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New Critical Essays.

William Shakespeare. The Merchant of Venice: New Critical Essays.

Eds. John W. Mahon and Ellen Macleod Mahon. New York: Routledge, 2002. xiv + 456 pp. index. illus. $95. ISBN: 0-415-92999-7.

Collections of "new" critical essays are often as usefully summations of the past as heralds of the "new." Framing this volume on The Merchant of Venice, an introduction by coeditor John W. Mahon provides a copious survey of the play's critical and theatrical reception from its early modern origins to the present, while three complementary accounts of the Merchant on stage in the distant and recent past bring the book to a close. The fourteen essays in between are for the most part "new" less for the issues they address, the trails they blaze, than for the generally inventive and perceptive riffs they offer on "old" questions concerning the characterization of the principal figures in the play and the representation in the play of the relationship of Christianity, Judaism, and commerce: "old" problems but no less current for having eluded resolution.

In the various interpretative strategies these essays employ, readings that stress source and scriptural typological study and "close," formalist analysis predominate. In the degree to which it also integrates readings reflecting the influence of more recent, postmodernist modes, however, the volume creates juxtapositions that remind the reader of the radically divergent interpretative possibilities the play yields. In no instance more pointedly, perhaps, than in the pair of compelling essays on Jessica by Joan Ozark Holmer and John Drakakis. For both Jessica is a metaphorically and structurally significant secondary figure, but for reasons that indicate very different readings of the play: for Drakakis, Jessica is a destabilizing figure, an avatar of the "unruly woman" Portia might have--but didn't--become, whose elopement from her father's house at once affirms and deconstructs the Christian order she joins by violating the principle of patriarchal control that the Christian order dares not undermine (158-59). For Holmer, Jessica is an affirming figure, an instrument of reconciliation, whose elopement, conversion, and assimilation in the Christian community are central to Shakespeare's Christian recuperation of Marlowe's Abigail and invest The Merchant, in Holmer's view, with "a philo-Semitic, or at least less Judeophobic, emphasis than usually imagined" (134).

Holmer's essay is one of several that read the play in Christian allegorical terms and see in it an exemplification and affirmation of the Christian promise of fulfillment through mercy and love. In the degree to which they predicate their interpretations upon the rich vein of scriptural allusion in The Merchant--its depths zealously plumbed by John Cunningham and Stephen Slimp--and to the degree to which we assume that the Bible, as Holmer reminds us, was a cultural lingua franca (211) for Shakespeare's audience, these readings bear a sense of historical entitlement, the ability to invoke the trope, "Shakespeare's audience would have ..." At the same time, they resist "modern" concerns about anti-Semitism in the representation of Shylock by viewing Shylock as a figure in a dialectic the end of which is not the suppression of a particularly minatory member of a culturally opprobrious race, but the celebration of a spiritual dispensation that brings redemption to all humanity, even Shylock, who, after all, is shown the mercy he denied Antonio, and whose mandated conversion to Christianity and deed of gift to "son" Lorenzo clear the way for a possible and generically appropriate rapprochement. Hence, Hugh Short exults that when Shylock says near the end of the trial scene (4.1), "I am content," we have no reason to doubt him; not only should he be content; he is--a Christian wouldn't see it--and Shakespearean decorum wouldn't have it--any other way (210-11)!

To see the play through the eyes--and beliefs--of Shakespeare's audience is, of course, helpful--especially in a collection which, apart from F. W. Desai's speculations on ethnic and racial anxieties and Karoline Szatek's rehearsal of pertinent if familiar facts about usury and finances in Shakespeare's England, is thin on early modern historical contextualization. Important as the Bible is, one may wonder what else an early modern audience might have seen in the play, and whether other, less spiritualized possibilities in the play may not have complicated their vision. Sister Maryellen Keefe, O.S.U., concedes a gap between the all-loving redemptive vision she thinks the play enacts and the religious intolerance of its audience (221), and one welcomes other acknowledgments in the collection that the relationship between what the play may seem to yield to our hermeneutical reconstruction and what the audience brought to it may have been messy and complex. John Andrewes reminds us that so much of our modern interpretation of the play works from a playtext with "normalized" spellings that Shakespeare's audience may neither have read nor heard, that the "Lancelet" from the earliest printed versions of the play, for example, may not have sounded quite as "Englished" and Arthurian as the "Lancelot" as has been conjectured (166; Desai, 314). And though Grace Tiffany concedes that her review of the multivalency embedded in the names of the principal characters of the play might not yield any "new" insights into the characters, it at least underscores the polyphony the play invites and challenges its audiences, both early modern and modern, to hear (365).

It is a polyphony on stage, the "multiple chords" of human character in all of its contradictions that Jay Halio wishes one heard in the representation of characters who, deemed "problematic," have too often, Halio feels, had their contradictions suppressed in production, most notoriously Shylock, but also Portia and others (369-73). Halio's cri de coeur prefaces and ironically adumbrates the trio of informative theatrical surveys with which the volume concludes, Gayle Gaskill's on recent productions of The Merchant in America, John O'Connor's on Shylock through the years, and Penny Gay's on Portia. Underscoring the contingent nature of theater, the essays show stagings of The Merchant as products of their times, our experience of them in the past half-century colored by our awareness of the Holocaust; productions of the play may strive for deeply etched, warts-and-all characterizations, but ultimately make character a function of contingency, excising here, transposing there, shading a Portia, perchance, to lighten a Shylock, all to make the play, to recall Gaskill's word, "palatable" (385). Indeed, the relentlessly contingent nature of theater can make quests for aboriginal authenticity seem delusory and even dangerous when put into practice; witness O'Connor's account of the New Globe production of 1999 where the audience, primed somehow to behave like Old Globe groundlings, greeted a sympathetically modernist portrayal of Shylock with what they believed were historically correct hisses (420-21)!

THOMAS MOISAN

Saint Louis University
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Title Annotation:Reviews; The Merchant of Venice: New Critical Essays
Author:Moisan, Thomas
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
Words:1100
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