The Merchant of Venice
By Dennis Abrams
Antonio, a merchant from Venice
Bassanio, Antonio’s friend suitor to Portia
Lorenzo, a friend of Antonio and Bassanio, in love with Jessica
Graziano, another friend
Sallero and Soliano, acquaintances
Leonardo, Bassiano’s servant
Shylock, a Jewish moneylender
Jessica, Shylock’s daughter
Tubal, another Jewish moneylender
Lancelot, Shylock’s clownish servant, later Bassanio’s
Gobbo, Lancelot’s father
Portia, an heiress from Belmont (later disguised as Balthasar’s clerk)
Balthasar and Stephano, Portia’s servants
Princes of Morocco and Aragon, Portia’s suitors
Duke of Venice
Certainly in existence, the Merchant, was possibly being acted 1596-97
Barabas, the antihero of Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (c. 1589) is an obvious influence, but a more specific source is Giovanni Fiorentino’s fourteenth-century collection of tales, Il Pecorone (“The Dunce”). Various other analogues include an anonymous play, The Jew (c. 1578), though the major plot elements – the flesh-bond and the story of the three caskets – seem to derive from folk roots.
The play’s most important text is the first quarto printing Q1 (1600), probably set from a scribal copy of Shakespeare’s manuscript; both the second quarto (Q2, dated 1600 but actually 1619) and the First Folio versions are based upon it.
ACT ONE: Bassanio needs a favor from his close friend Antonio – money to woo the wealthy heiress Portia. Although all of Antonio’s capital is tied up overseas, he happily agrees to let Bassanio borrow money in his name. Bassanio arranges a loan with the moneylender Shylock, who seems to spot an opportunity to be revenged on his old foe Antonio (who, it seems, happily spits and strikes at Shylock given the opportunity) by jokingly suggesting a contract stipulating that if the money is not repaid on time, Shylock can have a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Certain that his cash flow will improve, Antonio consents to the terms of the agreement. In Belmont, meanwhile, Portia reviews her father’s will, which insists that she must marry the suitor who correctly chooses among three caskets of gold, silver and lead. Unfortunately, the candidates so far – with the exception of Bassanio – do not look particularly promising.
Given the play’s deliberately flat (and somewhat misleading) title, the plot of The Merchant of Venice can seem strange, even at times bizarre. It melds two great folk stories – the story of the creditor who attempts to secure a pound of flesh instead of repayment; and the tale of the lover who wins his lady through a riddle game and three caskets – and works both of them out in painstaking detail. Though hardly the only comedy of Shakespeare’s to use folk motifs, critics have frequently been struck by the Merchant’s fantastical, even seemingly improbable qualities; the famous early twentieth century director Harley Granville-Barker infamous declared it a “fairy tale,” adding that “there is no more reality in Shylock’s bond and the Lord of Belmont’s will than in Jack and the Beanstalk.” (Personally, I’m not sure if I buy that, and I’m also fairly certain that very few audiences or readers would agree with it either.)
But if the play does at times seem like a fairy tale, it is one grounded in the everyday messiness of human psychology. At its center is Antonio, the merchant of the title, who begins the action with famous words dwelling on the shortcomings of rational explanation, “In sooth,” he complains to his friends Saliero and Soliano, “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.
Antonio is not on speaking terms with his “sadness” and though many critics have tried to explain it, the answer eludes them as much as it does Antonio. Noting that Antonio travels through the play as an outsider (much the same as Shylock) – never more clearly than in the last scene, where he is a lone figure surrounded by couples – some have suggested that he is a kind of scapegoat in the play, the “tainted wether of the flock,” as he puts it, who will inevitably suffer for his friends’ sake. Less complicatedly, perhaps, his melancholy has been called a kind of world-weariness, and in a play where happiness is as much a commodity as anything else, he is not the only sufferer. (His feelings towards Bassanio no doubt play a part in this as well – more on this as we progress. Also note Portia’s first line, “ By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world.”)
It is perhaps revealing of Shakespeare’s Venice, however, that Antonio’s companions do not hesitate to speculate what they think is the matter. “Your mind is tossing on the ocean,” Saliero suggests, among the “argosies” that Antonio’s trade relies on. “Should I go to church,” Saliero continues,
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 water with my silks,
And, in a word, but even now worth this,
And now worth nothing?
Apparently, the thought of religion does not inspire religious thoughts in Saliero – or at least only makes him think of Money. Though capital is all, it’s dangerous instability is part of the bargain: worth “this” one moment, “nothing” the next. (Hello, J.P. Morgan!) And though Antonio rejects out of hand Saliero’s diagnosis, the melancholy merchant is not about to deny the significance of money.
Historically infamous as a center of European commerce, Venice in Shakespeare’s play oozes conspicuous consumption: its citizens organize masques, music and revels, all the while spending a great deal – as Shylock realizes, quite literally to his cost, when his daughter Jessica splurges in “one night fourscore ducats” after running off with Lorenzo along with much of her father’s wealth). This leads, of course, into the play’s central issue, which dwells heavily on borrowing and debt. Shakespeare, it seems to me, wishes his audience to be under no illusion that consumptions costs: Bassanio’s own taste for the high life has left him in dire financial straits, as he explains to Antonio in Act One, Scene One:
‘Tis not unknown to you, Antonio,
How much I have disabled mine estate
By something showing a more swelling port
Than my faint means would grant continuance.
Nor do I now make moan to be abridged
From such a noble rate; but my chief care
Is to come fairly off from the great debts
Wherein my time, something too prodigal,
Hath left me gaged.
Though Bassanio expresses his indebtedness somewhat coyly, it is clear that in Venice, money talks. His solution is to get more of it, by launching an expedition to woo the “richly left” heiress Portia, which he hopes will secure his long-term economic future.
There are, perhaps, shades here of Petruchio in the Shrew, but the tone is more dark and serious, not least because it seems to be money that delineates the friendship between the two men. “To you, Antonio/I owe the most in money and in love,” Bassanio insists, and Antonio urges him in turn not to doubt their relationship:
You know me well, and herein spend but time
To wind about my love with circumstance;
And out of doubt you do me now more wrong
In making question of my uttermost
Than if you had made waste of all I have.
“I suggest that to understand the gap between the human that Shakespeare invents and the role that as playmaker he condemns Shylock to act, we regard the Jew of Venice as a reaction formation or ironic swerve away from Marlowe’s Jew of Malta. All that Shylock and Barabas have in common is that both are supposed to be not Jews, but the Jew. Shakespeare’s grim Puritan and Marlowe’s ferocious Machiavel are so antithetical to each other that I have always wanted a mischievous director to transfer crucial declarations between them. How disconcertingly splendid it would be to have Shylock suddenly burst out with Barabas’s most outrageous parody of Jewish wickedness:
As for myself, I walk abroad a-nights,
And kill sick people groaning under walls,
Sometimes I go about and poison wells.
That is the superb cartoon that Shakespeare parodied again in Aaron the Moor of Titus Andronicus, and such savage zest cannot be repeated by Shylock; who is not a phantasmagoria; even when he behaves like one. The counterstroke would be to have Barabas cry out, ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?’ which may nor may not be poignant when delivered by Shylock but certainly would destroy Barabas’s antic irreality. Shakespeare, finished at last with Marlowe, contrasts against the cartoon Barabas Shylock’s realistic mimesis, which is so overwhelming that it cannot be accommodated as a stage Jew. Yet Shakespeare wants it both ways, at once to push Marlowe aside, and also to so out-Marlowe Marlowe as to make our flesh creep. The stunning persuasiveness of Shylock’s personality heights our apprehension of watching a stage Jew slice off and weigh a pound of the good Antonio’s flesh – ‘to bait fish withal.’ [Good point – if Shylock wasn’t so realistically…real, it wouldn’t matter.] If the audience has a surrogate in this drama, it would appear to be Graziano whose anti-Semitic vulgarity reminds me of Julius Streicher, Hitler’s favorite newspaper editor. The last two centuries of stage tradition have made Shylock a hero-villain, but the text cannot sustain such an interpretation. (MY NOTE: Can’t it? I’m not too sure about that…) Since Shylock is a murderous villain, then Gratiano, though a touch crude, must be taken as a good fellow, cheerful and robust in his anti-Semitism, a kind of Pat Buchanan of Renaissance Venice.
Shakespearean skeptical irony, so persuasive elsewhere in The Merchant of Venice, perhaps goes into relative suspension whenever Shylock speaks. Shylock’s prose is Shakespeare’s best before Falstaff’s; Shylock’s verse hews to the vernacular more than any in Shakespeare before Hamlet’s. The bitter eloquence of Shylock so impresses us that it always a surprise to be told how small a part of the play is spoken by him: only 360 lines and sentences. His utterances manifest a spirit so potent, malign, and negative as to be unforgettable. Yet it is spirit, albeit the spirit of resentment and revenge. I doubt that Shakespeare knew enough about the post-biblical history of the Jews to have meditated about it, and therefore Shylock cannot be said to embody Jewish history, except for the unhappy truth that Shakespeare’s power has converted much of later Jewish history into Shylock. It would have been better for the Jews, if not for most of The Merchant of Venice’s audiences, had Shylock been a character less conspicuously alive. What spurred Shakespeare to that liveliness, as I’ve already intimated, was the contest with Marlowe’s Barabas. But what is it that provoked Shakespeare’s inventiveness?”
And another perspective, from Tanner:
“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 p ray with you.’ (But why, then, does he later agree to go to supper with the ‘prodigal Christian,’ which in any case he could not have been allowed to do, since the Jews were locked up in their island at night? On this, and all matters concerning Jews in contemporary Venice, and London, see John Gross’s comprehensive Shylock. I suppose Shakespeare wants to get him out of the way so Jessica can rob him and flee.) When Antonio appears, Shylock reveals a darker side of his nature in an ‘aside’ (as we have often seen, potential villains tend to reveal themselves and their intentions in soliloquies or asides – to us.)
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 must 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…
In his two comedies which follow shortly, Shakespeare includes two, relatively minor, characters who cannot find, or offer, any explanation for the irrational hatreds they feel (Olivier in As You Like It, and Don Juan in Much Ado.) Shylock is a much larger and more complex figure; and, like Iago – Shakespeare’s greatest study of ‘motiveless malignity’ – he can find motives (more plausible than Iago’s), but ultimately reveals that he is acting under the compulsion of a drive which defeats and outruns explanation. The phenomenon was clearly starting to engage Shakespeare’s serious attention.
His crucial opening exchange with Antonio really defines the central concern of the play. He has already mentioned ‘usance’ (‘a more clenly name for usury’ in contemporary terms), ‘thrift’ (which means both prosperity – ‘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 ten percent 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 ‘idealized’ picture of the merchant, just as Shylock sharpening his knife to claim his debt, is a ‘demonized’ one. This is John Gross’s point, and it could be seen as a version of what psychoanalysts call ‘splitting,’ as a way of dealing with confused feelings: Melanie Klein’s good mother – figure of our hopes and desires, that would be Antonio; and bad mother – object of our fears and aggressions, Shylock. 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 fewer than two hundred at the time). Shakespeare was not addressing a contemporary problem; rather, he was exploring some of the ambivalences and hypocrisies, 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’ (you may recall the ‘smooth-faced gentleman, tickling commodity…this commodity, this bawd, this broker, this all-changing word’ from King John), 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 be trebled twenty times myself,
A thousand times more fair, ten thousand times more rich,
That only to stand high in your account,
I might in virtues, beauties, livings, friends,
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 exploitive uncle, Laban: they agreed that, for his hire, Jacob should be entitled to any lamb 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-colored 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 man 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 rams?
I cannot tell; I make it breed as fast.
Antonio’s last line effectively poses the question of the play. It was a line of ten 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 way it is against nature for Money to beg Money,’ says Bacon, quoting Aristotle, and Pope catches some of the disgust that notion could arouse in a simple couplet:
While with the silent growth of ten per cent
In dirt and darkness hundred stink content.
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 behavior (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 though to tell totally against him; and Antonio’s subsequent remark, ‘for when did friendship take/A breed for barren metal of his friend?’, 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…”
My next post: Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning – more on Act One – another, and surprisingly sympathetic, look at Shylock.