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Catalog of the Shakespeare Art Collection  --  Oil Paintings on Shakespearean Themes

#100 "MERCHANT OF VENICE"
Description of Painting - Oil on Canvas 20" x 32"
by Hannah Tompkins

 

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This play unmasks the pathological effects of inherited hate and prejudice that infect the social body. A similar "ancient grudge" destroyed Romeo & Juliet, after which their fathers, by lame recompense, offer to erect a gold statue. Gold is also a theme in this play.

As crisis generates mutual assistance and dependence, affluence breeds contempt and segregation. Venice, of the play's setting is a thriving trade city. Its prosperity buys leisure and luxury for its merchant class. This idleness is attended by the inevitable exclusiveness, moral deterioration
and hypocrisy of an affluent society whose values are determined by the gold standard.
"All that glisters is not gold,
Often have you heard this told,
Many a man his life hath sold,
But my outside to behold."
So reads the inscription inside the gold casket, one of three of which Portia's suitors must choose to determine whom she will marry, a procedure prescribed in her dead father's will. The gold casket contains a death's head; the silver one, a picture of an idiot, and the lead one a picture of Portia, suggesting ultimate attainment.

The significant allusion is that the caskets are one thing on the outside and something else on the inside, like the characters in this play The painting expresses this duality in the sphere surrounding Shylock' head, light on the inside, dark on the outside.

Antonio, the merchant remarks about his enemy Shylock:
"...a villain with a smiling cheek;
A goodly apple rotten at the heart;
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!" (I.sc.iii)
By pointing one finger at Shylock, he aims three at himself, for they are, after all, reflections of each other; as Portia verifies in the court scene:
"Which is the merchant here and which the Jew?"
One earns profit from Trade, the other from Finance. It is easy, as Timon of Athens points out, "To whip other men for our faults". The oval framing Shylock thus becomes a mirror.

When Shylock's daughter Jessica elopes in the night with her lover, it is a casket of gold ducats she brings him, stolen from her father, shown lower left in front of the skull.

The merchant hates the money-lender, not so much for his profession, but because he is a Jew. He rationalizes his hatred with self-righteousness yet
in his time of need he appeals to the Jew for financial aid and is reminded of his past abuses. Shylock says:
"Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances:
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug;
For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe."

"You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
Well, then it now appears you need my help:
You that did foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Over your thresholds money is your suit." (I.sc.iii.)
And Antonio, put to the defense, churls in anger:
"I am as like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again and spurn thee too."
And insists that the loan be made, not on terms of friendship but of enmity. The better part of Shylock prevails. He replies:
"I would be friends with thee and have your love,
Forget the hames that you have stained me with,
Supply your present wants and take no doit..."
The painting shows him offering love in the casket of lead, as a plea for acceptance into the circle of brotherhood. The spiritual gold is suggested in the color of his face and hand.

The answer he gets is rejection. The ovoid egg-shape, that circles his image begins to fray around the edges, its fertility dissipated.

At the conclusion of his victorious trial, Antonio demands that Shylock become a Christian, as though by altering the outside of his hate, he can abate his inner fears.

The continued indignities more deeply engrave the "badge of sufferance" and Shylock is ultimately defeated by humiliation and frustration.

FIN


Copyright © 1990 Hannah Tompkins. All rights reserved.

 

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