The Merchant of Venice
By Dennis Abrams
Act Five: Returning in triumph to Belmont, the men are met by their wives, who are not all impressed to learn that Bassanio and Graziano have given away their wedding rings to the “lawyers” who defeated Shylock. Portia and Nerissa make them squirm for as long as possible – before, brandishing the rings, they gleefully relate their coup.
For most readers and play goers, the last act of The Merchant of Venice is pure gold, a happy, musical almost Mozartean ending that wipes away painful memories of Act Four and Shylock. But…is it? Or is there something else going on there?
“But why did not Shakespeare end the play with the climatic defeat of Shylock – why a whole extra Act with that ring business? Had he done so, it would have left Venice unequivocally triumphant, which perhaps he didn’t quite want. This is the last aspect of the play I wish to address, and I must do somewhat circuitously. Perhaps Shylock’s most memorable claim is:
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? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
That last question, seemingly rhetorical (of course you do), but eventually crucial (Shylock seems to have overlooked the fact that if he pricks Antonio, he will bleed too), is prepared for, in an admittedly small way, by the first suitor to attempt the challenge of the caskets. The Prince of Morocco starts by defending the ‘shadowed livery’ of his ‘complexion,’ as against ‘the fairest creature northward born’:
And let us make incision for your love
To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine.
So, a black and a Jew claiming an equality with white Venetian gentles/gentiles (another word exposed to examination in the course of the play), which I have not the slightest doubt Shakespeare fully accorded them (the princely Morocco, in fact, comes off rather better than the silvery French aristocrat who follows him). And Morocco’s hypothetical ‘incision’ anticipates the literal incision which Shylock seeks to make in Antonio. When Bassanio realizes that Portia is going to ask to see her ring, which he has given away, he says in an aside:
Why, were I best to cut my left hand off
And swear I lost the ring defending it.
So there may be ‘incisions’ made ‘for love,’ from hate, and out of guilt. Portia describes the wedding ring as:
A thing stuck on with oaths upon your finger
And so riveted with faith unto your flesh.
Riveting on is, I suppose, the opposite of Shylock’s intended cutting out; but, taken together, there is a recurrent linking of law (oaths, bonds, rings) – and flesh. The play could be said to hinge on two contracts or bonds, in which, or by which, the law envisions, permits, requires, ordains, the exposing of a part of the body of one party the legitimate penetration (incision) by the other party to the bond. If that party is Shylock, the penetration/incision would be done out of hate – and would prove mortal; if that other party is Bassanio it should be done out of love – and give new life. Shylock swears by his ‘bond’; Portia works through her ‘ring.’
It should be noted that, in the last Act, when Bassanio is caught out with having given Portia’s ring away to Balthasar, he stands before Portia as guilty and helpless as Antonio stood before Shylock. And, like Shylock, she insists on the letter of the pledge, and will hear no excuses and is not interested in mercy. Like Shylock too, she promises her own form of ‘fleshy’ punishment (absence from Bassanio’s bed, and promiscuous infidelity with others). As with the word ‘bond’ in the court scene, so with the word ‘ring’ in this last scene. It occurs twenty-one times, and at times is repeated so often that it risks suffering the semantic depletion which seemed to numb ‘bond’ into emptiness. Both the word ‘bond’ and the word ‘ring; — and all they represent in terms of binding and bonding – are endangered in this play. But the law stands and continues to stand. Bonds must be honoured or society collapses; there is nothing Bassanio can do. Then, just as Portia-as-Balthasar found a way through the Venetian impasse, so Portia-as-Portia has the life-giving power to enable Bassanio to renew his bond – she gives him, mysteriously and to him inexplicably, the same ring, for a second time. (She has mysterious, inexplicable good news for Antonio, too, about the sudden safe arrival of his ships.) A touch of woman’s magic. For Portia is one of what Brockbank called Shakespeare’s ‘creative manipulators’ (of whom Prospero is the last). Like Vincentio (in Measure for Measure), she uses ‘craft against vice.’ She can be a skilful man in Venice (a veritable Jacob), and a tricky, resourceful, ultimately loving and healing woman in Belmont (a good Medea with something of the art of Orpheus – both figures invoked in the scene). She can gracefully operate in, and move between, both worlds. Because she is, as it were, a man-woman, as good a lawyer as she is a wife (‘more ‘both-ness), she figures a way in which law and love, law and blood, need not be mutually exclusive and opposed forces. She shows how they, too, can ‘frutify’ together.
The person who both persuades Bassanio to give away his ring, and intercedes for him with Portia (‘I dare be bound again’) is Antonio. He is solitary and sad at the beginning, and is left alone at the end. He expresses his love for Bassanio in an extravagant, at times tearful way. It is a love which seems to be reciprocated. In the court scene, Bassanio protests to Antonio that:
life itself, my wife, and all the world
Are not with me esteemed above thy life.
I would lose all, ay sacrifice them all
Here to this devil, to deliver you.
Portia (she certainly does ‘stand for sacrifice!’), permits herself an understandably dry comment:
Your wife would give you little thanks for that
If she were by to hear you make the offer.
Perhaps this is why she decides to put Bassanio to the text with the ring. I have already had occasion to recognize the honourable tradition of strong male friendship, operative at the time. I also know that ‘homosexuality’ as such, was not invented until the late nineteenth century. I am also totally disinclined to seek out imagined sexualities which are nothing to the point. But Antonio is so moistly, mooningly in love with Bassanio (and so conspicuously uninvolved with, and unattracted to, any woman), that I think that his nameless sadness, and seemingly foredoomed solitariness, may fairly be attributed to a homosexual passion, which must now be frustrated since Bassanio is set on marriage. (Antonio’s message to Bassanio’s wife is ‘bid her be judge/Whether Bassanio had not once a love,’ which implied ‘lover’ as much as ‘friend’; revealingly, Antonio’s one remaining desire is that Bassanio should witness the fatal sacrifice he is to make for him). Even then, we might say that that is neither here or there. Except for one fact. Buggery and usury were very closely associated or connected in the contemporary mind as unnatural acts. Shylock is undoubtedly a usurer, who becomes unwell; but if Antonio, is, not to put too find a point on it, a bugger, who is also unwell…
Perhaps some will find the suggestion offensively irrelevant; and perhaps it is. But the atmosphere in Venice-Belmont is not unalloyedly pure. The famous love duet between Lorenzo and Jessica which starts Act V, inaugurating the happy post-Shylock era – ‘In such a night…’ – is hardly an auspicious one, invoking as it does a faithless woman (Cressid), one who committed suicide (Thisbe), an abandoned woman (Dido), and a sorceress (Medea whose spells involved physical mutilation), before moving on to a contemporary female thief – Jessica herself. I hardly think that she and Lorenzo will bear any mythological ‘ornamenting.’ And that theft has become part of the texture of the Belmont world. It is a place of beautiful music and poetry – and love; but with perhaps just a residual something-not-quite-right lingering from the transactions and ‘usages’ of Ghetto-Rialto Venice. (the very last word of the play is a punningly obscene use of ‘ring’ by Gratiano, the most scabrous and cynical voice in Venice – again, a slightly off-key note.) There is moonlight and candlelight for the nocturnal conclusion of the play, but it doesn’t ‘glimmer’ as beautifully as it did at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Portia says:
This night methinks is but the daylight sick;
It looks a little paler. ‘Tis a day
Such as the day is when the sun is hid.
A little of the circulating sickness has reached Belmont. The play is a comedy; but Shakespeare has here touched on deeper and more potentially complex and troubling matters than he had hitherto explored, and the results is a comedy with a difference. And, of course, it is primarily Shylock who makes that difference.
Now, let’s go back to the beginning. ‘Which is the merchant here and which the Jew?’ It turns out to be a good question.”
“The last act of The Merchant of Venice is often accounted a mere epilogue, a device whereby Shakespeare dissipates the tension aroused by the long court scene of Act IV. It does dissipate it, but the idea that it is a mere afterpiece is superficial.
To begin with, the moonlight and the music take up the central theme and continue the symbolism. At night what was concealed within by day is often revealed, and under the spell of sweet sounds what is savage in man is tames, for ‘music for the time doth change his nature.’ It is not that chance that the first hundred lines and a little more of this scene (at which the point the music ceases)_ Portia, Nerissa, Lorenzo, and even Jessica utter words that might well have been out of their reach by day or under other conditions. Lorenzo’s incomparable lines on the harmony of heaven seem, in particular, too beautiful for the man who called Jessica “wise’ and ‘true’ at the very time when she was robbing her father. But under the influence of love and moonlight this may be his rare moment. Over and over Shakespeare lets an unsuspected depth in his characters come out at night. However that may be, the passage lends a sort of metaphysical sanction to the casket metaphor. Moonlight opens the leaden casket of material reality and lets us see
How the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold.
But the garden by moonlight is only a glimpse, a prelude, or rather an interlude, and with the return of the husbands and Antonio, the poetry and romance largely disappear, the levity is resumed, the banter, the punning, the sexual allusions, including some very frank ones on Portia’s part, until the secret of the impersonations is revealed and everything is straightened out. What a picture it is of the speed with which so-called happy people rush back to the idle pleasures of life after a brief compulsory contact with reality. Privilege was forced for a moment to face the Excluded. It makes haste to erase the impression as quickly and completely as it can. Similarly, for theatergoers, the fifth act erases any earlier painful impressions. The story came out all right after all! Nothing need cloud the gaiety of the after-theater supper.
In spite of this fifth act, there has been much discussion of the dissonance which the Shylock story introduces into what is otherwise a light and diverting play, much quoting of authorities on the question of what is, and what is not, permissible in a comedy. There is nothing to indicate that Shakespeare’s imagination ever allowed itself to be shackled by such prescriptions or definitions. Indeed in this case, as so often, I think he gives us a direct hint how his drama should be taken.
Those who stress the matter of construction have often pointed out that the playwright meticulously prepares for a scene that he never presents – the masque at which Lorenzo was to make Jessica his torchbearer. After whetting our appetites, the whole matter is dismissed in one line (with an explanatory line) when Antonio announces:
No masque to-night: the wind is come about;
Bassanio presently will go aboard.
Just as the winds of life are forever coming about and calling off life’s revels at the last moment. In that sense no comedy is true to life in which the seeds of tragedy are not concealed. Every performance of The Merchant of Venice might well be heralded with the cry: No comedy tonight. The winds are come about. And so the scene Shakespeare prepared for and left out is not out after all. Those who think the playwright showed slipshod craftsmanship here should look a bit deeper at the poet’s intention.
The authority of imaginative literature resides in the fact that its masterpieces, whenever or wherever written, confirm one another. Anyone who doubts that the overtones and undertones of The Merchant of Venice were intended by their author, anyone who doubts that Shylock might have been transformed if Portia had been true to herself, should read Chekhov’s Rothschild’s Fiddle. Here is another story written around the same economic theme. Here is the same contrast of inner and outer, the same two major characters, the Christian money-maker and the despised Jew, the same hatred of the Jew by the Christian because he is an unconscious symbol of his own wasted life – but with the other ending: mercy, forgiveness, spiritual transformation, even a hint of immortality. Though the chances against it are as great as in Shakespeare’s play, the miracle does take place, a double miracle, in both Christian and Jew. ‘The gods are to each other not unknown.’ Not the only case where Shakespeare and Chekhov agree.
Such harmony is in immortal souls.
Shakespeare could not have used Chekhov’s ending. His work is a play to be presented before a crowd, not just a story to be read by individuals – and the crowd demands the obvious. It is (ostensibly) a comedy – and the crowd demands a happy ending. But the conclusion of a poem, unlike the conclusion of a play is not always to be found at the end. And in this sense the conclusions of the English and Russian versions of this theme are at one.
It is the crowning virtue of a work of art, as it is of a man, that it should be an example of its own doctrine, an incarnation of its own main symbol. A poem about fire ought to burn. A poem about a brook ought to flow. A poem about childhood ought not just to tell about children but ought to be like a child itself, as are the best of Blake’s Songs of Innocence. Rothschild’s Fiddle and The Merchant of Venice both meet this test. Rothschild’s Fiddle, as its name indicates, is a story about money and music. Or, better, about death and music, for, just as in The Merchant of Venice, money and death are equated. A coffin and a violin are its focal symbols. But they are more than that. The story is itself a coffin within which the author compels each reader to lie down, either to be buried with in it (if he is one thing) or (if is he another) to be awakened and lifted out of it by strains of music. In precisely the same sense The Merchant of Venice is a casket. In fashioning it its author proceeded like the Maker of all things: he put the muddy vesture of decay – that is, the glib and glitter – on the outside where no one can miss it and left the heavenly harmony in the overtones for those to hear who can. If this be deception, it is divine deception.
The metaphor that underlies and unifies The Merchant of Venice is that of alchemy, the art of transforming the base into the precious, lead into gold. Everything in it comes back to that. Only the symbols are employed in a double sense, one worldly, one spiritual. By a kind of illuminating confusion, gold is lead and lead is gold, the base precious and the precious base. Portia had a chance to effect the great transformation – and failed. But she is not the only one. Gold, silver, and lead in one, the play subjects every reader or spectator to a test, or, shall we say, offers every reader or spectator the same opportunity Portia had. Choose – it says – at your peril. This play anti-Semitic? Why, yes, if you find it so. Shakespeare certainly leaves you free, if you wish, to pick the golden casket. But you may thereby be revealing more of yourself than of his play.
And what is true of an individual is true of an age. Poetry forever makes itself over for each generation. The Merchant of Venice seems expressly written for a time like our own [MY NOTE: Goddard published his book in 1951] when everywhere the volcano of race hatred seems ready to erupt. But even when we see this we may still be taking it too narrowly. Its pertinence for us is no more confined to the racial aspect than are our hatreds and exclusions. What inspired Shakespeare to introduce into this gay entertainment, with all its frivolity and wedding bells, prototypes of those two giants of the twentieth century, Trade and Finance (each so different at heart from its own estimate of itself), to let them look in each other’s eyes, and behold – their own reflections?
Which is the merchant here and which the Jew?
How came he to inject so incongruously into it that haunting figure that has grown steadily more tragic with the years until it has thrown his supposed comedy quite out of focus? More sinned against than sinning, this villain-victim now strikes us as more nearly the protagonist, a far-off forerunner of King Lear himself. Beside him, the gentleman-hero of the piece shrinks to a mere fashion-plate, and his sad-eyed friend to a mere shadow. It is as if, between the passing darkness of feudalism and the oncoming darkness of capitalism, the sun broke forth briefly and let the poet store up truth for the future. When the Old Corruption goes, there is always such a glimpse of clear sky before the New Corruption assumes the throne. Not that Shakespeare was interested in economic evolution or foresaw its course. Poetic prophecy does not work in that way. Goethe reveals its secret rather when he says ‘If a man grasp the particular vividly he also grasps the general without being aware of it at the time, or he may make the discovery long afterward.’ It is in this sense that Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice for us even more than for his own age. Its characters are around us everywhere. Its problems still confront us – on an enormously enlarged scale.
At a time like our own when economic problems sometimes threaten to eclipse all others, their relation to moral and spiritual problems gets forgotten. But to divorce the two is to leave both insoluble. The Merchant of Venice not only does not make this error itself, it corrects it for us. It offers precisely the wisdom we need, a wisdom that goes deeper than the doctrine of any economic school or sect. Shylock made his money by usury, Antonio, his by trade, Portia got hers by inheritance, Bassanio by borrowing and then by marriage, Jessica by theft and later by judicial decree. The interplay of their lives makes enthralling drama. But to those not content to stop with the story it propounds questions that have a strangely contemporary ring: How are these various modes of acquiring and holding property related? Are they as unlike as they seem? And, coming closer home: Am I myself possibly, thanks to one or more of them, living in a golden world?
Those who might be compelled to answer ‘yes’ to this last question will generally be protected from asking it. Some instinct of self-preservation – or fear of death – will keep them from seeking whether they might discover, could they understand them, grounds sounder, in their opinion, than its supposed anti-Semitism for withdrawing The Merchant of Venice from the schools.
‘There are several current expressions and blasphemous modes of viewing things,’ says Thoreau, ‘as when we say ‘he is doing a good business’ more profane than cursing and swearing. There is death and sin in such words. Let not the children hear them.’ The author of The Merchant of Venice, I suspect, would have understood and agreed. He knew what he was doing when he named his play and when he made its merchant the victim of a melancholia so intense it verged on the suicidal.
‘God won’t ask us whether we succeeded in business.’”
And, finally, from Garber:
“That the play ends in Belmont is, as we have already noted, something of an anomaly for Shakespeare, who usually puts his ‘green’ or ‘golden’ worlds in the middle of the play, returning his characters – or most of them – to the ongoing world of social and political action. Thus the wood near Athens in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the ‘little academe’ of Love’s Labour’s Lost, the Forest of Arden in As You Like It are temporary, alternative spaces, countries of the mind rather than places on the map. Usually, as we have seen, characters repair to these middle worlds to refresh themselves, to divest themselves of the trappings of the external world of law and death. The middle world is like a journey into the unconscious or the subconscious, where one can play roles, test fantasies, find oneself – or one’s selves. But in The Merchant of Venice, the Belmont world is not, despite its romance name, in the middle of the play, but at the end. It seems to be not a temporary state but a final alternative possibility, something like a redeemed world. But is it?
Belmont is presented throughout the play both as the opposite of and as an alternative to Venice. The first scene of the play – the melancholy of Antonio – takes place in Venice, the second – the melancholy of Portia – in Belmont. Belmont is still the place ruled by Portia’s father’s dead hand, and by his will, in two senses, his legacy and his insistence. It is her father who has invented the casket choice, and who thus seems to control Portia’s own choice of a husband ‘lord’ for Belmont. And Belmont, for all its air of grace and bounty, its apparent lack of involvement in the commercial world, is to a certain degree a place dependent upon wealth, upon, in fact, inherited wealth. Belmont depends upon gold, the very gold seemingly devalued by the scenes we have just witnessed, by the commerce of Venice – the closeness of Shylock, the vanity of the Prince of Morocco. Belmont would seen to stand not for gold but for the ‘golden rule,’ and yet, although Portia articulates just such an ethic in her ‘quality of mercy’ speech, she then goes on to disregard it. In other words, it is not so simple to separate the worlds of Venice and Belmont. They are mutually dependent. What, for example, is the place of guilt in Belmont? Should Lorenzo feel guilty that wealth comes to him unearned except by marriage to the daughter of a wealthy and disgraced Jew? Should Jessica feel guilty for having left her father’s house, and taken his money with her? Should Portia feel any twinge of guilt, either for the way she treats Shylock or the way she treats Antonio? The place of the Belmont world in the fifth act, hanging, so to speak, off the edge of the play, emphasizes Belmont’s precariousness and its problematic nature, even as it stresses the possibility of salvation through love, beyond the courtroom and the Rialto.
Gold, silver, lead. The choice of the three caskets is also a choice offered to the audience of Shakespeare’s play. The gold of happy endings, of golden stars and the golden rule and the Golden Fleece, but also of inheritance and rivalry, Belmont with all its idealizing quality and all its undercurrents of disquieting cost. The silver of commerce, of the pale and common drudge ‘tween man and man, of the use of usury that makes Bassanio’s quest possible, makes possible the commercial world of Venice (and of London). And lead. The lead of the third casket, the choice we all have to learn that we all have to choose. The lead of mortality, the choice of death. Notice that the play opens all three of these caskets, not just the last one, and that it once again discloses similarities, as well as differences, between and among them. ‘I am locked in one of them,’ says Portia, but she – and the play – is really locked in all three. In this play of difference the casket choice offered to the audience and the reader is a choice not between but of. We cannot proceed directly to the leaden casket: choosing it first would not be the right choice. We must open the caskets in turn – Belmont, Venice, poetry, death – in order to assess the value of their contents, choosing their meanings (‘who chooses his meaning chooses you’).
The ambivalence that an audience feels about this play is something built into the play and emerging from it. If we alternatively sympathize with Shylock and criticize him; admire Bassanio’s energy and deplore his mercantile motives and his use of other people; bask in the glory of Portia’s wit and wisdom, her ‘godlike amity,’ and critique her as a woman who will always get her way, regardless of the wishes and the feelings of others – if we feel this ambivalence – it is not because the play fails but because it succeeds.
The Merchant of Venice is a deeply disturbing play, whose interpreters over time have sought to purge it of its most dangerous and disturbing energies. It is a play in which the question of intention, of what Shakespeare may have intended, is relevant but not recoverable, and finally not determinative. Portia the goddess, or Portia the spoiled rich girl, the wealthy heiress? Shylock the noble man of suffering and dignity, or Shylock the small-minded patriarch who prizes spiteful victories? Bassanio the impassioned lover, or Bassanio the fortune-hunter? Comedy or tragedy? The history of the play’s interpretations encompasses all these alternatives, and more. Meaning is disseminated here – it will not be contained. And this is an index of the play’s enormous theatrical and emotional power. Much critical and theatrical ingenuity has been deployed to rescue the author from the charge of anti-Jewish feeling. The effects of this have ranged from pathos to comedy. Like Henry V, this play has meant very different things at very different times. The play – any play, but especially a strong one – is the sum of all its meanings, all its intentions, conscious and unconscious, including some that the author could never have intended. We might say that this is above all what makes a work of literature worth studying. Certainly it is one of the things that make it great.”
And so, as we come to the end of The Merchant of Venice…what do you think? If this is your first reading, what’s your reaction? If you’ve read it before, how has your reaction changed? Share your thoughts, feelings, questions with the group!
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning: Sonnet #107
Our next play: Henry IV, Part One
Enjoy your weekend.