The title page of The Merchant of Venice, printed in the Second Folio of 1632
The title page of The Merchant of Venice, printed in the Second Folio of 1632/Folger Library Digital Image Collection

Last week I wrote about how messy a play Romeo and Juliet is, and how its messiness was actually an asset in portraying the messiness of adolescence and young love. Today the subject is a play Shakespeare wrote at about the same time: The Merchant of Venice. This is also a messy play, and is also a fable about the power of Christian mercy over tribal conflicts and the arrogance and violence of privileged youth - but in this case it's not clear that its messiness is an asset; it seems like he was workshopping various genres at once with mixed results. In hindsight we can see that it was an important work in Shakespeare's development, in which he explored themes he would later treat more successfully in plays as varied as Twelfth Night, King Lear, Othello, Measure for Measure and The Tempest. But it's also undeniable that the play has its own virtues, which presents challenges, since while its depiction of Jews and the antisemitism they face is relatively enlightened for 1598, it's problematic for 2023 - but there's such exquisite poetry and moments of profound humanity and wisdom in the play that modern audiences are generally willing to take Shakespeare's seemingly good intentions at face value, helped by modern directors who turn the play into what we want it to be, leaving scholars to debate what it actually is.

One reason I can't bring myself to dismiss the play out of hand is that it contains some of Shakespeare's most beautiful and perceptive speeches about the power of music. When Portia accedes to her late father's wishes and forces her suitors to choose the right casket out of three in order to win her hand in marriage, she gets very concerned when the suitor she actually wants, Bassanio, takes his turn at this high-stakes game. So she instructs her servants to play music:

Let music sound while he doth make his choice. 
Then if he lose he makes a swanlike end,
Fading in music. That the comparison
May stand more proper, my eye shall be the stream
And wat’ry deathbed for him. He may win,
And what is music then? Then music is
Even as the flourish when true subjects bow
To a new-crownèd monarch. Such it is
As are those dulcet sounds in break of day
That creep into the dreaming bridegroom’s ear
And summon him to marriage.

Her musicians then perform a song with these lyrics:

Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart, or in the head?
How begot, how nourishèd?
Reply, reply.
It is engendered in the eye,
With gazing fed, and fancy dies
In the cradle where it lies.
Let us all ring fancy’s knell.
I’ll begin it.—Ding, dong, bell.

Spoiler alert - Bassanio makes the right choice.

Meanwhile Bassanio’s friend Lorenzo has eloped with Jessica (the daughter of Shylock, the merchant of the title), who has been so cavalier in her spending of the money she stole from her father and her attitude toward her new life that even Lorenzo, hardly a paragon of virtue himself, seems to grow a conscience, and starts to wonder whether they have taken things a step too far (even though they end up getting away with everything and even get rewarded for it.) Near the end of the play they are sitting together outside on a moonlit summer night, and after exchanging some teasing banter about their relative trustworthiness, they are soon interrupted by musicians:

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank.
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears; soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold.
There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still choiring to the young-eyed cherubins.
Such harmony is in immortal souls,
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
Enter Stephano and musicians.
Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn.
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress’ ear,
And draw her home with music.
                                   Music plays.
I am never merry when I hear sweet music.
The reason is, your spirits are attentive.
For do but note a wild and wanton herd
Or race of youthful and unhandled colts,
Fetching mad bounds, bellowing and neighing loud, 
Which is the hot condition of their blood,
If they but hear perchance a trumpet sound,
Or any air of music touch their ears,
You shall perceive them make a mutual stand,
Their savage eyes turned to a modest gaze
By the sweet power of music. Therefore the poet
Did feign that Orpheus drew trees, stones, and floods,
Since naught so stockish, hard, and full of rage,
But music for the time doth change his nature.
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.

It is evident that by "attentive" Lorenzo means "attentive to everything but the music", i.e. easily distracted. It's interesting that he also declares that Orpheus had no inherently magical powers; he was merely a conduit for the magical power of music. And then he goes on to 
assert that anyone incapable of being moved by music shouldn't be trusted, a mere nineteen lines after his new wife says that she's incapable of being moved by music. As it turns out, that's her last line in the play, and all of Lorenzo's remaining lines after this speech show a graciousness and humility decidedly lacking in his earlier scenes. We witness Lorenzo's transformation through music. It's less clear what's happening with Jessica; the play ends leaving the audience with questions about their marriage.

But Ralph Vaughan Williams was not interested in these characters or their relationship when he decided to set this text to music. His goal was to pay tribute to the English conductor Sir Henry Wood on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of his first concert. He scored it for orchestra and sixteen solo voices, who sing in various combinations, including together as a choir, throughout the work. Sergei Rachmaninoff, who was in the audience for its world premiere at Royal Albert Hall in 1938, openly wept at its beauty. Ten days later, Sir Henry led those same forces at HMV (later EMI) Abbey Road Studio no. 1 to make one of the first benefit recordings in history - all copyright fees were donated to the Henry Wood Jubilee Fund to endow London hospital beds for British orchestral musicians.

Vaughan Williams then made various arrangements of the work, including the purely orchestral one you will hear tonight. Mark the music.

WETA Passport

Stream tens of thousands of hours of your PBS and local favorites with WETA Passport whenever and wherever you want. Catch up on a single episode or binge-watch full seasons before they air on TV.