ShakespeareÃ¢ÂÂs A Midsummer NightÃ¢ÂÂs Dream is a play that reveals its scaffolding. Behavior and motive are explained for comic consistency and unity, almost as if the playwright did not trust our capacity to intuit them. This is seen most starkly in Act V, Scene I, the Ã¢ÂÂplay within a play,Ã¢Â? in which the rude mechanicals stage a play for the benefit of Theseus and the company of lovers. The exposed cues are dropped by the mechanicals for comic effect, as in PyramusÃ¢ÂÂs verbal repetition of his visual act on stage: Ã¢ÂÂI see a voice: now will I to the chink / To spy an I can hear my ThisbyÃ¢ÂÂs faceÃ¢Â? (5.1.192-93). It does not take long for the audience to begin to conform to the charade. After Wall announces his departure, Theseus picks up the cue, anticipating MoonshineÃ¢ÂÂs entrance and speaking in his stead: Ã¢ÂÂNow is the moon used between the two neighborsÃ¢Â? (5.1.207-8). ShakespeareÃ¢ÂÂs insistence on exposing the structure of the internal play suggests the untrustworthiness of the playÃ¢ÂÂs audience, that is, the aristocrats of TheseusÃ¢ÂÂs court and citystate; their struggle to comprehend motive and behavior invests A Midsummer NightÃ¢ÂÂs Dream with a pervasive feeling of unnaturalness that goes beyond the playÃ¢ÂÂs dreamscape of enchantment.Like A Midsummer NightÃ¢ÂÂs Dream, The Merchant of Venice exploits the mechanism of the stage and staged dramatizations to criticize the playÃ¢ÂÂs characters. The parallel trial scenes can each be viewed as a Ã¢ÂÂplay within a play.Ã¢Â? As performances staged to bring about a specific action, the first two trials (the trial of the caskets and the trial of Shylock) work to eliminate outsiders (PortiaÃ¢ÂÂs unwanted suitors and the villain Shylock) from the comic realm in order that the playÃ¢ÂÂs ends can be attained. However, the third trial of the play, the trial of the rings, more robustly resists and challenges our deconstruction. It occurs among insiders, and after the main dramatic action is completed. As the final act and scene of the play, the trial of the rings is a performance staged by Portia that works to complicate the conclusion of The Merchant of Venice.Act V opens with an exchange of dialogue between Jessica and Lorenzo. It is standard banter between lovers trading examples of archetypal lovers in archetypal nights, moving from general and distant (Troilus and Cressida, Aeneas and Dido) to specific and personal (Lorenzo and Jessica). We are reminded of the exchange between Thisbe and Pyramus in A Midsummer NightÃ¢ÂÂs Dream, in which the lovers compare themselves favorably against their mythic counterparts. But as this progression occurs in The Merchant of Venice, something strange happens; Jessica and Lorenzo begin to compete with each other. After their string of Ã¢ÂÂIn such a nights,Ã¢Â? Jessica tells Lorenzo, Ã¢ÂÂI would outnight you, did nobody come; / But hark, I hear the footing of a manÃ¢Â? (5.1.23-4). More significantly, Jessica and Lorenzo begin to hint at the otherÃ¢ÂÂs unfaithfulness. To counter JessicaÃ¢ÂÂs Ã¢ÂÂIn such a night / Did Lorenzo swear he loved her well, / Stealing her soul with many vows of faith / And neÃ¢ÂÂer a true one,Ã¢Â? Lorenzo responds, Ã¢ÂÂIn such a night / Did pretty Jessica, like a little shrow, / Slander her loveÃ¢Â? (5.1.17-22). Even as witty repartee, why do the lovers insist on portraying their love as not idealized but founded on deceit? While the details of their elopement are a bit sordid, are we not at least to trust that their love is true?The dialogue between Jessica and Lorenzo holds to the pattern of speech and communication we have observed throughout the play. From the beginning, speech has performed a largely negative performative task. That is, it serves to reveal by what is not said. To illustrate, let us look at the playÃ¢ÂÂs first line, AntonioÃ¢ÂÂs melancholic Ã¢ÂÂIn sooth I know not why I am so sad,Ã¢Â? and what immediately follows from it (1.1.1). AntonioÃ¢ÂÂs utterance is met by a company of wits that attempts to articulate an answer. Why is Antonio sad? Salerio takes a stab at it, suggesting that AntonioÃ¢ÂÂs Ã¢ÂÂmind is tossing on the ocean,Ã¢Â? where his fortunes are uncertain; thus Antonio Ã¢ÂÂis sad to think upon his merchandiseÃ¢Â? (1.1.8, 40). When Antonio denies this, Solanio then suggests, Ã¢ÂÂWhy then you are in loveÃ¢Â? (1.1.46). This in turn rejected, Solanio, Salerio, and later Gratiano begin to mock him, arguing in effect that he is sad because he is Ã¢ÂÂnot merry,Ã¢Â? or because he willfully elects this role to gain a reputation of Ã¢ÂÂwisdom, gravity, profound conceitÃ¢Â? (1.1. 48, 92). But even early on in the play we know this is not the answer, and that there is no real one, as AntonioÃ¢ÂÂs opening line is not a question, designed to elicit an answer, but a statement and a one-line character sketch.Antonio does not trust in speechÃ¢ÂÂs ability to articulate the unknown, and we can argue that Jessica and Lorenzo do not either; they celebrate their love by expressing what it is not, suggesting that what it is Ã¢Â” like AntonioÃ¢ÂÂs melancholy Ã¢Â” is something more elevated. Like the music of the spheres, the harmony cannot be heard by those closed into bodily forms, the Ã¢ÂÂmuddy vesture of decayÃ¢Â? (5.5.64). The exchanges between Antonio and the Venetians and Jessica and Lorenzo are also similar because both conform to a pattern of interrupted speech. In the earlier scene, before any real conclusions can be reached, Bassanio arrives with the request for AntonioÃ¢ÂÂs help that sets in motion the playÃ¢ÂÂs plot. We are left knowing only what does not make Antonio unhappy. This pattern of interruption also informs the dialogue between Jessica and Lorenzo, as marked by the messenger who comes bearing news of PortiaÃ¢ÂÂs return to Belmont.Throughout The Merchant of Venice, the speech act is seen as unfulfilling, a way to play verbally without arriving at answers or understandings. Shylock characterizes this well during his stumbling trial scene in Act IV; he can give no reasons for his passions, and tells the court, quite astutely, Ã¢ÂÂI am not bound to please you with my answersÃ¢Â? (4.1.64). The use of the word Ã¢ÂÂboundÃ¢Â? in this line is significant because it exposes the failure of the contract founded on words to constrain motive and behavior. There will always be something that will evade the domain of the contract, and here, that is a satisfactory, sympathetic relationship between human beings. PortiaÃ¢ÂÂs trial of the rings in Act V of The Merchant of Venice performs the task of challenging the idea of the verbal contract. Unlike the earlier two trials of the play, both founded on verbal contracts and tackled through speech, this is a trial that cannot be settled through verbal skill.The first trial of the play, the trial of the caskets, consists of the suitorÃ¢ÂÂs choice when confronted by the several caskets of PortiaÃ¢ÂÂs inheritance. The use of this trial to determine PortiaÃ¢ÂÂs husband has been ordained as a contract between Portia and her father, so that now Ã¢ÂÂthe will of a living daughterÃ¢Â? is Ã¢ÂÂcurbed by the will of a dead fatherÃ¢Â? (1.2.24-5). This trial is an entirely verbal one of epigrams and scrolls and song; it is founded upon a riddle to which only the privileged are able to answer. Looking at the exchange between Portia and Bassanio directly leading up to BassanioÃ¢ÂÂs choice, we see the language of speech and its inadequacies constantly pushing to the forefront: Ã¢ÂÂI speak too long, but Ã¢ÂÂtis to peize the timeÃ¢Â? (3.2.22); Ã¢ÂÂconfess / What treason there is mingled with your loveÃ¢Â? (26-27); Ã¢ÂÂNone but that ugly treason of mistrust, /Which makes me fear thÃ¢ÂÂ enjoying of my loveÃ¢Â? (28-29); and Ã¢ÂÂAy, but I fear you speak upon the rack, / Where men enforcd do speak anythingÃ¢Â? (32-33). This exchange between Portia and Bassanio, playfully withholding trust as to oneÃ¢ÂÂs loverÃ¢ÂÂs motives, anticipates the exchange between Jessica and Lorenzo in Act V of the play. Bassanio selects correctly, but a correct choice says nothing about motive and nothing about love. The trial ends unsatisfactorily through verbal trickery and a fundamental asymmetry of knowledge, and before the love between Portia and Bassanio can be proved or consummated, Bassanio is called away to Venice.Like the trial of the caskets, ShylockÃ¢ÂÂs trial in Act IV is concluded through words and the loopholes that can be found within them. The motives that separate Shylock from the Venetians cannot be reconciled through the language of appeal or argument, traditional idioms of the court, and so the trial comes down to PortiaÃ¢ÂÂs clever literalization of ShylockÃ¢ÂÂs bond. She prepares for her climatic victory through a series of parallel statements that show off the ornamental and rhetorical power of language: Ã¢ÂÂA pound of that same merchantÃ¢ÂÂs flesh is thine. / The court awards it, and the law doth give it,Ã¢Â? followed by Ã¢ÂÂThe law allows it, and the court awards itÃ¢Â? (4.1.298-9, 302). But just as ShylockÃ¢ÂÂs heart lifts with praise for PortiaÃ¢ÂÂs abstract observance of justice put into such fine rhetorical form, she changes direction:Tarry a little; there is something else.This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood;The words expressly are Ã¢ÂÂa pound of fleshÃ¢Â? (4.1.304-6).Portia makes literal the conditions set by ShylockÃ¢ÂÂs bond as it invalidates his desires, displaying the insidious flexibility of language to fit any form. As Bassanio has aptly said in the trial of the caskets, there is no Ã¢ÂÂdamnd errorÃ¢Â? that someone will not be able to Ã¢ÂÂapprove … with a textÃ¢Â? (3.2.78-9). Like the casket trial, ShylockÃ¢ÂÂs trial ends on an unsatisfying note, exploiting asymmetries of knowledge to find a solution without arriving at true understanding of another human beingÃ¢ÂÂs motives.Portia plots the trial of the rings as a counterpart to these trials, revealing their insufficiencies brought on through over-dependence on verbal argument. As the third trial of The Merchant of Venice, it would seem to serve no purpose besides the comic ones that allow Shakespeare to insert his cross-dressing and cuckold jokes through the test of a loverÃ¢ÂÂs faithfulness to his bond. But the way this trial is resolved is significant for the playÃ¢ÂÂs message. As Portia welcomes her husband Bassanio and his friend Antonio to Belmont after their journey from Venice, we hear, offside, Gratiano and Nerissa arguing over GratianoÃ¢ÂÂs missing ring, which symbolizes a claim by Nerissa and an oath by Gratiano. The absence of BassanioÃ¢ÂÂs ring, and the respective betrayal of his oath to Portia, only surfaces through this interruption to the rites of hospitality, as plotted by the two women. Bassanio and Portia then exchange paired defenses of their positions, in which the word Ã¢ÂÂringÃ¢Â? is the prominently repeated end word: Bassanio tells Portia, Ã¢ÂÂIf you did know to whom I gave the ring, / If you did know for whom I gave the ring, / And would conceive for what I gave the ringÃ¢ÂÂ¦Ã¢Â? to which Portia responds, Ã¢ÂÂIf you had known the virtue of the ring, / Or half her worthiness that gave the ring,Ã¢Â? and so forth (5.1.193-208).This recalls the type of verbal exchange that dominates the other two trials of the play and the playÃ¢ÂÂs modes of communication as a whole: clever patterning that finds incomplete resolution, revealing through negatives. But Portia breaks this pattern by cutting off BassanioÃ¢ÂÂs oath as he attempts to swear a second time never to break an oath to her; she presents him with the ring instead, interrupting him, Ã¢ÂÂIn both my eyes he doubly sees himself, / In each eye one. Swear by your double self, / And thereÃ¢ÂÂs an oath of creditÃ¢Â? (5.1.244-46). The failure of language as a mode of communication in The Merchant of Venice has, I think, something to do with this motif of doubling. While Portia is alluding to and criticizing BassanioÃ¢ÂÂs Ã¢ÂÂdouble selfÃ¢Â? as a type of Janus-character, she is also alluding to the duality of the marriage bond that makes, as it makes two people one, also one person into two. It is only through a personÃ¢ÂÂs ability to become Ã¢ÂÂdoubleÃ¢Â? Ã¢Â” to see through anotherÃ¢ÂÂs eyes Ã¢Â” that true motives can be understood and true Ã¢ÂÂbondsÃ¢Â? can be formed that have not been ordered and structured by language. The ring trial, as a test of BassanioÃ¢ÂÂs faithfulness, is staged by Portia against the other trials of the play; BassanioÃ¢ÂÂs failure in light of it exposes the failure of language as a regulator of human relationships and at the same time paves the way for a new type of society between the Venetians.
There is a method to the madness that is Shakespearean Comedy. Every Comedy has an outline and “The Merchant of Venice” is no exception. This highly social dilemma centers on the pursuit of love and money and concludes with the joyous acquisition of just that. But while beautiful people pursue beautiful things, something dark is going on beneath and made light of through Shakespearean wit. The sources of human identity are probed as a Venetian moneylender transforms into the monster he is pressured to become and a beautiful heiress mutates mercy and justice into wicked trickery. Portia’s plea for mercy in the fourth act is the most poetic and moving speech in all of this play and it is in comparison to this oration that the disturbing undertones of “The Merchant of Venice” become the most apparent.A close reading of Portia’s Mercy Speech (IV,i,190-212) discloses a tone and rhetoric entirely unlike anything else in this play.”The quality of mercy is not strained./It dropeth as the gentle rain from heaven/Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:/It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”Portia is speaking with tones of fanciful romance that has in past been reserved only for wooing. She is trying to convince Shylock that mercy is not something that can be enforced by the court, but that it is something more beautiful and nourishing than anything conceived on earth. Portia also wants Shylock to know that mercy in this case will be best for everyone -a subtle hint that she intends to get her way.”‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes/ The throned monarch better than his crown./ His scepter shows the force of temporal power,/ The attribute to awe and majesty/ Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;/ But mercy above this sceptered sway.”Portia is clearly drawing a comparison between Shylock and the king of men he will become if he shows mercy. She explains that those who are mighty will show mercy implying that if he does not, he is weak. Portia insinuates that Shylock is the leader of this situation and can use his advantage to awe and frighten everyone in the court, but that his compassion must overrule this desire to dominate.”It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;/ It is an attribute to God himself;/ And earthy power doth then show likest God’s/ When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,/ Though justice be thy plea, consider this:/ That in the course of justice none of use/ Should see salvation.”Portia goes on to show that mercy is a quality of God that can be passed down through the kings of men. Mercy is the only way that men can emanate power the nearest to God’s, especially when it is applied to human-sought justice. The Christian doctrine preaches that because Adam and Eve have fallen into sin, only God’s mercy can provide salvation. Portia implores to Shylock that in his personal quest of justice none will find salvation and that it would be best for everyone involved in he granted mercy instead.”We do pray for mercy,/ And that same prayer doth teach us all to render/ The deeds of mercy.”In the Lord’s Prayer we are to ask God to forgive us “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Portia is telling Shylock that if he has ever wished for mercy then he is morally required to give it in turn.”I have spoke thus much/ To mitigate the justice of my plea,/ Which, if though follow, this strict court of Venice/ Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.”Portia has tried to temper with mercy Shylock’s plea for justice but if he insists upon it, the court will have no choice but to see the sentence through.In sum, Portia issues a plea to Shylock for mercy. She speaks of mercy in romantic and heavenly terms as she compares the givers of mercy to kings. She looks to God as the source of mercy and declares that the closest way we can emulate God’s power is to grant mercy ourselves. She insists that it is every human’s obligation to grant mercy if he wishes the same treatment for himself. Mercy is the best and only morally upstanding choice, but if Shylock disregards it, she will see the sentence through.This entire speech is ridiculous comedy.The attitude and message of this monologue is contrary to that of the majority of this drama and is designed as a foil to accentuate the circle of cruelty that is “The Merchant of Venice.” Circles are a dominant theme within this play. Shylock gains money and then lends it away. Antonio sends out his money hoping that it will come back to him much accompanied. Bassanio makes an analogy between his spending on courtship and his past experiences with arrows where “when I had lost one shaft,/ I shot his fellow of the selfsame flight/ To find the other forth” (I,i,147-151). Bassanio also wants to send money out in hopes that it will bring more back to him in the form of Portia. There are even physical circles in the play; the rings given to Bassanio and Gratiano. These rings travel a circular path, as they are give, given again, and eventually find their way back from whence they came. The many circles in the play parallel the general circle that dominates the plot: that of cruelty.The Christian Antonio viciously tortures and abuses the local Jew until Shylock is made so crazy with hate that seeks violent revenge. The cruelty circles back to the Christians when Shylock craftily tricks Antonio into signing his life into merchant’s hands and then Shylock demands the forfeit of his bond. Portia’s Mercy Speech at the trial is the apex of the play as it highlights what ought to be done in the face of all the cruelty that has been wrought. The audience is given the expectation that finally the circle of cruelty will be broken, that something charitable and decent might actually be afforded to the antagonist. It doesn’t. In context with the entirety of the play, Portia’s Mercy Speech is hilarious in that it is quite comical to think that any creature in this work is actually capable of doing the moral, merciful thing. The characters are all given the opportunity to choose the humane path and every one of them forsakes it.Portia begins her speech with a romantic notion of delights pouring down from heaven. Her quixotic tone serves to highlight the absolute lack of romance in the play. Every relationship in Venice seems gilded not with love, but with money. Bassanio seeks out Portia because she is incredibly wealthy and even Lorenzo’s pockets benefit from his elopement with Jessica. These characters know nothing of romance as a husband is chosen from a casket, cruel tricks are played on newlywed husbands, and grooms are willing to give away their wedding rings to near strangers.There are even further examples of how Portia’s speech directly contrasts how the characters actually act. Portia speaks of the kingliness of mercy highlighting the tricks that are used throughout the play by Shylock and by Portia herself to gain what is in their best interest. At the conclusion of her Mercy Speech, Portia promises that the court will grant Shylock what he wants when in actuality she intends to do the exact opposite. Portia speaks of how a commitment to the Lord requires mercy while she shows Shylock no mercy at the end of the trial. Directly after her plea she robs Shylock of half his estate instead of showing him the mercy that she originally prescribes.Gratiano and Antonio join her in her Christian hypocrisy as Gratiano demands that Shylock “must be hanged at the state’s/ charge” (IV,i,182) and Antonio intends that Shylock “presently become a Christian” and that “he do record a gift…of all he dies possessed/Unto his son Lorenzo and his daughter,” (IV,i,403-406) the very people who most betrayed and wronged Shylock. After preaching the necessity of mercy the Christians trick Shylock out of the justice he deserves and torture him further by robbing him of his fortune. This component of the play is dominated by a tone hungry bitterness. When Portia asks Antonio what mercy he will afford Shylock, Gratiano cannot stop yelling for a “A halter gratis, nothing else, for God’s sake!” (IV,i,395) He will only be pacified by a hanging. Antonio mocks the concept of mercy when he agrees to “quit the fine for one half of his goods,/ so he will let me have/ The other half” (IV,i,397-399). Antonio does not deserve this money, but he will take advantage of Shylock regardless.But why does Shylock receive ultimate punishment while the Christians get to go home happy? These merciless Christians are only saved by the strict format of Comedy itself. Comedy demands that the play end in happy marriage and the audience would most like to see their own kind remain victorious. Still, Shakespeare can please the crowd and yet leave them with a subtle message.The end of the play, though true to comedic fashion, is a bit dark and cloudy on the horizon. Jessica, who has just run off with the man she loves -much to the expense of her father- remarks that she is “never merry when [she] hears sweet music” (V,i,77) while the moonlight reminds her of stories about tragic, betrayed love. Perhaps she realizes that she in only happily wed because she was willing to conform, and paid handsomely to do so. The marriages of Bassanio and Gratiano start out rocky as their wives play cruel tricks on them and they fail the tests of their love. These final images of happiness and harmony are precarious, leaving the audience with the feeling that all is not well and the circle of cruelty is likely to continue.
The daughters of Elizabethan England were predominantly subject to their father’s wishes. This is particularly evident in terms of the main female character, Portia, who must obey her father even after his death:O me, the word ‘choose’! I may neither choose who I would nor refuse who I dislike; so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father. Is it not hard Nerrissa that I cannot choose one nor refuse none?What seems to be normal prose is permeated by poetic devices such as repetition and internal rhyming which emphasise Portia’s lament. “Choose” is repeated three times, and the internal rhyme of “choose” and “refuse” is also repeated. The word “will” is repeated and seems to be punning on ‘last will and testament’, which serves to further press the finality of her father’s sentence. This rhetorical style seems to be a pre-cursor to the later court scene in which Antonio is saved by Portia’s ingenuity and subtlety of speech.Harley Granville-Barker said in his essay on the character of Portia that; “to the very end she expands her fine freedom, growing in authority and dignity, fresh touches of humour enlightening her”. This is interesting to the modern reader as she has no freedom in the sense that we would understand. Portia’s choices are initially governed by her deceased father to the extent that he restricts her selection of husband, who will in turn take command of her finances and supervise her future decisions. It could be seen from the point of view that this is not necessarily a bad thing, indeed it is Nerrissa who says, “Your father was ever virtuous,…therefore the lottery that he hath devised…will no doubt never be chosen by any rightly but one who you shall rightly love”. (The merchant of Venice, Act 1:3, lines 27 – 31 page 429) Is Portia’s father therefore giving Portia the freedom not to choose? After all there is “freedom to and freedom from”#, and Portia is free from the pressure of unwanted suitors, interested in her fortune only. This is due to “the lottery that he hath devised in these three chests of gold, silver and lead” which arguably, by the nature of their riddle, deter this form of suit. It is true that the suitors which she and Nerrissa ridiculed were all undone by this riddle and that Portia’s eventual marriage to Bassanio, whom was chosen by her also, is a well matched one. It is possible that this is some kind of cautionary allegory to women to instruct them that they must obey their fathers, because they know best.However, it could be argued that Portia is no mere instrument to her fathers will and that she in fact, takes her freedom for herself, by such delicate means as are barely perceptible. This is evident in Act Three, Scene Two, where it falls to Bassanio, her favoured suitor, to make his decision. Strangely Portia orders, “Let music sound while he doth make his choice” (The Merchant of Venice, Act 3:2, line 43, page 439), this she does not do for any other suitor, and the reasons she gives do not seem as important as the fact that the song holds a potential clue to the riddle:Tell me where is fancy bred,Or in the heart, or in the head?How begot, how nourished?Reply, reply.It is engendered with the eyes.With gazing fed, and fancy diesIn the cradle where it lies.Let us all ring fancy’s knell.I’ll begin it: ding, dong, bell.Ding, dong, bell.Firstly, and most notably, the first three lines of the song end with words that rhyme with lead, it is as if Bassanio is being sub-consciously prodded towards the correct choice. Secondly is the subject of the song; which is “fancy”. It implies a “superficial or transient feeling of attraction”, made clear in the first lines of the second stanza, where it is discouraged. The rhymes here are on “eyes”, “dies” and “lies” all which may have a double meaning. “Eyes” are the only place such superficial love pervades, not in the heart or in the head, and this love is short lived once “gazing (is) fed”. “Dies” can be said to emphasise the idea of sexual love if taken as a pun meaning ‘to climax’, and “lies” which can have several meanings, literally ‘to lie down’ or to lie down in death, also lie as in to tell an untruth, implying that this is what aesthetics can do, and lie as in to sleep with, once again emphasising the sordid aspect of “fancy”. These combine to give Bassanio a hint as to which casket to pick, therefore Portia has not been entirely passive in the decision process.Jessica is different in that she actively opposes her father’s wishes. She is also different in that it does not seem that her father for her in the way that Portia’s father has done. Shylock is more interested in money, and as Lancelot points out, “…look you, the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children” (The Merchant of Venice, Act 3:5, line 31, page 442), to which she jokingly replies, “you are no good member of the commonwealth, for in converting Jews to Christians you raise the price of Pork (The Merchant of Venice, Act 3:5, line 57, page 442)”. His words are almost biblical in their sound, and emphasise the sense of their separation through religion, and also show the general dislike of Jews and their “sins”. Jessica shows her awareness of money and commerce; she is parodying her father’s concerns to make light of the situation. Jessica is shown to be witty, just as Portia is when discussing her suitors. Jessica however, deceives her father, whilst being outwardly compliant. For example when Lancelot tells her to prepare to elope, she tells her father, “His words were ‘Farewell mistress’, nothing else.”, (The Merchant of Venice, Act 2:5, line 10, page. 434) and her final words to his back, “Farewell; and if my fortune be not crossed, / I have a father, you a daughter lost.” (The Merchant of Venice, Act 2:5, line 55, page 434) seem to show no emotion at the parting, and the word “fortune” accentuates the idea of women being used as a commodity, and what she is escaping from. Is she perhaps also playing on the word “crossed” in relation to her later change of sex?It is important that both Jessica’s and Portia’s cross dressing help them to escape the male dominance of the world, but it shows that they still must have the appearance of being male to do this, it is the classic route of the Shakespearian heroine to dress as a man to achieve her own ends. Portia acknowledges this when she says; “They shall [see us] but in such a habit / That they shall think we are accomplished / with what we lack” (The Merchant of Venice, Act 3:4 line 60, page. 442), she knows that women are not able to be taken seriously in the male spheres of medicine and the law. She is being ironic, knowing that she lacks nothing, but also knowing that her wit and intelligence could not be recognised as a woman. The giving of the rings to their husbands taking them back when cross-dressed is perhaps not so cruel as it initially seems, are Jessica and Portia merely demonstrating to their husbands that outward appearances can be deceptive. This is a significant theme in the play, and an undercurrent to other aspects of the plot such as in the casket scene, and in Shylock’s speech concerning Jews. After all Portia’s speech on the quality of mercy, (in the same scene) shows her pragmatism, but she does not follow her own example because she wants to kill Shylock, saying “For as thou urgest justice, be assured / Thou shalt have justice more than thou desir’st.” (The Merchant of Venice, Act 4:1, lines 313 – 314, page 446). This subtle threat, with the accusatory repetition of the word “thou”, seems to inform Shylock that it is his own evil that will bring evil upon him.Shakespeare’s heroines are shown to be inherently tough characters, and able to act using their own judgement and intelligence. This is not only shown in The Merchant of Venice, but with Rosalind in As You Like it, as well as Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, to a certain extent, and Desdemona in Othello, to cite just a few examples. In the comedies it is usual that cross dressing, or the use of masques are what enable the daughters to the most part, and they are outwardly compliant whilst being secretly defiant. It is also important that Shakespeare does not stereotype the female reaction to a father, different fathers are reacted against with different levels of resistance, as is evident in Portia’s very mild deviation from her father, and in Jessica’s abject violation of her father’s wishes. To some extent therefore, Shakespeare could be said to be making a feminist statement, by not treating all women as a single entity, and by presenting each case by merit, and by using the language of his poetry to show the hidden facets of his characters. In other words, he portrays women as real and important people.Bibligraphy:Atwood, Margaret, The Handmaid’s Tale, (Vintage 1996)Granville-Barker, Harley, ‘The characters, and The Crises of Action’, in Shakespeare, Modern essays in Criticism, ed. Leonard F. Dean (New York, Oxford University Press, reprinted 1967)Granville-Barker, Harley and G.B Harrison (editors), A Companion to Shakespeare Studies (Cambridge University Press, first printed 1934, last printed 1962)Shakespeare, William, The Oxford Shakespeare, The complete Works, (Clarendon, Oxford University Press, 1988)Soanes, Catherine and Waite, Maurice (editors), Oxford Dictionary, Thesaurus and Wordpower Guide (Oxford university Press, 2001)
As a playwright, William Shakespeare has few, if indeed any, colleagues of equal renown. He skillfully created works of incredible diversity; some tragic, others historical, and yet others comedic. Of this last genre, Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice is an example. Through an excerpt defining comic literature by Northrop Frye, we can carefully examine this play and more fully discern why it is considered a comedy. According to Frye, New Comedy presents a romantic intrigue between a man and a woman, hindered by an opposition controlling their present society. A twist in the plot resolves the conflict, allowing the couple to live merrily in an idyllic society.Love has been said to make the world go around, and upon studying the contents of The Merchant of Venice, the interest in the matters of love is certainly found to be pervasive. Many references to romantic intrigues are made, establishing the play as one of New Comedy. One of the chief couples in The Merchant of Venice is that of Bassanio and Portia. The intrigue to romance is first presented through Bassanio regarding Portia. He confides to Antonio, “In Belmont is a lady…/And she is fair, and fairer than that word,/Of wondrous virtues….Her name is Portia…” (Act 1, Scene 1, ll. 161-165). Through this passage, Bassanio reveals he is smitten with Portia. In his estimation, Bassanio also feels certain he could woo the lady: “…many Jasons come in quest of her/…[were] I [able]/To hold a rival place with one of them…/I should questionless be fortunate!” (Act 1, Scene 1, ll. 173-176). Once in Portia’s presence, he says to her, “Promise me life and I’ll confess the truth….love/Had been the very sum of my confession!” (Act 3, Scene 2, ll. 33-36). In declaring himself, Bassanio reveals to his lady his amorous feelings for her. At yet another instance, Bassanio shows himself to be besotted with fair Portia, while scrutinizing a portrait of this last: “Yet look, how far/The substance of my praise doth wrong this shadow/In underprizing it…” (Act 3, Scene 2, ll. 126-128). Confirming beyond doubt the feelings Bassanio has for Portia, are his words to Antonio: “…I am married to a wife/Which is as dear to me as life itself” (Act 4, Scene 1, ll. 280-281). From these excerpts, the love Bassanio holds for the lady Portia is virtually palpable. There is an undeniable romantic intrigue throughout The Merchant of Venice, on Bassanio’s behalf.However, Bassanio is not the only soul to be struck by Cupid’s arrow. The object of his affections is, in her own turn, smitten. Portia complements the love Bassanio holds for her, with her own partiality for him. Although Portia is not as outspoken as Bassanio, she says to her maid, “I remember him well, and I remember him worthy of thy praise,” in response the Nerissa’s observation of Bassanio: “…He, of all the men that ever my/foolish eyes looked upon, was the best deserving a fair/lady.” (Act 1, Scene 2, ll. 108-112). Once the object of her affections has come, Portia begs of him: “I pray you tarry…/Before you hazard, for in choosing wrong/I lose your company” (Act 3, Scene 1, ll. 1-3). With these words, Portia discloses her feelings to Bassanio. She reaffirms them, when she exclaims to Bassanio: “One half of me is yours, the other half yours-/Mine own I would say; but if mine then yours,/And so all yours!” (Act 3, Scene 2, ll. 16-18). When Bassanio successfully gains Portia’s hand in marriage, she says in sheer ecstasy, “O love…./I feel too much thy blessing” (Act 3, Scene 2, l. 61). Once more does Portia emphasize her love for Bassanio, telling him, “Since you are dear bought, I will love you dear” (Act 2, Scene 3, l. 313). Through the comments of an extolling Portia, there is irrefutable evidence of her amorous fascination with Bassanio. Frequent are the references to love when Bassanio or Portia speak. Thus The Merchant of Venice meets one of the requirements of a New Comedy play as defined by Northrop Frye-romantic intrigue between a man and a woman.Life is not always a bowl of cherries, and within the texts of The Merchant of Venice, this fact becomes startlingly clear. The play is beset with pitfalls and obstructions, which are solved by an intricate pattern of entangled events. These hindrances, imposed upon the lovers Bassanio and Portia, and their resolutions, help identify this drama as one of New Comedy. Initially, the largest impediment facing Bassanio was his lack of funds: ” ‘Tis not unknown to you, Antonio,/How much I have disabled mine estate” (Act 1, Scene 1, ll. 122-123). As a result of his self-professed poorness, Bassanio cannot afford to try and win Portia. Again to Antonio, he confides, “…had I but the means/…I have a mind presages me such thrift/That I should questionless be fortunate!” (Act 1, Scene 1, ll. 173-176). Upon hearing this, Antonio offers aid to Bassanio: “…my credit…/Shall be racked even to the uttermost/To furnish thee to Belmont, to fair Portia” (Act 1, Scene 1, ll. 180-182). In this fashion, Bassanio is able to obtain enough money to make worthy suit to Portia. Coincidentally, however, Antonio’s generosity to Bassanio blocks the latter’s happiness further on in the play. To loan Bassanio the amount he needed to woo Portia, Antonio borrowed from Shylock, who agreed to take for collateral: “…an equal pound/of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken/In what part of your body pleaseth me” (Act 1, Scene 3, ll. 145-147). Antonio sealed to that bond, (Act 1, Scene 3, l. 148), and was held to it when he was unable to repay Shylock by the set date. Bassanio received news of the forfeiture, and in distress tells Portia: “When I told you/My state was nothing, I should then have told you/That I was worse than nothing; for indeed/I have…Engaged my friend to his mere enemy/To feed my means” (Act 3, Scene 2, ll. 258-263). Antonio’s one wish is to see Bassanio before he dies from the forfeiture of his bond. (Act 3, Scene 2, ll. 317-319). In haste Bassanio departs from Portia, who he’d not yet wed when Antonio’s letter arrived. The forfeiture of Antonio’s bond is yet another barrier to Bassanio’s peaceful and contented life. This is resolved with a twist when unknown to all, his new wife, Portia, disguises herself as a judge and presides over Shylock’s case. She uses the illusory quality of language against Shylock, and succeeds in saving Antonio’s life. (Act 4, Scene 1, ll. 322-334). Were it not for the twist in the plot where Portia, acting as judge, saves Antonio from certain death, Bassanio would have forever been denied the happiness he sought. He would have been plagued by the death of his dear friend, “I will be bound to pay it ten times o’er/On forfeit of my hands, my head, my heart” (Act 4, Scene 1, ll. 209-210). Having resolved the conflict, Portia makes her way back home, where she greets Bassanio and Antonio, both free of any debts, to live in tranquility and love. The above quotes of characters in The Merchant of Venice point steadily to the play being one of New Comedy.As fortune might have it, life often presents more than one trial to be overcome by poor hapless individuals. It is no different in The Merchant of Venice. While Bassanio has his own financial difficulties, Portia is disallowed her freedom of choice, and therefore her contentment, in the matters of love. In his will, her deceased father explained the way in which Portia would find a suitor. Portia chaffs under the restrictions imposed upon her, and she makes it known while complaining to Nerissa, “If I live to be as old as Sibylla, I will die as chaste/as Diana unless I be obtained by the manner of my/father’s will” (Act 1, Scene 2, ll. 98-100). Though Nerissa reminds her lady that “…the lott’ry/that [your father] hath devised…/will no doubt never be chosen by any rightly but/one who you shall rightly love” (Act 1, Scene 2, ll. 27-31), Portia remains unhappy. This is evident through her words: “…I/may neither choose who I would nor refuse who I/dislike, so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will/of a dead father….I cannot choose one,/nor refuse none” (Act 1, Scene 2, ll. 21-25). Though many suitors come to try their luck for Portia’s hand, none are successful. Portia exclaims, “O these deliberate fools! When they do choose,/They have the wisdom by their wit to lose” (Act 2, Scene 9, ll. 79-80). She implies that all of those potential suitors were egotistical idiots, and therefore unlike the one who would choose correctly. He turns out to be Bassanio, who has wisdom enough not to make the same mistakes as earlier suitors: “There is no vice so simple but assumes/Some mark of virtue on his outward parts” (Act 3, Scene 2, ll. 81-82). Sent to his fate by Portia’s words, “If you do love me, you will find me out” (Act 3, Scene 2, l. 41) Bassanio remarks to himself while regarding the three caskets, “The world is still deceived with ornament” (Act 3, Scene 2, l. 74). Bassanio’s choice is affected by his wisdom and humbleness: “…thou meager lead/Which rather threaten’st than dost promise aught,/…here choose I” (Act 3, Scene 2, ll. 104-107). Due to his prudence and humility, Bassanio is awarded the hand of Portia: “You that choose not by the view/Chance as fair, and choose as true./… Turn to where your lady is,/And claim her with a loving kiss” (Act 3, Scene 2, ll. 131-138). If not for the twist in the plot preventing another suitor of equal intelligence and modesty from first winning Portia’s hand, she and Bassanio would have been denied sharing the love they held for each other. The flow of events allowed Bassanio to turn up at the right time, and to possess the qualities desired by Portia’s dead father in a husband for his daughter. As a result, Bassanio wins Portia’s hand according to her father’s desires, and they are happily married. The fashion in which the difficulty imposed by Portia’s father is resolved, leads to the conclusion that The Merchant of Venice is indeed of New Comedy genre.Returning to Northrop Frye’s definition of New Comedy, it “presents a romantic intrigue between a young man and a young woman…blocked by some kind of opposition” (Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism). There is no shortage of indications that these conditions exist between Bassanio and Portia during the entire play, as shown through their disclosures to each other and to others. The romantic intrigue presented, and the obstacles the two lovers must overcome before retiring to a haven of peace and happiness, allows Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice to characterize perfectly Frye’s New Comedy. BibliographyFrye, Northrop. The Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1972.Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 1987.
Few Shakespearean plays have aroused such controversy and debate throughout the centuries, as has The Merchant of Venice. This potentially tragic play masks itself in comedy, giving its audience a glance at the inherent social prejudices of Renaissance Europe. But just at the moment when the audience receives this glance, any seriousness of thought is quickly snatched from them, and apathy is allowed to remain as laughter embellishes their social evils.It is difficult to determine Shakespeare’s intent in the creation of this play. Is it anti-Semitic or does it criticize anti-Semitism? Or does it merely represent the anti-Semitism of the day without commentary from Shakespeare? Some critics see Shylock as the villain and a pure characterization of the period opinion of Jews. While others view him as the victim, receiving a level of sympathy from Shakespeare. Even though we would like to think of Shakespeare’s genius to be beyond such prejudice thinking, when taking in all considerations, most critics tend to lean towards the belief that Shakespeare was simply following the anti-Semitic tradition of that period. When understanding both the historical context of his play and the preconceived notions of his audience, it is easier to believe that Shakespeare was making no attempt to expose social ills; he was merely playing into them. We must also remember that while we tend to grasp deeper meanings and understandings as modern readers, The Merchant of Venice was not originally intended to be read, but acted. As a result, it is most probable that the intense seriousness of the play could barely be detected when performed during Shakespeare’s time. This can be easily assumed from what we know of the Shakespearean theatre and from the simple fact that the play itself is listed as a comedy.In order to bring validity to this judgment, there needs to be a solid understanding of both the cultural opinion of Jews, and the historical events preceding the writing of The Merchant of Venice. Among the majority of European society, Jews were not only persecuted outcasts, but they were feared as agents of the devil, “The Jew was a numinous figure, freighted more like the image of the vampire than some mere social stereotype such as one might have of a hillbilly, a spic, a bohunk, or a nerd” (Myers 33). Legends created a very devilish depiction of Jews within the minds of the gentile nations. The Catholic Church also did much to create and maintain this false image, “Church sermons nevertheless proclaimed Jews to be hard-hearted blasphemers who were also vain, ostentatious, and deceitful,’ and encouraged the association of the devil Jew’ with avarice” (Rosenheim 157). As scholar Hyam Maccoby has written, “Many Christians came to believe Jews had cloven feet and a tail, and that they suffered from an innate bad smell and from diseases of the blood, for which they sought remedies in vampirism. The hook nose and funny accent were just details” (Myers 34). Finally, as G.K. Hunter insists, the Renaissance perception of Jewishness can only be historically understood as a morally corrupt condition, “which rejected Christ and chose Barabbas, rejected the Savior and chose the robber, rejected the spirit and chose the flesh, rejected the treasure that is in heaven and chose the treasure that is on earth” (Rosenheim 157).Aside from the already harsh preconceived prejudices against the Jews, there were also many historical and social events preceding Shakespeare’s writing of The Merchant of Venice, which could have caused even more anti-Semitism within the minds of its viewers. In 1290, all Jews were expelled from England under the reign of Edward I, and they were not readmitted until 1656 (Myers 33). Throughout the period that Jews were officially expelled from England, legends, folklore, and ballads maintained the negative image of the Jew. Another mode in which this image of the Jew was transmitted was through medieval mystery plays performed churches and in public squares at regular times during the year. In these plays, many of the villains were Jewish and were satirized with clownish costumes, such as a bottle nose and a red fright wig (Myers 34). But anti-Semitism reached its height during the decade preceding the writing of The Merchant of Venice. Two events caused this surge in prejudice. The first event was the popularity of Christopher Marlowe’s play, The Jew of Malta (1592). In this play, Barabas, the Jew (note the Biblical reference), is the very wicked, scheming, evil villain of the play. Obviously, this play only continued to feed the anti-Semitism of the period, “The Jew of Malta became the biggest theatrical hit until that time, and fed the anti-Jewish hysteria that prompted the mob to laugh so heartily at Lopez on the gallows” (Myers 34). The “Lopez” spoken of in this passage is Dr. Ruy Lopez, who was tried and executed for allegedly attempting to poison Queen Elizabeth of England (Myers 32-33). This was the second event that caused an anti-Jewish uproar in England. In Act IV, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice, Gratiano says to Shylock,Thy currish spiritGovern’d a wolf, who, hanged for humanSlaughter,Even from the gallows did his fell soul fleet,And…Infused itself in thee.Most critics now believe this to be a reference to Dr. Lopez’s execution by hanging. Lopez’s name was frequently spelled “Lopus,” which is easily punned with the Latin word for wolf (Myers 32). It is not a stretch to assume that this allusion would have been clearly understood by Shakespeare’s audience, bringing harsh reality and deeply imbedded prejudice to the character Shylock. Together, the social preconceptions and historical treatment of the Jews preceding the first performance of The Merchant of Venice did much to influence the audience’s reception of Shylock, and whether or not Shakespeare had intended to write an anti-Semitic play, it was sure to be received and understood in that light. From this point of reference, it is not difficult for us to assume that Shakespeare had an understanding of the social prejudices of his culture upon writing The Merchant of Venice, knowing full well that this would create an anti-Jewish tone within his play, especially for the commoners. But, can it be possible that there exists a duel purpose in this play? Feeding the audience’s desire for the stereotypical, villainous Jew would have made the play great entertainment for anyone simply looking for a good laugh. But what if Shakespeare did intend for those on the political and intellectual level to receive a deeper and more disturbing message from Merchant? Such is my proposal.The setting of the play is in Venice for a very specific purpose, it provided an alternative social prototype. Venice was a town of trade and mercantilism, making it the most wealthy city in Renaissance Europe. Because it was a town of traders, “Venice was full of foreigners: Turks, Jews, Arabs, Africans, and Christians of various nationalities and denominations” (Maus 1081). This diverse society made it the perfect location for Shakespeare’s two ethnic plays, Othello and The Merchant of Venice, “Venice thus provided Shakespeare with an example- perhaps the only example in sixteenth-century Europe- of a place where people with little in common culturally might coexist peacefully solely because it was materially expedient to do so” (Maus 1083). It made a very believable setting for characters of exotic ethnicity, such as Shylock and Othello, considering that both Jew and Moor were exiled from England and the greater part of Europe. These exotic characters not only appealed to curiosity of the audience, but the apparent “devilishness” of these foreigners also brought an element of fear and heightened anticipation to the plays, such as a modern day “thriller” movie would.In describing the Venetian scene, there was never the slightest implication that these foreigners were accepted by the Christian society. Even though Jews were allowed in Venice, they were not necessarily welcome, “there was the need for the Jew’s services on the one hand, and the contempt for his person, on the other” (Picker 174). Jews in Venice were denied many of the rights that local Christians enjoyed. For example, they were not allowed to inhabit the same communities as the Christians, which tended to ostracize them from the nicer parts of the city. In 1516, as the Jewish population continued to grow, the Christian Venetians responded to the threat of their growing presence by legislating their confinement to a specified district called the geto nuovo, from which the word “ghetto” originated (Picker 174). A safe distance away from Christian homes, the Jewish heterodoxy was no longer a threat, yet in the marketplace, loans from Jewish usurers were highly coveted by the Christians, “Hence, the very layout of Venice reproduced the Christians’ paradoxical desire to embrace desperately needed Jewish money and simultaneously shun the Jews who possessed it” (Picker 174).After having a thorough understanding of the foundations on which Merchant was written, we can take a closer look within the play itself. In Merchant, we are first introduced to the shrewd, clever Shylock in his dialogue with Bassanio and Antonio when they approach him with the sole purpose of taking out a loan of three thousand ducats.Shylock: Three thousand ducatswell.Bassanio: Ay, sir, for three months.Shylock: For three monthswell.Bassanio: For the which, as I told you, Antonio shall be bound.Shylock: Antonio shall become boundwell.Bassanio: May you stead me? Will you pleasure me? Shall I know your answer?Shylock: Three thousand ducats for three months, and Antonio bound.Bassanio: Your answer to that.Shylock: Antonio is a good man. (1.3.1-11)In this passage, Shylock displays his resentment toward the treatment he had previously received from Antonio and Bassanio by cleverly manipulating their dialogue. He uses repetition in order to both entice Bassanio and in order to defy Bassanio’s attempts to impose limits on their communication, “Through pauses, repetition, and a final pun on the moral and economic connotations of “good.” Shylock…disturbs and challenges Bassanio by remaining linguistically and economically unengageable” (Picker 175).Once Antonio enters the scene, the subtle insubordination shifts to outright defiance. Antonio enters having little desire to speak directly to Shylock, only wanting to use him for his money; asking Bassanio, “Is he yet possessed/ How much ye would?” (1.3. 61-2). Picker suggests that this odd comment is actually a direct attack on Shylock in two differing ways, “First, it suggests a low pun on the Jew’s supposed “possession” by the devil. This gibe is consistent with Antonio’s caustic remark about Shylock later in the scene, that the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose’ (95). Second, in his question, Antonio marginalizes Shylock by speaking about him in the third person despite his presence onstage” (Picker 176). But Shylock refuses to be ignored and interrupts with the purpose of having his presence acknowledged.Following our introduction to the Jew, we are privileged to see his craftiness at work, as he again manipulates the conversation in order to place himself on top. Shylock does this through his Jacob and Laban discourse in lines 68-72.Shylock: When Jacob grazed his uncle Laban’s sheepThis Jacob from our holy Abram was,As his wise mother wrought in his behalf,The third possessor, ay, he was the third–In this passage, Shylock’s mastery over the conversation is once again demonstrated as he, “subtly twists this double meaning to remove the negative connotation from “possession” and align himself with the patriarchs. Thus he ingeniously suggests that each patriarch we not “possessed” by evil because of his Judaism, but, quite the opposite, a “possessor” of God’s promise” (Picker 177).What are the immediate impressions we receive from Shylock in his first scene? He is stereotypically Jewish, through and through. His character does not budge for an instant from being a greedy, cunning, clever, prideful Jew. What about Antonio and Bassanio? Most would say that their characteristics do not line up very well with the Christian ideal of “loving their enemy,” as Christ has commanded them to. But as scholars have warned, “making the Christians bad cannot make Shylock good” (Rosenheim 157). My point though, is not to make Shylock necessarily good, but to show that Shakespeare was displaying a very disturbing social ill to his more intellectual crowd while maintaining a simple plot for the commoners. He is using Shylock, a pure Jew through and through, to display the ugliness of our human nature. And this can be best done through a neutral character, he is not trying to make him inherently good or bad, he is simply exposing the fact that the Jew is inherently human.This understanding of Shylock resonates throughout the play’s famous “I am a Jew” speech in Act II, scene 1, lines 55-69 . Shylock: 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? 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.Once again, the significance of his words is practically stolen from him as Salerio and Solanio mock his passionate dialogue. This demeaning mockery serves two purposes. For the commoners, it maintains Shylock’s position in the play (and in their culture) as a Jewish clown, allowing their disgust for him to mount with every insult hurled by Salerio and Solanio. But for those looking for meaning, this scene introduces Shylock outside of his Jewish heritage, as true member of the human race, “Shylock speaks not only of Jewish experience, but of human experience. In doing so, he confronts Salerio and Solanio with what, for them, must seem a frightening prospect: that, despite his religious and cultural identity, he shares with them a fundamental humanity” (Picker 179).Shortly following this plea for equality, Shylock’s intimate conversation with Tubal assists in further humanizing him by giving insight to his grief.Tubal: One of them showed me a ring that he had of your daughter for a monkey.Shylock: Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal. It was my turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys. (3.1. 111-16)In this conversation we can see Shylock confessing his anguish over Jessica, and his devotion to his wife Leah, this in turn “enables Shylock to appear as more of an individual human being and less a stereotypical menacing villain to us” (Picker 179).Quickly after this glimpse of the human side of Shylock, we return to a more villainous Jew than ever before. In the first scene with Shylock, his resentful tone and bitterness is obviously restrained, but once Antonio is behind bars, he no longer feels any need to restrain himself.Antonio: I pray thee hear me speak.Shylock: I’ll have my bond. I will not hear thee speak. I’ll have my bond, and therefore speak no more. I’ll not be made a soft and dull-eyed fool,To shake the head, relent, and sigh, and yieldTo Christian intercessors. Follow not.I’ll have no speaking; I will have my bond. (3. 3. 11-17)With a huge shift in power dynamics being displayed here, the roles have been reversed. Shylock is the stifler and bond seeker, and the merchant is the oppressed servant. At this point Shylock is seen as a man who is, “acutely aware of his subservient role in Venice and preoccupied with how to thwart those who have relegated him to that position” (Picker 181). All Shylock desires is justice, and in his perception, justice is served through the reception of his bond. Although this appears extremely cruel and merciless, it is also completely Jewish. Jews live by the law and die by the law, and they demand justice be administered to all. Shakespeare is remaining consistent with Shylock, he is a pure Jew, neither good nor bad. Once again this consistency in Shylock does two things: feed the stereotype, therefore pleasing the Jew-hating crowd, and reveal the humanity of Shylock.No other moment in the play reveals the depths of Shylock’s humanity than in the court scene. From early on in the scene the Duke begins to belittle Shylock, communicating to him how the Christian community will triumph over the outsider. He hints at this notion when he tells Shylock, “We all expect a gentle answer, Jew” (4.1. 34).But Shylock does not shy away from his strong Jewish belief in justice, and he will have his bond. But before he knows it, the stakes have turned against him again, and the very law that he believed would save him, ends up condemning him instead. He is completely stripped of his power, livelihood, and ultimately his identity. In the end, his forced conversion does anything but enlighten him the glories of Christianity, on the contrary, “it sickens him to silence” (Picker 184). In desperate need to reach closure, the Venetians and Belmontians, “have attempted to overcome an obstacle to community at a terrible price. Denying Shylock his dignity, the Christians have mercilessly victimized him” (Picker 184).Shylock disappears from the play never to return, but his presence and shame is detected throughout the remainder of the play. Most Shakespearean comedies end with some form of celebration and excitement, but not The Merchant of Venice. There is no jubilee, no festivity, and no joy, only a forced closure with an unsure ending. Jessica’s apparent sensitivity to her father’s treatment doesn’t allow the intuitive observer to forget the cruelty he suffered. But this is the deeper meaning. On the surface, justice seemed to prevail. The villain was punished and the lovers live happily ever after…or so it seems. Shakespeare ultimately ends the play with a question mark and asks his audience to see in it what they to desire to see. And this is what conjures up so much debate today. Was Shakespeare anti-Semitic, or was he showing sympathy towards the treatment of Jews? My answer is simple, both.Works CitedBluestone, Stephen. “Shakespeare and the Jews in Early Modern England.” Sewanee Review 105 (1997): 10-14.Edelman, Charles. “Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.” Explicator 60 (2002): 124-127.Maus, Katherine Eisaman. ” Forward to The Merchant of Venice.'” The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 1997. 1081-1089.Myers, William. “Shakespeare, Shylock, and the Jews.” Commentary 101 (1996): 32-38.Picker, John. “Shylock and the Struggle for Closure.” Judaism 43 (1994): 173- 190.Rosenheim, Judith. “Allegorical Commentary in the Merchant of Venice.” Shakespeare Studies 24 (1996): 156- 211.Shakespeare, William. “The Merchant of Venice.” The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 1997. 1090-1145.
Though William Shakespeare accurately portrays both Christianity and Judaism in his play The Merchant of Venice, the characters in the play do not represent their religions well. A reader unfamiliar with these religions could easily misinterpret flaws in a character’s nature as the teachings of his religion. After a preliminary glance at the play, one would assume that Shakespeare wrote unjustly of the two religions depicted therein. However, Shakespeare had to write the play to please his audience, so he added a twist. By making characters not wholly perfect in their faith, in compliance with reality, Shakespeare was able to add the insults and bigotry and anti-Semitic feelings that would please the crowd, were true to society, and yet did not change the teachings of the religions themselves.Shakespeare does not change the principles of the two religions in this play. Even the characters in his play who do not always follow the teachings of their religions speak of these beliefs. In the courtroom scene, the Duke says to Shylock, “We all expect a gentle answer, Jew.” (IV, i, 35). He means he expects Shylock to show the mercy of a gentile, more specifically a Christian, who would show mercy to Antonio and waive the bond. In the very same scene, when the table turns and Antonio controls the fate of Shylock, Antonio releases the Jew. As for Judaism being portrayed correctly, throughout the play Shylock makes countless references to his religion. When Antonio and Shylock argue the exact teachings of the Bible concerning loans and collecting interest, Shylock refers the story of Jacob and Laban. Shylock also refers to the “holy Sabbath” in the courtroom. Shylock also tells Bassanio he will not eat with him, referring to the pigs that Jesus drove demons into. These, along with other actions of the Jew show Shakespeare did his best to keep Judaism unchanged for his play.Shakespeare still had to please the crowd with the insults and anti-Semitic feelings the people loved. He did this by adding flaws to the characters that they are now known for. Shakespeare gave Shylock his deep hatred for Antonio and all Christians, shown constantly by Shylock himself as he rants how Antonio constantly wrongs him. Another flaw in Shylock’s morals is seen in his “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech. There he believes he has the right for revenge when a Christian wrongs him, saying, “If a Jew wrongs a Christians, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrongs a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge.” (III, i, 63-66). Antonio too shows flaws, both through Shylock’s stories of Antonio’s persecution and through the insults he offers Shylock throughout the play. In the courtroom scene, Antonio tells Bassanio he might as well go stand on the beach and tell the waves to stop their endless beat upon the shores than try to get the Jew to change his mind. He also jokes that Shylock is turning into a Christian with his kindness to lend Antonio the 3,000 ducats, saying “The Hebrew will turn Christian: he grows kind.” (I, iii, 170). Not only does this add the necessary conflicts for humor that the audience wants, but it provides the backbone for the story, showing the background of the relationship between the Jew and the Christian. It makes it believable that Shylock would want to take the life of Antonio. Shakespeare ingeniously made this play tightly knit, fitting every piece of the puzzle together snuggly.Shakespeare added one final twist to the many already in his play. By adding Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, and Lorenzo’s romance and the conversion of Jessica from Judaism to Christianity, Shakespeare created another plot from which the audience could get humor. With this plot he was also able to present a bit of dramatic irony. Shylock tells Jessica to lock the doors and windows so that she might not see the Christians parade through the streets. The audience knows however, that it will be the Christian Lorenzo that will come to Shylock’s house and take away his daughter. This whole situation clearly shows her noncompliance with Judaism. It offers humor for the audience and shows the flaws in her character, not for changing religion, but for the way in which she does it. She sneaks out of her father’s house, stealing thousands of ducats and jewels hidden in a casket, saying to Lorenzo, “Here, catch this casket; it is worth the pains.” (II, vi, 34).William Shakespeare’s work The Merchant of Venice shows the intellectual power behind his writings. Shakespeare interwove many plots perfectly to please the audience, offer a deeper look at the conflict concerning Shylock, and still respect the religions he used. His characters, the players of this story, contained the flaws which served as the basis for the play. It was not Christianity or Judaism which caused the conflict. In fact, if every character in The Merchant of Venice had been true to his religion, there would be no conflict to write of at all. It is because of works like these that Shakespeare is considered one of the greatest writers of all time.
According to the evidence we have, it seems Shakespeare wrote his plays exclusively to be performed. We are repeatedly reminded of this fact; there are throughout many of his plays moments of self-conscious performance, performance that reflects the nature of the very spectacle that occurred on stage for an audience. Though this dramatic principle is perhaps most explicit in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the guild play put on by Bottom and his buddies exhibiting a thematic correspondence with the performance actually framing that play, we can see it too in The Merchant of Venice, where a less overt, though more momentous, example of performance occurs. I mean of course Portia’s impersonation of a lawyer, and the scene of her trial of Shylock, a true courtroom drama.In the atmosphere of masquerade that forms an undercurrent to the actions of the play, Portia’s decision to disguise both her aspect and her profession serves to question the larger societal structures that seem to require these ruses. Why must it be Portia, a woman, and in disguise, that reverses the edicts of Venetian law? Why must a masquerade exist in order to correct law towards mercy? This masquerade is what averts the course of a potential tragedy, and turns it to a comedy. In establishing a false, though parallel, order, the strict literality of Venetian law can be put aside, or modified, in order to correspond more wholly with Christian values. Defying the authority of the law would set Venice topsy-turvy; it is by setting the court topsy-turvy, by turning it into a masquerade, that this consequence can be circumvented.The sphere of The Merchant of Venice is structured around the mercantile economy of Venice, a cosmopolitan society. Confusion, or the disputation of justice, is almost inevitable in a situation where different value systems function side by side. Value as a negotiable variable allows for the existence of mercantile economy, but once terms are set, they cannot be contradicted or rescinded. Thus, a fundamental assumption for the orderly working of the play’s world is the indisputability of contractual obligation. Terms, and bonds, are incontrovertible; these are the rules of the game. Legal bond as absolute obligation buttresses other aspects of the Venetian world that are not nearly so secure, namely, the underlying risk which accompanies all commercial ventures. The play banks on the liquidity and slipperiness of meaning in other respects, and in particular, in the divide between aspect and reality, container and content. This is most apparent in the casket-game Portia’s suitors must play in order to win her hand. In order to make the correct choice between gold, silver, and lead, the suitors must lay aside the value-system of the Venetian world, which assigns a definite, indisputable hierarchy of worth to these materials. In choosing lead, Bassanio is, in essence, acknowledging the existence of an opposing order than the one the marketplace is accountable to. It is significant, however, that this acknowledgement can only be made allegorically, ensconced within a game with its own set of rules, however grave the consequences of the game might be. It is important to note that Portia’s other suitors are confounded as much by the interpretation they give to the legends written on the lids as the substance of the casket itself. This problem, the possibility of incorrect interpretation, is further explored in the actions of Lancelot. In charging his conscience with determining the right course of action, the clown must decide between one fiend and another. Through his confabulations of language, he reduces his choice to no choice. If he makes the fiend’ the master of his conscience, he shall desert his master Shylock. His conscience, meanwhile, requires that he obey authority, and stay with his master, who is a fiend. In either case, he reasons, a fiend shall be his master. So how does he decide? “The fiend gives the more friendly counsel. I will run, fiend” (2, ii, 24). He turns the law to his advantage.Lorenzo later pronounces damning judgment on this sort of willful, deceptive word play. “How every fool can play upon the word! I think the/ best grace of wit will shortly turn into silence, and discourse/ grow commendable in none only but parrots” (3, v, 37-9). Here he is taunting Lancelot’s reluctance to make preparations for dinner, yet his speech carries greater resonance, as it occurs in the scene immediately preceding the trial of Antonio and Shylock. Just as Lancelot slips the noose of his conscience by verbal cleverness, in order to justify a choice that conventional interpretation opposes, Portia will “play upon the word” of the law to secure Antonio’s life. Lorenzo decries word play as the death of discourse because, by confounding understanding between parties, it reduces words to meaninglessness, or worse, a negative force for deception, to be bettered by silence. Speech, he warns, will become “commendable in none only but parrots”. The speech of parrots, of course, is sound without sense, to them but the literal repetition this sort of speech implies, with no possibility of ambiguity precisely because it conveys nothing, is what Portia will try to modify when she introduces alternate interpretations into her “parroting” of the law. What Lorenzo calls the death of discourse, the deliberate doubling of meaning, will be Antonio’s salvation.Portia utilizes the presence of this necessary ambiguity in language, and in the law, to its utmost. Her final argument that Shylock, in asking for a pound of Antonio’s flesh, is in violation of the law that prohibits against conspiring to murder a citizen, is condemnation enough to stand on its own, and could be delivered right away. But she draws the court into it, sets up a false situation, compounded by her false guise. She first stages an alternate ending for the trial, one in which Shylock triumphs completely, and thus sets up the situation of tragedy. Bassanio pleads with her, “To do a great right, do a little wrong” (4, I, 211). In the law, of course, such an appeal to common-sense notions of scale, cannot be valid — there is no great’ or little’; there is only right, and wrong. This way of reckoning echoes Portia’s casket-game; there is one right answer, which is right absolutely, not by degrees. Therefore, by using the same literal rigor of interpretation that the law is founded on, and that Shylock appeals to, to reverse her verdict, Portia avoids the little wrong’ in securing Antonio’s freedom. In doing so, she leaves Shylock no recourse. “The words expressly are a pound of flesh'” (4, I, 302). In declaring that his request before the law necessarily signifies his own damnation before the law, Portia makes it impossible for him to proceed. The rationale behind his condemnation, a distinction between a pound of flesh and the spilt blood it entails, is a nice echo of the Mosaic code and the Kosher laws, which stipulate that meat, before it is eaten, should be evacuated, as much as possible, of blood. It should be noted that Antonio’s life is not secured by an act of mercy, but rather an application of the law. Mercy is never, even by force, imputed to Shylock; only the Christians demonstrate mercy, when reducing his sentence. Thus, there is clear dramatic irony in Shylock’s assertion: “There is no power in the tongue of man/ To alter me” (4, I, 235-6). He might as well have said, to alter the terms of the bond, as it amounts to the same thing. After all, “There is no power in Venice,” Portia affirms earlier, “can alter a decree established” (4, I, 213-4). By denying the power of the tongue of man’, Shylock means, of course, that he is not to be made amenable to persuasion. He relies upon his bond upon Antonio’s flesh, which he considers unimpeachable and indisputable because it has been solidly confirmed legal. It is in falsely assuming that the meaning of this bond is stable, that he comes to his downfall. The tongue of man’ (or in this case, woman) has powers, though, that circumvent the necessity for persuasion. Though the terms of the bond are stable, and need be, their interpretation is not. The circumstances under which these variable interpretations are allowed to enter discussion bear examination. There would be no question of the law if there were not alternate value-systems already present in the court. Of course, there is Portia’s appeal to a Christian system of salvation, which directly contradicts the rules of law: “Consider this:/ That in the course of justice none of us/ Should see salvation” (4, I, 193-5). But Shylock, who structures his plea, and bases his claim, on the strict parity of Venetian justice, is likewise responsive to another system of values. “An oath, an oath! I have an oath in heaven./ Shall I lay perjury on my soul?/ No, not for Venice.” (4, I, 222-4). Here Shylock places the values of his heaven above those that sustain the mercantile court of Venice. By describing his bond to heaven in legal terms (“perjury”) he is deceptively and unsuccessfully conflating the mechanics of the two systems, which are, in fact, in opposition. The fundamental difference between the Christian ideal of mercy and the court’s justice is that mercy does not consider equivalence its ideal. The court at Venice exists to preserve property, and works on the principle of exchange that defines the rest of mercantile relations; something of the same value is substituted for a monetary loss. Mercy grants something undeserved, something greater, for something of lesser value. Shylock asks for something of lesser value, “a weight of carrion flesh” (4, I, 40), for something of greater value. Of course, for him, Antonio’s death is of greater value than any number of ducats. But alternate notions of valuation belie the trade-balance of justice the court tries to obtain. Thus, in falling back on an oath of revenge, Shylock deviates from the principles that underlie the mercantile court. If he were following the precepts of the legal system to which he appeals, he would take the threefold profit offered him (which is, indeed, more than he deserves). By rejecting the offers of increase, Shylock is not just defying mercy, but his own allegiance to an economic system where reward is profit, and profit the greatest end. Portia, of course, is in disguise when she enters. She is not only in disguise as a man, but as a lawyer. Encoded within this disguise is another transvaluation: she is disguised as a young man, and thus her youth must be valued above the elders she is judging, that her verdict holds sway over. These reversals, these impersonations, are necessary to create the circumstances that allow for such overt defiance to occur. Portia’s performance and transvestism is just the most significant in a series of such occurrences in the play. Portia’s performance is presaged by a scene of similar circumstances: Jessica’s escape from her father’s house, when as though receiving inspiration from the cloaked city around her, she dresses up as a boy. Appearing in disguise, assuming another, opposite, persona, allows for a sort of insubordination that life outside the masquerade does not admit. This reflected, parallel, and upside-down world has clear roots in the sort of reverse order that Christianity entails, where weakness trumps strength. The marginal reality of the stage, its essential unreality, can be said, therefore, to engender the possibility of mercy by creating a realm displaced from accepted values. What is the quality of mercy, after all, if not a way of indicating a departure from the literal? The stage invites us to similar departures, and allows us similar liberties.
It is often observed that William Shakespeare’s comedies feature some uncomfortable scenes that leave audiences unsure as to whether characters are participating in harmless, theatrical farce or a meaner brand of mockery that borders on the cruel. Such scenes involve trickery that seems funny enough on the surface but, upon closer inspection of the jokester’s motives, can slowly replace a reader’s easy grin with a look of bemusement and concern. In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the comedy’s leading lady is no stranger to the kind of jokes that seem to take things too far. During the second half of the play, Portia orchestrates a prank in order to best her future husband Bassanio, to the somewhat troubling effect mentioned above. In Portia’s case, however, the trick was executed not with depraved intentions, but with the goal of asserting dominance over her would-be husband. Although Portia seems to love Bassanio, he presents a threat to both her autonomy and her control over her deceased father’s estate and riches. In order to maintain her power, Portia uses her trick with the ring to position herself above Bassanio, belittling him by questioning and attacking his fidelity, sexual dominance, and masculinity before finally revealing that all was done in jest.Portia’s first move in her campaign for dominance over Bassanio calls his faithfulness into question. Upon hearing that Bassanio gave his ring to the “civil doctor” who defended the men in their case against Shylock, Portia immediately denounces her future husband, calling his “false heart of truth” as empty as his ring finger (V.1.189). Although the lady then quickly invokes the threat of refusing to lay with Bassanio until the ring is found, it is not until later in her discourse that she fully utilizes sex as a weapon to subjugate her man. Portia first focuses on Bassanio’s lack of fidelity, turning his excuses against him in a mocking parallel form. When Bassanio tries to explain:If you did know to whom I gave the ring,If you did know for whom I gave the ring,And would conceive for what I gave the ring,And how unwillingly I left the ring (193-196). Portia fires back accordingly, matching each justification with a sharp rebuttal:If you had known the virtue of the ring,Or half her worthiness that gave the ring,Or your own honor to contain the ring,You would not then have parted with the ring (199-202). Never does Portia even consider Bassanio’s defenses; while she knows they are true, she has chosen to dismiss them in order to break her fiancé down to a more manageable form. She emphasizes the importance of the ring, her own value, and the honor conferred onto Bassanio as the ring’s bearer before stating that he has sullied them all by forfeiting her prized gift to him. Portia makes clear her implication that she must mean nothing to Bassanio if he gave away her ring, a betrayal she claims would not have happened had he “defended it / With any terms of zeal” (203-204). Here irony and condescension drip from Portia’s lines. Finally, Portia begins in earnest to move sex from her cache of ploys to the front lines, claiming that Bassanio must have given the ring to another woman. In painting Bassanio as a faithless lover who committed a serious breach of trust, Portia gets Bassanio on the defensive. Her plan to make Bassanio lose the ring creates a situation where Portia possesses power and the erring fiancé must try to make amends.Portia, however, will not grant mercy or expose her prank without first thoroughly belittling Bassanio. When he tries once again to convince Portia that he has given her ring to the “worthy doctor” and not another woman, Portia challenges Bassanio’s sexual dominion over her (222). Because he has so carelessly relinquished her ring to the civil doctor, Portia says that she “will become as liberal as” her fiancé with what he owns through the contractual exchange of marriage: her body (226). She promises that she will sleep with this worthy doctor, if given the slightest chance. While Portia lays claim to her sexuality in this scene, she turns it into a kind of commodity, with a price equal to that of the ring Bassanio gave as payment to the doctor. Nonetheless, she does not fail to highlight how this would affect Bassanio. She implies how sleeping with the doctor would emasculate Bassanio and usurp his right to Portia’s body when she says that she will not deny the doctor neither her “body nor [her] husband’s bed” (228). In the patriarchal system in which these characters operate, the wife is seen as the husband’s property. Portia allowing another man into the marital bed would be a blow not only to Bassanio’s masculinity and pride but also to his rightful ownership of the property he came into through the marriage ceremony (Portia). Her entire speech here reads like a challenge, as she taunts Bassanio with promises such as “Know him I shall, I am well sure of it” and warnings like “…watch me like Argus,” a mythical figure with a hundred eyes (229-230). This demonstration of her ability to deflate Bassanio’s power through extra-marital sex is another step in Portia’s scheme to conquer her husband-to-be. Portia has shifted her strategy from focusing on Bassanio’s mistakes and deprecating his character, to fully wielding the power she is gaining over her fiancé.Ironically, it is in pardoning Bassanio that Portia hurts him most. After endless apologies by Bassanio who promises to never break an oath with his love again, Portia seems to relent. She accepts Bassanio’s regrets and Antonio’s role as surety, before presenting him with the very ring that he had given away. When an astonished Bassanio realizes “it is the same ring [he] gave the doctor,” Portia speaks up, not with the intention of explaining away the confusion, but in order to execute her final act of power (257). In a line that rings of artificial regret and nearly offensive nonchalance, Portia says: “…Pardon me, Bassanio, / For by this ring the doctor lay with me” (258-259). This prank is by far Portia’s cruelest. It is true that the audience knows there is no doctor and that Portia has actually remained faithful to Bassanio, which grants the scene a touch of comedy and dramatic irony. Bassanio, however, is under the impression that the woman he is set to marry has slept with another man. By making it seem like she has made a cuckold of Bassanio in order to get the ring back, Portia succeeds in asserting total dominance over her fiancé. In Shakespeare’s time (and arguably today), having a cheating wife was the ultimate form of emasculation. The nature of a cuckold directs the shame, mockery, and perhaps even the blame to the man in the relationship, as he is supposed to control his wife. Bassanio is furthered belittled through this trick as it implies that if he had not lost the ring to begin with, Portia would not have had to sleep with the doctor. Unfortunately, the audience never gets to hear a reaction from Bassanio, as Gratiano breaks up this power play of humiliation and deceit with the line: “What, are we cuckolds ere we have deserved it?” (265). This remark, which comically indicates that husbands are wont to drive their spouses to infidelity, marks a return to lightheartedness and normalcy. Portia, having fully subdued Bassanio, finally gives up her little prank. She explains how she was the civil doctor all along and, keeping up with her new good-natured persona, tells Antonio the fortunate reports about his ships. Portia’s timely announcement of this good news seems like a strategy to redeem herself to the characters and the audience, a ploy that helps the lot forget about her sadistic trick. Whether Portia reconciles with readers in unknown. Bassanio, on the other hand, makes it clear that all is forgiven, saying: “Sweet doctor, you shall be my bedfellow. / When I am absent then lie with my wife” (284-285). Unbelievably, after being berated for a plan that Portia set up and hearing that his fiancé has slept with another man, Bassanio expresses no grievances. By the conclusion of Act V, Portia has successfully subjugated her man. The balance of power in the relationship has been determined, with Portia in full control. Through her scheme with the ring, Portia has questioned Bassanio’s fidelity, challenged his sexual dominance, and emasculated him to the point where his volition has been replaced with the sole need to appease his would-be wife. In her manipulative moves, Portia punishes Bassanio for his supposed wrongs before granting him forgiveness for an error she forced upon him. But is it not Portia that is in need of forgiveness? The trick she employs to assert her dominance over Bassanio cannot be written off as a harmless joke. While at times they are somewhat entertaining, her machinations put Bassanio through emotional turmoil and distress that he does not seem to deserve. Portia’s joke is a prime example of purported comedy that is not easily distinguishable from cruel personal attacks.
In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare explores the concept of covenants through several motifs including marriage, inheritance, filial piety, and justice. While revenge is personal, justice intends to right societal wrongs, but The Merchant of Venice makes a mockery of justice. Jessica not only steals away in the night, but steals what she and her cohorts can carry. The unorthodox contract between Antonio and Shylock along with Portia fraudulently acting the part of a Doctor of Laws at court further derides the notion of justice. Antonio and Shylock serve as the protagonist and antagonist, but it is not always clear which one is which. Two scenes in particular highlight the ambiguous nature of justice in the play: Jessica breaking her familial bond with her father and stealing Shylock’s wealth depicts a covenant bound in tradition and loyalty rather than the law; while the contract between Antonio and Shylock for a “pound of flesh” is an example of a legal, albeit an unorthodox and even unethical, contract.Shakespeare weaves interconnections between the characters in The Merchant of Venice not only through their relationships to one another, but through contracts, agreements, and pledges. Contracts play an apparent role: Bassanio is bound to Antonio when he repeatedly borrows money from him, Antonio is bound to Shylock when he offers his own flesh as collateral to secure a loan, Portia is bound by her father’s unconventional stipulations for her marriage, Bassanio and Gratiano are bound to Portia and Nerissa not only through marriage but by the rings the women present to the men, and Jessica is bound to Shylock because she is his daughter. Shakespeare writes of other pledges in the play: Gratiano and Nerissa answer to Antonio as his servants and cannot marry without his permission, Launcelot is tied in servitude to Shylock, Portia’s suitors are obligated to never marry if they open the wrong casket, and Shylock is restrained by his status as a Jew and non-citizen of Venice and the sentence meted out by the Venetian court.Jessica’s elopement with Lorenzo and the courtroom scene where Antonio and Shylock meet to settle the terms of their contract elucidate facets of justice using “flesh” as both a metaphorical and a literal commodity. “My own flesh and blood to rebel!” exclaims Shylock when he relates Jessica’s flight from him (3.1.30). In taking Jessica, Lorenzo has stolen much more from Shylock than ducats and jewels; he has stolen his daughter—his flesh. Not only does Shylock lose his daughter in this exchange, but his family line and ability to bestow his faith on subsequent generations is subverted. Jessica reveals misgivings about her treachery when she tells Lorenzo, “I am glad ‘tis night, you don’t look upon me,/ For I am much ashamed of my exchange” (2.6.35-36). On the surface, Jessica appears to be embarrassed by her appearance in boys’ clothing, but Jessica could also be expressing compunction for the disloyalty toward her father. It is this loss of his flesh and blood in the form of his daughter and the authority’s inability to recover his possessions that heightens Shylock’s resolve to enforce the contract against Antonio. Antonio’s friends are sure that Shylock will not take Antonio’s flesh if he forfeits the bond because the flesh has no value. Shylock tells them that he will use the flesh as fish bait. “If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge,” he says (3.1.47-48). Shylock, glad when he hears news of Antonio’s losses, is certain that the Duke will enforce the legal contract and provide Shylock with his revenge in the form of a pound of Antonio’s flesh.While these two scenes establish a connection with “flesh” as a central element, there are marked differences between them. Jessica and Lorenzo abscond with Shylock’s valuables in the dark of the night and with Jessica in disguise. Not only does Lorenzo fail to ask Shylock’s permission for his daughter’s hand in marriage, but he escapes with her under concealment. Shylock, on the other hand, demands Antonio’s flesh in open court, saying, “I stand here for law” (4.1.145). Shylock has a legal contract and seeks the court’s assistance in enforcing it, where the elopement seeks to circumvent the covenant between Shylock and his daughter. Lorenzo and Jessica are assisted by their friends in the elopement, and the friends come together again in the courthouse to support Antonio, but Shylock is left in his house and is again alone in court.Shakespeare uses rings to further draw parallels and delineate distinctions in these scenes. When Jessica flees, she takes her mother’s turquoise ring and then trades the ring for a monkey. Shylock laments the loss of this ring, a sentimental gift from his wife, saying, “I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys” (3.1.108-109). Portia tests Bassanio by asking for the ring she has given him. While in disguise as the lawyer Balthazar, Portia seeks the ring as a token of gratitude for her legal services. At first, Bassanio refuses to part with the ring, telling the lawyer: “Good sir, this ring was given me by my wife,/ And when she put it on, she made me vow/ That I should neither sell nor give nor lose it” (4.1.456-458). Bassanio relents and turns over the ring when his friend Antonio beseeches him to, “let him have the ring./ Let his deservings, and my love withal,/ Be valued ‘gainst your wife’s commandment” (3.1.464-466). Gratiano, ever the shadow of Bassanio, presents Nerissa’s ring to the lawyer’s clerk. Shylock loses Leah’s ring through no fault of his own, Bassanio chooses to give away Portia’s ring in a show of loyalty to Antonio, and Gratiano gives away his ring from Nerissa because of his desire to emulate Bassanio. As a further mockery of justice, Bassanio’s and Gratiano’s rings are returned to them while Shylock’s ring is located, but never repatriated.Bassanio offers Shylock 6,000 ducats to repay the original 3,000 borrowed, but Shylock refuses and instead insists on the pound of Antonio’s flesh. Portia, incognito and acting as a lawyer when she is not sanctioned by the court to do so, reveals a loophole in the law that not only spares Antonio’s life, but releases him from repaying the principal borrowed. The voidance of the contract for a pound of flesh and loss of the principal would be, in modern times at least, a just outcome of such a ludicrous agreement, but Portia turns the law on Shylock, claiming that the agreement is tantamount to a threat on Antonio’s life. Shylock’s attempt to gain recompense for the loss of his flesh and blood by taking a pound of Antonio’s flesh backfires. The court metes out a sentence that further compounds the loss and humiliation Shylock suffered at Jessica’s elopement. Portia stipulates terms that require Shylock to forfeit half of his wealth, name Lorenzo his heir, and convert to Christianity. Giving that Shylock has already lost a significant amount of money in the elopement, requiring more in the form of a fine is a harsh blow. By demanding that Shylock name Lorenzo as his heir, the court is forcing Shylock to legally acknowledge the marriage between his daughter and the interloper. The conversion to Christianity is perhaps the harshest punishment imposed by the court. As a Christian, Shylock would no longer be able to participate in his career of usury. In addition to this loss of income, as a Jewish man, Shylock’s eternal soul is placed in jeopardy. Justice is ambiguous in this scene. Shylock has lost everything—his daughter, his wealth, his inheritance, and his religion—but to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, this ending could be construed a happy one where Shylock is forced to find an ethical means of making money, the family is reunited through the court-dictated relationship, and Shylock’s soul is saved with his conversion to Christianity. Using covenants to explore different facets of justice, Shakespeare does not seem to come to any conclusions, but would rather the audience members explore their own beliefs. Antonio is neither the hero nor the villain, Shylock is detestable and sympathetic at the same time, and the justice system cannot be relied upon to right society’s wrongs.
There are many instances where if one were not laughing, they would be crying; that is to say, the difference between the laughable and the lamentable is oftentimes narrow. In fact, the irony behind what is tragic and what is comedic is naturally linked by its relationship with pathos, insomuch that comedy dismisses empathy and pity, whereas tragedy demands it. From Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard to Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, all the way to their early beginnings with Plautus’ burlesque and often dark plays, tragicomic elements have been used in short stories, theatre pieces, and literature throughout time to provide ironic commentary on the spirit of the age and the human state of being. However, none surpass Shakespeare in their work in providing insight on the human condition and its affinity between the tragic and the comical. That is why after a review of The Merchant of Venice and its management of the bigotry towards Jews and homosexuals, the hypocrisy of the Christian’s judgment by mercy, and notably, the empathetic villainy and fate of the play’s antagonist, Shylock, it becomes clear that Shakespeare deliberately blurs the boundaries between tragedy and comedy and what is moral and immoral to provide humor, or at the very least, irony, to describe the human condition.From the beginning with Antonio’s opening line, “‘In sooth, I know not why I am so sad,”‘ the reader is introduced into the play with an air of speculative gloom. When Solanio and Salerio insist that Antonio’s sadness could be spawned from the risky nature of his business ventures on the seas, Antonio responds with an explanation of how his estate is sound, regardless of the future of his current business prospects; however, when asked if the merchant’s misery could be related to love, Antonio snaps back with “‘Fie, fie!” The hasty retort would seem to suggest that Antonio is positive that he could not be in love, but soon after, when he and Bassanio are left alone, the two share an exchange that would seem contrary to that claim. Though their exchange is not an overt confession of homosexuality, it is undeniable that Bassanio, who says, “‘To you, Antonio, I owe the most, in money and in love,”‘ and Antonio, who pledges “‘my purse, my person, my extremest means lie all unlocked to your occasions,”‘ are in love with each other. In the very least, Antonio’s undying affection and “‘devotion to Bassanio suggests the intensity of same-sex male bonds”‘. If Antonio has such a loving relationship, then why is he sad? It could be that Bassanio is looking to court Portia, the rich heiress of Belmont, and that the marriage could end Antonio and his relationship, but Bassanio explains that they both had expected this to happen given the disheveled condition of his estate, or in his own words, “‘‘Tis not unknown to you, Antonio, / How much I have disabled mine estate.”‘ If it were expected, than why would Antonio have stated in the play’s very beginning that he didn’t know the reasons for his sadness? A possible answer is that Antonio is conflicted with his homosexual desires for Bassanio. Antonio, a merchant with Venetian sensibilities of the time, those including homophobia and anti-Semitism, could be conflicted between his homosexual desire for Bassanio and his repulsion towards the very idea of homosexuality. The implied irony provided from a “‘homophobic homosexual”‘ certainly could be seen in a humorous light, but it is almost impossible to erase the elements of tragedy, considering how easy it is to be empathetic with the genuinely confused merchant in love.The bigotry in the play extends much further than sexual orientation and ultimately becomes blatant prejudice and racism, or more specifically, anti-Semitism. The irony behind the Christian/Jewish opposition throughout the play is obviously the Christian message of compassion towards neighbors in conflict with the overt anti-Semitism prevalent in the Christian characters. Even more ironic, the bigotry towards the Jews is not so much a religious intolerance as it is a racial one. Though the Christians in the play are by no means to be perceived as religiously tolerant, the persecution of Shylock, as well as his daughter, is more of an xenophobic contempt for “‘the particularities of blood-lineage, and increasingly, of nation”‘. This is made evident by the exchange between Jessica and Lancelot, when Lancelot explains that Jessica by birth is inevitably “‘damned,”‘ save for a “‘bastard hope,”‘ explaining that Jessica “‘may partly hope that your father got you not, that you are not the Jew’s daughter. In other words, the persecution of Jessica is not necessarily because she shares her father’s religion, but his blood, which in turn, produces a tragicomic irony, insomuch that the Christian characters feel no qualms about persecuting the Jews, even in the name of Christianity, a religion that preaches the very opposite. It would be unfair to say that only Lancelot expresses an anti-Semitic attitude; in truth, almost all the Christian characters express at one point in the play some form of Jewish racism. Gratiano, one of “‘the play’s most outspoken anti-Semites”‘ epitomizes many of the character’s prejudices, even at the extent of radically orating lengthy hate speech against Jews. Gratiano, in one of these tirades, comically hints at questioning his faith, a notion that is ironic considering his anti-Semitism does not coexist with his Christian beliefs in the first place, when he says to Shylock, “‘Oh, be thou damned, inexecrable dog, / And for thy life let Justice be accused! / Thou almost mak’st me waver in my faith”‘ Whether or not Shakespeare is consciously providing irony as commentary towards the injustice of the Christian racism or is simply cultivating “‘the soul of English culture”‘ and “‘long history of Jewish suffering,”‘ is debatable. Either way, it is impossible to remove the tragic quality of the Jew’s situation, even when illustrated in such an overblown and possibly, humorous fashion.Christian foul play continues throughout the play, notably with the trial of Shylock. Throughout the trial, Portia pleas to Shylock that he shed mercy on Antonio, stating “‘then must the Jew be merciful,”‘ but when Shylock questions why he must, she recants with “‘The quality of mercy is not strained.” Later, she implies that mercy in law “‘is not possible for anyone—but only in and by Christ.” Her “‘capitalization”‘ of Christian principles to gain advantage over the Jewish Shylock in the trial could be rendered as “‘psychospiritual usury,”‘ especially considering the hypocritical ending of the trial, where mercy isn’t exercised fully with Shylock’s sentence. If mercy was the Christian character’s intention, then why publically humiliate Shylock by forcing him to convert to Christianity, obviously going against his own beliefs and family tradition? The use of Christian ideologies in the trial is not only ironic but also hypocritical, since the espousers of the ideology do not even uphold to their own preaching, even to the extent that Antonio’s words earlier in the play, that even “‘the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose”‘ could be used against them. Be it subliminal or deliberate, there is no doubt throughout the trial that the Christian characters show “‘hypocrisy in projecting their own worst traits onto the scapegoated figure of the Jew”‘. Because Shakespeare writes the play with the intention of the Christian characters identifying with the audience, the subtle irony behind the Christian hypocrisy is ambiguous; however, if one puts an emphasis on “‘the importance and centrality of the irony,”‘ it becomes clear that the play describes “‘the manner in which the Christians succeed in the world by not practicing their ideals of love and mercy.” The justice at the hand of the Christians is completely arbitrary, and not at the mercy of Christ (the only just mercy according to Portia earlier), but solely to Antonio’s liking when Portia passes the sentence to him asking, “‘What mercy can you render him, Antonio?”‘ The procedure is nothing short of “‘mercenary justice”‘ and “‘does not celebrate the Christian virtues so much as expose their absence,”‘ which ultimately does not portray “‘justice by love and mercy,”‘ but becomes “‘something of a parody of heavenly harmony and love.” The irony behind the court scene, and certainly the potentially deliberate pathos rendered by the mistreatment of Shylock, is quickly brushed off as Shakespeare immediately shifts the focus from Shylock to the lovers and their rings at the end of the first scene in Act IV, furthering the elements of romantic comedy throughout the play. But even though the irony is deliberately placed aside to continue the comedic narrative, one can not deny its presence throughout the entire trial and the hypocrisy and complacency of the Christian characters that let it prosper.Perhaps the most complicated element towards critically interpreting The Merchant of Venice is the ambiguity surrounding Shylock’s character. One inclination is to present Shylock as “‘a potentially good man twisted by malignant social and religious prejudice, an approach that can only mean Shakespeare intended the play to be “‘deeply ironic”‘ and about “‘hypocritical Christians,”‘ but in the “‘other direction,”‘ Shylock simply could have been like any villain in a “‘typical romantic comedy, which only by historical accident has a Jew occupying the position otherwise filled by (say) a killjoy steward.” In critique to the latter case, if Shylock were simply a generic villain, then why are there so many complications and instances of pity throughout the play towards his character? It could be possible that Shylock deliberately has characteristics of both, a sympathetic character and a typical villain. For how else could Shylock be “‘portrayed not as a hateful character, but as one who commands our sympathies,”‘ and “‘a comic, even a farcical figure, greedy to the point of the ludicrous, whose every line and mannerism is intended to evoke belly-laughs,”‘ if it were not for him to be an ideal platform to provide irony throughout the play? It only seems possible that Shylock was created to embody contradicting characteristics. Why else would the most emotionally poignant and sentimental lines in the play be uttered by the man who when asked by Salerio, “‘thou wilt not take his flesh. What’s that good for?”‘ responds coldheartedly with “‘To bait fish withal. If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge.” With those words, something is revealed “‘far more than the mere desire for revenge,”‘ and an “‘element of wild desperation”‘ created by the frustration from years of persecution, comes out in Shylock’s character, so that as one sees “‘there is a despairing sense of the futility of the revenge, since the pound of flesh cannot heal the real hurt,”‘ they realize that Shylock has become maddened to the point of deep agony, and through this realization are compelled to sympathize with him. If not those words, than certainly the rest of Shylock’s discourse, especially him questioning, “‘If you pick us, do we not bleed? / If you tickle us, do we not laugh?”‘ and definitely his comparison to a Christian in respect to retribution with “‘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,”‘ could only be interpreted as a cry for sympathy and understanding. When creating Shylock, Shakespeare “‘knew the Jews of medieval and passion plays and Corpus Christi pageants”‘ were portrayed as “‘an incarnation of the devil himself,”‘ and also understood the animosity towards Jews at the time because of their practicing of “‘usury, that is, the lending of money for gain, giving not for love but for gain,”‘ an animosity so great, that the “‘word “‘Jew”‘ was synonymous with evil.” So by providing a second layer, the sympathetic and tortured side of Shylock, Shakespeare deliberately created a character to contrast the Elizabethan single-sidedness of Jewish perception. In a sense, he asks one to give sympathy to the devil, a notion overtly ironic; however, Shylock also plays to the perception of the Jews at the time by adding the simple and ridiculous form of a money mongering Jew. This is made apparent when he says things (according to Solanio) as ludicrous as “‘My daughter! Oh, my ducats! Oh, my daughter!”‘ Shakespeare plays to the audience’s likely prejudices towards the Jews implying that Shylock, a simplistic avaricious usurer, who would equate his own daughter to his ducats. In doing this, he openly provides comedy where the other elements of tragicomic irony throughout the play might not have been interpreted by the masses, but that is not to say he is simply reducing Shylock to a simplistic villain. On the contrary, it just adds another layer to the already complex web that is Shylock’s character.By employing irony throughout The Merchant of Venice with the anti-Semitic and homophobic bigotry of the supposedly moral characters, the overall hypocrisy practiced by the followers of Christianity, and most importantly, the empathetic and tragic condition of the villain, Shylock, Shakespeare asks the audience not to lament, but to laugh at the discrepancy between the intellectual and emotional sides of humanity. It is true that comedy uses “‘wit”‘ and “‘spectacle”‘ to “‘appeal”‘ to the brain, and that tragedy “‘engages before anything else our feelings of terror and pity,”‘ that is, the responses of the heart. However, the line is fine between what engages the mind and what pleas to the heart. The Merchant of Venice embraces this notion of unintelligibility, blending the elements of tragedy and comedy in order to provide instances of irony, something intrinsically comic. For without the play’s irony, it would be Shakespeare, not Shylock, that demanded a pound of flesh – straight from the reader’s heart.