In William Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice, who is Janus? Why are Janus and Antonio described as two-headed? To what is Janus compared and what are the terms of comparison?

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Janus was a Roman god whose dominion was beginnings, endings, transitions, and doorways. The month January, because it marks the end of the old year and beginning of the new year, is named after Janus. In Roman art, Janus is usually portrayed as having two faces, one looking backwards to the past and one looking forwards to the future.

The reference to Janus in The Merchant of Venice is in a speech addressed by Salarnio to Antonio:

SALARINO  Now, by two-headed Janus,

Nature hath framed strange fellows in her time:

Some that will evermore peep through their eyes

And laugh like parrots at a bag-piper,

And other of such vinegar aspect

That they'll not show their teeth in way of smile,

Though Nestor swear the jest be laughable.

Salarino, in comparing Antonio to Janus, is trying to discover if Antonio is troubled by business issues or romantic ones. As Antonio is normally cheerful, Salarino wonders if bad luck in business has made him unhappy. That not being the case, Salarino suggests the cause may be love. His final (humorous) suggestion is that perhaps Antonio is like Janus with two faces, of which one is happy and the other sad. 


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