In the past, this play has not been my favorite Shakespeare. In fact, barring Titus Andronicus, it may very well have been my least favorite Shakespeare play.
But this time, I was enthralled from the beginning. It's been a few years since I'd read it, so I didn't remember all the details of Portia's caskets and, as my professor put it, the "marriage lottery." It was so much fun to read. Portia's conversations with Nerissa were delightful. And I thoroughly enjoyed the development of Shylock's character and his relationship to Antonio. Not only did I love trying to figure out if Shylock was a villain, I enjoyed trying to dissect Antonio as well. Is he really as good as everyone else makes him out to be?
And then there was Shylock's daughter, Jessica. Why did she run off with Lorenzo? Was it right of her to steal from her father? Does Shylock care more about the loss of his daughter, or his ducats? Or is it less of an "either/or" situation than the other characters perceive it to be.
Of course, this was all delightfully fascinating. And then we come to the court scene.
And all the characters that were supposed to be so good and so clever are just as bent on punishing Shylock as he was on punishing Antonio--except worse, because they will not even give him the right punishment. In their supposed "mercy," they deny him even a death of dignity and demand instead that he give up everything he holds dear--his money, his livelihood, and especially his pride. They force him to become a Christian!
After seething in anger throughout the whole scene, I finally calmed myself down. I reminded myself that I can judge characters only in the context of their time. They were the products of a deeply anti-Semitic culture, a culture that had an extremely difficult time tolerating any kind of otherness. Plus, by that time, everyone was kind of used to being forced to change religions all the time anyway, so maybe it was a little more natural to them than it is to me to want to force the "right" religion on someone else.
Okay--but does that mean I should just look the other way in the face of blatant bigotry? Does that mean these characters are not deserving of criticism?
I was most disappointed with Portia. She's such a great character in other ways, but she can't leave the case alone even after she's won it. Perhaps an example of a wonderfully strong character who takes her strength too far? I don't know what to make of it.
And the whole thing with the rings was fascinating, too. I used to see it as a sort of practical joke that Portia and Nerissa play on their husbands, but this time I saw it differently. First of all, Portia said herself that she wasn't necessarily in love with Bassanio, and she is now probably trying to evaluate her recent marriage to a man she still doesn't know very well. Plus, she has now witnessed what he's willing to do for Antonio--so, is Bassanio's friendship with Antonio stronger than his marriage relationship?
Of course, I wanted to beat Bassanio over the head for his choice! But Portia, in her cleverness, squashes that stupid bromance.
So, I like the play a lot more now. It is just deliciously thought-provoking, which is one of the very best things about Shakespeare.