Study Guide

The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

The Merchant of Venice Essay - Criticism

Criticism

Overview

Frank Kennode
[Kennode presents a concise overview of The Merchant of Venice, initially examining Shakespeare's punning of the term "gentle" and discussing the word's various meanings throughout the play. The critic identifies two readings of "gentle" which have a significant bearing on the drama: the sense of "gentleness" as in civility or an improved nature; and the notion of "Gentile," or Christian, which stands in contrast to Shylock and Judaism. In addition, Kennode asserts that justice is a primary theme of the drama, noting that while the Christians stress mercy, love, and charity, Shylock advocates the letter (rather than the spirit) of the law, hate, and vengeance. The Merchant of Venice, the critic concludes, is about "judgment, redemption, and mercy; the supersession in human history of the grim four thousand years of unalleviated justice by the era of love and mercy."]

We are not likely, whether or no we share his high opinion of Shakespeare as a comic writer, to fall into Johnson's error when he dismissed the reiteration of the word 'gentle' in [The Merchant of Venice] as only another example of Shakespeare's weakness for this 'fatal Cleopatra', the pun. 'Gentleness' in this play means civility in its old full sense, nature improved; but it also means 'Gentile', in the sense of Christian, which amounts, in away, to the same thing. Here are some of the passages in which it occurs:

Hie thee, gentle Jew.
The Hebrew will turn Christian: he grows kind.
[I. iii. 177-78]

If e'er the Jew her father come to heaven,
It will be for his gentle daughter's sake.
[II. ii. 33-4]
(Jessica is also called 'gentle' in 1. 19)

Now, by my hood, a Gentile [gentle] and no Jew
[II. vi. 51]

... to leave a rich Jew's service and become
The follower of so poor a gentleman
[II. ii 147-48]

The Duke urges Shylock to be merciful; asking him not only to
loose the forfeiture,
But, touch'd with human gentleness and love,
Forgive a moiety of the principal ...
We all expect a gentle answer, Jew.
[IV. i. 24-33]

Other 'gentle' objects are Antonio's ships, and Portia, many times over; and Portia speaks of mercy as a 'gentle rain'.

There is a straightforward contrast between gentleness, the 'mind of love', and its opposite, for which Shylock stands. He lends money at interest, which is not only unchristian, but an obvious misdirection of love; Antonio ventures with his ships, trusts his wealth to the hand of God (and so they are 'gentle' ships). It is true that a Jew hath eyes etc.; this does not reduce the difference between man and man, when one is gentle and the other not. To make all this clear, Shakespeare twice inserts the kind of passage he later learned to do without; the kind which tells the audience how to interpret the action. It is normal to cut these scenes in acting texts, but only because these plays are so grossly misunderstood. The first such is the debate on Genesis, xxxi. 37 ff. (Jacob's device to produce ringstraked, speckled and spotted lambs) which occurs when Antonio first asks for the loan [I. iii. 61 ff.]. The correct interpretation of this passage, as given by Christian commentators on Genesis (see A. Williams, The Common Expositor, 1950), is that Jacob was making a venture ('A thing not in his power to bring to pass, / but sway'd and fash-ion'd by the hand of heaven'; compare Faerie Queene, V. iv). But Shylock sees no difference between the breeding of metal and the breeding of sheep—a constant charge against usurers ... Later, in II. viii, we have a pair of almost Spenserian exempta [examples] to make this point clear. First Solanio describes Shylock's grief at the loss of daughter and ducats; he cannot distinguish properly between them, or lament the one more than the other. Then Solario describes the parting of Antonio and Bassanio; Antonio urges Bassanio not even to consider money; the loss of Bassanio is serious, but he urges him to be merry and not to think of Shylock's bond. When love is measured out, confused by the 'spirit of calculation' (R. B. Heilman's phrase in his discussion of the errors of Lear [II. ix. 21]), the result is moral chaos.

Bassanio's visit to Belmont is frankly presented as a venture, like Jason's for the Golden Fleece; and the theme of gentle venturing is deepened in the scenes of the choice of caskets. The breeding metals, gold and silver, are to be rejected; the good lead requires that the chooser should 'give and hazard all he hath' [II. ix. 21]. Morocco (II. vii) supposes that Portia cannot be got by any casket save the golden one, tacitly confusing her living worth with that of gold, the value of gentleness with that of the best breeding metal. Arragon (II. ix—the intervening scene contains the lamentation of Shylock over his daughter-ducats) rejects gold out of pride only, ironically giving the right reasons for despising the choice of the 'many', that they are swayed not by Truth but by Opinion, a mere false appearance of Truth, not Truth itself. (In this sense the Jews are enslaved to Opinion.) He chooses silver because he 'assumes desert', another matter from trusting to the hand of God; and his reward is 'a shadow's bliss' [II. ix. 67], After another scene in which Shylock rejoices over Antonio's losses and again laments Jessica's treachery, there follows (III. ii) the central scene of choice, in which Bassanio comes to 'hazard' and 'venture' for Portia. The point of the little song is certainly that in matters of love the eye is a treacherous agent, and can mistake substance for shadow. Bassanio, rejecting the barren metals which appear to breed, avoids the curse of barrenness on himself (for that is the punishment of failure); and he finds in the leaden casket Portia's true image. The scroll speaks of the 'fortune' which has fallen to him. Portia, in her happiness, speaks of Bassanio's prize as not rich enough, deploring the poorness of her 'full sum'; and Gratiano speaks of the forthcoming marriage as the solemnization of 'the bargain of your faith' [III. ii. 193]. Bassanio the merchant has 'won the fleece' [III. ii. 241]; but at the same moment Antonio has lost his. Bassanio is 'dear bought', as Portia says; but Antonio will not have him return for any reason save love: 'if your love do not persuade you to come, let not my letter' [III. ii. 321-22].

At this point the conflict between gentleness (Antonio's laying down his life for his friend) and a harsh ungentle legalism becomes the main burden of the plot. Shylock demands his bond; this is just, like Angelo's strict application of the law against fornication in the hard case of Claudio [in Measure for Measure]. It is, in a way, characteristic of Shakespeare's inspired luck with his themes that Shylock in the old stories will take flesh for money. There is no substantial difference: he lacks the power to distinguish gold, goat's flesh, man's flesh, and thinks of Antonio's body as carrion. The difference between this and a 'gentle' attitude reflects a greater difference:

DUKE: How shalt thou hope for mercy, rendering none?
SHYLOCK: What judgement shall I dread, doing no wrong?
[IV. i. 88-9]

There is no need to sentimentalize this; as Shakespeare is careful to show in Measure for Measure the arguments for justice are strong, and in the course of Christian doctrine it is necessarily satisfied before mercy operates ... Shylock has legally bought his pound of flesh; if he does not get it 'there is no force In the decrees of Venice' [IV. i. 102]. But as heavenly mercy is never deserved, it is an adornment of human authority to exercise it with the same grace:

... earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this.
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation.
[IV. i. 196-200]

But this plea does not work on the stony unregenerate heart; Shylock persists in the demand for justice, and gets it. Like any other human being, he must lose all by such a demand. In offering to meet the demands of strict justice (in accordance with the Old Law) Antonio will pay in blood the price of his friend's happiness; and it cannot be extravagant to argue that he is here a type of the divine Redeemer, as Shylock is of the unredeemed.

Shakespeare's last act, another 'thematic' appendix to the dramatic action, is motivated by the device of the rings. It begins with a most remarkable passage. Lorenzo's famous 'praise of music'. In this are treated 'topics' which, as James Hutton shows in an extremely important study ['Some English Poems in Praise of Music', English Miscellany II (1951)], are all evidently the regular parts of a coherent and familiar theme—so familiar indeed, that Shakespeare permits himself to treat it 'in a kind of shorthand'. The implications of this 'theme' are vast; but behind it lies the notion, very explicit in Milton's 'Ode at a Solemn Musick', of the universal harmony impaired by sin and restored by the Redemption. The lovers, in the restored harmony of Belmont, have a debt to Antonio:

You should in all sense be much bound to him.
For, as I hear, he was much bound for you.
[V. i. 136-37]

In such an atmosphere the amorous sufferings of Troilus, Thisbe, Dido and Medea are only shadows of possible disaster [cf.V. i. 1-14], like the mechanicals' play in Midsummer Night's Dream; Antonio on his arrival is allowed, by the contretemps [inopportune and embarrassing occurence] of the ring-plot, to affirm once more the nature of his love, standing guarantor for Bassanio in perpetuity, 'my soul upon the forfeit' [V. i. 252]. The Merchant of Venice, then, is 'about' judgment redemption and mercy; the supersession in human history of the grim four thousand years of unalleviated justice by the era of love and mercy. It begins with usury and corrupt love; it ends with harmony and perfect love. And all the time it tells its audience that this is its subject; only by a determined effort to avoid the obvious can one mistake the theme of The Merchant of Venice.

Frank Kermode, "The Mature Comedies, " in Early Shakespeare, edited by John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris, Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd., 1961, pp. 211-27.

E. F. C. Ludowyk
[Ludowyk offers a brief synopsis of the main characters in The Merchant of Venice, emphasizing the attributes which involve them in situations of trial or test. The critic considers Antonio a virtuous and generous Christian merchant, who is also "mysteriously and romantically tinged with melancholy." Bassanio is a romantic hero, Ludowyk asserts, albeit one whose life of extravagance has left him penniless. Shakespeare probably did not intend to depict him as "a mercenary fortune hunter"; rather "he is the ideal man to attempt to win the fairy princess," Portia. Shylock is the evil outsider, the critic continues, a Jew despised by Christians, and as evil as Antonio is good. Portia is the fairy-tale princess of Belmont, Ludowyk maintains, the prize for which the heroes contend. She also embodies divine grace and demonstrates an angelic quality by miraculously appearing in Venice to save Antonio from Shylock's bond.]

The material of [The Merchant of Venice] has often been likened to a fairy tale. Enchanting though it may be, ... the play touches on matters of seriousness, so that there is something to be taken away from it besides the very satisfying impression of romance.

Shakespeare took his story from the Italian. It differs only in its ratio of romance to reality, a reality Elizabethans would understand, from all those stories of love and adventure, which they were eagerly reading in translation—such stories as those of Romeo and Juliet, of Othello, and so on. Whether Shakespeare got his story directly from some Italian source, or from an earlier play, we do not know, nor does it matter greatly. All sorts of fairy-tale material are used in this play, some of it not originally Italian but of very ancient Oriental provenance, as for instance the story of the caskets, and of the pound of flesh. The wealth of story-telling in Eastern, particularly Indian, cultures had...

(The entire section is 5171 words.)

Usury

John W. Draper
[Draper provides historical background on English Jews and the practice of usury (money-lending for interest) as they existed in Shakespeare's time to prove that the chief concern of The Merchant of Venice is conflicting economic ideals rather than race or religion. The critic argues that Shylock hates Antonio not only because he lends money interest-free, but also because he denigrates Shylock's profession and thwarts his business. According to Draper, Shakespeare is merely representative of his age when he idealistically compares Antonio's Christian business ethic with Shylock's more rigid and unforgiving value system. This fundamental distinction, the critic concludes, reflects "the difficult...

(The entire section is 2439 words.)

Dualities

Marvin Felheim
[Felheim identifies several dualities in The Merchant of Venice, including joy and sadness, Venice and Belmont, Jew versus Christian, and Old Testament justice against New Testament mercy. According to the critic, the play opens with inexplicable sadness, primarily present in the characters of Antonio and Portia. Bassanio, Salerio, and Solanio interrupt the initial seriousness of the dramatic action with some mirth, Felheim continues, but for the most part a strain of melancholy pervades the play. Perhaps the most concrete example of this duality is embodied in the contrasting worlds of Venice and Belmont. Sadness is the prominent emotion in Venice, the critic notes, where the characters are exposed...

(The entire section is 5381 words.)

Bond and Choice

William Leigh Godshalk
[Godshalk discusses the unity of the The Merchant of Venice in terms of the Pound of Flesh story and the Story of the Three Caskets, emphasizing in particular the elements of "bond" and "choice." According to the critic, the characters are bound to each other and to different courses of action in many ways. Aspects of bondage in the play include: the legal bond between Antonio and Shylock; the provision in Portia's father's will that binds her fortune; the suitors' binding oath forsaking marriage if they fail the casket test; the spiritual bondage of Portia and Bassanio, Jessica and Lorenzo, and Nerissa and Gratiano to the institution of marriage; and the bonds of friendship and society....

(The entire section is 4230 words.)

Aspects of Love

Lawrence W. Hyman
[Hyman maintains that the primary action of The Merchant of Venice centers on the struggle between Portia and Antonio for Bassanio's affection, or the competition between friendship and marriage. Viewed in this manner, the critic continues, Antonio's bond with Shylock represents the merchant's attempt to retain Bassanio's love. Hyman then discusses the Elizabethan context of Antonio and Bassanio's relationship, asserting that it does not necessarily suggest homosexual yearnings on the merchant's part, rather, it reflects a close, platonic association that was quite common in Shakespeare's day. From this issue, the critic contends, Shakespeare creates dramatic tension in the trial scene (Act IV,...

(The entire section is 7557 words.)

Key Scenes

John Dover Wilson
[Wilson examines three key scenes in The Merchant of Venice: the casket scene (Act III, scene ii), the trial scene (Act IV, scene i), and the Belmont scene (Act V, scene i). The critic maintains that the casket scene was probably treated as humorous entertainment by Elizabethan audiences, who enjoyed folk tales focusing on the difference between appearance and reality. Wilson then discusses various aspects of the casket plot, particularly the meaning of the mottoes, the dramatic setting for Bassanio's choice, and the possible implications of the song that is played while Bassanio considers his selection. As a result of the trial scene, the critic continues, Shylock should be regarded as a tragic,...

(The entire section is 7294 words.)

Shylock

Bernard Grebanier
[Grebanier examines the five scenes in which Shylock appears in The Merchant of Venice in an attempt to determine the nature of his character. In essence, the critic finds Shylock's desire for vengeance against Antonio motivated by the merchant's lending money interest-free, lessening Shylock's customers, and hence, his profits. Further, Shylock hates Antonio because, according to the Jew, the merchant has repeatedly denigrated his race and religion. Grebanier points out, however, that in keeping with his virtuous character Antonio probably did not belittle Judaism, rather Shylock himself, an issue the usurer confused with racial discrimination.]

These are the forces at work in...

(The entire section is 11145 words.)

Portia

Anne Parten
[Parten discusses Portia's character in relation to the ring scene (Act V, scene i). According to the critic, the ring episode "acts as a focus for the unresolved—and potentially explosive—issue of the heroine's power." In essence, the ring scene signifies the resolution of Portia's threat to the comic world of The Merchant of Venice. Parten maintains that Portia is a discordant element in the comic resolution of the play by virtue of her superiority over all the male characters. Such a situation is unacceptable in Shakespeare's comic world, the critic contends, where the proper hierarchy of men dominating women must be affirmed. Further, Shakespeare uses the cuckoldry theme in the ring episode to...

(The entire section is 3235 words.)

Antonio

Lawrence Danson
[Danson examines Antonio's character and discusses his melancholy. He notes that Shakespeare's audience probably would have attributed Antonio's sadness to his economic activities. The critic also compares the merchant's profession with Shylock's, observing that to Elizabethans, who were generally suspicious of mercantile fortunes, money-lender and merchant were "not entirely separate." Antonio is a perfect Christian, the critic argues, in his charitable and unworldly nature, although his treatment of Shylock conforms to that of his fellow Christians rather than scripture. Danson also comments on the homosexual interpretation of Antonio's melancholy, noting that while this explanation may account for...

(The entire section is 3077 words.)