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The Merchant of Venice

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Among Shakespeare's most popular dramas, The Merchant of Venice remains a contentious piece to critics, who generally categorize it as a “problem play.” Its plot centers on the merchants Antonio and Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. Finding Antonio unable to repay his loan, Shylock demands a pound of the Christian's flesh, as stipulated in his contract. Portia, the drama's heroine, arrives disguised as a male law clerk at the ensuing trial, and overturns the agreement. While essentially a romantic comedy concerning Antonio, Portia and the Venetian gentleman Bassanio (whom Portia eventually marries), the drama nevertheless depicts a number of troubling aspects chiefly related to the harsh punishment of Shylock, including his forced conversion to Christianity. Additionally, the ambiguous qualities of the three major figures in the drama have led to numerous conflicting interpretations of the characters. Such varying interpretations tend to be born out by modern productions of The Merchant of Venice, as directors privilege either Portia's comic triumph or Shylock's tragic defeat. Furthermore, contemporary critics have continued to explore the play’s extensive themes, including conflicts of ethnicity, religion, and social exclusion, as well as the fundamental tensions it depicts between love, money, law, and mercy.

Over the course of its critical history, scholars have focused on the play's three principal figures—Antonio, Portia, and Shylock. Antonio, despite his status as the Venetian merchant of the work's title, has only infrequently been considered its most significant character. Cynthia Lewis confronts this exclusionary tradition in her 1997 study, which views Antonio as the locus of equivocation and contradiction in a play rife with ambivalence. More often, Antonio's character has been discussed in conjunction with Portia by commentators who emphasize the generic status of The Merchant of Venice as a romantic comedy. Characterizing Antonio and Portia as competitors for the love of Bassanio, Michael Zuckert (1996) sees this comic rivalry as providing the fundamental structure of the drama. Accordingly, Zuckert deems the bond between Antonio and Shylock as secondary to Portia's triumph. Such observations, however, are balanced by those of commentators who, captivated by the figure of Shylock, make an interpretation of the Jewish moneylender vitally important to the work. Robert Alter (1993) represents a number of critics who place Shylock at the center of The Merchant of Venice. Alter examines the range of interpretations elicited by his character: from comic villain to sympathetic and even tragic figure, vilified as an outsider for his religion and profession. Martin D. Yaffe (1997) offers an alternative to the traditional view that Shylock's depiction in The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic. Instead, Yaffe acknowledges perceptions of both positive and negative qualities in this complex character. Charles Edelman (1999) takes a somewhat revisionist position in regard to Shylock, contending that Elizabethan audiences would not necessarily have viewed his character as a stereotypical object of derision or a stock, comic stage villain.

The array of possible character interpretations offered by The Merchant of Venice has certainly contributed to the drama's continued theatrical popularity. In his review of Richard Olivier's 1998 staging of the play at the New Globe Theatre, John W. Mahon (1998) notes the centrality of Portia to the performance as well as its harsh portrayal of early modern anti-Semitism. Lois Potter's (1999) observations on the same Globe season include comments on Portia's asides to the audience and on the overall carnivalesque quality of the production. Director Trevor Nunn's interpretations of character for his 1999 staging of The Merchant of Venice at the Royal National Theatre, in contrast, were viewed as considerably less light-hearted than Olivier's. In his assessment, Hal Jensen (see Further Reading) remarks on Nunn's effective treatment of the darker elements of the play, including his nuanced exploration of character psychology and Shylock's Jewishness. Reviewer Matt Wolf observes the politicized quality of Nunn's staging in its depiction of the brutality inflicted on Shylock. For her 1998 Royal Shakespeare Company production, Barbara Gaines created an urban, American atmosphere evocative of the Roaring Twenties, a geographic and temporal location that reviewer Davi Napolean (1998) observes could be considered analogous to one Elizabethan audiences might have associated with Renaissance Venice.

Thematic criticism of The Merchant of Venice has touched on a wide range of subjects. Keith Geary's analysis (see Further Reading) treats the play's theme of love versus friendship, as Portia dons the clothing of a young man in order to both rescue Antonio and displace him as the principal object of Bassanio's affections. Seymour Kleinberg (1983) provides a similar, if somewhat more radical, interpretation of the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio, regarding the merchant as a homosexual whose love for his friend is again displaced, but in this reading by the social norms of heterosexual love and marriage. The dynamics of social exclusion figure prominently in a number of recent critical discussions of the drama. Susan Oldrieve (1993) notes the marginalization of Portia and Shylock as, respectively, a woman and a Jew, in a society dominated by patriarchal and Christian tradition. Alan Rosen (1997) presents a complementary analysis based on language, in which the Jewish Shylock and the Moorish Prince of Morocco are presented as outsiders in the play, both in terms of their ethnic differences and of their unique modes of expression, which vary sharply from standard Venetian discourse. Richard H. Wiesberg (1999) represents judicial appraisals of The Merchant of Venice by arguing for an ironic interpretation of the drama that eschews simple associations of Christianity with compassion and Judaism with strict or unfeeling legality. Updating critical interest in the setting of the play, Tony Tanner (1999) concentrates on tensions between the dramatic worlds of mercantile Venice, Shylock's Jewish ghetto, and the fairy-tale enchantment of Belmont.

Cary B. Graham (essay date 1953)

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SOURCE: Graham, Cary B. “Standards of Value in The Merchant of Venice.Shakespeare Quarterly 4, no. 2 (April 1953): 145-51.

[In the following essay, Graham maintains that shifting standards of moral, economic, and social value in The Merchant of Venice provide a fundamental insight into the variety of interpretations and responses the drama has elicited.]

Recently Professor E. E. Stoll remarked, “… nearly everything certain in Shakespeare scholarship has in some quarters been disputed, as nearly everything uncertain has been affirmed.”1 Although the statement was not applied especially to The Merchant of Venice, it is obvious that this play is a fruitful source of disagreement. It may be called either comedy or tragedy. Shylock may be regarded as a villain, a comic figure, or a martyr. Bassanio may be either an idealized Renaissance lover or a wastrel who recoups a squandered fortune by risking the life of a dear friend who in turn may be either a good businessman or a fool. Jessica is a charming young Jewess who is justified in leaving an unhappy home to elope with a handsome Christian lover, or she is an ungrateful wench who robs a provident father and who proves a traitor to her own religion. Indeed, as the reader will be reminded in the pages which follow, all of these varied conclusions have been reached.2 But comparatively little attention has been paid to Shakespeare's use of standards of value in The Merchant of Venice.3 A glance at the values employed, their relationships within the play, and their connection with the intellectual background of the Renaissance may explain in part the technique of Shakespeare in appealing to an audience and may help to show why interpretations have varied so widely.

In the bond story, the first value to be established is that of friendship. Antonio, offering his purse, his person, his extremest means, values the friendship of Bassanio far more highly than material wealth. When Antonio says to Shylock,

If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not
As to thy friends, for when did friendship take
A breed for barren metal of his friend?
But lend it rather to thine enemy,
Who, if he break, thou mayst with better face
Exact the penalty

(I. iii. 133-138)

the comparative worth of money and friendship has been used to suggest a penalty, an extreme form of which is proposed by Shylock a moment later. Again, in II. viii, Salanio and Salarino emphasize the friendship of Bassanio and Antonio in contrast with the mercenary values endorsed by Shylock. Later, in the trial scene when Antonio appears doomed, he comments first upon the kindness of Fortune, which is about to cut him off from the misery of an old age in poverty, and then upon the superior value of Bassanio's friendship.

In the same story appears another value which was a familiar topic in Renaissance literature and which Shakespeare himself employed in other plays—that of appearance as compared or contrasted with reality.4 When Antonio agrees to the bond, appearance and reality should be the same, but they are not. “I like not fair terms and a villain's mind,” says Bassanio. At the opening of the trial scene, the converse is true: appearance and reality are the same, but they should not be, as the Duke points out:

Shylock, the world thinks, and I think so too,
That thou but lead'st this fashion of thy malice
To the last hour of act; and then 'tis thought
Thou'lt show thy mercy and remorse more strange
Than is thy strange apparent cruelty.

(IV. i. 17-21)

Meaningful though the values of friendship and of appearance and reality may be, even more significant and certainly more complex is the problem of the value of money as an interest-bearing commodity. What Shylock calls interest, or thrift, Antonio regards as usury, or excess; and, as he says, “I do never use it.” As Professor John W. Draper has pointed out, the conflict of values in Shylock and Antonio, based partly upon religion but even more upon mercantile ideals, would be especially significant to Elizabethans, who were caught in the midst of the change from the medieval economic system to the modern capitalistic system.5 A specific treatment of this conflict of values appears in the Jacob-and-Laban story, with which Shylock responds to Antonio's reluctant offer once to break a custom and pay interest. The complexity of this apparently simple story is indicated in such varying interpretations as the following: the story conceals the workings of Shylock's mind as he tries to concoct a bond that will allow him to “collect interest without taking interest”;6 the story is a “sophistical and specious defense of what to an Elizabethan was manifestly wrong”;7 the story exposes the fallacy of “the formal principles underlying the Christian condemnation of usury.”8 But the analogy serves not merely to emphasize opposing values; it is also a fitting preliminary to the pound-of-flesh penalty and to Shylock's direct attack after Bassanio has objected to the bond.

O father Abram, what these Christians are
Whose own hard dealings teaches them suspect
The thoughts of others! Pray you, tell me this:
If he should break his day, what should I gain
By the exaction of the forfeiture?
A pound of man's flesh taken from a man
Is not so estimable, profitable neither,
As flesh of muttons, beefs, or goats.

(I. iii. 161-168)

This speech serves as a forceful reminder that, although Antonio earlier had offered to pay interest, in the final arrangement it is Shylock who has foregone his own values by lending money without charging interest. “This is kind I offer.” Note at this point, too, the opposed conclusions: either Shylock the money-lender has met Antonio the merchant on his own ground—friendship, not profit in the form of interest—or he has deliberately trapped Antonio into a possibly fatal agreement.

Despite conflicting interpretations, Shylock's renouncing of his values, for whatever reason, sets the precedent for later shifts in value needed to motivate his actions. In II. viii, Salanio reports the lament of Shylock for the loss of ducats and daughter. In addition to suggesting that here Shylock's sense of values is confused, Salanio predicts that Shylock will transfer his resentment to Antonio, who was in no way responsible for the elopement.

Let good Antonio look he keep his day
Or he shall pay for this.

(II. viii. 25-26)

In III. i, the report is verified and the prediction is fulfilled: Shylock concludes by vowing to cut out the heart of Antonio. But the shifting of values which leads to this conclusion is by no means one-sided in its implications. The taunting words of Salanio and Salarino about the flight of Jessica and about the loss of Antonio's ships lead Shylock to utter the “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech, and this may be interpreted as a plea for tolerance. However, as various critics have noted, the speech in its entirety is a plea not for charity but for revenge.9 Now the flesh of Antonio does have a greater value than that of “muttons, beefs, or goats.” But even if revenge is rejected on principle, it is difficult to ignore Shylock's charge that revenge is a Christian practice. There is enough truth in the statement to emphasize a balancing of values not entirely complimentary to the good Antonio and the handsome Bassanio. The ensuing dialogue between Tubal and Shylock stresses alternately the financial losses of Shylock and those of Antonio. As a result Shylock is driven to the point of valuing revenge above everything else. III. iii, reveals Shylock in exactly the same state of mind (note the reiteration of “I'll have my bond”), and the way is clear for the battle of values in the trial scene. Here Shylock defends his claim to Antonio's flesh by forcefully reminding the Christians that they own slaves. Just as in his plea for revenge, there is sufficient truth in the analogy to make it dramatically effective. The next value in the scene is that of mercy as compared with strict justice, developed in Portia's speech; and this value, together with that of Shylock's revenge and the Antonio-Bassanio friendship, is used to build up to the surprise reversal, where Shylock's own words—“A Daniel come to judgment, etc.”—are echoed by Gratiano. Obviously Shylock, valuing his revenge above all else, shows no mercy for Antonio. But do the Christians, valuing so highly the “quality of mercy,” exhibit no revenge toward Shylock? Conflicting opinions on this point are responsible, at least in part, for the question of whether or not Shakespeare himself was anti-Semitic. Dr. S. A. Tannenbaum, recalling uncomplimentary references to Jews in Macbeth, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Much Ado About Nothing, Love's Labour's Lost, and 1 Henry IV, says, “Shakespeare's anti-Semitic prejudice is clearly shown in The Merchant of Venice,10 Professor H. B. Charlton calls Shylock's punishment a callous one which shows Shakespeare's antipathy.11 Opposed to this opinion is that of Professor T. M. Parrott, who finds “no tinge of race-hatred” in Shakespeare and who believes that the audience would consider the enforced conversion of Shylock a means of salvation for him.12 Professors William A. Neilson and Charles J. Hill believe “… it is impossible to accuse Shakespeare … of anti-Semitism.”13 Professor Norman Nathan sees no evidence of anti-Semitism in Shylock's punishment, and reminds us that according to law he would have lost both his money and his life.14 Others maintain that, whether or not Shakespeare himself was prejudiced, he sharply criticised both Jew and Christian. This is the conclusion of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who finds the intended victims “as heartless as Shylock without any of Shylock's passionate excuse,”15 and of John Palmer, who says that when the bond story is concluded, both Christian and Jew have charged each other with “an inhumanity which is common to both parties.”16

In the casket story the comparative values of appearance and reality are fundamental. The choice of the right casket is far from a mere gamble; it is a test of the suitor's ability to evaluate appearance. In each case the procedure is the same: the candidate explains carefully that appearance may not reflect reality, he tries to apply the principle in the casket situation, and his failure or success is emphasized in the scroll found in the casket he has chosen. Morocco correctly argues that the outward appearance of his complexion should not obscure the inward reality of his bravery, but in choosing the gold casket he violates the principle that the apparent value may not coincide with the real value. Arragon rejects the lead casket because it does not look fair enough; he rejects the gold casket with a caustic reference to “the fool multitude, that judge by show”; then, quite unaware that the basis of his first rejection places him in the group he has scorned in the second, he selects the silver casket whose inscription promises him as much as he deserves. Both Morocco and Arragon are misled by apparent values: Morocco fails because he wrongly evaluates the caskets; Arragon, because he wrongly evaluates himself. The decision of Bassanio is somewhat more involved. Portia has clearly indicated her preference for him (III. ii. 1-24), and some critics believe that by means of the song, which contains words rhyming with lead and which warns the hearer against fancy, Portia gives Bassanio the clue to the proper choice.17 However, the acceptance of this conclusion does not preclude the emphasis upon values.18 Bassanio discourses at length upon the theme,

So may the outward shows be least themselves;
The world is still deceived with ornament

(III. ii. 73-74)

as it applies in law, in religion, in morality, and in beauty—in short, the subjects to which the values of the play are closely related. His thoughts point logically to his choice of the lead casket. Of the three suitors only Bassanio, as Professor Thomas M. Parrott has remarked, employs “the understanding which pierces below the surface and fastens upon reality.”19 At the same time, just as in the bond story, the values in the casket scenes have formed the basis of conflicting estimates of character. The English critic John Palmer looks upon Bassanio merely as a young man whose quest of beauty and fortune forms one of the “ingredients in a tall story.”20 Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch considers him a fortune-hunter whose lofty speeches are not in keeping with his nature.21 Professor Charles Read Baskervill, tracing the background of the casket scenes in the Renaissance conception of Platonic idealism,22 sees Bassanio as an ideal lover whose standards of value are exalted by contrast with those of Morocco and Arragon. At this point in the play (III. ii), Shakespeare shifts the emphasis from appearance and reality to the comparative values of love, wealth, and friendship. Portia, learning of Antonio's danger, unhesitatingly sends away her newly acquired husband and some of his newly acquired wealth:

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.
.....For never shall you lie by Portia's side
With an unquiet soul.

(III. ii. 302-308)

As the casket story ends, both dialogue and action connect the values of this story with those previously employed in the bond story. Money, love, friendship—the greatest of these, in true Renaissance tradition, is friendship.

As noted previously, the elopement episode is mainly responsible for the shifting of Shylock's standards so that revenge alone has any value for him. But Shakespeare has shown also that in the home life of Shylock and Jessica there is little harmony. Jessica's values are not those of Shylock, and it is not merely financial standards that separate them. Jessica's suggestion of tediousness and unhappiness is substantiated by the Shylock who goes to dinner in “hate, to feed upon the prodigal Christian,” who releases Launcelot to help impoverish Bassanio, who scorns music and merriment, who instructs Jessica to “Let not the sound of shallow foppery enter my sober house,” and who leaves his daughter behind locked doors with the threat that perhaps he will return immediately. Shylock's reaction to the elopement and the robbery, as reported in II. viii, by Salanio, emphasizes about equally the father's loss of his daughter and his loss of ducats and jewels; and Salanio is prejudiced against Shylock. However, in III. i, the very scene in which appears Shylock's so-called plea for tolerance, Shylock himself emphasizes mainly his financial loss. Of the approximately seventy-five lines spoken by Shylock in this scene, only ten refer to Jessica; and even these lines express Shylock's bitterness and rage rather than love for his daughter. In the remaining scenes he speaks of her only once—to express the wish that she had been married to any of the stock of Barrabas rather than to a Christian. Indeed, there is not one line in the entire play in which Shylock directly expresses affection for his daughter. Thus the picture of Shylock at home and the revelation of his changing values after the robbery tend to balance, in the eyes of reader or audience, the fact that Jessica is a thief and an apostate. However, once more conflicting standards of value have led to opposed estimates of character. For example, Sir Walter Raleigh, who sees Shylock as a tragic figure, says that his heart “is stirred with tender memories in the midst of his lament over the stolen ducats”;23 Professor Harold R. Walley, who considers Shylock the villain in a romantic comedy, says that he “laments loudest the gold that has gone with her [Jessica] and anxiously computes the cost of recovery.”24

The ring episode, which concludes the play, is primarily a comic treatment of the comparative values of appearance and reality and those of love and friendship, especially the latter. The mock quarrel involving both pairs of lovers is carefully prefaced first by the dialogue of Jessica and Lorenzo which turns upon fidelity in love and upon other values,25 next by Portia's comments about the nature of true value, and finally by her vow of faith, all of which are ironically effective preliminaries. As the quarrel proceeds, it becomes evident that the ring story is an ingenious combination of parallels and reversals, based upon values previously employed in the bond story and the casket story, and made amusing by the device of dramatic irony. In the bond story the value of friendship leads Antonio, at the request of Bassanio, to risk and apparently to lose everything in helping his friend to win Portia. In the ring story the value of friendship leads Bassanio first to leave his bride and then, at the urging of Antonio, apparently to lose her. In the bond story Antonio himself suggests a penalty and thus leads Shylock to propose the pound-of-flesh forfeit. In the ring story Bassanio insists upon the civil doctor's accepting some remembrance, and thus leads Portia to ask for the ring. Even the threatened loss of Antonio's flesh in the bond story is recalled by the rueful remark of Bassanio:

Why, I were best to cut my left hand off
And swear I lost the ring defending it.


Finally, the exposure of disguise which resolves the ring story also reveals to Bassanio that his successful judging of appearance and reality in the casket story has been balanced by his failure in the ring story: Portia's request was not what it appeared to be. Thus, the play ends with comic emphasis upon values introduced earlier in the play for serious purposes.

Probably no one would contend that Shakespeare was interested merely in dramatizing values. However, his use of them is surely one of the important elements in this play. As is apparent from the connections mentioned, the pattern of related values helps to unify the effect of four stories probably drawn from at least three different sources. These values are employed for both serious and comic effects, for both adventure and romance. They are fundamental in almost every scene of the play. They involve every major character and most of the minor figures—even Launcelot Gobbo offers a somewhat dubious evaluation of the standards represented by Shylock, Bassanio, and Jessica. They help to indicate the significance of the play in its own age by reflecting the Renaissance interest in such topics as the proper value of material wealth, the comparative worth of love and friendship, and the problem of judging reality by appearance. Finally, the extent, the variety, and the complex relationships of these values provide at least a partial explanation for the fact that thoughtful readers, sensitive actors, and responsive audiences—themselves influenced in turn by the standards of their own environment—have arrived at widely different conclusions about the central figures in the play.


  1. “A German Producer's Hamlet,SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly], I (1950), 38.

  2. Adapted from a paper read at the May 1950 meeting of the Indiana College English Association. All textual quotations are from The Complete Plays and Poems of Shakespeare, ed. William A. Neilson and Charles J. Hill (Cambridge, 1942).

  3. Alfred Harbage, As They Liked It (New York, 1947), and Donald A. Stauffer, Shakespeare's World of Images (New York, 1950), have discussed moral values in Shakespeare, but neither of them has given detailed treatment of the values in this play.

  4. Shakespeare's use of this idea has been pointed out by Theodore Spencer, Shakespeare and the Nature of Man (New York, 1942), pp. 84-85, et passim.

  5. “Usury in The Merchant of Venice,MP [Modern Philology], XXXIII (1935), 38, 46-47.

  6. Leah W. Wilkins, “Shylock's Pound of Flesh and Laban's Sheep,” MLN, LXII (1947), 28.

  7. Harold R. Walley, “Shakespeare's Portrayal of Shylock,” Essays in Dramatic Literature, ed. Hardin Craig (Princeton, 1935), p. 237.

  8. H. B. Charlton, Shakespearian Comedy (New York, 1940), p. 141.

  9. For example, John Palmer, Comic Characters of Shakespeare (London, 1947), p. 79, and E. E. Stoll, Shakespeare Studies (New York, 1927—reprinted, 1942), p. 268.

  10. “Shakespeare an Anti-Semite?” SAB, XIX (1944), 47-48.

  11. Charlton, p. 128. For a brief list of others who hold similar opinions, see Norman Nathan, “Three Notes on The Merchant of Venice,SAB, XXIII (1948), 160-161.

  12. Shakespeare: Twenty-three Plays and the Sonnets (New York, 1938), p. 212.

  13. Neilson and Hill, p. 116.

  14. Nathan, p. 155.

  15. Shakespeare's Workmanship (New York, 1931), p. 75.

  16. Palmer, p. 87.

  17. For example, John E. Hannigan says that Portia “had loaded the dice in violation of her father's will,” (“Shylock and Portia,” SAB, XIV, 1939, p. 173), and Hardin Craig says that the song contains “a plain indication of the nature of the choice” (The Complete Works of Shakespeare, New York, 1951, p. 504).

  18. Thomas M. Parrott doubts that the song was intended to guide Bassanio's choice, and he suggests that, even so, it was Bassanio's “quick intelligence that caught the clue” (Shakespearean Comedy, New York, 1949, p. 141).

  19. Shakespeare: Twenty-three Plays and the Sonnets (New York, 1938), p. 211.

  20. Palmer, p. 63.

  21. Quiller-Couch, p. 75.

  22. “Bassanio as an Ideal Lover,” Manly Anniversary Studies (Chicago. 1923), pp. 90-103.

  23. Shakespeare (London, 1907), p. 150.

  24. Walley, p. 240.

  25. Harbage, pp. 188-189.

Michael Zuckert (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Zuckert, Michael. “The New Medea: On Portia's Comic Triumph in The Merchant of Venice.” In Shakespeare's Political Pageant: Essays in Literature and Politics, edited by Joseph Alulis and Vickie Sullivan, pp. 3-36. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996.

[In the following essay, Zuckert views The Merchant of Venice as a highly unified work that depicts Antonio and Portia as rivals for the love of Bassanio, a competition in which Portia is victorious.]

Partly because of its clever plot, striking characterizations, and moments of beautiful poetry, The Merchant of Venice has remained one of Shakespeare's best known, most often performed, and most discussed plays. It is also one of his most troubling plays. It is troubling in form because it presents a series of actions that are difficult to integrate into a coherent and unified whole.1 It is troubling in substance because it presents a Christian society in the ugliness of its anti-Semitism, and while Shakespeare clearly has a broader view than his Venetians, his presentation of the Jew nonetheless appears to draw from the same unsavory and stereotypical prejudices that move the Christian Venetians. Moreover, among the comic resolutions of the play, the “setting to rights” of all the disruptions that have impelled the play's action, are the forced conversion of Shylock to Christianity, and the desertion by Shylock's daughter, Jessica, of both her father and her ancestral religion. Hers is a voluntary conversion to be sure, but it seems to carry the same point as Shylock's coerced conversion: Jews and Judaism are not worth the respect of Christian men and women.2

The focus on Shylock is not merely a product of our post-holocaust sensibilities, but seems to have been part of the reception of the play from the outset.3 Perhaps it is the lure of the exotic, or perhaps it is a reaction to the character who seems to suffer most and to show the strongest and most complex passions, but it is in some ways a puzzling focus, for the play's title directs us not to Shylock, but to the merchant of Venice, that is to say, to Antonio. The focus on Shylock also contributes to the formal puzzles the play has provided, for if the play is taken to revolve centrally around Shylock and the pound of flesh pledge, then aspects of the play like the courting of Portia and the casket test seem extraneous, or at least very difficult to relate to the main story.4

If we follow Shakespeare's indications, we see that the focus on Shylock is largely misplaced, and the puzzlement over the formal unity of the play mistaken. Indeed, The Merchant of Venice is a marvel of formal coherence, and once we grasp that, we can come to a better understanding of the substantively troubling elements of this play as well. As is frequently the case in Shakespeare's dramas, he uses the opening scenes to set the problem the main action of the play attempts to resolve.5 The problem is this: both Antonio and Portia love Bassanio; Antonio and Portia are rivals for the love of Bassanio. The play gives us the contest between the two for Bassanio. The winner of that contest, of course, is Portia, but judging from Shakespeare's title if nothing else, there is something about the losing contender that particularly requires attention. The various major events in the play are phases of the contest between Antonio and Portia. She triumphs in three stages: first, in the trial of the caskets, where Bassanio, with her help, selects the right casket and thus “wins” her; or rather, is won by her. Then in the legal trial of Antonio where Portia saves Antonio from Shylock and thereby saves Bassanio from an overwhelming and unending debt to Antonio; had Antonio lost his case to Shylock, he would therein have triumphed over Portia.6 Finally, in the ring episode, Portia triumphs for the third and final time, achieving at last Antonio's concession of defeat.7 Such is the story of The Merchant of Venice; of course the story of Shylock, the elopement of Jessica, and all the rest must find a place in this story, but this is the story in which they must find their place.8

With an economy suited to the chief site of the play Shakespeare quickly, if a bit subtly, establishes the problem of The Merchant in the opening words of each of the first two scenes. Antonio, the merchant of Venice, and therefore the central figure in Venice, the mercantile city, begins in medias res, in answer to a question he has just been posed: “In sooth I know not why I am so sad” (1.1.1).9 Portia, the beautiful mistress of the “beautiful mountain,” opens in a way remarkably close to Antonio's: “By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world” (1.2.1-2). Despite the great difference between Venice and Belmont, the two worlds of the play, the central figures in each of these worlds are seized by the same deep sadness.

The opening laments by Antonio and Portia set in motion the chief actions of the two opening scenes—the quest for the source of the sadness of each. Antonio's sadness is something very recent and not some abiding quality of his. Solanio has just now asked about it, and even complained of it. As Antonio tells us: “you say it wearies you” (1.1.2).10 Gratiano soon after reinforces our impression of Antonio's sudden seizure by melancholy: “Believe me, you are marvelously changed” (1.1.76).

Antonio's sadness is apparently as mysterious as it is sudden. Antonio professes himself such a “want-wit” on its account that he cannot say how he “caught it, found it, or came by it.” As he concludes, “I have much ado to know myself” (1.1.3-7). Nonetheless, he thinks he knows himself well enough to reject out of hand his friends' repeated suggestions that his melancholy derives from anxiety over his mercantile ventures, a natural enough state of mind in venturesome Venice.11 Almost like the birds of the air, or the lilies of the field, Antonio is not anxious over his worldly affairs; he has taken such care of them that he need not fear fortune (1.1.8-45, 73-75).12 He parries his friends' other suggestions so they too come to accept the mystery of it (1.1.47-48).

The search to plumb Antonio's sadness ends when he is left alone with his friend Bassanio; here we indirectly discover the sudden source of his sadness when we discover what Antonio has been looking forward to, or rather dreading, all that day:

Well, tell me now, what lady is the same
To whom you swore a secret pilgrimage
That you today promised to tell me of?


Bassanio, a younger and “noble kinsman,” is especially dear to Antonio; the older man has been a regular benefactor to the younger and both speak of the love Antonio has shown toward Bassanio (1.1.57, 130-55). As is said later in the play, “I think he [Antonio] only loves the world for him [Bassanio]” (2.8.50). The expectation that his friend wishes to court a lady, a wish he must understand to be both rightful and inevitable, leads him to see his situation as fated, scripted, as it were, by the broader patterns and laws of life.13 “I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano—/ A stage, where every man must play a part, / And mine a sad one” (1.1.76-78).14

Portia's opening scene is much the same as Antonio's—the same world-weary sadness, the same effort by her companion to plumb her sadness. Yet there is an important difference, too: Portia is perfectly aware of the causes of her world-weariness; from the outset she is much more self-knowing than her Venetian counterpart. Her sadness derives from her father's will, according to which she may marry only the man who successfully passes the test of the caskets. Like Antonio, she feels her fate lies in the hands of external forces (1.2.22-25). Nerissa, her servant, has more confidence in the dead father's judgment than Portia does. Only “one who you shall rightly love” will choose rightly among the caskets. It is, Nerissa thinks, good protection for a very rich heiress against the wrong sort of gold-digger.15 Portia resents her lack of autonomy, and perhaps the lack of confidence in her judgment, but it appears she also does not wish so much protection against gold-diggers. Part of her uncommon self-knowledge consists in her awareness of the conflict within herself between what we might call her head and her heart. “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” (1.2.15-19). Portia, it appears, resents the constriction, or rather nullification of her right of choice not only in the abstract, for she has her eye on someone in particular. It is none of the six suitors already come to Belmont from all over Europe (1.2.108-9). Yet there is one whom she fancies, as even Nerissa well knows: Bassanio, who, both women agree, is “best deserving a fair lady” (1.2.117-18; cf. 2.9.100).

Antonio mopes because Bassanio wishes to court Portia. Portia mopes because the casket test may keep her from Bassanio. It is unclear at this point whether she fears that another will succeed before Bassanio can, or whether she fears he will be unwilling to take or unable to pass the test himself. Antonio and Portia both suffer for Bassanio, both want Bassanio. Although neither knows the other, they are rivals for Bassanio.


“‘Shall I then betray my father's throne … ?’”16

In that rivalry Antonio has the first move. At first glance his move is surprising. To Bassanio's request for aid Antonio is all cooperation, all generosity. At second glance, his reaction is perhaps not so surprising. It is, after all, his habitual way to be generous, especially to Bassanio, who prefaces his request with a reminder of how much Antonio has given him in the past. As Allan Bloom observes, “Antonio … bases his whole life on generosity. … Antonio has money; it is, however, not for his own enjoyment, but rather for his friends.” Along the same lines, David Beauregard identifies Antonio as the very embodiment of the Aristotelian virtue of liberality or generosity, the proper mean between prodigality and avarice, represented within the play respectively by Bassanio and Shylock.17

Nonetheless, the depiction of Antonio's generosity falls somewhat short of Aristotle's description of that virtue, the possessor of which “will give to the right persons the right amounts at the right times.” On this criterion, Antonio must be judged deficient in virtue, for he gives to a self-professed prodigal, one who has wasted and, for all Antonio has reason to believe, will continue to waste. “He who gives to those he should not … is not generous but may be given another name,” pronounces Aristotle.18 The genuine virtue of generosity benefits the recipient where the pseudo-virtue does not. Antonio and Bassanio illustrate Aristotle's concern, for Antonio's repeated aid does not help Bassanio become a more responsible and self-sufficient, that is to say, virtuous, individual, but instead contributes to his lack of self-control with regard to spending and appearances, and encourages in him a tendency to view others as means toward satisfying his own pressing needs.

If Antonio's aid cannot be understood as a manifestation of the virtue of liberality, his response to Bassanio's request must be examined more carefully. Although Antonio fears Bassanio rushes to make a “secret pilgrimage” to a lady, that is to say, that Bassanio wishes to journey to the lady as to a shrine, as to one he adores or reverences, Bassanio assures him that his “chief care is to come off fairly from [his] great debts,” the “most” of which are owed to Antonio. Although Bassanio speaks of Portia's beauty and virtues, he does not speak of his love for her—in marked contrast to his frequent references to the love he owes Antonio and has received from (but not given to?) Antonio (1.1.130-31, 146-47; cf. 161-76). Bassanio presents his case almost entirely as an investment opportunity for Antonio.19 He is especially concerned to convince Antonio that further supplies would not amount to throwing good money after bad: by shooting a second arrow after the lost first arrow both men might hope to recoup what has already been lost. Bassanio has reason for hope: Portia is “richly left,” and has sent him “fair speechless messages … from her eyes” (1.1.161, 163-64). Bassanio guessed Portia's feelings just as Nerissa did; he is adept at discerning, and quick to take advantage of, the love others have for him.

Antonio reacts not so much to the promise of repayment—no doubt he has heard such talk before—but he seems to be set much at ease by Bassanio's general approach to Portia: he is going a-courting not for the sake of his love for the lady, but for the sake of his obligation of money and love to Antonio. Antonio's feeling of relief is increased when Bassanio substitutes for the older man's image of a pilgrimage the new image of a “quest.” She is not a quasi-deity but the “golden fleece,” and he will become one of the “many Jasons come in quest of her” (1.1.170-72, cf. 3.2.241).20 Bassanio, the new Jason, wishes to outfit an expedition like that to Colchis. He needs money, servants and finery, not a troop of heroes, but this, after all, is Christian, mercantile Venice, not pre-Trojan War Greece.

Under the circumstances of the quest, Antonio's reply to Bassanio's request is not surprising at all. Rather than a threat to their bond of friendship, as a marriage of love might be, it is an expression of Bassanio's deep sense of the continuing power and obligation of that bond. For Antonio to respond with his wonted generosity, moreover, is to bind anew in the very moment and in the very deed by which Bassanio attempts to discharge (some of) the bond already in place.21

Portia's first move is not against Antonio—she has no idea he is part of the story—but is, or seems to her to be against her father. To the new Jason, Portia is the golden fleece, but in her feelings and actions she is Medea, the daughter of King Aeëtes, the possessor of the fleece. Like Portia, Medea too falls in love with the Jason who visited her father's court.

… the daughter of King Aeëtes conceived an overpowering passion … and when by reason she could not rid her of her madness she cried: … “I wonder if this is not what is called love, or at best something like this.”

Like Portia, Medea sees in herself the old conflict between head and heart:

“Come, thrust from your maiden breast these flames that you feel, if you can, unhappy girl. … But some strange power draws on against my will. Desire persuades me one way, reason another.”

Indeed Portia even comes very close to stealing some of her lines from Medea's:

“I see the better and approve it, but I follow the worse.”

Like Portia's father, Medea's sets a formidable test between the questers and the object of their quest. Like Portia, Medea decries her father's test:

“For why do the mandates of my father seem too harsh? They certainly are too harsh.”22

Medea does not merely lament her situation, however. She “gave [Jason] the magic herbs, gave him instruction / In how to use them,” helped him to yoke the “bronze-footed bulls, fire breathers,” and to sow the serpent's teeth, and to resist the armed men who spring from the teeth, and finally, to put to sleep the dragon who guarded the golden fleece itself. All this she did for love and in exchange for a promise of marriage.23

But does Portia follow Medea's love-struck lead and help her new Jason overcome the barrier set up by her father? In the literature on the play this is surely one of the two or three most controverted questions. One of the strongest pieces of evidence against her acting the part of Medea to this extent is Portia's explicit vow to do no such thing: “I could teach you / How to choose right, but then I am forsworn. / So will I never be” (3.2.10-12). Yet there is some ambiguity in what she says here. Just what does it mean to “teach him how to choose right”: she surely does not come right out and give the correct answer, and thus under a literalist interpretation of her oath (and we see later that Portia is quite capable of giving and taking advantage of literalist interpretations) she can avoid being “forsworn” even if, as I (and many other readers) believe, she gives Bassanio a good deal of help.24

Her denial is too ambiguous to settle the question whether she follows Medea this far, and thus we must consider both the casket scene and its context with greater care.25 In marked contrast to the treatment the other suitors get, Portia does not rush Bassanio to undergo the test: “I pray you tarry; pause a day or two / Before you hazard” (2.7.1-3; 2.9.1; 3.2.1-2). As she thinks further on it, she would have him tarry even more: “I would detain you here some month or two / Before you venture for me” (3.2.9-10).

As eager as she is to be rid of the first two, she is welcoming of the company of her Venetian swain. Yet her desire for delay bespeaks even more than her fondness for Bassanio. She wishes him to wait, “for in choosing wrong / I lose your company. Therefore forbear a while” (3.2.2-3).

Portia here finally answers a question she left us with in her opening appearance in the play: she dreads the casket test not so much because she fears it will give her to another, but because she fears it will not give her to the one she favors. In a few moments Portia will project a new image for herself and Bassanio—not Medea and Jason, but Hesione and Heracles. Hesione was daughter of Laomedon, king of Troy in the generation before the Trojan War. In order to expiate the anger of the gods and the demands of his subjects, Laomedon chained Hesione to a rock on the Trojan shore as a “virgin tribute … / To the sea monster” (3.2.53-60).26 Portia's new metaphor redefines the situation considerably; the casket is not something set up by a loving and wise father for her benefit, as Nerissa had urged, but is, to say the least, hostile to her best interests. It is easy enough to see how Portia can understand it so.27 She might well envisage the intention, not just the likely effect of the casket test to be to exclude Bassanio as a suitor. The Venetian, after all, visited Belmont while the father still lived, and had he known and approved of Portia's liking, then the whole rigmarole of the caskets would make no sense. Nerissa (and Bassanio, too) knew of Portia's feelings and perhaps, she suspects, the father did, too.

Even if he did not know that Portia's affections turned in Bassanio's direction, the young Venetian seems the very sort of chap from whom he must have been attempting to guard his daughter. The wealthy heiress is a natural target for young men who are deeply in debt and without the means to continue in the style of life to which they have been accustomed. To see the application to Bassanio, we need only recall the circumstances of his quest, and his image of Portia as the golden fleece: Bassanio seeks to cut a figure in the world, or in nautical Venice, to “show a more swelling port” than he can afford (1.1.124). Marriages to such young men, a father might reason, do not promise well for young heiresses; they are anything but love matches.28 Thus the father set the winning casket as the one about giving, not about getting, as the one that did not promise outward wealth.

So Portia-Hesione is threatened with the denial of her heart's desire by her father-Laomedon via exposure to the casket test-sea monster. Her sadness goes as deep as it does because she knows, or at least intensely fears that her father's ploy will succeed, as directly or indirectly intended, in eliminating Bassanio. Her doubts about Bassanio pop through the surface of things when he responds to her awkward but clearly heartfelt request for delay with an ultraconventional lover's image: “Let me choose, / For as I am, I live upon the rack.” To which she retorts: “Upon the rack, Bassanio? Then confess / What treason there is mingled with your love” (3.2.24-27).

She speaks better than she knows, for she has not heard the earlier negotiations between Bassanio and Antonio nor has she yet experienced Bassanio's treason of the ring. She knows her man … and yet. … When Bassanio returns with another stock profession of love she again opens her troubled mind: “Ay, but I fear you speak upon the rack, / where men enforced, do speak anything” (3.2.32-33). It is all so playful, and yet she speaks her real doubts here; justifiable ones at that if we recall the “force” under which Bassanio is (at least in part) acting. He is, in Belmont, as part of his “plots and purposes … to get clear of all the debts” he owes. These, not the rack, are his “necessity.”

The next exchange is the pivot of the whole scene, and we must therefore attend to its nuances with some care.

Promise me life, and I'll confess the truth.
Well then, confess and live.
                                                                                                              Confess and love
Had been the very sum of my confession!


As many critics have noticed, Bassanio's “confession” is pretty lame: no soaring love poetry (or even love prose) here. Among the striking features of the exchange, however, is Portia's straining to allay her own doubts about Bassanio, her own suspicions about his loyalties and his sincerity. “Confess and live,” she says; perhaps against her better judgment she commits herself in advance to being satisfied with the merest gesture of an answer—which is pretty much all she gets, too, as Bassanio punningly echoes back to her promise (cf. also 3.2.54). Because he builds his answer on her answer Bassanio completes the rack image by almost reversing it: “O happy torment, when my torturer / Doth teach me answers for my deliverance” (3.2.37-38). She “taught” him the answer that freed him from the rack, where she had earlier refused to teach him the answer to the casket test. But let us note how she taught him; she gave him a clue, a word (“live”), which he is able to translate into the required profession of love. Bassanio has shown her how she can “teach” him “answers for deliverance” without telling him them directly, and therefore without being foresworn.29

Bassanio is the third to try his wits at the caskets, and as in most fairy tales, the third time is a charm. Some critics go so far as to suggest that because he is third, he is the inevitable victor, and therefore has no need for Portia's help. This is surely a foolish argument. Even if there is something formally foreordained for Bassanio in coming third, this does not settle the issue of how or what makes him successful. That is an entirely separate matter. That Goldilocks finds that the porridge, chair, and bed are “just right” consistently on her third try does not imply, after all, that there is no significance to the fact that it was, consistently, the one that was the mean that was “just right.”

As has been noticed by many previous readers, Portia's hints, if there are such, come in the form of the song she sings as Bassanio ponders the alternatives. She prefaces her song, however, with an indispensable clue: “If you do love me, you will find me out” (3.2.41). To the other contestants she gave no such guidance. Just as Bassanio had taken her comment about love as a hint in the preliminary banter that was the playful foreshadowing of the casket test itself, this hint about love proves invaluable to Bassanio.

Portia's statement about love is so important because it helps set the contrast between that and “fancy.” She sings of fancy, but, she has made clear, the casket test is about something else, about love. Love is the unspoken but implicit contrast to the point she makes in her song: fancy is born in the eyes, not in the heart or head. Its birth is in the sphere of appearance, and so fragile is it that it fails to survive its infancy. Fine appearance, external promise—gold and silver—engender not love, but only its poor surrogate fancy. This is enough to tell the attentive Bassanio what he must do, but just in case he or some of the critics fail to get the point Portia opens her song with her oft-noted triple rhyme: “bred,” “head,” and “nourished.”30

Not to worry, however, for Bassanio proves himself an exceedingly apt pupil. He picks up her thought exactly: “So may the outward shows be least themselves; / The world is still deceived with ornament” (3.2.73-74). After a longish survey of the many cases where fair, but false, exteriors conceal corrupt interiors, Bassanio draws just the point:

Therefore then, 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. But thou, thou meager lead,
Which rather threaten'st than dost promise aught,
Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence;
And here choose I.


If Bassanio has not been cued by Portia, then this chain of reasoning must be his own. But is that plausible? Is Bassanio the man to voice those sentiments? Does Bassanio really reject Midas's “hard food”? Does Bassanio turn away from external appearance and show?31

Bassanio's reflections are not only remarkably unlike himself, but they are altogether unlike the reasonings of the other suitors. Both Morocco and Aragon produced long speeches to justify their choices, and both reasoned entirely in terms of the legends on the caskets. Bassanio says nothing at all relating to the legends; his speech picks up entirely from Portia's song about fancy and appearance. In selecting the lead he shows neither understanding nor acceptance of the teaching about love its legend proclaims.32

Portia, we must conclude, extends her Medea-like behavior to helping her Jason overcome the trial established by her father to protect his treasure from adventurers like Jason. This is relatively easy for her to do because she sees herself as Hesione, the victim of her father, and not as the beneficiary of a wise and provident plan. Nonetheless, both images, Medea and Hesione, promise poorly for her. The one won by Jason, the other by Heracles, both were deserted by their respective heroes. Both images foreshadow Portia's almost fate.


And when Medea saw this, Medea unsheathed her knife and cut the old man's throat; then, letting the old blood all run out, she filled his veins with her brew.33

The second phase of the contest for Bassanio culminates in the play's most famous scene, the trial in Venice over Antonio's forfeit of his bond. This incident is thematically important, moreover, for in it the broader significance of the love contest between Antonio and Portia begins to become clear: the struggle between Antonio and Portia is concealed here beneath a struggle between Antonio and Shylock, whose struggle in turn brings in the competing visions of the Old and New Testaments.34

It is not, perhaps, immediately apparent that the trial is part of the contest over Bassanio, because the antagonists are not Antonio and Portia, but rather Antonio and Shylock, with Portia as the judge who ultimately sides with Antonio. The news of the impending trial intrudes itself suddenly and violently on the scene of love; hardly have the lovers exchanged vows and rings, hardly have Nerissa and Gratiano joined the love fest than the emissaries from Venice arrive with Antonio's letter and the announcement of his default to Shylock. The letter distresses Bassanio and well it might. His friend and benefactor is to die on account of the debt Antonio incurred on his behalf. Portia notes his distress immediately.

But Bassanio's grief is not merely the grief a friend suffers at the misfortune of a friend; it is misery multiplied by guilt. As he confesses to Portia: “I have engaged myself to a dear friend, / Engaged my friend to his mere enemy / To feed my means” (3.2.261-63).

Bassanio's natural and creditable feelings are thus strong as it is, but Antonio has a knack for saying the very things that will heighten both Bassanio's misery and his guilt. Antonio's letter not only reports his situation, but refers directly to the bond of debt and guilt between them: “all debts are cleared between you and I if I might but see you at my death” (3.2.318-20). Surely there is something ironic in Antonio's wish: how can Bassanio and he be quits if Antonio goes “the last full measure” for Bassanio by dying for him? And how can Bassanio ever feel free of this debt if he is there to see this death for which, Antonio reminds him, he is responsible?35 All these questions prove more than justified when we look ahead to discover what Antonio wishes Bassanio to see and, more importantly, to hear in his last moments. When it looks as though the trial will surely go against him Antonio delivers what appears to be a prepared statement. He responds to Portia's invitation to address the court as a whole, but his words are to and for Bassanio alone. He opens and closes his speech the same way: “Give me your hand Bassanio; fare you well. / Grieve not that I am fall'n to this for you …” And at the end: “Repent but you that you shall lose your friend, / And he repents not that he repays your debt” (4.1.264-65; 277-78).36 Just in case Bassanio does not feel sufficiently responsible, and thus not sufficiently grateful, Antonio reminds him at this awful moment for whose sake he undergoes this fate—and how willingly at that.

He reserves the chief point of these, his dying words as he thinks, for the middle of his speech, however.

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 to be judge
Whether Bassanio had not once a love.


This speech makes perfectly clear what Antonio is doing: why does he, after all, drag Bassanio's “honorable wife” into it? Why does he insist that Bassanio recount his death to her, and wring from her a confession that indeed Antonio loved Bassanio … better than she or any ordinary lover could do. Who can match, who will match Antonio's gesture of love? As Solanio once said, Antonio “only loves the world” for Bassanio. He so loves Bassanio that facing the threat of the loss of Bassanio he will lose the world, or, better yet, to prevent the loss of Bassanio, he will sacrifice the world. In the contest with Portia, Antonio has raised the stakes, infinitely, and then has played the ultimate trump card.37

It may seem a desperate and hopeless ploy, but in fact it succeeds, for Bassanio answers Antonio with the very declaration Antonio is seeking:

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 esteemed above thy life.
I would lose all, ay sacrifice them all
Here to this devil, to deliver you.


Antonio is not given a reply, but this must be very gratifying to him. Where earlier on Bassanio spoke much of the debts of love he owed, he never spoke of the love he felt; now, this light young man has offered to sacrifice his own life for his friend, and, it must not be overlooked, the life of his wife as well. At least for the moment Bassanio is so overwhelmed with gratitude and guilt that he renders Antonio all the esteem and attachment the older man has sought, and declares him victor in the contest for his affection between Antonio and Portia.38 Antonio has gained all by “giving and hazarding all he hath.” Antonio is the true and proper winner of the casket test.39

Nonetheless, the audience can see more clearly than Bassanio and probably than Antonio himself the paradoxical, if not self-contradictory, character of Antonio's self-sacrificing love. He gives up all—to get all. His self-lessness is only a more subtle form of selfishness, for he wishes not merely to possess the object of his love, but to establish himself as the most lovable human being, as the one most worthy of love and thus as the one whose love supplants all others and lasts indefinitely.40

The only character in the play who seems clear-eyed about Antonio is Portia. From the moment that she observes Bassanio's reaction to Antonio's letter, she knows she does not have the full devotion of her husband. Portia shows the same wisdom in the face of Bassanio's feelings toward Antonio as Antonio showed when Bassanio resolved to court Portia. She does not in any way attempt to thwart Bassanio in his efforts to aid his friend. Indeed, her first words once she understands the situation is her offer to pay the debt, to pay double or more so that Antonio will be free from Shylock. We must see her offer in terms of her self-interest as well as her generosity. To keep her husband, or rather, to win from him the kind of loving attachment she seeks, she must save Antonio.41 Before they can consummate this marriage, Portia insists, Bassanio must go to Antonio; the matter of Antonio must be taken care of before the marriage of Bassanio and Portia can be properly fulfilled (3.2.303-6).

Instead of paying off the debt Portia will have to preside over a trial where Shylock prosecutes Antonio to receive legal satisfaction on his contract. As most readers of the play have noticed, this trial concerns not only the two parties to it, but their respective religions and religious laws. That is to say, in the midst of this play about the rivalry between Portia and Antonio arises this most serious and far-reaching consideration of the meaning and relative merits of the two elements of what we have come to call the Judeo-Christian tradition.

We can understand the appearance of this apparently extraneous set of themes as follows. Antonio, as has often been noted, acts upon a model of human existence rooted in Christianity. He not only engages in the acts of charity prescribed by Christian precept, but, in his willingness to undergo sacrifice of his life for the sake of his love he engages in a particularly powerful form of the imitation of Christ. Antonio's justification and explanation are to be found in Christianity.42 As Jesus says in order to explain his upcoming passion to his followers: “greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” This self-sacrificing love is not merely the extraordinary act of the extraordinary god-man, but is the model for all humanity: “‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.’”43

The New Testament authors, however, understand the life, death, and teaching of Jesus in terms of their relation to the older Jewish law, as both the completion and rejection of the old Jewish law. The defense and justification of Christianity originally appears in the form of a critique and attack on Judaism. Portia must defeat Antonio, but, strangely enough, she can do this only if Antonio can defeat Shylock; that is to say, only if Christianity can defeat or appear to defeat Judaism.

Antonio not only adheres to Christian doctrine, but, as Barbara Lewalski emphasizes, he imitates or even plays the part of Christ at various important moments in the drama. “Antonio, who assumes the debts of others … reflects on occasion the role of Christ satisfying the claim of Divine Justice by assuming the sins of mankind.”44 The trial is one such occasion: Antonio-Christ is once again put on trial, accused by the Jew, who seeks his life. Portia too has her part in this emblematic episode—in this case not as Medea or Hesione—but as Pontius Pilate. But she is a Pilate who prevents the passion of Christ. She is a new or reverse Pilate and thereby she will ultimately prove a new or nontragic Medea.

The tension between Antonio and Shylock obviously predates the action of the play and enters it from almost the very moment Shylock does. Upon first catching sight of Antonio, Shylock announces, “I hate him” (1.3.39). The feeling is, apparently, mutual, for Shylock complains of Antonio's extraordinarily uncivil treatment. “You that did void your rheum upon my beard / And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur / Over your threshold!” (1.3.114-16). The feelings of extreme enmity are related in both cases to the religion of the other: “I hate him for he is a Christian,” says Shylock; Antonio abuses Shylock in turn as a “misbeliever” (1.3.39, 108).

Shylock mentions two other reasons, reasons that have led some critics to discount the importance of the religious issue. In addition to hating him as a Christian, Shylock also says: “But more, for that in low simplicity / He lends out money gratis, and brings down / The rate of usance here with us in Venice” (1.3.40-42). Many readers conclude from these lines that Shylock's real complaint is the economic harm Antonio does to him. However, this is to read Shylock's “But more” as though he means “a greater reason for my hatred”; a better reading, given the list of reasons Shylock is presenting, is to take “more” as “in addition.” These additional points are all related: “He hates our sacred nation, and he rails, / … On me, my bargains, and my well-won thrift, / Which he calls interest” (1.3.45-48). Shylock attributes Antonio's practice of lending money gratis to “low simplicity,” that is to say, to a base motive; he almost certainly means to accuse Antonio of acting out of enmity to Jews, specifically to harm them by decreasing their earning power (also cf. 3.1.45-47).

Shylock is thus not impressed by Antonio's pretenses to virtue and high principle. This appears to be Shylock's general perspective on the Christians and particularly on Antonio. Two issues in the play specifically divide Shylock from the Christians. They refrain from taking interest, which the Jews do not, while the Jews refrain from eating pork, which the Christians do not. The dietary laws of the Jews prompt Shylock to respond harshly to Bassanio's dinner invitation: “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” (1.3.33-35). It is most telling that Shylock conjoins eating and drinking with praying: the dietary restraints are part of the holiness of the holy people. Those who do not keep to the dietary laws are unclean, that is to say, unfit to approach God. Shylock believes he even has the testimony of Jesus on his side, for he refers to a biblical story in which “your prophet the Nazarite conjured the devil into” a herd of swine (1.3.31-33).45 Even Jesus understood the uncleanliness of pork, yet his so-called followers fail to.

At the same time, the Christians refrain from taking interest; yet, as Shylock makes clear, the Venetians—and especially Antonio—have no hesitation about engaging in high-flying commerce aimed at economic gain. Shylock rehearses Antonio's various ventures, argosies bound for Tripoli, the Indies, Mexico, England—all directions of the compass, all continents—all with the intention of enriching himself. The Christian attitude toward money and gain is, in a word, hypocritical. Gain from lending money is in principle no different from gain for other kinds of economic activity, and, Shylock believes, the story of Jacob the patriarch testifies to the divine favoring of enterprise and the legitimacy of gain (1.3.86-87).46 Usury is merely a way of thriving, and all thriving is legitimate, if it is not done unjustly. Such is Shylock's view.

Antonio more than returns Shylock's feelings, and sees the latter's hateful qualities as rooted in his Jewishness. Antonio's most comprehensive statement occurs at the end of the scene: “The Hebrew will turn Christian; he grows kind” (1.3.175). Antonio is unkind to Shylock because Shylock, as a Jew, is himself unkind. The greatest evidence or manifestation of that unkindness is Shylock's practice of taking interest on the loans he makes to the Christian merchants of Venice. Contrary to Shylock's theory, Antonio does not oppose usury merely to vex and harm the Jewish money-lenders, but rather he despises the money-lenders because they take interest. As he understands it, the different practices he and Shylock stand for stem from their respective faiths. Antonio seems to understand well the Jewish law regarding usury: “‘You shall not lend upon interest to your brother. … To a foreigner you may lend upon interest, but to your brother you shall not lend upon interest.’”47 Antonio makes direct reference to this law in his negotiation with Shylock:

If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not
As to thy friends—for when did friendship take
A breed for barren metal of his friend?—
But lend it rather to thine enemy …


Antonio translates the law's “brother” into “friend” and “foreigner” into “enemy,” but he brings out a central thought in the Jewish law nonetheless. By forbidding usury within the people, the law recognizes the evil of usury. By allowing an evil toward the “foreigner,” the Jewish law indeed treats them as “enemies.”

The evil in charging interest to friends remains obscure so long as attention remains exclusively focused on the essentialist issue centering on the “barren” and “non-breeding” character of metal. That is relevant only indirectly; if money “bred,” that is, increased naturally, then it would not be unreasonable or unjust for the owner of the money to be able to reap the natural increase. But because money does not increase in this way, it is “unjust,” because there is an “inequality” in the transaction “which is contrary to justice.” The lender receives more than he gave.48 The one who pays usury does not restore (a part of) natural increase, nor does he act voluntarily (as Shylock implies), but rather he acts “under a certain necessity insofar as he needs to borrow money which the owner is unwilling to lend without usury.”49 No wonder Antonio (and Bassanio too) treats it largely as a matter of “kindness”; the usurer is unkind, for he takes advantage of the pressing necessities of his debtor.50 In the exchange among Antonio, Shylock, and Bassanio this last aspect is much emphasized (1.3.60, 111, 152).

Thomas Aquinas expresses Antonio's understanding with great lucidity in his discussion of the “sin of usury.”

The Jews were forbidden to take usury from their brethren, i.e., from other Jews. By this we (Christians) are given to understand that to take usury from any man is evil simply, because we ought to treat every man as our neighbor and brother.51

Antonio understands Christianity to involve both a broadening and a deepening of the Jewish law. It is broader because it is universal—injunctions to treat the other as neighbor or brother are not limited to one's own narrow nation. It is deeper in that the benevolence human beings owe to one another has no calculating quality to it; it is selfless. It is more sublime in that, as becomes clear later, the ultimate expression of Christian love is not merely disinterested benevolence, but self-sacrifice. Antonio is thus an apostle of Christian love, who uses Shylock and the Jews as a foil against which to define his moral vision, and uses the issue of usury as a vehicle for that moral vision.52

This is the abiding view each has of the other as the play opens. Yet almost immediately a new dynamic is introduced by Antonio's application to Shylock for a loan to aid his beloved friend. The Jew and the Christian agree to a loan with no interest, but with the pound of flesh pledge for collateral. This “deal” has led to one of the greatest controversies about the play: just what is Shylock up to in proposing these terms? Whatever Shylock's motives, after the elopement of Jessica, he is resolved to take advantage of Antonio's forfeiture of his bond.

Shylock and Antonio, Jew and Christian—just when it looks as though Shakespeare is setting up a contest between these two versions of the biblical religion, the terms of the relationship change. Most importantly, Shylock falls away from his status as paradigmatic Jew; the confrontation between the two in Portia's court in Venice is thus an aborted moment of judgment between those two great religions.

Shylock had raised two criteria to distinguish Jew and Christian. The Jews as the holy people, as the people of the law, are especially concerned with the clean and the unclean, sanctifying all their lives to God under the law.53 That means, in particular, that the Jews must keep their special dietary laws; they do not eat in friendship and intimacy with other men of other nations; they are the nation set apart.54 Shylock at first prided himself on his observance of the distinction between the clean and the unclean, the permitted and the forbidden. Yet suddenly and with little explanation, Shylock admits that he has agreed to dine with the Christians (2.5.11). We must understand this in relation to his bargain with Antonio. He has, as Antonio implied, in effect become a Christian. Just as he violates the dietary laws, so he violates the law respecting usury. True, the Jewish law legitimates interest taken from non-Jews, but it forbids what Shylock has potentially done in the “merry bond” and actually does in his resolve to collect his debt after Jessica runs off with Lorenzo: one may not indirectly, and thus a fortiori directly take what amounts to the life of another as a pledge in loan.55 The Jewish law recognizes (at least some) moral claims of human beings as such. Shylock has done what the Law explicitly forbids. And this is to say nothing of the commandment, “you shall not kill,” a closely related provision of the law.56 Shylock reveals himself to be a bad human being, a devil incarnate, not because he is a Jew, but because and insofar as he falls away from the Jewish law.

Portia's courtroom triumph over Antonio—that is to say, Antonio's triumph over Shylock—cannot be a triumph of Christianity over Judaism, for Shylock no longer represents Judaism, as is made perfectly clear in his most famous speech.

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 … ? If you prick us, do we not bleed? … And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?


This angry and moving speech must be contrasted with Shylock's earlier claim to Antonio: “sufferance is the badge of all our tribe” (1.3.107). So far as that is true, Shylock's speech about revenge, and his resolve to exact fully Antonio's pledge indicates a break with this forbearing attitude. Moreover, Shylock here speaks not as a Jew, nor even as a quasi-Christian; the standard is a purely human standard: “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!” (3.1.65-68). Despite the ways or teachings or precepts of the two biblical religions, the human way is revenge. Shylock no longer even pretends to take his bearings and find his justification in the law.57 He has, in his own way, become a political philosopher, discerning a harsh and universal nature beneath the varying laws of the nations.

The judgment Shylock undergoes at the hands of Portia is thus not a judgment on him as a Jew, or on Judaism as such. This is not to say there is no such judgment in the play—his loss of his daughter fulfills that role. Jessica enters a forbidden relation and forsakes her family, people and God (cf. 3.1.30, 32, 80-85). Her initial situation is rather like that of so many tragic lovers—Romeo and Juliet, Pyramus and Thisbe—forbidden her love by her parents or her people, yet not Jessica the lover, but Shylock the parent suffers the tragic fate in this case. Jessica lives in a community where her love is to be controlled by the laws. She is to marry inside the community and defer to her parents in choice of mate. Yet her love escapes these restraints; love cannot be so readily bidden. Like Shylock himself in his revenge, she learns and teaches something of the universality of nature in her love. The Jewish notion of a holy people, a people set apart, gives too little notice to nature, both in its higher manifestations like love, and in its lower, like revenge. No people can be simply holy; no people can be simply set apart. This is Shakespeare's judgment on Shylock. The perspective of that judgment shares something important with the Pauline Christian condemnation of Judaism as particularistic, but it is not necessarily the same as that perspective and surely not the same as Antonio's virulent anti-Jewish pronouncements.

Shylock is a Jew who violates his own law, the observance of which would at least have saved him from the inhumanity to which he sinks in his hatred for Antonio. Likewise, just as Shylock's defeat cannot stand for the defeat of the Jewish way, so Antonio's triumph does not represent a triumph of Christian principles. Although the disguised Portia delivers a lovely speech on mercy, the outcome of the trial does not in fact depend upon mercy, Christian or otherwise. Shylock's suit fails in two respects, on two legal technicalities. Both of these derive from the Jewish law, whence Portia has imported them into Venetian law. She first grants Shylock the right to his pound of flesh, but “in the cutting of it” he is allowed not “one drop of Christian blood” (4.1.305-9). Now this literalism is frequently decried as contrary to the reasonable meaning of the law: if Shylock has a right to the flesh, he must have a right to any necessary appurtenances of the flesh. Yet this fine-honed distinction is not of Portia's making; it derives instead from the Jewish dietary laws: “‘However, you may slaughter and eat flesh … Only you shall not eat the blood.’”58 If the distinction between the flesh and the blood is valid, as the Jewish law insists that it is, then the conclusion Portia draws is valid as well. No wonder Shylock cries out “Is that the law?” (4.1.313).

The second part of Portia's verdict comes when she turns the tables on Shylock: an alien may not directly or indirectly attempt the life of a citizen. Shylock has quite openly done that very thing, and thus must pay the penalty for it. But as we have noted above, this law, especially as applied to the circumstances at hand is part of the Jewish law as well: one may not take “‘a life in pledge.’”59 One may supply various theological interpretations of Portia's legal maneuverings—interpreting her as attempting to illustrate, for example, the Pauline principle that righteousness under the law is not possible for sinful man. Although that interpretation resonates with Portia's speech on mercy, it does not fit so well the way the scene develops: the insistence that the Jewish law is perfectly sufficient to produce the just—and merciful—outcome.

One must instead view the trial as a reenactment of the trial of Jesus, with Antonio in the title role, Shylock in place of the Jews prosecuting Jesus, and Portia taking the part of Pontius Pilate.60 Shylock insists on the law (“I stand here for the law”) under which Antonio must pay the penalty of his default, i.e., must die; his predecessors urged much the same: “The Jews answered [Pilate], ‘We have a law, and by that law he ought to die …’”61 In the trial of Antonio Portia urges Shylock to recognize that if he presses his claim, “this strict [code] of Venice / Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there,” to which Shylock replies, “My deeds upon my head” (4.1.203-5). Wittingly or unwittingly, he thus echoes the very thought of his predecessors, who responded to Pilate's resolve to “wash his hands” of the matter, “‘His [Jesus'] blood be on us and on our children.’”62

Antonio casts himself as decisively in the role of Jesus as Shylock does in the role of Jesus' Jewish accusers. From his opening lines in the scene until the moment when Portia's verdict goes against Shylock, Antonio takes the part of one who suffers a fated martyrdom, a martyrdom, as we have seen, of self-sacrifice motivated by love.

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

(4.1.10-13, cf. 83)

He calls himself “the tainted wether of the flock, / Meetest for death,” like the scapegoat on whom the community heaps its sins, and which is an image of Jesus' redemptive mission (4.1.114-15).

Yet the trial of Antonio does not end as did the trial of Jesus, because Pontius-Portia plays her part differently. Two things are particularly striking in the behavior of the original Pontius Pilate. First, he repeatedly proclaims his conviction of Jesus' innocence. “And Pilate said to the chief priests and the multitudes, ‘I find no crime in this man,’” a conclusion he repeats twice more after further inquiry.63 Judging Jesus under the relevant law, the Jewish law, Pilate found no grounds to condemn him. Yet he gave in to the repeated urgings of the Jews: “But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed. So Pilate gave sentence that their demand should be granted. … Jesus he delivered up to their will.”64

Portia, the new Pilate, breaks with her predecessor on one central point: unlike Pilate, who sacrificed his judgment of the law to fear of the mob or concern for politics, she sticks to the law, the Jewish-become-Venetian law.65 Under that law Antonio is free from Shylock's bond. Portia gives Antonio a victory of sorts, although it is also a most telling defeat, by sticking to the letter and spirit of the old law. She thus doubly thwarts the new Jesus: she neither vouchsafes him his longed-for martyrdom, nor does she appeal to specifically Christian principle to do so.


I am abandoned; I have lost my throne, my native soil, my home, my husband—who alone for me took the place of all!66

The trial is a great triumph for Portia, and yet she is never closer to suffering the tragic fate of Medea—abandonment by the one she loves, by one who has sworn eternal and complete devotion to her. Despite the fact that she has prevented Antonio from rendering that “last full measure” of his devotion to his beloved, Bassanio has yet been deeply affected by Antonio's gesture. He confesses to esteeming Antonio more highly than her and would sacrifice her life (and his own) in order to save Antonio's. Bassanio apparently has taken to heart the injunction to love as Antonio has loved him.67 Although Portia has defeated Antonio, it yet might appear that he has gotten all he could have hoped for from the episode. He has won Bassanio's love with his offer to sacrifice his life, without needing to carry through on his offer.68

Feeling victorious, Antonio provokes the third round in his contest against Portia by intervening in the post-trial exchange between Bassanio and the disguised Portia over the ring Portia has requested from Bassanio as a reward or remembrance for her service to the two friends. Bassanio is most reluctant to part with the ring:

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.


Should he do any of these things, Portia had meaningfully observed earlier, “Let it presage the ruin of your love …” (3.2.171-73). As soon as he hears the reason for Bassanio's refusal to surrender the ring Antonio enters the discussion in order to loosen his friend's resolve.

My lord Bassanio, let him have the ring.
Let his deservings, and my love withal,
Be valued 'gainst your wife's commandment.


A more calculating move can hardly be imagined. Both to register the implications of Bassanio's declaration at the trial and to reinforce his supreme position Antonio prods Bassanio to do the thing that most concretely symbolizes his triumph. He makes the point perfectly explicit: his “love” is to be weighed against Portia's “commandment.”69 In accord with his declaration Bassanio accedes. What Bassanio said at the trial was thus not idle talk—he is more devoted to Antonio than to his wife.

Here then is Portia's greatest moment of crisis. She must act decisively in order to restore her love, a need with which the audience are in full sympathy, for we cannot willingly accept an Antonian victory in this contest.70 Portia has our sympathies because we have seen the less attractive underside to Antonio's love. The claim he raises is the claim of sacrifice and selflessness, yet we see this to be largely fraudulent; beneath the selflessness is a deep and potent self-seeking. The deficient character of Antonio's love is visible in at least two of its effects. First is his “spoiling” of Bassanio: he seeks to render Bassanio dependent rather than good. His “selfless” love is selfish in that it does not produce the good of the beloved, but of the lover.71 Secondly, we see, perhaps with surprise, the virulence of his hatred for Shylock. While Shylock is not entirely attractive either, his most vicious acts are the consequences of the attitudes of the Antonios of the world. Antonio is a genuine anti-Semite, a genuine hater. He displays what Machiavelli had earlier denounced as “pious cruelty.” His philosophy of love ironically issues in acts of hatred.

Portia returns from Venice to Belmont in a darkly melancholy mood. Her melancholy is foreshadowed in a remarkable dialogue between Jessica and Lorenzo, in which these two newlyweds celebrate the night and their love by recounting the tales of ill-fated lovers of note from the past. These reminders of failed and betrayed loves reflect both on their own love and on the unfolding betrayal of Portia by Bassanio. It is probably no coincidence that the central item in this exchange concerns Medea: “In such a night / Medea gathered the enchanted herbs / That did renew the old Aeson” (5.1.12-14). Aeson was Jason's father, a very old and dying man to whom Medea brought new youth and salvation through her magic. Nonetheless, Jason's gratitude did not prevent his subsequent abandonment of Medea. The parallel to Portia and Bassanio is clear: as Medea saved Aeson, so Portia saved Antonio.

“In such a night as this …,” a moonlit night, a night for lovers, and yet a night that reveals the unsteadiness, the evanescence, the unreliability of love. A night for recalling disloyal lovers. Even Lorenzo's famous and quite lovely rapture on the music of the spheres fits the mood. Even though: “There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st / But in his motion like an angel sings,” nonetheless this heavenly

Harmony is [only] in immortal souls,
[And] whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.


Perhaps it is Jessica's keen appreciation of how far earthly love falls below Lorenzo's heavenly harmonies that leads her to confess, “I am never merry when I hear sweet music” (5.1.69). In this comic celebration of love, Shakespeare comes to the very brink of exposing love in its lunar, that is, false and fleeting, cold and changing character.

By the time Portia arrives, the brightness of the moon, which so impressed Lorenzo and Jessica, is shown for what it is—unsteady and unreliable. Not the moon, but a “little candle” from her own hall, is all she can see now. By her yet lesser light, Portia stands much deeper in her despair of love than Lorenzo and Jessica.

That light we see is burning in my hall;
How far that little candle throws his beams!
So shines a good deed in a naughty world.


Can there be any doubt that she is the “little candle”—Portia reduced to a little candle!—casting little light, having little good effect in herself and yet shining brightly by contrast with the “naughty world,” the betrayers, the self-promoters, adventurers and hypocrites—the Jasons and Antonios—around her. Despair gnaws at her heart; all the world empties itself of meaning and goodness. “Nothing is good, I see, without respect” (5.1.99), that is, but by contrast. The good is merely what appears better by contrast to something worse or less.72

Despair gnaws at Portia, yet she does not give way to it. On hearing of the approach of her husband, she resolves, “Let me give light.”73 In this now dark night, the moon obscured, “the sun … hid,” Portia will attempt to bring the world back to light. But this requires something of her as well: “Let me give light, but let me not be light” (5.1.129). Portia requires a certain weightiness, a moral seriousness, in order to bring the world back into light. One is tempted to say that she must repent her earlier lightness, that lightness that did not, for example, take sufficiently seriously her father's warnings and her father's efforts to help her find a suitable husband. Both she and Bassanio must grow beyond where they were at the opening of the play in order to be worthy of love—solar rather than lunar love, let us say. She must grow to transcend her alter-ego Medea; Medea the enchantress, associated with the moon, must give way to Portia, the Sun, source of illumination.74 Portia resolves to be the light by being weighty; not Antonio, but she, is to be “the true light.”75

From the moment Portia greets Bassanio on his arrival at Belmont, the delicate negotiation between them commences. Bassanio once again signals how things stand with his curt return of Portia's greeting (“I thank you, madam”) and his far more expansive introduction of Antonio: “This is the man, this is Antonio, / To whom I am so infinitely bound” (5.1.133-35).76

Portia, however, quietly corrects him: “You should be … much bound,” but not apparently, “infinitely bound” (5.1.136). If Bassanio is infinitely bound to Antonio, then, of course, he has no bond left for Portia. She is less forthcoming to Antonio, however, than Bassanio would apparently have her be: she “scants this breathing courtesy,” that is, elaborate words of welcome. How welcome he is “must appear in other ways than words,” in part because he is welcome in order to be part of the final showdown over Bassanio, and in part because just how welcome he is will depend on subsequent events (5.1.139-41).

Before Portia even mentions Bassanio's infidelity, Nerissa and Gratiano erupt into an argument over their parallel situation. This proves most useful to Portia (did she preconcert it with her maid?), for it allows her to accuse Bassanio, indirectly at first in the guise of accusing Gratiano, of the great violation of trust he has committed.

You were to blame—I must be plain with you—
To part so slightly with your wife's first gift,
A thing stuck on with oaths upon your finger,
And so riveted with faith unto your flesh.


Her lines echo earlier images of the almost crucified Antonio, but it is Bassanio she casts now as the central actor in the moral drama. It is he who is “riveted”; it is he who receives “faith.” Bassanio needs to see himself as a serious moral agent in a serious moral relationship with Portia. Before the trial he was little given to this kind of moral seriousness in any form, because of the general levity of his character. In the wake of Antonio's gesture, Bassanio is equally little given to the kind of moral agency Portia calls forth, for he sees Antonio as the center and himself as the merely reflected image, infinitely bound to the original.

Bassanio at first inclines to defend himself in terms that reflect the very Antonio-centeredness she must overcome.

                                                                                                    Sweet Portia
If you did know to whom I gave the ring, …
And would conceive for what I gave the ring …
You would abate the strength of your displeasure.


Although many critics are entirely appeased by this defense—indeed some see it as a sign of Bassanio's understanding and acceptance of the burden of love—Portia is not in the least satisfied—and rightly not.

If you had known the virtue of the ring,
Or half her worthiness that gave the ring,
Or your own honor to contain the ring,
You would not then have parted with the ring.


In giving it away, Bassanio has undervalued the ring itself and what it means—“a thing held as a ceremony,” a symbol of their love and its hoped-for abidingness. As such a thing, no reasonable person would demand it and no service can be commensurable with it. It was, of course, Antonio, who prevailed on him to present the ring to Balthazar/Portia, precisely to get Bassanio to make the point Portia now blames him for. Thus Bassanio also undervalued Portia relative to Antonio in giving up the ring, whereas, she implies, she is more worthy than Antonio. Bassanio is guilty of disloyalty, but also of poor judgment; he does not see through the character of Antonio's “selfless” love, but is flattered by the appearances he does discern. He thereby misses the true source of human value. Accordingly, she also accuses him of undervaluing himself by so lightly setting aside his own oath; a man's oath and his resolve to keep it are tokens of his true dignity as a moral agent. To be bound by one's own word is to legislate for oneself and to commit oneself to being the kind of human being that can determine itself to its own commitments, to its vision of its own future. But in the shadow of Antonio Bassanio takes himself as little seriously as he took his love or the character of his wife.77

Bassanio takes up only part of the immediate challenge posed by Portia's accusation: it was not a smirch upon his honor to give away the ring but a requirement of it (5.1.218-19). So much was this a demand of his honor that had Portia, who now claims to speak on behalf of his honor, “been there [he] thinks [she] would have begged / The ring of [him] to give the worthy doctor” (5.1.221-22). He replies to her charge about his honor, but she no doubt notices that he has said not a word about the other two points of her accusation, that he slighted both their love as symbolized by the ring, and herself. She is therefore not in the least appeased by his defense.

If he will stand on his honor as a thing apart from their marriage, then she will threaten his honor in a way that will remind him that his honor is now at least in part in her keeping:

Let not that doctor e'er come near my house.
… I will become as liberal as you;
I'll not deny him anything I have,
No, not my body nor my husband's bed.


This is not merely a threat to his honor, but an expression of hers: “Now by mine honor, which is yet mine own, / I'll have that doctor for mine bedfellow” (5.1.232-34). If Bassanio attempts to treat his honor as his own, that is, independent of her and their marriage, then she can treat her honor in the same way. But, of course, the premise of her speech is precisely the opposite, that both their honors are now inseparably bound up with the other's; her first need is to get Bassanio to see and understand at least this much. By standing up for her own honor, she at the same time attempts to make him see and understand something of her undervalued worth.

Before Bassanio can reply, Nerissa, Gratiano, and Antonio intervene. Antonio's brief interjection—“I am th' unhappy subject of these quarrels”—is especially important, because the discussion between Portia and Bassanio has been moving in the direction of the recognition of Antonio's role in the incident. At first Bassanio defended himself for giving the ring away “unwillingly,” constrained by the “civil doctor's” unwillingness to accept anything but the ring (5.1.196, 210). After Portia reminds him of the unreasonableness of such a gift, Bassanio subtly shifts ground. In his next speech he refers to the “enforced” character of his gift, but no longer is the doctor implied to be the source of the compulsion. It is left at the vague admission, “I was enforced to send it after him” (5.1.216). But the audience knows and Portia knows or suspects that the compulsion came from Antonio. This is just what Portia is attempting to make Bassanio see and to truly understand. She can free Bassanio from the bond of Antonio's love only by exposing its grasping underside.

As in the casket scene, Bassanio proves a remarkably apt pupil of Portia's subtle instruction. She brings him to the self-knowledge he has thus far almost completely lacked: “I swear to thee, ever by thine own fair eyes, / Wherein I see myself” (5.1.242-43). He sees himself and his situation in her eyes, that is to say, he sees himself as she does; as Portia puts it, he sees himself as a double-dealer: “In both my eyes he doubly sees himself, / In each eye one” (5.1.244-45). Because of this newly acquired self-knowledge, he capitulates completely. He no longer protests that Portia would have willed he do as he did, but twice within ten lines he asks her pardon. The first time he continues to speak of it as an “enforced” deed, but he now calls it a “wrong.” The second time he drops all reference to compulsion, and calls it not merely wrong, but a “fault” (5.1.240, 247).

Bassanio at one and the same moment has broken Antonio's spell and become a man, responsible for himself and the moral character of his actions. He has finally become worthy of Portia, who has herself become worthy of the love of another mature adult by facing her own errors and despair. By this last scene she is no longer the talented, beautiful, wealthy but spoiled heiress of the opening of the play and the casket scene, just as he is no longer the fortune-hunting adventurer. Neither Medea nor Jason, Portia and Bassanio become fit heroes of a comic world where love thrives.78

In order to recognize his deed as a “fault,” Bassanio must see in Portia's eyes not only himself, but his susceptibility to Antonio and the character of Antonio's love game. She helps him to see both by making him relive and ponder deeply his own and Antonio's deeds, but also by making him look into himself and reconsider the nature of love. He discovers not only the underlying will to power in Antonio's professed selfless love, but he discovers a core of selfishness in love itself.79 The lover seeks an exclusive possession—sexual, but more than sexual—of the beloved. Love is of and for the other, but it is of and for the self, as well. This was true even of Antonio's love, but only illicitly so. By becoming more self-consciously selfish in his understanding of love, Bassanio also becomes more genuinely loving. He gives up not only Antonio, but that pride that prevented him from admitting fault and asking pardon. To paraphrase a much less insightful, more modern statement, Bassanio discovers that love is learning to say you're sorry. Bassanio comes to understand the kind of risk and hazard that, according to the lead casket, love entails.

Contrary to first impression, Antonio's kind of love does that much less well. Bassanio and Portia learn that love has an indissolubly exclusive character. It can never be the foundation for society as a whole. Human beings cannot build their lives on the purely selfless or sacrificial love which Jesus and Christianity command. In the final analysis, The Merchant of Venice, while not overtly a political play, has deep political implications. Those implications are emblematized most of all in the outcome of the trial: the law provides a solider basis for just and decent social life than the replacement of the law with love can do. A humanely just society is far more the achievement of good laws than of love.80

The promise of The Merchant of Venice nonetheless is the promise of love, through which pleasure, duty, and honor can find harmonious reconciliation. In love and the responsibility it breeds lies the good of the soul and whatever of eternity human beings can attain.81 The culminating moment of the decisive scene is Bassanio's final apology and acceptance of the meaning of his marriage. “Pardon this fault, and by my soul I swear / I never more will break an oath with thee” (5.1.248-49). In that “never more” lies the real moral of this lovely tale of love and marriage: and they lived happily ever after.


  1. David N. Beauregard, “Sidney, Aristotle, and The Merchant of Venice: Shakespeare's Triadic Image of Liberty and Justice” Shakespeare Studies 20 (1988): 33, 48; John Lyon, The Merchant of Venice (Boston: Twayne, 1988), xi, xv, 1-17, 95-96; Barbara K. Lewalski, “Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Quarterly 13 (1962): 328; Joan Ozark Holmer, “Loving Wisely and the Casket Test: Symbolic and Structural Unity in The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Studies 11 (1978): 53; Herbert S. Donow, “Shakespeare's Caskets: Unity in the Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Studies 4 (1968): 86.

  2. On The Merchant of Venice as “the most scandalously problematic of Shakespeare's plays,” and “the only one of Shakespeare's plays … which a sizable body of sane people might consider unfit to be seen or read,” see Lawrence Danson, The Harmonies of The Merchant of Venice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), 2-3; Derek Cohen, Shakespeare's Motives (London: Macmillan, 1988), 104-18; Lewalski, “Biblical Allusion,” 333-34; Lynda E. Boose, “The Comic Contract and Portia's Golden Ring,” Shakespeare Studies 20 (1988): 241.

  3. On the stage history, and Shylock's role in it, see Lyon, Merchant, xiv-xvi, and more generally, ibid., 43; on Shylock as “the play's strongest and most discussed piece of characterization,” see 106. Marion D. Perret, “Shakespeare's Jew: Preconception and Performance,” Shakespeare Studies 20 (1988): 263-64.

  4. See, e.g., Harley Granville-Barker, “The Merchant of Venice,” in Prefaces to Shakespeare (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947), ii, 89, 91.

  5. Contra Lyon, Merchant, 31.

  6. Barbara Tovey, “The Golden Casket: An Interpretation of The Merchant of Venice,” in Shakespeare as Political Thinker, ed. John Alvis and Thomas West (Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1981), 228; Donow, “Shakespeare's Caskets,” 87.

  7. Thus Lyon is quite mistaken to say that the ring incident represents “a new and independent plot [that gets] fully underway only in [the] last act” (Merchant, 117); or to call it “the tangential ring plot” (118).

  8. The clearest account heretofore of the structure is in Lawrence Hyman, “The Rival Lovers in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespearean Quarterly 21 (1970), 109-10.

  9. Quotations are from the Signet edition, ed. Kenneth Myrick (New York: Penguin Books, 1965).

  10. Contra Allan Bloom, Shakespeare's Politics (New York: Basic Books, 1964), 19: “Antonio is sad, and life does not mean much to him” because of his Christianity. Also contra Danson, who associates Antonio's sadness with the “moral failure” of his treatment of Shylock (Harmonies, 32). Neither Bloom nor Danson account for the sudden onset of Antonio's sadness. (Also contra Thomas Fujimara, “Mode and Structure in The Merchant of Venice,PMLA [Publications of the Modern Language Associations of America] 81 [1966]: 509.)

  11. Though cf. Lars Engle, “Thrift Is Blessing: Exchange and Explanation in The Merchant of VeniceShakespearean Quarterly 37 (1986): 21-22 and Allan Haladay, “Antonio and the Allegory of Salvation,” Shakespeare Studies 4 (1968): 111.

  12. Cf. Lewalski, “Biblical Allusion,” 328-29.

  13. Cf. Lewalski, “Biblical Allusion,” 329; Thomas Cartelli, “Shakespeare's Merchant, Marlowe's Jew: The Problem of Cultural Difference,” Shakespeare Studies 20 (1988): 257-58.

  14. Danson rejects the conception that Antonio's love for Bassanio underpins his melancholy because this is “not coherent with the play's overall shape and tone” (Harmonies, 36, 38, 40). This is, of course, a circular argument. Lyon, Merchant, 47, accepts Antonio's love for Bassanio as the cause of sadness, however, as does Keith Geary, “The Nature of Portia's Victory: Turning to Men in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Survey 37 (1984): 58-59.

  15. See Holmer, “Loving Wisely,” 54.

  16. Ovid Metamorphoses 7.38; Frank Justus Miller, trans., Loeb Classical Library, 345.

  17. Beauregard, “Sidney, Aristotle, and The Merchant of Venice,” 33-39, 47-48; Bloom, Shakespeare's Politics, 19; Danson, Harmonies, 51-55; Lyon, Merchant, 45; Geary, “Nature of Portia's Victory,” 60.

  18. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, ed. and trans. Hippocrates G. Apostle (Grinnell, Iowa: The Peripatetic Press, 1975), 1120, 1126-130.

  19. Cf. Geary, “The Nature of Portia's Victory,” 59: “Bassanio … describes his projected journey to Belmont less in terms of intended marriage than as if it were a business venture …”; also Engle, “Exchange and Explanation,” 25.

  20. Boose, “Comic Contract,” 248.

  21. Tovey, “Golden Casket,” 221, 223; cf. Geary's statement: “The scene is tense with an unspoken loosening of ties” (“Nature of Portia's Victory,” 59).

  22. Ovid Metamorphoses 7.9-21, Loeb Classical Library, 343.

  23. On the comparison of Portia and Medea, see Donow, “Shakespeare's Caskets,” 87-88.

  24. Danson rejects in the strongest terms the notion that Portia can have hinted at the right answer: “The imputation … that Portia through the most blatant trick makes her … father's dying inspiration nugatory—is one which … would make the rest of the play inexplicable.” In other words, it conflicts with Danson's sense of the larger patterns and meanings in the whole (Harmonies, 117-18). This is a perfectly reasonable approach, but its circularity must again be noted. The position Danson merely takes for granted is that there is no plausible construal of the whole consistent with this “imputation.” That, I believe, is false, and indeed, to go further, it is Danson, I will suggest, who ignores many elements of the play that are not only consistent with this imputation, but insistently point toward it. A more balanced approach to the question is in Lyon (Merchant, 92-97). Lyon also contains a good discussion of the scholarly to and fro on the issue.

  25. Contra Geary, “Nature of Portia's Victory,” 62.

  26. On the story of Heracles and Hesione, see Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1966), 2:168-73.

  27. So far as I know, Lewalski is the critic to pay the most attention to the Hesione image, but she does not much analyze what this implies about Portia's stance toward the casket test (“Biblical Allusion,” 336).

  28. Cf. Geary, “Nature of Portia's Victory,” 62. Bassanio is a “fortune-hunter.”

  29. Cf. Olivia Delgado de Torres, “Reflection on Patriarchy and the Rebellion of Daughters in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and Othello,Interpretation 21 (Spring 1994): 343; Bloom, Shakespeare's Politics, 24-27.

  30. Tovey, “The Golden Casket,” 217.

  31. Contra Holmer: “Only Bassanio, his wisdom revealed in his soliloquy over the caskets, is capable of loving wisely, and therefore his character guarantees the right choice …” (“Loving Wisely,” 59); and Donow, “Shakespeare's Caskets,” 91.

  32. Cf. the contrary reading in Lewalski, “Biblical Allusion,” 335. She does not note Bassanio's complete failure to attend to the legends or to show any signs of absorbing their point. Also contra Hyman, “Rival Lovers,” 114.

  33. Ovid Metamorphoses 7.285-87, Loeb Classical Library, 363.

  34. Cf. Tovey, “Golden Casket,” 229.

  35. Cf. Tovey: “Such a letter is calculated to make Bassanio spend the rest of his life in remorseful remembrance” (“Golden Casket,” 225).

  36. Emphasis added.

  37. Hyman, “Rival Lovers,” 112; Geary, “Nature of Portia's Victory,” 63, 65.

  38. Cf. Tovey: “Bassanio's preference for Antonio could hardly be stated in starker terms” (“Golden Casket,” 229).

  39. Holmer, “Loving Wisely,” 60.

  40. In his portrayal of Antonio, Shakespeare has come very close to Nietzsche's understanding of self-denying love in 1.13 of The Gay Science: “Even if we offer our lives, as martyrs do for their church, this is a sacrifice that is offered for our desire for power or for the purpose of preserving our feeling of power” (trans. Walter Kaufmann [New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 1974], 87); also cf. 1.14. Cf. Tovey, “Golden Casket,” 224-225, 233; Bloom, Shakespeare's Politics, 19-21; Geary, “Nature of Portia's Victory,” 64.

  41. Cf. Tovey: “As soon as she hears of Antonio's predicament, Portia clearly recognizes the threat that his imminent martyrdom poses to her married life.” (“Golden Casket,” 228); cf. Bloom, Shakespeare's Politics, 29; Delgado de Torres, “Reflections on Patriarchy,” 343; Geary, “Nature of Portia's Victory,” 64; Boose, “Comic Contract,” 250.

  42. See Lewalski, “Biblical Allusion,” 329, 338.

  43. John 15.12 RSV. Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian, in Three Treatises, trans. W. A. Lambert, revised by Harold J. Grimm (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960), 302-9.

  44. Lewalski, “Biblical Allusion,” 334, cf. 339; Tovey, “Golden Casket,” 227.

  45. Cf. Mark 5.1-13.

  46. On Shylock's use of the story of Jacob, see Engle, “Exchange and Explanation,” 32.

  47. Deut. 23.19-20; cf. Deut. 28.12. Note that Deut. 23 joins the very two issues that Shylock joins—usury and uncleanness.

  48. Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica 2-2 Q. 78, A1 Resp.

  49. Ibid. A1, ad obj. 7.

  50. On Shylock, see 1.3.110; on Bassanio, see 1.3.140; cf. 139, 150, 165, 175.

  51. Aquinas 2-2 Q. 78 A1 ob. 2.

  52. On Antonio's Christian vision see St. Paul, Letter to the Galatians, who sees Christianity as a counter-movement to Judaism along three dimensions:

    • Jewish
      • Particularistic
      • Worldly Prosperity (Flesh)
      • Law
    • Christian
      • Universalistic (cf. esp. Gal. 3.28)
      • Spiritual Prosperity
      • Faith-Love (cf. Gal. 3.13; 5.13-14)

    According to Antonio's lights at least, Shylock embodies all three of the Jewish traits, and he the Pauline triad.

  53. Cf. Deut. 14.

  54. Cf. Deut. 14.2, 21, 28-29.

  55. Deut. 24.6.

  56. Deut. 5.17 RSV.

  57. Contra Bloom, Shakespeare's Politics, 23-24, 27.

  58. Deut. 12.15-16 RSV.

  59. Deut., 24.6 RSV.

  60. See Tovey, “Golden Casket,” 232.

  61. John 19.7 RSV.

  62. Matt. 27.24-25 RSV.

  63. Luke 23.4, 14, 22 RSV; cf. John 19.6.

  64. Luke 23.23-25; cf. John 19.12-16 RSV.

  65. Contra Tovey, “Golden Casket,” 237.

  66. Ovid Heroides 12.161-63; Grant Showerman, trans., Loeb Classical Library, 155.

  67. Cf. esp. 5.1.47: Bassanio's “horn full of good news.”

  68. Thus Tovey considerably understates the situation when she says all that remains for Portia is a “chastising” of her unfaithful husband (“Golden Casket,” 230). Cf. Hyman: “The climax of the play, Portia's turning the tables on Shylock, is also the high point of Portia's victory over Antonio” (“Rival Lovers,” 112).

  69. Cf. Hyman, “Rival Lovers,” 112.

  70. This is quite independent of any suggestion of a homoerotic character of Antonio's feelings for Bassanio. Given the echoes of Christianity in the play, I do not believe this is the point Shakespeare is attempting to explore. Cf. Hyman, “Rival Lovers,” 110; Geary, “Nature of Portia's Victory,” 59-60, 66. Note that even though Antonio is denied his Christlike sacrifice, he continues to cast the situation in Christian (love) vs. Jewish (commandment) terms.

  71. Cf. Plato Symposium 177-185; Tovey, “Golden Casket,” 233.

  72. Boose misses Portia's near despair and near failure in her presentation of Portia as the source of “the castrating manipulations of the benefactress who has strategically orchestrated all such acquisitions” (“Comic Contract,” 249).

  73. Cf. Gen. 1.3 RSV.

  74. Robert Graves, Greek Myths, 1:335, 2:253, 258; but cf. Ovid Metamorphoses 12.208-9.

  75. Cf. John 1.9 RSV.

  76. Cf. John 19.5 RSV.

  77. Thus Holmer seems to miss almost entirely what has happened in the ring episode when she says that in giving away the ring “Bassanio is as firmly devoted to Portia as ever; … the bond is still intact” (“Loving Wisely,” 71).

  78. See Donow, “Shakespeare's Caskets,” 92.

  79. Consider Hyman, “Rival Lovers,” 115; in his otherwise fine treatment of the play, Geary misses the real dynamic of this episode when he puts its weight on the revelation of Balthazar's identity (“Nature of Portia's Victory,” 66). The decisive things have happened before that revelation occurs. Also see Aristotle Ethics 1170b30-1171a21.

  80. Contra Boose, who sees the ending of the play as showing “an anxiously defensive hostility directed against … the social bond itself” (“Comic Contract,” 251).

  81. Contra Tovey's identification of Belmont and Portia with Platonic philosophy. At this point this otherwise excellent essay loses touch with the play, as in the judgment that Portia acts “to emancipate the potential philosopher [Bassanio!] from the religion of his city” (“Golden Casket,” 234-37).

Tony Tanner (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8799

SOURCE: Tanner, Tony. “Which Is the Merchant Here? And Which the Jew?: The Venice of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.” In Venetian Views, Venetian Blinds: English Fantasies of Venice, edited by Manfred Pfister and Barbara Schaff, pp. 45-62. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999.

[In the following essay, Tanner analyzes the three crucial locations in The Merchant of Venice—Antonio's Rialto Venice, Shylock's Venetian ghetto, and harmonious Belmont—and discusses the troubling elements of this romantic comedy that arise through the juxtaposition of these settings.]

see how yond justice rails upon yond simple thief. Hark in thine ear: change places, and handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?

(King Lear

When Portia, disguised as Balthasar, “a young and learned doctor”, enters the Court of Justice in The Merchant of Venice, her first, business-like, question is “Which is the merchant here? And which the Jew?” (IV.i.173) It is an astonishing question. We know that Shylock would have been dressed in a “gaberdine”, because, we are told, Antonio habitually spits on it. This was a long garment of hard cloth habitually worn by Jews who, since 1412, had been obliged to wear a distinctive robe extending down to the feet. Shylock would have been, literally, a ‘marked’ man (in a previous century he would have had to wear a yellow hat). Antonio, a rich merchant who, we are again told, habitually comes “so smug upon the mart” (where ‘smug’ means sleek and well-groomed, as well as our sense of complacently self-satisifed), is more likely to have been dressed in some of the ‘silk’ in which he trades (look at the sumptuously dressed Venetian merchants in Carpaccio's paintings to get some idea). It would have been unmissably obvious which was the merchant and which was the Jew. So, is that opening question just disingenuousness on Portia/Balthasar's part—or what?

The first act is composed of three scenes set in the three (relatively) discrete places, or areas, each of which has its distinct voices, values, and concerns. Together, they make up the world of the play. I will call these—Rialto Venice; Belmont (Portia's house, some indeterminate distance from Venice; probably best thought of as being like one of those lovely Renaissance palaces still to be seen in the Veneto); and Ghetto Venice (Shylock's realm: the word ‘ghetto’ never appears in the play, and, as John Gross has pointed out, Shakespeare makes no mention of it. But the name Ghetto Nuovo (meaning New Foundry) was the name of the island in Venice on which the Jews were, effectively, sequestered (and from which the generic use of ‘ghetto’ derives); and, clearly, Shylock lives in a very different Venice from the Venice enjoyed by the confident Christian merchants. Hence my metaphoric use of the name for what, in Shakespeare, is simply designated as ‘a public place’). The opening lines of the three scenes are, in sequence:

In sooth I know not why I am so sad.
It wearies me, you say it wearies you …
By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world.
Three thousand ducats—well.

Sadness and weariness on the Rialto and in Belmont; money matters in the Ghetto. Is there any inter-connection? Can anything be done?

Antonio speaks first, which is quite appropriate since he is the ‘Merchant’ of the title—not, as some think, Shylock. Had Shakespeare wanted Shylock signalled in his title, he could well have called his play The Jew of Venice, in appropriate emulation of Marlowe's The Jew of Malta (1589), which was playing in London in 1596 when Shakespeare (almost certainly) started his own play, and which he (most certainly) knew and, indeed, deliberately echoed at certain key points (of which, more by and by). But Shylock is a very different figure from Barabas, who degenerates into a grotesque Machiavellian monster. In fact, Shylock only appears in five of the twenty scenes of the play; though he is, overwhelmingly, the figure who leaves the deepest mark—‘incision’ perhaps (see later)—on the memory. He shuffles off, broken, beaten, and ill—sadder and wearier than anyone else in Venice or Belmont—at the end of Act Four, never to return. But, while the triumph and victory belong unequivocally to Portia, it is the Jew's play.

However, Antonio is our merchant, and very Hamlet-ish he is, too. He sounds an opening note of inexplicable melancholy:

But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born, I am to learn …


We might later have a guess at at least some of the ‘stuff’ it is made of, but for now Salerio and Solanio (another of those effectively indistinguishable Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern couples Shakespeare delights in—it offers another ‘which-is-which?’ puzzle in a lighter key), try to commiserate with him and cheer him up. And in their two speeches, Shakespeare—breathtakingly—manages to convey a whole sense of mercantile Renaissance Venice. Of course, they say, you are understandably worried—“your mind is tossing on the ocean”—about your “argosies” (a very recent English word for large merchant ships, coming from the Venetian Adriatic port of Ragusa—and also used in Marlowe's play). Salerio, packing all the pride and confident arrogance of imperial, incomparable Venice into his lines, imagines those ships as “rich burghers on the flood”, or “pageants [magnificent floats in festival and carnival parades] of the sea”, which

Do overpeer the petty traffickers
That cursy [curtsy] to them, do them reverence,
As they fly by them with their woven wings.


Other sea-faring traders are “petty traffickers”: Venetian merchants, attracting and exacting world-wide admiration and deference, are something quite superbly else. Solanio chimes in, evoking a merchant's necessary anxieties about winds, maps, ports, piers, and everything that, he says, “might make me fear / Misfortune to my ventures”—‘ventures’ is a word to watch. Salerio develops the theme, imagining how everything he saw on land would somehow remind him of shipwrecks:

Should I go to church
And see the holy edifice of stone
And not bethink me straight 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 silks—
And in a word, but even now worth this,
And now worth nothing?


“But now a king, now thus”, says Salisbury when he watches King John die, pondering the awesome mortality of kings (King John V,vii,60). In this Venice, there is much the same feeling about the loss of one of their argosies, monarchs (or burghers—it was a republic) of the sea as they were. And what a sense of riches is compacted into the lines imagining spices scattered on the stream, and waves robed in silk—an image of spilt magnificence if ever there was one.

It is important to note Salerio's reference to “church … the holy edifice of stone”. In one of those contrasts dear to artists, the stillness and fixity of the holy edifice of stone is to be seen behind the flying ships on the tossing oceans and flowing streams—the eternal values of the church conjoined with, and in some way legitimating, the worldly wealth-gathering of the sea-venturing, transient merchants; the spiritual ideals sustaining the material practices. For Venice was a holy city (the Crusades left from there), as well as the centre of a glorious worldly empire. It was an object of awe and fascination to the Elizabethans. Indeed, as Philip Brockbank suggested, Venice was for Renaissance writers what Tyre was for the prophet Isaiah—“the crowning city, whose merchants are princes, whose traffickers are the honourable of the earth” (Isaiah 23:8). But Tyre was also a “harlot” who made “sweet music”, and Isaiah prophesies that it “shall commit fornication with all the kingdoms of the world” (Venice was also famed, or notorious, for its alleged sensualities—in Elizabethan London there was a brothel simply named ‘Venice’). But, also this about Tyre:

And her merchandise and her hire shall be holiness to the Lord: for it shall not be treasured nor laid up; for her merchandise shall be for them that dwell before the Lord, to eat sufficiently, and for durable clothing.


Traditionally, religion is ascetic and preaches a rejection of worldly goods. But here we see religion and the ‘use of riches’ creatively reconciled—and by spending, not hoarding. As Tyre, so Venice. But there is, in Isaiah, an apocalyptic warning—that God will turn the whole city “upside down” and “scatter” the inhabitants—

And it shall be, as with the people, so with the priest … as with the buyer, so with the seller; as with the lender, so with the borrower; as with the taker of usury, so with the giver of usury to him. The land shall be utterly emptied, and utterly spoiled: for the Lord hath spoken this word.


Ruskin would say that that was effectively what did happen to Venice. But that is another story. The point for us here is that the Venetian setting of his play allowed Shakespeare to pursue his exploratory interest in (I quote Brockbank)

the relationship between the values of empire and those of the aspiring affections, human and divine; those of the City of Man and those of the City of God … between the values we are encouraged to cultivate in a mercantile, moneyed and martial society, and those which are looked for in Christian community and fellowship; between those who believe in the gospel teachings of poverty, humility and passivity, and those who (as the creative hypocrisy requires) pretend to.

Returning to the play, Solanio says that if Antontio is not sad on account of his “merchandise”, then he must be in love. Antonio turns away the suggestion with a “Fie, fie!”. As it happens, I think this is close to the mark, but we will come to that. Here Solanio gives up on trying to find a reason for Antonio's gloom—

Then let us say you are sad
Because you are not merry; and 'twere as easy
For you to laugh and leap, and say you are merry.


And he leaves with Salerio, who says to Antonio—“I would have stayed till I had made you merry”. ‘Merry’ is a lovely word from old English, suggesting pleasing, amusing, agreeable, full of lively enjoyment. “To be merry best becomes you,” says Don Pedro to the vivacious Beatrice “for out o' question, you were born in a merry hour” (Much Ado II,i,313-4)—and we feel he has chosen just the right word. The princely merchants of Venice favour the word, for, in their aristocratic way, they believe in ‘merriment’. It is an unequivocally positive word; it has no dark side, and carries no shadow. Yet in this play, Shakespeare makes it become ominous. When Shylock suggests to Antonio that he pledges a pound of his flesh as surety for the three thousand ducat loan, he refers to it as a “merry bond”, signed in a spirit of “merry sport” (I,iii,170,142). The word has lost its innocence and is becoming sinister. The last time we hear it is from Shylock's daughter, Jessica in Belmont—“I am never merry when I hear sweet music” (V,i,69). After her private duet with Lorenzo, nobody speaks to Jessica in Belmont and these are, indeed, her last words in the play. It is hard to feel that she will be happily assimilated into the Belmont world. Something has happened to ‘merry-ness’, and although Belmont is, distinctly, an abode of “sweet music”, a note of un-merry sadness lingers in the air.

When Bassanio enters with Gratiano, he says to the departing Salerio and Solanio, as if reproachfully, “You grow exceeding strange; must it be so?” (I,i,67) It is a word which recurs in a variety of contexts, and it reminds us that there is ‘strangeness’ in Venice, centring on Shylock, whose “strange apparent cruelty” (IV,i,21) is some sort of reflection of, response to, the fact that he is treated like “a stranger cur” (I,iii,115) in Venice. And he is, by law, an alien in the city—the stranger within. Gratiano then has a go at Antonio—“You look not well, Signior Antonio” (“I am not well”, says Shylock, as he leaves the play—IV,i,395: now the merchant, now the Jew. Sickness circulates in Venice, along with all the other ‘trafficking’).

You have too much respect upon the world;
They lose it that do buy it with much care.
Believe me, you are marvelously changed.


His scripture is a little awry here: what people lose who gain the whole world is the soul, not the world. A mondain Venetian's slip, perhaps. But we are more likely to be alerted by the phrase ‘marvelously changed’. Shakespearian comedy is full of marvellous changes, and we may be considering what transformations, marvellous or otherwise, occur in this play. In the event, the ‘changes’ turn out to be far from unambiguous ‘conversions’. Somewhere behind all these conversions is the absolutely basic phenomenon whereby material is converted into ‘merchandise’ which is then converted into money—which, as Marx said, can then convert, or ‘transform’ just about anything into just about anything else. It is perhaps worth remembering that Marx praised Shakespeare, in particular, for showing that money had the power of a god, while it behaved like a whore.

Jessica willingly converts to Christianity, hoping for salvation, at least from her father's house, but it hardly seems to bring, or promise, any notable felicity or grace. Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity—which, however construed by the Christians (he would thereby be ‘saved’), is registered as a final humiliation and the stripping away of the last shred of his identity. When Portia gives herself to Bassanio, she says:

Myself, and what is mine, to you and yours
Is now converted.


and this is to be felt as a willing conversion, a positive transformation—just as she will, like a number of other heroines, ‘change’ herself into a man to effect some genuine salvation. Sad Antonio, it has to be said, is not much changed at all at the end—though his life has been saved, and his ships have come sailing in. Venice itself, as represented, is hardly changed; not, that is, renewed or redeemed—though it is a good deal more at ease with itself for having got rid of Shylock. If that is what it has done. One hardly feels that, as it were, the realm has been purged, and that the malcontent threatening the joy of the festive conclusion has been happily exorcised. The play does not really end quite so ‘well’ as that. It is not a ‘metamorphic’ celebration.

It is Bassanio's plea for financial help from Antonio that concludes the first scene, and the way in which he does so is crucial to an appreciation of what follows. He admits that he has “disabled mine estate” by showing “a more swelling port” than he could afford. ‘Swelling port’ is ‘impressively lavish life-style’, but I think we will remember the ‘portly sail’ of the Venetian argosies just referred to, also, no doubt, ‘swollen’ by the winds (cf the ‘big-bellied sails’ in A Midsummer Night's Dream). The Venetian princely way of life is both pregnant and distended—fecund and excessive. As Bassanio is, however inadvertently, recognising by using a key word: he is worried about his ‘great debts’

Wherein my time, something too prodigal,
Hath left me gaged.


Shylock calls Antonio a “prodigal Christian”, and it was always a fine point to decide to what extent ‘prodigality’ was compatible with Christianity (think of the parables of the Prodigal Son, and the Unjust Steward), and to what extent it contravened it. It is one of those words which look two ways, pointing in one direction to the magnanimous bounty of an Antony, and in the other to the ruinous squandering of a Timon. Clearly, the munificent prodigality of Antonio is in every way preferable to the obsessive meanness and parsimony of Shylock. But there is a crucial speech on this subject, tucked away, as was sometimes Shakespeare's wont, where you might least expect it. Salerio and Gratiano are whiling away the time in front of Shylock's house, waiting to help Lorenzo in the abduction of Jessica. Salerio is saying that lovers are much more eager to consummate the marriage than they are to remain faithful (‘keep obliged faith’) subsequently. “That ever holds” says Gratiano:

All things that are
Are with more spirit chased than enjoyed.
How like a younger or a prodigal
The scarfed bark puts from her native bay,
Hugged and embraced by the strumpet wind!
How like the prodigal doth she return,
With over-weathered ribs and ragged sails,
Lean, rent, and beggared by the strumpet wind.


An apt enough extended metaphor in a mercantile society, and the Venetians must have seen many ship sail out ‘scarfed’ (decorated with flags and streamers) and limp back ‘rent’. It may be added that Gratiano is something of a cynical young blade. But the speech stands as a vivid reminder of one possible fate of ‘prodigality’, and of marriage. Ultimately of Venice too, perhaps.

Bassanio, whatever else he is (scholar, courtier) is a ‘prodigal’, and he wants to clear his ‘debts’. Antonio immediately says that “my purse, my person” (a nice near pun, given the close inter-involvement of money and body in this play) “lie all unlocked to your occasions” (I,i,139). This open liberality might be remembered when we later hear the frantically retentive and self-protective Shylock (a name not found outside this play) repeatedly warning Jessica to “look to my house … lock up my doors … shut doors after you” (II,v,16,29,52). The difference is clear enough, and need not be laboured. Antonio also positively invites Bassanio to “make waste of all I have” (I,i,157)—insouciantly negligent aristocrats like to practise what Yeats called ‘the wasteful virtues’. The contrast with ‘thrifty’ Shylock, again, does not need underlining.

But Bassanio has another possible solution to his money problems; one which depends on ‘adventuring’ and ‘hazard’.

In Belmont is a lady richly left;
And she is fair and, fairer than that word,
Of wondrous virtues …
Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth,
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' strand,
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!


Antonio, all his wealth at sea, at the moment has neither “money, nor commodity”; but he will use his “credit” to get “the means”. He will borrow the money from Shylock to finance Bassanio's quest of a second golden fleece. So it is that the seemingly discrete worlds of the Ghetto, the Rialto, and Belmont are, from the beginning, indeed, interinvolved.

Venice, as we have seen it and will see it, is overwhelmingly a man's world of public life; it is conservative, dominated by law, bound together by contracts, underpinned by money—and closed. Belmont is run by women living the private life; it is liberal, animated by love, harmonised by music and poetry (‘fancy’), sustained by gold—and open. However cynical one wants to be, it will not do to see Belmont as “only Venice come into a windfall” (Ruth Nevo). It is better to see it as in a line of civilised, gracious retreats, stretching from Horace's Sabine farm, through Sidney's Penshurst, Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, up to Yeats's Coole Park. As Brockbank said, such places ideally offered “the prospect of a protected life reconciling plenitude, exuberance, simplicity and order.” It was Sidney who said that “our world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden”, and you might see Belmont as a kind of ‘golden’ world which has been ‘delivered’ from the ‘brazen’ world of trade and money. Yes, somewhere back along the line, it is all grounded in ducats; but you must think of the churches, palaces, art works and monuments of the Renaissance, made possible by varying forms of patronage, and appreciate that the “courtiers, merchants and bankers of the Renaissance found ways of transmuting worldly goods into spiritual treasure” (Brockbank). Belmont is a privileged retreat from Venice; but, as Portia will show, it can also fruitfully engage with it.

In scene two, we are in Belmont, and Portia is weary. Partly surely, because she must be bored stiff with the suitors who have come hopefully buzzing round the honey-pot—the silent Englishman, the mean Scotsman, the vain Frenchman, the drunken German, and so on, as she and Nerissa amuse themselves discussing their different intolerabilities. But, more importantly, because she is under the heavy restraint of a paternal interdiction (familiar enough in comedy, though this one comes from beyond the grave). She has been deprived of choice—and she wants a mate. Then we learn from Nerissa about the lottery of the casquets, which she thinks was the “good inspiration” of a “virtuous” and “holy” man. We shall see. But we note that, in this, Belmont (in the form of Portia) is as much under the rule of (male) law as Venice. There are “laws for the blood” in both places, and they may by no means be “leaped” or “skipped” over (I,ii,17ff.). In other comedies, we see inflexible, intractable, unmitigatable law magically, mysteriously melt away or be annulled. Not in this play. Here, the law is followed, or pushed, to the limit—and beyond. Indeed, you might say that Belmont has to come to Venice to help discover this ‘beyond’ of the law.

And now, in scene three, we are in Shylock's Venice; and we hear, for the first time, what will become an unmistakable voice—addressing, as it were, the bottom line in Venice: “three thousand ducats—well”. Shylock speaks in—unforgettable—prose, and this marks something of a crucial departure for Shakespeare. Hitherto, he had reserved prose for, effectively, exclusively comic (usually ‘low’) characters. With Shylock, this all changes. For Shylock is not a comic character. He has a power, a pain, a passion, a dignity—and, yes, a savagery, and a suffering—which, whatever they are, are not comic.

On his first appearance, Shylock establishes his ‘Jewishness’ by, among other things, revealing his adherence to Jewish dietary rules—“I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you” (I,iii,34-5). But when Antonio appears, Shylock reveals a darker side of his nature in an ‘aside’:

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.
.....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. Cursed be my tribe
If I forgive him.


Shylock gives three good reasons for his hating of Antonio—insofar as one can have good reasons for hatred: personal, professional, tribal. This is interesting in view of his response during the trial scene, when he is asked why he would not prefer to have ducats rather than Antonio's flesh:

So can I give no reason, nor I will not,
More than a lodged hate and a certain loathing
I bear Antonio …


His opening exchange with Antonio really defines the central concern of the play, and is crucial. He has already mentioned ‘usance’ (‘a more cleanly name for usury’), ‘thrift’ (which means both prosperity and frugality—‘thrift, Horatio, thrift’), and ‘interest’. And ‘usury’, of course, is the heart of the matter. Any edition of the play will tell you that the law against lending money at interest was lifted in 1571, and a rate of 10٪ was made legal. Queen Elizabeth depended on money borrowed at interest, so did most agriculture, industry, and foreign trade by the end of the sixteenth century (according to R H Tawney). So, indeed, did Shakespeare's own Globe Theatre. Plenty of Christians lent money at interest (including Shakespeare's own father); and Bacon, writing “Of Usury” in 1625, said “to speak of the abolishing of usury is idle”. Antonio, scattering his interest-free loans around Venice, is certainly an ‘idealised’ picture of the merchant, just as Shylock sharpening his knife to claim his debt, is a ‘demonised’ one. But Aristotle and Christianity had spoken against usury, and there was undoubtedly a good deal of residual unease and ambivalence about it. Ruthless usurers were thus especially hated and abused, and since Jews were identified as quintessential usurious money-lenders, (and, of course, had killed Christ), they were available for instant and constant execration. This must certainly be viewed as a collective hypocrisy—one of those ‘projections’ by which society tries to deal with a bad conscience (not that Shakespeare would have seen many Jews in London; it is estimated that there were less than two hundred at the time). Shakespeare was not addressing a contemporary problem; rather, he was exploring some of the ambivalences and hypocrises, the value clashes and requisite doublenesses, which inhere in, and attend upon, all commerce.

The play is full of commercial and financial terms: ‘moneys’, ‘usances’, ‘bargains’, ‘credit’, ‘excess’ and ‘advantage’ (both used of usury and profit), ‘trust’, ‘bond’ (which occurs vastly more often than in any other play: curiously ‘contract’ is not used—Shakespeare wants us to focus on ‘bond’), ‘commodity’ and ‘thrift’. Launcelot Gobbo is “an unthrifty knave”, while Jessica flees from her father's house with “an unthrift love”. This last serves as a reminder that both here and elsewhere in Shakespeare the language of finance and usury could be used as a paradoxical image of love (happiness accrues and passion grows by a form of natural interest). You will hear it in Belmont as well as on the Rialto. When Portia gives herself to Bassanio, she, as it were, breaks the bank:

I would he 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.

(III,ii, 153-7)

Rich place, Belmont; generous lover, Portia!

The absolutely central exchange occurs when Antonio and Shylock discuss ‘interest’, or ‘borrowing upon advantage’. “I do never use it” declares Antonio (what is the relationship between ‘use’ and ‘usury’? Another consideration.) Shylock replies, seemingly rather inconsequentially: “When Jacob grazed his uncle Laban's sheep. …” Antonio brings him to the point. “And what of him? Did he take interest?” Shylock seems to prevaricate: “No, not take interest—not as you would say / Directly int'rest” and then recounts the story from Genesis. This tells how Jacob tricked—but is that the right word?—his exploitative uncle, Laban: they agreed that, for his hire, Jacob should be entitled to any lambs, in the flocks he was tending, that were born “streaked and pied”. Following the primitive belief that what a mother sees during conception has an effect on the offspring, Jacob stripped some “wands” (twigs or branches), so that some were light while others were dark, and “stuck them up before the fulsome ewes” as the rams were impregnating them. In the subsequent event, a large number of “parti-coloured lambs” were born, which of course went to Jacob. Nice work; but was it also sharp practice? Or was it both, and so much the better? Or, does it matter? Not as far as Shylock is concerned:

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


‘Ewes’ may be a pun on ‘use’; and for Shylock, it is as legitimate to use ewes in the field as it is to use usury on the ‘mart’. Not so for Antonio:

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.
Was this inserted to make interest good?
Or is your gold and silver ewes and lambs?


And Shylock:

I cannot tell; I make it breed as fast.


Antonio's last line effectively poses the question of the play. It was a line often quoted, (or more often, slightly misquoted), by Ezra Pound in his increasingly unbalanced vituperations against usury and Jews. The root feeling behind it is that it is somehow unnatural for inorganic matter (gold, silver, money) to reproduce itself in a way at least analogous to the natural reproductions in the organic realm (“they say it is against nature for Money to beget Money”, says Bacon, quoting Aristotle). This enables Antonio to reject Shylock's self-justifying analogy: Jacob's story does not “make interest good”, because he was having, or making, a “venture”, and the result was, inevitably, “swayed and fashioned” by—heaven? nature? some power not his own. This, revealingly, was how Christian commentators of the time justified Jacob's slightly devious behaviour (as Frank Kermode pointed out)—he was making a venture. Antonio's ships are ‘ventures’, and Bassanio is on a venture when he ‘adventures forth’ to Belmont. It seems that the element of ‘risk’ (= to run into danger) and ‘hazard’ purifies or justifies the act. As ‘hazard’ was originally an Arabian word for a gaming die, this would seem to enable gambling to pass moral muster as well. Perhaps it does. Whatever, there is seemingly no risk, as well as no nature, in usury. Shylock's answer, that he makes his money “breed as fast”, is thought to tell totally against him; and Bassanio's subsequent remark, “for when did friendship take / A breed for barren metal of his friend?” (I,iii,130-1), is taken to orient our sympathies, and values, correctly. But this won't quite do.

Because, like it or not, money most certainly does ‘breed’. It may not literally copulate, but there is no way round the metaphor. Sigurd Burckhardt is the only commentator I have read who has seen this clearly, and he wrote: “metal [‘converted’ into money] is not barren, it does breed, is pregnant with consequences, and capable of transformation into life and art”. For a start, it gets Bassanio to Belmont, and the obtaining of Portia and the Golden Fleece (or Portia as a golden fleece). And, as if to signal his awareness of the proximity, even similitude, of the two types of ‘breeding’, with the lightest of touches: when Gratiano announces he is to marry Nerissa at the same time as Bassanio marries Portia, Shakespeare has him add—“We'll play with them the first boy for a thousand ducats” (III,ii,214). You ‘play’ for babies, and you ‘play’ for ducats. Which also means that when Shylock runs through the streets crying “O my ducats! O my daughter!”, (echoing Marlowe's Barabas who cries out “oh, my girl, my gold”, but when his daughter restores his wealth to him), we should not be quite so quick to mock him as the little Venetian urchins. He may not use his money to such life-enhancing and generous ends as some of the more princely Venetians; but he has been doubly bereaved (which literally means—robbed, reaved, on all sides, be-).

Having mentioned that robbery, I will just make one point about the Jessica and Lorenzo sub-plot. However sorry we may feel for Jessica, living in a ‘hell’ of a house with her father; the behaviour of the two lovers is only to be deprecated. Burckhardt is absolutely right again: “their love is lawless, financed by theft and engineered by a gross breach of trust”. Jessica “gilds” herself with ducats, and throws a casket of her father's wealth down to Lorenzo (“Here, catch this casket; it is worth the pains” II,vi,33—another echo-with-a-difference of Marlowe's play, in which Abigail throws down her father's wealth from a window, to her father). This is an anticipatory parody, travesty rather, of Portia, the Golden (not ‘gilded’) Fleece, waiting to see if Bassanio will pass the test of her father's caskets (containing wisdom, rather than simple ducats). He ‘hazards’ all; this couple risk nothing. They squander eighty ducats in a night—folly, not bounty. Jessica exchanges the ring her mother gave her father as a love-pledge, for—a monkey! They really do make a monkey out of marriage—I will come to their famous love duet in due course. Their's is the reverse, or inverse, of a true love match. It must be intended to contrast with the marriage made by Bassanio and Portia. This marriage also, admittedly, involves wealth—as it does paternal caskets; but, and the difference is vital, wealth not gained or used in the same way.

Those caskets! Shakespeare took nearly everything that he wanted for his plot (including settings, characters, even the ring business in Act V) from a tale in Il Pecorone (The Dunce), a collection of stories assembled by Giovanni Fiorentino, published in Italy in 1558—everything except the trial of the caskets. In the Italian story, to win the lady, the hero has to demonstrate to her certain powers of sexual performance and endurance. Clearly, this was not quite the thing for a Shakespearean heroine. So Shakespeare took the trial-by-caskets from a tale in the thirteenth-century Gesta Romanorum, which had been translated into English. Here, a young woman has to choose between three vessels—gold, silver, lead—to discover whether she is worthy to be the wife of the Emperor's son. All we need note about it is one significant change that Shakespeare made in the inscriptions on the vessels/caskets. Those on the gold and silver ones are effectively the same in each case—roughly, “Who chooseth me shall gain/get what he desires/deserves”. But in the mediaeval tale, the lead casket bears the inscription “Thei that chese me, shulle fynde [in] me that God hath disposid”. Now, since the young woman is a good Christian, she could hardly have been told more clearly that this was the one to go for. It is, we may say, no test at all. Shakespeare changes the inscription to “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath” (II,vii,9). This is a very different matter. Instead of being promised a placid and predictable demonstration of piety rewarded, we are in that dangerous world of risk and hazard which, at various levels, constitutes the mercantile world of the play. And to the prevailing lexicon of ‘get’ and ‘gain’ has been added the even more important word—‘give’. One of the concerns of the play is the conjoining of giving and gaining in the most appropriate way, so that they may ‘frutify’ together (if I may borrow Launcelot Gobbo's inspired malapropism). “I come by note, to give and to receive”, Bassanio announces to Portia (III,ii,140—my italics). Which is no less than honesty.

While she is anxiously waiting as Bassanio inspects the caskets, Portia says:

Now he goes,
With no less presence, but with much more love,
Than young Alcides [Hercules], 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!


The “virgin tribute” was Hesione, and her rescue by Hercules is described in Book XI of Ovid's Metamorphoses (where it is preceded by stories concerning Orpheus, who turned everything to music, and Midas, who turned everything to gold—they are both referred to in the play, and are hovering mythic presences behind it). Portia's arresting claim—“I stand for sacrifice”—resonates through the play; to be darkly echoed by Shylock in court—“I stand for judgment … I stand here for law” (IV,i,103,142). When she says “stand for”, does she mean ‘represent’, or ‘embody’; or does she imply that she is in danger of being ‘sacrificed’ to the law of her father, unless rescued by right-choosing Hercules-Bassanio? Or is it just that women are always, in effect, ‘sacrificed’ to men in marriage, hence the “bleared visages” of those “Dardanian wives”? Something of all of these, perhaps. In the event, it is Portia herself who, effectively rescues, or—her word—‘redeems’, not Troy, but Venice. Bassanio (courtier, scholar, and fortune-seeker) is, as we have seen, if not more, then as much Jason as Hercules. The point is, I think, that he has to be both as cunning as the one and as bold as the other. The ‘both-ness’ is important.

This is how Bassanio thinks his way to the choice of the correct casket:

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


This, mutatis mutandis, is a theme in Shakespeare from first to last—“all that glitters is not gold”, and so on (II,vii,65). Bassanio is on very sure grounds in rejecting the gold and silver and opting for lead, in the context of the test. But—‘ornament’: from ornare—to equip, to adorn. Now, if ever there was an equipped and adorned city, it was Venice. It is aware of dangerous seas and treacherous shores, of course; but it is also a city of beauteous scarves, and silks and species—and what are they but ‘ornaments’ for the body and for food? Bassanio is an inhabitant and creation of an ornamented world, and is himself, as we say, an ‘ornament’ to it. So why does he win by going through a show of rejecting it? He wins, because he realises that he has to subscribe to the unadorned modesty of lead, even while going for the ravishing glory of gold. That was the sort of complex intelligence Portia's father had in mind for his daughter. Is it hypocrisy? Then we must follow Brockbank and call it “creative hypocrisy”. It recognises the compromising, and willing-to-compromise, doubleness of values on which a worldly society (a society in the world) necessarily rests, and by which it is sustained. The leaden virtues, and the golden pleasures. Bothness.

Such is the reconciling potency of Belmont; and Portia seals the happy marriage with a ring. But, meanwhile, Shylock is waiting back in Venice for his pound of flesh, and he must be satisfied. Must—because he has the law on his side, and Venice lives by law; its wealth and reputation depend on honouring contracts and bonds—as Shylock is the first to point out: “If you deny [my bond], let danger light / Upon your charter and your city's freedom”. Portia, as lawyer Balthasar, agrees: “There is no power in Venice / Can alter a decree established” (IV,i,38-9,220-1). “I stay here on my bond” (IV,i,241)—if he says the word ‘bond’ once, he says it a dozen times (it occurs over thirty times in this play—never more than six times in other plays). We are in a world of law where ‘bonds’ are absolutely binding. Portia's beautiful speech exhorting to ‘mercy’ is justly famous; but, as Burckhardt remarked, it is impotent and useless in this ‘court of justice’, a realm which is under the rule of the unalterable letter of the law. Her sweet and humane lyricism founders against harsh legal literalism. The tedious, tolling reiteration of the word ‘bond’ has an effect which musicians know as ‘devaluation through repetition’. The word becomes emptier and emptier of meaning, though still having its deadening effect. It is as if they are all in the grip of a mindless mechanism, which brings them to a helpless, dumb, impasse; with Shylock's dagger quite legally poised to strike. Shylock, it is said, is adhering to the old Hebraic notion of the law—an eye for an eye. He has not been influenced by the Christian saying of St Paul: “The letter killeth but the spirit giveth life.” For Shylock, the spirit is the letter; and Antonio can only be saved by the letter. It is as though Portia will have to find resources in literalism which the law didn't know it had.

Tarry a little; there is something else.
The bond doth give thee here no jot of blood;
The words expressly are “a pound of flesh.”
Take then thy bond …
Shed thou no blood, nor cut thou less nor more
But just a pound of flesh.

(IV,i,304-7, 324-5; my italics)

Ex-press: to press out. Portia squeezes new life and salvation out of the dead and deadly law—and not by extenuation or circumvention or equivocation. “How every fool can play upon the word!”, says Lorenzo, in response to Launcelot's quibbles. But you can't ‘play’ your way out of the Venetian law courts. Any solution must be found within the precincts of stern, rigorous law. “The Jew shall have all justice … He shall have merely justice and his bond”. (IV,i,320,338) And, to Shylock: “Thou shalt have justice more than thou desir'st”. (315) Portia makes literalism yield a life-saving further reach. Truly, the beyond of law.

Life-saving for Antonio—and for Venice itself, we may say. But not, of course, for Shylock. He simply crumples; broken by his own bond, destroyed by the law he “craved”. But prior to this, his speeches have an undeniable power, and a strangely compelling sincerity. Necessarily un-aristocratic, and closer to the streets (and the ghetto life back there somewhere), his speech in general has a force, and at times a passionate directness, which makes the more ‘ornamented’ speech of some of the more genteel Christians sound positively effete. Though his defeat is both necessary and gratifying—the cruel hunter caught with his own device—there is something terrible in the spectacle of his breaking. “I pray you give me leave to go from hence. I am not well.” (IV,i,394-5) And Gratiano's cruel, jeering ridicule, with which he taunts and lacerates Shylock through the successive blows of his defeat, does Christianity, does humanity, no credit. Like the malcontent or kill-joy in any comedy, Shylock has to be extruded by the regrouping, revitalised community, and he is duly chastised, humiliated, stripped, and despatched—presumably back to the Ghetto. He is never seen again; but it is possible to feel him as a dark, suffering absence throughout the final Act in Belmont. And in fact, he does make one last, indirect ‘appearance’. When Portia brings the news that Shylock has been forced to leave all his wealth to Jessica and Lorenzo, the response is—“Fair ladies, you drop manna in the way / Of starved people.” (V,i,293-4) ‘Manna’ was, of course, what fell from heaven and fed the children of Israel in the wilderness. This is the only time Shakespeare uses the word; and, just for a second, its deployment here—at the height of the joy in Christian Belmont—reminds us of the long archaic biblical past stretching back behind Shylock—who also, just for a second, briefly figures, no matter how unwillingly, as a version of the Old Testament God, providing miraculous sustenance for his ‘children’ (a point made by John Gross).

But why did not Shakespeare end his play with the climactic defeat of Shylock—why a whole extra Act with that ring business? Had he done so, it would have left Venice unequivocally triumphant, which perhaps he didn't quite want. This is the last aspect of the play I wish to address, and I must do so somewhat circuitously. Perhaps Shylock's most memorable claim is:

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passion?—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?


That last question, seemingly rhetorical (of course you do), but eventually crucial (Shylock seems to have overlooked the fact that if he pricks Antonio, he will bleed too), is prepared for, in an admittedly small way, by the first suitor to attempt the challenge of the caskets. The Prince of Morocco starts by defending the “shadowed livery” of his “complexion”, as against “the fairest creature northward born”:

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


So, a black and a Jew claiming an equality with white Venetian gentle/gentiles (another word exposed to examination in the course of the play), which I have not the slightest doubt Shakespeare fully accorded them (the princely Morocco, in fact, comes off rather better than the silvery French aristocrat who follows him). And Morocco's hypothetical ‘incision’ anticipates the literal incision which Shylock seeks to make in Antonio. When Bassanio realises that Portia is going to ask to see her ring, which he has given away, he says in an aside:

Why, I were best cut my left hand off
And swear I lost the ring defending it.


So, there may be ‘incisions’ made ‘for love’, from hate, and out of guilt. Portia describes the wedding ring as

A thing stuck on with oaths upon your finger,
And so riveted with faith unto your flesh.


‘Rivetting on’ is, I suppose, the opposite of Shylock's intended cutting out; but, taken together, there is a recurrent linking of law (oaths, bonds, rings)—and flesh. The play could be said to hinge on two contracts or bonds, in which, or by which, the law envisions, permits, requires, ordains, the exposing of a part of the body of one party to the legitimate penetration (incision) by the other party to the bond. If that party is Shylock, the penetration/incision would be done out of hate—and would prove fatal; if that other party is Bassanio it should be done out of love—and give new life. Shylock swears by his ‘bond’; Portia works through her ‘ring’.

It should be noted that, in the last Act, when Bassanio is caught out with having given Portia's ring away to Balthasar, he stands before Portia as guilty and helpless as Antonio stood before Shylock. And, like Shylock, she insists on the letter of the pledge, and will hear no excuses and is not interested in mercy. Like Shylock too, she promises her own form of ‘fleshly’ punishment (absence from Bassanio's bed, and promiscuous infidelity with others). As with the word ‘bond’ in the court scene, so with the word ‘ring’ in this last scene. It occurs twenty-one times, and at times is repeated so often that it risks suffering the semantic depletion which seemed to numb ‘bond’ into emptiness. Both the word ‘bond’ and the word ‘ring’—and all they represent in terms of binding/bonding—are endangered in this play. But the law stands—and continues to stand; bonds must be honoured or society collapses: there is nothing Bassanio can do. Then, just as Portia-as-Balthasar found a way through the Venetian impasse, so Portia-as-Portia has the life-giving power to enable Bassanio to renew his bond—she gives him, mysteriously and to him inexplicably, the same ring, for a second time. (She has mysterious, inexplicable good news for Antonio, too, about the sudden safe arrival of his ships.) A touch of woman's magic. For Portia is one of what Brockbank called Shakespeare's “creative manipulators” (of whom Prospero is the last). Like Vincentio (in Measure for Measure), she uses “craft against vice”. She can be a skilful man in Venice (a veritable Jacob), and a tricky, resourceful, ultimately loving and healing woman in Belmont (a good Medea with something of the art of Orpheus—both figures invoked in the scene). She can gracefully operate in, and move between, both worlds. Because she is, as it were, a man-woman, as good a lawyer as she is a wife—more ‘both-ness’; she figures a way in which law and love, law and blood, need not be mutually exclusive and opposed forces. She shows how they, too, can ‘frutify’ together.

The person who both persuades Bassanio to give away his ring, and intercedes for him with Portia (“I dare be bound again”) is Antonio. He is solitary and sad at the beginning, and is left alone at the end. He expresses his love for Bassanio in an extravagant, at times tearful way. It is a love which seems to be reciprocated. In the court scene, Bassanio protests to Antonio that

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, (she certainly does “stand for sacrifice”!), permits herself an understandably dry comment:

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


Perhaps this is why she decides to put Bassanio to the test with the ring. I do, of course, recognise the honourable tradition of strong male friendship, operative at the time. I also know that ‘homosexuality’, as such, was not invented until the late nineteenth century. I am also totally disinclined to seek out imagined sexualities which are nothing to the point. But Antonio is so moistly, mooningly in love with Bassanio (and so conspicuously uninvolved with, and unattracted to, any woman), that I think that his nameless sadness, and seemingly foredoomed solitariness, may fairly be attributed to a homosexual passion, which must now be frustrated since Bassanio is set on marriage. (Antonio's message to Bassanio's wife is: “bid her be judge / Whether Bassanio had not once a love”, which implies ‘lover’ as much as ‘friend’; revealingly, Antonio's one remaining desire is that Bassanio should witness the fatal sacrifice he is to make for him.) Even then, we might say that that is neither here nor there. Except for one fact. Buggery and usury were very closely associated or connected in the contemporary mind as unnatural acts. Shylock is undoubtedly a usurer, who becomes unwell; but if Antonio is, not to put too fine a point on it, a buggerer, who is also unwell, well. …

Perhaps some will find the suggestion offensively irrelevant; and perhaps it is. But the atmosphere in Venice-Belmont, is not unalloyedly pure. The famous love duet between Lorenzo and Jessica which starts Act Five, inaugurating the happy post-Shylock era—“In such a night …”—is hardly an auspicious one, invoking as it does a faithless woman (Cressid), one who committed suicide (Thisbe), an abandoned woman (Dido), and a sorceress (Medea whose spells involved physical mutilation), before moving on to a contemporary female thief—Jessica herself. I hardly think that she and Lorenzo will bear any mythological ‘ornamenting’. And that theft has become part of the texture of the Belmont world. It is a place of beautiful music and poetry—and love; but with perhaps just a residual something-not-quite-right lingering from the transactions and ‘usages’ of Ghetto-Rialto Venice. (The very last word of the play is a punningly obscene use of ‘ring’ by Gratiano, the most scarbous and cynical voice in Venice—again, a slightly off-key note.) There is moonlight and candle-light for the nocturnal conclusion of the play, but it doesn't ‘glimmer’ as beautifully as it did at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Portia says:

This night methinks is but the daylight sick;
It looks a little paler. 'Tis a day
Such as the day when the sun is hid.


A little of the circulating sickness has reached Belmont. The play is a comedy; but Shakespeare has here touched on deeper and more potentially complex and troubling matters than he had hitherto explored, and the result is a comedy with a difference. And, of course, it is primarily Shylock who makes that difference.

Now, let's go back to the beginning. “Which is the merchant here? And which the Jew?” It turns out to be a good question.


Brockbank, Philip: “Shakespeare and the Fashion of These Times”. Shakespeare Survey 16 (1963).

Burckhardt, Sigurd: “The Merchant of Venice: The Gentle Bond”. Journal of English Literary History 29 (1962).

Gross, John: Shylock. Four Hundred Years in the Life of a Legend. London 1992.

Kermode, Frank: “The Mature Comedies”. In: Brown, J. R. / B. Harris (eds.): Early Shakespeare. Stratford-upon-Avons Studies, 3. London 1961.

Nevo, Ruth: Comic Transformations in Shakespeare. London 1980.

Tawney, R. H.: Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. London 1926.

Robert Alter (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Alter, Robert. “Who Is Shylock?” Commentary 96, no. 1 (1993): 29-34.

[In the following essay, Alter focuses on Shylock as the central figure of The Merchant of Venice, contending that the source of the play's enduring popularity can be found in the variety of theatrical interpretations of Shylock’s character.]

The Merchant of Venice has inspired a certain ambivalence through much of its four-century history, and that ambivalence is sharply inscribed in the changing interpretations of the play. What is more surprising is that it has been one of Shakespeare's two most popular plays (the second being Hamlet), as the English literary critic John Gross shows through careful documentation in his highly instructive new study, Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy. Why this should be so is something of a puzzle.

An account of the plan of John Gross's book might make it sound like one of those tedious chronological surveys of the “reception history” of a familiar literary work. In fact, Gross handles his subject with such urbane intelligence and wit, such fine alertness to the telling detail and anecdote, such a nice balance of both aesthetic and moral judgment, that his survey becomes a deeply interesting case-study of the ambiguous relations between literature and historical reality.

Shylock is divided into three roughly equal sections. The first deals with the play itself and its original contexts; the second mainly with stage productions from the 17th century to the present; and the third with the archetype of Shylock and critical, fictional, and dramaturgical interpretations of it. There is a certain Germanic thoroughness to all this—as supposed literary specialists within universities increasingly limit their reading to the same dozen or so texts of Continental theory, the crown of scholarship may well be passing to literary journalists like Gross—but it is carried out with an engaging English lightness of touch.

Thus, we learn all the pertinent facts about Shakespeare's sources; the actual condition of Jews in England (what few there were) and in Venice in the 16th century; Shakespeare's own possible involvement in lending money for interest and venture capitalism. The middle section patiently reconstructs from the available sources the principal English and American productions of the play and their critical reception, and some attention is also accorded to German and French stage interpretations. The final section casts its net wide enough to include various fictional extrapolations from Shakespeare's story; a discussion of Jews in Proust; the psychoanalyst Theodore Reik's free associations, triggered by the play, about his relationship with his daughter; and the British critic M. C. Bradbrook's dumbfounding proposition that “The concentration camps of Nazi Germany bred many heroes and martyrs but also a few Shylocks.” Throughout, Gross has a gift for bringing out the absurd and the outrageous through tersely acerbic understatement, though there are a few points (as in his pillorying of Jonathan Miller's 1970 National Theater production) where his sense of moral and aesthetic seemliness leads him to vigorously explicit judgments.

In broad terms, one can speak of two underlying versions of Shylock between which stage productions have oscillated over the centuries. The first, which dominated productions throughout the 18th century, conceived the Jew demanding his pound of flesh as an embodiment of “savage fierceness, a deadly spirit of revenge,” in the words of Nicholas Rowe's 1709 essay on Shakespeare. That conception was memorably realized in the middle of the century in the treatment of the role by the famous Irish actor Charles Macklin. “There was such an iron-visaged look,” a contemporary of Macklin's observed, “such a relentless, savage cast of manners, that the audience seemed to shrink from the character.”

But in 1814, a hitherto unknown actor in his early twenties named Edmund Kean effected a revolution in the stage interpretation of Shylock by casting off the traditional red wig that had linked the Jew with the devil of the medieval mystery plays and endowing him (in Gross's words) “with a large measure of dignity and humanity.” William Hazlitt, present at the performance as a reviewer, was thunderstruck with admiration. Another contemporary, Douglas Jerrold, said that Kean's sympathetic interpretation of the Jew seemed to the audience “like a chapter of Genesis.”

Later in the century, the actor Henry Irving picked up a cue from Hazlitt in proclaiming, “I look upon Shylock as the type of a persecuted race; almost the only gentleman in the play, and the most ill-used.” Irving's forceful playing of the role became the interpretation that dominated the latter part of the Victorian age. Gross associates this philo-Semitic Shylock with the growth of liberalism in 19th-century England, accompanied by a reflex of conscience about earlier ill-treatment of the Jews and an increasing acceptance of Jews in social and political life. One might add to these plausible reasons a certain imaginative sympathy on the part of the Romantics with the outsider, the figure of the cursed or hunted man, the image of suffering humanity entrammeled in the demonic.

The more or less neat swing from antipathy to sympathy between the 18th and 19th centuries disappears in our own century amid a welter of critical and stage interpretations. At least since the 1920's, there has been no preponderant version of Shylock. Sundry variations on the old diabolic conception alternate indiscriminately with new efforts to render the long-suffering human dignity of the Jew, and there have even been occasional reversions to the oldest stage notion of Shylock as a grotesque figure of fun.

The curious thing about all this, as Gross has occasion to note at several points, is that critics and directors in our time have very often been entirely unaffected by what happened to the real Jews of Venice and Berlin and Warsaw in the terrible middle decades of the century. Shakespeare of course did not write his comedy with an eye to possible future catastrophes of European history, and the play as he framed it certainly has its own thematic and dramaturgical integrity. Gross cites a delicate case in point in the comments on the play, written in 1939, by the eminent American critic Mark Van Doren.

Shylock's voice, Van Doren observed, however differently it might sound in another universe, must, in the world of the play, be “nothing but a snarl, an animal cry sounding outrageously among the flute and recorder voices of persons whose very names, unlike his own, are flowing musical phrases.” This is beautifully and precisely put (Shylock in fact expresses a petulant distaste for music; his speech-rhythms are abrupt, emphatic, and unmusical; Belmont in the play is a realm of enchanting song; and so forth). Nevertheless, Gross is troubled that Van Doren—an admirably humane critic and personally sympathetic toward Jews—could say all this in 1939 without the least gesture of regret for what the Christian habit of thinking of Jews in bestial terms had led to. Literature may be a realm apart, governed by its own subtle laws of imaginative coherence, and Gross grants the virtue of studying those laws in a spirit of detachment. But literature also issues from, and feeds back into, the realm of history and politics, and in view of this, Gross finds a moral flaw in Van Doren's exquisitely disinterested account in 1939 of Shakespeare's Jew.

If The Merchant of Venice is a play likely to elicit an uneasy conflict of perceptions about its moral center in critics, directors, actors, and audiences, this ambiguity has in no way diminished its perennial popularity. In 19th-century New York alone, there were more than 100 productions, or an average of at least one a year. In a smaller time frame, from 1918 to 1939, there were nine different productions of the play in Stratford-on-Avon, and ten each in the West End of London and at the Old Vic. It was a perennial favorite for English school performances; and in American high schools in the last two decades of the 19th century it was, together with Julius Caesar, the literary text most frequently studied.

Beyond the Anglo-American sphere, the play has also had an uncanny appeal for far-flung audiences. It was the first drama of Shakespeare's to be performed in Armenian, the first to be performed in its entirety in Chinese, and the first in Japanese (by a kabuki troupe). In Belgium, up to 1950, there were more than twice as many Flemish-language productions of The Merchant as of any other Shakespeare play.

The extraordinary magnetism exerted by this play on audiences and directors is hard to explain in intrinsic literary terms. If one assumes that the work bracketed with Hamlet at the center of the Shakespeare canon would have to be a comedy (the histories and the late romances being perhaps too hybrid in form to win all-time popularity contests), more compelling candidates readily come to mind. The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing are livelier and more witty by far. A Midsummer Night's Dream is a more splendidly extravagant deployment of the fairy-tale elements in which The Merchant is supposed to excel, just as both Twelfth Night and As You Like It outstrip it in the rich celebration of a world of song, play, and love's fulfillment. And for the sheer funniness of boisterous farce, The Merry Wives of Windsor makes The Merchant's efforts at stage humor look stale and unprofitable.

There are, of course, magnificent moments in The Merchant of Venice: Shylock's famous speeches, Portia's courtroom address, and Lorenzo's magical evocation of the harmony of the heavens near the end of the play (the speech beginning “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!”). But in between, much of the poetry is no more than serviceable, and the comic byplay is often labored and unfunny—dreadful, drearily repeated puns on words like “Moor” and “more,” mechanically insistent malapropisms, crude jeering like Gratiano's taunt to Shylock that he will have to hang himself at the state's expense because the court has not left him the value of a cord. Then the double plot of the creditor's pound of flesh and the fair lady's three caskets is a compounding of contrivance with contrivance. Either one must say, as many critics have done, that folk-tale fantasy makes good theater, or one has to conclude that the mixed marriage of genres here strains even the loose boundaries of comic plausibility.

The Merchant of Venice, then, has its artistic as well as its moral problems. Nevertheless, there must be something about its plot and its central figure that has a powerful hold on the imagination and that accounts for its perdurable popularity. When I refer to the play's central figure I mean Shylock, even though it is Antonio who is the merchant of the title and Bassanio who is the romantic lead, and even though the Jew is only intermittently on stage, entirely excluded by the fifth act. But Gross's history—which provides a starting point for the reflections that follow—offers ample evidence that it was Shylock who was the constant lodestar for actors and audiences: all the great male performers wanted to play him; most critical accounts are, above all, responses to this compelling figure.

The one explanation which I think can be dismissed out of hand is that the play's appeal derives from its exploitation of anti-Semitic fantasy, here tapped into by the greatest dramatic poet in the language. This will not wash because, as Gross shows, many of the most spectacular successes of the play from 1814 onward were passionately philo-Semitic productions. Nor, surely, can anti-Semitism account for the popularity of the play in cultures quite unfamiliar with Jews, or in adaptations that have effaced the Jewish identity of the villain.

With regard to the surprising exportability of The Merchant of Venice to exotic regions, Gross suggests that the fairy-tale elements of the story may explain its universal appeal. (I shall have more to say below about the intertwining of different generic strands in the play.) Still, if the play works its magic for some of the same reasons in kabuki as at the Old Vic, it must also in other respects have a distinctive freight of meaning for the Christian West. Among the frequent reminders Gross provides of that fact, perhaps the most sobering is his report of the spate of productions in Nazi Germany—though with some directorial squirming at the miscegenation allowed by the nonracist anti-Semitism of the plot.

The ultimate power of The Merchant resides in Shylock; and Shylock, as the history of the play's interpretation indicates, is an explosively unstable figure, both as comic villain and as Jew. Let me propose that there is at once a poor fit and a synergy between Shylock's dramatically archetypal role as ill-spirited obstacle in the comic plot—the old man, senex, of Roman comedy who tries to withhold his fair daughter as well as his wealth from her destined lover—and his ethnically archetypal role as bloodsucking Jewish moneylender. There is, I suspect, something about the transgression of boundaries in the ambiguous dynamic between those two roles that gives the play its peculiar fascination.

The catalogue of negative attributes exhibited by Shakespeare's Jew is, alas, what could be expected almost anywhere in Christendom from the First Crusade to the Enlightenment. Shylock is, from his first appearance, the sullenly obdurate outsider (“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”). So far, so good, at least in regard to the historical record: resentment against the Jew as stubborn alien belongs to what the historian Gavin Langmuir has called “anti-Judaic” feeling, in contradistinction to anti-Semitic animus which instead of reacting to the real condition of Jews projects lurid fantasies on to them.

Such fantasies, however, soon abound in the play. The Jew is demonic—“the very devil incarnation,” his servant Launcelot Gobbo announces, with considerable corroboration from the plot; his house is represented as a kind of hell, the antipodes of the aristocratic paradiso of Portia's Belmont. He is also repeatedly referred to in bestial terms, as a cur or wolf (Van Doren's “snarl” is quite to the point). In the algebra of archetypes, the combination of beast of prey and devil yields vampire, an identity Shylock is prepared to claim for himself in his first speech to Jessica—“I'll go in hate, to feed upon / The prodigal Christian.”

Usury itself, the play suggests (in historical bad faith, for it was widespread among Christians by the late 16th century), is a kind of vampirism, and Shylock's implacable demand for his pound of flesh is a horrific literal translation of that metaphor. In turn, Gross plausibly suggests that Shylock's murderous bond is a proposal “to commit ritual murder at one remove.” Portia's courtroom denial to Shylock of any drop of blood thus goes to the very core of the anti-Semitic nightmare image. The fantasy of the Jew battening on Christian blood is interfused in the tale of the pound of flesh with the hostile stereotype of the Jew as usurer—as it would continue to be in a wide variety of texts, from Marx's notorious essay on the Jews to Nazi and Communist propaganda.

Beyond this cluster of repellent traits that are drawn from age-old anti-Semitic imaginings, Shylock exhibits one salient characteristic more closely associated with comic villains than with Jews: he is a dour hater of the revels that are at the heart of the comic world. He is mistrustful of the masked carnival figures surging through the Venetian streets; he despises music (“the vile squealing of the wry neck'd fife”) and is suspicious of metaphor, with an odd little tic of literally “translating” the ones he uses himself; and he sternly disapproves of all forms of risk-taking, whether in business or in games of chance. Finally, and perhaps most crucially, he is a man with a rigidly fixed identity who abhors disguises and exchanged identities. Hence his hostility to the Venetian masks, and hence the poetic justice of his being foiled in justice by a woman got up as a man. The ultimate pain of his forced conversion at the end of Act IV may be the violation not of his creed but rather of his hard-set sense of self. Shylock is the man who insists on being one thing alone in a comic world that celebrates multifariousness and a playful conjuring with appearances.

Now, to all this it is essential to add the dimension of Shylock that has been so abundantly noted by critics since Hazlitt and by actors since Kean—that Shakespeare, with his unrivaled gift for endowing his characters with life, bestowed more touching humanity on Shylock than the prejudices of his culture might have allowed. The most frequently cited prooftext is of course the great “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech, and though that ends in justifying vengeance, Shylock also observes that he has learned the code of vengeance from the Christians—by no means a historically implausible claim in the 16th century.

A more succinct, almost startling, instance in which Shylock's humanity suddenly shines through is when he is told that Jessica, after eloping with much of the family treasure, has traded a particular turquoise ring for a monkey: “It was my turquoise,” he cries out in distinctly uncomic anguish. “I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.” This is no villain who speaks here but a man who truly loved, and was loved by, a wife he still mourns in his long condition as widower, who left him this only daughter, now become his heartless betrayer.

We will remember the ring given Shylock as a pledge of love later on, when Portia and her companion Nerissa give rings to their betrothed lovers, making them solemnly vow that nothing will lead them to part with the rings; the two women then cunningly extract these very tokens of love when they appear in men's disguise in the trial scene. At the very end, with amorous rebukes and teasing sexual puns, the women restore the rings to their bridegrooms and forgive their trespass—but in comparison with Shylock's naked pain over the loss of his dead wife's token of love, there remains a lingering sense of gratuitous monkey business in Belmont. This is a detail in no way required by the comic plot or the larger thematic design, but which Shakespeare's humane genius drew him into imagining.

The character of Shylock, then, bursts through the conventional limits of the comic senex in two opposite directions—in the representation of the suffering of a much-wronged outsider (the “tragic” Shylock, as some critics would have it) and in the demonization of what in other comedies would be the figure of fun (the mythic Shylock). It is hard to think of another comedy that pushes so powerfully against the boundaries of genre in these two opposite ways. Before the fact, one might imagine that such a contradictory conception of character could not work; but in the incandescence of Shakespeare's imagination, the alternating tragic and mythic Shylock comes vividly to life, and perhaps the contradiction at the core of the character explains the power of this strange figure.

But I have been speaking of the play as though the genres and archetypes of literature evolved in a vacuum, without any relation to history. My account so far may say something about the fascination with The Merchant experienced by audiences in Tokyo and Beijing, but for theatergoers in mid-18th-century London or in New York after the Civil War, not to mention Berlin of the 1930's, there were obviously other potent considerations involved. Jews, too, would come to be fascinated with The Merchant of Venice—John Gross offers some piquant anecdotes, for example, about Yiddish productions—but the history of the reception of the play is above all a history of responses by a culturally and often creedally Christian audience.

In this regard, I would argue that there is a deep if somewhat murky correlation between the transgression of the limits of comedy in the play and its intermittent transgression of the boundaries between self and reviled other, insider and outsider. Those contradictory excesses in the characterization of Shylock remind us that comedy's world, where all tigers turn paper, and all obstacles to sweet fulfillment are in the end gracefully overleaped, is only make-believe. In the real world that comedy displaces, there are nightmarish terrors that cannot be dispelled, and pleasure is all too often bought at the price of someone else's pain. Shakespeare in this fashion plays a kind of dangerous game with the genre in which he is working while he nevertheless affirms its logic, rounding out the play with the moonlit postlude of the fifth act in which the figure of Shylock has been entirely exorcised and love sounds its bantering lute song on the threshold of consummation.

Something roughly equivalent occurs in the play's treatment of the cultural conventions of anti-Semitism. It was clearly not part of Shakespeare's conscious design to question the received wisdom of Christian hostility toward the Jews. Living in a country from which they had been banished for four centuries, he had little or no opportunity for firsthand acquaintance with them, and so what he “knew” about Jews was what his culture knew—that they were rapacious, greedy, cunning, and inhumanly cruel. All this is Shylock. There is nothing new about the hostile stereotypes, but, as Gross soberly observes, Shylock the Jewish villain, imbued with the force of Shakespeare's intrinsic poetic power and subsequent prestige, “helped to spread [the stereotypes] and to keep them vigorously alive. He belongs, inescapably, to the history of anti-Semitism.”

If this bleak truth were the whole truth, one might sympathize with the protesters who have emerged from some modern Jewish communities in response to productions of The Merchant of Venice. But Gross is quick to remind us of Shakespeare's inclination, as a playwright who disliked one-sided conflicts, to “build up” Shylock. He could not resist trying to imagine what it might be like to be a Jew, and “dramatic imagination, when it is pitched at the Shakespearean level, becomes a moral quality, a form of humanism.” The disparity between the antipathetic and the empathetic representation of Shylock leaves, in Gross's view, a lingering hint of nastiness in the play. Portia, Antonio, Bassanio, Lorenzo embody the comic virtues of grace, playfulness, intelligence, and loving friendship, but they are also utterly cold, callous, and exasperatingly blithe in seeing the Jew as no more than a vile cur to be driven off with cudgels. It is hardly a prejudice that can have a claim to historical innocence.

Yet it could well be that this peculiar dissonance between the anti-Semitic conception of Shylock and the moments of incipient or genuine empathy is precisely what has excited the imagination of audiences over the centuries. One must remember that it was the Jew who was constantly the archetypal alien in the mind of Christian Europe. There were, to be sure, other candidates: the Muslims, who were actual imperial adversaries; the Orientals, of inscrutable repute; and still more exotic, purportedly savage, types, like black Africans and American Indians. But all these stood on the other side of a distant cultural horizon.

The Jew alone was in the midst of Christendom, speaking Christian languages, conducting trade with Christians, often looking and acting far more “Christian” than the stereotypes of prejudice were willing to admit. And it was thus the Jew, stubborn in his particularism, despised by Christians, who raised disturbing questions about the boundaries of Christian collective identity. Hence a certain persistent edginess about the Jewish other, which could generate anything from a simple perception of difference, or similarity in difference, to genteel discrimination, active persecution, forced conversion, even mass murder.

What happens in The Merchant of Venice is that the accepted definition of self by way of contradistinction to the excluded other is buoyantly sustained, as one might expect in a comedy, while the two-sided representation of Shylock flashes an intermittent, stroboscopic light on a radically antithetical possibility of identity. Perhaps there might be hidden affinities between self and other; perhaps the very otherness of the other is largely a cultural construct.

The intimations of such a possibility in Shakespeare's treatment of Shylock are quite unsentimental. If there are moments when he provides insight into Shylock's very human anguish as an outsider, this invitation to identify with the Jewish villain may also suggest that the predatory aspects of the character, his unbending cruelty, are not to be so patly identified as the exclusive property of the hated alien, but may comfortably nest as well in the Christian heart. If in Shylock the diabolic is made human, perhaps what the culture assumes definitionally to be human may have its own dark part in the diabolic. It is not mere coincidence that the first sympathetic portrayals of Shylock in criticism and on the stage came at the very moment that the blighted Byronic hero was dominating the English literary imagination.

The plot of the comedy, of course, keeps Christian community and Jewish outsider perfectly distinct. In Belmont, far above the mire of Venetian trade with its shady Jewish practitioners, the circle of melodiously named heroes and heroines is happily drawn tight. No Jewish foot is allowed to profane these precincts, except for that of the lovely Jessica, cleansed by baptismal waters. But down in the savage give-and-take of the commercial world of Venice, the barriers between insider and outsider are not always impermeable, and there are fleeting hints that the savagery exists on both sides.

Thus, in Act III, Scene III, Shylock visits Antonio in jail to warn him that on the morrow he will have his pound of flesh. Antonio, ever the perfect gentleman, addresses his Jewish adversary courteously as “good Shylock,” hoping he will persuade the moneylender to show compassion. The Jew, in an ecstasy of triumphant vengefulness, scarcely lets him get a word in edgewise, repeatedly insisting, “I will have my bond.” Antonio quickly abandons the attempt to address Shylock, and with a kind of shrug, explains to his friend Solanio that the Jew hates him because he, Antonio, has given loans without interest.

In all these respects, the scene is entirely an anti-Semitic set-up: Christian nobility, reasonableness, and charity over against “Old Testament” vengeance; pre-capitalist Christian lending as a kind of philanthropy over against Jewish usury. But even when he is playing with loaded dice, Shakespeare cannot refrain from giving Shylock one quick fair throw. “Thou call'dst me dog before thou hadst a cause, / But since I am a dog, beware my fangs.” It is a very small gesture in a scene designed to expose Shylock's inhumanity, but it is nonetheless astonishing. For the fact of the matter is that every Christian in the play, given half a chance, is happy to call Shylock dog, and would clearly do so even without the excuse of his insistence on his terrible bond.

The plot revolving around the pound of flesh preserves the simple and pernicious cultural opposition between bestial Jew and human Christian, or, in theological terms, between the old dispensation of implacable law and the new dispensation governed by the quality of mercy which is not strained. Mercy, however, as exercised by the Christian characters, is conspicuous for not dropping as the gentle rain from heaven on any Jewish head. Shylock, treated like a beast of prey as a matter of Christian cultural practice, defiantly tells Antonio that this, then, is what he will become.

The Merchant of Venice, not through Shakespeare's intention but through his uncanny dramatic intuition, invites Christian audiences to a kind of out-of-self experience. If the looming, sinister other embodies all the hateful qualities that Christian culture would like to think are alien to it, there are also brief but powerful intimations that the other may be the moral and psychological consequence of treatment by the self; that the self may harbor the fearsome attributes it habitually projects on the other; and that both participate profoundly in a vulnerable human condition which the self is usually predisposed to see as its own private property.

Actual productions of The Merchant of Venice have generally opted either for the humane, suffering Shylock or for the diabolic one. But it seems plausible that the magnetism of the work is generated by the interplay between the two perspectives, with all the freight of historical and psychological ambiguities that I have tried to describe. This is by no means Shakespeare's most satisfying play, but the ultimate source of its strange appeal, so finely traced by John Gross, may perhaps be found in the very tensions and disjunctions of its underlying conception.

Cynthia Lewis (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Lewis, Cynthia. “‘A Foolish Consistency’: Antonio and Alienation in The Merchant of Venice.” In Particular Saints: Shakespeare's Four Antonios, Their Contexts, and Their Plays, pp. 51-87. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1997.

[In the following excerpt, Lewis regards The Merchant of Venice as an ironic tragicomedy, concentrating on Antonio as the focus of the drama's ambiguities, contradictions, and equivocations, while also tracing developments in Shakespeare's characterization of Portia.]


Antonio opens the play by speaking three times in seven lines of how little he understands himself:

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;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,
That I have much ado to know myself.

(1.1.1-7; emphasis added)

Thus, he immediately establishes the play's keen interest, which runs throughout, in the inadequacy of human knowledge. As readers and audiences, our first impulse is to provide the reason for Antonio's sadness—in most cases (cases too numerous to mention individually), the cause advanced is Bassanio's imminent departure. To assume so, however, is to remain deaf to Antonio's emphasis and to the dynamic of the entire first scene, which points to the absence of adequate explanations for Antonio's melancholy.1 In the first part of the scene, Salerio, Solanio, and Gratiano all repeatedly guess at what is ailing Antonio. Clearly, none of them wholly succeeds. In rejecting their theories, Antonio reaffirms his self-estrangement: he does not know himself.

Nor does he appear to know the world in which his ships traffic. Salerio's speech about the perils of the sea (22-40), although familiar to the point of cliché, is nevertheless compelling. What's more, it is readily accessible, indebted as it is to the popular conceit of the sea as fortune and built on two simple metaphorical vehicles, “broth” and “church” (22, 29). A rhetorical tour de force, it speaks true: earthly life and goods, “even now worth this, / And now worth nothing,” are at the mercy of earthly change (1.1.35-36). Yet, Salerio's persuasive speech does not move Antonio, who, although manifestly steeped in what Lyon calls an “ordinary and ‘worldly’ world” (31), is nonetheless out of step with that world. He is imprudently confident of his “fortune” (41):

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.


Two scenes later, with like oblivion, he impawns his flesh to Shylock.

Antonio's unskillful maneuvering in a world fraught with danger is pronounced but hardly unique. If he is, as his friends assert, a “strange fellow” and “marvellously chang'd” (51, 76), then he reflects the alienation and unpredictability portended even by the well-adjusted Bassanio as he greets his friends: “Good signiors both, when shall we laugh? say, when? / You grow exceeding strange. Must it be so?” (66-67). All human attachments, the play demonstrates from the start, are precarious. Nor does Venetian Christian culture fully protect its members from social alienation. For, although to themselves they are all natives, to an Elizabethan audience they would have been considered “merchant-strangers,” the term applied by Londoners from midcentury on to “foreign or alien traders.”2 The concepts of native and foreign are relative, dependent upon perspective. Whatever sense of their impregnability may be afforded to the Venetians by their luxury, leisure, and power, it is continually undermined and exposed as contingent.

The effect of such undermining is dramatic irony, the tone that, in turn, dominates the play. In the particular case of the opening scene, the audience is being prepared for the crucial irony to follow, when the Venetians, themselves “strangers” in a variety of senses, treat the Jewish usurer increasingly as a foreigner, naming him “Jew” (passim), then “stranger” (3.3.27), finally “alien” (4.1.349).3 Moreover, one of the chief purposes of such dramatic irony is to expose ostensible binaries in Merchant—like Christian versus Jew, or Venice versus Belmont—as suspicious, perhaps artificial. The more an audience probes the characterization of the Christian Italians in act 1, which Shakespeare takes obvious pains to elaborate at length before introducing Shylock at all, the more they resemble their Jewish counterpart.

Take, for example, the conversation in 1.3 where Bassanio, approaching Shylock in Antonio's behalf, misunderstands Shylock's remark, “Antonio is a good man,” by replying, “Have you heard any imputation to the contrary?” (12-14). Almost universally, critics have cited this passage to show the difference between Jew and Christian, who, as Shylock's retort to Bassanio implies, do not even speak the same language: “Ho, no, no, no, no! my meaning in saying he is a good man is to have you understand me that he is sufficient” (15-17). Shylock's orientation is financial, we read repeatedly in the criticism on Merchant, whereas Bassanio's is moral. But this interpretation is misleading because it ignores Bassanio's attitudes and language as early as 1.1. There, in fact, Bassanio's request to Antonio and his description of Portia appear every bit as mercenary as are Shylock's ruminations over Antonio's suitability as a borrower. Only Bassanio's language is dressier. It is the language of spiritual venturing put to the service of obscuring his motive, which is to gain financial independence from Antonio by attaching himself to “a lady richly left” (161). Read closely, Bassanio's plans to woo Portia through Antonio's renewed generosity are couched in metaphors that are misleadingly high-minded and big-hearted: he wants to “get clear of all [his] debts” to Antonio by “hazard[ing]” another loan from Antonio (134, 151); his object is a woman of “worth” (167); and his “thrift” promises to render him “fortunate” (175-76). Not coincidentally, thrift is Shylock's word for “usury,” as the audience is about to hear in 1.3 (50, 90).4

In effect, Bassanio and Shylock do not speak differently but share the same vocabulary, which Bassanio seems better at manipulating to blur his intent. He may well be attracted to Portia's “fair” looks and “wondrous virtues”—additional elements of her “worth”—as well as to her inheritance (1.1.162-63, 167). Yet, his language of financial speculation in 1.1 fits his professed love for Antonio and Portia only uncomfortably, if at all.

The immediate purpose of the dramatic irony that such implicit comparison between Jew and Christian creates is to puncture any character's pretensions to being essentially different from any other. Such claims to distinctiveness are often made in earnest—for instance, by the duke of Venice, as he pronounces Shylock's sentence at the trial: “That thou shalt see the difference of our spirit, / I pardon thee thy life before thou ask it” (4.1.368-69). They are also parodied by Launcelot Gobbo in 3.5. According to the clown, the conversion from Jew to Christian is of no more consequence than an increase in the price of pork (21-26). In the same scene, moreover, Launcelot is revealed to have easily crossed racial boundaries himself by impregnating the Moor (37-42). In no case are the actual similarities between apparently disparate characters more extensive, however, than in that of Shylock and Antonio, who are far less divided by cultural barriers than bound naturally by their strangeness and estrangement. The one is alienated from Christian society, the other from this world altogether.

Antonio's discomfort in this world has its positive associations with ideal charity, like that of Saint Anthony, and, generally, unlike Shylock's miserliness. The merchant's willingness to dispense interest-free loans is legendary in Venice (1.2.43-45), and his devotion to Bassanio is widely recognized within his social sphere (2.8.35-50). Indeed, a large part of the point about Antonio's willingness to practice hypocrisy in borrowing from Shylock in the first place is that his high regard for Bassanio compels him to. In this sense, he is a conventional wise fool, ruled by irrational love.5 At the same time, however, his is an obsessive attachment to Bassanio; as Solanio says, Antonio “only loves the world for” his friend (2.8.50). Such recklessness proves at least as harmful to some other characters—Shylock and Portia especially—as Shylock's overt hostility. And perhaps not all of Antonio's indiscretions can be attributed to his heedlessness; some seem every bit as calculated as Shylock's aggressions.

Antonio's affinity with Shylock is first evinced in 1.3, where his nature is disclosed through his open hypocrisies. He will “neither lend nor borrow / By taking nor by giving of excess”—that is, unless he needs to (61-64). He will also borrow from a man he has publicly abused, both verbally and physically, and will likely mistreat again (106-31). He will, in other words, practice the usury he reviles. Presumably, he satisfies his conscience by rationalizing the interest he will owe Shylock as adequate payment for his persecution of the Jew:

If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not
As to thy friends, for when did friendship take
A breed for barren metal of his friend?
But lend it rather to thine enemy,
Who if he break, thou mayst with better face
Exact the penalty.


Antonio thus justifies the contemptuous “face” with which he uses Shylock's money. Worth noting here is Shylock's unwillingness to practice hypocrisy of his own until this point. He has refused Bassanio's hollow invitation to dinner and drawn a telling comparison between himself and the prototypical trickster Jacob, alerting the careful listener to his attitude toward his would-be clients (33-38, 71-90).6 In addition, he confronts Antonio's hypocrisy directly (106-29). Only after Antonio insists on contracting with Shylock despite his loathing does Shylock assume his own mask of “kindness” (143):

                                                                      Why, look you how you storm!
I would be friends with you, and have your love,
Forget the shames that you have stain'd me with,
Supply your present wants, and take no doit
Of usance for my moneys, and you'll not hear me.


Shylock can match Antonio move for move, ever deepening his resemblance to him.

In fact, Shylock's shift in attitude toward the bond—from “merry sport” to earnest—hinges on another Christian hypocrisy, the central one in Shakespeare's plot (1.3.145). Having finally consented to dine with the Christians in the spirit of “hate” (2.5.14), Shylock discovers too late just how much they have “flatter[ed]” him with their invitation (2.5.13). The dinner turns out to have been a subterfuge to expedite Jessica's elopement, as Shylock bemoans to Salerio and Solanio upon entering after she has fled: “You knew, none so well, none so well as you, of my daughter's flight” (3.1.24-25). Significantly, at no time hereafter is this hoodwinking of Shylock addressed. Even though it is, in the best light, a morally questionable ruse, the Christians are never held in the least bit accountable for it. Only Shylock is reproached in subsequent scenes for his violent, vengeful reaction to it. What might have happened to Shylock's “stony” heart if a Christian or two in the trial scene had apologized for participating in the earlier scheme against him (4.1.4)? Shylock's public humiliation of Antonio—and the firm control over his nemesis that it requires—are partly, as the usurer maintains, “villainy” that the Christians “teach” him (3.1.71).

I am not excusing Shylock's vengeance, which he clearly harbors from the very beginning: he “hates” Antonio “for he is a Christian; / But more, for that … / He lends out money gratis” (1.3.42-44). Nor do I intend to vilify Antonio and his Christian company. Neither do I mean to ignore conventional sixteenth-century depictions of Jews as monstrous or to pass over or minimize genuine cultural differences in any society, including Shakespeare's Venice.7 They do exist. Yet, differing cultural practices may be mistaken as human differences. I am trying to show that many of the supposed distinctions in Merchant, which attach themselves to categories like Christian and Jew, or victim and villain, are just such mistaken disparities. They are relatively superficial, and they invite disproof. For all the acrimony they arouse among the characters and the disagreement they elicit in audience members, attempts to validate them turn quickly into vain exercises in hair-splitting and, worse yet, detours from recognizing the dramatic irony at hand and the uses to which it is put. The profound correspondences among the characters in Merchant ultimately redirect the audience's attention from a cultural dilemma to a universally human one.8 It is the larger problem of feeling at home in the inhospitable world of the flesh, beginning with the body, which, as Shylock's unpleasant analogy to his vengeful humor indicates, may easily betray and “shame” us: “Some men there are … / … when the bagpipe sings i' th' nose, / Cannot contain their urine” (4.1.47-50). The worldly world of Merchant imposes such severe difficulties as to encourage withdrawal from it.

Put another way, Shylock's social alienation—in some ways caused by himself as much as by others—leads him to a madness much like Antonio's folly.9 Both become increasingly isolated, even imprisoned. As Shylock becomes enslaved to vengeance, his passion finds bizarre reflection in Antonio's passive resignation to it:

The Duke cannot deny the course of law;
For the commodity that strangers have
With us in Venice, if it be denied,
Will much impeach the justice of the state,
Since that the trade and profit of the city
Consisteth of all nations.


The essential truth of these lines notwithstanding, Antonio's specific explanation as to why Shylock must take his pound of flesh, rendered nearly impenetrable by his tortuous language, provides further evidence of his maladjustment to the material world. Yes, he must be shaken here by Shylock's carnivorous presence in the scene, but his contorted syntax owes to more than his present situation. For instance, is the subject of “will impeach” the “denial of commodity” or “the denial of the course of law”? The construction is muddled. Furthermore, the reason that the court might be “impeached” for a decision against Shylock is not, exactly, that Venice relies on “all nations” for trade; more specifically, it is because Venice must protect the foreigners who have relocated in Venice and who contribute to Venetian wealth and security, as Antonio means, but only vaguely relates.10 His wording mirrors his malaise, seen especially in his consistent impulse to deal half-heartedly with the complexities of his existence by evasion, if not altogether removing himself. His readiness to die at Shylock's hands in the trial scene is expressed in the terms of Pauline wise folly: “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” (4.1.114-16). As numerous sequels to this speech demonstrate, however, Antonio's self-negation is not wholly sincere: “You cannot better be employ'd, Bassanio, / Than to live still and write mine epitaph” (4.1.117-18). Antonio still has an ego; in this case, he channels it toward raising himself in others' opinions.

What Antonio projects as his wisely foolish abandonment of self-interest is actually a truly foolish sacrifice of self-protection. He would rather die self-righteous than engage with Shylock, the law, and other worldly concerns, saving whatever face he can by manipulating Bassanio's public display of gratitude toward him. Likewise, the Shylock of acts 3 and 4 foolishly forfeits whatever standing he does enjoy in Venice to satisfy his loathing, as Stephen Greenblatt writes, “against all reason and self-interest.”11 In 1.3, Shylock has appeared attuned to and adept at dealing with life's perils, enumerating the reasons that contracting with Antonio would be unwise (17-25), while Antonio blithely ignores the dangers to his ships and to himself. But by act 4, both men have lost their heads. They are equally at odds with, adrift in, this world.

Their unease, merely an extreme version of that visiting all the major characters, also emerges in Belmont. There it is handled more lightly and yet is enough in evidence to erode the apparent dissimilarities between the play's two settings. Portia's first line echoes Antonio's—both are “weary,” predisposed by their fatigue in “this great world” to retreat from it (1.2.2). As reasonable as are Nerissa's objections to Portia's complaints (1.2.3-9, 27-35), we may well sense, as Portia rehearses the relentless list of suitors to whom she has extended entertainment, that her world-weariness is deserved (1.2.39-111). Being stuck in a country house with a pack of unattractive suitors (one of whom just might choose the right casket) is no one's idea of fulfillment. Yet it is one of the play's many metaphors—others including the Venetian law—for the constrictions that accompany this life. No wonder, in a sense, that Antonio is so ready to leave it.

Still, Portia seems gently mocked for traces of the same characteristics that eventually render Antonio ineffectual in the world. Foremost is her tendency to rush headlong into judgments based on shallow differences, especially race and culture. That Bassanio, a Christian Italian, eventually chooses successfully among the caskets should not be misread as the play's complicity in Portia's xenophobia (3.2). For indeed, as Sinead Cusack has written of her own challenges in performing 1.2, the script leaves little opportunity to rescue Portia from close-mindedness:

For Portia [the problem] is to escape the effect of a spoilt brat maliciously destroying her suitors. Both in rehearsal and in performance this scene [1.2] caused me more trouble than any other. I think we finally made it work, although it was at the price of cutting out the Scotsman, and perhaps one or two others.12

Those “others” are all Others—foreigners who, although they may fail the casket test and make miserable husbands, are deemed “strangers” in Portia's household not on those grounds but for reasons more trivial, like, “He hears merry tales and smiles not” (1.2.123). Portia's crush on Bassanio is also implicitly derided when Nerissa omits his name, citing him as the companion of the Marquis of Montferrat (1.2.114)—an “evocative family name,” writes Moelwyn Merchant, for its associations with a powerful but financially drained Italian aristocracy.13 Marquis Boniface of Montferrat had accumulated quite a debt of his own, at the turn of the thirteenth century, while participating in the Crusades; he eventually paid what he owed Venice by scheming with King Philip of Swabia, pocketing in the process “considerable personal gain” (all in the name of Christ, of course).14

The dramatic irony at work in scenes where Antonio and Shylock judge each other, then, is also operating in 1.2. Portia, too, falls back on false or incomplete assumptions about what constitutes genuine difference from one person to the next and about how much difference is acceptable. Through involving her in the problem of feeling alienated in the world, Shakespeare adds a new element to the equation. Not only is she wistful by virtue of her immersion in the world, and not only does she long to skirt the difficulties of navigating this life that tire her—difficulties implicit in her father's will. But also, like Antonio and Shylock, she copes with the daunting complexities, dangers, and pain of her situation with oversimplifications: all suitors are worthless but Bassanio, who is flawless. Such a response to the complicated challenge of enlightened courtship is particularly characteristic of youths, who, as Portia herself says, “skip o'er the meshes of good counsel the cripple” (1.2.20-21). In addition, her next line implies that it is a mannerism that she will outgrow, cooling her “hot temper” and accepting responsibility for herself: “But this reasoning is not in the fashion to choose me a husband” (1.2.21-22).

The extent to which Portia does manifest growth in discernment over the play's course is a question set in motion by her first scene. Whatever the final answer to it, Shakespeare has illustrated many times over, in act 1 and beyond, that, when faced with confusion, the human inclination is to impose an order that can only fail to contain the confusion. The unruly world defies the characters' strategies for ordering it. The ultimate effect of the dramatic irony in Merchant is perhaps to alienate the audience from the characters enough to confuse and delay its judgment of them, lest that judgment, too, decay quickly into false appearance.


Shakespeare's dominant metaphor in Merchant for artificial constructs that appear to promise stability is the theater. The stage metaphor recurs throughout the first scene, persistently calling attention to the affectation about Venetian manners. First, Salerio fashions an image of Antonio's argosies as the “pageants of the sea,” playing “signiors and rich burghers” to the “petty traffickers,” or smaller ships (10-12). That tableau of courtliness and control, however, instantly gives way to Solanio's reminder that Antonio's ships are indeed vulnerable (15-22), whereupon Salerio abandons his initial scenario and pursues another (22-40), this one more in tune with “[w]hat harm a wind too great might do at sea” (24).

Only a few lines later, Antonio makes his own comparison between the world and the stage: “I hold the world but as the world, … / A stage where every man must play a part, / And mine a sad one” (77-79). Like Salerio's first description of Antonio's argosies, and like Jaques's celebrated “All the world's a stage …,” Antonio's analogy too is reductive.15 Through casting himself in a “sad” “part” (78-79), he believes he has satisfied curiosity as to his melancholy and cleared his future of mystery. Gratiano's reply, fittingly, is to try to break down Antonio's reserve by enacting the part of the “fool”; he also accuses his friend of playing another role than he admits to, that of “sir Oracle,” a man whose “wisdom, gravity, profound conceit” are merely feigned, through his deceptively august silence, in order to cloak his ignorance (92-93). When Gratiano concludes his lecture by advising Antonio to “fish not with this melancholy bait / For this fool gudgeon”—that is, for an inflated “opinion” of his sagacity—he assumes that Antonio has a choice and is not necessarily so scripted as he maintains into a certain way of life (101-2).

Bassanio follows on the heels of this speech with his own categorization of Gratiano, who, he says, “speaks an infinite deal of nothing.” This is a tag that critics have, to my knowledge, never questioned but that seems dubious (114). Gratiano's depiction of Antonio appears on target. Bassanio is about to ask Antonio for money, however, and would thus hasten to smooth any feathers that Gratiano had ruffled. What's more, Bassanio, as we have seen, is himself largely performing here, play-acting, as Gratiano has just described Antonio. He would naturally want to write off the perceptiveness of Gratiano's speech. As Bassanio unfolds his plans to Antonio for wooing Portia, he sets up his characterization for the rest of the play as someone who is always, in part, putting on a show and around whom theatrical language hovers. When he later welcomes Launcelot Gobbo into service by giving him a new “livery,” it is with flair purchased by Antonio's loan, which also, presumably, underwrites his final Venetian “feast” for his “best esteem'd acquaintance” (2.2.154, 171-72). In 2.9, he is said to be approaching Belmont with “(besides commends and courteous breath), / Gifts of rich value,” which he cannot afford, and arriving like a “day in April … / To show how costly summer” is approaching (90-91, 94-95). Such are the “fair ostents of love” (2.8.44)—Antonio's words for the production he has subsidized—that later embarrass Bassanio when, having won Portia's hand and learning of Antonio's distress in Venice, he must own up to his role-playing:

                                                                                                    dear lady,
Rating myself at nothing, you shall see
How much I was a braggart: when I told you
My state was nothing, I should then have told you
That I was worse than nothing.


To argue that Bassanio chooses the lead casket because he knows firsthand that “outward shows [may] be least themselves” is too cynical (3.2.73). Clearly, his character is delineated to illustrate how even the best of men—including one worthy of Portia's love—may easily be tempted to lie rather than risk rejection. He at least eventually tells her the truth about owning “nothing.” And that he continues, even after his confession of his indebtedness, to deal with his discomfort through “outward shows” serves at least one positive purpose: it presents Portia with repeated perceptual tests and lessons through which she can gain experience (3.2.73). Having discovered the element of play-acting in his financial situation (3.2), she is then privy during the trial to his reneging on his vow of love to her (4.1.282-87), and after that to his forfeiting her ring for love of Antonio and for gratitude to Balthazar (4.1.450-51). These instances can only temper her earlier, girlish conviction in Bassanio's perfections, which, just before he makes his choice of caskets, she likens to those of Hercules.16

But, even more than providing a catalyst for both Bassanio's and Portia's maturation, Bassanio's continual reliance on theatrics to make his way in the intimidating world forms part of a much larger web in Merchant, where action is usually acting. I have discussed already the pressures on both the Christians and Shylock in 1.3 to alternate between honesty and hypocrisy as they formulate the bond. Other instances abound. Jessica elopes disguised, while the Christians, “with varnish'd faces,” plan to put on a masque (2.5.33). Portia's father's lottery serves as a skeletal script: it repeatedly prompts suitors to write their own lines within a narrowly defined formula, and it deposits Portia within similar legal confines, which are represented by the casket that encases her picture.17 Portia's own attempt to swindle her ring from Bassanio is a consciously staged event (4.1). But the theatrical extravaganza in Merchant is, of course, the trial, which Portia, with Bellario's help, carefully orchestrates.

The specifics of Portia's conduct in the trial scene temporarily set aside, we should not miss several of the episode's general traits as calculated performance. Much like the final scene in Measure for Measure, where Duke Vincentio secretly directs his subjects' reactions to his gestures, 4.1 of Merchant is also a virtual play-within-a-play. It thus necessarily reminds the audience that the larger work is also fiction, thereby inviting inspection of the characters' various uses of theatrics. In the trial scene, Portia's advance knowledge of how to overturn the bond not only buys her the time to try coaxing Shylock out of his vengeance; it also rigs the other characters' responses to the court's proceedings—or, at least, severely limits the possibilities of their responses. Shylock, for example, never truly has a chance to persuade his “second Daniel” of his cause. But even more to the point, Portia's control over the trial's outcome, artistic in its breadth and resourcefulness, alerts us to how provisional—illusory, really—are all the constructs that are relied upon to stave off social and personal disorder.18 Countless details of the scene—from Shylock's pathetically blind trust in the law's letter to the deliberate instruction with which Portia calls upon first the duke, then Antonio, to sentence Shylock—point up how easily the verdict, but for Portia's firm hand, might have gone the other way. Having done her homework and prepared for the worst, she has guarded against loss; her strategy, akin to that of the contract or bond, is meant to minimize risk.

So is, I would argue, the love for Bassanio that Antonio flaunts in the courtroom, which is of suspicious mettle, if only because of its proximity to so many other examples of feigning, like Portia's role-playing. But Antonio himself offers more grounds for doubting his professions of liberality in love because his words and actions hint of the role-playing he has discussed with Gratiano as the play began. Furthermore, in styling himself a saint, ready to sacrifice his life for friendship, he employs the sort of absolute and ideal terms that, like Salerio's metaphor of “pageants” for “argosies” (1.1.11, 9), suggest a pose. No one can be that virtuous—not in the menacing waters of this world, vividly portrayed in Merchant. Like Antonio's casting of himself in the role of a sad man and like Portia's close direction of the trial, Antonio's playing the martyr seems devised to eliminate risk—the risk of not having his love returned. Significantly, this lack of risk was the factor that made Christian moralists deem usury corrupt.19 Once again, for all of Antonio's labors to distance himself from such worldly imperfections, he appears far more like than unlike Shylock. At the same time, cultural stereotypes receive another lick: Christian liberality, hazarding in love, and perhaps even mercy, versus Jewish miserliness, legalism, and revenge seem more than ever like so many theatrical props. As for Antonio, unless the image of himself that he projects is truer than it seems, it will sooner or later crack. In this case, it is sooner, and the exposure of the man behind the staged type shows much about how the rest of Merchant is played out.


The height of Antonio's role-playing coincides with the point where he most manipulates Bassanio's emotions—that is, when his letter, horrendously timed, intrudes upon the betrothal of Bassanio and Portia, usurping center stage. As Bassanio reads the letter aloud, he may as well be reading a part from a script—in this case, a revision of his life's course:

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.


The letter shows Antonio's love to be conditional. His Christian “kind[ness],” trumpeted by his loyal supporters Salerio and Solanio (2.8.35), craves Bassanio's gratitude in return. It thus represents what Thomas Wilson's Discourse Upon Usury refers to as “Mentalis usura, an usurie of the mynde, when one hopeth for gayne although no contracte be made,” gain not in money but in “thankfull recompense.”20 Antonio's protestations of charity, although they surely embrace some truth about his esteem for Bassanio, also reveal, as Geary puts it, “a desperate attempt to hold on to Bassanio”21 and thereby raise himself in Bassanio's esteem. Such angling may be read as self-interest disguised as selflessness. It compares to his statement in the next scene, 3.3, that he has “oft deliver'd from [Shylock's] forfeitures / Many that have at times made moan to me” (22-23)—a line that appropriates the religious language of salvation (“deliver'd”), that stresses the abundance of his benevolence (“oft,” “Many,” “at times”), and that, therefore, sets himself up to appear a kind of Christ. But Antonio's self-consciousness mars his charity.

Throughout the trial scene, Antonio continues to display what Lyon calls his “talent for the … self-advertising whine.”22 His demeanor of long suffering is undercut by his repeated plays for Bassanio's affection, as well as by startling reminders of how ill at ease he feels in the world. His melodramatic puns, which Portia's verbal adroitness throws into relief, again betray his distress at the prospect of not belonging:

Most heartily I do beseech the court
To give the judgment.
For if the Jew do cut but deep enough,
I'll pay it instantly with all my heart.

(4.1.243-44, 280-81; emphasis added)

Such painful awkwardness portrays Antonio at his most foolish, unable to feel or to express a love that entails true risk—unconditional love—and unable to trust that he could be loved without manipulating Bassanio into it.

Antonio's masquerade as a man of infinite patience, toleration, and charity is loaded with implication in a scene that takes up the “quality of mercy” at its center. How much of what passes for Christian kindness in 4.1, the audience might well ask upon witnessing Antonio's exhibition, is the real thing? That question is urged by no character's attitude in the scene more than by Gratiano's. With a name connoting grace itself, Gratiano is the enemy of Antonio's pretensions to love, echoing Shylock's denigration of Antonio's false humility as the fraudulence of a “fawning publican” (1.3.41). Gratiano, in fact, is the entire play's enemy to theatrical spectacle. Shakespeare's alteration of Il Pecorone, wherein the Antonio figure (Ansaldo) marries the lady's maid, tempts an audience to think of Gratiano as a branching off of Antonio's character, a kind of twin. Both characters, indeed, expose the play-acting in Merchant for what it is—the one, through pretense; the other, through brutal honesty.

I believe that Gratiano has yet to be explored satisfactorily in criticism, though his behavior, especially during the trial, bears significantly upon Antonio's characterization. Gratiano is almost unfailingly regarded as, at best, a Jew-baiting boor and, at worst, proof that Christians can hate as violently as Jews. In either case, he is seen as socially coarse and strident. But depictions of him that stop here take their cue, as implied above, from Bassanio's curt dismissal of Gratiano's observations as “chaff” (1.1.116). In reality, however, not only do Gratiano's statements in 1.1 hit home, but, later, he also speaks the most eloquent lines in Merchant. Significantly, that same speech encapsulates most faithfully the play's constant concern with the desolation that results in a world of change and instability:

                                                            All things that are,
Are with more spirit chased than enjoy'd.
How like a younger 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!


In addition to prophesying the fate of Antonio's argosies, Gratiano discloses the kernel of truth in Merchant that perhaps comes closest to being unimpeachable: that as worldly conditions change, so do human appetites.

This gift of Gratiano's for tapping into the essence of things looks forward to another such unlikely truth-teller in Shakespeare's canon: Lucio, the “fantastic” who dogs the friar/duke throughout Measure for Measure. Many differences attain between the two—most especially, that Lucio receives a stiff comeuppance for slandering Duke Vincentio, while Gratiano is never judged for what he says. Yet, much as Lucio has an odd way of speaking factually about the duke (or seeming to)—even as, in ignorance of the duke, he manufactures lies about him—so Gratiano remains mysteriously incapable of forgery. And, like Lucio, he sometimes appears to mirror the truth without trying or meaning to.23 In 2.6, for instance, just after Jessica exits to “gild” herself with “some moe ducats,” Gratiano muses, “Now by my hood, a gentle, and no Jew” (49-51). Although he intends to compliment Jessica, he inadvertently characterizes Gentiles as “gilded,” preoccupied with the material wealth that Jessica is now adding both to her costume and to Christian coffers.

Gratiano's irrepressible honesty, again like Lucio's, adheres where it is least wanted, though possibly where it is most needed. Duke Vincentio tries in vain to shake off this “bur,” who will nevertheless “stick” (4.3.179), and although reprehensible for slurring the duke, Lucio is still valuable for what he can teach the duke about how his subjects really see him. In a sense, Lucio unveils the duke verbally and does so quite literally in 5.1, when he physically lifts the friar's hood, discovering the real duke beneath his theatrical disguise. Such, I think, is also Gratiano's dramatic function: to resist attempts to suppress truth under a veneer of civility. Bassanio suggests as much when he cautions Gratiano about being himself in Belmont and advises him to play a part instead:

                                                            But hear thee, Gratiano:
Thou art too wild, too rude, and bold of voice—
Parts that become thee happily enough,
And in such eyes as ours appear not faults,
But where thou art not known, why, there they show
Something too liberal. Pray thee take pain,
To allay with some cold drops of modesty
Thy skipping spirit, lest through thy wild behavior
I be misconst'red in the place I go to,
And lose my hopes.


This is all eerily familiar. Wild? Rude? Bold of voice? Thus far, Gratiano has not born out Bassanio's adjectives, although he will fulfill all such epithets during the trial; Bassanio has reason to exaggerate here because, as a nervous suitor, he wants his “show” to be just so (185). Otherwise, he stands to lose his “hopes” (189)—yet another perfectly ambiguous word for what he could gain, financially or spiritually, through marriage to Portia. And the cost to Gratiano of dispelling Bassanio's illusion of suitability? Life as a social outcast, cut off from Portia's fortune and the conduit of Bassanio's friendship. Naturally, he agrees to “put on a sober habit,” to role-play along with his benefactors (2.2.190).

Yet, ironically, Gratiano seems to have less to hide than anyone. Never mind that, until the trial scene, he appears, objectively, to be the most socially well adjusted character in Venice; never mind that Gratiano sails into marriage, which eludes Antonio. He is persona non grata. His very presence is seen to imperil the charades that promise wealth, stability, and prosperity amidst the flux. In the end, however, Gratiano proves unable to don a socially acceptable façade, such that his character comes to embody a principle that pervades the play—the habit of truth to assert itself. His impulse to be himself and to utter the realities that other characters may intuit, but would rather suppress, calls to mind Launcelot's words to Old Gobbo in 2.2, as he attempts, finally, to reveal himself to his father: “truth will come to light; … in the end truth will out” (79-80). Whatever particular truth Gratiano may impart in a given scene, he always somehow displays the darker forces at work behind the cloak of order, normalcy, and reason. Ultimately, Gratiano's truth is the same truth that spoils the masquers' play when, Antonio announces, “the wind is come about” (2.6.64)—the truth that human artifice can exert precious little control over nature's vagaries.

This trait of Gratiano's does not surface fully until 4.1, where he becomes obstreperous: “O, be thou damn'd, inexecrable dog!” (128). On the face of things, the abrupt switch in his characterization may seem puzzling: the only overt link between the Gratiano of the first three acts and that of act 4 are Bassanio's depictions, which, we have seen, do not square with the actual Gratiano on the page, who initially appears well-meaning, perceptive, and even capable of poetry.24 How appropriate if the play's chief mouthpiece for discontinuity were himself Janus-faced, composed of irreducible and inexplicable contradictions. That possibility notwithstanding, at least one common thread does unite the earlier and later Gratianos, however sensible or vicious they may be. As in the first three acts, Gratiano can still be counted on in one way or another to demystify what he, along with the audience, sees, thereby uncovering certain truths. Once he and Bassanio have become engaged in Belmont, for instance, Gratiano does not hesitate to use the candid terms of material gain for their “success”: “We are the Jasons, we have won the fleece” (3.2.240-41). In the trial scene, Gratiano is likely unaware of how effectively he continues to disrupt illusion. Yet he does so by giving frank, passionate voice to the hostility and racism that the trial as play-within-a-play and Antonio as spurious saint are concealing. Gratiano's aspersions may be vile, but, like Shylock's malicious attack on Antonio, they have the virtue of honesty. In this, Gratiano strangely, paradoxically, lives up to his name. “Mercy is not itself, that oft looks so”; Gratiano's inability to pretend is, in some sense, grace indeed. Recalling the socially repugnant fool in book 1 of Utopia, who blurts out the proposition that churchmen ought to minister to the needy rather than to their own desires,25 Gratiano may well be the character in Merchant who most closely approximates the Pauline wise fool. In this he is a foil to the folly-fall'n Antonio.

Yet this is not to say that Gratiano's insults toward Shylock speak equally accurately for all the characters' feelings at the trial or that whatever mercy surfaces during the trial is purely sham. The perspective lent by Gratiano on the multiple, complex occurrences in 4.1 is but a wedge of the entire circle, albeit a sizable wedge. It invites examination of the court proceedings as to their real, versus their ostensible, fairness. How do we understand more precisely the degree to which Shylock's treatment under first Portia, then Antonio, translates into either justice or travesty? The letter from Bellario that introduces Balthazar to the court—another disguised script, juxtaposed against Antonio's letter to Bassanio (3.2)—not only commends the young judge's precocious achievement. It also suggests that the youth's judgment is still being tested: “I leave him to your gracious acceptance, whose trial shall better publish his commendation,” writes Bellario to the duke (4.1.164-66). The pun on “trial” enables the word to refer to both the trial over which Portia will preside and the scrutiny with which the audience is urged to evaluate her judgments by virtue of participating in 4.1 as audience-accomplices.

Measuring Portia's success at dispensing authentic justice, as opposed to fakery, requires further explanation of what, exactly, she aims to accomplish in court. Foremost, as indicated at the close of 3.2, she seeks to release her husband's friend from Shylock's tyranny, as much to benefit Antonio (3.4.10-21) as to comfort Bassanio (3.2.305-6). Although her primary goal is private, however, she also clearly takes care while pursuing her own ends to preserve the law's integrity, as when she denies Bassanio's request to bypass the contract entirely and “[w]rest once the law to [her] authority” (4.1.215). Already, then, even before she enters the courtroom, she is at pains to balance private against public concerns. Once the trial is underway, she quickly confronts another, similar challenge—the summons to arbitrate between the letter and the spirit of the law, an objective all the more vexed by the demands on her from both private and public spheres.

At merely a cursory glance, Portia's predicament, caught as she is between opposing and equally valid claims, registers as difficult. Indeed, it epitomizes the situation in which all the characters in Merchant repeatedly find themselves: that of making impossible choices. At every turn, various characters face one impasse or another. Jessica must choose between restrictive loyalty to her father or a carefree life with a Christian, a dilemma recapitulated in Portia's deciding whether or not to abide by her father's will. Portia's line in that context—“O me, the word choose!” (1.2.22-23)—expresses her dismay at lacking, rather than having, free choice. But she will soon covet the structured choice afforded her by her father's lottery, since she will freely turn to Bellario, her father reincarnated as uncle, for preinstructions about handling the intricacies of the trial. Choice between seemingly irreconcilable options also presses upon Bassanio, dividing his loyalties between Portia and Antonio. That dilemma is more playfully refigured later, in Bassanio's double desire to keep his word to Portia and yet still reward Balthazar, who are, doubly perplexingly, one and the same (4.1, 2). Furthermore, as 3.2 begins, Bassanio, in what can only be construed as the play's near self-parody, must even choose whether and when to choose. Finally, he would rather know his fate than delay it: “Let me choose, / For as I am, I live upon the rack” (24-25). The trial scene, then, is a culmination of this pattern of impossible choice.

Launcelot Gobbo, further fulfilling his dramatic function in Merchant as the mirror of crucial themes, takes the parody of feeling deadlocked to new heights as he struggles with whether to exchange masters:26

The fiend is at mine elbow and tempts me, saying to me, “Gobbo, Launcelot Gobbo, good Launcelot,” or “good Gobbo,” or “good Launcelot Gobbo, use your legs, take the start, run away.” My conscience says, “No; take heed, honest Launcelot, take heed, honest Gobbo, … do not run, scorn running with thy heels.” … “Bouge,” says the fiend. “Bouge not,” says my conscience. “Conscience,” say I, “you counsel well.” “Fiend,” say I, “you counsel well.”

(2.2.2-9, 19-22)

The terms of this parody are those of the old morality drama, Launcelot the Everyman being torn between heavenly and hellish alternatives. The point of the parody is how much more troublesome is the problem of choice in the new drama, which more faithfully renders the world's complexities than do the clear-cut absolutes of moral allegory. In his own rudimentary way, Launcelot suggests the overwhelming confusion that choice entails when he scrambles his moral categories: he aligns the “fiend” with the decision to abandon Shylock, who himself is called “devil” and whose house is “hell” (1.3.98, 2.3.2). “Confusions” continue to reign in 2.2 once Old Gobbo enters and Launcelot plays the role of a befuddling God to his father's blind humankind (37). Launcelot's game of ventriloquizing his own shifting identity in his father's mind cleverly mimics all the characters' sense of dislocation as they fade in and out of apprehension, as well as the audience's continual feeling that reliable knowledge of the characters eludes them (33-101). The punch line that resolves this episode of mistaken identity in 2.2 underscores the very fluidity of identity; Old Gobbo exclaims, on feeling Launcelot's beard: “Lord, how art thou chang'd!” (99).

However humorous is Launcelot's rendition of the quandaries that human judgment visits on the other characters, the problem of choice in Merchant is no laughing matter. It is the plight that, perhaps more than any other condition of being human, most binds the characters together as human, underlying and belying their more superficial differences. It is, in other words, the truth behind the mask of racial, cultural, and sexual distinctions that, in this treacherous world of deceptive exteriors, transience, and myopia, to boot, everyone must not only choose but choose between two cherished possibilities, letting one go forever, and also make such choice in a mist. This is the hard, tragic fact at the core of human existence in Merchant. The cruel necessity of choosing blindly and with finality informs every character's experience equally and, totally without discrimination, alienates them all from their world and from one another. “Joy” is sometimes the “consequence” of judgment, as in Bassanio's happy choice of caskets (3.2.107). One false move, however, and his history would play out like Shylock's, which illustrates how easily a decisive stance, like complete faith in a bond's legality, may bring loss and sorrow. In Merchant, choice persistently entails the possibility of lost and irretrievable opportunity. At its most cynical, the play can even imply that neither of two choices will prove gratifying. Launcelot, again, offers a light handling of a dark notion when he tells Jessica that she is damned whether she claims kinship to Scylla, her father, or to Charybdis, her mother (3.5.15-18). Maneuvering through such narrow straits leaves a wide margin for error.

A comic vision, in which extremes are shown to be reconcilable, is not entirely alien to Merchant. Under a comic star, two opposites give enough to produce cosmic or social harmony, as Portia is attempting to do in the trial scene: she works to negotiate a slender pass between the Scylla of Shylock's fury, lack of pity, and adherence to an unjust law, and the Charybdis of Antonio's peculiar passivity, the Christians' readiness to dispense with the law, and her own private bias in the defendants' favor. In striving to mediate between the letter and the spirit of the law, she is hoping to vindicate Antonio through strictly legal means and, perhaps, add Shylock's education in flexibility to the bargain: she does, after all, give him plenty of time to withdraw his claim voluntarily before she subjects him to his own legalese.27

But what is so remarkable about Portia in the trial scene is her very willingness to take on such a formidable task, especially since, no matter how well, or comically, she satisfies the various, contrary demands upon her judgment, she will likely fall short of the mark. Her partial inadequacy is virtually guaranteed. Whatever comic impulse may inform Portia's skill at judgment or her inclination to effect peace, it will remain at odds with the tragic discontent sown in the play's first lines and cultivated thereafter. For, in addition to whatever personal failings may inhibit Portia's clearer judgment, she has been placed here, as judge, in an untenable position. If the quibble on “blood” that she plays close to her vest stacks the deck against Shylock, then Portia herself has been no less finessed. Any decision she handed down to the court would be hard-pressed to elude the circumstances handed down to her by the play: namely, the unlikelihood that any choice can fully resolve antipathy or thoroughly erase a sense of bereavement.

Put another way, Portia's judgment, no matter how wise, is bound to savor of some theatrical artificality because she cannot hope to reach an ideal ruling—that is, a thoroughly convincing resolution. She is not so foolhardy as Antonio, whose display of spirituality is at least partly counterfeit. Her performance in court is far more substantial and credible. Indeed, her appearance at the trial exhibits genuine self-sacrifice, as opposed to Antonio's hollow shows of generosity; she has forfeited her wedding night and now risks considerable damage to everyone by taking the responsibility for Antonio that he refuses to take for himself.28 This substitution, truly Christian in spirit, evinces her noble recognition that, come what may, someone must step up, settle the contest between Antonio and Shylock, and save Antonio's life. But the conditions of her choice—which are largely out of her control—stipulate that, in some measure, her verdict be implicated as mere pretension to truth, pretension signaled even by her theatrical costume. That disguise brings into incisive focus the bind in which Portia finds herself: she must lean on the power of fiction to perform her office and yet can never shake free of the element of fiction—of untruthfulness to the ideal of justice—in her arbitration.

Judgment in Merchant, particularly in the trial scene, most resembles theatrical illusion in this way, in its failure to contain all desires, to embrace all aspects of truth, to satisfy from all points of view. To be sure, some strategies minimize error and narrow-mindedness: slow and patient deliberation, mature awareness of life's impermanence, adopting the widest possible angle from which to perceive. Executed with even the best of intentions and with optimal tactics, however, human judgment is merely relative in quality. So must be, then, the quality of mercy. For this imperfection the audience is prone to hold Portia and her fellow Christians wholly responsible. Yet, if the audience, too, is invested in making the best possible judgment of the proceedings, it may benefit from carefully sorting out the factors for which the characters can be held accountable from those for which they cannot. Finally, the “poor rude world” stakes its claim on Portia as forcibly as it does on Antonio, and human nature, hers included, tends to deny the unpleasant realities of that world through substituting a fiction for them. At the same time, those realities persist, gnawing away at the fragile fictions. Although Portia's shortcomings as an individual and as a member of her culture are conspicuous, her human weaknesses encourage sympathy. If, for the former, she remains a foolish fool, then, for the latter, she becomes a wise one, undertaking a largely thankless job at considerable personal expense and at high risk of the censure that Antonio abhors.


Portia's development as a character over the course of the play traces, in essence, her growing familiarity with and ease in the “poor rude world.” At her youngest, in 1.2, her lack of sophistication is implied by Nerissa's more extensive worldly experience (“for aught I see,” [5]) and intuition about the advantages to Portia of her father's will (27-33).29 Even here, however, Portia's appreciation of human limitations is realistic beyond her years: “If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches and poor men's cottages princes' palaces” (12-14). Yet her awareness that human inadequacy requires compassion comes and goes. Intolerant of her suitors' gullibility, for instance, she fires off a comment to Arragon that not only puts him down but also runs counter to her own convictions: “To offend and judge are distinct offices, / And of opposed natures” (2.9.61-62). If such were the case, then human sympathy would never be able to temper rigid judgment, as Portia strenuously argues it should when promoting mercy in 4.1 (for example, 184-205). Then again, Portia's suitors, intent as they are on idealizing her into a “mortal breathing saint,” do little to discourage her curt dismissals (2.7.40). For Portia, as for Morocco and Arragon, the other is not fully human.

Not until Bassanio enters in 3.2 does Portia noticeably begin to bend, growing more accepting of another's weaknesses and more modest toward her own. Without any cooling of ardor for Bassanio, she acknowledges that he stands to choose the wrong casket (1-24), and she readily forgives him his indiscretion on learning of his indebtedness (299-314). Likewise, she offers herself to Bassanio acknowledging both her merits—“the full sum of me / Is sum of something”—and her shortcomings: she is “unlesson'd …, unschool'd, unpracticed,” though “she can learn” (157-59, 162). Such concessions to imperfection are intermixed with Portia's increased willingness to accommodate the demands on her of living in a flawed society and an unpredictable world. During Bassanio's choice of caskets, she first pronounces the warning to “tarry,” to “pause”—that is, to approach choice as the perceptual challenge it is (1). She will later, of course, reprise this sound advice in the courtroom: “Tarry a little,” “Soft, no haste,” “Tarry” (4.1.305, 321, 346). In 3.2 she confides to the audience her attempt to heed her own counsel by curbing her “joy” at Bassanio's success:

[Aside.] O love, be moderate, allay thy ecstasy,
In measure rain thy joy, scant this excess!
I feel too much thy blessing; make it less,
For fear I surfeit.


These are the words of a budding realist. Still inclined toward fantasies of Bassanio as a Herculean hero (53-62), she has nevertheless undertaken to mature from and learn through experience, as she promises Bassanio she will (149-65).

And indeed, even in 3.2, which is a prelude to the trial scene, Portia's fortitude of mind and character are clearly superior when measured against her peers'. The other characters surrounding her at the scene's end, all of whom have their own attractions, cannot compete with her impressiveness. Bassanio appears more mature when, earlier in the scene, he chooses “substance”—the real and imperfect Portia—over her effigy, a poor “counterfeit” in which she is drawn as a “demigod” (115-30). But having thus rejected mere “show” at last, his former theatrics ambush him when he is forced to confess his debt to Antonio and is once again brought low in the audience's opinion (256-63). Bassanio's good judgment has somehow outstripped his practical behavior, leaving his actual experience to catch up; he is destined now to learn through trial and error what his choice of truth over “ostent” means pragmatically. At the same juncture in the scene, Jessica has just entered with her Lorenzo (219), the couple presenting a portrait of stolen love next to the earned love of Portia and Bassanio, who seem their elders. Add to this company Antonio, who even in absentia makes his presence felt through his cloying letter (315-22). In a telling gesture, Portia asks to hear the letter read aloud (314). She probably craves to know what she is up against. Here again, she sets herself apart in this group of seemers, all of whom seek out ways to skirt the practical difficulties and responsibilities, the complexities of human life. Never again is the specific contrast between Portia and Antonio more lucid than at the close of 3.2: for, while Antonio can conceive of realizing his devotion to Bassanio only through sacrificing his existence, Portia intends to enlist her “little body” in the service of saving Antonio's, toward the ultimate end of physically consummating her marriage with a tranquil husband.30

Portia's characterization as one who braves the hard vicissitudes of life in order to enjoy its rewards reaches a turning point in 3.4. Easily deceiving Lorenzo and Jessica, she proposes to “abide” in a “monast'ry two miles off,” where she may “live in prayer and contemplation” (26-32). In context, her choice to do just the opposite is crucial. Given the play's larger contention between the active life, which requires risk and flexibility, and the passive life, wherein contemplation breeds dangerous idealism, the monastery is richly symbolic. It represents the literal origins of Antonio's martyrdom, implicitly connecting his saintly behavior with the likes of Saint Anthony, and it suggests the figurative roots of his maladjustment to the material life in which he is engaged. By rejecting the monastic, contemplative life in the guise of embracing it, Portia rejects much about Antonio's values without denying his feelings their validity. She separates the man from his conduct, explicitly extolling his “spirit” (3.4.11-21), though implicitly condemning his destructive behavior by electing to participate in the life he shuns. Affirming her attachment to that life, as well as her self-conception as a servant in it, she borrows as her pseudonym the real name of her man Balthazar.

Such signs bode well. In particular, the suggestions in Portia's choices of reconciling extremes—withdrawal and engagement, censure and approval, master and servant, even male and female—adumbrate an official verdict at the trial that just might avoid the pitfall of all other judgments in the play: that of choosing one option at the exclusion of another. If Portia is indeed trying to achieve private ends without doing damage to public structures, if her deliberations are directed toward serving both the law's spirit and letter and toward bringing Jew and Christian closer to mutual understanding, then earlier scenes would seem to allow her a fighting chance to make some progress on those fronts. Her first substantive statement in the trial scene, which is actually a question, also appears to uphold the characterization of Portia/Balthazar as impartial and poised to recognize the legitimacy in each of two opposing perspectives: “Which is the merchant here? and which the Jew?” (174). What less biased opening could she employ than this one, which denies outward appearance as a factor in her arbitration? Her question indicates her readiness to look beyond misleading racial and cultural distinctions and into the pith of the arguments before her.

Yet I would argue, first, that Portia's question is far more complicated in its significance than I have just said and, second, that the question's tonal ambiguity speaks accurately for that, running throughout the scene, toward Portia's approach to judgment. For not only does her question imply her disinterestedness, but it also exemplifies her theatricality, which continually flirts with false sincerity. In fact, the most obvious point to make about her initial question is that it is a gag—and at Shylock's expense: in late sixteenth-century performance, Shylock's gaberdine and accompanying stage-Jew costuming would have stood out in a crowd of Gentiles.31 Operating simultaneously on a more serious level, however, Portia's apparently innocent question even more subtly raises suspicions about her neutrality, since her terms for Antonio and Shylock—that is, “merchant” and “Jew”—are not comparable, the one referring to a common means of sustenance in Venice and the other to a set of religious and cultural traits that help to alienate Shylock from within Venice. Thus, Portia, from the start, throws the proceedings somewhat athwart the search for justice. She also alerts the audience to the tension, which prevails from here on out, between catering to private interests and heeding the interests of others.

One way to talk about this tension is in terms of how Portia instructs Shylock. Does she, for example, truly attempt to include Shylock's viewpoint in her consideration? Her speech on the “quality of mercy” can be read as such a gesture (184-205), a generous effort to “mitigate” Shylock's severe legal rigor (203). It also contains undeniable elements of tribalism. In a very real sense, before the trial concludes, Shylock “must … be merciful” (183; emphasis added). He can either volunteer to render mercy as an ideal Christian does, without “strain” (184), or he will be required to give it “by compulsion,” legally (183). In any case, his dissent from the “[w]e” who “do pray for mercy” will not be so much as minimally tolerated. Once Portia unhinges Shylock's leverage, depriving him of legal recourse, his forfeiture of his bond and his control of his fortune, are, absolutely, enforced. One could argue that Shylock always has the opportunity, until Portia plays the trump card of her quibble on “blood” (306-7), to relent and soften his cruel demands of Antonio. And many have so argued. But the only authentic opportunity that Shylock has in the trial is to become a Christian—and not the sort of flawed, real Christian represented by other characters in the courtroom but a perfect Christian who lets go of grudges, sprinkles mercy and good will freely, has no property to speak of, and therefore can pose no threat to organized Venetian society. He is also expected to turn the other cheek to those who deceived him in promoting Jessica's elopement and who themselves make no apologies. In effect, Shylock finally has no choice at all and, as a consequence, no audible voice in Venice, no visible role in its fashioning.

All of this reasoning, of course, perverts the audience's direct experience of the scene because it rests on selective evidence. Naturally, we do not want Antonio to die, we do not want Shylock to commit a killing, and we do not want Portia to fail. But what, in our most enlightened moments, we do want instead—the execution of an unbiased justice that validates Shylock's anger as well as Antonio's right to live despite that anger—is not going to happen. Such a resolution of conflict is the stuff of fantasy, not The Merchant of Venice. In fact, if Portia is going to rescue Antonio, she will not—cannot—succeed completely through reconciling him to Shylock. She must resort to hard choices, choices that effectively exclude Shylock, empowering Antonio and his peers to run roughshod over Shylock's feelings of betrayal and desertion and involving Portia's final treatment of the Jew as the “alien” to whom she finally, explicitly, gives the name (349). Many of Portia's statements in 4.1 are capable of being read as judiciously inclusive of Shylock's sentiments; some of those statements may well contradict that ostensible meaning beneath their outward show.

Why Portia must make decisions that exclude and then even misrepresent some of Shylock's identity is the crucial question. Without doubt, she is compelled to her behavior partly by the peculiar weaknesses of her character that have surfaced earlier. To go from despising “all” of Morroco's “complexion” to manipulating Shylock on grounds that he is an “alien” is a fairly small move (2.7.79, 4.1.349). Moreover, Portia's objectivity toward Shylock is surely challenged by the dynamic she witnesses firsthand between Antonio and Bassanio, who needs little coaxing to switch his devotion from his wife to his friend:

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.


Not only has Bassanio adopted Antonio's self-sacrificial stance, but he has also absorbed from Antonio the religious language of love—as in “deliver” (257)—that marks the very removal from this world and its stringent responsibilities that have brought Portia to court in the first place. Here Shakespeare seems deliberately to confound Portia's identities as both judge and wife, demonstrating how lightly the rules of either marriage or of civilization can be abandoned once they prove challenging, as they inevitably and quickly do. Bassanio would just as soon “[w]rest once the law” and “sacrifice” his material life than accept what he cannot change (215, 286). Such far-reaching denial exerts no little stress on Portia's judgment, both private and public. Something has to give or go, lest even the mere semblance of domestic and social order evaporate. That something is Shylock's personality.

Portia's capacity for resolving the controversy at all, given its magnitude, thus deserves admiration. But neither will the attentive audience be able to ignore the abundant details of the scene that tarnish the vision of Portia as custodian of law and marriage alike, because during the trial she is revealed to have compromised standards that, as a judge, she purports to defend. When Shylock denounces morally flaccid “Christian husbands” in an aside, for instance, he briefly transports us to a small but valid arena of dissent against Portia's values (295-97). He fleetingly displays how she has gone to all of this trouble for a man who will disappoint her. At moments like these, Shylock's authority weighs in equal to, if not greater than, his opponents'. Hence, when he is later defeated altogether by Portia's trick and then stripped of legal rights as an “alien,” the audience perforce senses grievous loss. Venice preserved means Shylock dismissed.

Such is Shakespeare's strategy for characterizing Portia's mixed triumph in 4.1. Refusing to retreat from Shylock's savagery, as Antonio and Bassanio are wont to do, she proceeds to make good on her theatrical portrayal of a judge to a point. That point lies somewhere beyond fulfilling only her private agenda and yet falls short of accommodating the public good, in the widest sense. She may slip across that point here and there throughout the trial, but she plants herself there solidly when she dredges up “yet another hold” of the law on Shylock (347), whereupon, in Lyon's words, her perseverance at the “ceremonial formalities of the trial to the end” and her “humiliating denial of Shylock's dignity” exhibit a certain “sadism.”32 Beyond that point, then, her pose as judge is empty affectation. Yet Shakespeare enlarges on the issue of what motivates Portia's actions in the trial and of how to assess her actions with a second strategy: by implicitly comparing and contrasting them with Antonio's judgments on Shylock. The overall outcome of this additional strategy, overlayering the other, is to enhance the positive perspective on Portia's performance as arbiter. To watch the duke and Antonio follow Portia in delivering verdicts is to be reminded of the perils that confound not just Portia but anyone who presumes to pass judgment. In this context, relative to her rival Antonio, Portia seems unusually bold and competent.

Still, confusion of tone dominates as Antonio assumes judicial power. That Portia should relay it to Antonio in quite the way she does, for example, underscores her sacrifice of justice for expediency's sake: by handing over formal, legitimate control to Antonio, she seems to license Shylock's elimination from Venetian society by the very man who has most despised him. If so, she has dispensed with justice. Since Shakespeare is making up his own Venetian law to suit his purposes, he could have seen to it that Portia was legally bound to collaborate with Antonio, rather than surrender her judicial office to him; he could have written the scene so that Portia was interjecting obviously fair, friendly advice to help shape Antonio's judgments. Instead, he leaves Antonio solely to his own devices and, through Portia's acquiescence to Antonio's sentences on Shylock, portrays her as sanctioning them. Perhaps Shakespeare is generously creating the chance for Antonio to display how much he has learned about kindness through his own suffering, as Holmer and others have argued.33 At the same time, however, Shakespeare exposes Portia to greater disapproval from her audience than she has already elicited, should that audience recoil from Antonio's responses to Shylock. It probably does.

As for those responses, neither are they clear-cut; they are not unabashedly steeped in the loathing that Antonio formerly paid Shylock or that Shylock has been directing at Antonio. For starters, that Antonio is willing to take an active step of any kind toward Shylock testifies to his renewed spiritual health; even his honest expression of spite would be preferable to utter passivity, since it would plant Antonio firmly in the world that threatens him and perhaps inaugurate a life-altering introspection. Yet the privilege over Shylock that Portia has surrendered to Antonio is absolute, in that Shylock is suddenly and thoroughly in Antonio's debt, under his control. Such conditions do not make for a true test of Antonio's moral growth any more than they justify whatever ruling he settles on Shylock, since he is now free of imperative to treat Shylock humanely. This lack of constraint coats any apparent kindness on Antonio's part with a sheen of magnanimity, as though he “droppeth” mercy “as the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath” (4.1.185-86). But for all we know, Antonio may again be feigning charity; if Shylock were at liberty to rebel against his pronouncements, Antonio might once again shrink from, rather than deal with, a challenge to his professed kindness. In truth, Antonio is taking no risk in judging Shylock, unless it be that of garnering his peers' disapproval. And since Gratiano is already being the boor, nearly anything Antonio says will seem enlightened by contrast. The only real pressure on Antonio is to keep up appearances, conforming outwardly to the rules of civilized conduct that Gratiano has, conveniently, already blurred through transgressing them himself.

Not surprisingly, then, the substance of Antonio's response to Shylock is enwrapped in equivocation:

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 favor
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.


In fact, the very concept of halving that Antonio takes from the law on which he is putting his personal stamp suggests doubleness about his verdict. On the one hand, he hastens to meet Shylock in the middle, as though he can now see his way clear to settling his differences with his enemy by turning the other cheek. Specifically, in as much as he petitions the duke to dismiss Shylock's debt to the state of half of his wealth (380-82), Antonio opens on a note of liberality. He does not have to make this request for Shylock but, by doing so anyway, seems to favor charity over any private vendetta he may harbor. He further cancels his self-interest by turning his attention to Jessica and Lorenzo, for whom he proposes a trust founded on the other half of Shylock's estate (382-85).

Presumably, then, he intends for everyone to win: Shylock will lose little during his lifetime, since he will be sustained by half his fortune and earnings from the other half, and Jessica and Lorenzo will ultimately inherit all (388-90), including the half that Antonio, apparently, assumes he can manage to their financial benefit, despite his own recently problematic investments. This insistence on Shylock's charity not just to his flesh and blood but also to his son-in-law, is of a piece with Antonio's ultimatum that Shylock convert to Christianity (386-87). Both provisions (to borrow Antonio's word in line 386) can be interpreted as newfound broad-mindedness, a genuine attempt on Antonio's part to bridge the gulf that separates him from Shylock. Nothing about Antonio's speech invites this reading more than his choice of the word use to define the trust he means to establish for Jessica and Lorenzo (383). By selecting, rather than disparaging, the single word that most identifies Shylock as “alien,” he would seem to be supplanting his former vituperation and rejection of Shylock's person and financial practices with a new acceptance. His diction may well indicate both forgiveness and sympathy.

On the other hand, even while Antonio employs the word, he also redefines it, much as he seeks, in effect, to recreate everything about Shylock in his own image, even if doing so entails forcible baptism. To take control over half of Shylock's investments and to demand his religious conversion is to halt his usury altogether and to coerce his conformity with the rest of Venetian society. From this angle, Antonio's conditions for Shylock are not liberal, liberated, or liberating. They are suffocating. They step up Portia's approach to treating Shylock as an “alien” by prohibiting even that meager distinction, which, though not much, is at least Shylock's proper. Withholding even so much as alienation from Shylock, he doubly alienates him; exacting his own figurative pound of flesh, Antonio pushes Shylock into a culture where full participation is, as we have seen, a mixed blessing. Nor does Antonio's vision of Shylock's future at all obligate the existing society to include the newly converted Jew: as Antonio snidely reminds Shylock, Lorenzo “stole” his daughter (385); now he is going to be rewarded for it with everything Shylock can earn until he dies. Some incentive.

In this light, Antonio has not grown in understanding.34 Were he truly merciful to Shylock, as the whole dramatic situation is set up here to imply he is, he would simply be merciful without meddling in Shylock's personhood. His penchant for doing so, however, recalls his attitude toward Bassanio, to whom he promises unconditional love that, in reality, involves plenty of urgent provisos. In 4.1, as well, Antonio places conditions on his “favor” toward Shylock (386), conditions so restrictive as to bind the other party in virtually total obligation to his terms. Once released from his bond to Shylock and given the chance to act freely, he even takes it upon himself to advise and manipulate the duke's decision about the half of Shylock's goods that are forfeit to the state. Portia has just told the court in no uncertain terms that the half in question is properly “for the state, not for Antonio,” although “humbleness” on Shylock's part may induce the duke to lower such a large sum to only a “fine” (373, 372, 371). As though deaf, Antonio immediately presumes to address his first statement not to his own business but to whether the duke should collect all that the state is owed or just the fine (380-82); furthermore, he makes his next judgment, which does concern himself (382-85), contingent upon the duke's enactment of his opening request: thus, between lines 380 and 385 he tells the duke, in so many words, “Please reduce what Shylock owes the state so long as I am permitted to do what I wish with what he owes me.” Subtly but surely, Antonio has interposed himself again where he might take over, whether or not he belongs there.

Such bids for control suggest that, even now, Antonio remains subject to his fears of exclusion. He seems threatened, rushing to alienate Shylock first, as if doing so will preclude his own dispossession. In a matter of minutes, he has pivoted from dealing with the world through emotional paralysis and death-wish to reentering the hardships and confusions of this life by stage-managing. Calm as he may outwardly seem in this scene, his inner panic would appear to endure as he dictates once again how Bassanio should demonstrate his love for his friend: “My Lord Bassanio, let [Balthazar] have the ring. / Let his deservings and my love withal / Be valued 'gainst your wive's commandement” (4.1.449-51).

Thus, a definable pattern in Antonio's characterization from beginning to end comes into focus. His eleven lines about Shylock in 4.1 go by quickly and are overly dense for a first-time audience to grasp fully, but, studied carefully, they, too, substantiate his determination to direct the play's events or to die trying. The theatrical metaphor with which he describes himself in 1.1 has become completely apt by the end of 4.1. Whether Antonio is behaving submissively or asserting himself, he is often practicing some form of passive aggression. The only occasion on which he displays his antagonism outright is in 1.3, and even there it is second-hand, glimpsed through the window of Shylock's narration and affirmed by Antonio himself, who almost, but not quite, loses his temper (106-31). Ordinarily, he is not given to confessing his feelings openly, a habit behind his hypocrisies, like professing love for Bassanio, whose wife he discounts. For his lingering social awkwardness, Antonio is pitiable. But for resorting to misleading emotional and moral theatrics, which are nothing akin to the wise folly he pretends, he verges on abusiveness. In his foolish consistency, he is, at least potentially, as dangerous to social cohesiveness as are large rocks to argosies. Here, too, he is an unrecognized version of Shylock, who differs mainly in that he wears his anger on his sleeve.

If Portia both shares in and countenances Antonio's hypocrisy toward Shylock, she does not abide it toward her marriage. Through appending the substance of act 5 to the action of the trial, Shakespeare fleshes out just how much more competent in judgment has been Portia than we may have thought or than Antonio has proved to be. She accomplishes with the ring trick far more nearly the reconciliation of opposites that also occupied her in the trial. Earlier, her choice resulted in the almost tacit exile of Shylock's variety, albeit menace, from the Venetian order. In act 5, where she forms the triple bond among herself, Bassanio, and Antonio, she comes closer to harmonizing antinomies—here, those of marital love and male friendship.35 The most prominent feature of Portia's judgments, however, as well as all instances of choice in Merchant, is their relative failure or success. No single judgment is completely satisfactory. Some are simply more satisfying than others.


The whole of act 5 is informed by the notion of relativism. Introduced as it is by the rhapsody between Jessica and Lorenzo (1-24), the scene is designed to subvert confidence in the image of an ideal world or ideal love within it. The tragic note sounded by each reference to mythical lovers—Troilus and Cressida, Pyramis and Thisby, Dido and Aeneas, Medea and Jason—resonates with the misunderstanding that has plagued the characters' relationships prior to this point, as well as with the distrust sown by Antonio between Bassanio and Portia. Much as the sweetness in the rhapsody is qualified, but not subsumed, by the bitter, so is the ensuing music (68), symbolic of universal harmony, tempered by Portia's remark that Lorenzo recognizes her “as the blind man knows the cuckoo, / By the bad voice!” (112-13). Her self-effacing humor, while not thoroughly at odds with Lorenzo's more grandiose references to “the poet,” “Orpheus,” and the power of music to raise human nature (79-82), nevertheless introduces a realistic element of flawed human nature into Lorenzo's more philosophic (and naive) meditations.

Portia herself values the idealism and romanticism about Lorenzo's vision, if for no other reason than that it supplies a fixed standard of judgment and a goal for human ambition:

A substitute shines brightly as a king
Until a king be by, and then his state
Empties itself, as doth an inland brook
Into the main of waters. …
Nothing is good, I see, without respect.

(94-97, 99)

Even so, Portia expresses keen awareness that human action is destined to fall short of the ideal. The perspective that she brings to the scene's idealism, a perspective “season'd” by her recent experiences, repeatedly adds an antiromantic, slightly deflating dimension to the higher-flown diction and sentiments of the characters in her midst (107). The moon seems to the less experienced Jessica and Lorenzo to light the sky as though setting the stage for love. To Portia, however, this night, which is “such a night” to the others, seems hardly extraordinary: “This night methinks is but the daylight sick, / It looks a little paler. 'Tis a day, / Such as the day is when the sun is hid” (124-26). Same night, different impressions.

The difference, moreover, amounts to much. Most important, it characterizes Portia as one who can accept imperfections not by ignoring hobgoblins but by flexing standards just enough to make them attainable. For Bassanio, her attitude means a mild chastening and the forgiveness that yields a second chance (199-255). For Antonio, it also means another chance but not a chance to interfere again in her marriage. When Antonio admits, “I am the unhappy subject of these quarrels,” Portia does not disagree but lends him hospitality despite his error: “Sir, grieve not you, you are welcome notwithstanding” (239). Portia's graciousness and grace expand further, as far as they will go, while she witnesses Antonio rebind himself in friendship to Bassanio, this time spiritually instead of physically but, more to the point, to safeguard, not spoil, the marriage (249-53).

This is something of a breakthrough for Antonio, since his pledge to uphold Portia's faith in Bassanio requires his own acceptance of imperfection and, at that, a difficult form of imperfection for him to tolerate: his desire to be included is only partly realized, and his dread of being left out thus only partly allayed. Yet the necessary consequence of Portia and Bassanio's choice to wed is Antonio's loss of status. Although not rejected, he must remain second in Bassanio's regard. As if to represent the compromise at hand, Portia announces (through what agency, who knows?) that three of Antonio's original six argosies have come to port (275-79).36

In his last line, Antonio would seem to be commemorating not only his final ostracism from the social bonds that continuously elude him but also, for once, his unwillingness to indulge in play-acting: “I am dumb” (279). Not even a sixteenth-century audience, for whom that word had yet to connote witlessness, could be expected to hear the line without a shudder or an uncomfortable laugh. Owing to his peculiar personality and to the conditions urged on him by Portia, Antonio is still somewhat alienated. His situation, like his muteness, is embarrassing. And yet his silence, recalling the harsh choice yoked upon the resigned Shylock in 4.1, also betokens Antonio's moment of greatest happiness and fulfillment. Settling for what he has been given without another word, he finally becomes a wise fool—dumb and dumbfounded, content with his place in a world whose vastness cannot be overestimated and, when it cannot be controlled, must evoke awe. Paradoxically, Antonio now seems more at ease with his alienation.

What Portia's acceptance of such human limitation means for her is the luxury of sleeping at night without an “unquiet soul” (3.2.306). Whether she planned all along to dispose swiftly of Shylock toward expediting the retrieval of her marriage or whether she did her best and still failed to cajole Shylock out of his destructive humour, Portia never looks back. Many of us, of course, do. The aftertaste of gall is the play's most potent reminder to the audience of the fact of choice and all that it intimates—our lost opportunities and our misgivings that the wrong history is being made, inexorably, against our wishes. Perhaps, ideally, Portia could and should have refrained from conspiring to alienate Shylock. Yet she, too, is ultimately an alien, held hostage by a mutable world and the submission of her judgments to fickle standards. If she undertook another judgment in act 6, she might go on evolving, never fully reaching the “right praise and true perfection” that she herself envisions as the crown of experience (5.1.108). Finally, I do not quite think, as Lyon contends, that Merchant portrays “different” and incompatible Portias.37 Rather, the play seems to me to record fictionally, though impressively realistically, a segment of time during which a capable young woman, in contrast to her foil Antonio, makes repeated, active forays into the distressing territory of judgment and, by fits and starts, becomes a bit better at an essentially impossible task. With every trial of her skills, she sees more clearly and speaks more frankly.

To censure Portia for her inadequate choices, in fact, is a form of self-disgust, unfair though understandable. The Merchant of Venice, a tragicomedy until the end and even after the end, assaults the audience with the inherent injustice of its own situation, so much like Portia's, in a mercurial world so much like the play's, a world that consistently makes fools of us all. By implying that apparent differences belie deep-seated likenesses, Merchant coaches us to think of presumed opposites as a cinch to reconcile. In the same breath, it takes back what it gives, indicating that the material, mortal world will always prove unruly, will always swerve wayward of forms like law, government, choice—even poetry and drama.

Antonio's efforts to remove himself from such frustrating contradictions or to believe his choices can evade or rise above them are, though understandable, a fruitless turn at cheating human life. That sort of arrogant callowness is the object of no little irony, as it is one last time, now in Lorenzo's response to learning of his inheritance: “Fair ladies, you drop manna in the way / Of starved people” (5.1.294-95). This unsettling line betrays the speaker as flagrantly self-absorbed, misapplying sacred terms to his own worldly needs (as has been Bassanio and Antonio's wont) and misadvertising himself as needy at all, coddled as he is at present in the lap of Portia's luxury. Lorenzo's line escapes the explicit retort that it deserves (although Portia might well wince at it). But the play isn't about to let us forget that the self-satisfied speaker is ripe for sobering, if not now, then soon. For the pattern of Merchant has been that of disabusing credulity and overturning such self-idealizations as Antonio's saintliness and Lorenzo's fond portrait of himself and Jessica as God's chosen. The closer Portia ventures toward acknowledging the disparity between “what were good” and what actually is, the more trust she earns from her audience and, unavoidably, the more sorrow she elicits for fading illusions. As if to ratify the abiding value of such earthiness, however, the play's last word belongs to Gratiano, who has always been most at home in the “rude world” and who concludes with a final demystification, calling a “ring” a “ring” (5.1.307). His candid reference to Nerissa's anatomy purges the air of any residual delusions about love and securely grounds spiritual faith where it is “riveted”—in the “flesh” (5.1.169).


  1. Moreover, as John Doebler points out, the “melancholy man without cause” was a Renaissance “stock character” (Shakespeare's Speaking Pictures: Studies in Iconic Imagery [Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1974], 41).

    Since John Russell Brown attributed Antonio's melancholy to Bassanio's departure for Belmont (The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare, New Arden ed. [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1955], xlvi on 1.1.119), many critics have followed, thereby raising the inevitable question about the nature of Antonio's and Bassanio's feelings for each other. Are those feelings friendly or erotic, at least on Antonio's part, if not on Bassanio's? Here is likely an instance where labels are more self-defeating than helpful, as Marjorie Garber has recently argued about the futility of efforts to categorize sexual identity (Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995]). Even so, I must agree with Joseph Pequigney about the absence of any recognizably erotic language in Antonio's and Bassanio's speeches to and about each other (“The Two Antonios and Same Sex Love in Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice,English Literary Renaissance 22 [1992], see especially 210-21). Their relationship seems a friendship. In any case, I am relying on the assumption that the emotional bond between the two men as it conflicts with Bassanio and Portia's marriage bond is of central concern, whatever the specific nature of the male bonding at hand. Shakespeare is perennially interested in how male-female relationships are negotiated with same-sex relationships to form a workable (if neither completely harmonious nor absolutely fixed) social structure—as in, for example, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Much Ado about Nothing, and other works, including two more in this study, Twelfth Night and Antony and Cleopatra. In my opinion this negotiation is both troublesome and troubling in Merchant; I disagree with Pequigney's assertion that the resolution brought about in the love relationships here is relatively trouble-free (see “The Two Antonios,” especially 218-21). On these relationships see also the essays of Alice N. Benston (“Portia, the Law, and the Tripartite Structure of The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Quarterly 30 [1979]: 367-85), Geary (“The Nature of Portia's Victory”), and Newman (“Portia's Ring”).

  2. The Oxford English Dictionary (1989).

  3. Christopher Spencer shows that the Christians refer to Shylock as “Jew” sixty-one times in Merchant and only fifteen times call him by his proper name (The Genesis of Shakespeare's “Merchant of Venice,” in Studies in British Literature, vol. 3. [Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen, 1988], 95).

  4. For a reading of Bassanio's motives similar to mine, see Terry Eagleton: “Having improvidently thrown his money around, Bassanio has come to Belmont to buy up the well-heeled Portia with the aid of Antonio's loan, rashly jeopardizing his friend's life in the process” (William Shakespeare [Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986], 45).

  5. David Beauregard has recently read Antonio as an Aristotelian-Thomistic embodiment of the very virtue of liberality. Beauregard adds to the list of Antonio's sacrifices his patient endurance in 4.1 in the face of injustice (Virtue's Own Feature: Shakespeare and the Virtue Ethics Tradition [Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 1995], 88, 99).

  6. So much has been written about Shylock's appropriation of Jacob and Laban's story that some acknowledgment of the variety in critical opinion is in order. In brief, critics tend to disagree over whether Shylock's apology for usury is in any sense defensible or is, rather, specious; the latter view is adopted more often, most notably by Joan Ozark Holmer in a brief article (“‘When Jacob Graz'd His Uncle Laban's Sheep’: A New Source for The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Quarterly 36 [1985]: 64-65). My own sense of Shakespeare's purpose is informed by other parallels in Merchant between Shylock and Jacob. In particular, that Shylock's wife was named Leah does not reflect ironically on Shylock but positively (see Gross, Shylock, 68-69). All told, neither the association between the two men nor Shylock's narration of the story in 1.3 seems to me to be charged with a particular tone, but, rather, both seem mixed in tone, capable of evoking irony and sympathy. Hence my use of the word trickster for Jacob and Shylock both: it incorporates several overtones and looks forward to Shylock's defeat by Portia, another trickster.

  7. Evidence that Jews were regarded in Elizabethan England as the devil's kin continues to arise, as in Ruth Samson Luborsky's recent note “The Pictorial Image of the Jew in Elizabethan Secular Books” (Shakespeare Quarterly 46 [1995]: 449-53).

  8. One recent director of the play has observed that it “can be seen as a warning, as a picture of how we allow our religious beliefs to mask our God-given humanity” (quoted in Felicia Hardison Londré, “Confronting Shakespeare's ‘Political Incorrectness’ in Production: Contemporary American Audiences and the New ‘Problem Plays,’” in Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama, ed. Marc. Maufort, American University Studies, series 26, vol. 25 [New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1995], 90).

  9. Many critics remark on Shylock's role in alienating himself, perhaps most interestingly Mullaney, “Brothers and Others,” 82. Other critics have also noticed, as I do, Antonio and Shylock's deeper resemblance beneath their enmity—for example, Jan Lawson Hinely: “Antonio, looking at Shylock, sees himself, distorted but still recognizable” (“Bond Priorities in The Merchant of Venice,Studies in English Literature 20 [1980]: 223).

  10. See Brown, Merchant, note to 3.3.27. Brown also notes the difficulty of Antonio's language here in notes to 3.3.19, 30-31.

  11. Stephen J. Greenblatt, “Marlowe, Marx, and Anti-Semitism” in Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture (New York: Routledge, 1990), 43. In fairness to Greenblatt, I must admit that I have lifted his words from a context antithetical to mine, where he is arguing that “the Jew seems to embody the abstract principle of difference itself” (43).

  12. Sinead Cusack, “Portia in The Merchant of Venice,” in “The Merchant of Venice”: Critical Essays, ed. Thomas Wheeler (New York: Garland Publishing, 1991), 342-43.

  13. W. Moelwyn Merchant, ed., The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare (Middlesex: Penguin, 1967), note to 1.2.108.

  14. John Julius Norwich, A History of Venice (New York: Knopf, 1982), 129-31.

    Most critics who have taken up the matter of Portia's racism have apologized for it, but I think it is pronounced in 1.2 by being repeated through hints in 2.1.1-3 and more overtly in 2.3.79. Furthermore, why would all the suitors except Bassanio be foreigners to Italy unless to present a perceptual problem to Portia comparable to that posed by the casket test (of which she is herself skeptical)? Surely the lesson that appearances can deceive is not confined to young men.

  15. As You Like It, 2.7.139-66. As Anne Barton has stated so well: “[Jaques's] words are no sooner spoken than Orlando enters bearing old Adam: a man enfeebled by his years, dependent now upon a younger life, but also the living image of all that Jaques has left out of his type picture: loyal, honest, and discriminating” (introduction to The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare, in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974], 367).

  16. The dramatic irony of Portia's comparison of Bassanio to the “young Alcides” is subtle but true (3.2.54-57): as the note in The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974) points out, “Hercules' motive in rescuing the Trojan princess Hesione [the “virgin tribute” of 1. 56] … was not love for her but a desire to possess the horses which Laomedon, her father, had promised him as a reward.” Here again is the familiar strain of Bassanio's mixed motives (unless, of course, Shakespeare did not know or remember the story faithfully, which is a distinct possibility).

  17. Many critics have read Bassanio's casket choice as a complete theatrical performance, contending that Portia drops pregnant hints to her love throughout 3.2, which include her reference to Bassanio's choice as a “hazard,” echoing the inscription on the lead casket (2); her admonition to “[b]eshrow your eyes” (14); the rhyme of “lead” with “bred” and “head” in the round sung during Bassanio's apparently sincere deliberations (63-107); and Portia's line, “I stand for sacrifice” (57). Yet I must agree with other critics who believe that Bassanio's decision is relatively free of assistance and that Portia does her best to uphold the letter and spirit of her father's will. For me, the most convincing evidence lies in her having used the word hazard in describing the same lottery to both Morocco (2.1.45) and Arragon (2.9.18). Surely she does not intend to coach either one of them.

  18. For much of the material in this paragraph, I am indebted to the fine work of Mullaney and Eagleton. Throughout “Brothers and Others, or the Art of Alienation,” Mullaney remains intrigued by the confluence of fictions in the Merchant, especially that in the staged trial scene and that in the regime of Elizabeth I. He also notices the benighted Shylock's impotence in the face of an opponent, Portia, who only appears impartial (82-84). Eagleton stresses the notion that systems such as language and law are, in Merchant as well as in life, always subject to interpretation (William Shakespeare).

    The idea that the play's systems are as mutable as are its concepts about issues like individual identity and human existence is refracted in the feminist criticism of Catherine Belsey and Newman. The latter wonders whether certain aspects of the “Elizabethan sex/gender system” are in fact questioned by this play's peculiar version of transvestism (Newman, “Portia's Ring,” 32). Belsey speculates that all examples of transvestitism in Shakespearean comedy “can be read as disrupting sexual difference, calling in question that set of relations between terms which proposes as inevitable an antithesis between masculine and feminine, men and women” (“Disrupting Sexual Difference: Meaning and Gender in the Comedies,” in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis [New York: Methuen, 1985], 167).

  19. See, e.g., Joan Ozark Holmer, “The Education of The Merchant of Venice” (Studies in English Literature 25 [1985]), 312, and Walter Cohen, “The Merchant of Venice,” 768. Holmer also calls Antonio's love for Bassanio a kind of “surfeit” (307).

  20. Thomas Wilson, A Discourse Upon Usury, ed. R. H. Tawney (New York: A. M. Kelley, 1963), 292. Although I have gone straight to Wilson for my reference, I should acknowledge Holmer for the information; Holmer herself is actually discussing the views of Hineley (Holmer, “Education,” 326-27; Hinely, “Bond Priorities,” 229), but expands on her own ideas in “The Merchant of Venice”: Choice, Hazard, and Consequence (New York: Methuen, 1995), 249-50.

  21. Geary, “The Nature of Portia's Victory,” 63.

  22. Lyon, “Merchant,” 48.

  23. Evidence of Lucio's uncanny insight into the duke's identity and machinations is scattered throughout the play but concentrated in 3.2.86-184. I have argued elsewhere that Lucio reflects the duke's aloofness from his subjects and his corresponding need to become more directly involved with his subjects; Lucio's lies about the duke, in a profound sense, tell the truth about the duke's weaknesses as governor (see Cynthia Lewis, “‘Dark Deeds Darkly Answered’: Duke Vincentio and Judgment in Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Quarterly 34 [1983]: 271-89).

  24. Interestingly, in this aspect too Gratiano parallels Lucio, whose apparent split in personality from the beginning of Measure to the end makes his characterization seem incoherent. In the first two acts, he is Claudio's friend and Isabella's advocate; later, his character turns much darker as he slanders the duke and is revealed to have fathered a child for whom he intends to take no responsibility.

  25. More, Utopia, 27-28.

  26. Richard Horwich has observed that “The Merchant of Venice is filled with difficult choices” (“Riddle and Dilemma in The Merchant of Venice,Studies in English Literature 17 [1977]: 191), although he builds differently on this point than I do, citing that, “where Belmont is full of riddles, Venice is the natural habitat of dilemmas” (197). He also maintains that, in the case of dilemmas, “the alternatives are equally desirable or … undesirable,” availing themselves of no solutions (196), while “riddles have single and wholly correct answers, … however hard those answers may be to come by” (198). As useful as I find this distinction, I still think that Belmont is not devoid of dilemmas, as I believe my examples testify. Hinely offers yet a different approach to the play's interest in the “problem” of “evaluating the claims of contradictory demands” (“Bond Priorities,” 218-19)—that of how this problem influences the presentation of bonds in Merchant. Both Horwich and Hinely notice that Launcelot Gobbo's initial speech in 2.2 mimics lightly the difficult decisions, as that between “fiend” and “conscience,” forced upon all the characters (Horwich, “Riddle and Dilemma,” 197; Hinely, “Bond Priorities,” 219).

  27. Cusack, “Portia,” 349.

  28. Holmer, “Education,” 328.

  29. I do not mean to glide over the implications of the father's lottery as if they were exclusively advantageous to Portia. As Leventen, Newman, and others have shown, the will is an especially enticing metaphor for patriarchy, including the most stifling, repressive confinements thereof. I do believe, however, that the negative and positive connotations of the will are inseparably entangled. For example, perhaps Portia cannot take control of a trial otherwise dominated by patriarchs without having first been immersed in and irritated by a patriarchal structure like the will.

  30. Lawrence Normand, in his provocative essay on the body as scripture in Merchant, phrases this idea thus: “Were [Antonio] to realize the scenario he projects, his love for Bassanio would be inscribed in his living body, and its truth proved by incisions which would be neither deletable nor reversible. … [This] exchange … would turn his physical death into social discourse aimed at recording and validating a certain meaning for it” (“Reading the Body in The Merchant of Venice,Textual Practice 5 [1991]: 67-68). In other words, Antonio is attempting to freeze emotion in a fluid world; the act of preservation, ironically, perverts the feeling.

  31. Exactly how to understand this passage dramatically is a bit baffling, since, in its entirety, it suggests that Portia's question—“Which is the merchant here? and which the Jew?” (174)—is offhand and posed before she has taken opportunity to look about the room. Hence, probably, the duke's follow-up order: “Antonio and old Shylock, both stand forth” (175). By the same token, however, she has too much to lose by not speaking deliberately to begin with; her question is no doubt partly calculated to produce one effect or another. Finally, no matter how harmless may be Portia's intent, her question cannot avoid all dramatic irony, since to the audience (at whom Shakespeare aims the joke) Shylock is so very prominent in appearance.

  32. Lyon, “Merchant,” 110.

  33. Holmer, “Education,” 316-17.

  34. My remarks about Antonio in act 4 are meant in part to address the sanguine conviction of Holmer and others that, when Antonio judges Shylock, “We observe none of Antonio's former vindictiveness” (Holmer, “Education,” 317). Cf. Beauregard, who envisions Antonio's “division of [Shylock's] wealth,” which jeopardizes Shylock's very “life” (4.1.376), as a just recompense for Shylock's having sought to take Antonio's life (Virtue's Own Feature, 100-101).

  35. While I see Walter Cohen's point that the “romantic comedy” of act 5 acts to “obliterate the memory of what has preceded” it (“The Merchant of Venice,” 777), I also agree with the many critics who see act 5 as integrated thematically and through its action into the whole play. In particular, Lyon senses that the ties between act 5 and the body of the play are even more intricately knit than is often thought—for instance, by the recapitulation between Bassanio's wedding ring and the ring that Leah once gave Shylock (“Merchant,” 117).

  36. I hesitate to overread this detail, lest I commit the same sort of indiscretion that I have taken to task at the beginning of this chapter. One does wonder, however, whether Shakespeare was conscious of the delicious parallel between this numerical detail and all manner of references to relativism throughout act 5. Why three out of six, only half?

    The name of the rocks on which Antonio's ships wreck is also an intriguing detail in view of any personal growth that may be seen to result for Antonio from his ordeal: the name “Goodwins”—or Goodwin Sands—literally means “good friends” (The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Place Names [Oxford: Clarenden Press, 1960]).

  37. Lyon, “Merchant,” 112.

Martin D. Yaffe (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7118

SOURCE: Yaffe, Martin D. “The Mistreatment of Shakespeare's Shylock.” In Shylock and the Jewish Question, pp. 1-23. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

[In the following excerpt, Yaffe argues against the conventional view that the depiction of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is anti-Jewish.]

The figure of Shylock is like some secondary figure in a Rembrandt painting. To look sometimes with absorption at the suffering, aging Jew alone is irresistible. But the more one is aware of what the play's whole design is expressing through Shylock, of the comedy's high seriousness in its concern for the grace of the community, the less one wants to lose the play Shakespeare wrote for one he merely suggested.

—C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy

In this book I analyze the figure of Shylock, the unfortunate Jewish villain in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. My immediate aim is to challenge the widespread presumption that Shakespeare is, in the last analysis, unfriendly to Jews. In so doing, my larger hope is to rescue Shakespeare's play as a helpful guide for the self-understanding of the modern Jew.

What modern Jewish readers find most unpalatable and upsetting about the dramatic fate of Shylock is his forced conversion to Christianity. Shylock, a wealthy moneylender, is made to convert to Christianity as part of the surprising outcome of his personal lawsuit in retaliation against a Christian merchant, the play's title character. The merchant has been waging a vehement one-man crusade on the Rialto against him for his putatively un-Christian business practices. Shylock's harsh and humiliating punishment might be more merited, one suspects, if the moral and legal circumstances surrounding it were more clearcut. But they do not seem to be. Despite its otherwise happy ending or perhaps because of it, Shakespeare's Venetian comedy leaves us unsettled and perplexed over the place of the Jew in the modern city.

Shylock's offense in the eyes of the city is in the end not just civil or even religious. It is criminal. He has granted the merchant an emergency loan of three thousand ducats, interest free but with a sinister, life-threatening penalty clause for late payment. The penalty, for which Shylock eagerly sues, is a pound of the merchant's flesh. Yet his suit proves in court to be treasonous. It is tantamount to the seeking of a Venetian citizen's life by a resident alien—and is therefore punishable by death and by forfeiture of the offender's estate, half to his intended victim and half to the city. Nor is this all. Although the court mercifully waives the death penalty and offers to reduce the claim on its half of Shylock's estate, it soon withholds the waiver pending Shylock's agreement to a counterproposal by the merchant. The latter recommends extending the court's mercy even further. But he adds three constraints. In return for the city's forgiving all penalties, Shylock must now allow the merchant trusteeship over half his estate so long as Shylock lives, must immediately convert, and must designate the Christian bridegroom of his recently converted and eloped daughter as his sole heir. Even so, questions here arise.

To begin with, why does the court ignore Shylock's repeated subjection to publicly tolerated harassment concerning both his religion and his means of livelihood (personal lending, we might call it; loansharking, as Shakespeare's Venetians seem to regard it)? During the trial, moreover, why do spontaneous Jew-baiting outbursts from one of the merchant's friends go uncensured? And why does the court fail to forewarn Shylock about the imminent likelihood of self-incrimination, into which it eventually entraps him? Finally, why has the merchant, admittedly prominent and well liked in Venice, been allowed the final say to determine Shylock's punishment in accord with his own biblically inspired anti-usuriousness? In short, is not Christian Venice itself party to the abusive conduct of its citizens toward Shylock? Shakespeare's play makes us wonder: why can't the city just let Shylock be?

In order to know from the foregoing circumstances whether Shakespeare's play deserves its anti-Jewish reputation, we must face such questions and try to answer them squarely. Our task first and foremost is therefore to look in a scholarly way at the answers, if any, the play itself provides. In my view, the play's own remarkable answers have not been well understood or appreciated by modern scholars. Although it is reasonable to expect some help from the accumulated scholarly literature about the play, when we turn to it with our questions, we find that it has not succeeded very well in answering or even in facing them. A few recent examples will serve to illustrate.

Harold Bloom, in his introduction to an anthology of critical essays on Shakespeare's Shylock, castigates the playwright severely.1 He calls the play “both a superb romantic comedy, and a marvelously adequate version of a perfectly Christian, altogether murderous anti-Semitism” (1). He is particularly incensed by Shakespeare's having inflicted on his antagonist a “false conversion,” an imposed acceptance of Christianity without any word of defiance or complaint (1f.). He finds Shylock's quiet acquiescence here dramatically implausible, on the grounds that Shylock is a “proud and fierce Jew” for whom conversion is entirely out of character. “We sooner could see Falstaff as a monk, than we can contemplate Shylock as a Christian” (2). Where Shylock's character lacks consistency, Shakespeare's art fails. Bloom the critic therefore turns to ad hominem speculation about the playwright's “agonistic context” and infers a “need to compete with and overgo Marlowe's superb villain, Barabas, the Jew of Malta” (5). Shakespeare, we are told, chiefly meant to outdo his literary rival in fashioning a vivid and memorable portrait of (what he took to be) a Jew. Yet in so doing, and especially in succeeding as well as he did, he could not help appealing to the ruling anti-Jewish prejudices of his Christian contemporaries. “In this one play alone,” Bloom concludes, “Shakespeare was very much of his age, and not for all time” (6).

Leaving aside the suggestive comparison with Christopher Marlowe's Jew of Malta …, I limit myself here to noting a significant omission in Bloom's summary description of Shylock as a “proud and fierce Jew.” How, we must ask, are we meant to understand Shylock's Jewishness? Neither Bloom in his introduction nor anyone he selects for his anthology has pursued this question very far—though it is central to Shakespeare's play.

Shylock's Jewishness first comes up in act I, scene iii, during his preliminary encounter on the Rialto with Bassanio, the young man for whose sake the merchant, Antonio, needs the emergency loan. When Shylock asks whether he might speak with Antonio directly, Bassanio at once invites him to dinner for that purpose. Evidently the young man does not expect what Bloom would undoubtedly characterize as Shylock's “proud and fierce” reply:

If it please you to dine with us.
Yes, to smell pork, to eat of the habitation which your prophet the Nazarite conjured the devil into! 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.


Yet from Shylock's point of view, his insistence that he will do business and otherwise associate with Venice's Christians but will not eat or drink or pray with them implies, in the first instance, not pride and ferocity so much as a strict loyalty to Jewish law, which among other things forbids eating pork (evidently a staple in Shakespeare's Venice)3 and prescribes the prayers that Jews in particular must recite before eating and drinking. Shakespeare identifies Shylock's Jewishness here with his law-abidingness, that is, with his pious deference to the legal demands of Jewish orthodoxy.4 Even so, in act II, scene v, when Shylock next appears, we are given occasion to question the steadfastness of Shylock's piety.

Once the terms of the loan have been agreed on and sealed, Shylock returns home to tell his daughter that he has decided to accept an invitation to eat at Bassanio's after all, albeit “in hate” and for an ulterior motive:

I am bid forth to supper, Jessica.
These are my keys. But wherefore should I go?
I am not bid for love; they flatter me.
But yet I'll go in hate, to feed upon
The prodigal Christian.


Shylock's ulterior motive, “to feed upon / The prodigal Christian,” is connected as well with a second reason for having returned home, namely, to announce to his household servant that he will gladly let him switch to the “prodigal” Bassanio's employment:

The patch 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;
Therefore I part with him, and part with him
To one that I would have him help to waste
His borrowed purse.


Shockingly enough, the motive for which Shylock is prepared to give over his household servant and which is, at least in part, a further extension of that for which he is prepared to suspend his observance of the dietary laws is that of “help[ing] to waste / [Bassanio's] borrowed purse.” Shylock's intent to add to Bassanio's overhead in these ways would have the net effect of increasing the likelihood, however slim, of Shylock's extending yet another loan for Bassanio, this time interest bearing, or even under certain conditions (which almost do transpire) of his collecting on his sinister penalty clause with Bassanio's benefactor. At this point, Bloom might well wish to raise the larger question of whether Shakespeare means to imply that Jewish orthodoxy sanctions hatred or revenge against non-Jews; yet as we shall soon see, it is a question the play answers sufficiently clearly in the negative. Meanwhile, contrary to Bloom, we must say that far from simply succumbing to putative Elizabethan stereotypes concerning Jews, Shakespeare evidently understands both Shylock's piety and his departure from it (which appears to begin well before the forced conversion) by the standards of Jewish orthodoxy itself.

But Bloom notwithstanding, whether or not Shakespeare's play is anti-Jewish cannot be decided by a single argument. Controversy over the treatment of Shylock is not confined to questions of character but permeates the entire fabric of the play. With an eye to the considerable range of disagreement about the play among scholarly critics, John Lyon, in his monograph on The Merchant of Venice in Twayne's New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare, sounds a timely warning against one-sided readings.5

The play has suffered from the aggressive justifications of its champions no less than the dismissals of its detractors. It seems a rich play where the potential multiplicity of meanings is in excess of any full realization. And to actualize any single interpretation of the play is to stress, and perhaps overstress, one of its parts at the cost of ignoring or doing violence to parts of the play developing in other, equally interesting ways.


Lyon's book calls attention, in general, to the rich mix of particulars as the playwright meant us to savor them. He is properly averse to scholarly arguments that would, in effect, dissolve those particulars into thick generalities for the sake of some bland unifying gloss that looks good from a distance. At the same time, we are admonished that the particulars of the play themselves solicit our subsequent wonderment and inference: “The Merchant of Venice is no piece of theatrical ephemera: the play is of a substance to merit and require the kinds of sustained recollection and speculation which occur subsequent to our enjoyment of the play in the theatre” (105). Lyon therefore proposes to “characterize, rather than resolve, the play's puzzles” and to “raise questions about the limits of plausible interpretation” (5). Proceeding somewhat idiosyncratically, the central chapters of his book may be described as a freewheeling tour of Shakespeare's plot, which sometimes fends off, sometimes embraces the views of scholarly critics, depending on whether they block or widen a scenic path through the play's main contours. Lyon justifies his procedure by the assertion that the play is “not finished” (8). He finds its dramatic action unpolished and its philosophical perplexities left unresolved. Hence, he infers, it is best approached tentatively, as a play-in-progress, whose chief merit is to testify to the creative and provocative genius of its author.

The practical result of Lyon's argument, however, would seem to be the opposite of the full openness to the dramatic and philosophical richness of the play which he has intended. Instead of encouraging us to venture wide eyed and alert into the play's “puzzles,” guided above all by Shakespeare's many-layered text, Lyon effectively discourages us from making the necessary effort to explore whether any one speculation is better than another so far as an understanding of the play as a whole (at least as we have it) is concerned. By simply denying that the play is a finished whole, he denies to us from the outset any standard for judging which interpretations are good or better or best beyond our private fancies. And yet that same denial scarcely prevents him (or anyone else) from interposing judgments that may well block our view of the richness of what Shakespeare has left us.

A single example must suffice. Lyon rightly disputes the answer offered by Harold C. Goddard to one of the questions I began by raising, about the propriety of the Venetian court's legal entrapment of Shylock—at the hands, moreover, of a surprise amicus curiae (secretly Bassanio's newly wedded wife, Portia, in disguise): why “didn't she invoke immediately the law prescribing a penalty for any alien plotting against the life of any citizen of Venice instead of waiting until she had put those she supposedly loved [namely, Bassanio and, by extension, his benefactor] on the rack?”6 To Goddard's hastily advanced claim that “the only possible answer is that she wanted a spectacle, a dramatic triumph with herself at the center,” Lyon fittingly adds that there may be forensic reasons as well: “With an opponent as legalistically precise as Shylock, Portia needs as much evidence of the reality of Shylock's malevolent intent as he can be brought to give, and it is perhaps only at the last moment that the last-moment solution can be safely and effectively revealed” (105).

Nevertheless, faithful to his general caveat that any solution to a given “puzzle” in the play can be only tentative, Lyon immediately expresses his misgivings about what he has just said and meanwhile drops the issue—except to salvage what he takes to be one incontrovertible point. “Certainly,” he assures us, “Portia suffers when considered with hindsight” (ibid.). Yet the assurance Lyon offers follows not from the particulars of Portia's actions during the trial but rather from the doubtful premise that he accepts without argument from Goddard, that Portia's actions are largely self-centered. In her admonitory speech to Shylock about the “quality of mercy” (IV.i.182-203), however, Portia emphasizes that her actions are guided not only by the legalities of the case, of which she is evidently the master, but also by justice seasoned with mercy (cf. IV.i.200f.). Contra Goddard, the prospect therefore opens up that Portia's cross-examination of Shylock, while fulfilling the obvious requirements of justice, is at the same time a high-minded act of mercy on the part of someone, indeed the only one in the courtroom, who knows the law. As I argue later, Portia's words give Shylock himself every opportunity to render a spectacular act of mercy so as to render nugatory the law under which she alone knows he stands guilty. Recalling Lyon's previous words (105), we cannot help wondering whether his offhand suppression of this possibility is a consequence of his unsupported insistence that our receptiveness to the play's details and our thinking about them are two separate things—an assumption belied by anyone whose attention is drawn to the thoughtful details of Portia's speech to begin with.

Lyon does not mention the only other full-fledged monograph on the play, Lawrence Danson's, which might have provided him with a direct challenge to the view that The Merchant of Venice lacks a dramatic unity.7 Danson argues for its unity on the basis of “the fact that the play was written by a Christian for a Christian audience, and that it is about Christian issues” (13). According to Danson, Shakespeare's Christianity does not narrow but broadens his understanding of things; it is “an amplifier, not a deadener of conceivable meanings” (15). Nor need we then presume that Shakespeare's thought is a prisoner of (the Christianity of) his time, for as in those plays that consider issues of kingship, “he is drawing upon ideas common to his time. But that is very different from saying that Shakespeare's ideas are common” (16). Against critics who would impute to Shakespeare a Christian teaching that sets itself in opposition to Judaism and seeks to triumph over it, as mercy over justice or the New Law over the Old, he looks instead to the teaching of “completion or fulfillment” (17f.), that is, of the reconciliation or harmony of souls among themselves and with the divinely ordered cosmos. The main evidence, so far as Portia's aforementioned “quality of mercy” speech is concerned, is that the warrant for her appeal to the need for mercy to temper justice is the Lord's Prayer (66f.), whose theme as she understands it is common to both Jewish and Christian worship, as her words imply:

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 [sic] to render
The deeds of mercy.


Danson's argument has the further merit of indicating why the play cannot end with Shylock's defeat in the trial scene of act IV but must conclude in the pastoral setting of act V, at the wealthy Portia's estate in Belmont. There the three newlywed couples—Portia and Bassanio, Portia's maid, Nerissa, and Bassanio's companion Gratiano, and Shylock's eloped daughter, Jessica, and her poet husband, Lorenzo—each for the moment at odds, soon become reconciled. In a moonlit setting under the stars, Lorenzo woos Jessica with a speech about cosmic harmony that prepares us for that reconciliation:

                                                            Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold.
There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.


The Christian overtones of Lorenzo's words are undeniable, as Danson points out (186f.): the stars are “patens” (or communion dishes); the harmonics of their geometrically ordered motions are angels' songs; and the reason we hear only intimations of those sounds is our “fallen” earthly condition.8

Nevertheless Danson does not take into account the chief evidence against his view, namely, that the play contains at least as many allusions to classical mythology and philosophy as to Christian doctrine. Lorenzo's speech about the harmony of the stars is a case in point, for the notion in terms of which that speech becomes intelligible—that the stars are embedded in invisible concentric spheres surrounding the earth—is ultimately of pre-Christian, Pythagorean origin. To be sure, Danson might easily reply that those same Pythagorean allusions are also found in certain Christian authors who have appropriated them, such as Boethius, to whom he refers briefly (187f.). Still, to the claim that Shakespeare's Christianity is the play's final word there is a further objection from the play itself.

During the tense moments of the trial, when Shylock's insistence on the letter of the law seems to be holding sway, an outraged and frustrated Gratiano exclaims against what he takes to be Shylock's inhuman inflexibility:

O, be thou damn'd, inexecrable dog,
And for thy life let justice be accus'd!
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. Thy currish spirit
Govern'd a wolf, who, hang'd for human slaughter,
Even from the gallows did his fell soul fleet,
And, whilst thou layest in thy unhallowed dam,
Infus'd itself in thee; for thy desires
Are wolvish, bloody, starv'd, and ravenous.


It strikes Gratiano that Shylock's “currish spirit” is evidence for the pagan Pythagoras's view of the transmigration of souls between animals (in this case wolves) and humans. Exasperated, he is on the point of “waver[ing] in [his] faith” to accommodate that view. To Gratiano, at least, Christianity and Pythagoreanism are not simply compatible. Indeed, if Lorenzo is Gratiano's erstwhile teacher in these matters, as the play's description of their close companionship suggests (see I.i.69-71, 106ff.), the same may need to be said of Lorenzo's moonlit speech about harmony and perhaps other Christian-sounding speeches as well. Pace Danson, we shall have to explore how Shakespeare faces and seeks to resolve the evident tension between Christianity and philosophy in the play before we can determine to what extent or in what way its teaching may be said to be Christian.

This last would seem in part to be the aim of Edward Andrew, a political scientist, who also reads the play in the light of what he takes to be its implicit Christian teaching, though unlike Danson he finds that teaching one-sided and faulty.9 It is the teaching of Christian charity, which Andrew understands to mean the doing of acts of kindness or mercy to others with or without their consent. He follows the literary critic Harry Berger Jr., who adduces the term mercifixion to describe Shylock's forced conversion insofar as it is meant for his own good.10 Shakespeare's scriptural precedent here is said to be Luke 14:23: “Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.” Andrew's interpretation is guided by an appeal to the authority of St. Thomas Aquinas, who appears to him to cite this verse in support of the church's position that it is just to compel unbelievers into the Christian communion. Meanwhile, Andrew also notices an opposing view in the play, which he finds spelled out only incompletely. It is the “possessive individualism” personified by Shylock.11 As usurer, Shylock embodies the “heartless greed” and “limitless acquisitiveness” at the root of modern entrepreneurial capitalism (4). At the same time, in Shylock's attempts to justify his retaliation against his Christian tormentor, he anticipates the philosophical arguments for religious toleration later articulated in Benedict Spinoza's Theologico-Political Treatise (1670) and John Locke's Letter on Toleration (1689). Throughout, however, Shylock also shares in his own way the old-fashioned charitableness of his Christian persecutors. According to Andrew's admittedly unconventional analysis of the play, Shylock would like nothing better than to marry his daughter Jessica to a nice Jewish husband. Andrew's Shylock is therefore driven at bottom by a charitable wish to befriend the merchant in order to convert him to Judaism for that purpose.

But Andrew's attributing the merchant's own conversion-seeking zeal to traditional Christian teaching is overly hasty and seriously misleading. In the very passage that Andrew cites in support of his contention that Christianity authorizes the compulsory conversion of Jews, Thomas Aquinas emphasizes exactly the opposite. Here are Thomas's words in response to the question, “Whether the faithless are to be compelled to the faith?”

I respond that it should be said that certain of the faithless are those who have never taken up the faith, such as gentiles [i.e., pagans] and Jews. And such people are in no way to be compelled to the faith, in order that they might believe for themselves—since believing is a matter of the will. Nevertheless they are to be compelled by the faithful, if the means are there, in order that they not impede the faith, whether by blasphemies or by bad arguments or even by open persecutions. And on this account faithful Christians frequently make war against the faithless, not in order to compel them to believe (since even if they were to conquer them and hold them captive, they would leave them at their liberty concerning whether they wished to believe) but in order to compel them not to impede the Christian faith.12

According to Thomas, Jews and pagans alike are exempt from forcible conversion at the hands of Christians, though not from acts of force if they impede the Christian faith by means of slanders, dubious propaganda, or overt harassments. Even so, they are to be left “at their liberty” so far as matters of belief are concerned, if only that they might eventually come to Christian belief on their own. Because belief as such is voluntary, Thomas insists, neither Jews nor pagans can be forced into it.

True, immediately following the passage just quoted, Thomas goes on to justify the punishment of heretics and apostates. But these differ from non-Christians by being deviant and lapsed Christians, who have already put themselves under the authority of the church. In any case, Andrew overlooks Thomas's indication that “liberty” or tolerance is in some sense part of traditional Christian teaching. Despite what Andrew suggests, then, tolerance of Jews can hardly be said to receive its first, to say nothing of its best, philosophical treatment in the theologico-political arguments of Spinoza and Locke. Indeed, in looking later on at the speeches of Shylock to which he calls our attention, we shall have occasion to wonder how well such intimations of the case for religious toleration as Andrew rightly discerns in The Merchant of Venice can be understood in terms of the political and religious liberalism of those modern thinkers (as instructive as their arguments might otherwise prove to be). As the example of Pythagoras has already indicated, we shall have to weigh in addition the considerable merits of certain premodern philosophical and theological views that Shakespeare has evidently inherited from thinkers such as Thomas.

It is admittedly possible to read The Merchant of Venice as a Christian or quasi-Christian play and yet to defend Shakespeare's presentation of Shylock as being not quite so derogatory toward Jews as it might have been in the hands of another at that time—Marlowe, for example. Such is the approach of the literary journalist John Gross.13 Shakespeare, he writes, “simply tried to imagine, within the confines of his plot, and within the limits that his culture set him, what it would be like to be a Jew” (349). What is chiefly missing from Shakespeare's Shylock is any “hint … of an inner faith, or of religion as a way of life, as opposed to a set of rules” (45). In contrast, the Christian characters in the play are said to “have admirable ideals, and on the whole—in their dealings among themselves, as opposed to their dealings with Shylock—they live up to them” (350). However that may be, the result, to Gross at least, is “tragic,” inasmuch as the “anti-Semitism” shown by the other characters “coexists with so many admirable or attractive qualities” (351).

Thankfully, Shakespeare's Shylock is cut somewhat larger than his stereotype. Gross makes much of the playwright's investing his Jewish character with unforgettable habits of speech, including the staccato repetitions and symmetrical constructions of the money-lender's angry outburst promising revenge against the merchant:

—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.


Gross comments: “Where else, in Shakespeare's time, can you find such sentiments?” (66). True, they are uttered in the service of an “inhuman purpose” (67). And they are followed by an ugly conversation with Shylock's own banker and fellow Jew, Tubal, who presses Shylock mercilessly with reports of looming financial disasters stemming from his eloped daughter's free spending and from the merchant's losses at sea. “Yet,” Gross insists, “nothing that happens in the rest of the play cancels out ‘Hath not a Jew?’ The words have been spoken; the stereotype will never be the same again” (ibid).

Unfortunately, the conclusion Gross would have us reach—that Shakespeare perhaps couldn't help being just a bit anti-Jewish—becomes plausible only if we overlook much of the detailed content of the play. Among Gross's dubious factual claims are that Shylock lacks any “inner faith” (here Harold Bloom seems on stronger ground) and that the Christian characters are by comparison meant to be admirable. (I shall have much to say on the latter point about Gratiano in particular, as well as about the merchant himself, later on.)

Most egregious, because most decisive for his argument, appears to be Gross's erroneous assertion that “at no point [in the play] does anyone suggest that there might be a distinction to be drawn between [Shylock's] being a Jew and his being an obnoxious individual” (351). Portia aside, to whom I have already referred, it is enough for the moment to quote the highest ranking authority of the court, the Duke himself, in his introductory plea for Shylock to show mercy to the merchant:

Shylock, the world thinks, and I think so too,
That thou but leadest this fashion of thy malice
To the last hour of act; and then 'tis thought
Thou'lt show thy mercy and remorse more strange
Than is thy strange apparent cruelty;
And where thou now exacts the penalty,
Which is a pound of this poor merchant's flesh,
Thou wilt not only loose the forfeiture,
But, touch'd with humane gentleness and love,
Forgive a moiety of the principal,
Glancing an eye of pity on his losses,
That have of late so huddled on his back—
Enow to press a royal merchant down
And pluck commiseration of his state
From brassy bosoms and rough hearts of flint,
From stubborn Turks and Tartars never train'd
To offices of tender courtesy.
We all expect a gentle answer, Jew.


Here Antonio is said to deserve Shylock's “pity” in light of his overwhelming shipping losses, the putative cause of his failure to repay on time. In the circumstances, the Duke adds, Shylock ought to forgive not only Antonio's penalty but some of his principal too.

What are important here are the Duke's announced reasons for expecting some last-minute, out-of-court refinancing from Shylock. First, he says, everyone including himself believes that Shylock is merely stalling so as to make his eventual show of compassion more spectacular. That is, the Duke attributes to Shylock a sense of theatrics. Second, there is also the depressing magnitude of Antonio's reported losses—enough, as he says, to make even hardboiled, crudely raised observers act compassionately (Turks and Tartars come to the Duke's mind). Hence, he concludes, “We all expect a gentle answer, Jew.” The pertinent question is whether the Duke's concluding reminder that Shylock is a Jew means that he manifestly includes Jews among those who are by nature or upbringing ungentle. Two reasons suggest he does, but then again a third seems to override these. First, a pun on “gentle” yields “gentile,” implying that the Duke is seeking a gentile or un-Jewish answer from Shylock.14 Second, the Duke has already confided to Antonio privately that he considers Shylock incorrigible (IV.i.3-6). Still, third, the Duke, whatever his private opinion, cannot admit publicly that Shylock as Jew was “never trained” to be gentle that is, by Jewish law, without weakening his earlier argument that Shylock's apparent lack of compassion was a deliberate theatrical delay. The inescapable conclusion, then, is that the Duke is forced to give the public impression to Shylock and everyone else that Jewish law does after all teach moral decency, including compassion, and that Shylock, being uncompassionate, is simply being a bad Jew. Evidently Gross's approach, which (in contrast to, say, Danson's) looks not much further than the putative stereotypes Shakespeare is said to share with his contemporaries, blurs just that point in the Duke's speech which goes contrary to stereotype.

In other words, the Duke makes a public effort to compliment Shylock's Jewishness and pleads with him simply to live up to it. As with Portia's subsequent speeches in court, a possibility here emerges that is entirely different from any that Gross seems willing or able to acknowledge. Perhaps the possibility is best put by way of our denial of a remark made in passing by an articulate but overly sympathetic reviewer of Gross's book: “It was clearly not part of Shakespeare's conscious design,” writes Robert Alter, “to question the received wisdom of Christian hostility toward the Jews.”15 But the facts we adduce, and which Gross and others ignore, suggest just the opposite.

Even so, the question remains today to Shakespeare's apparent moral obtuseness, his lack of sensitivity (as we say) about Jews and Judaism, whether we ultimately ascribe to him a reformer's intention or not. Once the most obvious incidents of the play, such as we first take note of them, are seen for what they are morally, it is hard to resist interpreting The Merchant of Venice as a whole simply in their terms—that is, moralistically. How could anyone who writes such stuff, we tend to ask, have been very nice to Jews? The play undeniably draws from an appalling legacy of Jew-hatred in England from, say, 1290, when Jews were officially expelled, till at least 1753, when the ill-fated Jew Bill, as it was called, momentarily dropped professing the sacraments as a naturalization requirement and so opened citizenship to Jews, who had begun to be formally readmitted under Cromwell a century earlier. Perhaps the most convenient place to begin to acknowledge the bearing of that legacy here is James Shapiro's recent Shakespeare and the Jews.16 Shapiro draws from abundant references to Jews in chronicles, sermons, stories, plays, legal opinions, political tracts, and the like surrounding what he calls the “cultural moment” of the play's first staging (10). He disclaims any overall interpretation of the play, or of Shakespeare's private intentions, for that matter. Still, his comments on passages seen to dovetail with the historical evidence he adduces suggest much by way of innuendo which is morally damaging. Although the passages he cites are few and far between, they are worth listing, so that one can see both the force of the argument to which he contributes and its limitations.

That Jews sometimes suffered brutal reprisals for alleged ritual murders of Christians around Easter time, for example, serves to explain a report in the play of an ominous predawn nosebleed on “Black Monday,” or Easter Monday, by Shylock's clownish ex-servant, Launcelot, in his chatterbox cover-up of an impending elopement of Shylock's daughter, Jessica, and her Christian lover, Lorenzo (II.v.22-26) (258 n. 71). Launcelot's report resonates a few lines later during his coded message to Jessica, “There will come a Christian by / Will be worth a Jewess' eye” (II.v.40-41)—the “worth” here alluding less, Shapiro argues, to “the value of a lover than the revenge exacted upon the Jewish community for its crimes” (109). That Shakespeare's contemporaries were generally aware that there was no strictly female counterpart to male circumcision as the sign of Jews' covenant with God, moreover, explains the relative ease with which Jessica could break that covenant in marrying Lorenzo (120). And yet the short-lived contemporary belief that women's earrings could somehow substitute for ritual circumcision, Shapiro thinks, might explain Jessica's absconding with Shylock's jewels and Shylock's afterward lamenting that he would rather see her dead at his feet with the jewels in her ear (III.i.77-79) (ibid.). In any case, the further suspicion that a Jewess who could easily convert might just as easily revert to the old covenant seems to Shapiro to underlie the disturbing exchange between Jessica and Lorenzo comparing their hasty marriage to several thwarted love affairs of classical antiquity (V.i.1-24) (58f.). Finally, contemporary theological discussion over the meaning of “circumcision of the heart” in Paul's Letter to the Romans leads Shapiro to speculate that Shylock's insistence on a pound of Antonio's flesh might be a metonym for genital circumcision or even castration (114-21).

The historical import of these and other derogatory images of Jews, according to Shapiro, was to cast doubt over whether Jews could ever be trusted as fellow denizens, much less citizens, alongside Englishmen. To the extent that Shakespeare may be said to have given further currency to such images, he also seems to have lent them further credibility as his national stature rose. Or so Shapiro finds when looking at the public debate over the Jew Bill more than a century and a half later (195-224). The same images continued to be invoked by opponents of the bill, Shapiro notes, and led to its repeal barely two years after its passage, despite arguments in its favor drawn from more enlightened thinkers such as John Toland, Daniel Defoe, and John Locke. Shapiro leads us to infer, though he does not put it in so many words, that the bill might have had an easier time of it had Shakespeare thought better than to write The Merchant of Venice in the first place. For these and other moral reasons, he has no hesitation about calling the play “anti-Jewish” (216).

Here is where the limitations of Shapiro's argument become apparent. Assuming that the popular images as Shapiro describes them were as decisive politically as he suggests, there seems a further need to explain why Parliament itself was not altogether dazzled by them, at least for a time. Why, in short, did public life become as receptive as it was to the position in favor of tolerance of Jews as articulated by Toland, Defoe, Locke, and others? Here Shapiro is comparatively silent. It is testimony to the difficulty of this question that it would require him to widen the scope of the inquiry, to move from the narrower question of the popular prejudices latent and prevailing at a given hour (what Shapiro calls “cultural history”)17 to the broader question of how responsible statesmanship would have to discern and guide such prejudices on important public issues such as the Jew Bill.

Let us come closer to the point at hand. Given at least the modest success of enlightened statesmanship in 1753 in overcoming the derogatory images of Jews admittedly found in Shakespeare's then popular play, wouldn't we have to ask—as Shapiro does not—whether Shakespeare himself might have had enough statesmanlike insight to be able to anticipate and even encourage these same possibilities, however modestly, in his dramatic presentation of Shylock? The moment this question occurs to us, unless we simply decide to rule out certain answers beforehand, we are forced to look again at the manifestly derogatory things said of and by Jews in Shakespeare's play, to see whether they are indeed the play's last word or whether instead they might also call to mind other, more salutary images of the behavior of Jews—and of Christians—embedded as well in the psyches of his viewing and reading audience. But this last question can be answered one way or the other not by insinuation from evidence outside Shakespeare's play, but only by firsthand examination of the play itself. …


  1. Harold Bloom, ed., Shylock, Major Literary Characters Series (New York: Chelsea House, 1991). Citations to this work and to those of other critics are given in the text.

  2. I follow the text of the play as found in William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, 2d ed., ed. George Lyman Kittredge, rev. Irving Ribner, Kittredge Shakespeares (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1966). All citations are to that edition unless otherwise noted.

  3. Cf. III.v.21-23, 30-33; IV.i.47, 54.

  4. Cf. also IV.i.204, 221f., 226f., 233ff., 312.

  5. John Lyon, The Merchant of Venice, Twayne's New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare (Boston: Twayne, 1988).

  6. Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare, 2 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 1:109, as quoted in Lyon, Merchant of Venice, 105. Goddard's chapter is reproduced in H. Bloom, Shylock, 137-70; the sentence quoted is on 163; Goddard alludes in passing to III.i.32. Similarly, M. J. Landa, The Jew in Drama (reprint; Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat, 1968), 76f. On the other hand, Bernard Grebanier, The Truth about Shylock (New York: Random House, 1962), 282ff., correctly sees that Portia shows mercy to Shylock when exhorting him in effect to exculpate himself legally by showing mercy in turn to Antonio; but Grebanier misses the larger theological and political implications. Cf. chap. 3, sec. 5, and chap. 5, sec. 2, below.

  7. Lawrence Danson, The Harmonies of The Merchant of Venice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978). I omit from fuller consideration Grebanier, who defends the play on the too narrow grounds that Shakespeare understands his Shylock as a banker in conflict with a merchant prince rather than as a Jew in conflict with a Christian: “No one expects compassion from a bank” (Truth about Shylock, 213; cf. 95). See, however, I.iii.37, 41-43, with IV.i.17-34 and my remarks on Gross, below.

  8. Danson here quotes S. K. Henninger, Touches of Sweet Harmony: Pythagorean Cosmology and Renaissance Poetics (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1974), 5.

  9. Edward Andrew, Shylock's Rights: A Grammar of Lockean Claims (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988).

  10. Harry Berger Jr., “Marriage and Mercifixion in The Merchant of Venice: The Casket Scene Revisited,” Shakespeare Quarterly 32 (1981): 155-62.

  11. Andrew acknowledges his debt for the term to C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964).

  12. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II-II.10.8 (my trans.; my italics).

  13. John Gross, Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992).

  14. For a useful discussion of Shakespeare's “verbal usury” in the play, that is, his habit of generating added meaning from given words, see Marc Shell, Money, Language, and Thought: Literary and Philosophical Economics from the Medieval to the Modern Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 47-83.

  15. Robert Alter, “Who Is Shylock?” Commentary 96, no. 1 (1993): 33.

  16. James Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996). Shapiro's larger argument disputes the suddenness and thoroughness of the expulsion of Jews under Edward II in 1290 and their readmission under Cromwell in 1656, partly because of the absence of hard documentary evidence in either case and partly because of Englishmen's ongoing fascination with, and abuse of, opinions about Jews in the meantime, as a foil for understanding what being English might mean for themselves.

  17. Cf. ibid., 43, with 83, 110, 189 (“the play as a cultural safety-valve”), 228 (“The Merchant's capacity to illuminate a culture”).

Charles Edelman (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4755

SOURCE: Edelman, Charles. “Which Is the Jew that Shakespeare Knew?: Shylock on the Elizabethan Stage.” Shakespeare Survey 52 (1999): 99-106.

[In the following essay, Edelman reconstructs Elizabethan perceptions and expectations of Jewish theatrical characters, offering evidence that Shakespeare's Shylock was more likely a tragic figure than simply a comic villain.]

As John Gross remarks in Shylock: Four Hundred Years in the Life of a Legend, ‘everyone who writes about the stage history of The Merchant of Venice is doomed to quote, sooner or later’, the couplet supposedly spoken by Alexander Pope upon seeing Charles Macklin's portrayal in 1741:

This is the Jew
That Shakespeare drew.(1)

Pope's comment shows that he considered Macklin's hard and bitterly malevolent interpretation to be a welcome corrective to the Shylock of Thomas Doggett and his successors in George Granville's adaptation, The Jew of Venice,2 a lurid burlesque of the role that had held the stage since 1701. It also shows a yearning, shared by all students of the play, to reconstruct somehow the first Shylock, about whom there is no reliable contemporary information whatsoever—the actor Thomas Jordan's doggerel description,

His beard was red …
His habit was a Jewish gown,
That would defend all weather;
His chin turned up, his nose hung down,
And both ends met together

dates from 1664, when the theatre was not, contrary to the view of E. E. Stoll, ‘still swayed by the tradition of Alleyn and Burbage’.3

Given that any role is going to be significantly altered from its conception in the dramatist's imagination once it is in the hands of an actor and an audience, this essay is not concerned with the Jew that Shakespeare ‘drew’—that Shylock was forever lost the moment the play was performed. My topic is the Jew that Shakespeare ‘knew’, the Shylock whom he, Francis Meres, and other spectators saw some time before September of 1598, when the role was reinvented by Richard Burbage or another actor of the ‘Lord Chamberlaine his Servants’.4

In all that has been written about The Merchant of Venice, one point has remained virtually constant: however sympathetic the portrayals of Edmund Kean, Henry Irving, Laurence Olivier, or any number of others may have been, the original Shylock would have conformed to the so-called Elizabethan stereotype of the villainous stage Jew. Gross writes

… to an Elizabethan audience, the fiery red wig that he almost certainly wore spelled out his ancestry even more insistently than anything that was actually said. It was the same kind of wig that had been worn by Marlowe's Barabas, and before that by both Judas and Satan in the old mystery plays.5

Similarly, Jay L. Halio, in the introduction to his Oxford edition, notes that ‘Shakespeare's initial conception of him was essentially a comic villain, most likely adorned with a red wig and bottle nose.’ Halio is at pains to point out, however, that ‘the evidence for Shylock as a comic villain’ is not to be found in the play, but ‘partly in the literary and dramatic traditions which Shakespeare followed, that lie behind the character, and partly in certain generic and other considerations’.6 He then provides a lucid account of the qualities held in common by such fictional Jews as Zadoch and Zachary in Thomas Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller, and Abraham, the Jewish poisoner in Greene's Selimus (both 1594), these three characters probably having been influenced by the notoriety of Dr Roderigo Lopez, tried and executed in the same year, and above all by the popularity of Marlowe's extraordinary creation, Barabas, first seen c. 1589.

As cogent as the views of Gross and Halio are, there is a troubling premise behind them: a portrayal possible in 1814, when Kean stunned Drury Lane, and obviously possible, even obligatory nowadays, could not have been done four hundred years ago; one would be hard pressed to think of any other Shakespearian character who is thought to have changed so completely as to be unrecognizable from Elizabethan to modern performance. In questioning this premise, I am not arguing for a ‘tragic’ Shylock as the correct one, or arguing that the play is pro- or anti-Semitic; my sole object is to challenge the a priori assumption that Shylock must have conformed to a particular theatrical tradition, or that he must have been played in a certain way to satisfy the expectations of that wonderfully malleable group, who always think and believe whatever we want them to, Shakespeare's audience.

Assuming that the text remains the same (a point I will take up later), what are the variables that might separate the 1590s Merchant from those of the nineteenth century onwards? They might be divided into three categories: (1) limitations imposed by literary or theatrical tradition; (2) limitations imposed by audience beliefs, attitudes, or expectations; and (3) theatrical limitations imposed upon the range of performance options by acting style, costume, the shape of the stage, or any of the many other historically discrete theatrical conventions and technical considerations associated with Elizabethan performance practice.

Earlier I referred to the ‘so-called’ stereotype of the Elizabethan stage Jew, for it is far from certain that there ever was such a thing. When considering Jews in the early modern drama, we are struck first by how few of them there are, and then by how different these few are from each other. In the twelve years leading up to The Merchant of Venice, there are exactly three Jews in extant plays: one of them is a tiny part, the aforementioned Abraham in Greene's Selimus. The others are, of course, Barabas in The Jew of Malta, and Gerontus in Wilson's Three Ladies of London (1584).

Barabas' villainous attributes are too well known to require description here, but Gerontus is by far the most honest and admirable, one might even say ‘Christian’, character in his play. E. E. Stoll, in his oft-cited argument for the ‘traditional’ Shylock, summarily dismisses Gerontus as ‘the single instance in the Elizabethan drama of an honourable Jew’,7 which is easy for Stoll to do since he has already established that ‘to get at Shakespeare's intention (after a fashion) is, after all, not hard’, and that ‘Shakespeare, more than any other poet, reflected the settled prejudices and passions of his race’.8 But whatever Stoll may think about Three Ladies of London, Gerontus shows that single instance or not, even if there was a stereotypical stage Jew, the Elizabethan theatre was capable of accommodating alternative portrayals.

This leads us away from Jews on the stage and in literature to the far more controversial topic of how Jews were seen in Elizabethan England. Is it true, as James C. Bulman writes in his valuable contribution to the Shakespeare in Performance series, that ‘some knowledge of the history of anti-Semitism in England is critical to an understanding of the stereotype with which Shakespeare appealed to his audience's prejudices’?9 Here I am indebted to Laurence Lerner, who in his essay ‘Wilhelm S and Shylock’,10 suggests in a most engaging way that the perceived anti-Semitism of the play could be more a product of audience appropriation than anything in the text itself. Had the Elizabethans, all of whom were predisposed to think of Jews as devils and ritual murderers, read enough Terence Hawkes to know that the meaning of the play resided not in the author or actors, but entirely in themselves?

If they had, then it is not hard, as so many have done, to construct a picture of the first Shylock as the archetypical villain, for it is all too true that along with the execution of Dr Lopez (although it should be noted that Lopez's religion was hardly mentioned at his trial),11 there was pamphlet after pamphlet, sermon after sermon, and story after story, from Chaucer's Prioress' Tale to Nashe's Unfortunate Traveller, encouraging people to see Jews in the worst possible light. If that is the picture we want, though, we have again gone outside The Merchant of Venice to see it, since, as Gross reminds us, however ubiquitous stories about Hugh of Lincoln and well-poisoners might have been, none of the traditional charges are alluded to in the play: nothing about Christ-killers, sorcerers, ritual murderers, crucifiers of children, or host-desecrators.12

This brings me to one of the central points of my argument: that it is simply not true that everyone in Elizabethan England, and hence everyone on the stage and in the audience at The Merchant of Venice, was an anti-Semite. As James Shapiro shows in Shakespeare and the Jews, by the late 1590s a significant number of Jews lived in or visited England, exactly how many depending on how one defined the group. Many were, of course, Marranos, Jews who had to some degree converted to Christianity, including Lopez, and there were others who were considered at least in some respects to have retained their Jewish identity, such as the descendants of the Jewish musicians brought to England from Italy by Henry VIII.13 There were also the many contacts that merchants, ambassadors, and other English travellers had with Jews—Laurence Aldersey's description of a service he attended at the Venice synagogue in 1581 is one of total respect:

For my further knowledge of these people, I went into their Sinagogue upon a Saturday, which is their Sabbath day: and I found them in their service or prayers, very devoute: they receive the five bookes of Moses, and honour them by carying them about their Church, as the Papists doe their crosse. Their Synagogue is in forme round, and the people sit round about it, and in the midst, there is a place for him that readeth to the rest: as for their apparell, all of them weare a large white lawne over their garments, which reacheth from their head, downe to the ground, The Psalmes they sing as we doe, having no image, nor using any maner of idolatrie: their error is, that they beleeve not in Christ, nor yet receive the New Testament.14

Documents such as this one encourage us to conclude that no matter how pervasive anti-Semitic literature may have been, the idea that a universal ‘Elizabethan horror of Jews’ must have informed the reception of The Merchant of Venice is simply one more Tudor myth, similar not only to the supposed Elizabethan horror of rebellion said to have dictated the reception of the history plays, but also, as I will argue, to the equally mythical Elizabethan horror of usury.

Virtually everything, and worse, that was said about Jews in Elizabethan England was said about Moslems, and yet throughout her reign Elizabeth was busy establishing trade relations with whoever would deal with her, from Morocco to Constantinople, buying saltpetre for gunpowder from the Emperor of Morocco and selling him munitions in return, munitions that were used to annihilate the Portuguese and their fellow Christians at the Battle of Alcazar.15 And, as most editions of Othello point out, in 1600 she received an embassy of sixteen Moors, the portrait of their leader now hanging in the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon.

How could this have been possible if Islam was, in the words of the Reverend Joseph Hall, ‘a rude ignorance and a palpable imposture … their laws, full of license, full of impiety: in which revenge is encouraged, multitudes of wives allowed, theft tolerated … a monster of many seeds, and all accursed’?16 Whatever one's private feelings might be, the history of international commerce shows that overt prejudice flies out of the window when there is money to be made.

But what if there is money to be lost? If Shylock's religion, in itself, is not enough to give him automatically the attributes of a Herod or a Barabas, there is still the matter of Shylock as usurer to be considered. Even if most, or at least some, Elizabethans did not in fact feel all that strongly about Jews, perhaps they all, along with Philip Stubbes, thought that ‘he that killeth a man, riddeth him out of his paines at once, but he that taketh usury is long in butchering his pacient, suffering him by little and little to anguish, and sucking out his hart blood … an Usurer is worse than a Jew, for they to this daye, will not take any usurie of their Brethren, according to the lawe of God’.17

Stubbes has done us a favour by distinguishing between Christian and Jewish usurers, since there are actually very few Jews amongst the many usurers in early modern drama. As Garry Wills has noted,

some who discuss this play believe that only Shylock and his coreligionists are the usurers in Venice. There would be no reason for Elizabethans, so familiar with their own Christian usurers, to assume that. In fact, the usurer, a common figure in the drama of Shakespeare's age, is normally a Christian.18

Still, Lawrence Danson writes of ‘the Elizabethan horror of the idea of taking interest for the loan of money’, going on to say that writers, ‘depending for their view of economics upon the most venerable of classical and medieval sources, were unanimous in their condemnation of the practice of usury’.19

This might be true, but whether or not Shylock is, in fact, a usurer requires far more careful interrogation than has so far been given to the point. The word ‘usury’ does not occur in The Merchant of Venice, while ‘usance’ is heard three times: Shylock hates Antonio most of all for bringing down the ‘rate of usance’ (1.3.43) in Venice, and for having ‘rated’ him for his ‘moneys and [his] usances’ (1.3.106). In the third and last use of the word, Shylock is prepared to take

                    … no doit
Of usance


for his loan to Antonio. The only person to use the word ‘usurer’ is, by report, Antonio:

He was wont to call me usurer: let him look to his bond. He was wont to lend money for a Christian courtesy: let him look to his bond.


To Shylock, then, ‘usance’ is a straightforward synonym for ‘interest’, which Shylock freely admits he takes—Shakespeare's choice of one term or the other in each case could be purely for metrical reasons. ‘Usury’, however, is an epithet delivered by the same man who called Shylock ‘misbeliever’ and ‘cut-throat, dog’ (1.3.110), after he spat on him, and openly states his willingness to do the same again (1.3.128-9).

The way Shakespeare employs the words ‘usance’ and ‘usurer’ in The Merchant of Venice epitomizes what was a major public debate of Elizabethan England, for although Elizabethan writers were, as Danson says, ‘unanimous in their condemnation of the practice of usury’20 they were anything but unanimous in defining it. As Norman Jones writes in his endlessly fascinating book, God and the Moneylenders, ‘all good Christians agreed that usury was wrong, but they could not agree on what it was and when it occurred’.21

Until 1545, any charging of interest was considered usury, and hence illegal, with the obvious effect of keeping interest rates extremely high. In response, Henry VIII's 1545 statute defined the offence as interest in excess of 10 per cent, although most loans were for periods much shorter than a year, so the nominal annual interest was actually far higher. Enforcement proved very difficult, however, and rates remained high, so the lawmakers did what they always do when they cannot regulate something—they outlaw it again. In 1552 Henry VIII's statute was repealed and replaced by total prohibition, with the same effect as that other well-known prohibition, so in 1571, a year after one John Shakespeare of Stratford was fined 40 shillings for charging an astonishing £20 interest for a one-month £80 loan,22 Elizabeth's parliament, after extensive debate, restored the legal limit at 10٪, whatever the term of the loan was. (If there was a New York Daily News in those days, it would have reported that ‘Johnny Gloves’ was busted for nailing his customers on a ‘vig’ of six points a week.)23

In reading God and the Moneylenders and Laura Caroline Stevenson's Praise and Paradox: Merchants and Craftsmen in Elizabethan Popular Literature, one learns that writers such as Miles Mosse, who saw usury as the charging of any interest, rather than excessive interest, were what we would call today the extreme right wing, or even a ‘lunatic fringe’.24 Still, interest rates, like taxes, are always too high, so we might easily assume that many in Shakespeare's audience would have known the difficulty of repaying a loan, and would have seen Shylock as a usurer. But for every borrower there is a lender, and there were no banks or credit unions then—ordinary people who needed money borrowed from a neighbour or acquaintance, or found an acquaintance to act as broker to negotiate the loan with someone else. Given the diverse social makeup of the Elizabethan theatre-going public, it is quite probable that some in the audience, since they were engaged in the practice themselves, believed that lending money at the going market rate, or receiving a commission for arranging a loan, was a socially useful and even honourable thing to do. One member of the original audience at The Merchant of Venice would surely have thought so, presuming he was not acting a part on stage—the play's author.

It has been established beyond doubt that like his father, William Shakespeare loaned out, at interest, what were sizable sums of money, and he was prepared to sue when he was not paid back. He also, as the Quiney correspondence shows, acted as a broker on occasion, arranging loans of what would be, as E. A. J. Honigmann notes, ‘five-figure’ sums today.25 When Antonio says

Shylock, albeit I neither lend nor borrow
By taking nor by giving of excess


would not the play's author have expected, even wanted, at least someone in the audience, in those very inflationary times, to ask what Antonio was doing with a shirt on his back?

It is ironic that Stubbes is so often cited as speaking on behalf of the Elizabethans and their horror of charging interest, since his eleven pages on the evils of interest are closely followed by ten pages on the evils of plays and playing, a reminder that moral tracts tell us far more about what audience preconceptions were not, rather than what they were. If we are looking for books to tell us about prevailing social values of early modern England, we might consult those containing tables of interest rates, freely available by the early 1600s, rather than The Anatomy of Abuses or The Arraignment and Conviction of Usurie.26

My last category, theatrical limitations imposed upon the range of performance options, requires discussion of another argument that has been offered for the traditionally villainous Shylock—perhaps the most potent argument in that it relies, to a degree, on the text itself rather than things external to it. I refer to Shylock's famous ‘aside’, labelled as such in every modern edition of the play I have seen:

How like a fawning publican he looks.
I hate him for he is a Christian …


In Understanding Shakespeare's Plays in Performance, Halio writes that

omission of this passage is usually a clear indication of how the director has conceived Shylock's role—and with it, much else in the play. The script is then tailored accordingly, so that Shylock can emerge, as in Henry Irving's famous portrayal, as a tragic hero.27

Specifically referring to both Olivier and Irving, he adds that cutting this speech ‘is of course essential for this interpretation’.28

Unfortunately, neither Irving, nor Kean, nor Booth, cut a single word of the speech—indeed it was the centrepiece of Irving's portrayal, as described by his grandson:

His anger grew keener and more savage at the beginning of the aside, ‘How like a fawning publican he looks …’ For a moment he recovered his self-control, and then, on the words, ‘If I can catch him …’ his spleen once more got the better of him.29

How did these great ‘tragic’ Shylocks leave the ‘aside’ intact, and still manage to stun audiences with their sympathetic portrayals? The answer, I believe, is that the speech is not an ‘aside’ at all, as the word is usually defined by editors and critics. As is well known, the first quarto of The Jew of Malta shows many asides, labelled as such, for Barabas, but this stage direction is used indiscriminately for what are actually two separate conventions.30 When Barabas is feigning distress over Abigail's entry into the convent, the asides are secret ‘whispers to her’:

Wilt thou forsake mee too in my distresse,
Seduced Daughter, Goe forget [not].
                                                                                                    aside to her.
Becomes it Jewes to be so credulous,
To morrow early Il'e be at the doore.
                                                                                                    aside to her.
No come not at me, if thou wilt be damn'd,
Forget me, see me not, and so be gone.
Farewell, Remember to morrow morning.

(d1r, lines 18-19, 28-32)

Other asides, however, invite Barabas to speak directly to the audience, conspiring with them, as it were, with a series of ‘one-liners’ (in both senses of the term) such as:

I, like enough, why then let every man
Provide him, and be there for fashion-sake.
If any thing shall there concerne our state
Assure your selves I'le looke unto my selfe. aside

(B4r lines 6-9)


I must make this villaine away: please you dine
With me, Sir, & you shal be most hartily poyson'd. aside

(H3r lines 28-9)

Must Shylock imitate Barabas and speak directly to the audience in his twelve-line speech? Can he not, in what we would call a soliloquy if he were alone, think aloud to himself? The one-word stage direction ‘aside’ appears exactly once in the Folio, in Titus Andronicus, when Tamora addresses Titus in her imagination while musing,

Why thus it shall become
High witted Tamora to glose with all: aside
But Titus, I haue touch'd thee to the quicke,
Thy life blood out: If Aaron now be wise,
Then is all safe, the Anchor's in the Port.

(tln 2027-31)

There are only two such directions in the various Quartos, both within one speech in Pericles qi, as Simonides addresses Thaisa, the first ‘aside’ sitting one line below where it should be:

Yea, Mistris, are you so peremptorie?
I am glad on't with all my heart,
Ile tame you; Ile bring you in subjection. Aside.
Will you not, having my consent,
Bestowe your love and your affections,
Upon a Stranger? who for ought I know
May be (nor can I thinke the contrary)
As great in blood as I my selfe: Aside.

(D4v, lines 2-9)

As in Titus, the context implies thinking aloud rather than addressing the audience.31

While the very word ‘soliloquy’ indicates that only the speaker is on stage, there are countless examples in Shakespeare, unmarked by any stage direction, of this other convention for which we have no convenient label—thinking aloud while others are present. It is hard to imagine any Claudius saying

How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience.
The harlot's cheek, beautied with plast'ring art,
Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it
Than is my deed to my most painted word.
O heavy burden!


directly to the audience.

It is all too easy to confuse Shylock with the great Elizabethan villains such as Barabas, Richard III, and Iago by assuming that in the theatre, he, as they almost certainly did, spoke directly to the spectators. While such generalizations about performance practice are admittedly dangerous, I would suggest that one major limitation of the proscenium arch theatre is that the long aside is most difficult to manage. Further to this point, in the nineteenth century direct address to the audience would have carried with it strong associations of that nineteenth-century descendant of Barabas, the stock villain—‘curses! foiled again!’—of the melodrama.

For Kean, Booth, or Irving to turn to the audience and secretly whisper his hatred while Bassanio and Antonio sit there feigning conversation would have been most inimical to a sympathetic portrayal, so they changed the aside into a soliloquy by having Bassanio leave the stage before ‘How like a fawning publican’ was spoken.32 This, however, would not have been necessary in the far larger, more flexible, and multi-dimensional space of the Shakespearian theatre, where thinking aloud in a serious mode, at some length, while others are on stage, was common.

If Kean, or indeed Olivier, had played Shylock at the Globe, he would have been able, as the Folio text indicates, to have Antonio and Bassanio on stage while he spoke ‘How like a fawning publican he looks …’ without automatic association of villainy. Indeed, the lines denied Olivier at the National could easily have been restored for the television production through the simple device of the voice-over, television's equivalent of this Elizabethan theatrical convention. ‘Fawning publican’ and all, he might still have been, as I believe Kean might have been, very much like ‘the Jew that Shakespeare knew’.


  1. John Gross, Shylock: Four Hundred Years in the Life of a Legend (New York, 1994), p. 105.

  2. Gross, Shylock, 91-105; John Russell Brown, introd., The Merchant of Venice (London, 1955), pp. xxxii-xxxiii; M. M. Mahood, introd., The Merchant of Venice (Cambridge, 1987), pp. 42-3; Jay L. Halio, introd., The Merchant of Venice (Oxford, 1993), pp. 61-5.

  3. Jordan's poem and Stoll's comment in E. E. Stoll, Shakespeare Studies (New York, 1942), p. 255.

  4. Francis Meres, Palladis Tamia (entered 7 September 1598), in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston, 1974), p. 1844; the title page of q1 (1600) claims that the play is printed ‘as it hath been divers times acted by the Lord Chamberlaine his Servants’.

  5. Gross, Shylock, pp. 16-17.

  6. Halio, Merchant of Venice, p. 10.

  7. Stoll, Shakespeare Studies, p. 273.

  8. Ibid., p. 262, 280.

  9. James C. Bulman, Shakespeare in Performance: The Merchant of Venice (Manchester, 1991), p. 18.

  10. Laurence Lerner, ‘Wilhelm S and Shylock’, Shakespeare Survey 48 (1995), 61-8; p. 64.

  11. Peter Berek, ‘The Jew as Renaissance Man’, Renaissance Quarterly, 51 (1998), 128-62; p. 151.

  12. Gross, Shylock, p. 17.

  13. James Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews (New York, Columbia University Press, 1996), pp. 55-88; Roger Prior, ‘A second Jewish Community in Tudor London’, Jewish Historical Studies 31 (1990), 137-52; see also Gross, Shylock, p. 23; Berek, ‘The Jew’, pp. 131-6.

  14. ‘The first voyage or journey, made by Master Laurence Aldersey, Marchant of London, to the Cities of Jerusalem, and Tripolis, &c. In the yeere 1581. Penned and set downe by himself’, in Richard Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations Voyages, Traffiques, and Discoveries of the English Nation, vol. 5 (Glasgow, 1903), pp. 204-5. Brown (pp. xxxvii-xxxviii) discounts anti-Semitism as a large part of the Elizabethans’ day to day lives.

  15. ‘The Amassage of M. Edmund Hogan, one of the sworne Esquires of her Majesties person, from her Highnesse to Mully Abdelmelech Emperour of Marocco, and king of Fes and Sus: on the yeere 1577, written by himselfe’, in Hakluyt, vol. 6, pp. 285-93; Eldred D. Jones, The Elizabethan Image of Africa (Washington, 1971), p. 35.

  16. Samuel C. Chew, The Crescent and the Rose (New York, Oxford University Press, 1937), p. 445.

  17. Philip Stubbes, Anatomy of Abuses (London, 1583), sig. k7r, k8v.

  18. Garry Wills, ‘Shylock Without Usury’, New York Review of Books, 18 January 1990, 22-5; p. 24, citing A. B. Stonex, ‘The Usurer in Elizabethan Drama’, PMLA, 31 (1919), 190-210; p. 191.

  19. Lawrence Danson, ‘The Problem of Shylock’, in Harold Bloom, ed., Major Literary Characters: Shylock (New York, 1991), p. 273.

  20. Danson, ‘The problem of Shylock’, p. 273.

  21. Norman Jones, God and the Moneylenders (London, 1989), p. 24.

  22. S. Schoenbaum, Shakespeare's Lives, new edn. (Oxford, 1991), 562-3; E. A. J. Honigmann, ‘“There is a World Elsewhere”, William Shakespeare, Businessman’, in Images of Shakespeare: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the International Shakespeare Association, 1986, ed. Werner Habicht, D. J. Palmer, Roger Pringle (Newark, 1986), p. 40; see also D. L. Thomas and N. E. Evans, ‘John Shakespeare in The Exchequer’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 35 (1984), 314-18.

  23. According to the Wall Street Journal, as cited in The New Dictionary of American Slang, ed. Robert L. Chapman (London, 1986), ‘vig’ or ‘vigorish’—the extortionate interest charged by criminal loan sharks—would be about 180 per cent per year, or 15 per cent per month. John Shakespeare charged double that.

  24. Laura Caroline Stevenson, Praise and Paradox: Merchants and Craftsmen in Elizabethan Popular Literature (Cambridge, 1984). Mosse's Arraignment and Conviction of Usurie, 1595, receives ample discussion in N. Jones, pp. 144 ff.

  25. Honigmann, ‘World Elsewhere’, pp. 41-5; see also his Shakespeare's Impact on his Contemporaries (London, 1982), pp. 8-14.

  26. N. Jones, God and the Moneylenders, p. 78.

  27. Halio, Understanding Shakespeare's Plays in Performance (Manchester, 1988), p. 12.

  28. Halio, Merchant of Venice, p. 10.

  29. Lawrence Irving, Henry Irving: the Actor and his World, by his Grandson, Lawrence Irving (London, 1951), p. 40.

  30. On the aside, see Alan Dessen, Recovering Shakespeare's Theatrical Vocabulary (Cambridge, 1995), pp. 51 ff.

  31. There is also an ‘aside’ in the ‘bad’ Quarto of Merry Wives of Windsor—see Dessen, Recovering Shakespeare's Theatrical Vocabulary, p. 51.

  32. Mahood, introd., Merchant of Venice, p. 44.

Davi Napoleon (review date 1998)

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SOURCE: Napoleon, Davi. “The Flapper of Venice.” Twentieth Century Interpretations 32, no. 1 (January 1998): 6-7.

[In the following review of Barbara Gaines's 1998 production of The Merchant of Venice, Napoleon concentrates exclusively on design elements that contributed to the project's evocation of urban America during the Roaring Twenties.]

Although Barbara Gaines decided to place the Shakespeare Repertory Theatre's The Merchant of Venice in a 1920s American city, she encouraged to adapt period and place to the play. Synthesizing authentic details that suggested the superficiality of the era with anachronistic elements that evoked the Roaring 20s, design stayed true to the feel of a period rather than the time itself.

Costume designer Nan Cibula-Jenkins says the design team brought pictorial research to the table early, and they knew why they deviated from historical accuracy in every instance. “Even though we were manipulating colors and styles, we wanted the audience to think they were watching people in the 20s. [Back then], all the bathing suits would have been navy or black,” she says; she used tropical colors to create a lighthearted ambiance for the Belmont scenes. “Navy would have given the piece a different feeling.”

Cibula-Jenkins, who built all the women's clothing and rented the majority of men's garments from the Royal Shakespeare Company, didn't use period undergarments in dance scenes; these would have “distracted from the period ideal. Barbara wanted us to grasp the period in its most idealistic form, so the world seemed almost pushed. She said, ‘It's like you're at a party, where everyone is forcing themselves to have a good time.’”

Avoiding visual clutter while suggesting a frenzied state, the design team created “a world force to the point that it was almost frenzied. Barbara wanted us to take the audience to the conclusion, to get on the train and go right to the station,” says Cibula-Jenkins.

Gaines opened her production at a rooftop party, where Antonio eventually separates himself from dancing revelers to reflect on his contrasting sadness. Seeking colors and textures that would reflect a world out of kilter, Cibula-Jenkins balanced the langourous middle Belmont scenes with forced gaiety in party scenes that framed them at the end as well as its start. … Middle Belmont scenes featured pastels and soft flowing silk chiffons, the more relaxed textures echoing the times. Men wore tail coats in many scenes.

The first time in Western history that women discarded corsets, skirts in the 20s were “incredibly short compared to those worn ten years earlier. Women cut their hair off, an amazing idea. They had been quietly painting their lips, but now they came out and wore makeup overtly. It was a huge breakthrough.” Cibula-Jenkins notes that women capable of changes in style were also capable of taking matters in their own hands, as Portia and Nerissa do. “As soon as you pick the 20s, you're in an age when anything goes, a new age of liberation.”

But while people celebrated the end of the war and what they imagined would be a carefree future, immigrants struggled with harsh conditions, and the racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Christianity of the times matched those in Shakespeare's Venice.

Because Elizabethan audiences knew Venice as a place of the kind of monetary exchange we associate with present-day Wall Street, and we have romantic visions of the Italian city, Gaines relocated the play spatially as well as temporally. Cibula-Jenkins and set designer Neil Patel exchanged swatches and talked about yellows and blues in Belmont, with cool grays and metallic for city scenes. Patel took his cue from 30s Art Deco, as furniture with hard edges provided the austere look he wanted. His public place resembled a bank lobby, undecorated and cold. Using the same space as the courtroom with minor adjustments, mainly the addition of a few benches, Patel didn't try to hide the public space but allowed it to resonate throughout the climactic scene. The same space functioned as Shylock's home, again by moving a few pieces of furniture.

Patel provided contrast in the Belmont scenes, for which he used a water motif. We meet Portia on a beach, and revelers dance around a reflecting pool during the final party scene. Again, little changed by Robert Christen transformed the space with warm lights.

Instead of asking sound designer Robert Neuhaus to locate period songs, Gaines commissioned an original score from Aleric Jans, who matched the frenzy of the scenography with an over-the-top driven score, consistent with the sound of the times.

Design elements combined to create an effect that is different from any one of them. “Take that music,” says Cibula-Jenkins, “and the 30s furniture and my costumes, and it feels like the 1920s.”

John W. Mahon (review date 1998)

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SOURCE: Mahon, John W. “Richard Olivier Directs The Merchant of Venice.Shakespeare Newsletter 48, no. 2 (summer 1998): 43.

[In the following review of Richard Olivier's 1998 production of The Merchant of Venice, Mahon comments on the director's “colorblind” casting, decision to make Portia the play's central figure, and efforts to recreate a historically authentic theater-going experience at the New Globe.]

The son of Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright, Richard Olivier has worked in the theatre for some years, both in England and in the United States. He directed Henry V at Shakespeare's Globe last summer. He has published several books, including the memoir Shadow of the Stone Heart: A Search for Manhood. During a conversation with me in his London home on 15 June, Olivier reflected on his approach to directing Merchant at the New Globe on Bankside this summer. His remote preparation for the assignment began much earlier and included a trip last winter to the University of Lecce, in the Italian province of Puglia, where he conducted a workshop on the play for drama students. The Italian students provided insight into the energy of Italian character and expressed satisfaction with a dramatic action that moved from carnival toward the “Passion”/Easter of the courtroom scene. Students in Lecce readily perceived Shylock as a villain.

These responses reinforced Olivier's determination to present The Merchant of Venice in terms of what the play would have meant in the 1590s, to release the story in the way it was intended to be told, to serve as a storyteller rather than as an interpreter. Such goals complement the Globe's sacred “a-word,” authenticity. They also acknowledge the fact that the Globe space is an actors' space, so that the director's task is to empower the actors to do their jobs.

This space also provokes interaction: seeing the play makes viewers confront their own prejudices. The colorblind casting reflects the reality of Venice at the time: it was a multicultural society in which many servants were Armenians. The Globe of 1998 should reflect the cultural “mix” in England now just as the Globe of the 1590s did then.

Asked how his father might have influenced his concept of the play, Richard Olivier responded that Sir Laurence influenced him to the extent that he wanted to avoid a star like his father or Dustin Hoffman in the Shylock role—that immediately emphasizes the character. (In fact, the Globe's Shylock, the German actor Norbert Kentrup, had long been Sam Wanamaker's choice for the role.) Modern productions tend to “over-weight” the Shylock.

It is Portia's play, even in terms of number of scenes. More importantly, the play highlights her effort to change a masculine world, to move the society from an “either/or” stance to a “both/and” one. Most people seem to agree that feminine intuition like Portia's needs to be disguised in order to succeed in a male world. In general, Olivier observed, Shakespeare surely intended audiences to feel ambiguity about the motives of his characters.

Richard Olivier explained that Globe Education offers workshops for students that explore the anti-Semitism of the play, including the problem that the Christians never apologize for their behavior nor retract their treatment of Shylock. Workshops for business people focus on male/female role-playing and its impact on corporate leadership. Cranfield U's School of Management offered a two-day seminar last June at the Globe's Education Centre. Three Cranfield lecturers joined Richard Olivier to present the program, which cost each participant £1,025!

Addressing other aspects of the production, Olivier noted that, on the Globe stage, costumes become the set and music becomes the lighting; music denotes location—bells for Venice, lutes for Belmont. Operating on the assumption that everything behind the back wall is part of a magic space, Olivier deliberately positioned the three caskets in the discovery space, where they probably would have stood in the original production, not visible to some in the audience, now as then.

Finally, Richard Olivier acknowledged that the Globe space promotes the danger of overplaying to the groundlings and neglecting the audience seated in the galleries. Since the text of the play is performed virtually uncut (only about 5٪ of Merchant was cut), too much “business” unduly lengthens the performance time. The performance tends to evolve over the course of the summer; in the case of Henry V in 1997, ten minutes of “business” was shaved off over the course of the production.

Lois Potter (review date 1999)

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SOURCE: Potter, Lois. “A Stage Where Every Man Must Play a Part?” Shakespeare Quarterly 50, no. 1 (spring 1999): 74-81.

[In the following excerpted review of the 1998 Globe season, featuring Richard Olivier's production of The Merchant of Venice, Potter comments on the overall carnivalesque quality of the production, and mentions the exceptional Shylock of Norbert Kentrup.]

Reviewers of the first two seasons at the Globe in Southwark, whether in the printed and electronic media or in formal and informal talks at the International Shakespeare Conference in Stratford-upon-Avon, focused more on the new theater's audience than on its productions. Advance discussions of the project had suggested that this was likely to be the case. Paul Nelsen, in a well-informed report from one of the conferences of theater scholars which preceded the official opening, cited various speculations that were being floated there. Would Globe audiences act like fans at a sporting event? Should actors try “warming up the crowd before performances”? Perhaps, some feared, “a stadium-like atmosphere might provoke actors to adopt a fustian style.”1 Accurate predictions, self-fulfilling prophecies, or simply fantasies? The discussions I heard and read in the summer of 1998 were an uneasy mix of the anecdotal (“Well, it wasn't like that on the afternoon when I went”) and the abstract: a surprising number of people were ready to claim, on the basis of one visit, or indeed none, that the whole enterprise was irretrievably flawed.

In attempting to fill out the picture of the Globe's 1998 season, I shall have to begin where many others have begun (and indeed ended)—with the controversial production of The Merchant of Venice. This production was clearly the centerpiece of the season. Three of the four plays in repertory (The Honest Whore and A Mad World, My Masters being the other two) dealt in part with money and the world of business; James Shapiro's Shakespeare and the Jews was prominently displayed in the theater shop; and a series of readings of complementary plays about Jews was offered by the Globe's educational branch. There was, then, the opportunity to compare Antonio and Shylock to dramatic characters ranging from Londoners such as Middleton's Shortrod Harebrain and Sir Bounteous Progress (apparently a retired usurer) to Dekker's supposedly Milanese linen-draper Candido, the Hebrews who suffer the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus and Vespasian in William Heminge's The Jews' Tragedy, and the sophisticated anonymous German or Dutch traveler who finally reveals himself to be one of the title characters of G. E. Lessing's remarkable dark comedy The Jews. The small Bear Gardens theater was rarely full for these readings, perhaps because of their low-budget publicity. They were very well done but did not throw much light on the subject of Renaissance anti-Semitism: the Heminges play is a longwinded, sub-Fletcherian dramatization of the more sensational parts of Josephus's History of the Jews, while Lessing, of course, belongs to a later age. In any case, it was difficult for visiting academics to take full advantage of all the opportunities offered by the Globe and Bear Gardens. The two Shakespeare plays, playing to standing-room-only by the time I arrived in early August, were completely sold out soon thereafter. This may be one reason why few seem to have explored the relationships among the four plays in the main theater, and I should add that no explicit parallels were drawn among them in performance. Nevertheless, recognizing their existence added considerably to the pleasure of my visits to the Globe.

Though none of the plays have written prologues, the opening moments of each performance offered a prologuelike experience. That of Merchant was particularly significant. As the audience was assembling, an Italian madrigal group could be heard performing in the musicians' gallery, while down on the forestage a masked carnival character (Marcello Magni) was teaching the audience a ribald popular song. Eventually the madrigal group descended to perform on the stage level, only to be confronted by Magni's rival group encouraging the audience to join in its aggressive raucousness. High and popular culture, initially separated as neatly as in Robert Weimann's locus and platea, were now competing for the same space and for our attention. It was both funny and embarrassing; we weren't sure whether we really wanted to participate in this attempted sabotage of high art. How were we “meant” to respond?

Richard Olivier's production of Merchant comprised a series of variations on that question. By making the audience take part in the battle between Lent and carnival, it seemed to co-opt them into the pro-laughter position that the play's first scene shows Gratiano urging on Antonio. Yet this Antonio (Jack Shepherd) was clearly in a seriously depressive state (he burst into tears as he asked “Is this anything now?”), and this Gratiano (Andrew French) was almost maniacal in his laughter. Laughter continued to be problematized: the play's second scene invited us to laugh at a series of national stereotypes and to share Portia's horror at the prospect of a suitor with “the complexion of a devil”; the third scene introduced Shylock, no more a carnival figure than Antonio, suddenly attempting to turn a business deal into “a merry sport”; the fourth brought the Prince of Morocco onstage as a caricature of the oversexed black man. Moreover, the disruptive carnival character who started all the trouble at the beginning turned out in the next scene to be Launcelot Gobbo, or rather Marcello Magni, a gifted commedia dell'arte improviser and movement artist, who was not so much doubling as illustrating the relationship between anarchic stage clown and household servant/fool. As Launcelot he not only asked for a show of hands to help him decide whether to leave his master Shylock but kicked the cane out from under his blind old father. This was surely the epitome of carnivalesque behavior, with its overturning of traditional models of social and familial behavior, and we were supposed to be on the side of the carnivalesque, weren't we? But the text itself is likely to divide audiences: when Launcelot announces his own death in order to laugh at his father's grief, some will find it comically absurd while others will see it as proof of Bergson's view that laughter requires “an anaesthesia of the heart.”

The carnivalesque continued during the intermissions, provoking equally mixed reactions. Magni (again!) raided people's backpacks, attacked illegal photographers with a water bottle, and danced with the spectators. The day I was there, he seemed to be pretty good at guessing which spectators would be least likely to object to ice-cream cones in their hair, but I later heard that some victims had suffered anxiety attacks while others had threatened to sue. (Outside the Globe was an equally carnivalesque character: a street vendor urging audiences to come and get their snacks at half the price being charged inside the theater precincts.) The Merchant of Venice, even more than most comedies, gets a lot of its laughs from cruelty; whether or not Shakespeare himself was drawing attention to this fact, I have no doubt that Olivier's production was doing so. It might be argued, of course, that, even if I'm right about the intention of the production, the effect in practice was not to contextualize the cruelty but to justify it. There is no real answer to such objections, since performance criticism is based on spectator response, not directorial intention. Some people apparently felt hurt and alienated by the production, to the point of not wanting to discuss it at all; their feelings are real. But so are the feelings of those who were stimulated by it, of whom I was one.

That Norbert Kentrup played Shylock, having learned English especially for the purpose, was apparently the result of a longstanding wish of Sam Wanamaker's, and one could see why: despite his strong German accent, the actor had a magnificent presence and a dry sense of humor that fitted well into the style of the production. Nevertheless, the time lag between his delivery of his lines and the audience's understanding of them often meant that their full effect was lost. Even so, his finely nuanced interpretation gave the character not only dignity but an element of mystery. What this Shylock had in common with his antagonist Antonio was a capacity for human affection as well as for hysterical hatred. What he had in common with his other antagonist, Portia, was a respect for argument. Kentrup, after Portia's “Then must the Jew be merciful,” asked, “On what compulsion must I?” like a teacher politely pointing out a pupil's failure in logic; nevertheless, he listened to, and seemed moved by, the famous speech with which she answered him. One could almost believe that the bond really was just a joke gone wrong. Unlike most Shylocks, this one did not seem terminally ill when he left the courtroom, and it was possible to feel that the story was not yet over.

In the run-up to the trial scene both Antonio and Shylock made their cases directly to the audience, sometimes darting significant glances upward. Kathryn Pogson as Portia also played many lines, literally, to the gallery. (This was one feature of Globe performances that some reviewers criticized, but I couldn't see why. Do we really want to bring back the fourth wall?) Since the gallery auditors are, traditionally, “the gods,” the relation between addressing God and addressing the audience was even clearer than usual. For instance, Portia shared with both God and the audience her very real anxiety as the first two suitors deliberated over the caskets. As the old Prince of Aragon droned soporifically on, she started to pray; and when it became apparent that he was going to talk himself into the wrong choice, she didn't forget to glance upward and say a quick “thank you.” What put the audience on her side in the courtroom was the fact that she was as isolated as Shylock. Bassanio and Gratiano were furious to learn that an inexperienced youngster was taking the place of the distinguished lawyer they had been expecting, and her notorious “Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?” gave them immediate proof of incompetence. It was possible to see the moment at which Shylock's “‘Nearest his heart’; those are the very words” made her look again at the bond, realizing that its precise wording would be the key to the case. The fifth act fully exploited the comic gifts of both Pogson and Mark Rylance (as Bassanio) in a genuinely funny treatment of the ring scene. Though Lilo Baur as Jessica seemed silently troubled in the final moments, the performance ended with the entire cast (including Launcelot and even Jessica herself) happily singing a madrigal in unison. This might have been meant to signify the final coming together of high and low culture, carnival and Lent—but, as at other times, it was not clear whether it was the characters or the actors who were taking part.


  1. Paul Nelsen, “Oaths and Oracles: Will the Globe Spin on an Axis of ‘Authenticity’?” Shakespeare Bulletin 13.3 (1995): 27-32, esp. 28.

Matt Wolf (review date 1999)

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SOURCE: Wolf, Matt. Review of The Merchant of Venice. Variety 375, no. 11 (2 August 1999): 40.

[In the following review of Trevor Nunn's 1999 production of The Merchant of Venice, Wolf surveys the effective performances of the major players and notes the centrality of anti-Semitism and its disturbing consequences in Nunn's handling of the drama.]

Among the many special relationships talked about in England, perhaps it's time to acknowledge the unique theatrical symbiosis between Shakespeare and Trevor Nunn. The Bard seems to breathe more easily when directed by Nunn, as evidenced over the better part of two decades at the Royal Shakespeare Co. and now at the National Theater. Also, as his present staging of The Merchant of Venice definably proves, Nunn has the effect on Shakespeare of wiping a time-honored canvas clean, revealing colors whose clarity is sometimes shocking: After all, when was the last time that Merchant—for all its abundant mournfulness—was packed so full of high spirits?

The larkiness of the gentile community is one of the unsettling masterstrokes of a production that has followed Olympia Dukakis in Martin Sherman's “Rose” as the second show in the Cottesloe studio to receive an ovation at a performance attended by this critic. True, there are moments when the casting doesn't deliver the textual insight felt throughout, and one wishes particularly for a stronger Jessica than Gabrielle Jourdan to deliver an effective closing punch here accompanied by some clever tinkering with the text. (As her suitor, Daniel Evans' fey Lorenzo is comparably out of his league.)

Mostly, however, Nunn works not by altering what, in the wake of the Holocaust, remains a problematic source but via absolute fidelity to the shifting moods of a play whose moments of good cheer, as everyone knows, exact an awful price.

Gratiano (Richard Henders), for instance, may possess a “skipping spirit,” but that's only as long as he's hanging out with his mates Bassanio (Alexander Hanson), Salerio (Peter de Jersey) and Solanio (Mark Umbers), whose own approach to money is to drink their coffees and run before anyone notices they haven't paid the bill. When these suited anti-Semites confront the Jew Shylock (Henry Goodman), however, they can't go in for the kill fast enough, amid a community that finds even Shylock's servant, Launcelot Gobbo (Andrew French), ready to crack a joke at his master's expense.

As played by Henders, this Gratiano is a sartorially well turned-out thug who thinks with his fists: Significantly, he throws a playful punch to Alex Kelly's Nerissa, newly got up in legal garb as male clerk to Portia (Derbhle Crotty), wearing her own masculine disguise. Portia, by contrast, begins as a slinky siren dressed by designer Hildegard Bechtler in body-hugging black. (Bechtler is responsible, too, for the sparely appointed traverse set.)

But there's something scary about the zealous embrace of “the law” of this one-time minx during a trial scene that debases everyone involved, and one only wishes Crotty communicated radiance as easily as she does a strict reading of the law that cannot but be—to co-opt her own word—“strained.”

The style and sound of the show evoke a jazz-flecked 1920s that incorporates a Klimt canvas for the casket scenes and a drunken, louche ambiance by way of “Cabaret.”

Against the period specifics, there's a properly timeless feel to Goodman's fierce and hunted yarmulke-wearing Shylock, which errs only in a tendency to build from whisper to roar that begins to resemble a vocal trick. Sharing a Yiddish exchange with Jessica, Shylock is later subjected to nothing less than emotional rape: the moneylender stripped of everything that matters, starting with family and faith. Goodman doesn't shy away from the hardening of a man who ends up surrendering much more than a pound of flesh in the painful closing-off of his heart. The silencing of Shylock—preceded by his ally Tubal (John Nolan) walking out on him in disgust—casts its inevitable chill over the final scene, which doesn't need a roll of thunder to remind us that the lovers' putative cuckoldry pales next to the “Christianity” imposed upon Shylock.

It's Nunn's strength to sustain interest to the finish, and he is helped no end by Hanson, who cuts easily the most complicated Bassanio I have seen—his decency adrift in a Venice of thwarted loyalties and misplaced loves as embodied by Antonio (David Bamber), the lovesick “merchant” of the title apparently milquetoast demeanor is capable of real rage.

Indeed, though the Jew-baiting in Merchant is what resounds through the centuries, it's possible to read the play in its entirety as a so-called “comedy” of reconciliation that leaves at least some of its inhabitants a wreck. Shylock is exiled from the amorous milieu with which The Merchant of Venice concludes. But his presence lives on in those unexpected final notes floated by a daughter lost to him in a play that on this occasion sings no less troublingly to us today.

Seymour Kleinberg (essay date 1983)

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SOURCE: Kleinberg, Seymour. “The Merchant of Venice: The Homosexual as Anti-Semite in Nascent Capitalism.” In Literary Visions of Homosexuality, edited by Stuart Kellogg, pp. 113-26. New York: Haworth Press, 1983.

[In the following essay, Kleinberg claims that The Merchant of Venice dramatizes “the triumph of heterosexual marriage” over homoeroticism, the latter represented by Antonio and his love for Bassanio.]

When I first read The Merchant of Venice, I was dismayed by the anti-Semitism and the materialism of the Venetian world. The play held no charm for me, and I decided that it was simply not very available for someone like myself. Twenty years later, in 1978, after a summer as an NEH fellow at Berkeley, researching the subject of sodomy in the Renaissance, I reread the play. I still found it to be about anti-Semitism under mercantile capitalism, but now just as clearly it was also about homosexual eroticism in conflict with heterosexual marriage, about the rivalry of romantic male friendship with the claims of conventional marriage. This paper explores the relationship of these themes—money, ethnic hatred, sexual rivalry—and argues that they are analogous to one another; they are the matter and the feelings that define the merchant of the title.

Literally, that merchant is Antonio, though in the popular mind the title always invokes Shylock. Part of my argument is that the popular response is also the literal one: Shylock is Antonio. They are psychological counterparts. Antonio is a virulently anti-Semitic homosexual and is melancholic to the point of despair because his lover, Bassanio, wishes to marry an immensely rich aristocratic beauty, to leave the diversions of the Rialto to return to his own class and to sexual conventionality. Antonio is also in despair because he despises himself for his homosexuality, which is romantic, obsessive, and exclusive, and fills him with sexual shame.

For decades now, scholars and critics have noted Antonio's peculiarities. Most see an innocent infatuation in a lugubrious melancholiac, a type Shakespeare was fond of exploiting and an infatuation that was time-honored, dating back to the blood brotherhood of the Germanic tribes on one hand and to the classical Greeks on the other.1 But in the 1950s, literary critics came under the influence of psychoanalytic thought, and the wholesome nature of Antonio's feelings was questioned. His passivity was the hallmark of neurosis, a defensive pose against “strong homosexual inclination.”2 It was further argued that Antonio's latent homosexuality was really a defense of Shakespeare's, as was the anti-Semitism of the play: Antonio and Shylock were two defenses of the poet against the anxiety he had portrayed in the sonnets, where homoeroticism and usury were complicated metaphors for each other.3

In the next decade, the reading of the plays and the sonnets as emotional biography was dismissed as naive. But too much discussion had taken place to dismiss Antonio as unimportant to The Merchant of Venice. Typically, a scholar decided that “there is, of course, no need to suggest an active homosexuality between the two men.”4 Some critics admitted that perhaps on Antonio's part, but never Bassanio's, the love bordered on the passionate, an “incipient homosexual relationship … less innocent than conventional Renaissance friendship.”5

This is still the dominant reading today: Antonio may be repressed and perverse, but Bassanio is innocent. And it is consistent with contemporary attitudes toward Shylock, which sentimentalize the play by seeing Shylock as the victim rather than the villain. Such distortions enervate all the readings of character and relationship. Antonio and Bassanio are just the dearest friends; Portia is completely noble when she isn't being delightfully playful. Of course, the play then is a failure, a mishmash of contradictions, inconsistent about character and confused in its moral vision.

Despite the discomfort of affirming Shylock's villainy after the fate of European Jewry during World War II, critics are once again insisting on describing him with the accurate harshness he deserves. But once Shylock's unattractiveness is restored, it is possible to reconsider Antonio and, finally, Portia herself. It is possible to play Shylock with sympathy without ruining the play entirely, as Laurence Olivier did some years ago for an English televised version, in which Shylock's final “speech” is off-stage and off-camera, his true response to his enforced conversion to Christianity at the end of the trial scene: a terrifying scream so shocking that the play dissolves into prophecies of Auschwitz. At that moment, even if we do not hate Portia and condemn all of Venice, they are permanently outside our sympathy. That is an interesting play, but not the one Shakespeare wrote. It may even be a better play, more suitable to modern ideas of justice, but I doubt it. It is a less complex drama, simpler, flatter. The play Shakespeare wrote does look to the future rather than back to the work that preceded it, but it is the future ambiguities of Twelfth Night, the enigma of Measure for Measure, the despair of Troilus and Cressida, perhaps even the cynicism of All's Well That Ends Well.

If one wishes to see the plays refracted in the sonnets, assuming the lyric poetry is less masked, then the erotic triangle of the sonnets and the ambiguous sexual character of the speaker's feelings for the young man can serve as a mirror of The Merchant of Venice.

It is unmistakable that Antonio and Bassanio are “lovers”; a number of characters, especially Lorenzo, say so. The question is whether Lorenzo and the others, including Antonio, are using the word in its rarer sense of intimate but platonic friends, or whether they use it to denote that friendship while slyly suggesting the erotic nature of the true relationship.

In the canon, of the nearly 150 times Shakespeare uses the words lover, lover's, lovers, and lovers', only nine of those instances can be argued as sexually innocent, and four of them are in the play under discussion. Three others occur in Julius Caesar, one in Coriolanus, and one in Love's Labors Lost.6 In these three plays there is no evidence of sexual suggestion. The term carries the meaning given it by Malone when he glossed it in his edition: “In Shakespeare's time this was applied to those of the same sex who had an esteem for each other.”7 Malone cites Ben Jonson's letter to John Donne in which he signs himself, “Your true lover.”

The lexicons, however, note that the overwhelming meaning of lover is the modern one, and examples of Shakespeare's lack of reticence about homoeroticism are everywhere in the sonnets and the plays. Even the casual line by the fool in King Lear, “He's mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf, a horse's health, a boy's love or a whore's oath” (III, vi, 19),8 acknowledges the ordinariness of pederastic infatuation in a society that seemed to tolerate homosexuality or bisexuality for men who had already done their service to society and posterity in marriage and paternity.

Until recently, scholars have been so diffident or so evasive about the subject that their speculations often seem senseless. The modern line is articulated by J. W. Lever: intense male friendship at the end of the sixteenth century in England emerged as a major literary theme; the new seriousness about friendship owed much to Italian Platonism, to the idea of a new kind of love marked by an “absence of physical homosexuality,” Amor Razionale.9 Platonic homosexuality belonged to an Italianate culture that was casual about bisexuality, but the new love was not a euphemism for erotic homosexuality. This has been the basis for the standard reading of the sonnets: he loves him but sleeps with her; or he loves him but does not want to sleep with him because the beloved's sex is an odd, unlucky accident, so he sleeps with her in frustration or guilt or lust, but without much affection. That is a valid reading of the ambiguity surrounding the bond between the men in the triangle of the sonnets, but the drama tells another story of the triangle of Antonio, Bassanio, and Portia. Here the conflict is between an assertion of sexuality that is shameful or dangerous and the institution of marriage, between the anarchy of sterile romantic passion and the lawfulness of wedlock.

Critics like Lever presume the friendship must be platonic because the penalties for sodomy were so severe that no poet could venture such sentiments as those in Shakespeare's plays and poems without enormous risk unless the behavior of those involved was innocent, regardless of their inclinations. Sodomy by the late sixteenth century always meant “buggery,” and sometimes the terms were used interchangeably, as in the English Act of 1533, reissued in 1563, whereby sodomy/buggery was again made a capital offense. Buggery is a corruption of bougrerie, a reference to the Albigensians, whose religious heresies were supposed to have come from Bulgaria. Thus, sodomy as buggery has its roots in heresy. This is why it was held as so abhorrent, worse even than incest, with which it was compared.10

How then are we to account for the openness of Marlowe, both in the life and in the drama, no less James's court and Buckingham's career (“Elizabeth was king; now James is queen”)?11 Nor was this exclusively the vice anglais. Pope Julius III (1500-55) was notorious, and the story of Henry III of France, who escaped from Poland dressed as a woman to claim the French throne on the death of his brother, was widely known. There is a mysterious schism between the law of the land, with its penalty of burning at the stake (reserved for heretics, witches, and sodomites) and the evidence of pederasty and bisexuality among Elizabethan aristocrats, for example, the circle centering around the Earl of Southampton and the Jacobean court. Southampton, one of the likeliest candidates for the young man of the sonnets and Shakespeare's sometime sponsor, was a patron of homoerotic and pornographic verse as well.12 Perhaps he and his circle escaped censure and danger because they married. All upper-class men married. Their duties to property, propriety, and posterity demanded an heir. After that, their romantic predilections were less important socially as long as they were reasonably discreet. Even Richard Barnfield (1574-1627), whose life and career span both reigns and who wrote the most blatant pederastic poetry of the period, The Affectionate Shepherd (1594), married and retired to the country to rear a family.

It is on this subject that The Merchant of Venice begins: the need to marry. The immediate opening involves Antonio and his friends, who are trying to discern the cause of his melancholia, which Antonio confesses even he is bored with. The temperament Shakespeare and the Elizabethans called melancholia we would paraphrase as depression or neurosis. It is suggested that his sadness is caused by love, the conventional cause, and Antonio does not absolutely deny it when he says, “Fie, fie” (I, i, 46).13 As soon as he is alone with Bassanio, they investigate a plan by which Bassanio can repay his enormous debts, the largest of which he owes Antonio—if only Antonio will lend him still more money. The yoking of money and love is made explicitly and immediately in the first scene; Bassanio says he owes Antonio “the most in money and in love.” Antonio, more frankly, replies that “My purse, my person, my extremest means lie all unlocked to your occasions.” In the sonnets, such a line with so much innuendo would be the moment of complicated ironies, and of much scholarly comment: for example, of Shakespeare's fondness for using debt and usury as metaphors for sexual longing. Here in the play, the line elicits no comment; its boldness is so literal it may need none. Plainly, everything is available: Antonio's purse and his person are interchangeable.

When the solution to Bassanio's debts is revealed to be Portia, the heiress of Belmont, Bassanio presents her first as wealthy, then as fair and good; he adds casually that she already seems disposed toward him. Tactfully, he does not elaborate, nor does he mention his feelings, if any, for her. He merely states that she rivals the Golden Fleece, and many Jasons, that emblem of constancy, come to woo her. On these conditions, Antonio is satisfied. Bassanio is a proper young aristocrat: spendthrift, flighty, charming, and beautiful, and he must marry sometime. Only merchants like Antonio can afford to remain single.

Antonio is not married, nor is there ever any hint of such a possibility. Knowing how difficult they are to live with, Shakespeare rarely marries off his melancholiacs. Coincidentally, while there is no clear evidence that these melancholiacs share an aversion to women, they are often more comfortable in exclusively male company, preferably that of a beloved friend (see Jacques in As You Like It, Antonio in Twelfth Night, Hamlet and Horatio).

Antonio's first characteristic is his melancholia and singularity. His second characteristic is that he hates Jews, notably Shylock. True, all of Venice is casually anti-Semitic, as it is racist in Othello, but Shylock tells us that Antonio is special, particularly vicious toward him, spitting on him in public while calling him a misbeliever and a cutthroat dog. Indeed, “Jewish dog” is Antonio's favorite curse for Shylock. Even when he is asking for desperately needed money for his beloved Bassanio, he cannot control his contempt for Shylock. Antonio promises him that even with a loan he is just as likely to spit on him, call him names in public, and worse, undercut Shylock's usury by lending money interest-free—when he has it again. He combines bravura and tactlessness.

This web of money and love, homoeroticism and anti-Semitism, is established as the context of the play before the first scenes are finished. Love exists only on the condition of money, a case made more than once in the play. When Shylock's daughter, Jessica, elopes with her gentile lover, Lorenzo, she not only takes full caskets with her, she jokes as she climbs out her window, “I will … gild myself / With some moe ducats, and be with you straight” (II, vi, 49-50), to which Lorenzo replies that he loves her heartily. Later, when Shylock is told of the elopement, his confusion of his love for Jessica and his passion for his money is intended to be comic. We are told, not shown, that he does not know which grieves him more, the loss of the daughter or the ducats. Our reporters, Salerio and Salanio, find such confusion of money and feeling absurd because Shylock is so coarse about it, apparently so vulgar in his failure to make the distinction. Later in the play, when he refuses to translate feelings into cash, when his grief has turned into hatred and no amount of money can buy that from him, he is no longer amusing. Then, depending on one's sentiments, he is nearer to monstrousness or tragedy. Certainly, he is no longer vulgar.

In the third act, when Shylock has his grand moment of rhetoric about Jewish humanity, presumably falling on the deaf ears of the two Jew-baiters he is speaking to, he makes his feelings very clear. All that he has left of his dignity is his hatred of Christians, especially Antonio. This is interesting but not a subject for compassion. When Tubal enters to tell Shylock of Jessica's profligacy, her spending spree in Genoa where she threw money to the winds to celebrate her honeymoon, we also learn of her contempt for her father, her mother, and her past. She swapped a ring for a monkey on a chain. Shylock cries, “Out upon her!—thou torturest me, Tubal!—it was my turquoise, I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor: I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys” (III, i, 125-28). More than one reader has agreed that this is Shylock's really redeeming moment of humanity, his memory of himself as a man in love, who solemnized that love in the symbol of a ring.

The next scene is Bassanio and the three caskets; he chooses correctly. Freud's essay on this scene is one of the masterpieces of psychoanalytic criticism. His thesis is that this choice is simply love over death, that in fact death is transformed into love in the universal wish of mankind to find immortality in the denial of mortality.14 In simpler terms, it is the choice of marriage and generation, which is also the choice of life and is perhaps the only life eternal.

In Venice, gold and silver are currency; but in Belmont, a world of love and music, they seem to have no meaning except as ornament. Yet at the moment Bassanio chooses the lead casket, Portia has an aside in which she prays that her love for him will be moderate, within the bounds of reason and not subject to the passions of jealousy or despair:

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

(III, ii, 111-114)

This anxiety is odd, since she is in love with Bassanio and helpless to change her situation. Why does she want the ecstasy of love, “this excess,” to be scanted, a term borrowed from the idiom of usury?

The moment is swept away with the joyous discovery that Bassanio has guessed correctly; he is now engaged and a millionaire. The two swear oaths of loving loyalty symbolized by the exchange of rings. One assumes that the destiny of engagement rings in Belmont will be different from that of turquoises in Venice, but the fate of Leah's ring casts a shadow on this emblem of love exchanged in the presence of Jessica and Lorenzo. Then comes news that Antonio is forfeit to Shylock, and Portia, immersed in her feelings, manages to make an extraordinarily vulgar quip that eclipses Shylock's confounding of daughters and ducats. When she learns the background of Bassanio's debt to Antonio and of the odd security Shylock demanded, Portia tells Bassanio that after they are married he can have all the gold he needs to ransom his friend, even twenty times the original “petty debt” of 3,000 ducats. Then she puns, “Since you are dear bought, I will love you dear.” So much for Jewish monopolies on vulgarity or confusions of feelings and money.

As the act ends, we learn that Antonio is helpless because Venetian law must honor all issues connected with money, otherwise the justice of the state will be “impeached.” The honor of mercantile capitalism is spelled out: it demands the compulsive adherence to the letter of the law, regardless of how unjust the consequences may be. If money has already been deeply confused with feeling, it has now locked into the issue of honor.

In Bassanio's absence, Lorenzo tries to cheer Portia up, saying that “if you knew to whom you show this honor / How true a gentleman you send relief” (i.e., Antonio), “how dear a lover of my lord your husband,” then she'd not mind the separation though it occurred before their wedding night. Again, the pun on dear is raised: beloved, expensive, rare. Portia is now inspired; she must save this man herself. She announces that she is going into retreat for a few days, assuring Lorenzo that “this Antonio / Being the bosom lover of my lord, / Must needs be like my lord” (III, iv, 16-18). But she will see for herself. Lorenzo's description of so “dear a lover” resonates with suggestion for her. This triangle is best completed in person. It is not that Portia suspects her husband of sodomy; such suspicion is too vile for the delicate air of Belmont, though Portia is neither naive nor prudish. But she is ignorant; the mysteries of male affection, with its remarkable loyalty and apparent selflessness, are as foreign to her as the mysteries of marriage. She has heard of both and experienced neither.

At the trial scene in Act IV, all the themes of the play are brought together. Antonio reiterates his hatred of Jews in a line that even the most apologetic of Shakespeare's critics cannot ignore. He tells the court it is wasting its time trying to dissuade Shylock: “You may as well do anything most hard / As seek to soften that—than which what's harder?—/ His Jewish heart” (IV, i, 78-80). When Shylock is told by the Duke that he cannot expect mercy in heaven if he renders none here, Shylock replies that he has done nothing that will require mercy. He goes on to argue by analogy: would the Venetians treat their slaves as their children? would they marry them to their heirs? Of course not. And now Shylock “owns” Antonio, to do with as he wishes, for this pound of flesh is “dearly bought”—an eerie, exact echo of Portia's pun and a poetic linking together of Shylock, Antonio, and Portia in some dim emotional bond for which the complications of the plot merely serve as metaphors.

When Bassanio gallantly if meaninglessly offers to lay down his life for his imperiled friend, Antonio answers the gesture with “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” (IV, i, 114-116). A “wether” is a sterile male sheep. Why has Antonio abandoned his stoicism? Why does he regard himself as sterile and sick, “tainted,” weak, deserving of death? Why is he in despair and self-loathing?

His sense that he is sick and therefore deserves death is his confession of sin, of sexual shame, his veiled admission that he deserves to die because he is a sodomite. It is irrelevant what Bassanio and Antonio have actually done under the guise of their publicly admired courtly friendship. It is entirely relevant that Antonio thinks himself disgusting.

Portia saves Antonio by finding the law pertaining to aliens who threaten the lives of Venetian citizens: those aliens automatically forfeit all their wealth and their lives. A law that presumed alien criminals would be wealthy surely had Jews in mind. If Shylock had been a Venetian citizen, nothing could have saved Antonio. But Jews are not citizens. Shylock forgot that he is at best a guest, and none too welcome. As long as he is Jewish, he is alien and vulnerable.

Antonio hates Shylock not because he is a more fervent Christian than others, but because he recognizes his own alter ego in this despised Jew who, because he is a heretic, can never belong to the state. He hates Shylock, rather than himself, in a classic pattern of psychological scapegoating. What Antonio hates in Shylock is not Jewishness, which, like all Venetians he merely holds in contempt. He hates himself in Shylock: the homosexual self that Antonio has come to identify symbolically as the Jew. It is the earliest portrait of the homophobic homosexual. The basis for that identification between Antonio and Shylock is complex. They are both merchants of Venice, both lend money, both are involved with Bassanio, and both indirectly and painfully become involved with Belmont. Most of all, they have in common that they are heretics. Shakespeare equates the sodomite and the Jew symbolically and psychologically, as they were already equated under Elizabethan law, which allotted the common fate of burning to witches, heretics, and sodomites.

But another, older, more crucial connection between sodomites and Jews was available to the Elizabethan mind. Prior to the Renaissance, sodomy had meanings other than buggery; it was once used to include the sin of bestiality, bestialitas, which had the same sexual meaning it does in modern usage, but which had special theological meanings as well.15 There were cases of men tried and burnt for bestiality. In an obscure work of the turn of this century, Professor E. P. Evans in The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals remarks:

It seems rather odd that the Christian lawgivers should have adopted the Jewish code against sexual intercourse with beasts, and then enlarged it so as to include the Jews themselves. The question was gravely discussed by jurists whether cohabitation of a Christian with a Jewess, or vice versa, constitutes sodomy. Damhouder (Prax., res. crim. c.96 n.48) is of the opinion that it does, and Nicholas Boer (Decis., 136, n.5) cites the case of a certain Johannes Alardus, or Jean Alard, who kept a Jewess in his house in Paris and had several children by her: he was convicted of sodomy on account of this relation and burned, together with his paramour, “since coition with a Jewess is precisely the same as if a man should copulate with a dog (Dope. Theat. ii, p. 157).” Damhouder includes Turks and Saracens in the same category.16

Shylock, the Jewish dog, already a heretic, is also symbol for the sodomite; conversely, Antonio the sodomite with his heretical desires is linked to the other alien in Venice, the not quite human Jew.

At the same moment that Antonio confesses his guilt and desire to die, converting his despair into a martyrdom of love, Portia is faced with a struggle for her husband. She must rescue him from this infatuation with Antonio, so steeped in noble sentiment, romanticism, and perhaps erotic power, so that he can be fully free to enter marriage. She listens carefully while Antonio says farewell to Bassanio:

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.

(IV, i, 273-77)

Antonio is confident that Portia will be able to judge, since both of them feel alike; he does not say that Bassanio had a friend beyond compare: he had a love beyond compare. Perhaps he puns when he says “honorable” wife, inferring he was the dishonorable one. What is really important is his resurgent bravura, his assurance that she will never be able to do for their beloved what he has, despite her fabled wealth. His request to Bassanio demands that all the parties concerned acknowledge that there has indeed been a triangle of emotional power, which only decorum has prevented from being fully understood. It is not Portia, but Antonio who has made Bassanio rich, and therefore happy.

Bassanio is so deeply moved that he offers to sacrifice everything he owns: his fortune, his life. He even throws in his wife's life, “sacrifice them all to this devil to deliver you.” Both Shylock and Portia are astonished by this extravagance. Shylock mutters in contempt and aside, “These be the Christian husbands!” thinking of Jessica and her fate; for such as this she betrayed her father, mother, past. Portia, as the young lawyer, interjects, “Your wife would give you little thanks for that / If she were by to hear you make the offer.” She came to Venice to find out what was between her husband and his friend, who she suspected may have been “alike”; well, now she knows.

It will be even trickier to rescue Bassanio than it was to free Antonio. Portia is struggling for mastery now, and it is far more than the conventional mastery of reason over passion, the passion she feared would reduce her to the same abject dependence that her father and his will had placed her in before. Is she always to be a chattel? Is she never to be her own mistress? If she must be married without choice or consent, if she must love her beautiful husband even if his past is shadowed in sexual secrecy, she will at least have a husband all her own, one whose loyalty is exclusively hers: he is to remember whose millions he now has access to, and he is to reevaluate that extravagance which would fling everything, her and her money, to the Jews.

In this charged atmosphere of ethnic hatred, sexual mystery and jealousy, self-loathing, and revenge, Portia succumbs. Despite the lovely rhetoric about mercy that is the most famous speech in the play, when Shylock is vanquished, forced to convert to what he has always hated, she adds the most sadistic line in the scene: “Art thou contented, Jew?” She turns her anger at Antonio on Shylock, expressing it as contempt, and expressing it with a cruelty she does not have to mask. In one stroke she confirms for us Shylock's view of Christians and their society: wretched as he is, what should one expect of Jews if Christians behave this way? It is not that Shakespeare is for Shylock; it is that he is contemptuous of all Venice.

When Portia, still in disguise, demands the ring as payment for her lifesaving work, it is no trivial prank. She wants back the ring she gave Bassanio and that he swore would never leave his finger while he was her husband. She also wants him to refuse. She wants the ring because she no longer trusts her happiness to him, but she wants him to refuse it so that she can forget his extravagance, dismiss it as hyperbole. It is her crucial moment. If he refuses to give her the ring, it means he remembers his vow, and that both she and he can enter the institution of marriage in true conformity. If he gives her the ring, his broken vow annuls her own. For a moment Bassanio resists, but he surrenders to Antonio's persuasion in the play's most overt moment of sexual competition: “My lord Bassanio, let him have the ring, / Let his deservings and my lord withal / Be valued 'gainst your wife's commandment” (IV, i, 449-451). Bassanio yields the ring to one “man” at the behest of another, the ring that linked him to the world of women and marriage. His loyalty to Portia is remiss compared to what he feels for Antonio. Bassanio has many assets; he is beautiful and generous and sincere, but he is also shallow. Out of sight, out of mind. When he was at Belmont, he forgot about Antonio until he was arrested. Now he is with Antonio in Venice, and Portia seems very far away.

For Portia, Bassanio's failure is her victory; the terms of the marriage are void. She has lived up to the agreement of her father and society, and until now has agreed to be dispensed as men saw fit. Her husband replaced her father as her legal master, but he has broken faith, her faith in his word. She is free to negotiate for her freedom. In the fifth act, the issue of sexual competition is mirrored in the agon between men and women and in the conspiratorial bonding between men, the real subject of the squabbling. The ring is now more than a symbol; it is a key. Who has the ring is master of the bedroom. Portia makes that plain; she will yield herself only to the man who has the ring. Since she herself has it, she means to yield to no man ever again. Instead, she will show that she is free to bestow herself as she wishes.

When Bassanio and Antonio arrive, Bassanio introduces his lover to his wife: “This is the man, this is Antonio, / To whom I am so infinitely bound” (V, i, 134-135). Portia observes wryly, “You should in all sense be much bound to him, / For (as I hear) he was much bound to you.” Emotional loyalty is identified with the money that has passed between Shylock and Antonio. With that money borrowed from one merchant by another, Antonio has given Bassanio away in marriage only to keep him bound to himself as firmly as ever, perhaps even more. Without Shylock, it could never have been accomplished. Bonding, senses, money are punned upon as issues of loyalty and honor, erotic preference, and emotional commitment rise to the surface of the scene.

Portia pretends to quarrel; Antonio ruefully observes it and remarks, “I am the unhappy subject of these quarrels.” Portia agrees with him but says, “You are welcome notwithstanding.” That is, despite the fact that you are a guest in my house, that you are alive entirely because of my intervention, you have come between a lawful husband and wife: what further claims can you now have? While Bassanio swears that he will never again be careless about his promises to her, submitting entirely to her (“Pardon this fault and by my soul I swear / I never more will break an oath with thee”), she is not satisfied—not until Antonio offers security for Bassanio's promise, as he did once before:

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.

(V, i, 249-253)

It is what she has been waiting to hear; if he once offered his body to Jews, it is only fair that he now offer his soul.

The happy ending of the play is the triumph of heterosexual marriage and the promise of generation over the romantic but sterile infatuation of homoeroticism. In this competition, Shakespeare as ever is conservative. Portia must rescue her beloved and guarantee that as corrupt as the world is, with its translation of every feeling into cash, at least she and Bassanio will live to perpetuate it. Though Belmont appears to be different from Venice, it is really the same world, but here Jews like Jessica are welcome converts and sodomites like Antonio brief guests.

If The Merchant of Venice is filled with mitigated resolutions for its lovers and villains and fools, that is the way of the world. Antonio of Venice is the symbol of the corruption of erotic feeling under nascent mercantile capitalism, a world where melancholia is romance and sexual guilt is translated into ethnic hatred.

What difference does such a reading of this play make? Is it better because it concerns a homosexual Jew-hater, rather than a monstrous Jew who is practically a butcher? (To be sure, either view is more cogent than one that sees the play as being about a pompous young woman who quotes Scripture about Christian mercy and never understands the subject, that is, the conventional reading, which makes the play a sentimental failure, a thematic mess unable to link together the Rialto and the moonlit terraces of Belmont.) Here is a reading without sentiment. The play is filled with ambiguities about sexuality and money, love and hatred. Nothing is simple, least of all who we are or what we are. What links us to both the Rialto and Belmont is our recognition of our painful complexities and our terrible vulnerabilities before the coldness of the world.


  1. M. R. Ridley, Shakespeare's Plays (New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1938) is typical: “Antonio does little but wander lugubriously across the stage, an embodiment of the humor of melancholy, enjoying poor health and indulging an enfeebling infatuation for Bassanio” (p. 91). E. K. Chambers in Shakespeare: A Survey (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1925) hints at a connection between Antonio and the sonnets, an “echo” (p. 117).

    For a full scholarly but entirely unpsychological view of the subject of male bonding, two useful works are Laurens J. Mills, One Soul in Bodies Twain: Friendship in Tudor Literature and Stuart Drama (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1937) and Lu Emily Pearson, Elizabethan Love Conventions (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1933). For a discussion of the psychological and social implications of the subject, see C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1936): “The deepest of worldly emotions in this period is the love of man for man, the mutual love of warriors who die together fighting against odds, and the affection between vassal and lord” (p. 9). Lewis' discussion refers to The Song of Roland, the work that exemplifies the tradition of male bonding. Alistair Sutherland and Patrick Anderson, eds., Eros: An Anthology of Friendship (London: Anthony Blond, 1961) define their subject as “any friendship between men strong enough to deserve one of the more serious senses of the word ‘love’” (p. 8). Thorkil Vanggaard, Phallos: A Symbol and Its History in the Male World (New York: International Universities Press, 1972) has a lengthy and definitive discussion of male bonding in Norse culture, which he claims included “a genital aspect, based on mutuality and equality between the partners” (p. 119), but which precluded buggery. Most recently, John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980) discusses the subject of Platonic love: “only love between persons of the same gender could transcend sex” (p. 27). Boswell adds, however, that there was a definite but not necessarily conscious sexual nature to the many intense male friendships he documents (p. 134).

  2. E. E. Krapf, “Shylock and Antonio: A Psychoanalytic Study on Shakespeare and Antisemitism,” The Psychoanalytic Review, 42 (April 1955), 118. See K. B. Danks, “The Case of Antonio's Melancholy,” N & Q, NS, 1 (1954), 111. Earlier, Arthur Acheson tried to connect the play and the sonnets with the life of the author in Shakespeare's Sonnet Story (London: B. Quaritch, 1933), pp. 342-83. For an early Freudian view of the subject, see T. A. Ross, “A Note on The Merchant of Venice,British Journal of Medical Psychology, 14 (1934), 303f.

  3. While biographical readings of the sonnets are increasingly unfashionable or uninteresting to scholars and critics, the lyrical poetry and the drama have been used to enlighten each other since the eighteenth century; usually the sonnets are used to discuss the plays. The latest scholarly edition of the sonnets, edited by Stephen Booth (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1977), continues to see all of the canon as one continuous work but disdains biographical inquiry as naive.

    The use of usury as an elaborate metaphor for sexuality has long been noted. Leslie A. Fiedler, The Stranger in Shakespeare (New York: Stein and Day, 1972) was the first to write extensively of usury as both moneylending and copulation in the sonnets and the play. John Boswell has an interesting comment on the mutual unnaturalness of usury, heresy, and sodomy (p. 331). The most articulate and thorough discussion of this subject is Marc Shell, “The Wether and the Ewe: Verbal Usury in The Merchant of Venice,Kenyon Review, 1 (1979), 65-92.

  4. J. D. Hurrell, “Love and Friendship in The Merchant of Venice,Texas Studies of Literature and Language, 3 (1961), 332.

  5. Hurrell, p. 340. See also Graham Midgley, “The Merchant of Venice: A Reconsideration,” Essays in Criticism, 10 (1960), 119-33.

  6. Alexander Schmidt, A Shakespeare Lexicon, 3rd ed., rev. and enl. Gregor Sarrazin (New York: B. Blom, 1968). Also Marvin Spevack, A Complete and Systematic Concordance to the Works of Shakespeare (Hildesheim, Germany: Georg Olms, 1970).

  7. In William Shakespeare, Complete Works, ed. with notes by Malone et al. (London: J. Rivington and Sons, 1790), III, 67n.

  8. William Shakespeare, King Lear, ed. Kenneth Muir, The Arden Edition of the Works (London: Methuen, 1952).

  9. The Elizabethan Love Sonnet (London: Methuen, 1956, 1966), p. 204n. Lever seems to understand the issue but is too decorous or timid to pursue it. See the discussion on p. 103 f. and p. 164 f. The subject of erotic friendship was usually referred to as an issue of “bisexuality,” first by Lu Emily Pearson, p. 254 f., and later by G. Wilson Knight, The Mutual Flame (London: Methuen, 1955), p. 35 f. Fiedler is the first to have taken up the subject succinctly and lucidly. He puts the homosexual Antonio in a context of aliens like Jews and women, and gives a brilliant reading of the play, particularly of the last act. He also notes that there are two homosexual lovers called Antonio in Shakespeare and concludes that the later character in Twelfth Night is the same psychological person as the merchant. Fiedler sees the relationship as platonic and Antonio as an “advocate of an austere Uranian love for whose sake the older lover educates to manliness the boy he adores, and in whose name he is prepared to die, though he knows he cannot ask as much in return, since that boy must rather die to him by marriage” (p. 132).

  10. Laurence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1965). p. 491 f. See also Ivan Bloch. Sexual Life in England, Past and Present, tr. William H. Fostern (London: F. Aldor, 1938): Vanggaard, p. 153; Vern L. Bullough, Homosexuality, A History (New York: New American Library, 1979), pp. 34-35, 170-71; and Derrick Sherwin Bailey, Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (New York: Longmans, Green, 1955).

    John Boswell argues that in the thirteenth century bougrerie would not have meant “sodomy,” though it could have meant “usury” (usurers were cited as “bougres”) and may generally have meant “heretic,” p. 290.

  11. G. P. V. Akrigg, Jacobean Pageant or The Court of King James I (New York: Atheneum, 1967). See also Gordon Rattray Taylor, “Historical and Mythological Aspects of Homosexuality,” in Sexual Inversion: The Multiple Roots of Homosexuality, ed. Judd Marmor (New York: Basic Books, 1965), p. 145.

  12. G. P. V. Akrigg, Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1968). See also H. Montgomery Hyde, The Other Love: An Historical and Contemporary Survey of Homosexuality in Britain (London: Mayflower, 1972). A number of writers cite the work of William Lithgow, “Rare Adventures and Painful Peregrinations” (Glasgow, 1906), which was first written between 1609 and 1622 and describes his travels. Lithgow praises the Venetians for their anti-Jewish attitudes and remarks on the “unfortunate rifeness of sodomy” in the city; cited by Taylor, p. 141, and by Sutherland, p. 144. See also John J. McNeill, S.J., The Church and the Homosexual (Kansas City, Kan.: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1976).

  13. William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, ed. John Russell Brown, The Arden Edition of the Works (London: Methuen, 1955). All citations are from this edition of the play.

  14. Sigmund Freud, “The Theme of the Three Caskets,” Imago (1913).

  15. Montague Summers, The History of Witchcraft and Demonology (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1926). I am indebted to the Summers work for the information on Evans that follows.

  16. (London: W. Heinemann, 1906), p. 152. Cited in Summers, note 43, Chapter iii, “Demons and Familiars.”

Lawrence Normand (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: Normand, Lawrence. “Reading the Body in The Merchant of Venice.Textual Practice 5, no. 1 (spring 1991): 55-73.

[In the following essay, Normand contends that the tensions and conflicts of The Merchant of Venice are depicted through references to the body and its association with language.]

When Morocco challenges a hypothetical fair-skinned suitor ‘to make incision for [Portia's] love, / To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine’ (II.i.6-7),1 he invokes the human body as a place where certain disputed questions can be tested and decided: ‘What is Morocco's real nature?’, ‘What is Morocco's real value?’ The question who the better man is, the ‘fairest creature northward born’ (II.i.4) or the ‘tawny Moor’ (s.d. II.i), might be settled by cutting their bodies and comparing their blood: Morocco's redder blood will show his greater courage, and prove his personal value despite his devalued skin colour. His challenge is couched in the Petrarchan rhetoric he uses throughout this scene, and the ‘body’ is merely verbal; yet a fleeting threat to bring his real body into the scene is voiced. Morocco is challenging the prevailing racist depreciation of his ‘complexion’ by turning to another conventional corporeal sign, redness of blood. The call for incision invokes a figurative body as a means of asserting personal value, and is typical of many moments in the play when a body is invoked.

Stephen Greenblatt has written that Shakespearean comedy ‘constantly appeals to the body and in particular to sexuality as the heart of its theatrical magic’.2 But, he goes on to argue, there ‘is no unmediated access to the body’, for sexuality ‘is itself a network of historically contingent figures that constitute the culture's categorical understanding of erotic experience’.3 It is through the mediation of a commonplace cultural figure concerning blood that Morocco brings his body into play in order to demonstrate a case about his human value. When Launcelot scrutinizes the palm of his hand (II.ii.150ff.), he reads his destiny through the figure of palmistry inscribed in his body. Greenblatt's notion that the body makes its appearance through the mediation of familiar cultural figures in language is the starting-point for this essay, which is concerned not only with sexuality but also with wider questions of human value and identity. It is a startling exception to this rule of mediation when Portia commands Antonio in the courtroom to ‘lay bare your bosom’ (IV.i.248), and Antonio's naked human body appears in the actor's person. A concern with the culturally figured body focuses attention on the relation between language and reality, the interactions between verbal bodies and real ones. But language and its relation to reality is clearly problematized in the play, as the plot's depending on the interpretation of difficult words on the caskets and in the bond easily shows. Language is a bar to communication as much as its easy medium, and its manifestations (speaking, writing, and silence) are areas in which conflicts are actualized and resolutions sought.4 The play's bodily discourse interpenetrates linguistic discourses such as the legal, theological, and amatory, functioning as a supplement to language, or offering an alternative articulation of the struggles of desire and dominance. The entanglements of the action are brought about through a discourse of figured and real bodies; and disentanglement requires a systematic rearticulation of this discourse in order to arrive at a resolution.


Portia starts the play with the power to dispose her own property and voice, but not her body in a sexual relation of her own choosing. She experiences this subjection in her body: ‘By my troth Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world’ (I.ii.1-2). Language and body interact as her father's will holds her in confinement. Portia is caught within the inscribed word of patriarchal power, ‘under the bind of the law, deprived of her will because of her father's will, inscribed in the living force of his dead letter, locked in a leaden casket’.5 Opposed to the restriction of his ‘cold decree’ (I.ii.18-19) are pitted the warm desires of her body, her ‘blood’ and ‘hot temper’ (I.ii.18). Portia's resistance to these restrictions lies in mocking, subversive wit, what Lacan calls deriding the signifier.6 She finds a kind of freedom in mocking the doltish suitors and deriding her father's word by punning on ‘will’ itself: ‘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.22-5). The opposed meanings of ‘will’ as ‘sexual desire’ and ‘testament’, reveal the conflicting desires of a physically active body and a dead father. Portia's mockery of the suitors has no perlocutionary force since it is powerless to change her situation. Like the speech of a Fool, it makes no mark on the world. In her linguistic play Portia protests at her situation without being able to imagine any solution to it:

he hears merry tales and smiles not, (I fear he will prove the weeping philosopher when he grows old, being so full of unmannerly sadness in his youth), I had rather be married to a death's-head with a bone in his mouth, than to either of these: God defend me from these two.


It is Shylock who most consistently draws the body into his discourse. As Portia is subjected by her father's will, so Shylock is subjected by the dominant antisemitic discourse of Venice, which characterizes him as inhuman. To Launcelot ‘the Jew is the very devil incarnation’ (II.ii.26); and to Solanio he is ‘the dog Jew’ (II.viii.14) and ‘the devil … in the likeness of a Jew’ (III.i.19-20). Characterization of Shylock as sub-human voices itself in Launcelot's catachresis (‘incarnation’ for ‘incarnate’), which ungrammatically misbodies the idea of the monstrous. In the court scene, Gratiano imagines Shylock's birth as a monstrous fusing of human and animal, as a wolf's soul enters his mother's womb. Shylock becomes Antichrist in this parody of the anomalous human-divine union of the Virgin Birth:

                                                                                                    thy currish spirit
Governed a wolf, who hang'd for human slaughter—
Even from the gallows did his fell soul fleet,
And whilst thou layest in thy unhallowed dam
Infus'd itself in thee …


When Shylock comes to defend himself, his counter-definitions entail the body.

Shylock defends his practice of usury to Antonio and Bassanio in I.iii when he is asked to lend money, by arguing that the increase it involves is analogous to the natural processes of animal procreation. Antagonism erupts over the word ‘interest’ as Shylock and Antonio attempt to arrange a loan, and there is a struggle over the interpretation of certain biblical texts. Shylock's account of the story of Jacob and Laban in Genesis seeks to present a counter-gloss of Antonio's word ‘excess’ (57) as Shylock's ‘thrift’ (45). The crux of Shylock's interpretation of Jacob's actions lies in its representation of production as a bodily process.7 Shylock thinks of Jacob's skill in sticking ‘wands’ (79) before the sheep while they are mating, which exploits an analogy in nature between ‘parti-colour'd lambs’ (83) and partly stripped twigs, as demonstrating both human skill in understanding those laws of analogy, and divine approval in Jacob's profiting from the resulting lambs. Shylock's narrative remains open to various interpretations, but his idea of thrift lies in seeing production which takes place through the body, of either sheep or coins, as natural and ultimately part of God's will. Coins are like sheep in that their use may produce profit. For Shylock the body, understood to be the physical substance of something and its powers of generation, is a site of truth, evidencing human and divine nature. The argument over interest ends with neither side winning. Antonio merely stops Shylock from speaking further: ‘Mark you this, Bassanio, / The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.’ (92-3).

‘Shylock does treat Antonio as if he were from a group of human beings other than his own Jewish one, but Antonio treats Shylock as if he were from a species of animal other than the human one (a dog)’.8 Shylock is denied a human body, and therefore possession of human rights. At the same time he is denied the right to coherent speech. In III.i, when he enters distraught at news of his daughter's ‘flight’ and accuses Solanio and Salarino of complicity in it, they attack the integrity of his speech by cruel quibbling:

You knew, none so well, none so well as you, of my daughter's flight.
That's certain,—I (for my part) knew the tailor that made the wings she flew withal.


As Shylock's words are rendered ineffectual and their coherent sense destroyed, he resorts to the literal meanings of words, in an attempt to make a perlocutionary utterance with the force of assertion:

She is damn'd for it.
That's certain, if the devil may be her judge.
My own flesh and blood to rebel!
Out upon it old carrion! rebels it at these years?
I say my daughter is my flesh and my blood.


Shylock's assertion is the discursive counterweight to the disintegrating attacks being made on his speech and on his body in general by the two Christians, whose replies subvert his discourse and dissipate its emotional and ideological force. In the face of this, Shylock foregrounds the very act of speaking in order to affirm that his daughter partakes of the same physical substance as himself, and so shares the same racial identity. But Salarino denies even the biological relatedness of father and daughter:

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 …


Shylock's relatedness to his daughter is threatened by Salerio and Solanio's assaults on the integrity first of his speech, then of his figured body. Shylock defends his speech by apparently literal statements, and by presenting family ties as irrefutably corporeal. The attack on the cultural meanings of Shylock's body prompts another defence which again uses his body as evidence, this time of human identity. ‘I am a Jew’, Shylock states and goes on to claim a human identity with the Christians on the basis of shared parts and functions of the body: ‘eyes … hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions’ (III.i.53-4). Since the Venetians do not see a Jew as being human, Shylock anatomizes himself, disintegrating his body into separate functionings which are then presented as neutral and innocent of guilt that attaches, in Christian eyes, to a Jewish body. The Jewish Gestalt, more than the sum of its parts, is offensive; but bodily parts might seem innocent of the general guilt.9 But to Christians who do not recognize a Jew as human this argument is unpersuasive, as Stanley Cavell explains: ‘one who does not already know that the other's body “is connected with” sentience cannot be convinced by this argument, or rather cannot understand what it is an argument about, the existence of others’.10 In this scene the struggle for the recognition of one's speech is implicated in the struggle for the recognition of one's body. The violations of Shylock by the Venetians are directed at his physical body (‘You that did void your rheum upon my beard, / And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur’ (I.iii.112-13)), his speech, and his cultural body. Shylock ends the scene by swerving from a rhetoric seeking empathy for himself as a human body to a declaration of spiritual affinity for Christian 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.’ (III.i.63-6).

The forfeit Shylock asks, should Antonio default on the loan, is a fragment of his body: ‘an equal pound / Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken / In what part of your body pleaseth me’ (I.iii.145-7). When he suggests this condition, Shylock can have no expectation of ever claiming the forfeit, for Antonio confidently expects his ships to return with handsome profits. For Shylock the bond is a carnivalesque bargain, a form of words which is indeed at the moment he mentions it a ‘merry sport’, for the terms are self-evidently absurd and unreal. Despite the malice Shylock voices in an aside that he ‘will feed fat the ancient grudge’ he bears Antonio (I.iii.43), no narrative extension is imaginable between words and flesh, between the condition inscribed in the bond and the real body which might suffer its effect. Yet the terms of the bond spring from the real relations between Shylock and Antonio, for they will return to Shylock the mutilation of the self which he has suffered from Antonio in the past, and suffers again in this scene. As Cavell argues, Shylock's terms for ‘A pound of flesh, to be by him cut off / Nearest the merchant's heart’ (IV.i.228-9) is the exact counterpart of what he thinks Antonio in particular has done to him. Shylock ‘is telling us that he perceives Antonio's refusal of acknowledgement as mutilation—the denial, the destruction, of his intactness.’11

Shylock is a subject mutilated by the Venetians' hostile discourse; Antonio is a subject not securely in discourse at all. Shylock counters Venice's denigration of him, by asserting a secure counter-self in the deployment of his cultural body. Antonio is a decentred self who speaks of himself as inscrutable and mysterious: ‘In sooth I know not why I am so sad’ (I.i.1). He sees himself as an actor whose part is ‘a sad one’ (I.i.79) and whose true self is therefore at one remove from his role. His mental state at the start of the play is a pre-discursive one, for its origin and nature are not yet articulated: ‘But how I caught it, found it, or came by it, / What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born, / I am to learn’ (I.i.3-5). While Antonio offers no discursive version of himself, his friends give voice to possible selves for him. In a deliberate game of speech-making he is the subject of attempts to account for his being ‘marvellously chang'd’ (76). The speeches project verbal forms meant to capture the mysterious melancholy, and they are offered as half-serious self-explanations. Gratiano, whose name recalls the comic doctor of commedia dell'arte,12 and who speaks, as he says, like ‘the fool’ (79), generates diagnostic fantasies on Antonio's self-presentation, the first of which suggests a cause for melancholy in the body's inactivity. His garrulous discommendation of silence warns that a body which is still and silent turns into a funerary statue, as the blood cools and the living form becomes an effigy: ‘Why should a man whose blood is warm within, / Sit like his grandsire, cut in alablaster?’ (I.i.83-4). Accordingly, Antonio's alienation from Venetian speech threatens a sort of death. Gratiano focuses on Antonio's ‘wilfull stillness’ (90) and ‘saying nothing’ (97), and associates silence with sexual impotence, in allusions to a shrivelled penis and an old maid: ‘for silence is only commendable / In a neat's tongue dried, and a maid not vendible’ (111-12).13

The real source of Antonio's sadness, of course, springs from the change in his relation with Bassanio. His identity as Bassanio's friend is put at risk by Bassanio's imminent journey to Belmont to win a wife, for Antonio would thereupon be displaced from first place in Bassanio's affections. Antonio's passionate declaration that ‘My purse, my person, my extremest means / Lie all unlock'd to your occasions’ (I.i.138-9) represents a way of reaffirming his love for Bassanio and remaining involved in his affairs at the very moment when Bassanio's ‘venture’ might lead to Antonio's displacement. It is under threat of this displacement that Antonio agrees so recklessly to Shylock's bond. Antonio brushes aside his friends' attempts to put him into words, and offers no discursive version of himself; instead, he responds to his melancholy by putting his body into the bond. The terms of the bond which Shylock suggests implicate Antonio's body into the financial and legal practices of Venetian society:

Go with me to a notary, seal me there
Your single bond, and (in a merry sport)
If you repay me not on such a day
In such a place, such sum or sums as are
Express'd in the condition, let the forfeit
Be nominated for an equal pound
Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken
In what part of your body pleaseth me.


Antonio's promise to commit his flesh for three thousand ducats reaffirms his bond of friendship with Bassanio at the very moment when Bassanio's turning to the lady might well lead to its dissolution. His passionate attachment to Bassanio is now inscribed in the bond, and authenticated by the body with the promise of his corporeal ‘person’ in exchange for three thousand ducats. Antonio breaks his silence by means of the bond in which his love is invisibly lodged in a displaced discourse, a financial-cum-legal agreement. What Foucault writes of the workings of sixteenth-century language is true of the bond, for ‘what it says is enclosed within it like a promise, a bequest to yet another discourse’.14 The ‘condition’ (141) writes Antonio's body as a figure which is a joke, whose transformation into reality is unimaginable. As events will show the body latent in the bond becomes manifest and that body itself ‘speaks’.


Freud thought that the caskets symbolize the body of a woman: ‘If we had to do with a dream, it would at once occur to us that caskets are also women, symbols of the essential thing in woman, and therefore of a woman herself.’15 The caskets not only symbolize what the suitors seek, they also have inscribed on them texts which the suitors must successfully interpret in order to reach their desired object. As in the case of the bond, textuality and the body are overlaid. The caskets are simultaneously the destination of the suitors' desire, as symbols of woman, and the path along which desire must travel to reach its destination. The reward for correct textual interpretation is possession of Portia's body and her wealth.

Portia's picture is hidden in one of the caskets, shielded by the metal and by her father's inscription. The suitors trace a perilous path through language to seek to arrive at the body. They struggle with a complex set of inscriptions which invites definition of the woman as well as themselves, and in which the body is crucially involved. Morocco's unsuccessful negotiation of the casket test results from his ideological orthodoxy, which holds that there should be a correspondence between the fairest lady and the fairest metal, ‘never so rich a gem / Was set in worse than gold’ (II.vii.54-5). In Petrarchan terms the choice of the gold casket is logical, but Morocco's way of thinking makes him ignore the person herself and re-present her in coded love-language. Portia's physicality disappears and she is re-inscribed as a purely transcendent value: a ‘breathing saint’, whose ‘heavenly picture’ Morocco seeks, and ‘an angel’ (II.vii.40-58). Edmund Spenser uses the image of woman as an angel swathed in gold in Epithalamion, published in 1595, the year before The Merchant of Venice was probably first produced:

Some angell had she beene.
Her long loose yellow locks lyke golden wyre,
Sprinckled with perle, and perling flowers a tweene,
Doe lyke a golden mantle her attyre …(16)

Spenser inscribes his future wife as a creature of pure spirit, as Morocco does to Portia. But this aristocratic mode of writing is misplaced in the bourgeois world of the play in which money has a precise value. In fact, Morocco specifically rejects comparison of Portia with another kind of angel which is a coin—‘They have in England / A coin that bears the figure of an angel / Stamp'd in gold, but that's insculp'd upon’ (II.vii.55-7). The comparison is rejected because the angel on the English coin is merely on the surface of the metal, and therefore not truly part of it. In Morocco's trope of the angel inside the casket, the angel is like the soul which lies deep inside the body, as what animates it and is its truest reality.17 In this way of thinking, the soul is accorded a far greater value than the body, the angel much more than the gold casket. His discourse of love separates spirit and body, and privileges spirit over body. The figure of the monetary angel, which Morocco specifically rejects, stands in fact as a more accurate image for Portia, for the coin has its beauty marked on its surface, and once put into exchange has financial value, just like Portia herself when she marries.

Arragon fixes on the silver casket because its inscription, ‘“Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves”’ (II.ix.36), prompts him into enunciating his own worth:

And well said too; for who shall go about
To cozen Fortune, and be honourable
Without the stamp of merit?


The metaphor of ‘the stamp’ refers to the authenticating of a document, and its validation for social use: Arragon thinks of himself as inscribed.18 In this metaphor of Arragon as a document on which is written the account of his value lies the fantasy that his body has received a ‘stamp of merit’. The stamp is irreversible and publicly attested, and Arragon imagines he can invoke his powers as an imaginary document and employ them to win Portia: he can exchange himself for a fortune—‘I will assume desert; give me a key for this, / And instantly unlock my fortunes here’ (II.ix.51-2).

The suitors all struggle with the same problem of how to arrange the signifying elements arranged before them—caskets of different metals, and inscriptions—into an order which arrives at the ‘correct’ answer which is already determined by the father. Morocco aims too high, assembling the elements into a discourse of the transcendent, splitting the spiritual from the material. Portia's body is thereby lost in the Petrarchan mode into which she is cast. Arragon's response combines the material and immaterial in an image which represents his body textually as a legal document; but he excludes Portia from his response and mistakes his own social value. Morocco reads the gold casket as being Portia, Arragon reads the silver casket as being himself, but Bassanio reads the lead casket and its inscription as being a comment on the ironic discourse of choosing. Bassanio is in the best position to grasp the ironic meaning of the lead casket's inscription, and of lead itself, because he is the figure ‘in whom outside appearance and inside reality are most unlike’:19 ‘So may the outward shows be least themselves’ (III.ii.73). Bassanio and Portia have already discovered each other by falling in love, demonstrated in the amorous banter which precedes the choice. There is no need, then, to involve ‘ornament’ in the choice when love has already been discovered and actualized in verbal exchanges:

          ornament is but the guiled shore
To a most dangerous sea …
                                                                                                    in a word,
The seeming truth which cunning times put on
To entrap the wisest.


Bassanio does not seek a secreted signified in the inscriptions or the metals themselves. He recognizes lead as signifying the redundancy of ‘ornament’ to symbolize a love which has already been realized: ‘but thou, thou meagre lead / Which rather threaten'st than dost promise aught, / Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence, / And here choose I,—joy be the consequence!’ (III.iii.104-7).

The process of choosing nevertheless presents dangers which are expressed as threats to the lovers' living bodies. As Bassanio moves towards the caskets to make his choice Portia participates by announcing herself to be threatened at that moment by death. Invoking the story of Hercules' rescue of Hesione from the sea monster (Ovid, Metamorphoses, xi) she effects a metaphorical transformation on the scene. In this textual superimposition she becomes Hesione, and Bassanio Hercules; and just as Hesione was mortally threatened by the sea monster, so she is threatened with an emotional death if Bassanio fails to overcome the monstrous impositions of the will:

                                                                                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.


If Hercules fails to slay the sea monster then Hesione will be its victim. The threat of death, albeit a figurative one, recalls Antonio's figurative death-in-silence at the start of the play.

Bassanio's response to discovering the picture of Portia focuses on his body; he speaks of the dissolution of the corporeal boundaries between himself as perceiving subject, and the picture as perceived object:

Fair Portia's counterfeit! What demi-god
Hath come so near creation? move these eyes?
Or whether (riding on the balls of mine)
Seem they in motion?


Bassanio imagines the picture not simply as a static similitude but a source of power in its own right, with painted hair ‘t'entrap the hearts of men’ (III.ii.122); and as it was being painted it threatened to disable the painter who was painting it, depriving him of his eyes:

                                                                                                    but her eyes!
How could he see to do them? having made one,
Methinks it should have power to steal both his
And leave itself unfurnish'd.


The picture, the image of a body, is imagined as entering into relationships with real bodies and capturing parts of them for itself. Bassanio's speech plays over the interrelationships of bodies and their representations. At this moment of most intense pleasure, Bassanio focuses on the tremulous relation of his body and the image of Portia's; and announces a moment of blissful physical merging with Portia. The bliss is the counterpart of erotic bliss, but it is doubly displaced: Bassanio's body moves only in his language, not his actions, and Portia appears as a picture not as herself. The fullness of erotic pleasure which his language implies falls away in the end as language's inability fully to represent experience reasserts itself. Bassanio ends by articulating a chain of representations—his praise, the picture of Portia, and Portia herself—which shows his desire pursuing its object along the chain and always failing to capture its fullness:

                                                                                yet look how far
The substance of my praise doth wrong this shadow
In underprizing it, so far this shadow
Doth limp behind the substance.


Bassanio is completely in control of his discourse; indeed, his value as Portia's lover is demonstrated dramatically by this very discursive dominance and subtlety. This part of the scene, the expressive climax of Portia and Bassanio's love, achieves its dramatic persuasiveness through its intelligent self-consciousness about language. Bassanio's discourse advertises the inadequacy of language to capture the real; expressing love not as full of self-presence, but as something beyond and outside the play of language. It does not inscribe love directly, but speaks instead of the impossibility of love's full inscription in language, picture, or bodies.

Words fail Bassanio when Portia hands everything, including herself, over to him: ‘Madam, you have bereft me of all words’ (III.ii.175). The consequent ‘confusion’ in Bassanio's ‘powers’ (177) is a disruption of the normal workings of his body, and it is represented as the noise of a crowd in which the meanings of the separately spoken sentences of praise are lost in a blur of speech-noise:

                                                                      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 expressed.


Bassanio's sense of joy has temporarily exceeded his body's ability to muster the power of language to capture and express it. The experience nevertheless exists as a confused energy inside his body which is stirred like the crowd, but unable to direct it to a coherent speech act. But Bassanio still communicates his feelings in the pre-linguistic state of the body's own workings, which form another kind of speech: ‘Only my blood speaks to you in my veins’ (III.ii.176). The body's blood-flow is the authenticating sign of his intense responsiveness which cannot at that moment find its way into language. These ambiguities are resolved by a simple return to the body, the note in the casket commanding the successful suitor to ‘Turn you where your lady is, / And claim her with a loving kiss’ (III.ii.137-8). The body authenticates the moment. Gratiano's suggestion for a wager on the first boy the couples can produce anticipates the lovers' physical absorption into the social life of Venice.

At this moment when a double marriage is anticipated another body enters the scene which blocks that outcome. Bassanio receives a letter from Antonio giving news that he is subject to Shylock's forfeit. Bassanio describes the letter to Portia as a mutilated and dying body:

                                                                      Here is a letter lady,
The paper as the body of my friend,
And every word in it a gaping wound
Issuing life-blood.


Bassanio represents the letter as Antonio's body, and that body in turn as a kind of writing. The paper marked with inked words is like a body cut with wounds from which flows its ‘lifeblood’. Each wound is also ‘gaping’, a mouth shaped for speaking, or signalling pain. This is truly a speaking body. The letter's material signifiers—paper and inkmarks—produce meaning prior to its signifieds, and are more emotionally compelling. The wounds gaping like mouths are an emptiness that cries out for Bassanio's presence. Bassanio's strong writerly response, tracing a figurative dying body, shows his profound emotional responsiveness to Antonio's plight. However, the entry of this spectral body, represented in writing, disrupts the imminent marriage and signifies the emotional and practical obstacles that will have to be overcome before it can take place.20 This letter has a similar power to the bond, for each calls in its debt, and each has as its real aim something in excess of what it seems to signify. In his letter Antonio's focus is on Bassanio, not on the money owed nor his own impending death: ‘Sweet Bassanio, … 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’ (III.ii.314-18). Antonio's letter points to the real nature of the favour he did Bassanio in borrowing money for his venture: it seeks the return in the form of love on Antonio's pledging of ‘person’. Antonio's claim for Bassanio's presence represents the calling in of the excess of their agreement, that for Antonio is Bassanio's love. For Antonio the process is now in hand by which the writing of his body into the bond to maintain his place in Bassanio's affairs, now unexpectedly promises to realize the desires underlying it.

Antonio does not explicitly speak of his relation to Bassanio; but others do. Lorenzo had evidently been discussing the subject with Portia when he enters at the start of III.iv. His phrase ‘god-like amity’ (3), derives from Renaissance neo-platonic ideas of friendship, and shows ‘the exalted tone of much Renaissance writing on male friendship’.21 In such accounts of male friendship the sexual is banished, leaving only the spiritual.22 However, the account which Portia proceeds to give of this kind of male friendship does recognize a particular sort of shared physicality in friendship:

                                                                                          for in companions
That do converse and waste the time together,
Whose souls do bear an egall 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 bestowed
In purchasing the semblance of my soul
From out the state of hellish cruelty!


Her notion of friendship is that between friends who love equally there must also be a similarity of bodies, manners, and spirit. Two friends are supposed to be alike physically and temperamentally, and are also supposed to correspond in their souls. Portia can therefore call paying off Antonio's debt, ‘purchasing the semblance of my soul’, for she and Bassanio, now married, are one soul, and Antonio's soul exactly corresponds to Bassanio's. The conflict of friendship and marriage arises precisely out of two different kinds of merging that are represented by marriage and friendship. In Christian marriage two different bodies and souls are thought of as becoming one; in neo-platonic friendship two similar bodies and souls become as one in an identity of exact similarity. Bassanio is here poised between the conflicting demands of marriage and friendship. It is Portia's assuming the male sexual identity of Balthazar which enables her ‘to displace Antonio's hold on Bassanio's affections and loyalties’,23 and to replace friendship with marriage.

The action in the courtroom is an interpretive contest over the bond. Shylock's refusal to tell the hostile court his reasons for pursuing the bond to its bloody conclusion in Antonio's body should be seen in the same light as Bassanio's warning to Gratiano, before they leave for Belmont, not to be ‘too rude, and bold of voice’ (II.ii.172) when he goes ‘where [he is] not known’ (175), and thus risk being ‘misconst'red’ (179). Shylock refuses to risk being ‘misconst'red’ by the court, and represses any historical account of himself. Instead he short-circuits the question by locating his motives in nature rather than culture, in corporeal humours not historical influence:

You'll ask me why I rather choose to have
A weight of carrion flesh, than to receive
Three thousand ducats: I'll not answer that!
But say it is my humour,—is it answer'd?


Shylock's refusal to answer has similar effects to Antonio's silence in the first scene in that both thereby become inscrutable to others. The incomprehensibility to the Christians of Shylock's seeking his bond is expressed as his having an irregular body which is both unnaturally hard and empty. The Duke calls him a ‘stony adversary’ (IV.i.4) and speaks of his being like those with ‘brassy bosoms and rough hearts of flint’ (IV.i.31). For Antonio Shylock's impenetrability is located at the vital organ of the heart: ‘You may as well do any thing most hard / As seek to soften that—than which what's harder?—/ His Jewish heart!’ (IV.i.78-80). And Gratiano demands, ‘can no prayers pierce thee?’ (IV.i.126). Along with hardness goes emptiness. The Duke wonders if Shylock can be ‘void, and empty / From any dram of mercy’ (IV.i.5-6). When Shylock's resistance is greatest to the persuasions of Portia/Balthazar and the insults of Gratiano and Antonio, he declares himself to be immune from the effect of their words. Secure in the absolute efficacy of the bond, he declares himself to be beyond the reach of language: ‘by my soul I swear, / There is no power in the tongue of man / To alter me’ (IV.i.236-7).

In the courtroom Antonio is willing to lose his life for Bassanio's sake: ‘Grieve not that I am fall'n to this for you’ (IV.i.262), he says. Facing death, Antonio makes his farewell to Bassanio; but his attention is actually focused beyond death, for the corporeal mutilation he is about to suffer is to have its real point of arrival in social discourse, as a narrative. He is not concerned with Shylock's malevolence, but rather at the way in which his death will be transformed into discourse.24 Furthermore, his attention is directed not at Bassanio but at Portia who will hear the story of his death which Bassanio will tell. Antonio utters a string of imperatives which lay down the track and destination for the story which his death will produce, projecting a hypothetical process which runs from bodily mutilation through death to discourse:

Commend me to your honourable 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.


Antonio projects a transformation of his death into a story and a question, in which the word ‘love’ is finally uttered. Were he to realize the scenario he projects, his love for Bassanio would be inscribed in his living body, and its truth proved by incisions which would be neither deletable nor reversible. The speech anticipates an exchange which would turn his physical death into social discourse aimed at recording and validating a certain meaning for it. On the brink of death, Antonio imagines a future scene in which his physical mutilation would be productive of a certain created value of ‘love’. That authenticated love, passing through his physical body to a transcendent verbal body of Bassanio's discourse, would require Portia's response, interpretation, and judgement; and would thereby produce its own life-after-death effects. Antonio's rhetorical question would make Portia the judge in the case of the competing claims between her love and Antonio's for Bassanio; and in his scenario she would deliver and face a judgement already weighted against herself.

Of course, Portia-Balthazar releases Antonio from the bond. She takes the bond's signifiers and reduces them to their barest signifieds, at which point the bond breaks down in non-sense. When Portia prevents Shylock's forfeit by telling him that he may take ‘a pound of flesh’ and no more, she is setting limits to the meanings of words and to the interpenetration of bodies: words are defined with absolute literalness; the integrity of a body is defended. Exchange, one of the characteristic actions of the play, is halted: a pound of flesh is not taken in exchange for three thousand ducats.

It is then Shylock's turn to have his life endangered for the offence of seeking the life of a Venetian citizen: ‘the offender's life lies in the mercy / Of the Duke only’ (IV.i.351-2). Although the Duke's pardon frees him from the threat of judicial violence, it subjects him to the power of the court's words. Shylock is not beyond the reach of language as the court strips him of half his wealth, confirms the stealing of his daughter, and enforces his conversion to Christianity. The court does not destroy Shylock's physical body, but destroys instead the complex cultural body in which his identity inheres. By his forced conversion to Christianity (in which he will be silenced as the words of baptism are spoken over him) he loses the power to define himself as a Jew; at the same time as he loses the offspring of his body to Lorenzo, who ‘lately stole his daughter’ (IV.i.381). He protests at the destructiveness of the court's conditions:

Nay, take my life and all, pardon not that,—
You take my house, when you do take the prop
That doth sustain my house: you take my life
When you do take the means whereby I live.


The ‘house’, as a metaphor for life, has the double sense of building and clan; ‘the image and the thing imaged fuse with great dramatic force’.25 Shylock has earlier shown the same habit of fusing image and thing in the figure of his house as a body when he tells Jessica not to ‘thrust [her] head into the public street / To gaze on Christian fools’ (II.v.32-3):

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


His house is his body which he would defend from penetration by the sounds of Christian music. These links between house as body, clan, and life itself show the interconnectedness of the parts of Shylock's identity, and are precisely what the court destroys in its judgements on him.26 The court's mercy in sparing his body must be set against its decisions which disintegrate his social identity: livelihood, religion, and succession will all be barred. Shylock's body is not destroyed but his self-identity is disintegrated and deleted, and this deletion is confirmed by Act V.


In the first four Acts the body is written into the interlocking struggles of personal desire and social practices; and its power is real but uncertain as long as those struggles continue. In Act V, out of the crises of entanglement posed by the interdependence of bodies, resolutions are offered which define the boundaries of body and spirit, and articulate what is socially legitimate and dominant. As Walter Cohen has shown, the dramatic effects of the last act are radical and extensive, as the ‘construction of the pastoral world’ of Belmont ‘ideologically reconciles the socially irreconcilable. … The aristocratic fantasy of Act V, unusually sustained and unironic even for Shakespearean romantic comedy, may accordingly be seen as a formal effort to obliterate the memory of what has preceded.’27 Shylock's person (and name) disappears from Act V along with traces of Jewishness. Lorenzo's reference to manna when he is told of the will of ‘the rich Jew’ (V.i.292) is the exception—‘Fair ladies, you drop manna in the way / Of starved people’ (V.i.294-5)—which shows the appropriation into Christian discourse of the Jewish element that with Shylock's undoing has been deleted from Belmont. Christian dominance is thereby confirmed.

Lorenzo's notion of music has effects which assume the interpenetration of corporeal and incorporeal: he calls for music to ‘Creep in our ears’ with ‘touches of sweet harmony’ (V.i.56-7), and directs Stephano, ‘With sweetest touches pierce your mistress' ear’ (V.i.67). But boundaries between bodies and the abstract harmonies of music are clearly established as he directs Jessica's (and the audience's) attention to the music of the spheres:

Sit, Jessica,—look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold,
There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-ey'd cherubins …


The harmony of the spheres is a figure in Act V which effects ideological reconciliation. The spheres are a totalizing image which renders unimaginable anything which is not of it. It is thus a falsifying general analogy for the conflictual social scenes of Venice and Belmont grounded on differences of religion, citizenship, and race. Lorenzo goes on to define the relationship between the music of the orbs and its perception:

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


The play invokes the music of the spheres as an image of universal harmony, but it places the perception of that harmony in the soul, a human part which lies outside ordinary human consciousness; and simultaneously debases the body by calling it the ‘muddy vesture of decay’, an impediment to perceiving the ‘highest’ truth. In Lorenzo's rhetorical construction the idea of comprehensive harmony, located in ‘cherubins’ and human ‘immortal souls’, is concomitant with devaluing the human body. Heavenly bodies are supposed to produce music representing fullness and highest truth, while the corporeal is debased and the truth it can produce ignored.

In Act V words and bodies are redefined in the new circumstances of Belmont, a name which suggests ‘the ‘beautiful mountain’ of a fairy-tale’28, as well as the beautiful female pubic mound. The redefinition of the value of bodies is seen in the ring episode. Portia threatens to give her body to the lawyer since her husband has given the lawyer their ring:

Since he hath got the jewel that I loved, …
I will become as liberal as you,
I'll not deny him any thing I have,
No, not my body, nor my husband's bed.


The threat expresses the impossibility of a wife's sharing her body with another man and still being a wife. Bassanio learns the lesson of bodily exclusivity that marriage signifies, and as part of this process friendship is subordinated to marriage. Portia's clear view of friendship sees that male friends exactly correspond—‘a like proportion / Of lineaments, of manners, and of spirit’ (III.iv.14-15)—and it is the impulses of friendship that prompted Antonio ‘to lend [his] body for [Bassanio's] wealth’ (V.i.249), and Bassanio to give the ring to Balthazar-Portia. Bassanio learns that in terms of marriage men are not identical and equivalent and therefore not freely exchangeable by their wives. Friendship, on the other hand, imagines men as equivalent to each other. In the microdrama of the return of the rings Bassanio is inducted into the ideology of marriage which represents each husband as separate and different, and accorded unique right of sexual access. Understanding this idea is said by Portia to be more than just a matter of words, but as being a fusion of words, ring, and body itself: she tells Bassanio that his ‘wife's first gift’ of the ring is ‘A thing stuck on with oaths upon your finger, / And so riveted with faith unto your flesh’ (IV.i.167-9). The ring riveted to flesh fixes the body's meaning within the ideology of marriage; it creates a self embodied in marriage. The separation of Antonio's body from the scene of his friendship with Bassanio is effected when he pledges his soul that Bassanio will be true to his wife:

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.


Antonio's body disappears from the scene and with it his material involvement in Bassanio's affairs. His penultimate words—‘I am dumb’ (279)—echo Shylock's defeated last words, ‘I am content’ (IV.i.389), and ominously return him to the silence in which he began.

The play ends with words and the body being put into parodic conflict. As the two married pairs prepare to leave the stage Gratiano sets up a question:

—the first inter'gatory
That my Nerissa shall be sworn on, is,
Whether till the next night she had rather stay,
Or go to bed now (being two hours to day) …


The question is a real one inasmuch as the pleasure of the night will lie in talking about making love as well as in making love itself. No doubt consummation will take place, but for a moment consummation is teasingly delayed. In a play in which the body has passed fleetingly in and out of discourse it is appropriate that the telos of desire in the body should once more be deferred. Gratiano's last words bring back the body—‘Well, while I live I'll fear no other thing / So sore as keeping safe Nerissa's ring’ (V.i.306-7)—and recall the knowledge that bodies continue to produce problems of value and identity even after marriage.


  1. All references are to the Arden edition of The Merchant of Venice, ed. J. R. Brown (London: Methuen, 1955). All other Shakespeare references are to The Complete Works, Compact Edition, gen. eds Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988).

  2. ‘Fiction and friction’, in Shakespearean Negotiations: the Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), p. 86.

  3. ibid.

  4. See Keir Elam, Shakespeare's Universe of Discourse: Language-games in the Comedies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 202-9, for an analysis of the discursive struggles of the courtroom scene.

  5. Jonathan Goldberg, ‘Shakespearean inscriptions: the voicing of power’, in Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (eds), Shakespeare and the Question of Theory (New York and London: Methuen, 1985), p. 122.

  6. Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: a Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Tavistock, 1977), p. 158: ‘man defies his very destiny when he derides the signifier’.

  7. For a full discussion of the play in terms of generation and production, see Marc Shell, Money, Language and Thoughts: Literary and Philosophical Economies from the Medieval to the Modern Era (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1982), pp. 47-83.

  8. ibid., p. 53.

  9. Cf. King Lear's wish to discover if the body will show the source of guilt if it is anatomized: ‘Then let them anatomize Regan; see what breeds about her heart. Is there any cause in nature that make these hard-hearts?’, King Lear,

  10. The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Scepticism, Morality and Tragedy (Oxford and New York: Clarendon Press and Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 479.

  11. ibid., p. 480.

  12. See note to I.i.79 of The Merchant of Venice ed J. R. Brown.

  13. M. M. Mahood's note on these lines is ‘lack of activity is only proper to a sexually impotent old man or a sexually unmarketable woman’, The Merchant of Venice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 62. She also notes that ‘neat's tongue dried’ is ‘cured ox tongue (and so a withered penis incapable of excitement)’, ibid.

  14. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: an Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London and New York: Tavistock, 1970), p. 41.

  15. ‘The theme of the three caskets’, in Collected Papers, vol. 4 (London: Hogarth Press, 1925, pp. 245-56).

  16. Epithalamium, 11.153-6, in Poetical Works, ed. J. C. Smith and E. de Selincourt (London: Oxford University Press, 1970).

  17. Cf. John Donne's ‘Aire and Angels’, which uses the trope of the relation of angels to corporeal things to complicate and thereby diminish clear boundaries between flesh and spirit.

  18. Shell, op. cit., p. 57.

  19. ibid.

  20. For a discussion of the love-versus-friendship débat-theme see Keith Geary, ‘The nature of Portia's victory: turning to men in The Merchant of Venice’, Shakespeare Survey, 37 (1984), pp. 55-68.

  21. Note to III.iv.3. of The Merchant of Venice, ed. Mahood. For a full account of Renaissance ideas of friendship see ‘The virtue of friendship and the plan of Book Four’, in The Works of Edmund Spenser: A Variorum Edition, ed. Edwin Greenlaw et al., The Faerie Queene, Book Four, special editor Ray Heffner (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1935), pp. 281-313, passim.

  22. See, for instance, Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici: ‘that part of our noble friends that we love is not that part that we embrace but that insensible part that our arms cannot embrace’, in The Works of Sir Thomas Browne, ed. G. Keynes, vol. 1 (London: Faber & Gwyer, 1928), p. 92; quoted by Alan Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (London: Gay Men's Press, 1982), p. 60.

  23. Geary, op. cit., p. 64.

  24. Cf. Hamlet's concern at the point of death that Horatio should ‘Report me and my cause aright / To the unsatisfied’ (V.ii.291-2); and Othello's providing an interpretation of his actions to be reported to the Venetian state after his death (V.ii.347-65).

  25. Note to IV.i. 371 of The Merchant of Venice, ed. Mahood.

  26. Other examples of Shylock's thinking of his identity as connected with his body occur when he calls the jewels Jessica stole ‘two stones, two rich and precious stones’ (II.viii.20), thus unconsciously associating them with his testicles and seed; and when he hears of his daughter's profligacy from Tubal: ‘Thou stick'st a dagger in me’ (III.i.100).

  27. The Merchant of Venice and the possibilities of historical criticism’, ELH, 49 (1982), pp. 765-89; p. 777.

  28. J. R. Brown, Shakespeare and his Comedies, 2nd edn (London: Methuen, 1962), p. 70.

Susan Oldrieve (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8185

SOURCE: Oldrieve, Susan. “Marginalized Voices in The Merchant of Venice.Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature 5, no. 1 (spring 1993): 87-105.

[In the following essay, Oldrieve reads both Shylock and Portia as social outcasts alienated from the Christian and patriarchal world of Venice/Belmont in The Merchant of Venice.]


In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock and Portia both represent marginalized groups, the one an ethnic and religious minority, and the other women. As Marianne Novy points out,

Women and Jews could be seen as symbolic of absolute otherness—alien, mysterious, uncivilized, unredeemed. Although women could be praised for being as virtuous or intelligent as men, or Jews for converting to Christianity or behaving as Christians ought, nevertheless femaleness and Jewishness as qualities in themselves had negative meanings in this tradition—both were associated with the flesh, not the spirit, and therefore with impulses toward sexuality, aggression, and acquisitiveness. …1

Novy argues that these were “all qualities becoming more evident in Renaissance society” and that in rejecting the Jew and finally repressing the power of women, the play reflects a desire to contain its own movement toward individualism.2

While I do not entirely agree with Novy's reading of Act V, her association of Jews and women as outsiders is significant. Their legal and economic conditions, as well as their emblematic connotations, support the analogy. Women were the property of their fathers, and Jews the property of their rulers. The mid-12th century “Laws of Edward the Confessor” (assuming that Shakespeare was adhering to English law, and placed his story in Venice as part of his poetic license) describe clearly the legal position of the Jew in England:

All Jews, wherever in the realm they are, must be under the King's liege protection and guardianship, nor can any of them put himself under the protection of any powerful person without the King's licence, because the Jews themselves and all their chattels are the King's. If therefore anyone detain them or their money, the King may claim them, if he so desire and if he is able, as his own.3

Similarly, in The Merchant of Venice, Portia is her father's property: even from the grave he has the legal and moral right to decide the most intimate concerns of her life. Furthermore, when married, she is expected to transfer control of her life and living from her father's hands to the hands of a man who might well be completely unknown to her.

Portia's first appearance onstage shows her struggling to balance her needs as an individual against the demands of the patriarchal society in which she lives. She knows she should conform to her father's will, but she desperately wants to control her choice of a husband. Harry Berger's excellent explication of the casket scene in Act III sensitively reveals Portia's conflict between independence and submission. He suggests that Portia is caught between her desire to give Bassanio clues about how to choose and her reluctance to betray her father's will. She is also torn between her desire for Bassanio and her anxiety about submitting herself to him. As Berger explains, “Portia plays the inquisitor, but this is a role which, if she were more crass, she could conceivably induce upon Bassanio, assigning him the function of torturing out of her the answers for deliverance (for her deliverance as well as his) which she would have too many scruples to offer voluntarily, not only the scruple about being forsworn but also the scruple about crowning Bassanio over her as her monarch.”4

In spite of Portia's scruples and her determination to live by the rules, her discussion with Nerissa in Act I admits the possibility of rebellion against her father's authority. Whether the director chooses to emphasize the clues in the song or not, this scene and her tense conversation with Bassanio make us aware that Portia could choose to ignore her father's will and dispose of herself according to her own wishes. Shylock's situation seems much less flexible. He must convert or die.

While Novy believes that the play rejects the Jew,5 it seems that in juxtaposing Shylock's dilemma with Portia's, Shakespeare suggests that it is possible for all “Others” to conform in public but at the same time to establish a private realm in which they can successfully satisfy their emotional needs. Berger concludes that Portia finally asserts her individuality and power by “mercifying” Antonio in the last scenes. She simply outgives both him and Bassanio, and in so doing puts them under her power.6 My reading differs from Berger's in that I believe she exhibits this power not just for her own sake but also for Shylock's.


Shylock's counterpart in the Christian business world is Antonio, who represents the dominant élite. He is the successful businessman of Venice, totally immersed in the city's financial and social life. Antonio first appears surrounded by friends who are deeply concerned about his melancholia. In Act I, Bassanio's entrance with Lorenzo widens Antonio's socio-commercial circle. The men on stage are obviously part of a well-knit and familiar group who both do business and socialize with each other. Antonio is the most successful of them, and the most respected. A true “Old Boy Network” is portrayed during the friendly exchanges of I,i,57-73.7 The stage is full of men of various ages who share common interests, values, and daily pursuits, and who give each other both the emotional and the financial support that enable them to retain their social and commercial security. Antonio is the center of their concern in every scene in which he or they appear, until Act V. Bassanio is the newest member of the group, favored by Antonio and encouraged by all the men to succeed in their world of commerce. When he says, “To you, Antonio, / I owe the most in money and in love” (emphasis added), his words imply that he has received help from others as well, but that Antonio is his primary mentor. Their conversation extends the tone of mutual bonding established at the rise of the curtain, culminating in Antonio's slightly reproachful, “You know me well … do but say to me what I should do / That in your knowledge may by me be done, / And I am prest unto it.” (I,i,153-160) Antonio is willing to devote both his material and emotional resources to ensure Bassanio's success.

Whether Antonio is motivated by more than his mentorship and his enthusiasm for business cannot be told from the text alone.8 However, the mentor-protegé relationship does not necessarily need overtones of homosexuality to radiate strong emotion. In such a relationship, the protegé's success is a reflection of the mentor's, and it can be difficult for the mentor to dissociate his professional self-image from the success or failure of the protegé. When Antonio is engulfed in his losses, he wishes to see Bassanio, because in so doing he can assure himself that he has not completely failed in his economic ventures: he can affirm that his loans to Bassanio have secured the young man's social and financial position. He rejects Bassanio's offers of sacrifice, telling him, “You cannot be better employed, Bassanio, / Than to live still and write mine epitaph.” (IV,i,117-18) In writing Antonio's epitaph, Bassanio would preserve his friend's reputation, and through his success, carry on Antonio's role in the world.

In this sense, Bassanio is more Antonio's son, continuing the family name and tradition, than his lover.9 Such a relation is borne out by one of Shakespeare's sources, Il Pecorone, where the relationship between the mentor and protegé is one in which a rejected younger son finds a surrogate father.10 Bassanio and Antonio thus stand in comparison not to Portia and Bassanio, but to Portia and her father, and to Shylock and Jessica. The need to perpetuate one's estate—to control it after one's death by handing it on to an obedient child—is a motif that runs throughout the play. The will of Portia's father and Shylock's grief over the loss of both his daughter and, through her, his ducats, clearly reflect the play's concern with perpetuation. Antonio, too, can reflect this concern, particularly if a director follows Shakespeare's source and portrays him as an older man. Beneath Antonio's intense interest in Bassanio may be a homosexual attraction or a doting friendship, but he also may be motivated by a bachelor's desire for a surrogate child who will ensure his immortality.


Perpetuation is also an issue for Portia, as we move from a predominantly male world to a predominantly female world. Portia's father has tried to ensure that his daughter and his rich estate will continue to prosper after his death. While Antonio trusts Bassanio's judgment in spite of indications that his “son” wastes more money than he preserves, Portia's father takes the care of his estate totally out of his daughter's hands, completely disregarding her intelligence and common sense. Portia cannot even veto her father's choice of a husband, a right increasingly accepted in Elizabethan times.11 Certainly with both her parents dead, and apparently competent of age and capable of managing the estate well, Portia could expect to have some influence over her marriage.

Portia chafes against this patriarchal control but eventually accepts it, partly out of trust and duty, and partly because she finds that it ultimately works to her advantage. When she discovers that her father's will has chased most of her distasteful suitors away, she resolves, “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,104-6) David Sundelson argues that her submission to her father is a form of identification that enables her to cope with his death. She recreates him within herself by taking upon herself his characteristics and values.12 Carol Leventen also argues that Portia internalizes her father's will, but attributes her motivation to cultural imperatives:

Quite literally, Portia makes a virtue out of what once was perceived as necessity. In Freudian terms, Portia's words to Nerissa in I,ii and to Bassanio in III,ii, demonstrate the power of the superego: the internalisation of cultural imperatives. Guilt is so internalised that one can never “get away with it” because one punishes one's self; the sanctions are no longer “out there.”13

With or without the influence of guilt, when Nerissa announces that at least some undesirable suitors have been driven away by Portia's father's demands, the will and the patriarchal and economic system it reflects seem to have worked for her. It is this success that makes her more willing to accept the demands of the patriarchal authority and to submit both her possessions and her person to her husband. The ring that she gives Bassanio is a symbol of her trust in him and in the institution of marriage in her patriarchal world. It is also, as Newman points out, “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.”14 A potential rebel at first, Portia conforms to the demands of her society and places her entire life and living into her husband's hands.

Her faith in the patriarchal view of marriage extends to Antonio and to the exclusively male socio-commercial relationships with which the play begins. She tells Lorenzo,

                                                                      … 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!


Her trust in Bassanio makes her willing to trust Antonio, and her generous financial offers mimic the financial and emotional support the play's Christian merchants give each other. Portia becomes “one of the boys” even before she takes on her disguise as a male to defend her new group of friends from an outside threat.

What Portia does not realize at first is that Antonio is not exactly like her lord—or like what she has seen of Bassanio so far. Nor does she understand that the man who is threatening Bassanio's friend has been victimized by the Christian merchants just as she could have been victimized by her father's patriarchal control. Shylock is a businessman in Venice, too, but conducts his business very differently than do his Christian colleagues. Not only does he charge interest while Antonio does not, but he also for the most part works alone, without the social, financial, and emotional support of mainstream Venetians. Antonio is threatened by Shylock's business practices; he resorts first to vehement anti-semitism and then to the legal opportunities Portia affords him to eliminate that threat.


Both Shylock and Antonio are highly successful, and the fact that Antonio sends Bassanio to Shylock shows that even in Antonio's mind, Shylock is an important business force on the Rialto. Shylock says he hates Antonio because he “brings down the rate of usance,” (I,iii,42) but also because he berates Shylock in public, “even there where merchants most do congregate.” (I,iii,46) One result of Antonio's behavior would be to drive customers away from Shylock and into his own fold; therefore, his berating Shylock in public would reflect not just anti-semitism, but an anti-semitism used to give the Christian an economic advantage. If Antonio were not threatened professionally by Shylock's business abilities, he would have less motivation to denigrate him in front of customers.

Their rivalry emerges directly as they briefly vie for Bassanio early in scene three. Shylock has just told the Laban and Jacob story, parrying Antonio's pointed questions with a good joke underscoring his financial success. That Bassanio responds by laughing, as he does in the 1981 BBC television production of the play, is signaled by Shylock's line “But note me, signor.”15 Shylock has gotten Bassanio's attention and wishes to extend their moment of comraderie. Antonio immediately interrupts him with “Mark you this, Bassanio,” drawing the young man's attention back to himself and reminding him to which camp he belongs.

For a short moment, then, Bassanio is caught between two potential mentors, and the rivalry between Shylock and Antonio becomes not just a matter of business practice and success, but of the gathering and losing of friendship and prestige. Shylock is not really interested in stealing Antonio's protegé from him; he seeks only professional respect for his way of doing business. His rival needs a loan and is willing to adhere to conditions he has vehemently denounced in public. Antonio, faced with his economic vulnerability and perhaps smarting from Shylock's ability to attract Bassanio's attention, berates Shylock's methods even as he is asking for help.

Shylock's bond proposal comes out of his emotional reaction to this insult. He has said that he wants to “catch him once upon the hip” (I,iii,43) for the way in which Antonio has damaged his business reputation; and here he finds himself subjected to worse scorn. He is justifiably angry, and he wants to find a way to stop Antonio's behavior once and for all. The unusual bond that he offers both satisfies his anger and will prevent future public outcry. He begins by accepting Antonio's way of doing things. The implication is that if he can compromise, Antonio should also, especially since he wishes to profit by Shylock's practice:

To buy his favor I extend this friendship.
If he will take it, so; if not, adieu.
And for my love, I pray you, wrong me not.


If Antonio does not accept the loan without monetary interest, then he can no longer berate Shylock for demanding interest, for Shylock can counter Antonio's public criticism by claiming that he offered him a no-interest loan and was refused. And if Antonio is willing to “play” with Shylock by accepting the bond and the “merry sport” that it represents, then perhaps he will voluntarily come to treat Shylock with more respect. In either case, Shylock will get what he most desires: the silencing of Antonio's public criticism of his business practices.

On the other hand, Shylock is deeply and justifiably angered by Antonio's insults and some part of him would probably enjoy cutting into Antonio's “fair flesh.” Because Shylock's social and legal position prevents him from taking a more direct action for revenge, his anger expresses itself in a dare that also allows Shylock the opportunity subtly to insult Antonio by stating that his “fair flesh” is worth less than an animal's.

Antonio accepts the dare, sure that he cannot lose and pleased that he may have pressured Shylock into conforming to the “proper” way of doing mercantile business. As long as Shylock operates according to his own rules, he threatens Antonio's business supremacy. When Antonio thinks Shylock may be persuaded to change his business practices, he no longer feels threatened; perhaps he believes that he can then compete with Shylock on his own terms and win.

In the trial scene, the Duke, speaking for “the world,” (IV,i,17) also expects Shylock to play by Antonio's rules. Not only does he tell Shylock that everyone expects him to change his mind about exacting the forfeiture, but also to

Forgive a moiety of the principal,
Glancing an eye of pity on his losses
That have of late so huddled on his back …


The Duke seems to have forgotten that Shylock is motivated by his own great losses. Not only has he lost ducats and jewels, but in losing Jessica, he has lost both a daughter and the means by which to control his estate after his death. Antonio can still hope to perpetuate his image in Bassanio, and Portia has behaved as an admirable image of her father and of Bellario her mentor, but Shylock has had all hope of the future torn from him. The Duke ignores Shylock's grief and tells him that loyalty to business associates—even if they have betrayed him—should come before personal concerns. Shylock refuses this argument, and in a forceful speech argues that his feelings are all that matter in this case. His private and personal emotions are going to take precedence over social and political amenities, and he is there to see that the system that allowed him to be humiliated is forced to recognize his personal experience.

Portia enters the scene in the service of that system, intent upon saving her husband's friend and punishing his enemy, upon showing that the feelings of the individual must give way to the larger cause of social harmony. Portia has her plan clearly worked out before she enters the courtroom. She hopes, like the Duke, that she can talk Shylock into relenting and conforming to the expectations of the establishment, but she is prepared to “throw the book at him” if he should not.

However, by defeating Shylock, Portia learns that the very system she upholds would make a victim of her as a woman and a mockery of the marriage to which she has trusted her life and living. The warnings begin with Bassanio's offer to sacrifice her for Antonio. Her aside, even if jocular in tone, expresses some concern over this offer, a concern echoed by Nerissa and by Shylock's comment about Christian husbands. Pausing only momentarily, Portia returns to her primary task and offers the Duke a chance to render the mercy he previously asked of Shylock. The Duke meets her expectations, but she does not allow him to speak for Antonio. “Ay for the state, not for Antonio” (IV,i,371) she says of the Duke's reducing Shylock's punishment to a fine. Antonio is to have his own opportunity to demonstrate the charity which he has so vehemently argued Shylock should show.

When Portia turns to Antonio, she asks for his demonstration of mercy, expecting it to exceed the Duke's. Instead, Antonio not only appropriates half Shylock's wealth, but proposes to settle it on his protegé Lorenzo, thus making Jessica, in effect, his rather than Shylock's daughter, and completely divesting Shylock of the right to control his estate. Portia, who has so painfully accepted the patriarchal right to dispose of a daughter, suddenly sees that when it suits them, powerful men care little about that right when it belongs to a member of a marginalized group. The father-daughter relationship for which she risked great unhappiness disappears in the game of power. This moment reminds Portia that she is the property of the dominant male. From the grave or in the courtroom, he has the legal right to pick her up or lay her down; she is completely subject to his whim. When Antonio demands Shylock's conversion, Portia suddenly recognizes the similarity between the Jew's plight and her own. That recognition gives her reason both to devise and to resolve the dilemma of the rings with which the play ends.


Shylock's conversion must be accounted for in any comprehensive reading of The Merchant of Venice. In the trial scene, when Antonio stipulates “… that for this favor / He presently become a Christian,” (IV,i,384-5) the audience inevitably feels tremendous tension. From that point on, the dynamics of the scene depend heavily upon the characters' non-verbal reactions to Antonio's words. Interpretation of the subtext depends upon one's feelings about conversion in general and upon the relationship one sees between Shylock's forced conversion and the play's themes.

The Merchant of Venice reflects an era in which conversion resonated differently than it does today, and it is therefore useful to understand what a religious conversion might have meant to the Elizabethan audience of Shakespeare's play. Barbara Lewalski, Lawrence Danson, and others (including myself) have argued that Shylock's conversion reflects an allegorical representation of harmony; that because Shakespeare knew no Jewish people, he thought of the conversion of a Jew primarily in theological and abstract terms; and therefore, that Shylock's conversion was not meant to generate the degree of emotion it often elicits from the modern reader.16 However, the issue of religious conversion in Elizabethan England was not merely a theological concern in which the Jew represented the Old Law and the Christian the New Law. It was a life experience for many in Shakespeare's own audience, and a political and social issue that affected their daily lives.

Henry VIII had required that his subjects repudiate the Pope, opening the door for the influence of zealous Continental Protestantism upon the English Church. The short reign of Edward VI continued the conversion from Catholicism to Protestantism, but Mary radically reversed that process. Under the influence of Mary and her Spanish husband, English men and women again found themselves worshipping as Catholics, or risking accusations of treason. When Elizabeth came to the throne, she came as a strong Protestant leader, soon to be excommunicated and marked for death by the Pope who encouraged all English Catholics to reject her as their sovereign. Nevertheless, most English people donned their Protestant cloaks in compliance with the orders of the state. Some Catholics retained their faith as secret recusants, caught between theological belief and national loyalty. Shakespeare's own father is believed to have been among these recusants,17 indicating that the issues of religious conversion for political and social reasons may have been more experiential than theoretical for our playwright. If William Shakespeare were raised in a Catholic household that secretly held onto its faith in spite of Elizabeth's ascension to the throne, the playwright himself would have experienced having to disguise or change his faith, his heritage, and his manner of worship in order to comply with the law of the land or risk losing both his living and his life.

Religious conversion in Renaissance Europe was inextricable from political and social conformity and practical daily living, both for Christians and for Jews. If a person wanted to be socially accepted, politically safe, and economically stable, conformity to the politically correct religion of the day was imperative. Consequently, it is not surprising to find that Elizabethan anti-semitism, like that of its European cousins and medieval predecessors, was grounded upon the Jewish refusal to convert, that is, their refusal to conform to the political and religious unity of the state.18

However, just as there were English recusant Catholics who outwardly conformed to Protestantism, or earlier, Protestants accepting Catholic trimmings to please their monarch, so too, some Jews compromised by converting outwardly while practicing their preferred religion in secret. Such “converted” Jews were known as conversos, ostensible Christians whom everybody knew as Jews.

It is impossible to estimate how many such conversos were present in London while Shakespeare was there. One who was well-known was Dr. Roderigo Lopez, physician to the Queen, translator, and spy, best known for his grisly death as a (probably wrongfully) accused traitor in 1594. Richard Popkin argues that Shakespeare may have known of the Jewish hostage, Alonso Nuñez de Herrera (Abraham Cohen de Herrera) whose situation and learning were much discussed in certain Elizabethan court circles.19 Also, both Cecil Roth and Maurice Freedman tell of small groups of Jews from Antwerp who settled in London and Bristol as conversos, officially either “Portuguese” or “Protestant” although even the authorities knew them to be Jewish. Evidently, these groups lived comfortably enough in England until 1609 when an internecine quarrel led one faction to report to the authorities that the other faction was practicing Judaism. The whole community was then expelled from England.20 Once these groups were exposed, they became a threat to the political and social unity of the state and were expunged.

So to say that Shakespeare knew only of the theological treatment of Jews and their conversion is probably not entirely accurate. He may have known more than one Jewish converso. Certainly he knew conversion as a way to achieve political and social unity through at least an outward conformity. Thought of in this way, religious conversion becomes part of the larger theme of how individuals might cope with authoritarian political, social, and economic pressure. Shylock's dilemma is therefore not entirely different from Portia's. He struggles under the political and economic sanctions of Christian authority; she copes with a patriarchal system that similarly exerts economic and social control over individuals.

Christian mercy has been traditionally given as Antonio's motivation in his demand for Shylock's conversion. However, in the bond scene, Antonio was more concerned with Shylock's business practices—and weakening them—than with his religion, and there is no reason for him to have changed his motivation here. In forcing Shylock to become a Christian, he thinks he is demanding that Shylock give up his practice of charging interest. Since the court has already diminished Shylock's capital by as much as half, Antonio's demand for conversion would ideally force Shylock to stop charging interest. This would destroy Shylock's means of increasing that capital quickly, effectively eliminating Antonio's most threatening business rival. Rather than respond to Portia and the trial scene by rendering mercy, Antonio continues his business competition with the man and uses his rival's vulnerability to assert further dominance.


I fully appreciated the reaction of Joanne Comerford, as Portia, during the trial scene of Peter Royston's staged reading of Bonds—Made and Broken.21 She was shocked at both the Duke's and Antonio's offers of “mercy,” and pained by the effect of her judgment upon Shylock. Portia suddenly sees how the law “being seasoned with a gracious voice, / Obscures the show of evil,” (III,ii,76-77) and is horrified to have been a part of it. When she asks Shylock, “Art thou contented Jew? What dost thou say?” (IV,i,391) she is making a hopeless plea for a way out. Shylock, of course, cannot offer her one, but his concerned look draws attention to their common understanding of oppression. Shylock's “I am content” then becomes a fatherly response meant to indicate that sometimes conformity is the only choice that can be made. For a brief moment, Shylock regains a child—one who understands and will listen to him—and Portia a father.

After a moment of silence, the emotional connection between Portia and Shylock dissipates with Portia's somber “Clerk, draw up a deed of gift.” (IV,i,392) Shylock, shaken by the swiftness of his defeat, asks leave to go and resignedly departs amid Gratiano's heartless taunts, a picture of personal emotion crushed beneath public displays of power. Portia's eyes follow him out the door as she realizes that her feelings as a woman have been just as easily dismissed by the dominant patriarchal system she has worked to support, and could as easily again be disregarded.

At this point, the winning party approaches to ask her to dinner. Impressed with this young “man,” they want to make him part of their social and business circle. Suddenly aware of her femininity and of her distaste for the cliquishness of these men, Portia begs off, only to be accosted by Antonio and Bassiano, who try to pay her off for the work she has suddenly found so distasteful. She asks only that Bassanio recognize her when they meet again, a line that can be taken to express the hope that he will look past her feminine exterior to the personhood beneath, rather than to forget the humanity masked by her otherness as his friends forgot Shylock's. Novy argues that the pun on “know me,”

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 which unites the married couples more closely.22

The pun instead underscores the intimacy Portia requires and links to it the ability to see behind appearances to people's real feelings. Unless Bassanio can recognize her, he will never develop true intimacy with his wife. In Act V, Portia literalizes her point by making the sexual knowing contingent upon Bassanio's acceptance of her emotions, her intelligence, and her financial power.

Immediately after the trial scene, though, she only fears that Bassanio cannot be trusted to see beyond the materialistic comraderie of the business world. She therefore tests him by asking for his ring. Will he sacrifice his wife's trust to the demands of the “Old Boy Network?” He seems to pass the test at first, but immediately Antonio insists that their friendship take precedence over Bassanio's vows to his wife. When Gratiano brings her the ring, Portia finds that her fears were justified—business and power, coated with friendship, are more important to her husband than emotional, domestic bonds. Men count more than women. Berger points out that Bassanio's giving Antonio Portia's ring indicates “man's assumption that men are superior to women, that it is men who save each other and the world and who perform great deeds and sacrifices; the pledge to a woman can be superseded by the debt of gratitude owed a man.”23 When that exchange occurs in Act IV, Berger explains, “Once again we see how a culture dominated by the masculine imagination devalues women and asserts male solidarity against feminine efforts to breach the barrier. In her own way, Portia is no less an outsider than Shylock and her “I stand for sacrifice” is finally not much different from Shylock's “I stand for judgment.”24 Too feisty and too angered by her experience in the courtroom to accept this subjugation, she resolves with Nerissa that “we'll outface them and outswear them too.” (IV,i,17)

The ring plot thus becomes Portia's version of what Shylock wanted to accomplish in the trial scene, but, as Novy suggests, with the violence removed.25 In the privacy of Belmont, Portia again takes control of her estate and her life, and ensures that her marriage to Bassanio will be conducted upon hers and not Antonio's terms or the terms of the patriarchal system under which she was wed. As Richard Weisberg explains, Portia is fed up with the mediation of others:

The legal relationship adopted as a commercial matter by Antonio as the play began now threatens to mediate the most personal of human relationships. Portia, exhausted by her own courtroom tactics on behalf of the mediators, will have none of it. It is time for Bassanio to stand for himself; it is time for the couple, unhindered by third-person intervention, to consummate their marriage.26

Weisberg argues that Portia's annoyance comes from her disillusionment with social and legal mediation, and from her growing impatience with the way in which it has delayed the fulfillment (represented as sexual consummation) of Bassanio's commitment to her.27

I would argue, however, that her impatience arises from the way in which Antonio's world, including its legal system, ignores the humanity and emotional concerns of the outsider. Her husband was willing to sacrifice her for a business associate. Business competition easily displaced the father's right to dispose of his property—for which she had been willing to risk her life's happiness. Disguised as a man, she was accepted and admired for her perceptive logic and presence of mind; but she knows that as a woman she could never have exercised her intellectual gifts in the Venetian court any more than she had been permitted to exercise them in choosing a husband. The public world has denied her feelings, her intelligence, her right to life (Bassanio wishes she were dead for Antonio's sake). (IV,i,281-6) These experiences send her back to the privacy of Belmont determined to make her husband and his friends acknowledge—in both word and deed—the interests of those whom their public world has marginalized.

She does not again submit herself and her estate to male governance. Portia takes advantage of her private power over Bassanio's economic and patrilineal success to gain and maintain control over her life. Her husband must depend upon her chastity to maintain his reputation, his line of descent, and his control over his estate after his death. Only as long as her children are his children will Bassanio's public influence endure. Portia returns to Belmont as its mistress and retains her power as a woman and a wife to the close of the play. She also refuses to promise sexual fidelity until Antonio commits more to Bassanio's private and emotional well-being than he did to his public business ventures. She rebels not so much against her husband as against the Venetian values which Antonio has taught him. In order to purge those values from Belmont, she must ensure that Antonio as well as Bassanio is made to recognize the importance of people outside his commercial coterie. When Antonio offers his soul as surety for Bassanio's vows, Portia has won. The world of men has been forced to acknowledge the importance and power of woman.


In Act V, Portia also sees to it that Antonio finds himself obliged to her for his life and living. Ronald Sharp suggests that the “return” of Antonio's ships is in fact a gift from Portia, one that she disguises as “good fortune.”28 It is difficult to imagine how Antonio's ships could have returned, since everyone on the Rialto—Solanio, Solario, and Tubal—seem certain that they have all sunk. However, even if the ships have survived, Portia's revelation that she was Balthasar and her control over the news about Antonio's good fortune force him to recognize that he is no longer center stage. There is more to the world than the Rialto, and his life depends upon the hidden power in the margins. He is duly humbled and perhaps even humiliated by the realization that the brilliant young clerk who saved his life was no more than a woman, and that this same woman wields more control over the life of his friend and over his business transactions than he can.

On another level, Newman explains that “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 figural hegemony of the microcosm/macrocosm analogy in Elizabethan marriage.”29 Portia's demand that her feelings and power be recognized disrupts not just Antonio's view of the world, but also that of patriarchy and authority in general. Her triumph in Act V is thus in some ways a recap of Shylock's powerful “gaping pig” speech of Act IV.

Ann Parten argues that the resolution of the ring plot and Gratiano's concluding pun on “Nerissa's ring” dissolve the fear that Portia will remain dominant.30 Her point is convincingly stated, but for me that joke always falls flat, even amidst the most comic of performances. In contrast to the serious sexual and financial concerns that Portia's authority and dignified language have just laid to rest, it is simply too lewd to be funny. The time for such masculine flippancy is long past, left behind in Venice at the conclusion of the trial scene. Gratiano's tone seems uncomfortably out of place, as if an important point has just gone over his head. The joke's consequent failure seems to reinforce the powerlessness of the men in the face of Portia's strength. They may try to laugh off her threat to their exclusively male world, but their effort does not succeed. Sundelson's view of the joke as an uneasy effort to resist being engulfed by the feminine reflects more clearly my experience of the play.31 Antonio doesn't lose Bassanio or his power to Shylock in public, but in private, he loses both to Portia.

Shylock's accepting his conversion stresses the necessity of submitting to authority, but the play's comic conclusion is comic because it holds out the hope that in spite of this necessity, ways can be found to retain control over personal and private concerns. It is for this that we all—male or female—enjoy Portia and Nerissa's putting down of Bassanio, Gratiano, and Antonio. The play would end upon a celebratory note except for the lingering regret over Shylock's fate. The public pain we have felt for him in Act IV still overshadows the private resolution in Act V too darkly for the play to feel wholly comic. Thinking of Shakespeare's own father, I am not sure that that pain should be resolved, but if a director wishes to convey a more fully comic closure, the text provides a way to make it possible.

When Lorenzo hears of Portia's return to Belmont, he asks who comes with her. Stephano replies, “None but a holy hermit and her maid.” (V,i,33) Who is this holy hermit? Few productions bother with him at all, so why does Shakespeare mention him? Portia and Nerissa did say they were going to a convent during their husbands' absence, but in fact they went to visit Bellario, and then on to Venice. Where did they pick up a holy hermit?

The last person Portia and Nerissa saw before returning to Belmont was Shylock. Could Shylock be the holy hermit, disguised in a friar's robe like the “fantastical Duke of dark corners” in Measure for Measure? The idea is far-fetched if one conceives of the play as it has traditionally been staged, but given the Elizabethan experience of religious conversion, it is possible. In this context, Shylock, disguised in a way that identifies him as a converso, observes Portia exert in private the personal autonomy that he was forced to give up in public. She conveys his deed of gift to his daughter Jessica, humbles his enemy, and shows that conforming to authority need not entail total abdication of individual power. Although bound publicly to the role of wife, Portia maintains individual power in her home.

Disguised as a hermit, Shylock would also represent an outward conformity that does not necessitate abandonment of personal autonomy, either religious or economic. As long as Shylock maintains his Christian disguise, he will be free to go on believing and even practicing religion as he wishes. Roth reports that “During a lawsuit brought in 1596 against one of the Marrano merchants who had been trading with the Peninsula in partnership with an Englishman, the Jewish ceremonies observed at his home in Duke's Place, London, were alluded to in Court without any sense of incongruity and (what was more remarkable) without any untoward results.”32 Apparently, in some cases at least, the practice of Judaism was allowed in the private sphere, even when the authorities were aware that it was occurring.

Furthermore, in spite of the Christian injunctions against usury and Antonio's insistence that loans should be made freely and business conducted without the contamination of interest charges, it is likely that an Elizabethan Shylock could have continued to charge interest on his loans. In his chapter, “Property and the Grasp of Greed,” Max James discusses 16th and 17th century treatises against usury. He explains that “even though both Stubs and Smith declare that the government placed a cap on interest rates at ten percent maximum to restrain greed, in actual fact, ten percent was usually the minimum, and many devices were used to circumvent the law and to charge a much higher percentage. …” He also points out that not all usurers were Jews: “… most usurers were merchants, and … merchants were often criticized and excoriated as severely as usurers.”33 According to Elizabethan legal practice, then, Shylock as a Christian merchant could have continued to charge at least ten percent interest. So, Antonio has not gained his presumed victory when he forced Shylock to convert. In Elizabethan society, even a judgment such as that rendered in the play would not have necessitated a change in Shylock's methods. Instead, Antonio's desire to live according to his period's economic ideals might have been seen by many in the Elizabethan audience as nice, but impractical. If so, then The Merchant of Venice, like Richard II, pits ideology against practicality. However one reads Richard II, the ideals that Antonio preaches in The Merchant of Venice are undercut by his satisfaction in victimizing Shylock. Seeing a disguised Shylock achieve his revenge both non-violently and practically might help to relieve an audience of any discomfort with which the last act might otherwise leave them.

As the lovers enter the house with Antonio trailing awkwardly behind, the hermit throws back his cowl. He walks slowly off stage, alone, isolated, and still in pain, but satisfied with the revenge he has observed, and resigned to his fate as actor of conformity, as converso, in an authoritarian world. Portia's private victory thus becomes Shylock's, and not just Shylock's, but also the victory of the public playwright/London actor torn between acknowledging the necessity for political and religious conformity and his personal drive to recognize and celebrate individual human experience.


  1. Marianne L. Novy, “Giving, Taking, and the Role of Portia in The Merchant of Venice,” 58 Philological Quarterly 137, 139 (1979).

  2. Id.

  3. Cecil Roth, History of the Jews in England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964; reprinted 1978), p. 96. For Elizabethan women as their fathers' property, see Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977), pp. 180-191.

  4. Harry Berger, “Marriage and Mercifixion in The Merchant of Venice,” 32 Shakespeare Quarterly 155, 160 (1981).

  5. Novy, supra note 1 at 151. Novy concludes her essay by stating that “Like the threat of Shylock, whose trial postpones the consummation of marriages, otherness may seem an obstacle to love and indeed Shylock's exorcism may be intended to remove it as an obstacle. But the acceptance of Portia's self-assertion that we find at the end of The Merchant of Venice is also a celebration of otherness and of the means it depends on—financial, sexual, verbal—to give and to receive.”

  6. See Berger, supra note 4 at 161-162.

  7. William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, David Bevington, ed. (New York: Bantam Books, 1988). Hereinafter, parenthetical line references will be in the text.

  8. Karen Newman, “Portia's Ring: Unruly Women and Structures of Exchange in The Merchant of Venice,” 38 Shakespeare Quarterly 19, 22 (1987). Karen Newman looks at The Merchant of Venice in the light of Lévi-Strauss' anthropological theory of cultural exchange (in which he defines the origin and sustenance of society to be the authorized exchange of women to ensure male bonding) and of Luce Irigaray's feminist critique of his theory. From this perspective, Newman concludes that “Instead of choosing one interpretation over the 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.”

  9. See Stone, supra note 3 at p. 118. In concluding his chapter on “Family Characteristics,” Stone explains that children were often sent out of the home to be raised by other families. As a result, nuclear family bonds were weakened so bonds based upon mutual political or economic interests could be strengthened. He writes that “This was a family group [which] was held together by shared economic status and political interests, and by the norms and values of authority and deference. This was a family type which was entirely appropriate to the social and economic world of the 16th century, in which property was the only security against total destitution, in which connections and patronage were the keys to success, in which power flowed to the oldest males under the system of primogeniture, and in which the only career opening for women was in marriage. In these circumstances the family structure was characterized by its hierarchical distribution of power, held together not by affective bonds but by mutual economic interests.” To an Elizabethan audience, therefore, Antonio's paternal bond to Bassanio would seem much more logical and familiar than it does to us today.

  10. See Bevington, ed., supra note 7 at 104 for a translation of this story.

  11. See Max James, “Our House is Hell”: Shakespeare's Troubled Families (New York: Greenwood Press, 1989), pp. 12-16. See also Stone, supra note 3 at p. 190.

  12. David Sundelson, “The Dynamics of Marriage in The Merchant of Venice,” 4 Humanities in Society 245-262 (1981).

  13. Carol Leventen, “Patrimony and Patriarchy in The Merchant of Venice,A Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, Valerie Wayne, ed., afterword by Catherine Belsey (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), p. 70.

  14. Newman, supra note 8 at 25.

  15. The Merchant of Venice (BBC television broadcast, 1981).

  16. See Lawrence Danson, The Harmonies of The Merchant of Venice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), pp. 165-169; Barbara K. Lewalski, “Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of Venice,” 13 Shakespeare Quarterly 327, 334 (1962); reprinted in Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Merchant of Venice, Sylvan Barnet, ed. (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1970), pp. 33-80. My reading exists in an unpublished essay, “Reconciliation and Closure in The Merchant of Venice.

  17. See F. W. Brownlow, “John Shakespeare's Recusancy: New Light on an Old Document,” 40 Shakespeare Quarterly 186 (1989). The document naming John Shakespeare as a recusant is dated 1592, a date close to the earliest date of 1594 given for the composition of The Merchant of Venice. Brownlow also points out that the authorities tended to deal gently with most recusants, and that a common explanation for their absence from church was debt. In the law and social culture of Elizabethan England, there was evidently a connection between debt and religious nonconformity that may have laid the groundwork for Shakespeare's development of a similar connection in Merchant.

  18. See further Daniel Lasker, Jewish Philosophical Polemics Against Christianity in the Middle Ages (New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1977); David Berger, The Jewish-Christian Debate in the High Middle Ages: A Critical Edition of the Nizzabon Vetus (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 5739-1979), pp. 30-32; Egal Feldman, Dual Destinies: The Jewish Encounter with Protestant America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990); and Rosemary Ruether, Faith and Fratricide (New York: The Seabury Press, Inc., 1974). Cecil Roth also traces the origin of anti-semitism to the Jews' refusal to convert, but shows that under John's reign, political and economic concerns also became powerful motivators. See Roth, supra note 3 at 32.

  19. Richard Popkin, “A Jewish Merchant of Venice,” 40 Shakespeare Quarterly 329, 329-331 (1989).

  20. See Roth, supra note 3 at 139-144 and Maurice Freedman, A Minority in Britain: Social Studies of the Anglo-Jewish Community (London: Mitchell Valentine, 1955), p. 9. Roth's chapter “The Middle Period” recounts the history of other Jewish groups in England, suggesting that they were not completely absent from England during Elizabeth's reign.

  21. Bonds—Made and Broken (New York Bar Association reading, December 11, 1992). The reading was part of a symposium on “Legal Aspects of The Merchant of Venice.See “Editor's Preface” to this number.

  22. Novy, supra note 1 at 147.

  23. Berger, supra note 4 at 161.

  24. Id.

  25. See Novy, supra note 1 at 148-149.

  26. Richard Weisberg, Poethics, And Other Strategies of Law and Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), p. 102.

  27. Id. at 101.

  28. Ronald A. Sharp, “Gift Exchange and the Economies of Spirit in The Merchant of Venice,” 83 Modern Philology 250, 263 (1986).

  29. Newman, supra note 8 at 32.

  30. Anne Parten, “Re-establishing Sexual Order: The Ring Episode in The Merchant of Venice,” 9 Women's Studies 145, 145-155 (1982).

  31. See Sundelson, supra note 12 at 252-257.

  32. Roth, supra note 3 at 141-142.

  33. James, supra note 11 at 97-98.

Samuel Ajzenstat (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6913

SOURCE: Ajzenstat, Samuel. “Contract in The Merchant of Venice.Philosophy and Literature 21, no. 2 (October 1997): 262-78.

[In the following essay, Ajzenstat evaluates The Merchant of Venice as a romantic comedy featuring a number of significant oppositions, the most fundamental being that between “the conditional and the unconditional.”]

The Merchant of Venice is widely interpreted as a Christian parable about the power of selfless love to raise us above the loveless inflexibilities of the legal and commercial orders.1 The account I shall offer is the precise opposite of this interpretation: The Merchant makes more sense as a play about love's inability to allow us to dispense with a loveless realm of hard necessity and, even more, about love's dependence on a loveless realm for its own survival. But the rejection of the idealistic account does not make The Merchant a cynical play. It remains a romantic comedy because it shows that love does not require the myth of its invulnerability and all-conquering power to remain meaningful both in the here-and-now and as a pointer to something beyond it.

The Merchant intertwines two distinct stories, a very pleasant and a very unpleasant one. The pleasant story takes place in the beautiful estate of Belmont where the young Venetian nobleman Bassanio wins Portia's hand by passing the test specified in her father's will, picking from among a golden, a silver and a lead casket the one which contains her picture. The unpleasant story takes place in a dark, ugly Venice where the merchant Antonio, in order to finance his beloved friend Bassanio's trip to Belmont, puts himself under the power of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender whose hatred he has earned by reviling him as a Jew and a usurer. Antonio risks his life, pledging a pound of his flesh if the debt is unpaid. Shakespeare brings the two stories together by having Portia, disguised as a man, go to Venice to defend Antonio in the law courts. Shylock is defeated and forced to convert to Christianity and the victors return to Belmont. Shylock's daughter Jessica, having run away to marry the Christian, Lorenzo, is also allowed to make the passage from Venice to Belmont.

To idealistic critics, the two stories work against each other. However compassionate the Christians may think they are being by making Shylock convert, it is clear enough to us in the modern audience that they are destroying him. It takes something away from the beautiful triumph of pure love—which such critics think must be the point of the play—to see it purchased at the price of the destruction of someone for whom we have come to have considerable sympathy. Consequently, the play seems either to fall apart dramatically or to be a unity only if anti-semitic. Such critics adopt a number of expedients, trying to get us to see Shylock as a simple, generalized villain, or viewing the play as anti-semitic but falling back on the historicist, Shakespeare-couldn't-have-known-any-better line, or else arguing that the play's incoherence is praiseworthy because Shakespeare's human sympathy overcame his skill as a playwright. But once we recognize, as I shall argue, that the ubiquity of something less than love is as present in the love story taken by itself as it is in the Shylock story, the sense of incoherence disappears. As for anti-semitism, it is surely an element in the play. But when we see it as a consequence of the Christian characters' attempt to separate themselves from what the play shows us to be an inseparable aspect of human life, we can understand that the play not only opposes anti-semitism but offers an astute philosophical analysis of it.

The play's fundamental opposition, often characterized as between love and commerce, is more revealingly seen as an opposition between a need for unconditional commitments and the equally pressing need to fence our commitments with conditions. The conditional is rooted in that aspect of ourselves—part of what we call justice—that tells us it is only fair for us to be self-interested enough to expect a return for what we give, reward for good, punishment for bad, measure for measure. Its basic metaphor is the contract. The unconditional is rooted in our sense of the grandeur of being able both to give and to get without demand of a return on either side, each entirely transcending need for the sake of the other. The Christian characters are not necessarily wrong to see the unconditional as spiritual perfection and the conditional as a taint on spiritual perfection. Their mistake—which the idealistic critics share—is to think that spiritual perfection is open to them. The mistake has two sides: the belief that they can distance themselves from what they find most dubious in commerce by identifying it with the Jew Shylock, and the belief that human love is sustainable without a conditional, tit-for-tat component. The play destroys both beliefs, the first in its way of telling the Shylock-Antonio story, the second in the Portia-Bassanio story. In both, we see the Christian characters being eased in the direction of a more rueful, less utopian conception of the spiritual possibilities open to them than they were reaching for at the beginning. At the same time our recognition that this reaching resulted in the casual and hypocritical demonization of others need not rob the Christian characters of our sympathy once we see that the harm they do comes from no worse a motive than the desire to be able to think well of themselves. The play shows us that the life of purely unconditional relationships, however exalted it may be, is unreachable and the attempt to reach it corrupting, but it resists a complacent reaction to the realization that this is how things must be. In a grand tradition, perhaps now on the wane, it is profoundly anti-utopian without quite letting us give up longing for a purer world. And though it is the Christian Portia who in many ways most fully represents the divided soul, Shakespeare will find a way of hinting that the spirit that blows through the play is an Old Testament spirit.


In The Merchant, as often in Shakespeare, issues emerge most clearly and subtly in incidental set pieces easily overlooked and sometimes cut in performance. Such episodes do not so much add to the plot as permit Shakespeare to comment unobtrusively on the main action. My account of the play hangs on four such episodes. The first of these, I wish to suggest, can best be seen as a “comment” on the demand in the trial scene that Shylock convert to Christianity. It occurs at the beginning of Act III, Scene v, when Shylock's daughter Jessica tells Launcelot Gobbo, the clown and ex-servant of Shylock, of her conversion to Christianity.

Audiences find Shylock's forced conversion extremely distressing. Yet this occurrence gives the true measure of Shakespearean irony—an irony more often saving than cynical. The saving irony here is that what is literally the cruelest persecution Shylock undergoes marks symbolically the collapse of the system which finds it useful to cast him as an object of persecution in the first place. Portia, we shall see, undergoes a similar turnabout. Both reversals reveal the instability of the Belmont-Venice dichotomy. This implication emerges not in the trial scene itself but in Launcelot's reaction to Jessica's talk of conversion. When she tells him that her husband, Lorenzo, “hath made me a Christian,” the clown responds:

Truly the more to blame he; we were Christians enow before, e'en as many as could well live one by another; this making of Christians will raise the price of hogs,—if we grow all to be pork eaters, we shall not shortly have a rasher on the coals for money.


A bad joke, maybe. But a revealing one. Antonio may well think of Shylock's conversion in spiritual terms. Launcelot helps us see that it also has an economic consequence—a much more interesting one than the price of bacon.

What would be the economic consequence of a conversion of all Venetians to Christianity? Clearly, either that all money lending would cease, with the consequent collapse of the Venetian commercial empire—something that Antonio has already told us he is willing to give his life to avoid (III.iii.26-36)—or else that Christians would become moneylenders. Launcelot's joke points to the increasingly explicit entry of Christians into usury, henceforth to be dignified with the name of banking. Of course, for this to happen there is no literal need for the conversion of all or any Jews. What Shylock's conversion points to symbolically is not a spiritual change in Jews but a spiritual change in Christians.

It is not that Christians become moneylenders for the first time. In the twelfth century, St. Bernard had written: “We are pained to observe that where there are no Jews, Christian moneylenders ‘Jew’ worse than the Jews, if indeed these men may be called Christians and not rather baptized Jews.” The historian who reports this statement comments that though “the Jews always formed a tiny minority of the people so engaged,” squeamish Christians could console themselves with the fiction that Christian moneylenders must really be Jews.2 The spiritual change that is taking place is that they will soon no longer need the fiction.

Some may wish to explain this ironically as nothing more than the replacement of traditional squeamishness with a modern complacency that does not worry itself over spiritual ambiguities. We cannot be sure that this is not the direction in which Shakespeare sees his characters heading; many of them have a strong streak of complacency. But we have yet to point to some hints in the play to suggest a different explanation of what is happening.

The explanation I wish to explore is well suggested in a remark of the American Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr about St. Augustine's The City of God. Augustine speaks of two cities or ways of life, the city of God and the city of man, and has seemed to many of his readers to believe—just as the separation between the two “cities” of Belmont and Venice helps the Christian characters and idealistic critics of The Merchant to believe—that the human race can be fairly neatly divided into two categories: those who live in the community of unconditional love and those who live in the community of self-love and who, among other things, do the dirty work of law and order by which the ungodly control each other so that the godly can live in peace. Niebuhr offers a criticism which, whether or not fair to Augustine, seems to me to crystallize the movement of our play precisely:

When Augustine distinguished between the “two loves” which characterize the “two cities,” the love of God and the love of self, and when he pictured the world as a commingling of the two cities, he did not recognize that the commingling is due not to the fact that two types of people dwell together, but because the conflict between love and self-love is in every soul.3

For all that Belmont is a poor counterfeit of the city of God, Niebuhr's remark helps us see The Merchant of Venice as a parable in which the idea that pure Virtue and pure Vice are exemplified in “two types of people,” Shylock and Portia, is replaced by the realization that vice and virtue are in conflict within each soul. This realization allows for a more concrete account of all human beings as unpurifiable mixtures of good and ill who, instead of pretending to banish contradiction from their hearts, will have to embark on the project of learning how to live torn by the struggle between the unconditional and the conditional.

To be able to see the play in these terms we must be able to keep alive our sense that there is something despicable about the conditional, contractual life. There must be something capable of moving us in Antonio's essential criticism of lending at interest:

If thou wilt lend this money lend it not
As to thy friends—for when did friendship take
A breed for barren metal of his friend?


To say of the Renaissance Venetians that they wish to live golden spiritual lives full of beauty and mutual regard far above the life of crass, competitive money-grubbing but that they can see no way of doing so except through the proceeds of those crass activities is not to situate them historically or geographically but to understand them as exemplars of a more generally familiar dilemma. What hangs over Antonio's head surely is the injunction to “sell all you have and give to the poor.” It makes him a better man and a worse one. He cannot live with it and he cannot live without it.

We may miss the advantages of the Belmont-Venice system, which are mainly two: first, that it keeps up the morale of at least some members of the society, by allowing them, however artificially, to think well of themselves without asking them to forgo the benefits of wealth. And secondly, along with this, that it is able to keep alive, even if only by lip-service and only among an elite, an exalted conception of human relationships. If they had been more honest with themselves both of these things might have been more difficult for them.

But Shakespeare does not endorse this self-deception. So, though he allows us to see, in spite of everything, the graces of Belmont, he also shows us the unworkability of the separation of Belmont from Venice. We have yet to see the fatal flaw that will bring the system crashing down. Before we can do so, we need a further understanding of how the basic principle at issue is brought into the play and an examination of Portia's role in bringing out the collapse of the social structure she is trying to save.


A second “incidental” episode points us towards a deeper view of what is at issue in The Merchant. Once more it involves Launcelot Gobbo, the play's wry philosopher-clown, and should also be read as a comic commentary on a serious scene, the only one in which Antonio and Shylock debate the issue of usury. In the comic episode, Launcelot meets his father coming to visit him (II.ii.31-94). The high-spirited son cannot resist confusing the blind old man. He first pretends not to be Launcelot, then, acknowledging that he is, kneels down and asks his blessing. The father, feeling the top of Launcelot's head expresses surprise that his son has grown such a long beard. Truly, as Launcelot remarks, “It is a wise father that knows his own child.”

This episode is a comic acting out of the biblical scene (Genesis 27) in which Jacob wears goatskins so that his blind father Isaac will feel him, think he is his elder son, the hairy Esau, and be deceived into giving him Esau's blessing. The point of this scene begins to emerge when we recall the serious scene in which Shylock tells Antonio that by usury he is following Jacob's example and Antonio's reply that Jacob, unlike Shylock, did nothing unjust and was in any case guided by God (I.iii.66-90). The scene between Launcelot and his father functions as Shakespeare's invitation to us to consider Antonio's rosy, idealizing picture of Jacob as not quite what Scripture intended, indeed as a deep misunderstanding of the religious tradition.

It is not possible here to give a full account of the story of Jacob. Of all the Biblical patriarchs he most conspicuously lives out a double bind. In order to fulfill his spiritual calling of being one of the founders of a holy nation he must lie and cheat. At the same time, the God he serves with his lie is a god who demands truth so Jacob and his mother must be punished.

The biblical text lays out the structure of the punishment with wonderful clarity. In the story of Jacob's marriage, the same kind of trick he had used to supplant his elder brother (Genesis 29: 16-27) is used against him to supplant a younger of two sisters.

Reading Jacob's marriage to Leah as punishment suggests that his original act of lying was evil. But the story also suggests that the lie was necessary. This seems to be the reading that emerges from Launcelot's scene with his father, for just before their meeting Launcelot has been debating with himself whether he should obey his conscience and remain Shylock's servant or obey the devil and run off and enter Bassanio's service (II.ii.1-24). He decides that the devil's advice is altogether better just as his father enters. This suggests in a comic way that it may be necessary to disobey one's conscience.

This account can be usefully juxtaposed with the Shylock-Antonio debate.4 Antonio thinks that Jacob did not cheat but could and did leave everything in God's hands, hence he cannot be used to justify usury. Shylock thinks that Jacob's practices were justified by their results. Neither of them seems to think of Jacob as morally ambiguous, doing what was both wrong and unavoidable. The idea of moral ambiguity is what Launcelot points towards. The scene between the Gobbos offers Shakespeare's account of Jacob in opposition to both Shylock's and Antonio's. The Jacob of this interpretation is, as it were, a combination of Shylock and Antonio within one person, practicing out of necessity what must also be seen as a falling away from perfection. That we are meant to take Jacob as a person who must suffer the consequences of a divided heart is suggested by his dream (Genesis 28: 11-15) of a ladder connecting a high place with a low place with beings moving up and down on it continually but never simply in an upward direction and never reaching God, who is not at the top of the ladder but above it.

The question, then, that the Shylock-Antonio part of the story poses for us is whether a full ethical life can be unified and consistent or must of necessity exhibit a tense and never quite consistent duality. Turning now from the Shylock story to the story of Portia's wedding, we shall see further reasons for reading The Merchant as a demonstration of inescapable human duality and the less than perfect but nevertheless genuine good available to us by living in terms of it.


The third of our set pieces is the ring episode at the very end of the play. The crisis past, the main characters (except, as often noted, Shylock) gather in Belmont. The atmosphere of relief is briefly disturbed when Portia and her maid Nerissa ask for the rings they had given their husbands and made them promise never to part with. Bassanio and Gratiano have reluctantly given the rings to the lawyer and his clerk who had saved Antonio. The women who, of course, were the lawyer and “his” clerk, and had demanded the rings to test their husbands, put the poor men through hell for a few moments. They can say truthfully that since the lawyer and his clerk now have the rings they will sleep only with them. But they soon take pity on Bassanio and Gratiano and tell all. The men promise, once more, never to part with the rings. As Nerissa and Gratiano run off to consummate their marriage, Gratiano ends the play with an obscene remark in which a ring on a finger represents the joining of sexual organs:

Well, while I live I'll fear no other thing
So sore, as keeping safe Nerissa's ring.

These jokey threats of tit-for-tat infidelity hold an important clue to the rest of the play. I do not doubt that Portia's marriage is a love match. But what does that imply in a play that is supposed to be pitting tit-for-tat contractualism against unconditional love? The inscription on the leaden casket, the one containing Portia's picture, makes reference to unconditional love by demanding of the chooser that he “give and hazard all he hath” (II.vii.16). Is Portia required to “give and hazard all [she] hath” or ought she to try, if possible, to state her conditions? Is a mating of souls spoiled if an element of tit-for-tat enters it? To think so would be remarkably similar to the idealistic attitude we have seen Antonio take towards money-lending (I.iii.128-129). But this is not Portia's answer. Among the different interpretations of her action, depending on whether we like or dislike her, it is open to us to believe that she states her conditions in the faith that she is not thereby relinquishing the unconditionality of her relationship with Bassanio. For all her bantering tone she delivers a deadly serious and, in the context of the rosy glow of dawn at Belmont, a very poignant threat: my sexual fidelity is conditional on yours. We need not think that she actually would retaliate in this way if the issue arose. She may well be incapable of it. All the more reason, we might say, to threaten.

It may be helpful to think about Bassanio and Portia in the light of some of our own recent confusions about marriage. The idealistic insistence that marriage should not state conditions on either side was one of the more permanent legacies of the counter-cultural revolution of the 1960s. A certain measure-for-measure backlash redeemed the legalities of marriage when many women found themselves facing such realities as the need for child support payments. In our times—and not only in ours—both unconditional love (as long as it lasts) and liberal contractualism have been applied to marriage with a vengeance and often with an uneasy sense that they were not quite compatible.

Realism about the need for guaranteed security would have been entirely unproblematic if the idealistic or utopian view were simply wrong. Unfortunately for any simple account, it seems to be as important for human beings to give and get unconditional love as it is for them to be able to hedge it around with conditions for the sake of security. Is it possible to satisfy both requirements?

The Merchant's last episode answers with a qualified yes. The yes is that the combination of self-surrender and self-preservation is a human necessity that we are able to cobble together. The qualification is that it is after all a kind of makeshift, an ambiguous joining of two very different spiritual attitudes, requiring considerable moral equilibrium—something Portia luckily possesses to a fault—so as not to be overwhelmed when utopian temptations make ordinary marriage seem like mere hypocrisy.

Right at the end, then, the play brings us gently back to the ubiquity of contract. The ring episode invites us to consider that pure unconditional love by itself cannot and never could provide the cement for normal, human relationships and yet can draw aid and support from the lower, or less idealistic, conditional part of ourselves. It suggests that even in our most personal and intimate relations we have to make room in our hearts for the external constraints of the contractual, even when it seems to us a less beautiful and more grasping way of life than the pure refusal to enforce conditions. But that the low can help the high to survive is part of what makes The Merchant a comedy—even if a bittersweet one.

In her marriage Portia gently calls a threat of retaliation to the aid of a love which an idealist or a romantic might think was incompatible with such threats. In retrospect she seems from the very beginning of the play to have been the sort of person who would be able to temper the demand for the unconditional with contractual realism. As such, rather than as a presumed agent of Christian mercy, she is an appropriate person to offer Shylock an acceptably contractual compromise when they confront each other in the courtroom. But the hostility of others has turned Shylock from a person who lives by conditionality into an agent of unconditional hatred in the service of which he has twisted the very idea of contract. After he refuses to accept twice his money back (IV.i.84-87), he is beyond the pale of the contractual and will have to be destroyed. The trial is a prefiguring of the collapse of the system under which Shylock was made a pariah. But that collapse will come too late to help him.


The fatal flaw that will bring down the Belmont-Venice system is that it depends vitally on the participation of two people, Shylock and Portia, who can hardly be expected to be very pious towards it. They are both in a position to see through the roles they are expected to play as quite a bit less than God-given. Portia's golden existence in Belmont requires, at least as her father sees it, that she and her wealth be handed over to a man (or manager) whose main qualification is to be wised-up enough to the hypocrisies of others so that he can survive his forays into Venice. Bassanio reflects in front of the caskets (III.ii.73-105) not on how good externally plain things may be inwardly but on how corrupt beautiful-looking things often are within, an odd reflection with which to win a woman he thinks both “fair, and (fairer than that word) / Of wondrous virtues” (I.i.162-163). The choice of the caskets is cunningly arranged to appear to reflect the values of Belmont—which are supposed to be Portia's—while actually attracting someone who not only has a fair amount of Venice in his soul but also knows how to hide it. For the protection of Belmont, Portia cannot be allowed to marry according to her own will. And Shylock is allowed to make a living in Venice only at the cost of ostracism and humiliation. Both have good cause to see the price they are paying in order to represent what the Christian males need them to represent, an allegory of pure Virtue versus “pure” Vice.

Because this allegory makes Shylock an outsider, it takes the chance that he may want to pull it down and will find the opportunity to do so in its own weakness, the inflexible legalism that underlies the commercial contract. But Shakespeare adds a twist. As it turns out, the system can be saved only by someone who is as much an outsider as Shylock, someone as willing as he is, and as Antonio is not, to find a loophole in the letter of the law. That other outsider is, of course, Portia. What makes it impossible to see the confrontation between Shylock and Portia as a clash between law and mercy is simply that both of them use the law shamelessly for their own purposes. In a further irony it is Antonio, though a Christian, who is the play's committed legalist; he considers the commercial law of Venice untouchable:

The duke cannot deny the course of law:
For the commodity that strangers have
With us in Venice, if it be denied,
Will much impeach the justice of the state,
Since that the trade and profit of the city
Consisteth of all nations.


If Portia had had that much respect for the law she would have been unable to play with it enough to save it from the consequences of its own mechanical rigidity.5 This suggestion seems outrageous to those critics who believe the Belmont-Venice allegory and therefore believe that Portia can only act on the highest standards of purity. These are the same critics—a surprisingly large number—who think it merely cynical to suggest that Portia gives Bassanio a hint as to which casket to choose by having a song containing rhymes for “lead” sung to him.6 But once we are ready to take the play as teaching that we live in a world where we must be willing to marshal the impure on behalf of the pure if anything pure is to survive, it becomes extremely plausible to see the trial of the caskets as Portia's dry run for the trial of Antonio, a dry run in which she displays an understandable unscrupulousness, cheating her father as surely as Jacob cheated his—in her case in the interest of a true love.

Very gently Shakespeare here touches the theme of unscrupulousness in defense of a world where scruples are to have a chance to survive, a theme which becomes crucial in his histories. What is in question is Machiavelli's teaching that a legal order can be created and defended only by someone who does not feel bound by it, the unscrupulous founder who stands outside the law. The point is put delicately by King Henry V (a student of Falstaff in seeing through the law) to Katherine of France: “you and I cannot be confin'd within the weak list of a country's fashion; we are the makers of manners” (Henry V, V.ii.266).

Anyone who gets to know Portia must feel that she too, in her heart “cannot be confined within the weak list of a country's fashion.” But in her dealings with Venice she thinks of herself as acting to save her country's fashion. It seems that though she has seen through the conventions of Venice she knows that the self-esteem of the man she loves depends on the maintenance of the world in which he has his noble status. The mixture of conditional and unconditional she is able to admit into her marriage—if indeed she knows she is doing it—she does not here force on the Christian males. It is against her will that she sows the seeds of destruction in the Belmont-Venice system's way of dealing with commerce.

The trial scene has an almost epic quality. Two great antagonists, Shylock and Portia clash, both empowered because they have seen through the laws of their community, he to pull down at least one of its pillars, she to save it. Victory is Portia's. But Shakespeare has one more saving twist of irony. Portia's victory like Shylock's conversion has a double meaning.

Portia the woman takes on in pretense the figure of a man just as Shylock the Jew takes on in pretense the figure of a Christian. She symbolically unfits herself to play the role mapped out for her in the society she is supposedly saving—even though she largely returns to playing it. Just as Shylock's conversion tells us that in the future Jews will not be able to be placed at the low end of the Belmont-Venice system, Portia's appearance in Venice in male dress tells us that she or her descendants will not willingly stay put on the pedestal in Belmont. Shakespeare is tangibly predicting the demise of the Belmont-Venice dichotomy.

But even if the dichotomy does die, we are not meant to think that love and contract simply join hands and become mutually supporting. It may be that to be able to love at all one must be able to state one's conditions. But it is not the case that in order to state one conditions one must be able to love. So, even when the conditional and the unconditional come to reside in the same heart, the conditional, especially in the form of commercial life, will retain an independence that the unconditional does not have. Love will need contract more than contract needs love. The melding of Venice and Belmont cannot eradicate the division between those we love and those we do not love. But it can stop us—sometimes—from believing that only those we do not love have contractualism in their souls. In this world at least, the conditional is a more inescapable power than the unconditional. The ubiquity of commerce may now open the way for Shylock to become a respectable businessman. The exclusiveness of love makes it extremely unlikely that he will ever be invited to even the new, more ambiguous Belmont.


Some hint of what Shakespeare may think of the social order whose death he anticipates lies in the references to Christian hypocrisy which the more cynical critics have noted in almost every scene of The Merchant.7 To these critics they suggest simple condemnation of the Christians. More likely, I think, they are there to shore up the message that we live out our lives in a not quite harmonious double-mindedness.

But for many, double-mindedness is just a euphemism for hypocrisy and may well come to seem morally intolerable. Is there anything that can ease the tension of living with the necessity of duplicity? Is dividedness the last word about us?

At one point Shakespeare suggests otherwise. This is the last of the episodes I shall consider. At the beginning of Act V, the scene that ends with the rings, Lorenzo, lying out under the stars at Belmont, speaks to Jessica of the music of the spheres:

There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-ey'd cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls,
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.


Lorenzo elegantly calls up a world that transcends the double bind, that is harmonious rather than conflictual, but is unavailable to us while we wear “this muddy vesture of decay.” For the idealists these words will be discredited by being spoken by a frivolous playboy consoling himself complacently for his own grossness with the drug of religion. But if the play is about double-mindedness it is appropriate that Lorenzo should speak these lines. When Lorenzo continues:

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils …
Let no such man be trusted


he may think he is talking about someone like Shylock, who speaks of the “vile squealing of the wry-neck'd fife” (II.v.30) and the dire effect of the bagpipes (IV.i.49-50). But since he has just said that none of us can hear the real music, we are apparently all “fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils.”

Here Lorenzo sums up the double-mindedness of the play and moves it for a moment to a cosmic plane. Lorenzo's dream is not unlike Jacob's. We only know what is low in our world because we have glimpsed something high. Our ability to see ourselves from above is an element of our worth even when what we see from that perspective is our worthlessness. Even if Lorenzo is not fit to speak these words or doesn't believe them in any but the most superficial sense, one would have to be an intensely serious deconstructionist not to be glad he says them or not to like him a little better for saying them.


I have argued that The Merchant of Venice is best understood in the context of a tension between the conditional and the unconditional. A tension of this kind continues to reverberate through our philosophies and theodicies. We vacillate between thinking that goodness is rewarded and thinking that reward would demean it; of love we think both that it endures all but that we may demand good behavior from those who say they love us; in commerce, the profit motive can seem both reasonable and crass. One need not be a Christian to feel the tug of living like the lilies of the field. But one will also feel the tug of having a retirement savings plan at a respectable interest rate. Controlling the future, which requires laying down conditions, and letting the future look after itself, which is what makes unconditional commitment possible—both of them answer to something powerful in our natures that helps to define our self-understanding. Our hearts are torn by the tension between them.

The utopian cure for the torn human heart can hardly be better put than in Hamlet's “throw away the worser part of it / And live the purer with the other half” (Hamlet, III.iv.159-160), and many would identify that as The Merchant's teaching. This is certainly how the Christian characters in the play see themselves. But much of Shakespeare's work can be seen as showing that we cannot “throw away the worser part” and that trying to do so is disastrous. But to let “the worser part” in the form of our less generous, more self-centered, more unscrupulous impulses run rampant would also be disastrous in the world of Shakespeare, who does not seem as optimistic as later thinkers that such impulses will act on each other as checks and balances. Instead, at least in The Merchant, a different sort of impulse—one of unconditioned love—is what offers a counterweight to the ungenerous, conditional impulses, though it also loses something by existing in tension with them. In The Merchant this counterweight operates, reasonably enough, only in what we would call the private world of marriage and personal friendship. The fate of the more public world of relations between strangers remains uncertain as it is seen moving in the direction of a more openly acknowledged contractualism. But the utopian cure is unambiguously set aside. If “the worser part” is the contractual life, then neither Portia nor Antonio can throw it away. Antonio projects it onto Shylock and in the process creates an implacable enemy who might well have destroyed him. And though the surface symbolism of Belmont suggests that the man who would win Portia must be a devotee of unconditional love who will “give and hazard all he hath.” Portia has learned by the last scene that for her to give and hazard all she has would be hazardous indeed.

The world into which we are introduced at the beginning of The Merchant is both in Venice and in Belmont a make-believe world that depends on clear-cut social distinctions between Jews and Christians and between men and women based on clear-cut social roles. It is Shakespeare's anti-utopianism to show us that this world is a fool's paradise. But his anti-utopian attitude is not one of moralistic indignation. Post-Holocaust critics, anxious to acquit Shakespeare of the charge of anti-semitism, have tried to show him “taking sides” against the Christian characters. In fact, he does something more useful. Without moralizing, he offers an analysis, a brilliant piece of social science, identifying an important spiritual function that intolerance tries to serve and also showing—from our vantage point one might say predicting—exactly how the Venice-Belmont system comes to collapse. Nor does he flatten out the dilemma. Tit-for-tat contractualism is not seen as untainted. Nor does Shakespeare suggest, as some critics do, that money-lending itself is unambiguously moral as long as the rate of interest is not exorbitant and pounds of flesh are not brought into the bargain. Antonio despises Shylock long before there is any pound-of-flesh contract. Nor are the Christians condemned for wishing to think of themselves—however unrealistically—as untainted either by the profit motive or by a measure-for-measure conception of love relations. The project is simply shown collapsing under its own weight.

For some commentators the political teaching of The Merchant of Venice is that the society in which we live has been bought at the price of the driving out of love and friendship. But Lorenzo's and Jessica's rueful reflection in the final scene (V.i.1-22) on legendary lovers who came to a bad end—Troilus, Thisbe, Dido, Medea—is perhaps meant to remind us that there was never a time when love and friendship did not have a hard time maintaining themselves against the necessities of nature and commerce even while depending on those necessities for support. They do not list these lovers to give themselves an excuse for infidelity. Rather, having caught a hint of perfection in the night and the stars, they are pledging themselves not to betray the only life they can know just because it is mixed and imperfect. A few minutes later Portia, in the ring episode, will also pledge her loyalty to a life that is something less than the music of the spheres. That they can settle for less without forgetting the more is one of the things that after all makes The Merchant of Venice a comedy and not a tragedy.


  1. Citations are to the Arden edition, The Merchant of Venice, edited by John Russell Brown (London: Methuen, 1971).

  2. Lester K. Little, Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978), pp. 52, 56.

  3. Robert McAfee Brown, ed., The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), p. 135.

  4. See Barbara K. Lewalski, “Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of VeniceShakespeare Quarterly 13 (1962): 327-43. Lewalski does not include Launcelot Gobbo's gloss on the Jacob story.

  5. I adopt the general view that Portia uses a legal trick in her defense of Antonio since a contract that granted a pound of flesh would also grant the right to shed blood in taking the pound.

  6. John Russell Brown, for example (note on III.ii.63, p. 80) says that such a hint “would belittle Bassanio and Portia and cheapen the theme of the play.”

  7. For a detailed, classic account of the “ironic” interpretation, see A. D. Moody, Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice (London: Edward Arnold, 1964).

Alan Rosen (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5074

SOURCE: 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. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1997.

[In the following essay, Rosen remarks on the rhetorical strategies of The Merchant of Venice's racial outsiders, emphasizing Shylock's recursive and literal mode of speaking and the Prince of Morocco's eloquence as beyond “the borders of legitimate discourse” in the play.]

In the 1590s, both Jew and Moor remained for English Christians exotic infidels, whose obstinate unbelief and cultural difference continued to challenge, boldly or surreptitiously, Christian hegemony in Europe.1 In Shylock the Jew and the Prince of Morocco the Moor, The Merchant of Venice presents these two kinds of infidels and thus brings together within this problem comedy two groups for whom Renaissance England felt a special fascination and repulsion. That the play forges and exploits a link between the two groups is not self-evident, for Shakespeare assigns Shylock and Morocco to separate realms—Venice and Belmont respectively—and thereby seems to place in the background any meaningful association between Jew and Moor. I wish, however, to foreground this association and argue that the distinctive rhetoric of each character—for Shylock, plainness; for Morocco, eloquence—threatens in its own way to undermine the linguistic foundations of the play. Although this threat is contained, dramatic juxtaposition works to connect the two characters, blurring the boundaries between them. Once linked, shared aspects of their language challenge the play's discourse of insider/outsider while simultaneously reinforcing the threat that the infidels pose.


Despite varying assessments of Shylock's language, critics share two assumptions: first, Shylock is made by Shakespeare to speak differently from other characters in the play; second, he speaks more plainly than other characters.2 This plain speaking is evidenced particularly in Shylock's propensity to repetition.

The play foregrounds Shylock's repetitions from his first appearance on stage in 1.3. For the scene quickly establishes a pattern in which Bassanio initiates and Shylock repeats the financial terms of the proposed agreement. Moreover, the constant pattern of Shylock's repetition makes the audience retroactively aware that, although Shylock speaks the first words of the scene—“Three thousand ducats”—even these words echo an implied off stage proposal by Bassanio.3 In the first eight lines of the scene, then, Shylock speaks words that are not his own.

This appropriation of another character's words at the moment of dramatic introduction blurs the distinctions that one expects to obtain between Bassanio and Shylock, noble Christian and miserly Jew,4 frustrating at least for a time the expectation that Jews speak differently, that they have in Sander Gilman's phrase “a hidden language” uniquely their own.5 By repeating Bassanio's words, Shylock also makes use of them. It is this aspect of use which, as Burckhardt and Shell have argued, is a defining characteristic of Shylock's approach to language as well as to money.6 From the very first utterance, then, Shylock's role is to keep things (and words) in circulation.

Shylock continues to echo Bassanio, yet he also introduces a note of self-repetition, a mode of iteration that becomes conspicuous in Shylock's next scene, in which he calls for Jessica several times. Although the repeated call serves at first as an anxious summons for his daughter, it is soon taken up by Lancelot, parodying Shylock's earnestness.7 In the next scenes, as Jessica flees, this pattern of repetition and parody intensifies.8 Solanio quotes Shylock repeating the features of his losses and Salerio notes that boys echo Shylock's repetitions (2.8.12-24). As Shylock repeats himself with increasing frequency, seemingly in search of a language to express his loss, other characters parody his iterations, resulting in what one critic refers to as the denial of “the right to coherent speech.”9 Even as Shakespeare ritualizes Shylock's language, the choric procession of children simultaneously establishes a parody of that ritualization.

In act 3, the climax of Shylock's self-repetition, Shakespeare complicates the variations on this technique. To the Christians, Shylock responds to taunts with the “Hath not a Jew” speech, in which the repetitions are arranged in a complex rhetorical schema: “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands? …” (3.1.46-47). To Tubal the Jew, by contrast, Shylock merely repeats words, bereft of this larger rhetorical framework:

Yes, other men have ill luck too. Antonio, as I heard in Genoa—
What, what, what? ill luck, ill luck?
—hath an argosy cast away coming from Tripolis.
I thank God, I thank God! Is it true, is it true?


Shylock's repetitions embody language at a reduced and primitive level: “An even more primitive way than punning,” suggests Sigurd Burckhardt, “to strip words of their meanings is repetition. Say ‘a rose is a rose is a rose’ a few more times, and what you have is a meaningless sound, because you have torn the word out of its living linguistic matrix and so are left with nothing but a vile phonetic jelly.”10 Repetition emphasizes material corporeality, “mak[ing] the word malleable, ready to take the imprint the poet wants to give it.”11

Burckhardt's emphasis on the corporeality of language enforces Shylock's association with the corporeal; a Jew, in other words, whose materiality symbolizes for Christians an unredeemed carnality, would fittingly speak a language itself carnal. Appropriately, Shylock reaches the climax of such “primitive” speech in the only scene in which he speaks at length with another Jew.

According to A. R. Braunmuller, however, the rhetorical strategies of Renaissance drama point in a different direction, not enforcing but subverting the conventional system of meaning.12 Dramatists carried out this subversion by emphasizing “alliteration, repetition, echo, reversal,”—language that privileged sound over sense. “This similarity of sound,” writes Braunmuller, “among words and phrases overrides the semantic, conventional, unthinkingly assumed difference between them.”13 While these rhetorical strategies informed other modes of public discourse in Renaissance England, the plotted nature of drama exploited “patterned speech” in ways that significantly undermined conventional systems of linguistic meaning, keeping audiences in “a continuous rhetorical anxiety,” a linguistic limbo “puzzling and possibly terrifying.”14

Braunmuller's comments suggest that Shylock's discourse is not only to be viewed as signifying a perverse materiality but also as concretizing the vertiginous aspects of Renaissance dramatic rhetoric. Made to speak an ever more heavily patterned speech, Shylock embodies the unfamiliar system of meaning, the “continuous rhetorical anxiety,” produced by this rhetoric. As he repeats more frequently, his idiom threatens to subsume the system of semantic difference which continues to inhere in the language of other characters. The repetitions of his repetitions—Solanio's account and the boys' cries—acknowledged the threat of Shylock's idiom but also keep it in check through parody. Seen in this light, the force of Shylock's meeting with Tubal is that here, as Shylock comes to repeat almost every line, there is no parody, no repetition of his repetition, no policing of his alternative system of meaning. At this point, not only does Shylock's passion for revenge endanger Antonio, but his iterative language, multiplying without check, threatens to overwhelm all other language.

But Shakespeare himself polices Shylock's phonic language. Just as the court scene defuses the danger that Shylock poses to Antonio's well-being, so it also constrains Shylock's language, compelling him to speak in proper rhetorical formulas.15 Even if Burckhardt and other ironic readers are correct in claiming that Shylock's courtroom rhetoric outshines that of Antonio and Portia, it is also the case that Shakespeare eliminates the subversive repetitions. Indeed, the elimination of what had become an increasingly frequent sign of Shylock's distinctiveness is startling and perplexing. The answer may lie in the way the institution of the courtroom shapes the language spoken.16 For, as the play implies, the courtroom represents the Venetian law which allegedly applies equally to all. As the law applies to all equally, so, one may speculate, do all participants in the court proceedings share the same discourse. Hence, this legal discourse preempts Shylock's repetitions before they are set in motion.

If the courtroom eliminates the repetitions, there nevertheless remains an imagistic trace of the threat they posed. Telling the Duke why he cannot explain his passion for revenge, Shylock suggests that “Some men there are that love not a gaping pig; / Some that are mad if they behold a cat; / And others when the bagpipe sings in i'the nose / Cannot contain their urine: for affection / Masters oft passion, sways it to the mood / Of what it likes or loathes” (4.1.48-52). Shylock's list—pig, cat, and bagpipe—enumerates what are generally benign aspects of culinary, domestic, or musical culture. But what is benign to most makes dysfunctional an idiosyncratic few. In the case of the bagpipe, the special sound causes the victim to lose control of natural functions. This association of unnerving sound and a threat to control recalls the “rhetorical anxieties” which confronted the audience faced with “patterned speech,” that is, repetition. Braunmuller indicated that, by replacing semantic difference with phonetic identity, repetition subverted the conventional system of linguistic meaning, a subversion which occasioned a “possibly terrifying” feeling in the audience. Similarly, the bagpipe foregrounds an unusual type of sound which assaults the listener, causing a breakdown of normal functioning. Both bagpipe and repetition figure in the play as sources of phonic subversion. Even though Shylock himself is no longer given to repetition, then, the analogy he chooses to represent his motivation continues to intimate the threat embodied by it. It is suggestive, furthermore, that the only other reference in the play to bagpipes comes in association with the creature most emblematic of repetition: “Now by two-headed Janus,” says Solario, also trying to account for abnormal behavior, “Nature hath framed strange fellows in her time: / Some that will evermore peep through their eyes, / And laugh like parrots at a bagpiper” (1.1.50-53; emphasis added).17


The difference between Shylock's recursive speech and that of other characters has frequently been described in terms of plainness versus eloquence: where Shylock the Jew speaks unpoetically, realistically, plainly, the Christians in the play speak lyrically, beautifully, eloquently.18 Most critics valorize eloquence, understanding Shylock's deviant plain-speaking as reinforcing his villainy. But the dichotomy drawn between plainness and eloquence has its proponents as well among those who see Shylock as the play's victim, a view culminating in Burckhardt's extended contrast between Antonio and Shylock. Suspicious of Antonio's flaccid grandiloquence, Burckhardt favors Shylock's plainness, supporting his reading by indicating that the play itself puts forth a hermeneutics of suspicion regarding eloquence. Additionally, Burckhardt argues that the plainness with which Shylock speaks registers Shakespeare's achievement as a dramatist: “But the qualities which make us rank Shylock's lines over Antonio's have long been accepted among the criteria by which we seek to establish the sequence of Shakespeare's plays, on the assumption that where we find them we have evidence of greater maturity and mastery.”19

Though most critics have not shared Burckhardt's radical suspicion of eloquence in the play in general, they have shown a marked suspicion of the eloquence of one specific character: the Prince of Morocco. According to this view, Morocco's eloquence indicates his concern with appearances; just as his language is full of ornate rhetorical flourish, valuing surface over substance, so he chooses the gold casket, again valuing surface over substance.20 Language reflects action, and vice versa. Besides testifying to Shakespeare's multilevel control of plot, this reading of Morocco's language often attempts to assign it a psychological or moral significance, confirming his unworthiness to win Portia.21

Initially, Shylock and Morocco seem as much separated by style as by setting, the rhetoric of the former shaped by the absence of ornament, that of the latter formed by the excess of it. But by associating Shylock with plainness and Morocco with eloquence, Shakespeare positions both outsiders at the opposite extremes of the rhetorical continuum, equally, if contrarily, pressing against the borders of legitimate discourse. On the one hand, this positioning allows the other characters in the play to speak comfortably within the limits that the Jew and Moor articulate. On the other hand, Shylock and Morocco are compelled linguistically as well as culturally to inhabit a place on the margins of discourse.

Having established this linguistic extravagance, glosses on Morocco amplify this suspicion of eloquence by indicating that his language recalls Marlowe's Tamburlaine, an intertextual resonance initially noted by M. C. Bradbrook and subsequently applied by numbers of readers.22 Frank Whigham, for instance, sees Morocco

handicapped by his race, his lack of sophistication and his outmoded style. The attribute of his style most relevant here is his lavish claims made for his own desert. In the early days of Elizabethan drama the non-European setting and character, presented with extensive rhetorical ornament, gave the exotic an incantatory power over Elizabethan audiences. In the courtly context, however, the imperialistic titanism of Tamburlaine is ill-adapted to purposes of wooing.23

This judgment implies that Shakespeare chose to outfit his suitor with a clumsy language, one more appropriate to conquest than romance. But the association with Marlowe also suggests that for Morocco's lines Shakespeare turned to an earlier, more primitive dramatic language. Morocco's eloquence, then, not only represents a psychological or moral flaw but also Shakespeare's parody of the bombastic vocabulary that Tamburlaine spoke and Marlowe wrote. Just as Bassanio displays his romantic merit by choosing the right casket, so does Shakespeare display his dramatic merit by surpassing his predecessors in the fit choice of language, not gaining the fortune of Belmont but rather containing the influence of his greatest competitor and asserting his authorial mastery.24

In his reading of the play, Freud also connects the casket scene with mastery, arguing that the choice of the caskets is actually the choice of a beautiful woman and that the scene dramatizes the attempt to master death—which here masquerades as its opposite, beauty.25 The emphasis for Freud is on choice: “Choice stands in the place of necessity, of destiny. In this way man overcomes death, which he has recognized intellectually.”26 The casket scene registers the move from non-choice to choice, from a passive relation to what is determined to an active mastery over it. The scene becomes the site where psychological overcoming works in conjunction with stylistic mastery. In both instances, mastery is achieved by containing what is other: on the one hand, death represents the metaphysical other; on the other hand, Morocco (and Tamburlaine and Marlowe) represents the cultural other. Even these realms converge, however, in Morocco's second appearance, in which, after a speech replete with images of burial and death, Morocco chooses the casket containing “A carrion Death” (2.7.63). By having Morocco choose a death's head, Shakespeare links what is culturally other to what is metaphysically other, doubly enforcing repulsion while simultaneously mastering it.

While the play admittedly encourages the association of Morocco and Tamburlaine, it also questions the aptness of the parallel and consequently provokes doubt in Morocco's position as an absolute other. Significantly, Morocco styles himself as a kind of Hercules, the Renaissance ideal of a warrior (and a prototype of Tamburlaine as well),27 a self-identification that would seem to reinforce his “titanic” status. But the association does not promote his warrior status but rather undermines it, for the Hercules that Morocco invokes renounces acting as a warrior, consenting instead to “play at dice” and be led by “blind Fortune” (2.1.36). Bassanio, moreover, is also identified with Hercules (3.2.53-62), and in this identification Shakespeare emphasizes the more familiar, martial side of the Greek hero. Tellingly, where Morocco's link to Hercules highlights an uncharacteristic submission, Bassanio's dramatizes a stereotypical aggression, provoking the audience to see not Morocco but Bassanio as the emblem of heroism, as the one who brings into the “courtly context … imperialistic titanism.” This link to Bassanio via Hercules further destabilizes Morocco's status as Other, for it makes it difficult to clearly distinguish one suitor from another, effacing to a degree the difference between winner and loser and between familiar Venetian and exotic Moroccan.28

In the Prince of Morocco, Shakespeare represents a Moor who is liminal and transitional, coming between the demonization of Aaron in Titus Andronicus and the heroic, if problematic, characterization of Othello.29 The critical dispute concerning two pivotal traits, color and religion, attests to this liminal status. Morocco is described as “tawny,” a term which some critics argue indicates “light-skinned, as distinct from a ‘blackamoor’”;30 others believe the linguistic and even dramatic evidence demonstrates that Morocco is black.31 Morocco's religion is less subject to dispute; but the lack of an explicit religious designation has led at least one recent critic to assume that Morocco is Christian, a judgment which in essence nullifies his outsider status.32 Morocco's position vis-à-vis stage and social history reinforces this transitional status. Significantly, Morocco is one of the first “non-villainous” Moors to appear on the English stage33 a stage which had previously dramatized Moors as villains and in which blackness served as an emblem of evil. Morocco as a noble suitor contravenes this stereotype. Nevertheless, the representation of Morocco as an exotic “tawny” Moor continues to reinscribe the alien traits of previous stage Moors (including Shakespeare's own Aaron in Titus Andronicus) and thereby to provoke suspicion, particularly suspicion concerning sexual propriety that would be aroused in watching a black alien attempt to marry a white heroine.34

Although the play eschews the direct representation of the Moor as villain, it enforces suspicion of Morocco by linking him dramatically with Shylock the Jew, a strategy which blurs the boundaries between one outsider and the other. At the beginning of 1.3 Shylock enters the play, a Jew in a Christian world; at the beginning of act 2, Morocco enters, a black in a white world. As Shylock intrudes upon the homogeneity of Christian Venice, so Morocco intrudes upon the homogeneity of white Belmont. The discomfort caused by the intrusion of one enforces the discomfort caused by the intrusion of the other. In addition, reference to Morocco's “complexion” frames Shylock's first appearance. In 1.2, Portia shows her repulsion of Morocco by quipping, “If he have the condition of a saint, and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me than wive me” (1.2.123); next Shylock has his scene (1.3); then act 2 begins by Morocco in effect answering Portia's quip: “Mislike me not for my complexion” (2.1.1).

Shylock's scene both postpones and substitutes for Morocco's. If we recall that prior to MV black men on the English stage were conventionally villains, the postponement of Morocco's arrival intensifies anxiety over what kind of black man will appear on stage. Where Portia's racial strictures initially seem to apply only to marriage in contrast to religion (“rather he should shrive me than wive me”), the substitution of Shylock for Morocco problematizes this formula, exposing the way the discourse of exclusion governs religion as well as matrimony. The substitution of one intruder for the other also means that Shylock arrives in a drama whose discourse is already in place to distinguish insider from outsider. Consequently, Shylock enters the play caught not only in the stage conventions associated with Jews but also in those associated with Moors.

The play further promotes this association of Jew and Moor by linking the way they themselves manipulate the discourse of insider/outsider. Morocco claims his right as a suitor by questioning the criterion chosen by Portia—“complexion of a devil”—and offering his own: “Let us make incision for your love / To prove whose blood is reddest” (2.1.6-7). As with the caskets, Morocco's new criterion also takes the form of a contest, a contest in which Portia would be compelled to distinguish one thing from another. The shift from “complexion” to “blood,” from outer surface to inner substance, links Morocco's claim with the other gestures in the play (caskets, bonds, rings) which require one to go beneath a deceptive surface. More specifically, however, Morocco's contest prepares for Shylock's challenge to Salerio: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” (3.1.58). Significantly, both Moor and Jew claim that what seems different on the surface can be better judged by what is beneath it; that the less favorable exterior which they present can be neutralized by reference to an interior dimension: the blood which flows in all people's veins.

By rejecting surface and privileging depth, Moor and Jew attempt to use the operative discourse of the play—outside/inside—to redefine their relation to other characters. This discourse works generally to make clear who is the resident and who the intruder. In the case of Morocco, his skin color excludes him from Portia's (and the Elizabethan audience's) favor. His ornamental language and choice of the golden casket allegedly betray a concern with surfaces that reinforces his rightful exclusion. In the case of Shylock, his literalism highlights concern with the letter rather than the spirit, with the outer form rather than the inner meaning. In this attempt to challenge their marginalization, then, Morocco and Shylock mobilize the very discourse that enforces the distinction between insider and outsider and which confers on them, Moor and Jew, the status of Other.

But this attempt to turn the discourse of exclusion back on itself fails, as both Morocco and Shylock use images of violence—“incision” and “pricking,” acts committed with a sharp, invasive instrument—to exhibit their solidarity with the rest of human kind. The two intruders, moreover, are the ones who brandish weapons in the play, a detail which enforces the association of alien and violence. Even as Moor and Jew try to undermine and overcome the terms that set them apart from the Christian characters, these images of violence continue to dramatize the danger they pose, justifying their exclusion. The images of violence also enforce the fantasies of the audience, for the wounds which Morocco and Shylock envision are rhetorically inflicted upon themselves (Morocco will make an “incision” on himself; Shylock will be “pricked”), thereby substantiating the belief in an alien threat while simultaneously having the danger recoil upon those who are believed to threaten. Taken to its furthest point—as some critics have done—the recoil of the violence causes both Morocco and Shylock to undergo a symbolic castration (again scenically juxtaposed): the Moor, who has pledged not to marry, leaves Belmont uttering “farewell heat and welcome frost” (2.7.75); the Jew, whose fortune has been stolen, is reported to focus his grief on the loss of his “two stones, two rich and precious stones” (2.8.20).35 The punishment, then, links the two intruders even as it renders them impotent.

This impotence no doubt underscores failure. Yet, through the eccentric discourse of its intruders, MV sets forth alternative systems of meaning that challenge more conventional ones: Shylock's repetitions begin to erode the order articulated by semantic difference,36 while the juxtaposition of Moor and Jew indicates the attempt to rewrite the categories of exclusion. Neither challenge meets with success. But the play must work hard to neutralize the threat posed by these outsiders. Indeed, one may speculate that the threat to conventional meaning tested here in MV becomes more fully realized in the later tragedies, in which Shylock's repetitions modulate into Lear's maddened iterations and Morocco's eloquence informs Othello's captivating tales.


  1. For a recent consideration of England and the Jews in the context of The Merchant of Venice, see James Shapiro, “Shakespeare and the Jews,” The Parkes Lecture, University of Southhampton, 1992; and more generally, including the arrest and trial of Lopez, Cecil Roth, History of the Jews in England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1941). On England's relation to the Moors in the 1590s, see Jack D'Amico, The Moor in English Renaissance Drama (Tampa: University of South Florida Press, 1991).

  2. See particularly B. I. Evans, The Language of Shakespeare's Plays (London: Chatto & Windus, 1964). Cf. C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959), 163-91; Thomas Fujimura, “Mode and Structure in The Merchant of Venice,PMLA [Publications of the Modern Language Association of America] 81 (1966): 499-511; and Jane Donawerth, Shakespeare and the Sixteenth-Century Study of Language (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 189-218. On the equivocal claims of “plainness” and “plain speaking,” see Kenneth J. E. Graham, “‘Without the form of justice’: Plainness and the Performance of Love in King Lear,Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991): 438-61.

  3. This and all subsequent citations are from M. M. Mahood, ed., The Merchant of Venice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

  4. “Well, thou shalt see, thy eyes shall be thy judge, / The difference of old Shylock and Bassanio—” (2.5.1-2). The elaborate form of Shylock's salutation to Lancelot reinforces the fact that the difference between Shylock and Bassanio, while discernible, is not to be taken for granted.

  5. Sander Gilman, Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).

  6. Sigurd Burckhardt, Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968). Marc Shell, “The Wether and the Ewe: Verbal Usury in The Merchant of Venice,Kenyon Review, n.s. 1 (1979): 65-92.

  7. James Bulman notes in his volume on The Merchant of Venice in the Shakespeare in Performance series (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991), that in Komisarjevsky's iconoclastic production of Merchant, not only Lancelot but old Gobbo echoes Shylock here, creating a “double echo” (60).

  8. For a discussion of parody as repetition, see Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms (New York: Methuen, 1985).

  9. Lawrence Normand, “Reading the Body in The Merchant of Venice,Textual Practice 5, no. 1 (1991): 57.

  10. Burckhardt, Shakespearean Meaning, 29; Shell's attempt in “The Wether and the Ewe” to analyze Shylock's “verbal usury” sees puns (rather than repetition) as his emblematic verbal gesture, 66-67.

  11. Burckhardt, Shakespearean Meanings, 30.

  12. A. R. Braunmuller, “The Arts of the Dramatist,” in The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Drama, ed. A. R. Braunmuller and Michael Hattaway (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 63-67.

  13. Ibid., 63.

  14. Ibid., 67.

  15. Normand, “Reading the Body,” 66.

  16. From a different perspective than the one I am pursuing here, Lawrence Danson emphasizes the relation between courtroom and language in The Harmonies ofThe Merchant of Venice’ (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978).

  17. Interestingly, the two-faced Janus also hints at repetition. Sarah Kofman has recently examined the Janus figure in relation to The Merchant of Venice; her analysis, however, does not consider repetition as such but emphasizes instead how doubleness is the real theme of the play. See “Conversions: The Merchant of Venice Under the Sign of Saturn,” tran. Shaun Whiteside, in Literary Theory Today, ed. Peter Collier and Helga Geyer-Ryan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990): 142-66.

  18. See my remarks, note 4 above. On the issue of eloquence, see Renaissance Eloquence: Studies in the Theory and Practice of Renaissance Rhetoric, ed. James J. Murphy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).

  19. Burckhardt, Shakespearean Meanings, 209.

  20. While critics generally say little about Morocco, the little they do say tends to comment on his eloquence. See, for example, Donawerth, Shakespeare and the Sixteenth-Century Study of Language, and Frank Whigham, “Ideology and Class Conduct in The Merchant of Venice,Renaissance Drama, n.s. 10 (1979): 93-115; also James Shapiro, “‘Which the Merchant Here, and Which the Jew?’: Shakespeare and the Economics of Influence,” Shakespeare Studies 20 (1987): 269-79. While Emily Bartels, in “Making More of the Moor: Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashionings of Race,” Shakespeare Quarterly 41 (1990) does not discuss Morocco, she does note the role of eloquence in relation to Aaron of Titus Andronicus: “What threatens to undermine Aaron's function as an absolute sign of the Other is his cultural literacy and … his eloquence. … [But] Aaron's speech simultaneously declares his malign differentness.” Aaron's “malign differentness,” however, is betrayed not by exaggerated eloquence but by a “purposelesness that makes his villainy all the more insidious” (445). In contrast, such commentators as Donawerth or Shapiro suggest that Morocco's otherness is represented not by motivation (or its lack), but by style (or its excess).

  21. A. D. Moody's small casebook on The Merchant of Venice (Woodbury, N.Y.: Barron's Educational Series, 1964) is the only commentary I have encountered which does not psychologically or morally justify Morocco's failure to choose the winning casket; on the contrary, Moody argues that Morocco deserves to win Portia.

  22. See two discussions by M. C. Bradbrook, Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry (London: Chatto & Windus, 1951), 175-76; and “Shakespeare's Recollections of Marlowe,” in Shakespeare's Styles, ed. Philip Edwards, Inga-Stina Ewbank, and G. K. Hunter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 191.

  23. Whigham, “Ideology and Class Conduct,” 98-99.

  24. James Shapiro focuses on the contention between Marlowe and Shakespeare in “‘Which the Merchant Here, and Which the Jew’?”

  25. Sigmund Freud, “The Theme of the Three Caskets,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey (London: The Hogarth Press, 1955), 12:289-301.

  26. Ibid., 299.

  27. Renaissance views of Hercules, including the association with Tamburlaine, are documented in Eugene M. Waith, The Herculean Hero in Marlowe, Chapman, Shakespeare and Dryden (London: Chatto & Windus, 1962).

  28. Raymond Waddington draws attention to the association of Hercules with Morocco and Bassanio, only to argue ingeniously that the shared attribution is meant not to link but to distinguish the two suitors and their contrasting views of fortune, in “Blind Gods: Fortune, Justice and Cupid in The Merchant of Venice,ELH 44 (1977): 458-77.

  29. In her study of Shakespeare's Moors, Bartels argues that, in Titus Andronicus, the early Shakespeare unironically demonizes Aaron but, in Othello, the late Shakespeare exposes the process of demonization. Bartels notes, 435n, that she does not consider Morocco because he is a minor character.

  30. Eldred Jones, Othello's Countrymen: The African in English Renaissance Drama (London: Oxford University Press, 1965); Mahood, The Merchant of Venice, 79.

  31. G. K. Hunter, “Elizabethans and Foreigners,” Shakespeare Survey 17 (1964): 37-52; Anthony Barthelemy, Black Face, Maligned Race: The Representation of Blacks in English Drama from Shakespeare to Southerne (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987).

  32. Michael Ferber, “The Ideology of The Merchant of Venice,ELR 20 (1990): 448.

  33. Barthelemy, Black Face, 147.

  34. Barthelemy emphasizes that even though Morocco is not a villain, he continues to present “an obvious and unwelcome sexual threat to Portia,” a threat directly associated with his Moorishness (149-50).

  35. Zvi Jagendorf links Morocco's departing words to castration in “Innocent Arrows and Sexy Sticks: The Rival Economies of Male Friendship and Sexual Love in The Merchant of Venice, Hebrew University Studies in Literature and the Arts 19, no. 2 (1991): 37. More graphically, Shell, “Wether and the Ewe,” writes of Shylock's castration: “the two sealed bags and stones … are confused with his two testicles. … Shylock lost his Geld when Jessica ‘gilded herself with ducats’ (2.6.59-50) and has also been ‘gelded’” (77).

  36. I am currently at work on an article which will consider the application of other theories of repetition (e.g., Derrida, Freud, Deleuze, Miller) to Shylock's language. Additionally, James Shapiro argues that catastration plays a central role in the play and, more generally, in the image of the Jew in early modern England. See “Shakespeare and the Jews.”

Marc Berley (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8279

SOURCE: Berley, Marc. “Jessica's Belmont Blues: Music and Merriment in The Merchant of Venice.” In Opening the Borders: Inclusivity in Early Modern Studies, edited by Peter C. Herman, pp. 185-205. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1999.

[In the following essay, Berley examines Lorenzo's statements concerning music and harmony alongside Jessica's dark response to “sweet music,” finding in this contradiction a thematic dissonance in The Merchant of Venice.]

With Lorenzo's famous lines about harmony in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare offers, as he often does, his uncommon treatment of a Renaissance commonplace. Nevertheless, scholars have long agreed that Lorenzo's speech about harmony in the last scene of Merchant is a traditional praise of music that enacts dramatically the play's fully harmonious resolution. Long ago, C. L. Barber asserted that “No other comedy, until the late romances, ends with so full an expression of harmony as that which we get in the opening of the final scene of Merchant. And no other final scene is so completely without irony about the joys it celebrates.”1 This remains a standard reading of Lorenzo's speech and the final scene. In this essay, I mean to show that the play does not support such readings. A harmonious resolution “completely without irony” requires the harmonious assimilation of Jessica in Belmont; and Jessica is excluded from the celebration. What is most important, she excludes herself, with her response to Lorenzo's speech: “I am never merry when I hear sweet music” (5.1.69).2 Critics have been hesitant to see the dark aspects of Jessica's last line. Shakespeare, however, builds a pattern of responses to music that culminates in Jessica's important response. Jessica is excluded from the musical celebration at Belmont, and the final scene makes Merchant an early comedy by Shakespeare that questions with ironic dissonance the joys some of its characters too forcibly celebrate.

James Hutton first identified Lorenzo's speech as merely a conventional mixture of speculative (chiefly Neoplatonic) musical theories in praise of music.3 “Much has been written … about Lorenzo's almost too familiar lines,” Hutton writes. “Everyone recognizes that the topics are traditional, but, if I am not mistaken, it is always assumed that Shakespeare himself has brought them together. … [I]t has not … been made clear that this speech not only contains traditional topics, but that the arrangement is traditional. … [I]n short,” Hutton concludes, “we have here to do with a coherent literary theme that Shakespeare has taken bodily into his play … [s]o familiar a theme, indeed, that Shakespeare permits himself to treat it in a kind of shorthand.” After quoting Ronsard on the subject of the “unmusical man,” Hutton concludes that “It is as one more of these laudes musicae that an Elizabethan audience would hear Lorenzo's familiar words.”4

Hutton's valuable study influenced the criticism of Lorenzo's speech and Shakespeare's allusions to speculative music in particular, as well as Renaissance discussions of music in general, in two important ways. First, scholars such as John Hollander, S. K. Heninger, and Lawrence Danson furthered Hutton's reductions: of Lorenzo's speech to Neoplatonic “shorthand”; of Lorenzo to Shakespeare; and of Shakespeare's view to Lorenzo's speech.5 Second, they followed Hutton's assumption that Shakespeare's “shorthand treatment” is a version that typifies the thought of an age that extends from Ronsard to Milton.6 Such readings of Lorenzo's speech fail to account for the considerable innovations, not only of Merchant but, more generally, of Shakespeare and Milton.7

Lorenzo's speech is filled with Neoplatonic elements, but it is not a disembodied summary of Neoplatonic treatises that “Shakespeare has taken bodily into his play.” Lorenzo speaks for neither Shakespeare nor the play. Lorenzo speaks for himself, and the dramatic context of his speech is complex. The relationship between Jessica and Lorenzo and the pattern of allusions to music and merriment throughout the play provide the larger context in which not only Lorenzo's speech but also the general harmony of Belmont must be considered.

Jessica's response to both Lorenzo's speech and the music of Portia's musicians addresses crucial questions raised by what is anything but an unambiguous play that celebrates joys without irony. What precisely does Jessica mean when she says, “I am never merry when I hear sweet music” (5.1.69)? And what does her reply mean within the play? What, furthermore, is the relationship between music and merriment within the play? On this important question, Jessica, as much as Lorenzo, speaks for the play.

During the last forty years, various critics and diverse schools of criticism have either ignored Jessica or fit her into their readings. Even recent feminist studies do not give Jessica the attention she demands.8 Some critics have suggested that the harmony of Belmont is suspect, but the matter—like Jessica—still has not been considered adequately. Jessica's last response, one of many reactions to music and talk about music within the play, is the most inharmonious, and important; for too long it has been attuned by scholars to the dazzling speech that surrounds it.

Shakespeare was, among other things, a brilliant and subtle orchestrator of dramatic form—and by the time of Merchant, he was getting mighty good. Indeed, he was beginning to write comedies in which problems—rendered with precise innovations of dramatic form—resist the dramatic resolution of the play. Shakespeare used this tension to involve his audience in its own moral and cultural dilemmas. Throughout Merchant, reactions to music form a coherent pattern, building tensions that climax in Lorenzo's speech and Jessica's reaction to it. Reactions to music—and talk about music—reveal the quality of merriment achieved by its characters. Finally, an audience's reaction to Lorenzo's speech reveals much about the quality of merriment an audience may achieve for itself.


We must begin any consideration of Lorenzo's speech by placing it within its immediate dramatic context, the echoic exchange of “In such a night …” that precedes it. The exchange centers on classical stories of love-turned-bitter; the subject speaks against the harmony of the echoic form. Lorenzo speaks of Troilus and Cressid, which turns Jessica to Thisbe. Lorenzo mentions Dido, which turns Jessica to Medea, and Jessica's insinuation that she has risked everything for him leads Lorenzo to their case:

                                                                      In Such a night
Did Jessica steal from the wealthy jew,
And with an unthrift love did run from Venice
As far as Belmont.

Jessica speaks directly to the core of what seem to be real troubles:

                                                            In such a night
Did young Lorenzo swear he loved her well,
Stealing her soul with many vows of faith,
And ne'er a true one.


If the others can be explained away as playful literary allusions, Jessica's last, direct charge cannot. Lorenzo responds with similar direction: “In such a night / Did pretty Jessica, like a little shrow / Slander her love, and he forgave it her.” But Jessica appears unforgiving, concluding the exchange by remarking her unwillingness to conclude it: “I would out-night you, did nobody come: / But hark, I hear the footing of a man” (5.1.23-24). By 5.1, real trouble is afoot; playful banter has turned dark. Moreover, given the thematic analogies to the plot of Portia and Bassanio, this exchange between Jessica and Lorenzo has its further dark resonance.

The serious subject of the exchange pushes the limits of its playful banter, signaling a conflict between beautiful form and ugly content, between the charm of sound and the trouble of its meaning. The exchange ends with Jessica promising to “out-night” Lorenzo, interrupted by Portia's servant Stephano. Before Stephano is gone, Lorenzo begins a speculative speech about musical harmony. Rather than a disembodied piece of Neoplatonism, Lorenzo's speech is part of Shakespeare's intricately woven dramatic context. An attempt to make Jessica merry once again, the speech is spoken by the play's hottest lover at a time when his lady appears, with reason, to be getting cold. Lorenzo tries to effect a transition to a better, more harmonious aspect of “such a night.” Using speech and music, Lorenzo tries to get Jessica to see that “such a night” becomes “the touches of sweet harmony” rather than the will to “out-night.”

The “sweet power” of speech and music were deeply linked in Shakespeare's day. Both were considered modes of seduction, and Lorenzo now has need for grander, sweeter promises, bigger vows that might make Jessica forget about broken ones:

Sweet soul, let's in, and there expect their coming.
And yet no matter; why should we go in?
My friend Stephano, signify, I pray you,
Within this house, your mistress is at hand,
And bring your music forth into the air.
                                                                                                    [Exit Stephano.]
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.
Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold.
There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls,
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
                                                                                                    [Enter musicians.]
Come ho, and wake Diana with a hymn!
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress' ear
And draw her home with music.
                                                                                                    Play music.


Rather than mere Neoplatonic shorthand, the speech is dramatic recapitulation. Lorenzo first promises the “the touches of sweet harmony.” The phrase seems at first to refer to actual music to be played by the musicians, but Lorenzo eventually links it to the heavenly harmony they cannot hear: “Such harmony” (which “is in immortal souls”) refers back to the “sweet harmony” that (“whilst this muddy vesture of decay / Doth grossly close it in”) they cannot hear. Six lines after offering Jessica heavenly harmony, Lorenzo begins to explain why he may offer only earthly discord. Lorenzo, in short, offers Jessica something he cannot provide, and the exchange of “In such a night …” suggests he has done this before. The speech is dazzling, but it confirms a pattern of promising more than he will deliver.

Lorenzo continues to elicit harmony where there appears to be discord, moving from musical speech to the power of music itself. After he tells Jessica that we cannot hear the music of the spheres, the musicians enter, and Lorenzo gives them specific directions. Speaking to Portia's musicians at Portia's house, Lorenzo is telling them to draw her home. But he is also speaking, in Neoplatonic terms, about the theory according to which the actual “sounds of music” can pierce the ear, touch the soul, and re-attune it, thereby drawing it home to the heavenly harmony. The Neoplatonic theory of the “sweet power of music”—namely, that music can penetrate one's soul and draw it to heaven—merely complicates the matter of wooing with false vows, for it is deeply related to seduction by false music, as well as, more generally, penetration of Jessica's body.

Lorenzo attempts to placate Jessica not by winning an old argument but by dazzling her with beautiful new promises and lascivious music—both of which had worked well before. As Robin Headlam Wells observes, “a man of eloquence is capable of persuading people to do whatever he wishes. However, the real mark of his power is not his ability to force people ‘to yeeld in that which most standth against their will’, but rather,” as Thomas Wilson asserts in his influential Arte of Rhetorique, “his skill in inducing them ‘to will that which he did.’”9 Jessica, however, continues the tone she establishes during the echoic exchange by asserting that music does not make her merry. Given the common association of music and rhetoric, Shakespeare is juxtaposing—indeed, likening—the forced conversion of Shylock with Lorenzo's attempt to re-seduce Jessica in the final scene. Shylock never wills what Portia does, but Jessica early on appears to will what Lorenzo does. By the last scene, though, she has reasons not to, and Lorenzo has a need to steal her soul again. Stealing one's “soul with vows of faith” is akin to wooing one with music and musical language. Neoplatonic theory promises momentary ecstasy by penetration. But Jessica, as she says, won't be merry.

Lorenzo's speech has long been seen as traditional (Neoplatonic) praise of music, but it is only within this dramatic context that we can appreciate its significance. It cannot be seen as “the most purely religious utterance in the play.”10 Lorenzo offers a seductive speech. He knows to seize every opportunity to throw in the adjective sweet. But in Shakespeare's plays, such excess serves to mock precisely the subjects most relevant here. To be excessively sweet is not to be sweet at all; music becomes an illusion, and any love it induces becomes a foible. A good example is Troilus and Cressida 3.1. Similarly, in Cymbeline, Shakespeare has Cloten mock the hyperbole of both the Neoplatonic idea of penetration and the literary conventions derived from it. Cloten—like Lorenzo, but in direct, ribald, language—alludes to the musicians as surrogate seducers: “Come on, tune. If you can penetrate her with your fingering, so; we'll try with tongue too.” Once they play, Cloten hedges: “So, get you gone. If this penetrate, I will consider your music the better; if it do not, it is a vice in her ears which horsehairs and calves' guts, nor the voice of unpaved eunuch to boot, can never amend” (2.3.11-31). Comically rendering the conflict between deceptively false and beautifully true music, Cloten razes the system of musical powers established by Neoplatonists such as Ronsard. The music shall prove itself good and powerful, says Cloten, only when it shall have penetrated his lady.

Shakespeare's interest in the prurient mocking of Neoplatonic theory is evident as early as Love's Labor's Lost. The King decrees that he and his lords will be “brave conquerors … / That war against your own affections,” devoted to a contemplative life: “Our court shall be a little academe, / Still and contemplative in living art.” Berowne, however, troubled by the prospect of there being no ladies, voices his doubt about the austerity: “But is there no quick recreation granted?” Offering a substitute, the King answers that in lieu of ladies the men shall recreate themselves by means of musical language:

          Our court you know is haunted
With a refinèd traveller of Spain,
A man in all the world's new fashion planted,
That hath a mint of phrases in his brain;
One who the music of his own vain tongue
Doth ravish like enchanting harmony;
A man of complements, whom right and wrong
Have chose as umpire of their mutiny.


A man who “hath a mint of phrases in his brain” and a “vain tongue,” a man who “ravish[es] like enchanting harmony” is a rhetorician. He may be an umpire of mutiny, but his skill points to another mutiny: between “quick recreation” (wine, women, and song) and slow moral “contemplation in living art” (recreation), between “purposing merriment” and enduring the much ado it takes to attain self-knowledge. This conflict is one of Shakespeare's major themes throughout his plays—another way of speaking about the mediation of appetite and reason, frenzy and self-rule, evasion of shame and painful self-reflection.

The music plays in Belmont, and Jessica responds, both to Lorenzo and to the music for which he has made his great Neoplatonic claims. Jessica tells Lorenzo—in language more subtle than the language of her father, but less than subtly—that all is not “sweet” for her in Belmont. Whereas Shylock sticks to his rough idiom, Jessica can adopt the harmonious utterance of the Italians; she can speak poetry, echo Lorenzo. But, finally, she answers in blunt prose to Lorenzo's dazzling blank verse; her response is poignantly unmusical in both its meaning and its form: “I am never merry when I hear sweet music.” Jessica offers, in the manner of her father, rough idiom to Lorenzo's mellifluous “vows of faith.”

Jessica's response puts Lorenzo in a predicament. Lorenzo resumes his speech, turning his focus to the Neoplatonic theory of the “unmusical man”:

The reason is, your spirits are attentive.
For do but note a wild and wanton herd
Or race of youthful and unhandled colts
Fetching mad bounds, bellowing and neighing loud,
Which is the hot condition of their blood:
If they but hear perchance a trumpet sound,
Or any air of music touch their ears,
You shall perceive them make a mutual stand,
Their savage eyes turned to a modest gaze
By the sweet power of music. Therefore the poet
Did feign that Orpheus drew trees, stones, and floods;
Since naught so stockish, hard, and full of rage
But music for the time doth change his nature.
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved 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.


With her last line, Jessica leaves Lorenzo to deliver a stock Neoplatonic answer that, rather than resolve the matter, shows that he is in deeper trouble than commonplace sweet-talk can get him out of.

In the two parts of his speech, Lorenzo speaks for himself, not for the play. Here we can begin to see Shakespeare's original, dramatic use of the commonplace praise of music. In the first part of his speech (while he is trying to charm Jessica), Lorenzo blames a universal human nature, the “muddy vesture of decay.” After Jessica says she is not merry, in contrast, Lorenzo blames Jessica specifically, making the dark (Neoplatonic) suggestion that she has no music in herself—whether due to momentary attentiveness or the essential unmusicality of her Jewish soul. The two parts of Lorenzo's speech speak to an important question: is there something irreparably wrong with Jessica? Shakespeare never directly gives us an answer, but he has Lorenzo insinuate one early. Lorenzo alludes to the problem of Jessica's Jewish soul in 2.4; and by 5.1, Jessica has shown herself fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils. According to Ronsard, the “unmusical man” is “not delighted and is not … sweetly ravished and transported,” giving “proof thereby that he has a … depraved soul, and is to be guarded against as one not happily born.”11Merchant raises important questions: is Jessica “unhappily born”? Can she be merry?

That Shylock cannot be happy is a basic fact required by the plot of the play. Jessica's happiness is a different matter—it is in no way certain, and its uncertainty is a central part of the play. One reason “Shylock's enforced baptism is disconcerting,” as John Gross observes, “is that it is contrary to predominant Christian tradition. … The treatment meted out to Shylock belongs at the harsh end of the spectrum.”12 Jessica's failure to be merry, if the result of treatment that belongs to the kinder end of the spectrum, stands as a significant, ironic counterpoint to Shylock's defeat. And none of the darkness comes as a surprise by 5.1. The likely failure of Jessica's assimilation is, as we will see, registered with irony in every scene in which she appears before 5.1.


One can say with good reason, as has Frank Kermode, that Merchant is a play about justice, but Merchant is also chiefly a play about characters who seek, in their various ways, merriment. The theme befits a comedy, especially a play Kermode rightly links with A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night.13 Antonio begins the play by saying, “I know not why I am so sad,” confessing that he has “much ado to know myself.” His friend Solanio offers tautology as counsel, “Then let us say you are sad / Because you are not merry …” (1.1.47-48). In the second scene, Nerissa has to tell Portia, who has long been seeking merriment, to be careful not to let hastiness keep her from striking an Aristotelian “mean.” It is in this context that one must see the attempts of all the characters to be merry—especially Jessica's.

The question whether “sweet music” should make Jessica “merry” contains within it the larger question on which the play is centered: what does it mean to be “merry”? Merchant, after all, is a play about conflicting attempts to be “merry”—and the antipodal world-views on which these attempts are based. The crux of the play, of course, is that Antonio and Shylock cannot both end the play “merry.” The Christians are, as Bassanio himself exclaims to Gratiano, “friends / That purpose merriment” (2.2.189-90). For Shylock, who rejects such purposing, the possibility for merriment exists only in the “merry sport” of his “bond” (1.3.139-47). It is clear that the “merry sport” of the bond is not “merry.” It is less clear, though clearly as true, that forcible conversion of a Jew is another form of “merry sport” that is not truly “merry” or “gentle”—and that such a lack of gentleness is as possible for gentiles as for Shylock “the Jew.”

Merchant is a play about polarizing views that would make one the true and the other the false pursuit of merriment. But, as Maynard Mack observes in his essay, “Engagement and Detachment in Shakespeare's Plays,” “the usual lesson of comedy [is] that overengagement to any obsessive single view of oneself or the world is to be avoided.”14 Shakespeare has written, I am arguing, a play that is neither a simple attack on Jews nor a subtle defense of them. Merchant depicts merciless Christians seeking merriment as well as a merciless Jew. The play considers not why one of the two pursuits is true, but why both potentially are destructive. And it is Jessica, I suggest, who most comes to feel, if not understand, the reasons why.

The pun on gentle and gentile made consistently in the play suggests that Shylock could improve his fortune by assimilating, by being gentle. The plot requires that we accept not only Shylock's forced conversion as a comic resolution, but also his forced response to Portia's question: “Art thou contented, Jew? What dost thou say?” Shylock says, “I am content” (4.1.391-92), and we all know he is not. Jessica, in stark contrast to her father, not only converts willingly but twice accepts this promise that a change of religion will bring a change of fortune: “O Lorenzo, / If thou keep promise, I shall end this strife, / Become a Christian and thy loving wife”; “I shall be saved by my husband. He hath made me a Christian” (2.3.20-22; 3.5.17-18). Jessica looks to conversion as an answer to her troubles, which appear to her to be rooted in her life with her repressive Jewish father. The first time we hear her, Jessica says, “Our house is hell” (2.3.1). Whereas Shylock's conversion is forced, Jessica's is willing—but her willingness is rooted in a flight from tedium. She gives away her father's turquoise ring, voiding with this gesture the union that made her a Jew, trading, symbolically, a world of rigidity for a world of lascivious joys. But when we see her in 5.1, the final scene of the play, sweet music—precisely the same music that first caused her to “thrust [her] head into the public street”—no longer makes Jessica merry. Forced to convert, and forced to speak, Shylock's penultimate utterance in the play—“I am content”—is clearly ironic. Jessica's last line—“I am never merry when I hear sweet music”—is also ironic. She cannot say never.

The dramatic counterpoint created by the last utterances of father and daughter is significant. Much depends on whether Jessica is truly unmerry at the end of the play—and whether her failure to be merry is a result of a failure in her (a natural failure of her impenetrable Jewish soul?) or a failure in Lorenzo. Shakespeare, moreover, provides us with a clear pattern that suggests that blame is to be placed on both Jessica and Lorenzo. On Jessica, not because her soul is Jewish, but because she avoids the truth that it is; on Lorenzo, because he seduces Jessica with promises he does not keep. Jessica's response to Lorenzo and his music suggests, moreover, the deeper falsehood of the promise of Christian harmony announced by Lorenzo in his speech. We must arbitrate these matters, and we do well to base any conclusions on careful consideration of larger patterns built within the play.

With Jessica, Shakespeare presents us with another Jew, one who willingly converts; yet, still, Lorenzo sees the need to account early for the possibility of her future misfortune:

If e'er the Jew her father come to heaven,
It will be for his gentle daughter's sake;
And never dare misfortune cross her foot,
Unless she do it under this excuse,
That she is issue to a faithless Jew.


Even before the two appear together in the play, Lorenzo warns that Jessica might not be “merry” even as his bride. The “excuse” will be Jessica's Jewish nature, which, despite her hope that marriage and conversion will change it, Lorenzo says plainly cannot be changed. Similarly, Launcelot helps Jessica leave her father, but not without telling her that “the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children” and “truly I think you are damned” (3.5.1-6).

Not only does it appear that something has changed for the worse between Jessica and Lorenzo in 5.1; to this point, the play has hinted consistently at the likelihood of such trouble. In the elopement scene, for example, the first scene in which Jessica and Lorenzo appear together, Gratiano and Salerio preface the elopement with foreboding truisms about love. As Salerio says, “O ten times faster Venus' pigeons fly / To seal love's bonds new-made than they are wont / To keep obligèd faith unforfeited” (2.6.5-7). Gratiano replies with his speech on the effects of “the strumpet wind,” including his maxim “All things that are / Are with more spirit chasèd than enjoyed” (2.6.12-13). Indeed, as soon as Jessica reenters, Lorenzo quickly confirms what Gratiano had said, that “lovers ever run before the clock” (2.6.4): “What, art thou come? On, gentlemen, away! / Our masquing mates by this time for us stay” (2.6.58-59). It is time, says Lorenzo, to be in time for merriment, for merriment is fleeting.

The elopement scene shows a Jessica eager for merriment, but it also imparts misgivings about Jessica's self-knowledge, as well as deeper matters of shame and conscience that might come to her when she knows herself better. Jessica naively expects Lorenzo to change her Jewish identity and thus her fortune, as she says to Launcelot before leaving Shylock's house:

Alack, what heinous sin is it in me
To be ashamed to be my father's child
But though I am a daughter to his blood,
I am not to his manners. O Lorenzo,
If thou keep promise, I shall end this strife,
Become a Christian and thy loving wife!


Jessica puts all her hope for future merriment in Lorenzo's vow and her associated conversion. In short, a new life hangs on the promise of a man. But Jessica confuses strife, which can end, with facts about her life that cannot be erased—facts which, if she refuses to acknowledge them, promise, rather, to increase her strife.

In saying farewell to her father, Jessica tries to change her identity, and hence her fortune: “Farewell; and if my fortune be not crost, / I have a father, you a daughter lost” (2.5.54-55). But in the elopement scene, ironically, Jessica shows herself to be very much “to his manners”: while trying to rid herself of the shame of being her father's child, Jessica “gilds” herself with her father's ducats.

Whether a Jew can exchange her fortune by assimilating, by changing her manners, is a question central to the play. Jessica's “Here, catch this casket” (2.6.33) suggests her possession of an unburdened, merry spirit. She is rejecting a penurious, fruitless pursuit of merriment for a fruitful one. But the rest of what Jessica says in the elopement scene is laden with dark hints of repression: “I am glad 'tis night—you do not look on me—/ For I am much ashamed of my exchange” (2.6.34-35). Jessica then offers a truism that hints at the future troubles the blindness of love can bring: “But love is blind, and lovers cannot see / The pretty follies that themselves commit …” (2.6.36-37). Because Jessica sees the shame of cross-dressing (“my exchange”), the lines register a latent concern that what she does not see might in the future be of greater consequence. Jessica uses the word shame twice in this scene, and both times it resonates with her earlier mention of the “heinous sin. … To be ashamed to be my father's child”:

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 obscured.”


The lines have their obvious, as well as deeper, meaning. Clearly, Jessica wishes to hide her cross-dressing from her lover, and this seems natural. Jessica, however, appears overly concerned with her “shames,” rather than naturally concerned with the single shame of cross-dressing. There is disparity, moreover, between Jessica's worry “I should be obscured” and Lorenzo's assurance, “So are you, sweet, / Even in the lovely garnish of a boy.” Jessica, as Lorenzo says, is already obscured. Further, Lorenzo knows what he is getting—a pretty Jewish girl who is wearing pants and sporting the ducats of her “father Jew” (2.6.22). What Jessica seems anxious to obscure, rather, is a more general need to obscure herself. Lorenzo tells Jessica to “come at once,” but Jessica—thinking her shames “too too light”—delays, risking, in effect, a greater light, the sun: “I will make fast the doores, and gild myself / With some moe ducats, and be with you straight” (2.6.49-50). Shakespeare highlights Jessica's worries about the exchange she makes with Lorenzo; the stakes are so high already that to gild herself with more ducats is worth the risk.

Gilded in her father's ducats, Jessica endeavors to close forever behind her the doors of her father's house. But the scene suggests that Jessica may not get away from her father's house with the mere consequence of the shame of cross-dressing. Like Launcelot, Jessica leaves her old master, Shylock, for a new one, Lorenzo. Indeed, Shakespeare has Launcelot offer his clownish wisdom on two subjects very important to Jessica: leaving one's Jewish master and the conscience that attends any attempted flight from one's identity. “Certainly my conscience will serve me to run from this Jew my master” (2.2.1), says Launcelot in his first line. He then encounters his father, Old Gobbo, and proceeds to ask him, “Do you know me, father?” The Launcelot-Gobbo subplot suggests, however glibly, that where identity, conscience, and shameful fathers are concerned, “Truth will come to light … in the end truth will out” (2.2.74).

Jessica seems, in short, to lack an understanding of the exchange she is making.15 (Exchange, of course, is her father's hated skill.) Jessica seems, in fine, to cloak the “heinous sin” of being ashamed to be who she is under the shame of her cross-dressing. This becomes a common proto-Freudian theme in Shakespeare: to be ashamed to be ashamed of shame.

Jessica's identity—as a woman, as a lover, as a convert—appears to be in flux in 2.6. Jessica, like Lorenzo, knows only that she is her father's child. The central problem seems to be that Jessica does not know the true value of what she is giving Lorenzo in “exchange.” Another problem is that she worries too little about what she is getting in Lorenzo.

The notion that love is an office of discovery suggests that, in time, through the foibles of blind love, there is truth to be known by Jessica—about Lorenzo and about herself. Just as there is irony in Jessica's last response to Lorenzo, so is irony in Jessica's first response to Lorenzo in the play, in the balcony scene: “Who are you? Tell me for more certainly, / Albeit I'll swear that I do know your tongue” (2.6.26-27). As the play goes on, it becomes clearer that Jessica knows the tongue, the dazzling vows, but not the man. By 5.1, there is the strong suggestion that something has happened since 3.5, that Lorenzo is the main reason Jessica is not merry when she hears sweet music. Self-knowledge and conscience appear to be other reasons.


Throughout Merchant, reactions to music are linked to one's merriment, for they display one's knowledge of oneself and the world. And, just as Shylock and Lorenzo offer competing theories about what will keep Jessica from being merry, they also offer competing views of music. Sensing “some ill a-brewing towards my rest,” Shylock warns: “Jessica my girl, Look to my house” (2.5.15-17). Informed by Launcelot about “a masque,” Shylock warns, more specifically, about the danger of music:

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-necked fife,
Clamber not you up to the casements then,
Nor thrust your head into the public street
To gaze on Christian fools with varnished 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 to-night;
But I will go. Go you before me, sirrah.
Say I will come.


Jessica is part of Shylock's house; her maidenhead is one of his doors. With words that anticipate, in both form and matter, Lorenzo's speech in 5.1, Shylock gives his daughter his last command: “Let not the sound of shallow fopp'ry enter / My sober house.”

Jessica, we see, is called on to choose between these antithetical views. What is more important, Jessica is twice called upon to see through the discrepancy between form and content apparent in the articulation of each view. In the first instance, Jessica shuns her father's disharmonious “manners” and is led to a kind of merriment by the “vile squealing.” Finally, however, at Belmont, music and musical speech lose their formerly seductive power: sweet music—and sweet vows—do not make Jessica merry. An untrue lover cannot speak persuasively about harmony, having already taught a harsh lesson about discord.

Shakespeare uses Lorenzo's speech to build dramatic tension; the end of the play puts Jessica back where she began. Just as Lorenzo's vows turn to lies, his seductive exhortations turn to commands. Lorenzo's commands replace Shylock's. They are more subtle, and tempered by the music of his speech, but they are commands: “Sit, Jessica. … Mark the music.” Jessica's reaction to music is again her form of resisting the man who commands her, her rejection of a particular world-view that would govern her reaction to music, and thereby her reactions to all things. Moreover, Jessica's claim that she is never merry when she hears sweet music reveals that Shylock's view of music turns out to be more nearly true for her than Lorenzo's view.

Writing about Jessica and Lorenzo in 5.1. in his study The Harmonies of The Merchant of Venice, Lawrence Danson, following John Hollander in assuming that Lorenzo speaks for Jessica, writes that “[it is] this pair of lovers who speak about that music of the spheres which the play's other harmonies imitate.”16 Such a conclusion is based on the assumption that the talk about false vows is merely playful banter (Danson calls it “easy banter and serious intimacy”). The critical consensus represented by Barber and Danson is expressed by Kermode. Merchant, he writes, “begins with usury and corrupt love” and “ends with harmony and perfect love.”17

As Danson knows, the question of Lorenzo's “moral fitness” is crucial to “our response to teasing banter at the opening of the fifth act.” Danson sees that his fitness has “been established,” but the only proof he can adduce is the encomium of a hot lover, Lorenzo's praise of Jessica in 2.6.52-57. Danson bases his assessment of Lorenzo's “moral fitness” on an assumption that his famous speech is an enactment of religious harmony: the “union of the Gentile husband and the daughter of the Jew suggests the penultimate stage of salvation history described by St. Paul.”18 But a Christian's theft of a soul “with many vows of faith / And ne'er a true one” speaks, ultimately, not for the “harmony in his immortal soul” but for the impenetrable grossness of his “muddy vesture of decay.” Jessica's response that she is not merry is not a confirmation of her salvation—not even a playful one. We are reminded, after all, of the County Palatine, who “hears merry tales and smiles not” (1.2.44-45), whom Portia therefore deems unfit to marry.


An unambiguous resolution of the play requires harmony between Jessica and Lorenzo. And it is for this reason—a circular one—that scholars have for so long thrown Jessica over to the side of the Christians, despite what she says.19 Gross is one critic who sees the darker aspects of Jessica's marriage to Lorenzo, and of the troubling edges in their dialogues; but even he suggests “[o]ne should not make too much of” it.20 One should be reminded of Leo Spitzer's warning in Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony about the “harmonizing tendency” that frequently attends the study of ideas of Christian harmony.21 Even if one persists in playing down Jessica's dissent, there is no justification for saying that Jessica speaks with Lorenzo—or that Lorenzo speaks for Jessica. Jessica says she is not merry; thereafter, she does not speak at all. She is present at the final celebration at Belmont, but she is not part of it.

As Norman Rabkin writes, “As the entire critical history of the play has made equally apparent, the play's ultimate resolution of [its] conflicts is anything but clear or simple.” Even Rabkin, however, sees the critical challenge as a demand for allegiance on one of two sides; and he, too, reads Lorenzo's speech as the signal of harmonious resolution of Lorenzo's side: “On the one side, as we have seen, we find Shylock, trickery, anality, precise definition, possessiveness, contempt for prodigality” as well as “distrust of emotion and hatred of music, bad luck, and failure.” “On the other,” writes Rabkin, “we find Portia, but also Antonio, Bassanio, Lorenzo, Jessica, and Gratiano; freedom, metaphorical richness of language, prodigality” as well as “love of emotion and music, supreme trickery, a fondness for bonds, good luck, success.”22 In this common reading, Jessica is thrown in—here, just before Gratiano—as Lorenzo's happily instructed wife.

Catherine Belsey, in “Love in Venice,” appears ready to reverse the sway of this “harmonizing habit.” But while she questions the assumptions of Barber and Danson, Belsey offers a sweeping description of love in Venice that leads her to reduce Lorenzo's talk about the “muddy vesture of decay” to putatively historical truths about the body and desire. Belsey writes that “the older understanding of love leaves traces in the text, with the effect that desire is only imperfectly domesticated” and the “consequence” that “Venice is super-imposed on Belmont.” Belsey astutely identifies the consequence, but she ignores the particular exclusion of Jessica. She suggests that all the characters in the play look “back to a world, fast disappearing in the late sixteenth century, where love was seen as anarchic, destructive, dangerous.”23 Apparently, Belsey does not uphold Jessica's distinction between false and true vows. Belsey argues instead that the play speaks nostalgically (historically) about a desire that, in accordance with historical indicia, can no longer be fulfilled. According to Belsey, Jessica and Lorenzo, an otherwise harmonious couple, are deprived of an allegorical harmony, or granted only a trace of it—for, in the late sixteenth century, just as now, one may get no more than a trace of anything. Merchant, however, does not treat an essential crisis in the history of desire; it depicts the particular, contextualized problems the women in the play have with particular men.

There is something peculiarly wrong with all the male characters in Merchant. Portia shows herself to be superior to all the men in the play, and Jessica seems to be. Each, however, is hampered by her father's rules for choosing men, opposing sets of rules that specify different reactions to music, reactions that are central to the resolution of the play. Moreover, both Portia and Jessica are also morally flawed.

As we have seen, Jessica's response to Lorenzo's speech and the music of Portia's musicians raises questions that are crucial to any thorough reading of the play. Does Jessica's response to the music at the end of the beginning of act 5 confirm that a Jewish soul is “not happily born,” unmusical? Or is Jessica's failure to be merry a good thing? Does she exhibit a noble melancholia that distinguishes her from those flighty wenches who, when they hear the strains of a lascivious lute, giggle, roll their eyes, and fall wholly for the man who brings the strains about—as Jessica once did? Do we listen now to a young woman whom love has discovered to herself, a woman made wiser by brief experience, a woman who is ready to register her dissenting view? And might she somehow speak for the play? These questions are necessary to any study of Merchant.

As Keith Geary writes, building on the insight of Rabkin, “We must, critics tell us, take sides either with Shylock or with Portia and the Christians, and stand by our choice.” But such “black-and-white judgement seems peculiarly inappropriate to a play that argues the falsity of such neat and absolute distinctions,” for Merchant, as Geary writes, “deals in shades of grey and continually raises the problem of appropriate response and judgement, most acutely, of course, in relation to Shylock.”24 Jessica, I am suggesting, is the character who most feels and portrays what becomes the obvious falsity of neat distinctions.

Merchant contrasts the Christians' gift for musical speech with the rough idiom of Shylock. Lorenzo is dazzling; Shylock is blunt. Merchant, however, demands that we distinguish the harmony of form (“In such a night …”) from the force of real discord. At the same time, the play reveals to us our inability to distinguish them. Shylock's nasty “contempt for prodigality” and “hatred of music” is an extreme antithesis to the dangerous trust in music shown by the Christians. They demonstrate a Neoplatonic trust in music and musical language that becomes suspect. With Jessica's final rejection of Lorenzo's claims, the play suggests that the “sweet power” of “sweet music” is a potentially destructive illusion for Christians as well as Jews. The case of Portia is apposite.

Merchant is neither spoken for nor resolved by the seductive harmony Lorenzo so dazzlingly proclaims. As he does in other plays, Shakespeare involves the audience in the moral dilemma of the play. He compels us to take sides even as he warns of the dangers of doing so. In Merchant he gives us a character whose middle position is, even more dangerously, easy to ignore. By living between “Antipodes,” by reacting nakedly to music, Jessica learns the most in the play, and yet she is the least pedantic character in the play. She is, moreover, the least likely to seduce us: as a Jew Jessica is eclipsed by her father; as a woman by Portia; as someone who might tell us something about being merry, she is eclipsed by Antonio; as someone who might tell us something about the “power of music,” by Lorenzo. By the end of the play, Jessica can neither be disassociated from nor identified with her father—or Lorenzo.25 Jessica's is the strange suffering of one who dares to live between the “Antipodes.” A tug on the audience from two sides can make for great drama, but Shakespeare does even better in Merchant. If all the other characters demand our taking one side or another, Jessica does not, for she herself is tugged by both. As Launcelot says, her mother and father are Scylla and Charybdis: “Well, you are gone both ways” (3.5.15-16).

The wonder of the play, I am suggesting, is its ability to bring the audience around to Jessica's experience in the middle of undesirable extremes. In many ways, Merchant is a precursor of Measure for Measure—a comedy with a troubling comedic resolution; a comedy with a trenchant focus on the virtue of moving from Hebrew justice to Christian mercy; a comedy about the trouble Christians can have being merciful as they seek merriment. It would only be a few years, we must remember, before Shakespeare would write his “problem plays.”

In Merchant, one character, a minor character, Jessica, tries unsuccessfully to arbitrate the merciless extremes of Jewish rigidity and Christian frivolity. Act 5 begins (and the play ends) by developing the problems the play presents, not by fully resolving them in a traditional praise of musical harmony. Lorenzo offers a dazzling speech by which we, like Jessica, are liable to be seduced. But Shakespeare allows us to see through Lorenzo, and forces us to consider large and important questions raised both by Jessica and the dramatic themes and tensions within the play. In the end, Lorenzo delivers a speech about heavenly harmony that succumbs to the earthly conflict it tries to resolve.

Merchant is a difficult play, and has long been a divisive one. Many critics have, along with Lorenzo, praised a pristine harmony; some critics have grudgingly acknowledged it; and a few critics have briefly remarked hints of discord.26 But these various readings have persisted in seeing (or not seeing) Jessica in much the same way. When we examine Jessica and her role, moreover, we see that Merchant is a play about undesirable extremes over which even competing schools of criticism might come to some consensus.

We must remember, in the end, that Jessica's last line—like the second part of Lorenzo's speech—competes for our attention with the seductive sounds of the musicians. At the conclusion of a play that pushes its dramatic content to the limits of comic form, a play that juxtaposes the harmony of form with the reality of discord and coerced harmonies, we must listen with an ear to the seductive music of both Lorenzo's speech and Portia's musicians, and with our soul bent toward deeper, more speculative matters—in short, like Jessica, with attentive spirits.


  1. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959), 187.

  2. I quote throughout from William Shakespeare, The Complete Plays, ed. Alfred Harbage (New York: Viking, 1969).

  3. Hutton, “Some English Poems in Praise of Music,” English Miscellany 2 (1950): 1-63.

  4. Ibid., 1-5.

  5. See Hollander, The Untuning of the Sky (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961); Heninger, Touches of Sweet Harmony (San Marino, California: The Huntington Library, 1974); Danson, The Harmonies of The Merchant of Venice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978).

  6. See, for example, Nan Cooke Carpenter, Music in the Medieval and Renaissance Universities (New York: Da Capo Press, 1972) 147.

  7. See Marc Berley, “Milton's Earthy Grossness: Music and the Condition of the Poet in ‘L'Allegro’ and ‘Il Penseroso,’ Milton Studies, ed. Albert C. Labriola, Vol. 30 (Pittsburgh: University Pittsburgh Press, 1993): 149-61.

  8. Irene Dash, Wooing, Wedding and Power (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), mentions neither Jessica nor Merchant; in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana: University Illinois Press, 1983), Jessica is mentioned in only one essay, and only once, in a typical sentence linking her choice of Lorenzo to her father's misfortune; Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters (1983; New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), mentions Jessica only once, to remark only the matter of her cross-dressing; Women's Re-Visions of Shakespeare, ed. Marianne Novy (Urbana: University Illinois Press, 1990) is a collection in which Jessica is not mentioned at all; in the few allusions to Merchant throughout the volume, it is Portia who is the subject.

  9. Wells, Elizabethan Mythologies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 5.

  10. John Gross, Shylock: A Legacy and Its Legend (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 99.

  11. Hutton, “English Poems,” 4.

  12. Gross, Shylock, 91.

  13. Kermode, Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne (London: Routledge, 1971), 210-15.

  14. Mack, “Engagement and Detachment in Shakespeare's Plays,” reprinted in Everybody's Shakespeare (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993), 25.

  15. Some criticism written from Marxist and cultural materialist perspectives sheds further light on Jessica's “exchange.” Even these studies, however, do not give Jessica the attention she requires. See, for example, Karen Newman, “Portia's Ring: Unruly Women and Structure of Exchange in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Quarterly #38 (1987): 19-33. Newman offers intelligent analysis of the role of Portia's ring, as well as of “exchange” more generally. But Newman does not even mention Jessica's “exchange” as a point of comparison or contrast.

  16. Hollander, Untuning the Sky, 151-52; Danson, Harmonies, 177.

  17. Kermode, Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne, 215.

  18. Danson, Harmonies, 178-84.

  19. James Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 158-59, remarks only briefly the possibility that Jessica “might revert to her Jewish nature.” The possibility, of course, is only hinted at; and it is part of Shakespeare's skill here to resist closure. To consider the matter fully, one has to pay more attention to the dramatic structure of the play than Shapiro does.

  20. Gross, Shylock, 72.

  21. Spitzer, Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony, ed. Anna Granville Hatcher (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1963), 4.

  22. Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago: University Chicago Press, 1981), 28-29.

  23. Belsey, “Love in Venice,” Shakespeare Survey 44 (1991): 43.

  24. Geary, “The Nature of Portia's Victory: Turning to Men in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Survey 37 (1984): 55.

  25. One exception to the “harmonizing habit” is offered by John Picker, “Shylock and the Struggle for Closure,” Judaism 43:2 (1994): 174-89, who considers with insight Jessica's response to Lorenzo's “musical illusion of happiness.” Picker's consideration of music, however, is general and brief, for his subject is the more general one of closure. He concludes, moreover, by bringing Jessica too close to Shylock's world-view.

  26. See, for example, Newman, “Portia's Ring,” 32.

Richard H. Weisberg (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Weisberg, Richard H. “Antonio's Legalistic Cruelty: Interdisciplinarity and The Merchant of Venice.” In Un-Disciplining Literature: Literature, Law, and Culture, edited by Kostas Myrsiades and Linda Myrsiades, pp. 180-89. New York: Peter Lang, 1999.

[In the following essay, Weisberg appraises the legalistic elements of The Merchant of Venice, and finds “non-ironic” interpretations of the play's opposition between Christian mercy and rigid Judaic law to be reductive and misleading.]


The law and literature movement now involves hundreds of scholars across the disciplines.1 Among the movement's contributions to scholarship and teaching in literature has been its attention to several well-worked “legalistic” stories. Particular success has been achieved in the debates about Melville's Billy Budd, Sailor, where an established critical perspective on Captain Vere has been challenged by recourse to legal materials and closer readings of the story's legalistic passages.2

In recent years, a similar methodology has been applied to The Merchant of Venice.3 Abjuring the mainstream critical insistence on “non-ironic” readings of what is clearly one of Shakespeare's most complex and ironic plays, law and literature scholars have again simply noticed what the text affords in rich abundance: passages of legalistic complexity that—once engaged—reverse traditional patterns of understanding.

So, in Poethics and Other Strategies of Law and Literature (94-104), I endeavored to show that Act V's legalistic language—epitomized by Portia's rejection of Antonio's persistent intermeddling in her relationship with Bassanio—evokes Shylock and leaves the audience wondering at Belmont's new usages: “surety”; “deed of gift”; “inter'gatories.” The Jew, with his insistence on oathkeeping, bonds, and the law, must be defeated at trial, for his verbal directness contradicts Christian linguistic maneuvering as much as his excessive legality offends their notion of “mercy”; yet he seems in the final act quite to have overpowered (on the level of language) the Christian characters and their earlier rejection of him. Portia will not tolerate yet another episode of Antonio's “suretyship” for his young friend, her new husband. She prefers, and will probably enforce on Belmont as best she can, the more directly committed system of the old Jewish moneylender, who has never been able to stomach “Christian intercessors” and their flouting of the law.

On this reading, however appropriate it is to the play's comic medium, which mandates the defeat of Shylock's bond, Portia is at trial always alert to the Jew's constancy and ethics in the domain of human relations. Although she briefly becomes a fellow traveler herself along the path of Christian distortions of law—where ostensible “mercy” quickly is debased to forms of legalized cruelty unimaginable in Jewish communities—she does so merely to solve the comedy's central problem and then to move ahead as ethically as she can toward her marriage to a typical Christian whom she happens to adore. But to do this, she must reject on the island of Belmont the nagging presence of Antonio, whose main aim is, precisely, to keep Bassanio from direct commitments to others.

Debate on many of these issues ensued in a spirited exercise of interdisciplinary wit, where the likes of Lawrence Danson and Jay Halio took on some lawyers at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York in late 1992 (Proceedings). And it has spilled over into a series of readings by professional actors in which a proper emphasis has been placed on the relationship of Act IV to Act V, with their legalistic origins of course in the “contract formation” scene, I,iii.4


What I like to call “the turn to legalism” among Christian characters in The Merchant of Venice begins midway through the trial scene itself. Looked at this way, the prevalent critical dichotomy between some rigid Jewish “law” and some more humane Christian “mercy” breaks down on the most obvious textual level.

Portia, perhaps fascinated by Shylock's excessive yet somehow solid insistence on his bond, is committed to undoing the moneylender's extreme application of what might otherwise be a righteous and ethical reliance on written law. But she is equally repulsed by the overly flexible oathbreaking of the Christian characters, which she sees in open court before her eyes when Bassanio and Gratiano assert their willingness to sacrifice their new wives to save the beleaguered Antonio. Like the old Jew, who remarks in a striking aside (as he is supposedly hell-bent at the time for vengeance), “These be the Christian husbands,” Portia notes their willingness to compromise not only the marriage vows but tons of her own ducats, which Bassanio constantly offers the obdurate plaintiff. Later in this same Act, she will deduce that Antonio's baleful influence on Bassanio has moved the latter to give her the ring that symbolized those vows; the audience to the play will also compare that easy traducement to Shylock's ethical unwillingness to give his wife's ring away “for a wilderness of monkeys.”5 So Portia watches all these men in open court, and it cannot be that she wishes to adopt the easy oathbreaking of her spendthrift husband and his flighty circle of friends, nor that she comes to detest everything that Shylock represents in the domain of ethics and law.

Portia begins in court a process that carries her through to the Belmont of Act V: the emulation of Shylock's ethical system once—through her efforts—it has been drained of its excesses, which she perceives to be less legalistic than situational. She comes quickly to learn that Shylock's villainy consists in a Christian-imposed condition of ostracized resentment. Neither she nor any even-handed observer of the play as a whole needs find any necessary linkage of “legalism” to vengeance. On the contrary, she perceives the very opposite: the source of the deepest resentment and the most violent hatred derives from Christian applications to moral outsiders of a superficial and self-serving “mercy.” Although personally unaware of Antonio's cruelty to Shylock on the Rialto, Portia will have sufficiently good reason to associate with the merchant this degradation of Christian love. Once the trial and its immediate aftermath reveal his threat to her values, she moves as graciously as possible to remove Antonio from her husband's circle. But this must await the “happy resolution” of Shylock's vengeful lawsuit.

It is clear to most analysts that Portia follows Shylock's legalistic method in open court, where she reads his bond so narrowly, so literally, that it cannot be enforced on its terms. Then, reveling perhaps in her mastery of a complex situation irresolvable by men, she hauls out a statute and continues, with an excess of zeal that parallels Shylock's in a way, to defeat his cause. This “Alien Statute” gives the state the right to take the Jew's life and half his property—but the Duke instantly forgives the former and virtually returns to Shylock all but a small “fine” for the latter. Touched perhaps by the state's graciousness, she turns to the merchant, who is entitled to the other half. Portia explicitly begs Antonio to make the theoretical Christian move beyond law for which she is better known to audiences than for her contractual legalisms. She asks him to undo the legalistic persecution of the Alien Statute by reducing its effect on his enemy: “What mercy can you render him, Antonio?” (IV. i. 394)

It is here that Antonio, ostensibly the model of Christian courtesy and otherwise the voice of what I have called Christian “mediation” (Poethics) throughout the play, might be fully expected to outdo the Duke's generosity.

Instead, Antonio proceeds to fail every test of moderation, mercy, and forgiveness that Portia has imposed upon him. (She was not, of course, privy to his earlier similar failure in rejecting Shylock's offer of friendship in I. iii.) She fathoms what happens when Christian intercessors are given sway over earthly law. She hears, feelingly, the following amazing cruelties, which—in the absence of legal understanding—critics have taken as signs of Christian generosity:

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 favor
He presently become a Christian;
The other, that he do record a gift,
Here in the court, of all he dies possessed
Unto his son Lorenzo and his daughter.

(IV. i. 396-406)

The chief hurdle to understanding this bizarre show of “mercy” is its opening two and one-half lines, which are “precatory”—they mean nothing at all to the law. Antonio merely reiterates the Duke's disposition of the half of Shylock's goods that are to go to the state! Antonio has no power over, nor any interest in, that half. Thus he is in fact forgiving thefinethat only the state has a right to get. So Antonio begins his speech by winning the hearts of his listeners through a gracious disposition of that which he does not own.

The legally irrelevant opening rhetorical gambit might be understandable in one untrained in the law. But Antonio turns out to be no ingenu: his false generosity is but the preface to a highly legalistic maneuver that will totally destroy Shylock. Furthermore, the first two and one-half lines deliberately evoke earlier examples of Christian rhetoric masking self-interest, greed and theft. To take three such cases only: in Act I, Bassanio succeeds in getting Antonio's support for the loan of 3000 ducats not by using direct speech, such as “Lend me this; I'll pretty myself up, head over to Belmont, win the hand of the rich heiress and return to you not only this loan but the previous ones I have welched on.” Instead, he uses the graceful image of the bow and arrow, a lovely figure that couches in ethereal language what is in fact a grimy purpose. In the same act, Shylock's usury is seen as evil, but the plundering of colonials engaged in by Antonio's ventures is masked by the romantic imagery of “ships at sea.” As Judith Koffler has masterfully shown in a leading law and literature piece on the play, the Christian contribution is one of elevated rhetoric, not improved human relations (116-34). And, finally, Lorenzo spirits away Jessica and much of Shylock's wealth, robing with some of the play's loveliest lines the breach of at least two Commandments.

So Antonio uses the opening moment of his response to Portia to do what he—and the Christians generally—are best at: rhetorical but not actual generosity. (Shylock's method, unfortunately for him, is that of the comedic villain but not always the earthly wrongdoer: he speaks what is on his mind, often in a more literal language than would please the Christians.) He merely mimics Bassanio, who throughout this same scene has managed to hide through rhetorical flourishes that the ducats he constantly offers Shylock are, of course, Portia's (and her avoiding the loss of this wealth goes a long way to explain why she instead brings Shylock down). How sweet of Antonio to forgive even the meager “fine” that the Duke fashioned for Venice (“Ay for the state,” says Portia, “not for Antonio”) as a way of reducing Shylock's penalty in the face of an already humiliating and procedurally questionable reversal of fortune. Generations of critics, if not necessarily the play's audiences, have been hoodwinked by the opening rhetorical move. The rest of the speech, replete with legalistic exactitude, usually goes unexamined.

Let us pay Shakespeare the compliment of understanding the substance of his merchant's “mercy” to Shylock. Antonio fleshes out the Alien Statute—and I've chosen my verb carefully—as follows:

1. Shylock must place half of his present wealth into a trust, with Lorenzo and Jessica receiving the principal at Shylock's death;

2. Shylock must convert to Christianity;

3. Shylock must pledge to will all of his after-acquired wealth to Lorenzo and Jessica.

To make this Draconian “mercy” more comprehensible—and putting aside for the moment Shylock's forced conversion—we'll assume that Shylock currently is worth 1,000,000 ducats. Recall that, under the Alien Statute, half of that was to go to the state, but that the Duke reduced the penalty to a fine of undetermined amount. We can assume further, then, that Shylock has been permitted by the state to keep 400,000 ducats and required by Venice to pay 100,000 as his fine.

Compared to that scenario, as we shall see, Antonio's disposition of Shylock's present wealth is by no means generous.


The merchant, apparently knowledgeable in the intricacies of property law, seizes the half of the moneylender's present wealth under his dominion and places it in “use”—the Elizabethan and indeed the present synonym for a “trust.” We will call this the “Shylock Trust.” Shylock's wealth provides the res, or subject matter of the Trust (namely 500,000 ducats). Antonio will be the administrator of the trust (the “trustee”). Under his direction alone, subject only to a use of the wealth that will be deemed responsible by some eventual court of equity, the 500,000 ducats will be invested, and they will provide both income and preservation or growth of the principal itself. The Trust provides for two categories of “beneficiaries,” the income beneficiary and the remaindermen, that is, those who will get the principal upon the death of Shylock.

Who gets the income from the Shylock Trust? Antonio's failure to name the income beneficiary is not fatal to the formation of the trust. In fact, he seems either to be giving Shylock the income benefit or else himself. This can be clarified later. What Antonio makes clear is that he is vesting the remainder interest, i.e., the right to take the principal upon Shylock's death, in Lorenzo and Jessica.

So—since this is the fairer reading of his words—if we assume that Antonio is keeping the income interest for himself, the Shylock Trust would be enforceable as follows:

1. 500,000 ducats, yielding approximately 5٪ a year, provides an annual income of some 25,000 ducats to Antonio for as long as Shylock lives. Antonio would thus be the income beneficiary pur autre vie (bad lawfrench for “for the life of another,” i.e., for as long as Shylock lives).

2. Meanwhile, through careful investment, the 500,000 ducat principal is preserved. At Shylock's death, Jessica and Lorenzo get these monies. The Shylock Trust is terminated.


Antonio goes much further, however. Exceeding the terms of the Alien Statute, he insists that even Shylock's after-acquired wealth be subject to his command. Recall that Shylock, although elderly, is still active and successful on the Rialto. He may be stripped of 60٪ of his present wealth, but he may well go on to earn millions more. Furthermore, he may receive gifts from others or in some different manner acquire new property. The Alien Statute gives neither the state nor Antonio the right to control these future earnings or possessions. Antonio, drunk with legalistic power, grabs them anyway, imposing the following scheme: Shylock must pledge immediately that he will bequeath to Jessica and Lorenzo all of his after-acquired wealth. Of course, this permits him to continue to earn and to live from those earnings. (If he finally gets himself good legal counsel, which he now knows he should have done before going into court, Shylock may also be able to plan his estate so that there's nothing left when he dies. Or he may covertly amend his will, which lawfully may be done until the moment of his death, to leave his wealth to someone who has truly loved him.) On the other hand, if really forced to convert to Christianity, he may not be able to pursue his work as a moneylender. In any event, what is left in Shylock's estate at his death must presently be pledged to Lorenzo and Jessica.

Few late-twentieth-century audiences applaud Antonio's insistence upon Shylock's conversion to Christianity. Once heeded and understood, these property arrangements seem almost as odious. Shylock, whose acuity with language surpasses most of the Christian characters—but who errs, as we have seen, by refusing to adjust his own direct speech to their hypocritical patterns—knows that “You take my life / When you take the means whereby I live.” Although the conversion must strike him as disgusting, its enforced effect plays equally upon his profession. Antonio, of course, also understands that Christians do not take money for interest; they leave this to the Jews, having monopolized other and more covert forms of plunder. Shylock is left only with what the Duke has provided him. And he must face the additional torment of being the enforced benefactor of a young couple he has every good reason to despise.

“These be the Christian mercies.”


Yet the play remains a comedy. As I have elsewhere argued, Shylock must be brought down; his comedic villainy consists in equal parts of vengeful excess, linguistic directness, and ethical precision. Oathkeepers and direct talkers, as everyone from Shakespeare and Molière to Stoppard and Ionesco know, do not fare well in a comic arena. Nor do monomaniacs, although that term is too strong for Shylock, whose obsession about the pound of flesh commences only as his daughter elopes and is mediated even at the trial by accurate reflections upon the Christians that are as keen as his sharpened knife. Shylock must fall because ethical behavior, which can often seem compulsive to an observer, sits poorly on a religious outsider trying to exert himself lawfully in a comedic environment.

The audience to a comedy wants and deserves the defeat of such a character. Having received that in the trial scene, in Act V it expects nothing but music, poetry, and conjugal bliss. Shakespeare provides, instead, discords, arguments, and still unconsummated marriages. These peculiar elements alone make the play “ironic” despite the flawed and even transparent attempts of mainstream critics to find harmonies, dances, and resolutions.6

As we have seen, the disharmonies of Act V conjoin with a strange move, led by Portia, to the language of law otherwise embodied in the play largely by the comedic villain himself. It is as though her dealings with the Christians during the trial have left her at least as exasperated with their cruelties as with the single excess she disguised herself to remedy. Now speaking in her own voice, she adopts for Belmont neither the “mercy” of her own most famous speech nor the legalisms of her (and Antonio's) victory over Shylock. Instead, she leads her world of Venice to law—to an insistence on the primacy of language used directly to promise and to commit one individual to another.

To do this, Portia must, of course, accomplish more than the mere imparting of legal language she has learned from Shylock. But even this is far from trivial. When the curtain virtually falls with Gratiano calling for an “inter'gatory”—formal legalized questioning under oath—as to whether he and Nerissa should finally bed down, the most extreme anti-Semitic Christian in the play has adopted Shylock's legalistic turn of phrase.

Portia must also, however, reject Antonio. There is little doubt, now that we have read carefully the trial scene and its aftermath in the giving away of the rings, that Portia sees Antonio as a direct threat to her still unconsummated relationship with Bassanio. When the merchant absurdly thrusts himself again between them, she is much too intelligent not to see the grotesque repetition of Antonio's earlier commercial mediation. She remains polite, but the following dialogue should be read as her ironic rejection of the mediated “surety” relationship that permits one party to stand in the place of another:

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 break faith advisedly.
Then you shall be his surety.

(V. i. 268-73)

A surety is, somewhat like a guarantor, a “middleman” who can be sued in the place of the actual debtor. The implications of Antonio's excessive, repetitive impulse to “stand in” for Bassanio are all too clear to Portia. She sees that the merchant's urge to mediate is as compulsive as the Jew's impulse to “stand on the law.”

Which is better? For Portia, as for the thoughtful member of this play's audience, there is no easy answer. But she now feels empowered, in her own domain and voice, to try out the regime of law and to see if—stripped of an excess forced upon it by the mainstream culture—Jewish ethical modes might be less formalistic and less cruel than Christian “mercy” of the Antonio variety.


Law and literature crosses disciplinary borders to seek enlightenment where important sections of stories have remained mere inkblots to decades and even centuries of otherwise sentient readers. In the case of the text we have just been examining, law—as Shakespeare's precision in these matters makes clear—is meant to help identify character. We cannot emerge from Antonio's legalisms without wondering about his cruelty. If, instead, we stop reading the end of the trial scene before embracing the language of property law as it is given to us, we are likely to mistake Shylock's fidelity for intractability, Antonio's technical manipulation for graciousness, and Portia's increasing dislike of the merchant of Venice for a loving friendship or even a three-way “dance” of comedic alliance. The stakes are, at the least, the meaning and staging of Act V and, at the most, the comprehension of the play's values as attuned to those of the defeated litigant.


  1. The author gratefully acknowledges the suggestions of Peter Alscher, Lawrence Danson, and Jay Halio, none of whom, however, is responsible for any of the opinions expressed in what follows.

  2. See, for example, the Symposium Issue with articles on the story by Judith Koffler, Robin West, James Warren, Brook Thomas, Steven Mailloux, Richard Posner, Michael Hancher, and the present author, whose work on the story in the earlier The Failure of the Word has been discussed in Sealts 39-61 and Appendix 3: “With regard to Vere's conduct of Billy's trial and execution [our 1962 ‘generic text’] concluded—perhaps somewhat hastily—that Melville ‘simply had not familiarized himself with [naval] statutes of the period’” (51). In a similar vein, see Milder 77-79.

  3. See Proceedings with articles on the play by Peter Alscher, Jay Halio, Charles Spinosa, Susan Oldrieve, Clayton Koelb, Judge David B. Saxe, Marci Hamilton, and Daniel Kornstein. All these sources point to the origins of legal analysis of the play dating to the natural lawyer Von Ihering (who took Shylock's side in the late 19th century) and various English and American explanations of the contract formation scene (I. iii). My analysis below focuses on Antonio's disposition of Shylock's wealth in IV. i.

  4. Productions influenced by lawyerly readings of the play include those of the Peter Royston Players (New York, 1992-93) and of the Hofstra Theater Department (1996).

  5. The famous “ring plot” has been much discussed by critics and with recent excellence by Kahn 107-111. Kahn's view that Portia deems Antonio an unworthy rival for Bassanio's affections parallels mine here. But it is significant to me that Kahn barely touches on Shylock as a player in this plot, despite the text's obvious association of the Jew with values connecting ethical marital behavior to the ring, values everywhere betrayed by the Christians (led by Antonio) until Portia formally espouses them in Act V. Yet there, Kahn—allowing that “ironic similarities between Jew and Christian abound”—places these less in the realm of a positive morality in fact espoused by Portia than in the negative vengeance Portia displays toward her transgressing husband (110).

  6. See Danson.

Works Cited

Danson, Lawrence. The Harmonies of “The Merchant of Venice.” New Haven: Yale UP, 1978.

Kahn, Coppelia. “The Cuckoo's Note.” In Shakespeare's “Rough Magic.” Ed. Peter Erickson and Coppelia Kahn. Newark: Delaware UP, 1985.

Koffler, Judith. “Terror and Mutilation in the Golden Age.” Human Rights Quarterly 5 (1983): 116-34.

Milder, Robert. “ARTICLE?” American Literary Scholarship (1982): 77-79.

“Proceedings of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York.” Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature 5.1 (1993).

Sealts, Merton. Beyond the Classroom: Essays on American Authors. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1996.

“Symposium Issue.” Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature 1.1 (1989).

Weisberg, Richard H. Poethics and Other Strategies of Law and Literature. New York: Columbia UP, 1992.

———. The Failure of the Word. New Haven: Yale UP, 1984.

Further Reading

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Beiner, G. “The Merchant of Venice.” In Shakespeare's Agonistic Comedy: Poetics, Analysis, Criticism, pp. 168-202. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1993.

Evaluates The Merchant of Venice as an agonistic (or “punitive”) comedy, with critical attention principally focused on the bond between Shylock and Antonio, Antonio's apparent defeat, the reversal of fortunes, and Shylock's punishment.

Berkowitz, Joel. “‘A True Jewish Jew’: Three Yiddish Shylocks.” Theatre Survey 37, no. 1 (May 1996): 75-98.

Documents performances and interpretations of Shylock by Yiddish-speaking actors and directors in American theater during the first half of the twentieth century.

Boehrer, Bruce. “Shylock and the Rise of the Household Pet: Thinking Social Exclusion in The Merchant of Venice.Shakespeare Quarterly 50, no. 2 (summer 1999): 152-70.

Traces parallels between Jessica's status in the society of The Merchant of Venice and that of pets (specifically dogs) in Elizabethan England.

Booth, Roy. “Shylock's Sober House.” Review of English Studies 50, no. 197 (February 1999): 22-31.

Observes the symbolic function of Shylock's (i.e. a Jew's) house in The Merchant of Venice with a view to early modern English texts on the subject.

Chaudhuri, Sukanta. “Shakespeare and the Ethnic Question.” In Shakespeare and Cultural Traditions, edited by Tetsuo Kishi, Roger Pringle, and Stanley Wells, pp. 174-87. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1994.

Examines the anti-Semitic discourse of The Merchant of Venice.

Fischer-Lichte, Erika. “Theatre as Festive Play: Max Reinhardt's Production of The Merchant of Venice.” In Venetian Views, Venetian Blinds: English Fantasies of Venice, edited by Manfred Pfister and Barbara Schaff, pp. 169-80. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999.

Discusses Reinhardt's radical 1905 production of The Merchant of Venice at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, in which he centered the setting of the play, rather than the characters, as the focus of the drama.

Gaudet, Paul. “‘A Little Night Music’: Intertextuality and Status in the Nocturnal Exchange of Jessica and Lorenzo.” Essays in Theatre 13, no. 1 (November 1994): 3-14.

Probes allusions to classical romantic tragedies (stories such as those of Troilus and Cressida, Aeneas and Dido, and Jason and Medea) in the ostensibly comic interlude between Jessica and Lorenzo at the beginning of the final scene of The Merchant of Venice.

Geary, Keith. “The Nature of Portia's Victory: Turning to Men in The Merchant of Venice.Shakespeare Survey 37 (1984): 55-68.

Investigates Portia's role in The Merchant of Venice—particularly while she is disguised as a man in the latter portions of the drama—in the context of the play's theme of love versus friendship.

Gross, John. Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992, 386 p.

In-depth study of the origins of Shakespeare's Shylock and interpretations of the character on British and American stages from the early seventeenth century to the end of the twentieth.

Hassel, R. Chris, Jr. “‘I Stand for Sacrifice’: Frustrated Communion in The Merchant of Venice.” In Faith and Folly in Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies, pp. 176-207. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980.

Investigates elusive and ironic references to the religious holiday of Shrovetide and doctrinal controversies related to Christian Communion in The Merchant of Venice.

Holmer, Joan Ozark. The Merchant of Venice: Choice, Hazard and Consequence. London: Macmillan, 1995, 369 p.

Book-length examination of The Merchant of Venice that examines the play’s aesthetic, religious, and economic contexts, and includes an extensive textual analysis.

Japtok, Martin and Winfried Schleiner. “Genetics and ‘Race’ in The Merchant of Venice.Literature and Medicine 18, no. 2 (fall 1999): 155-72.

Appraises the ethnic categories of Jew and Moor in The Merchant of Venice, while acknowledging the anachronism of applying such terms as race and genetics to a Shakespearean text.

Jensen, Hal. Review of The Merchant of Venice. Times Literary Supplement, no. 5022 (2 July 1999): 20.

Reviews the 1999 Royal National Theatre production of The Merchant of Venice, observing that director Trevor Nunn's bleak interpretation illuminated the nuances of Shakespeare's characters, but obliterated the light-hearted qualities of the play.

Katz, David S. “Shylock's Gender: Jewish Male Menstruation in Early Modern England.” Review of English Studies 50, no. 200 (November 1999): 440-62.

Concentrates on Shylock's character in light of the medieval and early modern myth that Jewish men menstruated.

Patterson, Steve. “The Bankruptcy of Homoerotic Amity in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.Shakespeare Quarterly 50, no. 1 (spring 1999): 9-32.

Reads Antonio as “a prototype of the lovesick homosexual.”

Simon, John. Review of The Merchant of Venice. New York 33, no. 6 (14 February 2000): 141.

Comments on director Trevor Nunn's “problematic” updates to The Merchant of Venice for his National Theatre production.

Sokol, B. J. “Constitutive Signifiers or Fetishes in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice?” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 76, no. 2 (1995): 373-87.

Psychoanalytic discussion of The Merchant of Venice that explains character anxieties in terms of post-Freudian object obsession.

Spinosa, Charles. “The Transformation of Intentionality: Debt and Contract in The Merchant of Venice.English Literary Renaissance 24, no. 2 (spring 1994): 370-409.

Legalist-literary analysis of the trial scene in The Merchant of Venice that takes into account social developments related to English law courts at the beginning of the seventeenth-century.

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