I’m not the biggest fan of The Merchant of Venice. Except for that impossibly moving speech by Shylock, it’s a very hard play to love. I’m hopelessly unqualified to comment on the anti-Semitism that is rampant in the text. I grew up Catholic, nothing I know about Judaism and anti-Semitism is lived experience, and I’m not even a real student of Shakespeare. But it’s rampant. The blood libel. The forced conversion to Christianity. The feminizing of the outsider. The pitting of a sympathetic queer character against a villainous Jewish character. There’s zero that is comfortable about this play.
The Merchant of Venice, it turns out, isn’t Shylock. The merchant of the title is Antonio, who owns a shipping company.
Antonio’s friend Bassanio asks him for a loan so he can travel to Belmont and try to marry Portia. There’s a ridiculous contest going on for Portia’s hand in marriage, but Bassanio likes his chances and Portia likes Bassanio.
Antonio clearly also likes Bassanio and is suffering from a bad case of “in sooth I know not why I am so sad” because Bassanio is about to marry someone else.
Antonio doesn’t have the capital for the loan because all his ships are off at sea. He sends Bassanio to the moneylender Shylock for a credit loan, which Antonio will back with his shipments as security.
Shylock, who is Jewish, holds a grudge against Antonio for his history of displaying anti-Semitic behavior. He offers Bassanio the loan, but instead of charging interest, what he wants is a pound of Antonio’s flesh if the loan isn’t repaid within three months.
Shylock explains his reasoning with some of the most powerful lines in all of Shakespeare:
“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”
In Belmont, Bassanio wins the silly contest and marries Portia.
Antonio’s ships have been lost at sea. He is now bankrupt. Shylock has Antonio arrested.
Bassanio, Portia and a few sidekicks return to Venice to help Antonio.
In the court in Venice, Shylock demands the pound of Antonio’s flesh. Portia appears in disguise as a (male) lawyer (all lawyers were men. Yes, you are correct that all actors were also men, you clever bardlet. Here we have one of those triple-points scenes, a man playing a woman playing a man). She argues on Antonio’s behalf, famously saying, “The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.” Shylock isn’t swayed. Bassanio, newly rich thanks to Portia’s enormous wealth, offers to pay the debt, but Shylock refuses.
Portia finds a loophole: the contract is for a pound of flesh, but there’s nothing in it about blood. Shylock can’t get the pound of flesh without shedding blood.
For the crime of threatening Antonio’s life, Shylock has to forfeit all his money to Antonio and Bassanio. Antonio refuses his share, but demands that Shylock convert to Christianity. Shylock leaves the court in defeat.
Antonio’s ships return safely after all. Happy ever after for (and this comes as no surprise) everybody but Shylock.
April. Again. Somehow. In between the income tax all-nighter and explaining to the young people how the Easter Bunny rose from the dead on the 3rd day to lay chocolate eggs, join me for an interval of birthday cakes and ale. I’m celebrating Shakespeare’s 455th with an early, jokey, morally dicey play: The Comedy of Errors.
Egeon, a man from Syracuse, goes to Ephesus. There’s a law against travelling between Syracuse and Ephesus. He gets arrested and sentenced to death.
He tells the arresting Duke the story of coming to Ephesus to look for his lost son. Years ago, Egeon and his wife had twin boys. They bought another pair of twin infant boys. Bought. As slaves.
Critical sidebar: Enslaved Africans had been in England for about 30 years when The Comedy of Errors was written (sometime around 1589). Queen Elizabeth I profited from slavery — although, unbelievably, she is supposed to have expressed a hope that the Africans would not be enslaved without first giving their free consent. Shakespeare doesn’t make a meaningful distinction between servants and slaves in The Comedy of Errors, basically giving the two Dromios the same level of independence as paid servants. Some scholars have guessed that was because he was afraid to criticize the queen, but he was not always silently complicit on the subject of slavery in later plays. There’s a good post on The World of Will blog about his treatment of slavery in The Merchant of Venice.
So back to the Egeon family. Egeon and his wife named both their sons Antipholus and both their slaves Dromio. Because it’s definitely easier to have two sets of twin boys in your household if you give them the same two names.
The family went to sea and got shipwrecked and separated. Egeon, one son, and one slave were rescued by one ship. A different ship rescued his wife and the other two boys.
Eighteen years went by. Egeon’s Antipholus-and-Dromio set went to search for Antipholus’s lost twin brother. Egeon later went himself to search for the boys, only to get arrested in Ephesus. Now we’re up to date.
Unknown to anybody else, Egeon’s Antipholus-and-Dromio duo arrives in Ephesus. The other Antipholus is already living in Ephesus with his wife Adriana and the other Dromio, but nobody knows that.
Aaaannd let the funny errors commence.
Antipholus of Syracuse meets Dromio of Ephesus on the street. Dromio tries to get Antipholus to go “home” for dinner. Antipholus abuses the Dromio he thinks he knows.
Adriana locks her real husband out of their house because she is already there with his confused twin, Antipholus of Syracuse. All twins are identical in Shakespeare, including the brother-sister variety. See Twelfth Night for details.
Antipholus of Ephesus refuses to pay for a gold chain he ordered because he never received it, it having been delivered to his twin by Ye Olde Amazonne Prime and probably left in full view on the porch to be opened by enterprising passers-by. The goldsmith has Antipholus of Ephesus arrested. Antipholus of Ephesus blames Dromio of Syracuse, the Dromio he thinks he knows, and beats him.
Adriana is convinced that “her” Antipholus and Dromio have lost their minds. She has them tied up and takes them to her friendly neighborhood exorcist.
She encounters Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse and thinks they’ve escaped from having their mortal souls extracted via their nostrils or what have you. The pair from Syracuse hide in a convenient abbey, legitimately fearing the worst.
In the meantime, Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus do escape from the exorcist. They arrive at court to petition the Duke just as Egeon is about to be executed.
Egeon sees his son and thinks he is saved, but Antipholus of Ephesus hasn’t seen his father since he was a child and doesn’t recognize him.
Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse come out of hiding in the abbey and see the other two twins.
The abbess reveals that she has been living in disguise and is actually Egeon’s wife.
The twins sort out their stories. The Duke lifts Egeon’s sentence. The family units are all reunited.
I discovered the completely excellent Shakespeare Birthplace Trust while researching The Comedy of Errors. Prepare to lose the whole rest of your day.
Some critics think of Coriolanus as one of Shakespeare’s truly genius tragedies. It has plenty in common with King Lear (leader is misunderstood) and Macbeth (combat veteran tries politics). T.S. Eliot thought it was better than Hamlet. Me, I’m a sucker for everything by the late-period, slightly cynical, completely incandescent Shakespeare. So as a birthday present to myself, this month on What Happens in Shakespeare let’s boil down Coriolanus.
Food shortages in Rome are causing unrest. The population is threatening to rise up against the 1%. They single out Caius Martius, an elite military leader who famously despises the unwashed.
The citizens do rise up, but war breaks out with the neighboring Volscians and that puts an end to the revolt at home. Caius Martius leads the Roman army to such a dazzling victory over the town of Corioli that he is given a new name: Coriolanus (“conqueror of Corioli”).
Back in Rome, the rulers urge Coriolanus to run for public office. He likes the idea in principle, but the problem with public office is the public. He has to win them over. He can’t stand the sight of these sheeple. They shop at Costco, they don’t have iPhones, they couldn’t identify a really good cabernet sauvignon if it bit them on the rhymes-with-heinous.
He tries to put on a show of relating to the voters, probably by rolling up his spotless shirtsleeves and being seen to grill his own organic grass-fed steak, but his true nature as an insufferable snob wins out. He finds himself making public speeches about how government by the people is a terrible idea.
By this time the people have had it up to the eyeballs, between the 1% hoarding all the corn and now the not-at-all-veiled insults. They run Coriolanus out of Rome.
In revenge, Coriolanus joins the Volscians and conspires with his former enemy Aufidius. Together they invade Rome.
Let me repeat that. The man runs for office, doesn’t get the popular vote, goes off in a huff, and invades his own country.
Two of his friends come to Coriolanus where he is camped outside the city gates to beg him to call off the invasion, but he won’t listen. Then his mother arrives to plead for Rome. In a surprisingly humanizing moment, he does listen to her. He changes his mind. The Romans hail his mother as the savior of the city.
Coriolanus returns to the Volscians’ home turf, where they give him a parade that befits a hero, name a dessert after him at the Hotel Volscian, and sell t-shirts with pictures of his beard on them in the metro stations.
But his new best friend Aufidius decides that Coriolanus’s refusal to occupy Rome amounts to treason when it comes to the Volscians.
So then some of Aufidius’ men assassinate Coriolanus.
I read Titus Andronicus all in one sitting a few years ago and I still have a bad taste in my mouth. Once I started, I never wanted to have to get back into the right state of mind to pick it up partway through. I had to finish, though. I’m reading the complete works of Shakespeare, not the palatable works of Shakespeare.
But that doesn’t mean you have to join me, fair reader. I’m going to go ahead and put a trigger warning here.
To soften these harsh January days, where what little savings you had just evaporated and the seasonal encouragement to coat your misery in whiskey, sugar, or retail also just evaporated – this month on What Happens in Shakespeare I give you the sexy, funny, feminist diversion that is Love’s Labour’s Lost.
The king of Navarre and his three friends have bad hangovers. They decide that for the next three years they will do nothing but study. They will fast regularly and only sleep three hours a night. Most importantly, they will swear off the company of women. One friend points out the inherent absurdity, but they all sign the contract. To make this ridiculous plan easier on his bros, the king makes a new law that all women have to stay at least a mile away from the court.
The Princess of France arrives on a diplomatic mission. She is powerfully attractive and so are her three ladies. How inconvenient that the king has just made a vow not to spend time with women. He forces himself to meet with the princess in the interest of state business, but still makes her and her entourage camp a mile away.
There’s a twist. The king falls in love with the princess. Each of the king’s friends falls in love with one of the princess’s ladies. Everybody is now cheating on the contract and wants to dissolve it, but everybody believes everybody else is sticking to it.
Meanwhile, a visitor to the king’s court catches the jester with a local girl. The noble visitor was already lusting this girl. Did I mention the no-ladies contract applies to everyone at court? The jester has to subsist for a week on bran and water. Bran. The highborn bros claim to be fasting, but they’re allowed to eat other food besides bran.
The king and his friends catch each other sending embarrassingly terrible love poems to the attractive women of France. They argue for approximately 4 seconds, then agree to tear up the contract. They slap on some eau-de-taking-a-bath and brainstorm about how to charm women. They settle on dressing up like Russians. Russians infiltrating your seat of government. That’s catnip to the ladies every time.
The attractive women of France, being rather more sophisticated, swap clothes and impersonate each other. The men get an education no 3-hours-of-sleep-a-night university could have offered.
The right women and men eventually find each other.
The princess’s father dies, making her the Queen of France. She and her friends pack up to go home.
The king and the bros quickly try to lock down their respective romantic deals, but the women of France feel the men can still not be trusted. After all, they broke their own vows of celibacy. Cheaters gonna cheat. The women agree to reconsider if the men wait a year and a day.
The attractive women return to France. The men of Navarre contemplate the responsibilities of grownup love.
For actual scholarship, historical context, and a breakdown of why the language in this particular play is so irresistible, read Marjorie Garber’s essay about Love’s Labour’s Lost in her excellent book Shakespeare After All.
Shakespeare wrote Cymbeline just a few years before he died. It has some divine, confident, heartwrenching language, the kind you would get late in the career of the finest writer in English of all time.
The plot, though. Critic Kerry Reid had this to say:
“Cymbeline at times feels as if William Shakespeare were going through some of his favorites, tossing them in a blender and hitting “frappe.” (Yes, there were no blenders in Elizabethan England. Work with me. Or substitute “mortar and pestle,” if it makes you feel better.)
You’ve got your scheming, power mad queen, a la Lady Macbeth. You’ve got your siblings separated in infancy and miraculously reunited, a la “The Comedy of Errors.” There’s even a villain bent on sowing suspicion about a wife’s fidelity, named Iag — er, Iachimo.”
Imogen is the daughter of the British king Cymbeline. She secretly marries a commoner, Posthumus Leonatus. The king is being influenced by his power-hungry new wife and wants her to marry his wife’s frat boy of a son, Cloten.
Cymbeline and the Queen send Posthumus into exile in Italy. He makes a friend, Iachimo, who makes the timeless claim that all women are sluts. Iachimo bets Posthumus that he will be able to seduce Imogen. Posthumus takes the bet, beginning to show his perhaps less than stellar side.
Iachimo goes to Britain to pitch woo at Imogen, but being already married and having standards, she won’t sleep with him. He hides in a chest and has it sent to her room, where he slips out, watches her sleeping, and takes note of marks on her body. He steals a bracelet that Posthumus gave her.
Cloten pursues Imogen, but again, the girl is already married and has standards. She keeps rejecting him. He goes full men’s-rights rage and decides to get revenge.
Iachimo goes back to Italy and convinces Posthumus that he won the bet. He has Imogen’s bracelet and he knows where her moles are.
Posthumus orders his servant to go back home and murder Imogen. Strike 2 against Posthumus, who is now looking like just another unworthy Shakespeare boyfriend a la Orlando in As You Like It, Hamlet in Hamlet, and every other young man in the greater Stratford-Upon-Avon metro area, but worse.
The servant believes Imogen is innocent. He convinces her to go search for Posthumus, disguising herself as a boy. He reports to Posthumus that he has killed her.
Imogen does dress a boy and leaves the court, but she gets lost. She comes across Belarius and his two adopted sons. (Quick side plot: Belarious was banished from Britain. He kidnapped Cymbeline’s two sons as young children in revenge. So, Imogen’s brothers. These are those boys, all grown up). The family instantly adore Imogen-as-a-boy and take her in.
Cloten shows up looking for Imogen. He is wearing Posthumus’ clothes. He and one of the sons fight. The son kills Cloten and cuts off his head.
Imogen is feeling understandably not 100% after being lost in the wilderness, having a perv count her moles in her sleep, and having her husband try to kill her. She takes medicine the queen had given her, which the queen said was restorative but believed was actually poison. It’s actually just a sleep aid.
Belarius and sons find Imogen, who seems to be dead but is only asleep. They bury her next to Cloten’s body.
She wakes up, sees a man with no head wearing Posthumus’ clothes, and thinks it’s Posthumus.
A Roman army invades Britain. Imogen-as-a-boy gets a job with them as a page.
Posthumus and Iachimo are with the Roman army, but Posthumus dresses as a British peasant and fights for Britain. He wants to die because he believes his servant carried out his orders and killed Imogen, which he now regrets. So he fights maniacally.
The British win the battle, thanks to Belarius, his sons, and Posthumus. He is still trying to punish himself, so he switches back to his Roman clothes and gets taken prisoner by the Brits.
Cymbeline demands to see the prisoners. Now the confusion is sorted out. Posthumus and Imogen are reunited. Iachimo confesses. They forgive him. Cymbeline and his lost sons are reunited. Cymbeline forgives Belarius.
The Queen, who has been sick since her son Cloten was killed, dies. Cymbeline realizes on reflection that her influence was less than salubrious.
Cymbeline releases the Roman prisoners in one last all-is-well gesture.