Farah and the Merchant of Venice
Once a friend at home wrote out to me and described a new staging of The Merchant of Venice. In the evening as I was reading the letter over again, the play became vivid to me, and seemed to fill the house, so much, that I called in Farah to talk with him about it, and explained the plot of the comedy to him.
Farah, like all people of African blood, liked to hear a story told, but only when he was sure that he and I were alone in the house, did he consent to listen to one. It was therefore when the houseboys were back in their own huts, and any passer-by from the farm, looking in through the windows, would have believed him and me to be discussing household matters, that I narrated, and he listened, standing up immovable at the end of the table, his serious eyes on my face.
Farah gave his full attention to the affairs of Antonio, Bassanio and Shylock. Here was a big, complicated business deal, somewhat on the verge of the law, the real thing to the heart of a Somali. He asked me a question or two as to the clause of the pound of flesh: it obviously seemed to him an eccentric, but not impossible agreement; men might go in for that sort of thing. And here the story began to smell of blood,—his interest in it rose. When Portia came upon the stage, he pricked his ears; I imagined that he saw her as a woman of his own tribe, Fathima with all sails set, crafty and insinuating, out to outman man. Coloured people do not take sides in a tale, the interest to them lies in the ingeniousness of the plot itself; and the Somali, who in real life have a strong sense of values, and a gift for moral indignation, give these a rest in their fiction. Still, here Farah’s sympathy was with Shylock, who had come down with the cash; he repugned his defeat.
“What?” said he. “Did the Jew give up his claim? He should not have done that. The flesh was due to him, it was little enough for him to get for all that money.”
“But what else could he do,” I asked, “when he must not take one drop of blood?”
“Memsahib,” said Farah, “he could have used a red-hot knife. That brings out no blood.”
“But,” I said, “he was not allowed to take either more or less than one pound of flesh.”
“And who,” said Farah, “would have been frightened by that, exactly a Jew? He might have taken little bits at a time, with a small scale at hand to weight it on, till he had got just one pound. Had the Jew no friends to give him advice?”
All Somalis have in their countenance something exceedingly dramatic. Farah, with the slightest change of mien and carriage, now took on dangerous aspect, as if he were really in the Court of Venice, putting heart into his friend or partner Shylock, in the face of the crowd of Antonio’s friends, and of the Doge of Venice himself. His eyes flickered up and down the figure of the Merchant before him, with the breast bared to the knife.
“Look, Memsahib,” he said, “he could have taken small bits, very small. He could have done that man a lot of harm, even a long time before he had got that one pound of his flesh.”
I said: “But in the story the Jew gave it up.”
“Yes, that was a great pity, Memsahib,” said Farah.