The Merchant of Venice
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
Lorenzo and Jessica blab about moonlight, under which “romantic acts of love and daring” are alluded to (Carey 171). But Cressida, Thisby, Dido — these are not romantic acts, but cataclysms! “Still, it is odd that Jessica should refer to the tale of a woman who betrayed her father for her lover and who was regarded not as a heroine by the Greeks but as a villainess, and who came to so bad an end besides. Might we argue that Shakespeare’s sneaking sympathy for Shylock shows itself here yet again?” (Asimov 541).
“Endymion, in the Greek myths, was a handsome prince who, asleep in a cave one night, was spied by Selene, goddess of the moon. Ravished by his beauty, she descended to the cave and kissed the sleeping youth. She wanted no more and, throwing him into a magic, eternal slumber, she returned night after night to kiss him and sleep awhile by his side” (Asimov 542).
Lorenzo looks at the night sky and perceives “gold” (V.i.59). Musicians play and Jessica confesses, “I am never merry when I hear sweet music” (V.i.69), prompting Lorenzo to speechify about the special powers of music, which owes something to Count Lewis’ discourse in “praise of Musicke” in Castiglione’s The Courtier (Ogburn and Ogburn 67, 246-247).The chat is all very romantic on the surface, but Lorenzo is talking about music’s power to distort nature! I think he’s talking about Muzak here — easy-listening yuppie music that suggests that everything is serene. “Mark the music” (V.i.88) — the standard imperative mode a la “Shake your booty,” “Play that funky music,” “Let the music take control,” “Do it ’til you’re satisfied,” etc., only in this case slow-tempo lulling music to re-brainwash by. Still, these discussions on music have frequently been referred to as pointing towards the Earl of Oxford and his musical expertise (Clark 341).
Portia and Nerissa return home and remark on the moon outshining a candle — perhaps a metaphor for Christianity’s superseding Judaism (cp. V.i.125f — a vague eclipse metaphor operating similarly). They hear the music and agree that any godawful noise sounds good so long as nothing else interferes with it to which we might compare it: “The crow doth sing as sweetly as the lark / When neither is attended” (V.i.102-103) — in other words, obliterate all else and whatever you’ve got won’t be perceived as horrible! I take this to be a final perspective on the dark side of this play. “Exclusiveness — and the hypocrisy exclusiveness always involves, the pretense that that which is excluded is somehow less real than / that which excludes” (Goddard, I 83-84).
Soon the women are accusing Bassanio and Gratiano of giving away their wedding rings to other women. An extended passage uses the word “ring” in the rhyming spot at the end of nine out of ten consecutive lines (V.i.193-202) — in essence, “ringing” out the word. Oxfordian Ian Haste has discovered that this is bilingual word-play: a specifically Venetian word for wedding ring was Vera, whose plural form (explaining perhaps the superfluous second marriage and ring of Gratiano and Nerissa) was Vere [“The Name within the Ring: Edward de Vere’s ‘Musical’ Signature in Merchant of Venice.” Shakespeare Matters 8.2 (Spring 2009): 1, 23-26, 28]. And note that the final word of the play is also “ring,” “exactly the place where you and I would sign our names to something we had written” (Haste 25).
The dubious comedy of this is played out before all is revealed, three of Antonio’s ships have come sailing in — he echoes Shylock, but saying, “I am dumb” (V.i.279). “Antonio is the silver casket. He got as much as he deserved: material success and a suicidal melancholy” (Goddard, I 92). And Lorenzo and Jessica will inherit. Portia is practically declared a messiah. It’s almost dawn, so instead of going to bed, we had might as well go explain in detail all the recent plots: “and the play comes to an elegant if mildly bawdy end with Graziano’s ribaldry” (Wells 164). The end.
Something is odd about the timing of all this travel in the last couple acts. See “Is Portia a virgin at the end of the play — and will she stay one?” (Sutherland & Watts 154-161). And what will become of Antonio?
The anticlimactic last act has critics calling the play “broken-backed” (Wells 163), but my feeling is that it offers a brilliantly horrifying vision of self-satisfied solipsism among the wealthy Christians. The ring plot shows symbolically that nothing ever escapes the hermetic system that the elite have established. Shylock never had a chance.
As one traditional critic very tentatively ponders, “Is The Merchant of Venice perhaps an ironic glimpse at Christian hypocrisy, rather than an endorsement of Christian behavior?” (Garber 303). Hell yes! (Read Goddard’s chapter on Merchant.) The same critic realized that this is “Shakespeare’s great play about difference. Shakespeare presents a series of what seem to be clear-cut opposites, but each of those opposites begins, as the play goes on, to seem oddly like, rather than unlike, the other” (Garber 283). “The most magnificent of its speeches are also, in some ways, the most wrongheaded” (Garber 283).
For the youth of Shakespeare’s Venice, or at least the most prominent of them, the quest for the golden fleece at Belmont becomes the ‘new activity’ which substitutes for self-indulgent lethargy. But, so far as the first scenes are concerned, the overwhelming impression is the inactivity of which Venetian commentators complained: the oddly unprogressive, almost plotless dramatic rhythms of the early scenes at Venice and at Belmont have frequently irritated directors and actors. Unexplained comings and goings, the depressive ennui of Antonio and Portia, idle chatter from Gratiano and Nerissa, inexplicable switches of focus from everyone, including the nonentities Salarino and Solanio — all this creates in an audience’s mind a perplexed sense of theatrical / indecision and indirection. (92-93)
[J.R. Mulryne. “History and Myth in The Merchant of Venice.” Shakespeare’s Italy: Functions of Italian Locations in Renaissance Drama. Rev. ed. Michele Marrapodi, A.J. Hoenselaars, Marcello Cappuzzo, and L. Falzon Santucci. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997. 87-99.]
“And the play registers what might be described as a certain cultural anxiety about a shift in economics, a move toward capitalism and away from the landowning aristocracy, in England as well as ostensibly in Venice and Belmont” (Garber 284). We hear acknowledgments of the “seductive atmosphere of the play”: “It is a golden world — a guilded world we might better say” (Goddard, I 83). It’s actually a hideous, smug, self-satisfied, solipsistic and hypocritical Christian world that effortlessly stifles any outside voice, this time Shylock’s. “Shylock was the leaden casket with the spiritual gold within” (Goddard I 101). That this is not the widespread consensus about the play means that we still are not appreciating Shakespeare’s genius correctly.
Drama … must make a wide and immediate appeal to a large number of people of ordinary intelligence. The playwright must make his plots plain, his characters easily grasped, his ideas familiar. The public does not want the truth. It wants confirmation of its prejudices. That is why the plays of mere playwrights have immediate success but seldom survive. What the poet is seeking, on the other hand, is the secret of life, and even if he would, he cannot share with a crowd in a theater, through the distorting medium of actors who are far from sharing his genius, such gleams of it as may have been revealed to him. He can share it only with the few, and with them mostly in solitude. A poet-playwright, then, is a contradiction in terms. But a poet-playwright is exactly what Shakespeare is. And so his greater plays are one thing as drama and another as poetry, one thing on the outside, another within. (Goddard, I 82-83).
I’ve also come to the conclusion that this play functions as Shakespeare’s farewell to comedy. The ones that are dated later either aren’t later (e.g., As You Like It), or are revampings of early comedies (Merry Wives, Twelfth Night, All’s Well), or are dark and weird and not comedies (Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure). Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice is undermining all that passes for comic entertainment. An early character first asks, “When shall we laugh?” Never, I hope here. Launcelot the clown figure tells his blind father he’s dead. A laugh riot? He later knocks up a woman and puns on the word Moor, so that even Lorenzo pronounces against easy puns and what tiresomely passes for “wit,” especially in this circumstance. And chimps! What a hoot! They make faces and appear dressed up in short pants and suspenders and throw their own poop around. Here, Jessica’s extravagant purchase of a monkey for fleeting entertainment is cast appropriately as disgusting. Any laugh you tend towards in this play is liable to prove objectionable. Glee at Jessica’s elopement? A swelled heart at the town’s mockery of Shylock or the kangaroo court dynamics? We get geared up for a masque and it never happens. And pervasive throughout is the viral melancholy — Antonio and Portia in the first act, and in the fifth, Jessica not soothed by “sweet music” (or Musak). And it’s all true: can you have a good laugh when your land is ruled by a smug conspiracy of faux “christian” economic tyrants who obliterate dissenting voices? That the play is placed among the comedies is ironic.