THE MERCHANT OF VENICE page 4

Act II scene vi This scene appears to herald the masque with Lorenzo’s friends waiting for him under an overhanging roof, the selected meeting place. Salerio comments, somewhat cynically, that lovers are often reluctant to keep to arrangements once the first flush of romance is over, introducing a note of doubt into Lorenzo’s motives and, possibly, Bassanio’s since the observation is generalised. Gratiano agrees with little of the mindless garrulousness that the others accuse him of, giving pertinent, if lengthy examples of weariness: the theme of broken vows and blunted intentions is thus established. He refers to a person satiated at a banquet, a horse unwilling to retrace its steps and, with a dark foreboding, a ship putting out to sea like a young prodigal son, decked with flags and helped by a false wind, which returns weather-damaged and with torn sails. This reminds us of Antonio’s ships and the dangers they are facing, casting a gloomy shadow over the festive tone.
As soon as Lorenzo enters, blaming his delay on business and using the lexis of theft, Jessica appears in boy’s clothes (it is believed that, since female parts were played by youths, the actors were relieved to be able to wear the right garments for their gender). They speak briefly of their love but Jessica’s main concern is soon shown to be the casket of stolen goods. She is more embarrassed by her change of clothes than of her thieving and apologises modestly saying that she is glad night covers her transformation and that lovers are blind like Cupid. Her charm may not blind us to her deceitfulness. She is reluctant to bear the torch which will light up her new appearance but keen to return and steal more money making us wonder if she deserves the all the epithets “gentle” (a pun on “noble” and “gentile”) and “wise, fair and true” which her admirers heap upon her. (The three words of Lorenzo’s each refer to a quality ascribed to each of the three souls which a person was believed to possess so that Jessica’s complete perfection is the picture that Lorenzo will carry in his faithful soul). We, as audience, are robbed of enjoyment of the masque as the wind has turned and Bassanio can sail immediately, “presently”, to Belmont; it is strange that Shakespeare deprived us of a scene showing this society at play to contrast with the restricted atmosphere of Shylock’s house but there needs to be a sense of urgency in the plot as there are some rather static and formalised scenes to come of the choosing of one of Portia’s caskets.
Act II Scene vii is a formalised though tense episode in which the first suitor makes his choice of caskets and we feel that it will be one of three such scenes with Bassanio’s selection coming last, giving this plot a pattern and structure. The process is supposed to be a test of character, set by Portia’s father so that her husband will be someone who truly loves her, not a fortune hunter. Morocco reads aloud the inscriptions which form the test: the gold will pick out a man who wishes to be envied for obtaining what others desire; the silver encourages a man with the confidence in himself to think he deserves Portia and the lead will find out a man prepared to take risks for her. We recall that it is not Bassanio but Antonio who is taking the risk. Also the challenge requires the chooser to look at underlying meaning not appearances and Bassanio places much emphasis on outside show.
Morocco’s long speech does hold up the action and we are not entirely held in its grip since we suspect he will not make the right choice since that would end the play here. Some tension is dissipated if it is delivered in full. He will not select lead as he feels that it threatens and that anyone choosing it would hypocritically hope for other advantages. Tempted by the idea that silver will give him what he deserves, he convinces himself that he does merit her by breeding, wealth, graces and his love for her but finally selects the gold because all the world desires Portia and many travel to adore her. He also reasons that lead and silver are unsuitable metals to contain her portrait but that gold is worthy, comparing this idea to the English coin known as an angel: he is idealistic and his speech patterns are elevated. Inside the gold casket is a grotesque skull with a doggerel verse on a scroll in its eye socket, pointing out that he has chosen by outside show. The death’s head forms a contrast with the expected portrait and demonstrates the theme of outside appearances and inner worth. He gains our sympathy by his swift and dignified departure and Portia may lose it with her racist remark about the colour of his skin, since he has shown himself to have some admirable if cold and conceited qualities. He obviously was not a compatible suitor but the test was not entirely successful in weeding out a man of poor character. It does, by its poetry and references, establish Portia as highly desirable in a fabled manner which allows her to appear human in herself when she speaks.
Act II scene viii
The prime question about this scene is why it is reported action. We hear from others how Shylock reacted to the disappearance of Jessica with the stolen goods but we do not see it for ourselves. The answer must be that the image of Shylock needs to be complex and that interpretations of him and his conduct are as important as the reality. It is the view of others that counts also towards our judgement on how he is treated by the Christians. Solanio’s description is vital in this function and he quotes Shylock’s words at length and – we may presume – reasonably accurately. The actor could mimic him but it is clear that Shylock was as concerned about the money as he was about his daughter and that, somewhat comically, he regards the ducats as having become Christian. Yet it is an enormity that she has robbed and deceived him and his passion, “So strange, outrageous, and so variable”, is understandable. It is possible that he would have presented too bizarre a picture if seen lamenting on stage but it is also possible that Solanio is exaggerating. His term “dog” is notable and colours the speech. The account is full of moral ambiguity and we wonder if the simple command, “Find the girl”, is because Shylock wants his money back rather than her. Certainly there does not seem to be sorrow at the loss of her in itself. The two men, Solanio and Salerio, represent the typical outlook of Venice: cultured and elegant but prejudiced. Boys are mocking and imitating Shylock’s misery in the streets but the more serious implication is that Shylock will now harden his heart even further against Christians and so this development affects the main plot. Our realisation of this increased threat coincides with the rumour that a ship from Venice carrying valuable cargo has been wrecked and the anxiety grows that it is Antonio’s. The atmosphere darkens.
Antonio is praised for his generous and loving attitude when he told Bassanio to do all necessary to win Portia’s hand and not let the bond enter his mind, despite his evident grief at losing his friend. “I think he loves the world only for him” may explain Antonio’s rather passive and depressed mood. He appears a lonely and isolated figure, prey to chance and the will of his enemy.
Act II scene ix is the second of the patterned incidents where suitors choose a casket and we suspect that this candidate will fail, leaving room for the third, Bassanio, although some tension does remain in case Arragon succeeds. His name suggests arrogance and the Spanish were felt to be proud: in his case the test does reveal his character. Shakespeare omits the swearing of the oath and he is led to the challenge “presently” [immediately]. He lists the penalties for a wrong selection: never to tell anyone which he chose; never to marry anyone else; to leave straightaway afterwards. These are intended to deter a man who does not love Portia suffiecinetly although they are like an element in a fairytele since two of them cannot be enforced. Reading the inscriptions, he passes over lead as being too unattractive to make him risk all he has, thus judging by outward appearances. He also rejects the gold one since he despises ordinary people who might desire it, showing himself to be conceited, feeling superior to the world in general. He contradicts himself by saying that choosing gold would show an undue concern with externals when he has done just that.
The silver casket appeals to him as he “will assume desert” and accord himself the merit of becoming Portia’s husband, whilst ruminating on the unfairness of the present universal system of rewarding the unworthy and depriving the worthy of their just positions. (It would have been considered presumptuous of a lover to think himself deserving of his beloved.) Inside the silver casket is a fool’s head and he instantly complains so that we do not feel sorry for him. Again there is a jingle telling him why (which does not make a great deal of sense) but he obeys the injuction to leave quickly. A servant brings the news that a messenger from Venice has arrived before his master who has sent rich gifts and compliments to Portia. We guess this is Bassanio using his friend’s borrowed money for presents which are to no avail since all depends on the choice of caskets which Nerissa has described as “destiny” and which we are told is a test of love and character.The new suitor is praised as an ideal romantic lover if the messenger is an indication of his image and Portia is both witty in saying that he could be a relation of Nerissa’s since she praises him so much and also impetuously eager to meet the traveller.
Act III scene i Back in Venice we hear of an unconfirmed rumour that Antonio has lost a ship: we recall Salerio’s words at Act I sc. i l 26 and feel sure the report is true. After some elegant wordy chatter in which Solanio refuses to be prolix and then commits that error Shylock enters, called a devil by the Christians. They mock his loss of Jessica in an indiferrent, even callous fashion, jeering at him, calling him “old carrion” and claiming that she is as different from him as jet is from ivory and red wine is from white wine. Shylock connects the flight of his daughter with the loss of Antonio’s ship as both cost him and his long-standing animosity is shown in the repetition of “let him look to his bond”, making the audience realise that it was not a mere jest but could be taken seriously and fatally. He has resented Antonio’s “smug” [neatly dressed] appearance and manner, free loans and depiction of Shylock as a usurer without being able to avenge this treatment but now his moment has come and, when Salerio asks him what good a pound of flesh would be, he is adamant that it will “feed [his] revenge.” Our judgement is required here to balance our reactions and we may feel that, however racist Antonio’s behaviour has been, it does not merit death. Despite the pun (“dam”/damned) and verbal dexterity, the atmosphere continues to darken and the complacency of the Venetians that Shylock will not demand his part of the bond begins to seem fragile.
His prose speech at line 42 may be contrast to his blank verse outburst at line 103 Act I scene iii and divides into three sections: Antonio’s behaviour in the past; the common humanity of Jews and Christians and the fact that he will copy them and seek revenge. It is part two that has influenced readers out of context but the whole should be remembered as leading in a crescendo to a climactic call for revenge which recalls the opening sentiments and goes full circle.
Shylock’s immediate answer to the question about the pound of flesh “what’s that good for?” is chilling and blunt with its bestial reference: “to bait fish withal.” The next sentence is a list of grievances against Antonio which has the ring of truth since we have heard the merchant agree that he has behaved like this. He has scorned Shylock, his race and his financial dealings and interfered with his relationships and income: Shylock’s diatribe is divided into short and pointed clauses rising to the question of why Antonio so despises him. The answer is race and religion: “I am a Jew”. As a modern audience with the last century’s history in mind we cannot but be appalled by this and find it difficult to feel what an Elizabethan reaction might have been. The next series of sentences composed of rhetorical questions engages our sympathies and is often taken out of context because it stresses movingly the common humanity of Jew and Christian in its basic emphasis on physical responses. The only answer to the questions must be positive: yes all men are alike in those ways but the final query switches direction as it moves to the emotional and motivational: “And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?” The tempo is maintained and we are ready to agree without thinking. He skilfully claims to have learned the desire for and practice of revenge from Christians (“humility” is used ironically as a false and hypocritical quality of his enemies) and he darkly threatens to “better the instruction” and be more vengeful than they are. Shylock’s entire outburst has led to this and the plea for understanding in the first parts must be taken in this context.
The racist attitude of Venetians is clear when Solanio comments that Jews are akin to the devil and Shylock shows by his questions to Tubal and his reactions to the answers that his primary concern is the loss of his money and jewels. In his distress he contradicts his earlier claims that his hatred of Christians stems from history: “The curse never fell upon our nation till now, I never felt it till now.” The repetition sounds as if the sentiment is genuine and it overturns his cause. Also clear is his sense of priorities: “I would my daughter were dead at my feet, and the jewels in her ear”, again repeated in different words in his next sentence. He laments the money he has spent in looking for her which has brought no satisfaction, merely more loss, and the many monosyllabic phrases here indicate his strong emotions of dismay, resentment and desire for revenge which must now be taken against Antonio since Jessica cannot be found. Anaphora ends the speech and this rhetorical device emphasises his mood and qualifies our sympathies. Shakespeare manipulates and controls the audience’s shifting attitudes to him throughout the play.
Repetition and monosyllables characterise his reactions to the news that Antonio has lost shipping and his joy at finding an outlet for his burning hatred is paramount although Antonio is innocent of any involvement with Jessica’s escape and theft. He is outraged by her extravagance with his carefully hoarded money and here some sympathy returns, particularly when we learn that a ring of great sentimental value has been traded for a monkey. It is a moot question for the actor playing Tubal as to how the news is delivered but it does provide a motive for Shylock’s urgent (he sends for an officer to arrest Antonio) and powerful desire to take his pound of flesh and remove Antonio from the marketplace, leaving him free to bargain as he pleases.