In "The Merchant of Venice", why all the rhetorical ornament for such a plain bargain?Even Bassanio is dazzled by Portia's speech (3.2.175-183). Amidst all this dazzling rhetoric,...

In "The Merchant of Venice", why all the rhetorical ornament for such a plain bargain?

Even Bassanio is dazzled by Portia's speech (3.2.175-183). Amidst all this dazzling rhetoric, however, a very specific bargain is struck, vows are exchanged over the ring, and a contract of life and death is agreed to. Why the contradiction?

Asked on by laura1992

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robertwilliam | College Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

Posted on

You see me, Lord Bassanio, where I stand,
Such as I am... for you,
I would be trebled twenty times myself:
A thousand times more fair, ten thousand times
More rich that only to stand high in your account,
I might in virtues, beauties, livings, friends,
Exceed account: but the full sum of me
Is sum of nothing...
Myself and what is mine, to you and yours
Is now converted...
This house, these servants, and this same myself,
Are yours, my lord,—I give them with this ring;
Which when you part from, lose, or give away,
Let it presage the ruin of your love...

You're quite right: it's an unusual speech, a bizarre melting-pot of financial bargain-striking imagery combined with a hugely complex rhetorical voice, packed with emphatic, rhetorical repetitions ("unlesson'd girl, unschool'd, unpractis'd"). It sounds, actually, like a glorious speech from Love's Labour's Lost.

It isn't, though, it's a bargain: it transfers her assets to him, and it pins everything on the ring. Despite the language, it's a cold bargain - and Bassanio breaks it, which (I think) certainly does presage the ruin of their love at the end of the play.

Why doesn't the "form" fit the "content", then? Perhaps Shakespeare is giving his audience an object lesson in the key theme of the play: "all that glisters is not gold". In language, as in life, substance above "worth".

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robertwilliam | College Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

Posted on

And here's Bassanio on rhetorical ornament:

So may the outward shows be least themselves;
The world is still deceiv'd with ornament.
In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt,
But, being season'd with a gracious voice,
Obscures the show of evil?

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