By Garrett Pace
The pound of flesh which I demand of him
Is dearly bought, ‘tis mine, and I will have it.
If you deny me, fie upon your law!
There is no force in the decrees of Venice.
I stand for judgment. Answer: shall I have it?
So says Shylock, the villain and most interesting character in Shakespeare’s tragicomedy The Merchant of Venice. He says it in open court, and refers to a pound of flesh “nearest the heart” of Antonio, the reckless merchant who borrowed a capital sum to fund a dubious venture.
The venture is ultimately successful, but too late for Antonio, who cannot cover the bond and is forced into default. The condition of default is a pound of flesh, cut from Antonio’s body by the moneylender. Revenge for past wrongs drove Shylock to demand fulfillment, but he was nonetheless undone when the agreement is taken even more literally than he himself had taken it – after all, the agreement calls for flesh and not for blood.
In 1893 this writer’s great-great grandfather was a Mormon missionary in Norwich, England. There he had the opportunity to see a first-rate performance of The Merchant of Venice. Grandpa had read plenty, but as a provincial, cattle punching, rustler chasing pioneer settler in the high Arizona desert, he’d never been able to see anything like this. In his journal he wrote about the experience: “To the Lyceum and see Henry Irving & Ellen Terry play The Merchant of Venice. Irving in Shylock is just grand.”
Irving really was something – books have been written about him and his performances in the Lyceum Theater. He had a gift for humanizing the man Shylock, making him “Jewish patriarch of scripture