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Catalog of the Shakespeare Art Collection  --  Multi-Color Graphics on Shakespearean Themes

"SHYLOCK: MERCHANT OF VENICE"
Description of Wood-cut 10 colors 12" x 16"
by Hannah Tompkins

 

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One of this play's themes is the pathological effect of inherited hate and prejudice on the body of society. As crisis generates mutual assistance and dependence so affluence breeds contempt and segregation.

Venice, of the play's setting, is a thriving trade city whose prosperity buys leisure and luxury for its merchant class. This idleness is attended by the inevitable exclusiveness, hypocrisy and moral deterioration 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: as prescribed in her dead father's will. The gold one contains a death's head, the silver one, a picture of an idiot and the lead one a picture of Portia signifying love and attainment.
The allusion is that the caskets are one thing on the outside and something else on the inside, like the characters of the play.

The print expresses this duality in the sphere surrounding Shylock's head: light on the inside, dark on the outside. Antonio, the merchant, contemptuously 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.iii.)
By pointing one finger at Shylock, he aims three at himself, for they are reflections of each other, as Portia inquires in the court scene:
"Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?"
One earns profit from trade, the other from finance. The oval thus becomes a mirror of this reflection.

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

The merchant hates the money-lender, not 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 help 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 void your rheum upon my beard,
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Over your threshold: money is your suit."    (I. 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 shames that you have stained me with,
Supply your present wants and take no doit..."
The print shows him thus: 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.

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, rejections and betrayals more deeply engrave the 'badge of sufferance' and Shylock is ultimately defeated by frustration.


Copyright © 1990 Hannah Tompkins. All rights reserved.

 

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