I aware that I haven’t been around very much over the past fortnight and I am also aware why. The play that I am studying with my two Shakespeare groups this term is The Merchant of Venice and after wrestling with it for the past month or so it is my decided opinion that it is by far and away the most complex of Shakespeare’s plays that we have yet tackled – and yes, we have tackled Hamlet. It’s not that there are problems with the text, none of this business of half a dozen different Quartos with variations as to where the great speeches go or if they are even there at all. (Did you know that there is a contemporary edition of Henry V without the Choruses?) Nor is there much debate about the date or the sources used – although there are considerably more than the usual number of possible sources. No, it is just that there are so many ideas running around inside those twenty scenes that finding a way to bring some sort of order to a discussion has been proving very difficult indeed.
Of course, the problem isn’t helped by the fact that while the play is known as The Merchant of Venice very often a production is dominated by the figure of Shylock, and the old actor managers, who liked to play Shylock themselves, often brought the curtain down at the moment of his final exit from the stage, regardless of the fact that this truncated the play that Shakespeare actually wrote by more than two full scenes.
As it happens the first written reference we have, the entry in the Stationers Register of July 1598, names the play as
a book of the Marchaunt of Venyce or otherwise called the Jewe of Venyce
So, even within a year of its composition there seems to have been some debate as to who the focal character actually was. But, you can’t deny the existence of those final scenes that have to do with Portia and Nerissa’s rings and if you’re teaching the play you have to be able to account for them.
So, there I was struggling along with this until quite suddenly, yesterday morning, I had what my friend Lorna calls a light bulb moment.
“Bond,” I shouted.
“Bond?” queried The Bears. “James Bond?”
“No,” I said. “The Bond – the concept that allows you to untangle all the multitude of ideas that the play deals with.”
“Oh,” they said and went back to eating their marmalade sandwiches and reading about the adventures of Paddington Bear.
Well, they might have been indifferent to my brainwave, but I now have a nice neat list of all the different categories of bonds that can be found within the play:
- emotional bonds;
- legal bonds;
- the bonds between the state and the people;
- the bonds (or covenants) between God and the peoples of the Old and New Testaments.
I even have sub-categories of the categories, but I won’t bore you with those.
More importantly I have a way into discussing the play which will allow me to bring all its disparate elements together and I can write my lecture notes. And, writing those is no problem at all once I know what is going in them, so I can also return to concentrating on the more important things like reading novels and writing about them here. Thank goodness for that.