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: Shakespeare: A Very Short Introduction by Germaine Greer

Shakespeare: A Very Short IntroductionShakespeare: A Very Short Introduction by Germaine Greer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This series (Very Short Introductions [VSI]) put out Oxford University Press [OUP] features several books about William Shakespeare and his works. Most of these “Introductions” deal with a subset of Shakespeare’s work, (e.g. the tragedies, the comedies, or his sonnets and other poems.) However, the book most likely to be confused with the one under review is “William Shakespeare: A Very Short Introduction” by Stanley Wells. Greer’s theme involves how Shakespeare’s philosophy and worldview are reflected in his plays (and to a small extent, his poetry.) While I haven’t yet read Wells’ book, it seems to take a history-centric approach, examining who Shakespeare was and the interaction between the the man and the times in which he lived on the work he produced.

The reason that I open with this distinction is that this is the kind of book that leaves some readers feeling duped. The title and inclusion in the VSI series might suggest to a reader that they are getting a basic overview of the the works of Shakespeare, leaving them surprised to find they are diving into arcane philosophical discussions. If the reader has a background and interest in both philosophy and the literature of Shakespeare, this may be just the book for which one is looking. However, if one is truly looking to be introduced to Shakespeare and his work, it is unlikely to be the book one is seeking. The biggest criticism is therefore about the title and placement of the book in this series, and not about it’s content, which is interesting and insightful.

The six chapters of Greer’s book begin with a brief biographical sketch of the man’s life and times. (This is where Greer’s work presumable overlaps most significantly with that of Wells.) The five remaining chapters each consider an aspect of the Shakespeare’s thinking and philosophy: poetics, ethics, politics, teleology, and sociology, respectively. There are extensive discussions of a few of the Shakespearean works as they pertain to the discipline under discussion, and snippets of text are used throughout to make points, but – again – the presumption is that that the reader has a basic familiarity with Shakespeare’s work.

There are graphics throughout the book, mostly portraits, playbills, and block prints from the era. There is a Further Reading section that is more than the usual bibliographical list, including descriptions of what is covered by the various books. Some will find this approach beneficial, and others may find it needlessly dense.

If one is looking for a book that considers how Shakespeare’s personal philosophy influenced his works, this is a good overview. However, if one hasn’t read Shakespeare’s works, or one has little understanding of philosophy, it’s probably not the book for which one is looking.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Sonnets of William Shakespeare by Wm. Shakespeare

The Sonnets of William Shakespeare (Wisehouse Classics Edition)The Sonnets of William Shakespeare by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book consists of 154 sonnets that were published in a quarto dated 1609. It’s not all of the sonnets written by Shakespeare because there were a few stashed in his plays. It’s also not the entire contents of that 1609 quarto, which also included a long-form narrative poem entitled “The Lover’s Complaint.” However, these are the poems typically included in collections of Shakespearean sonnets.

For those unfamiliar with the sonnet, it’s a 14-line poem that’s metered and rhymed. In English language sonnets (and Shakespeare’s, in particular) that metering is iambic pentameter (five feet of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables.) Shakespeare’s sonnets follow a rhyme scheme that is often named for him: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. (It’s also called English Rhyme, and is differentiated from Petrarchan Rhyme which has an octave of ABBA ABBA and a sestet that can vary, e.g. CDCDCD.) As with all rules of poetry, there is the occasional exceptions taken here and there.

Love, beauty, and death are common recurring themes in the sonnets, but there are occasional forays into tangential topics like lust, infidelity, and immortality through poetry. There are also humorous twists on the expected approach. The most famous Shakespearean sonnet is probably 18 “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”, but we see in another popular contender, Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;”), Shakespeare mocking hyperbole. Of course, he’s not just mocking hyperbole; he’s also saying that he can still love his lover despite the fact that she isn’t in all ways more beautiful than the most pleasing elements of nature (and might even have halitosis.)

There’s no division or formal organization of the sonnets. However, scholars do divide them up in various schemes. One simple way that they are divvied up is to put the first 126 in a category in which Shakespeare addresses a young man. The first 17 sonnets are a subgroup in which the poet attempts to convince the young man to be fertile and multiply. Sonnets 127 – 154 are sometimes called the “Dark Lady” (a.k.a. “Black Mistress”) sequence as they frequently refer to a brunette woman (i.e. the woman whose lips are not as red as coral in Sonnet 130.) One can see the difference in tone extremely contrasted in the two poems mentioned in the preceding paragraph – Sonnets 18 and 130.

Besides the aforementioned sonnets, a few others stand out as personal favorites:
– 55 “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments”
– 27 “Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,”
– 1   “From fairest creatures we desire increase,”
– 65 “Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,”

But you should read them and find your own favorites. It’s Shakespeare, of course they are highly recommended.

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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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