The Merchant of Venice
By Dennis Abrams
Act Three: Shylock is incensed by Jessica’s flight and the fact that she has stolen money and jewels from him, but is cheered (or is he?) by the news that one of Antonio’s merchant ships has sunk, and bankruptcy seems likely. Back in Belmont, Portia tries to dissuade Bassanio from choosing a casket, in order to prolong his company. Undeterred, he chooses the leaden casket and is rewarded with a message granting him Portia’s hand (and riches). Inspired, Graziano announces that he and Nerissa (Portia’s gentlewoman) also wish to marry. But the two couple’s joy is marred by the news that Antonio’s business has, indeed, collapsed, and Shylock is after his pound of flesh. While Bassanio rushes back to Venice with the money, Portia has another plan: she and Nerissa will follow him undercover and see how they can help.
It’s obvious I think, that with Act Three, the most comic phase of the play is over. But, as we have already seen, that comic phase had been underpinned by more unsettling forces. “When I told you/My state was nothing,” Bassanio tells Portia soon after their marriage is agreed upon,
I should then have told you
That I was worse than nothing, for indeed
I have engaged myself to a dear friend,
Engaged my friend to his mere enemy,
To feed my means.
Antonio’s “mere enemy,” is, of course, Shylock, who stands as close to the center of the play as his real-life counterparts were integral to the Elizabethan economy, despite the relative brevity of his role. Usurers were hated of course (when are they not?), but in Shakespeare’s Venice that loathing seems strongly connected to Shylock’s Judaic background – he’s often simply referred to as “the Jew,” and for those Venetians who were obliged to use his services while simultaneously hating his religion and people, he may as well have no other identity.
Shylock himself continually makes clear his exclusion from those who make no attempt to hide their hatred for him. Angered and grief-stricken by his daughter’s elopement, it seems to me that this is what drives him to savagely turn on Saliero and Soliano when they jokingly assert he has nothing against Antonio. “He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million,” Shylock cries,
laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies, 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 do we not revenge?
We have no reason to doubt a word, for even when taking his money Antonio made no secret of his distaste for Shylock of his willingness to “spit” on the usurer.
It’s hard, from our vantage point, to know just how Shylock’s impassioned speech would have been heard by Shakespeare’s first audiences. A few Jews did live in Elizabethan London, working mostly as merchants, and sixteenth-century Venice was notorious for its Ghetto, into which all the city’s large Jewish community was demeaningly crammed. But Shakespeare’s Shylock, as we have seen, is not nearly as crude as portray of a Jew as audiences would have expected, and the play makes it difficult to demonize him – one reason among many, I think, why The Merchant has had such a varied and rich stage history, with performances in which the Jew has been played as anything from out and out villain to nobly tragic hero. Though the play does not make him seem particularly attractive, Shakespeare is carefully to imply that the mercenary Christians are not much more appealing; and they, unlike the Jew, have the luxury of appearing otherwise. And for all that Shylock and his co-religionists seem integral to the economy of Venice and its
Reputation for “tolerance,” the city’s Christian community never permits Shylock to forget that he exists there only on their sufferance – the moneylender is socially as well as legally alien in Venice. More than that, in this play Shylock is quite literally alone as well – both is servant and daughter deserve him during its course, and his wife, the briefly mentioned “Leah,” is dead. It is not too much to say that Shylock’s loneliness – an isolation confirmed and strengthened by jarring religious and cultural differences from those around him – is the ground for his tragedy.
“…so the two Shylocks, between them, mean both the friendliness and the ferocity.
The opposite hypothesis – that the offer of no interest is a snare the bond a deliberate trap – breaks down completely for another reason. If Shylock were that sort of plotter, however much he might have tried not to show it, he would have leaped with the eagerness of a villain at the first news that Antonio’s argosies had miscarried. But, as several discerning critics have pointed out, he does nothing of the sort. When Salarino asks him if he has not heard of Antonio’s loss at sea, he does not cry even to himself, ‘Ah, now I have him on the hip!’ but only ‘There I have another bad match,’ the noun revealing that his mind is still on his daughter, and it is Salarino himself who has to recall the pound of flesh and ask him of what possible use it can be to him. Shylock’s reply is scarcely what Salarino was fishing for. Instead of an anticipatory daydream of blood, it is precisely the famous speech, ‘I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes?…’ which, more than any other in his role, wrings sympathy even from those who elsewhere grudge him a particle of it.
So, too, a moment later, when Tubal mentions Antonio’s ill luck. Shylock takes the news joyfully, to be sure, but casually, in fact almost absent-mindedly, his ‘in Genoa?’ showing that his confused thoughts are still in the place where his fellow-Jew has been trying to trace his daughter. Tubal has to keep whipping his thoughts back to Antonio and the impending forfeiture. Indeed, if Tubal had been trying deliberately to forge a link in Shylock’s mind between the infidelity of his daughter and the forfeiture of the bond he could not have proceeded more skillfully. He is trying. He does forge it. Jessica – Antonio; Jessica; Antonio; Jessica-Antonio: back and forth from the one to the other Tubal yanks
Shylock’s mind. Yet the utmost he can extort from it concerning Antonio is ‘I’ll torture him’ – not kill him. And when in his very next speech Shylock cries, with regard to the ring his daughter has exchanged for a monkey, ‘Thou torturest me, Tubal,’ the echoed word shows that if he lives to torture Antonio it will be because Jessica and Tubal has tortured him. If ever a man egged on revenge it is this other Jew. Indeed it is he rather than Shylock who is acting the role of ‘Shylock’ in this scene, by which of course I mean the Shylock of popular conception. That Shylock needs no one to instigate him. But Shakespeare’s Shylock, strangely does. Those who find a bloodthirsty Jew in this play are right. But they have picked the right one.
But Antonio is certainly undone.
Nay, that’s true, that’s very true. Go, Tubal, fee me an officer, bespeak him a fortnight before. I will have the heart of him, if he forfeit; for, were he out of Venice, I can make what merchandise I will.
‘Were he out of Venice!’ Here is the proof that, even at this late hour, Shylock is thinking of tearing out Antonio’s heart in a metaphorical sense only and has no idea of literally bloodshed. Just five words. But what a difference they make!
It must be something else, then, that turns the Jew from a desire to be rid of Antonio’s presence in Venice to the idea of demanding the literal pound of flesh, a desire that only a madman could entertain. Salanio’s description of Shylock in the streets gives us the clue:
I never heard a passion so confus’d,
So strange, outrageous, and so variable,
As the dog Jew did utter in the streets…
There are scarcely three more illuminating lines in the play, little as their speaker is aware of the light he is shedding. Plainly this proud men, displaying his inmost heart to all beholders (like Katerina Ivanovna in Crime and Punishment coming out to die), has been driven to the verge of madness. The combined infidelity and thievery of his own child, culminating in her elopement with a Christian, are what have done it. Tubal and Salarino, as we have seen, precisely when the Jew was at his most suggestible, implant in his mind what amounts to posthypnotic directions to demand the literal fulfillment of his bond. And no one knows what the street urchins contribute to the same end. But it is the daughter who first releases the flood of despair that helps these later seeds to germinate. Salanio foresees what may come of such passion:
Let good Antonio look to keep his day,
Or he shall pay for this.
He is still picturing the distracted creature he saw in the streets, and it suddenly comes over him that that creature is a different one from the man he has formerly known as Shylock, a more ferocious creature that, unlike the other, might stop at nothing. And he does nothing to make him stop. On the contrary, the next time they meet we hear him lashing the Jew’s despair on toward madness by intentionally misunderstanding him.
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 blood.
That ‘flesh and blood,’ fitting so exactly the penalty prescribed in the bond, reveals in a flash how much the dereliction of the daughter has to do with the final bloodthirsty intention of the father. Everything, we might almost say.
And we must not forget that Bassanio and Antonio have connived in the elopement of Jessica. Yet the tormented Shylock, pursued by jeering boys, has not even then become fully conscious of his own murderous impulses, for the scene with Tubal, with its ‘were he out of Venice,’ comes after that. It is not until he runs on Antonio with the jailer that the Jew, enraged perhaps at seeing his enemy at large, threatens him directly:
Thou call’dst me dog before thou hadst a cause,
But, since I am a dog, beware my fangs.
At last Shylock recognizes that the animal within him is gaining ascendancy. ‘You called me dog. I’ll take you at your word, and myself at your own estimate.’ His repetitions betoken his irrational state:
I’ll have my bond; speak not against my bond:
I have sworn an oath that I will have my bond…
I’ll have my bond; I will not hear thee speak.
I’ll have my bond, and therefore speak no more…
I’ll have no speaking; I will have my bond.
It is as if the revengeful Shylock were afraid that even one reasonable word from Antonio might revive the natural instincts of the kinder Shylock now so near extinction. The repeated ‘I’ll have no speaking’ measures the tremendous inner resistance the Jew has had to overcome before he could surrender and become unmitigatedly bad.
What was the nature of this resistance that at least seems to breaking down? Obviously it was a desire to be just the opposite of what he now feels himself becoming. Though he was rendered coldhearted by his vocation, made cruel by the insults that had been heaped upon him by everybody from the respectable Antonio to the very children in the streets, driven to desperation by his daughter, there is nothing to indicate that Shylock was congenitally coldhearted, cruel, or desperate. On the contrary, it is clear that he had it in him, however deep down, to be humane, kindly, and patient, and his offer to Antonio of a loan without interest seems to have been a supreme effort of this submerged Shylock to come to the surface. If so, here is the supreme irony of this ironical play. If so, for a moment at least, the Jew was the Christian. The symbolism confirms the psychology: Shylock was the leaden casket with the spiritual gold within.”
“Shylock is too serious. He’s not really more acquisitive than the other Venetians – they, too, clearly seek profit – but he is more possessive, he keeps his possessions to himself, and he does not value personal relationships. He is more concerned about his ducats and diamonds than his daughter [MY NOTE: Really?], and he cannot imagine making a sacrifice to personal relations.
Why there, there, there, there! A diamond gone cost me thousand ducats in Frankford! The curse never fell upon our nation till now; I never felt it till now. Two thousand ducats in that, and other precious, precious, jewels. I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear! Would she were hears’d at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin! No news of them? Why, so – and I know not what’s spent in the search. Why, thou loss upon loss! the thief gone with so much, and so much to find the thief; and no satisfaction, no revenge! nor no ill luck stirring but what lights o’my shoulders; no sighs but o’ my breathing; no tears but o’my shedding.
Why does Shylock finally alienate our sympathy, even though we can understand his wanting revenge? Part of the reason is that his revenge is in excess of the injury – a characteristic of revenge plays. But he mainly alienates our sympathy because he tries to play it safe and use the law, which is universal, to exact a particular, personal revenge. A private quest for revenge may have started a feud, but would be forgivable. What is not forgivable is that he tried to get revenge safely. Shylock’s unlimited hatred is the negative image of the infinite love of Venetian and Belmont society, which proposes that one should behave with a love that is infinitely imprudent. ‘Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath,’ the motto of the lead casket, is also the motto of the play.”
And finally, from Tanner, on Portia and the caskets:
“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 Aclides [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.’ When she says ‘stand for,’ does he 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 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, than 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 ‘bothness’ 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 plea so tainted and corrupt,
But being seasoned with a gracious voice,
Obscures the show of evil?
One of his examples of the deceptiveness of ‘outward shows’ is:
How many cowards whose hearts are all as false
As stairs of sand, wear yet upon their chins
The beards of Hercules and frowning Mars,
Who inward searched, have livers white as milk!
A Hercules concealing the false heart and milk-white liver for which, as it happens, Jason was renowned – who can Bassanio have in mind? He even says that ‘snaky golden locks’ on a woman often turn out to be wigs taken from corpses – so perhaps we would even do well to blink at Portia, while Bassanio praises the ‘golden mesh’ of her hair, though of course she proves true and real enough. I am sure Shakespeare wants us to notice how analogies can sometimes circle round on the characters who offer them. Bassanio, moralizing hard, returns to his theme of ‘ornament.’:
Thus ornament is but the guiled shore
To a most dangerous sea, the beauteous scarf
Veling an Indian beauty; in a word,
The seeming truth which cunning times put on
To entrap the wisest.
This, mutatis mutandis, is a theme in Shakespeare from first to last – ‘all that glisters is not gold,’ and so on. Bassanio is on very sure ground 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 spices – 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 realizes 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 recognizes 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.”
So what do you think so far? How would you describe Shylock? The play? Anti-Semitic or not? Share your thoughts and questions with the group!
Our next reading: The Merchant of Venice, Act Four
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning.