Near the beginning of the trial scene in The Merchant of Venice, the Duke makes a speech that foregrounds what is to follow and gives directors and actors some interesting leeway for playing it. After Shylock enters, he is asked to stand before the Duke, who says,
The speech raises a vast range of interesting points—the difference between its opening line, in which Shylock is named, and its closing line, in which he is called by his religious affiliation (an intended insult from the speaker of the line); the echo of the word "gentile," which literally meant the opposite of "Jew" at the time, in the last line (in other words, the line could be roughly paraphrased "We all expect an answer that would please gentiles, Jew"); its introduction of the theme of mercy, with which the rest of the scene is deeply concerned—but I'd like to think about what it means for an exchange later in the scene.Shylock, the world thinks, and I think so too,
That thou but lead'st this fashion of thy malice
To the last hour of act; and then 'tis thought
Thou'lt show thy mercy and remorse more strange
Than is thy strange apparent cruelty;
And where thou now exact'st the penalty,
Which is a pound of this poor merchant's flesh,
Thou wilt not only loose the forfeiture,
But, touch'd with human gentleness and love,
Forgive a moiety of the principal;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
We all expect a gentle answer, Jew. (IV.i.18-27, 35)
Portia, disguised as the lawyer Balthasar, decrees in Shylock's favor. He is legally permitted to claim the pound of flesh from Antonio, who owes it to him. Then, after Shylock calls for someone—Antonio? The Court?—to prepare, she lets the other shoe drop, mentioning the other pertinent laws. In the text, the reversal happens in the briefest of intervals:
The Duke's speech near the beginning of the scene prepares us for something more than a quick reversal of fortunes, and Trevor Nunn, in his 2001 production, jumps on the possibility, heightening the tension between the two lines and giving Portia the chance to give Shylock the chance to change his mind at the last possible moment, showing mercy above what anyone might expect. Here's Nunn's version of the space between those lines. Be prepared: the scene doesn't pretty up the notion that a literal pound of flesh is about to be exacted and extracted from a man.SHYLOCK: Most learned judge! A sentence! Come, prepare!
PORTIA: Tarry a little. (IV.i.304-05)
Nunn's Portia thinks it possible that Shylock will show mercy at the last moment. Only when it's plain that he will not does she interrupt the proceedings.
And that brings us to baseball and to the St. Louis Cardinals. Let the world take note that the Cardinals won the 2011 World Series. But note, too, that there was nothing inevitable about that—especially in Game Six. The Cardinals—like Portia, like Nunn—wanted to keep the suspense going until the last possible moment, taking us to the last possible strike—twice!—before taking us on to the happy (at least for the Cardinals themselves and for Cardinals fans) conclusion. Game Six for the Cardinals was Act IV of Merchant of Venice.
What must it have been like to have seen—what must it be like to see—a Shakespeare play for the first time, not knowing what the outcome would be? Having read the plays multiple times for years and having been aware of their plots and some of their lines before that, I can't recall reading or watching Hamlet, for example, not knowing whether he would kill Claudius at his prayers or whether he would ever get around to getting revenge on Claudius at all.
The Cardinals' run at the World Championship this year reminded me of the sickening, unbearable tension that accompanies Shakespeare's plays.
Links: The Film at IMDB.
Links: The Film at IMDB.