The Merchant of Venice
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
Salerio tells Solanio of another ship down, and they assume Shylock is gloating. But really, “the idea that as intelligent a man as Shylock could have deliberately counted on the bankruptcy of as rich a man as Antonio, with argosies on seven seas, is preposterous” (Goddard, I 92). The Salads goad Shylock ruthlessly until Shylock’s notable speech, initially a litany of rhetorical questions and supposedly “one of the greatest pleas for human tolerance in the whole of dramatic literature” (Carey 157):
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, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d 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, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction. (III.i.59-73)
“This bold and resonant protest, which begins as a moving appeal to general humanity, winds up as a cry for revenge, a cry for the predominant emotion of early Elizabethan tragedy, the emotion that names itself as the opposite of the quality of mercy” (Garber 298). “The logic of his conclusion is not impeccable, but this is a piece of rhetoric, not a legal argument, and an audience may respond rather to its eloquence than to its reasoning” (Wells 160). “Shylock, at least, recognizes villainy when he sees it. He admits his own plan to be villainous. His defense is that it has been taught him by Christians. In recognizing the villainy, he rises, in a way, an ethical notch above his tormentors” (Asimov 529). But more so, the irony in this speech is that a Christian should not be demanding of revenge; the New Testament generally recommends forgiveness. So Shylock, intentionally or not, is pointing out Christian hypocrisy again. It is most telling that no one interrupted him on that point. Shylock’s colleague Tubal brings grim news of Shylock’s daughter. Tubal is originally a tribal name (Genesis 4:22): “According to biblical legend, then, Tubal-cain was the first metallurgist” (Asimov 529).He reports of Jessica throwing money around as Shylock laments: “Would she were hears’d at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin” (III.i.89-90). This does not sound grasping; it’s harsh concerning Jessica, but “The ducats are in the coffin too!” (Goddard, I 96). To place the ducats in “her” coffin imaginatively seems like an unconscious wish to bury his own miserliness perhaps (Goddard, I 96). Tubal seems to feed Shylock suggestions that Antonio is a connected issue, and there may be some doubt as to Shylock’s own viciousness since he thinks of “plaguing” and “torturing” Antonio — probably emotional torture rather than physical, as that is what Shylock is experiencing — and at the end of the scene he’s still thinking in terms of Antonio being “out of Venice” rather than killed. Shylock’s heart has been metaphorically torn out — is he thinking literally? Or is Tubal putting a bug in his ear during a stage when Shylock is extremely distraught? Tubal and Salarino “precisely when the Jew was in the most suggestible state, implant in his mind what amounts to posthypnotic directions to demand the literal fulfillment of his bond” (Goddard, I 99). “Those who find a bloodthirsty Jew in this play are right. But they have picked the wrong man” (Goddard, I 99).
The news that Jessica traded in a ring that had tremendous sentimental value to Shylock for a monkey is gruesome — like something out of Othello. Monkeys, like chimps on tv, would have had temporary entertainment value, but how long can you laugh about an animal throwing its own poo around?
An Oxfordian suggestion has been that the ring traded for a monkey may have been some kind of reference to Simier (Ogburn and Ogburn 236).
Portia appeals to Bassanio for a long delay in box-selection, saying, “I could teach you / How to choose right” (III.ii.10-11). “Portia has self-righteously declared she cannot give Bassanio any hints, but the music she orders played contains hints just the same. The song urges him to judge not by his eyes only” (Asimov 531). Not every critic agrees on this (Garber 290), but Bassanio does gets a musical accompaniment to his deliberations with lyrics that may provide some subliminal clue to which casket is the one (Goddard, I 102):
“Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart or in the head?” (III.ii.63-64)
[Notice how this rhymes with “lead.”]
[Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka wonders this aloud too.] Bassanio ponders the decision with analogies to law and religion — the two intermingled themes of the play. When he opens the lead casket, he declares, “Fair Portia’s counterfeit!” (III.ii.115). There’s a double meaning there!
Some flattery of Portia because of her hair indicates a flattery of Elizabeth (Ogburn and Ogburn 232). Portia announces that Bassanio is her lord: “Myself, and what is mine, to you and yours / Is now converted” (III.ii.166-167). And he pledges to her with the wearing of a ring: now they are locked in a love-bond.
Out of the blue, Gratiano and Nerissa are also engaged, and a bet is placed on who will breed a son first. [How vile!] Antonio’s financial problem comes up and, with Bassanio torn between loyalty to his new wife and his old friend, Portia jumps into action, saying to Bassanio, “never shall you lie by Portia’s side / With an unquiet soul” (III.ii.305-306). She’s got money. “Bassanio is the golden casket. He gained what many men desire: a wealthy wife” (Goddard, I 86).
Shylock locks onto the notion of his bond obsessively, and he doesn’t want to hear the arrested Antonio speak (perhaps because that would revive his more generous instincts, just as when Richard advises the hired murderer not to speak to Clarence before killing him in Richard III). One of the Salads dehumanizes Shylock: “It is the most impenetrable cur / That ever kept with men” (III.iii.18-19), but Antonio is subdued and fatalistic. “Pray God Bassanio come / To see me pay his debt, and then I care not!” (III.iii.35-36). That’s weird!
Portia claims that she and Nerissa will reside at a monastery while the men rush to Antonio’s aid. But she sends a letter to a cousin, Doctor Bellario, and has her own intervention plans involving their disguising themselves as men. “By all the evidence we have in the play, Portia’s cousin Bellario is in the same lawyer class as ‘my cousin Vinnie’. Shylock meets shyster” (Sutherland & Watts 155).
Mention of the “traject” (III.iv.53) is a specialized reference to the traghetto that crosses the laguna Morta and goes up the Grand Canal to the Rialto. It means that Shakespeare knew of the ferry boats that connected the city with mainland (Farina 64). And playwright does not confue the Ponte di Rialto with the real place where merchants congregate the Isola di Rialto and stone figure called the “Gobbo di Rialto supporting a granite pillar from which were proclaimed the laws of the Republic” (Ogburn and Ogburn 247).
Launcelot jokes about with Jessica, and Lorenzo seems to joke around with Launcelot; but when he hears the news that he has impregnated a Moorish girl, Launcelot puns on “Moor.” Lorenzo seems wearies of Launcelot’s clowning: “How every fool can play upon the word! I think the best grace of wit will shortly turn to silence, and discourse grow commendable in none only but parrots” (III.v.43-46). The scene draws our attention to the power and the flimsiness of clever word usage, especially in this context! Perhaps “We can feel Shakespeare himself wearying of ‘wit’ — the verbal gold that conceals paucity of thought” (Goddard, I 84).
That Launcelot gets the Moor with child has been suggested as a reference to “Dark Lady” Vavasour added later in the development of this play (Ogburn and Ogburn 244).