The Merchant of Venice

Overview

Readers and audiences are sometimes surprised to find that The Merchant of Venice is classed as a comedy since, despite its ending with multiple happy marriages, there are dark notes in the body of the play which linger in the mind. Shylock and the treatment of him by the Christians is one of these sombre elements and he is a character who lives in our sensibilities outside the play, so much so that it is also surprising that it is not he who is the merchant of Venice, but Antonio. Other comic ingredients are mistaken identity, scenes with clownish figures and verbal wit with puns but the themes are serious and thought-provoking and many of the characters are seen from different angles so that we are invited to take a critical stance and judge them rather than accept them lightly.

More than most plays, the director can use his powers to create, through the actors and staging, an overall interpretation of the text: it is more ambiguous and complex than many comedies. Although there are sources for the bond (Il Pecarone) and the caskets plot (Gesta Romanorum), it is the drama as Shakespeare wrote it that concerns us here. It is preoccupied with issues of: money and attitudes to that commodity; love and friendship; bonds and promises; outsiders to society; the difference between appearances and reality, outsides and insides; racism; chance and fate; religion; deception; melancholy and sourness as opposed to youthful exuberance; generosity and meanness; justice and mercy. The setting is divided between Venice, rich and commercialised, and Belmont, supposedly idealised and removed from those matters with something of a fairy-tale atmosphere. There are three plots, two of which dominate the first part of the play: the bond plot of the pound of flesh and the casket plot to be followed by the lesser plot about the rings. It is a drama of moral ambiguities which are not resolved by marriage but which remain as questions in the mind, more in the nature of a tragedy or problem play. It is sometimes said that comedy deals with folly and tragedy with evil but this division is too simplistic for this play since the characters are neither merely foolish nor straightforwardly wicked. Shakespeare manipulates our sympathies and reactions throughout and, although it is difficult to ascertain what might have been the contemporary audiences’ responses, a close analysis of the text will yield clues as to the impact of the drama on any listener or reader.

Act i scene i
The play opens in Venice on a note of unexplained melancholy as Antonio bemoans his feeling of sadness. He cannot account for it and the short line: “I am to learn” gives a pause in which we can guess at answers. Melancholy from black bile was accepted as one of the four humours (phlegm, blood for a sanguine disposition and yellow bile causing choler being the others) and would have been accepted as inexplicable but here our attention is drawn to it as a symptom needing attention. His mood is wearily impatient with himself but it is functional: he is ready to make an unwise bond in his misery whereas he would normally be prudent and it accounts for a certain passivity in his behaviour. His friends suggest causes relating to his ships and wealth but a director may choose to suggest a homosexual love for Bassanio who wants to marry.

His friends are unindividualised helpful allies and representatives of Venetian society so that Salerio’s description of the ships being like influential citizens tells us of the wealth of Venice as well as hinting at the power of money to breed and increase and the imagery depicts life as a voyage. It is both fanciful when he mentions lesser “petty traffickers” curtseying but also realistic and it occurs to us that perhaps Antonio should be worried and may have reason for anxiety later. Solanio is sympathetic and their concern makes the melancholy credible as well as making real the great wealth involved. Indeed, Solanio admits that he would be completely preoccupied with his “ventures” (a thematic word) were he Antonio and would be constantly trying to guess how they were faring. Salerio agrees and gives examples of everyday matters which would trigger worry: his own breath cooling soup would cause him to think of threatening winds at sea; an hour-glass would make him believe his ship had hit a sand bank: the church would make him imagine dangerous rocks which might wreck the ship and scatter the spices and silks, making them worthless. All this foreshadows later events although Antonio claims he has been wise and spread his risks and that it is not trade causing his melancholy. The friends suggest love as a cause but Antonio curtly rejects that and Solanio is forced to the conclusion that there is no explanation and that some people are sad by nature just as others are merry: emotions are irrational and character is inbred and possibly not liable to change. This opening encounter sets Antonio’s mood as indelible, Venice as a rich centre of trade, not productive or land owning and the Christians as wealthy through merchandising. The language of their leave-taking is gracious and elegant and the society is depicted as gregarious and fun-loving.

Salerio and Solanio have a choric function even though they engage with the other characters but the three men who have entered are more central to the plots. Gratiano also comments on Antonio’s melancholy which has changed him and claims that people who are too prudent and cautious lose enjoyment of life, ironically as they believe they are protecting their contentment. The lexis is of buying and losing as though happiness were a commodity and the short speech is a rebuke to undue carefulness, delivered neatly and pertinently despite the fact the others think Gratiano is a chatterer. Antonio uses the image of the world as a stage which is a distancing device, reminding the audience that it is watching a play but also suggesting that he does have a choice and could be cheerful. It makes us stand back and wonder if this is the case and the subsequent dialogue contributes to the theme of sadness against merriment.

Gratiano continues the analogy and selects the part of the clown whose wrinkles will derive from laughter and assumes that Antonio’s melancholy is a fashionable pose. He prefers wine to warm his liver rather than groans which cool it according to the contemporary belief that sighs drew blood from the heart and could kill. Melancholy is unnatural to him and he questions why anyone should behave in this elderly and paralysed manner. Depression was associated with jaundice and he feels Antonio is encouraging this by his morose conduct. Yet he impresses on him that he speaks out of love but warns him against adopting melancholy in order to gain a reputation for “wisdom, gravity, profound conceit [intelligence]” employing the image of a stagnant pond to make this facade seem unappealing.

He sees it as a version of pride and vanity and touches on the theme of deception whilst being quite hard on Antonio towards the end of the speech. He links him with men who remain silent to seem intelligent but who would be called fools if they were to speak, thereby damning those who commented (Matthew v 32). Possibly perceiving that he is having no effect despite his harshness, he threatens to return to the topic, meanwhile warning Antonio, with a metaphor from fishing, not to try to gain the reputation of wisdom from foolish people by being solemn. He ends with a dig at Puritan preachers going off for dinner during sermons. The others tease him in jocular manner for dominating the conversation but Gratiano takes it in good spirit and praises loquaciousness on departure. Gratiano attempts to make gaiety and liveliness a philosophical approach to life but, in doing so, ironically, becomes the object of somewhat unfair ridicule. His speech has forefronted Antonio’s mood and pre-empts our possible criticism of the merchant for his later passivity whilst setting us wondering if Antionio could change his attitude by force of will. Bassanio’s prose complaint that Gratiano’s discourse is verbose and empty is not entirely true as there are many grains of wisdom in his utterances, worth attention and consideration – but he may be attempting to cheer his friend. Having established Antonio’s mood the main plot can commence.

Antonio comes straight to the point by asking about Bassanio’s admired lady and this suddenness and directness suggests that this is the cause of his melancholy. There is clear change of key in the move from a few prose lines to blank verse and in Antonio’s serious delivery with its imperative “tell me” and the mention of a promise. Bassanio’s speech is also somewhat formal, starting with an understatement: “‘Tis not unknown to you” and using the lexis of legal dealings in “debts”, “gaged” and “warranty.” He admits to having reduced his own “faint means” or meagre wealth by outward show, “a more swelling port”, which it could not sustain, and claims that he does not mind a reduced style of life but is concerned to pay off his debts.

This shows that he has been unwise with money and is already showing a negative balance which he states he wants to put right. It is important to recall this for the rest of the plot as it colours our attitude to him and to the whole theme of appearance and reality. The theme of bonds is also touched upon as he acknowledges his debt to Antonio in both love and money and wishes to call upon Antonio’s love for him and willingness to hear his difficulties to rid him of his debts, presumably by lending more money. We wonder if the kind of love involved is reciprocal since Bassanio wants to use his money in a heterosexual suit. He seems a victim of usury and a spend-thrift, presumably having dissipated his means on festivity, which is seen in the play as a temporary freedom from the cruel realities of the world yet not an end in itself, whereas Antonio risks money but in a merchanting trade which he makes as secure as possible. In the world of sophisticated gentlemen there is no incompatibilty in the interactions of love and money but it does give the drama a mercenary base in the society of Christians as well as that of Jews.

Antonio replies graciously and with extreme generosity, saying that, if the cause is honourable, he will offer him everything he needs. To this Bassanio gives a playground analogy which he says fits the innocence of the request but which, when examined carefully, has a falsity embedded. If he, as a child, shot an arrow and lost it, he would shoot another in the same direction, keeping a careful eye on it in order to retrieve both. He therefore asks Antonio to allow him to send more of his money money after the first loan which has been spent and is confident that he can return both sums or at least bring back the latter and remain indebted for the original. Yet this comparison does not work for money as he cannot be sure that the second sum will find the vanished first loan (which we realise even more certainly when we learn that he has in mind a hazardous romantic gesture.) Nowhere does he promise to curtail his expenditure and the infantile analogy makes him seem naif, over-ambitious and even deceitful or at best prone to optimistic illusions. Antonio reassures him that he will help and asks him to come to the point without wasting time in doubting his love for him which is worse than wasting the money.

He recklessly agress to an unknown request without noticing the unreliablity of the analogy or the fact that his friend seems determined to keep spending.
We are struck by the priorities of Bassanio’s description of Portia: firstly he mentions her rich inheritance, secondly her beauty and thirdly her virtues. He may be stressing her wealth to emphasise to Antonio that he will see his loans repaid but all the security he can offer is the rather subjective opinion that she has made eyes at him: “fair, speechless messages.” He compares her to the classical Portia and also claims that her renown is such that suitors are attracted to her and her golden hair just as Jason searched for the golden fleece. Bassanio wants to compete with these suitors and feels it necessary to have wealth to do so, thinking that it will be a thrift or saving in the end.

Portia is therefore iconic as the ultimate in beauty and desirability, a priceless object of desire but the speech is underlaid by the lexis of trading whilst in fact dealing with returns on a gamble. Antonio would like to help but his fortunes are in his ships at sea and he sends Bassanio to see if he can find credit, which would stretch him to the extreme. Both will inquire immediately but the rather listless acceptance of Antonio hides the danger and underside of Bassanio’s intense request, which will place his friend in great debt on the flimsy basis of Portia’s glances. If there is a homosexual element in the relationship it is ironic that Antonio is pledging his credit in order to lose a friend to a woman. The phrase “racked even to the uttermost” is a case of foreshadowing where a dark outcome is suggested.