The Merchant of Venice is an odd play. The romance plot line with Portia and Bassanio is decidedly comic but the Shylock story is a revenge story that verges on the bizarre. Olivier is Shylock, a Jewish moneylender in Venice. The story revolves around Antonio, a prosperous merchant whose friend Bassanio is in love with the rich heiress Portia. Bassanio begs a loan of 3,000 ducats to woo Portia as a nobleman. Shylock gives Bassanio the money but because of his hatred of Antonio he demands that if the money is not repaid on time Shylock will remove a pound of flesh from Antonio’s breast closest to his heart. Antonio treats this lightly because he has many merchant ships in route for home that should enrich him many times the 3,000 ducats in cargo value. But when all his ships are reported lost then the default clause is no longer a joke but a promise of torture and death.
Another subplot has Shylock’s daughter run away from her father and elope with one of Bassanio’s friends, Lorenzo and also convert to Christianity. It is this insult from his daughter that unhinges Shylock and turns him into a merciless fiend dead set on exacting his pound of flesh. Luckily for Antonio, Bassanio’s courtship of Portia is successful and when she hears of Antonio’s peril, she tells her new husband that all the funds needed will be available to pay off Antonio’s debt. But Shylock refuses even thrice the delinquent 3,000 ducats, standing on his contract to extract the pound of flesh he is owed. Finally, a trial before the Duke of Venice is scheduled. Portia comes disguised as a learned doctor of the law from Padua with a recommendation to the Duke from Bellario, her lawyer cousin in Padua. Acting as the judge Portia concedes that the letter of the law allows Shylock to demand his pound of flesh but in a stirring speech she expounds on the “quality of mercy.” But none of this phases Shylock in the least. Over and over he refuses the 9,000 ducats and demands his barbaric payment. Then Portia plays her trump card. She declares that Shylock can have his pound of flesh. But not a hair’s weight more or less and without spilling a drop of Antonio’s blood lest Shylock be put to death for it. Knowing that he is beaten Shylock then asks for the 9,000 ducats but Portia tells him he has already refused that. Then he asks for his principal back and is equally denied that. And finally, he is informed that his attempt on the life of a Venetian citizen forfeits his own life and all his fortune. By an act of mercy, the Duke spares his life and half his fortune with the proviso that Shylock must convert to Christianity and leave his remaining fortune to his daughter and her husband upon Shylock’s death.
After this happy ending there is the usual sexual politics with the disguised Portia demanding as payment from Bassanio for her legal help a ring that she had given him earlier as herself and which he had sworn never to remove. And when back in her normal appearance she demands to see Bassanio’s ring. He sadly admits to having given it away. She produces it and teases him with having spent the night with the doctor of law. And then there’s a tiff about it that is quickly straightened out when she reveals that she was the doctor of law. And hilarity ensues.
This is a good production. It is a good cast and the production values are equally good. The scenery and costumes are of a Victorian England. I don’t think this was a particularly good idea but it certainly didn’t harm the story much. Joan Plowright looked a little too old to be Portia but her acting was everything you’d want for the part. Jeremy Brett was a good Bassanio and the rest of the supporting cast was very able. Olivier was very good. But I was a little let down. Shylock just isn’t that great a character. He’s certainly not Hamlet or even Henry V. He’s doesn’t even have the great villainous lines like Richard III. A lot of his dialog is odd and melodramatic. So, for once Olivier is not the main reason for watching this recording.
Plowright has the shining moment. She gets to recite the quality of mercy speech. And that alone is worth watching this play. It is one of the best things Shakespeare ever wrote. It’s uplifting even for an old deplorable like me. It almost makes me want to show mercy to my political enemies. Almost, but not quite. My conclusion, this is a good version of The Merchant of Venice.
I’ll end with the text of that wonderful speech.
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.