The Merchant of Venice
By Dennis Abrams
Act Two: Lancelot informs his old father that he has decided to leave Shylock’s service and the pair ask Bassanio if Lancelot can serve him instead. Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, is also planning to desert her father, in order to elope with Lorenzo, a Christian. Meanwhile, back in Belmont, the Prince of Morocco agrees to take part in the contest for Portia’s hand but loses when he opens the gold casket. The Prince of Aragon, who chooses the silver one, also loses.
I don’t think I’m giving anything away when I point out that backed by Antonio’s coffers (which, of course, are backed by Shylock), Bassanio travels from Venice to Belmont in order to woo Portia, and, in what will be the climax of the plot’s first phase, takes part in the bizarre game laid out in her father’s will: selecting from three caskets by working out the riddles inscribed on them. Portia’s first suitor, the Prince of Morocco, chooses the golden casket and loses out; as does the Prince of Aragon, who opts for the silver. It is left to Bassanio – surprise! – to choose the leaden casket (paradoxically the most valuable, as Bassanio wisely realizes) and with it win Portia’s hand. But lest we ignore this commodification of the play’s heroine (in a play where commodity is everything), Shakespeare makes Portia herself sketch its terms. Taking Bassanio’s hand, she explains, “myself and what is mine to you and yours/Is now converted,”
But now I was the lord
Of this fair mansion, master of my servants,
Queen o’er myself; and even now, but now,
This house, these servants, and this same myself
Are yours, my lord’s.
This verbal balance sheet is, as she describes it a few lines earlier, the ‘”full sum of me,” and the lot is now her lover’s possession.
But of course the major event of Act Two, and one that I think will prove to be a pivotal moment for Shylock and influence his behavior for the rest of the play, is Jessica’s elopement with Lorenzo (taking with her, stealing let’s say, her father’s money, etc.) More on this in a bit and even more in my next post, but for now, I think these lines from Shylock are pivotal:
I never heard a passion so confused,
So strange, outrageous, and so variable
As the dog Jew did utter in the streets:
‘My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!
“For a start [Shylock’s money] 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.’ 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.)
Having mentioned that robbery, I will make just one point about the Jessica and Lorenzo subplot. However sorry we may feel for Jessica, living a ‘hell’ of a house with her father [MY NOTE: Do we feel sorry for her? Has Shakespeare given us any reason to do so?], 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 grow 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,’ – 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…Theirs is the reverse, or inverse, of a true love match. It must be intended to contrast with the marriage made by Bassanio and Portia. Admittedly, this marriage also involved 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 Pecorne (The Dunce), a collection of stories assembled by Giovanni Fiorentino, published in Italy – everything except for 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 Shakespearian heroine. So Shakespeare took the trial-by-caskets from 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 medieval tale, the lead casket bears the inscription, ‘Thei that chse me, shulle fynde in me that God hath disposed.’ 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.’ 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 ‘fruitify’ together (if I may borrow Launcelot Gabbo’s inspired malapropism). ‘I come by note, to give and to receive,’ Bassanio announces to Portia. Which is no less than honesty.
“The common feature of such relationships in this play is risk. In fact, the message of the leaden casket is, in a way, the most crucial theme of the play: ‘Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.’ Giving and hazarding are, in a way, the opposite of Shylock’s usury, security, and interest. Antonio begins to lose his melancholy when Bassanio appeals to his friendship and seeks to borrow money from him. Since he does not have the money on h and, he has to borrow it, to go into debt to Shylock. Taking on this debt is what, in an odd way, revitalizes him, gives him a purpose for living, a purpose of love and friendship toward Bassanio. The Antonio we see in the trial scene, ready to give his life in payment of the debt, is strangely happier and more alive than the Antonio of the play’s opening lines. And Antonio’s willingness to risk is promoted, in part at least, by Bassanio’s own risk-taking. Bassanio is again and again in this play characterized as a Jason in quest of a golden fleece, a heroic adventurer in quest of a priceless object. ‘[M]any Jasons come in quest of her,’ he says of Portia, and later, when he and Gratiano have voyaged to Belmont and won their ladies, Gratiano will say, ‘We are the Jasons; we have won the fleece.’
Bassanio, as we have already noticed, is something of a fortune hunter, a common enough mode of personal advancement in the early modern period, and not one that would automatically bring criticism on the quester, if he had personal merit. (Portia makes short work of less worthy suitors, who are equally frank about their interest in her fortune. Petruchio, in The Taming of the Shrew boasts, famously, that he has ‘come to wive it wealthily in Padua,’ and he gets what he came for, while in Twelfth Night the hapless Sir Andrew Agucheek is presented as a spectacularly unworthy candidate for the lady’s hand.) But Bassanio loves both the lady and her estate. In the same breath in which he mentions Portia’s money he praises her fairness and her ‘wondrous virtues,’ the remarkable qualities that, we are given to understand, constitute her real wealth.
Moreover, Bassanio’s philosophy is that further debt will be the best way to repair his debt. He has already squandered his estate, and he now seeks to borrow from Antonio, to take a chance on the choice of the three caskets. The simile he uses, the image of the arrow, is a good example of his practice:
In my schooldays, when I had lost one shaft,
I shot his fellow of the selfsame flight
The selfsame way, with more advised watch,
To find the other forth; and by adventuring both,
I oft found both.
‘Adventuring’ chimes with the Jason theme again, and the element of adventure – which in Shakespeare’s time meant to risk, to dare, to commit to chance – is also part of the choice of the three caskets that awaits Bassanio in Belmont. Like all of Portia’s suitors, he must select one of the three caskets – gold, silver, or lead – and if the casket he chooses does not contain her picture, he must resign himself to never marrying, to infertility and the lack of a legitimate heir, the great threat of all Shakespearean comedies. It seems at first as if Portia may be in the same repressive position as Juliet and Hermia (and, indeed, in this play, Jessica), since her father insisted upon choosing her husband for her. She is locked up, so to speak, in her own casket, and caskets, like all containers, are images traditionally associated with women in folklore and mythology. Notice that Portia says, ‘I am locked in one of them.’ In act 1, she complains to Nerissa, ‘I may neither choose who I would nor refuse who I dislike; so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father.’ But we may also take note of Nerissa’s replay, which is both prompt and pertinent: ‘the lottery that he hath devised in these three chests of cold, silver, and lead, whereof who chooses his meaning chooses you, will no doubt never be chosen by any rightly but one who you shall rightly love.’ If ‘who chooses his meaning chooses you,’ the act of choosing a casket is then an act of interpretation, of textual analysis, not a random game of chance. In fact, the casket choice is a kind of psychological text, at the same that that it resembles, and derives from, patterns of folktales and fairy tales.
In a conversation with Nerissa, Portia demolishes the English, Scottish, Italian, French, and German dandies who we never get to see; each is described satirically as a caricature of the national ‘type’ (the Scot is a penny-pincher, the German a drunkard, the Englishman, in a description often found in early modern satires, dresses in a hopeless mélange of various national fashions). Collectively they are too cowardly, too silent, or too bibulous to try their luck with the caskets. This is a familiar form of humor, and – especially because an Englishman is included in the category of those beneath contempt – merely shows Portia as participating in a kind of merry raillery at the expense of absent and unappealing suitors. But as the casket choice proceeds, her preference for a husband more like her than different from her emerges. We learn as early as the play’s second scene that she had already met Bassanio, ‘a Venetian, a scholar and a soldier,’ and, significantly, that she had done so in her ‘father’s time’ – that is to say, when her father was still alive and ruling. Thus in some sense Bassanio is the father’s choice, after all. This déjà-vu phenomenon is a device Shakespeare will sue more than once to reinforce the ‘rightness’ of an instant love. In Merchant, Bassanio is identified by Nerissa as an apt choice in act I, scene 3, long before the actual drama of the casket choosing, and this permits a pleasurable suspense as the audience sees the ‘wrong’ suitors choose badly, and get what they deserve.
It is possible to see Portia in a historical-allegorical frame as a figure for Queen Elizabeth here – a lady richly left, whose father’s dead hand seems to control the choice of a husband. Elizabeth, like Portia, was the target of suitors from many nations as well as a number of wellborn Englishmen, each one imagining himself on the brink of becoming King of England. Portia’s problem, like Elizabeth’s is that she will inevitably lose or cede power, rather than gain it, if she marries. Indeed, as we will see, when Portia does choose to marry Bassanio she immediately and explicitly names him the ‘lord’ of her mansion and ‘master’ of her servants, so that he replaces her in the position of rule. After that point, following the exigencies of the plot, Portia’s power comes from her male disguise as the young doctor of laws, and she regains her power as a woman only at the very end of the play, when she is able to present Antonio with evidence of his restored wealth, and to give Lorenzo and Jessica title to half of Shylock’s estate. (‘Fair ladies, you drop manna in the way/Of started people.’ Acknowledging a husband (one whose name, Bassanio, may derive from the Turkish bashaw or pasha, grandee or head), is an ambivalent moment for Portia as well as a joyous one, and the ambivalence for the play will be only partially repaired and reversed by her triumph in the courtroom scene and her management of the ‘ring trick’ at the close.
In any case, the great scene of the casket choice is wonderful theater. Following the codes of such games of choice in myths and fairy tales, there are three suitors, of which the third and last will be the winner, despite – or because of – the fact that he is an ordinary man rather than a prince. The Prince of Morocco chooses the golden casket, the motto of which is ‘Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.’ He chooses, that is, literal wealth, externals rather than internals, what Bassanio will call ‘ornament,’ and he wins a death’s head – the traditional reward – at least as far back as Chaucer’s ‘Pardoner’s Tale – for those who seek for gold. The Prince of Morocco is proud – and worse, in the play’s terms, he is an alien. [MY NOTE: Like Shylock?] His prayer on choosing a casket is ‘Some god direct my judgment!’ In a play as aggressively ‘Christian’ as this one, his deficiencies are glaringly evident even before he makes his choice. Morocco is part of Mauretania, the home of the Moors, a people of mixed Berber and Arab race. Muslim in religion, and though (from the medieval period through the seventeenth century) to be mostly black of swarthy. (Othello is Shakespeare’s most famous Moor, but there is another noteworthy Moor in Titus Andronicus, the villainous and unrepentant Aaron. Both are described explicitly as black). When Portia expresses her relief that Morocco is not to be her husband, she does so in a phrase – ‘Let all of his complexion choose me so’ – that some editors have hoped to wish away as an unwelcome sign of prejudice on the part of Shakespeare’s lively heroine. But although ‘complexion’ can indeed mean ‘temperament,’ it is used in this play, by both Portia and the Prince of Morocco himself, to mean ‘skin color.’ ‘Mislike me not for my complexion,/The shadowed livery of the burnished sun,’ says Morocco, and earlier Portia has said, on learning that he is to be a suitor for her hand, ‘If he have the condition of a saint and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he shrive me than wive me.’ Here, then, is an early instance of the crisis of difference and differences within the play. It is not only Christian and Jew, but Muslim and Christian, and black and white, that trouble the emotional texture. And no character, not even the much-admired Portia, is exempt.
The second suitor, the Prince of Aragon, chooses the silver casket. He does so, of course, partly for the fairy-tale suspense and the unfolding sequence of choices. He could hardly choose the gold casket again, since the audience already knows what it contains. The motto of the silver casket is ‘What chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.’ Thus it reflects not infinite desire, but a concept of equivalence and supposed merit. Aragon, too, is proud, and he chooses the metal, not of traditional literary and mythic value, but of commerce – what Bassanio will call ‘thou pale and common drudge/’Tween man and man.’ What Aragon gets, when the casket is opened, is ‘[t]he portrait of a blinking idiot.’ It could as well be a mirror, a literal reflection of his own acquisitiveness and false sense of merit. In any case, it is another kind of death’s-head. The Prince of Aragon is often played as an old man, with silver hair and beard. His title identifies him as Spanish and Catholic. (Aragon had been the homeland of Ferdinand, one of the Catholic monarchs of Spain, who together with his wife, Queen Isabella of Castile, began the Spanish Inquisition, persecuting Jews, Muslims, and Moors in a quest for social and religious purity. The first wife of Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, and the mother of her Catholic half sister, Queen Mary, was Catherine of Aragon, the youngest surviving child of Ferdinand and Isabella.) Black old man; Muslim, Catholic – these two suitors exemplify otherness of a more dangerous, because less risible, kind than that represented by drunken Germans and dandified Frenchmen. The stage is thus set, in terms appropriate at once to drama, politics, and fairy tale, for the entry of the insider, the Venetian suitor, Bassanio.”
I’m not going to post the whole thing, but Sigmund Freud wrote an essay, “The Theme of the Two Caskets” which looks at Merchant, among other works of literature, including King Lear. You can read it here.
Our next reading: The Merchant of Venice, Act Three
My next post: Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning