“Which is the merchant here and which the Jew?”

The Merchant of Venice

Act Four, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


As much as I appreciate and respect Harold Bloom on all things Shakespearean, I think when it comes to The Merchant of Venice, he is too wrapped up in the play’s perceived anti-Semitism, and is too quick to dismiss any other readings.  For me, I think Goddard comes close to getting at what Shakespeare was doing.  In my last excerpt from Goddard’s The Meaning of Shakespeare, we ended with his belief that “Shakespeare was the leaden casket with the spiritual gold within.”

“The moment this fact is grasped the court scene becomes something quite different from what it seems to be.  It is still a trial scene, but it is Portia who is on trial.  Or better, it is a casket scene in which she is subjected to the same test to which she has submitted her suitors.  Can she detect hidden gold under a leaden exterior?

Concerning Portia’s own exterior the poet leaves us in no doubt.  To the eye she is nothing if not golden, and she does nothing if she does not shine.  The praise showered on her within the play itself has been echoed by thousands of readers and spectators and the continued appeal of her role to actresses is proof of the fascination she never fails to exercise.  No one can deny her brilliance or her charm, or could wish to detract from them.  (If I do not linger on them here, it is because ample justice has been done to them so often.)  Yet Portia, too, like so many of the others in this play, is not precisely what she seems to be.  Indeed, what girl of her years, with her wealth, wit, and beauty, could be the object of such universal adulation and come through unscathed?  In her uprush of joy when Bassiano chooses the right casket there is, it is true, an accent of the humility that fresh love always bestows, and she speaks of herself as ‘an unlesson’d girl, unschool’d, unpractis’d.’  There the child Portia once was is speaking, but it is a note that is sounded scarcely anywhere else in her role.  The woman that child has grown into, on the contrary, is the darling of a sophisticated society which has nurtured in her anything but unself-consciousness.  Indeed, it seems to be as natural to her as to a queen or princess to take herself unblushingly at the estimate this society places on her.

Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.

Why, that’s the lady:  all the world desires her;

From the four corners of the earth they come…

says Morocco.  And tacitly Portia assents to that interpretation of the inscription on the golden casket.  She mocks half a dozen of her suitors unmercifully in the first scene in which se see her, and it never seems to occur to her that any man who could would not choose her.  Yet it is not easy to imagine Hamlet choosing her, or Othello, or Coriolanus.  (Nor Shakespeare himself, I feel like adding.)

Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.

I will assume desert,

says Arragon.  Portia, likewise, quietly assumes that she somehow deserves the attention and sacrifices of these crowding suitors.  Perhaps she does.  Yet we cannot help wishing she did not know it, though we scarcely blame her for thinking what everyone around her thinks.

But if Portia is willing to let her suitors take any risk in pursuit in the spirit of the third inscription,

Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath,

there is nothing to indicate that life has ever called on her to sacrifice even a small part of all she has, and when the man of her choice attains her, though she modestly wishes for his sake she were a thousand times more fair, she also wishes significantly that she were ten thousand times more rich.  Bassanio pronounces her,

nothing undervalu’d

To Cato’s daughter, Brutus’ Portia.

But it is hard to think Shakespeare would have thought the comparison a happy one.  Both Portias were good women.  But, granted that, how could they be more different.  If it is a question of the poet’s later heroines, another comes to mind.  When the Prince of Morocco goes out after having chosen the wrong casket, Portia dismisses him and innumerable other uninspected suitors with the line:

Let all of his complexion choose me so.

Who is judging now by the outside?  And we remember Desdemona’s

I saw Othello’s visage in his mind.

In view of her father’s scheme for selecting her husband, no one will blame Portia for giving Bassanio several hints on the right casket.  Because of her declared intention not to be forsworn, we give her the benefit of the doubt and assume the hints were unconscious ones.  (Who selected the song that is sung while Bassanio meditates we shall never know.  It of course gives away the secret.  And in that connection there is a point I have never happened to see noted.  The verses inside the golden casket begin with a rhyme on long o (gold); those inside the silver casket on a rhyme on short i (this).  The song sung while Bassanio is making up his mind begins with a rhyme on short e (bred).  But bred (as someone has pointed out) is a full rhyme with lead!)  Indeed, the fact that she uses the word ‘hazard’ (from the inscription on the leaden casket), not only before Bassanio chooses but before Morocco and Arragon do, all but proves that the suspense and peril of the choice fascinates her at the moment hardly less than her passion for Bassanio.  She is not the only girl who has been excited by the adventure of getting married, as well as by being in love with her future husband.  Contrast her with Juliet, who did give and hazard all she had for love, and you feel the difference.

This is not to suggest that Portia ought to have been a Juliet, or a Desdemona, and still less that Shakespeare should have made her anything other than what she is.  Given his sources, it is easy to see why Portia had to be just what she is.

The casket motif, the court scene, and the ring incident taken together compromise a good share of the story.  Each of them is intrinsically spectacular, histrionic, or theatrical – or all three in one.  Each is a kind of play within a play, with Portia at the center or at one focus.  The casket scenes are little symbolic pageants; the court scene is drama on the surface and tragedy underneath; the ring incident is a one-act comedy complete in itself.  What sort of heroine does all this demand?  Obviously one with the temperament of an actress, not averse to continual limelight.  Portia is exactly that.

When she hears that the man who helped her lover woo and win her is in trouble, her character and the contingency fit each other like hand and glove.  Why not impersonate a Young Doctor of Laws and come to Antonio’s rescue?  It is typical of her that at first she takes the ‘whole device,’ as she calls it, as a kind of prank.  Her imagination overflows with pictures of the opportunities for acting that her own and Nerissa’s disguise as young men will offer, of the innocent lies they will tell, the fun they will have, the fools they will make of their husbands.  The tragic situation of Antonio seems at the moment the last thing in her mind, or the responsibility of Bassanio for the plight of his friend.  The fact that she is to have the leading role in a play in real life eclipses everything else.  There is more than a bit of the stage-struck girl in Portia.

And so when the curtain rises on Act IV, Shakespeare the playwright and his actress-heroine, between them, are equipped to give us one of the tensest and most theatrically effective scenes he had conceived up to this time.  What Shakespeare the poet gives us, however, and what it means to Portia the woman, is something rather different.

When Shylock enters the courtroom he is in a more rational if not less determined state than when we last saw him.  He is no longer unwilling to listen, and the moderate, almost kindly words of the Duke,

We all expect a gentle answer, Jew,

lead us to hope that even at the eleventh hour he may relent.

Shylock’s answer to the Duke is one of the most remarkable evidences of Shakespeare’s overt interest in psychological problems in any of the earlier plays.  The passage is sufficient in itself to refuse that idea that is ‘modernizing’ to detect such an interest on his part.  Naturally Shylock does not talk about complexes, compulsions, and unconscious urges, but he recognizes the irrational fear of pigs and cats in the concrete for what it is, a symbol of something deeper that is disturbing the victim.  He senses in himself the working of similar forces too tremendous for definition, too powerful to oppose even though he feels them driving him – against his will and to his shame, he implies – to commit the very offense that has been committed against him.  Imagine Richard III or Iago speaking in that vein!  If this be ‘villainy,’ it is of another species.  Here is the main theme of the play in its profoundest implication.  For what is the relation of what is conscious to what is unconscious if not the relation of what is on the surface to what is underneath?  Thus Shylock himself – and through him Shakespeare – hands us the key:  to open the casket of this play we must look beneath its surface, must probe the unconscious minds of its characters.

You’ll ask me why I rather choose to have

A weight of carrion flesh than to receive

Three thousand ducats.  I’ll not answer that;

But say it is my humour.  Is it answer’d?

What if my house be troubled with a rat

And I be pleas’d to give ten thousand ducats

To have it ban’d?  What, are you answer’d yes?

Some men there are love not a gaping pig;

Some, that are mad if they behold a cat;

And others, when the bagpipe sing i’ the nose,

Cannot contain their urine:  for affection,

Mistress of passion, sways it to the mood

Of what it likes or loathes.  Now, for your answer:

As there is no firm reason to be render’d

Why he cannot abide a gaping pig;

Why he, a harmless necessary cat;

Why he, a wauling bagpipe; but of force

Must yield to such inevitable shame

As to offend, himself being offended;

So can I give no reason, nor I will not,

More than a lodg’d hate and a certain loathing

I bear Antonio, that I follow thus

A losing suit against him.  Are you answer’d?

(Note, especially, that ‘losing suit!’)

Antonio recognizes the futility of opposing Shylock’s passion with reason.  You might as well argue with a wolf, he says, tell the tide not to come in, or command the pines not to sway in the wind.  The metaphors reveal his intuition that what he is dealing with is not ordinary human feeling within Shylock but elemental forces from without that have swept in and taken possession of him.  And Gratiano suggests that the soul of a wolf has infused with the Jew’s.  Shylock’s hatred does have a primitive quality.  But Gratiano did not need to back to the wolves, or even to Pythagoras, to account for it.  It is elemental in character because it comes out of something vaster than the individual wrongs Shylock has suffered:  the injustice suffered by his ancestors over the generations.  As Hazlitt finely remarks:  ‘He seems the depositary of the vengeance of his race.’  It is this that gives him that touch of sublimity that all his fierceness cannot efface.  The bloody Margaret of Henry VI, when she becomes the suffering Margaret of Richard III, is endowed with something of the same tragic quality.  If this man is to be moved, it must be by forces as far above reason as those that now animate him are below it.

And then Portia enters.

The introduction and identification over, [MY REMINDER:  ‘Which is the merchant here and which the Jew?’]  Portia, as the Young Doctor of Laws, says to Shylock:

Of a strange nature is the suit you follow,

Yet in such rule that the Venetian law

Cannot impugn you as you do proceed.

This bears the mark of preparation, if not of rehearsal.  It seems a strange way of beginning, like a partial prejudgment of the case in Shylock’s favor.  But his hopes must be raises at the outset to make his ultimate downfall the more dramatic.  ‘Do you confess the bond?’ she asks Antonio.  ‘I do,” he replies.

Then must the Jew be merciful.

Portia, as she says this, is apparently still addressing Antonio.  It would have been more courteous if, instead of speaking of him in the third person, she had turned directly to Shylock and said, ‘Then must you be merciful.’  But she makes a worse slip than that:  the word must.  Instantly Shylock seizes on it, pouring all his sarcasm into the offending verb:

On what compulsion ‘must’ I?  Tell me that.

Portia is caught!  You can fairly see her wheel about to face not so much the Jew as the unanswerable question the Jew has asked.  He is right – she see it:  ‘must’ and ‘mercy’ have nothing to do with either; no law, moral or judicial, can force a man to be merciful.

For a second, the question must have thrown Portia off balance.  This was not an anticipated moment in the role of the Young Doctor.  But forgetting the part she is playing she rises to the occasion superbly.  The truth from her.  Instead of trying to brush the Jew aside to hide behind some casuistry or technicality, she frankly sustains his exception:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d…

“I was wrong, Shylock,’ she confesses in effect.  ‘You are right’; mercy is a matter of grace, not constraint:

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath…

Shylock, then, supplied not only the cue, but, as we might almost say, the first line of Portia’s most memorable utterance.

In all Shakespeare – unless it be Hamlet with ‘To be or not to be’ – there is scarcely another character more identified in the world’s mind with a single speech than Portia with her words on mercy.  And the world is right.  They have a ‘quality’ different from anything else in her role.  They are no prepared words of the Young Doctor she is impersonating, but her own, as unexpected as was Shylock’s disconcerting question.  Something deep down in him draws them from something deep down – or shall we say high up? – in her.  They are the spiritual gold hidden not beneath lead but beneath the ‘gold’ of her superficial life, her reward for meeting Shylock’s objection with sincerity rather than with evasion.

A hush falls over the courtroom as she speaks them (as it does over the audience when The Merchant of Venice is performed).  Even the Jew is moved.  Who can doubt it?  Who can doubt that for a moment at least he is drawn back from the brink of madness and logic on which he stands?  Here is the celestial visitant – the Portia God made – sent expressly to exorcise the demonic powers that possess him.  Only an insensible clod could fail to feel its presence.  And Shylock is no insensible clod.  Can even he show mercy?  Will a miracle happen?  It is the supreme moment.  The actor who misses it misses everything.

And then, incredibly, it is Portia who fails Shylock, not Shylock Portia.  The same thing happens to her that happened to him at that other supreme moment when he offered Antonio the loan without interest.  Her antipodal self emerges.  In the twinkling of an eye, the angel reverts to the Doctor of Laws.  ‘So quick bright things come to confusion.’  Whether the actress in Portia is intoxicated by the sound of her own voice, and the effect it is producing, or whether she feels the great triumph she has rehearsed being stolen from her if Shylock relents, or both, at any rate, pushing aside the divine Portia and her divine opportunity, the Young Doctor resumes his role.  His ‘therefore, Jew’ gives an inkling of what is coming.  You can hear, even in the printed text, the change of voice, as Portia sinks from compassion to legality:

I have spoke thus much

To mitigate the justice of thy plea,

Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice

Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

It would be unbelievable if the words were not there.  ‘You should show mercy,’ the Young Doctor says in effect, ‘but if you don’t, this court will be compelled to decide in your favor.’  It is as if a mother, having entreated her son to desist from some wrong line of conduct and feeling she had almost won, were to conclude:  ‘I hope you won’t do it, but if you insist, I shall have to let you, since your father told you you could.’  It is like a postscript that undoes the letter.  Thus Portia the lover of mercy is deposed by Portia the actress that the latter may have the rest of her play.  And the hesitating Shylock, pushed back to the precipice, naturally has nothing to say but

My deeds upon my head!  I crave the law,

The penalty and forfeit of my bond.

The rest of the scene is an overwhelming confirmation of Portia’s willingness to sacrifice the human to the theatrical, a somewhat different kind of sacrifice from that referred to in the inscription on the leaden casket.  If there was any temptation that Shakespeare understood, it must have been this one.  And he tells us in the Sonnets; he nearly succumbed to it:

And almost thence my nature is subu’d

To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand.

[MY NOTE:  Sonnet #111:  6. And almost thence my nature is subdued

And almost thence my nature = as a result of which my nature is almost. The almost gives a hint of reservation, as if the poet doubts his own explanation of events, or as if he wishes to reserve some part of himself from the imminent corruption.
= overcome by, crushed, vitiated; subjugated to. Compare:

My father’s loss, the weakness which I feel,
The wreck of all my friends, nor this man’s threats,
To whom I am subdued,

7. To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand:

like the dyer’s hand = as the dyer’s hand, which becomes stained by the dyeing solutions into which the fabrics are dipped.]

Portia’s was subdued.

The skill with which from this point she stages and acts her play proves her a consummate playwright, director, and actress – three in one.  She wrings the last drop of possible suspense from every step in the mounting excitement.  She stretches every nerve to the breaking point, arranges every contrast, climax, and reversal with the nicest sense for maximum effect, doing nothing too soon or too late, holding back her ‘Tarry a little’ until Shylock is on the very verge of triumph, even whetting his knife perhaps.  It is she who says to Antonio, ‘Therefore lay bare your bosom.’  It is she who asks if there is a balance ready to weigh the flesh, a surgeon to stay the blood.  And she actually allows Antonio to undergo his last agony, to utter, uninterrupted, his final farewell.

It is at this point that the shallow Bassanio reveals an unsuspected depth in his nature by declaring, with a ring of sincerity we cannot doubt, that he would sacrifice everything, including his life and his wife, to save his friend.

Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.

It is now, not when he stood before it, that Bassanio proves worthy of the leaden casket.  Called on to make good his word, he doubtless would not have had the strength.  But that does not prove that he does not mean what he says at the moment.  And at that moment all Portia can do to help him is to turn into a jest – which she and Nerissa are alone in a position to understand – the most heart-felt and noble words her lover uttered.


Your wife would give you little thanks for that,

If she were by to hear you make the offer.

This light answer, in the presence of what to Antonio and Bassanio is the very shadow of death, measures her insensibility to anything but the play she is presenting, the role she is enacting.

From this jest, in answer to the Jew’s insistence, she turns without a word of transition to grant Shylock his sentence:

A pound of that same merchant’s flesh is thine.

The court awards it, and the law doth give it…

And you must cut this flesh from off his breast.

The law allows it, and the court awards it.

It is apparently all over with Antonio.  The Jew lifts his knife.  But once more appearances are deceitful.  With a ‘tarry a little’ this mistress of the psychological moment plays in succession, one, two, three, the cards she has been keeping back for precisely this moment.  Now the Jew is caught in his own trap, now he gets a taste of his own logic, a dose of his own medicine.  Now there is no talk of mercy, but justice pure and simple, and eye for an eye:


as thou urgest justice, be assur’d

Thou shalt have justice more than thou desir’st.

Seeing his prey about to elude him, Shylock is now willing to accept the offer of three times the amount of his bond, and Bassanio actually produces the money.  He is willing to settle on those terms.  But not Portia:

The Jew shall have all justice, soft! no haste:

He shall have nothing but the penalty.

Shylock reduces his demand:  he will be satisfied with just his principal.  Again Bassanio has the money ready.  But Portia is adamant:

He shall have merely justice, and his  bond.

When the Jew pleads again for his bare principal, she repeats:

Thou shalt have nothing but the forfeiture,

and as he moves to leave the courtroom, she halts him with a

Tarry, Jew:

The law hath yet another hold on you.

All this repetition seems enough to make the point clear.  But that the ‘beauty’ of the nemesis may be lost on no one in the courtroom (nor on the dullest auditor when The Merchant of Venice is performed) Shakespeare has the gibing Gratiano on the spot to rub in the justice of the retribution:  ‘O Learned judge!’ ‘O upright judge!’ ‘A second Daniel, a Daniel, Jew!’ over and over.  Emily Dickinson has spoken of the ‘mob within the heart.’  Gratiano is the voice of that mob, and he sees to it that a thrill of vicarious revenge runs down the spine of every person in the theater.  So exultant are we at seeing the biter bit.

Why are blind to the ignominy of identifying ourselves with the most brutal and vulgar character in the play?  Obviously because there is a cruel streak in all of us that is willing to purchase excitement at any price.  And excitement exorcises judgment.  Only when we are free of the gregarious influences that dominate us in an audience does the question occur:  What possessed Portia to torture not only Antonio but her own husband with such superfluous suspense?  She knew what was coming.  Why didn’t she let it come at once?  Why didn’t she invoke immediately the law prescribing a penalty for any alien plotting against the life of any citizen of Venice instead of waiting until she had put those she supposedly loved upon the rack?  The only possible answer is that she wanted a spectacle, a dramatic triumph with herself at the center.  The psychology is identical with that which led the boy Kolya in The Brothers Karamazov to torture his sick little friend Ilusha by holding back the news that his log dog was found, merely in order to enjoy the triumph of restoring him to his chum at the last moment in the presence of an audience.  In that case the result was fatal.  The child died from the excitement.

To all this it is easy to imagine what those who hold that Shakespeare was first the playwright and only incidentally poet and psychologist.  ‘Why, but this is just a play!’ they will exclaim, half-amused, half-contemptuous, ‘and a comedy at that!  Portia!  It isn’t Portia who contrives the postponement.  It is Shakespeare.  Where would his play have been if his heroine had cut things short or failed to act exactly as she did?’  Where indeed?  Which is precisely why the poet made her the sort of woman who would have acted under the given conditions exactly as she did act.  That was his business:  not to find or devise situations exciting in the theater (any third-rate playwright can do that) but to discover what sort of men and women would behave in the often extraordinary ways in which they are represented as behaving in such situations in the stories he inherited and selected for dramatization.

‘Logic is like the sword,’ says Samuel Butler, — ‘those who appeal to it shall perish by it.’  Never was the truth of that maxim more clearly illustrated than by Shylock’s fate.  His insistence that his bond be taken literally is countered by Portia’s insistence that it be taken even more literally – and Shylock ‘perishes.’  He who had been so bent on defending the majesty of the law now finds himself in its clutches, half his goods forfeit to Antonio, the other half to the state, and his life itself in peril.

And so Portia is given a second chance.  She is to be tested again.  She has had her legal and judicial triumph.  Now it is over will she show to her victim that quality which at her own divine moment she told us ‘is an attribute to God himself?’  the Jew is about to get his deserts.  Will Portia forget her doctrine that mercy is mercy precisely because it is not deserved?  The Jew is about to receive justice.  Will she remember that our prayers for mercy should teach us to do the deeds of mercy and that in the course of justice none of us will see salvation?  Alas! she will forget, she will not remember.  Like Shylock, but in a subtler sense, she who has appealed to logic ‘perishes’ by it.

Up to this point she has been forward enough in arrogating to herself the function of judge.  But now, instead of showing compassion herself or entreating the Duke to, she motions Shylock to his knees:

Down therefore and beg mercy of the Duke.

‘Mercy!’  This beggar’s mercy, though it goes under the same name, has not the remotest resemblance to that quality that drops like the gentle rain from heaven.  Ironically it is the Duke who proves truer to the true Portia than Portia herself.


That thou shalt see the difference of our spirits,

I pardon thee thy life before thou ask for it.

And he suggests that the forfeit of half of Shylock’s property to the state may be commuted to a fine,

Ay, for the state; not for Antonio,

Portia quickly interposes, as if afraid that the Duke is going to be too merciful, going to let her victim off too leniently.  Here, as always, the aftermath of too much ‘theatrical’ emotion is a coldness of heart that is like lead.  The tone in which Portia has objected is reflected in the hopelessness of Shylock’s next words:

Nay, take my life and all!  Pardon not that!

You take my house when you do take the prop

That doth sustain my house.  You take my life

When you do take the means whereby I live.

Portia next asks Antonio what ‘mercy’ he can render.  And even the man whom Shylock would have killed seems more disposed than Portia to mitigate the severity of his penalty:  he is willing to forgo the half of Shylock’s goods if the Duke will permit him the other half for life with the stipulation that it go to Lorenzo (and so to Jessica) at his death.  But with two provisos:  that all the Jew dies posses of also go to Lorenzo-Jessica and that

He presently become a Christian.

Doubtless the Elizabethan crowd, like the crowd in every generation since including our own, thought that this was letting Shylock off easily, that this was showing mercy to him.  Crowds do not know that mercy is wholehearted and has nothing to do with halves or other fractions.  Nor do crowds know that you cannot make a Christian by court decree.  Antonio’s last demand quite undoes any tinge of mercy in his earlier concessions.

Even Shylock, as we  have seen, had in him at least a grain of spiritual gold, of genuine Christian spirit.  Only a bit of it perhaps.  Seeds do not need to big.  Suppose that Portia and Antonio, following the lead of the seemingly willing Duke, had watered this tiny seed with that quality that blesses him who gives as well as him who takes, h ad overwhelmed Shylock with the grace of forgiveness!  What then?  The miracle, it is true, might not have taken place.  Yet it might have.  But instead, as if in imitation of the Jew’s own cruelty, they whet their knives of law and logic, of reason and justice, and proceed to cut out their victim’s heart.  (That that is what it amounts to is proved by the heartbroken words,

I pray you give me leave to go from hence.

I am not well.)

Shylock’s conviction that Christianity and revenge are synonyms is confirmed.  ‘If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example?  Why, revenge.’  The unforgettable speech from which that comes, together with Portia’s on mercy, and Lorenzo’s on the harmony of heaven, make up the spiritual argument of the play.  Shylocks asserts that a Jew is a man.  Portia declares that man’s duty is mercy – which comes from heaven.  Lorenzo points to heaven but laments that the materialism of life insulates man from its harmonies.  A celestial syllogism that puts to shame the logic of the courtroom.

That Shakespeare planned his play from the outset to enforce the irony of Portia’s failure to be true to her inner self in the trial scene is susceptible of something as near proof as such things can ever be.  As in the case of Hamlet’s,

A little more than kind, and less than kind,

the poet, over and over, makes the introduction of a leading character seemingly casual, actually significant.  Portia enters The Merchant of Venice with the remark that she is aweary of the world.  Nerissa replies with that wise little speech about the illness of those that surfeit with too much (an observation that takes on deeper meaning in the retrospect after we realize that at the core what is the problem with Portia and her society is boredom).  ‘Good sentence and well pronounced,’ says Portia, revealing in those last two words more than she knows.  ‘They would be better if well followed,’ Nerissa pertinently retorts.  Whereupon Portia, as if gifted with insight into her own future, takes up Nerissa’s theme:

If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces.  It is a good divine that follows his own instructions:  I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching.

If that is not a specific preparation for the speech on mercy and what follows it, what in the name of coincidence is it?  The words on mercy were good sentences, well pronounced.  And far more than that.  But for Portia they remained just words in the sense that they did not teacher her to do the deeds of mercy.  So, a few seconds after we see her for the first time, does Shakespeare let her pass judgment in advance on the most critical act of her life.  For a moment, at the crisis in the courtroom, she seems about to become a leaden casket with the spiritual gold within.  But the temptation to gain what other men desire – admiration and praise – is too strong for her and she reverse to her worldly self.  Portia is the golden casket.”




My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning


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4 Responses to “Which is the merchant here and which the Jew?”

  1. Mahood says:

    In your last post, Harold Bloom’s line jumped right off the screen:

    ‘I end by repeating that it would have been better for the last four centuries of the Jewish people had Shakespeare never written this play’.

    I would argue that two millenia of Christianity had a far more profoundly retarded effect on the treatment of Jewish people than Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. The books in the ‘New’ Testament are littered with anti-Jewish slurs (see Gospel of John, for example, and also Matthew). As Christianity was (for nearly 20 centuries) a very powerful tool of control, the language in those texts gave its followers carte blanche to do literally anything in its name – resulting in every kind of anti-Jewish atrocity, from the Blood Libel of the Middle Ages to the Inquisition, and reaching a stunning crescendo in the middle of the 20th century.

    Given the anti-Jewish sentiment that’s been in the air for over 2000 years now, the play unavoidably becomes embroiled in this issue. Anti-semitism is as old as the hills – Shakespeare I think, would not have been unaware of the various anti-semitic atrocities that had occurred before, up to, and during his lifetime. If the play has contributed to anti-semitic thinking/behaviour (as Bloom seems to imply), this is the fault of the reader/viewer (or more accurately, the human race who has never quite got to grips with its Jewish hang-up) not Shakespeare’s.

    • Good point: Can Shakespeare be blamed for creating a character so vivid (unlike say, the Jew of Malta etc.)? Could Shakespeare be called racist for creating Othello, a Moor who can’t control his jealous urges and ends up murdering his beautiful young white wife?

  2. I have another answer for why she waited so long to reveal it. She was tormenting Shylock, giving him false hope just to cruelly crush him later. She did it torture Shylock.

  3. She is none of them, but if the lead one had no picture, she’d be that, for lead is poisonous. Lead can kill you, and she killed Shylock emotionally.

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