Monday, July 28, 2008

The Merchant of Venice by Gareth Hinds

The Merchant Bassanio is in love with the fair lady, Portia, but he needs money to woo her. He turns to his friend, Antonio, for help, and Antonio pledges it. However, he is short of money just then, as all of his money is tied up in a shipping venture, so he turns instead to the Jew, Shylock, asking him for money. Shylock agrees, but draws up a contract where, if the money is not returned, Antonio will owe him a pound of flesh. All though Antonio thinks the terms are ludicrous, he agrees.

Portia, meanwhile is wooed by three men, and Bassanio is merely one among them. However, to win her hand, a man has to choose between three caskets: Gold, silver and lead. Whoever finds the picture of her in the casket also wins her hand. Her first suitor chooses Gold and must go away, never to return nor to love anyone else.

Back in Venice, Bassanio hears that a ship sank in the English Channel, and hopes it was not Antonio's. Meanwhile, their mutual friend Lorenzo is in love with Shylock's daughter, Jessica, and Antonio helps their escape so they can run off and be together. They take a great deal of Shylock's money with them when they go. When Shylock discovers this, he is incensed, and blames Antonio, who cheerfully admits his part in the elopement. Shylock is determined to take revenge on Antonis. Bassanio hopes, again, that it was not Antonio's ship that sank, for Shylock will surely want his pound of Flesh.

Back on the island where Portia lives, two more suitors choose their fate. One chooses the coffer of silver, and again loses, while Bassanio asks to choose, no longer able to live without knowing if he has won Portia or lost her. He chooses the leaden casket, and wins her, as he had already won her heart.

Immediately, she tells him all she has is his, and Antonio confesses to having fallen in love with Portia's maid, Nerissa. Each man exchanges a ring with their love, and promises never to give the ring away, at pains of losing each woman's love. But bad news comes soon after the men's return to Venice: the ship that sank was Antonio's ship, and now he owes a pound of flesh to Shylock, who would love to do him harm.

Portia and Nerissa disguise themselves as young men to see how their loves are doing, and find out Antonio's problem as he goes in front of the Duke of Venice. The Duke asks for a certain learned doctor to advise him of the problem in front of him, but Portia makes up a fake letter and takes the Doctor's place as an adviser, and counsels Shylock for mercy. When he will not, she says he may have his pound of flesh... but he may not shed a drop of blood as he does so, as that is not in the contract.

When Shylock can think of no way to do so, he agrees to sccept payment, but Portia points out that contracts that cause a member of the people of Venice harm are illegal, and therefore Shylock shall get no money at all. Further, he must agree to take conversion and become a Christian. Either that, or his life is forfeit. Shylock agrees, and Portia and Nerissa have a bit of fun by getting their men to give up the rings they had sworn never to lose or take off.

When they arrive to meet their beloveds, they ask the men if they still have the rings, and watch as each trembles as they explain how they gave the rings away. The ladies return the rings when the men confess Antonio's troubles, and then tell the men that the doctor and the clerk of the court who had taken the rings were none other than themselves. Whereupon the men confess themselves amazed, and vow to never give the rings away again, and all is once again right with the world.

This graphic novel version of the Merchant of Venice is very well done. I liked the art, which was clean and spare, although the character of Shylock is about as stereotypical of a Jewish man as you are likely to get. However, this fits in well with the way the play was staged in the Renaissance, so it wasn't as distasteful as it could have been.

The play is really an adaptation of the original, as the story is now set in modern times. All the merchants are men in suits, but Portia and Nerissa have a sort of 1920's look about them, probably due to their short haircuts, which reminded me a bit of flapper haircuts, even if the suits looked more 1930's or 40's (but then, with suits it is hard to tell. Men's fashions change less over time than women's do).

The words of the play are what change most in the adaptation. The book starte out with very nearly modern language, even some modern slang. But as the play and the story progress, the author returns to Chakespeare's language, especially in the trial with Antonio and Shylock. The way that the language changes in so short a time made my head spin, especially when Portia says, "Good one." near the beginning of the book. I found the modern language to be an imposition on the text, and extremely out of place, even off-putting. I'd rather have seen all the dialogue in the original Shakespearian text.

The problem with plays is that they can be confusing when read as mainly dialogue, but the author's illustrations, combined with the text, prevent it from becoming confusing to read and make it easier for readers to understand what is going on.

So I can recommend this graphic novel work, with some reservations on the early dialogue. I feel it would have been just as understandable with all Shakespearean text.

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