What do I need to know before seeing Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice?
August 21, 2012 9:27 PM   Subscribe

What do I need to know before seeing Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice?

Next week I'm going to see a theater production of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. I want to enjoy it, but I'm the kind of person who prefers to know as little as possible about a book or film before reading/watching. How much assumed knowledge would the original audience have had? Can I go in without even that?

Wikipedia lists some sources of the play, and indicates that certain story elements were well-known in 16th century England.

All other things being equal, can I enjoy this play knowing nothing about it or its context, or will it (or crucial parts of it) be impenetrable to me unless I school myself to a certain level beforehand?
posted by paleyellowwithorange to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
No prior knowledge required. Have a great time.
posted by colin_l at 9:31 PM on August 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Let me flesh out that terse answer a bit... What your wikipedia link is talking about is the kind of stuff the dramaturg references when giving the actors context.

As an audience member, it's the performers' job to make whatever you need to know clear. And they will, and you'll have a blast.
posted by colin_l at 9:36 PM on August 21, 2012

It's a play! Assuming the production is using the original text, it was written for an audience that was 'going to see a play', not 'following up on a class assignment'. (I.e. no previous knowledge was assumed.)

While it's true that Shakespeare can be a bit difficult (after all, it was written as pop culture in a cultural context that's long gone), remember: It's entertainment! No need to prep. You can enjoy the story without knowing how someone would have enjoyed it 400 years ago. Go and be entertained, and read the synopsis in the theater's program if you must!
posted by Kololo at 10:23 PM on August 21, 2012

I wouldn't say that you never need to study to get value out of Shakespeare--for some of the histories in particular, it can be hard to figure out all the different relationships between the characters just from watching the play, especially if you aren't watching them in sequence.

However Merchant isn't a play that you need to prep for. Go have fun. If you really don't know how it ends yet, lucky you. Avoid spoilers.
posted by phoenixy at 10:56 PM on August 21, 2012

No need to prep for sure. You definitely can enjoy it on its own merits with no "homework" necessary.

That said, it's the theatre. Unless you're very lucky, tickets are expensive and opportunities to see good performances of Shakespeare are few and far between. You can't hit pause and go google something you want to know more about. You can't watch it again if the key to some plot point finally dawns on you two days later.

Shakespeare is not like last Sunday's episode of Breaking Bad. It's not really a spoiler-oriented landscape. Having a little background can only improve your enjoyment of it, and almost certainly won't detract.
posted by Sara C. at 11:05 PM on August 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's been a while, but IIRC there are some Biblical allusions and references in TMOV that the original audience may have grasped more easily than today in North America. Namely the contrast between The Law (Old Testament Judaic Law) vs Grace under the New Testament; and the concept (elaborated in Romans) that all are guilty under the Law, and that if a person judges someone else according to the Law, they themselves are judged according to the same Law as well, and that the Law is about finding guilt but Grace is about forgiveness.
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 1:09 AM on August 22, 2012

Oh and one very minor point, IIRC, remember the Apocrypha (sp?), which are the religious writings between Old and New Testament that protestant denominations reject as non-canon but which other groups (judaism I believe) consider as valid: there's one story 'suzanna and the elders' where suzanna is being victimized by corrupt jewish elders in a formal judgement, and then Daniel (the same Daniel who was in the Lion's den) supposedly shows up at the last second and sets things straight. Again IIRC.

minor spoiler, at one point in TMOV a character is compared to "Daniel", this is the reason. If it goes over your head it's no big deal, it's minor, but perhaps it helps a bit with the context.
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 1:16 AM on August 22, 2012

If you've read the Wikipedia article, then if anything I think you already know a shade too much for someone who prefers to know as little as possible about a book or film before reading/watching.
posted by Segundus at 1:48 AM on August 22, 2012

Response by poster: I haven't read the Wikipedia article. I just jumped straight to the sources section to see if there was grounds for me to be concerned that the original audience would have known some relevant pop culture.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 1:57 AM on August 22, 2012

There may be some references you don't get because, as has been mentioned before, they are no longer culturally current, but that shouldn't detract from your enjoyment.

Because Shakespeare's language and themes are so rich and varied, there can be many "versions." That's one of the reasons he's endured.A play is a blueprint for creating a performance and so understanding has a lot to do with the choices that the director, designers and actors make and you can't know them until you show up at the theatre.

That said, I do think it's helpful to read the play ahead of time. It will help your brain make the switch to hearing and understanding the language a little quicker.
posted by brookeb at 4:23 AM on August 22, 2012

remember the Apocrypha (sp?), which are the religious writings between Old and New Testament that protestant denominations reject as non-canon but which other groups (judaism I believe) consider as valid

FWIW, the vast majority of Jews do not consider the Apocrypha to be valid from a religious standpoint. Susanna comes from the Book of Daniel, which is not part of the Jewish canon.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:23 AM on August 22, 2012

You will enjoy it without any background knowledge, it (like most Shakespeare) has certain comedic elements which are familiar to modern viewers (puns, slapstick, mistaken identities) and you'll find them interesting with no education.

With more background, you might find more things interesting on an intellectual level. But it's like watching a movie again, you find something new everytime. You can always go see it again:)
posted by epanalepsis at 5:31 AM on August 22, 2012

Before watching a production of The Tempest, I went out and bought the No Fear version of the play which has Shakespeare's original and a side-by-side version in plain english. I read the Shakespeare side mainly and looked over if I didn't understand a phrase. I found it to be really helpful in getting some context and taking in some of the plot nuances that I may have missed (especially since my Shakespearean muscle hasn't been flexed since high school). I totally understand that you don't want the story spoiled before you watch it, however I found that reading it first made my experience so much more enjoyable. It allowed me to focus on the play as a whole.

Looks like you can get the whole thing online here.

Also, if you happen to find yourself in a Shakespearean verbal fisticuff after the show, yell: Thou odiferous unwash'd vassal!
Shakespearean Insulter - enjoy!
posted by tealeaf522 at 6:05 AM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

>Susanna comes from the Book of Daniel, which is not part of the Jewish canon.

It's not part of the book of Daniel in the protestant christian Bible.
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 7:17 AM on August 22, 2012

Merchant of Venice isn't that convoluted as far as Shakespeare goes, I think you can see it without too much context/preparation. Brookeb raises a good point though - if it's been a while since you've seen Shakespeare performed, you could get your ear back into it by seeing a film of a *different* Shakespeare play, maybe one you haven't previously seen.
posted by heyforfour at 8:41 AM on August 22, 2012

IIRC, Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare covers a lot of the references that (in his opinion) audiences of Shakspeare's time would have known, but modern audiences might not.

I have a copy, but I don't remember reading his comments on that play (which probably had particular interest for him, as a Jew).

Anyway, it might be worth checking out.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 11:39 AM on August 22, 2012

Best answer: Here's some basic background that might be helpful, in response to your query about the 'assumed knowledge' that Shakespeare's original audience would have had.

1. The Jews had been expelled from England in 1290 and weren't readmitted until 1656. So in Shakespeare's time there were no Jews in England (not officially, anyway -- there were a few Spanish or Portuguese Marranos, converts from Judaism who may have practised their old faith in secret). Venice was one of the few cities in Europe where Jews were officially tolerated.

2. Venice tolerated the Jews because they could lend money at interest. Moneylending at interest (aka 'usury') was officially forbidden to Christians, but for a commercial city like Venice it was essential, so the Jews were there to do the dirty work. It was all part of Venice's reputation as a city unlike other cities, a cosmopolitan city of wealth and luxury and unusual freedom (including sexual freedom -- Venice was famous for its fashionable women, and also for its prostitutes).

3. So to Shakespeare's audience, Jews meant 'alien' and Venice meant 'foreign'. This is crucial to the play. But as we know (think of science fiction), writing about an alien society can often be a very good way of commenting indirectly on your own society. One of the fascinating things about The Merchant of Venice is the way that it holds up a mirror to Shakespeare's London.

4. For London was a cosmopolitan city too, growing rich on trade and commerce. Moneylending was an issue here too, just as in Venice. (The Shakespearian scholar Andrew Gurr has an article in the TLS this very week, sadly not online, arguing that it was an especially big issue for Shakespeare and the other members of his theatre company, as they'd had to borrow money at extortionate rates of interest in order to build the Globe Theatre.) And London too had its wealthy merchants, its risky business and sudden spectacular financial collapses, as well as its new luxuries and new freedoms (the public theatres being one).

The Merchant of Venice is about a foreign city that turns out to be surprisingly like our own -- and an outsider who turns out to be surprisingly like us. That's really all you need to know. Now enjoy the play!
posted by verstegan at 12:56 PM on August 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all for your responses.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 11:02 PM on August 22, 2012

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