Bargain Shakespeare From eBay

Shakespeare videos

A couple weeks ago, eBay offered a rare site-wide 20% off coupon. So, I shopped for Shakespeare. I was hoping for a Norton Third Edition in four volumes, but instead filled my cart with used DVDs.

I bought The Merchant of Venice, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), and Shakespeare’s An Age of Kings, all for about $20 after the coupon.

I’ve seen this 2004 production of The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino as Shylock, and feel it’s well worth owning. As I recall, Jeremy Irons is superb in the thankless role of the titular merchant, and the backdrop of ethnic venom is horrifyingly current. It’s also worthwhile for Mackenzie Crook’s kindlier Launcelot Gobbo. I have said in the past that I dislike this play, but it’s grown on me, perhaps because of its increasing social relevance. It’s a dystopian play for dystopian times.

As for The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), I saw this show live more than 30 years ago and remember enjoying it. I’ve studied and seen a lot more Shakespeare since then, so it may be even funnier to me now.

Which brings me to the BBC’s landmark 1960 series Shakespeare’s An Age of Kings. This 5-DVD set was on my Amazon wish list for some time, so to find it used for a third the price was a happy score. I’ve come to love the history plays. They combine high stakes, complex relationships, and acute observations of human behavior with a dash of real events. I once watched all the BBC TV Shakespeare history plays in order, an epic experience I’m eager to repeat because it was so rewarding. Age of Kings is nearly as epic, with 15 60-minute episodes, each adapting roughly half of one of the history plays from Richard II to Richard III. It covers nearly 90 years and seven kings (although only five get a full treatment from Shakespeare). I’m partway through Henry IV. So far, although I’m occasionally distracted by the mid-century style of Shakespearean acting, I’m also quite satisfied with the editorial choices.

In all, some great ways to veg out with Shakespeare on a hot summer afternoon!

The hero of The Merchant of Venice

I actively dislike The Merchant of Venice. That it provokes in me such a strong reaction is a testament to Shakespeare’s brilliance as a playwright.

Thing is, I find the characters repulsive and the way they behave indefensible. Antonio is a self-important racist so hardened that slurs and derogatory treatment of others are second nature. Shylock is a bitter, grasping zealot who drives away his daughter and would publicly torture a man to death. Bassanio and Lorenzo are ignorant gold-diggers. Gratiano is a party-hearty bully. Jessica is a thieving spendthrift. Portia is a heartless, hypocritical, selfish deceiver who breaks the law to serve her own ends, with Nerissa as her eager accomplice.

Now, by “hero” I don’t mean “title character.” I’m pretty sure Shakespeare meant the titular merchant to be Antonio; he’s the main character, the one at greatest risk. Story-wise, Bassanio and Shylock are merely the means to place Antonio in danger and Portia the means to save him.

At the same time, we’re all creative enough to fight our corners for any of the characters. I might place my stake on Portia as being worthiest of the title, because she sells the biggest bill: the lives of three men, Antonio, Shylock, and Bassanio, with a little of Gratiano and Nerissa and Lorenzo and Jessica thrown in for good measure, all while branding herself as “good.”

But that doesn’t make her a hero in my book.

However, it finally occurred to me that there is one character in The Merchant of Venice I quite like. It’s Launcelot Gobbo’s father, Old Gobbo.

Old Gobbo’s story mirrors Antonio’s. Like Antonio, he has a deep love for a dependent who needs his help to reach a better place in life. Unlike Antonio, he’s old, poor, and blind. But Old Gobbo manages to help his son attain his goal through heartfelt, direct action – the dish of doves, by the way, unlike Antonio’s cash, is just one element of his plan – all without bringing disaster on his head. His success is singularly untainted.

Furthermore, Old Gobbo doesn’t even mention the trick his son plays on him. Instead, he’s full of a father’s love, just happy to be with his son and happy to be helpful.

In all the ways that really matter, I think Old Gobbo is the real hero of The Merchant of Venice.