MV Summary Sheet

English 305

Dr. Fike

Here is a summary for you of the major things we discussed in our MV unit.  I will not attempt to summarize everything or give you my notes; my purpose is rather to give you a template against which you can measure your own.  If something is lacking in the latter, further dialogue is in order.  You might, for example, talk to each other or stop by to see me on a Friday afternoon.

We began with a discussion of Antonio, the play's central character:  possible reasons for his sadness and his relationship to Shylock.  What kind of a Christian is Antonio?  The discussion naturally turned to Shylock's qualities, his relationship to his daughter, and his attitude toward the bond. We noted the biblical justification for usury (Exodus 22:25 and Deuteronomy 23:19) and mentioned that Shylock gets himself in trouble when he tries to make a loan on Christian terms (the bond is not usurious; defaulting simply carries a penalty).  At the same time, the loan signifies that Antonio views Shylock as a foreigner.

We did a group activity on the connections between Genesis 30:35-31:16 and MV 1.3.69-100.  The main point to emerge is the idea of venturing, which characterizes numerous elements of the play.  There are various parallels between the Genesis story and our play; for example, Shylock:Jessica::Laban:Rachel, and Launcelot:Old Gobbo::Jacob:Isaac.

One of the greatest ventures in the play, of course, is the casket test, and we noted reasons why Morocco and Aragon are problematic characters, whereas Bassanio is a better match for Portia.  Our discussion also raised the issue of prodigality:  Does Portia adhere to her father's will?  Or does she manipulate the test, which would put her in the same category as other prodigals (e.g., Jessica)?  We noted that prodigality (see Luke 15) is both extreme wastefulness and extreme generosity.  If Bassanio is like the prodigal son, then Antonio is like the prodigal father.  Our discussion of the caskets concluded with a brief mention of numerology, the idea that numbers can be associated with abstract qualities.  We suggested that the number 3 relates to things like unity, wholeness, harmony, and human love.

On our final day we noted that Shylock believes that a pound of Antonio's flesh is enslaved to him, a weird attitude given the fact that the Jews were slaves in ancient Egypt.  We also noted that Shakespeare lops off the MSND-like restorative return in Act 5 (see my article "Disappointment in The Merchant of Venice on Info-Trac).  And we had a lively discussion of Portia's mercy speech.  "Is she sincere, or is she trying to manipulate Shylock?"