A Bargain is a Bargain - Shakespeare's Storybook
Some aspects of 'The Merchant of Venice' may, also, have been inspired by true events which occurred in Shakespeare's lifetime. One such incident took place between a Jewish merchant and a bishop. The two wagered a bet, the loss of which demanded the payment of a pound of flesh. It was only the Pope's intervention which saved the merchant from having to part with his flesh, when he lost the bet. In Shakespeare's story, and others of the time, it is the Jew who demands this gruesome payment, since Christians were not permitted to lend money. Money lenders were not popular and this may be another reason for portraying the character as Jewish.
'A Bargain is a Bargain' tells the story of a younger son who squanders his share of his father's fortune. He is, ultimately, left to live as a beggar, while his older brother refuses to help him. When the younger man falls in love with a duke's daughter, he borrows money from his brother to enable him to present himself richly before the young woman. The penalty for failing to repay the loan is to be the payment of a pound of flesh.
From this point, the tale mirrors that of Shakespeare's play. The younger brother wins the girl's hand in marriage, by choosing the casket which holds the prize worth having, and, in return, she gives him a precious ring. This ring he must never part with or he will lose his prize. As in 'The Merchant of Venice', the man ends up in court, when he can't repay his brother's money. His young lady defends his case, in disguise, and she, herself, demands payment from him, in the form of his ring. Sadly, he hands over the ring, not realizing that the lawyer is his fiance, and he loses her forever - though, he has, at least, saved his own life. Shakespeare's play ends more happily, with the girl forgiving the young brother for parting with the ring.
There was much to discuss in this story. Firstly, the prize worth having, in the caskets, was not made of gold or silver, but of wood. This led to a discussion about the superficiality of material riches and the worthiness of principles and immaterial values. We, also, talked about the ethics of betting and winning money for which we don't work. The girls agreed that earnt rewards hold more real value.
In addition to this, we discussed the behaviour of the young girl. She deceived her fiance by disguising herself as his lawyer, in order to test him. She, also, refused to forgive his 'betrayal', after he used the ring to pay his debts. We decided that her dishonest and unforgiving behaviour was unchristian. We thought the young man's extravagant lifestyle was sinful and greedy, but we, also, thought that his happy acceptance of his subsequent poverty was a commendable character trait, which may have had its roots in a spiritual conversion. When we discussed the young man's decision to pay his debts with the ring, we felt divided. On the one hand, the brother did the honourable thing to pay his debt but, at the same time, he broke his promise to his fiance. Yet, was she entitled to demand that promise of him and, likewise, was he entitled to make a promise that was, possibly, incapable of standing? It may require another court case to determine the rights and wrongs of this issue!
A more obvious wrong-doing was that of the older brother who, not only acted uncharitably when he refused to welcome home his destitute brother, but also sought revenge for the non-payment of his debt. His demands were so gruesome and his actions so extreme that we felt they could only have been borne of hatred. Similarly, though to a lesser extent, we wondered whether the young woman's failure to forgive, also, contained a desire for revenge. Did she feel betrayed when her fiance relinquished her ring so readily and did this give rise to her demand for retribution? Or, was she justified in seeing the ring as a symbol of their love? Was the young man's desire to save his life, at the expense of the ring, an indication that he loved his own life more than that of his fiance?
There were many similarities between 'A Bargain is a Bargain' and 'The Merchant of Venice' but there were some differences, too. The biggest difference was, possibly, contained in the ending, with Shakespeare providing a happier finish to the tale. There was much to discuss in the story and we, by no means, exhausted the possibiliities. We have studied the play before, with the older children, but, with its vast array of topics for discussion, I expect we will view it with fresh eyes, when we tackle it again with the younger ones.