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?

2 Answers

thanatassa's profile pic

thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

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. 

Sources:
mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

In ancient Roman beliefs, Janus is the god of beginnings, transitions, and endings. He is depicted with two faces, one cheerful and one melancholy, symbolizing the uncertainty of the future. 

Solanio suggests that Antonio is as strange a figure as Janus, who is dual in his nature.

Nature hath framed strange fellows in her time:
Some that will evermore peep through their eyes
And laugh like parrots at a bagpiper,
And other of such vinegar aspect. (1.1.52-54)

Antonio insists that he does not know why he feels the sadness that he does, and he insists that he is not anxious about his merchant ships as his friends suggest. When another set of friends arrive, among whom is Bassanio, they, too, are concerned about Antonio's admitted sadness. He tells these friends: 

I hold the world but as the world Gratiano—
A stage, where every man must play a part,
And mine a sad one. (1.1.77-79)

Perhaps, Antonio is one of those men of the sea who seem to sense changes, such as storms and misfortune, before others. Antionio may be of such a temperament that he feels an inexplicable sadness at the time—a premonition, perhaps. Then, later on, his emotion becomes relevant. Certainly, that he is compared to Janus is significant because Antonio, too, looks in two directions: out to sea with his cargo and on land where he becomes involved with his friend Bassanio. So, his melancholy may foreshadow the worries to come for Antonio.

Sources: