BBC Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice

I have been watching a number of the BBC Television’s Shakespeare series and just finished watching The Merchant of Venice.

My expectation coming into watching the play were that it would be very non-politically correct in regard to its treatment of the Jew, Shylock. I was aware of how Jews were thought of in Elizabethan England and I was expecting a harsh and one-sided depiction of Shylock – the character of the “one pound of flesh”. I didn’t know the play, but had absorbed a bit of the story from various sources over the years. I should have had more faith in Shakespeare. As usual, none of the main characters are simple and one-sided and there is a complexity to the Shylock character that belies any simple interpretation of his actions. He is treated harshly by the playwright, no doubt about that. But he is not a cardboard cutout bad guy either. It is impossible not to feel sorry for him at the loss of his daughter – even though he brought it onto himself to some degree – he didn’t need to banish her entirely from his life. On the other hand, the young male nobles seem more than a little cruel as they chortle over Shylock’s predicament. The play goes through several twists and turns in terms of concentrating on different characters – almost feels like a different play entirely near the end as Shakespeare seems to latch onto a different set of ideas to develop. As usual with Shakespeare, the result is a bit puzzling at times yet always fascinatingly “real”.

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