The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

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Overview

(Shakespeare for Students)

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....

(The entire section is 49,529 words.)