The Alexandrian

One of the two main plots in The Merchant of Venice, of course, revolves around the pound of flesh which Anthonio forfeits to Shylock when he fails to repay his bond. Although an Italian collection of stories entitled Il Pecorone is usually cited as the primary source of this plot (insofar as it most closely resembles the story in Shakespeare’s play), the truth is that there were dozens of variations of this story to be found and it’s likely that Shakespeare was familiar (or at least acquainted) with several of them. (There are even versions in which it is the Christian who is attempting to claim a pound of flesh from the Jew.)

One of these stories is Alexander Silvayn’s The Orator, which shares certain turns of phrase with The Merchant of Venice and contains one particular passage which highlights a potentially revealing continuity glitch in the play:

Neither am I to take that which he oweth me, but he is to deliver it me. And especially because no man knoweth better than he where the same may be spared to the least hurt of his person, for I might take it in such a place as he might thereby happen to lose his life. What a matter were it then if I should cut off his privy member, supposing that the same would altogether weigh a just pound?

Combined with the fact that Elizabethan playwrights often used “flesh” as a pun for “penis” (Shakespeare does it multiple times in Romeo & Juliet, for example), it certainly raises the question of exactly what Shylock means when he says “an equal pound of your fair flesh to be cut off and taken in what part of your body pleaseth me” (Act 1, Scene 3). The sexual pun that also evokes the castration imagery of circumcision certainly isn’t a slam dunk from a textual standpoint, but it is a legitimate option.

Of course, by the trial scene the nature of the bond has transformed. Instead of being taken from “what part of your body pleaseth me”, Portia describes the bond as allowing “a pound of flesh to be by him cut off nearest the merchant’s heart”.

This sort of continuity glitch is far from unusual in Shakespeare’s plays. (In fact, strict continuity is a modern bugaboo that Shakespeare often ignored in favor of the immediate needs of dramatic effectiveness.) But this particular glitch may be deliberate.

One of the key distinctions drawn between Jews and Christians by Elizabethan theologians focused, perhaps unsurprisingly, on the matter of circumcision. While the Jews believed in a physical circumcision marking their covenant with God, the Christians made a metaphorical circumcision of their hearts (as described by Paul). Thus, by shifting the pound of flesh from Anthonio’s “privy member” to his Christian heart, Shakespeare is shifting from one sort of circumcision to the other. More than that, Shylock’s surgery takes a metaphorical Christian ritual and turns it into a literal Jewish ritual, while simultaneously allowing him to take from Anthonio the very thing which makes him Christian. (Consider, too, that Anthonio in this same scene is given a long speech explicitly calling out the hardness of Shylock’s “Jewish heart”, emphasizing this Elizabethan distinction between Jew and Christian.)

The ritualized nature of Shylock’s intended murder of Anthonio is now obvious. What’s particularly compelling about it, however, is that it is ritualized through the legal system; i.e., through the system of laws which defines the nation. In combination with the religious elements inherent in the circumcision imagery, Shakespeare successfully unifies all of the societal disruptions personified by “the Jew” in Elizabethan consciousness into the Jewish boogeyman of ritualized murder.

The poetic justice of Shylock’s punishment also becomes clear as the full importance of the “pound of flesh” is revealed. Shylock’s forced conversion is often viewed by modern readers and commentators as a needless cruelty, and its harshness is not tempered when one learns that it is a creation unique to Shakespeare’s version of the story. But Shylock was not threatening merely Anthonio’s life; he was threatening to take from him his Christianity. In the giving of justice, therefore, it lies with Anthonio to now “better the instruction” (in Shylock’s words) and “hoist him by his own petard” (in Hamlet’s). As Shylock tried to unmake Anthonio as a Christian, so his punishment is to be unmade as a Jew.

Originally posted on December 4th, 2010.

Tagline: Strong potential makes this product that you might want to take a look at; but the execution leaves much to be desired.

Vampire: The Dark Ages - Fountains of Bright Crimson - White WolfIn the year 1099 the First Crusaders came to the gates of the holy city of Jerusalem. They were surprised by the lack of resistance with which they had been met, but as they entered the city they were seized by a strange and furious madness. In their rage they began to slaughter the townspeople. For weeks the streets ran red, and their bloodlust did not stop until every man, woman, and child who lived within the city had been cut down.

That much is true. It is a recorded event of history and – as the authors of this book say – the historical butchers who committed these savage deeds needed no mystical fiends to drive them to this… They brought their own monsters with them.

But in the world of Vampire: The Dark Age these events took an ominous turn: As Jerusalem clotted on its own blood, crimson streams ran down into the secret caverns beneath the city… and its scent reached even the ancient burial place of Malkav. The Antediluvian stirred in his sleep, and reached out with his mind – driving the Crusaders to ever more bloody deeds, but also corrupting the minds of the Cainites who had come with them. As the Weeks of Blood (as they were known) came to an end, not a single vampire who had accompanied the Crusaders remained in the ancient city… they had vanished without a trace.

Now it is a hundred years later, in the year 1197… and mad Cainites screaming of blood have emerged from the catacombs, while the fountains of Jerusalem run crimson. Malkav stirs in his sleep once more, and the city of Jerusalem hangs in the balance.


Perhaps you won’t agree with me, but I think that’s an absolutely fantastic premise for an adventure. The author has found a historical event which resonates with themes of the occult, and then mixed it seamlessly into the mythology which has been crafted around Vampire: The Dark Age.

Unfortunately, from this point out, the adventure deteriorates rapidly. To sum up the plot quickly: The PCs are approached by Bernardus, who is concerned with recent acts of infernalism. He tricks the PCs into killing diablerist Tremere, and then uses that to blackmail them into investigating the appearance of a raving mad Cainite wearing the livery of the First Crusaders. After investigating the PCs will discover that this Cainite, along with four others, were inhabited by shards of Malkav’s spirit. Unless they can free them properly, Malkav will wake and Jerusalem will be plunged into blood once more. Meanwhile, a vengeful Muslim Cainite is pursuing these Crusaders in a quest of vengeance for their acts of murder a century ago; and the local Baali are trying to pry from them the location of Malkav’s body for their own nefarious purposes. Eventually, though, everything turns out okay in the end.

For starters, this is a rather weak delivery on the promises of an adventure of epic scope. The actual consequences of Malkav’s awakening are totally left in the hands of the GM and are only supposed to come into effect if the PCs utterly fail in their mission. Thus the richest tones of mythological possibility are left untapped, as is any sense of true urgency in the PCs actions.

But that just begins to scratch the surface of where this adventure falls down flat…


For starters, this adventure is so linear it makes my teeth cringe. And to make matters worse, there’s no way I could keep a group of PCs on this railroad track, even if I wanted to. Repeatedly the author puts the hypothetical player group into a situation where all common sense tells them to go one direction, and then simply tells the GM that the players “have no choice”.

For example: The PCs are summoned to Jerusalem by Bernardus for the fake mission of hunting down infernalists. The author notes that “it should be obvious that the whole thing is a poorly-conceived ruse”; but then tells us that the PCs will want to help Bernardus anyway because “they risk the possibility of demonic powers destroying the most sacred city on earth – while they’re standing in the middle of it”. Admittedly, if my PCs actually believed there were infernalists (weak assumption if they already suspect Bernardus is lying) and they were good guys (another assumption) then it’s conceivable they might decide to hang around. Otherwise it’s far more likely they’re just going to take off.

For example: At another point in the adventure the only reason the PCs can’t just pick up and leave is because they’ve been tricked into killing the Tremere. Even though there are no witnesses, the PCs have to stay, because they are “in too deep.” Garbage! The most logical course of action for the PCs at this point is not to go back to Bernardus and subject themselves to blackmail (as the author instructs us to encourage them to do), but to get the hell out of town.

For example: At several points in the adventure the skill checks of NPCs are predetermined to fail.

For example: At one point in the adventure the PCs need to cross an underground river. If the fall into the river, we are told that they are automatically swept away and may (if they’re lucky) reappear thousands of miles outside of Jerusalem where the river emerges into the light of day. Then, later on in the exact same scene, an NPC is allowed to jump into the river and re-emerge at his leisure whenever he feels like it.

For example: At one point the PCs are, I swear to god, given the blood Malkav with absolutely no strings attached. The blood is described as having wondrous powers, and is necessary to complete the adventure the way it is written. Yet again, though, I am struck by the fact that the PCs have absolutely no connection to this adventure at all – and therefore their most logical course of the action at this point is to skip town with this amazing gift they have been given.

For example: The entire middle of the adventure consists of the PCs randomly visiting places which, for the most part, they have absolutely no reason to visit.


The lack of logic doesn’t end with the means by which the GM is supposed to keep the PCs wandering down the path which has been laid for them: The world itself is apparently rendered in a Matrix plagued with software glitches.

For example: Bernardus, who is supposed to trick the PCs into believing a string of absolutely absurd lies, is described as “guileless” in his character description. Huh?

For example: A large part of the adventure takes place beneath the surface of Jerusalem… but if the PCs go “too far” in their explorations of the caverns they will automatically become lost and never be seen again.

For example: Unless the PCs follow a very particular and specific course through the adventure, they will only encounter the Muslim Cainite assassin once – and then he will never be seen again (even though he is supposed to be the primary opponent of the PCs during the course of the adventure). However, if the PCs do follow that particular course of action there is a good chance that the Muslim Cainite assassin will successfully kill the one and only link they have to the end of the adventure.


There’s a degree of false advertising involved in this product. Although repeatedly described as a “standalone” product (separate from Jerusalem at Night and other Vampire: The Dark Ages supplements), at several points in the text important NPCs are referenced merely in the form of names – without any supporting detail. Either this is a crucial design flaw, or these NPCs are described elsewhere in the product line.


The basic concepts on which Fountains of Bright Crimson are incredibly powerful – and might well be worth $8 just to take a peek at. However, to successfully use this adventure would require some extensive fixes – and to successfully use the concept to its full potential would require a massive restructuring. This one doesn’t come recommended from me.

Style: 3
Substance: 1

Author: Ree Soesbee
Company/Publisher: White Wolf
Cost: $7.95
Page Count: 32
ISBN: 1-56504-270-0

Originally Posted: 1999/10/23

For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.

Hagpood by Tom Stoppard - Question Session with Red Current

RedCurrent has posted an interview with me discussing Hapgood, the play by Tom Stoppard that I just finished directing for Six Elements Theater. Check it out!

Then you can come check out the show. There’s a performance tonight, a matinee tomorrow, and three more shows next weekend:

Saturday 4/25 7:30pm

Sunday 4/26, 3:00pm (talkback)

Thursday 4/30, 7:30pm

Friday 5/1. 7:30pm (talkback)

Saturday, 5/2, 7:30pm

Facebook EventReserve Tickets!

Note the talkback performances: I’ll be in attendance for those and the joining the cast afterwards for a Q&A session.

Hapgood by Tom Stoppard - Directed by Justin Alexander

I’ll be seeing you…


Go to Part 1

This article originally appeared in the March 2001 issue of Games Unplugged.

Hog Wild - Hogshead's New Style RPGs

I’m asking everyone this, so I’d better ask you, too: How’d you get started in gaming?

The short answer is that I got involved in an APA called Alarums and Excursions, and through that found myself accidentally making connections to people like Steve Jackson and Jonathan Over the Edge - Jonathan Tweet - Atlas GamesTweet. Soon I was getting offers of work, or seeing stuff I made up for Jonathan become part of his Over the Edge game, and not long after that I was doing this game design thing full-time.


What were the influences behind your design of Pantheon?

Baron Munchausen, of course, set the format for New Style. It may be the best-written roleplaying game, period, and certainly the most entertaining thing I’ve ever read on an airplane.

Once I saw how well it, and Puppetland, were received, I knew I had to have me some of that action. And John Tynes made his a 2-in-1 (Puppetland + Power Kill), so I knew I had to set a standard for number of games in one New Style book that no one would dare to challenge.

Somewhat more seriously, I had the idea for the final scenario banging around in my head for years but hadn’t ever come up with a framework to make it work. Then, thinking about how I might do a New Style game (at GenCon last year, during my morning ablutions), the whole thing unfolded like a flower in my little, sleep-deprived brain. I spent a few minutes jotting down the concept, went to the exhibit hall (where I was weaselling at the Hogshead booth), pitched the idea to James, got his immediate approval, and, a year later, here we are.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that, except for the previous games in the line, I wasn’t thinking about any particular precursors when the concept seized me.


Pantheon’s modular design means that it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that new games using the Narrative Cage Match are easily done. Are we going to see future support for the NCM?

That’s up to James; I believe the current answer is “possibly.” It would certainly make for a painless, easy-to-publish entry that could be kept on hand and floated into any surprise gaps in the Hogshead publishing schedule.


Time for a controversial question: Does Pantheon really “count” as “five-games-in-one” if all five of them use the Narrative Cage Match?

Superworld - ChaosiumIf Greg Stafford, Sandy Petersen and the rest of the Chaosium team had managed to fit Runequest, Call of Cthulhu, Ringworld, Stormbringer, and Superworld into 24 pages, would it be one game or five?


Good answer! What projects can we expect to see from you in the future?

A thick tome of a Vampire: The Dark Ages book called House of Tremere should be hitting stands at about the same time as the October issue. After that, check out the Dying Earth RPG, on which I did Senior Designer duties. It’s a more traditional roleplaying game than Pantheon, but nonetheless maintains at least one point of interesting similarity with it. That’s coming soon from Pelgrane Press. Then in (probably) spring there’s another new roleplaying game, Rune, based on the 3rd-person action computer game of the same name. Atlas Games is publishing it; it bends the definition of roleplaying in yet another direction, by making it competitive: it’s got Vikings with swords the size of Buicks, and you can win!

Some brief reflections on “Hog Wild!”: The title was not my own. I’m pretty sure you can credit Tony Lee, the editor of Games Unplugged, with that one. I remember pitching him the concept for this article in the parking lot at Origins 2000: Tony was passing me review copies he’d collected from the convention floor.

Most of the time I spent developing this article was dedicated to the interviews — contacting the designers, conducting the interviews, editing the transcripts… and then the interviews were cut from the article when it appeared in print. (I think I vaguely recall that they were put up on the Games Unplugged website as a bonus feature at some later date, but I was never actually paid for them.) I’ve only conducted two sets of interviews for professional RPG gigs, neither of them ever appeared in print. (And the interviews I did with Ryan Dancey and Bruce Cordell for the unrealized D20 Nation project with RPGNet ended up getting lost in a computer crash.)

Hogshead Publishing went out of business in 2002. Greg Costikyan and John Tynes left the roleplaying industry around the same time (give or take a year). James Wallis was also absent for a lengthy period of time, but he’s recently come roaring back and is currently developing the new Paranoia RPG. Robin D. Laws has been producing fabulous material with Pelgrane Press for more than a decade.


April 23rd, 2015

Hapgood by Tom Stoppard - Directed by Justin Alexander

Join us for Tom Stoppard’s 1988 spy thriller Hapgood, directed by Justin Alexander, performing at the Nimbus Theatre April 17th  May 2nd 2015.

With his characteristic intelligence and sharp characterization, Stoppard “spins an end-of-the-cold-war tale of intrigue and betrayal, interspersed with explanations of the quixotic behavior of the electron and the puzzling properties of light” (David Richards, The New York Times). It falls to Hapgood, an extraordinary, matriarchal officer in the British intelligence agency, to unravel a mystery of mistaken identity and deep betrayals.

Cast includes Jim Tucker, Phillip D. Henry, Song Kim, Zac Delventhal, Joe Schneller, Andy Gullickson, Gillian Chan, Skot Rieffer, and Jenn Sisko as Hapgood.

Facebook EventReserve Tickets!

Ridley - Hapgood  Ridley and Hapgood - Hapgood by Tom Stoppard



Recent Posts

Recent Comments