The 'Ayatollah of Venice,' Shakespeare and the hostages

Separated by 400 years and the inevitable contrast between fact and fiction, what could the Iranian hostage crisis and the Shakespeare play, "Merchant of Venice," possibly have in common?

"Find out," suggested literature and social studies teachers to high school sophomores. Thus began a search, aided and abetted by the school library staff, in which 14 teams of students scrutinized the play itself, commentaries on Shakespeare's works, recent newspaper and magazine aricles on American-Iranian relations, film strips on Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, atlases, histories of Persia, almanacs, encyclopedias, even the late Shah's autobiography, for information and insights upon which to base their comparison.

Their verdict? "Unbelievably alike!" This consensus emerged as each student committee presented its findings in a panel discussion at the end of November.

Shakespeare's character, Shylock, the Jewish moneylender who demanded a pound of flesh from Bassanio when Bassanio could not repay what he had borrowed, seemed to most students very much like the iranian militants who seized the American hostages when the United States refused to deport the late Shah to Iran. (Some students, however, likened the Ayatollah Khomeini or the Iranian parliament to Shylock.)

All felt that neither Shylock nor his Iranian counterparts originally intended to exact human life in payment, but that subsequent events had hardened their attitudes.

The marriage of Shylock's daughter, Jessica, in the play, was one such event, the students pointed out. Not only did Jessica's choice of a Christian husband affront Shylock's precarious position as a member of a misunderstood minority, but she took her father's wealth and jewels with her when she eloped.

Similarly, the late Shah's determination to modernize Iran affronted the conservative islamic clergy, jeopardizing their declining influence in the Middle East, and when he left, he, too, took with him much of Iran's wealth, the militants claim.

Indeed, the Christians in "Merchant of Venice" claimed ignorance of whether Shylock grieved more for the loss of his daughter or the loss of his ducats and jewels, just as Americans seemed unsure of whether the militants were holding the hostages as ransom for the Shah himself or for the Shah's wealth.

The sophomores (at Principia, an independent school) reported that religious persecution and misunderstanding played an important part in Shakespeare's drama and in the comtemporary crisis. Some students compared the reciprocal hostility and prejudice between Jews and Christians in "Merchant of Venice" to hostility and prejudice between Molems and Christians in the American-Iranian relationship , but others felt a more apt comparison at present would be hostility and prejudice between adherents of conservative Islam and advocates of Western secularism.

One student proposed that Portia's missionary zeal for converting Shylock to Christianity and saving him from Judaism was comparable to America's desire to save Iran from communism in the cold war.

In both fact and fiction a parallel to the greed of Shylock and the drive for power of the post-Shah leadership was heighttened by access to precious commodities -- oil in the Iranian crisis, gold in "Merchant of Venice."

A central theme in the play -- the triumph of mercy or justice -- also appears in the hostage crisis, declared the students. They cited how Portia, the defense lawyer in the play, first begged Shylock (unsuccessfully) to forgive Bassanio's bond, much as the United Nations special commission made an early appeal to the Iranian militants to release the hostages voluntarily.

In "Merchant of Venice," when Portia's plea for mercy failed, she secured justice by a clever legal ploy. "What we need now in the hostage crisis is someone and persuasive like Portia!" one panelist sighed.

"I was certainly surprised that something Shakespeare wrote so long ago and something that is going on today could have so many parallels," one student commented. "It made me have more respect for Shakespeare's imagination and more curiosity about what caused the hostage situation."

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