The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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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.


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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,
And so may I, blind Fortune leading me,
Miss that which one unworthier may attain,
And die with grieving.


The assurance that only by making his "hazard" can he compete for Portia at all draws his supplication, "Good fortune then, / To make me blest or cursed'st among men!"

Immediately after this anticipatory scene of the hazard in Belmont, we shift to Launcelot Gobbo's case of conscience. Act II, scene ii—which presents the clown deciding to flee from Shylock's service, his deception of and reconciliation to his blind father, his transferrai to Bassanio's service—offers itself as a comedic microcosm of the play's themes. Launcelot's conflict between natural inclination and restraint of conscience, for instance, picks up Portia's initial ambivalence (I.ii) about the inflexible method by which the identity of her husband will be decided; his determination to run from his "devil" master anticipates the succeeding action in which Shylock's daughter Jessica runs away from the "hell" of her father's house; Launcelot's line "it is a wise father that knows his own child" certainly evokes the entire theme of father-child relationships in the play, both Shylock's blindness about Jessica and the far-sightedness of Portia's father; and one can accede to René Fortin's suggestion that the entire scene offers an "oblique commentary on tensions between Judaic and Christian traditions."14

This largess, however, has not prevented the scene from being misread. Fortin, for example, writes that "The encounter [between Launcelot and Old Gobbo] takes place immediately after Launcelot's decision to leave the service of his Jewish master and seek service with the Christian Bassanio."15 In fact Launcelot says nothing about seeking Bassanio's service prior to old Gobbo's entrance. He simply concludes that he will bolt, in much the same aimless way that Jessica and Lorenzo elope. Old Gobbo enters and Launcelot's first impulse is to deceive the blind man by concealing his identity. In other words, he would deny the bond of filial relation just as he has decided to break the bond of relation to his master. At this point he has a change of heart, finding himself unable to sustain the deception:

Launc. Do you not know me father?
Gob. Alack sir I am sand-blind, I know you not.
Launc. Nay, indeed if you had your eyes you might fail of the nowing me: it is a wise father that knows his own child.
Well, old man, I will tell you news of your son,—[Kneels.] give me your blessing,—truth will come to light, murder cannot be hid long, a man's son may, but in the end truth will out.


We observe that the Jacob and Isaac prototype, discerned by several readers,16 has become contrastive: rather than obtaining his father's blessing by false identity, Launcelot does it after revealing his true identity. Only after the parent-child bond is renewed does Launcelot articulate the scheme to change masters lawfully by having Old Gobbo petition Bassanio to obtain his release. "O rare fortune! here comes the man, to him father" (II.ii.106-07). They make their fumbling petition to find that it has already been granted: ".. . thou hast obtain'd thy suit,—/Shylock thy master spoke with me this day, / And hath preferr'd thee" (II.ii. 137-39). Assured of new service and "guarded" livery, Launcelot exits complacently reading his palm—that is, telling his own fortune—and reflecting, "well, if Fortune be a woman she's a good wench for this gear" (II.ii. 157-58).

The prevailing tendency is to read the scene ironically; Moody remarks "we don't judge [Launcelot] as a Christian soul, but simply as a sly rogue with an eye for the main chance."17 And Fortin, the only reader to see a serious thematic function in Old Gobbo's blindness, turns it to an ironic interpretation: ". . . the scene insists upon the mutual blindness of father and son, the involuntary blindness of Gobbo—-and by extension, of the Jewish tradition—and the willed blindness of Launcelot—and by extension of the Christian tradition, which chooses to ignore its indebtedness to the older tradition. . . . "18 Much more simply, and perhaps more pertinently, I suggest that Old Gobbo is a comic embodiment of that Blind Fortune invoked by Morocco in the preceding scene. As Fluellen, that gifted explicator of the obvious, put it, "Fortune is painted blind, with a muffler afore his eyes, to signify to you that fortune is blind" (Henry V There is, however, one important difference between Old Gobbo and the Blind Fortune of Fluellen and Morocco: this quasi-symbolic scene illustrates the difference between the Christian and pagan notions of fortune, why it is that Bassanio wins and Morocco loses. The lesson to be developed in both the casket and trial scenes is that we "hazard all" by remaining true to bonds, thereby obtaining release from them.19 The hazarding, in this sense, is an individual act of blind faith or implicit trust in God, Hamlet's "the readiness is all." Launcelot, even in his shallow way, commits such an act of faith by refusing to bolt and acknowledging his bonds. He is rewarded on the spot with good fortune. To quote Fluellen once again, "Fortune is an excellent moral."

The three caskets, gold, silver, and lead, which control access to Portia contain their own morals. Morocco studies the inscription of the leaden casket—"Who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath"—and finds it ominous:

This casket threatens—men that hazard all
Do it in hope of fair advantages:
A golden mind stoops not to shows of dross,
I'll then nor give nor hazard aught for lead.


Forgetting his own sensible appeal to Portia not to value him by his complexion, Morocco chooses the golden exterior and learns, "All that glisters is not gold." The Prince of Arragon, too, regards the choice of caskets as action under the aegis of fortune (see II.ix.15, 19, 38, 52). He spurns the hazard of lead because it promises insufficient reward, then snobbishly chooses the silver and is exposed as a fool. In both instances choice is a revelation of character with nothing random about the result. Progressing from approval of the silver casket's appearance to scrutiny of its inscription, "Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves," Arragon had observed, "And well said too; for who shall go about / To cozen Fortune, and be honourable / Without the stamp of merit?" (II.ix.37-39). The idea of "cozening Fortune" epitomizes the difference in attitude toward the lottery exhibited by Morocco and Arragon, on the one hand, and Bassanio on the other. Neil Carson has remarked, "The contrast . . . is between the 'cozeners' who think that good fortune may be earned by merit or endeavour, and the 'hazarders' whose recklessness is a token of their faith in God's divine providence."20

Arragon's departure is saluted by Nerissa's "ancient saying" that "Hanging and wiving goes by destiny" (II.ix.83). Her proverb echoes Portia's earlier comment on "the lottr'y of my destiny" (II.i.15), albeit now with somewhat different connotations. In Shakespeare's private lexicon destiny seems closely linked to providence, suggesting a conception similar to the Boethian one wherein the aspect of Providence controlling the visible, mutable world is called destiny and fortune administers the decrees of destiny which affect men.21 In The Tempest, for instance, the good characters directly attribute causation to "Providence divine" and Ariel describes himself as a "minister of Fate" (III.iii.61), directed by "Destiny, / That hath to instrument this lower world / And what is in't" (III.iii.53-55). Similarly here, attitudes toward hazard and fortune reveal the degree of a character's awareness of providential design. Man's will is free, but his character, his willingness to risk, determines choice in a way which God foresees and uses. In this respect Shakespeare's reworking of the casket mottoes from his probable source, the Gesta Romanorum, illuminates his intention. Whereas he merely switches the inscriptions of the gold and silver caskets, with the lead he alters the overtly providential "Who so chooseth mee, shall finde that God hath disposed for him" to "Who Chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath."22 With the direct reference to God's will effaced, the emphasis shifts from the chooser as passive recipient to active seeker of God's will, his readiness to hazard all on faith in imitation of the first Christian adventurer.

Just as Bassanio conceived of the courtship as a "venture" and a "hazard," so Portia describes the choice of caskets in the same words:

I pray you tarry, pause a day or two
Before you hazard . . .

I would detain you here some month or two
Before you venture for me. I could teach you
How to choose right, but then I am forsworn,
So will I never be,—so may you miss me,—

(III.ii.1-2, 9-12)

She, too, will risk all by respecting the bond of obligation to her father. Beyond the common propensity to speak of courtship in terms of venturing, readers have remarked that the commercial language of Venice carries into Belmont with the image of the Golden Fleece. Bassanio thus described Portia to Antonio: ". . . her sunny locks, / Hang on her temples like a golden fleece" (I.i. 169-70). John Russell Brown notes:

The golden fleece was a symbol of the fortunes for which merchants ventured; .. . Sir Francis Drake returning from his voyage round the world was said to have brought back with him "his goulden fleece." That the phrase was used of merchants' ventures, gives point to Gratiano's boast:

 what's the news from Venice?
How doeth that royal merchant good Antonio?
I know he will be glad of our success,
We are the Jasons, we have won the fleece.


Brown is entirely correct in reminding us that the Golden Fleece was a common descriptive image for the rewards of merchant adventuring; but the comparison of Drake to Jason bringing back the golden fleece, which occurs in Whitney's A Choice of Emblems (1586), is suggestive in another way. The motto of the emblem is Auxilio diuino; the picture shows "the hand of Heaven" guiding Drake's ship by a celestial bridle; and the verse enumerates circumnavigational hazards, concluding: "but, GOD was on his side, / And throughe them all, in spite of all, his shaken shippe did guide. / And, to requite his paines: By helpe of power dettine"24 The associations in Whitney's emblem were enduring ones; the Jason and the Golden Fleece myth was used in Lord Mayor's Pageants designed by Anthony Munday in 1614, 1615, and 1623, and by Thomas Middleton in 1621 and 1626. In the last of these Middleton commemorated Drake as "England's true Jason."25 For the assumption of Providential guidance we might consult the venturers themselves. Both Drake and Sir John Hawkins left verses spelling out their belief that venturing, undertaken in the proper spirit, partakes of divine guidance. As William Pelham argued, "For where the attempt, on vertue dooth depend: / No doubt but God, will blesse it in the ende."26 Against this background we may see that the implication of the Jason and Golden Fleece analogy is not that Portia is commercial booty; rather it is that in romantic venturing, as in commercial venturing, one risks all to gain all, succeeding only "by helpe of power deuine."27

We need not go overboard on Jason's voyage, however. Shakespeare's use of myth in this comedy is iconic, not narrative. He will focus upon a single facet of a mythic character or episode of his career to inform an action or illuminate a motive; he does not sustain a continuous, mythic pattern. Those critics who, following out the Jason story, associate Portia with Medea make an association which Shakespeare refused.28 The tragic overtones of Jason and Medea as lovers are so strong that they can be permitted to enter the play only in the catalogue of unfortunate lovers recited by Lorenzo and Jessica (V.i.1-22).

Indeed, Jason is not the primary mythological referent for the character and role of Bassanio; upon Bassanio's arrival in Belmont that assignment shifts to Jason's better-known shipmate from the Argo, Hercules himself. The idea of hazarding the choice of caskets as a Herculean action had been anticipated by Morocco's analogy of Hercules and Lichas playing at dice. It is reintroduced by Portia's description of Bassanio:

 Now he goes
With no less presence, but with much more love
Than young Alcides, when he did redeem
The virgin tribute, paid by howling Troy
To the sea-monster: I stand for sacrifice,
The rest aloof are the Dardanian wives,
With bleared visages come forth to view
The issue of th' exploit: go Hercules!
Live thou, I live—with much much more dismay,
I view the fight, than thou that mak'st the fray.


Portia's exuberant "Go Hercules!" will echo in a later comedy, As You Like It. There Rosalind first tries to dissuade Orlando from challenging Charles, the Duke's "wrastler": "If you saw yourself with your eyes, or knew yourself with your judgment, the fear of your adventure would counsel you to a more equal enterprise" (I.ii. 175-78). But, since Orlando persists in his adventure, she cheers him on. "Now Hercules be thy speed, young man!" (I.ii.210).

The Herculean label, in one sense, simply identifies the two young men as heroes, both of whom, of course, are successful in their ventures. Nevertheless, the prototypes for their Herculean actions differ. Whereas Orlando's triumph is modeled upon the conquest of Antaeus,29 Bassanio's hazard goes outside the labors. The method here is "By indirections find directions out." Morocco's reference to Hercules and Lichas dicing reflects his mistaken notion of hazard as blind fortune; Portia's analogy of Hercules rescuing Hesione is a partial truth, reflecting her personal anxieties. By repeating the Hercules association and requiring us to discard inappropriate actions from his career, Shakespeare nudges us toward recognizing the correct one. The game is virtually given away in the linkage of act, choice, and actor, Hercules: Bassanio's hazard is a reenactment of the choice of Hercules, that pivotal event wherein the young hero, by choosing Virtus over Voluptas—the lifestyle represented by the sober maiden rather than the fleshy seductress or, alternatively, the high, hard path instead of the broad and easy one—conquered Fortune.30

Shakespeare's handling of Bassanio's choice of caskets reflects this very popular tradition in several aspects. First, the number of options is effectively reduced from three to two. This is accomplished by framing the choice as opposition between essence and appearance. Silver thereby becomes merely a variant kind of deceptive appearance, an appendix to gold with the same objections obtaining, and can be dismissed in an additional one and a half lines. Second, the concentration upon the issue of false appearance—"outward shows," "fair ornament," "outward parts," "supposed fairness," "seeming truth," are Bassanio's phrases—evokes the tradition of Voluptas as the seeming fair of sensual allurement or of the deceptive, downward path as the apparently easy and attractive one. Sigurd Burckhardt has observed that Arragon and Morocco fail the choice of caskets because ". . . they try to interpret the lines inscribed on the caskets rather than the substance . . . The noteworthy thing about Bassanio is that he disregards the inscriptions; he lets the metals themselves speak to him (quite literally: he apostrophizes them as speakers)."31 Apostrophizing the metals as speakers would seem a heritage of the prototypic choice tradition in which the opposed values or lifestyles are personified as women.

The suggestion is more than latent here. Bassanio muses,

 Look on beauty,
And you shall see 'tis purchased by the weight,
Which therein works a miracle in nature,
Making them lightest that wear most of it:
So are those crisped snaky golden locks
Which make such wanton gambols with the wind
Upon supposed fairness, often known
To be the dowry of a second head,
The skull that bred them in the sepulchre.
Thus ornament is but the guiled shore
To a most dangerous sea: the beauteous scarf
Veiling an Indian beauty; in a word,
The seeming truth which cunning times put on
To entrap the wisest.


His comparisons are complex. The "crisped snaky golden locks" are a demonic version of his own description of Portia's "sunny locks / Hangfing] on her temples like a golden fleece." The "guiled shore / To a most dangerous sea" reminds us of the opening descriptions of Antonio's ships risked to the sea of fortune, while the veiled "Indian beauty" evokes a fusion of romantic and mercantile venturing. Bassanio has seen the risks in appearance, stakes his hazard that Portia's beauty is substantial, essential, and he deserves the implicit claim to Herculean courage when he observes that cowards ". . . wear yet upon their chins / The beards of Hercules and frowning Mars, / Who inward search'd, have livers white as milk" (III.ii.84-86). The significance of the Choice of Hercules is that the hero, by choosing correctly, reveals that he has conquered himself. Coming to understand himself, he has properly ordered his own mind, passions, appetities; it is only then that he can conquer others.

With his usual efficiency Shakespeare had established this theme at the very outset; Janus-minded Antonio, divided in his love for Bassanio, has "much ado to know myself." That Bassanio knows himself the casket scene puts beyond dispute. He dismisses the gaudy of golden Voluptas, whether wigged in snaky curls or veiled as the Indian beauty: "but thou, thou meager lead / Which rather threaten'st than doest promise aught, / Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence, / And here choose I" (III.ii. 104-07). Unlike Lear who opts for the golden speech of Goneril and Regan to reject the threatening plainness of Cordelia's bond, Bassanio remains unmoved by mere eloquence. It is the hazard of meager and threatening lead which, as Virtus moved Hercules, moves Bassanio to trust his blind intuition; and, by risking all, he wins all.

Hercules, as Book V of The Faerie Queene reminds us, was a "Champion of true Justice"; and in establishing the reign of justice over himself, in the sense of his own temperance, as a prerequisite to his public career as administrator of justice, Hercules only follows a paradigm going back at least to the Nicomachean Ethics.32 A similar progression is evident in the movement from the casket choice of Act HI to the trial scene of Act IV. Portia matches Bassanio's successful hazard by giving all in her own way: "Myself, and what is mine, to you and yours / Is now converted" (III.ii.166-67). Converted to Bassanio, in Act IV she plays the role of judge, literally wearing a man's costume, that was his in Act III, while Antonio "stand[s] for sacrifice" as she did earlier.

Samuel Chew first observed in the trial scene the presence of the conventional iconographic attributes of Justice, the sword and scales.33 Shylock whets his knife on the sole of his shoes as he anticipates the pleasure of cutting the pound of flesh from Antonio and weighing it upon the scales (see IV.i. 120-26 and 255-56). The perversion of the sword of Justice to Shylock's knife shocks and revolts as deliberately as does the reduction of the scales, traditional symbol of equity, to a butcher's measure. But, if Shylock represents—in Chew's words—"a travesty of Justice," the goddess Justice herself appears to re-establishe her honor. When Portia enters as "Balthazar," the young doctor of law, she says something rather curious; the Duke inquires whether she is acquainted with the issue, and she replies:

I am informed thoroughly of the cause,—
Which is the merchant here? and which the jew?


Insofar as the line has been noticed, it has been used to support the modernist interpretation that Shylock and Antonio are interchangeable, faceless merchants in business suits with equally corrupt motives. This is to ignore the careful distinction of Shylock's costume, "my Jewish gaberdine" (I.iii.107), from the more splendid appearance of the gentile merchant prince. If Portia cannot distinguish between the two, it is her way of announcing that she will judge the case on its merits, impartially, without respect to the persons involved. She is acting as Blind Justice.34

Renaissance commentators generally divide justice into three topics: absolute justice, in which the letter of the law is rigidly maintained; equity, which considers the particular circumstance of the individual under the general law; and mercy or clemency.35 These three topics structure the progression of the trial scene. Portia first seems to concede the claim of absolute justice as Antonio admits the obligation of the bond (IV.i. 177-78) and she rebuts Bassanio's appeal to the duke to bend the law:

It must not be, there is no power in Venice
Can alter a decree established.
Twill be recorded for a precedent,

And many an error by the same example
Will rush into the state. It cannot be.


Shylock may lawfully claim the penalty, so she can only entreat him to be merciful, as she does in the "quality of mercy" speech and, again, when she admits the legality of the forfeiture: "be merciful, / Take thrice thy money, bid me tear the bond" (IV.i.229-30). Portia presses the consideration of equity; the practical effect of administering the letter of the bond will be an unspecified personal consequence, the loss of Antonio's life. "Have by some surgeon Shylock on your charge, / To stop his wounds, lest he do bleed to death" (IV.i.253-54). Shylock, however, refuses to recognize the principle of equity: "tis not in the bond."

Portia then reverses the procedure with Shylock, instead of Antonio, the focus of the examination. He is exposed to the rigors of letter-of-the-law, absolute justice: "This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood, / The words expressly are 'a pound of flesh': / . . . If thou dost shed / One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods / Are (by the laws of Venice) confiscate / Unto the state of Venice" (IV.i.302-03, 305-08). Next, the claim of equity is invoked negatively as Portia informs Shylock that the law authorizes confiscation of his estate and puts his own life in jeopardy for having conspired against the life of a Venetian citizen (IV.i.343-59). Justice having been satisfied, both the duke and Antonio are afforded the opportunity to extend Shylock the mercy which he could not find in the bond. He looked in the wrong place; it exists only in the heart's core.

The trial scene is a fine example of what Rosalie Colie has called "unmetaphoring."36 Shakespeare has created a dramatic literalization of the Protestant Reformers' legalistic theory of the Atonement—surely for Christians the ultimate source of all Justice-Mercy considerations—with their characteristic law-court terminology, distinctions, and atmosphere.37 In such a context, doubts about the efficacy of Shylock's forced conversion seem hardly relevant. Portia's lesson, "That in the course of justice, none of us / Should see salvation" (IV.i.195-96), makes the familiar point that we are all guilty under the Old Law. Indeed, Shylock's illness (IV.i.392) and Gratiano's shouted insistence that the Jew be given a halter to hang himself (IV.i.360-63, 375), are, perhaps, less "realistic" strokes than reminders that the sinner brought to a full consciousness of his guilt under the Law will be reduced to a state of suicidal despair. Gratiano proferring the halter, even in his choice of instruments, performs as conventional an action as do the giants named Despair in The Faerie Queene and Pilgrim's Progress?38

Shylock loses really because he loses faith; he cannot trust absolutely in his own bond, in the law he has insisted upon. As Burckhardt has suggested, Portia's decision to trust the absolute justice of the bond is a magnificant hazard. Enacting the inscription of the leaden casket, she had given all to Bassanio and now risks all, because of course Shylock has the option of saying, "Yes, I will take my pound of flesh whatever the consequences." Instead, there is a failure of nerve; in Burckhardt's phrase, he ". . . turns apostate to the faith he has so triumphantly forced upon his enemies."39 Shylock's function, then, is primarily contrastive. Where the gentle Portia hazards all, he hedges his bet, unwilling to move beyond the usurer's principles of "advantage" and "thrift." Where Shylock will grant no mercy to the gentile Antonio, the merchant can and does extend mercy to the usurer. Antonio's previous behavior had been characterized equally by his kindness toward Shylock's gentile victims and his brutal contempt for the moneylender himself, earning Shylock's sneering epithet, "fawning publican" (I.iii.36) an apparent allusion to Matthew V:46, "For if ye loue them, which loue you, what rewarde shal you haue? Do not the Publicanes euen the same?"40 Christ's lesson from this passage in the Sermon on the Mount is central to the entire trial scene, not merely Portia's pleas for mercy:

But I say vnto you, Loue your enemies: blesse them that curse you: do good to them that hate you, and praye for them which hurt you, and persecute you, The ye may be the children of your Father that is in heauen: for he maketh his sunne to arise on the euil, and the good, and sendeth raine on the iuste, & vniuste.

(Matthew V:44-45)

That Antonio has absorbed the spirit of the lesson is evident in his conversion from a stoic resignation to death—"herein Fortune shows herself more kind / Than is her custom" (V.i.263-64)—to actively Christian behavior, a conversion effected by his providential salvation. Not Fortune, but the hand of Heaven.

Antonio's education to a state of fuller self-knowledge concludes with the ring trick of Act V, an action designed to expose and reduce the tensions between love and friendship. The ordeal of the trial had revealed both Antonio's jealousy of Bassanio's new wife and Bassanio's willingness to value Antonio's life even above that wife. When "Balthazar" demands as reward for his services the ring with which Portia had pledged her love, Bassanio at first demurs, but is persuaded by Antonio: "My Lord Bassanio, let him have the ring, / Let his deservings and my love withal / Be valued 'gainst your wife's commandement" (IV.i.445-47). With the ring trick, as Anne Barton has argued, Portia resorts to ". . . a test which forces Bassanio to weigh his obligations to his wife against those to his friend and to recognize the latent antagonism between them."41 Portia plays the part of a comic Shylock, harping on the letter of the ring-bond, until she achieves her purpose. Bassanio admits the wrong and renews his pledge: "Pardon this fault, and by my soul I swear / I never more will break an oath with thee" (V.i.247-48). Antonio recognizes that he has been the cause of dissension and removes the impediment by underwriting the venture anew: "I dare be bound again, / My soul upon the forfeit, that your lord / Will never more break faith advisedly" (V.i.251-53). The progression of the play is underscored by the movement from physical to spiritual bonds, a progression in which the idea of faith figures significantly. The point to all of the fifth-act bawdy jokes about marital infidelity is simply that marriage, as much as Providence or Justice, is a matter of unswerving, blind faith in the bond.

An illuminating exchange between Erwin Panofsky and Edgar Wind has taught us that during the Renaissance the image of Blind Cupid could carry divergent connotations.42 The more common tradition interprets the blindness as random, unreasoned, physical attraction; but, more particularly in the current of Renaissance platonism, the blindness could be employed as a symbol of supra-intellectual transcendence, a condition beyond reason perhaps analogous to the way in which Bassanio is "moved" by the lead casket. We know from Midsummer Night's Dream that both kinds of blindness in love interested Shakespeare at this stage of his career.43 Cupid first insinuates his presence into this play when Bassanio describes his romantic venture in terms of Cupid's favorite activity: shooting an arrow to see what it hits. The god gains direct entrance, however, in Act II, scene vi, with Jessica's elopement. Pausing as she throws down to her lover a casket full of Shylock's money and jewels, Jessica is momentarily abashed, but for social rather than moral reasons. She finds it indecorous to appear publicly in boy's clothing:

But love is blind, and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit,
For if they could, Cupid himself would blush
To see me thus transformed to a boy.


The relationship of Jessica and Lorenzo to the primary lovers, Portia and Bassanio, consistently is contrastive and negative: they undergo no tests of character or faith; they are obedient to no bonds; they take all, rather than giving all; they hazard nothing.44 It is right, therefore, that Jessica should here associate their love with the negative variety of blindness, just as later they will add their names to the catalogue of famous, unfortunate lovers. Reading by contraries, it is appropriate also to associate with the renewed bond of Portia and Bassanio the higher sort of blind love, a Christian relationship based on total trust and faith. Discussing the plot, the bond, and the ring as the controlling metaphors of the play, Sigurd Burckhardt concludes:

The Merchant is a play about circularity and circulation; it asks how the vicious circle of the bond's law can be transformed into the ring of love. And it answers: through a literal and unreserved submission to the bond as absolutely binding.45

Within the circular pattern of this play, which the platonic musical overture to Act V reveals as a dance to the music of time, the three blind deities—Fortune, Justice, and Cupid—like three unexpected Graces, move us to the end of the measure.


1 Ralph Berry, Shakespeare's Comedies: Exploration in Form (Princeton, 1972), pp. 113-14. For the most influential allegorical reading, see Barbara K. Lewalski, "Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of Venice;" SQt 13 (1962), 327-43.

2 A. D. Moody, from Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice (London, 1964), reprinted in Twentieth Century Interpretations of the Merchant of Venice, ed. Sylvan Barnet (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1970), p. 102.

3 Berry, pp. 114-15, 137.

4 E. M. Cams-Wilson, Medieval Merchant Venturers: Collected Studies (1954; London, 1967), pp. xv-xvi.

5 See Cams-Wilson; and G. D. Ramsay, English Overseas Trade During the Centuries of Emergence (London, 1957).

6The Discovery of the Large, Rich, and Beautiful Empire of Guiana . . . by Sir Walter Raleigh, ed. Sir Robert H. Schonburgh, Hakluyt Society, no. 3 (reprinted New York, 1970), "Epistle Dedicatory," p. iv.

7 I quote from The Merchant of Venice, ed. John Russell Brown, New Arden (Cambridge, Mass., 1955); for all other Shakespeare quotations I have used The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston, 1974).

8 For the sea of fortune, see Howard R. Patch, The Goddess Fortuna in Medieval Literature (1927; New York, 1967), pp. 101-07.

9 Cf. Sylvan Barnet, "Prodigality and Time in The Merchant of Venice;' PMLA, 87 (1972), 27-28.

10 Arnold Williams, The Common Expositor: An Account of the Commentaries on Genesis, 1527-1633 (Chapel Hill, 1948), p. 171.

11 Patch, pp. 39-40.

12 For the sixteenth century revival of the Fortune-as-handmaiden-of-Providence theory, see Marie Tanner, "Chance and Coincidence in Titian's Diana and Actaeon," Art Bulletin, 56 (1974), 541-46. For the role of providence in Hamlet, see, e.g., Maynard Mack, "The World of Hamlet," YR, 41 (1952), 502-23; and Sidney Warhaft, "The Mystery of Hamlet," ELH, 30 (1963), 193-208.

13 Pierre Viret, A Christian Instruction, tr. John Shute (1573), p. 7; John Calvin, Commentaries . . . upon the Prophet Danieli, tr. Arthur Golding (1570), fol. 65 [Quoted by C. A. Patrides, Milton and the Christian Tradition (Oxford, 1966), pp. 53, 56]; and William Langland, Piers the Plowman, ed. Rev. W. W. Skeat (Oxford, 1886), I.585, C. Passus XXI.228-35.

14 Fortin, "Launcelot and the Uses of Allegory in The Merchant of Venice," SEL, 14 (1974), 262.

15 Fortin, p. 265. For other misreadings, see, e.g., Berry, pp. 113-14; and John F. Hennedy, "Launcelot Gobbo and Shylock's Forced Conversion," TSLL, 15 (1973), 406.

16 The parallels to Genesis XXVII were first noted by Dorothy C. Hockey, "The Patch is Kind Enough," SQ, 10 (1959), 448-50; see also Norman Holland, The Shakespearean Imagination (New York, 1964), p. 107.

17 Moody, in Twentieth Century Interpretations, p. 104.

18 Fortin, p. 267.

19 See Sigurd Burckhardt, "The Merchant of Venice: The Gentle Bond," in his Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton, 1968), pp. 206-36.

20 Carson, "Hazarding and Cozening in The Merchant of Venice," ELN, 9 (1972), 174-76.

21 See De Consolatione Philosophiae, especially—V.ii. The word providence, of course, does not occur in The Merchant of Venice; but cf. the traditional connotations of Portia's metaphor for mercy, "It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath" (IV.i. 181-82), and Lorenzo's "Fair Ladies, you drop manna in the way / Of starved people" (V.i.294-95).

22 See Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough, 1 (New York, 1957), 460-61, 511-14.

23 Brown, Merchant, p. iv. The verbal complex of "venturing" or "hazarding" for the "Golden Fleece" was familiar enough that Marlowe could subvert the romantic idealism wittily by attaching it to a man: "His dangling tresses that were never shorne, / Had they beene cut, and unto Colchos borne, / Would have allu'rd the vent'rous youth of Greece / To hazard more, than for the Golden Fleece" (Hero and Leander 1.55-58).

24 Geoffrey Whitney, A Choice of Emblems: 1586, English Emblem Books No. 3 (Menston, 1969), p. 203. The providential thrust of the emblem is noticed by Henry Green, Shakespeare and the Emblem Writers (London, 1870), pp. 413-14; and by David M. Bergeron, English Civic Pageantry 1558-1642 (London, 1971), pp. 293-94.

25 See Bergeron, pp. 152-53, 161, 191-92, 198-99.

26The Voyages and Colonising Enterprises of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, ed. David Beers Quinn, Hakluyt Society, Second Series, 83 (1940; reprinted New York, 1967), 11.438. See also Robert R. Cawley, Unpathed Waters: Studies in the Influence of the Voyagers on Elizabethan Literature (Princeton, 1940), p. 138, n. 75.

27 See Sylvan Barnet, "Prodigality and Time," pp. 28-29; and Carson, p. 177.

28 See D. J. Palmer, "The Merchant of Venice, or the Importance of Being Earnest," Shakespearean Comedy, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 14 (London, 1972), pp. 101-03; and H. S. Donow, "Shakespeare's Caskets: Unity in The Merchant of Venice," ShakS 4 (1968), 87-88.

29 See Richard Knowles, "Myth and Type in As You Like It," ELH, 33 (1966), 3-5.

30 See, particularly, Jane Aptekar, Icons of Justice: Iconography and Thematic Imagery in Book V of the Faerie Queene (New York, 1969), pp. 180-86, 194-200; and Eugene M. Waith, The Herculean Hero (New York, 1962), pp. 47-48. For Herculean virtue dominating fortune, see R. Wittkower, "Chance, Time and Virtue," JWI, 1 (1937-38), 316-20; and Pierre Courcelle, La Consolation de Philosophie dans la tradition littéraire, Études Augustiniennes 8 (Paris, 1967), pp. 233-35.

31 Burckhardt, p. 217.

32 See Nicomachean Ethics V.xi.9 and V.i. 15-20; and, for the temperate Hercules, see Aptekar, p. 181, and Waith, pp. 40-43.

33 Samuel C. Chew, The Virtues Reconciled: An Iconographic Study (Toronto, 1947), p. 48.

34 As Erwin Panofsky has remarked, the figure of Blind Justice ". . . is a humanistic concoction of very recent origin," stemming from the vogue for Egyptian hieroglyphics, but one that quickly obtained wide circulation. See Studies in Iconology (1939; New York, 1962), p. 109 and n.

35 See James E. Phillips, "Renaissance Concepts of Justice and the Structure of The Faerie Queene, Book V," HLQ, 33 (1970), 103-20; W. N. Knight, "The Narrative Unity of Book V of The Faerie Queene: 'That Part of Justice Which is Equity,'" RES, 21 (1970), 267-94; and R. B. Waddington, The Mind's Empire: Myth and Form in George Chapman 's Narrative Poems (Baltimore, 1974), pp. 171-72.

36 See Rosalie L. Colie, Shakespeare's Living Art (Princeton, 1974), p. 11 and passim.

37 See C. A. Patrides, "Milton and the Protestant Theory of the Atonement," PMLA, 74 (1959), 10-13.

38 See Susan Snyder, "The Left Hand of God: Despair in Medieval and Renaissance Tradition," Studies in the Renaissance, 12 (1965), especially 30-34, 50-57.

39 Burckhardt, p. 234.

40 Lewalski, pp. 330-31.1 quote from The Geneva Bible, facsimile of the 1560 edition (Madison, 1969).

41 Barton, The Riverside Shakespeare, p. 253.

42 See Panofsky, Studies in Iconology, pp. 95-128; Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (rev. ed., New York, 1968), pp. 53-80; and Panofsky, Problems in Titian, Mostly Iconographie (New York, 1969), pp. 129-38. See also C. D. Gilbert, "Blind Cupid," JWCI, 33 (1970), 304-05.

43 See, e.g., Frank Kermode, "The Mature Comedies," Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne: Renaissance Essays (New York, 1971), pp. 204-10.

44 See, especially, Burckhardt, pp. 223-27, and Barton, The Riverside Shakespeare, p. 253.

45 Burckhardt, p. 210.

Michael Ferber (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "The Ideology of The Merchant of Venice;' in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 20, No. 3, Autumn, 1990, pp. 431-64.

[In the following essay, Ferber surveys the play from an ideological standpoint and examines how several varying ideological discourses inform the play's issues and themes. An early version of this essay was presented in 1979 to the Marxist Literary Group at Yale.]

Nearly all recent discussions of The Merchant of Venice have agreed with Auden that the play is a "problem play,"1 filled with gaps, strains, seams, ironies, silences, subversions, and symptoms of discomfort. The last word on the play's unity and "harmonies" seems already to have been said,2 and the reigning spirit of literary criticism today is skeptical, analytical, deconstructive, relentless in its search for ironies. The inconsistencies and paradoxes that have been turned up, however, often seem arbitrary, either because they are not folded back into a general assessment of the play or, more important, because they are not traced to the ideas and practices of Shakespeare's historical moment.

The exceptions, I think, are those discussions that invoke ideology as a concept mediating the work itself and its contemporary social ground, context, or totality. Although the concept is used in other theories, Marxists have recently made the most ambitious and most plausible use of the concept to comprehend The Merchant of Venice in its entirety. (The two most important Marxist critics of the play, so far as I am aware, are Walter Cohen and Michael Nerlich.)3 In what follows I will try to reconstruct the play along ideological lines, while also trying to give a more satisfactory sense of the whole than we have had.


The play's general problem, the congruence of spiritual or moral values with the exigencies of the real world, may be adumbrated in its title. It is easy to imagine a play about the friendship of two men put to the test (perhaps over a woman, as in The Winter 's Tale), in a plot where practical, worldly concerns are not at issue, and it is easy to imagine a play that entangles the two friends in the unfriendly world of loan sharks. They might both be soldiers of fortune like Bassanio, devoted comrades-at-arms now on leave in the bewildering, sophisticated city. But Antonio, this Nisus to Bassanio's Euryalus, happens to be a merchant. As the traditional and probably universal story takes on the ballast of specific contemporary meanings it lists and threatens to capsize. Shakespeare makes Antonio a hero, but the strain is evident. In the tradition of great friendship he is ready to sacrifice everything for Bassanio, but he does not resist his fate in heroic soldierly fashion; if anything he seems to collaborate in it, and among the reasons he does so, it has been suggested, is his full complicity in the way things are done in Venice, even by his enemy Shylock. Shakespeare increases the complexity of Antonio by superimposing on him the theme of Christian self-sacrifice, assigning him aristocratic virtues, and attributing to him a mysterious sadness. But we can see that Shakespeare's audacity in elevating a merchant to heroic station works a change not only on the idea of the hero but equally on the idea of the merchant. One result is a distinctive version of an ideology emergent in Shakespeare's day, which Nerlich has named the "bourgeois ideology of adventure."

"Ideology," the crucial term of this essay, may seem well-enough defined if we are speaking only of "Elizabethan mercantile ideology" or "emergent bourgeois ideology," although to specify it in each case may not be easy. I want to use the term in some extended senses, however, and to apply various pressures to it. These extended senses are familiar to readers of Althusser, Jameson, Eagleton, and the "New Historicists," but their work has also set the term adrift upon a sea of varying definitions, some of them so general as to include its usual antonyms. It is worth a little time at the outset, then, to make my understanding of "ideology" explicit.

I think it makes sense to say that all literature has an ideology, although it may be preferable to say that it produces or induces an ideology in its audience. All literature has a design on us, whether palpable or not, and that design has social bearings, however remote. Perhaps certain highly self-conscious works make an exception to this rule, although it might be truer to say that such works project an anti-ideological viewpoint that is itself, in part, ideological. One might argue that while the many narrative stances and styles in Joyce's Ulysses seem to sweep away all privileged standpoints from which to comprehend the world, the careful continuity of its "realistic" level beneath all the devices, and the coming to the surface of that level in the seemingly artless soliloquy of Molly at the end, endorse the standpoint after all of "life," of empathy, of realism, of decency, which has ideological features of its own.

I use "ideology" in the singular advisedly, though it is sometimes argued that a work of any complexity is better described as a field across which several ideologies are at play, or at war. To leave it at that, however, is to abandon interpretation too soon. It may not be so simple an affair as, say, calculating the resultant vector of several component vectors—gaps and seams and silences will remain—but gaps and seams and silences belong almost by definition to a "single" ideology as well. I think we are obliged to try to state, with whatever provisos, the work's overall meaning and dominant ideological effect.

By the ideology of a work I do not mean the ideology of the author, about which in Shakespeare's case we know very little anyway. Nor do I mean the ideology of Shakespeare's social class, or of the social class of his audience or his patrons, though all of these, intersecting in complex ways, certainly entered into the production of the final text and its performance on stage. For one thing, these ideologies are mediated by what we can call an aesthetic ideology, or more specifically an ideology of form or genre. A major genre like comedy, for example, with its many conventions of plot, characterization, levels of style, stagecraft, and so on, will transform the ideologies of its content. This is a complex but in principle a specifiable process; it is nothing so vague as the elevation of a particular content by a universal form, or the purging of historical particulars in the fires of transcendent literary archetypes. The generic ideology of comedy, in its "scape-goat" subgenre, works now with and now athwart the Christian, aristocratic, and mercantile ideologies of The Merchant of Venice.

Even if we assume, moreover, that it makes sense to speak of an aesthetic and generic ideology, I do not want to suggest that this play or any work is "all ideology" or reducible to a conjuncture of ideologies. By various means virtually all works of art, and comedies not least, may be distanced from all values and beliefs. No matter how realistic, art is not reality, and in that difference or distance lies what Sartre calls its appeal to our freedom and Marcuse and Adorno call its negative and Utopian dimension.4 They may underestimate the extent to which art may seduce us and put to sleep our critical powers, but they are surely right that it does not overwhelm us and force us to emergency ideological defenses, as "reality" often does. Even a Marxist with so wide a definition of ideology as Althusser's may grant that art lets us see, by an "internal distance," the very ideology in which it is held.

Indeed Althusser and his followers expand the meaning of "ideology" until it embraces nearly every pattern of thought or experience including those once held to be its opposite. They subsume under ideology our "lived relationship" to our social and material conditions, an unconscious structure that determines how we perceive and conceive the world. There is no escaping it; it will persist even in a classless egalitarian society. Its opposite is not a truer or more inclusive set of beliefs and feelings but the "science of ideological formations" itself, an abstract science of abstract structures that has nothing to do with experience. Under such a global definition, we slide from the useful if controversial idea that everything in a literary work has an ideological bearing to the nearly useless (but no less controversial) idea that everything is in essence ideological.

My notion of ideology is akin to Marx and Engels', even though they are not always consistent. An ideology is a set of related ideas, images, and values more or less distorted by the social or material interests of those who believe and propagate it. It gives "the form of universality" to a particular bias, ignoring certain facts while privileging others, and defining certain unequal social relationships as natural or divinely ordained. It is a part that pretends to be a whole, a false totality.5 In determining the ideology of The Merchant of Venice, then, we must try to refer its plot-structure, main themes, "world," and meanings to several ideologies current in England and, to a lesser extent, the social and economic structure without pretending to exhaust their full significance or effect. That two men and a woman may increase their mutual love by risking their lives and their wealth for one another—we may not be able to assign this to an ideological formation. That one of the men is a merchant adventurer who despises usury, the other a soldier of fortune, and that the woman is an heiress "richly left" anchor what may be a universal human theme to a particular historical milieu. That something of the patina of universality remains makes the story all the more powerful in its ideological effect.

Aristocratic Virtues and Mercantile Interests

No theme in The Merchant of Venice is more prominent than friendship. Not only is the friendship of Antonio and Bassanio the premise of the main plot, but Venice seems full of friends. Salerio, Salanio, and Gratiano all try to cheer up Antonio; they and Lorenzo and Bassanio are always about to spend the evening together and whenever they meet they rail cheerfully at each other like schoolboys. Even Shylock has a friend or two.

The ideal of friendship, although it might seem in principle to pertain to all men and women, arose in an aristocratic warrior and clan culture, where oaths of blood-brotherhood, initiation rites, communal property, and homosexual bonds served as its institutional basis. In the ancient cities, where it received its classic expression in Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, the ideal was nourished by a vigorous public life, while love for women was denigrated and confined to the private sphere. Aristotle would not have comprehended philia among the poor, slaves, or women; the only friendship worth mentioning is found among the good, the noble, the "free." To be generous and liberal with one another, as the etymologies of both adjectives suggest, friends must be noble in rank.6 During the Renaissance a more "liberal" version of friendship gained ground, according to which one might choose friends among lower ranks or even women—for "virtue is the true nobility"—but the association of friendship with high rank and wealth remained strong.

Friends must be secure enough materially to lend to one another without thought of return, to take risks as if they were not risks, to rise above the cares of the world and have an "unwearied spirit / In doing courtesies" (3.2.292-93). This nonchalance corresponds to the "graceful negligence" or sprezzatura recommended in books of etiquette for courtiers: beneath the display of one's skill at sonnets or fencing lies a gesture of conspicuous largesse. It is of course the opposite of the calculation and curiositas associated with the poor and especially with merchants. Antonio dismisses Bassanio's archery precedent as needless, even insulting, "In making question of my uttermost" (1.1.156). When Portia, who in the liberal atmosphere of this play acts the friend as well as beloved—for indeed the play scarcely distinguishes "love" from "friendship"—when she learns that Bassanio's friend is in trouble over the three thousand ducats, her response is prompt and bounteous:

 What no more?
Pay him six thousand, and deface the bond:
Double six thousand, and then treble that,
Before a friend of this description
Shall lose a hair through Bassanio's fault.


Bassanio also displays the instant generosity of a noble friend:

Gratiano: Signior Bassanio!
Bassanio: Gratiano!
Gratiano: I have a suit to you.
Bassanio: You have obtained it.

Nobility, however, demands generosity to social inferiors as well; Bassanio's granting of Launcelot's suit to join his household is an exemplary act of noblesse oblige.7

To these aristocratic virtues we may add another: the capacity to make promises and keep them. One must be autonomous and confident, as Nietzsche claimed, to make a promise;8 one's word as a gentleman is sufficient, and a symbolic act like exchanging rings will confirm an oath. Only base-born mistrusters of nobility demand a written contract. So Faust says to Mephistopheles: "So, you pedant, you demand something down in writing? / Have you never known a man, or a man's word?"9 The basis of the ring-plot in Acts Four and Five is the conflict between two "noble" deeds: Bassanio's extravagant promise to keep the ring—"when this ring / Parts from this finger, then parts life from hence"—and his fit of generosity (at Antonio's prompting) in giving it away.

In the midst of so much reckless magnanimity we almost forget that Antonio, and presumably all the other Venetians but Bassanio, are not landed aristocrats at all but merchants. Antonio may be "one in whom / The ancient Roman honour more appears / Than any that draws breath in Italy" (3.2.293-95), but he makes his living buying cheap and selling dear. Or so we must believe. In fact we never see Antonio do anything mercantile except negotiate a naive deal with Shylock, and we hear only that he never charges interest on his many loans. In the real Venice, it is true, "signiors and rich burghers" were the same people: the noble families in the closed Venetian oligarchy were nearly all "royal merchants." On the other hand, these same oligarchs, whether in their commercial, political, or military affairs (and there was often little difference among these) were renowned for their gravity, caution, and hard bargaining. They were not Antonios, and could not be.

Shakespeare, to summarize, has superimposed distinctions drawn within several incompatible ideological discourses: (1) between the landed aristocracy, who have the virtues we have been discussing and "Whose liberal board doth flow, / With all that hospitality doth know" (in Jonson's famous lines from "To Penshurst"), and the merchant class generally, who have the vice of greed; (2) between true merchants, who take risks to provide useful goods and may therefore claim profits, and the money-lenders, who risk nothing (because of bonds and collateral) and contribute nothing to the wellbeing of others; and (3) between the Christian doctrine of mercy or forgiveness and the "Jewish" doctrine of legality and vengeance. Not only the Venetians, of course, but real English noblemen invested money and time in merchant adventures; the second distinction, too, was not well founded, as most merchants in Venice as well as England also lent money at interest. But strong contrasts between these ideal types were a staple of the several conservative discourses prevalent in Shakespeare's day. Shakespeare wanted Antonio to have noble virtues, however improbable his calling makes them, and the resulting oddity is only partly concealed by making Antonio inexplicably "sad." One might take his sadness as a sign of his foundering under the burden of so much heterogeneous ideological cargo.10

Another class-biased discourse nascent in the sixteenth century has been described in Albert O. Hirschman's The Passions and the Interests?1 It was a capitalist critique of such destructive "passions" as avarice, ambition, and pride, and it argued for their social control by pitting them against one another. Part of its strategy was to disparage the passions as violent and futile, and to reduce legitimate human motives to "interests," at first broadly conceived to include one's power and honor but inevitably narrowed to material wealth. One calculated one's interest and governed one's passions. We can see here, as Nietzsche might have said, the outlook of the ignoble little townsfolk scurrying to get rich in the spaces allowed them by the great lords of the earth, fearful of the lords' passionate and arrogant energy and wishing only to be left alone. "Interests" became nearly synonymous with "prudence," almost with "reason." If Shakespeare encountered this ideology among London burghers, his play seems almost a reply to it. For the great imprudent passions of Antonio, Bassanio, and Portia lead them not only to greater life and happiness but, thanks to comic providence, to greater wealth as well. Shylock, who always looks to his interests and his interest, is made the villain, and his downfall begins, ironically, when for once he waives interest and succumbs to his master passion, his inveterate hatred of Antonio.


The third of the ideological discourses Shakespeare grafts together, Christianity, with its stress on charity, self-sacrifice, contempt of worldly things, and communal sharing (at least in some ideal communities), can absorb fairly well the ideals of friendship and generosity we began by discussing, but some theologians predictably saw worldly dangers, even the sin of idolatry, in the excesses of friendship. If Antonio only loves the world for Bassanio, so much the worse, for the world does not deserve love. The worldly wise, of course, also distrusted friendship, for the opposite reason. There appears to be a conflict between the exclusiveness of friendship and the universality of Christian love, between eros and agape. Perhaps the presence of Salerio, Solanio, and the others was meant to head off objections from a Christian quarter.

The crux of the conflict between friendship and some versions of Christianity lay precisely in Antonio's distinctive act, the extreme expression of classical friendship, standing surety for another. Medieval Christianity generally approved of it, encompassing it under the doctrine of imitatio Christi. So Antonio, the "tainted wether" or black sheep (or goat), becomes the Agnus Dei, submitting to sacrifice by the Jews so others may live. (This suggests an allegorical motive for Antonio's insistence that Bassanio witness his death.) But Luther condemned surety as presumptuous and unchristian,12 a position derivable from his insistence on the unbridgeable gap between man and God, matter and spirit, this world and the next. In this as in so many other particulars, Shakespeare bridges that gap as he opts for the traditional view.

Not all noble virtues can be readily harmonized with Christianity, which arose, after all, as a plebeian religion in a remote colony of the aristocratic metropolis. Pride or love of honor presents difficulties, and that is no doubt one reason Shakespeare omits it; nor is it central to the idea of friendship. Magnanimity and condescension, on the other hand, can be "refunctioned," to use Brecht's term, for Christian purposes: they become "grace." As the rulers of this world are to be brought low, so all their lordly values must be transformed. Action, once the prerogative of aristocrats and free citizens, is now a universal right; only the form it must take in this world is its apparent opposite, patience. Christ's supreme act was to suffer on the cross and forgive his enemies. So, without rehearsing the literary transformations necessary to accommodate a Christian hero, we can see that Antonio's heroic act, after giving everything to Bassanio, is essentially to do nothing, to go to his slaughter like a lamb. A law of conservation of action seems to govern the three protagonists. Anton io's hazardous act frees Bassanio to act but leaves Antonio bound, Bassanio's hazardous act frees Portia to act while Bassanio stands helpless, and then Portia frees Antonio. And it has often been remarked that Portia's exemplary patience under her father's bond, a few complaints notwithstanding, has made her peculiarly competent to rescue Antonio from Shylock's bond.

It is the strong otherworldly thrust of Christianity, but also its compromise with this world, that we most need to bring out as an ideological horizon or framework essential to the play. Let one text on Christian dualism stand for many: "Lay not up treasures for your selves upon the earth, where the moth and canker corrupt, & where theeves dig through and steale. / But lay up treasure for your selves in heaven" (Matt. 6.19-20, Geneva Bible). Christian communities were to withdraw from the "world," although they tended to combine this withdrawal with the plebeian ressentiment that animates the lurid destruction of commercial Babylon in Revelation, the weeping of her merchants, the mark of the beast on those who buy and sell. No sooner, however, had Christian communities gathered to await the kingdom that is not of this world than they had to accommodate themselves to one that is. The indefinite postponement of Christ's appearance, the increasing numbers of Christians, the conversion of many of high social rank—these entailed compromise and doctrinal declension. By Shakespeare's day so many practices and exegeses had been established that the church could accommodate almost anything. Christianity was itself a kind of "supra-ideology" or universal culture or language in which subcultures or dialects could take up positions more properly termed ideological. But Christianity was not infinitely malleable. Tensions lay beneath many layers of hypocrisy. While Shakespeare's worldly audience might have felt little discomfort with the use of Christian values to justify worldly pursuits, there were those who did (members of the new sects, and "seekers" belonging to none); the texts could explode if not properly handled. Shakespeare risked blowing up his play by pressing the theme of spiritual wealth "even to the uttermost" amidst a cast of Venetian merchants and worldlings.

Jews, Puritans, and the Ideology of Risk

G. K. Hunter makes a strong case that in Elizabethan England the dominant orthodoxy held that Jewishness was a theological or moral condition, not a racial type.13 The Jew was "faithless" (see 2.4.37), a heretic, one who chose the wrong beliefs ("heretic" means "chooser" in Greek), but who could convert, as Jessica does, and be saved. When John of Gaunt speaks of "stubborn Jewry" (R2, 2.1.55), he implies that the Jews could decide not to remain Jewish. The Jews chose Barabbas—a thief, a type of avarice or worldly pursuit—over Christ. Hence worldliness is the "Jewish choice," and anyone who makes that choice is a Jew. Shylock reminds us of the original choice as he wishes "any of the stock of Barabbas" had married Jessica rather than a Christian (4.1.292). The "Jew," we might say, occupied an ideological space that might be taken by real Jews but not only by them; it could be taken by those who are Jews "inwardly," as St. Paul said (Romans 2.28-29).14 In England Jews were very few, and probably none could have served as a model for Shylock. It is true that the Lopez affair stirred up anti-Jewish feeling, but such feeling was ordinarily dormant, and was to a certain extent transferable to other targets. It is clear, in any case, what one of the main targets of The Merchant of Venice is, for Shylock is not only a miserly and avaricious worldling, and an inveterate hater of Christians, but a usurer.

There is now a vast literature on usury, and we need only glance at it here.15 The debate over usury epitomizes the tension between the worldly and otherworldly dimensions of Christianity. The Old Testament explicitly invokes a double standard: "Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury" (Deut. 23.19-20). That seemed to mean that Jews might lend money on usury to Christians, whereas Christians, for whom all men are brothers, must forswear usury altogether. Christ said, "Mutuant date, " give loans without interest, "looking for nothing againe" (Luke 6.35). Most theologians agreed that usury was an act of hostility, the very opposite of charity and friendship. The official view of the Elizabethan government was that it was a "sin and detestable," forbidden by the Law of God (13 Eliz. c. 8, 1571), even though moderate interest (ten percent) was legal.16 When Antonio bids Shylock lend his money not as to a friend, "But lend it rather to thine enemy," he is invoking the Deuteronomic tradition as most Christians interpreted it.

The second source of teaching on usury is Aristotelian. In his Politics (1258b 1-9), Aristotle wrote that usury is contrary to nature (para physin) because its gain comes from money itself and not from exchange, for the sake of which money was invented. He notes that the very word for "interest" (tokos) originally meant "offspring": interest is money born of money, an unnatural thing. Thomas Aquinas agreed that it is contra naturam. Such is the basis of Antonio's argument against Shylock's exegesis of Genesis 30.31-43. As Shylock would have it, Jacob, the "skillful shepherd," intervenes in "the work of generation" and wins all the offspring as proper payment for his "thrift." To Antonio, Jacob's service was a "venture" in the hands of heaven. He scorns "A breed for barren metal," the gold and silver which Shylock boasts he makes breed as fast as ewes and rams (1.3.64ff, 129). Usurers are not only meddlers and panders, but false ones at that, for no new wealth is engendered; money is only transferred or stolen, as Laban learned.

We may note here an interesting instance of the layering of ideologies. The ideology of comedy celebrates marriage and fertility, and Aristotle denounces the unnatural fertility of usury. So there are two reasons that Shylock, who makes metal breed, loses his daughter and his wedding ring, not to mention "two sealed bags of ducats" and "two stones, two rich and precious stones" (2.8.18, 20), the family jewels; and that the contestants in the casket game must swear, if they choose wrong, "Never to speak to lady afterward / In way of marriage" (2.1.41-42): if they choose a breeding metal, they shall become sterile themselves.

With the Reformation, the prohibition of usury in Deuteronomy came in for revaluation and eventual rejection. Luther, always opposed in principle to usury, was even more opposed to efforts by radical reformers in 1524-1525 to abolish it. Faced with a peasantry in arms over usury, rents, and high prices, Luther unequivocally reopened the breach between this fallen world and the realm of the spirit. The Mosaic Code no longer bound Christians except in an inner, spiritual sense. A peasant is free to believe interest to be a sin, but if the law requires him to pay it, then pay it he must; a sin is not necessarily a crime. He must submit meekly, like Antonio, and leave to the discretion of the princes any action to abolish or limit usury.17

According to Benjamin Nelson, it was Calvin who most radically and influentially transformed opinion on usury. Calvin agreed with the tradition that held that the distinction between brother and stranger on which the Deuteronomic tenet rests is abolished, so there are now no strangers whom we may treat as enemies. Yet the Law of Moses was only political, and not binding on Christians, even in an inner sense. Moses, moreover, only forbade biting or excessive usury, not all interest. Interest is permitted as long as it does not contravene the practice of charity, and that must be determined in each case by our consciences. Calvin made a decisive move toward individualism as he dissolved the old "tribal" barrier. In Nelson's phrase, he brings us "from tribal brotherhood to universal otherhood."18

In England many clergymen (and playwrights) vehemently reacted in defense of the old prohibition and attacked those, mainly in the City, who practiced what they thought Calvin preached, and many of those were Puritans. The "elective affinity" of Swiss and Dutch Calvinists, Huguenots, German Pietists, and English Puritans for "rational" primitive-capitalist practice was noticed three centuries before Max Weber, generally with contempt. Much of the initiative for the new commercial expansion in the City of London came from Puritan bourgeois "new men," although it was by no means limited to them, as it was common for the landed aristocracy to invest in commercial ventures. As the traditional agricultural and craft-guild economy began to give way before the new forces, the conservative ideologies of all classes seem to have found a scapegoat in the worldly "cit," usually a usurer, and very often a Puritan. The ideological crosshairs trained on the Jew were now centering on the Puritan.

I agree with those who have argued that Shylock is a kind of surrogate Puritan.19 Walter Cohen disagrees, but he does not weigh the arguments for it; he is more interested in the situation in historical Venice, where there were Jews but no Puritans.20 Contemporary literature about Puritanism, friendly and hostile, characterizes it, as Matthew Arnold did nearly three centuries later, as English Hebraism. Puritans were Judaizers, Christians of the Book, especially fond of the Old Testament, and they considered themselves, although with frequent anxiety, as the chosen people, or the elect. They gave their children Old Testament names either in Hebrew or in translation, such as Praisegod and Increase. They were people of contracts and compacts as the Jews were people of the Covenant. They banned images and kept the Sabbath holy. On the other hand, like the Pharisees, Puritans were seen as hypocrites who behind their "sad ostents" hid avarice or worse—lust, in the case of Shakespeare's "precise" Angelo. In 1572 Thomas Wilson denounced "the dissembling gospeller" with his counterpart the papist: "And touching thys sinne of usurie, none doe more openly offende in thys behalfe than do these counterfeite professours of thys pure religion" (p. 178).

Werner Sombart's revision of Weber's theory, in The Jews and Modern Capitalism (1911), whereby Jews were the carriers of capitalism into Europe, posits "an almost unique identity of view between Judaism and Puritanism"; indeed, "Puritanism is Judaism."21 Shakespeare makes the fit between the Jew and the Puritan tighter by adding characteristics probably untypical of the Renaissance Italian Jew, or his stereotype in English thought, but certainly part of the stereotype, and often the reality, of the Puritan. Shylock dislikes masques, merry-making, and music. (Marlowe's Barabbas, on the other hand, is a bon vivant with a full wine cellar.) Shylock's manner of speaking, his laconic "plain style," and his literalness ("ships are but boards, sailors but men") smack of the Puritan. Harold Fisch thinks he detects a hint of Ramist logic, popular with Puritans, in Shylock's talk.

It would be too simple, although not altogether wrong, to say that his substitution of a Jew for a Puritan is an Aesopian maneuver to protect Shakespeare from the City authorities, many of them of Puritan or Calvinist leanings, who already disliked the theater. (Two reasons it is too simple, of course, are that some Puritans liked the theater and that Shakespeare had protection enough at the Court.) Shakespeare never set his plays in contemporary England and there were no Puritans in Venice; the decorum he always observes puts the issues at sufficient distance here to let his audience turn them over without the distraction of immediate pertinence. He seems nonetheless to invite his audience to take the play's gravamen as directed at the new class of individualistic Puritan merchants in the City.

For merchants they were. Shakespeare is quite misleading in suggesting that merchant adventuring and usurious calculating were done by different sorts of people. Venetian Jews did both, and English merchants, Puritan and otherwise, did both.22 Puritans, in fact, were heavily engaged in the Society of Merchant Adventurers, as the history of New England will remind us. Marlowe's Barabbas, although a much more stylized caricature than Shylock, is an adventurer, and he dwells on his argosies still at sea as much as Salerio supposes Antonio does.

It is evident then that Shakespeare wanted Antonio and Shylock to represent contrasting kinds of economic enterprise and was perfectly willing to bend the facts to make them do so. In the general scheme of the play, Antonio, Bassanio, and Portia stand for generosity, self-sacrifice, risk, and love, while Shylock stands for miserliness, sacrifice of others, certainty (or surety), and hatred. To fit two economic practices, themselves ideal types, into so general and morally absolute a plan is perhaps Shakespeare's fundamental ideological maneuver.

I have not found recorded a claim by a Tudor merchant that he is entitled to large profits, or to the esteem of the community, because of the uncertainties and dangers of his work, but it is evident that a set of attitudes existed that we might call "the ideology of risk."23 It shows up negatively in the argument that usury is reprehensible because it is certain. "The essence of usury was that it was certain, and that, whether the borrower gained or lost, the usurer took his pound of flesh."24 Shylock is so filled with hatred that he passes up interest, but he insists on a contract, signed and sealed, according to his normal usage. Contemporary anti-usury tracts, too, distinguish clearly between merchant adventurers and money lenders (even if, as I have said, they were often the same people): "The usurer never adventureth or hazardeth the losse of his principali: for he will have all sufficient securitie for the repaiement and restoring of it backe againe to himselfe."25 The lawyer in Wilson's Discourse, in phrases reminiscent of Shakespeare's "royal merchant," argues that "the merchaunt adventurer is . . . a lordes fellow in dignity, as well for his hardy adventuring upon the seas . . . as for his royall and noble whole sales" (p. 203). In the sixteenth century as in all eras, merchant adventuring was closely connected with voyages of exploration, plunder, colonization, and imperial conquest; the aura of heroism, great adventure, and patriotism was transferable to the more strictly commercial aspect. The voyage of Drake's Golden Hind caught the imagination of many in England not least because it returned 4,700 percent on the ventured principal when it came home in 1580. The Antonios and Bassanios of the time, if not quite interchangeable, shared many functions and worked for the same companies. Bassanio, a soldier of fortune, presumably once a mercenary in a French army (1.2.108-10), is a kind of merchant adventurer; Antonio, as we have argued earlier, is a kind of risk-taking hero. (We might recall here John Ruskin's attempt in Unto This Last to specify the conditions under which the merchant, like the soldier, must give his life.)

So a new ideology of mercantile activity was emerging in Shakespeare's day, and Shakespeare seems to have shared it. Under one traditional scheme, the merchant, being a middle-man, held a position of middle honor (ranging from grudging tolerance to real respect) between the primary producers (peasants and artisans) and the parasites (usurers).26 Trade is dangerous to the soul and sometimes to the community, but it is necessary; the trader is entitled to fair profit for his labor, skill, and risk. When Calvin asks, "Whence do the merchant's profits come, except from his own diligence and industry," and omits Providence or luck, he transvalues the tradition, takes his stand on certainty, as if commercial prosperity is predestined as surely as our salvation or damnation, and gives Shylock an ideology opposite to that of risk, an "ideology of thrift," with its stock of proverbs such as "fast bind, fast find."27

We may now see what may be Shakespeare's distinctive contribution to the history of capitalist ideology: he has invented an imaginary alternative to the Weber Thesis. Whereas Weber linked the habits of asceticism and rational self-scrutiny encouraged by Calvinism with the habits of saving and rational calculation essential to early capitalism, Shakespeare tied capitalism to a sort of anti-Calvinist Christianity that encouraged uncalculating acts of sacrifice and risk. Weber's and Shakespeare's spirits of capitalism, of course, differ as much as their Christian ethics. Shakespeare would separate mercantile capital from finance capital and attribute to the former not only the Christian virtues but the virtues of the aristocracy, as if to say that Antonio's way of doing business is the old true way, hallowed by tradition although it was in fact new), while Shylock's is an innovation dangerous to the community. It is thus fitting that the "old money" of Portia should, at least in intent, bail out Antonio from the clutches of the nouveau riche. The theses of Weber and Shakespeare, however, are similarly paradoxical, for both yoke an otherworldly ethic (Weber's "innerworldly asceticism") with worldly success. Weber tries to show how one transformed itself into the other; Shakespeare apparently sees no paradox at all, and employs each as the vehicle for the other's tenor.


Wherever they are set, all of Shakespeare's plays are "about" England. By this I mean more than the unexceptionable claim that all of English literature, no matter how exotic its subject, speaks to the condition of its English-speaking audience. For Shakespeare and his audience shared literary conventions, such as allegory and the exemplum, and notions about universal human nature that led them to translate easily from an alien locale to their own. "Venice," however, bore connotations richer than, say, "Verona," where Shakespeare twice set plays, or "Messina." As M. M. Mahood points out, there is more local color here than in the other Italian settings: there are gondolas and "trajects," the Rialto and synagogues, and so on.28 On the other hand, Shakespeare's Venice is not so exotic that what goes on in it cannot easily strike home.

Venice, in fact, is a place with its own exotics; it is a part of Christendom, but as one of Christendom's frontiers it defines the alien. In nearby Belmont, Portia receives a stream of strangers, some of them quite exotic or outlandish in manner, but they are "inside outsiders" (assuming the Prince of Morocco is Christian), objects of mockery but not hostility, and familiar enough in this cosmopolitan locale. As a resident alien, the Jew can be tolerated as long as he maintains a pretense of civilized, "gentle" behavior, but he is always potentially the real enemy within, assimilable to the political enemy, the Turk, or the ultimate cosmic enemy, the Devil. Venice, then, can seem either generous and ecumenical, as befits a commercial capital, or strict and vigilant, as befits the defender of the frontiers. Translating, the London audience may think well of themselves as tolerant cosmopolites, but they are advised to consider their own undeniably English and Christian Shylocks as genuine aliens and threats to the polity.

A "myth of Venice" had gained currency in Elizabethan England and may have raised specific expectations among the better informed of Shakespeare's audience. Venice was a republic, indeed the "Most Serene Republic," whose longevity and stability were attributed by its admirers to a strict, intricate, and impersonal legal order. As Pocock summarizes it, "The mito di Venezia consists in the assertion that Venice possesses a set of regulations for decision-making which ensure the complete rationality of every decision and the complete virtue of every decision-maker."29Othello illustrates the wisdom of Venetian decision-makers in the scene (1.3) where the Senate sees through the feint or "pageant" of the Turks and correctly concludes they are bound for Cyprus, and glances at Venetian serenity in the line of Brabantio to Roderigo, "What, tell'st thou me of robbing? this is Venice" (1.1.105). Lewes Lewkenor, who translated Contarini's book on Venice's constitution in 1599, praised "their penal laws, most unpardonably executed."30 The Doge has strictly limited powers, and could not pardon criminals or deny the course of law. The helplessness of Shakespeare's Duke is perfectly well-motivated, of course, by the internal demands of the plot, but Zera Fink is probably right in claiming that

this play in which everyone (Shylock, Antonio, Portia) except the irresponsible Salarino [Solanio] assumes that the laws will be adhered to, in which the laws are adhered to, and in which Shylock reaches for his triumph and arrives at his doom at every step in accordance with the law, and in which his case breaks down, not because the Duke refuses to enforce the law against a patrician, but because the law is discovered to be against Shylock—it is impossible, I say, to believe that as Shakespeare portrayed these things he was unaware of the contemporary reputation of Venice for justice and that it did not color to some extent his handling of his materials.31

The material Shakespeare was handling had to be handled with care, for it had sharp edges, edges that grew visible a generation later as republicans, commonwealthmen, and more radical reformers pressed attacks first against the Stuart kings and then against the monarchy itself. Contarini wrote that "the Duke of Venice is deprived of all means, whereby he might abuse his authority, or become a tyrant," and many were to wish that Charles the First could be reduced to such a dukeship.32 A similar thought is found in print as early as the 1530s. Under Elizabeth the religious, political, and economic pressures were still far from the point where Members of Parliament could ask the Venetian ambassador for an account of his country's constitution, as they did in 1644 (others publicly called for its adoption), but that constitution was admired by the influential circle of Leicester, Sidney, and Ralegh, whose opinions Shakespeare and many in his audience would have known.33 Yet if the "ideologeme" of Venice-as-republic was available, Shakespeare does not seem to have triggered it in The Merchant of Venice. Whatever expectations his audience might have brought, only the legalism, and not the constitution itself, is put into the foreground, and the legalism is of course morally ambiguous.

If the play entertains any thoughts about Venice's way of governing itself, they seem to be implicitly critical. A nation of laws, of equals under the law, however praiseworthy, may land its citizens in tangles from which they cannot extricate themselves unaided. Although it is finally by quintessentially Venetian means that the knot is untied, the solution is brought by one who is trebly an outsider: an unknown lawyer from Padua, a lady from Belmont, an emblem of mercy or grace from on high. If a gracious intervention is sometimes needed to keep citizens (or at least male citizens) from injuring themselves and their state, then ideologically this points not only to heaven but to a sovereign (and perhaps a female sovereign) who understands the mystery of statecraft. One can see in Portia, too, something of Machiavelli's Fortuna, to master which is the ever-exigent need of a republic (as well as a prince) and which in the long run is certain to cause the state's decline or corruption. This time Fortuna turns out to be a stroke of Lady Luck, but next time the wheel may take a turn for the worse.

Much more fully active in the play than the political meaning is the archetypal image of "Venice" as the wealthy mercantile city, but this too carried ambivalent connotations. There was of course the ambivalence of wealth itself, a worldly good but a spiritual danger, a means of generosity but also an object of greed. Othello's Venice is perilously worldly and sophisticated; the Venice of Jonson's Volpone (1606) is pervaded by rapacity and cunning (though also by strict laws). Many Englishmen praised Venice for "the beautye and ryches of thys world," as Andrew Borde did in 1542, but others denounced it for an immorality hidden behind its gorgeous facade.34 The theme of the caskets, the hypocrisy of Shylock and his goodly outside, the general glitter and merriment and masking, are all appropriate to Venice's reputation.

Walter Cohen argues that Italian economic history would allay the fears of capitalism prompted by the dichotomies of the English situation, for in the more advanced economies of Venice and other Italian cities these dichotomies were resolved and incorporated: merchant princes were also moneylenders, Jewish moneylenders were also merchants, and aristocrats lived in the city. Jews even contributed (by law) to charitable banks that helped the Christian poor.35 This may be so, although one may wonder how many Englishmen who knew about the Venetian economy were fearful of capitalism, since they would also have known that these dichotomies did not really exist in London either, except as abstractions. It is not "capitalism" that is frightening in the play, moreover, but moneylending; there was no name yet for capitalism in general. The "resolutions" of Venice, in any case, may not have been available as an "ideologeme" because few people knew about them, and Shakespeare seems not to have been one of the few.

This brighter side of Venice may have been eclipsed by a sense that England was in fact more advanced. The parallels between the two great island sea-powers of the modern world were hard to miss, and they were later elaborated in print (by James Howell, for example, in 1642).36 But it is possible that Venice provided an example peculiarly pertinent to England because England seemed about to inherit its imperial and commercial glory. Cohen claims that to Londoners "Venice represented a more advanced stage of the commercial development they themselves were experiencing" (p. 769), but the opposite ought to have been obvious in 1595 or earlier. Venice was in decline. England, once almost its economic colony, was now its rival for the long-distance carrying trade even in the Mediterranean. "The Venetians, who once almost monopolized England's woollen exports, ceased regular visits to London after 1533; they were last seen at Southampton in 1587."37 Indeed, this last visit ended in shipwreck off the Needles (Isle of Wight), a reminder of which may be found in the report that Antonio has lost a ship on the shoals of the Goodwins in the Channel, presumably on the return from London (3.1.1-7; cf. 2.8.27-32). The torch has been passed to London, and with it might come all the ills of worldly wealth. In Robert Wilson's The Three Ladies of London (c. 1581), the lady named Lucre, a granddaughter of "the old Lady Lucre of Venice," inherits the family servant Usury, who has followed her to this new and better version of his home town.38

Antonio's Venice, to be sure, mutes the acquisitive spirit among the Christians, or rather transmutes it, as in Bassanio's quest, to a more spiritual one, while concentrating it on Shylock in order to get rid of it. But the sadness of Antonio may be premonitory of his, and his city's, sterility. Not the least of the ills of worldly wealth is its transience: there is no future in it. Sated at the opening ("sad" in its oldest sense) Antonio finds life and living at the end by leaving Venice behind for a better place. So the riches of this world will lend themselves for a time to Venice, as they did to Babylon, Tyre, and Carthage before her, and will to England after her. In his title of "royal merchant" we may hear an echo of the "princes who are merchants" of Tyre, the "merchant city" whose destruction Isaiah foretold (23.8, 11). In the great opening passage of Ruskin's The Stones of Venice we have the locus classicus of the historical parable the play lightly suggests: "Since first the dominion of men was asserted over the ocean, three thrones, of mark beyond all others, have been set upon its sands: the thrones of Tyre, Venice and England. Of the First of these great powers only the memory remains; of the Second, the ruin; the Third, which inherits their greatness, if it forget their example, may be led through prouder eminence to less pitied destruction."

Auden points out that Shakespeare's Venice produces nothing of its own. Wealth grows through trade (Antonio), usury (Shylock), and fortune-hunting (Bassanio).

"Richly left," Portia inherits her wealth from her father. The other classes and castes are the Duke, lawyers, servants (Launcelot Gobbo), and "many a purchas'd slave" (4.1.90). Primary production (in England, the woolen industry) survives only as exemplum and metaphor: Shylock's tale of Jacob the shepherd, Portia as the Golden Fleece, Antonio as the "tainted wether of the flock," Shylock as a wolf. In the play as in real city finances the stress falls on money, the representative of already existing real wealth or value (if it is not debased). In all of this an Elizabethan might find perils to the soul. However, as the universal medium of exchange and the means of the communication or circulation of wealth, money reduces the moral question to simple terms: hoarding or free circulating, too much or too little, greed or generosity. Money is isomorphic to a one-commodity economy and mates well with the single spiritual commodity of love or friendship.

That is perhaps why Shakespeare gives us two kinds of money, coins and rings. It is as if, having shown money to be barren, he felt uneasy with even the proper use of money—lending it freely to help a friend. Rings are Utopian money. As a symbol of the bond of love, each ring is unique, as each bond is unique. Rings cannot be exchanged, as coins can, but they can circulate; here they go round in small circles as befits their size and shape. They live a charmed life in the charmed circle of lovers and friends. You give them away and they return with interest. Shylock, who does not live according to the bonds of love and friendship, loses his ring when he loses his daughter. If you are a lover or a friend, however, the magic in each ring protects you from the consequences of your act: if you intend to break a bond, at least as long as you do so out of a generous spirit, out of another love-bond, the ring returns to the original finger, bringing with it a larger circle of love. So the ring that Portia gives to Bassanio, and Bassanio gives to "Balthazar," Portia finally gives to Antonio to give again to his friend. It is as if they are all married to each other, and all the richer for the exchange of the one ring.39

Shakespeare was probably unaware of the doctrine of the "velocity of circulation," according to which a growth in the rate of circulation of money is a growth in the amount of money. This doctrine was circulating in his day (a Florentine named Davanzati invoked it in Lezione della Monete in 1588), but it was too good to be true.40 Like Dante's mirrors, which illustrate how love, like light, is multiplied by giving it away, the rings add to the total quantity of love, and even to the amount each lover owns, by taking themselves rapidly away from each lover by turns.


The scene shifts from Venice to Belmont seven times, the seventh bringing us to the entire final act, where all the unsolved problems of Venice are "answered faithfully." The story of the pound of flesh, set entirely in Venice, contrasts with the story of the caskets, set entirely in Belmont. As the situation darkens in Venice, it brightens in Belmont and resolves itself happily. Except for a sequence in Act II dealing with Jessica and Gobbo, the setting alternates continually between the tragic and comic locales, each getting about half the lines. From the first shift of scene we sense that Belmont is a realm of answered prayers, of compensation for the world's injuries: a moment after Antonio says that "all my fortunes are at sea" and he shall rack his credit for Bassanio "even to the uttermost" (1.1.177, 181), Nerissa speaks of the abundance of Portia's "good fortunes" (1.2.4). This sense grows as the tenors of the two main plots diverge, even before Portia plans her intercession in Venetian affairs. It is as if the credit that is racked in Venice is stored in the treasury of the saints in Belmont, or as if the ruins of time (in Blake's words) build mansions in eternity.

From the scenario alone we would expect the two main plots to be close in meaning or moral if not in structure. As many critics have noted, they are exempla of the same precepts, like the two plots of King Lear. The casket story, the simpler of the two, teaches two closely related lessons: that true wealth is spiritual and inward, and that to find it you must risk everything you have. Morocco and Aragon choose gold or silver over lead and find no prize but a death's head or fool's head and messages about deception. Bassanio, by contrast, chooses not "by the view" of the casket but by an inner eloquence in it and opens the leaden one to find Portia's portrait. The theme of inner versus outer, of being versus seeming, is common enough in Shakespeare and in all literature; here it takes on a Christian cast whereby the inner or true becomes the spiritual and the outer or false becomes the material or worldly. When the scroll in the gold casket tells Morocco that "Gilded tombs do worms infold" (2.7.69), it recalls for us the whited sepulchres or painted tombs of Matthew 23.27, beautiful outwardly, but "within full of dead mens bones and all filthines."41 The scroll in the silver casket echoes Psalm 12 in telling Aragon that "The fire seven times tried this" (2.9.63); so the words of the Lord are as pure as silver seven times purified, whereas all around us the children of men speak vain and flattering words with a double heart.

The connection with Shylock is obvious. Shylock is not only a vengeful usurer but a hypocrite, one of the Pharisees Christ likened to the painted tombs in his diatribe against them in Matthew 23. "O what a goodly outside falsehood hath!" (1.3.97).

More prominent in the choice of caskets is the requirement that he who chooses lead "must give and hazard all he hath" (2.7.9).42 Bassanio's choice of lead, which threatens more than it promises—a woman who announces she stands for sacrifice—reveals his willingness to risk all for love, to see the world well lost for the sake of the one thing needful. Here the link with the main plot is even more substantial. Antonio, whose livelihood depends on risk, is prepared to sacrifice all out of love for Bassanio. Bassanio, himself a soldier of fortune, offers his parable of the second arrow to convince Antonio: by "adventuring" both arrows he will either find both or bring at least the "latter hazard" back again (1.1.140-52). We might doubt the wisdom of throwing good money after bad, but such a doubt is worldly wisdom, and Antonio, more devoted to friendship than to money, needs no convincing.

Besides the two main plots there are three others: Jessica and Lorenzo, the ring business, and the defection of Gobbo. Each of the plots may serve as a gloss on the other four, and without much effort we can read the play much as we might read Scripture with the four levels of exegesis at hand. To give away money for the sake of friendship, for example, is to leave a house of bondage, or of hell (2.3.2), and win a heavenly bride or bridegroom. To steal from a miser, to put on a disguise to fool a hypocrite—both parodied perhaps in Launcelot's attempt to extract a blessing, like Isaac, from his blind father—these are to assert the inner realm of faith and love against the glittering outsides of this world. To face death in a lead casket in the name of love and to be obedient to the mysterious will of a wise father are both somehow like the choice that Launcelot makes of following a poor gentleman, and all three choices bring "rare new liveries" (2.2.105) of one kind or another.

These interinanimations of meaning give the play much of the unity and closure it has, but the question of the two settings threatens to prise the play apart. They are so different in mood and style as to occupy almost incommensurable metaphysical states. Portia's role in the Venetian court is almost that of a heavenly being incarnate (in disguise) as a mortal, the Virgin Mary interceding against the Devil. When with Act V we break with Venice for good, in a manner critics have found awkward, we have entered a heavenly mansion full of music, from which we seem almost to look down on "the floor of heaven / . . . thick inlaid with patens of bright gold" (5.1.58-59). Here the unaccomplishable reaches fulfillment, the indescribable incarnates as act, and the Eternal Feminine drops manna on us from above. Here the Jewess turns Christian under the gentle instruction of her bridegroom, the lost rings find their owners, and in a "beautiful example of Shakespeare's dramatic impudence," Portia by a "strange accident" (5.1.278) can tell Antonio that three of his argosies are richly come to harbor.43

To put it another way, when we first hear of Belmont we guess it is a colony of Venice, a part of the Venetian empire, but by the end of the play the relationship seems reversed: Venice becomes a spiritually underdeveloped province of an empire of transcendent but benign power. At first we take Antonio's gift to Bassanio to be much like another commercial venture. He outfits Bassanio and sends him forth as he would a ship, borrowing against the prospects of success. As he would wait at home, perhaps in straitened circumstances, while his ship, unknown to him, founders on shoals or loads itself with riches, so he falls into ruin while Bassanio's expedition, unknown to him, grandly succeeds.44 Belmont is likened to "Colchos' strond," where Jason found the golden fleece and a magical wife along with it (1.1.169-72); Venice did trade in the Black Sea, although Trebizond, near ancient Colchis, was a commercial colony of Genoa, Venice's rival. Venetian fleets being as much military as commercial, it is appropriate that the venturer be a soldier. Bassanio will be the new lord of the lady of Belmont, the conqueror and colonizer who "marries" the land as Aeneas married Lavinia, Miss Italy, and as the Doge of Venice marries the sea. This symbolism, however, gives way to our strong impressions of the supernal power of Belmont and the infernal paralysis of Venice, and to the increasingly frequent theological suggestions that gather around Portia and her mission. There are two worlds after all, and Belmont is the "other" world, the place that makes all of life's actions into a divine comedy and from which, like Chaucer's Troilus, we may look down upon them and laugh.

Ideological Distance or Openness

Is all this to say—and Shakespeare could hardly have pushed it further without writing a simple morality play—that Venice is hopeless, or at best a stage where we must play sad parts (1.1.77-79), a place only to be endured as we prepare for the Kingdom? In reducing Venice to "the world" in Christian terms Shakespeare does more than blunt the critical edge that the anti-usury polemic otherwise would give the play; he almost dismisses the sharp unbrotherly practices as of no importance to Christians, who will inherit their heavenly portions (or Portia, to repeat Ruskin's pun) when their worldly course is run. And yet by placing the otherworldliness of Belmont and its lady in the foreground, by giving so few "realistic" touches to it (mainly some charming complaints and teasings by Portia), Shakespeare also seems to be inviting us to take a closer look at this orthodox but unlikely resolution. He "estranges" it from us; it is all too wonderful, too pat, too flat. Behind the thin heavenly harmonies we still hear, and seem meant to hear, Shylock's harsh questions echoing unanswered.

I have been more or less skirting "the problem of Shylock," so troubling to modern audiences, and about which more has been written than any other feature of the play. Shylock can be gotten round if he is not presented as a tragic hero (as Heine interpreted him) or as one of a misunderstood and oppressed minority who sings kaddish over his daughter (as Laurence Olivier acted him). But he is there to be gotten round, and he must have been something of a "problem" in 1596, a character not fully digested and assimilated into the structure of themes.

Shylock has, notoriously, some good speeches which carry conviction and draw sympathy, although even his famous "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech expresses his habit of reducing everything to physical or "worldly" terms. He has a prima facie case against the Christians—he has been spat upon—although the play would have us believe Shylock deserved it for his hateful financial practices. More troubling is Shylock's indispensability to the transactions that further the plot. He is thoroughly integrated into the Venetian economy. As Antonio well knows, "the commodity that strangers have / With us in Venice" is essential to its prosperity, "Since that the trade and profit of the city / Consisteth of all nations" (3.3.27-31). Although the mercy the Duke and Antonio render Shylock puts the lie to it, Shylock's plea that in seeking revenge he only follows Christian practice (3.1.61-66) rings uncomfortably true. (Marlowe's Barabbas says the same [JM 5.2.118]: "for Christians do the like.") He also reminds the court that Venetians hold many slaves, although we meet none of them. Shylock may be evil, but he is a necessary evil, and when the bienpensants of Venetian society mobilize to defeat him they can find nothing useful in their constitution. Even Portia's rescue, however satisfying dramatically, rests on the merest legal quibbles. That is of course part of the Christian theme: literally, "in the course of justice, none of us / Should see salvation" (4.1.195-96), for the law traps those who insist on it to the letter. Yet the feeling remains that not only Shylock but Venice too has gotten off more easily than it deserves: it was just good luck that Portia (or Bellario) came up with the answer. If the prosperity of the city rests on a system that allows hateful practices, its citizens should not be surprised if hatred also prospers to the point where it menaces the bonds of community. If the law permits any sort of contract, it can offer no reply to Shylock's "say it is my humour,—is it answer'd" (4.1.43). It must grant that it is answered, and preside over the dissolution of the traditional "organic" society into an aggregate of individuals who do as they like.

That seems to be what Shakespeare feared, but his honesty or empathy led him to give the Devil his due. The new and contemptible was hard to separate from the old and venerable, mercantile capital depended on financial capital, if not on old-fashioned usurious moneylending, and not all maritime ventures could be floated by partners in a joint-stock company. Up-to-date Shylocks of the London Exchange were a crucial part of the new capitalist expansion. The future lay with the banks. Shakespeare let such connections find expression in the play, with the result that the prevalent ideology of the play is at several points "subverted" or distanced.

This is not the only cause of the distancing effect. What I have just called the play's prevalent ideology is itself a product of at least three ideological discourses—agrarian-aristocratic, mercantile, and Christian (or one version of Christian)—that harmonize with each other only if certain features are kept subdued or vague. To these we should add an ambiguous theme on the power and place of women, a theme found in many other Shakespearian comedies but very prominent here. It is only Portia, brilliant, resourceful, and generous, who can extricate the male world of Venice from its stupid and self-destructive tangle—although she must do it through male means in male disguise, on a lark during a hiatus between her roles as dutiful daughter and dutiful wife.45 Finally we should note the effect of the constant alternation between utterly different kinds of story, setting, and mood, the "realistic" concatenation of events in Venice as against the triple rhythm of fairy-tale deeds in Belmont. With so much to accommodate, in fact, it is quite wonderful that the play comes across as cogently and coherently as it does.

I would argue, however, that a fair and comprehensive reading of the whole play, or a viewing of a performance, informed about its historical and ideological horizon, cannot give much more weight to these moments than I have given them. Recent post-structuralist readings of The Merchant of Venice, with little reference to the actual ideologies mobilized in it, have thoroughly elaborated its ironies and conflicts and countercurrents and set them free, as it were, to swamp the whole. Rene Girard, for example, gives as subversive a reading as one can without resorting altogether to the arbitrary play of meanings post-structuralism often celebrates, and he enters a vigorous brief in Shylock's behalf.46 Shylock is a Venetian among other Venetians, and only does what they do—especially when he confuses his personal and financial motives. He is the "grotesque double" of Antonio, and indeed "The generosity of Antonio may well be a corruption more extreme than the caricatural greed of Shylock" because it threatens the ordinary system of Venetian practices and seems to avert its gaze from them (p. 102). Venetians fail to face up to their own motive of revenge (the law itself being only formalized revenge) and cloak their doings in the language of charity. In the end Shylock is not so much punished for a crime—"he has done no actual harm to anyone" (p. 108)—as made into a scapegoat for Venice's otherwise insoluble contradictions. Shakespeare writes a play with two levels, addressed to the vulgar or to the sophisticated in his audience.

Terry Eagleton cleverly points out that "it is Shylock who has respect for the spirit of the law and Portia who does not" (pp. 36-37). That "blood" is entailed by "flesh" is a reasonable inference well within the spirit of the law, "as any real court would recognize," and the strict precisionism that defeats Shylock will also undo the law itself, the very concept of law, which cannot exhaustively enumerate every conceivable aspect of the cases it covers (p. 37). Shylock seems intent less on killing Antonio than on exposing Venetian law for a hollow sham behind which the Christian nobility gets what it wants. He succeeds, and the law deconstructs itself, for Shakespeare's audience if not for Shylock's.47

In cutting against the grain of the play this way, Girard and Eagleton bring out the "subversive" features of the play, but in doing so they leave themselves open to several serious objections. Setting aside Girard's Nietzschean view of justice as mere revenge and his anthropological view of punishment as mere scapegoating, we may ask why the moments of sympathy for Shylock, his home thrusts at the Christians, and their moments of calculation even in love should turn the play into a constant simultaneous double track of meaning, more like a logical paradox or figure-ground illusion than a sequence of virtual actions unfolding in time before a real audience. We also wonder why, on the sophisticated track, the subversive elements should take precedence over the more or less consistent if "conventional" framework of the rest of the play. Girard's modern taste for irony is surely anachronistically attributed to Shakespeare's audience. The same may be said of Eagleton, whose deconstructive effects are momentary paradoxes that work only if we forget the rest of the play. Eagleton ignores the contradiction between the oral understanding concerning the pound of flesh and Shylock's insistence on what was written; Shylock's "merry sport" is a deliberate lie. Eagleton also ignores Portia's elaborate attempts to dissuade Shylock and pay him many times his due, it being a reasonable inference that the point of any commercial contract is to allocate money, not kill people. While "any real court would recognize" that flesh includes blood, any real court would also recognize that the clause ordaining the pound of flesh was illegal in the first place.48 We may also ask Girard and Eagleton why they do not propose many more subversive ironies, for on their own principles there is an infinite number of them. To rule all but a few of them out, as they implicitly do, is to invoke standards of relevance—conventions of reading, historical probabilities, available ideologies, and even common sense—that will also, I believe, strictly limit the effects of the ones they discuss.

The harder if less exciting task is to weigh such subversive effects against the orthodox ones and give an account of what remains, after all, a single work that must be read or experienced in sequence through time, and a comedy at that. The larger problem with Girard and Eagleton, as with much post-structuralist criticism, is that their readings remain only two-term systems, despite the gestures toward infinite critical possibility. What one really needs for the interpretation I am presenting here is a system of five, six, or seven terms—terms that reflect the real cultural and ideological discourses accessible to Shakespeare and his audience. They were not infinite in number, they were not mere negations or subversions of one another (or any other), and they can (after all allowances for our ignorance) be specified in detail and discussed.

There may be another failure of historical imagination behind the attitude Girard and many earlier critics take toward the Venetians. They assume too easily that the Venetians, with the possible exception of Antonio, are shallow, superficial, hypocritical, and heartless, all tinsel and glitter, while against that suffocating background the harsh candor of Shylock is as welcome as a cooling breeze. They can point to a number of passages, but I think such critics are mainly giving vent to a mere distaste for the Venetians' friendly, gregarious banter: they forget the extent to which their own sensibility is colored by modern suspicions of courtesy and social warmth and by the shriveling of the public sphere. Shakespeare's audience would not have felt nearly so impatient with the Venetians, would have enjoyed them and readily lent them their sympathy. Venice may be unable to solve its problems by itself, but gay camaraderie is not one of its problems. It may be one of its saving graces.


I am grateful for criticism received [from the Marxist Literary Group], and to Margaret Ferguson, Robert Bell, Ilona Bell, Zachary Leader, Robert Hapgood, and Susan Arnold for comments on a later version. I quote throughout from the new Arden edition of the play, ed. John Russell Brown (London, 1955; rpt. New York, 1964).

1 "Brothers and Others," in The Dyer 's Hand and Other Essays (New York, 1962).

2 See, for example, Lawrence Danson, The Harmonies of The Merchant of Venice (New Haven, 1978).

3 Walter Cohen, "The Merchant of Venice and the Possibilities of Historical Criticism," ELH, 49 (1982), 765-89. Michael Nerlich, Ideology of Adventure: Studies in Modern Consciousness, 1100-1750, vol. I, trans. Ruth Crowley (Minneapolis, 1987).

4 An earlier version of this paper had a discussion of the Utopian dimension of the play, but it is omitted here for the sake of space.

5 The most thorough and careful discussion of Marx's use of "ideology," which defends it from several modern extensions and reductions, is Bhiku Parekh, Marx's Theory of Ideology (Baltimore, 1982).

6 "Free" and "friend" are also etymologically related.

7 A good discussion of the theme of gift-giving is Ronald A. Sharp, "Gift Exchange and the Economies of Spirit in The Merchant of Venice," Modern Philology, 83.3 (1986), 250-65. I am leaving aside the possibility raised by Auden and others that Antonio has a homosexual passion for Bassanio. The case for it rests on a few doubtful phrases such as "tainted wether," and it seems to create many more problems than it solves.

8Genealogy of Morals, Second Essay, Section 2.

9Faust I, 1716-1717, my translation.

10 Another of Antonio's departures from normal commercial practice: although he reports that "My ventures are not in one bottom trusted, / Nor to one place; nor is my whole estate / Upon the fortune of this present year" (1.1.42-44), it seems that the bottoms are entirely his own, so when they miscarry he must absorb the entire loss. "During the whole medieval period," however, "a ship almost never went out on the account of a single individual, because of the risk, but was always built for a number of share-holders." Various formal associations, societates maris, developed in early modern times to rationalize and distribute risk. See Max Weber, General Economic History (New York, 1961), pp. 157-59. Marc Shell points out that Antonio does not insure his ships, even though marine insurance was common in both Venice and England. See Money, Language, and Thought (Berkeley, 1982), p. 54 n. 19.

11 Albert O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests (Princeton, 1977).

12 Benjamin Nelson, The Idea of Usury: From Tribal Brotherhood to Universal Otherhood, 2nd ed. (Chicago, 1969), p. 152, quoting Luther, Von Kaufshandlung and Wucher (1524): "Standing surety is a work that is too lofty for a man; it is unseemly, for it is presumptuous and an invasion of God's rights. . . . Therefore the man who becomes surety acts unchristianlike, and deserves what he gets, because he pledges and promises what is not his and is not in his power, but in the hands of God alone." See also Barbara K. Lewalski, "Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of Venice," Shakespeare Quarterly, 13 (1962), 327-43.

13 G. K. Hunter, "The Theology of Marlowe's The Jew of Malta," Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 27 (1964), 211-40.

14 I do not mean to suggest that there was no anti-Semitism of the racist sort we know in modern times, or that the play does not risk awakening it at a few points. But the idea of "the Jew" mobilized in the play does not rest on it, and indeed often opposes it. Terry Eagleton is simply wrong to call Antonio a "racist" and to compare his trial to that of "a later anti-semite, Adolf Eichmann." See his William Shakespeare (Oxford, 1986), p. 47.

15 See Benjamin Nelson; R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926; rpt. New York, 1954); Thomas Wilson, A Discourse Upon Usury (1572), ed. and intro. R. H. Tawney (London, 1925). See also L. C. Knights, Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson (London, 1937), pp. 164-68 and passim; and the notes to the Arden edition of the play.

16 Knights, p. 162.

17 Nelson, pp. 29-56. Luther "insisted upon the sharpest possible divorce between the Christian ethic and the character of political organization" (p. 67).

18 Nelson, pp. 73-82; Tawney, pp. 91-115.

19 Paul N. Siegel, "Shylock and the Puritan Usurers," Studies in Shakespeare, 129-38, and Shakespeare in His Time and Ours (Notre Dame, 1968), pp. 237-54; Peter Millward, Shakespeare's Religious Background (London, 1973), pp. 158-61; Patrick Crutwell, The Shakespearean Moment (New York, 1955), ch. 5; Harold Fisch, "Shakespeare and the Puritan Dynamic," Shakespeare Survey 27, ed. Kenneth Muir (Cambridge, Eng., 1974), pp. 81-92. I am aware that "Puritan" is difficult to define and is somewhat anachronistic for 1595, but there seems to be enough contemporary evidence that it meant something fairly coherent. See Christopher Hill, Society and Puritanism (New York, 1964), ch. 1.

20 Cohen dismisses the identification of Shylock with the Puritan as unconvincing for two reasons: "it is just as easy to transform him into a Catholic and, more generally, because he is too complex and contradictory to fit neatly the stereotype of Puritan thrift." For the first point Cohen cites Danson, but Danson does not consider the usury question, sobriety, thrift, Old Testament names, and other salient features of Shylock and the Puritan stereotype; he stresses that Catholics were sometimes equated with Jews, largely because of their doctrine of justification by works. This is not sufficient. Cohen's second point is true but does not rule out the probability that Shylock evoked the Puritanas-usurer in the minds of his contemporary audience. It is not necessary to "fit neatly" a stereotype to bring it into play, nor is "thrift" the sum of the stereotype.

21 English version, trans. M. Epstein (New York, 1962), pp. 235, 236. Michael Nerlich has harsh criticisms of a different thesis of Sombart's, which we might call a variant of the Shakespeare Thesis, whereby capitalism is a hybrid of the heroic (entrepreneurial) spirit and the trading (bourgeois) spirit (pp. 79-82). But Nerlich does not consider the possibility that Shylock represents Puritanism.

22 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (New York, 1958), p. 271 n. 58.

23 Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno have a suggestive page on Odysseus and Robinson Crusoe as forerunners of the bourgeois rationale: "the possibility of failure becomes the postulate of a moral excuse for profit." Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York, 1972), pp. 61-62. Nerlich, in his very interesting survey of the decline of the knightly-courtly ideology of adventure and the rise of a bourgeois variant, does not find this argument explicit anywhere, but takes it as implicit in the ennobling of merchant "adventurers." Nerlich's main exhibit is The Merchant of Venice itself.

24 Tawney, p. 44.

25 Miles Mosse, Arraignment and Conviction of Usurie (1595), in R. H. Tawney and Eileen Power, Tudor Economic Documents, vol. 3 (London, 1924), p. 379.

26 This was a scheme not very visible to the ideology that draws its main distinction between landed wealth and commercial getting, as in the opening of Jonson's imitation of Horace's Second Epode: "Happy is he, that from all business clear, / As the old race of mankind were, / With his own oxen tills his sire's left lands, / And is not in the usurer's bands."

27 Calvin cited in Tawney, p. 36.

28 "Introduction" to the New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge, Eng., 1987), pp. 12-15.

29 J. A. G. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment (Princeton, 1976), p. 324. The Florentines Guicciardini and Gianotti wrote a good deal in praise of the Venetian constitution; Machiavelli had reservations. Contarini's De Magistratibus et Republica Venetorum, an account by a notable Venetian, was published in Paris in 1543 and was soon available in Italian. Lewes Lewkenor's English translation, The Commonwealth and Government of Venice, was printed in London in 1599.

30 Pocock, p. 325.

31 Zera S. Fink, The Classical Republicans: An Essay in the Recovery of a Pattern of Thought in Seventeenth-Century England (Evanston, 1945), p. 43. Fink also cites the two passages from Othello above.

32 Lewkenor's translation, in Fink, p. 38.

33 By Thomas Starkey. See Christopher Hill, Intellectual Origins of the Puritan Revolution (London, 1972), p. 276; Fink, pp. 41-51.

34 Fink, p. 44.

35 Cohen, 769-72. Cohen's arguments about the actual English situation should now be canvassed in the light of Nerlich's discussion.

36 Fink, p. 46.

37 Christopher Hill, Reformation to Industrial Revolution (New York: Pantheon, 1967), p. 55; William H. McNeill, Venice: The Hinge of Europe 1081-1797 (Chicago, 1974), pp. 127, 142.

38 See G. K. Hunter, "Elizabethans and Foreigners," in "Shakespeare in His Own Age" (Shakespeare Survey 17), ed. Allardyce Nicoli (Cambridge, Eng., 1964), pp. 37-52. Also following Lucre and usury to London, according to David Bady, was double-entry bookkeeping, known as "the forme of Venice," some terms from which may have entered the language of The Merchant of Venice. See David Bady, "The Sum of Something: Arithmetic in The Merchant of Venice" Shakespeare Quarterly, 36.1 (Spring 1985), 10-30. Zera Fink denies that Venice's decline was evident. The Venetians had recently won the Battle of Lepanto (although they lost Cyprus) and were thought to be capable of great expansion. But Fink does not consider the city's manifest loss of economic hegemony, which would have been well understood by City merchants.

39 I realize that this theory of rings does not quite catch Jessica's seemingly heartless squandering of her parents' ring for a monkey. (She is denying her parentage? The ring is turquoise, i.e., Turkish, and therefore infidel?) In an annual ceremony the Doge of Venice married the sea by throwing a ring into it. (It always came back, too, in the form of worldly prosperity.)

40 Joseph A. Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis (New York: Oxford, 1954), pp. 316-17.

41 Geneva Bible. Shakespeare's source in the 1595 English translation of the Gesta Romanorum three times describes the golden vessel as "full of dead mens bones" (Arden edition, pp. 172-74).

42 This is mainly Shakespeare's idea; his source stresses a more passive trusting in the Lord.

43 A comment on 5.1.278-79 in the New Cambridge edition, cited in the Arden, p. 138. Is it possible that the name Belmont is meant to echo the Venetian Monti di Pietà, Christian money-lending institutions intended to disrupt Jewish usurious practices? Monte meant "goods" or "assets," that is, a "mount" or "amount" of wealth; compare "he made his pile." See Stephen J. Greenblatt, "Marlowe, Marx, and Anti-Semitism," Critical Inquiry, 5.2 (1978), 294, and his source, Brian Pulían, Rich and Poor in Renaissance Venice (Oxford, 1971), as well as Cohen, 770. There were also Monti di Carità or Monti dell'Abbondanza that distributed grain and other supplies during famines.

44 Nerlich elaborates this parallel very fully. Although he is often very illuminating in detail, he reduces the major characters to vehicles of a Marxist allegory. Antonio is a pale character with no personal life because he is nothing personally; he is bourgeois mercantile capital personified, sad because he has no function other than to provide the capital and stay home. Bassanio is the junior partner, or "apprentice," with no capital of his own, who carries out the actual business trip in return for a share of the profits. He defeats the feudal nobility (Morocco and Aragon) after the petty nobility withdraw (e.g., the Neapolitan prince, the County Palatine), just as bourgeois capitalism is defeating the remnants of feudalism. Portia is Fortuna, the goal of worldly pursuit. (Nerlich neglects that she is of the landed aristocracy herself.) Shylock is feudal usury, now archaic, about to be supplanted by venture capital.

45 A fuller treatment of ideology than is possible here would take up "male ideology" from a feminist standpoint. I omit it here because I think the issue of the status or rights of women is not foregrounded in the play, and the peculiarly male character of the Venetian way of doing things is only passingly and obliquely indicated. It is an interesting question where an ideological analysis should cease. Recent theories have claimed that such things as the self, subjectivity, objectivity, experience, science, reason, heterosexuality, and a preference for the human over other species are all ideological. I try to hold to a historical standard of the availability of an ideology and whether it is signaled or triggered in the text.

This may be the place to comment on Marc Shell's brilliant and fascinating chapter on the play (see note 10 above). A fuller interpretation than mine would have to absorb his many insights, especially on the theme of generation (of the Jewish race, of money, and so on), but they have serious limitations. Shell claims that the idea of "verbal usury" (which mainly refers to puns, such as gild/geld/Geld) was an "important technical term" in Christian patristic writings, but he offers only one citation, and that is for "spiritual usury" (see his notes 6 and 50). For his key pun, ewes/use/Jews, he offers the slenderest of evidence, another pun, in LLL 5.2.620. He cites "the similarity between the sound ieu in adieu and Ju in Jude" (note 7). But why does he neglect the d in adieu or the word sweet before Jude? He concedes that Kökeritz gives the J the modern sound. With such faint historical controls, there is no end to punning and "supplementary" meanings.

46 René Girard, "'To Entrap the Wisest': A Reading of The Merchant of Venice," in Literature and Society (Selected Papers from the English Institute, 1978), ed. Edward W. Said (Baltimore, 1980), pp. 100-19. Girard actually does claim that "an infinite number of readings is possible" of The Merchant of Venice, and "this infinity is determined by 'thy play of the signifier'" (p. 119). But as so often in post-structuralist essays, the infinite play of the signifier remains only a menacing possibility behind the actual work of interpreting a real text, and Girard is not really very playful. He even begins by claiming that "the symmetry between the explicit venality of Shylock and the implicit venality of the other Venetians cannot fail to be intended by the playwright" (p. 100). This old-fashioned appeal to authorial intention would surely fail to intimidate a signifier that was bent on infinite play.

47 Eagleton, pp. 36-38. Besides Girard and Eagleton, one should note Frank Whigham's discussion of the importance of style in speech, dress, and demeanor: "Ideology and Class Conduct in The Merchant of Venice," in Renaissance Drama, NS 10 (1979), 93-115. While not post-structuralist, it leads to a plethora of ironies and subversions. "The intermixture of heroic and mercantile language emphasizes their relation to each other; the tonal disjunction suggests an ironic reading, since in romantic heroics financial foundations are usually suppressed as tawdry" (p. 96). Usually, perhaps, but it is precisely the ideological conjunction of heroic adventure and bourgeois merchant venturing, which Nerlich so thoroughly explores, that Shakespeare (and others) frankly celebrate. It may be ironic that Bassanio chooses lead even though it is gold that got him to Belmont, but the irony seems to be that of the worldhistorical mind, larger than Shakespeare's, and certainly larger than Bassanio's: to speculate on whether "Bassanio is so unreflective as to be unaware of the irony of his words" (p. 101) is to wander out of the play altogether.

48 It is worth noting that according to the dietary laws of Leviticus flesh must not include blood. "No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood" (Leviticus 17. 10-16). After Shylock twice exclaims about his "flesh and blood" (Jessica), and Salario elaborates on how different the two fleshes and the two bloods are, they then discuss the flesh (alone) of Antonio, which "will feed my revenge" (3.1.31-48). Shylock does not listen to himself or notice the implications of his metaphor of feeding for the prohibition in Leviticus (see also 1.3.161-63).

Gender Identity, Roles, And Relations

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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 portrayed as an ideal of perfect generosity. Antonio's attempt at total self-sacrifice is different from Portia's willingness to give and take while setting limits.2 Antonio's words in the trial scene suggest a rivalry between himself and Portia.3 I believe that the personal rivalry dramatizes a struggle between two types of giving which was a central issue in the historical, religious, and psychological conflicts of Renaissance Europe. As a further sign of the centrality of this conflict in The Merchant, not only is Bassanio at the pivot of the personal rivalry between Antonio and Portia, but he also mediates between them in his mode of giving and moves his closest alliance from Antonio to Portia during the play. If these types of giving are rivals, it is Portia's that wins; Antonio cannot maintain the attitude of self-sacrifice all the time, and his depression, as well as his antagonism to Shylock, casts doubt on the attractiveness of his attempts. Thus I would argue that The Merchant of Venice implies a criticism of the ideal of self-denial in favor of the more comprehensive attitude of Portia, who is not only more assertive than Antonio but also more accepting of sexuality.

In this reading, Antonio's anti-Semitism is closely related to the denial and projection required by his attempt at total self-sacrifice. The play's outsiders by race and sex, Shylock and Portia, are paralleled as well as contrasted. Portia's echoes of Shylock in the final ring episode cohere with the self-assertion she has shown throughout, as well as with Shakespeare's use and revaluation of his culture's association of both women and Jews with the flesh.

Both W. H. Auden and C. L. Barber make some interesting connections between The Merchant and the socioeconomic changes of its time, and these, with related psychological and religious changes, are the best context in which to see the oppositions within the play.4 The traditional ethic of Shakespeare's society was still that of the medieval theologians who found it sinful both to lend money for personal profit rather than out of generosity and to have sexual relations for pleasure rather than for procreation. On usury, Aquinas, for example, had said. "To take usury from any man is simply evil, because we ought to treat every man as our neighbour and brother."5 And summing up the thought of many other theologians, Saint Raymond said, "One ought to lend to one's needy neighbor only for God and principally from charity."6 In Elizabethan England the condemnation of usury was repeated both by caricaturing dramatists and also by such preachers as Henry Smith, Miles Mosse, Roger Fenton, Nicholas Sanders, Philip Caesar, and Gerard Malynes.7 On sex, Aquinas had said, "The end, however, which nature intends in copulation is offspring to be procreated and educated, and that this good might be sought it has put delight in copulation, as Augustine says, Marriage and Concupiscence, 1.8. Whoever, therefore, uses copulation for the delight which is in it, not referring the intention to the end intended by nature, acts against nature."8 Various medieval theologians made various accommodations to mixed motives, but in general both money-lending and sex were supposed to be for the benefit of others more than for oneself. Actual behavior, of course, fell short of these ideals, but in the Middle Ages the feudal socioeconomic system supported them, while in the Renaissance socioeconomic changes pulled in the opposite direction.

Although some of our pictures of the community life from which the Elizabethans were emerging may be over-simplified, nevertheless it seems clear that they experienced an increasing individualism, acquisitiveness, and competitiveness. Of course, Shakespeare's audience did not make a sharp break with the past and give up the ideals of charity and self-sacrifice. Rather, their very retention of traditional ideals added to their sense of inner conflict. The need to define charity so that it could be combined with greater self-consciousness and a changing socioeconomic system led many theologians, both Protestant and Catholic, to new formulations; the struggle between communal and individualistic social systems had its analogue in psychic struggle.9The Merchant of Venice provides a dramatic reflection of these struggles, and in its resolution of them, as apparently in history, the role of the outsider is particularly important.

Value systems that emphasize self-sacrificial giving—like the Christianity still honored in the world of The Merchant and its audience—often differentiate sharply between the community of those who give and the outsider, who has what they consider the uncivilized habit of taking and uncivilized anger at the excluding community. But of course those within the community are also taking from each other—and from those outside—although they may not admit it. Thus they may project their own acquisitiveness—and all the aggressions they cannot acknowledge—onto the outsider and persecute him or her as a scapegoat. Here Shakespeare draws on the Elizabethan theater's frequent identification of Venice with acquisitiveness to suggest its paradoxical similarity to Shylock, the outsider it calls a devil.10

There are many kinds of outsiders in The Merchant of Venice. Not only Shylock, but also most of Portia's suitors are ethnic outsiders to Venice. Although a citizen of Venice, Antonio as well can be seen as a psychological outsider.11 Portia, as a woman, is different in a more obvious sense, although in Belmont the proper metaphor for the limitation on her actions is confinement rather than exclusion, and in Venice she passes for a Roman male. Insofar as her society is structured in patriarchal terms, it justifies its subordination of her by beliefs similar to those that justify its subordination of Shylock. Women and Jews could be seen as symbolic of absolute otherness—alien, mysterious, uncivilized, unredeemed. In this tradition, femaleness and Jewishness as qualities in themselves were associated with the flesh, not the spirit, and therefore with impulses toward sexuality, aggression, and acquisitiveness.12

However, ... the attitude toward women in Shakespeare's society was not simply patriarchal, nor is it in this play. Nor could the attitude toward sexuality, aggression, or acquisitiveness have been monolithic. I believe that The Merchant of Venice likewise shows a divided attitude toward these qualities and distinguishes among their manifestations. Portia's active capacity for mutuality integrates and transforms associations of women with the flesh. Her self-assertion promises energies to sustain a more realistic love and community. In her betrothal speech to Bassanio, she explicitly denies the egoism of the isolated self, but suggests that her loving marriage to Bassanio multiplies her wishes for what she can share with him.

Though for myself alone
I would not be ambitious in my wish
To wish myself much better, yet for you
I would be trebled twenty times myself,
A thousand times more fair, ten thousand times more rich.


Shylock, however, both speaks for and suffers from the most threatening possibilities of self-assertion. He is portrayed as one who is ambitious for himself alone.

Shylock's main role is to speak for the aggressive and acquisitive motives that his society follows but does not admit. His powerful appeal to human commonality that begins "Hath not a Jew eyes?" (3.1.51) makes its climactic point "And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that" (3.1.57-59). In his first scene with Antonio and Bassanio he explains his anger at being treated like a dog, as if they might remember their own anger at being insulted and understand him. But insofar as his audience considers anger one of the seven deadly sins, his defense fails; it plays into the tendency to project anger onto an outsider and becomes a justification for further exclusion.

While his hostility and acquisitiveness are most evidently what his society fears in him, he suggests other qualities important in the transition to the Renaissance. When he tells about Jacob's breeding of spotted sheep by sympathetic magic, Shylock emphasizes the potency of Jacob's cleverness: "Mark what Jacob did . . . the skillful shepherd" (1.3.73, 80). By contrast, Antonio, the spokesman for his society's traditional values, denies Jacob's power and emphasizes his risk—using, of course, the same word that applies to his own attempts to make money:

This was a venture, sir, that Jacob served for,
A thing not in his power to bring to pass,
But swayed and fashioned by the hand of heaven.


What Shylock stresses and Antonio denies is precisely the element of individual mastery that became more important in the Renaissance; such mastery correlates with the humorous vitality of Shylock's speech, which, as Sigurd Burckhardt has pointed out, contrasts with the somberness and ineffectiveness of Antonio's.13 On the other hand, Antonio's emphasis on the uncertainty of Jacob's ventures corresponds to the fact that the scholastic analysis of usury distinguished it from other more lawful forms of money-making, like Antonio's, by its lack of risk.14

Although he profits financially from the new acquisitive society, Antonio cannot admit that he is anything but a giver, whether to Bassanio or to his other debtors.15 At the start, he says to Bassanio, "My purse, my person, my extremest means / Lie all unlocked to your occasions" (1.1.138-39). Suggesting a coalescence with classical Roman ideals of generosity, Bassanio describes him to Portia as

The best-conditioned and unwearied spirit
In doing courtesies, and one in whom
The ancient Roman honor more appears
Than any that draws breath in Italy.


Courtesy and honor demand a minimizing of the giver's own needs and risks; Antonio plays down the danger of taking Shylock's bond and refuses to accept Bassanio's promise of a speedy return from Belmont. Thus his generosity denies a need for mutuality and tends toward an attitude of combined self-effacement and self-sufficiency. (As policy he lends money without taking interest.) When the wreck of his ships entitles Shylock to claim a pound of his flesh, according to their contract, Antonio plays the role of one who endures and gives all for the love of his friend; he is following an ideal of self-sacrifice and imitation of Christ.16 Benjamin Nelson has suggested that this, as well as his general willingness to lend money without taking interest, links Antonio closely with predominant medieval ethical emphases. He would have been viewed critically by such reformers as Luther, who said, "Standing surety is a work that is too lofty for a man; it is unseemly, for it is presumptuous and an invasion of God's rights."17 The weakness of his language and his opening complaint of a sadness whose cause he does not know suggest other grounds for viewing him critically, and, in general, using a psychological perspective.

Many contemporary critics have seen homosexual feelings in Antonio's love for Bassanio.18 But it is important to note that Shakespeare's language can go much further in suggesting sexual undertones between men than Antonio's does. The sonnets play with far more witty double entendre than do Antonio's serious and asexual words. Antonio is one of the most reluctant punsters among Shakespeare's major characters and also one of the least given to talking about sex in any way.19 If we think of how Shakespeare's men usually talk about women among themselves—Benedick and Claudio, Oliver and Orlando, Romeo and Mercutio, Berowne and his fellows—it is remarkable that Antonio refers to Portia only at the beginning of the conversation: "What lady is the same / To whom you swore a secret pilgrimage," (1.1.119-20) and at the end as "fair Portia" (1.1.182). Nor does Antonio make punning references to male sexuality like those at the end of Sonnet 20:

But since she pricked thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love, and thy love's use their treasure.

Antonio typically presents himself as completely asexual, as if following an ideal of celibacy; he behaves like the altruists described by Anna Freud who have given up to another person, with whom they identify, the right to have their instincts gratified.20 Nevertheless, there is one point at which Antonio finds it impossible to maintain his attitude of total self-sacrifice; the wreck of his ships finally forces him to make a request of Bassanio. Even then he tries not to ask it directly: "My bond to the Jew is forfeit. And since in paying it, it is impossible I should live, all debts are cleared between you and I if I might but see you at my death. Notwithstanding, use your pleasure. If your love do not persuade you to come, let not my letter" (3.2.317-22). For all Antonio's self-effacing posture, this wording makes Bassanio's appearance a test of his love.21 In spite of his intent, Antonio expresses a need for a mutuality of relationship in which he can receive as well as give. And it is interesting that this is also a point where sexual double entendre may lurk in Antonio's language. Bassanio has just betrothed himself to Portia, and in that context "use your pleasure" sounds a little more like the end of Sonnet 20.22

But if in general Antonio denies or sublimates his own sexuality and instead supports Bassanio's pursuit of Portia, he also denies the acquisitiveness inherent in being a merchant and instead attacks Shylock, the double who shares and exaggerates his mercantile profession and marginal social status. Even in this respect, however, he generally presents himself as selfdenying, patiently holding in check his hostility to Shylock everywhere but in the scene where he arranges the loan. In his verbal attack on Shylock there, his speech takes on unusual energy; this is the one scene in which Antonio does not speak about being sad. His temporary recovery resembles the relief from a sense of powerlessness and depression that modern psychologists have often found to be one function of anti-Semitic outbursts.23

Subject to the conflicting forces of Antonio and Portia, Bassanio mediates between them in his attitude toward giving. His giving is responsive rather than self-sacrificing; impoverished as he is, he is quite willing to take as well, but the juxtaposition of the two men ultimately emphasizes Bassanio's frivolity as well as Antonio's somberness. With Antonio's help, he can indulge in inviting his friends and even Shylock to dinner, taking on the hungry Lancelot Gobbo as an extra servant, and sending gifts to Portia. His attempt at unlimited generosity with his words complements Antonio's attempt at unlimited generosity with his money and his life. Bassanio's spontaneity is appealing, but there is something of a naive love of fine gestures in it, a romanticism of risk, magnanimity, and promise unqualified by a sense of responsibility.24 In a comparison he himself uses in asking money from Antonio, he gives and takes like a child at play—who believes that he can give anything away and have it to give again.

Juxtaposed with these three male characters, however admirable, fascinating, or charming they may be at their best, Portia seems much better able to cope with the world in which she lives—indeed, to protect it from the dangers of extreme asceticism, individualism, or irresponsibility. From the beginning of the play, where she mocks all her suitors, she would fall short by traditional standards of perfect charity, but she succeeds by the standards of romantic comedy. We first meet her complaining about one of the limitations traditionally set on women—patriarchal control of marriage choice.25 When she finds a way of dealing with this problem, it is not the blithe unconsciousness of limits that Bassanio shows, any more than it is passive self-sacrifice like Antonio's. In a situation that makes her an object to be chosen, her mockery of her suitors shows that she preserves her own wish to choose, and she defines her own requirements in a husband by observing what her suitors lack. For all the xenophobia in her wit, what she criticizes most are qualities that hinder mutuality of social interchange: "he doth nothing but talk of his horse. . . . He doth nothing but frown—as who should say, 'An you will not have me, choose!' He hears merry tales and smiles not; ... he will fence with his own shadow. . . . You know I say nothing to him, for he understands not me, nor I him" (1.2.38-39, 43-45, 57, 63-64).

And because of her own skill in talking with people, she learns how to work with the limitations of the casket test. Although in its choice of imagery it seems to dramatize a definition of woman as an object, she can use it to disqualify those who so define her and would deny her an active role in a mutual relationship.26 With Morocco and Arragon, she speaks much more of the rules of the game than of her own feelings, and by hurrying them to the caskets, she exposes their susceptibility to the possession-oriented mottos: "Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire" and "Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves."

With Bassanio, by contrast, Portia can be much more than the passive object of quest. There is a new spontaneity in her language as she feels her way into trusting him with her thoughts:

There's something tells me, but it is not love,
I would not lose you; and you know yourself
Hate counsels not in such a quality.


By speaking of his company as something she does not want to lose, she first puts herself in the position of one who receives and asks for gifts; at the same time her language is generous. Perhaps by her own risk-taking, more than by any verbal hint, she reinforces his love of risk and encourages the frame of mind in which he chooses the casket demanding that he "give and hazard all he hath." Although she feels herself already his, she then speaks as active giver of herself. In light of all the economic imagery in this scene, it is interesting that her words to him here—"Myself and what is mine to you and yours / Is now converted" (3.2.166-67)—echo a medieval etymological pun often found in scholastic writings against usury: "A loan [mutuum] is so called from this, that mine [meum] becomes yours [tuum]"27 As in a purely financial partnership, however, she can ask for a share in the outcome of his ventures: "I am half yourself, / And I must freely have the half of anything / That this same paper brings you" (3.2.248-50). When what it brings is news of Antonio's losses, her decision to help comes not from an impersonal generosity but from a personal sense of relationship, through Bassanio, with Antonio, "the semblance of my soul" (3.4.20). Antonio's friendship with Bassanio has been basically one-sided, since generosity with money and life costs more than generosity with words; Portia tries to make their relationship more mutual as she both insists that Bassanio meet his obligations and enables him to do so.

In the trial scene, Venice continues to emphasize its own generosity in trying to deal with Shylock. Each of the male characters tries to play out his role to the extreme, and limitations suggested earlier become apparent; only Portia can act effectively. Shylock talks only about a side of human existence the Venetians would prefer to forget—impulses to destroy. "Hates any man the thing he would not kill?" (4.1.67). While earlier he could explain his anger as a response to Antonio's contempt, here he refuses to make his case in public terms—"I'll not answer that, / But say it is my humor" (4.1.42-43)—except to point out the dependence of the Venetian slaveholding system on the inviolability of private bonds analogous to his with Antonio. Antonio also refuses to argue his case in the court. Initially he presents his surrender as a kind of moral victory:

 I do oppose
My patience to his fury, and am armed
To suffer with a quietness of spirit
The very tyranny and rage of his. . . .


However, as the scene proceeds, some telling lines suggest that his sadness has its basis in his own anger turned inward, and they hint at the psychological basis for the peculiarly compelling quality in the confrontation between Shylock and Antonio:

I am a tainted wether of the flock,
Meetest for death. The weakest kind of fruit
Drops earliest to the ground, and so let me.


The startling self-disgust of these lines suggests the limits of Antonio's solution to the conflict between self-sacrifice and self-assertion.

Earlier Antonio's language made him seem asexual; now he makes the image more concrete by calling himself a "wether"—castrated. Both "tainted" and the likelihood of rottenness in "the weakest kind of fruit" that "drops earliest to the ground" suggest disease and corruption. Whether he is criticizing himself for his asexuality and sense of powerlessness—tainted because he is a wether—or for the sexuality that makes him feel tainted and that he therefore tries to deny—a wether because he is tainted—he is clearly accusing himself of both disease and weakness. Oddly echoing his earlier attack on Shylock as "a goodly apple rotten at the heart" (1.3.97), Antonio here seems to be calling himself a failure by two different sets of standards, goodness as valued by Christianity and power as valued by individualism. Again his words call for a psychological interpretation, and psychoanalytic theory directly connects such self-criticism and depression with idealism and self-sacrifice. Freud explains self-criticism in melancholia by saying that "the more a man controls his aggressiveness, the more intense becomes his ideal's inclination to aggressiveness against his ego."28 Applying this concept to the suicidal melancholic, A. Alvarez describes his harsh internal ego-ideal as "an unappeased Doppelgänger, not to be placated, crying out to be heard."29 Some of the power of the trial scene comes from the confrontation between Antonio and a character very much like this unappeased doppelgänger. The demands Shylock makes on Antonio coalesce with the demands Antonio makes on himself.

Both Antonio and Shylock appear to want the same outcome for the trial. Antonio's death would, apparently, be a victory for both of them according to their own opposite standards. The values they speak for are, of course, very much in conflict, and thus the conflict seems an impossible one to resolve. Where the play seems most clearly to be dramatizing the conflict between the opposing values of self-sacrifice and individualism, it dramatizes the conflict as a deadlock.30 Both the Duke and Bassanio attempt to mediate, but they are too openly hostile to Shylock and too similar to Antonio in their rhetoric and surface values.

Only Portia, using her outsider's perspective, can act effectively. She closes her "quality of mercy" speech with an admission such as none of the other characters has made that Shylock has a case in justice, and this prepares for her final ability to defeat him. Unlike the other characters, she can establish a common language with him; an outsider herself, she must be able to use language for more purposes than communion with friends or anger at other outsiders.

After words of self-sacrificing devotion from Antonio and Bassanio, it is Portia's disguised self-assertion that first hints that something may prevent Antonio and Shylock from acting out to the end their roles of giver and taker. Bassanio responds to Antonio's emotional farewell by declaring:

 life itself, my wife, and all the world
Are not with me esteemed above thy life.
I would lose all, ay sacrifice them all
Here to this devil, to deliver you.


Portia draws back from the immediate situation and reminds us of the greater awareness and detachment her disguise gives her, like the awareness and detachment that come from recognizing that one is playing a game in which the rules can be manipulated. She says, "Your wife would give you little thanks for that / If she were by to hear you make the offer" (4.1.286-87). The realistic literalism of her words punctures the emotional and idealistic mood. Her skepticism about self-sacrifice puts her in momentary alliance with Shylock, who says, "These be the Christian husbands!" (4.1.293). She is too vital to let her husband get away with talking about sacrificing her— even at a farewell to his best friend—and at the same time resourceful enough to voice her complaint in a joke entirely in character for the objective doctor of laws she is playing. While Shylock, observing her insistence on the law and her outsider's irony here, may think he has met his ally, we can see that he has actually met his match. Her use of language here—detached, witty, literal to the point of being unfair—directly prepares for her use of language to save Antonio herself rather than being sacrificed for him. "This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood; / The words expressly are 'a pound of flesh'" (4.1.304-5). Thus reading very literally the words that Shylock and Antonio agreed to as partners in the bond, she finds a way to force them out of their extreme positions—to compel Antonio to take and Shylock to give—for of course the court will seize on any means an apparently objective lawyer gives to defeat Shylock.

It is interesting to compare the trial scene with the somewhat similar deadlock that occurs in Richard II in the confrontation between Richard and Henry Bolingbroke, often seen as emblematic of the conflict between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Richard, like Antonio, presents himself as self-sacrificing, and even more explicitly compares himself to Christ. He says to Bolingbroke ironically, "They well deserve to have / That know the strong'st and surest way to get" (3.3.200-201). That play heads toward an outcome in which both win on their own terms, but the emphasis on conscience and sympathy is so great that whoever takes the throne appears to be in the wrong. In The Merchant of Venice, by contrast, Shakespeare avoids giving either Antonio or Shylock the victory on his own terms. Instead, the victory goes to Portia, and in spite of the cost to Shylock, it does not evoke the guilt of a purely egoistic victory of an isolated individual, since Portia wins it for Antonio's life as well as for the success of her marriage. Yet in the punishments she and Antonio can impose on Shylock for his intent because he is an outsider, we can see how pervasive the spirit of vengeance is in this play. No character is an ideal of perfect charity, although Antonio tries to be; the aggressive forces within and without are too strong.31 It has been suggested that Antonio is an ethical ideal because his attempt to sacrifice himself for his friend can be seen as an imitation of Christ. Yet by making him a melancholy and at times self-hating figure on the comic stage, Shakespeare deliberately exposes some of Antonio's limitations even to an audience uncritical of his anti-Semitism. Furthermore, it is not only her defeat of an adversary against which he is powerless that puts Antonio and Portia into direct contrast; Antonio makes the contrast both implicitly and explicitly. He presents his impending death as a defeat for Portia in a competition about who loves Bassanio most.32

Commend me to your honorable wife.
Tell her the process of Antonio's end,
Say how I loved you, speak me fair in death;
And when the tale is told, bid her be judge
Whether Bassanio had not once a love.


After he escapes death, furthermore, he continues to suggest that it is he, and not Portia, who loves Bassanio; he begs Bassanio to reward the lawyer with Portia's ring by saying, "Let his deservings, and my love withal, / Be valued 'gainst your wife's commandement" (4.1.448-49). Bassanio's choice to give away the ring he has promised Portia to keep until death—a choice made only after the lawyer has left and Antonio has made this request—prepares for the fifth act's further development of the contrast between Portia and Antonio.

"I pray you know me when we meet again" (4.1.417) is Portia's farewell to Bassanio in the trial scene, and the pun on "know," which relates sexuality to recognition, anticipates her emphasis on sexual identity in the return to Belmont and her implicit victory over Antonio. In the trial, the threat of aggression has been removed by projection onto a scapegoat; at Belmont, it can be dissolved in play—mock hostility that unites the married couples more closely. In the trial the characters presented a general show of liberality from which only Shylock was excluded; at Belmont, Portia and Nerissa will incorporate some of Shylock's self-assertion and demand for his rights into their relationships with their husbands.33 In the trial there has been a demonstration of agape, love that gives without asking for any return, in Antonio's willingness to die;34 in the fifth act the focus is on love as eros, which desires also to receive.

When the returning wives make their husbands account for giving away their rings, the strongly sexual tone of the threats and counter-accusations makes it clear that the argument is in some way working out—or rather playing out—threats from sexuality at the same time that it is parodying threats from Shylock. Portia pretends possessiveness and promiscuity, parallels to the financial acquisitiveness and irresponsibility of earlier scenes. She assumes an inexorability like Shylock's, and Bassanio thinks she even makes a similar threat on his bodily integrity: he says, "Why, I were best to cut my left hand off / And swear I lost the ring defending it" (5.1.177-78).

But at the same time the threat is all controlled. Portia's quick conversational repartee with Bassanio has the formal parallelism of structure that one might find in a ritual or a rhetorical exercise. While acting angry at Bassanio, she is actually uniting the two of them more closely by emphasizing their sexual relationship. "Lie not a night from home" (5.1.230) is more an expression of desire than a warning.

Portia's play with Bassanio is echoed by Nerissa's with Gratiano: both of them include a number of jokes and equivocations about sexual identity.

Nerissa The clerk will ne'er wear hair on's face that had it.
Gratiano He will, an if he live to be a man.
Nerissa Ay, if a woman live to be a man.


Nerissa is exuberating in her own disguised participation in the trial scene; her jokes and Portia's break down the general identification of the Christians against Shylock in the trial, where no sexual distinctions or relationships appeared. The wordplay on change of sex calls attention to sexual differentiation, a physical parallel to the mock-hostility and playful self-assertion of this scene.

The joking byplay creates an atmosphere in which Antonio feels uncomfortable. "I am th'unhappy subject of these quarrels" (5.1.238), he says, in a line that seems somewhat presumptuous at first. In a sense, however, they are quarreling about him. It was Antonio whose trial caused Bassanio's departure from Portia on their wedding day; it was Antonio who finally persuaded Bassanio to give the lawyer the ring. Even when Bassanio tries to conceal Antonio's intervention in his explanation to Portia, the motives he gives are words he used earlier in describing Antonio's virtues:

I was beset with shame and courtesy.
My honor would not let ingratitude
So much besmear it.


These values of public generosity and individual reliability here confront the value of mutuality identified with Portia and marriage; we see Antonio's generous self-effacement causing his lack of participation in the vitality of both jokes and sexuality.35

In the final reconciliation between husband and wife, the threats of possessiveness and promiscuity are both dispelled, and the vision is one of a sexual relationship in which both partners can maintain their own identity. At the same time we are reassured that the idealism about self-sacrificing friendship that Antonio and Bassanio express and the reciprocal sexual relationship that Portia demands need not finally conflict with each other. Portia makes Antonio the intermediary when she returns her ring; afterwards she announces that his argosies are safe, and he pays tribute to her power, relinquishes his earlier depreciation of her, and acknowledges that he himself can receive as well as give. "Sweet lady, you have given me life and living!" (5.1.286).

Like Shylock's, Portia's role involves both power and powerlessness. Portia appears powerless at the beginning, and Shylock at the end, as reflections of a society in which women and Jews do not have equal rights; at other points in the play we see them possessing a power that is partly money, partly wit, and partly what Shakespeare's imagery makes of the magic that their society projects onto them. While the conclusion of the trial repeats the official power relationships between Christians and Jews, the working out of marriage relationships, by contrast, balances the official power in society. This reverses the situation in the other early comedy that ends with an emphatic ritual acknowledgment of marital power, The Taming of the Shrew, where Petruchio's roles as game-leader and patriarchal husband coalesce. But Portia's purpose in her final game is not, like Petruchio's, to get the spouse to play along; Bassanio, flexible and responsive, always follows the game-leader. It is, more accurately, to demonstrate to Antonio that she and Bassanio are in one game that excludes him—their marriage gives them a bond that takes precedence over other friendships—but that he can still play the role of friend to both of them. In trying to get Antonio with his ascetic idealism to accept the value of marriage, Portia and Shakespeare are acting analogously to those Renaissance humanists and puritans who were writing in praise of marriage, modifying traditional devaluations of women, and criticizing the application of the ideal of celibacy.

Earlier Gratiano and Salerio agreed that love was a constant and unstable pursuit of something new, and Gratiano added that like all other desires it leaves one "lean, rent, and beggared" (2.6.19), but the opposition between such passion and asceticism—between taking and giving—is transcended in the image of mutuality in love with which the play ends. Momentarily the three main characters fall into a tableau that could resemble the image of the Graces as deities of gifts, explained by Seneca in "De Beneficiis."36 In this image, important in Renaissance iconology and especially in the Neoplatonic philosophy of love of Marsilio Ficino,37 Seneca explains that the arrangement of the Graces "in a ring which returns upon itself shows "that a benefit passing in its course from hand to hand returns nevertheless to the giver" ("De Beneficiis," 3:13, 15). Yet we are free to think of the psychology of the characters as in tension with the image of harmony, just as the psychology of the trial scene is clearly opposed to the ritual significance of Shylock's baptism.

Michael Goldman has suggested that the great characters of both comedy and tragedy act out an attitude to the extreme, live out a wish of the audience beyond the bounds of ordinary life, and then find their self-definition questioned.38 The self-surrender of Antonio, the aggression of Shylock, and the responsiveness of Bassanio are all attitudes Shakespeare's audience had within themselves: alternative possible reactions to social change and personal loss. They are attitudes we all have within ourselves, and the play gives us a chance to dramatize our internal conflicts about them. It is the triumph of comic wish fulfillment that Portia can combine all three attitudes and finish the play bound in love and friendship with the representatives of the two attitudes the audience of Shakespeare's time honored most. Throughout, Portia is operating within limits—her father's will, her husband's departure, the laws of Venice, and the decision of the judge and Antonio. Yet she maneuvers superbly within those limits, and, unlike the other characters we have discussed, she is never humbled for going too far in any direction. In the final scene, she stops playing the role of the jealous and promiscuous wife at her own decision. Having already pronounced her submission to Bassanio with no prejudice to her autonomy in the trial scene or the ring game, she does not even make the gestures of self-subordination with which Rosalind and Beatrice end their plays.

Shakespeare's early poems and comedies, with their twins and their images of friendship, love, and marriage as double identity, show a fascination with the element of identification in love.39 Their structure and themes also suggest a concern for ideals of community. But he, like his society, was also fascinated by the separateness and the desire for self-assertion of the individual. Shakespeare's characters must face the fact that they are different, other, separate from those they love; they must recognize that the possibility of giving and receiving requires this separate identity, that love involves a risk that identification, whether possessive or generous, would deny.40 Like the threat of Shylock, whose trial postpones the consummation of marriages, otherness may seem an obstacle to love—and indeed, Shylock's conversion may be intended, among other things, as an exorcism of its threat. But the acceptance of Portia's self-assertion in The Merchant of Venice is also a celebration of the ways that people manage to love one another with all their differences. In the words of a nun who taught me in grade school, "Marriages are always mixed." In the tragedies, such acceptance is harder for the heroes to achieve.


1 See, for example, John Russell Brown, Introduction to The Merchant of Venice, ed. John Russell Brown, Arden ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1955), pp. lvii-lviii; Barbara Lewalski, "Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of Venice" Shakespeare Quarterly 13 (1962): 328-36, 339; Sylvan Barnet, Introduction to Twentieth-Century Interpretations of "The Merchant of Venice" ed. Sylvan Barnet (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970), pp. 3-6.

2 Cf. Robert Hapgood, "Portia and The Merchant of Venice: The Gentle Bond," Modern Language Quarterly 28 (1967): 29. Sigurd Burckhardt makes an analogous contrast of their attitudes toward the law in Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), pp. 208-36.

3 Lawrence Hyman, "The Rival Lovers in The Merchant of Venice" Shakespeare Quarterly 21 (1970): 109-16.

4 W. H. Auden, "Brothers and Others," in The Dyer's Hand (New York: Random House, 1962), pp. 223-32; C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (New York: Meridian, 1963), pp. 167-68. For background, see L. C. Knights, Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1937); R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1926).

5Summa Theologica 2a.2ae.78:l-2m, quoted in Benjamin Nelson, The Idea of Usury (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949), p. 14.

6 St. Raymond of Pennaforte, Summa Casuum Conscientiae (Verona, 1744), 2.7.2, quoted in John T. Noonan, Jr., The Scholastic Analysis of Usury (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957), p. 33.

7 Nelson, The Idea of Usury, pp. 83-85.

8On the Sentences, quoted in John T. Noonan, Jr., Contraception (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965), pp. 241-42. Another licit purpose of sexual intercourse was described as "paying the marriage debt"; the phrase suggests both other-centered motivation and the financial analogy. Noonan, Contraception, pp. 284-85.

9 Cf. Zevedei Barbu, Problems in Historical Psychology (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960), pp. 114-15; Richard P. Wheeler, "History, Character and Conscience in Richard III" Comparative Drama 5 (1971-72): 318-19.

10 G. K. Hunter, "Elizabethans and Foreigners," Shakespeare Survey 17 (1964): 46-47. On "devil" as a common anti-Semitic epithet, see Joshua Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1943), pp. 18-31.

11 For discussion of Bassanio too as outsider, see Kirby Farrell, Shakespeare's Creation (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1975), pp. 146-47, 152-55.

12 See, for example, Ian Maclean, The Renaissance Notion of Woman (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980), pp. 16-22; Rosemary Ruether, Liberation Theology (New York: Paulist Press, 1972), pp. 6, 16, 19-21; Rosemary Ruether, "Misogynism and Virginal Feminism in the Fathers of the Church," in Religion and Sexism, ed. Rosemary Ruether (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974), pp. 156-69. See also Leslie Fiedler, The Stranger in Shakespeare (New York: Stein and Day, 1972), for a different view on Portia's relation to this tradition.

13 Burckhardt, Shakespearean Meanings, p. 208.

14 Noonan, Usury, p. 135.

15 Auden, "Brothers and Others," p. 232.

16 See Lewalski, "Biblical Allusion," pp. 328-36, 339; Nelson, The Idea of Usury, pp. 141-51. He is also aspiring to the Renaissance ideal of friendship, which involves elements from both classical and medieval traditions; see Laurens J. Mills, One Soul in Bodies Twain (Bloomington, Ind.: Principia Press, 1937). However, his relationship with Bassanio falls short of this ideal because of its inequality.

17 Martin Luther, Von Kaufshandlung und Wucher, quoted in Nelson, The Idea of Usury, p. 152.

18 See, for example, Graham Midgley, "The Merchant of Venice: A Reconsideration," Essays in Criticism 10 (1960): 125; Norman Holland, Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), pp. 238-39.

19 Cf. Fiedler, The Stranger in Shakespeare, p. 89.

20 Anna Freud, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence (New York: International Universities Press, 1946), pp. 132-36.

21 Cf. J. D. Hurrell, "Love and Friendship in The Merchant of Venice," Texas Studies in Literature and Language 3 (1961): 339; Hapgood, "Portia," p. 26.

22 Cf. Auden, "Brothers and Others," p. 230, and Fiedler, The Stranger in Shakespeare, p. 90.

23 See Nathan W. Ackerman and Marie Jahoda, Anti-Semitism and Emotional Disorder (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1950), p. 26.

24 Cf. Auden, "Brothers and Others," p. 232.

25 Posthumous constraints on marriage were common in Elizabethan aristocratic families, but with the increasing concern for compatibility the trend was to loosen them; see Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), pp. 597-99.

26 For the view that the casket image defines woman as a sexual object, see Sigmund Freud, "The Theme of the Three Caskets," Complete Psychological Works, trans. James Strachey, 24 vols. (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74), 12:292.

27 Noonan, Usury, p. 39.

28 Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id, trans. Joan Riviere, rev. ed. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1962), p. 44; see also Holland, Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare, pp. 234-35.

29 A. Alvarez, The Savage God (New York: Bantam, 1973), pp. 105-6.

30 The conflict is a deadlock in an additional sense to that used by Harriett Hawkins in Poetic Freedom and Poetic Truth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), p. 71, of situations in which "opposed characters . . . each elicit both admiration and criticism." She discusses Richard II, to which I later compare The Merchant of Venice.

31 Antonio is self-controlled enough not to mock Shylock like Gratiano, and he does not take his share of the fine permanently, just on trust for Lorenzo during Shylock's lifetime. But however much the original audience preferred Lorenzo and Jessica to Shylock, honored Christianity, and condemned Judaism, they could see that the forced deed of gift and baptism punish Shylock, though ostensibly for his own good. Living in an age of religious persecution and of religious reform that stressed the individual conscience, many of them understood the difference between a free conversion and a forced one.

32 Cf. Midgley, "The Merchant of Venice" p. 203; Alvarez, The Savage God, p. 103.

33 See Burckhardt, Shakespearean Meanings, pp. 234-35.

34 Cf. Lewalski, "Biblical Allusion," p. 339.

35 Cf. E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's Early Comedies (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1965), p. 199.

36 Seneca, "De Beneficiis," in Moral Essays, trans. John W. Basore, 3 vols. (1928-32; reprint, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963-65), 3:13. The importance of this treatise in Renaissance doctrine of liberality is discussed by James Calderwood in Shakespearean Metadrama (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971), p. 75n. On this point as on many others, I find myself in agreement with Lawrence Danson's The Harmonies of "The Merchant of Venice" (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978).

37 Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (New York: Norton, 1968), pp. 36-39.

38 Michael Goldman, The Actor's Freedom (New York: Viking, 1975), p. 133.

39 Cf. C. L. Barber, "An Essay on the Sonnets," reprinted from The Laurel Shakespeare, The Sonnets (Dell, 1960), in Elizabethan Poetry, ed. Paul Alpers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 314; James Winny, The Master-Mistress (London: Chatto and Windus, 1968), pp. 170-96.

40 Recently, Linda Bamber, in Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1982), p. 28, has also argued that in Shakespeare's comedies women can be other without really being outsider and alien. In general, I find Shakespeare's female characters more psychologically developed than she does; at this point I believe Portia's otherness as a woman has become identified with the unmergeable selfhood of the individual, male or female—what Stanley Cavell calls, from another perspective, "the sadness within comedy. . . . Join hands here as we may, one of the hands is mine and the other is yours"; see Must We Mean What We Say? (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969), pp. 339-40.

Coppella Kahn (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "The Cuckoo's Note: Male Friendship and Cuckoldry in The Merchant of Venice," in Shakespeare's "Rough Magic, " edited by Peter Erickson and Coppella Kahn, University of Delaware Press, 1985, pp. 104-12.

[In the following essay, Kahn focuses on the ring plot and how it strengthens the main courtship plot of the play. Additionally, Kahn maintains that the ring plot demonstrates both the bonds between men which precede and interfere with marriage, and the male fear of being cuckolded, a fear which follows and threatens marriage. ]

Shakespeare's romantic comedies center on courtship, a holiday of jokes, disguisings, songs, word play, and merriment of many kinds, which culminates in marriage, the everyday institution which both inspires holiday and sets the boundaries of it. Shakespeare doesn't portray the quotidian realities of marriage in these comedies, of course. He simply lets marriage symbolize the ideal accommodation of eros with society, and the continuation of both lineage and personal identity into posterity. Yet at the same time he never fails to undercut this ideal. In The Merchant of Venice he goes farther than in the other comedies to imply that marriage is a state in which men and women "atone together," as Hymen says in As You Like It. Rather than concluding with a wedding dance as he does in A Midsummer Night's Dream or Much Ado About Nothing, a wedding masque like that in As You Like It, or a combination of family reunion, recognition scene, and troth plighting as in Twelfth Night, he ends Merchant with a combat of wits between men and women, a nervous flurry of accusations and denials, bawdy innuendos and threats of castration, which make up the final episode of a subplot rather than rounding off the main plot by celebrating marriage. Commonly referred to as "the ring plot," this intrigue may seem trivial, but is actually entwined with the main courtship plot from the middle of the play, and accomplishes more than one darker purpose on which the romantic moonlight of Belmont does not fall.1

To begin with, Shakespeare structures the ring plot so as to parallel and contrast Antonio and Portia as rivals for Bassanio's affection, bringing out a conflict between male friendship and marriage which runs throughout his works.2 As Janet Adelman points out in her penetrating essay on the early comedies, same sex friendships in Shakespeare (as in the typical life cycle) are chronologically and psychologically prior to marriage. "The complications posed by male identity and male friendship," she argues, rather than heavy fathers or irrational laws, provide the most dramatically and emotionally significant obstacles to marriage in The Comedy of Errors, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of a Shrew, and Love's Labor's Lost? In these plays, Shakespeare tends toward what Adelman calls "magical solutions," facile twists of plot and changes of character in which the heroes are enabled to pursue friendships with other men while also contracting relationships with women, even though these relationships jeopardize or conflict with their earlier ties with men. Merchant, I think, is perhaps the first play in which Shakespeare avoids this kind of magical solution and gives probing attention to the conflict between the two kinds of bonds, and to the psychological needs they satisfy.

Second, the ring plot comes to rest on the idea of cuckoldry, a theme as persistent in the comedies as that of male friendship. Bonds with men precede marriage and interfere with it; cuckoldry, men fear, follows marriage and threatens it. I wish to demonstrate the interdependence of these two motifs. First, though, it may be helpful to summarize the ring plot.

Articulated in three scenes, it begins at the very moment of Portia's and Bassanio's betrothal, after he has correctly chosen the lead casket. As Portia formally surrenders lordship over her mansion, her servants, and herself to Bassanio, she gives him a ring, enjoining him not to part with it. If he does, she cautions, he will bring their love to ruin and give her cause to reproach him. The next turn of the plot occurs during Shylock's trial. When there appears to be no recourse from the payment of the pound of flesh, Bassanio declares that though his wife be dear to him "as life itself," he would sacrifice her (and his own life) to save his friend. Portia in her lawyer's robes drily remarks, "Your wife would give you little thanks for that / If she were by to hear you make the offer" (4.1.28-85).4 Thus Shakespeare establishes a motive for the trick the wives play on their husbands: they want to teach them a lesson about the primacy of their marital obligations over obligations to their male friends. Next, the rings reappear at the end of the trial scene. When Bassanio offers the lawyer "some remembrance" for his services, the disguised Portia asks for the ring, and persists in asking for it even when Bassanio protests,

Good sir, this ring was given me by my wife,
And when she put it on, she made me vow
That I should neither sell, nor give, nor lose it.


At this point, it would seem that Bassanio has passed the test his wife devised: he knows how to value her ring. A moment later, though, at Antonio's urging he gives the ring away. Finally, reunited with their husbands, Portia and Nerissa demand the rings (which, of course, they still have) as proof of fidelity. Pretending to believe that Bassanio and Gratiano gave the tokens to Venetian mistresses, while the men try to defend themselves the women threaten retaliation in the form of cuckoldry. All the while, we as audience are in on the joke, titillated, but reminded by numberous doubleentendres that the doctor and his clerk, whom Portia and Nerissa pretend to regard as fictions concocted by their guilty husbands, are in fact the two wives, who know better than anyone that their husbands are blameless.

Two complementary anxieties run through this intrigue: that men, if they are to marry, must renounce their friendships with each other—must even, perhaps, betray them; and that once they are married, their wives will betray them. Each anxiety constitutes a threat to the men's sense of themselves as men. In Shakespeare's psychology, men first seek to mirror themselves in a homoerotic attachment (the Antipholi in The Comedy of Errors offer the best example of this state) and then to confirm themselves through difference, in a bond with the opposite sex—the marital bond, which gives them exclusive possession of a woman.5 As I have argued elsewhere, the very exclusiveness of this possession puts Shakespeare's male characters at risk; their honor, on which their identities depend so deeply, is irrevocably lost if they suffer the peculiarly galling shame of being cuckolded.6 The double standard by which their infidelities are tolerated and women's are inexcusable conceals the liability of betrayal by women. In fact, the ring plot as a whole can be viewed as a kind of cadenza inspired by a bawdy story in a Tudor jestbook, the point of which is that the only way a jealous husband can be wholly assured of not being cuckolded is to keep his finger in his wife's "ring." The joke stresses both the intense fear of cuckoldry of which men are capable, and the folly of such fear.7

Until the trial scene, it might seem that Shakespeare is preparing for a fairy-tale conclusion, in which both Antonio's and Portia's claims on Bassanio could be satisfied. Though they are paralleled and contrasted with each other (for example, both enter the play with a sigh expressing an inexplicable sadness, Antonio puzzling "In sooth I know not why I am so sad," and Portia declaring, "By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world"), neither the friend nor the beloved behaves competitively at first.8 When Bassanio needs money to court Portia, Antonio's purse is his; when he needs it (as it seems at one point) to rescue Antonio, Portia's wealth is at his disposal. But when Antonio's ships fail to return and his bond with Shylock falls due, he sends a heartrending letter to Bassanio which arrives, significantly, just when he and Portia are pledging their love, and prevents them from consummating their marriage. Bassanio's two bonds of love, one with a man, the other with a woman, are thus brought into conflict. Portia immediately offers Bassanio her fortune to redeem his friend, but remarks, "Since you are dear bought, I will love you dear" (3.2.312), calling attention to her generosity and his indebtedness. In contrast, Antonio's letter reads,

Sweet Bassanio, . . . all debts are clear'd between you and I, if I might but see you at my death: notwithstanding, use your pleasure,—if your love do not persuade you to come, let not my letter.


As others have noted, the generosity of both rivals is actually an attempt "to sink hooks of gratitude and obligation deep into the beneficiary's bowels."9

At the trial, Bassanio's implicit conflict of obligations comes out in the open when, in language far more impassioned than that he used when he won Portia, he declares he would give her life for his friend's:

Antonio, I am married to a wife
Which is as dear to me as life itself,
But life itself, my wife, and all the world,
Are not with me esteem'd above thy life.
I would lose all, ay sacrifice them all
Here to this devil, to deliver you.


How neatly ironic that, in successfully urging Bassanio to give away Portia's ring, Antonio actually helps her to carry out her plot against her erring husband: again, the two claims are irreconcilable, and the friend's gives place to the wife's. "Let . . . my love withal / Be valued 'gainst your wife's commandement," pleads Antonio, making the contest perfectly explicit (4.1.455-46). In the final scene, Shakespeare maintains the tension between the friend's claim and the wife's until Antonio offers to pledge a pound of his flesh that his friend "Will never more break faith"; only then does Portia drop her ruse, when Antonio offers to sacrifice himself once again. Thus Shakespeare suggests that marriage will triumph over friendship between men.

Nevertheless, it takes a strong, shrewd woman like Portia to combat the continuing appeal of such ties between men. At first, her power derives from her father; the wealth he bequeathed and the challenge he devised make her a magnet, drawing nobles from all over Europe who hazard all to win her. Though in her opening scene Portia sees herself as caught in the constraints of her father's will, Shakespeare soon makes it clear that she has a will of her own. In her merrily stinging put-downs of the suitors, wit and verbal force substitute for sexual force and prerogative—as they also do when she prompts Bassanio to choose the right casket, when she manipulates the letter of the law, and when she uses the ring to get the upper hand over her husband.

Portia's masculine disguise, however, also produces the suggestion that she is not just a clever woman, but something of a man as well. For example, when Bassanio protests concerning the ring, "No woman had it, but a civil doctor" (5.1.210), or when Portia jokes, "For by this ring the doctor lay with me" (5.1.259), it is as though images of her as male and as female are superimposed. When Portia shares her plans for disguise with Nerissa, she says their husbands "shall think we are accomplished with that we lack" (3.4.61-62), slyly suggesting not a complete physical transformation from female to male, but the discrete addition of a phallus to the womanly body. The line carries two implications, at least. One is that the phallus symbolizes not just masculinity per se but the real power to act in the world which masculinity confers. The arguments she presents as Dr. Bellario would have little force if she delivered them as Portia, a lady of Belmont. Another implication is that Portia as androgyne is a fantasy figure who resolves the conflict between homoerotic and heterosexual ties, like the "woman . . . first created" of sonnet 20, who is also "pricked out." As the concluding episode of the ring plot proceeds, however, the double-entendres about Portia's double gender become mere embellishments to the action, in which she uses her specifically female power as wife to establish her priority over Antonio and her control over Bassanio.

The power is based on the threat of cuckoldry, the other strand of meaning woven into the ring plot. When Portia gives the ring to her future husband, she says,

This house, these servants, and this same myself
Are yours,—my lord's!—I give them with this ring,
Which when you part from, lose, or give away,
Let it presage the ruin of your love,
And be my vantage to exclaim on you.


Portia's gift limits the generosity of her love by a stringent condition. She gives all to her bridegroom; he in turn must keep her ring, or their love will turn to "ruin." This ominous note recalls another Shakespearean love token, the handkerchief Othello gives Desdemona. He calls it a "recognizance and pledge of love," but as he describes its history, it seems not so much the symbol of an existing love as a charm on which the continuation of that love magically depends. The handkerchief was first used to "subdue" Othello's father to his mother's love, and Othello hints that it should have the same effect on him when he warns, in lines reminiscent of Portia's, "To lose, or give't away were such perdition / As nothing else could match" (3.4.53-66). However, Portia's ring has less to do with magic than with rights and obligations. Unlike Othello, she is concerned more with "vantage," which the OED defines as gain or profit, than with some vaguer "ruin." She sees marriage as a contract of sexual fidelity equally binding on both parties, for their mutual "vantage."

On one level, the ring obviously represents the marriage bond, as it does in the wedding ceremony. But on another, it bears a specifically sexual meaning alluded to in the play's final lines, spoken by Gratiano: "Well, while I live, I'll fear no other thing / So sore as keeping safe Nerissa's ring" (5.1.306-7). Rings, circles, and O's are frequently, in Shakespeare's works and elsewhere, metaphors for female sexual parts.10 In the last scene, speaking to Bassanio, Portia refers to the ring as "your wife's first gift" (5.2.166), that is, her virginity. In giving Bassanio her "ring," Portia gives him her virginity, and a husband's traditionally exclusive sexual rights to her. In Alls Well That Ends Well, Diana voices the same metaphorical equation when Bertram compares his masculine honor to the ring he wears: "Mine honor's such a ring," she replies; "My chastity's the jewel of our house" (4.2.45-46).11 When Bassanio accepts the ring from his bride, he vows to keep it on his finger or die. Again, the two meanings, proper and bawdy, come into play. He promises to be faithful to his wife, and also to keep her sexuality under his control—by keeping her "ring" on his "finger."

When Bassanio's passionate outburst in the trial scene reveals the intensity of his friendship with Antonio, Portia feels threatened, and later retaliates with the only weapon at a wife's command: the threat of infidelity. In a turnabout of the conventional metaphor for female chastity, she declares that her supposed rival "hath got the jewel that I love"—the ring, representing her husband's sexual favors and his fidelity. She continues with an even more unorthodox assertion of sexual equality:

I will become as liberal as you,
I'll not deny him anything I have,
No, not my body, nor my husband's bed:
Know him I shall, I am well sure of it.


Refusing to honor the double standard on which the whole idea of cuckoldry depends, and refusing to overlook her husband's supposed sexual fault, she threatens to seize a comparable sexual freedom for herself. One facet of Shakespeare's genius is his perception that men don't see women as they are, but project onto them certain needs and fears instilled by our culture. He and a few other writers stand apart in being critically aware that these distorted but deeply felt conceptions of women can be distinguished from women themselves—their behavior, their feelings, their desires. From Portia's point of view, women aren't inherently fickle, as misogyny holds them to be; rather, they practice betrayal defensively, in retaliation for comparable injuries.

The ring plot culminates in fictions: though Bassanio did give Portia's ring away, in fact he wasn't unfaithful to her as she claims he was, and though she threatens revenge she clearly never intends to carry it out. This transparent fictitiousness makes the intrigue like a fantasy—a story we make up to play out urges on which we fear to act. In terms of fantasy, Bassanio does betray Portia, both by sleeping with another woman and by loving Antonio. Portia, in turn, does get back at him, by cuckolding him. At the level of fantasy, Shakespeare seems to imply that male friendship continues to compete with marriage even after the nuptial knot is tied, and that men's fears of cuckoldry may be rooted in an awareness that they deserve to be punished for failing to honor marriage vows in the spirit as well as in the letter.

René Girard has argued that the binary oppositions on which the play seems to be built—Christian versus Jew, realism versus romance, the spirit versus the letter, and so on, collapse into symmetry and reciprocity. Girard holds that, though "The Venetians appear different from Shylock, up to a point,"

They do not live by the law of charity, but this law is enough of a presence in their language to drive the law of revenge underground, to make this revenge almost invisible. As a result, this revenge becomes more subtle, skillful, and feline than the revenge of Shylock.12

By trivializing serious issues into jokes which rest on playful fictions, the ring plot serves to disguise the extent to which the Venetians do resemble Shylock. But it also articulates serious issues; in it as in the main plot, ironic similarities between Jew and Christian abound. Portia's gift to Bassanio seems innocent, like Shylock's "merry bond," but it too is used to catch a Venetian on the hip and feed a grudge. Her vow of revenge through cuckoldry parallels Shylock's in his "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech: both justify revenge on the grounds that what their adversaries denounce they actually practice. Just as in the trial Portia pleads for the spirit of mercy but actually takes revenge against Shylock through the letter of the law, so her original professions of boundless love are undercut by her later desire to even the sexual score. As Shylock says, "These be the Christian husbands!" (4.1.291). He was once a husband, too, and pledged his love to Leah with a ring—a pledge dishonored (so far as we know) only by his daughter when she turned Christian.

Finally, though, the ring plot emphasizes sexual differences more than it undercuts social and moral ones. It portrays a tug of war in which women and men compete—for the affections of men. Bassanio's final lines recapitulate the progression from homoerotic bonds to the marital bond ironically affirmed through cuckoldry which the action of the ring plot implies:

Sweet doctor, you shall be my bedfellow,—
When I am absent then lie with my wife.


Similarly, the very last lines in the play, spoken by Gratiano, voice the homoerotic wish, succeeded by the heterosexual anxiety:

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.



1 Norman Rabkin has written perceptively about the ring plot as one of many "signals" in The Merchant of Venice which "create discomfort, point to centrifugality." See his Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), p. 29. Interesting essays on the ring plot are: Marilyn L. Williamson, "The Ring Episode in The Merchant of Venice," South Atlantic Quarterly 71 (1972): 587-94; James E. Siemon, "The Merchant of Venice: Act V as Ritual Reiteration," Studies in Philosophy 67 (1970): 201-9. For an interpretation centering on Portia's power and how the ring plot resolves its threat to male dominance, see Anne Parten, "Re-establishing the Sexual Order: The Ring Episode in The Merchant of Venice" Women's Studies 9, no. 1 (Spring 1982), Special Issue on Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare II, ed. Gayle Greene and Carolyn Swift: 145-56. While I share her view that cuckoldry is "a particularly disturbing specter which is bound up with the idea of female ascendancy" (pp. 149-50), we disagree about how the ring plot represents this specter. She holds that, by making explicit the male anxieties which cuckoldry inspires and then exposing them as "only a game" (p. 150), it dispels those anxieties; I believe that by voicing them loudly in the final scene, in lieu of conventional conclusions which celebrate marriage, the ring plot seriously undermines any comic affirmation of marriage. For a reading of the final scene as Portia's way of getting back at Antonio, see Leslie Fiedler, "The Jew As Stranger," in The Stranger in Shakespeare (New York: Stein and Day, 1972), esp. pp. 134-36.

2 Others have commented on the triangulated rivalry which the ring plot brings out. In her introduction to The Merchant of Venice in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1974), Anne Barton notes that the ring plot is "a test which forces Bassanio to weigh his obligations to his wife against those to his friend and to recognize the latent antagonism between them" (p. 253). Leonard Tennenhouse, in "The Counterfeit Order of The Merchant of Venice" in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray Schwartz and Coppélla Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), observes that "This test of Bassanio's fidelity to Portia becomes, at Antonio's insistence, a test of Bassanio's love for Antonio" (p. 62). Lawrence W. Hyman, "The Rival Loves in The Merchant of Venice," Shakespeare Quarterly 21 no. 2 (Spring 1970): 109-16, sees the main action of the play as a struggle between Portia and Antonio for Bassanio, and interprets Antonio's bond with Shylock as a metaphor for the bond of love between him and Bassanio. See also Robert W. Hapgood, "Portia and The Merchant of Venice: The Gentle Bond," MLQ 28, no. 1 (March 1967): 19-32; on the ring plot, pp. 26-29.

3 Janet Adelman, "Male Bonding in Shakespeare's Comedies," in this volume.

4 This and all subsequent quotations from Merchant are taken from the new Arden edition of The Merchant of Venice, ed. John Russell Brown (1955; reprint, London: Methuen; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961, 1966).

5 Peter Erickson deals extensively with the psychology of homoerotic bonds in Shakespeare in his book Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama, forthcoming from the University of California Press. See also Shirley Nelson Garner's interesting treatment of this theme in "A Midsummer Night's Dream: 'Jack shall have Jill; / Nought shall go ill,'" Feminist Studies 9, no. 1 (1981), Special Issue on Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare I, ed. Gayle Greene and Carolyn Lenz: 47-64.

6 See my book Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981), passim, but esp. chap. 4.

7 The story can be found in Tales and Quick Answers (1530), reprinted in Shakespeare's Jestbook (Chiswick: C. Wittingham, 1814), p. 14.

8 There is a hint, however, that Antonio's sadness is caused by the prospect of Bassanio's marriage. When noting Antonio's mood, Gratiano comments that he is "marvellously chang'd" (1.1.76), and a few lines later we learn that Bassanio had earlier promised to tell him about a vow to make "a secret pilgrimage" to a certain lady (1.1.119-20).

9 The phrase is Harry Berger's in "Marriage and Mercifixion in The Merchant of Venice: The Casket Scene Revisited," Shakespeare Quarterly 32, no. 2 (Summer 1981): 161, and describes what he regards as Portia's attempt to control Bassanio by giving him the ring. Regarding the secret agenda behind Antonio's generosity, see Robert Hapgood, cited in n. 2: "Antonio is at once too generous and too possessive. . . . He wants Bassanio to see him die for his sake" (p. 261).

10 See David Willbern, "Shakespeare's Nothing," in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, cited in n. 2, and the story cited in n. 7.

11 This quotation is taken from the new Arden edition of All's Well That Ends Well, ed. G. K. Hunter (1959; reprint, London: Methuen; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962).

12 René Girard, "'To Entrap the Wisest': A Reading of The Merchant of Venice," in Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, ed. Josué Harari (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), pp. 100-119.

Michael Shapiro (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "Doubling Cross-Gender Disguise: The Merchant of Venice" in Gender in Play on the Shakespearean Stage, The University of Michigan Press, 1996, pp. 93-118.

[In the following essay, Shapiro explores the varying purposes and effects of the three instances of cross gender disguise (Portia, Nerissa, and Jessica) in The Merchant of Venice.]

Although Shakespeare gave three different types of male identity to the three heroines in his second play to use the motif of a boy heroine in male disguise, none of them became the Lylian page of Two Gentlemen. Multiplying the cross-dressed heroine in a single work called attention to its artificiality as a literary convention and a theatrical construction and probably made spectators more aware of something they "always knew": the female characters they accepted as mimetic illusions in the world of the play were constructed by male performers in the world of the playhouse. In Shakespeare's time, when audiences knew full well that all performers were male, even a single heroine in male disguise like Julia could function as a sign of self-referentiality. Some playwrights, such as Sharpham and Fletcher, followed Shakespeare's lead and amplified that sign by multiplying female pages. Others, such as Middleton and Dekker in The Roaring Girl, contrasted a conventional female page with a more original kind of cross-dressed heroine, while still other dramatists, such as Haughton and Shirley, included both a boy bride and a female page. These repetitions and contrasts announced that cross-gender disguise was more of a dramaturgical contrivance than a mimetic representation of cross-dressing practices in the world outside the playhouse. But such variations not only encouraged parodic effects but also permitted the use of different kinds of male disguise as a way of contrasting different kinds of heroines.

Early Duplication of Cross-Gender Disguise: Lyly's Gallathea

One of the first English plays to duplicate cross-gender disguise was Lyly's Gallathea (1583-85), performed by the Children of Paul's at court and probably in their own private playhouse. The idea for duplication was evidently Lyly's, for in his source (the tale of Iphis and Ianthe in book IX of Ovid's Metamorphoses), only one girl is raised as a boy, and she is transformed into a male in order to marry the other. Lyly has both girls, Phillida and Gallathea, disguised as boys and then makes them fall in love with each other but leaves open the question of which one Venus will change into a boy.

This uncertainty preserves the symmetrical balance between the two heroines, symmetry being as central a feature of Lyly's dramaturgy as euphuism is of his prose style. In parallel scenes, Lyly shows that each girl has been disguised as a boy by her father so that she will not be taken as "the fairest and chastest virgine in all the Countrey" (I.i.42-43), who must be sacrificed to Neptune. At the beginning of act II, Lyly brings the two disguised heroines together. From this point, they are always onstage at the same time and usually speak and act as mirror images of one another. Each girl has fallen in love with the boy that the other pretends to be and so feels trapped within her own cross-gender disguise. In their second meeting, each one hints at her true gender, and they do so with such success that they suspect each other of being a girl in male disguise:

Phil. Suppose I were a virgine (I blush in supposing my selfe one) and that under the habite of a boy were the person of a mayde, if I should utter my affection with sighes, manifest my sweete love by my salte teares, and prove my loyaltie unspotted, and my griefes intollerable, would not then that faire face pittie thys true hart?

Galla. Admit that I were as you woulde have mee suppose that you are, and that I should with intreaties, prayers, othes, bribes, and what ever can be invented in love, desire your favour, would you not yeeld?

Phil. Tush, you come in with "admit."
Galla. And you with "suppose."
Phil. (Aside.) What doubtfull speeches be these?
I feare me he is as I am, a mayden.
Galla. (Aside.) What dread riseth in my minde!
I feare the boy to be as I am a mayden.


Continuing in the same parallel fashion, Lyly makes each girl try to deny the growing suspicion that the other is also a girl. Their confessions that they both prefer "a fonde boy" (1. 55) to any of Diana's nymphs throw the relationship into a quandary, as Phillida acknowledges in the last speech of the scene: "Come let us into the Grove, and make much one of another, that cannot tel what to think one of another" (11. 58-59).

In their next scene, they seem to have vanquished these fears and have returned to the starting point of their relationship, each believing that the other is male. Once again they speak in parallel:

Phil I marvell what virgine the people will present, it is happy you are none, for then it would have faine to your lot because you are so fair.

Galla. If you had beene a Maiden too I neede not to have feared, because you are fairer.


Their exaggerated relief suggests a strained effort to deny what they fear. Within a few lines, Phillida tells Gallathea that "I love thee as a brother, but love not me so," and Gallathea readily declares that "I cannot love as a brother" (IV. iv.12-14). Phillida then proposes for the sake of "showe" that one of them pretend to be a woman, as Rosalind will offer to do to cure Orlando of his lovesickness in As You Like It:

Seeing we are both boyes, and both lovers, that our affection may have some showe, and seeme as it were love, let me call thee Mistris.


This asymmetry is of short duration and balance is quickly restored when both admit fear of attending the sacrificial rite.

Lyly is sometimes compared unfavorably to Shakespeare for preferring to manipulate his characters into intricate patterns instead of exploring their psychological states. For G. K. Hunter, who emphasizes the debate structure underlying Lyly's plays, their artistry lies in the juxta-position of contrasting attitudes toward a central issue:

Where all the characters are arranged to imitate one another, and where the focus of interest is on the repetition and modification and rearrangement of a basic pattern of persons, we do not ask how the persons will develop individually, but how the situation can be further manipulated.1

In Gallathea, where the central debate topic is the relative superiority of love or chastity, several strands of plot serve, in Anne Lancashire's words, "to balance against one another different modes of loving."2 The chaste and miraculously fulfilled love of the two disguised heroines is contrasted with two other plots: (1) Cupid inflames Diana's nymphs with lust for the two girls disguised as boys before he is punished by the Goddess of chastity and returned to his rightful place under the dominion of his mother, Venus; and (2) Rafe and his brothers outwit a series of pedantic dolts, but in displaying the cynical and bawdy wit typical of Lyly's pages, they also lightly suggest the impossibility of chastity as an ideal for human beings.

The complex interlacing of these plot lines is accompanied by an equally complex use of theatrical reflexivity. In choosing to double the heroine in male disguise, and also to make Cupid disguise himself as a nymph, Lyly highlights the presence of boy actors in female roles and so stresses the artificiality of his design. But at the same time, the multiple gender identities of male actors and female characters, and of male disguises in the cases of Phillida and Gallathea, create additional confusions of gender. The competing claims of love and chastity may also be perceived in terms of the tensions between homosexual desire and intense but Platonic friendship. These ambiguities of gender identity created by cross-gender casting and cross-gender disguising add poignancy to what Ellen Caldwell defines as the overriding question of the play: is there a kind of love that does not violate chastity, one that allows union with another without loss of self?3

From this viewpoint, there need be no contradiction between the ingenuity of Lyly's design and the urgency of the problem he is exploring. By act V, where both heroines are revealed by their fathers to be girls, sexual relationships in the play have become so tangled that they can only be resolved by the intervention of divine power, as in Ovid. Diana and Neptune propose to resolve the problem by ending what seems to them an unnatural relationship. But Lyly makes Venus, her supremacy over Cupid reestablished, approve Phillida's and Gallathea's relationship as an example of Love and Faith triumphing over Nature and Fortune. When they swear to her that their "loves [are] unspotted, begunne with trueth, continued wyth constancie, and not to bee altered tyll death," she overrules Diana and Neptune and promises to "turne one of them to be a man" (V.iii. 133-40). She does not specify which one.4 In the world of the playhouse, where both characters have always been boys, the indeterminacy of the ending echoes the love between Gallathea and Phillida before Venus's intervention transformed it into a conventionally heterosexual relationship.

Lyly's playful and sophisticated duplication of cross-gender disguise is rare for the mid-1580s and does not recur in his later works. Nor does such duplication occur in the 1590s in the first plays of adult troupes to use the heroine in male disguise, Greene's James the Fourth and Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Duplication in The Merchant of Venice

In writing his second play with a heroine in cross-gender disguise, Shakespeare discovered the technique of varying the motif through repetition. Shakespeare had already discovered the efficacy of replication in writing The Comedy of Errors (Strange's, 1591?), where he doubled Plautus's single set of twins in order to multiply opportunities for confusion. There, because such doubling is so obviously mechanical, it helps to create an atmosphere appropriate for farce, a genre requiring a world apparently governed by equally mechanical principles that nevertheless baffle characters caught up in them precisely because they are so arbitrary and rigid.5 In adding a second and a third woman in cross-gender disguise to The Merchant of Venice (Chamberlain's, 1596-98),6 Shakespeare transcended the simple duplications of farce, but used repetitions to achieve more sophisticated kinds of cross-referencing.

Nerissa's disguise is part of a simultaneous shadowing or echoing of Portia's cross-gender disguise. Jessica's disguise is part of a sequential arrangement, offering an abbreviated and ironic preview, or what Joan Hartwig calls a "proleptic parody," of what is to come. Jessica's disguise as a torchbearer or page also contrasts with Portia's disguise as a much more powerful male, a highly educated and assertive doctor of the law.7 These parallels and contrasts not only underscore the conventionality of the literary motif but also evoke awareness of the three play-boys and appreciation of their theatrical skills.

These additional cross-gender disguises do not occur in the narrative sources. Shakespeare added Nerissa's cross-gender disguise to the pound of flesh plot, novella 3.1 of Ser Giovanni's Il Pecorone (1378), perhaps taking a hint from Anthony Munday's Zelauto (1580), where both maid-servant and mistress don male disguise. Whatever its genesis, Nerissa's presence in the courtroom as clerk to Portia's "young doctor of Rome" (IV.i.153) results in the presence onstage of a second female character in male disguise. Using Nerissa's disguise as an echoing or shadow effect calls attention to the conventionality of a familiar motif, especially when the spectators have already seen another heroine—Jessica—appear in male disguise.

Jessica's disguising is also "Shakespeare's addition," as Kenneth Muir puts it,8 to the elopement of the usurer's daughter, in number 14 of Masuccio Salernitano's Novellino (1476) or in Munday's Zelauto. Jessica's escape in "the lovely garnish of a boy" ( is a particularly gratuitous addition, for the plot supplies the slenderest of reasons for Jessica to disguise herself—to attend Bassanio's feast undetected by Shylock. But in fact her plans for the disguise are laid even before Shylock receives the invitation to dinner.9 Earlier, Lorenzo tells friends he was "provided of a torch-bearer" (II.iv.23) and spoke to Gratiano of a "page's suit she hath in readiness" (II.iv.32). When we next see Jessica, in III.ii in Belmont, she seems to have resumed female attire and no subsequent mention is ever made of her having worn a page's suit when she eloped from Shylock's house. Extraneous with respect to plot, Jessica's brief appearance in male attire invites directors to make a theatrical and thematic point. The romantic quality of the cross-gender disguise was underscored by the lavish visual spectacle added to the scene in the nineteenth century, while modern productions use it to establish Jessica's vulnerability.10

Jessica's adoption of male disguise underscores the precariousness of her situation but does not, like Julia's or Alathe's, allow her the compensating wit of a saucy lackey. That precariousness is suggested even before Lorenzo arrives, when Gratiano and Salerio, commenting on his tardiness, suggest that their friend's "obliged faith" lacks the passion of "love's bonds new made" ( Her short exchange with Lorenzo questions the reliability of men's love for women like herself and Portia, who are "richly left." In response to Lorenzo's call, "Ho! who's within?" (, Jessica—located "above"—asks that he identify himself with "more certainty, / Albeit I'll swear that I do know your tongue" (11. 26-27), evidently finding his voice alone, or perhaps his words, not sufficient basis for trust. Lorenzo answers by name and styles himself "thy love," but Jessica wonders "whether I am yours?" (11. 29, 31). His reply, "Heaven and thy thoughts are witness that thou art" (1. 32; emphasis added), has a slightly evasive tone, while her action, "Here, catch this casket, it is worth the pains" (1. 33), may indicate a desire to secure Lorenzo's love by means of a self-granted dowry, an impulse repeated a few lines later in her offer to "gild myself / With some moe [sic] ducats" (11. 49-50).

The scene also raises other questions about Lorenzo's commitment to Jessica. While she descends, Lorenzo expresses his love for her to Gratiano in "a figure of words" artificial enough to cast doubt on the sincerity or depth of his feelings. Whether or not Lorenzo's "On, [gentleman,] away!" includes his torchbearer, perhaps as affectionate teasing,11 more urgent attention is directed toward his male friends and their rendezvous with Bassanio: "But come at once, / . . . we are stay'd for at Bassanio's feast . . . / Our masquing mates by this time for us stay" (11. 46-48, 59). Unlike Bassanio's constancy, Lorenzo's is never tested, although it is challenged, bitterly or in jest, in the mythological "out-nightings" that begin act V.12

Finally, although Jessica comments on the impropriety and possible shame of wearing male attire, she is willing to join other lovers in committing such "pretty follies" (1. 37), risking her reputation for the sake of her beloved. Wearing male attire although not yet actually in her male identity, Jessica hesitates—either banteringly or thoughtfully—at the idea:

Jes. What, must I hold a candle to my shames?
They in themselves, good sooth, are too too light.
Why, 'tis an office of discovery, love,
And I should be obscur'd.
Lor. So are you, sweet,
Even in the lovely garnish of a boy.

(11. 41-45)

Lorenzo's last words are rich in significance, for "garnish," according to the OED, can mean "outfit [or] dress," as well as "embellishment or decoration in general," although he later uses the word to disparage Launcelot's new livery or "army of good words" (III. v.65-70). In reassuring Jessica that her disguise is impenetrable enough to prevent her being shamed by discovery, Lorenzo seems also to be saying that in his eyes it embellishes her natural loveliness. In Shakespeare's day, the entire passage might also have reminded the audience that Jessica's appearance in male disguise was indistinguishable from the play-boy's resumption of his own identity. Unlike the speaker in Donne's elegy, "On His Mistres," who prefers his beloved to "Be my true Mistris still, not my faign'd Page,"13 Lorenzo's delight in finding Jessica's female identity "obscur'd" may also have suggested to some spectators a stronger sexual interest in the play-boy than in the female character.

Jessica's vulnerability as a powerless female page highlights the more assertive version of male identity of "worthy doctor" (V.i.222) that Shakespeare and his sources assigned to Portia. Whereas most other disguised heroines serve men as youthful companions, Portia invents a role that will give her authority over the men in the play. To quote Catherine Belsey, in the guise of a "civil doctor" (V.i.210) "Portia fights Bassanio's legal battles from him—and wins."14 Portia is also the only one of Shakespeare's heroines to adopt and relinquish male disguise "not under pressure of events from outside . . . but by her own choice of time and circumstance."15 From the moment Portia broaches the idea of male disguise in III.iv, she reveals an energy, vitality, and playfulness that will enable her to control all relationships in the play. Whereas her counterpart in Il Pecorone dominates by inviting her suitors to bed and then drugging them, Portia manipulates events by the audacity and wit she displays while in male disguise, both in her legal battle with Shylock and in the ring episode that follows.

Portia in Belmont

Portia's first words in the play seem to echo Antonio's melancholic opening of the previous scene: "By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is a-weary of this great world" (I.ii.1-2). The scene goes on to explain the source of this weariness—Portia's husband will be selected by a lottery devised by her late father, who was, as Nerissa reminds her, "ever virtuous, and holy men at their death have good inspirations" (Lii.27-28). Her only release is purely verbal—a satiric cataloging of her wooers according to national stereotypes—and is as conventional as Lucetta's catalog of Julia's suitors in I.ii of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. It permits Portia to exercise her wit upon her suitors, one of whom will win her hand in accordance with her father's dictates. The mood is abruptly changed by Nerissa's innocent or teasing inquiry as to whether or not she remembers a visitor "in your father's time, a Venetian, a scholar and a soldier?" (I.ii.1 12-13). Portia's reply—"Yes, yes, it was Bassanio—as I think, so was he call'd" (11. 115-16)—contains a rush of enthusiasm followed by some sort of second thought, perhaps an attempt to appear nonchalant, even though neither the folio nor the first two quartos include the midline dash. She is reminded of her father's scheme by the servant's announcement of the departure of "four strangers" and the arrival of "a fift [sic], the Prince of Morocco" (11. 123, 125).

Unless stage business to the contrary is added, the casket scenes themselves stress Portia's helplessness. Submissive to the will of her dead father, she has even less control over these events than does her counterpart in the tale in Gesta Romanorum, who is herself forced by the emperor to choose the vessel that will prove her a suitable bride for his son. As she tells Morocco, she is barred from the "right of voluntary choosing" and "hedg'd . . . by his [her father's] wit" (II.i.16, 18). Relieved when Morocco and Aragon make wrong choices, she is hopeful at the news of Bassanio's arrival but reveals considerable anxiety at their first meeting:

One half of me is yours, the other half yours—
Mine own, I would say.


She makes an adroit recovery, for the slip is not coyness but indicates her fear that she might either lose Bassanio forever or succumb to the temptation to violate her father's will. Unable to persuade Bassanio to delay his choice, she identifies herself with "the virgin tribute paid by howling Troy / To the sea-monster," and adds a declaration of complete passivity: "I stand for sacrifice" (III.ii.56-57). Nevertheless, although some critics and directors think she steers Bassanio toward the leaden casket, her conduct during the casket scenes, according to the text, is ritualistically correct.16

After Bassanio's choice, many critics sense an emergence of self-assertiveness in Portia, and some find it enhanced by the planning and donning of disguise. Richard Wheeler notes a hint of Portia's power where others see only submissiveness: "when her likeness emerges from the lead casket, Portia, like the jinni emerging from the wonderful lamp, puts herself in the absolute service of 'her lord, her governor, her king'" (III.ii.165).17 Lynda Boose describes Portia's speech as a "showpiece demonstration of . . . deferential rhetoric" and notes how this "unlesson'd girl, unschool'd, unpractic'd" (1. 159), exploits advantages of birth and wealth to usurp male prerogatives:

[She] deftly proceeds to appropriate the husband's role and the husband's ring vow as she endows Bassanio with all her worldly goods inside a contract to which she appends conditions for converting the vows of wifely obedience into a wife's "vantage" and a husband's ingratiated debt.18

Shakespeare makes Portia flex her power more explicitly when she hears of Antonio's plight, for as several critics have pointed out, she recognizes Antonio as her rival for Bassanio. Whereas Ansaldo (Antonio) of Il Pecorone is the childless godfather of Giannetto (Bassanio), who has often asked the young man's real father to send him his godson, Shakespeare makes him a friend of unspecified age.19 The text is open enough to allow one to explain Antonio's love melancholy as stemming from one of several forms of male love: the jealousy of a homosexual lover, the frustration of an unacknowledged homoerotic attraction, or the possessiveness of a clinging friend.

At the very outset of the play, moreover, as Ruth Nevo has observed, marriage to Portia is presented as the way for Bassanio to clear himself of indebtedness to Antonio.20 Up until Antonio's reversals, he has given Bassanio generously of his wealth and recklessly of his credit, but his inability to pay Shylock, as he makes clear in the letter he sends to Bassanio, forces him to make explicit demands on his friend's love. His farewell speech in the courtroom scene is a challenge to Portia, for in sacrificing his life for Bassanio he levies an unpayable claim on Bassanio, a gift that his living wife can neither match nor repay. Only by saving Antonio's life can she prevent that drain on her husband's emotional capital. To do so, she must encounter her adversary not as his female rival but as his male deliverer.

Her first move, however, is to consolidate her position as Bassanio's wife before he returns to Venice, even if consummation must be deferred until later, as it is not in Il Pecorone:

First go with me to church and call me wife,
And then away to Venice to your friend.

(III.ii.303-4; emphasis added)

Boose points out that Portia's entire speech, beginning with "What, no more?" (1. 298), exhibits a sudden shift in Portia's rhetorical style: "In the space of sixteen lines she uses thirteen imperative verbs and four times subjugates male options to the control of her authoritative 'shall.'"21

In her next scene, Portia informs Nerissa that they will see their husbands "in such a habit / That they shall think we are accomplished / With what we lack" (III.iv.60-62), a clear reminder to Elizabethan spectators that the boy actors onstage were already so equipped. Unlike Jessica's shameful but necessary disguise as Lorenzo's torchbearer, this second scheme of male disguise is first envisaged as the occasion to parody outrageous excesses of swaggering masculinity:

 I'll hold thee any wager,
When we are both accoutered like young men,
I'll prove the prettier fellow of the two,
And wear my dagger with the braver grace,
And speak between the change of man and boy
With a reed voice, and turn two mincing steps
Into a manly stride; and speak ofïrays
Like a fine bragging youth, and tell quaint lies,
How honorable ladies sought my love,
Which I denying, they fell sick and died.
I could not do withal. Then I'll repent,
And wish, for all that, that I had not kill'd them;
And twenty of these puny lies I'll tell,
That men shall swear I have discontinued school
Above a twelvemonth. I have within my mind
A thousand raw tricks of these bragging Jacks,
Which I will practice.


We never see these "raw tricks," for once Portia enters the courtroom disguised as Balthazar, she conducts herself with the gravity befitting a precocious legal scholar. The speech is a release of frustration, an eruption of high spirits. From now on, Portia's wit is no longer her recompense for helplessness before men but an instrument for taking over the male domain of the law. Her ridicule of men for their competitive rivalries, as well as for exaggerating their sexual prowess, indicates the superior sophistication that will bring her victory over Shylock in the legal arena and over Antonio in the battle for her husband's deepest loyalty.

But the speech has important theatrical effects. Whether given by a boy or a woman, it invites broadly parodic vocal and bodily mannerisms, certainly at "I could not do withal," perhaps in the style of the cheeky Lylian page. Portia answers Nerissa's question, "Why, shall we turn to men?" by pointing up the sexual innuendo in "turn," a subtler joke than Julia's and Lucetta's remarks about breeches, farthingales, and codpieces. On the Elizabethan stage, the phrase had rich reflexive possibilities, for the boy actors had not yet themselves become men or had only recently done so, and so might be understood to be asking about their future as female impersonators or to be wondering, perhaps with mock horror or mock innocence, whether they should turn sexually to (toward) men. Such ironies could have transformed Portia's mimicry of swaggering virility into self-parody by a young male performer, reflexively alluding to his presence even before Portia's appearance in male disguise.22

Portia Doctor Balthazar

Such reflexivity gives Portia considerable power when she actually enters the courtroom, not as the theatricalized cheeky page, but as the sober legal prodigy. As Keith Geary puts it, the boy actor discarded the mannerisms of Portia, along with female costume, donned a lawyer's gown, and simply played Balthazar, a young doctor of laws.23 For most of the trial scene, to look only at the text, Shakespeare does to submerge Portia in the fused male identities of Balthazar and the young male performer. In this regard, Portia differs from Julia and Rosalind, who have numerous asides both as themselves and as their male alter egos, as well as from Viola and Imogen, who address the audience as themselves in soliloquies while in male garb. In her own person and as Balthazar, Portia has no soliloquies nor obvious asides, nor are there any unconscious reversions to female identity, "no funny, foolish slips when she plays the man; .. . no charming lapses into girlhood," as Chris Hassel puts it.24 If Portia was physically absent on Shakespeare's stage during the courtroom scenes, the female character was nonetheless present in the minds of the spectators, just as they remained conscious (at some level) of the play-boy while Portia's female persona monopolized the stage.

Although the trial scene contains many nonverbal opportunities for the performer to oscillate between female character and male persona, Portia's absent presence is explicitly invoked only once, in a digression from the legal proceedings, a two-line remark on the willingness of husbands to sacrifice their wives. No such remark occurs in Il Pecorone, but Shakespeare seems to have added it not only to sharpen the rivalry between Portia and Antonio, but also to counterbalance the heavy emphasis on the male performer and male disguised persona by granting the female character a moment of rapport with the audience.

This crucial section begins with Antonio's farewell to Bassanio, which contains an explicit challenge to Portia:

Commend me to your honorable wife,
Tell her the process of Antonio's end,
Say how I lov'd you, speak me fair in death;
And when the tale is told, bid her be judge
Whether Bassanio had not once a love.


Bassanio's reply is an equally passionate elevation of male love over any other value, especially marriage:

Antonio, I am married to a wife
Which is as dear to me as life itself,
But life itself, my wife, and all the world,
Are not with me esteem'd above thy life.
I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all
Here to this devil, to deliver you.

(11. 282-87)

Bassanio's rhetoric includes Portia, not by her name but merely by the generic title of "wife."

Portia's response, if spoken as an aside, may have authorized the male performer to revert briefly to the mannerisms of the female character, but whether he did so or continued to play the doctor of law, the lines bring Portia's presence to the audience's mind:

Your wife would give you little thanks for that
If she were by to hear you make the offer.


The lines, which chastise Bassanio for offering to sacrifice his wife in order to free Antonio, can be spoken by Balthazar directly and perhaps only to Bassanio, but they might also be spoken aside to Nerissa, or to the audience. With or without a performer's explicit return to Portia, the lines point up Portia's presence. On the early modern stage, reminders of the female layer of identity probably underscored the virtuosity of the male performer in negotiating such rapid shifts and may thus have added depth or resonance to the character as well.

Bassanio's sacrificial offer is echoed in Gratiano's wish that his wife were in heaven to "entreat some power to change this currish Jew" (IV.i.292), just as Portia's (or Balthazar's) is echoed by Nerissa (or the clerk), who may address Gratiano directly, or offer an aside to Portia, or to the audience:

'Tis well you offer it behind her back,
The wish would make else an unquiet house.

(11. 293-94)

The whole discussion is rounded off by Shylock's contemptuous reflection, "These be the Christian husbands!" and sealed shut by his demand that the court no longer "trifle time [but] . . . pursue sentence" (11. 295-98).

This thirty-line segment, embedded in the trial scene, is the only scripted opportunity for Portia to remind the audience of her female identity. Elsewhere in the trial scene, Portia might find other occasions to exchange knowing glances with Nerissa, to mime a hurried consultation with her clerk, to allow her disguise to slip, or in other ways to play upon the audience's awareness of her layered gender identity. For example, she can react nonverbally to Bassanio's eagerness to pay double and then ten times the sum Antonio owes, offering money Portia gave him before he left Belmont. While Giannetto in Il Pecorone made only one offer to reimburse Shylock, Bassanio twice more offers to pay off the loan. Each time Bassanio does so, Balthazar insists that Shylock has chosen justice. From a thematic point of view, Portia's legal tactics are part of a theological debate with Shylock over the claims of mercy and justice, in which she will maneuver him into a trap created by strict interpretation of an obscure statute.25 But the immediate effect of rejecting Bassanio's several offers to repay the loan is to bring her into direct confrontation with her husband over the use of money she bestowed upon him.

Despite the deliberate blurring of Balthazar with the boy actor, the trial scene also reminded spectators of Portia's presence, whether or not the performer chose to embellish such signals nonverbally. When a performer of either gender acknowledges such reminders, spectators usually find it amusing, enjoying their superior knowledge vis-à-vis the characters, although making the effect too overt or too frequent can tilt any scene toward farce. During the trial, Shakespeare relied less on his heroine's movement in and out of cross-gender concealment and more on subtler reminders of her presence. He used more obvious reminders of Portia's feminine identity after the conclusion of the legal proceedings, when Portia, still in male disguise, discovers that Bassanio is still emotionally bound to Antonio.

Balthazar Obtains Bassanio's Ring

However one imagines the atmosphere during the trial, a sense of relaxation and relief must follow Shylock's departure and that of "the Duke and his train" seven lines later. Bassanio and Antonio, instructed by the duke "to gratify" Balthazar, linger onstage with the lawyer and, one assumes, her clerk. At this point, in a moment of informality and intimacy, Shakespeare releases the comic, almost carnivalesque, potentialities of cross-gender disguise that had been hinted at but kept more or less bottled up during the actual legal proceedings.26 Explicit play on Portia's multiple sexual identities begins when Bassanio addresses his wife as a "most worthy gentleman." Whether or not the performer chooses to respond to this mode of address in any way that indicates Portia's reaction, the audience's awareness of her presence would provide a strong undercurrent of irony. Such irony may arise from the casual posttrial atmosphere that encourages Bassanio to stand closer to Portia than he was when he offered to pay Shylock. Similarly, during the actual trial, the text required Portia to distribute her attention not only to him, but also to the lawbooks, to Shylock, to the duke, to Antonio, and possibly in other directions as well. In this segment of some forty lines until she leaves the court, she speaks almost exclusively to Bassanio.

Again Bassanio is lavish with his wife's money. His initial offer of the three thousand ducats due to Shylock to "freely cope your courteous pains withal" (1. 412) is immediately seconded by Antonio's offer of "love and service to you evermore" (1. 414). Portia refuses both gestures, but it is not clear to whom she addresses the line, "I pray you know me when we meet again" (1. 419). The line could point in several directions: a polite but ironic wish for further acquaintance directed to Antonio, an implicit challenge to Bassanio to recognize her, and, as the context activates bawdy connotations, both a wish and a dare that Bassanio sleep with her at their next encounter. Balthazar tries to take his leave but is prevented by Bassanio. In a gloss on Bassanio's next line, "Dear sir, of force I must attempt you further" (1. 421), one editor imagines that "Bassanio now runs after Portia, and the ensuing dialogue gains its effect from the audience knowing that they are husband and wife."27

At the equivalent point in Il Pecorone, the reader is also playfully reminded of the real identity of the judge (Portia). In refusing Giannetto's (Bassanio's) offer of money, the judge says, "Keep it, so that your lady may not say that you have squandered it." When Giannetto replies that his lady is "so kind and generous . . . that if I spent four times as much as this, she would not mind," the judge asks him if he is "happy with her." He answers that "she is as beautiful and wise as anyone Nature ever made" and invites him to come home with him to see for himself.28 When the invitation is refused, Giannetto again offers the money, at which point the judge notices the ring and asks for it. The narrative provides no indication of the reactions of Giannetto's wife underneath her male disguise but simply assumes that reader's awareness of her presence will allow them to savor the irony. Similarly, Shakespeare also relied on the audience to supply the presence of Portia, whether or not the male performer chose to make that presence visible through nonscripted shifts in and out of the female character.

But Shakespeare expanded the moment in adapting it to the stage, perhaps to give greater opportunities to the actor moving between Portia and Balthazar. In an addition to the source material, Shakespeare makes Balthazar refuse a cash payment for his services and ask instead for a pair of gloves before requesting the ring:

Give me your gloves, I'll wear them for your sake,
And for your love I'll take this ring from you.

(11. 426-27)

The gloves can belong to either Antonio or Bassanio. If they are Antonio's, "your sake" would refer to him and "your love" to Bassanio, creating a playable antithesis that builds up to the request for the ring. If they are Bassanio's, Portia's focus on her husband's gloves, which he holds, or perhaps wears and removes, leads her to notice the ring on his finger.29 Unlike Gianetto, Bassanio refuses to part with a ring "given me by my wife" (1. 441) and Portia's last speech in the scene plays as wittily upon her hidden identity as her counterpart in Il Pecorone does:

And if your wife be not a mad woman,
And know how well I have deserv'd this ring,

She would not hold out enemy for ever
For giving it to me. Well, peace be with you.

(11. 445-48)

Unlike the judge in the narrative, she accepts Bassanio's refusal as definitive, disappointed as Balthazar but undoubtedly pleased as Portia, and leaves the stage, presumably with Nerissa.

In Il Pecorone, Giannetto (Bassanio) fears that his wife will believe "I have given it [the ring] to some other woman . . . and fallen in love elsewhere" (1:474). The judge seems to defend the wife but reiterates her doubts: "I am sure that she must love you well enough to believe you when you tell her that you gave it me. But perhaps you wanted to give it to one of your old loves here?" (1:474-75). Challenged to prove both his own fidelity and his faith in his wife's perfection, Giannetto gives the ring to the judge.

Shakespeare defers the surrender of the ring until after Portia leaves, in order to make Antonio pressure Bassanio into giving it to the lawyer, again pitting male lover against wife:

Let his deservings and my love withal
Be valued 'gainst your wive's commandement [sic].

(11. 450-51)

Shakespeare invented a short scene in which Gratiano delivers the ring to Balthazar. Portia begins the scene by speaking to Nerissa, but the performer must abruptly shift back to Balthazar mannerisms when Gratiano addresses the lawyer as "Fair sir" (IV.ii.5). When Balthazar accepts the ring, Nerissa as the clerk asks for a private conference with the lawyer: "Sir, I would speak with you" (1. 12). Drawing Portia away from Gratiano, Nerissa proposes to get her husband's ring and clearly succeeds in doing so offstage while still disguised as a boy. Shifting gender identities, as the text did not require them to do during the actual trial, both women now resume their male attitudes, Nerissa turning back to Gratiano—"Come, good sir" (1. 19)—to request directions.

Portia's Return to Belmont

In the resolution of the ring plot in the final scene, the male performers represent Portia and Nerissa rather than the lawyer and clerk, although these male identities are as strongly present in the audience's memory as the female characters were in the courtroom. The audience's awareness of the male performers is also piqued throughout the scene by bawdy innuendoes, most of which refer to markers of male gender. Gratiano is the agent of the most overt bawdry, whether threatening to "mar the young clerk's pen" (1. 237) or vowing to "keep . . . safe Nerissa's ring" (1. 307).30 Portia first announces her intention to "have that doctor for [my] bedfellow" (1. 233) and within thirty lines confesses that "the doctor lay with me" (1. 259). Nerissa echoes both statements with regard to "that same scrubbed boy, the doctor's clerk" (1. 261), quoting Gratiano's earlier description of the clerk. When the men learn that they gave their rings to their own wives, they join Portia and Nerissa in jests about the maleness of doctor and clerk, which are also playful allusions to the gender of the two actors:

Gra. Were you the clerk that is to make me cuckold?
Ner. Ay, but the clerk that never means to do it,
Unless he live until he be a man.
Bass. Sweet doctor, you shall be my bedfellow—
When I am absent, then lie with my wife.

(11. 281-85)

Unlike the trial scene, which depended on the audience's multiconsciousness of actor, character, and disguise, the final scene derives its humor and its thematic force from explicit allusions to the heroines' various gender identities, and also from frequent use of bawdry—not as a conventional gender marker but to highlight all of the layers of gender in play.

Despite these differences, the final scene, like the trial scene, draws on the dexterity and energy of the performer in the world of the playhouse to enhance Portia's power as a character in the world of the play. Unlike other heroines in male disguise, she retains her authority when she returns to Belmont and resumes her identity as Bassanio's wife, and she uses her power to seal her victory over Antonio once and for all.31 As in the case of Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, a female character's power can be reinforced by the theatrical vibrancy produced when opposing layers of gender identity are invoked on stage or actively evoked in the spectators' minds.

Unaware that it was his wife who canceled his debt to his friend, Bassanio introduces Antonio to Portia as the "man .. . to whom I am so infinitely bound" (11. 134-35). Portia's reply revives Shylock's insistence on the literal terms of his bond:

You should in all sense be much bound to him,
For as I hear he was much bound for you.

(11. 136-37; emphasis added)

Antonio's disclaimer, "No more than I am well acquitted of (1. 138), even if genuinely self-effacing rather than smugly self-satisfied, cannot eradicate Bassanio's sense of obligation to the man who offered to sacrifice his life on his friend's behalf. To rescue Bassanio from his wife's displeasure over the parting with the ring, Antonio makes an even more extravagant offer:

I once did lend my body for his wealth,
. . . I dare be bound again,
My soul upon the forfeit, that your lord
Will never more break faith advisedly.

(11. 249-53)

Seeming to accept Antonio's offer to be her husband's "surety" (1. 254),32 Portia then undercuts it: she makes Antonio her unwitting agent by asking him to deliver to Bassanio a second ring, which her husband recognizes as the first. After some teasing, Portia explains all, reducing Antonio to a three-word statement of speechless wonder, "I am dumb" (1. 279), his next-to-last speech in the play. Shakespeare invents two more trump cards for her to play: her news for Antonio that "three of your argosies / Are richly come to harbor suddenly" (11. 276-77), followed by her gratuitously mystifying refusal to tell Antonio how she aquired this information: "You shall not know by what strange accident / I chanced on this letter" (11. 278-79). By restoring her rival's wealth, as Monica Hamill comments, Portia "removes the last vestige of Antonio's role as martyr."33

In addition to endowing Portia with an aura of mystery, Shakespeare also gives her a final use of legal terminology to recall her appearance in the courtroom, and perhaps to allow the performer a momentary reversion to Balthazar:

 Let us go in
And charge us there upon inter'gatories
And we will answer all things faithfully.

(11. 297-99)

Whether Balthazar is also invoked by vocal or physical traits, as well as linguistically, the legalistic "inter'gatories" represents a final allusion to Portia's male disguise and so ends the play by calling attention to the layered complex of boy actor, female character, and male disguise. In the trial scene, male disguise reflexively illuminated the play-boy and also transformed the female character into a Bradamante or a Britomart jousting in the courtroom rather than in the lists or on the battlefield. In the final scene, rather than allow her to dwindle into a wife, Shakespeare not only endows her with superior knowledge but makes frequent and lively play with her complex identity as a boy heroine recently in male disguise, having already italicized this convention by using it proleptically and contrastively with Jessica and simultaneously with Nerissa. Shakespeare reminded his audience of the presence of several talented play-boys, one of whom represented both the loving, powerful, and now mysterious lady of Belmont and her alter ego, the witty and resourceful doctor of law. In so rich a field of theatrical play, I believe that many spectators would have noted the destabilization or disruption of gender roles but would have had difficulty extracting a single, consistent attitude toward the role and status of women. . . .


1 Hunter, John Lyly, 199.

2 Anne Begor Lancashire, ed., John Lyly, Gallathea and Midas (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1969), xxvi.

3 Ellen M. Caldwell, "John Lyly's Gallathea: A New Rhetoric of Love for the Virgin Queen," ELR 17 (1987): 22-40. Cf. Leah Scragg, The Metamorphosis of "Gallathea": A Study in Creative Adaptation (Washington: University Press of America, 1982).

4 Joel B. Altman, The Tudor Play of Mind: Rhetorical Inquiry and the Development of Elizabethan Drama (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978), 209, argues that Gallathea is the one who will be transformed to a boy, for she seems to him to be more "heroic" in act I than the more "feminine" Phillida. Caldwell, "John Lyly's Gallathea" 34 n. 17, however, justifies the indeterminacy because of the "arbitrary nature and relative unimportance of the physical transformation in a play which celebrates Platonic union."

5 Jessica Milner Davis, Farce (London: Methuen, 1978), 62-63, explains the frequent use of twins and doubles in farce: "The artificiality .. . signals both a distancing of the characters from the audience and a lessening of their humanity: they lack the flexibility and the individuality of life."

6 Believing Antonio's "wealthy Andrew" to refer to the ship captured by Essex at Cadiz in mid-1596 and renamed The Andrew, most scholars now think the play was probably written in the latter half of that year. See M. Mahood, ed., The Merchant of Venice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 1-2.

7 Joan Hartwig, Shakespeare 's Analogical Scene (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983), 12. As Bradbrook, "Shakespeare and the Use of Disguise," 166, comments, Shakespeare observes "a scale of contrast between Jessica's purely formal disguise, Nerissa's imitative one, and the significant robing of Portia."

8 Kenneth Muir, Shakespeare's Sources, 2 vols. (London: Methuen, 1957), 1:51. See also Bullough, Sources, 1:457.

9 John Dover Wilson, "The Copy for The Merchant of Venice, 1600," in The Merchant of Venice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1926), 110-11, 179-80, proposed that a scene of feasting at Bassanio's house, including the disguised Jessica and Shylock, was cut during revision.

10 Jessica's disguising was very important in Mark Lamos's 1984 production in Stratford, Ontario, as described by Paul Gaudet, "Lorenzo's 'Infidel': The Staging of Difference in The Merchant of Venice," TJ 38 (1986): 275-90. Ellis Rabb's New York production (1973) also stressed Jessica's vulnerability in the elopement scene, whereas Irving invented stage business and devised elaborate pictorial effects to emphasize the pathos of Shylock; see James C. Bulman, The Merchant of Venice (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991), 36-38, 147.

11 Mahood, ed., The Merchant of Venice, 97-98nn. Unlike the first quarto, on which the Riverside text is based, the second quarto and the folio print "On, gentlemen, away," which may exclude or include Jessica.

12 For other parallels and contrasts between Lorenzo/Jessica and Portia/Bassanio, see Keith Geary, "The Nature of Portia's Victory: Turning to Men in The Merchant of Venice," ShS 37 (1984): 61-62; and Harry Berger, "Marriage and Mercifixion in The Merchant of Venice," SQ 32 (1981): 160. As Norman Rabkin notes, Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 5, 17-19, readers differ as to whether Jessica and Lorenzo liberate or steal Shylock's money and jewels, whether they are attractively or foolishly prodigal. Mahood, ed., The Merchant of Venice, 29-31, believes that discordant elements eliciting moral judgment are ignored by a theatrical audience, which always "loves a lover whatever his actions" (31). Paul Gaudet, in two conference papers (Shakespeare Association of America, 1985, 1989), sees ironies too trenchant to ignore in each of Jessica's appearances.

13 John Donne, "Elegie: On His Mistres," in The Complete Poetry, ed. John T. Shawcross (Garden City NY: Anchor Books, 1967), 62, 1. 14. One manuscript version is entitled "On his mistres desire to be disguised, and to goe like a Page with him" (439). The speaker fears the scheme will not work, because "the rightest company / Of Players . . . / Will quickly know thee, / and no lesse, alas! / Th'indifferent Italian . . . / well content to thinke thee Page, / Will hunt thee with such lust, and hideous rage, / As Lots faire guests were vext" (11. 35-41).

14 Belsey, "Disrupting Sexual Difference," 179.

15 Vera Jiji, "Portia Revisited: The Influence of Unconscious Factors upon Theme and Characterization in The Merchant of Venice," L&P 26 (1976): 8.

16 Diane Elizabeth Dreher, Domination and Defiance: Fathers and Daughters in Shakespeare (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1986), 131; and Christopher Spencer, The Genesis of Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice" (Lewiston NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1988), 59-62.

17 Richard Wheeler, "'. . . And my loud crying still': The Sonnets, The Merchant of Venice, and Othello," in Rough Magic, 196-97.

18 Lynda E. Boose, "The Comic Contract and Portia's Golden Ring," ShakS 20 (1988): 247. Karen Newman, "Portia's Ring: Unruly Women and Structures of Exchange in The Merchant of Venice," SQ 38 (1987): 26, argues that "Portia gives more than Bassanio can ever reciprocate." See also Dreher, Domination and Defiance, 132-33, 135.

19 Coppélla Kahn, "The Cuckoo's Note: Male Friendship and Cuckoldry in The Merchant of Venice," in Rough Magic, 104-12. On the rivalry between Portia and Antonio, see also Geary, "The Nature of Portia's Victory"; Graham Midgley, "The Merchant of Venice: A Reconsideration," EIC 10 (1960): 119-33; John Hurrell, "Love and Friendship in The Merchant of Venice," TSLL 3 (1961): 328-41; Marc Shell, "The Wether and the Ewe: Verbal Usury in The Merchant of Venice," KR, n.s., 1, no. 4 (1979): 65-92; and Jan Lawson Hinely, "Bond Priorities in The Merchant of Venice" SEL 20 (1980): 217-39. In the opening scene, in what may be a trace of the source, Bassanio is referred to as Antonio's "most noble kinsman" (I.i.57).

20 Nevo, Comic Transformations, 132.

21 Boose, "Comic Contract," 248.

22 Katherine E. Kelly, "The Queen's Two Bodies: Shakespeare's Boy Actress in Breeches," TJ 42 (1990): 87, glosses the line to refer to "the professional vulnerability of the boy player . . . [with] his dangerously changeable voice."

23 Geary, "The Nature of Portia's Victory," 58. The stress on Balthazar's maleness is necessary, Geary argues, because "Portia's disguise allows her to intervene directly to recover her husband, not, of course, from another woman, but from another man" (64). But he overstates the case, as in the following assertion, by ignoring the audience's mental retention of layers gender not visible at the moment: "the theatrical fact of the boy actor in the Elizabethan theatre makes Portia's sexual transformation complete" (58).

24 R. Chris Hassel, Faith and Folly in Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980), 198.

25 Shy lock's position in this duel is a Pauline distortion of Judaism; see John R. Cooper, "Shylock's Humanity," SQ 21 (1970): 117-24; Bernard Glassman, Anti-Semitic Stereotypes without Jews: Images of the Jews in England, 1290-1700 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1975), 14-83; and Michael Shapiro, "Shylock the Jew Onstage: Past and Present," Shofar 4, no. 2 (1986): 1-11. In a conference paper (Shakespeare Association of America, 1991), Randall Martin points out that once Shylock drops his claim to Antonio's flesh, Portia has freed Bassanio from any obligation and thus no longer has a clear motive for further action against Shylock other than generalized hostility toward an alien or personal revenge, much to the distress of the actresses he interviewed.

26 Mahood, ed., The Merchant of Venice, 40.

27 Mahood, ed., The Merchant of Venice, 151n. See also Marianne L. Novy, Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare (Chapel Hill: University of North Carlina Press, 1984), 77.

28 I quote from the translation of II Pecorone in Bullough, Sources, 1:474. Subsequent references to this translation will appear in the text.

29 John Russell Brown, ed., The Merchant of Venice, 121n.

30 Joan Landis, "'By Two-headed Janus': Double Discourse in The Merchant of Venice," conference paper (Shakespeare Association of America, 1990), 3, points out that the Latin word for ring is ano or anulus, and Howard Jacobson has referred me to a passage in one of Cicero's letters (Epistulae ad Familiares IX.xxii.2), that plays on anulus and anus. See also Frankie Rubinstein, A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Sexual Puns and Their Significance (London: Macmillan, 1984), 220-21.

31 Several critics have commented on Portia's retention of power and authority in the final act after she has dropped male disguise. See Richard Horwich, "Riddle and Dilemma in The Merchant of Venice" SEL 17 (1977): 191-200; Dusinberre, Shakespeare and the Nature of Women, 267; and Kirby Farrell, "Self-Effacement and Autonomy in Shakespeare," ShakS 16 (1983): 78. On her use of fear of cuckoldry, see Kahn, "The Cuckoo's Note," 109; and Anne Parten, "Re-establishing Sexual Order: The Ring Episode in The Merchant of Venice," Selected Papers from the West Virginia Shakespeare and Renaissance Association 6 (1981): 27-34. For negative views of Portia's tactics, see Frank Whigham, "Ideology and Class Conduct in The Merchant of Venice," RenD, n.s., 10 (1979): 110; Thomas Cartelli, "Ideology and Subversion in the Shakespearean Set Speech," ELH 53 (1986): 16-21; and Hassel, Faith and Folly, 207.

32 Benjamin Nelson, The Idea of Usury, 2d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 141-42, describes Antonio's offer as the kind "denounced by Luther as a challenge to God's total authority [and] . . . an inexcusable effort to imitate Christ's inimitable goodness." The Geneva Bible (1560), Hebrews 7:22, refers to Jesus as "a surety of a better Testament." See also Harry Morris, "The Judgment Theme in The Merchant of Venice" Renascence 39 (1986): 310.

33 Monica J. Hamill, "Poetry, Law, and the Pursuit of Perfection: Portia's Role in The Merchant of Venice," SEL 18 (1978): 243. See also Berger, "Marriage and Mercifixion," 162. Portia's triumph over Antonio is often suggested in production by having him remain onstage alone for a moment. . . .


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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 fantasy—but it is, at bottom, a serious fantasy. Its characters are not deeply drawn; its plot is providential; its atmosphere is unrealistic—but the conflict of values it illustrates was important to Shakespeare's own time. Difficult as it may be, let us suspend our own values, our contemporary basic decencies, if you wish, and strive to become members of a 1596 audience. Let us, in short, see what Shakespeare meant by Jew and Christian in his play so that we may come to understand a fifth act which is a triumph of moonlight, music, friendship, love, and laughter—a fifth act which so many people today must regard as extraneous and, perhaps, nasty after the fall of poor, persecuted Shylock.

There were no Jewish communities in England in Shakespeare's time. The rare individuals of Hebraic origin that history discovers in sixteenth century England merely enforce the point. Theatergoers could no more encounter kinsmen of Shylock in the streets of London than they could encounter kinsmen of Caliban. To the playwright and his auditors, Jews were almost as mythical as anthropophagi. Shakespeare's source for Shylock was not life but literature and folklore. In them the Jew was typed as an anti-Christian, usurious, cruel monster. This is the stereotyped figure which Shakespeare utilized for Shylock. And these are the traits which his spectators would expect in any stage Jew. Shylock would immediately be recognized as alien to the City of God, the ideal Christian community of the Middle Ages—and of the Reformation too, as Zurich and Geneva witness. But Shakespeare put the folklore Jew to new purposes. He infused the pasteboard figure with a range of attitudes and traits which symbolize the vast disruptive forces of sixteenth century Europe. The Christian community of Venice—i.e., the City of God—which Shylock threatens is an idealized projection of a real England which felt and saw but could not completely understand what was undermining it. As scapegoat, Shakespeare's Jew would provide a London audience of the 1590's with a satisfying release of resentments and frustrations, a kind of catharsis.

In Shakespeare's time the past was breaking up. Tradition and actuality were at variance. In the City of God communal values had always superseded private ones. But in the sixteenth century there was abroad a new idea, so disturbing that it became a bugaboo to frighten grown-ups, the idea of ruthless and iconoclastic individualism, as epitomized by the real and the pseudo-Machiavelli and by the doctrine of virtù, the uninhibited exploitation of all one's innate abilities and powers. Concomitantly, in the economic realm, commerce and industry were beginning to displace agriculture as the most expedient means to wealth. The discovery of the Americas showered Europe with riches that had been neither toiled nor spun for. The force of events was creating Economic Man—but not, as yet, his justification. In short, our modern financial era of commerce and industry was beginning. Furthermore, the Reformation was fracturing the European community, by state and within state, into antagonistic pluralities. A pervasive fear of otherness began to grow. English nationalism rose to a high tide; but in England itself, Catholic, Anglican, and Puritan feared and hated one another. So Shakespeare set before his definitely Anglican, definitely patriotic, and definitely conservative audience a monster, Shylock, in whom disruptive individualism, economic aggrandizement, and perturbing uncanniness appear at their most frightening and melodramatic.

Marlowe had showed Shakespeare the way. A few years before The Merchant of Venice, the former had brilliantly indicated what could be done with the folklore Jew to exploit the fears and resentments of Elizabethan London. In the prologue of The Jew of Malta, Machiavelli describes to the spectators his follower, Barrabas. The Jew's real God in the play is not Jehovah, but gold, won not by labor but by usury and sea commerce. Reviling the Christians and their values, he has no loyalties to anyone but himself—not to his synagogue, not to his daughter. He is anarchic in his desires for power and wealth—hypocritical, cunning, and murderous. Nevertheless, Marlowe's Jew and the other inhabitants of his play lack the immediacy of Shakespeare's figures. Barrabas is a competitor rather than an antagonist of the Christians, and the latter are by no means so differentiated from him that an English audience would automatically care to identify itself with them.

Shylock is more acclimatized to England than Barrabas. Shakespeare has given Shylock certain traits that tie him closely to the actuality of the times. He has much of the popular concept of the Puritan in him. Shylock is sober, industrious, Bible-quoting, hypocritical, assertive, and ruthless—and he is ostentatiously a killjoy. He is a projection of the hatred the more easygoing Anglicans felt for the righteous sectists, whom obscurely they were beginning to associate with economic aggressiveness and cupidity.1 Again, Shakespeare emphasizes very much Shylock's apartness from the Christian community. It is stressed again and again that he is not a citizen of Venice, that he is an alien, di foreigner, a stranger. The ordinary London citizen violently disliked the foreign craftsmen from Flanders, Germany, and France (known as aliens, strangers, foreigners) who were allowed by special governmental dispensation to live and work in London. All through the sixteenth century there were resentment, agitation, and sometimes riots against them. Ill-feeling was especially strong in 1595.

Shylock, then, is not an imitation of a real Jew. He is meant to symbolize those antisocial traits which conventional society felt were inimical to their traditional sense of the normal and the decent. The Christian community in the play is meant to symbolize the preservation of these traditional values even in an era of economic expansion. Hence, in one way, Shylock is more real than the Christians in the drama, for he after all does derive from reality. The Elizabethans could not meet Jews, but they could meet Englishmen who, they thought, by and large, stood for what Shylock stood for. The play's Christian characters and their destiny, on the other hand, are a wish-fulfillment, a vision of goodness dreamt in the reality of an increasingly acquisitive society.

Let us examine the Christian values of the play. (As a matter of fact, most of the Christian characters are more depictions of values than they are attempts at giving the illusion of substantial dimensionality. To seek psychological depth in them is not only aesthetically wrong but dramatically destructive: they are meant to be felt as the not too differentiated and discrete cells of a single organism, the Christian community.) Since it bulks so large in the play, let us begin with the subject of money. When he looks at the three caskets, Bassanio says,

 Therefore, thou gaudy gold,
Hard food for Midas, I will none of thee;
Nor none of thee, thou pale and common drudge
'Tween man and man.

Since gold is not edible, it actually represents a kind of starvation unless used properly; silver, disreputable in itself, is a necessary slave that administers to men's requirements. Wealth, therefore, should be but a means to an end, not an end in itself; hence thrift is not a virtue, and debt is not defilement. Bassanio at the beginning of the play admits to Antonio,

'Tis not unknown to you, Antonio,
How much I have disabled mine estate
By something showing a more swelling port
Than my faint means would grant continuance.

Antonio does not blame him at all. Let me know your plan, he says,

And if it stand, as you yourself still do,
Within the eye of honor, be assur'd
My purse, my person, my extremest means
Lie all unlock'd to your occasions.

Money, it is indicated, should be treated with a certain contempt, as in Portia's lines,

Pay him six thousand, and deface the bond.
Double six thousand and then treble that
Before a friend of this description
Shall lose a hair through Bassanio's fault.

Or in her refusal of ducats, when she is in disguise,

He is well paid that is well satisfied,
And I, delivering you, am satisfied,
And therein do account myself well paid.
My mind was never yet more mercenary.

Obviously, to the Christians in the play, money is a good only in so far as it serves human needs; and these needs are indirectly expressed by Portia when she speaks of "companions / That do converse and waste the time together." In other words, at the banquet of life, in innocent, pleasant, and cultured amity, sit a group of friends.

From the start of the play, the ease of such a fellowship is defined. It consists of laughter, dining, beauty, entertainment, music, conversation, gifts, and similar graces of humane society. Sometimes, this social ease takes the form of appropriate ritual: Bassanio tells Antonio that he needs "the means / To hold a rival place" with Portia's other suitors. Sometimes, this social ease takes the form of carefree expenditure: Lorenzo and Jessica spend money freely on their honeymoon in gambling and silly purchases. When they return, they are more or less penniless—but, significantly, Portia leaves "The husbandry and manage of my house" to Lorenzo. Always, if possible, in this Christian society, there should be innocent pleasure. Bassanio, for example, must have a "supper" before he leaves for Belmont. It is to be a merry occasion. Gratiano is not to try to be demure at it. Bassanio declares,

I would entreat you rather to put on
Your boldest suit of mirth, for we have friends
That purpose merriment.

Gratiano, Lorenzo, Salerio, and Salanio are preparing a surprise entertainment for the occasion. There will be masks, disguises, and torchbearers; and the masquers will be preceded by music, the drum and the fife. Music is important to these people. It plays while Bassanio chooses among the caskets. And music and the music of the spheres, those symbols of harmony, play a large part in the Lorenzo-Jessica overture to the love and friendship paean of the last act:

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov'd with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.

But theirs is definitely not a hedonistic existence. Pleasure is not their chief good; it is an ancillary good. It is not so much that their religion is urbane as that their urbanity is religious. Human beings, they believe, are distinguished from animals by a natural tendency toward good and by reason. The Duke says that Antonio's bad luck would receive pity "From stubborn Turks and Tartars, never trained / To offices of tender courtesy." When Shylock refuses to give a "firm reason" why he is being so brutal to Antonio except a nonrational "certain loathing," Bassanio breaks out, "This is no answer, thou unfeeling man." A man who acts without reason or charity is like an animal; therefore, Gratiano cries at Shylock,

Thou almost mak'st me waver in my faith,
To hold opinion with Pythagoras,
That souls of animals infuse themselves
Into the trunks of men.

The Christians in the play are well aware of the religious facts of life and death: original sin, redemption, baptism, prayer, grace, damnation, and salvation. Portia links Christian eschatology and the Lord's Prayer:

Though justice be thy plea, consider this—
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.

"The course of justice" refers not merely to the individual but to mankind. She is referring to redemption from the just damnation of man by the mercy of the Christ. The prime purpose of life is salvation:

 It is very meet
The Lord Bassanio live an upright life;
For, having such a blessing in his lady,
He finds the joys of heaven here on earth;
And if on earth he do not merit it,
In reason he should never come to heaven.

Lorenzo, in speaking of the music of the spheres, refers to immortality and its place in the order of the universe:

Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.

A Christian can laugh at religious hypocrisy which emphasizes the outward for the sake of social approval:

If I do not put on a sober habit,
Talk with respect, and swear but now and then,
Wear prayer books in my pocket, look demurely,
Nay more, while grace is saying, hood mine eyes
Thus with my hat, and sigh, and say amen,
Use all the observance of civility
Like one well studied in a sad ostent
To please his grandam, never trust me more.

But heresy is a serious matter and must be hated:

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul, producing holy witness,
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek.

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

The religion of the Christian characters is reverent but not ostentatious. We hear that Portia, returning to Belmont,

 doth stray about
By holy crosses, where she kneels and prays
For happy wedlock hours.

She is accompanied, it is said, by "a holy hermit," who may or may not be part of the white lie she has told Lorenzo and Jessica:

I have toward heaven breath'd a secret vow
To live in prayer and contemplation
Only attended by Nerissa here,
Until her husband and my lord's return.
There is a monastery two miles off,
And there we will abide.

Coupled with the contempt in the play for money as money is the Christian principle that one must trust to Providence more than to mortal prudence. (Tawney suggests that the core of the ecclesiastical hatred of usury was the certainty of gain, the lack of risk on the part of the lender.—Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, Pelican Books, p. 44.) The true Christian view is finely expressed in Launcelot Gobbo's words to Bassanio:

Launcelot: The old proverb is very well parted between my master Shylock and you, sir.
You have the grace of God, sir, and he hath enough.
Bassanio: Thou speak'st it well.

He that has the grace of God has enough; God will take care of his own. And this is implicit in what Nerissa tells Portia concerning the caskets:

Your father was ever virtuous; and holy men at their death have good inspirations. Therefore the lott'ry that he hath devised in these three chests of gold, silver, and lead, whereof who chooses his meaning chooses you, will no doubt never be chosen by any rightly but one who you shall rightly love.

Thus, to hazard is to have faith in Providence. Antonio tells Shylock that Jacob's gain was due to Providence, not to human device:

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.

Antonio "ventures" his life to provide Bassanio with money. And the right casket, the lead one, emphatically states the principle of risk: "Who chooses me must give and hazard all he hath." The word hazard runs through the play like a refrain. Jessica and Lorenzo do not worry about the morrow, but at the end of the play they are the inheritors of Shylock's wealth.

That the Christian community is a spiritual organism is postulated by the entire play. At the beginning of 3.4, Lorenzo says to Portia, "You have a noble and a true conceit/Of godlike amity." This last phrase, godlike amity, adumbrates the ideal view of society as the living body of Christ, as the City of God: The all and the one are the same. Portia says to Lorenzo,

I never did repent for doing good,
Nor shall not now; for in companions
That do converse and waste the time together,
Whose souls do bear an egal yoke of love,
There must be needs a like proportion
Of lineaments, of manners, and of spirit;
Which makes me think that 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 bestow'd
In purchasing the semblance of my soul
From out the state of hellish cruelty!
This comes too near the praising of myself.
Therefore no more of it.

In saving others one is saving oneself. In loving others properly one is, in a theological sense, loving oneself properly. To be virtuous to one another is to imitate God, to resemble God: mercy, for example,

 is an attribute to God himself.
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.

Hence the marked expression of friendship in the play, hence the emphatic assertion of the claims of charity.

Thus, the Christians in Shakespeare's Venice make up a distinct society of Christian solicitude, each is concerned more for others than for himself, all love Antonio. "Behind the figure of Antonio," says Theodor Reik in The Secret Self, "is the greater one of Jesus Christ." At the very beginning of the play, Gratiano declares to Antonio: "I love thee, and it is my love that speaks." A few lines later, Bassanio affirms similar affection: "To you, Antonio, I owe the most, in money and in love." Salerio gives his opinion concerning their friend: "A kinder gentleman treads not the earth." Later Salanio talks of "the good Antonio, the honest Antonio—O that I had a title good enough to keep his name company!" Bassanio describes him to Portia:

The dearest friend to me, the kindest man,
The best-condition'd and unwearied spirit
In doing courtesies.

Lorenzo also describes him,

But if you knew to whom you show this honour,
How true a gentleman you send relief,
How dear a lover of my lord your husband,
I know you would be prouder of the work
Than customary bounty can enforce you.

Portia tells Bassanio to spend much money,

Before a friend of this description
Shall lose a hair through Bassanio's fault.

That all the Christians so admire and cherish Antonio is significant in relation to the values in the play. He represents the ideal standard of caritas. All true Christians are his friends, and he has saved many from Shylock's grasp. For the sake of Bassanio he is willing to give up not only his wealth but even life itself.

Race and color in themselves are not socially significant to these people. It is what a man or woman morally is and does that determines whether he or she should be accepted or not. Jessica, referring to her own concept of the good life, puts the matter succinctly: "But though I am a daughter to [my father's] blood,/I am not to his manners." Hence she adopts the faith the members of which do have the right "manners." And she is completely accepted by these members. The treatment of Jessica by the Christians is testimony that within the circumscription of the play, Jews are hated not because of their "blood" but because of their "manners." Christian virtue can so translate the individual that racial distinctions disappear:

Shylock: I say my daughter is my flesh and blood.
Salerio: There is more difference between thy flesh and hers than between jet and ivory; more between your bloods than there is between red wine and Rhenish.

Hence, in all sincerity, when Antonio discovers that Shylock wants for the sake of "friendship" to charge him no interest, he says, "Hie thee, gentle Jew. / The Hebrew will turn Christian; he grows kind." If by anti-Semitism is meant wholly irrational prejudice against Jews in general, it would be difficult to accuse any of the Christian characters in the play of that vice.

Let us now examine what Shakespeare means in the play by Jew. Observe Shylock at his first appearance in 1.3. Clad in his yellow gaberdine, he is visually the "stranger" within the gates, the "alien." He is not a citizen of the community, but a "foreigner." From the start, he is neither pathetic nor heroic but either sadistic or cringing.

Shylock: Antonio is a good man.
Bassanio: Have you heard any imputation to the contrary?
Shylock: Oh, no, no, no, no! My meaning in saying he is a good man is to have you understand me that he is sufficient.

Sufficient! Here is the essential doctrine of "economic man." Good has not merely shifted its meaning: it has shifted its deity! Yet, Shylock goes on, Antonio has not been a careful businessman. His ships are over the many seas. "And other ventures he hath, squand'red abroad." In other words, Antonio has not been prudent; he has ventured, hazarded. But men cannot be trusted, declares the Jew. There are "land rats and water rats": thieves and pirates. Nor is nature beneficent. "There is the peril of waters, winds, and rocks." In such an inimical world of men and things, Shylock refuses to hazard. He will trust only his own judgment. When Bassanio invites him to dinner to meet Antonio, Shylock gives his first example of twisting the Bible to his own uses: The swine into which Jesus sent the demons become the customary food of the Christians! Then Shylock follows with an extremely significant statement:

I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following; but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you.

Business is business. It has nothing to do with fellowship or religion. Here, then, is utter rejection of those Christian values which we have just analyzed. When Antonio enters, Shylock soliloquizes: "How like a fawning publican he looks." Shylock hates Antonio's self-abnegation, and Christian courtesy he interprets as fawning. Antonio has refused to be the economic man:

I hate him for he is a Christian;
But more for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.

Note the "more." Shylock hates Antonio more for economic reasons than for racial or religious ones. Since cunning economic man gets all that he can get, Shylock ridicules Christian charity as "low simplicity." Then, "If I can catch him once upon the hip, / I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him." Cannibalism in Shylock is already indicated.

He hates our sacred nation, and he rails,
Even there where merchants most do congregate,
On me, my bargains, and my well-won thrift.

This is the first evidence of Shylock's ability to rationalize Christian hatred of his immorality into Christian hatred of his Jewishness. In other words, Shylock hypocritically covers up his own criminality by charging his accusers with anti-Semitism. In similar fashion, his usury becomes "bargains" and "well-won thrift."

To defend the malpractice of usury to Antonio, Shylock wracks Scripture in referring to the cunning Jacob and the pied lambs. But notice too another Biblical reference:

This Jacob from our holy Abram was
(As his wise mother wrought in his behalf)
The third possessor.

The "wise mother" was Rebecca, who tricked the blind Isaac into blessing Jacob instead of Esau. Thus, the cunning of economic man becomes wisdom! And Shylock finishes his Biblical explication of Jacob with

This was a way to thrive, and he was blest;
And thrift is blessing, if men steal it not.

God blesses economic man, cunning is wisdom, and everything is justified except outright stealing! Will Shylock make the loan?

Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances.
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug;
For suff ranee is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.

Antonio, it is clearly shown in this passage, hates Shylock because of his usury. But Shylock evades the issue: on the one hand, he says his Jewishness is the reason for this hatred; on the other hand, usury is not reprehensible: it is the "use of that which is mine own." Private judgment, Shylock implies, not communal judgment or welfare, should be the sole criterion in money matters.

Launcelot Gobbo is the "unthrifty knave" in whose risky care Shylock has left his house. We discover that he is so miserable as the Jew's servant that he wishes to run away. His master has not been giving him enough to eat: "I am famish'd in his service." Jessica in 2.3 indicates that we can trust the Clown's judgment: "Our house is hell; and thou, a merry devil, / Did'st rob it of some taste of tediousness." Why, from the Christian viewpoint, the house is hell is trenchantly suggested in 2.5. Shylock bullies his daughter and berates the unthrifty knave. Little food, little sleep, the frugalest necessities of clothing, constant labor for the master's prosperity—these are his theme. Launcelot hints that there will be a masque at the feast to which Shylock has been invited. Economic man is appalled at such epicureanism:

What, are there masques? Hear you me, Jessica.
Lock up my doors; and when you hear the drum
And the vile squealing of the wry-neck'd fife,
Clamber not you up to the casements then,
Nor thrust your head into the public street
To gaze on Christian fools with varnish'd faces;
But stop my house's ears—I mean my casements.
Let not the sound of shallow fopp'ry enter
My sober house. By Jacob's staff I swear
I have no mind of feasting forth tonight.

Neither his house nor its inhabitants are to hear the music or watch the procession. "Lock up my doors." A morris dance is as bad as stealing. "Stop my house's ears." Music destroys thrift. People who enjoy such vanities are "fools." His is a "sober house." And sobriety and cupidity suddenly coalesce in a reference to a Biblical personage who has already appeared as a symbol of business cunning, Jacob. Economic man in this scene is portrayed in all his unsleeping concern for frugality, rapid profit, and no leisure. In all his lack of human concern for his fellow man. And in all his aptness for proverbs of the Poor Richard type.

The patch [Launcelot] is kind enough, but a huge feeder,
Snail-slow in profit, and he sleeps by day
More than the wildcat. Drones hive not with me. . . .

 Well, Jessica, go in.
Perhaps I will return immediately.
Do as I bid you; shut doors after you.
Fast bind, fast find—
A proverb never stale in thrifty mind.

We do not see Shylock again until 3.1. However, we learn of his reaction to his daughter's flight from Salanio in 2.8:

My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!
Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!
Justice! the law! My ducats, and my daughter!
A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats,
Of double ducats, stolen from me by my daughter!
And jewels—two stones, two rich and precious stones,
Stol'n by my daughter! Justice! Find the girl!
She hath the stones upon her, and the ducats!"

We may well agree with the Christian speaker that this is a strange and outrageous lament. It is not the loss of his child, nor even that she has been disloyal to him, which has sent Shylock into a passion. It is clearly the money and the jewels.

In 3.1 he rails at the bankrupt Antonio. Then comes one of Shylock's most famous—and most misunderstood!—declarations:

Salerio: Why, I am sure, if he forfeit, thou wilt not take his flesh. What's that good for?
Shylock: To bait fish withal. If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgrac'd me, and hind'red me half a million; laugh'd at my losses, mock'd at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies—and what's his reason? I am a Jew. 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. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

Only eyes so blinded with sentimental tears that they cannot pierce hypocrisy, rationalization, and savagery can read this speech as a plausible justification of Shylock. He defends his cannibalism on grounds of revenge. Why? Antonio has hated him because he is a Jew. But the phrases before tell a different story. "Losses," "gains," "bargains," and "half a million" recall the villainous business morality which Antonio has considered vile. The word is ethic, not ethnic, for Antonio's hatred. But Shylock wishes to make it ethnic. Is not a Jew a human being? The modern reader does not see here how completely Shylock is condemning himself. To be a human being means to act and feel as a human being. The more Shylock expounds on common physical attributes, the more definitely he is calling attention to the absence of common spiritual attributes. He claims that he has learned the principle of revenge from the Christians. But the "eye for an eye" Old Law has been replaced by the New Law, the Sermon on the Mount. And we shall see for ourselves later what Christian revenge is.

Shylock's egocentrism (his real concern for himself rather than his exhibited concern for his group), his placement of monetary loss skies higher than paternal loss, his fervid appetite for revenge even when it concerns his own flesh and blood—all these characteristics are brought out in his speech to Tubal:

Why, there, there, there! A diamond gone cost me two thousand ducats in Frankford! The curse never fell upon our nation till now; I never felt it till now. Two thousand ducats in that, and other precious, precious jewels. I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear! Would she were hears'd at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin! No news of them? Why, so—and I know not what's spent in the search. Why, thou loss upon loss! the thief gone with so much, and so much to find the thief; and no satisfaction, no revenge! nor no ill luck stirring but what lights o' my shoulders; no sighs but o' my breathing; no tears but o' my shedding.

Mark Shylock's blasphemy when he is informed of Antonio's ill luck: "I thank God, I thank God! Is it true? is it true?" His gaiety is obscene. "Good news, good news! Ha, ha!" "I am very glad of it. I'll plague him, I'll torture him. I am glad of it." The critics are probably right in seeing real sentiment in his exclamation when told of the ring which Jessica sold for a monkey. "Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal. It was my turquoise. I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor." But the same critics are sentimental in their treatment of this detail. Any touch that postulates humanity in Shylock blackens by contrast his inhumanity all the more. This is only one detail—the cannibalistic money-lender is revealed in his next words: "I will have the heart of [Antonio] if he forfeit; for, were he out of Venice, I can make what merchandise I will." Usury and murder are two sides of the same viciousness. And then Shakespeare presents a final nasty touch. After feeing an officer to arrest Antonio when his bond comes due, "good Tubal" is to meet Shylock "at our synagogue!"

Act 5 is the beauty, harmony, rest, and satisfaction after the storm. Act 4 is the storm. The Christian group is threatened by one who is alien to its principles. No one can deny the theatrical effectiveness of Act 4, the climax of the play, its exciting melodrama. But it is a parable, and its characters are symbolic. Portia is not merely Bassanio's clever young wife in disguise. She is allegory, the voice of God, the epitome of the New Law. Shylock too is symbol. He, new-destructive, is really a harking back to the old and pre-Christ. Shylock is the Old Law. He is the letter rather than the spirit. He is legalized injustice. He is hatred and inhumanity. He is the nihilism of selfish economic aggrandizement unmasked—as criminally destructive as murder. He is most frightening because he has law on his side. (In 1571, usury of not more than 10 percent became legal in England.) The community, it seems, must not only tolerate the enemy of good society these days, but, as it were, aid him to achieve his ends. Usury is legal, and Shylock's bond is legal—but they are not moral The difference between the Tudor period and the later seventeenth century is that economic vice, legalized or not, had not yet been sanctified into social virtue.

The Duke calls Shylock, who has not yet come on, an "inhuman wretch" because he is void of "pity" and "mercy." Shylock enters. The Duke emphasizes the Jew's "strange" cruelty. He hopes that Shylock "touch'd with humane gentleness and love" will forgive Antonio not only his life but repayment of the money. The Duke expects a "gentle answer." But Shylock, emphasizing the legality of his position, refuses to give a rational answer as to why he wants Antonio's "carrion flesh." It is his "humour," his "affection"; it is a "certain loathing," and he refuses double payment of the loan.

Duke: How shalt thou hope for mercy, rend'ring none?
Shylock: What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?

Thus, the Duke, before Portia, invokes "measure for measure." But the law-protected Shylock foresees no punishment either on earth or in after-life. He has no sense of sin or shame for what he is doing.

While the Duke converses apart with Nerissa dressed as a lawyer's clerk, Shylock takes out his knife and whets it on the sole of his shoe. Gratiano's outbreak at this spectacle stresses the non-humanity of the Jew. Shylock scoffs, "I stand here for law." Then Portia enters as a Doctor of Laws. She tells Shylock that his suit is of "a strange nature," yet Venetian law "Cannot impugn you as you do proceed." Hence, she declares, "must the Jew be merciful." "On what compulsion must I?" asks Shylock. It is not law but humanity that must rule you, replies Portia. Mercy is above justice. But Shylock is obdurate. He again invokes "measure for measure" treatment: "My deeds upon my head! I crave the law. . . ." He hypocritically refuses repayment: "An oath, an oath, I have an oath in heaven!" Again Portia appeals to him: "Be merciful. / Take thrice thy money; bid me tear the bond." Again Shylock invokes the law:

 I charge you by the law,
Whereof you are a well-deserving pillar,
Proceed to judgment.

And yet once more Shylock refuses "charity" and reads the law narrowly and inhumanly:

Portia: Have by some surgeon, Shylock, on your charge,
To stop his wounds, lest he do bleed to death.
Shylock: Is it so nominated in the bond?
Portia: It is not so express'd; but what of that?
Twere good you do so much for charity.
Shylock: I cannot find it; 'tis not in the bond.

Antonio is spiritually ready: "I am arm'd and well prepar'd." Bassanio and Gratiano say that they would sacrifice their wives to save Antonio. In an aside, Shylock sneers at these "Christian husbands."

Note that Shylock has been given opportunity again and again to be merciful—and to be well paid in the bargain, too. But he has refused to forego cannibalism. He has constantly appealed to the law. So, when the law turns on him, he is the logical recipient of the eyefor-an-eye code. If he takes one drop of Antonio's blood, Portia declares, his lands and goods are "by the laws of Venice confiscate." Suddenly, the Jew (despite his oath!) is willing to take thrice repayment and forget the bond. No, says Portia, let the inhuman interpreter of the letter of the law proceed now according to the letter—but if he take more than a fraction of a fraction of a pound, he himself must die and his estate will be seized. Now Shylock will be satisfied with his principal. No, says Portia, follow the law and take your forfeiture of the flesh. Shylock, caught, gives up the bond snarlingly and prepares to leave. But the law which he has invoked so often has a terrible claim on him. If an "alien" has attempted the life of a "citizen," he loses all his goods (one-half to the would-be victim, one-half to the state), and his life is at the mercy of the state.

This is the ethical crux of the play. How vicious throughout The Merchant of Venice the Christians are to the Jew, say most of the critics. Well, here is the test. The Jew was merciless to the Christians. How will the Christians act now that they have Shylock on the hip? Portia advises him, "Down, therefore, and beg mercy of the Duke." But the Duke forestalls him: "That thou shalt see the difference of our spirit, / I pardon thee thy life before thou ask it." But half of his wealth is to go to Antonio, "The other half comes to the general state, / Which humbleness may drive unto a fine." Observe that the state is not at all anxious to take its legal half. But what about the other half? Legally, it belongs to Antonio. Portia turns to him, "What mercy can you render him, Antonio?" She is putting Antonio's Christianity to the severest proof. Remember that he is in judgment on one who a moment before was ready to literally cut his heart out. This is Antonio's answer:

So please my lord the Duke and all the court
To quit the fine for one half of his goods,
I am content; so he will let me have
The other half in use, to render it
Upon his death unto the gentleman
That lately stole his daughter—
Two things provided more: that, for this favour,
He presently become a Christian;
The other, that he do record a gift
Here in the court of all he dies possess'd
Unto his son Lorenzo and his daughter.

The legal phrase in use means that Antonio will manage one-half of Shylock's property until the latter's death. The inference is that he will turn over the profits to the final possessors, Jessica and Lorenzo. (At the end of the play, after Portia gives Antonio the letter announcing the safe arrival of certain of his supposedly lost ships, he cries, "Sweet lady, you have given me life and living.") Thus Antonio takes nothing for himself. And Shylock actually loses nothing. He retains his life. And he retains all his property in that it will go to those who under any circumstances have the legal and ethical right to inherit. And Shylock has the completely free use of one-half of his apparently ample wealth. Certainly this is mercy, not cold justice!

But what about Shylock's becoming a Christian? It is hard for moderns to see that this request is also part of the Christian mercy. Only if the Jew is baptized can he escape the eternal pains of hell. As the Jew wished to kill the goodness which is Antonio, so Antonio wishes to kill the Old Adam which is in Shylock.

Times have changed. One has to adopt an historical perspective for The Merchant of Venice in order not to be shocked by what today seems sentimentally chauvinistic Christianity and nasty obdurate anti-Semitism. Shakespeare wrote a meaningful fantasy about a bad ogre who tried to hurt some good people in the City of God, but Jews today are so real that they can be seized and burnt in Nazi crematoria. But what Shakespeare's Jew and Shakespeare's Antonio ethically stand for is, perhaps, also real today. And some may say that this is a conflict which must go on until the last man is exterminated by the hydrogen bomb. The tendency of the modern psyche to exculpate Shylock because he is forced by society to be what he is is to misunderstand the tenor of the whole play. To Shakespeare and his audience sociological determinism was never a valid cause. It weis always a villain's excuse.


1 I am not the only critic who sees Shylock as evocative of the dislike of the Puritans. See E. E. Stoll, "Shakespeare's Jew," in From Shakespeare to Joyce (Garden City, 1944), pp. 126, 134, and Paul N. Siegle, "Shylock and the Puritan Usurers," in Studies in Shakespeare (Miami, Fla., 1953), pp. 129-38.

D. M. Cohen (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "The Jew and Shylock," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 1, Spring, 1980, pp. 53-63.

[In the following essay, Cohen contends that The Merchant of Venice is an anti-Semitic work not simply due to the characterization of Shylock but in the way it equates "Jewishness" with wickedness.]

Current criticism notwithstanding, The Merchant of Venice seems to me a profoundly and crudely anti-Semitic play. The debate about its implications has usually been between inexpert Jewish readers and spectators who discern an anti-Semitic core and literary critics (many of them Jews) who defensively maintain that the Shakespearean subtlety of mind transcends anti-Semitism. The critics' arguments, by now familiar, center on the subject of Shylock's essential humanity, point to the imperfections of the Christians, and remind us that Shakespeare was writing in a period when there were so few Jews in England that it didn't matter anyway (or, alternatively, that because there were so few Jews in England Shakespeare had probably never met one, so he didn't really know what he was doing). Where I believe the defensive arguments go wrong is in their heavy concentration on the character of Shylock; they overlook the more encompassing attempt of the play to offer a total poetic image of the Jew. It is all very well for John Russell Brown to say The Merchant of Venice is not anti-Jewish, and that "there are only two slurs on Jews in general"1; but this kind of assertion, a common enough one in criticism of the play, cannot account for the fear and shame that Jewish viewers and readers have always felt from the moment of Shylock's entrance to his final exit. I wish to argue that these feelings are justified and that such an intuitive response is more proper and accurate than the critical sophistries whose purpose is to exonerate Shakespeare from the charge of anti-Semitism. Although few writers on the subject are prepared to concede as much, it is quite possible that Shakespeare didn't give a damn about Jews or about insulting England's minuscule Jewish community, and that, if he did finally humanize his Jew, he did so simply to enrich his drama.


Let us first ask what is meant by anti-Semitism when that term is applied to a work of art. Leo Kirschbaum suggests that it is a "wholly irrational prejudice against Jews in general," noting it would be difficult to accuse any of the Christian characters in The Merchant of Venice of such a vice.2 This seems to be John Russell Brown's view as well; he perceives the play's only anti-Semitic remarks to be Launcelot's statement "my master's a very Jew" (II. ii. 100) and Antonio's comment about Shylock's "Jewish heart" (IV. i. 80).3 While generally acceptable, Kirschbaumes definition seems to me to err in its use of the term irrational. Prejudice is almost always rationalized, and it is rationalized by reference to history and mythology. Jews have been hated for a number of reasons, the most potent among them that they were the killers of Jesus Christ.

I would define an anti-Semitic work of art as one that portrays Jews in a way that makes them objects of antipathy to readers and spectators—objects of scorn, hatred, laughter, or contempt. A delicate balance is needed to advance this definition, since it might seem to preclude the possibility of an artist's presenting any Jewish character in negative terms without incurring the charge of anti-Semitism. Obviously, Jews must be allowed to have their faults in art as they do in life. In my view, a work of art becomes anti-Semitic not by virtue of its portrayal of an individual Jew in uncomplimentary terms but solely by its association of negative racial characteristics with the term Jewish or with Jewish characters generally. What we must do, then, is look at the way the word Jew is used and how Jews are portrayed in The Merchant of Venice as a whole.


The word Jew is used 58 times in The Merchant of Venice. Variants of the word like Jewess, Jews, Jew's, and Jewish are used 14 times; Hebrew is used twice. There are, then, 74 direct uses of Jew and unambiguously related words in the play. Since it will readily be acknowledged that Shakespeare understood the dramatic and rhetorical power of iteration, it must follow that there is a deliberate reason for the frequency of the word in the play. And as in all of Shakespeare's plays, the reason is to surround and inform the repeated term with associations which come more and more easily to mind as it is used. A word apparently used neutrally in the early moments of a play gains significance as it is used over and over; it becomes a term with connotations that infuse it with additional meaning.

The word Jew has no neutral connotations in drama. Unlike, say, the word blood in Richard II or Macbeth—where the connotations deepen in proportion not merely to the frequency with which the word is uttered but to the poetic significance of the passages in which it is employed—Jew has strongly negative implications in The Merchant of Venice. It is surely significant that Shylock is addressed as "Shylock" only seventeen times in the play. On all other occasions he is called "Jew" and is referred to as "the Jew." Even when he and Antonio are presumed to be on an equal footing, Shylock is referred to as the Jew while Antonio is referred to by name. For example, in the putatively disinterested letter written by the learned doctor Bellario to commend Balthazar/Portia, there is the phrase "I acquainted him with the cause in controversy between the Jew and Antonio . . ." (IV. i. 154-56).4 Similarly, in the court scene Portia calls Shylock by his name only twice; for the rest of the scene she calls him Jew to his face. The reason for this discrimination is, of course, to set Shylock apart from the other characters. This it successfully does. Calling the play's villain by a name which generalizes him while at the same time ostensibly defining his essence is, in a sense, to depersonalize him. As in our own daily life, where terms like bourgeois, communist, and fascist conveniently efface the humanness and individuality of those to whom they are applied, the constant reference to Shylock's "thingness" succeeds in depriving him of his humanity while it simultaneously justifies the hostility of his enemies. The word Jew has always conjured up associations of foreignness in the minds of non-Jews. When it is repeatedly used with reference to the blood-thirsty villain of the play, its intention is unmistakable. And the more often it is used, the more difficult it becomes for the audience to see it as a neutral word. Even if John Russell Brown is right, then, in pointing out that there are only two overtly anti-Semitic uses of the word in the play, it will surely be seen that overt anti-Semitism very early becomes unnecessary. Each time that Jew is used by any of Shylock's enemies, there is a deeply anti-Jewish implication already and automatically assumed.


In Act I, scene iii, after the bond has been struck, Antonio turns to the departing Shylock and murmurs "Hie thee gentle Jew. / The Hebrew will turn Christian, he grows kind" (11. 177-78). The lines themselves seem inoffensive, but let us examine the words and the gestures they imply. Shylock has left the stage and Antonio is commenting on the bond that has just been sealed. It is impossible to ignore the mocking tone of Antonio's words and the fact that the scorn they express is directed toward Shylock's Jewishness as much as toward Shylock himself. Surely, too, the elevation of one religion over another is accomplished only at the expense of the religion deemed inferior. To imply that Shylock is so improved (however ironically this is meant) that he verges on becoming Christian is an expression of amused superiority to Jews. The relatively mild anti-Semitism implicit in this passage is significant, both because it is so common in the play and because it leads with the inexorable logic of historical truth to the more fierce and destructive kind of anti-Semitism, borne of fear, that surfaces when the object of it gains ascendancy. While Shylock the Jew is still regarded as a nasty but harmless smudge on the landscape, he is grudgingly accorded some human potential by the Christians; once he becomes a threat to their happiness, however, the quality in him which is initially disdained—his Jewishness—becomes the very cynosure of fear and loathing.

In its early stages, for example, the play makes only light-hearted connections between the Jew and the Devil: as the connections are more and more validated by Shylock's behavior, however, they become charged with meaning. When Launcelot, that dismal clown, is caught in the contortions of indecision as he debates with himself the pros and cons of leaving Shylock's service, he gives the association of Jew and Devil clear expression:

Certainly, my conscience will serve me to run from this Jew my master 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.

(II.ii. 1-30)

Significant here is the almost obsessive repetition of "the Jew." In the immediate context the phrase has a neat dramatic ambiguity; it refers explicitly to Shylock, but by avoiding the use of his name it also refers more generally to the concept of the Jew. The ambiguity of the phrase makes the demonic association applicable to Jews generally.

That Launcelot's description is anti-Jewish more than simply anti-Shylock is to be seen in the fact that the view of the Jew it presents is in accord with the anti-Semitic portrayal of Jews from the Middle Ages on. Launcelot's image of the Jew as the Devil incarnate conforms to a common medieval notion. It is expressed in Chaucer and much early English drama, and it is given powerful theological support by Luther, who warns the Christian world that "next to the devil thou hast no enemy more cruel, more venemous and violent than a true Jew."5 That a fool like Launcelot should take the assertion a step further and see the Jew as the Devil himself is only to be expected. And that the play should show, as its final discovery, that Shylock is only a devil manque is merely to lend further support to Luther's influential asseveration.

A less mythological but more colorful and dramatically effective anti-Jewish association is forged by the frequent and almost casually employed metaphor of Jew as dog. The play is replete with dialogue describing Shylock in these terms. In the mouth of Solanio, for example, the connection is explicit: "I never heard a passion so confus'd, / So strange, outrageous, and so variable / As the dog Jew did utter in the streets" (II. viii. 12-14). I do not believe that it is going too far to suggest that in this passage the word strange carries a host of anti-Semitic reverberations. It recalls to the traditional anti-Semitic memory the foreign and, to the ignorant, frightening Jewish rituals of mourning—rituals which in anti-Semitic literature have been redolent with implications of the slaughter of Christian children and the drinking of their blood. With this report of Shylock's rage and grief comes a massive turning point in the play. The once verminous Jew is implicitly transformed into a fearful force.


To this argument I must relate a point about a passage hardly noticed in the critical literature on the play. Having bemoaned his losses and decided to take his revenge, Shylock turns to Tubal and tells him to get an officer to arrest Antonio. "I will have the heart of him if he forfeit, for were he out of Venice I can make what merchandise I will. Go, Tubal," he says, "and meet me at our synagogue; go good Tubal, at our synagogue, Tubal" (III. i. 127-30). This collusive and sinister request to meet at the synagogue has always seemed to me to be the most deeply anti-Semitic remark in the play. It is ugly and pernicious precisely because it is indirect. What is the word synagogue supposed to mean in the context? Shylock has just determined to cut the heart out of the finest man in Venice; worse yet, the knowledge that he is legally entitled to do so brings him solace in his grief. Now what might an Elizabethan have thought the synagogue really was? Is it possible that he thought it merely a place where Jews prayed? Is it not more likely that he thought it a mysterious place where strange and terrible rituals were enacted? Whatever Shakespeare himself might have thought, the lines convey the notion that Shylock is repairing to his place of worship immediately after learning that he can now legally murder the good Antonio. Bloodletting and religious worship are brought into a very ugly and insidious conjunction.

Slightly earlier Tubal is observed approaching. Solanio remarks, "Here comes another of the tribe; a third cannot be match'd, unless the devil himself turn Jew" (III. i. 76-77). Incredible as it may seem, this line has been used to demonstrate that the play is not anti-Semitic, because Shylock and Tubal alone among the Jews are so bad as to be like devils. What the lines more probably mean is that these two villains are the worst Jews around, and that as the worst of a very bad lot they must be pretty bad.

In her study of the origins of modern German anti-Semitism Lucy Dawidowicz discerns two irreconcilable images of Jews in anti-Semitic literature,

. . . both inherited from the recent and medieval treasury of anti-Semitism. One was the image of the Jew as vermin, to be rubbed out by the heel of the boot, to be exterminated. The other was the image of the Jew as the mythic omnipotent superadversary, against whom war on the greatest scale had to be conducted. The Jew was, on the one hand, a germ, a bacillus, to be killed without conscience. On the other hand, he was, in the phrase Hitler repeatedly used. . . the "mortal enemy" (Todfiend) to be killed in self-defense.6

The Christians in The Merchant of Venice initially see Shylock in terms of the first image. He is a dog to be spurned and spat upon. His Jewish gaberdine and his Jewish habits of usury mark him as a cur to be kicked and abused. (Is it likely that Antonio would enjoy the same license to kick a rich Christian moneylender with impunity?) As Shylock gains in power, however, the image of him as a cur changes to an image of him as a potent diabolical force. In Antonio's eyes Shylock's lust for blood takes on the motive energy of Satanic evil, impervious to reason or humanity.

I pray you think you question with the Jew:
You may as well go stand upon the beach
And bid the main flood bate his usual height;
You may as well use question with the wolf
Why he hath made the ewe bleak for the lamb;
You may as well forbid the mountain pines
To wag their high tops, and to make no noise
When they are fretten with the gusts of heaven;
You may as well do any thing most hard
As seek to soften that—than which what's harder?—
His Jewish heart!

(IV. i. 70-80)

In this speech Shylock is utterly "the Jew"—the embodiment of his species. And the Jew's Jewish heart is wholly obdurate. He is a force of evil as strong as nature itself. No longer a dog to be controlled by beating and kicking, he has become an untamable wolf, an inferno of evil and hatred. The logical conclusion of sentiments like these, surely, is that the Jew must be kept down. Once he is up, his instinct is to kill and ravage. Indeed, Shylock has said as much himself: "Thou call'dst me dog before thou hadst a cause, / But since I am a dog, beware my fangs" (III. iii. 6-7). If the play defines Christianity as synonymous with tolerance and kindness and forgiveness, it defines Jewishness in opposite terms. The symbol of evil in The Merchant of Venice is Jewishness, and Jewishness is represented by the Jew.


The counterargument to the charge that Shakespeare is guilty of anti-Semitism has always depended upon the demonstration that the portrait of Shylock is, ultimately, a deeply humane one—that Shylock's arguments against the Christians are unassailable and that his position in the Christian world has resulted from that world's treatment of him. This view, romantic in inception, still persists in the minds of a large number of critics and directors. From such authors as John Palmer and Harold Goddard one gets the image of a Shylock who carries with him the Jewish heritage of suffering and persecution, Shylcok as bearer of the pain of the ages. This Shylock is religious and dignified, wronged by the world he inhabits, a man of whom the Jewish people can justly be proud and in whose vengeful intentions they may recognize a poetic righting of the wrongs of Jewish history.7 That Jews have themselves recognized such a Shylock in Shakespeare's play is borne out in the self-conscious effusions of Heinrich Heine, for whom the Jewish moneylender possessed "a breast that held in it all the martyrdom . . . [of] a whole tortured people."8

The usual alternative to this view is that of the critics who see Shylock as no more than a stereotyped villain. For these critics, what his sympathizers regard as Shakespeare's plea for Shylock's essential humanity (the "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech [III. i. 59 ff.]) is nothing more than a justification for revenge. These critics circumvent the charge that Shakespeare is anti-Semitic by arguing that Shylock is not so much a Jew as a carryover from the old morality plays. Albert Wertheim, for example, asserts that "Shylock is a stylized and conventional comic villain and no more meant to be a realistic portrayal of a Jew than Shakespeare's Aaron is meant to be a realistic Moor."9 John P. Sisk confidently declares that "Kittredge was mainly right in his contention that the play is not an anti-Semitic document."10 These views are determinedly anti-sentimental and usefully balance the oversensitive opposing position. Their mainstay is dramatic precedent, from which can be deduced the similarities between Shylock and the stereotypical comic villain of earlier dramatic modes. Toby Lelyveld notes striking resemblances between Shylock and the Pantalone figure of commedia dell'arte, for example: "In physical appearance, mannerisms and the situations in which he is placed, Shylock is so like his Italian prototype that his characterization, at least superficially, presents no new aspects save that of its Jewishness."11

What the two critical opinions have in common in their determination to defend Shakespeare from the charge of anti-Semitism—but from opposite sides of the fence. Shylock is either a better man than we might be disposed to believe or he is not really human.12 The latter reading seems to me to be closer to what the play presents. It is undoubtedly true that Shylock's "humanity" has frequently been given full—even excessive—play in the theatre. But it is always useful to bear in mind that he is the play's villain. All his words, even the most convincingly aggrieved among them, are the words of a cold, heartless killer and should therefore be regarded skeptically. Shylock is untouched by the plight of those around him, and he plots the ruthless murder of Antonio. Pity for him therefore strikes me as grossly misplaced, and the view of him as the embodiment of wickedness seems dramatically correct. His argument that he is like other men and that he is vengeful only because he has been wronged by them is a violent corruption of the true state of things. Shylock is cruel and monstrous and utterly unlike other men in their capacity for love, fellowship, and sympathy. Consider his remark that he would not have exchanged the ring his daughter stole for a wilderness of monkeys. Rather than redeeming him, as Kirschbaum points out, it only makes him the worse; by demonstrating that he is capable of sentiment and aware of love, it "blackens by contrast his inhumanity all the more."13 As a sincerely expressed emotion the line is out of character. It is the only reference to his wife in the play, and, if we are to take his treatment of Jessica as an indication of his treatment of those he professes to hold dear, we may reasonably conclude that it is a heartfelt expression not of love but of sentimental self-pity. Shylock is, in short, a complete and unredeemed villain whose wickedness is a primary trait. It is a trait, moreover, that is reinforced by the fact of his Jewishness, which, to make the wickedness so much the worse, is presented as synonymous with it.

And yet, although Shylock is the villain of the play, the critics who have been made uneasy by the characterization of his evil have sensed a dimension of pathos, a quality of humanity, that is part of the play. Audiences and readers have usually found themselves pitying Shylock in the end, even though the play's other characters, having demolished him, hardly give the wicked Jew a second thought. The Christians fail to see the humanity of Shylock, not because they are less sensitive than readers and spectators, but because that humanity emerges only in the end, during the court scene when they are understandably caught up in the atmosphere of happiness that surrounds Antonio's release from death. Audiences and readers, whose attention is likely to be equally shared by Antonio and Shylock, are more aware of what is happening to Shylock. They are therefore aware of the change that is forced upon him. To them he is more than simply an undone villain. He is a suffering human being.

Shylock becomes a pitiable character only during his last appearance in the court of Venice. It is here that he is humanized—during a scene in which he is usually silent. Ironically, it is not in his pleadings or selfjustifications that Shylock becomes a sympathetic figure, but in his still and silent transformation from a crowing blood-hungry monster into a quiescent victim whose fate lies in the hands of those he had attempted to destroy. How this transmogrification is accomplished is, perhaps, best explained by Gordon Craig's exquisitely simple observation about the chief character of The Bells. Craig remarked that "no matter who the human being may be, and what his crime, the sorrow which he suffers must appeal to our hearts. . . ."14 This observation helps explain why the scene of reversal which turns aside the impending catastrophe of The Merchant of Venice does not leave the audience with feelings of unmixed delight in the way that the reversals of more conventional comedies do. The reversal of The Merchant of Venice defies a basic premise of the normal moral logic of drama. Instead of merely enjoying the overthrow of an unmitigated villain, we find ourselves pitying him. The conclusion of the play is thus a triumph of ambiguity: Shakespeare has sustained the moral argument which dictates Shylock's undoing while simultaneously compelling us to react on an emotional level more compassionate than intellectual.


If it is true that Jewishness in the play is equated with wickedness, it is surely unlikely that Shylock's elaborate rationalizations of his behavior are intended to render him as sympathetic. Embedded in the lengthy speeches of self-justification are statements of fact that ring truer to Shylock's motives than the passages in which he identifies himself as wrongly and malevolently persecuted. In his first encounter with Antonio, for example, Shylock explains in a deeply felt aside why he hates the Christian merchant: "I hate him for he is a Christian; / But more, for that in low simplicity / He lends out money gratis, and brings down / The rate of usance here with us in Venice" (I. iii. 42-45). It is only as an afterthought that he ponders the larger question of Antonio's hatred of the Jews. The chief reason Shylock gives for hating Antonio—and the announces it as the chief reason—is directly related to his avarice in money matters.

Almost all of Shylock's speeches can convincingly be interpreted in this light. When he speaks, Shylock is a sarcastic character both in the literal sense of fleshrending and in the modern sense of sneering. For example, when he describes the bloody agreement as a "merry bond," the word merry becomes charged with a sinister ambiguity. Until the scene of his undoing, Shylock's character is dominated by the traits usual to Elizabethan comic villains. He is a hellish creature, a discontented soul whose vilifying of others marks him as the embodiment of malevolence and misanthropy. After Jessica's escape Shylock is seen vituperating his daughter, not mourning her, bemoaning the loss of his money as much as the loss of his child. His affirmations of his common humanity with the Christians, particularly in the "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech, are above all meant to justify his thirst for revenge. His allegations that Antonio has disgraced him, laughed at him, and scorned his nation only because he is a Jew are lopsided. He is abused chiefly because he is a devil. The fact of his Jewishness only offers his abusers an explanation for his diabolical nature; it does not offer them the pretext to torment an innocent man. His speech of wheedling self-exculpation is surely intended to be regarded in the way that beleaguered tenants today might regard the whine of their wealthy landlord: "Hath not a landlord eyes? Hath not a landlord organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?" Instead of eliciting sympathy for an underdog, Shakespeare intended the speech to elicit detestation for one in a privileged and powerful position who knowingly and deliberately abases himself in a plea for unmerited sympathy.

Furthermore, in answer to the tradition which defends Shylock on the grounds that Shakespeare gave him a sympathetic, self-protecting speech, we need to be reminded that the assertions it contains are dependent upon a demonstrable falsehood. The climax of Shylock's speech, its cutting edge, is his confident cry that his revenge is justified by Christian precedent: "If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge" (III. i. 68-71). In fact what happens is that in return for the crime which Shylock commits against Antonio, he is offered not revenge but mercy—harshly given perhaps, but mercy nonetheless—and this in circumstances where revenge would be morally and legally sanctioned. The director who causes this speech to be uttered as a genuine defense of its speaker is thus ignoring one of the play's most tangible morals.


Until the court scene, Shylock remains a readily understood and easily identified villain. His dominant characteristics are the negative qualities normally associated with vice figures. Sympathy for him before the reversal therefore does violence to the dramatic purpose of the play. Completely in the ascendancy, he has power and the law itself on his side. When sympathy finally becomes right and proper, it transcends the narrow bounds of religion and stereotype. When finally we are made to pity Shylock, we do not pity a wrongfully persecuted member of an oppressed minority. Instead we pity a justly condemned and justly punished villain. A potential murderer has been caught, is brought to justice, and is duly and appropriately sentenced. The pity we are moved to feel is as natural and inevitable as the great loathing we were made to feel formerly. It results simply from the sympathy that we are likely to admit at any sight of human suffering, no matter how well deserved it may be.

In the court scene the presence of Portia stands as a direct assurance that Antonio will not die. While we remain conscious of Shylock's evil intentions, then, our judgment of him is tempered by our privileged awareness of his ultimate impotence. In other words, although we might despise Shylock, we do not fear him. This distinction is critical to an understanding of his character and of Shakespeare's intentions, and it helps explain the readiness with which we are able to extend sympathy to the villain.

The chief explanation, however, goes somewhat deeper. It is simultaneously psychological and dramatic. It is psychological to the extent that we are willy-nilly affected by the sight of Shylock in pain. It is dramatic to the extent that the scene is so arranged as to dramatize in the subtlest possible way the manifestation of that pain. Shylock remains onstage while his erstwhile victims are restored to prosperity by Portia. The publication of Antonio's rescue and of Shylock's punishment takes ninety-six lines, from Portia's "Tarry a little, there is something else . . ." (IV. i. 305) to Gratiano's gleeful "Had I been judge, thou shouldst have had ten more, / To bring thee to the gallows, not to the font" (11. 399-400). During this period—about five minutes—Shylock is transformed from a villain into a victim.

In part the inversion is achieved by use of the established fool, Gratiano, who, by trumpeting the victory of the Christians, assumes Shylock's earlier role as one who enjoys another's pain. Gratiano is a character who talks too much, who suspects silence, who prefers to play the fool. His joy in Shylock's downfall becomes sadistic and self-serving. Interestingly, it is not shared in quite so voluble a fashion by the other Christian characters. Portia has done all the work, and yet it is Gratiano—whose real contribution to the scene is to announce Portia's success and to excoriate the Jew—who cries at Shylock "Now, infidel, I have you on the hip" (1. 334). Until this point in the play Shylock has been vicious and sadistic, nastily rubbing his hands in anticipation of a bloody revenge, thriving on the smell of the blood he is about to taste. Now that role is taken from him by Gratiano, on whom it sits unattractively. The failure of his friends to participate in this orgy of revenge suggests that their feelings are more those of relief at Antonio's release than of lust for Shylock's blood.

As the tables are turned upon him, Shylock gradually and unexpectedly reveals a new dimension of himself, and the farcical pleasure we have been led to expect is subverted by his surprising response to defeat. He reveals a capacity for pain and suffering. As a would-be murderer, Shylock gets at least what he deserves. As a human being asking for mercy, he receives, and possibly merits, sympathy. Shylock recognizes instantly that he has been undone. Once Portia reminds him that the bond does not allow him to shed one drop of blood, his orgy is over and he says little during the scene of dénouement, "Is that the law?" he lamely asks. Five lines later, he is ready to take his money and leave the court with whatever remaining dignity is permitted him. But an easy egress is not to be his. He is made to face the consequences of his evil. Portia's addresses to Shylock during the confrontation are disguised exhortations to him to suffer for the wrong he has done. She forces him to acknowledge her triumph and his defeat: "Tarry a little" (1. 305); "Soft . . . soft, no haste!" (11. 320-21); "Why doth the Jew pause?" (1. 335); "Therefore prepare thee to cut" (1. 324); "Tarry Jew" (1. 346); "Art thou contented, Jew? what dost thou say?" (1. 393). Shylock is made to stand silently, receiving and accepting mercy and some restitution from Antonio; he is compelled to bear, not the stings of revenge upon himself, but the sharper stings of a forgiveness that he is incapable of giving. His humiliation lies in his inability to refuse the gift of life from one whose life he maliciously sought. When he requests leave to go from the court, the change that has come over him is total. He is no longer a figure of vice, and he has not become a figure of fun (except, perhaps, to Gratiano). He is a lonely, deprived, and defeated creature feeling pain. The fact that he has caused his own downfall does not diminish the sympathy felt for him now, in part because of the protraction of his undoing, and in part because of the dramatic effect of the change in him. The suddenness of the alteration of his character forces a comparison between what he once was and what he has become. And where dramatic energy is its own virtue, the visible eradication of that energy is a source of pathos.

In this scene the word Jew has been used like a blunt instrument by Portia and Gratiano. Now, being used against one who has become a victim, the former associations of the word are thrown into question. Portia's persistence in doing to the Jew as he would have done to Antonio has a strangely bitter effect. She hunts him when he is down; she throws the law in his teeth with a righteousness that seems repulsive to us primarily because we have long been aware that Antonio was ultimately invulnerable. Having removed Shylock's sting, she is determined to break his wings in the bargain. In this determination, she is unlike her somewhat dull but more humane husband, who is prepared to pay Shylock the money owed him and to allow him to leave. Portia's stance is beyond legal questioning, of course. What gives us pause is the doggedness with which she exacts justice. Shylock is ruined by adversity and leaves the stage without even the strength to curse his foes: "I pray you give me leave to go from hence, / I am not well" (11. 395-96). He communicates his pain by his powerlessness, and the recognition of this pain stirs the audience.

In a brief space, in which his silence replaces his usual verbosity, Shylock is transformed. A villain is shown to be more than merely villainous. Shylock is shown to be more than merely the Jew. He is shown to possess a normal, unheroic desire to live at any cost. The scene of undoing is an ironic realization of Shylock's previously histrionic pleas for understanding. We now see something that formerly there was no reason to believe: that if you prick him, Shylock bleeds.


By endowing Shylock with humanity in the end Shakespeare would seem to have contradicted the dominating impression of the play, in which the fierce diabolism of the Jew is affirmed in so many ways. And indeed, the contradiction is there. Having described a character who is defined by an almost otherworldly evil, whose life is one unremitting quest for an unjust vengeance, it seems inconsistent to allow that he is capable of normal human feelings. The Jew has been used to instruct the audience and the play's Christians about the potential and essential evil of his race; he has been used to show that a Jew with power is a terrible thing to behold, is capable of the vilest sort of destruction. And the play has demonstrated in the person of his daughter that the only good Jew is a Christian. The contradiction emerges almost in spite of Shakespeare's anti-Semitic design. He has shown on the one hand, by the creation of a powerful and dominant dramatic image, that the Jew is inhuman. But he seems to have been compelled on the other hand to acknowledge that the Jew is also a human being.

The most troubling aspect of the contradictory element of The Merchant of Venice is this: if Shakespeare knew that Jews were human beings like other people—and the conclusion of the play suggests that he did—and if he knew that they were not merely carriers of evil but human creatures with human strengths and weaknesses, then the play as a whole is a betrayal of the truth. To have used it as means for eliciting feelings of loathing for Jews, while simultaneously recognizing that its portrayal of the race it vilifies is inaccurate or, possibly, not the whole truth, is profoundly troubling. It is as though The Merchant of Venice is an anti-Semitic play written by an author who is not an anti-Semite—but an author who has been willing to use the cruel stereotypes of that ideology for mercenary and artistic purposes.


1 Introduction, The Merchant of Venice, The Arden Edition (London: Methuen, 1964), p. xxxix.

2 Leo Kirschbaum, Character and Characterization in Shakespeare (Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1962), p. 19.

3 Bernard Grebanier, interestingly enough, agrees that the play is not anti-Semitic, but contains instances of anti-Semitism. He remarks that Gratiano "is the only character in the entire play who can be accused of anti-Semitism." The Truth about Shylock (New York: Random House, 1962), p. 300.

4 All references to Merchant are taken from The Riverside Shakespeare, gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Miffin, 1974).

5 Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews 1933-1945 (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975), p. 29.

6 Dawidowicz, p. 222.

7 John Palmer, Political and Comic Characters of Shakespeare (London: Macmillan, 1962), pp. 401-39: Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1960), pp. 81-116.

8 Quoted by Lawrence Danson, The Harmonies of The Merchant of Venice (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1978), p. 130.

9 Albert Wertheim, "The Treatment of Shylock and Thematic Integrity in The Merchant of Venice," Shakespeare Studies, 6 (1970), 75.

10 John P. Sisk, "Bondage and Release in The Merchant of Venice," Shakespeare Quarterly, 20 (1969), 217.

11 Toby Lelyveld, Shylock on the Stage (Cleveland: Press of Western Reserve Univ., 1960), p. 8.

12 A fuller analysis of these two critical readings is provided in Danson, pp. 126-39.

13 Kirschbaum, p. 26.

14 Gordon Craig, "Irving's Masterpiece—'The Bells'," Laurel British Drama: The Nineteenth Century, ed. Robert Corrigan (New York: Dell, 1967), p. 119.

James Shapiro (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "The Pound of Flesh," in Shakespeare and the Jews, Columbia University Press, 1996, pp. 113-30.

[In the following essay, Shapiro discusses the Elizabethan fascination with the Jewish practice of circumcision and argues that Shylock's desire to cut a pound of Antonio's "fair flesh" centers on the threat of circumcision.]

What a matter were it then if I should cut of his privy members, supposing that the same would altogether weigh a just pound?

spoken by the Jew in the English translation of Alexander Silvayn's The Orator, 1596

I hope I shall never be so stupid as to be circumcised. I would rather cut off the left breast of my Catherine and of all women.

Martin Luther, c. 1540

Perhaps the least explicable feature of the ritual murder accusations was the charge that Jews first circumcised their victims before killing them. In some ways it must have made perfectly good sense. After all, it was well known that Jews circumcised young boys, and it was not all that difficult to imagine this practice as part of a more complex and secretive Jewish ritual ending in human sacrifice. In other ways, however, it made no sense at all, for as Menasseh ben Israel justifiably wondered, "to what end he was first circumcised" if "it was intended that shortly after this child should be crucified?" The confusion is understandable, since the ritual significance of what is described in the Bible as cutting the "foreskin" of the "flesh" remains poorly understood even by Jews and other peoples who have long practiced this rite. In the twentieth century we stand doubly removed from appreciating the effect of circumcision upon cultural identity. Even as circumcision is now routinely practiced in Western cultures for hygienic and aesthetic reasons, an awareness of its symbolic meanings (aside from psychoanalytic ones) has been virtually lost. Current debate about circumcision has focused almost exclusively on the pain it might cause the child, or on its effects upon reducing the spread of certain diseases. A very different situation prevailed in early modern Europe, where there was an intense curiosity about the often unnerving implications of a ritual bound up with theological, racial, genealogical, and sexual concerns. I am interested here not only in restoring a sense of the fascination and importance circumcision held for Elizabethans but also in arguing that an occluded threat of circumcision informs Shylock's desire to cut a pound of Antonio's flesh. Before turning to the presence of circumcision in The Merchant of Venice and its sources, it is important to consider what this ritual might have meant to Elizabethans, what their understanding of it was based on, and what light this casts on their cultural beliefs.

I. Elizabethan ideas about circumcision

In the twentieth century circumcision has often been described as a symbolic form of castration or emasculation. This association has undoubtedly been influenced by the theories of Sigmund Freud, who, in an argument that bears a striking resemblance to Maria Edgeworth's ideas about childhood trauma and the wellsprings of anti-Jewish feelings, writes in Little Hans that the "castration complex is the deepest unconscious root of anti-semitism; for even in the nursery little boys hear that a Jew has something cut off his penis—a piece of his penis, they think—and this gives them a right to despise Jews. And there is no stronger unconscious root for the sense of superiority over woman."1 For Freud, the symbolic act of circumcision proves a vital source of both misogyny and antisemitism.2 The notion that circumcision could easily slide into the more definitive cut of castration did not originate with Freud and in fact had long circulated in English culture. D'Blossiers Tovey, in his account of instances in medieval England in which Jews were charged with being "emasculators," cites a case from the reign of King John in which "Bonefand a Jew of Bedford was indicted not for circumcising, but totally cutting off the privy member" of a boy named Richard.3 And Shakespeare's contemporaries used circumcision as a metaphor for castration: the poet Gabriel Harvey, for example, implores God to "circumcise the tongues and pens" of his enemies.4

For early modern English writers, though, the threat of circumcision did not begin and end with emasculation. In the sixteenth century circumcision was more than a cut, it was an unmistakable sign. But of what, exactly? When the Elizabethan preacher Andrew Willet tried to answer this question he found himself describing circumcision as not only a "a sign of remembrance or commemoration of the Covenant . . . made between God and Abraham" but also as a sign "distinguishing the Hebrews from all other people." To this genealogical, Jewish association, he added a few more that are distinctly Christian: circumcision prefigured "baptism" and demonstrated "the natural disease of man, even original sin."5 To these Willet might have added yet another: that through circumcision, one "is . . . made a Jew,"6 a troubling thought for a Christian who might find himself threatened with such a cut.

One such individual was Thomas Coryate, the celebrated Elizabethan traveler. Coryate describes how his efforts to convert the Jews of the Venetian ghetto soured, leading him to flee from the hostile crowd. Though this specific detail is never mentioned in the narrative itself, a picture of Coryate pursued by a knife-wielding Jew is included in a series of scenes illustrating the title page of his travel book, Coryats Crudities (see illustration 9).7 For those who wrote commendatory poems to Coryate's book—including Laurence Whitaker—this Jew threatens not death but circumcision: "Thy courtesan clipped thee, 'ware Tom, I advise thee, / And fly from the Jews, lest they circumcise thee." Hugh Holland, too, draws attention to the danger to Coryate's foreskin: "Ulysses heard no Syren sing: nor Coryate / The Jew, least his prepuce might prove excoriate." Coryate's conversionary effort backfires, and instead of turning Jews into Christians he finds himself in danger of being religiously transfigured by means of a circumcising cut.8 Holland, comparing Coryate to Hugh Broughton, the evangelizing Elizabethan Hebraist, makes this symmetrical relationship between baptism and circumcision explicit:

He more prevailed against the' excoriate Jews
Than Broughton could, or twenty more such Hughs.
And yet but for one petty poor misprision,
He was nigh made one of the circumcision.9

With the exception of a handful of infants circumcised by the radical Puritan group led by John Traske around 1620, and a few self-circumcisors like Thomas Tany and Thomas Ramsey thirty years later, there is no evidence that circumcisions took place in early modern England. Nonetheless, the same post-Reformation interest that led to this Judaizing impulse also inspired a broader curiosity about a ritual not only central to the Old Testament accounts of the patriarchs but also crucial to the theological position maintained by the apostle Paul in that central text of the Protestant Reformation, Epistle to the Romans. One result of this new interest was that English travelers eagerly sought out invitations to circumcisions and recorded what they witnessed for the benefit of their contemporaries. As noted earlier, the resilient Coryate, who in the course of his extensive travels had long desired to observe a circumcision, finally had his wish granted in Constantinople, at the "house of a certain English Jew called Amis" [i.e., Ames]. The fact that Ames and his two sisters spoke English no doubt made it easier for Coryate to have various details of the ritual explained to him. Coryate describes how the Jews

came into the room and sung certain Hebrew songs, after which the child was brought to his father, who sat down in a chair and placed the child being now eight days old in his lap. The whole company being desirous that we Christians should observe the ceremony, called us to approach near to the child. And when we came, a certain other Jew drawing forth a little instrument made not unlike those small scissors that our ladies and gentlewomen do much use, did with the same cut off the prepuce or foreskin of the child, and after a very strange manner, unused (I believe) of the ancient Hebrews, did put his mouth to the child's yard, and sucked up the blood.10

English observers were particularly struck by how the rite symbolically enacted the male child's passage from his mother to the community of men.11 Coryate observes that at the conclusion of the rite, the "prepuce that was cut off was carried to the mother, who keepeth it very preciously as a thing of worth," and Fynes Moryson, describing a circumcision he had witnessed in Prague, was alert to the fact that women were "not permitted to enter" the room and that they "delivered the child to the father" at the door. Like Coryate, Moryson records his surprise at witnessing another practice for which Scripture had offered no precedent, metzitzah, the part of the ceremony in which the circumcisor sucks the blood from the glans of the circumcized "yard" or penis of the infant. Moryson writes that "the rabbi cut off his prepuce, and (with leave be it related for clearing of the ceremony) did with his mouth suck the blood of his privy part."12 Apparently, this innovative practice, introduced during the Talmudic period, though not universally practiced by Jews, must have seemed to these English observers to have sodomitical overtones.13

Coryate, Moryson, and other Elizabethan observers express surprise at the discrepancy between the ceremonies that they witnessed and that which they had expected to see based on the divinely ordained precepts set forth in the Bible.14 There was also disagreement over whether the Jews were the first people to have practiced circumcision. At stake in this debate was whether circumcision should be viewed as something peculiarly Jewish. On one side there were those like Samuel Purchas, who had read too many accounts from too many foreign lands to accept the argument that all peoples who practiced circumcision had learned this rite from the Jews. Purchas insisted that the "ceremony and custom of circumcision hath been and still is usual among many nations of whom there was never any suspicion that they descended from the Israelites."15 Opposing this minority view were those like Andrew Willet, who maintained that "circumcision was a peculiar mark of distinction for the Hebrews" and further urged that "some nations among the Gentiles retained circumcision by an apish imitation of the Hebrews, but they did abuse it superstitiously and did not keep the rite of institution as the Lord had appointed it."16 Writers who sided with Willet's position used this as a basis for substantiating claims about the discovery of the ten lost tribes of Israel. When Thomas Thorowgood, for example, writes that "many Indian nations are of Judaical race," he offers as evidence that the "frequent and constant character of circumcision, so singularly fixed to the Jews, is to be found among them."17

While it was widely accepted that others—especially Turks—practiced circumcision, there was still considerable resistance to abandoning the idea that it was a distinctively Jewish rite. An unusual story regarding Turkish circumcision—and murder—made its way to England in February 1595 when John Barton, the English ambassador in Constantinople, forwarded to Lord Burghley a report describing the events surrounding the accession of the Turkish monarch Mohamet III. The narrative, written in Italian by a Jew named Don Solomon, describes how Mohamet consolidated his power by inviting his nineteen brothers, the eldest eleven years old, to greet him: Mohamet "told them not to fear, he meant no harm to them but only to have them circumcised according to their custom. . . . As soon as they kissed his hand, they were circumcised, taken aside by a mute, and dextrously strangled with handkerchiefs. This certainly seemed strange and cruel, but it was the custom of this realm."18 The story offers yet one more instance, in the year preceding the first staging of The Merchant, of the association of circumcision with ritualistic and surreptitious murder.

II. Romans and the theological meanings of circumcision

This unprecedented interest in the physical act of circumcision was directly related to some of the theological preoccupations of post-Reformation England. Elizabethans knew that circumcision had caused something of an identity crisis for early Christians, especially Paul. Paul, who was himself circumcised and had circumcised others,19 directed his epistles to communities for whom to circumcise or not to circumcise was a matter of great concern. But Paul's remarks on circumcision went well beyond approving or disapproving of the act itself: they offered a revolutionary challenge to what defined a Jew, and by implication, a Christian. Luther and Calvin both devoted themselves to explicating Paul's often cryptic remarks on circumcision, and a host of English translators, commentators, theologians, and preachers enabled the widespread circulation of these interpretations to the broadest community possible. More than anything else in the late sixteenth century—including firsthand reports like the ones described above—Paul's ideas about circumcision saturated what Shakespeare's contemporaries thought, wrote, and heard about circumcision. At times confusing and even contradictory, Paul's remarks, and the extraordinary commentary produced to explain and resolve various ambiguities contained in them, had an immeasurable impact on Elizabethan conceptions of Jews. This body of commentary, much of it gathering dust in a handful of archives, richly repays close examination.

The first problem confronting a Christian explicator of Paul's Romans was a fairly simple one. Since God had first ordered Abraham to undertake circumcision as a sign of the Covenant, what justified abandoning this practice? And what were the consequences of such a break? The immediate answer was that the Jews had misunderstood that this Covenant, like the Law, was not changed or abolished by Jesus, "but more plainly expounded . . . and fulfilled." "Surely," Philippe de Mornay wrote, in a text translated by Sir Philip Sidney, "in this point . . . we [Christians] be flat contrary to them." And sounding a bit like a modern deconstructive critic, Mornay adds, that the "thing which doth always deceive" the Jews is that "they take the sign for the thing signified," since circumcision was merely a "sign or seal of the Covenant, and not the Covenant itself."20

For John Calvin, the "disputation and controversy" over circumcision similarly masked a more consequential debate over "the ceremonies of the Law," which Paul "comprehendeth here under the particular term of circumcision." By equating circumcision with the Law and its supersession by faith, English Protestants drew an analogy between Paul's rejection of circumcision and their own repudiation of Catholicism's emphasis on justification through good works: it is "not circumcision, but faith [that] makes us wait for the hope of righteousness; therefore not circumcision but faith justifies."21 Calvin's interpretation of Paul had made it clear that "circumcision" had lost its "worth,"22 having been replaced by the sacrament of baptism. No longer even "a sign," it was "a thing without any use."23

But such an outright rejection of circumcision seemingly contradicted Paul's own assertion that "circumcision verily is profitable, if thou do the Law."24 Confronted with such a claim, commentators had to work hard to show that Paul's words actually meant quite the opposite of what literalists might mistakenly imagine. In order to achieve this end, the gloss to the Geneva Bible takes Paul's wonderfully concise and epigrammatic phrase and turns it into a ponderous argument: "The outward circumcision, if it be separated from the inward, doeth not only not justify, but also condemn them that are circumcised, of whom indeed it requireth that, which it signifieth, that is to say, cleanness of heart and the whole life, according to the commandment of the Law."25

The commentator's overreading is enabled by the fact that Paul in the verses that follow introduces a crucial distiction between inward and outward circumcision. It is a distinction central to his redefinition of Jewish identity in a world in which circumcision has been superseded: "He is not a Jew which is one outward, neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew which is one within, and the circumcision is of the heart, in the spirit, not in the letter, whose praise is not of men, but of God."26 Paul here attacks Jewish identity at its genealogical root.27 If he can deny that outward physical circumcision alone defines the Jew from generation to generation, he can insist on a figurative reading of the Law in all other matters as well. For Joseph Hall, Paul's message is unambiguous: "He that would be a true Israelite or Jew indeed must be such inwardly" and must be "cleansed from all corrupt affections and greed." Moreover, this "circumcision must be inwardly in the heart and soul and spirit (in cutting off the unclean foreskin thereof) and not a literal and outward circumcision of the flesh."28

Before turning to the symbolic circumcision of the heart touched on here by Paul and his explicators—the most striking feature of his argument and the most relevant to a reading of The Merchant of Venice—it is important first to emphasize that Paul and his followers were reluctant to abandon the outward, physical implications of trimming the foreskin, in part because this surgical act so perfectly symbolized the cutting off of sexual desire. Andrew Willet, drawing on the work of Origen, remarks that even if "there had been no other mystery in circumcision, it was fit that the people of God should carry some badge or cognizance to discern them from other people. And if the amputation or cutting off some part of the body were requisite, what part was more fit then that . . . which seemed to be obscene?"29 The gloss to the Geneva Bible reads this puritanical perspective back into Genesis 17.11, explaining there that the "privy part is circumcised to show that all that is begotten of man is corrupt and must be mortified." And the 1591 Bishops' Bible similarly stresses the connection between circumcision and the curbing of sexual desire, explaining that Deuteronomy 30.6—"And the Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart"—means that God will "cut away thy ungodly lusts and affections." These commentaries effectively rewrite Old Testament allusions to circumcision, infusing them with Paul's deep discomfort with human sexuality.30

John Donne was particularly drawn to this line of thought. In his New Year's Day sermon preached in 1624 commemorating the Feast of the Circumcision, Donne imagines himself in Abraham's place after having been commanded by the Lord to circumcise himself and all the men in his household. Given that it was to be done "in that part of the body," Donne surmises that this command must have struck Abraham as too "obscene a thing to be brought into the fancy of so many women, so many young men, so many strangers to other nations, as might bring the promise and Covenant itself into scorn and into suspicion." Why, Abraham must have wondered, "does God command me so base and unclean a thing, so scornful and misinterpretable a thing, as circumcision, and circumcision in that part of the body?" The answer, of course, is that in "this rebellious part is the root of all sin." The privy member "need[s] this stigmatical mark of circumcision to be imprinted upon it" to prevent Abraham's descendants from "degenerating] from the nobility of their race."31 Willet, Donne, and like-minded commentators never quite acknowledge that insofar as the cutting off of the foreskin effectively subdues that rebellious and sinful part of men's bodies, circumcision once again veers perilously close to the idea of a (partial) sexual castration and emasculation.

It was also clear to Christian theologians that for the Jews who literally circumcised the flesh, the Covenant could only be transmitted through men.32 This helps explain why Jewish daughters like Jessica in The Merchant of Venice and Abigail in The Jew of Malta can so easily cross the religious boundaries that divide their stigmatized fathers from the dominant Christian community. The religious difference of Jewish women is not usually imagined as physically inscribed in their flesh, and the possibility of identifying women as Jews through some kind of incision never took hold in England, though for a brief time in the fifteenth century in northern Italy the requirement that Jewish women have their ears pierced and wear earrings served precisely this function. In her investigation of this sumptuary tradition, Diane Owen Hughes cites the Franciscan preacher Giacomo della Marca, who in an advent sermon said that earrings are jewels "that Jewish women wear in place of circumcision, so that they can be distinguished from other [i.e., Christian] women."33 One wonders whether Pauline ideas about circumcising desire also shaped this bizarre proposal. Though this method of marking Jewish women was shortlived (other women also wanted to wear earrings) and apparently not widespread, a trace of it may possibly be found in The Merchant of Venice, when Shylock, upon hearing that Jessica has not only left him but also taken his money and jewels, exclaims: "Two thousand ducats in that and other precious, precious jewels. I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear!"34 Shylock fantasizes that his converted daughter returns, and through her earring is reinscribed at last as a circumcised Jewess.

The problems that circumcision raise for issues of gender and sexuality persist into our own more secular age. To cite an unfortunate instance of this, modern medicine, when confronted with the extremely rare cases of botched circumcisions, has found it advisable to alter the gender of the child by reconstructing female rather than male genitalia.35 Does this procedure confirm the kind of anxieties we have been exploring about the underlying castrating and feminizing threat of circumcision? Or does it suggest that doctors are perhaps so influenced by such deeply embedded cultural beliefs as to translate them into scientific practice? In either case it underscores how provisional the assignment of gender is, a point familiar enough to Shakespeare's audiences confronted in The Merchant with cross-dressing women and a hero who describes himself as a "tainted wether," or castrated ram. Circumcision, then, was an extraordinarily powerful signifier, one that not only touched on issues of identity that ranged from the sexual to the theological but, often enough, on the intersection of the two. The threat of Shylock's cut was complex, resonant, and unusually terrifying.

II. Circumcision in the sources of The Merchant

The foregoing analysis may help explain why The Merchant of Venice, more than any other depiction of Jews in this period, has continued to provoke such controversy and has also continued to stir long-buried prejudices against the Jews. I want to be careful here about being misunderstood. I am not proposing that Shakespeare is antisemitic (or, for that matter, philosemitic). The Merchant of Venice is a play, a work of fiction, not a diary or a polygraph test; since no one knows what Shakespeare personally thought about Jews, readers will continue to make up their own minds about this question. The Merchant of Venice is thus not "about" ritual murder or a veiled circumcising threat any more than it is about usury, or marriage, or homosocial bonding, or mercy, or Venetian trade, or crossdressing, or the many other social currents that run through this and every other one of Shakespeare's plays. Plays, unlike sermons, are not reducible to one lesson or another, nor do they gain their resonance from being about a recognizable central theme. Surely, in the hands of a talented dramatist, the less easily definable the social and psychological currents a play explores, the greater its potential to haunt and disturb. We return again and again to Shakespeare's plays because they seem to operate in these depths and tap into the roots of social contradictions on a stunningly regular basis, leaving critics with the task of trying to explain exactly what these are and how Shakespeare's plays engage them. With this in mind, I offer the following interpretation of the pound of flesh plot.

Those watching or reading The Merchant of Venice are often curious about what part of Antonio's body Shylock has in mind when they learn of Shylock's desire to exact "an equal pound" of Antonio's "fair flesh, to be cut off and taken" in that "part" of his body that "pleaseth" the Jew. Those all too familiar with the plot may forget that it is not until the trial scene in act 4 that this riddle is solved and we learn that Shylock intends to cut from Antonio's "breast" near his heart.36 Or partially solved. Why, one wonders, is Antonio's breast the spot most pleasing to Shylock? And why, for the sake of accuracy, wouldn't Shylock cut out rather than "cut off a pound of flesh if it were to come from "nearest" Antonio's "heart"? Moreover, why don't we learn of this crucial detail until Shylock's final appearance in the play?

It is not immediately clear how for an Elizabethan audience an allusion to a Jew cutting off a man's "fair flesh" would invoke images of a threat to the victim's heart, especially when one calls to mind the identification of Jews as circumcisors and emasculators. On a philological level, too, the choice of the word flesh here carries with it the strong possibility that Shylock has a different part of Antonio's anatomy in mind. In the late sixteenth century the word flesh was consistently used, especially in the Bible, in place of penis. Readers of the Geneva Bible would know from examples like Genesis 17.11 that God had commanded Abraham to "circumcise the foreskin of your flesh," and that discussions of sexuality and disease in Leviticus always use the word flesh when speaking of the penis.37

Not surprisingly, popular writers took advantage of the punning opportunities made available by this euphemism. Shortly before writing The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare himself had played on the sexual possibilities of flesh in Romeo and Juliet. In the opening scene of that play the servant Samson, boasting of his sexual prowess, tells Gregory: "Me [the maids] shall feel while I am able to stand, and 'tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh." Playing on the contrast between erect flesh and flaccid fish, Gregory responds: "'Tis well thou art not fish." Mercutio returns to the same tired joke about the loss of tumescence when he says of Romeo's melancholy: "O flesh, flesh, how art thou fishified."38The Merchant of Venice is similarly replete with bad jokes about trimmed male genitals. As noted above, Antonio in the court scene speaks of himself as "a tainted wether" best suited to suffer the exaction of Shylock's cut.39 In addition, Salerio's jibe about Jessica having Shylock's "stones," that is, testicles, "upon her" and Gratiano's tasteless joke about "mar[ring] the young clerk's pen" (i.e., penis) offer two other instances from the play of men's obsessive anxiety about castrating cuts.40 It should also be noted that in Elizabethan England such a cut was not merely the stuff of jokes. As a deterrent to crime, convicted male felons were told at their sentencing to prepare to be "hanged by the neck, and being alive cut down, and your privy members to be cut off, and your bowels to be taken out of your belly and there burned, you being alive."41

Scholars have long recognized that Shakespeare drew upon a well established tradition in his retelling the story of the pound of flesh. Among the printed sources Shakespeare may have looked at were Giovanni Fiorentino's II Pecorone and Alexander Silvayn's The Orator. Other scholars have uncovered a range of analogues and antecedents, including popular English ballads like "Gernatus the Jew" and medieval works like the Cursor Mundi that bear a strong resemblance to Shakespeare's plot. Surprisingly little attention has been paid, however, to what part of the body the pound of flesh is taken from in these sources and analogues. In fact, when Shakespeare came to one of the main sources that we are pretty confident he consulted, Silvayn's The Orator, he would have read about a Jew who wonders if he "should cut of his [Christian victim's] privy members, supposing that the same would altogether weigh a just pound?" Before turning to this story and its curious reception, I want to consider another first, one that is even more revealing about the significance of the pound of flesh: Gregorio Leti's The Life of Pope Sixtus the Fifth.

Leti was a popular Italian historian, born in the early seventeenth century, who left Italy and took up residence in Northern Europe after converting to Protestantism. For a brief period in the early 1680s he lived and wrote in England. Although there are no recorded performances of The Merchant of Venice during his stay there, Leti may well have become familiar with the printed text of Shakespeare's play in the course of the extensive research he undertook on Elizabethan England.42 The earliest edition of his biography of Sixtus V, first published in Lausanne in 1669, omits any reference to the celebrated pound of flesh story; the anecdote was only introduced in the revised version, published in Amsterdam after Leti's visit to England,43 which may suggest that Leti drew on English sources for this addition.

After 1754, when Ellis Farneworth translated Leti's story,44 those unable to read the Italian original could learn how in the days of Queen Elizabeth I it was "reported in Rome" that the great English naval hero, Sir Francis Drake, "had taken and plundered St. Domingo, in Hispaniola, and carried off an immense booty. This account came in a private letter to Paul Secchi, a very considerable merchant in the city, who had large concerns in those parts, which he had insured." Leti then relates that Secchi then "sent for the insurer, Sampson Ceneda, a Jew, and acquainted him with it. The Jew, whose interest it was to have such a report thought false, gave many reasons why it could not possibly be true; and, at last, worked himself up into such a passion, that he said, "'I'll lay you a pound of my flesh it is a lie."' Secchi replied, "If you like it, I'll lay you a thousand crowns against a pound of your flesh, that it's true." The Jew accepted the wager, and articles were immediately executed betwixt them, the substance of which was "that if Secchi won, he should himself cut the flesh, with a sharp knife, from whatever part of the Jew's body he pleased."

Leti then relates that "the truth of the account" of Drake's attack "was soon after confirmed by other advices from the West Indies," which threw the Jew "almost into distraction, especially when he was informed that Secchi had solemnly sworn [that] he would compel him to the exact literal performance of his contract, and was determined to cut a pound of flesh from that part of his body which it is not necessary to mention." We move here from a cut "from whatever part of the Jew's body he pleased" to the more precisely defined "part of his body which it is not necessary to mention." The original Italian version conveys even more strongly a sense that only modesty prevents specifying that Secchi's intended cut will come from the unmentionable genitals of the Jew ("e che la modestia non vuo che io nomine").45 The circumcised Jew faces a bit more surgery than he reckoned for.

The rest of the story should be familiar to anyone who has read Shakespeare's play, except, of course, that this time it is the Christian who is intent on cutting the flesh of the Jew. The Governor of Rome referred the tricky case to the authority of Pope Sixtus V, who tells Secchi that he must fulfill the contract and "cut a pound of flesh from any part you please, of the Jew's body. We would advise you, however, to be very careful; for if you cut but a scruple, or a grain, more or less than your due, you shall certainly be hanged. Go, and bring hither a knife and a pair of scales, and let it be done in our presence." This verdict led both Secchi and the Jew to agree to tear up the contract, though the affair was not fully settled until Sixtus V fined both of them harshly to serve as an example to others.46

Farneworth, in a note appended to his translation, states the obvious: the "scene betwixt Shylock and Antonio in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice seems to be borrowed from this story, though the poet has inverted the persons and decently enough altered some of the circumstances."47 Farneworth's comment that Shakespeare "decently enough . . . altered some of the circumstances" presumably alludes to the threatened castration of the Jew. And while we don't know why Leti in the version of the story has "inverted the persons," there is little likelihood that he did it out of love of the Jews. In his book on Great Britain published in England shortly before his departure, Leti reveals his familiarity with London Jewry, describes the services at the Bevis Marks Synogogue in London in somewhat mocking terms, and makes fun of the ridiculous gestures of the Jewish worshippers.48 We can only speculate about the original source of Leti's seventeenth-century story. Did it antedate Shakespeare's play, and was Shakespeare familiar with versions in which the Jew was the victim? Or did it emerge out of a tradition that was itself influenced by The Merchant of Venice? Did turning the tables and having the Christians threaten to castrate or symbolically recircumcise the Jew ultimately prove more satisfying to Christian readers?

Farneworth's translation of Leti's story made a strong impression on eighteenth-century English interpreters of The Merchant of Venice. Edmond Malone reproduced this passage in his influential edition of Shakespeare's works in 1790,49 and David Erskine Baker, though he does not acknowledge his source, wrote that Shakespeare's story "is built on a real fact which happened in some part of Italy, with this difference indeed, that the intended cruelty was really on the side of the Christian, the Jew being the happy delinquent who fell beneath his rigid and barbarous resentment." Tellingly, he adds that "popular prejudice, however, vindicates our author in the alteration he had made. And the delightful manner in which he has availed himself of the general character of the Jews, the very quintessence of which he has enriched his Shylock with, makes more than amends for his deviating from a matter of fact which he was by no means obliged to adhere to."50 Again, we are left with a set of difficult choices: is it "popular prejudice" that "vindicates" Shakespeare reassinging the "intended cruelty" to Shylock? Or is it Shakespeare's play that by the late eighteenth-century is influential enough to perpetuate and channel this "popular prejudice"?

Familiarity with this inverted version of the pound of flesh story was given even broader circulation by Maria Edgeworth in her novel Harrington, where she allows the Jew, Mr.

, to present what he believes to be the historically accurate version of the facts in his response to Harrington, who had recently attended a performance of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. Edgeworth, too, sees the issue of "popular prejudice" as a central one, and has Mr. Montenero politely acknowledge that while "as a dramatic poet, it was" Shakespeare's "business . . . to take advantage of the popular prejudice as a power," nonetheless "we Jews must feel it peculiarly hard, that the truth of the story should have been completely sacrificed to fiction, so that the characters were not only misrepresented, but reversed." Harrington "did not know to what Mr. Montenero meant to allude. He politely tried to "pass it off with a slight bow of general acquiescence," before Mr. Montenero went on to explain that in "the true story, from which Shakespeare took the plot of The Merchant of Venice, it was a Christian who acted the part of the Jew, and the Jew that of the Christian. It was a Christian who insisted upon having the pound of flesh from next the Jew's heart." Seeing how struck Harrington is by this revelation, Mr. Montenero magnanimously offers that "perhaps his was only the Jewish version of the story, and he quickly went on to another subject." Edgeworth adds her own authority to Montenero's when she provides a footnote to the words "true story" directing readers to "Steevens' Life of Sixtus V and Malone's Shakespeare," where the Farneworth translation appears. Strikingly, though, at the very moment that she insists on the original version, Edgeworth herself either misremembers or swerves away from a key features of Leti's "true story" in favor of Shakespeare's version of the events when she substitutes the words "having the pound of flesh from next the Jew's heart" for Farneworth's translation of Leti's original: "from that part of his body which it is not necessary to mention."51

Once nineteenth-century Shakespearean source-hunters like Francis Douce and James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps pointed out that Leti's version could not have antedated Shakespeare's play, and, moreover, that this episode in Sixtus V's life was probably fictional, interest in Leti's narrative rapidly declined. H. H. Furness, in his still influential variorum edition of The Merchant of Venice, includes Farneworth's translation but then invokes the authority of those who dismiss it as a source. And though he quotes Farneworth's observation that Shakespeare's plot "is taken from this incident," he cuts off the quotation at the point where it leads Farneworth to point out that Shakespeare has also made the Jew the victim and left out indecent details.52 Interest in pure sources—rather than near contemporary versions that might cast light on various aspects of the story—has been influential enough in Shakespeare studies in this century to account for the virtual disappearance of Leti's story from editions or even from collections of Shakespeare's sources.53 Nowadays, Leti's version is no longer cited, mentioned, or even known to most Shakespeareans.

When we turn to Alexander Silvayn's The Orator, which these same source-hunters agree is one of Shakespeare's primary sources for the pound of flesh plot, we find a clear precedent for the argument that a Jew considers the possibility of castrating the Christian. The ninety-fifth declamation of The Orator, translated into English in 1596 shortly before the composition of The Merchant, describes "a Jew, who would for his debt have a pound of the flesh of a Christian."54 In his appeal to the judge's sentence that he "cut a just pound of the Christian flesh, and if he cut either more or less, then his own head should be smitten off," the Jew insists that in the original agreement the Christian was to hand over the said pound:

Neither am I to take that which he oweth me, but he is to deliver it me. And especially because no man knoweth better than he where the same may be spared to the least hurt of his person, for I might take it in such a place as he might thereby happen to lose his life. What a matter were it then if I should cut of his privy members, supposing that the same would altogether weigh a just pound?55

While Shakespeare's eighteenth-century editors included this source in unadulterated form,56 a century later it would be partially suppressed, apparently proving too obscene for Furness to reprint in unexpurgated form. In a strange act of textual castration and substitution, Furness alters the line to read "what a matter were it then, if I should cut of his [head], supposing that the same would weigh a just pound."57 This makes little sense, no matter how light-headed the victim might be, since in the next sentence the Jew continues, "Or else his head, should I be suffered to cut it off, although it were with the danger of mine own life,"58 and in the sentence after that wonders if his victim's "nose, lips, his ears, and. . . . eyes . . . make of them altogether a pound."59 Furness's textual intervention immediately influenced subsequent editions of the play; a year after his edition was published, for example, Homer B. Sprague wrote "head" (without brackets) in his popular school edition of the play.60 The bowdlerization of this source, and the lack of interest in Leti, have effectively deflected critical attention away from aspects of the play that touch upon ritual Jewish practices.

IV. The circumcision of the heart

Why this bond is forfeit,
And lawfully by this the Jew may claim
A pound of flesh, to be by him cut off
Nearest the merchant's heart.

—The Merchant of Venice, 4.1.227-30

When Paul declares that "the circumcision is of the heart" and is "in the spirit, not in the letter," we are presented with a double displacement: of the physical by the spiritual and of the circumcision of the flesh by the circumcision of the heart. Elizabethan commentators were well aware that Paul's metaphorical treatment of circumcision builds upon a preexisting tradition in the Old Testament, expressed particularly in Deuteronomy 10.16 and 30.6: "Circumcise the foreskin of your heart," and "The Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart."61 Mornay, in Sidney's translation, also notes that when the Old Testament prophets "rebuke us, they call us not simply uncircumcised, but uncircumcised of heart or lips,"62 and Peter Martyr simply confirms that "Paul borrowed" this "phrase touching the circumcision of the heart . . . out of the Old Testament."63

Hugo Grotius understood that this substitution of heart for flesh neatly defined the relationship between Christian fellowship and the genealogical Judaism it replaced, since the Covenant "should be common to all people." He even argued that the Old Testament prophets recognized this "mystical and more excellent signification contained" in "the precept of circumcision," since they in fact "command the circumcision of the heart, which all the commandments of Jesus aim at."64 John Donne is particularly eloquent on this symbolic displacement: "The principal dignity of this circumcision was that it . . . prefigured, it directed to that circumcision of the heart." For Donne, "Jewish circumcision were an absurd and unreasonable thing if it did not intimate and figure the circumcision of the heart."65

The unexplained displacement of Shylock's cut from Antonio's "flesh" upward to his heart is now considerably clearer. Viewed in light of this familiar exegetical tradition, Shylock's decision to exact his pound of flesh from near Antonio's heart can be seen as the height of the literalism that informs all his actions in the play, a literalism that when imitated by Portia leads to his demise. Also echoing through the trial scene of The Merchant are the words of Galatians 6.13: "For they themselves which are circumcised keep not the Law, but desire to have you circumcised, that they might rejoice in your flesh," that is to say (as the gloss to this line in the Geneva Bible puts it), "that they have made you Jews." Shylock will cut his Christian adversary in that part of the body where the Christians believe themselves to be truly circumcised: the heart. Shylock's threat gives a wonderfully ironic twist to the commentary on Paul's Romans that "he is the Jew indeed . . . who cuts off all superfluities and pollutions which are spiritually though not literally meant by the law of circumcision."66 Psychoanalytically inclined readers will immediately recognize how closely the terms of this Pauline displacement correspond to the unconscious substitution central to Freud's secular theories. Theodore Reik, a disciple of Freud's, interpreted Shylock's bond in just these terms, arguing first that the "condition that he can cut a pound of flesh 'in what part of your body pleaseth me'" is "a substitute expression of castration." Reik adds that when it is later decided that "the cut should be made from the breast, analytic interpretation will easily understand the mechanism of distortion that operates here and displaces the performance from a part of the body below to above."67

In repudiating circumcision, Paul's sought to redirect the Covenant, sever the genealogical bond of Judaism, distinguish Jew from Christian, true Jew from false Jew, and the spirit from the flesh (while retaining in a metaphorical sense the sexuality attendant on the flesh). Yet his actual remarks about circumcision are enigmatic and confusing. It is only mild consolation that they proved no less puzzling to the sixteenth-century theologians who tried to untangle the various levels of Paul's literal and symbolic displacements. Take, for example, the Geneva Bible's gloss to Romans, which reaches new depths of convolution in its attempt to iron out these difficulties by asserting that "Paul useth oftentimes to set the letter against the spirit. But in this place the circumcision which is according to the letter is the cutting off of the foreskin. But the circumcision of the spirit is the circumcision of the heart. That is to say, the spiritual end of the ceremony is true holiness and righteousness, whereby the people of God is known from profane and heathenish men." In their frustration, Paul's interpreters often turned against one another. Andrew Willet, for example, chastised Origen for misreading Paul and "thus distinguishing the circumcision of the flesh; that because there is some part of the flesh cut off and lost, some part remaineth still. The lost and cut off part (saith he) hath a resemblance of that flesh, whereof it is said, all flesh is grass. The other part which remaineth is a figure of that flesh, whereof the Scripture speaketh, all flesh shall see the salutation of God." Willet is sensitive to Origen's conflation of the two kinds of circumcision here, spiritual and fleshly—"Origen confoundeth the circumcision of the flesh and the spirit, making them all one"—but it is hard to see how to maintain hard and fast divisions when, on the one hand, commentators drive a wedge between the spiritual and the physical, while, on the other, they show how even in the Old Testament circumcision was used both literally and metaphorically. For Willet, then, the correct interpretation, and one that seems to require a bit of mental gymnastics, requires that we think not of the circumcision of the flesh and the circumcision of the heart "as though there were two kinds of circumcisions" but as "two parts of one and the same circumcision which are sometimes joined together, both the inward and the outward."68

IV. Uncircumcision

If the distinction between inward and outward circumcision were not confusing enough, Paul further complicated matters by introducing the concept of reverse, or uncircumcision. Even if a faithful Christian were circumcised in the heart, what if one's body still carried (as Paul's did) the stigmatical mark that revealed to the world that one was born a Jew? The seventeenth-century Scottish preacher John Weemse recognized that the early Christians were embarassed by this Judaical scar: "When they were converted from Judaism to Christianity there were some of them so ashamed of their Judaism that they could not behold it; they took it as a blot to their Christianity."69 Uncircumcision, then, was the undoing of the seemingly irreversible physical act that had been accomplished through the observance of Jewish law, and it was a topic that Paul would return to obsessively (in large part because it was a pressing issue within the new Christian communities he was addressing). Paul asks in Romans "if the uncircumcision keep the ordinances of the Law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision? And shall not uncircumcision which is by nature (if it keep the Law) condemn thee, which by the letter and circumcision art a transgressor of the Law?"70 In Galatians he writes in a similar vein that "in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth anything" nor "uncircumcision, but faith, which worketh by love."71 His remarks in Corinthians on the irrelevance of this mark are even more forceful: "Is any man called being circumcised? Let him not gather his circumcision. Is any called uncircumcised? Let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God."72

Paul's shifts between literal and figurative uncircumcision in these key passages are dizzying, and the commentators had to scramble to keep up with him. Thomas Godwyn voices the question that must have been on many readers' minds: "Here it may be demanded how it is possible for a man, after once he hath been marked with the sign of circumcision, to blot out that character and become uncircumcised?"73 He is responding to Paul's warning that one should not "gather" or reverse one's circumcision. The gloss to this line in the Geneva Bible also takes Paul in the most literal sense imaginable, explaining that this "gathering" is accomplished with "the help of a surgeon" who undoes the effect of the cutting of the foreskin by "drawing the skin with an instrument, to make it to cover the nut" or glans of the penis. The Geneva Bible even directs readers to the medical source for this procedure, the seventh book of Celsus's De Medicina.74 Other writers explained that Paul forbids this literal uncircumcision in his letter to the Corinthians "because some that were converted to Christianity from Judaism did so renounce all their Judaical rites that they used means to attract the preputia again, which was an act of too much superstition and curiosity, and so is censured here."75 It also needs to be stressed here that, uncircumcision, like circumcision, was understood by Paul's commentators to operate both spiritually and literally; Andrew Willet reminds his readers that "as there are two kinds of circumcision, so there is also a twofold uncircumcision, "an uncircumcision of the heart, and another of the flesh."

The belief that one could be uncircumcised, could have one's irreducible Jewish identity replaced with a Christian one, is also a fantasy that powerfully shapes the final confrontation between Shylock and Antonio in The Merchant of Venice. Antonio's consummate revenge upon his circumcised adversary, whose actions symbolically threaten to transform not just his physical but his religious identity, is to ask of the court a punishment that precisely reverses what Shylock had in mind for him. When Antonio demands that Shylock "presently become a Christian," a demand to which the Duke readily agrees, the "christ'ning" that Shylock is to receive will metaphorically uncircumcise him. The new covenant has superseded the old, as the sacrament of baptism, which has replaced circumcision, turns Jew into Christian.76 In his commentary on Romans Peter Martyr offers up a summary of Paul's treatment of the Jews that ironically foreshadows Antonio's victory over Shylock at the end of the trial scene: "In civil judgments, when any is to be condemned which is in any dignity or magistrateship, he is first deprived of his dignity or office, and then afterward condemned. So the apostle first depriveth the Jews of the true Jewishness, and of the true circumcision, and then afterward condemneth them."77

Antonio and Shylock, who fiercely insist on how different they are from each other, to the last seek out ways of preserving that difference through symbolic acts that convert their adversary into their own kind. Paradoxically, though, these symbolic acts—a threatened circumcision of the heart and a baptism that figuratively uncircumcises—would have the opposite effect, erasing, rather than preserving, the literal or figurative boundaries that distinguish merchant from Jew.78 It is just this fear of unexpected and unsatisfying transformation that makes The Merchant of Venice so unsettling a comedy, and that renders the even more deeply submerged and shadowy charge of ritual murder such a potent one. The desire to allay such fears produces a fantasy ending in which the circumcising Jew is metamorphosed through conversion into a gentle Christian. While this resolution can only be sustained through legal force in the play (Shylock's alternative, after all, is to be executed), its power was sufficiently strong for this spectacle of conversion to be reenacted in a number of English churches in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England, as a handful of Jews were led to the baptismal font.


Epigraph sources are as follows: Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 8 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1957-75), vol. 1, p. 483; and Leon Poliakov, A History of Anti-Semitism, 3 vols. (New York: Vanguard Press, 1974), vol. 1, p. 223. Poliakov does not provide the source of this quotation.

1 Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Works, trans. James Strachey et al., 24 vols. (London: Hogarth Press, 1953—1974), vol. 10, p. 36. See, too, his Leonardo da Vinci (1910), where Freud notes that "here we may also trace one of the roots of the anti-semitism which appears with such elemental force and finds such irrational explanation among the nations of the West." For Freud, "circumcision is unconsciously equated with castration. If we venture to carry our conjectures back to the primaeval days of the human race we can surmise that originally circumcision must have been a milder substitute, designed to take the place of castration" (vol. 11, p. 95). He added this footnote in 1919. In his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis he similarly writes that there "seems to me no doubt that the circumcision practiced by so many peoples is an equivalent and substitute for castration" (vol. 15, p. 165). Sander Gilman's penetrating studies—The Case of Sigmund Freud, and Freud, Race, and Gender (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993)—discuss in great detail the historical and medical issues that informed Freud's ideas about circumcision; see especially the chapter on "The Construction of the Male Jew" in Freud, Race, and Gender, pp. 49-92.

2 In Freud's own analysis of Shakespeare's play he avoids Jewish questions, focusing not on the pound of flesh plot but on the tale of the three caskets. Marjorie Garber, turning Freud's psychoanalytic approach against him, brilliantly argues that by "turning The Merchant of Venice into King Lear, Freud occludes Portia and her own scene of choice, when, dressed like a man, she chooses between two men, two symbolic castrates, Antonio the 'tained wether of the flock' (4.1.114) and Shylock 'the circumcised Jew.'" Garber wonders whether Freud, by focusing on this issue, is able to avoid confronting his own patriarchy and misogyny by failing to address the more disturbing "problem of the two things he does not want to think of, the two last things that remain on the periphery of the essay on 'The Three Caskets,' discreetly offstage and off-page, the two figures central to The Merchant of Venice: the crossdressed woman and the Jew?" (Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare's Ghost Writers: Literature as Uncanny Causality [New York: Methuen, 1987], p. 187, n. 63).

3 Tovey, Anglia Judaica, p. 65. Bonefand, we learn, "pleaded not guilty, and was very honourably acquitted," raising the interesting question of how, given the medical evidence, the case could ever have been successfully prosecuted.

4 Gabriel Harvey, Works, ed. Alexander Grosart, 3 vols. (London, 1884-1885), vol. 1, p. 203.

5 Andrew Willet, Hexapla: That Is, a Six-fold Commentarie Upon the Most Divine Epistle of the Holy Apostle S. Paul to the Romanes (Cambridge, 1611), p. 203.

6 As Purchas puts it in his Pilgrimage (1613), p. 158.

7 While this woodcut no doubt relates to his reputed escape from a crowd of hostile Venetian Jews whom he sought to convert, there is no evidence anywhere in Coryate's book that these Jews bore weapons against him. Coryate himself explains that "that some forty or fifty Jews more flocked about me, and some of them began very insolently to swagger with me, because I durst reprehend their religion. Whereupon fearing least they should have offered me some violence, I withdrew myself by little and little towards the bridge at the entrance into the ghetto" (Coryate, Coryats Crudities [London, 1611], pp. 236-37).

8 Coryate is subsequently imagined as facing the danger of circumcision in his travels through Islamic nations. A poem written in 1615 to Coryate by John Brown, an English merchant residing at the time in India, warns Coryate to "have a care (at Mecca is some danger) / Lest you incur the pain of circumcision." Coryate published the poem in his Thomas Coryate, Travailer . . . Greeting. . . from the Court of the Great Mogul (London, 1616), p. 34.

9 Coryate, Coryats Crudities, sigs. D7v, Elr, and A2r.

10 Coryate adds: "All his privities (before he came into the room) were besprinkled with a kind of powder, which after the circumcisor had done his business was blowed away by him, and another powder cast on immediately. After he had dispatched his work .. . he took a little strong wine that was held in a goblet by a fellow that stood near him, and poured it into the child's mouth to comfort him in the midst of his pains, who cried out very bitterly; the pain being for the time very bitter indeed, though it will be (as they told me) cured in the space of four and twenty hours. Those of any riper years that are circumcised (as it too often commeth to pass, that Christians that turn Turks) as at forty or fifty years of age, do suffer great pain for the space of a month" (Coryate, Coryate's Crudities; Reprinted from the Edition of 1611. To Which Are Now Added, His Letters from India, vol. 3, sig. U7r-U8v.

11 See Daniel Boyarin's essay in which he notes that "at a traditional circumcision ceremony the newly circumcised boy is addressed: 'And I say to you [feminine pronoun!]: in your [feminine] blood, you [feminine] shall live,'" and offers as a possible interpretation that "circumcision was understood somehow as rendering the male somewhat feminine," or alternatively, "that there is here an arrogation of a female symbol that makes it male, and that circumcision is a male erasure of the female role in procreation as well" (Boyarín, "'This We Know to Be the Carnal Israel': Circumcision and the Erotic Life of God and Israel," Critical Inquiry 19 [1992], p. 496, and n. 64).

12 Charles Hughes, ed., Shakespeare 's Europe: Unpublished Chapters of Fynes Moryson's Itinerary, 2 vols. (London: Sherrat and Hughes, 1903), vol. 2, pp. 494-95.

13 Cf. John Evelyn, who reports in his diary entry for January 15, 1645, in Rome, that when "the circumcision was done the priest sucked the child's penis with his mouth" (as cited in A. Cohen, An Anglo-Jewish Scrapbook, 1600-1840 [London: M. L. Cailingold, 1943], p. 292). Charles Weiss notes that metzitzah "was probably introduced during the talmudic period," and that "its practice never became universal" ("A Worldwide Survey of the Current Practice of Milah [Ritual Circumcision]," Jewish Social Studies 24 [1962], p. 31). See too Bernard Homa, Metzitzah (2d ed., London, n.p., 1966), where the relevant Midrashic texts that are the source of the authority for this practice are cited. Michel de Montaigne also found an opportunity to observe and describe "the most ancient religious ceremony there is among men," which he "watched . . . very attentively and with great profit." He too was struck by the practice of metzitah: "As soon as this glans is thus uncovered, they hastily offer some wine to the minister, who puts a little in his mouth and then goes and sucks the glans of this child, all bloody, and spits out the blood he has drawn from it, and immediately takes as much wine again, up to three times." After bandaging the child, the "minister" is given "a glass full of wine. .. . He takes a swallow of it, and then dipping his finger in it he three times takes a drop of it with his finger to the boy's mouth to be sucked. .. . He meanwhile still hath his mouth all bloody" (Michel de Montaigne, Montaigne's Travel Journal, trans. Donald M. Frame [San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983], pp. 81-82. The event was recorded by one of Montaigne's servants, assigned to compile the journal).

14 The Bible also failed to prepare English travelers for what they would witness in Africa: female "circumcision." Samuel Purchas, anticipating the skepticism of his readers, writes of one of the voyages into Ethiopia: "Let no man marvel which heareth this, for they circumcise women as well as men, which thing was not used in the old Law." He also notes that both in Cairo and "Abassine" they "circumcise not only males, but with a peculiar rite females also" (Purchas, Pilgrimage, pp. 1040, 841, and 1134). The Islamic practice of delaying circumcision until sexual maturity struck Elizabethan writers, versed in a scriptural tradition of circumcision occurring on the eighth day, as unusual. Richard Jobson's description of his trip to "Gambra" in 1620, provided readers in England with considerable details of the practice—locally known as the "cutting of pricks"—experienced by brave adolescent boys in Africa: "Hither we came in season for that solemnity, hearing before we came, shouts, drums and country music. The boy knew the meaning, and told us it was for cutting of pricks, a world of people being gather[ed] for that purpose, like an English fair. . . . We saw our black boy circumcised, not by a marybuck [that is, a priest], but an ordinary fellow hackling off with a knife at three cuts his praepuce, holding his member in his hand, the boy neither holden nor bound the while" (As cited in Purchas, p. 925). See, too, a later narrative where Richard Jobson speaks of the local African custom concerning circumcision: "It is done without religious ceremony, and hath no name but the cutting of pricks, the party stripped naked and sitting on the ground, and the butcher pulling the skin over very far, and cutting it, not without terror to the beholder" (As cited in Purchas, p. 1573).

15 Purchas, Pilgrimage, p. 121.

16 Willet, Hexapla, p. 204.

17 Thorowgood, Jews in America, pp. 13, 15. Similarly, when Queen Elizabeth's ambassador to Russia, Giles Fletcher, declared that the Tartars were the ten lost tribes of Israel, he too found confirmation in the fact that they "are circumcised, as were the Israelish and Jewish people" (Giles Fletcher, "The Tartars or, Ten Tribes," first published sixty-six years after his death in 1611, in Samuel Lee, Israel Redux: Or the Restauration of Israel [London, 1677], p. 22).

18List and Analysis of State Papers: Foreign Series, Elizabeth 1, vol. 6 (January to December 1595), ed. R. B. Wernham (London: HMSO, 1993), p. 269. For a facsimile and transcript of Don Solomon's letter, see H. G. Rosedale, Queen Elizabeth and the Levant Company (London: Henry Fraude, 1904), pp. 19-33.

19 See Acts 16.3. Unless otherwise noted, scriptural passages are quoted from the 1589 edition of the Geneva Bible, published in London (I have modernized spelling and orthography here as well).

20 Philippe de Mornay, A Woorke Concerning the Trewnesse of the Christian Religion, Written in French, Against Atheists, Epicures, Paynims, Jewes, Mahumetists, and Other Infidels, trans. Sir Philip Sidney and Arthur Golding (London, 1587), pp. 581-82.

21 William Perkins, A Commentarie or Exposition, Upon the First Five Chapters of the Epistles to the Galatians (Cambridge, 1604), p. 380.

22 Jean Calvin, Sermons of M. John Calvine Upon the Epistle of Saincte Paule to the Galatians, trans. Arthur Golding (London, 1574), fol. 325r.

23 John Calvin, A Commentane upon S. Paules Epistles to the Corinthians, trans. Thomas Timme (London, 1577), fol. 82v. Others offered an evolutionary model that would explain the different attitudes the earliest Christians held toward circumcision. For example, the Scottish preacher John Weemse writes that in the "first period," Christians "might only circumcise; in the second period, circumcise and baptize; (for they had yet more regard to circumcision than to baptism); in the third period they baptized and circumcised (now they had more regard to baptism than circumcision); in the fourth period, they only baptized" (Weemse, The Christian Synagogue, 4 vols. [London, 1633], vol. 1, p. 129).

24 Romans 2.25.

25The New Testament of Our Lord Jesus Christ Translated Out of the Greek. By Theod. Beza, trans. Laurence Tomson (London, 1596). Different editions offer slightly different wording. The first edition of Tomson's revision of the Geneva New Testament (based on Beza's 1565 Latin text) appeared in 1576. It was subsequently published both independently and as part of the larger Geneva Bibles. This was the final and popular form of the Geneva Bible.

26 Romans 2.28-29.

27 For this aspect of Paul's thought, see Daniel Boyarín, who astutely observes that Paul's problem with circumcision was that it "symbolized the genetic, the genealogical moment of Judaism as the religion of a particular tribe of people. This is so both in the very fact of the physicality of the rite, of its grounding in the practice of the tribe, and in the way it marks the male members of that tribe (in both sense), but even more so, by being a marker on the organ of generation it represents the genealogical claim for concrete historical memory as constitutive of Israel." Thus, by "substituting a spiritual interpretation for a physical ritual, Paul was saying that the genealogical Israel 'according to the Flesh,' is not the ultimate Israel; there is an 'Israel in the Spirit'" (Boyarín, "This We Know to Be the Carnal Israel," p. 502).

28 See Joseph Hall, A Plaine and Familiar Exposition by Way of Paraphrase of All the Hard Texts of the Whole Divine Scripture of the Old and New Testament (London, 1633), p. 160.

29 Willet, Hexapla, p. 142. Origen's own position may have been qualified by the possibility (according to Eusebius) that he had castrated himself in his youth in order to work unconstrained with female catechumens.

30 It should also be noted that there is a Jewish tradition that values circumcision because it curtails male desire. Daniel Boyarín cites the observation of Maimonides that circumcision was instituted "to bring about a decrease in sexual intercourse and a weakening of the organ in question, so that this activity be diminished and the organ be in as quiet a state as possible" (in Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, trans. and ed. Shlomo Pines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), p. 609, cited in Boyarín, "'This We Know to Be the Carnal Israel," p. 486, note 37. Boyarín also notes the Platonic, allegorizing view of circumcision in Philo as well. Some of the complex ways in which circumcision was understood symbolically in Jewish exgetical traditions are explored by Elliot R. Wolfson in "Circumcision, Vision of God, and Textual Interpretation: From Midrashic Trope to Mystical Symbol," History of Religions 27 (1987), pp. 189-215, and "Circumcision and the Divine Name: A Study in the Transmission of Esoteric Doctrine," The Jewish Quarterly Review 78 (1987), pp. 77-112.

31 Donne concludes, "God would have them carry this memorial about them, in their flesh," in "A Sermon Preached at Saint Dunstan's Upon New-Years-Day, 1624," Sermons, vol. 6, pp. 190-92.

32 The gendering of the act had long been a problem for Christian interpreters of the Bible, some condemning the Jews for leaving women out of the Convenant, others answering the objection "that circumcision was an imperfect sign, because it was appointed only for the males, the females were not circumcised," by saying that "the priviledge and benefit of circumcision was extended also unto the females, which were counted with the men, the unmarried with their fathers, the married with their husbands" (Willet, Hexapla, p. 205).

33 Diane Owen Hughes, "Distinguishing Signs: Ear-Rings, Jews, and Franciscan Rhetoric in the Italian City State," Past and Present 112 (1986), p. 24.

34 Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, 3.1.82-84.

35 This problem is usually due to excessive electrocautery used in some hospitals, which burns off too much of the infant's penis to warrant reconstructing the organ. The surgeons perform a "feminizing genitoplasty," that is, reconstructing female rather than male genitalia (and at the age of puberty performing a second operation, a vaginoplasty, supplemented by estrogens). See John P. Gearhart and John A. Rock, "Total Ablation of the Penis After Circumcision with Electrocauter: A Method of Management and Long-Term Follow-up," Journal of Urology 142 (1989), pp. 799-801. The authors note that the "successful adaptation and normal sex life of our 2 older patients are a tribute to early gender reassignment, the involvement of a complete team of specialists, including a medical sexology expert, and extensive familial counseling from the time of injury" (p. 801). I am indebted to Dr. Franklin Lowe of Columbia Physicians and Surgeons for making this scholarship available to me. I am also grateful to Patricia E. Gallaher, of Beth Israel Medical Center, for providing me with material on circumcision procedures.

36 Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, 1.3.146-48, and 4.1.249. The first hint appears in act 3, when Shylock says to Tubal "I will have the heart of him if he forfeit" (3.1.119-20).

37 "Whosoever hath an issue from his flesh is unclean because of his issue," Leviticus 15.2. Biblical anthropologists have traced the practice of using the euphemism basar (flesh) when referring to the penis to the priestly redactors (rather than the Jahwist, who did not use this euphemism). See Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, The Savage in Judaism: An Anthropology of Israelite Religion and Ancient Judaism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), pp. 170-71.

38 Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 1.1.29-30, and 2.4.37.

39 Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, 4.1.113. Antonio's next lines—"the weakest kind of fruit / Drops earliest to the ground, and so let me" (4.1.114-15)—may connect back to the recurrent biblical identification of fruit trees with circumcision. In his chapter on "Uncircumcised Fruit Trees," Howard Eilberg-Schwartz notes the frequent comparison in biblical literature between "fruit trees and male organs" (p. 149; see, for example, Leviticus 19.23-25), and concludes that "the symbolic equation of an uncircumcised male and a young fruit tree rests on two, and possibly three, associations. The fruit of a juvenile tree is proscribed like the foreskin of the male organ. Furthermore, a male who is uncircumcised and not part of the covenantal community is infertile like an immature fruit tree. Finally, this symbolic equation may draw part of its plausibility from an analogy between circumcision and pruning," Eilberg-Schwartz, The Savage in Judaism, p. 152. See, too, his "People of The Body: The Problem of the Body for the People of the Book," Journal of the History of Sexuality 2 (1991), pp. 1-24.

40 Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, 2.8.22, 5.1.237.

41 As cited in J. H. Baker, "Criminal Courts and Procedure at Common Law, 1550-1800," in Crimes in England, 1550-1800, ed. J. S. Cockburn (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), p. 42.

42 Before he had to leave in 1683—having run afoul of the Duke of York and England's Catholic community—Leti had even been elected to the Royal Society and asked by Charles II to write a history of England from its origins to the Restoration. See the introduction to Nati Krivatsy, Bibliography of the Works of Gregorio Leti (Newcastle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Books, 1982).

43 Gregorio Leti, Vita di Sisto V, 3 vols. (Amsterdam, 1693), vol. 3, pp. 134ff. Since the first English translation of Leti's biography—The Life of Pope Sixtus the Vth (London, 1704)—was based on the 1669 text, it does not contain the pound of flesh story.

44 Gregorio Leti, The Life of Pope Sixtus the Fifth, trans. Ellis Farneworth (London, 1754). A subsequent edition of this translation was published in Dublin in 1766.

45 Leti, Vita di Sisto V (1693), vol. 3, p. 136.

46 And, conveniently, to pay for a hospital that he had recently founded. See Leti, Sixtus the Fifth, trans. Farneworth, pp. 293-95.

47 Leti, Sixtus the Fifth, trans. Farneworth, p. 293, n. 19.

48 Leti writes of their "gesti ridicolosissimi." For his remarks about London's Jews, see Leti, Del Teatro Brittanico o Vero Historia dello Stato, Antico e Presente . . . della Grande Brettagna, 2 vols. (London, 1683), esp. vol. 1, pp. 251-52, 549-50, as cited in Jonathan I. Israel, "Gregorio Leti (1631-1701) and the Dutch Sephardi Elite at the Close of the Seventeenth Century," in Jewish History: Essays in Honour of Chimen Abramsky, ed. Ada Rapoport-Albert and Steven J. Zipperstein (London: Peter Halban, 1988], p. 269).

49 Edmond Malone, The Plays and Poems of William Shakspeare (London, 1790), vol. 3, pp. 111-13.

50 David Erskine Baker, Biographia Dramatica or a Companion to the Playhouse Containing Historical and Critical Memoirs, 3 vols. (London, 1812), vol. 3, p. 34. First published in 1782.

51 Edgeworth, Harrington, p. 96.

52 Furness, ed., The Merchant of Venice, A New Variorum Edition, pp. 295ff.

53 For one of the few twentieth-century citations of Leti's story in relationship to Shakespeare's play, see Berta Viktoria Wenger, "Shylocks Pfund Fleish," Shakespeare Jahrbuch 65 (1929), esp. pp. 148-50.

54 Bullough, Sources, vol. 1, p. 483.

55 Bullough, Sources, vol. 1, p. 484. In other sources the cutting is to be done to the eyes (as in Anthony Munday's Zeluto), or is left ambiguous or unspecified, in the words of Fiorentino's Il Pecorone (1558), "wheresoever he pleases."

56 Malone, ed., Plays and Poems of Shakspeare, vol. 3, p. 114.

57 Furness, ed., The Merchant of Venice, A New Variorum Edition, pp. 311-12.

58 Bullough, Sources, vol. 1, p. 484.

59 Furness, ed., The Merchant of Venice, A New Variorum Edition, p. 312.

60 Sprague, ed., The Merchant of Venice (New York: Silver, Burdett, 1889).

61 See Willet's gloss on this passage in Hexapla. Elizabethan editions of the Bible constantly read Pauline doctrine back into the Old Testament passages. Thus, for example, the Bishops' Bible gloss explains: "That is, let all your affections be cut off. He showeth in these words the end of circumcision"; and "Cut off all your evil affections."

62 Mornay, Trewnesse of the Christian Religion, pp. 581-82.

63 Peter Martyr [Vermigli], Most Learned and Fruitfull Commentaries of D. Peter Martir Vermilius, Florentine . . . Upon the Epistle of S. Paul to the Romanes (London, 1568), p. 49v. Andrew Willet also cites the prophet Jeremiah, who proclaims that "all the nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in the heart" (9.26).

64 Hugo Grotius, True Religion Explained and Defended (London, 1632), p. 274.

65 Donne, Sermons, vol. 6, p. 193.

66 Henry Hammond, A Paraphrase and Annotations Upon All the Books of the New Testament (London, 1653), p. 475.

67 For this psychoanalyst (who had first witnessed Shakespeare's play as a young boy at the turn of the century in antisemitic Vienna), only "one step is needed to reach the concept that to the Gentile of medieval times the Jew unconsciously typified the castrator because he circumcised male children." The "Jew thus appeared to Gentiles as a dangerous figure with whom the threat of castration originated." Theodore Reik, "Psychoanalytic Experiences in Life, Literature, and Music," in The Search Within (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Cudahy, 1956), pp. 358-59; first printed as "Jessica, My Child," American Imago 8 (1951), pp. 3-27.

68 Willet, Hexapla, pp. 130-31.

69 Weemse, The Christian Synagogue, vol. 1, p. 127. There is considerable medical evidence for uncircumcision or reverse circumcision as far back as classical antiquity. See, for example, J. P. Rubin, "Celsus' decircumcision operation: medical and historical implications," Urology 16 (1980), p. 121; and B. O. Rogers, "History of External Genital Surgery," in Plastic and Reconstruction Surgery of the Genital Area, ed. C. E. Horton (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1973), pp. 3-47. Willard E. Goodwin's "Circumcision: A Technique for Plastic Reconstruction of a Prepuce After Circumcision," Journal of Urology 144 (1990), pp. 1203-1205, offers a helpful overview of both the history of and the procedures for reversing circumcision.

70 Romans, 2.26-27.

71 Galatians, 5.6. He would return to this idea again shortly, when he states that in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature" (Galatians, 6.15).

72 Corinthians, 7.18-19.

73 Thomas Godwyn, Moses and Aaron: Civil and Ecclesiastical Rites Used by the Ancient Hebrewes, 4th ed. (London, 1631), p. 242.

74 The same information was also made available in the margin of the Geneva Bible, where Elizabethans, who had no need of this procedure themselves, were nonetheless informed that "the surgeon by art draweth out the skin to cover the part circumcised." The Geneva Bible also cross-references 1 Maccabees 1.16, which describes how the Jews followed the "fashions of the heathen" and "made themselves uncircumcised, and forsook the holy Covenant." The table of contents to the 1589 Geneva Bible (which usefully cites all biblical passages that mention circumcision) cites this passage as one in which the "Jews did uncircumcise themselves, and became apostates," indicating that the act carried with it associations of abandoning one religion for another.

Those curious enough to follow up the medical reference would have read in the Latin text of A. Cornelius Celsus (the first English translation, from which I quote, was not published until 1756) that this procedure requires that "under the circle of the glans, the skin" is "to be separated by a knife from the inner part of the penis." Celsus explains that this "is not very painful, because the extremity being loosened, it may be drawn backwards by the hand, as far as the pubes; and no hemorrhage follows upon it." Next, the "skin being disengaged, is extended again over the glans; then it is bathed with plenty of cold water, and a plaister put round it of efficacy in repelling an inflammation." Celsus offers as postoperative advice that "the patient is to fast, till he almost be overcome with hunger, lest a full diet should perhaps cause an erection of that part." Finally, when "the inflammation is gone, it ought to be bound up from the pubes to the circle of the glans; and a plaister being first laid on the glans, the skin ought to be brought over it" (A. Cornelius Celsus, Of Medicine. In Eight Books, trans. James Greive [London, 1756], pp. 438-39).

75 Hammond, A Paraphrase, p. 565. Hammond also describes the "practice of some Jews, who under the Egyptian tyranny first, then under Antiochus, and lastly under the Romans, being oppressed for being Jews, of which their circumcision was an evidence, used means by some medicinal applications to get a new praeputium. And these were called by the Talmudists mishuchim" (I transliterate the Hebrew here). Following the Geneva Bible gloss, Hammond cites as a medical authority "the famous Physician" Celsus, and, unusually, also invokes Talmudic antecedents, citing Rabbi "Aleai of Achan," who "made himself a praeputium."

76 Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, 4.1.383, 4.1.394. Cf. Reik, who argues that if "Shylock insists upon cutting out a pound of flesh from Antonio's breast, it is as if he demanded that the Gentile be made a Jew if he cannot pay back the three thousand ducats at the fixed time. Otherwise put: Antonio should submit to the religious ritual of circumcision." In addition, at "the end of the 'comedy' Antonio demands that Shylock should 'presently become a Christian.' If this is the justified amends the Jew has to make for his earlier condition, it would be according to poetic justice that the Jew be forced to become a Christian after he had insisted that his opponent should become a Jew" (The Search Within, pp. 358-59).

77 Martyr, Most Learned and Fruitfull Commentaries, p. 48r.

78 See the fascinating discussion of the philosophical implications of Shylock's circumcising cut in Stanley Cavell, The Claims of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy [(New York: Oxford University Press, 1979], pp. 479-81). Marjorie Garber notes that both "Reik and Cavell predicate their insights upon an assumption of doubling or twinship, a moment of perceptual equipoise that enforces the disconcerting confusion of identities. . . . Cavell, with 'skepticism with respect to other minds' and the epistemological uncertainty of identity. Each reader appropriates Shylock's scene, persuasively, to his own theoretical project, and finds the twinship of Shylock and Antonio in the courtroom a theatrical hypostasis, an onstage crux that reifies his own perceptions" (Garber, p. 187, n. 63). See also Marc Shell, Money, Language, and Thought (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), pp. 47-83.

Works Cited

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Bible [Geneva] (1589).

Bible [Geneva], The Newe Testament of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Translated Out of the Greeke, by Thomas Beza, trans. L. Tomson (1596).

Boyarin, Daniel, '"This We Know to Be the Carnal Israel': Circumcision and the Erotic Life of God and Israel," Critical Inquiry 19 (1992), 474-505.

Calvin, Jean, A Commentarie Upon S. Paules Epistles to the Corinthians, trans. Thomas Timme (1577).

—— Sermons of M. John Calvin Upon the Epistle of Saincte Paule to the Galatians, trans. Arthur Golding (1574).

Cohen, Abraham, ed., An Anglo-Jewish Scrapbook, 1600-1840: The Jew Through English Eyes (1943).

Coryate, Thomas, Coryats Crudities (1611).

—— Coryate's Crudities: Reprinted from the Edition of 1611. To Which Are Now Added His Letters from India, 3 vols. (1776).

—— Thomas Coryate, Travailer . . . Greeting . . . From the Court of the Great Mogul (1616).

Donne, John, Sermons, ed. George R. Potter and Evelyn M. Simpson, 10 vols. (Berkeley, 1953-62).

[Edgeworth, Maria], Harrington, in Tales and Novels, 18 vols. (1832-33), vol. 17.

Eilberg-Schwartz, Howard, ed., People of the Body: Jews and Judaism from an Embodied Perspective (Albany, 1992).

—— The Savage in Judaism: An Anthropology of Israelite Religion and Ancient Judaism (Bloomington, 1990).

Evelyn, John, The History of the Three Late Famous Imposters, viz. Padro Ottomano, Mahamed Bei, and Sabatai Sevi (1669).

Fletcher, Giles, "The Tartars or, Ten Tribes" (1611) in Samuel Lee, Israel Redux (1677).

Furness, H. H., ed., William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, A New Variorum Edition (Philadephia: J. P. Lippincott, 1888).

Gilman, Sander L. The Case of Sigmund Freud (Baltimore, 1993).

—— Freud, Race, and Gender (Princeton, 1993).

Godwyn, Thomas, Moses and Aaron: Civil and Ecclesiastical Rites Used by the Ancient Hebrewes, 4th ed. (1631 ).

Grotius, Hugo, True Religion Explained and Defended (1632).

Hall, Joseph, A Plaine and Familiar Exposition by Way of Paraphrase of All the Hard Texts of the Whole Divine Scripture of the Old and New Testament (1633).

Hammond, Henry, A Paraphrase and Annotations Upon All the Books of the New Testament (1653).

Hughes, Charles, ed., Shakespeare's Europe: Unpublished Chapters of Fynes Moryson's Itinerary, 2 vols. (1903).

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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.]

"Those critics who idealize the Venetians," René Girard comments of The Merchant of Venice, "write as if the many textual clues that contradict their view were not planted by the author himself, as if their presence in the play were a purely fortuitous matter, like the arrival of a bill in the morning mail when one really expects a love letter."1 As I discuss balances and movements of cash, credit, and obligation in this essay, I shall suggest that in The Merchant of Venice bills and love letters are unusually difficult to distinguish.

The play offers an especially dense set of erotic, economic, and spiritual transactions. The erotic transactions, though unorthodox in ways I shall point out, link the play to Shakespearean comedy in general, and are thus perhaps more ordinary than the economic and spiritual transactions, as women leave the control of their fathers, and men loosen bonds to other men, in order to marry. The Merchant of Venice, however, is unusual in that hardly any relationship between two characters is left as solely emotional or erotic: all have some explicit economic or legal analogue. "[S]o is the will of a living daughter curb'd by the will of a dead father" (I.ii.24-25), complains Portia in Act I, punning on the emotional and legal senses of "will"; Bassanio has in the previous scene told Antonio "To you .. . I owe the most in money and in love" (I.i.130-31), declaring parallel, perhaps inseparable, financial and erotic debts.2 Money, of course, has a logic of its own, and the play presents money relations in extraordinary and systematic detail. Discussing the play's plot as a financial one, moreover, suggests ways to criticize it historically. Since the credit market and the marriage market were, along with land sales, the main methods of raising money available to the Elizabethan gentry and aristocracy, a play about the recovery of an extravagant young aristocrat's decayed fortunes by marriage to an heiress, and the rescue of his bondsman from a usurer's grasp by an unexpected verdict in court, may be topical in a way that will reward historical investigation.3 The play's Venetian setting and numerous fantastic elements do not prevent it from fitting Elizabethan patterns of aristocratic indebtedness and cash-raising through marriage. These constituted the very different expectations of an Elizabethan audience about why and how young aristocrats married, and our reconstruction of these expectations marks the terms in which Shakespeare's characters—the openhanded merchant who despises interest and lends out of friendship; the beautiful, loving, able, and forthcoming bride; the lord whose nobility and grace protect him from his financial irresponsibility; the creditor whose alienness and vengefulness allow debts owed him to be miraculously dissolved—can be interpreted as intensely wishedfor or dreamed-about figures.4

One of my claims in this essay is that financial transactions in the play reward a more detailed analysis than they have to my knowledge received, and I shall survey the play with something of an accountant's eye for cash flows, unpaid balances, and the like. Since, as Bassanio and I have suggested, love and money reflect and express each other in the play, such a literal-minded inquiry will draw up perforce a second vaguer balance sheet of erotic obligation. As I chart these balances, I shall note points at which they suggest improvements in readings of the play as a meditation on marriage and credit in an emerging modern economy. I shall also contend that the theological terms in which many economic issues—especially usury—appear are also shown in the play to define a system of exchange or conversion which works to the advantage of the "blessed": those who, by religion and social situation, are placed to take advantage of exchange patterns.

My discussion of the play's plot divides into three sections, one centering on Antonio and Bassanio, which asks why Antonio is sad; one on Shylock's attempts to justify usury, which asks whether Shylock is more like Jacob, Laban, or Esau; and one on Portia's handling of money.


Above all, money contrives to insert itself into all economic and social relationships. This makes it an excellent indicator: by observing how fast it circulates or when it runs out, how complicated its channels are or how scarce the supply, a fairly accurate assessment can be made of all human activity, even the most humble.5

In sooth I know not why I am so sad,
It wearies me, you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn. . . .


It is worthwhile to speculate on what Antonio, in the opening lines of the play, says he does not know: why he is sad.

Salerio and Solanio, the small fry of the Rialto with whom Antonio is glumly conversing, offer two explanations for his sadness: that Antonio is worried about his ships, which they rather inconsiderately imagine sunk in a variety of ways, and, barring that, that Antonio is in love. I shall argue that they are right on both counts. Antonio's reluctance to be sounded by them gives no more reliable clue to his state of mind than Hamlet's answers to the not-dissimilar queries of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. To their first speculation, "I know Antonio / Is sad to think upon his merchandise," the merchant replies:

Believe me no, I thank 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.


No merchant can admit to be at risk, of course: Chaucer writes of his Merchant that "Ther wiste no man that he was in debt," and limiting others' knowledge of one's finances is a professional necessity. But we know from what Antonio says later to Bassanio that he is misleading his less intimate friends here. To Bassanio he confesses:

Thou know'st that all my fortunes are at sea,
Neither have I money, nor commodity
To raise a present sum, therefore go forth
Try what my credit can in Venice do. . . .


In other words, all Antonio's disposable estate is "upon the fortune of this present year," despite what he has said to Salerio and Solanio about it. He later writes in desperation to Bassanio in Belmont, "my ships have all miscarried, my creditors grow cruel, my estate is very low, my bond to the Jew is forfeit" (III.ii.315-17). So Antonio's credit has already been heavily used, and the assets with which he secures loans do not cover his borrowings. His credit, which he draws on in the absence of liquid assets, is protected by the sort of dissimulation we see him engaged in at the play's start, while at the same time threatened by his inability to look happy when his livelihood is at risk. His demeanor has come under scrutiny: "Believe me you are marvellously chang'd" (I.i.76), as Gratiano notes. There are rumors on the Rialto that, as Shylock later puts it, "his means are in supposition" (I.iii.15), and the itemization Shylock gives—ships to Tripoli, the Indies, Mexico, and England, "with other ventures," as he says, "squandered abroad," not only confirms the impression given by the obsequiousness of Salerio and Solanio that Antonio is a big operator, but also suggests that he is overextending himself. When noted at all, this overextension is usually taken as a mere donnée of the plot, yet the play offers answers if we seek to know why Antonio should need or want to take risks.

There is manifold evidence, first of all, that Antonio is generous to the point of being unbusinesslike. "He lends out money gratis" (I.iii.39), Shylock says bitterly, later adding "He was wont to lend money for a Christian cur'sy" (III.i.43). Bassanio, probably with specific reference to the same habit from the viewpoint of a recipient rather than a competitor, calls him "the kindest man, / The best-condition'd and unwearied spirit / In doing courtesies" (III.ii.291). This echoes Salerio's earlier comment that "A kinder gentleman treads not the earth" (II.viii.35). Antonio himself says that formerly he has used his money to "oft deliver . . . from [Shylock's] forfeitures / Many that have at times made moan to me" (III.iii.22-23). Shylock obviously resents in part his personal losses from Antonio's generosity ("he hath . . . hind'red me half a million" [III.i.48]), but he also seems to resent Antonio's persistent personalization of business relations, his interference with the social Darwinism of the marketplace. Shylock at one point calls him a "prodigal" (III.i.39), ignoring the term's New Testament valency, and if Antonio is lending money without interest to defaulters in order to prevent their forfeitures, he is indeed putting himself at financial risk. Evidently, then, the liquid assets Antonio finds himself short of at the play's opening have ebbed away from him in this general direction. We know, however, a good deal more exactly where some of Antonio's money has gone. The Venetian scenes of the first act are, after all, devoted to progressively more revealing discussions of Antonio's financial situation, from the evasions of his talk with Salerio and Solanio through his revealing private conversation with Bassanio to his uncomfortable arrangement to borrow three thousand ducats from Shylock. We must now examine the second and third of these.

When told by Solanio "Why then you are in love," Antonio only replies, "Fie, fie."6 And when he is alone with Bassanio, Antonio is free to proceed to what is evidently uppermost in his mind:

Well, tell me now what lady is the same
To whom you swore a secret pilgrimage—
That you to-day promis'd to tell me of?


Antonio has known, then, for an unspecified time, that Bassanio intends to woo a lady, and awaits details; indeed, the line "you to-day promis'd to tell me of," indicates that Antonio seems to have been pressing Bassanio for details, and finally to be receiving them. Except that he must yet wait some time to hear the answer to his question. Bassanio begins with apparent irrelevance:

'Tis not unknown to you Antonio
How much I have disabled mine estate,
By something showing a more swelling port
Than my faint means would grant continuance:
Nor do I now make moan to be abridg'd
From such a noble rate, but my chief care
Is to come fairly off from the great debts
Wherein my time (something too prodigal)
Hath left me gag'd: to you Antonio
I owe the most in money and in love,
And from your love I have a warranty
To unburthen all my plots and purposes
How to get clear of all the debts I owe.


Bassanio, then, whom we have just seen cheerfully making dinner plans, is Antonio's debtor, evidently to a considerable extent; he will not apologize for this directly (he was living at "a noble rate," i.e., one consonant with his rank, and his admissions of extravagance are qualified), but the speech is heavy with an uncomfortable sense of obligation. There is a particular discomfort—beyond that of a debtor speaking to a creditor—in the clause "To you Antonio / I owe the most in money and in love." Taken to the letter, this means not only "you have given me money I have yet to return," but also "you have given me love I have yet to return"; it also, however, suggests that a return of love may partially compensate financial debt, or vice-versa. Certainly the debt to Antonio is not merely financial, but emotional as well; the bargains hitherto and following between Antonio and Bassanio show that very personalization of financial arrangements characteristic of Antonio which Shylock will parody with savage accuracy when he sets a pound of flesh as forfeit for a bargain later on.

If we, however, consider the local impact of this speech, it emerges as a request for permission for something: it admits debts (as things, apparently, which might inhibit the disclosure Antonio has requested), and makes Antonio's love a "warrant" for Bassanio to unburden himself, even in embarrassment. This at any rate seems to be how Antonio understands the speech—as a request for reaffirmation. He delivers in sweeping terms:

I pray you good Bassanio let me know it,
And if it stand as you yourself still do,
Within the eye of honour, be assur'd
My purse, my person, my extremest means
Lie all unlock'd to your occasions.


He offers, then, not only his money but himself, and seems to be imagining, even desiring, an "occasion" for self-sacrifice. The wistful homoerotic suggestion ("my person . . . / Lie[s] all unlock'd to your occasions"), since it is not taken up by Bassanio, perhaps explains the self-sacrificial impulse. He encourages Bassanio to ask him for money, but Bassanio apparently still cannot tell him what for:

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 self way
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.

(I.i. 140-52)

By infantilizing himself here, Bassanio metaphorically shifts responsibility for the previous money lost to Antonio: it was after all Antonio, in his image, who shot the first lost shaft, and who is being invited to shoot another whose flight this time Bassanio will watch. The relationship between Antonio and Bassanio, then, seems to resemble that between Citibank and Zaire, whereby the creditor, by the magnitude of the investment, becomes the thrall of the debtor, who can cause ruin by defaulting on or repudiating the debt. Bassanio's promise that he will at worst return the second loan in good time is, as we shall see in following the flight of Antonio's cash, a questionable one. And Antonio feels manipulated enough by Bassanio's evasive whimsy to object fairly strongly:

You know me well, and herein spend but time
To wind about my love with circumstance,
And out of doubt you do me now more wrong
In making question of my uttermost
Than if you had made waste of all I have:
Then do but say to me what I should do
That in your knowledge may by me be done,
And I am prest unto it: therefore speak.


This is a complex piece of reproach; at the end of it, we may well wonder who is winding about whose love with circumstance. "I can deny you nothing; at any rate acknowledge that you are making emotional use of me, and don't hide behind fictions of practicality which insult my intelligence and self-knowledge," might be a fair tendentious paraphrase in the Empsonian manner. We know that Shakespeare was interested in and had perhaps experienced such feelings from the sonnets: compare the opening of Sonnet 57:

Being your slave, what should I do but tend
Upon the hours and times of your desire?
I have no precious time at all to spend
Nor services to do, till you require. . . .

In any case, the financial upshot of Antonio's speech is clear. Everything he has is at Bassanio's disposal, and he is hurt that Bassanio hesitates to use it.

Bassanio at last, convinced no doubt that he hurts Antonio more by withholding details of his marriage plans than by revealing them, tells Antonio of Portia and, again without making a direct request, asks for money:

 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.
O my Antonio, had I but the means
To hold a rival place with one of them.
I have a mind presages me such thrift
That I should questionless be fortunate.

(I.i. 169-76)

"Thrift," here, assimilates success in winning Portia to success in clearing his debt to Antonio; since "thrift" in its everyday dispositional sense is what Bassanio conspicuously lacks, he is imagining having his accounts redeemed in one great stroke, which will show him to have been "thrifty" in a grand way all along. Antonio immediately replies, in lines quoted above, that he has neither money nor goods to sell, which sounds like the beginning of a refusal. He continues, however:

 therefore go forth
Try what my credit can in Venice do,—
That shall be rack'd even to the uttermost
To furnish thee to Belmont to fair Portia.
Go presently inquire (and so will I)
Where money is, and I no question make
To have it of my trust, or for my sake.


Again, Antonio offers his "uttermost," and imagines his credit on the rack. It is interesting that they need to inquire "where money is," suggesting, as it does, that all Venice may, like Antonio and Bassanio, have problems with liquidity. And Antonio's final formulation—he will obtain cash "of [his] trust, or for [his] sake" (glossed by a series of editors as "on my credit, or for friendship's sake")—suggests that he hopes to find the sort of friendly creditor he himself is, but may have to borrow at interest, depending perhaps on "where money is."

At the end of the first scene, then, our balance sheet is already fairly detailed, though no precise sum has yet been mentioned. Bassanio is in debt to everyone, but especially to Antonio, and evidently can raise no money except from loving and forbearing friends; Antonio has ventured his clearly very considerable fortune at sea or has generously given it away; Bassanio offers him a chance to recoup an otherwise irrecoverable debt by sponsoring his marital venture to Portia; Antonio does so, but insists that his gesture be read in emotional rather than financial terms (he never mentions Bassanio's debts to him, and it is Bassanio rather than he who represents the voyage to Belmont as a financial "plot and purpose").7 Bassanio has been financially obliged, in effect, to ask Antonio's permission to woo—and this he does reluctantly.

Thus far, then, the wooing of Portia can be seen as an instance of what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has recently defined as "male homosocial desire": i.e., "the whole spectrum of bonds between men, including friendship, mentorship, rivalry, institutional subordination, homosexual genitality, and economic exchange—within which the various forms of traffic in women take place."8 Antonio, at least, has a stake in treating Bassanio's courtship of Portia as part of a complex economic and erotic transaction between two males. A comment of Sedgwick's suggests that she sees the difficulty of such subordinations as a Shakespearean theme: " . . . as Shakespeare's sonnets show, the male path through heterosexuality to homosocial satisfaction is a slippery and threatened one—although for most men, in at least most cultures, compulsory."9 I shall return to Sedgwick's very illuminating arguments when I have finished tracing the economic patterns of the play—patterns, interestingly, which no male seems to control thoroughly.

Bassanio, seeking "where money is," finds Shylock, and we seem to encounter a recognizable business transaction at last. The scene, which culminates in the acceptance of the "merry bond," as unbusinesslike a proposition as one could find, starts with a discussion of terms.

Shy. Three thousand ducats, well.
Bass. Ay sir, for three months.
Shy. For three months, well.
Bass. For the which as I told you, Antonio shall be bound.
Shy. Antonio shall become bound, well.


The focus seems to be on the bargain and its precise terms, not the personal relations which lie behind it. It is worth noting that the loan will be to Bassanio, with Antonio "bound." This means, in our business language, that he is a guarantor, but in Elizabethan terms it would suggest something more precise yet. Bassanio is a Lord; Antonio is not. In England until the mid-seventeenth century a nobleman could not be arrested for debt. Lawrence Stone quotes a letter from Sir Robert Cecil to Alderman Rowe: "'it may be you will be loth to deal with a baron of the realm without some collateral securities of meaner quality.'" Stone continues:

It might indeed! Since the bodies of peers were immune and suits against them difficult, creditors often insisted that a nobleman's friends or his leading officers should join with him in a bond, recognizance, or statute. . . .

Owing, perhaps, to a natural reluctance of friends to get too deeply involved, the commonest sureties used by peers were their own servants Examples could be indefinitely extended, and there can be no doubt that this was normal practice. Satisfactory though this may have been to the creditors, the servants not infrequently found themselves less happily situated. In 1571 the servants of the Duke of Norfolk, in 1597, those of the Earl of Derby, in 1622 those of Bacon found themselves liable to arrest as sureties.10

There may, then, be a reminder in the initial terms of the arrangement, not merely that Antonio has credit and Bassanio has not, but that Bassanio is a noble and Antonio a merchant. This situates Antonio in class terms between Bassanio and Shylock, obviously, and it may help explain Antonio's extraordinary violence in repudiating Shylock's attempts to draw parallels between them later in the scene.

Shylock says, in an aside on Antonio's entry: "He hates our sacred nation, and he rails / (Even there where merchants most do congregate) / On me, my bargains, and my well-won thrift, / Which he calls interest" (I.iii.42-46). And he clearly sees Antonio's temporary dependence on him as an opportunity to make some point about thrift and interest—one that he is not prone to make to Bassanio (whom Shylock seems to regard as of small consequence), but insists on putting to Antonio. He begins his indirect argument with another detail about Venetian finance:

I am debating of my present store,
And by the near guess of my memory
I cannot instantly raise up the gross
Of full three thousand ducats: what of that?
Tubal (a wealthy Hebrew of my tribe)
Will furnish me. . . .


Shylock here, it would seem, is making a point about circulation: Antonio, in tapping him for cash, has access not to an individual but to a system. Certainly Shakespeare, at any rate, is making such a point—already in two and a half scenes the search for venture capital has gone through two middlemen and has crossed boundaries of rank and religion, has brought friendship to the market to finance marriage (or marriage to repay friendship), and has offered a wide variety of definitions of "thrift." Shylock's complaint about Antonio, partly practical ("He lends out money gratis, and brings down / The rate of usance here with us in Venice" [I.iii.39-40]), is partly also a complaint about Antonio's categorization of his activities: "my wellwon thrift / Which he calls interest."

If a discussion of interest is what Shylock wants, Antonio could hardly be more cooperative.

Shylock, albeit I neither lend nor borrow
By taking nor by giving of excess,
Yet to supply the ripe wants of my friend,
I'll break a custom.


Shylock reverts to this, with a key emendation: "but hear you, / Me thoughts you said, you neither lend nor borrow / Upon advantage" (I.iii.63-64). Antonio had used the word "excess"—and we must remember here that Antonio lends out money "gratis," so that he is treating any interest on a loan as "excess"; it is perhaps relevant to note that the officially permitted rate of return in England after 1571 was ten per cent, and moneylenders often got more.11 Shylock turns Antonio's "excess" into the much more general "advantage," thus including the kinds of emotional return we have seen Antonio take from Bassanio earlier in the act.12 Antonio, however, either does not notice the change, or will not split hairs: "I do never use it," he proudly replies.

II: Jacob, Esau, or Laban?

Antonio's sadness, I have suggested, is a market-linked phenomenon. So is Shylock's apparently irrelevant and patently incomplete retelling of the Jacob story, which is so evidently meant to justify usury.

Shy. When Jacob graz'd his uncle Laban's sheep,—
This Jacob from our holy Abram was
(As his wise mother wrought in his behalf)
The third possessor: ay, he was the third.
Ant. And what of him? did he take interest?
Shy. No, not take interest, not as you would say
Directly int'rest,—mark what Jacob
did —


Shylock wishes to force Antonio to await his exegesis of the incident he has begun to tell; Antonio, impatient, wishes to force him to the point. The Jacob story itself, of course, is a powerfully multivalent subtext for Shylock to invoke here: Shylock claims to possess the patriarchs ("This Jacob from our holy Abram was"), and to interpret their example with authority. The lightly alluded-to story of Jacob's inheritance, however, is full of danger for him in an exegetical argument with a Christian in a Christian state. In general, as G. K. Hunter notes, Renaissance Christians held that "if Abraham and the other patriarchs of the Old Testament belong to the Christian tradition, they cannot belong to the Jewish one; and Jewish invocation of them is not simply alien but actually subversive."13 Specifically, the Lord's words to Rebekah, when Esau and Jacob struggled together in her womb, were taken by Christians as the prefiguration of their own inheritance of the blessings of the Jews:

And the Lord said to her, two nations are in thy wombe, and two maner of people shalbe deuided out of thy bowels, and the one people shalbe mightier then the other, and the elder shal serve ye younger.14

Saint Paul, in Romans 9:12-13, comments, in "great heaviness and continual sorrow" for the Jews who have not accepted Christ:

It was said vnto her, The elder shal serue the yonger. As it is written, I haue loued Iacob, & haue hated Esau.

And Paul concludes:

What shal we say then? That the Gentiles which folowed not righteousnes, haue atteined vnto righteousnes, euen the righteousnes which is of faith. But Israel which folowed the Law of righteousnes, colde not atteine vnto the Law of righteousnes. Wherefore? Because they soght it not by faith, but as it were by the workes of the Law. . . . (9:30-32)

The Jacob story, then, is full of danger for Shylock. First, the story itself, as part of the Hebrew Bible, has been converted; and second, and more specifically, the story contains, from a Christian viewpoint, a prophecy of Christian inheritance of blessings, and a threat to those who trust in "the works of the law."15 Shylock seems unconcerned here with the story of how Jacob obtained his blessing: the deception of dim-eyed old Isaac, when Rebekah binds the kidskins on Jacob's hands and neck, is summed up neutrally by the phrase "as his wise mother wrought in his behalf; Shylock's concern is with what he did with the blessing. This is the story he tells Antonio, and it is crucial to note that he never completes or explains it. I quote at some length:

Ant. And what of him? did he take interest?
Shy. No, not take interest, not as you would say
Directly int'rest,—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.
Ant. 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.
Was this inserted to make interest good?
Or is your gold and silver ewes and rams?
Shy. I cannot tell, I make it breed as fast,—But note me signior.
Ant. Mark you this Bassanio,
The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,—
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
O what a goodly outside falsehood hath!
Shy. Three thousand ducats, 'tis a good round sum.


What, we must ask, does Shylock want Antonio to "note," before he is thrown back on business by a series of insults in which his own behavior is taken as a text for moral commentary by Antonio to Bassanio? To learn, we must go back to the Jacob story, this time to that part of it Shylock is citing in detail. Jacob served Laban, his uncle, for twenty years, while avoiding the wrath of Esau for the theft of Isaac's blessing. Laban tricks Jacob by substituting Leah for Rachel in the dark (there's a kind of rough justice in this, given what Jacob and Rebekah did to Isaac), and he keeps Jacob as a servant even after Jacob has married Rachel. The wand trick which Shylock likens to his own interesttaking occurs after the following exchange between Jacob and Laban:

. . . Iaakób said to Labán, Sēd me away that I may go vnto my place and to my countrey. . . . for thous knowest what seruice I haue done thee. To whome Labán answered, .. . tarie: I haue perceiued that the Lord hathe blessed me for thy sake. . . . Appoint vnto me thy wages, and I wil giue it thee. But he said vnto hī, Thou knowest, what seruice I haue done thee. . . . For the litle, that thou haddest before I came, is increased into a multitude: and the Lorde hathe blessed thee by my comming. . . . (Genesis 30:25-30)

Jacob then proposes the grazing arrangement that Shylock describes, in which, from the increase of Laban's flocks, Jacob comes to have wealth of his own.

Shylock's never-interpreted biblical explanation, then, is an exceptionally rich one when applied to his situation as a Jewish moneylender in a cash-poor Christian state. He works for Antonio, supplying his needs and caring more providently for the money supply than the Christian merchants around him do; but because he is a Jew he is not allowed full participation in the economy, just as Jacob is prevented by Laban from having flocks of his own. Yet Jacob, blessed by God and his own ingenuity, breeds his own streaked flock from Laban's smooth one, and is hated for it, just as Shylock is hated for making money out of the money with which he supplies (or "blesses") the ventures of the Christians around him. Laban seeks to retain Jacob with him for the blessing Jacob brings—an economic one; yet he simultaneously denies Jacob rights to his gains, and indeed, as Jacob complains (Genesis 33:41), and as the Jews of Europe had notorious right to complain, "thou hast changed my wages ten times." It is this relation between Jacob and Laban, then, that Shylock is attempting to adduce as an explanation of his own place in the Venetian economy, and, more immediately, as a model for his relation to Antonio. Shylock's claim goes unheard because Antonio so violently rejects any claim of kinship, even as a fellow human being, from Shylock, who is driven to a much less sophisticated assertion of their relationship:

What should I say to you? Should I not say
'Hath a dog money? is it possible
A cur can lend three thousand ducats?'


Shylock proposes the Jacob/Laban story as a model for the relationship between usury and venture capitalism with the former "blessing" the latter, but he cannot be heard except as a "devil," and must go on to defend his mere humanity. This entire incident offers rich territory for historically minded criticism to explore.16 There is no doubt that loans at interest were essential, available, perilous, and feared in the last two decades of Elizabeth's reign, during which Stone estimates that "about two-thirds of the peerage seem to have been in growing financial difficulties."17 R. H. Tawney calls usury "the mystery of iniquity in which a host of minor scandals were conveniently, if inaccurately, epitomized."18 Walter Cohen, in a recent essay on the play which seeks to read it historically in both English and Italian terms, argues that Shylock, in contrast to Antonio, is "a figure from the past: marginal, diabolical, irrational, archaic, medieval."19 But Shylock's abortive scriptural explanation of the usurer's relation to the capitalization needed by merchants is in fact an extraordinarily progressive one (rather like Bacon's in "Of Usury"); what the scene illustrates is the diabolism forced on Shylock by Antonio's near-hysterical resistance to any formal acceptance of the nature of the economic system he lives in. Cohen later comments that "if the play revealed that merchants were as exploitative as usurers, that they were in fact usurers [as was the case in England], then its entire thrust toward harmonious reconciliation could only be understood as a fiendishly oblique instance of ironic demystification."20 Cohen represents this as an unacceptably complex intention, but economic patterns I wish to trace here support such an understanding; with respect to Shylock, they enlarge the significance of his exclusion to encompass the exclusion of the demystifying self-defense he tries to offer. A Christian merchant, preserving homosocial connection to a Lord, cannot afford to understand the parable of economic relations offered by the Jew.

Shylock, however, cannot control the interpretation of the text he cites. He does not remain Jacob for long, and the Jacob story has an independent life in the play outside his speech.

Launcelot Gobbo, Shylock's "unthrifty" servant, kneels backwards before his blind father, asks for a blessing, and gains it only after old Gobbo, feeling the back of his head, exclaims "what a beard hast thou got" (II.ii.89); the scene's parody of the deception of Isaac comes immediately prior to the entrance of Bassanio, who offers, as Christianity does to converts, "rare new liveries" (II.ii.105). Launcelot begs employment, commenting that "The old proverb is very well parted between my master Shylock and you sir, you have 'the grace of God' sir, and he hath 'enough'" (II.ii.140), suggesting that a blessing has passed to Bassanio. Jessica, fleeing Shylock's house to join Lorenzo, and taking with her a casket and bags of ducats, echoes Rachel, Laban's daughter, who steals his household gods when she flees in secret with Jacob. This last event, however, reinforces the argument that Shylock loses control of the Jacob story as soon as he introduces it: he becomes Laban, his daughter and idols stolen, or Esau, bereft of blessing and compelled to witness a younger people thrive, rather than the Jacob he had been. Shylock plans to catch Antonio "on the hip," echoing a detail from Jacob's wrestle with the angel, but in the trial scene it is Gratiano who exclaims "Now infidel I have you on the hip" (IV.i.330). And it is Portia who will not release Shylock until he has blessed her and hers.

III: Protecting the Endowment

Portia, "richly left" in Belmont and guarded by the casket test, is a source of all that is good in life for Bassanio if he can only find the proper intermediary. The caskets—gold, inscribed "who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire"; silver, inscribed "who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves"; and lead, inscribed "who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath,"—offer extraordinary opportunities for interpretation, which are complicated by Portia's telling Bassanio "I stand for sacrifice" and ordering a song about how fancy is bred by visual appearances. The scene, at least in part, tests his willingness to take subtle direction from Portia. In a play about economic, erotic, and religious venturing, circulation, and conversion, however, only the lead casket, with its injunction to give and hazard, stands for a dynamic of exchange, and touches the variety of kinds of exchange that the play presents. In doing so it creates, though rather vaguely, an approximation of an Elizabethan marriage settlement with some advantage to the bride. "The father of the bride had to provide a substantial cash sum, known as a portion," says Lawrence Stone. "In return .. . the father of the groom had to undertake a far wider set of obligations. The most important was the provision of an annual allowance for support of the bride if and when she became a widow, and the ratio between this jointure, as it was called, and the cash portion was the main issue around which negotiations turned."21 Portia's name, then, is suggestive of the means of relieving debts (of various sorts) which she provides for Bassanio; choosing the lead casket, which promises no profit and exacts gifts and risks, shows that he on his side offers a "jointure" of sorts to balance the huge "portion" he hopes to receive. It is worth nothing here that the lead casket in Shakespeare's presumed source for this part of the play bears the legend, "Who chooseth me shall finde that God hath disposed for him," so that Shakespeare has chosen an economic moral to replace a providential one.

Portia, then, in her speech ratifying Bassanio's successful casket choice, blesses him with herself and her wealth in familiar terms: "Myself, and what is mine, to you and yours / Is now converted" (III.ii.166-67). Her control, as Shylock's was the bond, is the ring:

This house, these servants, and this same myself
Are yours,—my lord's—I give them with this ring.
Which when you part from, lose, or give away,
Let it presage the ruin of your love,
And be my vantage to exclaim on you.


Rings are signs of commitment and also tokens of wealth (Gratiano, who gets one from Nerissa, claims that his was of little cash value, as if that were relevant, when she condemns him for giving his away; Shylock lost two rings with Jessica, one a diamond that cost him two thousand ducats at Frankfurt, the other the turquoise Leah gave him when he was a bachelor, which Jessica, in an appalling parody of her mother's gesture, exchanges for a monkey: the error, then, involved in using something which has symbolic value for its exchange value is connected with rings in the play before the final scene). They are also, as circles, potential symbols of enclosure as well as of cycles of commitment and exchange.22

The instant Portia's house becomes Bassanio's, it begins to fill with guests: Gratiano will marry Nerissa and stay, Lorenzo and Jessica arrive hungry, having thrown away the money Jessica stole from her father's house ("you drop manna in the way / Of starved people," he says to Portia at the play's end), and Salerio brings a letter from Antonio.

After welcoming them all in his new capacity as host, Bassanio is forced by the letter to explain in some embarrassment to Portia that, while he never pretended to be rich, "Rating myself at nothing, you shall see / How much I was a braggart" (III.ii.256); his debts and Antonio's danger are revealed—evidently tactfully unmentioned before—and we see Portia echoing his descriptions of Antonio as she learns the extent of this prior emotional and financial obligation.

Bass. I have engag'd myself to a dear friend,
Engag'd my friend to his mere enemy
To feed my means.
 . . . But is it true Salerio?
Jes. .. . If law, authority and power deny not,
It will go hard with poor Antonio.
Por. Is it your dear friend that is thus in trouble?
Bass. The dearest friend to me. . . .


She then asks the sum of the debt, and delights all by saying "What no more?" "You shall have gold / To pay the petty debt twenty times over. / When it is paid, bring your true friend along" (III.ii.297, 305-7). Thus she reverses the current of cash that has flowed in her direction by sending Bassanio back to Venice with a tidal wave of ducats. Her speech, sometimes cited to show how far above financial concerns she is, concludes with a wonderful bow to the market—a line Pope thought unworthy of Shakespeare: "Since you are dear bought, I will love you dear" (III.ii.312). She can securely outbid Venice for Bassanio, and seems cheerful at the prospect of establishing credit in her own favor. Bassanio then reads out Antonio's letter:

Sweet Bassanio, my ships have all miscarried, my creditors grow cruel, my estate is very low, my bond to the Jew is forfeit, and (since in paying it, it is impossible I should live), all debts are clear'd between you and I, if I might but see you at my death: notwithstanding, use your pleasure,—if your love do not persuade you to come, let not my letter.


"O love!" Portia echoes in an immediate counter to this claim; she then sends him off to the rescue: "Dispatch all business [their marriage!] and be gone!" And she wisely chooses to follow to protect her investment.

What Portia discovers here—to return to the terms suggested by Sedgwick—is the potentially homosocial aspect of her marriage to Bassanio. Describing the centrality of the homosocial relation of cuckoldry in Wycherley's The Country Wife, Sedgwick comments that in that play

the triangular transaction between men of the possession of a woman—a transaction whose structuring presence in other texts sometimes requires some inferential work to detect—is simply the most patent subject. The status of women in this transaction is determiningly a problem in the play: not their status in the general political sense but their ambiguous status of being at the same time objects of symbolic exchange and also, at least potentially, users of symbols and subjects in themselves.23

Portia, discovering Bassanio's "engagement" to Antonio, turns immediately to money, to male disguise, and to the law to protect her status as a principal and to avoid becoming an object of homosocial exchange.

Seen in this light, the trial scene betrays an unexpected (and I believe hitherto unnoticed) but cogent financial logic. Bassanio, following Portia's initial suggestion, makes a series of offers to Shylock and to Antonio. We appear to be seeing the repayment of Venetian debts that Bassanio forecast when proposing his venture for the golden fleece of Belmont. And Bassanio's offers are by no means confined to money:

Antonio, I am married to a wife
Which is as dear to me as life itself,
But life itself, my wife, and all the world,
Are not with me esteem'd above thy life.
I would lose all, ay sacrifice them all
Here to this devil, to deliver you.


All Belmont, love and money together, is offered for sacrifice.

What actually happens, however, is quite different. Portia leads Shylock to declare an intent to kill, by getting him to deny a surgeon's presence to staunch or cauterize the wound he will make in cutting the pound of flesh, and she then catches him in laws wider than those he has invoked.

Por. if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are (by the laws of Venice) confiscate
Unto the state of Venice.

Shy. I take this offer then,—pay the bond thrice
And let the Christian go.
Bass. Here is the money.
Por. Soft!
The Jew shall have all justice,—soft no haste!
He shall have nothing but the penalty.

Shy. Give me my principal, and let me go.
Bass. I have it ready for thee, here it is.
Por. He hath refus'd it in the open court,
He shall have merely justice. . . .


Up to this point, Portia has been protecting her own money, which Bassanio seeks to give away. Shylock then attempts to end the trial:

Shy. I'll stay no longer question.
Por. Tarry Jew,
The law hath yet another hold on you.
It is enacted in the laws of Venice,
If it be proved against an alien,
That by direct, or indirect attempts
He seek the life of any citizen,
The party 'gainst the which he doth contrive,
Shall seize one half his goods, the other half
Comes to the privy coffer of the state,
And the offender's life lies in the mercy
Of the Duke. . . .

Duke For half thy wealth, it is Antonio's,
The other half comes to the general state,
Which humbleness may drive into a fine.
Por. Ay for the state, not for Antonio.


Each of these interventions protects Portia's endowment from threats; half Shylock's goods wipes out the debts Bassanio has to Antonio, and re-equips him as a merchant so that he will not turn into a dependent. He then, very neatly from this viewpoint, answers Portia's question, "What mercy can you render him Antonio?" by endowing Lorenzo and Jessica, so that they will not be dependents of Portia and Bassanio (whose house they are looking after, not very thriftily, in Portia's absence). The forced conversion of Shylock, moreover, completes the logic of his treatment in the play. His ducats, his servant, his daughter, his justifying biblical text, have all been converted to serve Christians; now he himself must convert, a final victim of the cruelty of typology.

Even though Portia's portion survives the trial untouched, Bassanio continues to attempt to give it away. He, with the freed Antonio beside him, says to the disguised Portia,

Bass. Most worthy gentleman, I and my friend
Have by your wisdom been this day acquitted
Of grievous penalties, in lieu whereof,
Three thousand ducats due unto the Jew
We freely cope your courteous pains withal.
Ant. And stand indebted over and above
In love and service to you evermore.
Por. He is well paid that is well satisfied.


We may well believe Portia's comment here. She not only has the delicious opportunity to refuse her own money; she also has Antonio's precious testimony that the balance of erotic credit is now hers. She has, of course, ensured that the financial balance is on her side (in fact, any of the original three thousand ducats not spent by Bassanio before he first left Venice count as profit to Portia). She pauses only to request the ring, which Bassanio first denies, then gives at a request from Antonio that Balthazar's "deservings and my love withal / Be valued 'against your wife's commandement" (IV.i.446-47). And this is material for Portia's final educative gesture. She has put Antonio in her debt, though he doesn't yet know this, and with the ring she will teach Bassanio not to circulate her gifts, and turn Antonio from a rival into a surety for his love. She reproaches the ringless Bassanio on his return to Belmont, and he replies:

Bass. Pardon this fault, and by my soul I swear
I never more will break an oath with thee.
Ant. I once did lend my body for his wealth,
Which but for him that had your husband's ring
Had quite miscarried. I dare be bound again,
My soul upon the forfeit, that your lord
Will never more break faith advisedly.
Por. Then you shall be his surety: give him this,
And bid him keep it better than the other.
Ant. Here Lord Bassanio, swear to keep this ring.
Bass. By heaven it is the same I gave the doctor!


Antonio, claiming a right from his near-sacrifice—a right both to exculpate Bassanio and to establish the supreme obligation that all are under to the male "doctor"—becomes a guaranteeing middleman in the final transaction of the play, a transaction which binds both men in obligation to Portia.24 Her triumphant manipulation of patterns of homosocial exchange is now complete. She remarks below: "I have not yet / Enter'd my house" (V.i.272-73, emphasis mine). She has, however, established her possession of it, and of Bassanio, and her absolute mastery of the systems of exchange in the play which have routed all blessings, economic, erotic, and theological, toward Belmont.

What then does this tell us?

I have tried to demonstrate that the pattern of credit and debit, payment and profit, is drawn in this play with nearly the precision of an auditor's report, and to suggest further that the character whose actions most shape and exploit this pattern is not Shylock or Antonio but Portia. She is both a better manipulator of exchange patterns, and a better idealizer of them, than her opponents Shylock and Antonio, who bless her with their thrift.

These claims, however, leave some vexing questions open: are the social values inscribed in The Merchant of Venice essentially conservative or progressive ones? Portia is, after all, a landed aristocrat, and the play shows, and apparently endorses, the fall of the goods of a progressive commercial exchange system into her lap. As in Shylock's story of Jacob and Laban, his "blessing" profits another—though in this case he must lose all that he values so that Portia may gain all she wants. From this viewpoint, the play offers reassurance that, while the world may change, inherited blessings will be preserved. On the other hand, more than any other Shakespearean play, The Merchant of Venice shows a woman triumphing over men and male systems of exchange: the "male homosocial desire" of Antonio is almost as thoroughly thwarted in the play as is Shylock's vengefulness. Thus the play is both conservative and radical, and is perhaps centrally concerned to show the availability of power to all through systems of exchange which yet favor the flexible, the intelligent, and the already strong.


1 René Girard, "'To entrap the wisest': A Reading of The Merchant of Venice," in Literature and Society, ed. Edward Said (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1980), pp. 101-2.

2 Arden edition, The Merchant of Venice, ed. John Russell Brown (London: Methuen, 1955). I incorporate line references from this edition parenthetically henceforth.

3 For persuasive arguments that the play invokes both English and Italian responses to the onset of credit economies, see Walter Cohen, "The Merchant of Venice and the Possibilities of Historical Criticism," ELH, 49 (1982), 765-85, incorporated into his Drama of a Nation: Public Theatre in Renaissance England and Spain (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 195-211. I will suggest that Cohen could find much more detailed support for his views in the plot of the play.

4 See Leonard Tennenhouse, "The Counterfeit Order in The Merchant of Venice" in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, eds. Murray Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1977), for persuasive argument on these lines.

5 Fernand Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1981), p. 436.

6 Lawrence Danson, rather nervously fending off a homoerotic interpretation of Antonio's melancholy, comments that "Two monosyllabic expletives might seem a slender basis on which to build a character's motivations, but it can be done," quotes reports from the stage, and concludes that "What is crucial to decide . . . is whether those otherwise innocuous "fies" in the first scene should actually lead to Antonio's exclusion and a final dying fall" for the play. But there is much more than a couple of "fies" to suggest erotic causes for Antonio's melancholy. See Danson's good book, The Harmonies of The Merchant of Venice (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1978), pp. 37-38.

7 See Marc Shell, "The Wether and the Ewe: Verbal Usury in The Merchant of Venice," The Kenyon Review, ns 1, 4 (Fall 1979), 66 for a summary of financial relations between Antonio and Bassanio which in some ways anticipates this one. Shell calls Antonio on p. 70 "a zealot [against interest-taking] who seems to condemn even marine insurance." See also Marianne Novy, Love's Argument (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1984), p. 69 for the interesting suggestion that Antonio "behaves like the altruists described by Anna Freud who have given up to another person, with whom they identify, the right to have their instincts gratified."

8 "Sexualism and the Citizen of the World: Wycherley, Sterne, and Male Homosocial Desire," Critical Inquiry, 11 (December 1984), 227. For a more extended account of homosocial desire, see the introduction to Sedgwick's Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1985).

9 Sedgwick, Between Men, p. 50.

10The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), pp. 520-21.

11 See Stone, p. 530.

12 Shylock's line on first seeing Antonio: "How like a fawning publican he looks!" (I.iii.36), which has always puzzled commentators because Antonio can hardly be said to be "fawning" in his relations with Shylock, may be explicable in these terms. If we assume that Shylock sees Antonio as fawning on Bassanio (certainly the only person we see Antonio prone to fawn on), then the notion that Antonio is like a Roman tax-gatherer who abuses those below him—especially Jews—in order to ingratiate himself to those above, shows Shylock's insight into the kind of emotional "interest" we have seen Antonio exacting from his own loans.

13 "The Theology of Marlowe's Jew of Malta," Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes (1964), p. 216.

14 Genesis 25:23, The Geneva Bible (1560). All subsequent biblical quotations are from The Geneva Bible.

15 See Arnold Williams, The Common Expositor (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1948), pp. 169-72, and Danson, pp. 72-76, where these contexts are drawn together to support a different argument.

16 For a different reading of it, turning on the distinction in Jewish law between "brothers" and "others," see Shell, pp. 68-70.

17 Stone, p. 542.

18Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1926), p. 151, quoted in Danson, p. 142.

19 Cohen, Merchant, p. 771.

20 Cohen, p. 774.

21 Stone, p. 633.

22 Sigurd Burckhardt, in Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1968), p. 210, comments: "As the subsidiary metaphors of the bond and the ring indicate, The Merchant is a play about circularity and circulation; it asks how the vicious circle of the bond's law can be transformed into the ring of love." As will soon become clear, I do not feel that the "rings of love" at play's end offer a qualitative transformation of the earlier "bonds."

23 Sedgwick, Between Men, p. 50.

24 Compare Novy, pp. 76-80 for an account of how "the victory goes to Portia" at the end of the play which in several ways anticipates this one.

Karen Newman (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Portia's Ring: Unruly Women and Structures of Exchange in The Merchant of Venice" in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 1, Spring, 1987, pp. 19-33.

[In the following essay, Newman argues that the "structure of exchange " permeates both economic and romantic transactions in the play; she then explores the means by which power and prestige are gained, particularly by Portia, through the exchanging of gifts.]

The merchant of Shakespeare's title is ambiguous; it applies literally to Antonio, but also characterizes Shylock, and indeed all the play's action, not only the "bond" plot, but the love plot as well. The exchange of goods, whether they be "rich lading wrack'd on the narrow seas" (III.i.3) or women, characterizes the play's action. Readers have often remarked the language of commerce that characterizes the Venetian world of the Rialto where even a church, "the holy edifice of stone," would remind Christian merchants "of dangerous rocks, / Which touching but my gentle vessel's side / Would scatter all her spices on the stream, / Enrobe the roaring waters with my skills" (I.i.30-34).1 Here the feminine personification of merchant ship as woman wounded figures both the commodification of woman and her violation. Belmont seems at first to be presented quite differently—talk there is of love, sexuality, familial relationships seemingly free from Venetian economic motives and aims.2 Portia's suitors are judged not on the basis of their wealth or goods, but in terms of personal and moral qualities, and it must be said, racial prejudice.3

But as many readers have noted, any simple binary opposition between Belmont and Venice is misleading, for the aristocratic country life of Belmont shares much with commercial Venice: the matter and mottoes of the caskets suggest commercial values, and Portia's father's will rules her choice of husbands. Though venturing at Belmont is admittedly idealized—Bassanio's quest of Portia is likened to Jason's voyage, thus endowing it with a mythical dimension,4 and Portia's father's will, through the mottoes, criticizes rather than endorses commercial values—what is important is the structure of exchange itself which characterizes both the economic transactions of Venice and the love relationships forged at Belmont. Venice and Belmont are throughout the play compared and contrasted, but the syntax of exchange itself functions in both locales; indeed, it seems universal.

Before considering structures of exchange in Shakespeare's play, I would like to look in some detail at the status of exchange in anthropology. In his Essai sur le don, Marcel Mauss describes and analyzes one of the most remarkable features of primitive societies: the extent to which exchange—giving, receiving, and reciprocating gifts—dominates social intercourse.5 Gift-giving is significant according to Mauss because it establishes and expresses social bonds between the partners of an exchange. In the cultures that Mauss describes, "food, women, children, possessions, charms, land, labour, services, religious offices, rank" circulate in exchange.6 By offering a gift, the giver solicits friendship, establishes a relationship, perhaps seeks a reward. Gift-giving can be competitive—its "underlying motives are competition, rivalry, show and a desire for greatness and wealth."7 Acceptance of a gift creates a reciprocal relationship by implying a willingness to return a gift, so by giving a gift that cannot be reciprocated, either because of its kind or its excess, the giver can humiliate the receiver. Perhaps the most striking anthropological example of such gift-giving is the so-called Big Man of highland New Guinea who is assigned in adolescence a buanyin or exchange partner, and, apparently against indigenous norms of social behavior, is trained to an entire system of exchange and gift-giving in excess of what can be reciprocated. Such behavior results in prestige and power.

Claude Lévi-Strauss reworks Mauss's theory of the gift in his Elementary Structures of Kinship by proposing that marriage is the most fundamental form of gift exchange, and women the most basic of gifts. In studying the function and origins of exogamy, Lévi-Strauss argues that incest taboos and other rules prohibiting sexual relations and marriage between family members insure alliances and relationships among men:

The prohibition of incest is less a rule prohibiting marriage with the mother, sister, or daughter, than a rule obliging the mother, sister, or daughter to be given to others. It is the supreme rule of the gift. . . .8

Gift-giving, then, for Mauss and Lévi-Strauss, establishes social bonds and is a strategy of power. For Lévi-Strauss, however, such bonds and strategies are gender specific: they are exercised by and forged between and among men by means of the exchange of women:

The total relationship of exchange which constitutes marriage is not established between a man and a woman .. . but between two groups of men, and the woman figures only as one of the objects in the exchange, not as one of the partners. . . .

(p. 115)

Exchange—and consequently the rule of exogamy which expresses it—has in itself a social value. It provides the means of binding men together, and of superimposing upon the natural links of kinship the henceforth artificial links .. . of alliance governed by rule. . . . It provides the fundamental and immutable rule ensuring the existence of the group as a group.

(pp. 480-81)

For Lévi-Strauss, the exchange of women is at the origin of social life. His androcentric analysis seeks to authorize the exchange of women and the male bonds it constitutes by claiming that culture depends upon such ties. Feminists have pointed out two related consequences of Lévi-Strauss's claims. On the one hand, the seeming centrality of the woman as desired object is a mystification: she is a pseudo-center, a prize the winning of which, instead of forging a male/female relation, serves rather to secure male bonds.9 Others have looked not so much at the woman in this system of exchange, but at the male bonds it establishes. The French psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray postulates that if, as Lévi-Strauss claims,

the exchanges which organize patriarchal societies take place exclusively between men, . . . [and if] women, signs, goods, money, pass from man to man or risk . . . slipping into incestuous and endogamous relations which would paralyze all social and economic intercourse, . . . [then] the very possibility of the socio-cultural order would entail homosexuality. Homosexuality would be the law that regulates the socio-cultural economy.10

Irigaray's use of the French conditional, exigerait and serait, translated here as "would entail" and "would be," and her stipulation that homosexual relations per se are prohibited because they risk short-circuiting the very systems of exchange that produce male bonds, suggest her polemical purpose in positing homosexuality as "the law that regulates the socio-cultural economy." Irigaray eroticizes the ties between men Lévi-Strauss describes in order to suggest a continuum—which she expresses by her pun, "hom(m)o-sexualité"11—that encompasses an entire range of male relations from the homoerotic to the competitive to the commercial. Recently Eve Sedgwick has made the perspectives first conceptualized by Kristeva and Irigaray available to the Anglo-American reader by appropriating the term "homosocial" from the social sciences to describe "the whole spectrum of bonds between men, including friendship, mentorship, rivalry, institutional subordination, homosexual genitality, and economic exchange—within which the various forms of the traffic in women take place."12

The Merchant of Venice would seem to offer an exemplary case not only of Lévi-Strauss's exchange system but also of the French feminist critique of that system. The exchange of Portia from her father via the caskets to Bassanio is the ur-exchange upon which the "main" bond plot is based: it produces Bassanio's request for money from Antonio and in turn the bond between Antonio and Shylock. Though the disposition of Portia by her father's will, and the financial arrangements between Bassanio and Antonio that permit Bassanio's courtship, lead to heterosexual marriage, the traffic in women paradoxically promotes and secures homosocial relations between men. Read from within such a system, Portia's seeming centrality is a mystification, a pseudo-center, for woman in this series of transactions, to repeat Lévi-Strauss's phrase, "figures only as one of the objects in the exchange, not as one of the partners." The feminist rereading of Lévi-Strauss also provides another angle from which to read the Merchant's much-debated male relationship. Commentators have often remarked Shakespeare's introduction of the theme of friendship, a shift from the paternal/filial relationship of Il Pecorone usually recognized as the Merchant's primary source. But the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio has been interpreted not only as a version of idealized Renaissance friendship, but also as homoerotic.13 Certainly textual evidence suggests the difficulty in distinguishing between the erotic and the platonic in Antonio's relations with Bassanio. Instead of choosing one interpretation over another, idealized male friendship or homosexuality, Irigaray's reading of Lévi-Strauss allows us to recognize in Antonio's relationship with Bassanio a homosocial bond, a continuum of male relations which the exchange of women entails.

Some anthropologists have challenged not the phallocentrism of Lévi-Strauss's claim that exogamous marriage and the exchange of women is a necessary condition for the formation of social groups and ultimately of culture, but his theory of kinship itself. Pierre Bourdieu, for example, adduces instances of parallel cousin marriage from nomadic and gatherer groups which refute the structuralist interpretation of kinship as a rule-governed system, arguing instead that kin relationships are social practices that produce and reproduce historically specific social relations. In the cultures Bourdieu examines, for example, women often take part in the choice of a spouse for their children: how marriages are made and what they do "depend on the aims or collective strategies of the group involved" and are not constitutive per se of male bonds or of culture.14 But Bourdieu's ungendered social science vocabulary ("the collective strategies of the group involved") glosses over the significant fact that these aims and strategies inevitably allot women secondary status, for it is always the bride, and never the groom, who is an object of exchange among family groups and the means whereby social relations are reproduced. However they may disagree about the reasons for and results of kinship "rules" or "practices," in both Lévi-Strauss's structural anthropology and Bourdieu's functionalist analysis, women figure as capital, as objects of exchange among men.

But the "traffic in women" is neither a universal law on which culture depends, as Lévi-Strauss would have it, nor simply a means of producing and reproducing generalized "social relations," as Bourdieu claims: Kristeva's and Irigaray's analysis of exchange exposes it as a strategy for insuring hierarchical gender relations. The exchange of women produces and reproduces what Gayle Rubin has termed a "sex/gender system" in which the traffic in women is only part of an entire system of

sexual access, genealogical statuses, lineage names and ancestors, rights and people—men, women and children—in concrete systems of social relationships.

. . . "Exchange of women" is a shorthand for expressing that the social relations of a kinship system specify that men have certain rights in their female kin, and that women do not have the same rights either to themselves or to their male kin.

(p. 177)

Such a sex/gender system functioned historically in early modern England where marriage, among the elite at least, was primarily a commercial transaction determined by questions of dowry, familial alliances, land ownership, and inheritance.15 Daughters were pawns in the political and social maneuvers of their families, particularly their male kin.16 Marriage contracts and settlements, familiar letters and wills, conduct books and sermons alike recognize in marriage an economic transaction based on the exchange of gifts—women, cash, annuities, rents, land.17 Divines preached sermons with such titles as "A Good Wife Gods Gift"; women were explicitly commodified, as in John Wing's exemplary exhortation, in his treatise on marriage, that men seek wives not in the devil's place—playhouses, may games, dance matches—but in God's house, since

[a]ll men love in merchandizing for any commodity, to goe as neere the welhead as they can, to such as make the commodities themselves, and from whose hands they doe originally come.18

The commercial language to describe love relationships common in Elizabethan love poetry and in The Merchant of Venice displays not only the economic determinants of marriage in Elizabethan society, but England's economic climate more generally—its developing capitalist economy characterized by the growth and expansion of urban centers, particularly London; the rise of banking and overseas trade; and industrial growth with its concomitant need for credit and large amounts of capital.19 Such changes, as Walter Cohen has demonstrated, inevitably generated anxiety that readers of The Merchant of Venice have recognized in the tension Shakespeare created between trade and usury, and in the ultimate triumph of Antonio and his incorporation into Belmont's world of aristocratic, landed values.20

The exchange of gifts dominated not only kinship relations, but power relations as well. Gift-giving was a significant aspect of Elizabethan and Jacobean social intercourse, as demonstrated by royal prestation and patronage, and by the New Year's gift roles, account books, and records of aristocratic families who vie with one another in their generosity to the monarch in quest of favor.21 Not only the monarch and the aristocracy, but the gentry and the middling sort—all took part in these systems of exchange. Even the poorest families participated in such exchange systems: observers describe the custom in English villages of placing a basin in the church at weddings, into which guests placed gifts to help to establish the newly formed family in the community.22 In the 1620s and 30s, gift-giving declined and signalled the alienation of the aristocracy, gentry, and urban elite from the court.23

In III.ii, of The Merchant of Venice, Portia offers her love to Bassanio in a speech that epitomizes the Elizabethan sex/gender system:

You see me Lord Bassanio where I stand,
Such as I am; though for myself alone
I would not be ambitious in my wish
To wish myself much better, yet 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 something: which to term in gross,
Is an unlesson'd girl, unschool'd, unpractised,
Happy in this, she is not yet so old
But she may learn: happier than this,
She is not bred so dull but she can learn;
Happiest of all, is that her gentle spirit
Commits itself to yours to be directed,
As from her lord, her governor, her king.
Myself, and what is mine, to you and yours
Is now converted. But now I was the lord
Of this fair mansion, master of my servants,
Queen o'er myself: and even now, but now,
This house, these servants, and this same myself
Are yours,—my lord's!—I give them with this ring. . . .


This speech begins with what we might term an affective paradox. Portia presents herself to Bassanio using the first person in an engagingly personal, if highly rhetorical, manner: "Such as I am." But her account of herself, as my own dead metaphor suggests, illustrates the exchange between the erotic and the economic that characterizes the play's representation of human relations. The rhetorical distance created by the mercantile metaphor shifts the speech from her personal commitment to a more formal bond marked by the giving of her ring, and that move is signaled by the shift to the third person ("an unlesson'd girl . . . she"). Portia objectifies herself and thereby suppresses her own agency in bestowing herself on Bassanio. The passives are striking—she casts herself grammatically in the role of object "to be directed"; she and all she owns "is converted" to Bassanio by an unstated agent. Perhaps the most marked stylistic feature of these lines is the repeated use of now which signals both temporal shifts and, more importantly, a moment of conversion. The rhetorical balance of line 166 is arrested by the caesura and the now of line 167 which insists on the present moment of commitment to Bassanio. The "but now" that follows refers back in time, emphasizing Portia's prior role as "lord" of Belmont, a role that she yields to Bassanio with her vow "I give them with this ring"; the moment of fealty is underscored by the repeated "even now, but now" in line 169.

The governing analogy in Portia's speech is the Renaissance political commonplace that figures marriage and the family as a kingdom in small, a microcosm ruled over by the husband.24 Portia's speech figures woman as microcosm to man's macrocosm and as subject to his sovereignty. Portia ratifies this prenuptial contract with Bassanio by pledging her ring, which here represents the codified, hierarchical relation of men and women in the Elizabethan sex/gender system in which a woman's husband is "her lord, her governor, her king."25 The ring is a visual sign of her vow of love and submission to Bassanio; it is a representation of Portia's acceptance of Elizabethan marriage which was characterized by women's subjection, their loss of legal rights, and their status as goods or chattel. It signifies her place in a rigidly defined hierarchy of male power and privilege; and her declaration of love at first seems to exemplify her acquiescence to woman's place in such a system.

But Portia's declaration of love veers away in its final lines from the exchange system the preceding lines affirm. Having moved through past time to the present of Portia's pledge and gift of her ring, the speech ends in the future, with a projected loss and its aftermath, with Portia's "vantage to exclaim on" Bassanio:

 I give them with this ring,
Which when you part from, lose, or give away,
Let it presage the ruin of your love,
And be my vantage to exclaim on you.

(11. 171-74)

Here Portia is the gift-giver, and it is worth remembering Mauss's description of gift-giving in the New Guinea highlands in which an aspiring "Big Man" gives more than can be reciprocated and in so doing wins prestige and power. Portia gives more than Bassanio can ever reciprocate, first to him, then to Antonio, and finally to Venice itself in her actions in the trial which allow the city to preserve both its law and its precious Christian citizen. In giving more than can be reciprocated, Portia short-circuits the system of exchange and the male bonds it creates, winning her husband away from the arms of Antonio.26

Contemporary conduct books and advice about choosing a wife illustrate the dangers of marriage to a woman of higher social status or of greater wealth. Though by law such a marriage makes the husband master of his wife and her goods, in practice contemporary sources suggest unequal marriages often resulted in domination by the wife.27 Some writers and Puritan divines even claimed that women purposely married younger men, men of lower rank or of less wealth, so as to rule them.28 Marriage handbooks and sermons all exhort women to submit to their husbands, regardless of disparity in rank or fortune, as in this representative example from Daniel Tuvill's St. Pauls Threefold Cord:

Yea, though there were never so great a disproportion betwixt them in state and condition; as say the wife were a Princesse, the husband but a pesant, she must be yet in conjugall respects as a hand-mayd unto him; he must not be as a servant unto her. . . . And this subjection is so necessary, that without it the world could not long subsist; yea nature herselfe would suddenly be dissolved. . . .29

The vehemence and fear of chaos and disorder Tuvill betrays are characteristic and imply a growing need in the Stuart period to shore up eroding class and gender hierarchies.

Bassanio's answer to Portia's pledge of love implicitly recognizes such a disparity and its effect by metaphorically making her the master:

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: but when this ring
Parts from this finger, then parts life from hence,—
O then be bold to say Bassanio's dead!


Bassanio's heavily marked epic simile is anomalous in Shakespearean comedy. It echoes the first and perhaps most famous Virgilian simile of the Aeneid, when Neptune's effect in quelling the storm inspired by Juno is compared to that of "a man remarkable / for righteousness and service" for whom the people "are silent and stand attentively; and he controls their passion by his words and cools their spirits."30 Shakespeare translates the Virgilian simile into his own romantic context in which the speaker's words, instead of having a quieting effect on heart and mind, create a Petrarchan paradox: blood that speaks, but a lover silenced. And in keeping with Petrarchan conventions, Bassanio's comparison figures Portia as dominating and distant—that is, as a prince. Renaissance rhetoricians such as Wilson and Puttenham define figurative language as translation, "an inuersion of sence by transport"31—a kind of figurative exchange which disturbs normal communication and makes unexpected connections.32 Poets use tropes so that "the hearer is ledde by cogitation vppon rehearsall of a Metaphore, and thinketh more by remembraunce of a worde translated, then is there expressely spoken: or els because the whole matter seemeth by a similitude to be opened... ."33 Bassanio's political simile with its Virgilian intertextual exchange "disguises" Portia as a man and prefigures her masculine role in the trial scene where she insures the Venetian republic by reconciling the principle of equity with the rigor of the law.

We should also remember that Portia, whom Bassanio earlier describes as "nothing undervalu'd / To Cato's daughter, Brutus' Portia" (I.i. 165-66), is named after her classical ancestor who describes herself in Julius Caesar as "A woman well-reputed, Cato's daughter. / Think you I am no stronger than my sex, / Being so fathered and so husbanded?" (II.i.295-97). That Portia was renowned in antiquity for sharing the political ideals of her father and husband, and Shakespeare represents her commitment to political action by her insistence, as Plutarch had recorded, on knowing of the plot to murder Caesar and by her taking part in the conference of Republicans at Antium. The Merchant's Portia resembles her classical namesake and her figurai persona ("beloved prince") by entering the male lists of law and politics. Far from simply exemplifying the Elizabethan sex/gender system of exchange, the Merchant short-circuits the exchange, mocking its authorized social structure and hierarchical gender relations.

For Portia's ring, we should remember, does not remain on Bassanio's finger, and his gift of the ring to Balthazar does indeed give Portia "vantage to exclaim." The gift of Portia's ring shifts the figurative ground of her speech from synecdoche to metonymy.34 Her lines first figure the ring as a part of her which she gives as a sign of the whole to Bassanio; in the final lines, however, the prefigured loss of the ring signals not substitution, but contiguity, metonymic relations. By following the movements of her ring, we may discover something about how the play both enacts and interrogates Elizabethan structures of figurai and sexual exchange. Objects, like words, change their meaning in different contexts; as things pass from hand to hand, they accumulate meanings from the process of exchange itself. Bassanio gives away his ring in payment for services rendered and in doing so transgresses his pledge to Portia. When it begins its metonymic travels from Bassanio to the young doctor, the ring picks up new meanings which contradict its status as a sign of male possession, fidelity, and values;35 it moves from Bassanio to Balthazar to Portia to Antonio and back to Bassanio again and the very multiplicity of exchanges undermines its prior signification. The ring also makes a figurai progress; in Renaissance rhetorical terms it is transmuted, "which is, when a word hath a proper signification of the [sic] owne, and being referred to an other thing, hath an other meaning."36 Portia's ring becomes a sign of hierarchy subverted by establishing contiguities in which the constituent parts have shifting sexual and syntactic positions. By opening out the metonymie chain to include Balthazar, Bassanio opens his marriage to forces of disorder, to bisexuality, equality between the sexes, and linguistic equivalence in opposition to the decorous world of Renaissance marriage represented by the love pledges in III.ii. Bassanio gives his ring to an "unruly woman," that is, to a woman who steps outside her role and function as subservient, a woman who dresses like a man, who embarks upon behavior ill-suited to her "weaker" intellect, a woman who argues the law.37

In her fine essay, "Women on Top: Symbolic Sexual Inversion and Political Disorder in Early Modern Europe," Natalie Zemon Davis details the ways in which women's disorderliness manifested itself in England and Europe during this period. Davis observes that anthropologists generally agree that forms of sexual inversion—switches in sex roles, topsy turvy, and images of the world turned upside down, "the topos of the woman on top"—

like other rites and ceremonies of reversal, are ultimately sources of order and stability in hierarchical society. They can clarify the structure by the process of reversing it. They can provide an expression of, and safety valve for, conflicts within the system. They can correct and relieve the system when it has become authoritarian. But, so it is argued, they do not question the basic order of the society itself. They can renew the system, but they cannot change it.38

Many feminist critics have agreed with such judgments in their readings of Shakespeare's comedies of sexual inversion. They argue that such play, usually in the service of courtship, is ultimately conservative, leading to conventional gender roles and patriarchal marriage.39 Portia, we are told, in giving up her disguise and returning Bassanio's ring, returns to "unthreatening 'femininity.'"40 But Davis herself disputes the interpretation of sexual inversion as simply a safety mechanism. She points out first that historians of early modern Europe are likely to find inversion and reversals less in prescribed rites than in popular festivities and carnival. Cultural play with the concept of the unruly woman, she argues, was a multivalent image which "could undermine as well as reinforce traditional hierarchical formations." Davis adduces examples of comic and festive inversion that carried over into political action, that provided not only release, but also represented efforts or provided the means whereby the distribution of power in society was questioned and changed. And, I would add, inversion affects not only the distribution of power but also perhaps structures of exchange themselves that historically have insured male hegemony and patriarchal power. Sexual inversion and play with the topos of the woman on top offered an alternative mode of conceiving family structure and gender behavior within that structure.

When Bassanio leaves for Venice to aid his friend, Portia evokes the conventional ideal of a Renaissance lady: she promises "My maid Nerissa, and myself meantime / Will live as maids and widows" (III.ii.308-9); to Lorenzo she claims they will live in a monastery to fulfill a vow "to live in prayer and contemplation," behavior which conforms to the Renaissance ideal of womanhood: chaste, silent, and obedient. Shakespeare evokes here the accepted codes of feminine behavior in his culture, thereby distancing the action from the codes of dramatic comedy that permit masculine disguise, female dominance, and linguistic power. Portia evokes the ideal of a proper Renaissance lady and then transgresses it; she becomes an unruly woman.

The common remedies for the weaker sex's disorderliness were, even among the humanists such as Vives, Erasmus, and More, religious training to make her modest and humble, education of a restricted kind designed not to inflame her imagination but to acquaint her with her moral duty, and honest work of a sort appropriate to female capabilities. Transgression of the traditional expectations for women's behavior brought down wrath such as John Knox's The First Blast of the Trvmpet Against the Monstrvovs Regiment of Women:

. . . the holie ghoste doth manifestile expresse, saying: I suffer not that woman vsurpe authoritie aboue man: he sayth not, I will not, that woman vsurpe authoritie aboue her husband, but he nameth man in generali, taking frome her all power and authoritie, to speake, to reason, to interprete, or to teache, but principallie to rule or to iudge in the assemblie of men. . . . [A] woman promoted to sit in the seate of God, that is, to teache, to iudge, or to reigne aboue man, is a monstre in nature, contumelie to God, and a thing most repugnãt to his will ãd ordinãce.41

It might be argued that the excess of Knox's attack, directed specifically against Mary Tudor, reflects his own rather than widely held views. But even humanist writers sympathetic to the cause of women's education assume the propriety of Knox's claims, if not his rhetoric. They exclude women from the public arena and assume the necessity of their silence.42 Leonardo Bruni, for example, warns that "rhetoric in all its forms—public discussion, forensic argument, logical fence, and the like—lies absolutely outside the province of women."43 When Portia takes off for Venice dressed as a man, she looses her tongue in public talk on subjects illsuited to the ladylike conduct she posits as a model and does exactly those things Knox and others violently attacked. She engages, that is, in productive labor reserved for men, and not insignificantly, in linguistic labor, in a profession the successful practice of which depends on a knowledge of history and precedent, on logic and reasoning, and on rhetoric, all areas of education traditionally denied to women.

Portia's manner of winning her case, her "integrative solution" as it has been called, deserves consideration. Her defense depends on a verbal quibble,44 a characteristic linguistic strategy of Shakespearean clowns which allows them to express ideologically subversive or contradictory attitudes or ideas. Indeed, in the Merchant, Launcelot Gobbo uses the quibble for just such purposes. His wordplay around the command to come to dinner at III.v.43, and his earlier play with Jessica on damnation (III.v.4-7), give a double perspective to serious issues in the play, issues of social and Christian hierarchy and the like.45 Portia and Launcelot Gobbo, woman and servant, are linked by this shared verbal strategy which allows them seemingly at least to reconcile irreconcilable perspectives and to challenge the play's overall mimetic design. They represent the "other" in the play, those marginal groups that are oppressed under the Elizabethan class/gender system, but whose presence paradoxically is needed to insure its existence. Their playful, quibbling misuse of language veils their subversive linguistic power. Portia's wise quibble saves the Venetian republic by enabling the Duke to follow the letter of the law and to save Antonio, to satisfy the opposing viewpoints represented by the Old and New law, by Shylock and Antonio. In another register, as Walter Cohen has pointed out, it unites the bourgeois values of self-interest with those of the traditional landed gentry, an imaginary literary solution to ideological conflicts manifest in late sixteenth-century England (pp. 776 ff.). But Portia's linguistic play here and in the final scene, like Launcelot Gobbo' s, resists the social, sexual, and political system of which she is a part and provides a means for interrogating its distribution of power along gender lines.

The Merchant of Venice does not end with Portia's success in the courtroom; after her winning defense of Antonio, Portia asks Bassanio to return her ring, knowing, as her husband puts it, that "There's more depends on this than the value."46 We know this ring symbolizes the bargain of faith in patriarchal marriage Portia and Bassanio have made in III.ii. By obeying Antonio's exhortation and giving his ring to Balthazar, Bassanio affirms homosocial bonds—the exchange of women, here represented by Portia's ring, sustains relations between men. But Balthazar is, of course, Portia in disguise (and Portia, we should not forget, was played by a boy, so that literally all the love relations in the play are homosocial). When Portia laughs at the thought of "old swearing / That they did give the rings away to men; / But we'll outface them and outswear them too" (IV.ii.15-17), she keeps her promise. In losing their rings and breaking their promises to Portia and Nerissa, Bassanio and Gratiano seem paradoxically to lose the male privileges the exchange of women and the rings insured. When in the final act Portia returns her ring to her husband via Antonio, its multiple metonymic travels have changed it. The ring no longer represents the traditional relationship it figured in III.ii. On its figurai as well as literal progress, it accumulates other meanings and associations: cuckoldry and thus female unruliness, female genitalia, woman's changeable nature and so-called animal temperament, her deceptiveness and potential subversion of the rules of possession and fidelity that insure the male line.47

Natalie Zemon Davis observes that female disorderliness was grounded in nature rather than nurture, in cold and wet humours which "meant a changeable, deceptive and tricky temperament" (p. 125). Physiology accounted for unruly women: shrews, scolds, transvestites, women who transgressed the rules of womanly decorum, were believed to suffer from hysteria, or a fit of what the Renaissance called the "mother" or the "wandering womb." In the intervening time between their marriage and its putative consummation after the play's close, Portia has fallen victim to an imaginative fit of the "mother" and become an unruly woman. Her so-called "hysteria" leads her to act like a man, to bisexuality—she dresses up like a man and argues the law, imaginatively expressing her own sexuality by cuckolding her husband with Balthazar. As Portia says when she returns the ring, "I had it of him: pardon me Bassanio, / For by this ring the doctor lay with me" (V.i.258-59).48 Instead of the subservient woman of elaborate pledges at III.ii, Portia's speech at V.i.266 ff. is filled with imperatives—"Speak not so grossly . . . read it . . . Unseal this letter. . . ." Having expressly given over her house to Bassanio in III.ii, she says in V.i, "I have not yet / Enter'd my house" (11. 272-73). She emphasizes her power and secret knowledge by giving Antonio the mysterious letter, but refusing to reveal how she came by it: "You shall not know by what strange accident / I chanced on this letter."

It is often said that Act V of The Merchant of Venice is unusually harmonious even for Shakespearean comedy; certainly the world of usury, hatred, and aggression that characterizes Venice has receded.49 But Act V is far from presenting the harmonious view of love and marriage many have claimed, for even the idyllic opening dialogue between Jessica and Lorenzo is troubled by allusions to unhappy love and broken vows. Lorenzo mockingly calls Jessica a shrew and the play ends on an obscene pun on ring and a commonplace joke about female sexuality and cuckoldry, not on the idealized pledges of true love that characterize III.ii.50 Portia's verbal skills, her quibbles and play with words, her duplicitous representation of herself as an unlessoned girl who vows "to live in prayer and contemplation," even as she rules her household and prepares to argue the law, bring together contradictory attitudes and views toward women and their role and place both in drama and society.51 Bassanio accepts the oppositions that her play with language enacts: "Sweet doctor, you shall be my bedfellow," he says. But in an aside that scarcely requires a psychoanalytic gloss, Bassanio exclaims "Why I were best to cut my left hand off, / And swear I lost the ring defending it" (V.i. 177-78). Portia's unruliness of language and behavior exposes the male homosocial bond the exchange of women insures, but it also multiplies the terms of sexual trafficking so as to disrupt those structures of exchange that insure hierarchical gender relations and the figurai hegemony of the microcosm/macrocosm analogy in Elizabethan marriage. Instead of being "directed, / As from her lord, her governor, her king," Portia resumes her role as lord of Belmont: "Let us go in," she commands. As Davis suggests, in the "little world of the family, with its conspicuous tension between intimacy and power, the larger matters of political and social order could find ready symbolization" (p. 150). The sexual symbolism of transvestism, the transgression of traditional gender roles and the figurai transgression of heterosexual relations, the multivalence of linguistic meanings in women's and clowns' speech, all interrogate and reveal contradictions in the Elizabethan sex/gender system in which women were commodities whose exchange both produced and reproduced hierarchical gender relations.

Portia's masterly speech and gift-giving in the play's final scene return us once more to anthropology and to the powerful Big Man of the New Guinea highlands that Mauss describes. To read Portia's transgression as subversive risks the theoretical accusation that her power finally depends on a reversal, on occupying the position of the Big Man, thereby preserving the oppositions that ground gender hierarchy. Even the term for such a gift-giver—Big Man—is problematic and suggests the reinscription of binary notions of sexual difference, of male and female, binarisms that inevitably allot to one pole, usually the masculine, a positive value, to the other a negative.52 From such perspective, all resistance is always already contained, dissipated, recuperated finally to the status quo. But Derrida 's deconstruction of such inversion, unlike many of its ahistorical and ultimately conservative applications, recognizes that particular strategies, languages, rhetorics, even behaviors, receive meaning only in sequences of differences,53 and that those sequences of differences are produced within a particular discourse—philosophy or linguistics, for example—or within a particular historical instance. Behaviors and rhetorics signify within particular discourses, histories, and economies. I have therefore argued that the Merchant interrogates the Elizabethan sex/gender system and resists the "traffic in women," because in early modern England a woman occupying the position of a Big Man, or a lawyer in a Renaissance Venetian courtroom, or the lord of Belmont, is not the same as a man doing so. For a woman, such behavior is a form of simulation,54 a confusion that elides the conventional poles of sexual difference by denaturalizing gender-coded behaviors; such simulation perverts authorized systems of gender and power. It is inversion with a difference.


1The Merchant of Venice, The Arden Shakespeare, ed. John Russell Brown (1955; rpt. London: Methuen, 1977). All future references are to the Arden edition.

2 Lawrence Danson and other readers have noted "the play's unusually prominent series of binary relationships," The Harmonies of The Merchant of Venice (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1978), p. 10.

3 I have chosen deliberately to leave Shylock out of my reading of The Merchant of Venice in order to disturb readings of the play that center their interpretive gestures on the Jew. I recognize the suggestive possibilities, however, of readings such as Marianne Novy's which link Shylock and Portia as outsiders by virtue respectively of their race and sex, Love 's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1984), pp. 64 ff.

4 See Elizabeth Sklar's interesting comparison of Bassanio and Jason in "Bassanio's Golden Fleece," Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 18 (1976), 500-509.

5 I am indebted to Gayle Rubin's discussion of Mauss in "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of Sex," Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna Reiter (New York: Monthly Review, 1975). I also thank Lynda Boose whose careful reading of this paper and its anthropological frame steered me to the specific analogy between Portia and the Big Man which I develop here.

6Essai sur le don, trans. Ian Cunnison (rpt. New York: Norton, 1967), pp. 11-12.

7 Mauss, p. 26.

8The Elementary Structures of Kinship, ed. Rodney Needham (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), p. 481.

9 See Julia Kristeva, Texte du roman (The Hague: Mouton, 1970), pp. 160, 60.

10Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un (Paris: Les éditions de Minuit, 1977), p. 189, my translation. Also available in English translation, This Sex Which is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985).

11 Irigaray, p. 168. I am grateful to Jonathan Goldberg for reminding me of this orthographic play.

12 "Sexualism and the Citizen of the World: Wycherley, Sterne and Male Homosocial Desire," Critical Inquiry, 11 (1984), 227. For a more extended discussion, including a fine chapter on the sonnets, see her Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1985). See also Lars Engle, "'Thrift is Blessing': Exchange and Explanation in The Merchant of Venice" Shakespeare Quarterly, 37 (1986), 20-37, for a discussion of Sedgwick's work in relation to the Merchant.

13 Recent critics who explain Antonio's melancholy as a loss of friendship include Leonard Tenenhouse, "The Counterfeit Order of The Merchant of Venice," in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, eds. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1980), pp. 57-66, and Keith Geary, "The Nature of Portia's Victory: Turning to Men in 'The Merchant of Venice,'" Shakespeare Survey, 37 (1984), 55-68. Graham Midgley, "The Merchant of Venice: A Reconsideration," Essays in Criticism, 10 (1960), 119-33; W. H. Auden, "Brothers and Others," The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays (New York: Random House, 1962); Lawrence W. Hyman, "The Rival Lovers in The Merchant of Venice" SQ, 21 (1970), 109-16; and W. Thomas MacCary, Friends and Lovers: The Phenomenology of Desire in Shakespearean Comedy (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1985), claim a homoerotic impulse in Antonio's attachment.

14Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice, Studies in Social Anthropology, No. 16 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1977), p. 58.

15 Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (New York: Harper & Row, 1977).

16 See Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Brighton: Harvester Press; Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1983), chap. 3.

17 See E. T., The Lawes Resolution of Women's Rights: or The Lawes Provision for Women (London, 1632), also known as The Woman's Lawyer, which gathers together in one volume contemporary laws about women, property, and marriage. In Bk. II, chap. xxxii, there is an extended discussion specifically of the "condiments of love," that is, the gifts given at marriage. In his recent essay on exchange in the Merchant, Lars Engle (see note 12 above) claims Portia's name suggests the marriage portion, a common means of relieving debt in early modern England. Though it is conceivable that an audience might hear "Portia" as an aural pun on "portion," the name is not etymologically related to the Latin portio, -onis, a share, part, proportion, but the Latin porcus, pig, and the Roman clan, the Porcii, breeders of pigs.

18The Crowne Conjugall or the Spouse Royal (London, 1632), sig. K2r.

19 See R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (New York: Penguin Books, 1947); Christopher Hill, The Century of Revolution: 1603-1714 (New York: Norton, 1982); Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), and Keith Wrightson, English Society 1580-1680 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1982), pp. 122-48.

20 See Walter Cohen's admirable "The Merchant of Venice and the Possibilities of Historical Criticism," ELH, 49 (1983), 765-89, which appears in part in his recent book, Drama of a Nation: Public Theater in Renaissance England and Spain (Ithaca and London: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985).

21 See particularly Wallace T. MacCaffrey, "Place and Patronage in Elizabethan Politics," Elizabethan Government and Society, eds. S. T. Bindoff, J. Hurstfield, and C. H. Williams (London: Univ. of London, The Athlone Press, 1961), pp. 97-125. For a discussion of prestation and literary fictions in Elizabethan culture, see Louis Adrian Montrose, "Gifts and Reasons: The Contexts of Peele's Araygnement of Paris, " ELH, Al (1980), 433-61.

22 See William Vaughn, The Golden Grove (London, 1600), sig. M8r.

23 For a more detailed account of Jacobean gift-giving, see Coppélia Kahn's "'Magic of bounty': Timon of Athens, Jacobean Patronage, and Maternal Power," especially pp. 41 ff., in this issue.

24 Kenneth Burke calls this figure the "'noblest synecdoche,' the perfect paradigm or prototype for all lesser usages, [which] is found in metaphysical doctrines proclaiming the identity of 'microcosm' and 'macrocosm.' In such doctrines, where the individual is treated as a replica of the universe, and vice versa, we have the ideal synecdoche. . . ." A Grammar of Motives and A Rhetoric of Motives (Cleveland: Meridian, 1962), p. 508.

25 For a contemporary discussion of the giving of rings, see Henry Swinburne, Treatise of Spousals or Matrimonial Contracts (London, 1686), but written and published much earlier; see also Anne Parten, "Re-establishing sexual order: The Ring episode in The Merchant of Venice," Selected Papers of the West Virginia Shakespeare and Renaissance Association, 6 (1976), 27-34. Parten also remarks this link between Portia's ring and her submission. Engle, cited above, claims that Portia's actions in the final acts represent "her triumphant manipulation of homosocial exchange" and her "absolute mastery" (p. 37). Not only the historical and cultural position of women in early modern England, but also the generic boundaries of comedy seem to me to preclude such optimism. We can, however, claim resistance, a dislocation of the structures of exchange.

26 For a discussion of "negative usury" or "giving more than you get," see Harry Berger, Jr., "Marriage and Mercifixion in The Merchant of Venice," SQ (1981), 155-62. Some readers have argued that Portia must redeem Antonio who "may make impossible the marriage union Portia seeks," Marc Shell, "The Wether and the Ewe: Verbal Usury in The Merchant of Venice," Kenyon Review, I (1979), 65-92; see also Engle, cited in note 12 above.

27 Cf. Bartholomew Battus, The Christian Mans Closet, trans. William Lowth (London, 1581), Bk. II.

28 William Gouge, Of Domesticali Duties (London, 1634), sig. T2r.

29 (London, 1635), sigs. B4V-B5V.

30 Virgil knew the simile from the end of Hesiod's prologue to the Theogony, but Shakespeare would only have known it, of course, through Virgil.

31 Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie (1589), in English Literary Criticism: The Renaissance, ed. O. B. Hardison, Jr. (London: Peter Owen, 1967), p. 177.

32 Compare Lévi-Strauss's discussion of language and the emergence of symbolic thought in the final pages of Elementary Structures: "But woman could never become just a sign and nothing more, since even in a man's world she is still a person, and since in so far as she is defined as a sign she must be recognized as a generator of signs. In the matrimonial dialogue of men, woman is never purely what is spoken about; for if women in general represent a certain category of signs, destined to a certain kind of communication, each woman preserves a particular value. .. . In contrast to words, which have wholly become signs, woman has remained at once a sign and a value" (p. 496).

33 Thomas Wilson, The Arte of Rhetorique (1560), in Hardison, p. 42.

34 See Burke's account of metonymy, the basic strategy of which is to convey an "incorporeal or intangible state in terms of the corporeal or tangible" (p. 506; see note 24 above).

35 This is also the case with the play's other lost ring given as a prenuptial pledge, from Leah to Shylock, which Jessica gives to one of Antonio's creditors for a monkey.

36 Wilson, in Hardison, p. 45.

37 Lisa Jardine discusses the significance of Portia's "arguing the law," in "Cultural Confusion and Shakespeare's Learned Heroines: These are old paradoxes," in this issue, pp. 12 ff.

38Society and Culture in Early Modern France (1965; rpt. Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1975), p. 130. Davis refers to the work of several anthropologists including Gluckman, Turner, Bateson, Flügel, Delcourt, and Meslin.

39 See, for example, Clara Claiborne Park, "As We Like It: How A Girl Can Be Smart and Still Popular," in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, eds. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1980), pp. 100-116; Irene Dash, Wooing, Wedding and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1981), and more recently, Peter Erickson's Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare 's Drama (Berkeley and London: Univ. of California Press, 1985). Compare Richard Horwich who claims that the ring trick is "a device by which she may exercise her free will"; it restores "what from the start she complained of lacking—the power of choice," "Riddle and Dilemma in The Merchant of Venice," Studies in English Literature, 18 (1977), 199.

40 Parten, "Re-establishing sexual order," p. 32.

41 (London, 1558), sigs. 16v-17r.

42 On the position of the learned lady in the Renaissance, see Lisa Jardine, "'O decus Italiae virgo,' or the myth of the learned lady in the Renaissance," Historical Journal, 28 (1985), 799-819, as well as the opening pages of her essay in this issue of SQ.

43De Studiis et litteris, trans. William H. Woodward in Vittorino de Feltre and Other Humanist Educators (Cambridge, 1897), pp. 124, 126, quoted in Constance Jordan, "Feminism and The Humanists: The Case of Sir Thomas Elyot's Defence of Good Women," Renaissance Quarterly, 36 (1983), 181-201. See also Vives's discussion of women and eloquence in Foster Watson, ed., Vives and the Renascence Education of Women (New York: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1912), pp. 48-56, and More's letters, quoted in Watson, esp. pp. 179 ff. Similar exhortations can be found in Protestant tracts.

44 O. Hood Phillips observes that Portia's solution would never have succeeded in court in Shakespeare and The Lawyers (London: Methuen, 1972), pp. 91-118. Bullough claims on the basis of Mosaic Law that "the separation of flesh and blood is less of a quibble than critics have thought," Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, I (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul; New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1957), 448.

45 See Cohen, cited in note 20 above, pp. 779-81, and Robert Weimann's discussion of inversion and wordplay in Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theatre, ed. Robert Schwartz (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1978), esp. pp. 39-48, 120-50.

46 See Murray Biggs's "A Neurotic Portia," ShS, 25 (1977), 153-59, which recognizes from an opposite perspective the meaning of Portia's request: "she, perversely, asks for Bassanio's wedding ring. It is her one fall from heavenly grace." For a heavily psychoanalytic reading of Portia's behavior and her quest for mastery, see Vera Jiji, "Portia Revisited: The Influence of Unconscious Factors Upon Theme and Characterization in The Merchant of Venice," Literature and Psychology, 26 (1975), 5-15.

47 Norman Holland presents a number of psychoanalytic accounts of the link between rings and female sexuality in Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966); for folktale sources, see, for example, the Tudor jest book Tales and Quick Answers (1530) cited in Parten (see note 25 above).

48 E.A.M. Colman argues in his The Dramatic Use of Bawdy in Shakespeare (London: Longman, 1976) that Shakespeare's bawdy is associated with anarchic and dissident impulses.

49 C. L. Barber claims "No other comedy . . . ends with so full an expression of harmony. . . . And no other final scene is so completely without irony about the joys it celebrates," Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (1957; rpt. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1972), p. 187.

50 In Love's Argument Novy claims "the threats of possessiveness and promiscuity are both dispelled," but does not explain how this should be so (p. 79).

51 Lisa Jardine analyzes the link between learning in women and sexual "forwardness" in her essay in this issue.

52 See Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri C. Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1977), and Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1978).

53 Derrida, Of Grammatology, pp. 19, 33 ff.

54 See Irigaray's discussion of "mimetisme" as self-conscious or reflexive imitation in Ce sexe qui n 'en est pas un, pp. 134 ff.

Further Reading

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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 foreigner within the Christian community of Venice.

Cohen, Walter. "The Merchant of Venice and the Possibilities of Historical Criticism." ELH 49 (1982): 765-89.

Offers an overview of the play which combines both historical and structural analysis.

Cooper, John R "Shylock's Humanity." Shakespeare Quarterly XXI, No. 2 (Spring 1970): 117-24.

Examines the various critical interpretations of Shylock from the standpoints of extreme sympathy to complete condemnation, and concludes that Shylock is not simply a comic villain, "but a character to be taken seriously."

Geary, Keith. "The Nature of Portia's Victory: Turning to Men in The Merchant of Venice" In Shakespeare Survey, edited by Stanley Wells, pp. 55-68. Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Examines the way in which Portia's disguise as Balthazar is used by Shakespeare to dramatize the conflict between heterosexual and homosexual love within the Portia/Bassanio/Antonio triangle.

Halio, Jay L. Introduction to The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-84. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

Presents a detailed introduction to the play, focusing on Shakespeare's attitude toward Jews, literary sources for the play, and discussion of the plot, characters, and performance history.

Hamill, Monica J. "Poetry, Law, and the Pursuit of Perfection: Portia's Role in The Merchant of Venice" Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 XVIII, No. 2 (Spring 1978): 229-43.

Analyzes the relationship between Portia's use of poetic language and her interpretation and obeying of the law.

Holmer, Joan Ozark. "'Give and Hazard': Friends and Lovers." In The Merchant of Venice: Choice, Hazard and Consequence, pp. 95-141. London, Macmillan, 1995.

Explores the meaning and difference between "wise love and foolish desire" and argues that the relationship between these two elements is the factor which unifies the play's various plots.

Kuhns, Richard and Barbara Tovey. "Portia's Suitors." Philosophy and Literature 13, No. 2 (October 1989): 325-31.

Suggests that the passages in the play in which Portia's suitors are discussed are references to writers whom Shakespeare admired and was indebted to for plots and inspiration.

Leggati, Alexander. "The Merchant of Venice" In Shakespeare's Comedy of Love, pp. 117-50. London: Methuen, 1974.

Offers an assessment of the play's plot and characters and examines the ways in which the play's characters resist being viewed as allegorical figures.

Normand, Lawrence. "Reading the body in The Merchant of Venice." Textual Practice 5, No. 1 (Spring 1991): 55-73.

Discusses how the play's language creates as many problems as it addresses and examines in particular how "bodily discourse" may be read in many ways, such as legal, theological, or amatory.

Rosen, Alan. "The Rhetoric of Exclusion: Jew, Moor, and the Boundaries of Discourse in The Merchant of Venice." In Race, Ethnicity, and Power in the Renaissance, edited by Joyce Green MacDonald, pp. 67-79. London: Associated University Presses, 1997.

Examines the rhetoric of Shylock and the Prince of Morocco and argues that the discourse of the two characters emphasizes their shared status as outsiders.

Shell, Marc. "The Wether and the Ewe: Verbal Usury in The Merchant of Venice." The Kenyon Review 1, No. 4 (Fall 1979): 65-92.

Argues that the play offers a "political and economic critique of human production."

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Shylock: The Infamous Secret Jew


The Merchant of Venice (Vol. 53)