“Fair sir, you spat on me on Wednesday last;/You spurn’d me such a day; another time/You call’d me dog.”

The Merchant of Venice

Act One, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


In Auden’s “Lectures on Shakespeare,” dated November 27, 1946, he speaks about Shylock and The Merchant, and makes, I think, a very valid point:

“With memories of the horrors of the last ten years and forebodings about anti-Semitism, it is difficult to look objectively at a play in which the villain is a Jew.  But we must, in order to understand it.  In England in Shakespeare’s day, English writers didn’t know Jews, who had been expelled by Edward I in 1290 and not readmitted until the time of Cromwell.  A few years before the play was written, there had been a law case in which Dr. Roderigo Lopez, a Portuguese Jew who was physician to the Queen, was tried and executed for treason – it was a frame-up.  Whatever prejudice against the Jews existed among Elizabethans, it was not racial.  Lorenzo marries Shylock’s daughter – there is no thought of racial discrimination.  The only racial remark in the play is made by Shylock, and the Christians refute it.  Religious differences in the play are treated frivolously; the question is not one of belief, but of conformity.  The important thing about Shylock is not that he is a Jew or a heretic, but that he is an outsider.”

More from Auden later…


From Harold Goddard:

“However it may be now, there was a time when anyone who had been through high school knew that The Merchant of Venice is an interweaving of three strands commonly known as the casket story, the bond story, and the ring story.  The teacher in those days always pointed out the skill with which Shakespeare had made three plots into one, but generally left out the much more important fact that the three stories, as the poet uses them, become variations on a single theme.

The casket story obviously stresses the contrast between what is within and what is without.  So, however, if less obviously, do the other two.  The bond story is built about the distinction between the letter and the spirit of the law.  But what are letter and spirit if not what is without and what is within?  And the ring story turns on the difference between the outer form and the inner essence of a promise.  When Bassanio rewards the Young Doctor of Laws with Portia’s ring, he is keeping the spirit of his vow to her as certainly as he would have been breaking it if he had kept the ring on his finger.  In the circumstances literal fidelity would have been actual faithlessness.

Yet in spite of this thematic unity (into which the love story of Lorenzo and Jessica can also be fitted) we find one of the keenest of recent critics asking:  ‘What in the name of all dramatic propriety and economy are the casket scenes doing?  They are quite irrelevant to the plot, and…for the characterization of Bassanio, a positive nuisance…They are a mere piece of adornment.  And the answer to that ‘why’ is no doubt just that Shakespeare knew that they were effective episodes, and that no audience with the colour of the scenes in their eyes and the beauty of the verse in their ears was going to trouble its heads that they were no more than episodes.  Shakespeare was writing for audiences and not for dramatic critics.

Of course Shakespeare the playwright was writing for audiences.  But how about Shakespeare the poet?

Drama, as we have said, must make a wide and immediate appeal to a large number of people of ordinary intelligence.  The playwright must make his plots plain, his characters easily grasped, his ideas familiar.  The public does not want the truth.  It wants confirmation of its prejudices.  That is why the plays of mere playwrights have immediate success but seldom survive.

What the poet is seeking, on the other hand, is the secret of life, and, even if he would, he cannot share with a crowd in a theater, through the distorting medium of actors who are far from sharing his genius, such gleams of it may have been revealed to him.  He can share it only with the few, and with them, mostly in solitude.

A poet-playwright, then, is a contradiction in terms.  But a poet-playwright is exactly what Shakespeare is.  And so his greater plays are one thing as drama and another as poetry, one thing on the outside, another within.  Ostensibly, The Merchant of Venice is the story of the friendship of an unselfish Venetian merchant for a charming young gentleman who is in love with a beautiful heiress; of the noble sacrifice that the friend is on the point of making when nearly brought to disaster by a vile Jew; of the transformation of the lovely lady into lawyer and logician just in the nick of time and her administration to the villain of a dose of his own medicine.  Was ever a play more compact with popular appeal?  But what if, all the while, underneath and overhead, it was something as different from all this as the contents of the three caskets are from their outward appearance?  It would be in keeping.  What if the author is putting to the test, not just the suitors of Portia, but other characters as well, even, possibly, every reader or spectator of his play?  It would be like him.

The seductive atmosphere of the play lends immediate credence to such an hypothesis.  The critic quoted believes that the playwright was counting on it to hypnotize his audience into not noticing irrelevancies.  It may be that he was also counting on it for profounder and more legitimate reasons.

The social world of Venice and more especially of Belmont centers around pleasure.  It is a golden world – a gilded world we might better say.  It is a world of luxury and leisure, of idle talk and frivolity, of music and romance.  It has the appearance of genuine grace and culture.  Except for a few scenes, the average production of The Merchant of Venice leaves an impression of bright costumes, witty conversations, gay or dreamy melody, and romantic love.  Gold is the symbol of this world of pleasure.  But what is under this careless ease?  Or what does it rest for foundation?  The answer is – on money.  Or, if you will, on the trade and commerce that bring the money, and on the inheritance that passes it along.  Now this world of trade and commerce, as it happens, does not resemble very closely the world that its profits purchase.  Its chief symbol in the play is silver, which in the form of money is the ‘pale and common drudge ‘tween man and man.’  When the Prince of Aragon opens the silver casket, he finds, within, the portrait of a blinking idiot and verses telling him that he is a fool who has embraced a shadow in mistake for substance.

But there is something even worse than money under the surface of this social world.  Exclusiveness – and the hypocrisy exclusiveness always involves, the pretense that that which is excluded is somehow less real than that which excludes.  When the Prince of Morocco opens the golden casket he finds not a fool’s head, as Aragon finds, but a Death’s head – so much deadlier is the moral degradation that money so often brings – ‘All that glitters is not gold.’

Dimly, in varying degrees, these Venetians and Belmontese reveal an uneasiness, a vague content, an unexplained sense of something wrong.  This note, significantly, is sounded in the very first words of four or five of the leading characters.

In sooth, I know not why I am so sad,

says Antonio in the first line of the play.  ‘By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world,’ are Portia’s first words.  ‘Our house is hell,’ Jessica announces in her opening speech.  And we wonder what cruelty her father has been guilty of, until she goes on to explain that the hell she refers to is tediousness.  Melancholy, weariness, tedium – the reiteration of the note cannot be coincidence.  And the other characters confirm the conjecture.  Over and over they give the sense of attempting to fill every chink of time with distraction and amusement, often just words, to prevent their thinking.  Bassanio makes his bow with a greeting to Salanio and Salarino:

Good signors both, when shall we laugh?  say when?

and Gratiano (after a reference to Antonio’s morose appearance, from which he takes his cue) begins:

Let me play the fool!

With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come,

And let my liver rather heat with wine

Than my heat cool with mortifying groans.

Gratiano’s cure for care is merriment and torrents of talk.  He is not the only one in Venice who ‘speaks an infinite deal of nothing.’  Launcelot Gobbo, the ‘witsnapper,’ is merely a parody and reduction to the absurd of the loquaciousness that infects the main plot as well as the comic relief.  Lorenzo condemns as fools those of higher station who, like Launcelot, ‘for a tricksy word defy the matter,’ and the proceeds in his very next speech to defy it in the same way.  We can feel Shakespeare himself wearying of ‘wit – the verbal gold that conceals paucity of thought – and it would scarcely be far-fetched to find a prophecy of his great taciturn characters, like Cordelia and Virgilia, in the declaration:  ‘How every fool can play upon the word!  I think the best grace of wit will shortly turn into silence, and discourse grow commendable in none only but parrots.’

What is the trouble with these people and what are they trying to hide?  Why should the beautiful Portia, with all her adorers, be bored?  Nerissa, who under habit as waiting-maid has much wisdom, hits the nail on the head in her first speech in answer to Portia’s:  ‘For aught I see, they are as sick that surfeit with too much as they that starve with nothing.’  What these people are trying to elude is their own souls, or, as we say today, the Unconscious.

Now Shylock is a representative of both of the things of which we have been speaking:  of money, because he is himself a moneylender, and of exclusion, because he is the excluded thing.  Therefore the Venetian world makes him their scapegoat.  They project on him what they have dismissed from their own consciousness as too disturbing.  They hate him because he reminds them of their own unconfessed evil qualities.  Down the ages this has been the main explanation of racial hatred and persecution, of the mistreatment of servant by master.  Our unconsciousness is our foreign land.  Hence, we see in the foreigner what is actually the ‘foreign’ part of ourselves.

Grasp this, and instantly a dozen things in the play fall into place, and nearly every character in it is seen to be one thing on the outside and another underneath – so inherent, so little mere adornment, is the casket theme.  It ramifies into a hundred details and into every corner of the play.

Bassiano is a good example to begin with.  He fools the average reader and, especially if the play is conventionally cast and handsomely mounted, the average spectator, as completely as the dashing movie star does the matinee girl.  Is he not in love with the rich heroine?

Bassanio admits that he has posed as a wealthier than he is and has mortgaged his estate

By something showing a more swelling port

Than my faint means would grant continuance.

And Antonio abets the description.  As a youth, says Bassanio, when I lost one arrow, I shot another in the same direction and often retrieved both.  So now.  Lend me a little more to make love to a lady who has inherited a fortune (and who has beauty and virtue) and with good luck I will repay you (out of her wealth) both your new loan and your old ones:

I have a mind presages me such thrift.

This is not exactly in the key of Romeo and Juliet.

If this seems an ungracious way of putting it, note that Bassanio himself describes it as a ‘plot’ to clear him of his debts.  But when the young spendthrift is handsome, we forgive him much.  In watching the development of the love affair it is easy to forget its inception.  And yet, when Bassanio stands in front of the golden casket, clad in the rich raiment that Antonio (i.e. Shylock’s) gold has presumably bought, and addresses it,

Therefore, thou gaudy gold,

Hard food for Midas, I will none of thee,

we feel that if Shakespeare did not attend the irony it got in spite of him.  No, gold, I’ll have none of thee, Bassanio declares (whether he knows it or not), except a bit from Antonio-Shylock to start me going, and a bit from a certain lady ‘richly left’ whose dowry shall repay the debts of my youth and provide for my future.  Beyond that, none.

Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.

It is almost cruel to recall the inscription on the casket Bassanio picked in the light of what he received from Shylock and of what he let Antonio risk in his behalf.

If it be objected that this is subjecting a fairy tale to the texts of realistic literature, the answer is that it is not the first time that a fairy tale has been a fascinating invention on the surface and the hardest fact and soundest wisdom underneath.  Ample justice has been done by his admirers to Bassanio’s virtues.  It is the economic aspect of his career that has been understressed.  Like a number of others in this play the source of whose income will not always bear inspection, like most of us in fact, he was not adverse to receiving what he had not exactly earned.  Bassanio is the golden casket.  He gained what many men desire:  a wealthy wife.

Antonio’s case is a bit subtler than Bassanio’s, but even more illuminating.  Why is Antonio sad?

Shakespeare devotes a good share of the opening scene of the play to a discussion of that question.

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.

Salanio and Salarino [MY NOTE:  Interchangeable names, interchangeable characters] confirm his changed appearance and suggest that he is anxious over the argosies.  But Antonio brushes that aside.  His ventures are not in one bottom trusted nor all his wealth committed to the present enterprise:

Therefore, my merchandise makes me not sad.

He denies, too, the charge that he is in love.  [MY NOTE:  Although he is, I think obviously, with Bassanio.]  So Salarino, baffles, concludes that it is a matter of temperament.  Antonio was just born that way.  But this explains nothing and his altered looks give it the lie.

Commentators have commonly either side-stepped the problem or explained Antonio’s melancholy as a presentiment of the loss of his friend Bassanio through marriage.  That may be accentuated it at the moment, but Antonio has barely a hint of what is coming when the play opens, while his depression has all the marks of something older and deeper.  It is scarcely too much to say that he is a sick man.  Later, at the trial, when the opportunity for sacrificing himself is presented, his sadness becomes almost suicidal:

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.

You cannot better be employ’d, Bassanio,

Than to live still, and write mine epitaph.

Only something fundamental can explain such a sentimental welcome to death.  The opening of the play is an interrogation three times underscored by Antonio’s sadness.

Later, a similar question is propounded about another emotion of another character:  Shylock and his thirst for revenge.  Now, Shylock is a brainier man than Antonio, and his diagnosis of his own case throws light on Antonio’s.  The Jew gives a number of reasons for his hatred.  Because Antonio brings down the rate of usury in Venice.  Because he hates the Jews.  Because he rails on Shylock in public.  Because he is a hypocrite.  Because he is a Christian.  Because he has thwarted the Jew’s bargains.  Because he has heated his enemies.  Because he has cooled his friend.  And so on, and so on.  An adequate collection of motives, one would say.  Yet not one of them, or all together, sufficient to account for his passion.  They are rationalizations, like Iago’s reasons for his plot against Othello, or Raskolnikov’s for his murder of the old woman in Crime and Punishment.  And Shylock comes finally to recognize that fact.  In the court scene when the Duke asks his reason for his mad insistence on the pound of flesh, Shylock says he can and will give no reason other than ‘a certain loathing I bear Antonio.’  A certain loathing!  It matches exactly the certain sadness of Antonio.

But it matches another emotion of Antonio’s even more closely.  If Shylock loathes Antonio, Antonio has a no less savage detestation of Shylock.  His hatred is as ‘boundless’ as was Juliet’s love.  It appears to be the one passion that like a spasm marks his gentle disposition, as a sudden squall will ruffle the surface of a placid lake.

A kinder gentleman treads not the earth,

says Salarino, and so Antonio impresses us except in this one relation.  When Shylock complains,

Fair sir, you spat on me on Wednesday last;

You spurn’d me such a day; another time

You’d call me dog,

we might think it the hallucination of a half-maddened mind.  But does Antonio deny the charge?  On the contrary, he confirms it:

I am as like to call thee so again,

To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.

That from this paragon of kindness?  It is not enough to say that in those days everybody hated the Jews, for that leaves unexplained why the gentlest and mildest man in the p lay is the fiercest Jew-hater of them all.  As far as the record goes, he outdoes even the crude and taunting Gratiano.  Oh, but Shylock is a usurer, it will be said, while Antonio is so noble that the mere mention of interest is abhorrent to him.  Why, then, does not Antonio state his objection to it like a rational being instead of arguing with kicks and saliva?  Why is he so heated, as well as so noble?

Unless all signs, fail, Antonio, like Shylock, is a victim of forces from far below the threshold of consciousness.  What are they?

Shakespeare is careful to leave no doubt on this point, but, appropriately, he buried the evidence a bit beneath the surface:  Antonio abhors Shylock because he catches his own reflection in his face.

‘What!  Antonio like Shylock!’ it will be said.  ‘The idea is preposterous.  No two men could be more unlike.’  They are, in many respects.  But extremes meet, and in one respect they are akin.  It is Antonio’s unconscious against this humiliating truth that is the secret for his antipathy.  ‘Wilt thou whip thine own faults in other men?’ cries Timon of Athens.  Shakespeare understood the principle, and he illustrates it here.

The contrast between Shylock and Antonio is apparently nowhere more marked than in the attitude of the two men toward money.  Shylock is a usurer.  So strong is Antonio’s distaste for usury that he lends money without interest.  But where does the money come from that permits such generosity?  From his argosies, of course, his trade.  For, after all, to what has Antonio dedicated his life?  Not indeed to usury.  But certainly to money making, to profits.  And profits, under analysis, are often only ‘usury’ in a more respectable form.  Appearance and reality again.

Shakespeare seizes one of the most exciting moments of the play (when the dramatic tension is so high that nobody will notice) to drive home this truth, the instant when Portia, disguised as a Young Doctor of Laws, enters the courtroom.

Which is the merchant here and which the Jew?

And here an interesting fact should be recorded.  On July 22, 1598, James Roberts entered in the Stationers’ Register The Marchaunt of Venyce or otherwise called the Jewe of Venyce.  Here is testimony that already in Shakespeare’s own day the public was puzzled by the title of the play and had substituted for, or added to, the author’s another title more expressive of what seemed to be its leading interest and central figure.  The world did not have to wait for Kean and Irving to discover its ‘hero.’  Yet the poet knew what he was about when he named it.

Which is the merchant here and which the Jew?

The public needed two titles.  Shakespeare is content with two-in-one.

Now Shylock, with his incisive mind, grasps very early this resemblance of Antonio’s vocation to his own.  Apparently it first strikes him with full force on the occasion when Antonio backs Bassanio’s request for a loan.  Knowing of old the merchant’s antipathy to interest, Shylock is astonished:

Methought you said you neither lend nor borrow

Upon advantage.

Antonio admits it is not his habit.

When Jacob graz’d his uncle Laban’s sheep,

Shylock begins.  Jacob?  What has Jacob to do with it?

And what of him?  Did he take interest?

Antonio inquires.

No; not take interest; not, as you would say,

Directly interest.

That ‘directly’!  It is necessary to get the tone as well as the word.  The sarcasm of it is the point.  There are more ways than one of taking interest, it says.  There are many tricks of the trade, many ways of thriving, as Jacob knew in the old days.  And as certain others know nowadays.  But Antonio, quite unaware in his self-righteousness of the fact that he is himself the target, thinks the story Shylock goes on to tell of how Jacob increased his wages by a sly device is told to justify the taking of interest, whereas what the Jew is saying, if a bit less bluntly, is:  Look a bit closer, Antonio, and you will see that your profits amount to the same thing as my interest.  We are in the same boat.

Antonio, though unaware that he is hit, does scent some danger lurking in the story and insists on a distinction essential to his self-respect:

This was a venture, sir, that Jacob serv’d for;

A thing not in his power to bring to pass,

But sway’d and fashion’d by the hand of heaven,

and still puzzled over the point of Shylock’s illustrations, he adds:

Was this inserted to make interest good?

Or is your gold and silver ewes and rams?

‘I cannot tell,’ answers Shylock, ‘I make it breed as fast.’

‘Your example turns again you, Shylock!’ is what Antonio implies.  Rams and ewes are very different from silver and gold.  It is  right and proper that they should multiply, but is it against nature for barren metal to.    Antonio’s speech is an example of how a man may say one thing with his tongue and quite another with his soul.  it is the word ‘venture’ that gives him away.  the very term he had applied to his own argosies (‘My ventures are not in one bottom trusted’)!  It is these and not Jacob’s lambs that are really troubling him, and his ‘sway’d and fashion’d’ confirms the conjecture, the one an allusion to the winds of heaven as certainly as the other is to the hand of heaven.  But this unconscious introduction of the argosies into the argument, by way of self-defense, is fatal to Antonio’s contention.  For when it comes to generation, cargoes generally resemble gold and silver far more nearly than they do ewes and rams.  In so far as they do, Aristotle’s famous argument against interest proves to be equally cogent against profits.  Antonio and Shylock are still in the same bot.

But Antonio, blind as ever, turns to his friend and says:

Mark you this, Bassanio,

The devil can site Scripture for his purpose.

An evil soul, producing holy witness,

Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,

A goodly apple rotten at the heart.

O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!

Considering Antonio’s reputation for virtue (what are the smiling villain and goodly apple but the golden casket?), the speech is a moral boomerang if there ever was one.  He very conveniently forgets that he no more produced the treasures with which his argosies are loaded than Shylock did his ducats – treasures which he himself boasts a few speeches further on will bring in within two months ‘thrice three times the value of this bond.’  Antonio’s business is thriving.  Usury?  God forbid!  ‘Not as you would say, directly interest.’

This does not mean that Antonio is a hypocrite.  Far from it.  Who does not know an Antonio – a man too good for money-making who has dedicated his life to money-making?  Antonio was created for nobler things.  And so he suffers from that homesickness of the soul that ultimately attacks everyone who ‘consecrates’ his life to something below his spiritual level.  Moreover, Antonio is a bachelor, and his ‘fie, fie!’ in answer to Salanio’s bantering suggestion that he is in love may hint at some long-nourished disappointment of the affections.  Antonio has never married, and he is not the man to have had clandestine affairs.  So he has invested in gentle friendship emotions that nature intended should blossom into love.  But however tender and loyal, it is a slightly sentimental friendship, far from being an equivalent of love.  Both it and the argosies are at bottom opiates.  Those who drown themselves in business or other work in order to forget what refuses to be forgotten are generally characterized by a quiet melancholy interrupted by spells of irritation or sudden spasms of passion directed at some person or thing that, if analyzed, is found to be a symbol of the error that has spoiled their lives.

Therefore, my merchandise makes me not sad.

By his very denial Antonio unwittingly diagnoses his ailment correctly.  This surely is the solution of the opening conundrum of the play, and anger at himself, not a conventional anti-Semitism of which Antonio could not conceivably be guilty, is the cause of his fierce and irrational outbursts against Shylock.  Antonio is the silver casket.  He got as much as he deserved:  material success and a suicidal melancholy.”


I know this is a lot of material, but I think The Merchant is a play that, because there are so many different takes on it, needs a lot of introductory material, especially since so many of the themes are introduced in the first act.

In fact, since I know a lot of you have the next couple of days off for the 4th, my next post (Thursday evening) will be one last look at a major question of act one:  Why did Shylock offer Antonio a loan of three thousand ducats without interest?

Have a great Fourth of July everyone.

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2 Responses to “Fair sir, you spat on me on Wednesday last;/You spurn’d me such a day; another time/You call’d me dog.”

  1. Mahood says:

    No need to apologise for the amount of material you’ve posted Dennis, it’s invaluable. I especially liked Harold Goddard’s discussion on Shylock (quite convincing) and Bassanio. As regards Antonio’s love for Bassanio? Though it was many moons ago, I don’t remember having that particular discussion in English class! I’d love to read/hear more on this. I’m not sure there’s enough in the play to affirm or deny it (Shakespeare would never have had it any other way, I suspect).

    Auden’s point seems to get close to the point that we should understand the play in the context of the time – would love to hear more on this. I remember reading somewhere that, Merchant of Venice aside, the word ‘Jew’ (or ‘Jewry’) is mentioned literally only a handful of times across eleven of his (38) plays. Does this tell us something? (Clearly he wasn’t hung up on the subject…)

    And finally, I was struck again by how equally matched the loathing both Antonio and Shylock have for each other, was. It’s easy to forget Antonio’s feelings as the play progresses.

    • Thanks Mahood — that means a lot. And I think it’s the equally matched loathing (especially on the part of the oh-so gentle Antonio) that helps to negate (or at least ease) the charge of anti-Semitism.

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