Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Venice and Riddles

The Merchant of Venice is certainly a new, nerve-racking experience for me. Unlike Henry V, which I studied in high school, and The Tempest, which I've done costuming for in the past, Merchant is foreign territory for me. It's somewhat like standing at the lip of the airplane doorway waiting to try skydiving for the first time: you know it'll be fun and new and DEFINITELY interesting, but right now it's down-right TERRIFYING!!!

So in an effort to dispel some of my initial trepidation about the play, I started with some basic prereading on Wikipedia. Most of the synopsis was simple, an outlining of the plot and a brief character manifesto that included a few of the different themes the play had to offer. I did find it interesting, however, that the plot synopsis went into a fair amount of detail about the riddle that Portia's father put in to play. It contained each of the characters that tried to win her hand by way of the chests, as well as the rhymes located within each casket. It was a great attention-getter, as riddles are.

Well, the riddle got me thinking about past literature and modern media. I mean, the first thought that popped into my head was Odysseus facing the challenge of stringing his own bow to win his own wife's hand. That was also a riddle with an unlikely solution. And, just like Odysseus, the prize that Bassanio sought was that of a woman. Shakespeare may have been doing a bit of adapting himself.

Of course, the idea of a riddle is not entirely unheard of. Take today, for instance. I can think of at least three examples where puzzles are used in modern media and literature. One I'm sure you will all recognize is in Harry Potter: Harry has to answer the sphinx question (Spoiler alert: it's a spider!) in order to reach the ultimate prize. Another is from Batman. Albeit the idea's a bit cheesy, but hello? The Riddler? Not only is he in the comics (the epitome of modern literature), but he was also in that really dorky adaption of the Batman.... Batman Forever, I think. As for the media, many of the recent crime dramas like to take at least one stab at a home-made serial killer. More often than not, they turn to signature pieces and misleading puzzles in order to portray an intriguing psychopath.

So riddles seem like something to work with. Hopefully I'll have a bit more luck finding scholarship on this than I did on Fluellen... As for a hook: Which of the poetic-answers/riddle-answers do you think would be the most titillating to look into and/or analyze?


  1. I'm not sure if I have an answer to your questions but it is something I'll think about. I really like your modern day comparisons and how you made them applicable to things we all know about.

  2. Also, I think what could be interesting to look at what the end result of all of those riddles are...just a thought.

  3. That's so interesting! It does seem kind of like our culture is obsessed with riddles, doesn't it? Think of all the video games and puzzles we try to work out. The riddle in Merchant reminds me a lot of a video game. I'm interested to see what you turn up. In my other class we're studying archetypal criticism and I think you've stumbled on a very interesting pattern here. You could look into the characters who present riddles or to the heroes who solve them and see what they have in common across different stories. :)