School? It Was Such a Long Time Ago

But I do remember that we had to write our examinations without help from leaked papers, so we really did have it tough. And if that wasn’t sufficient child abuse, our English set work for matric was The Merchant of Venice. In a foreign language.

This Shakespeare fellow was something else. His long and tedious soliqiuies might have dropped as the gentle rain on some of our brighter kids, but it was all Greek to me.

The plot of The Merchant of Venice is pretty convoluted, with lots of Italian names all full of vowels. We had a frustrated old spinster, Miss Fortuin, teaching us. She just doted on Shakespeare. She even looked like him – ancient, grey, balding, with a feeble moustache. But a scrawnier version. But not a bad old duck at heart and at least she felt that the quality of mercy should not be too strained, even for us halfwits at the back. She thought that, maybe, just maybe, if we saw the play as a live show we might discover that ‘knowledge is the wing wherewith we might fly to heaven’. Or, failing that, pass English.

So she arranged a bus, not to heaven, but to Braamfontein. To see The Merchant of Venice at the Civic Theatre.

Miss Fortuin gave us her usual pep talk, explaining that, while she was fully aware that all the world might be a stage, we represented the school, ‘and you better not act like hooligans’. We took heed because we knew that hell hath no fury like a scrawny woman. Many of us had had occasion to suffer the slings and arrows of an outraged Miss Fortuin.

The Merchant of Venice, even when performed in the flesh, is still pretty complicated. If you have had the good luck of not seeing it, here is a basic synopsis: Shylock is the baddie and he prances around the stage in tight Jewish pantaloons. He lends money to Antonio to pay to Bassanio to impress Portia because Gratiano wants to marry Nerissa whose low cut bodice is the best part of the show.

Antonio carelessly puts his pound of flesh on a block as collateral for the loan, but then can’t pay back the money because all that glistens is not gold and he goes into business rescue. He is then taken to court by the plaintiff in pantaloons. Antonio is defended by Portia who dresses like a lawyer in drag and probably charges by the hour. Portia gets Antonio’s pound of flesh off the block on a technicality; everyone gets married and Nerissa’s final bow from the footlights gets a standing ovation.

There is a lot of other boring stuff too but I forget. The above plot summary may seem a bit hazy. I confess I actually missed most of the play. You see, a ‘hot’ girl in Grade 10C (no names – she knows where I live) happened to be seated next to me in row five when the play started. I was fully concentrated on gathering courage to hold the lass’s hand. Most of the dialogue on stage was but a dimly heard tumult, a mere background to the sub-plot in row five.

Someone, I forget who, once said that there is a tide in the affairs of men, which, when taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. However, the tide and my courage must have both been out that evening because my uncouth lunge for her hand late in the play was as unsuccessful as Shylock’s efforts to con Antonio. Both led to a dramatic downfall and exit. Her scream of fright haunts me to this day.

All this is history. I matured – it had to happen. Later in life I even managed to read The Merchant of Venice and my eyes were opened at last. I discovered that it is timeless, as relevant to our South African society in 2021 as it was to Shakespeare’s England in 1605.

Think about it. The Merchant of Venice is about a court case that drags on and on forever. The testimony is long and tedious. There are deceitful lawyers and corrupt witnesses, as well as malicious greed. A delinquent director is shown to have traded recklessly. Much is equivocation and lies. And nobody goes to jail.

Voila! Same play, different time. Only now it’s called the Zondo Commission.