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YMMV / The Merchant of Venice

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  • Acceptable Targets:
    • Jews were this in Shakespeare's day. Indeed, it's believed that this play was inspired by Roderigo Lopez, the Portuguese New Christian (converted Jew) who served Elizabeth's court and became the only Royal Physician executed by the Crown.
    • The Spanish as well, considering England was in the midst of the Armada. The Prince of Arragon is depicted as a rude, haughty and silly - in contrast to the Prince of Morocco, who seems to be a little more sympathetic.
  • Alternative Character Interpretation:
    • The character of Shylock is open to lots of it. 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? Is his famous soliloquy meant to reinforce his humanity, or to reveal that his non-Christian faith prevents him from fully grasping what it means to be human (since he only mention physical traits like eyes and hands and blood, instead of metaphysical concepts like the immortal soul)?
      • 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.
      • The "hath not a Jew eyes" speech can, in itself, have many different interpretations depending on how the character is portrayed. Is Shylock pleading for tolerance and equal treatment? Or is he just making a calculated justification for his desire to kill Antonio by cutting out his heart? The speech does focus on the revenge aspect more than the "I am just like you" aspect, after all...
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    • 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.
      • It's also possible she played the trick because, during the trial, Bassanio announced that he would give her and all her wealth up happily to save Antonio, and she felt a little payback was due.
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    • 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 did she just leap at the first chance she had to escape from her oppressive father? Even their most "romantic" dialogue shows some ominous incompatibility. 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?
    • 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?
  • 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.
  • Draco in Leather Pants: For modern audiences, Shylock undoubtedly gets this. This was also the case in earlier eras but more for the prosaic reasons that Shylock gets all the cool lines.
  • Ensemble Dark Horse: 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? Of course in Shakespeare's time, this ending would have been a positive ending, since Shylock is left to live at the end as a convert as a recipient of mercy. When placed in context with what happened to the poor Dr Roderigo Lopez, whose conversion did not prevent his execution, Shylock got off lightly.
  • Fair for Its Day: It's truly debatable how to apply this trope even if it was the former Trope Namer.
    • From a modern perspective, it seems like Shylock is given depth and motivation for his actions, even if they are vindictive, and is able to articulate them very passionately. 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. This was an uncommonly sympathetic characterization for a time in which Jews weren't even allowed to live in England, where being converted would still not save you from a Kangaroo Court.
    • On the other hand, Shylock is primarily the Foil to his heroes and not the protagonist, unlike Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta (also stained with anti-semitism) where the hero is a Villain Protagonist who refuses to convert and instead becomes a mass murderer, with his enemies shown to have none of the nobility Shakespeare's verse attributes to Portia, Antonio and Bassanio. From Shakespeare's perspective, Shylock's speech would be of the same order as that of his other villains, to provide him more shades and make him interesting, but nonetheless still keeping him the villain.
    • 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.
    • Shylock when defending his pound of flesh, chides the Venetian authorities for their pleas of mercy by pointing out the legal slave trade in Venice and pointing out how his pound of flesh isn't any less reasonable to deny than it is for them to deny manumission to their slaves. To a modern audience, this is an absurd equivalency, but within the context of the time, and in the hands of a critical production, one can see Shylock mocking Venetians for asking him to be merciful when they are a bunch of slave-drivers:
    Shylock: "You have among you many a purchased slave,
    Which—like your asses and your dogs and mules—
    You use in abject and in slavish parts
    Because you bought them. Shall I say to you,
    “Let them be free! Marry them to your heirs!
    Why sweat they under burdens? Let their beds
    Be made as soft as yours and let their palates
    Be seasoned with such viands”? You will answer,
    “The slaves are ours.” So do I answer you.
    The pound of flesh which I demand of him
    Is dearly bought. 'Tis mine and I will have it.
    If you deny me, fie upon your law—
    There is no force in the decrees of Venice." (4.1, Lines 90-103).
  • Ho Yay: Antonio and Bassanio's stuff is blatant enough that it's just plain Homoerotic Subtext. But that doesn't stop us from shipping our darling merchant with pretty much any other male characters—most prominently Salanio/Salarino and "Balthasar," Portia's Sweet Polly Oliver alter-ego.
    Bassanio: (to Balthasar) Most worthy gentleman, I and my friend
    Have by your wisdom been this day acquitted
    Of grievous penalties ...
    Antonio: And stand indebted, over and above,
    In love and service to you evermore.note 
  • I Am Not Shazam: The eponymous Merchant is Antonio, not Shylock. But you are forgiven for the confusion because the play itself spends more time on Shylock than on Antonio. To complicate matters, while attempting to trace the history of the play it was apparently entered into the Register of the Stationer's Company under both the names "The Merchant of Venice" and "The Jew of Venice".
  • 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. His final lines in the play, after being outfoxed and humiliated by Portia (in disguise), and then being denied the monetary payment that he had initially refused, and then being forced to convert by Antonio and give all his possessions away and then being asked if he is content is heartbreaking. Especially his final lines:
    Shylock: "I pray you, give me leave to go from hence;
    I am not well. Send the deed after me
    And I will sign it."
  • Memetic Mutation: Shylock's "if you prick us, do we not bleed" speech has often been parodied to give an It's All About Me angle, notably in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
  • Older Than They Think: This is not the first English Renaissance play featuring a villainous yet not completely unsympathetic Jew who calls out the hypocrisy of the majority religion; that would be Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta.
  • Rooting for the Empire: Thanks to the anti-Semitism of the day, Shylock was likely written to be received as a straight-up menacing bad guy. In modern times, he is almost universally seen (and portrayed) as a sympathetic and tragic antagonist, and some of his arguments, such as mocking the Venetians for being slave-drivers and getting hot-and-bothered about one of their own having his arm chopped off, is seen, or can be seen, as a villain calling "truth to power".
  • The Scrappy: Portia is one character that has not aged well, due to the Values Dissonance. Modern interpretations view her as something of an Alpha Bitch - especially with her unfortunate line about not wanting to marry the Prince of Morocco because of his skin colour. And once she does marry Basanio, she tricks him into giving up his ring and tries to paint is as him being unfaithful. Productions have to be very careful when it comes to how they present her character.
  • 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.
    • Though to be fair, comedy in Shakespeare's day would probably just have meant that everything turned out alright in the end and no one ends up dead (which is true: the villain is defeated and all the couples get together), rather than the laugh-out-loud definition of comedy we have now.
  • Values Dissonance:
    • The legions of anti-Semites who have enjoyed the play down the years should alone give pause to modern attempts to "reclaim" the play. Modern day audiences have vastly different reactions to Shylock's eventual fate, which in the original context counted as a happy ending for his Anti-Villain.
    • Harold Bloom, the great Shakespeare critic notes that while he doesn't believe that Shakespeare was personally anti-semitic, he does believe that the play (which was a popular commission after all) is anti-semitic and that the main cause for regret is that Shakespeare wrote it too well and as such ensured that a pantomime antisemitic caricature had longer life in popular imagination as a result of Shakespeare's great verse. It's a lot harder to combat stereotypes after all when they are given depth and good writing by the greatest playwright of all time.
    • Portia also bluntly says that the only reason she doesn't want to marry the Prince of Morocco is because of his skin colour.
    "may all of his complexion choose me so" [referring to picking the wrong casket]


Example of: