Comments by Bob Corbett
General Note: In January 2009 I decided that I’d like to go back and read all the plays of William Shakespeare, perhaps one a month if that works out. I hadn’t read a Shakespeare play since 1959, 50 years ago! But I had read nearly all of them in college. I wanted to go back, start with something not too serious or challenging, and work my way through the whole corpus. Thus I began with The Two Gentlemen of Verona. At this time I have no idea how the project will go, nor if it will actually lead me through the entire corpus of Shakespeare’s plays. However, I will keep a separate page listing each play I’ve read with links to any comments I would make of that particular play. See: List of Shakespeare’s play’s I’ve read and commented on
This is the fifth play I’ve read in my return to Shakespeare after so many years, and it my favorite so far. I found it’s several interwoven plots to be fascinating and well done. Shakespeare’s psychological insight into the human character is impressive and the passion involved grabbed me right away. I didn’t find as many “quotable” lines in this play as some others, but I did have my favorites, a couple I cite below. Ironically the main character is not Antonio, the merchant of Venice. Rather, it is Shylock, the Jewish money lender. While I think there is no way one would consider Shylock a nice fellow. I came away believing that he was more wronged than anyone in the play whom he harmed. He is presented as a nasty and greedy money lender. No doubt that portrait played well in a time of rampant anti-Semitism, but I came away with great sympathy for him. Even Antonio, the merchant, is just horrible in his judgment of Shylock, much more based on his race and religion than his money-lending practices.
The plot of the play is a set of complex and interwoven actions. I enjoyed that. Where does it actually begin, is it in Bassanio’s desire to win the hand of Portia, the rich and beautiful young heiress, or in Antonio’s hatred of Jews and money-lenders? I guess both are the setting that makes it all work. In any case Bassiano, Antonio’s friend, needs to borrow 3,000 ducats in order to have the money he needs to seek Portia’s hand. Antonio is perfectly willing to lend the money to him, but has all his capital tied up in his business. Since Bassanio has no collateral, Antonio goes to Shylock to borrow money. Shylock hates Antonio because of the latter’s treatment of him and his attitude toward him, so, he extracts a contract in which were Antonio not to repay the debt on the designated day, then Shylock gets a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Obviously an odd, even perverse demand, but Shylock is deeply smarting from the verbal abuse he has received from Antonio for years.
The Bassanio / Portia story is wonderful. Her father had died but left a very strange will. He has three “caskets” one of gold, one of silver and the last of lead. One of them has a portrait of Portia in it. Any appropriate suitor may come forward and pick one of the caskets. Her father has left strange clues for the suitors. If the suitor doesn’t guess correctly and opens an empty casket, then he must leave without a single word and must never marry for the rest of his life. If he opens the casket with the portrait, then he marries Portia. She has nothing to say about it.
A third plot line is a love affair between Lorenzo, a friend of Bassanio, and Jessica, Shylock’s daughter. These two have no problem with the Christian/Jewish union, and Jessica even steals a great deal of her father’s wealth to elope with Lorenzo. In the end, of course, Bassanio wins Portia, Lorenzo and Jessica escape, but Antonio can’t pay his debt on time and Shylock demands his pound of flesh in the court of law.
In the courtroom Portia gives her famous “quality of mercy” speech, one of the well-known Shakespeare speeches which is often excerpted. However, I was much more moved by Shylock’s defense of himself against the prejudices of Antonio and others:
"I am a Jew/ Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs/ dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with/ the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject/ to the same diseases, heal'd by the same means/ warm'd and cool'd by the same winter and summer/ as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?/ If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you/ poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?"
While I don’t like Shylock’s bitterness and sense of revenge, I can understand it for exactly the reasons he gives and I have more sympathy for Shylock than for the difficulty that Antonio got into. My other favorite lines in the play are in no way special poetry and have virtually nothing that advances the plot. I love the lines for their own sake and how much they relate to my own life. My partner, Sally, and I eat our main meal about 2 PM in the afternoon. We generally do the meal in two or three courses, served serially and we visit. Our meal often takes two hours, the luxury of being retired. This is some of the best time we have each day to talk. To talk of everything; world events we’ve been hearing on National Public Radio all day, the latest soccer news out of England, interesting e-mails we’ve gotten, and often pleasant discussion of the joys of our lives. I think those long conversations over our meals are among the greatest joys in our lives.
This is so for Lorenzo, but Jessica is a bit more eager. He has given her some indication of the depth of his love for her and she wants to tell him her view of their love. She wants to tell him NOW. He says, no. It should be done over dinner… and I just loved the sentiment. This is the exchange I so enjoyed:
[Lorenzo has told Jessica of how loving and caring Bassanio is of Portia and then begins]
“Even such a husband
Hast thou of me as she is for a wife.
[Jessica] Nay, but ask my opinion too of that.
[Lorenzo] I will anon. First let us go to dinner.
[Jessica] Nay, let me praise you while I have stomach.
[Lorenzo] No, pray thee, let it serve for table talk;
Then howsome’er thou speak’st, ‘mong other things
I shall digest it.
[Jessica] Well, I’ll set you forth.
Bob Corbett email@example.com