The Merchant of Venice
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
A 1598 reference to this play notes that it was “‘otherwise called The Jew of Venice‘, suggesting that from the start Shylock was regarded as the play’s central character” (Wells 158) even though he appears in only five scenes (Wells 159). Standard dating of this one places it around 1596-97, but an anonymous play fitting its description was being performed in 1579 and also one called The history of Portio and demorantes — too early for Stratfordian dating (Clark 331; Ogburn and Ogburn 230; Farina 60). The play’s relevance to marriage negotiations between Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Alençon and to the third Frobisher Expedition to the Northwest indicate Oxfordian authorship, and begun in 1578 (Ogburn and Ogburn 229).
Performance of it is currently out of fashion because of the apparent anti-Semitic aspects, and the consensus that Shakespeare here “essentially belongs to his age, just this once, in regard to the Jews” (Bloom 188).But that’s characteristically superficial or willfully limited reading for you, similar to the case of Chaucer’s The Prioress’ Tale.
Elizabethan society would allow hatred of the theatrical manifestation of a Jewish character. So the dolts get an easy scapegoat here and are allowed to miss the real critique operating in this play. (Our impulse is still to find a target of hatred. After the end of the Cold War, we had a difficult time finding a stereotype we could hate. We tried to hate the Japanese in the early ’90s; alas, it was too economic and abstract to take hold. But now, imagine a play involving an Islamic fundamentalist living in Colfax.)
The title character, Antonio, begins the play intriguingly: “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad; / It wearies me” (I.i.1-2). Much ink has been spilled with conjectures about Antonio’s melancholy. Perhaps he’s simply melancholic of temperament. Or, since “Antonio has a male friend to whom he is devoted with a self-sacrificial intensity that is almost unbelievable” (Asimov 501), perhaps his devotion to Bassanio is homoerotic and the news that this friend seeks to marry has depressed him — that Antonio is melancholy because “he is losing Bassanio to a woman” (Wells 162).(Antonio is a name Shakespeare uses also in Twelfth Night for a character with an intense devotion to another male). Or perhaps Antonio has an “ominous foreboding” (Carey 133) about the events that will transpire in the course of this play. At one point in the development of the play Antonio’s melancholy may have been Oxford’s own (Ogburn and Ogburn 232). [Shepherd Tony, Antony (w/ Cleo), and Antonio all would represent Oxford (Ogburn and Ogburn 852).] But my own sense? See the next scene’s commentary.
Antonio ends his whimper: “And such a want-wit sadness makes of me, / That I have much ado to know myself” (I.i.6-7). Shakespeare is getting quite good at representing characters who do not know themselves. Friends Solanio and Salerio — “those unmemorable characters known in the theatre as the Salads” (Wells 162) — try to explain that Antonio’s merchant ship being at sea naturally makes him sad, what with fears of pirates and storms. If they really believe this to be the cause, their graphic description of a shipwreck is not the way to cheer him up! But what they are describing would be anxiety and dread, not sadness. This looks like another Italian city (like Padua in The Taming of the Shrew) where the citizens interpret everything in materialistic terms. All the Salads can conclude (I.i.50f) is that “some people are, by simple temperament, happy; others sad” (Asimov 502).
The Salads may have been representations of Oxford’s literary associates (Ogburn and Ogburn 977). The prefix “sal” (or French “sale” but pronounced “sal”) means “lewd” — so we get the “sal” friends of E.O. (io). Burghley objected to Oxford’s “lewd” friends (Ogburn and Ogburn 238).
A reference to Janus (I.i.50) is intriguing too. When three other friends arrive — Bassanio, Lorenzo, and Gratiano — the two Salads take their leave politely, but Antonio claims that beneath their excuses they are anxious to get back to business (I.i.63-64): an odd, strained, and baffling moment signifying at least a tangle of politeness. Bassanio’s entrance line characterizes him as cavalier: “Good signiors both, when shall we laugh?” (I.i.66). Gratiano tries to cajole Antonio a bit, and Antonio renders an embryonic version of a more famous Shakespearean conceit: “I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano, / A stage, where every man must play a part, / And mine a sad one” (I.i.77-79). But perhaps “Antonio was created for nobler things. And so he suffers from that homesickness of the soul that ultimately attacks everyone who ‘consecrates’ his life to something below his spiritual level” (Goddard, I 91).
The phrase “cut in alabaster” resonates: “the figure of Lord Oxford’s ‘grandsire,’ the Fifteenth Earl, was actually ‘cut in alabaster’ in the family tomb at Castle Hedingham” (Ogburn and Ogburn 244).
After Gratiano and Lorenzo depart, Bassanio confesses, good-naturedly, to thinking Gratiano a pretty empty fellow. Bassanio now hits Antonio up for some cash, even though he is already indebted to him. After all, when you shoot one arrow lord-knows-where, the best thing to do is randomly shoot another and it’ll end up really close to the first: problem solved! (I.i.140-144). Bassanio is an “upwardly mobile young urbanite. He is in debt, and he sees that the best way of resolving his problems is to get (temporarily) into further debt” (Garber 284). At present, he needs some wooing cash:
In Belmont is a lady richly left
And she is fair and, fairer than that word,
Of wondrous virtues. (I.i.161-163)
Note the apparent ranking of priorities here. No wonder some think Bassanio a fortune-hunter (Wells 162). Bassanio also calls Portia’s hair “a golden fleece” (I.i.170) — suggesting something to be won or achieved (and not much more, considering the function and disappearance of the Golden Fleece in classical myth)! Antonio has all his money wrapped up in the ships, but he’ll allow Bassanio to raise cash elsewhere on his (Antonio’s) credit.
The scene shifts to “Belmont,” 10 miles from Venice and 2 miles from a monastery, as we will find out. This matches the Villa Foscari on the Brenta Canal (Anderson 99; Farina 64).
Portia begins this second scene, saying to her waiting-woman, “By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is a-weary of this great world” (I.ii.1-2). Nerissa is skeptical of this indulgent melancholy: “You would be, sweet madam, if your miseries were in the same abundance as your good fortunes are; and yet for aught I see, they are as sick that surfeit with too much as they that starve with nothing” (I.ii.3-7).
MD’s diagnosis: “affluenza” — that yuppy disease we used to hear about some years ago where spoiled wealthy useless elites had nothing else to do but bemoan the slightest hint of discontent while the rest of us don’t have the luxury to skip half a day of work despite the cancer. This goes for Antonio too. “Melancholy, weariness, tedium — the reiteration of the note cannot be coincidence. And the other characters confirm the conjecture. Over and over they give the sense of attempting to fill every chink of time with distraction or amusement, often just words, to prevent their thinking” (Goddard, I 84).
Portia, probably with faux haughtiness, tells Nerissa, “Good sentences, and well pronounc’d” (I.ii.10). “They would be better if well follow’d” (I.ii.11). Portia laments the fact that knowing what is good to do is easier than doing it. This will relate to Portia’s rhetoric and behavior later (Goddard, I 112), despite the skads of critics perennially going gaga for the supposedly glorious Portia.
We learn of the lottery prepared by Portia’s father before his death, whereby suitors must choose between three chests: gold, silver, or lead. [The British sovereign in the 16th century possessed three crowns: iron, silver, and gold, signifying the kingdoms of England, France, and Ireland; the English crown was the iron one (Clark 332-333; Ogburn and Ogburn 231). Even Samuel Johnson suspected a connection between Portia’s suitors and Queen Elizabeth’s (Clark 342).] According to Henry VIII’s will: “our said daughter Elizabeth, after our decease, shall not marry, nor take any person to be her husband, without the assent and consent of the Privy-Councillors, and others appointed by us to be of Council with our said dearest son Prince Edward” (qtd. in Clark 334; cf. Ogburn and Ogburn 231-232). Even current Stratfordians are willing to acknowledge the connection: “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” (Garber 288).
Numerous suitors, guilty of the worst stereotypical traits of their nationalities, have bored Portia already. We hear of a Neapolitan prince obsessed with his horse, who sounds historically like Don John of Austria, also with a low-born mother (Ogburn and Ogburn 245); a morose Palentine; and a French lord whose personality is a pastiche of other men’s — seemingly a mockery of the notorious “Monsieur Le Bon”: Alençon, who, with the reference to the thrush or throstle and its French equivalent mauves suggests Alençon dancing for whatever tune ambassador Mauvissière played (Ogburn and Ogburn 245). Also mentioned is a Scottish lord perpetually wrathful at the English; and a German drunkard, probably John Casimir (Ogburn and Ogburn 246). Finally mentioned is a monolinguistic English baron with no distinct sartorial style (the ancestor of the American-born culture-vulture, ravaging Europe for its “style” and patching together monstrosities — this type appears elsewhere in the canon).
In a few lines in the Merchant of Venice Shakespeare summarized a long list of facts: the will of Henry VIII which directed the manner in which Elizabeth might be married; the parade of suitors from over Europe for her hand and her calculating appraisal of them; Don John’s illegitimacy, his status as a Neapolitan Prince, his love of horses, and his one-time ambitions to marry Elizabeth. (Ruth Loyd Miller, in Clark 343)
“The names ‘Falconbridge’ and ‘Oxenford’ are precisely parallel in construction: an animal (two syllables) followed by a means of crossing a river (one syllable)” [Chuck Berney, “The Merchant of Venice: 2004 and 1980.” Shakespeare Matters 4.2 (Winter 2005): 31] Certainly a character named Falconbridge (“the Bastard”) is the playwright’s alter ego in King John.
Nerissa asks Portia if she recalls Bassanio, and Portia tries to cover her enthusiasm with an air of casualness, but the Prince of Morocco’s imminent arrival is announced. The servant mentions that “The four strangers” (I.ii.123) are ready to leave and a fifth, the Prince of Morocco, is on his way, so the numbers don’t add up (six “strangers” were listed, and we didn’t have the impression they’d had their respective shots at the box contest yet) — so is this an indication of awkward revision?
When Nerissa brings up the subject of Bassanio, she mentions that he “came hither in the company of the Marquis of Montferrat” (I.ii.114). Noemi Magri has pointed out that this is a gratuitous mention of Guglielmo Gonzaga, better known as the Duke of Mantua (1538-1587) [“Places in Shakespeare: Belmont and Thereabouts.” Great Oxford. Tunbridge Wells: Parapress Ltd., 2004. 101]. Gonzaga was almost certainly Oxford’s host in Mantua during his mid-1570s travels (cf. Anderson 99).
Shylock the Jewish money-lender and Bassanio negotiate, with Shylock being annoyingly indecisive: “well … well … well ….” When Shylock tries to establish “Antonio is a good man” (I.iii.12), Bassanio thinks he means morally, while Shylock meant financially sound. “‘Good’ to Bassanio is an ethical term; to Shylock it is financial” (Garber 297). Shylock lists dangers to Antonio’s venture; “Shylock’s statement reminds us that Lord Oxford, on his return from the Continent in 1576 was attacked by pirates … and that during his absence one of his servants had to be discharged for defrauding him … so that he knew both ‘water-thieves’ and ‘land-thieves’ from personal experience” (Clark 338). Shylock’s listing of the dangers may also suggest that at one stage in the development of the play, Oxford was thinking of Burghley as Shylock, in this case his tendency to catalogue and itemize everything (Ogburn and Ogburn 238). Shylock wishes to speak with Antonio directly, and Bassanio invites him to dinner, but Shylock balks: “Yes, to smell pork, to eat of the habitation which your prophet the Nazarite conjur’d the devil into. I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following; but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you” (I.iii.33-38). The reference to the New Testament story of Jesus exorcising the demons from a man and driving them into a herd of swine (Mk. 5:1-13) is interesting: “the odd detail that Shakespeare’s Jew has read the enemy Scripture” (Bloom 184). Shylock has thought through a reason, from an alien (Christian) perspective, as to why they also ought not to eat pork. Clearly Shylock can talk with them, wittily and good-naturedly.
But when Antonio himself arrives, Shylock acknowledges his hatred for the merchant in an aside: Antonio is a Christian and he lends out money without charging interest, which hurts the rates Shylock can charge. Antonio is self-righteous (I.iii.70) and hostile, impatient with an analogy Shylock tries to draw to a scriptural story of Jacob: “Mark you this, Bassanio, / The devil can quote Scripture for his purpose” (I.iii.97-98). Shylock’s reference to the sheep of Laban story probably illustrates that Antonio’s profits amount to the same thing as Shylock’s own practice of charging interest (Goddard, I 90). “Antonio’s attempt to distinguish between his mercantilism and Shylock’s usury persuades nobody” (Bloom 185). Shylock notes that Antonio has insulted him and spat upon him in the Rialto, and fortune has brought about this current situation. Shylock refers here to his “Jewish gaberdine,” the anachronism of which has puzzled some. But Asimov declares, “The Jewish gaberdine was a long, coarse cloak of the kind pilgrims wore in humility, to show that they were approaching some shrine as sinners hoping to be forgiven” (Asimov 518). Antonio, we are given to understand, abhors Shylock’s practice of “usury”: “Why, then, does not Antonio state his objection to it like a rational being instead of arguing with kicks and saliva?” (Goddard, I 88). Antonio remains nasty to Shylock, saying that he’s likely to spit at him again in the future. Shylock seems sincere, certainly surprised by the seemingly irrational passion Antonio invests in his antagonism:
Why, look you how you storm!
I would be friends with you, and have your love,
Forget the shames that you have stain’d me with,
Supply your wants, and take no doit
Of usance for my moneys, and you’ll not hear me.
This is kind I offer.
Bassanio confirms this with his impression, “This were kindness” (I.iii.142). (There’s a similar moment in Henry V with Exeter possibly a bit baffled at the King’s reaction to the tennis balls.) Shylock will even make this offer without charging interest. Most take this as a shrewd move, and baiting the trap, but does that make as much sense as the possibility that this is Shylock’s sincere overture to disregard the past and start over with a charitable attempt to form at least a connection involving some tolerance? Are we witnessing “a sincere wish to wipe out the past and be friends” (Goddard, I 94)?
In a moment, though, perhaps given Antonio’s behavior, Shylock adds that if Antonio cannot pay him on the appointed day, “let the forfeit / Be nominated for an equal pound / Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken / In what part of your body pleaseth me” (I.iii.148-151). This is presented as “a merry sport” (I.iii.145) by Shylock. Bassanio advises against this, but Antonio is confident that his ships will come in long beforehand. And Shylock adds that a pound of human flesh is useless, unlike that “of muttons, beefs, or goats” (I.iii.167). It’s a deal: and now either they are locked in a hate-bond, or Shylock means something else by all this that’s unclear. And besides, Antonio is only a bit happier in this play when he is gambling and taking big risks (Garber 287).
Regarding the name Shylock: “There is a Hebrew word shalakh, which appears twice in the Bible (Leviticus 11:17 and Deuteronomy 14:17). In both places, birds of prey are being listed as unfit articles of diet for Jews. No one knows exactly what bird is meant by shalakh, but the usual translation into English gives it as “cormorant'” (Asimov 510). Clark, however, refers to the colloquial use of the prefix “shy-,” defined at the time as meaning “of questionable character, disreputable, shady,” and the term “shy-cock,” slang for “a wary or cowardly person” (Clark 335-336). Lock was the name of the Treasurer of the Cathay Company, which funded Martin Frobisher’s third expedition. Originally, Frobisher was seeking a northwest passage to China but when he found what he thought was gold ore, investors in the third expedition included the 28-year-old Earl of Oxford, to the tune of 3,000 pounds — the amount of the “bond” in ducats in the play. Frobisher ranted against Lock, who probably knew the ore was worthless when he sold Oxford his share (Clark 334-335; cf. Farina 64).
The Queen herself was an investor in the Cathay Company and must have been deeply interested in the outcome of the Expedition of 1578. She probably took as great an interest in directing legal procedure against Lock as Portia did against Shylock, albeit in somewhat different fashion. (Clark 340)