“What would you think if I sang out of tune?
Would you stand up and walk out on me?
Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song
And I’ll try not to sing out of key
Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends
Mm, I get high with a little help from my friends
Mm, gonna try with a little help from my friends” by the Beatles
“My purse, my person, my extremest means
Lie all unlocked to your occasions.” Antonio to Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice
Sometimes I need all the help I can get. Sometimes I don’t need help, but it’s still nice to have it.
William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is all about people helping their friends. Antonio took out a loan from Shylock for money his friend Bassanio needed to woo Portia. The collateral was a pound of Antonio’s own flesh. When Antonio had to default, Shylock insisted on collecting his pound of flesh. Portia, in turn, not only plucked Antonio out of Shylock’s clutches but also wangled a favorable court decision on behalf of Jessica, Shylock’s daughter.
My first encounter with Shakespeare was reading the Merchant of Venice as a high school freshman. I wish I could say that I was blown away by the genius of the greatest writer of the English language. Mostly, I was confused. So, who’s the hero? The story starts with Antonio and he’s the one who ends up in jeopardy. But Bassanio gets the girl. If she’s so smart, why doesn’t Portia try to change her father’s will that gives her hand and her land to whichever guy guesses the right strongbox? And why was everyone so nasty to Shylock?
In reading The Merchant of Venice this time, I found this 400-year-old play in which people spoke in iambic pentameter totally relatable. This time around, I realized that the plot points that confused me are what make this play so interesting. I want to say “modern,” in the way that the heroes, heroines and anti-heroes all have good sides and dark sides. I have sympathy for Shylock the way I have sympathy for Tony Soprano. I see Bassanio as a bit of a gold digger. And Portia is a bold and take-charge woman who nonetheless gives up her estate the moment Bassanio opens the lead casket.
The action of the story is mixed too, both serious and comedic. There are disguises and intentional tomfoolery that remind me of the antics on I Love Lucy. Portia and her maid, in rattling off the defects of the undesirable suitors, have the snappy dialogue of a Katharine Hepburn or Rosalind Russell movie. The courtroom scene, on the other hand, is as taut and suspenseful as the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird or, dare I say, the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearing.
I realize that comparing Shakespeare to the dated movies and TV shows I’m familiar with is probably sacrilegious to some. My point is that reading The Merchant of Venice this time was much, much easier. I am a more knowledgeable reader than I was a half century ago. My vocabulary is larger. My cultural references are wider. But, I also had a little help. Help came in the form of a new format: NO FEAR SHAKESPEARE.
This edition has the entire play on the left side of the page and a modern translation on the right. It is incredibly convenient and reassuring to check on the right side of the page to make sure that I didn’t miss a crucial plot point. More importantly, it solves some annoying archaic meanings. For example, when a sentence starts with “Marry,” it has nothing to do with weddings. It sort of means, “Well.” “Soft!” as an interjection means “Wait.” And “Sola” means “Hey.”
Now, that’s real help.
Before you scorn me as intellectually lazy, a wimp, a wuss, a cheater, let me say that I’ve beaten you to it. But I really don’t care. I just want access to the wonderful ways that Shakespeare devised his plots, his complex characters and their way with language. “All that glisters is not gold” (Portia) and “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose” (Shylock) are just two examples. The Beatles incorporated Mark Antony’s line in Julius Caesar, “lend me your ears,” in their song that I used to lead off this essay.
I find supertitles at the opera extremely helpful. These are projected captions of the sung text, or a translation of the text. I remember a time when the only information about a three-hour show was a ¾ page synopsis. During a performance I would wonder, “Is this where the lovers are quarreling?” “Is this where the hero finds out he’s really a prince?” “Is this where the princess is betrayed?” “Is it over?” I’m sure this confusion was what led to the famous saying, “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”
I also received help with language in a Classical Chinese class I was taking in college. Classical Chinese is dense, aphoristic, full of archaic words and unpunctuated. It’s not even like reading Shakespeare, more like trying to read Chaucer in the original Middle English.
I struggled for hours over one tiny passage. Finally, I sought help from Professor Ho. He had long wispy white hair and an even wispier beard. He had a hippie-Zen reputation on campus. I waited for his pronouncement as to what the passage meant. Instead, he picked up my book, took a pencil, put in two commas and a period and gave it back to me. To my amazement, I could figure it out with that little bit of help!
The tables have turned now in that, instead of me trying to understand others’ writings, I am trying to get folks to understand my writings. Here again, I have help. My friends Max and Laurie, both writing professionals, read my drafts and give me editorial tips. They tell me things like,
“This is your topic sentence. You need to put it closer to the beginning.”
“This section is confusing.”
“This is the interesting part. I want you to tell me more.”
“You are burying the lede.”
As with Dr. Ho, they don’t rewrite for me, but they show me the way.
Like the quality of mercy, help is “twice blessed: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” And between the Beatles and William Shakespeare, I am in the best company.
Tell me: Who or what has helped you out in your life?