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12 days of Christmas ‘Heresies’ in Shakespeare

DAY EIGHT: THE MERCHANT OF VENICE: JOHN’S GOSPEL IN A NUTSHELL

If you want to move your readers with deep mystical allusion that can hardly be recognised on the surface, revel in the Bard’s mastery here. Could the iconic demand for that ‘pound of flesh’ be another irresistible revenge story – superficially like Hamlet also seems to be?

John’s Gospel takes a more mystical slant on the Epiphany. The scant reference to the Christmas is alluded to as ‘the Word that dwelt among us’.

In the beginning, says John, was the Word…and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) John 1: 1-14. Compare this intro with:

In the beginning of The Merchant of Venice, Antonio gives his word…and his word is made flesh…a pound of flesh.

Notoriously, the Christian, bigoted, anti-Semite Antonio borrows 3,000 ducats from spat-upon Jew Shylock for three months to pay for his friend Bassanio to woo the divine Portia. As a ‘favour’ to Antonio, his reviled persecutor, Shylock secures the bond with a pound of his flesh – to be cut off (as was the tree of life) should Antonio fail to repay on the said date.

‘Yes, I shall seal unto you this bond,’ agrees the arrogant Antonio, ‘in this there can be no dismay, my ships be home a month before this day.’

That this is an allusion to the Christ story comes into focus when, of course, Antonio fails to pay his bond. Shylock, an outraged, resentful Jew now takes the miserable Christian racist to the court of Venice to have him executed. This is surely a twisted parody/mirror of how Caiaphas, the outraged, resentful Jew took the innocent, fearless Christ to the court of Rome to have him executed.

As the play plays out, on the surface, to the uninitiated, it looks almost anti-Semitic. Shylock is portrayed as (following the hypocrisy of Christian example) eschewing mercy and craving the law and vengeance. However, the twist is Shylock is hoist by his own petard and loses everything but his life.

But surely this is more a subliminal allegory on existential choice: to be or not to be: to forgive and live in Grace or to seek revenge and live under the law – and reap everything that comes with it.

This is the choice really heralded at Christmas: it won’t be long, chaps, till all mankind will be free from tyranny – a mere 13 billion years perhaps? But, hey, if you are God, you have to begin somewhere near the middle.

Christmas allusion? Gets my vote. Let me know what you think.

SHAKESPEARE’S SECRET COMPASS:  
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JAN 6TH, 6 PM – 8 PM GMT ZOOM AND IN-PERSON

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