupid teenagers having a fling? The 2004 film shows in the last scene that Jessica has kept Shylock's ring, which strongly suggests that she misses her father.
    • Is Launcelot a lovable fool, or an anti-Semitic jerk prone to alarmingly insensitive humor? Are he and Jessica Like Brother and Sister, or is he in love with her and jealous of Lorenzo? Is Lorenzo legitimately jealous of him in turn, or just joking, or does he know that Launcelot had a thing for his wife and smugly rub it in his face?
    • Did Old Gobbo really fall for that lame trick of Launcelot's, or did he go along with the game and then deliberately refuse to recognize his son, effectively turning the tables?
    • Is Gratiano endearingly roguish and impolite, or is he just plain unbearable? Did Nerissa really love him enough to want to marry him, or did she make a bet with him and get more than she bargained for?
    • Antonio's either a jerk who hates Jews or a nice guy who really wants to be Shylock's friend. Some critics have argued that his forced conversion of Shylock wasn't considered cruel at the time, but a way to save Shylock's soul and get him into Heaven—this after Shylock tried to kill him!
      • The rationale for the opposing school of thought is that, genuine conversion or no, it would be Antonio's ultimate revenge — to take away even Shylock's very identity and essentially render him an Unperson among his own people. Consider also that conversion robbed Shylock of his livelihood. Since Christians couldn't lend money for interest, Shylock can't practice the only trade he's ever known. Between what his daughter took and what the state confiscated, Shylock has lost most of his money, has no way to earn more, and is too old to start over.
    • Did Morocco and Aragon really love Portia, or were they just in it for the money? Was Portia racist toward one or both of them? Was Portia's father really wise to set up the casket test, or was it inherently flawed? Did Portia have the song played to help Bassanio cheat?
  • Designated Hero: She probably wasn't intended to be originally, but Portia really comes off like this to modern audiences — both for her role as the lawyer who makes Shylock lose everything, and in the whole ring subplot. She is a Jerkass, with not even a hint of a heart of gold. The other Christian characters come off like this too, to a certain extent.
  • Designated Villain: The 1980 TV Movie by the BBC exerts quite a bit of effort to portray Shylock as an unsympathetic version of this.
  • Ensemble Darkhorse: Shylock himself, after a fashion. The protagonist of the piece is Portia, the leading man is Bassanio, and the titular character is Antonio, but is any of them the most famous character in the show? (Or, for that matter, one of the most famous characters in theatre?)
  • Esoteric Happy Ending: And how. Are we really supposed to be thrilled about Shylock's humiliation and forced conversion?
  • Fair for Its Day: Former Trope Namer. Shylock is given depth and motivation for his actions, even if they are vindictive, and is able to articulate them very passionately. This was an uncommonly sympathetic characterization for a time in which Jews weren't even allowed to live in England. Shylock even finishes his "hath not a Jew eyes?" speech, when he's justifying his desire for vengeance, by saying that he'll "better the instruction"—he's explicitly giving the Venetians a taste of their own medicine.
    • While Portia makes some nasty quips about the Prince of Morocco's skin colour, the character himself is sympathetically depicted, if a bit of a Noble Savage. The fact that he comes off as nicer than the Prince of Arragon combines this with Values Dissonance: Spanish people were very much Acceptable Targets in England at the time this play was written.
  • Genre Savvy: Does Bassanio really choose the lead casket because of "something, something, all that glitters is not gold, beauty is only skin deep, etc, etc", or is it because he's grown up on fairy/folk tales like ours and thus knows that the treasure is always hidden in the guise of ugliness?
  • Ho Yay / Kissing Cousins: Antonio and Bassanio. It was explicitly mentioned early on in the play that Bassanio is Antonio's cousin.
  • I Am Not Shazam: The eponymous Merchant is Antonio, not Shylock.
  • Jerkass Woobie: One interpretation of Shylock, especially if you see him as a victim of abuse who's taking revenge on his abuser, and loses everything as a result.
  • Misaimed Fandom: Depending on whether or not the play is intended as anti-Semitic, the legions of anti-Semites who have enjoyed the play down the years might count as this. See here.
  • Tear Jerker:
    • When Shylock learns his daughter has traded a ring of his for a monkey. It is Shylock's only possession that has purely sentimental value, and also the only mention of his dead wife.
    "It was my turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys."
    • Any production that does the wailing for the courtroom scene. When Shylock leaves the courtroom after having lost everything, the action stops as you hear him scream and wail at losing, essentially, his identity.
    • The closing scene of the Al Pacino film, with Shylock standing outside the synagogue as his fellow Jews file inside for services, looking on helplessly as the last man enters and closes the doors behind him, leaving Shylock standing alone in the street. Meanwhile Jessica is looking sadly out over the lagoon, fingering the turquoise ring — apparently it was a different one that she traded for the monkey, and she feels guilty for abandoning Shylock.
  • True Art Is Angsty: Usually performed as a tragedy nowadays. It was written as a comedy, but performing it as such would be considered uncouth and insensitive.
  • Unfortunate Implications:
    • Playing Shylock as tragic and Driven to Villainy rather than a dyed-in-the-wool villain simply opens up a different set of un-PC implications: it makes the three women of the play (Portia, Nerissa and Jessica) into sadistic harpies and can be seen to imply that a smart woman is an evil woman.
    • On the other hand, in such an interpretation Antonio is still an anti-Semite who has abused Shylock in the past, and Bassanio and Gratiano are morons who promptly surrender the tokens of love just given to them by their ladies to what they think are a pair of men on a whim. So really nobody comes off looking too nice. Which in its turn ends up validating the stereotype that everyone in the Middle Ages was either evil or stupid.
    • Some productions have fun with this by having Shylock begin the play costumed and made up as a stereotypical Greedy Jew surrounded by white clad, angelic Christians, and then, as the play goes on, gradually changing their make-up and wardrobe so that by the end, Shylock is humble and angelic whilst the Christians are basically Putting on the Reich.
  • Values Dissonance: Hoo boy yes. In particular, even a modern day Jewish viewer and a modern day Christian viewer might have different reactions to Shylock's eventual fate— a Christian might be able to accept the "convert to Christianity" as being a Fair for Its Day attempt at what a 16th century English Christian would think was a happy ending for his Anti-Villain, but Jewish culture largely views conversion away from Judaism—especially forced conversion— as being anathema.


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