(Shakespearean Criticism)

The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice is often identified by modern critics as one of Shakespeare's "problem plays," in that it raises moral dilemmas it does not resolve. The major problematic areas that are frequently the focus of critical debate include the discrepancy between the values professed by Christians in the play and their own apparently contradictory actions, the conflict between male friendship and marriage, and the issue of Shakespeare's arguably anti-Semitic portrayal of Shylock. In addition to these unresolved issues, there is much criticism that focuses on other aspects of the play—such as the issue of gender identity and the language of economics and exchange that permeates the play.

By the end of the play, the Jewish money-lender Shylock has been stripped of his possessions and the right to practice his religion, while the Christian characters—Antonio, Bassanio, and Portia—have lost nothing, and have in fact gained money and love. Despite this favorable outcome for the Christians, they are often accused of failing to practice Christian mercy, among other professed beliefs. Many critics have suggested that the actions of the Christians—the way they speak about and to Shylock, and the way they treat him—speak self-condemingly for themselves. Other critics have argued that Christian virtues are emphasized in the play. Raymond B. Waddington (1977), for example, contrasted the actions of Portia and Bassanio on behalf of each other and Antonio with the actions of Jessica and Lorenzo to maintain that the Christian values of trust and faith are stressed in the play. Waddington also suggests ways in which Antonio's actions toward Shylock might be regarded as merciful. Similarly, Leo Kirschbaum (1962) has asserted that the Christian virtue of faith in Providence is demonstrated through the character of Antonio and the risks he takes.

Other critics have opted for another religious approach to the play, examining Shakespeare's stance on Judaism rather than Christianity. Like many scholars, Kirschbaum seeks to understand what the terms "Jew" and "Christian" meant to Elizabethan audiences. Kirschbaum and others have pointed out that there were no Jewish communities in England in Shakespeare's time, and that the playwright's attitude toward Jews was based on the stereotypical Jewish figure as portrayed in earlier works; this figure served primarily as an anti-Christian scapegoat. Kirschbaum further argues that Shakespeare's Shylock resembles the Elizabethan Puritan, in that the Puritan was often stereotyped as a sober, economically aggressive kill-joy—a projection of Anglican hatred for traits which were contradictory to conventional sensibilities. D. M. Cohen (1980) on the other hand, has argued that the play is indeed anti-Semitic, and not simply in the portrayal of Shylock. Cohen cites the number of times and ways in which the term "Jew" is used in the play and maintains that Jewishness is equated with wickedness. Furthermore, Cohen states, Jews are characterized as inhuman throughout the play until the end, where Shakespeare demonstrates Shylock's humanity. Cohen finds this particularly troubling, asking that if Shakespeare believed that Jews were humans with their own strengths and weakness, why then would he indulge the use of the stereotypical inhuman, evil Jew throughout the play? Finally, other critics have examined the character of Shylock from a different angle entirely. James Shapiro (1996) focused his analysis on Shylock's threat to remove a "pound of flesh" from Antonio. Shapiro suggests that Elizabethans understood this threat to be one of circumcision and examines the implications of this threat to a Christian audience in Elizabethan England.

Another area of interest to scholars is the play's language of exchange, economics, and finance. Lars Engle (1986) explored the use of such language and notes that all the relationships in the play are characterized in some way as economic or legal, not simply emotional or erotic. Engle argues that in discussing the plot in financial terms, the historical implications of the credit market and the marriage market are revealed and can help one to better understand the play. Similarly, Karen Newman (1987) stated that the exchange of goods—including both merchandise and women—colors the play's action. Newman examines the many exchanges of Portia's ring and demonstrates that despite the ring's symbolic nature of Portia's submission to Bassanio, Portia achieves power and prestige through her actions.

One way in which Portia attains power in the play is through her disguise as the doctor of law, Balthazar. Portia's use of male disguise is often the focus of critical discussions regarding the issues of gender identity and gender roles and relations in the play. Coppèlla Kahn (1985) has noted that the ring plot, which hinges on Portia's giving of her ring to Bassanio and her later acceptance of it as Balthazar, highlights the conflict between male friendship (between Bassanio and Antonio) and marriage (between Portia and Bassanio). Keith Geary (1984) has also analyzed Portia's disguise, however, he distinguishes her disguise from that of Shakespeare's other heroines. He notes that Portia's male transformation is complete and free of examinations of the psychological consequences of masquerading as a male. Her identity is wholly different and wholly masculine, further emphasized, Geary reminds, by the fact that in an Elizabethan production a male would be portraying Portia/Balthazar. Geary concludes that Shakespeare uses Portia's disguise to highlight the struggle between heterosexual love and homosexual love found within the love triangle consisting of Portia, Bassanio, and Antonio. This conflict between homosexual and heterosexual love, Geary also notes, is an adaptation of Shakespeare's "romantic love versus male friendship" theme. Michael Shapiro (1996) has also examined what he refers to as "cross-gender disguise." Shapiro argues that in contrast to Shakespeare's other disguised heroines, Portia chooses to take on a male disguise herself; she is not coerced to do so by her circumstances. Additionally, Shapiro contends, by adopting the role of Balthazar, Portia positions herself in a place of authority over men and that this authority is highlighted by the less powerful roles taken on by both Jessica and Nerissa. Finally, in another approach to the issue of gender roles and identity, Marianne Novy (1984) explored the differences between Antonio's self-denial throughout the play and Portia's self-assertion and her acceptance of sexuality. Novy argues that to Elizabethans, both women and Jews were symbols of "absolute otherness," and were associated with impulses related to the flesh rather than the spirit, including sexuality, aggression, and acquisitiveness. Claiming that The Merchant of Venice demonstrates the divided attitude of Elizabethans toward such qualities and toward women, Novy purports that Portia represents the favorable aspects of such traits, as Portia uses her aggressiveness to solidify her loving relationship with Bassanio, whereas Shylock is representative of the negative side of the traits, in that his ambition is self-directed.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

D. J. Palmer (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "The Merchant of Venice, or the Importance of Being Earnest," in Shakespearian Comedy, Crane, Russak & Company, Inc., 1972, pp. 97-120

[In this overview of the play, Palmer examines the "overt sententiousness " of the play and argues that the action of the play frequently contradicts the morals apparently being emphasized.]


'The Merchant of Venice is the simplest of plays,' wrote Harley Granville-Barker, 'so long as we do not bedevil it with sophistries.'1 And so it is, provided also that we do not take its moralizing too seriously, for the sophistries are already there. In the two climactic scenes of the play, for instance, Bassanio wins Portia by turning sententious rhetoric against itself,

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? In religion,
What damned error but some sober brow
Will bless it, and approve it with a text,
Hiding the grossness with fair ornament?

(III. ii. 73-80)

while Portia succeeds in the trial scene by proving herself a better equivocator than Shylock.

This is the most sententious of all the comedies before the problem plays. Moral issues stare us in the face, so that, as Frank Kermode has observed, 'only by a determined effort to avoid the obvious can one mistake the theme of The Merchant of Venice'.2 However the theme or moral argument of the play is formulated, as the conflict between justice and mercy, or the antithesis of prodigality and usury, or the use of riches spiritual and material, it is based on the opposing values of Belmont and Venice. Yet Shakespeare's treatment of the theme is not 'obvious' in the sense that led Stephen Gosson to exempt the old play called The Jew from his general censure of the stage in 1579, for its edifying representation of 'the greedinesse of worldly chusers and the bloody mindes of Usurers'.3 The themes are very similar, but whether or not Shakespeare was indebted to The Jew for the double plot of the caskets and the bond, The Merchant of Venice resists the simple categories of a morality play. Those critics who have felt, for instance, that the powerful characterization of Shylock upsets the balance of the dramatic structure are right at least in their perception of forces that complicate and cut across the moral alignments of the theme. Our sympathies are too often divided, and action too often contradicts avowed principle, to allow us to feel secure in those symmetrical antinomies of value set up between Belmont and Venice. If Shylock were merely a conventional stage-Jew, if Jessica did not 'steal' from her father in every sense of the word, if the quality of Christian mercy towards Shylock were less strained, Bassanio's 'worth' more in evidence and Antonio's self-righteousness less so, then the moral issues would be more clearcut but the play correspondingly less interesting.

The play's overt sententiousness serves a dramatic purpose similar to that which T. S. Eliot found for 'meaning' in poetry: 'to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a bit of nice meat for the house-dog'.4 Our attention is often held by moral arguments of one kind or another, while a different order of awareness and response is being solicited by other dramatic means. Thus in I. iii there is a contention between Shylock and Antonio on the rights and wrongs of usury, in which Shylock grounds his justification for lending money at interest on scriptural authority, citing as precedent the account in Genesis 30 of how Jacob earned his hire as shepherd to his uncle Laban:

Mark what Jacob did:
When Laban and himself were compromis'd
That all the eanlings which were streak'd and pied
Should fall as Jacob's hire, the ewes, being rank,
In end of autumn turned to the rams;
And when the work of generation was
Between these woolly breeders in the act,
The skilful shepherd pill'd me certain wands,
And, in the doing of the deed of kind,
He stuck them up before the fulsome ewes,
Who, then conceiving, did in eaning time
Fall parti-colour'd lambs, and those were Jacob's.
This was a way to thrive, and he was blest;
And thrift is blessing, if men steal it not.

(I. iii. 72-85)

But the issue of usury is only a pretext for insinuating other analogies between the story of Jacob and the dramatic situation. Like Jacob, Shylock is a worm that eventually turns, and his identification with Jacob's cunning in getting the better of this bargain prefigures his own use of the 'merry bond' for revenge upon Antonio. Antonio, on the other hand, exonerates Jacob from deception while convicting Shylock of casuistry: 'The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.' It is indeed a scene bedevilled with sophistry, for as Antonio shifts the moral issue from usury to an ad hominem attack on Shylock's falseseeming, it is clear that the antagonism between them runs far deeper than a business rivalry or a theological dispute. The story of Jacob's manipulation of animal passions is itself a mirror of the equivocal way in which both Antonio and Shylock try to gain the moral advantage from an antipathy that is seated in the blood. Shakespeare is not concerned to present the case for or against usury itself.

In this 'simplest of plays', the true simplicity resides in the primacy of natural feeling. Like Jacob's 'fulsome ewes', the characters behave according to the laws of 'kind', not according to the precepts and doctrines of the moralist. As Shylock says,

Mistress of passion, sways it to the mood
Of what it likes or loathes,

(IV. i. 50-52)

and opposing extremes of excess and deficiency in temperament, in the 'senses, affections, passions' of the blood, create the possibilities for tragic or comic resolution which are kept open until the climactic passions of the trial scene. If Jacob is a figure of the power to control and direct natural feeling, that power is conspicuously denied to the moralist in an action which bears ample witness to Portia's observation that 'the brain may devise laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps o'er a cold decree' (I. ii. 15). The eloquence of moral deliberation and exhortation, 'good sentences, and well pronounc'd' (I. ii. 9), finally gives way to the ultimate simplicity of silence in which 'the touches of sweet harmony' (V. i. 57) are heard.

While Stephen Gosson approved The Jew for its morality, the spirit of Shakespeare's play is closer to Sir Philip Sidney's reply to Gosson in An Apology for Poetry:

Wherein, if we can, show we the poet's nobleness, by setting him before his other competitors, among whom as principal challengers step forth the moral philosophers whom, me thinketh, I see coming towards me with a sullen gravity, as though they could not abide vice by daylight, rudely clothed for to witness outwardly their contempt of outward things, with books in their hands against glory, whereto they set their names, sophistically speaking against subtlety, and angry with any man in whom they see the foul fault of anger.

'Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?' The moralist, traditional enemy of the comic spirit, not only bedevils us with sophistries, but fails where the poet succeeds in moving the affections:

For suppose it be granted (that which I suppose with great reason may be denied) that the philosopher, in respect of his methodical proceeding, doth teach more perfectly than the poet, yet do I think that no man is so much philophilosophos as to compare the philosopher in moving with the poet.

And that moving is of a higher degree than teaching, it may by this appear, that it is well nigh the cause and the effect of teaching. For who will be taught, if he be not moved with desire to be taught? and what so much good doth that teaching bring forth (I speak still of moral doctrine) as that it moveth one to do that which it doth teach?5

In the play as a whole, the story of Jacob, 'the skilful shepherd', has another significance: like T. S. Eliot's 'imaginary burglar', it is a figurative analogy to Shakespeare's own art, which deceives with 'outward shows' to move us through feeling to imaginative conception.

Jacob is not the only magician-figure in The Merchant of Venice. When Bassanio describes Portia in terms of the myth of the Golden Fleece at the end of the play's first scene,

For the four winds blow in from every coast
Renowned suitors, and her sunny locks
Hang on her temples like a golden fleece,
Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchos' strond,
And many Jasons come in quest of her,

(I. i. 168-72)

the allusion associates her with Medea, who fell in love with Jason and used her necromantic arts to help him win the Golden Fleece. Medea is the central figure in Ovid's version of the myth (Metamorphoses, Book VII), which Shakespeare must have had in mind, for Ovid pursues her subsequent career as the play does in its later reference to the legend:

In such a night
Medea gathered the enchanted herbs
That did renew old Aeson.

(V. i. 12-14)

Aeson was Jason's father, and after Medea has betrayed her own father by marrying Jason and returning with him to Greece, she employs her skills to restore Aeson to youthful vigour by opening his veins with a knife and replacing his aged blood with the juice of 'the enchanted herbs'. The rest of Medea's story takes a more sinister turn, as she uses her magic in treachery and murder. Thus 'with hir suttle guile / Of counterfeited gravitie' (as Arthur Golding translated it, Book VII, lines 398-9), she persuades the daughters of King Pelias that his life can be renewed as Aeson's had been, and so lures them into cutting their father's throat. Her wickedness reaches its peak in the murder of her own children (again with a knife) and in the attempt to deceive her second husband Aegeus into poisoning his son Theseus.

What begins as a romantic love story therefore turns into tragedy, but there is a logic in this progression, for each of Medea's crimes, directed against the ties of kinship, is a repetition of her original betrayal of her father in helping Jason win the fleece. Significantly for Shakespeare's purposes, Ovid begins his tale with Medea's struggle between moral restraint and unbridled passion:

Aeetas daughter in hir heart doth mightie flames conceyve.
And after strugling verie long, when reason could not win
The upper hand of rage: she thus did in hir selfe begin:
In vaine, Medea, dost thou strive: some God what ere he is
Against thee bendes his force. For what a wondrous thing is this?
Is any thing like this which men doe terme by name of Love?
For why should I my fathers hestes esteeme so hard above
All measure? sure in very deede they are too hard and sore.
Why feare I lest yon straunger whome I never saw before
Should perish? what should be the cause of this my feare so great?
Unhappie wench (and if thou canst) suppresse this uncouth heat
That burneth in thy tender brest: and if so be I coulde,
A happie turne it were, and more at ease then be I shoulde.
But now an uncouth maladie perforce against my will
Doth hale me. Love persuades me one, another thing my skill.
The best I see and like: the worst I follow headlong still.

(Book VII, 11. 10-25)

A few moments after Bassanio has linked her with the legend of the Golden Fleece, we find Portia at the beginning of the second scene in Medea-like conflict between loyalty to her father and the natural desire to choose her own husband, echoing the last of the lines quoted above:

It is a good divine that follows his own instructions; I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done than to be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching. The brain may devise laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps o'er a cold decree; such a hare is madness the youth, to skip o'er the meshes of good counsel the cripple. But this reasoning is not in the fashion to choose me a husband. O me, the word 'choose'! I may neither choose who I would nor refuse who I dislike; so is the will of a living daughter curb'd by the will of a dead father. (I. ii. 12-22)

Yet here the differences between Portia and Medea begin. Portia is not in love with any of the 'strangers' who have come Jason-like to Belmont, as she makes clear by mocking at their eccentric dispositions. And since they refuse to accept the conditions of her father's will, she can unlike Medea gladly vow loyalty to her father: 'If I live to be as old as Sibylla, I will die as chaste as Diana, unless I be obtained by the manner of my father's will' (I. ii. 95). Portia is contrasted rather than identified with Medea, but the parallels are there in the play to intensify the sense of possible disaster. From Ovid's tale Shakespeare has appropriated the related and recurrent significance of 'blood' as the physical basis of passion and of kinship. As Medea rejuvenated her husband's father, Portia will restore the life of her husband's friend, by means of deceptive arts; but Portia's lawful magic prevents the knife from shedding a single drop of blood. It is Jessica instead who betrays her father by marrying a stranger,

Alack, what heinous sin it is in me
To be asham'd to be my father's child!
But though I am a daughter to his blood,
I am not to his manners,

(II. iii. 16-19)

Like Ovid, Shakespeare opens the action with an 'uncouth [i.e. strange, unknown] maladie'. Antonio's sadness reflects the wayward motions of 'affection, / Mistress of passion', for critics who try like Salerio and Solanio to discover the cause of this sadness are wilfully ignoring its dramatic point: 'In sooth, I know not why I am so sad'. Antonio has of late, but wherefore he knows not, lost all his mirth, and this sadness, which gives him 'much ado to know myself, sets him apart from those who know him best, his friends. Later in the play, Portia describes friendship as a communion of similar spirits:

for in companions
That do converse and waste the time together,
Whose souls do bear an equal yoke of love,
There must be needs a like proportion
Of lineaments, of manners, and of spirit.

(III. iv. 11-15)

The virtually interchangeable names and speeches of Salerio and Solanio suggest just such a shared identity, in contrast with Solanio's reaction to Antonio's distemper:

Now, by two-headed Janus
Nature hath fram'd 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
That they'll not show their teeth in way of smile
Though Nestor swear the jest be laughable.

(I. i. 50-6)

Antonio's sadness divides the 'equal yoke' of friendship; as Bassanio, Lorenzo and Gratiano approach, Salerio and Solanio take their leave so abruptly that Bassanio feels there is something wrong:

Good signiors both, when shall we laugh? Say when.
You grow exceeding strange; must it be so?

(I. i. 66-7)

Friends become strangers, and the encounter between Antonio and Gratiano is just such a contrast of opposing temperaments as that between the 'strange fellows' Solanio described. If Shakespeare confused 'two-headed Janus' with the masks of tragedy and comedy, the image is also picked up in Antonio's assertion that he holds the world as 'A stage, where every man must play a part, / And mine a sad one', to which Gratiano replies, 'Let me play the fool' (I. i. 78-9).

Antonio's sadness sets in motion the forces of division and disharmony which will take the play to the brink of tragedy before it is retrieved as a comedy. His loss of inner equilibrium produces that sense of things drawing apart into opposite extremes which this first scene develops through the talk of contrasting excess and deficiency, though the emphasis upon differences of temperament between friends who should be united by sympathies of feeling, and through the sequence of departures as in turn each of Antonio's friends leaves him.

Shakespeare has adapted to his own purposes Medea's 'uncouth maladie' that turns her affections to a 'straunger'. After the estranging effects of Antonia's sadness upon himself and his friends, in the second scene we hear from Portia about her suitors, who are 'strange fellows' both in Solanio's sense and as foreigners. This prepares us for Shylock's entry in the following scene, since Shylock is essentially the stranger, by temperament and race. Indeed, since it is 'blood' that determines both, Shylock's Jewishness and his disposition are related. The antipathy between himself and Antonio is not only absolute and unqualified, it has its roots in a repugnance that is physical before it finds moral or religious grounding. Shylock's refusal to eat with Antonio, the intensity of his desire instead to 'feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him', matches the extraordinary violence of Antonio's behaviour to him:

You that did void your rheum upon my beard
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur.

(I. iii. 112-13)

This is not merely ideological bigotry: they respond to each other through their bodies, in a savage, primitive way, and the essence of such a response is that neither regards the other as a fellow man. With this strong physical feeling between them, it is not surprising that Shylock should propose as forfeit for his bond 'an equal pound / Of your fair flesh'.

'Mislike me not for my complexion': the Prince of Morocco's enjoinder to Portia at the opening of the next scene (II. i) is a fitting comment on the mutual antipathy between Antonio and Shylock. Morocco refers to his black skin, but the Elizabethan word 'complexion' also meant the disposition of the humours in the blood which were believed to determine temperament. Melancholy, choleric, sanguine and phlegmatic humours, mixed in different proportions, make up Nature's 'strange fellows'. Differences of race, by which Morocco and Shylock are identified as 'strangers', are also in the blood, while in yet another sense this blood signifies our common humanity, as Morocco implies when he compares himself to 'the fairest creature northward born':

And let us make incision for your love
To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine.

(II. i. 6-7)

'So may the outward shows be least themselves'. Morocco's challenge, by anticipating Shylock's attempt to 'make incision', also reminds us that the affections of liking or loathing are rooted in the blood. 'Mislike me not for my complexion' is thus an appeal which extends in the play far beyond its immediate context.

Shylock's most powerful appeal for our sympathies also gathers its force from physical imagery, paradoxically arguing from 'kind' to the justification of most unkind cruelty:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions, fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

(III. i. 50-57)

In its reduction of moral argument to the terrible logic of the blood, Shylock's passionate eloquence illustrates the sense in which this is 'the simplest of plays'.


In Elizabethan usage 'sad' could mean 'serious' as well as 'melancholy'. Thus the merry Gratiano finds Antonio's sadness akin to the grave disposition of the moralist:

There are a sort of men whose visages
Do cream and mantle like a standing pond,
And do a wilful stillness entertain,
With purpose to be dress'd in an opinion
Of wisdom, gravity, profound conceit;
As who should say, 'I am Sir Oracle,
And when I ope my lips let no dog bark'.
O my Antonio, I do know of those
That therefore only are reputed wise
For saying nothing.

(I. i. 88-97)

Gratiano 'speaks an infinite deal of nothing', as Bassanio observes behind his back, and between these two extremes of excess and deficiency differences of natural disposition are reflected in the use of language. In the unfolding action characters are given ample opportunity to play the moralist: the choice between the caskets is performed by each of Portia's suitors as an exercise in high-minded eloquence, while Shylock and his enemies exchange speeches of self-righteous recrimination. But 'wisdom, gravity, profound conceit' are, as Gratiano suggests, the 'outward shows' of attitudes determined by temperament and the inner motions of the blood; conversely, the rhetoric of sententious deliberation and exhortation, the appeals to precept and doctrine, fail to move the affections to their purpose. Moral argument gives way to equivocation, as 'good sentences and well pronounc'd' are wasted upon the currents of natural feeling.

After Portia's reflections in the second scene on the opposition of a 'hot temper' and a 'cold decree', the clown Gobbo takes up this conflict between moral restraint and natural inclination in a parody of the 'serious' action:

My conscience says 'Launcelot, budge not'. 'Budge' says the fiend. 'Budge not' says my conscience. 'Conscience' say I 'you counsel well.' 'Fiend' say I 'you counsel well.' To be rul'd by my conscience, I should stay with the Jew my master, who—God bless the mark!—is a kind of devil; and, to run away from the Jew, I should be rul'd by the fiend, who—saving your reverence—is the devil himself. Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnation; and, in my conscience, my conscience is but a kind of hard conscience to offer to counsel me to stay with the Jew. The fiend gives the more friendly counsel. I will run, fiend; my heels are at your commandment; I will run.

(II. ii. 20-28)

The sententious arguments of Portia's suitors as they deliberate before the caskets are hardly to be taken more seriously than this. The means which Portia's father has devised for selecting a husband show him to have been both a moralist and an equivocator, the author of riddling inscriptions on the caskets and sententious little rhymes on the scrolls within. This is a kind of guessing game which each of the suitors tries to solve by the processes of reason, but which really works by testing their temperament and affection to Portia rather than their judgement. Morocco chooses gold for the perfectly good reason that only the most precious metal is worthy to contain 'so rich a gem' as Portia, but the hyperbolic imagery rather than the logic of his speech shows that it is the spirit of emulation which sways his choice:

'Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire'.
Why, that's the lady! All the world desires her;
From the four corners of the earth they come
To kiss this shrine, this mortal-breathing saint.
The Hyrcanian deserts and the vasty wilds
Of wide Arabia are as thoroughfares now
For princes to come view fair Portia.
The watery kingdom, whose ambitious head
Spits in the face of heaven, is no bar
To stop the foreign spirits, but they come
As o'er a brook to see fair Portia.

(II. vii. 37-47)

Morocco's own 'ambitious head' attracts him to the golden casket, because to win her would be to triumph like another Tamburlaine over 'all the world'. Arragon, on the other hand, disdains 'the fool multitude that choose by show', a sentiment of admirable integrity, were it not for his motives:

Because I will not jump with common spirits
And rank me with the barbarous multitudes.

(II. ix. 32-3)

Thus as he turns to the silver casket his otherwise unexceptionable moralizing is discounted by his vanity (his very name suggests 'arrogance'):

'Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves'.
And well said too; for who shall go about
To cozen fortune, and be honourable
Without the stamp of merit? Let none presume
To wear an undeserved dignity.
O that estates, degree, and offices
Were not deriv'd corruptly, and that clear honour
Were purchased by the merit of the wearer!

(II. ix. 36-43)

'I will assume desert': with this claim Arragon's affection is shown to be more toward himself than to Portia.

Interspersed with these scenes in Belmont is the parallel action by which Lorenzo successfully steals Jessica from her father's house. 'It is a wise father that knows his own child': Gobbo's line serves to point the contrast between Portia's father and Shylock. Jessica's elopement is to take place during the revelry of the masques, and Shylock's attitude to the 'prodigal' and merry-making Christians is that of a strict puritanical sobriety:

But stop my house's ears—I mean my casements;
Let not the sound of shallow fopp'ry enter
My sober house.

(II. v. 33-5)

Yet here, too, the moralist's stance is determined by a bias of temperament, for Shylock betrays an intense physical repugnance to 'the vile squealing of the wryneck'd fife', while his reiterated instructions to lock up the house suggest that his wise precept ('Fast bind, fast find—A proverb never stale in thrifty mind') is really an emblem of the heart that is closed to human sympathies.

It is more surprising to find Gratiano turning moralist. Bassanio has granted his 'suit' to go to Belmont, on condition that Gratiano will 'allay with some cold drops of modesty / Thy skipping spirit', and Gratiano has promised to

put on a sober habit,
Talk with respect, and swear but now and then,
Wear prayer-books in my pocket, look demurely.

(II. ii. 175-7)

But for the night of masquing Bassanio has specifically entreated him 'rather to put on / Your boldest suit of mirth'. The clothing imagery of these exchanges relates to the 'outward shows' of masquing and to the disguise in which Jessica will deceive her father, but while this elopement is played as romantic comedy between Jessica, Lorenzo and their friends, the scene begins with a curiously solemn exchange between Salerio and Gratiano:

All things that are
Are with more spirit chased than enjoy'd.
How like a younker or a prodigal
The scarfed bark puts from her native bay,
Hugg'd and embraced by the strumpet wind;
How like the prodigal doth she return,
With over-weather'd ribs and ragged sails.
Lean, rent, and beggar'd by the strumpet wind.

(II. vi. 12-19)

Such moralizing seems out of keeping not only with Gratiano's character but with the revelling spirit which has been anticipated. Moreover it predicts a turn of events which does not come about, as far as the 'prodigal' lovers are concerned. Lorenzo and Jessica are never to return, while Bassanio and Gratiano will return having won 'the golden fleece'. So comedy will avert the moralist's forebodings, but meanwhile, if Gratiano's sententiousness is out of place, so too is the lightheartedness with which Lorenzo and Jessica steal from Shylock. Lorenzo jests about playing the thief for a wife, and Jessica is coyly 'much asham'd' of her boy's disguise, though not abashed to take her father's ducats: 'Here, catch this casket; it is worth the pains.' The contrast with the casket scenes in Belmont provides the perspective in which we see these 'pretty follies'. Lorenzo's praise of Jessica,

For she is wise, if I can judge of her,
And fair she is, if that mine eyes be true,
And true she is, as she hath prov'd herself,

(II. vi. 53-5)

is in ironic juxtaposition with Portia's description of her suitors as 'deliberate fools' who 'have the wisdom by their wit to lose'. Wisdom and judgement are subject to the affections, for as Portia declared in the second scene of the play, 'this reasoning is not in the fashion to choose me a husband'.


When Bassanio arrives at Belmont, we expect him to win Portia because they love each other. In this 'simplest of plays', the movement of their affections to each other is as primary and absolute as the antipathy that divides Antonio and Shylock. We now also know which of the three caskets Bassanio must choose, having seen the other two opened by Morocco and Arragon. The great mystery, or rather the magic secret, is the process by which Bassanio makes his choice.

Like the previous suitors, he treats his task as an exercise in moral judgement, and he makes a long speech of sententious deliberation. Yet this is neither a debating competition nor a lottery of 'hazard'. Portia tells Bassanio 'If you love me, you will find me out'. In the requirements of a good husband, love would seem to come before eloquence or wisdom. Bassanio's choice will vindicate the 'good inspiration' of Portia's father for posthumously disposing of his daughter in marriage, but what has love to do with an excellent if somewhat platitudinous and lengthy speech on the dangers of false appearance? Portia's love, as Bassanio told Antonio in the opening scene of the play, has already declared itself in 'fair speechless messages' from her eyes.

Unlike his unsuccessful predecessors, Bassanio has music while he works, and the song that is played at first seems to have little to do with the situation:

Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart or in the head,
How begot, how nourished?

Reply, reply.
It is engend'red in the eyes,
With gazing fed; and fancy dies
In the cradle where it lies.

(III. ii. 63-9)

We can dismiss the suggestion that Portia is cheating in arranging for a song with enough '-ed' rhymes to give even Bassanio a clue to 'lead'. Not only has Portia renewed her pledge of loyalty to her father's will at the beginning of the scene, but Bassanio would have no reason to pretend for nearly forty lines that he hadn't grasped such a clue; in any case, astuteness is not a prominent feature of our hero's charm. However, the song does provide him with the theme of his speech; if 'fancy' is 'engend'red in the eyes', 'So may the outward shows be least themselves'. Fancy and judgement are opposed, like the heart and the head, and so Bassanio launches into his moral deliberation.

But the speech is shot through with ironies and contradictions that Bassanio seems unaware of. He begins, for instance, by denouncing the very rhetorical arts he uses so well, the 'gracious voice' and 'sober brow' that conceal truth beneath eloquence. This penniless prodigal then rejects gold and silver, and finally, after a most ornamental and highly-wrought argument decrying ornament and artifice, he chooses the leaden casket because its plainness moves him 'more than eloquence'! Bassanio warns us, 'in a word', against

The seeming truth which cunning times put on
To entrap the wisest.

(III. ii. 100-101)

Bassanio's reasoning cannot be taken at face value any more than the 'outward shows' he inveighs against. The irony is increased as he now opens the casket, finds 'fair Portia's counterfeit', and in his extravagant admiration of the painter's art contradicts all he has previously spoken against 'seeming truth':

Here in her hairs
The painter plays the spider, and hath woven
A golden mesh t'entrap the hearts of men.

(III. ii. 120-22)

The moralist's condemnation has become the artist's praise.

Bassanio is 'entrapped' by the song in a process that has more to do with 'fancy' than with judgement. Portia creates the mood in which his affections will respond, not to the words of the song, but to the power of the music. It is a solemn mood, not only of dramatic suspense, but of lyrical beauty, in which words themselves melt into the music of pure feeling:

Let music sound while he doth make his choice;
Then, if he lose, he makes a swan-like end,
Fading in music. That the comparison may stand
More proper, my eye shall be the stream
And wat'ry death-bed for him. He may win;
And what is music then? Then music is
Even as the flourish when true subjects bow
To a new-crowned monarch; such it is
As are those dulcet sounds in break of day
That creep into the dreaming bridegroon's ear
And summon him to marriage.

(III. ii. 43-53)

We shall be told more later in the play about 'the sweet power of music', but as this scene is performed in the theatre we can feel its spell directly. Unlike the other suitors, Bassanio does not ponder each casket in turn, but his speech suggests that he is drawn without foreseeing it to his conclusion at the leaden casket. His gravity and intentness of spirit are conditioned by the music, by a continuous swell of harmony moving beneath and blending with his speech. In this way Bassanio's judgement is subject to the movement of his affections, and he utters not wisdom but poetry.

The tone of the scene is one of high seriousness, in keeping with the prevailing spirit of the play, but unlike the sadness of Antonio or the grim humour of Shylock, this graceful solemnity is not inimical to the comic spirit. From the tension of nervous excitement in the dialogue at the beginning of the scene, suspense grows into a sense of wonder and mystery as the ceremony begins, and after Bassanio's unhurried deliberation the climactic moment of the opening of the casket also releases pent-up feelings in the high tide of Portia's outburst,

O love, be moderate, allay thy ecstasy,
In measure rein thy joy, scant this excess!
I feel too much thy blessing. Make it less,
For fear I surfeit.

(III. ii. 111-14)

The language of the moralist becomes an expression of passionate joy, and this overwhelming intensity of emotion is sustained through Bassanio's hyperbolic praise of Portia's picture and its artist, through the contrasting simplicity with which the flesh-and-blood Portia offers herself,

You see me, Lord Bassanio, where I stand,
Such as I am,

until feeling, always primary to eloquence, eventually outstrips the power of words altogether:

Madam, you have bereft me of all words;
Only my blood speaks to you in my veins;
And there is such confusion in my powers
As, after some oration fairly spoke
By a beloved prince, there doth appear
Among the buzzing pleased multitude,
Where every something being blent together,
Turns to a wild of nothing, save of joy,
Express'd and not express'd.

(III. ii. 176-84)

To gain such an admission from the eloquent Bassanio is no mean achievement, though to put into words the inexpressible language of the blood is an even greater triumph of art. Only the ultimate simplicity of silence can follow this, but the moment passes as Gratiano and Nerissa intrude to share the joy, which turns, or descends, into brief merriment before this mood in turn is suddenly dashed with the news of Antonio's mortal danger.


'How every fool can play upon the word! I think the best grace of wit will shortly turn into silence, and discourse grow commendable in none but only parrots' (III. v. 38-40): Lorenzo's reflection upon the clown's quibbles comes between Portia's departure from Belmont and the trial scene itself, in which words are strained to their limit. Shylock's obduracy ('I'll have no speaking; I will have my bond') as Antonio is led to prison (III. iii. 17) also ominously anticipates the failure of 'good sentences' to move 'the blood' in the play's climactic scene.

Like Bassanio's choice between the caskets, the trial scene is in outward show an appeal to judgement. Shylock has the letter of the law on his side: if the devil can cite Scripture, it seems he is equally well versed in judicial procedure. The Duke, the court's presiding officer, and Antonio's friends take their stand on the moral law, according to which Shylock is

an inhuman wretch,
Uncapable of pity, void and empty
From any dram of mercy.

(IV. i. 4-6)

Shylock's cruelty is condemned as unnatural, against the law of 'kind' but Shylock grounds his case on a different conception of what is natural, on the arbitrary but fundamental compulsions of our physical being:

Some men there are love not a gaping pig;
Some that are mad if they behold a cat;
And others, when the bagpipe sings i' th' nose,
Cannot contain their urine; for affection,
Mistress of passion, sways it to the mood
Of what it likes or loathes. Now, for your answer:
As there is no firm reason to be rend'red

Why he cannot abide a gaping pig;
Why he, a harmless necessary cat;
Why he, a woollen bagpipe, but of force
Must yield to such inevitable shame
As to offend, himself being offended;
So I can give no reason, nor will I not,
More than a lodg'd hate and a certain loathing
I bear Antonio.

(IV. i. 47-61)

The legal, moral and temperamental attitudes are therefore in conflict with each other, or rather they are three different ways of regarding the situation in court, each at cross-purposes with the other two.

To this state of affairs comes Portia, in her disguise as Balthazar. Her eloquent appeal for mercy is probably the best known speech in the play, a set oration of great legal, moral and passionate force. But the dramatic point of this speech seems to be its virtual irrelevance; it is a piece of superfluous rhetoric, since it achieves no effect whatsoever:

There is no power in the tongue of man
To alter me.

(IV. i. 236-7)

Shylock's deafness to such eloquence reflects on the powerlessness of words, however just and reasoned, to move his affections; and later in the scene we have cause to wonder whether the speech has had much effect on its other hearers either.

Portia's disguise is unlike that of Shakespeare's other comic heroines. It is not a means of extending or displaying her true nature, but rather the assumption of a completely different identity. The 'unlesson'd girl, unschool'd, unpractis'd', as she described herself in the caskets scene, is simply not the learned and magisterial figure of the trial scene; even her visit to the aged lawyer Bellario, brief as that must have been, can scarcely be supposed to have produced this transformation. Her acquisition of the arts that she practises in this scene is as magical as Bassanio's choice of the right casket. This disguise contrasts with Jessica's: it is an outward show without moral deception, since Portia is not acting out of self-interest. Balthazar's part in the trial is performed with immaculate professional disinterestedness; 'he' is not tainted by those passions which make a mockery of legal procedure not only in Shylock's behaviour but in that of the prisoner's friends and in the presiding Duke's lack of impartiality. Portia's disguise is an expression of that selfless love and shared identity which she described when she first resolved to assist her husband's friend:

this Antonio,
Being the bosom lover of my lord,
Must needs be like my lord. If it be so,
How little is the cost I have bestowed
In purchasing the semblance of my soul
From out the state of hellish cruelty!

(III. iv. 16-21)

As Antonio stands surety for Bassanio, hazarding his own body for his friend, Portia assumes a surrogate body to save him. There is therefore a particular resonance in her command to Antonio: 'Lay bare your bosom.' Antonio's nakedness and Portia's disguise complement each other in giving theatrical expression to the nature of love.

The Shylock who remains unmoved by all the rhetoric of persuasion and vituperation, thus rendering words powerless, is also ironically the Shylock who insists upon the words of his bond: 'nearest his heart, those are the very words', and no surgeon to stop Antonio's wound, because it is not 'so nominated in the bond'. With supreme poetic justice, therefore, he is undone by his own faith in the word:

Tarry a little; there is something else.
This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood:
The words expressly are 'a pound of flesh'.

(IV. i. 300-302)

And how fitting it is that the vital but missing word, and so the hinge upon which the play turns from tragedy into comedy, is 'blood'.

The judgements that are then delivered upon Shylock, sequestering half his estate and forcibly converting him to Christianity, give a new twist to this play of 'good sentences, and well pronounc'd'. Gratiano's vindictive triumph ('A halter gratis; nothing else, for God's sake!'), gross as it is, sounds less appallingly self-righteous than the calculated humiliation which is Shylock's 'pardon'. Shylock ends his part in the play not merely thwarted but utterly crushed in spirit:

Portia: Art thou contented, Jew? What dost thou say?
Shylock: I am content.
Portia: Clerk, draw a deed of gift.
Shylock: I pray you, give me leave to go from hence;
I am not well; send the deed after me
And I will sign it.

(IV. i. 388-92)

With the simplicity of these understatements, Shylock's part is over: the rest is silence, as far as he is concerned. The effect of this exit needs no underscoring by such melodramatic business as Irving added, having the broken man falter and collapse on his way out. The unemphatic tone which Shakespeare has secured at this point is precisely the secret of its dramatic impact, and as the play immediately shifts into the light, almost casual, comedy of the rings, Shylock is never mentioned again—a silence that reverberates through the remaining scenes.


The main action of the play is now over, and what remains is like an epilogue, in which there is no more to do but 'converse and waste the time together'. Set in Belmont, the final scene opens with what is surely the play's most striking, and most daring, transition of feeling:

The moon shines bright. In such a night as this,
When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees,
And they did make no noise—in such a night,
Troilus methinks mounted the Troyan walls,
And sigh'd his soul toward the Grecian tents,
Where Cressida lay that night.

(V. i. 1-6)

This opening duet performed by Lorenzo and Jessica turns the bitter conflict and equivocations of the trial scene into sweet harmony and tranquillity. We have entered a world of poetic beauty, in which, although the mythological lovers invoked are all tragic (Troilus and Cressida, Pyramus and Thisbe, Dido and Aeneas, Medea and Jason), their griefs are distanced by being framed in art and overlaid by lyric charm. The 'silence of the night' and the recollection of past tragedies in present happiness establishes a mood of serenity which is deepened by the playing of music:

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears; soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.

(V. i. 54-7)

Like Bassanio in the caskets scene, Lorenzo is moved by the music to philosophical gravity. 'Is it not strange,' as Benedick remarks in Much Ado About Nothing, 'that sheeps' guts should hale souls out of men's bodies?' And indeed the music that transports the soul through the senses is the counterpart of that unheard music of the heavenly spheres and of the harmony in 'immortal souls' of which Lorenzo now speaks:

But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.

(V. i. 64-5)

This silent music is the highest plane of harmony, on which, according to the Platonic doctrine Lorenzo cites, the souls of the lovers are united. On this plane, the body is no more than a 'muddy vesture of decay', but, as in Donne's poem, 'The Extasie',

So must pure lovers soules descend
T'affections and to faculties
Which sense may reach and apprehend,
Else a great Prince in prison lies.

and from what Donne calls the 'soul's language' of silent harmony, the lovers now descend to the plane of their affections.

Jessica finds that the music induces a kind of sadness in her disposition: 'I am never merry when I hear sweet music' 'The reason is your spirits are attentive,' replies Lorenzo, and he then describes 'the sweet power of music' over the passions and 'the hot condition of the blood':

Therefore the poet
Did feign that Orpheus drew trees, stones, and floods;
Since nought so stockish, hard, and full of rage,
But music for the time doth change his nature.

(V. i. 79-82)

The music of Orpheus stands for Shakespeare's own art, both as a fiction feigned by 'the poet', and as an archetype of the poet's skill in moving the passions. To the Elizabethans the Orpheus myth signified the moral function of poetry, and Shakespeare makes the same use of the myth as Sidney had done, or as Puttenham in The Arte of English Poesie:

And Orpheus assembled the wilde beasts to come in heards to harken to his musicke, and by that meanes made them tame, implying thereby, how by his discreete and wholsome lesons uttered in harmonie and with melodious instruments he brought the rude and savage people to a more civili and orderly life, nothing, as it seemeth, more prevailing or fit to redresse and edifie the cruell and sturdie courage of man than it.6

Castiglione, too, writes in The Book of the Courtier that music

doth not onely make sweete the mindes of men, but also many times wild beastes tame: and who so savoureth it not, a man may assuredly thinke him not to be well in his wits.7

So Lorenzo concludes his speech with a reference to

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov'd with concord of sweet sounds.

(V. i. 83-4)

As Shylock is remembered here, the whole speech is retrospective in its bearing upon the play's concern with hot tempers and cold decrees. The failure of the moralist to persuade with his 'good sentences', appealing to reason and judgement, is now set in contrast with the poet's claim to be a teacher and law-giver by virtue of his power over the unruly passions. The art of Orpheus with wild beasts recalls that of Jacob, the 'skilful shepherd', who exercised quasi-magical control over the primal passions of the blood. Only the memory of Shylock, who does not savour music, strikes a discord in the lyrical harmonies of this scene; but even as Lorenzo speaks of the man whose affections are as 'dark as Erebus', Portia makes her entrance. Portia, who has subdued just such a man through her skill in counterfeiting, therefore extends the analogies with Shakespeare's own art, and she is associated as a benevolent Medea with the magic of Jacob and Orpheus.

The counterfeiting of Portia and Nerissa over their husbands' rings now shifts the tone of the scene from lyrical enchantment to jesting, as we descend from the spiritual harmonies with which the scene began to the mock-quarrelling of the lovers. And as the spirit of mirth finally supplants the solemnity of silence and 'sweet harmony', the play ends with Gratiano's exuberant bawdiness:

But were the day come, I should wish it dark,
Till I were couching with the doctor's clerk.
Well, while I live, I'll fear no other thing
So sore as keeping safe Nerissa's ring.

(V. i. 304-7)

It is an obvious lowering of the tone, in every sense, for like Donne's 'Extasie' the scene has moved downward from the plane of the soul, through that of the affections, to the ultimate simplicity of the body's appetites and 'the doing of the deed of kind':

To our bodies turn wee then, that so
Weake men on love reveal'd may looke;
Loves mysteries in soules doe grow,
But yet the body is his booke.


The structure of Shakespearian comedy reflects a principle of Elizabethan aesthetics that 'oftentimes a dischorde in Musick maketh a comely concordaunce'.8 'How shall we find the concord of this discord?' asks Duke Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the answer lies not only in the characteristic action of the comedies, leading through confusion and conflict to clarification and reconciliation, but also in their blending of contrasting tones and moods. Shakespeare's development in comedy could be traced in terms of the increasing subtlety with which disparate elements of tone are brought into concordance with each other, from The Comedy of Errors with its fusion of romantic and Plautine motifs, to the complex and precarious harmonies of Twelfth Night.

The Merchant of Venice occupies a special place in this progression, as a play in which the discords are so powerful that it almost becomes a tragedy. In Love 's Labour's Lost, the fragile and artificial comedy is shattered at the end by the sombre entry of Mercade, bringing news of death; The Merchant of Venice, on the other hand, establishes a keynote in its opening lines which suppresses the comic spirit of mirth and merriment. There is little playful laughter and not much wit, until they break out in the conclusion. Instead the prevailing tone is serious, and this current of feeling is modulated from Antonio's sadness, through the grim conflict between Shylock and his enemies, and the solemnity of the casket scenes, to the gravity which attends even the lovers in their ecstasy: they are never merry when they hear sweet music.

The seriousness of comedy is itself a paradox, a discors concordia. Yet the comic seriousness of The Merchant of Venice lies deeper than its potential for tragedy or its moral themes; the play operates at the fundamental level of feeling, as its action stresses the primacy of the affections, and after the tragic and moral conflicts are over, the serious spirit is transmuted into the effect of music at Belmont. 'Nothing is good, I see, without respect,' says Portia sententiously as she hears this music:

How many things by season season'd are
To their right praise and true perfection!
Peace . . .

(V. i. 107-8)

The harmony is sweeter in the silence of the night, and also after the discords of the preceding action; this comic resolution reduces the passions to a serene contentment which is still serious in tone, but from which the play can come to rest in a relaxed good humour. Among the happy lovers as they leave the stage, Antonio is the odd man out, the discord that 'maketh a comely concordaunce', for his part remains 'a sad one'.


1 Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare (Second Series, London, 1930), p. 68.

2 Frank Kermode, 'The Mature Comedies', Early Shakespeare, ed. J. R. Brown and B. Harris (Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 3, London, 1961), p. 224.

3 Stephen Gosson, The School of Abuse (ed. E. Arber, English Reprints, London, 1869), p. 40.

4 T. S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (London, 1933), p. 151.

5 Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, ed. Geoffrey Shepherd (London, 1965), pp. 104-5, 112.

6Elizabethan Critical Essays (2 vols., Oxford, 1904), ed. G. Gregory Smith, ii. 6-7.

7 B. Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier (translated by Sir Thomas Hoby, 1561), Everyman's Library (London, 1956), p. 76.

8 'E. K.', Epistle Dedicatory to The Shepheardes Calender, by Edmund Spenser (1579); The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser, ed. J. C. Smith and E. De Selincourt (London, 1912), p. 417.

Raymond B. Waddington (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Blind Gods: Fortune, Justice, and Cupid in The Merchant of Venice;' in ELH, Vol. 44, No. 3, Fall, 1977, pp. 458-77.

[In the following essay, Waddington analyzes the Christian approach to the play, maintaining that while the Christian characters are frequently accused of not practicing the beliefs they profess, when the actions of Portia and Bassanio are contrasted with those of Jessica and Lorenzo, the Christian values of trust and faith are emphasized.]

Almost obligatorily, critics of The Merchant of Venice split into warring camps. Generally the schism arises between those readers who, emphasizing allegory and Christian themes, treat the Christian characters of the play in largely positive and approving terms and those who, noticing that commerce, wealth, and financial speculation as thoroughly preoccupy the Venetians as they do Shylock, see the play ironically exposing the failure of the Christians to practice the beliefs which they profess. The issue of Christian commerce surfaces most conspicuously in the almost obsessive recurrence of a related set of words denoting financial speculation—venture, hazard, thrift, usury, fortune, advantage. Remarking upon this phenomenon, Ralph Berry concludes, "The formal principle of The Merchant of Venice, then, I take to be a series of mutations of 'venture.'"1 And A. D. Moody voices his reservations about the appropriateness of such commercial venturing for Christians: "But to be committed to the pursuit of worldly fortune is to be subjected, in the medieval view of things, to the whims of the fickle goddess Fortune; at the most serious level it is to forfeit the redemptive influence of Providence for the chances and reverses of Fortune's wheel."2

There can be no question that the issues of risk, venture, hazard, and so commitment to fortune are crucial to the meaning of the play. But whether commitment to fortune means abdication of Christian values is another question, one that cannot be settled without respecting the play's distinctions between the business activities of Antonio (venture and hazard) and those of Shylock (advantage, thrift, interest) and trying to comprehend their implications. In short, whereas Berry believes that venture and fortune are "fluid" terms with "no really firm basis of meaning,"3 1 will argue that we can understand the play best by recourse to the traditions accruing to these terms, reading in Shakespeare's intellectual backgrounds and reading out our own.

Let us first review the commercial connotations of venture or adventure. E. M. Cams-Wilson comments, "The epithet 'merchant venturer' or 'merchant adventurer' came into use only toward the end of the fifteenth century. But the conception of a merchant venturer, or at least of a merchant venture, goes back far beyond this. A venture (aventure, auenture, or auntre, in Middle English) was a risk. To venture was to take a chance, to hazard one's life or one's goods in an enterprise that might bring a worthwhile reward."4 By Shakespeare's time the term "Merchant Adventurer" had, of course, taken on a far more specific meaning; the aggressive and powerful Merchant Adventurers' Company maintained a virtual monopoly upon foreign trade.5

Despite the entrenched security of the Merchant Adventurers, the term retained its earlier well-defined connotations of high risk and high reward enterprise. Sir Walter Ralegh so explained the motive of his Guiana voyage in 1596: "If I had knowen other way to win, if I had imagined how greater adventures might have regained,... I would not doubt but for one yeare more to holde faste my soule in my teeth, til it were performed."6 In Shakespeare's dramatic vocabulary the connotation of trade is always present (e.g., 2 H. IV II.iv.63-65); yet the element of high risk gets strong emphasis. Baptista Minola, having second thoughts about the sudden marriage contract between Kate and Petruchio, remarks, "Faith, gentlemen, now I play a merchant's part, / And venture madly on a desperate mart" (Shrew II.i.326-27). And high risk inevitably shades into high—and romantic—reward. Romeo, rashly venturing into the garden of the Capulet house, assures Juliet, "I am no pilot, yet, wert thou as far / As that vast shore wash'd with the farthest sea, /I should adventure for such merchandise" (Romeo II.ii.82-84).

In The Merchant of Venice the idea of venturing and its consequences is initiated immediately as Antonio enters protesting, "In sooth I know not why I am so sad / ... / And such a wantwit sadness makes of me, / That I have much ado to know myself (, 6-7).7 Salerio and Solanio assure him that his "mind is tossing on the ocean" with his argosies, the fear of "misfortune to [his] ventures" causing the sadness. Surely underlying their vivid images of the dangers to his ships is the ancient topos of the sea of fortune.8 Antonio, however, denies the major:

Believe me no, I think my fortune for it—
My ventures are not in one bottom trusted,
Nor to one place; nor is my whole estate
Upon the fortune of this present year:
Therefore my merchandise makes me not sad.


If not fortune, then love, conjectures Solanio, which Antonio also denies. A neutral referee may record a palpable hit, nonetheless; with Bassanio's entrance we learn that the lady to whom Bassanio "swore a secret pilgrimage," and so the probability of separation from his loving friend, occupies Antonio's thoughts. In explaining how, by risking more of Antonio's money to recoup his previous debts, he proposes to court the fair heiress Portia, Bassanio provides the first definition of a venture:

In my school-days, when I had lost one shaft,
I shot his fellow of the self-same flight
The self-same way, with more advised watch
To find the other forth, and by adventuring both
I oft found both: I urge this childhood proof
Because what follows is pure innocence.
I owe you much, and (like a wilful youth)
That which I owe is lost, but if you please
To shoot another arrow that selfway
Which you did shoot the first, I do not doubt,
(As I will watch the aim) or to find both,
Or bring your latter hazard back again,
And thankfully rest debtor for the first.


Although Bassanio's earlier reference to his "plots and purposes" may momentarily lend the impression that he is a calculating schemer, the "pure innocence" of the hazard rests on intuition: "I have a mind presages me such thrift / That I should questionless be fortunate" (I.i.175-76).9

Since "all [Antonio's] fortunes are at sea," the venture must be financed on credit by borrowing from Shylock, to whom Antonio's business practices are irrational: ". . . he hath an argosy bound to Tripolis, another to the Indies, I understand moreover upon the Rialto, he hath a third at Mexico, a fourth for England, and other ventures he hath squand'red abroad,—but ships are but boards, sailors but men" (I.ii. 15-20). More than just rashness, however, Shylock's enmity sparks from Antonio's whole attitude toward money: ". . . in low simplicity / He lends out money gratis, and brings down / The rate of usance here with us in Venice. / . . . / He hates our sacred nation, and he rails / (Even there where merchants most do congregate) / On me, my bargins, and my well-won thrift, / Which he calls interest" (I.iii.37-40, 43-46).

The opposition of venture and interest climaxes in the opposed interpretations of Jacob's scheme for obtaining the best lambs from Laban (Genesis XXXI: 37-43). Shylock offers the story as a justification of interest and thrift. Antonio retorts, "This was a venture sir that Jacob serv'd for, / A thing not in his power to bring to pass, /But sway'd and fashion'd by the hand of heaven" (I.iii.86-88). Arnold Williams' study of the Renaissance commentaries on this episode indicates that Shakespeare has assigned Antonio the orthodox position on the matter: "The 'hand of Heaven' is clearly responsible for the outcome . . . and Jacob is merely following divine guidance in taking a way of recovering his own property of which Laban had defrauded him."10

Fortune or the "hand of heaven"? How can we determine which governs the ventures of this play? Howard R. Patch has documented the many similarities between the goddesses Ventura and Fortuna; however, Patch also traces the tradition—figuring importantly in Boethius, Dante, Chaucer—of a Christianized fortune.11 Fortuna becomes servant to Divine Providence, following a pattern of order normally hidden from the eyes of man. Hamlet, for instance, who spends so much time inveighing against the "strumpet" Fortune is dispatched to his death in England, literally voyaging upon the sea of fortune, when the hand of Heaven intervenes. He discovers the commission for his murder, alters and reseals it ("even in that was heaven ordinant. / I had my father's signet in my purse"), just in time to be plucked away and returned to Elsinore by the pirate ship. Thus Hamlet learns "There's a divinity that shapes our ends" and a "special providence in the fall of a sparrow" (Hamlet V.ii.10, 48-49, 219-20).12 The lesson which Hamlet received so dramatically was Renaissance Christian commonplace: "nothing is done at aduenture." As Calvin put it, ". . . nothyng commeth by chauce, but what soeuer commeth to passe in the world, commeth by the secrete prouidence of God." If all hazard is directed by Providence, the ultimate adventurer is Christ himself. In Piers Plowman William Langland wrote, "And after auntrede god hymself, and tok Adams kynde."13

It is not insignificant that the strongest statement for the pagan view of fortune—that is, fortune as random chance—comes from a character of pagan origin, the Prince of Morocco. Unlike the godless Aaron of Titus Andronicus or the convert Othello, Morocco's religious beliefs are not specified for us. Such ostensibly Christian vocabulary as he uses—"this shrine, this mortal breathing saint," "heaven," "angel," "damnation"—is entirely directed to Portia, explainable both as the conventional language of Petrarchan compliment and as recognition of her embodiment of Christian virtues. Morocco himself would seem to be just what he appears, an erring Barbarian and, as prince, a supporter of the Muslim faith. Portia's explanation that "the lott'ry of my destiny / Bars me the right of voluntary choosing" (II.i.15-16), provokes his disquisition on fortune:

But alas the while!
If Hercules and Lichas play at dice
Which is the better man, the greater throw
May turn by fortune from the weaker hand:
So is Alcides beaten by his page,

(The entire section is 30582 words.)

Gender Identity, Roles, And Relations

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Marianne Novy (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Giving and Taking in The Merchant of Venice" in Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare, The University of North Carolina Press, 1984, pp. 63-82.

[In the following essay, Novy argues that the play criticizes the self-denial Antonio demonstrates throughout the play in favor of Portia's self-assertion and her acceptance of sexuality.]

Many critics describe The Merchant of Venice as contrasting taking to giving. Shylock to Portia and Antonio.1 A few have begun to note that the play also contrasts two kinds of giving, and that neither Portia nor Antonio is uncritically...

(The entire section is 20424 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)


Leo Kirschbaum (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "Shylock in the City of God," in Character and Characterization in Shakespeare, Wayne State University Press, 1962, pp. 7-32.

[In the following essay, Kirschbaum analyzes what the words "Christian" and "Jew" meant to an Elizabethan audience and argues that Shylock is not meant to be Shakespeare's portrayal of a "real Jew " but rather resemble the Elizabethan Puritan, and is intended to symbolize the anti-social traits which threatened conventional, Anglican sensibilities.]

The Merchant of Venice is a...

(The entire section is 26939 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)


Lars Engle (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "'Thrift is Blessing': Exchange and Explanation in The Merchant of Venice," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 1, Spring, 1986, pp. 20-37.

[In the following essay, Engle contends that the relationships in the play transcend emotional boundaries and are all to some degree economic or legal in nature. Engle goes on to argue that a discussion of the play's plot in financial terms suggests avenues of historical interpretation and criticism which focus on credit and marriage as the primary means by which Elizabethan gentry and aristocracy raised money.]


(The entire section is 17751 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Berry, Ralph. "Discomfort in The Merchant of Venice." In Shakespeare and the Awareness of the Audience, pp. 46-26. London: Macmillan, 1985.

Analyzes the play's capacity to disturb and offend an audience and argues that the source of this discomfort is rooted in the depiction of the play's social transactions.

Bloom, Allan and Harry V. Jaffa. "On Christian and Jew: The Merchant of Venice" In Shakespeare's Politics, pp. 13-34. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1964.

States that Shakespeare presents Shylock and Antonio as representatives of Judaism and Christianity, respectively, and argues that Shylock's fate is due in part to his status as a...

(The entire section is 592 words.)