BOOK REVIEW: The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

The Merchant of VeniceThe Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This story hinges on the (now proverbial) pound of flesh. Bassanio is a poor gentleman in love with a rich lady, Portia. While Bassanio is upfront with Portia about his poverty — and she could care less — he can’t bring himself to propose to her without a few coins to his name. So, he goes to Antonio, the titular merchant of Venice and a close friend, and asks for a loan. Antonio is free and easy about making loans without requiring interest payments. Antonio says he’d gladly hand over the money to Bassanio, but all his money is tied up in his ships at sea. He, furthermore, tells Bassanio that if anyone will make him loan, the merchant can easily cover it. Antonio has tons of merchandise arriving in the next couple months from all around the world. The loan amount is small compared to what Antonio intends to earn from selling his goods.

The problem is that the only other game in town for loans is a Scrooge-esque lender named Shylock. Shylock is hard enough to deal with as it is, but he has it in for Antonio, in particular. Besides the fact that Antonio frequently offers interest-free loans — cutting into Shylock’s business — Antonio has also kept Shylock from collecting collateral by paying off other people’s loans before said loans went into default. (Maybe that’s why there were no other lenders in all of Venice?) To be fair, Shylock claims that his gripe with Antonio is that the latter is always leveling antisemitic slurs and other insults at the lender. At any rate, Shylock says he’ll make the loan of 3,000 Ducats, but, instead of ship or merchandise, he requires a pound of flesh as bond. Antonio, for reasons of friendship and the fact that he believes he will have a windfall by then, agrees to Shylock’s terms. If he doesn’t repay the 3,000 ducats in three months, Antonio will have a pound of flesh cut from his chest.

[Spoilers follow.] Bassanio takes the cash and goes traveling to make his proposal. First, he is required to play a “Let’s Make a Deal” game in order to earn the opportunity to wed Portia. The game involves three boxes (i.e. caskets): one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. Inside one of them is a portrait of Portia, but the others are losers. All a prospective suitor has to go by is a brief inscription. By the time Bassanio arrives the reader has seen two Princes’s failed attempts at this courtship game. The inscriptions with the gold and silver boxes flatter Portia and the suitor, respectively. The inscription on the leaden box acknowledges that the marriage will not be all sunshine and roses, and that is the box Bassanio has the wisdom to choose. Unfortunately, shortly after he does so, he learns that a couple of Antonio’s ships wrecked at sea and the others haven’t been heard from, and – by now – the loan is in default.

Bassanio heads out to Venice with triple the Shylock’s money from his generous and wealthy new wife, planning to dispose of the situation. However, Shylock won’t budge on the terms of the bond. A drama plays out in the courtroom. Portia, anticipating the Shylock might not take the lucrative offer, has her butler take a letter to a legal expert and has said servant return with the lawyer’s reply posthaste. Portia and her handmaid disguise themselves as men – a lawyer and legal clerk, respectively – and catch up with the legal proceedings in Venice. After no one (i.e. the Duke, Bassanio, nor Portia-in-disguise as lawyer) is able to reason with the Shylock, Portia-as-lawyer tells him that he may proceed with cutting away the pound of flesh. However, the bond document says nothing about blood. So, if Shylock spills any of Antonio’s blood, he will be guilty of assault (at the least) and murder in the likely event that Antonio dies. Not to mention, going an ounce over a pound would be a breach of contract to be severely countered. This turns the tables, and Antonio and friends end up exploiting the situation to force the Shylock to convert religion as well as dictating the disposition of the lender’s estate (not to mention he’s still out his 3,000 ducats.)

[Spoiler end.] This play has a tense story line, particularly for a comedy, and is a gripping read. However, it’s also one of the most controversial Shakespearean works for its antisemitic and racist comments. On the other hand, there are reasons to believe that Shakespeare might have been engaging in satire. First, I mentioned that Shylock doesn’t cite loss of business as his quarrel with Antonio, but rather that the merchant has repeatedly insulted and slandered him. While we don’t see direct evidence of this behavior, the fact that Antonio rapes Shylock with his religion (by that I mean forcing a conversion using the threat of State force,) makes it ring true. Second, but continuing on this theme, there are a number of points during which the Shylock is sympathetic, most notably the famous “If you prick us, do we not bleed?…” monologue. Third, we learn that Shylock has a delightful daughter named Jessica, leading the reader to the conclusion that perhaps Shylock isn’t a jerk because he’s a Jew, but is a jerk who happens to be a Jew. Finally, the degree to which Antonio and his friends rake Shylock over the coals at the end of the court scene tarnishes Antonio’s virtue and makes Shylock sympathetic once again. The “turn the other cheek” approach of Christianity gives way to Old Testament vengefulness.

Like many of Shakespeare’s plays (notably “The Taming of the Shrew”,) accusations of sexism are also common, but if there were an award for BOSS of this play it would go to Portia, hands down. True, she has to pretend to be a man to get it all done, but those were those the times. The need for disguise also facilitates a prank that she and her handmaid play on their new husbands, regarding their wedding rings. While they are forced to comply with the dictates of the age, the women in this play certainly hold their own as strong characters. Still, I can’t say the degree to which Shakespeare was a satirist versus an anti-Semite / racist / sexist, but it’s a testament to the richness of his stories and the depth of his characters that his works can be interpreted so diversely.

It’s a masterpiece. Read it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Faust [Part I] by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

FaustFaust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This review will cover the first part of the play in verse by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. I start with that statement because there is some potential for confusion, because: 1.) there are many tellings of the Germanic legend loosely-based on Johann Georg Faust; 2.) there are two parts to Goethe’s play and some editions include both and others just one; 3.) Goethe’s play was apparently not written with the intention that it would be in two parts and so the proper title of this isn’t “Faust, Part I” but rather that became a common title, retroactively and after the author’s death. I’ve done my best to link to the same edition as I read (which seems to be sometimes erroneously listed as containing both parts one and two – when it is really just the first.) Part I is said to be more closely based on the myth than is the second.

The gist of the story is so well-known that it will be recognized even by those who’ve not read this play (or works like Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” [written well before Goethe’s play(s).]) The successful but bored Doctor Faust makes a deal with the devil in which Mephistopheles gets Faust’s soul if Faust can ever be made to feel truly satisfied. Goethe’s “Faust” opens with a wager between God and the Devil. The Devil believes he can corrupt God’s favorite (i.e. Dr. Faust) and turn him from a righteous path. Faust’s deal leads to a series of adventures that culminate in an ill-fated love relationship with a woman named Gretchen (a.k.a. Margarete.)

The story and its theme are straightforward. The idea is that there is a ceaseless yearning – be it for pleasure or understanding or whatnot – that is insatiable, and that giving into a desire to quench that yearning can lead even the best of humanity into tragedy.

The play is delivered in rhymed verse, and the translation by Bayard Taylor makes for pleasant reading.

I’d recommend this book for readers of classic literature. It’s an old tale, and is well conveyed in this translation of the play.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Tempest by William Shakespeare

The TempestThe Tempest by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The storm (i.e. tempest) in question takes place off a remote, desolate, and magical island upon which lives the usurped and exiled Duke of Milan, Prospero, and his daughter, Miranda. The reader realizes that the storm’s timing is too great a coincidence when it’s revealed that among those on a ship caught in the tempest is Antonio, the usurping Duke of Milan. The learned Prospero has developed some magic abilities and gained control over some of the island’s airy spirits — most notably Ariel — as well as the deformed monster / slave named Caliban. Caliban was the son of a witch who was previously in charge of the island, Sycorax. Under Sycorax’s rule, Ariel and the other spirits were imprisoned, so Ariel and the others are now in indentured servitude to Prospero.

The brilliant mind of Prospero has hatched a plot that isn’t all vengeance, but also intends to get his daughter a worthy husband in the form of Ferdinand, the son of the King of Naples. Both father (Alonso) and son (Ferdinand) are washed ashore after the apparent capsize of the ship, but Prospero sees to it that they are separated. The separation not only allows Ferdinand and Miranda to get acquainted, but also allows Alonso to be put through some trials to hasten his willingness to agree to the intended marriage. As Prospero is using Ariel to carry out his plot, under promise that he will free her, Caliban has joined with some drunken sailors and is plotting to kill Prospero so that he can be free of his bookish master. Needless to say, the crude scheme by the trio of Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo is easily thwarted by Prospero and his spirit minions.

In the song, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who, there’re lines that say: “meet the old boss / same as the new boss.” This play focuses heavily on ideas of hostile take over, the inevitable mixed effects, and how tensions are created that will play out. Ariel has at least the promise of being better off — when she works off her debt to Prospero, that is. Caliban is worse off because he is no longer in the power lineage. Caliban’s partners in plotting see a chance to go from being minions aboard a ship to kings of a tiny dynasty on the island. There is also the theme of relinquishing power, and the difficulty of doing so.

Some fun facts about “The Tempest.” First, it’s believed to be Shakespeare’s last play (although evidence is insufficient for certainty.) Second, while Shakespeare’s plays are typically readily divided into three categories: tragedies, comedies, and histories, scholars are a bit divided about which category this play belongs. It’s sometimes categorized as a “tragicomedy” because of its mixed features.

With the storm-washed, rocky island as setting, and the supernatural happenings on the island, this is one of Shakespeare’s eeriest and most mind-bending works.

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BOOK REVIEW: Oedipus Trilogy by Sophocles

The Oedipus TrilogyThe Oedipus Trilogy by Sophocles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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One needn’t be educated in the Greek classics to know that somewhere in this trilogy there is a man who gets intimate with his mom. However, the common conception of Oedipus —as in the Oedipal Complex—probably has more to do with Freud and Freudian psychoanalysis than it does with this story.

The three plays of this trilogy are “Oedipus the King” [a.k.a. “Oedipus Rex” or “Oedipus Tyrannus”], “Oedipus at Colonus,” and “Antigone” [pronounced “an-tig-o-nee” rather than “anti-gone.”] Of the three plays, the first is the most well-known.

In “Oedipus the King,” the titular character is facing a crisis in his kingdom. When the oracles are consulted about how the calamity might be brought to an end, Oedipus is told that he must banish the killer of his predecessor, i.e. the previous king of Thebes. Oedipus consults his own oracle to find out who the ne’er-do-well is who murdered the last king, and the fortune-teller tells Oedipus that he’ll never say who committed the killing —but acknowledges that he does know who it was. Oedipus mocks and threatens the oracle until the fortune-teller gets fed up and tells the king that it was he, Oedipus, who killed his predecessor. Oedipus doesn’t believe it at first, thinking it’s an attempt to facilitate a coup. Far ickier than the accusation of murder is the fact that —if true— it means that Oedipus has been getting busy with his own mother and has even sired children with her. Oedipus calls for an investigation. When a peasant who saw everything is called to testify, his story strikes Oedipus as disturbingly familiar. It turns out that Oedipus’s blood father (the previous king) had been told by his own oracle that his son would kill him and steal his wife, and so he had baby Oedipus sent away to die. Oedipus (who had been rescued from being staked up on a mountain) was coming through Thebes, not knowing it was his homeland, when he had a skirmish on the road with the man that he didn’t realize was both the king and his father. Later, Oedipus marries the queen (apparently there were no busts or portrait paintings of the last king anywhere) and becomes the king without knowing that the man he’d killed in self-defense was the last king / his father. When the truth revealed, everything goes south. The queen kills herself, and Oedipus’s response is almost as severe. Oedipus gouges out his own eyes and goes into exile. Antigone, one of Oedipus’s daughters, says she will be the ex-king’s guide, and because the old man is blind and not familiar with where he’s going, he doesn’t have much choice but to accept.

In “Oedipus at Colonus,” Oedipus and Antigone arrive at neighborhood on the fringes of Athens, i.e. Colonus, and are planning to take up residency. The locals are welcoming until they find out the blind man is Oedipus. The story of the ex-king who killed his father and got it on with his mother has spread far and wide. The townspeople agree to call in their king, Theseus, and let him decide. Theseus decides to shelter the Thebean ex-king, being moved by his story of how Oedipus was unwittingly ruined and how the former king accepted his punishment when his offenses were brought to light. Theseus’s support becomes more complicated when Creon, a royal from Thebes, shows up and says they need Oedipus back because an oracle now says that the location of his burial will determine the outcome of a future conflict. Oedipus says no way, and Creon has Antigone and her sister (who joined them at Colonus to warn Oedipus) kidnapped. Theseus faces a serious challenge because now his actions might bring the city-state to war, let alone offending the gods. However, he sticks to his guns and rescues the daughters and agrees to personally oversee Oedipus’s burial (so that no one can grave-rob and move Oedipus’s body to a position that would create a more pleasing forecast from the oracles.)

“Antigone” takes place after the death of Oedipus. The dutiful Antigone is now back in Thebes. When her brother Polyneices is killed and Creon orders that the prince not be buried, Antigone refuses to accept the decree. She steals the body and gives it a proper burial. Antigone was engaged to marry Creon’s son, Haemon, but Creon decrees that the woman will be imprisoned in a cave for disobedience of the king’s order. Haemon asks his father to be reasonable, but Creon will have none of it. Eventually, the words of an oracle convince Creon to change his mind, but he finds himself too late. Like Oedipus, various ruin then befalls Creon.

While the details of the story may strain credulity in places, these works are powerful morality tales. The recurring theme is that one can’t make an end-run around fate by way of vice and neither can one otherwise manhandle events to achieve a desirable outcome. Oedipus’s father sends his son to be killed, but the outcome remains the same. Creon can’t plant Oedipus’s corpse where he pleases and neither can he deny a man proper burial. It’s almost a karmic tale. Perhaps, the path to pleasing the gods is through virtue, and not through finagling one’s way to compliance with forecasts.

I find it fascinating how crucial a role is played by oracles throughout the three plays—and what that says about human nature. The fortune tellers are always right and are always heeded. In a sense, this story tells one about humanity’s fear of uncertainty, what people are willing to do to allay that fear, and how the world is ultimately too complex for those attempts to work out. The law of unintended consequences remains ever-present.

I enjoyed these plays. They are brief, stirring, readable, and thought-provoking. I would recommend them for any reader—particularly those interested in the classics.

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BOOK REVIEW: Love’s Labour’s Lost William Shakespeare

Love's Labor's LostLove’s Labor’s Lost by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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King Ferdinand and three of his attending lords (Berowne, Longaville, and Dumaine) make a pact to devote three years to intense study and self-betterment. During this time they are to study arduously while depriving themselves of certain earthly pleasures. Specifically, they will fast one day a week; they will sleep but three hours a night; and— most controversially— they will give up women altogether. Just as military strategists speak of plans not surviving first contact with the enemy, this pact falls apart with the arrival of the Princess of France and her three attending ladies (Rosaline, Maria, and Katherine.) The men each develop a fancy for one of the women, and the pact unravels when the men, spying on each other, realize the others are intending to woo and pursue.

As it’s a comedy, there are a number of opportunities for confusion and comedic relief. Such comedic elements include mix ups in the delivery of love letters, and disguise schemes that go awry. For a comedy, the play ends on an interesting note. As is expected, there’s a reconciliation of who loves whom. However, there are no weddings to suture up the conclusion, but instead another agreement is entered into in which the men and women will see each other again in one year’s time. This leaves readers to consider the question of whether they think the men can be more diligent students when love backs this pursuit (but provides a distraction) than when it works against it.

This is one of Shakespeare’s earlier works, and it’s more original than some. Still, it deals in some common comedic themes about the disruptive force of love and the effects of failed duplicity.

This play is highly recommended.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare

Two Gentlemen of VeronaTwo Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This play uses some of the same plot devices of other Shakespearean comedies. First, there are two friends who fall for the same girl. Second, there is the father who wants said girl to marry someone other than the man she’s interested in marrying. Third, there is a girl who dresses as a man so that she can travel to chase after her beloved (only to be heart-broken.) [Think about that in the context of the theater of the era. The actor would be a dude playing a chick who’s pretending to be a dude.] The fact that there are some repeated themes doesn’t lessen the value of this work. For one thing, this is thought to be the first—not only the first of comedies but the first of Shakespeare’s plays more generally. Also, some of the most humorous dialogue is with secondary characters like Speed and Launce, the man-servants to Valentine and Proteus, respectively.

In the beginning, there are two gentlemen in Verona, Valentine and Proteus. Also in Verona is Julia, who loves Proteus. Proteus loves Julia back while he’s in Verona. However, after Valentine goes off to Milan for character building, Proteus’s father determines that his son should as well. In Milan, Proteus finds that Valentine has fallen for a girl named Sylvia. Unfortunately, Proteus falls for Sylvia as well and–not being a “bro’s before ho’s” kind of chap nor being the kind who can maintain long distance lovin’—he metaphorically stabs Valentine in the back and loses his mind. He could always shuffle back to Julia using the “what happens in Milan, stays in Milan” credo, except that Julia (posing as a boy) is witness to her lover’s unfaithful acts.

Read it, you’ll like it.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

A Midsummer Night's DreamA Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The backdrop for this story involves two young men (Lysander and Demetrius) and two young women (Hermia and Helena.) Both men have the hots for Hermia, which leaves poor Helena unloved though she loves Demetrius. Hermia loves Lysander, which means Demetrius is unloved by the one he loves and has no love for the girl pursuing him. Enter the village elders—notably Hermia’s dad, Egeus, and the Duke of Athens, Theseus—who really muck up the works by insisting that Hermia marry Demetrius (whose family apparently has more cash than does Lysander’s.) This causes Lysander and Hermia to elope into the forest, where things really get freaky. Helena, courting Demetrius’s favor, tells him where the eloping couple went, and Demetrius gives chase while Helena chases Demetrius.

In the woods outside Athens, there lived ferries. Oberon, king of the fairies, has in his possession a Cupid-like potion that will make its victim fall madly in love with the next person he or she sees. Oberon orders this potion deployed in two ways pertinent to the story. Seeing Demetrius quarreling with Helena, he orders his subject, Puck, to deploy it on Demetrius. In a fashion typical of a Shakespearean comedy, the potion is misapplied.

The other use of the potion (a subplot of the story) is on the faerie queen, Titania. Oberon is upset with Titania over an Indian boy of whom they’ve come into parentage. Titania falls for a workman who is in the woods rehearsing a play that may be the worst play ever. Most disconcertingly, she falls in love with this man, called Bottom, as he’s wearing a donkey head for his role in the play. As this is a comedy, the two unholy loves that developed are eventually rectified, but not before some amusing happenings.

At its most basic level, the play is a commentary on the folly of mucking about in love–whether as matchmaking elder or a Cupid-like faerie. On another level, it’s a critique of an unrealistic pursuit of a perfect vision of love. In this way, the message isn’t unlike Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (i.e. “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.”) This is seen in Demetrius’s ultimate recognition that he’s being an idiot by chasing after Hermia, when Helena is so clearly devoted to him. In other words, in love as in life the notion famously attributed to Voltaire that “The perfect is the enemy of the good” applies. As an aside, we also learn what Shakespeare sees as some of the mistakes of playwrights and theater companies as the assembled crowd watches Bottom and his comrades put on a hideous production.

I’d highly recommend reading this work for everyone. It’s Shakespeare; needless to say, the language is beautiful and the story is intriguing.

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