The Merchant of Venice
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
In his very first line, the Prince of Morocco asks that Portia “Mislike me not for my complexion” (II.i.1), but Portia is off the hook since it’s all a matter of the lottery (II.i.15f). The Prince rants about his scimitar, but acknowledges finally that he-man heroics have nothing to do with the task at hand.
Launcelot Gobbo, servant to Shylock and all-around goof, provides a kind of Elizabethan-era stand-up comedy. His name comes from Shakespeare’s eyewitness experience of the Rialto market and the Gobbo di Rialto statue (Farina 64), and perhaps Master Lancelet = little spear [his mother is Margery and Oxford’s mother was named Margaret (Ogburn and Ogburn 247-248)]. Launcelot considers leaving Shylock’s household and casts the decision into a religious drama with his conscience and a fiend vying for his will. Interestingly, he claims, “To be rul’d by my conscience, I should stay with the Jew my master, who (God bless the mark) is a kind of devil, and to run away from the Jew, I should be rul’d by the fiend, who saving your reverence, is the devil himself” (II.ii.22-27).
His nearly blind father happens along, looking for him, and he clowns about. The scene relies on physical humor primarily (Carey 146), and then malaproprisms on the part of the father in front of Bassanio. But one might consider the issue of playing practical jokes on one’s father, in light of Jessica and Shylock coming up. “The casual cruelty of young Gobbo (the name translates as ‘hunchback’ in Italian, and describes the aged, stooping father as a familiar type on the stage of the commedia dell’arte; Gobbo, or Giobbo, is also the Italian name for the Old Testament Job) seems characteristic of a play in which ‘comedy’ is seldom risible” (Garber 304).
It even turns out that Shylock has given Launcelot a good recommendation to Bassanio already (II.ii.145-148). What a villain, huh?
Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, is sad to see Launcelot going:
I am sorry thou wilt leave my father so.
Our house is hell, and thou, a merry devil,
Didst rob it of some taste of tediousness.
But realize how old Jessica probably is — this might sound like adolescent exaggeration. Do we get any evidence later that Shylock is horrific as a father? Her problem, as with most adolescent morons, focuses on a complaint about “tediousness.” No doubt Shylock’s somewhat puritanical tendencies, as we will see, render Jessica whiney with the desire for distractions and amusements. That “he is puritanical in his outlook [is] another proof of villainy to a theatergoing audience” (Asimov 523).
When Launcelot leaves, promising to deliver a letter of Jessica’s to Lorenzo, Bassanio’s friend, Jessica confesses that she’ll be leaving soon herself, to marry Lorenzo and convert to Christianity.
There’s talk of a masque tonight, and of the elopement of Lorenzo and Jessica, who will disguise herself as a boy and serve as a torch-bearer.
Shylock tells Launcelot, “thou shalt see, thy eyes shall be thy judge, / The difference of old Shylock and Bassanio” (II.v.1-2), claiming that he won’t be able to get away with slacking off, but also implying in the lines that there is probably going to be little difference between the two positions. Shylock raises audience tension by reconsidering whether he should attend the masque (thereby potentially foiling Jessica’s plans). He claims to have dreamt of money-bags, and one interprets this as characteristic greed, but the fact is that he actually takes such a dream as a bad sign. Launcelot mocks his superstitiousness and Shylock decides to go but tells Jessica, “Lock up my doors, and when you hear the drum / And the vile squealing of the wry-neck’d fife, / … / stop my house’s ears, I mean my casements” (II.v.29-34). “He regards her as a possession, like his jewels and his gold, to be hoarded up and not allowed out of his sight” (Garber 298). Shylock’s distrust and rejection of music aligns him with the puritanical enemies of theater. Such prohibitions are bound to backfire, yet his instincts on this too prove justified.
The elder Ogburns, who detect a depiction of Lord Burghley in Shylock (Ogburn and Ogburn 1007), make this claim:
the symbol of the Spaniard, or Jew, who was a usurer, who was striving to maintain a close grip upon his daughter, the Netherlands, shutting her away from outside influences and keeping her for his own purposes, embraced Burghley, a money-lover, a confirmed usurer, abnormally possessive toward his daughter, Anne. (Ogburn and Ogburn 236)
Certainly Burghley disapproved of revelry (Ogburn and Ogburn 242-243) and had some aversion to music and the arts (Ogburn and Ogburn 248). Burghley and Oxford clearly had opposing attitudes towards money (Ogburn and Ogburn 239), like Shylock and Antonio. And when Shylock swears by the staff (II.v.36), one thinks of Burghley, usually pictured with one (Ogburn and Ogburn 242). Similarly, regarding the disputed “Jewish gaberdine,” Burghley wore one (Ogburn and Ogburn 241).
Jessica steals her father’s ducats and runs off with Lorenzo. The whole enterprise can play like a triumph of the good guys, but there are a lot of “good” guys hanging about, and the scene seems more sleazy than celebratory.
Antonio announces, oddly, that there will be no masque after all: “No masque to-night, the wind is come about” (II.vi.64). That was abrupt! Why the build-up when this is the let-down — just finally a dismissal of revelry (Goddard I 113)?
Bassanio will travel to see Portia.
The Prince of Morocco ponders the three caskets and chooses the golden one, then reads, “All that glisters is not gold, / … / Gilded tombs do worms infold” (II.vii.65, 69). Portia’s comment sullies her fine reputation: “A gentle riddance…. / Let all of his complexion choose me so” (II.vii.78-79). The guy was indeed an ass, but his first words appealed to Portia that she not be prejudiced against him based on skin color!
Salerio and Solanio have a laugh about Shylock wandering the streets on the verge of madness crying, according to Solanio, “My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!” (I.viii.15). This is always taken to mean that Shylock’s avarice blurs the distinctions between the two in his mind. Additionally, the boys of Venice followed Shylock about, also mocking him.
There’s also a report of a ship sunk, seemingly one of Antonio’s.
The Prince of Arragon takes his stab at the box game, shunning the gold casket out of arrogance (hence his place-name) since “what many men desire” means nothing to him — he snorts at “the fool multitude” (II.ix.26). In the silver box he finds the picture of “a blinking idiot” (II.ix.54). (Although most productions provide a miniature, the Olivier film from the early ’70s has the Prince pull out a mirror, and he doesn’t recognize that the “blinking idiot” is a reflection of himself.) A messenger announces a young man at the gate whom Nerissa hopes is Bassanio.