The Merchant of Venice
Act One, Part Three
By Dennis Abrams
I have to admit that I’m amazed at how much material there is to cover on Act One – but given how much of the play is set-up during the first act, it’s perhaps not surprising.
Given this, I think there’s one big question remaining from Act One that needs to be answered before we proceed: If Shylock is an evil usurious money-lender, why did he offer Antonio a loan of three thousand Ducats without interest? Goddard has one possible (I think likely) answer:
“Why did Shylock offer Antonio a loan of three thousand ducats without interest?
The superficial reader or auditor will think this is complicating what is a simple matter. He has probably heard the outcome of the bond story before he ever picks up the book or enters the theater, or, if not, is the willing victim of an actor who has. Where, he will ask, is there any problem? Shylock is a villain. He is out from the first for bloody revenge. Doesn’t he say so, in an aside, the moment Antonio enters his presence?
If I can catch him once upon the hip,
I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.
What could be plainer than that? The Jew foresees (as does the actor of his part) that Antonio will not be able to pay on the appointed day, and so, slyly and cruelly, traps the merchant into signing the bloody bond under the pretense that he is joking.
Unfortunately the text contradicts in a dozen places this easy assumption that the Jew is a sort of super-Iago. (We sill mention some of them presently.) But apart from this, the idea that as intelligent a man as Shylock could have deliberately counted on the bankruptcy of as rich a man as Antonio, with argosies on seven seas, is preposterous. And if anyone would cite to the contrary his speech about land-rats and water-rats, waters, winds, and rocks, the answer is that it is the merest daydreaming, the sheerest wishful thinking. The bond, whatever else it is, is more of the same. It does indeed reveal a hidden desire on Shylock’s part to tear out Antonio’s heart, but that is a power-fantasy pure and simple. It is like a child’s ‘I’ll kill you!’ Such things are at the opposite pole from deliberate plans for murder, even judicial murder.
Shylock’s offer to take no interest for his loan was obviously as unexpected to him as it was to Bassanio and Antonio. Just thirty-six lines before he makes it he was considering the rate he should charge:
Three thousand ducats; ‘tis a good round sum.
Three months from twelve; then, let me see; the rate –
Then comes the well-known speech beginning
Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me…
(a significant pun, by the way, on the word ‘rate’). ‘You spat on me, called me dog,’ is the gist of what he says, ‘and for this you now expect me to lend you money?’
‘No!’ cries Antonio, stung by the justice of Shylock’s irony [MY NOTE: Bloom doesn’t see Shylock as being ironic…], ‘I want no courtesy or kindness. Friends take no interest from friends. Let this transaction be one between enemies, so that, if I forfeit, you can exact the penalty with a better conscience, and so that I’ (he does not say it, but who can doubt that he thinks it? ‘may retain my right to spit at you.’
How to the heart Antonio is revealed by the stage direction which Shakespeare, as so often, skillfully inserts in the text.
Why, look you, how you storm!
cries Shylock. Antonio’s anger is as good as a confession, but, clad in the pride of race and virtue, he does not realize it. How the tables are now turned, how the relation between the two is reversed! Hitherto, Antonio has always been the superior, Shylock the inferior. It is not just that the borrower, being the beggar, is always below the lender. That is a trifle here. The significant thing is that the man who loses his temper is below the man who keeps his self-control. A small man meets anger with anger. A big man meets it with augmented patience and self-restraint. Does Shylock show himself great or small in the situation? And if great, is it genuine greatness of heart, or only of the counterfeit greatness of intelligent self-interest?
It is just here that he makes his offer to forget the past, to supply Antonio’s wants, as a friend would, without interest. What is back of this obviously unpremeditated and apparently uncharacteristic move on the Jew’s part? Is it
1. Fawning? – a sudden realization that he must hold on to Antonio at any price lest in his anger he turn on his heel and depart.
2. Shrewdness? — a calculated attempt to buy off this rich merchant’s insults.
3. Thirst for moral revenge? – a move to humiliate his enemy by putting him under obligation to him.
4. Protective coloration? – the instinctive reaction of the animal to delude the pursuer, accompanied presumably, with an unconscious desire to kill.
5. Bait? – a deliberate device to tempt his foe, when off guard, into signing the bloody bond. Or, finally,
6. Just what it purports to be? – a sincere wish to wipe out the past and be friends.
Shylock is not a unanimous man. (Who is?) There are several Shylocks pulling Shylock simultaneously in several directions (except No. 5), there may be at least a touch of every one of these motives activating him at the moment. Even in the normal man, instinct, reason, and imagination are at cross-purposes. How much more in this torn victim of Gentile insolence! Hence, we must discriminate scrupulously between what happens in Shylock’s conscious from what happens in his unconscious mind. His capacity to rationalize was shown in his account of his motives for hating Antonio. The tendency will be bound to manifest itself in the present situation.
The reaction to Antonio’s anger of the shrewd, intelligent, logical Shylock is least open to question. (Not to imply that he formulated it precisely in his own mind.) Here the man who had already treated him like a cur has approached him as a human being. But, stung by his sarcasm, his foe threatens to revert to his old insults or break off negotiations entirely. This must be prevented at any cost. Friends, Antonio says, never lend at interest. Instantly the Jew sees his opening. His enemy has supplied it! Here is the chance of chances to humble by compelling him to do just what he does not want to do, accept a loan, namely, on an outward basis of friendship. Such a loan would be heaping coals of fire on his head in the most savage sense of that ferocious metaphor. Here would be revenge at is sweetest, in its most exquisite, prolonged, and intellectual form. What could any interest be, even the most extortionate, compared with this?
But lest this sudden reversal of a lifetime practice be suspect, and its motive exposed, it must be covered with the pretense of a jest. Hence the improvisation of the ‘merry bond’ with the extravagant penalty in case of forfeiture. And to back this up with a more plausible reason, Shylock adds:
To buy his favour I extend this friendship.
But surely this is an afterthought. The interest Shylock will lose will be more than offset by the elimination of Antonio’s interference with the Jew’s other bargaining, to say nothing of the buying-off of his insults. But this is something thrown in, as it were, a secondary consideration, not the main motive, so much stronger in Shylock is hatred than avarice. And we think the more highly of him for that fact, to the extent that revenge is a spiritual, avarice a material evil.
Something on this order must have been the response of the moneylender Shylock to Antonio’s outburst. But what forces moved beneath the surface of this moneylender’s mind?
Shakespeare is at pains to make plain the noble potentialities of Shylock, however much his nature may have been warped by the sufferings and persecutions he has undergone and by the character of the vocation he has followed. His vices are not so much vices as perverted virtues. His pride of race in a base sense is pride of race in a high sense inverted, his answer to the world’s scorn. His love of sobriety and good order is a degeneration of his religion. His domestic ‘tyranny’ – which it is easy to exaggerate – a vitiated love of family and home. His outward servility, a depraved patience. His ferocity, a thwarted self-respect. Even his avarice is partly a providence imposed by the insecurity of his lot. There is a repressed Shylock.
Now repression inevitably produces a condition of high tension between the conscious and the unconscious, with sudden unpredictable incursions of the latter into the former attended by a rapid alternation of polar states of mind. Dostoevsky is the unsurpassed expositor of this mental condition. What reader of that book, for instance, will not remember the old man in The Insulted and Injured who in secret covers with kisses the locket containing the picture of his adored but wayward daughter, but who later, when no longer alone, hurls it on the ground, stamps on it, and curses the one image it holds, only to fall sobbing like a child – again clasping and kissing the object he has just been trampling underfoot; or the poverty-stricken captain, father of Ilusha, in The Brothers Karamazov, who, when offered money after the insult he has received, is at one instant in a heaven of ecstasy at the thought of the happiness it will buy and at the next is crumpling the notes in his fist and treading them into the dirt; or Dmitiri Karamazov in the same book (more injured by neglect in childhood than by insult) who, when the perfect opportunity to kill his father comes, has actually lifted the weapon to strike the blow when his hand is suddenly stayed by an angelic impulse? Such declares Dostoevsky in character in character, in book after book, is the psychology of the insulted and injured. Now if ever a man was insulted and injured, it is Shylock. When we find him, then, acting in the exact pattern of his Dostoevskian counterparts, it is as if Shakespeare were confirming Dostoevsky, and Dostoevsky Shakespeare. Only very ingenuous persons will think that these two supreme students of the human mind, because they do not express themselves in scientific nomenclature or in the language of the twentieth century, must have been ignorant of truths that psychology is only now beginning to formulate…
[So] let us analyze the incident a bit further:
Shylock, the despised usurer, is on the point of lending Antonio, the great merchant, three thousand ducats, presumably at a high rate of interest, when he is suddenly confronted by a storm of anger from a man humiliated by the necessity of borrowing from a Jew (whom he has been in the habit of insulting) and stung by the Jew’s recognition of the highly ironical nature of the situation. The merchant’s loss of temper brings an inversion of everything. The inferior is suddenly the superior – in all senses. As certainly as when a wheel revolved and what was a moment before at the bottom is now at the top, so certainly what was deep down in Shylock is bound to come to the surface. But what is deep down in Shylock is precisely his goodness. How often the finer Shylock must have dreamed of a different kind of life, of being received into the fellowship of the commercial princes of Venice, treated as a human being, even as an equal. And now suddenly the beginning of that dream comes true. One of the greatest of Venetian merchants does come to him, without insults, asking a favor. How can the Jew’s imagination fail, for a moment at least, to round out the pattern of the old daydream? Whatever the moneylender feels, or fancies h e feels, what the dreamer within Shylock experiences is an impulse to be friendly:
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 issuance for my moneys, and you’ll not hear me.
This is kind I offer.
This were kindness.
This kindness will I show.
Bassanio’s words show that there was no obvious irony in Shylock’s tone nor conspicuous fawning in his manner. Only gross distortion could impart to the Jew’s lines the accent of Iago, an accent they would have to carry if Shylock were a deliberate villain. On the contrary, little as he may recognize it here, here is the instinctive reaction of a nobler Shylock. But, precisely as with all the analogous Dostoevskian characters, the good impulse is followed instantly by its polar opposite. The wheel goes on revolving. The highest gives place to the lowest. When the window is opened to the angel, the devils promptly rush in at the unguarded back door. The daydream of kindness is followed by the daydream of killing. As the imaginative Shylock pictured himself coming to the aid of a friend, so the primitive Shylock dreams of shedding the blood of an enemy. In the first fantasy the heart of one man goes out to unite with the heart of the other. In the second the hand of the one would tear out the heart of the other. The perfect chiasmus stamps the two as products of the unconscious. Such a diametrical contradiction is one of its almost infallible marks.
Anyone should be able to corroborate this psychology. Who, in love or hatred, has not let his deepest feeling or conviction escape in a word or look only to try in the next instant, in shame or fear, to pass the slip off as a jest? So ashamed, and then so terrified, is the conscious Shylock, first at the friendliness, then at the ferocity, of the uncomprehended impulses within him. When we way what we think we do not mean, we may mean it to the nth degree. So the two Shylocks, between them, mean both the friendliness and the ferocity.”
So what do you all think? Is Goddard on to something here, or is he reading into the play something that simply isn’t there, in an attempt (as Bloom would say) to defend the play against the indefendable – that it simply and at heart an anti-Semitic play?
Our next reading: The Merchant of Venice, Act Two
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning.
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.