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Week 5 Summary

Summary video bringing together some of the themes and ideas from Week 5 of Shakespeare and His World
Hello, Learners and welcome to the week five summary video. We’ve been looking at Merchant of Venice this week. Yeah. A lot to talk about. A lot to talk about. So first off, we’re going to talk about money and value. It’s really interesting to try to compare the value of things across time, but there’s lots of difficulties with it. Yeah. It is. It would be so helpful if we could say that when there’s a reference to a pound or a pound and a shilling, which is a guinea in Shakespeare’s time, that there’s an exact modern equivalent of that.
You can read that it’s a useful rule of thumb to multiply the money by, perhaps, 200, 250 pounds or $400 US to get you a sort of rough and ready measure for cost of a loaf of bread, a pint of beer, rent on a house, that sort of thing. But it’s a very rough measure. And we’ve got to remember that different things are more expensive at different times. But roughly speaking, a parson, for example, a clergyman, would have earned 20 pounds a year. A merchant– Merchant of Venice– a reasonably successful merchant in London would have earned about 100 pounds a year. One of the great noblemen, obviously, would have absolutely thousands.
A mere labourer would be earning a shilling a week, a very, very small amount of money. And that does raise interesting questions about who could afford to go to the theatre, who could afford to buy books, and so on. And it lends itself to the obvious question about how much money Shakespeare had. Yeah. Now Shakespeare does seem to have done remarkably well. And of course, this is partly because he did have a very good business head.
Beginning of his career, dramatists were simply paid a few shillings to produce an act of a play on a piecework basis. But 1594, as we’ve said before, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men are formed as a joint stock company. Shakespeare becomes a shareholder, and they share the box office profits. And he and his fellow leading actors do manage to do very well indeed. And his fellow actors buy themselves big houses in nice London suburbs. Shakespeare always with an eye for a bargain buys New Place, second biggest house in Stratford upon Avon, but it’s in rather a rundown state so he gets it at half price. And we assume he then did it up and made it into rather a fine property.
And indeed, in recent years, there’s been some very interesting archaeological excavation of the site of New Place. And so now the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has managed to create a real sense of what an impressive house that was. But more than that, Shakespeare bought land, speculated on the agricultural commodity market, had some buy-to-let properties. He really did make a considerable amount of money. And I guess today if you wanted to buy the second biggest house in Stratford, you’d need a fair bit of money to do so? You certainly would today. Yes. So the other big theme of the week is the idea of the Jew, Shylock the Jew.
And some Learners have found this quite a difficult one to talk about and didn’t quite know how to approach it. Yeah. That’s right. I think we have to be honest and recognise that there is a sort of antisemitic stereotype that goes back a very, very long way that is bound up with anxiety about the morality of usury. And the way that Jewish moneylenders were very important brokers across Europe, but inevitably that led to hostility. Money always leads to trouble, doesn’t it?
What I think is striking though is that if we compare the representation of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice with the way in which the Jewish character is represented in Christopher Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta, written and very popular onstage just a couple of years before The Merchant of Venice, Barabas, the wicked Jew there, really is a stereotypical evil Jew. Shylock is a kind of response to Barabas in which Shakespeare makes the audience think about themselves as Christians. The Christians in many ways are as bad as the Jewish characters. And the other thing that he does, of course, is he puts in these little touches of humanity.
The famous speech about common humanity, of a common humanity we all have eyes, ‘hath not a Jew eyes?’ and so on. But at the same time, you do get a sense of a bond between Shylock and his friend, Tubal. Bond is a terribly important word in the play. But also you get that extraordinary moment where Jessica, his daughter, has sold a ring in exchange for a monkey in the marketplace. And Shylock says it was Leah’s ring, the ring that he gave to his dead wife. He wouldn’t have given it away for a wilderness of monkeys. And just at that moment, you imagine Shylock, Shylock in love, Shylock as a husband, Shylock as a widower.
And there’s a humanisation that goes on there. And certainly, there’s a very interesting stage history in representations of Shylock, a movement from stereotypical negative representations to a more sympathetic reading of him. And do you think the audience would have been sympathetic towards him at the time? I think it’s very mixed. I think there would’ve been– well, we know there was a lot of visceral anti-semitism. As indeed there was general anti-immigrant feeling at the time.
There were riots. There was a real sense among young London-born apprentices that foreigners, immigrants were coming and taking their jobs. We need to remember that there’s been a civil war in France in the low countries. So Huguenots, French Protestant exiles, a lot of them flooded into London and a lot of them set up very effective businesses. And there was a real hostility towards them. Some of the modern anxieties that settled populations have around migrants, these were familiar things in 16th century England. And in some ways I think we almost need to think of Shylock as a sort representative of the outsider in general and not the Jew in particular.
And The Merchant of Venice is often the first play that’s translated into other languages. Why do you think it’s so popular overseas, its resonances? The resonances are– And maybe it is exactly that sense of insiders and outsiders. It is a play that I think does transpose very readily into different settings. And of course, one of the things we’ve been arguing this week is there’s a way in which the representation of Venice as a place of trade, commercial exchange is a kind of mirror of Shakespeare’s London. So as it were the exchange on the Rialto is a mirror of Thomas Gresham building the Royal Exchange and of London becoming a great sea-going place of trade and international traffic and exchange.
And the play doesn’t sit very comfortably in either the comedy or tragedy, and that’s a big– Yeah. It does. Clearly, it’s a comedy from the point of view of being a play that moves towards marriage rather than a play that moves towards death. But there’s a definite pattern as Shakespeare’s comedies unfold through the late 1590s of him becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the conventional happy endings of comedies.
And the two characteristics, the sort of sense that actually the way that Portia and Nerissa kind of tease their husbands about the ring and so on and the little sort of threats of maybe future infidelity, Shakespeare just being aware that the sort of traditional comedy ends in marriage and everybody lives happily ever after, he knows life’s not that simple. And then secondly, Shylock himself as this kind of outsider who’s not allowed to join the party at the end. This is something that happens in a number of Shakespeare’s later comedies. Twelfth Night has the character of Malvolio who refuses to be assimilated and refuses to forgive and goes off storming speaking about revenge.
Similarly, Jaques, the melancholy philosopher in As You Like It refuses to become part of the party. Shakespeare in some ways is getting bored with the conventions of comedy. There’s a great quote from the great 18th century writer and great reader and editor of Shakespeare Dr. Samuel Johnson, which he says Shakespeare’s plays are neither comedies nor tragedies properly so called, but rather he says works of a mixed kind that exhibit the real state of sublunary nature. The real state of life as it is in which the reveller is hurrying to his wine even as the mourner is burying his friend in that sort of sense that life goes on, that people party and people mourn at the same time.
That’s really very true to Shakespeare. So next week we are looking at Macbeth. Week six. We’re past the halfway mark now. Most people will be familiar with Macbeth in one form or another. They will indeed. And the great thing about Macbeth it’s short, it’s fast, the language is incredibly intense. And there are some great movies as well. The famous Roman Polanski movie I think stands up very well. But much more recently, the movie version with Michael Fassbender I think is really superb.
And it does this, I think, very clever thing suggesting that maybe both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are suffering from a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder that Macbeth from the violence of the battle, Lady Macbeth from the loss of their child. It’s a fascinating thing. Macbeth is a play where there’s a lot about children. We have murdered children in it. Lady Macbeth speaks about having had a baby, but the Macbeths don’t have a child. What’s going on there? It’s a really interesting thing to explore. Well, I look forward to another excuse to watch that film next week. Thank you.
In this summary video, we bring together some of the themes and ideas from Week 5 of Shakespeare and His World.
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