The Bardathon: 11 – The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice is about as disquieting a work as I’ve read. Shakespeare takes the structure and form of a romantic comedy, but then proceeds to fill that structure with content that is so very disturbing, that the form seems to buckle and break under the strain. And yet, he insists on the romantic comedy as well. Shakespeare had already experimented in mixing genres together: for instance, Romeo and Juliet, although a tragedy, has many comic elements in it, and is structured like a comedy. But here, he goes further than one would have thought possible in fusing together elements that are irreconcilable. Whether or not he fully succeeded, I’m not too sure, but the attempt was audacious.

On the one hand, Shakespeare takes a romantic plot that seems straight out of folklore: there is a young unmarried heiress, and her suitors are given a choice from gold, silver and lead caskets, and only he who chooses correctly will marry her. Of course, we all know that lead is the correct choice, and we can all read trite morals into this simple tale – appearances are deceptive, one must look beyond the surface to find the true value of anything, etc. etc. But this simple tale is intertwined with something considerably more complex and disturbing. This other strand also has elements of a fairy tale in it: an honest man pawns his very life to a devil, and then finds his life is forfeit. It is, indeed, the Faust story that Will’s late friend Marlowe had so memorably dramatised: for the villain here (Shylock) is quite clearly referred to as a devil; and the honest hero (Antonio) pledges a pound of flesh – i.e. his heart. But Shakespeare does not depict this simple story in such simplistic terms, and it is worth investigating why.

For, as is well known, Shakespeare added the complication of making the “villain” a Jew, and the “hero” a Christian. What’s more, he made this Jewish “villain” one of the most powerful figures in all drama: even though he appears in only a few brief scenes, it is he, and not the Christian hero, who is the centre of gravity of the play; it is he who dominates the work. Why did Shakespeare do this? After all, the Christian hero, Antonio, is self-sacrificing and, in his resignation to his supposed fate, even heroic: it would have been very easy to have made him the centre of the play. And yet, it is the Jewish villain Shylock, and not Antonio, that top actors queue up to play.

It is impossible to discuss this play, especially nowadays, without referring to the vexed issue of antisemitism. There are those (e.g. the dramatist Arnold Wesker) who find this play grotesquely antisemitic. And yet, there are many others who go so far as to see Shylock as a tragic hero. This is not merely a modern reaction: seeing Shylock as a tragic protagonist goes right back to the 18th century (and possibly even earlier): amongst those who saw Shylock in such terms was Heine, no less.

At the first meeting between the two in the play, Shylock is given these lines:

Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances:
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,
For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help:
Go to, then; you come to me, and you say
‘Shylock, we would have moneys:’ you say so;
You, that did void your rheum upon my beard
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Over your threshold: moneys is your suit
What should I say to you? Should I not say
‘Hath a dog money? is it possible
A cur can lend three thousand ducats?’ Or
Shall I bend low and in a bondman’s key,
With bated breath and whispering humbleness, Say this;
‘Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last;
You spurn’d me such a day; another time
You call’d me dog; and for these courtesies
I’ll lend you thus much moneys’?

The hero now has every opportunity to show that this is not so, but what Antonio says confirms every single word Shylock has spoken:

I am as like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.

At this point, it is easy to fall back on the formula that Shakespeare was writing for the audience of his time, and that his audience would have cheered Antonio’s antisemitism. However, this seems to me lazy thinking. It is verifiable that seeing Shylock in tragic terms is not merely a modern phenomenon; and, if it is possible to see him in such terms, Shakespeare must consciously have made that possible: one cannot create a figure of such stature merely by accident. I think it’s best bearing in mind that there’s absolutely nothing we can think about these works that Shakespeare himself had not thought about.

But for all that, those who see The Merchant of Venice as essentially antisemitic will point out that the fact remains that Shylock is a villain – that he is deliberately plotting to murder a man. That is certainly true. However, to understand a play of such complexity, we have to look beyond the obvious: as the subplot with the caskets tells us, we must look beyond appearances to apprehend the truth.

Shylock, quite clearly, is a man who, all his life, has been subjected to deep, irrational hatred. He has, quite literally, been spat at and kicked. For his entire life, he has been mocked and abused. What does a lifetime of such suffering do to the human soul? It is unthinkable that Shakespeare, with his insatiable curiosity into the workings of the human mind, would not have considered this. We are not talking here about whether or not Shylock’s sufferings “justify” what he tries to do: we are talking here about simple cause and effect. Shylock has been treated all his life like an animal: why should he now be expected to show human tenderness? As he says himself:

Thou call’dst me dog before thou hadst a cause;
But, since I am a dog, beware my fangs

For Shylock knows exactly what the score is. These two lines sum up the situation to perfection. Arnold Wesker, I know, dismisses all this by saying that, dramatically, a credible villain requires credible motives, and that all Shakespeare is doing is giving him credible motives. But I really don’t think this will do. Leaving aside the fact that Shakespeare is often happy to present villainy without an adequate motive (Don John in Much Ado About Nothing, say, or Oliver before he reforms in As You Like It), it is reasonable to ask ourselves: If Shylock is to be given motives for dramatic reasons, why does Shakespeare give him these particular motives? Shylock surely has motive enough in the fact that Antonio lends out money without interest, thus undermining his business; why should Shakespeare introduce the motive of revenge for a lifetime of insult and humiliation? And, more especially, why does Shakespeare introduce such a motive when he must have known that introducing such issues would smash to pieces the delicate lyricism that is required in a romantic comedy? If Shylock is, indeed, no more than a villain, why is he given a line so profoundly moving as this?

… no sighs but of my breathing; no tears but of my shedding.

Yes, despite lines such as this (which would not have been out place coming from Othello or from Lear), Shakespeare resists sentimentalising Shylock. He is a usurer – and that was morally suspect to say the least. And yes, he is a miser. When his daughter elopes, he cries out in the streets “My daughter! My ducats!” This is not, of course, to say that he loves his money more than he does his daughter – but yes, he loves them equally.

It is sometimes said that Shylock shows no obvious affection to his daughter, but there is little in the text to justify this: in the single brief scene in which they appear together together, Shylock is in a perturbed state of mind because he has been invited to dinner by people who, he knows, hate him; and, not surprisingly, he has no desire to go. But even given his perturbed state of mind, there is no evidence of harshness towards his daughter. Far more prominent than the father’s laxck of sympathy for the daughter is, for me, the daughter’s lack of sympathy for the father: she exchanges for a monkey (!!) a ring that had been the first present her now deceased mother had given him. When Shylock hears about this, he is heartbroken: in just a few words, Shakespeare conjures up the depth of feeling Shylock has for his dead wife – and it is quite unforgivable that his own daughter should join with his tormenters to trample upon emotions that should be sacred.

To the Christian characters, of course, Shylock’s distress on being betrayed by his daughter is merely funny. Salerio and Solanio, it seems, go to see Shylock in distress as one would go to see some animal in the menagerie: it’s a bit of entertainment for them, an amusement, a diversion. If a man’s deepest emotions are subject to such scorn, then how can it possible to expect that man to retain his humanity? If Shylock’s humanity has been compromised (after all, he does express a desire to see his daughter dead at his feet with the ducats in her ear), Shakespeare allows us to see with perfect clarity how this has come about.

Then, of course, there is Shylock’s famous speech:

He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what’s his reason? 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 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?

However, if we see The Merchant of Venice as much more than mere antisemitic rabble-rouser we must not go to the other extreme and see it as a nice, liberal plea for tolerance. As has been pointed out, the famous speech quoted above is in fact part of Shylock’s justification for seeking to murder another man. But reading through this play, I was reminded of many of the tragic protagonists of Euripides. One recurrent theme that I seemed to find in Euripides is that of terrible crimes committed by those who have been made to suffer. An obvious example of this is Hecuba, who, at the end of the play of which she is the eponymous protagonist, commits the most heinous crime. But even as we are horrified by what she does, we cannot bring ourselves to condemn her morally, as we can see clearly what it is that has driven her to do this. We feel terror, we feel pity, but somehow, feel constrained about passing moral judgement. And similarly, I think, with Shylock:  what he seeks to do is horrible, but since we can see so clearly what has brought him to this, we feel constrained about passing moral judgement.

Shylock’s antagonists, though not without virtues, are, by and large, an unlikeable lot. Antonio, for instance, is kind and loving to his friends, self-sacrificing, and even heroically generous; but he is also in many ways a hateful figure, not least in his unmotivated hatred for a fellow human being. Portia, who engineers Shylock’s downfall, is brave, intelligent, resourceful, and, in the matter of the rings at the very end, forgiving; but she also displays an unpleasant racism that is a sort of reflection of the antisemitism we see in the rest of the play: she explicitly expresses relief when the black Prince of Morrocco chooses the wrong casket, and says she hopes that others of his complexion will choose similarly. Clearly, Portia is not quite Desdemona in this respect.

(Of course, it may be objected that the very term “racism” is a modern concept, and shouldn’t, therefore, be applied here, but I don’t know that I accept that: the term itself may be modern, but the feature to which the term applies – i.e. irrational hatred of certain people purely on the basis of race – is clearly present in The Merchant of Venice, and I don’t see that the term is misapplied here.)

Gratiano is just empty-headed; Bassanio is mercenary and shallow (he claims in the trial scene that he would happily sacrifice his life and even his wife to save Antonio, but if he really means this, why does he not just leap over to Shylock there and then and kill him, and then accept the consequences?); Lorenzo is openly a thief (the Christians in the play are all accessories to the theft insofar as they know about it and condone it); and so on. Shylock may be the villain, but those whom he hates and who hate him, while not completely lacking in admirable qualities, don’t seem particularly attractive either: Shakespeare has given them none of the charm he normally gives to the characters in his comedies whom he intends to be sympathetic.

The climactic point of the play comes, of course, in the great trial scene, which is surely amongst the greatest scenes in all drama. I find it terrifying. At this point, Shylock not often referred to by name: he has become his label – he is “the Jew”. And it is so much easier to hate a label than it is to hate a human being. It is so much easier, also, to kill someone if we think him but as a label.

But of course, it will be objected that here it’s Shylock, not the Christians, who wants to do the killing. But there is more than one way to kill a man. And Shylock’s soul is already dead: it has already been killed. It has now become completely unreasonable, completely obdurate, completely deaf to the calls for humanity – that same humanity that, he knows, has been denied him.

What Shylock wants is justice, justice for all that he has suffered. But there is no court that will give him that justice: what he has suffered at the hands of the Christians is not considered a crime by any court. However, Antonio’s forfeiture has given Shylock a means of using the justice of the Venetian court to serve what he sees as a greater justice. When Shylock says:

The pound of flesh, which I demand of him,
Is dearly bought

he does not mean the three thousand ducats that Antonio had forfeited: that is trivial, and Shylock, despite his miserliness, is happy to forfeit that amount, happy even to reject greater amounts when they are offered to him. What Shylock refers to when he speaks of the pound of flesh being “dearly bought” is not mere money: he is referring to a lifetime of humiliation, a lifetime of his humanity being denied. Can one physical killing not be seen as a just punishment for what these people have done to Shylock’s soul? Of course, we may say that this cannot really be justice, as it cannot be just for the victim to pass judgement and sentence. But where is he to find a court that will offer him the justice he craves? He desperately craves some sort of reparation for a lifetime of subjection to unmotivated hatred. But which court could he possibly appeal to?

It is at this stage that Portia introduces a counterpoise to justice: mercy. There is that miraculous speech of hers:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself

When the word “strained” first appears, it means “forced”; but immediately, in the next line, the word takes on a different meaning – that of being filtered through something. Mercy, to begin with, is something that cannot be forced, but almost instantly, that same word tells us that it is something that comes to us straight from heaven, unfiltered.

However, we must beware of sentimentality here: the conflict between justice and mercy – ostensibly, perceived Jewish values versus perceived Christian values – is by no means one-sided. The conflict between the two appears frequently in Shakespeare’s plays, and it is never a simple case of right versus wrong. Even if we stay with dramatic issues rather than moral issues, it is obvious that the most gripping drama occurs not when right is pitted against wrong, but when two different versions of right clash against each other. In Measure for Measure, this conflict comes up again, when Isabella makes a plea on behalf of mercy that is just as moving as Portia’s; but Angelo’s response to it is unanswerable: he shows mercy most of all, he says, when he shows justice, because then he pities those whom he does not know. If justice is overridden in the name of mercy, then the concept of justice itself becomes undermined, and that can only lead to greater suffering. This is unanswerable. Justice has its claims, and they are at least as strong as the claims for mercy.

Shylock is defeated, of course: this is a comedy, after all. But there have been disquieting accounts of the way Shylock’s defeat has been greeted by certain audiences: The Merchant of Venice, we are told, was popular in Nazi Germany; and even now in our presumably more tolerant times, audiences have been known in this scene to vent their hatred against the Jew. The quality of mercy is re-inforced, but the claims of justice are left unanswered. And we, the audience, cannot entirely be sure that this is a happy ending.

Antonio does, at this point, show mercy in declining his part in Shylock’s fortune (thus allowing Shylock to live). However, the conditions are such as to destroy Shylock completely: he is to stop usury (his only trade), and to convert to Christianity. This last point would have been seen in Shakespeare’s times as an act of charity – of saving Shylock’s soul, but Shakespeare must have known what this would have meant to Shylock the man: the Jew who had tried physically to rip the heart out of a Christian now has his heart ripped out of him – metaphorically, but equally effectively – by that same Christian: he is forced to jettison his very identity. As the defeated old man hobbles out of the court, we are left in no doubt that we have witnessed a tragic downfall: Shylock is a broken man in all respects, and it seems unlikely that he can live much longer. And even if he does, there is nothing for him to live for.

However, this is not the end of the play, and it is here I confess to having problems with the work. For, having presented us with a scene of the utmost tragic power, a scene in which the ground shakes beneath our feet, Shakespeare takes us back again into the realms of romantic comedy: the play ends with a moonlit idyll. I appreciate that Shakespeare intended to fuse together irreconcilable elements, but do they really fuse here? I think the answer, for me at least, is “no”. Shylock is so powerful a presence, that he is present in spirit if not in body in this last scene also, and, despite some gorgeously lyrical passages (by this stage, it’s almost as if Shakespeare could turn this astonishing lyricism on and off at will), the unseen presence of Shylock overwhelms everything.

I think later, in Twelfth Night, Shakespeare once again attempted to fuse together irreconcilable elements within the form of a romantic comedy (and this time, it is Malvolio who is the figure who cannot be accommodated in the final harmony), and I think in the later play he achieved this fusion more successfully. In The Merchant of Venice, we have drama of immense tragic force; but the comedy, it seems to me, is crushed under its weight.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Strathistle on October 21, 2013 at 3:57 pm

    “A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go.
    Let all of his complexion choose me so”.
    Your essay is very good and mostly right. I think though that you do misapply the term racism to Portia. She is merely stating a preference for complexion like one would state a preference for blondes. It the strictess terms of course it is a form of racism but even our society has yet to evolve to the point where it demands absolute rationality in matters of love. Also, let’s not forget she is compelled to accept any suitor who wins her in the “lottery”. Under those circumstances a small verbal rebellion is justifiable and worthy of mercy.

    Reply

    • Hello, and welcome,
      The problem with writing about a work such as this is that one’s view of it is provisional only till the next reading. However, on the whole, I think my feelings about The Merchant of Venice are much the same as they were when I wrote this over three years ago: if anything, I feel more strongly than I did then that Shylock is indeed a tragic character.

      (One thing I do regret about this post is that, in retropsect, it seems very clumsily written. That often happens: I find myself looking back at my earlier posts, such as this one, and find myself squirming! I wonder whether I’ll be looking back in three years’ time on what i am writing now, and be similarly embarrassed!)

      As for Portia, you may well be right that she is expressing a personal preference – “like one would state a preference for blondes”, as you put it – rather than a racial prejudice as such. Perhaps I was a bit heavy-handed with my criticism on that score. it is, nonetheless, perhaps fair to say that the lesson of the caskets – that one should not judge by appearances – is lost on her. And yes, I do accept that we cannot be purely rational in terms of love; and that, further, it may not be desirable to be purely rational in such matters. (“Tell me where is fancy bred, in the heart or in the head?” …)

      All the best,
      Himadri

      Reply

  2. Posted by Strathistle on October 21, 2013 at 4:00 pm

    Your essay is very good and mostly right. I think though that you do misapply the term racism to Portia. She is merely stating a preference for complexion like one would state a preference for blondes. It the strictest terms of course it is a form of racism but even our society has yet to evolve to the point where it demands absolute rationality in matters of love. Also, let’s not forget she is compelled to accept any suitor who wins her in the “lottery”. Under those circumstances a small verbal rebellion is justifiable and worth of mercy.

    Reply

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