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A Difficult Play

Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is not often performed. There is simply no way to get away from the strident anti-Semitism expressed by the characters. As in this production, some of the lines can be cut, reducing the impact of repetition, but the anti-Semitic remarks cannot be entirely avoided. We can explain to ourselves that in Shakespeare’s day, such sentiments towards Jews were typical. Really, the dramatic point of the Jew in Merchant of Venice is more about his otherness than about his Jewishness. It’s just hard to see this through the anti-Semitic haze of the work. The play relies on a few bits of knowledge (Jews don’t eat pork; Jews lend money at interest) and a few stereotypes (Jews are cheap, Jews are stuck in their ways). Any Jews in England were conversos. However, throughout Europe the conversos were often under suspicion as not having really converted. Launcelot expresses this view to Jessica near the end of the play. Despite this looming issue for modern audiences, Merchant of Venice is not a play about anti-Semitism. It is a play about difference, about exchange, and about the power of women. It is not a play about love and not much about religion, despite its appearances.

This play, like many works of Shakespeare’s, is about the play of appearances. In Portia we have one of the great (and lengthy) female roles of Shakespeare. On the Elizabethan stage, Portia was played by a boy. The length and complexity of her role, especially at the court, indicate that the boy was probably nearing his puberty. Thus, he had a few years of experience performing and he was mature enough to handle a demanding role. The cross-dressing within the play is a practical convenience for those performing the play. Portia delivers the majority of her lines while dressed as a young man. The performer was, in fact, a young man, and so he could deliver these lines more comfortably (without the added worries of voice changes). The cross-dressing as well as the attention drawn to it are typical conventions of the play. No one was fooled by the costumes, yet everyone went along with it (to a point). The dramatic irony is thick in the court scene, when the men, even the Duke, are all duped by Portia’s and Nerissa’s disguises. There is a similar light-hearted moment when Jessica emerges and laments, “Cupid himself would blush / To see me thus transformed to a boy” (2.6.38-9). The ability to deceive. The power to transform. The wit to use this method for their own good or the greater good. These skills all belong to the women of the play.

The men, however, have gotten themselves into their own mess. Shylock’s seeming greediness and stubborn insistence on the rule of law obviously contribute to the horrific court scene. But Antonio is no less guilty. He may be willing to lend freely to his friends, but it is to the point of prodigality, and he is a betting man. He wagers his life for speculative wealth. Of three ships, at least one is likely to return successfully, but it’s still a risk. Shylock’s great fault at the court is to insist on the letter of the law, and it is his undoing. But the law is all that Shylock has in his favor. We hear of his abuses, not only in his recounting, but in Antonio’s gloating response. Shylock’s great tragic speech appeals to our humanity by noticing his humanity. This is a moral argument, and as touching as it is, it doesn’t affect the treatment of “the Jew.” Thus Shylock is forced to rely on an absolute ethical rigidity. This is somewhat related to the Hebrew adherence to the biblical Law, but in Venice, it is the only recourse available to an outsider like Shylock. Like the casket game for Portia’s hand, Venice may be an “open city” with a lot of diversity, but the odds are stacked in favor of the Christian house.

Antonio represents the moral law of Christianity, but he too takes the law too literally, and without sufficient thought. He is willing to lay down his life for his friend, but for his friend’s pursuit of wealth and fancy. Bassanio seeks out Portia because he’s broke. In order to make a good show (even though the caskets take all comers), Bassanio borrows in order to invest in his appearance. And he is not in love with Portia. It’s a business exchange with the appearance of love. “’Tis not unknown to you, Antonio, / How much I have disabled mine estate . . . my chief care / Is to come fairly off from the great debts” (1.1.122f). The “wooing” of Portia is nothing more than a scheme, and she’s pretty to boot. Bassanio already owes Antonio money, but he is asking once again for more, and he will share his “plots and purposes.” The first thing we learn about Portia is that she is rich, and then fair, and then that she has sent “fair speechless messages” from her eyes. We hear nothing about Bassanio’s feelings for her – beyond a yen for her fortune. So much for the love that is central to Christianity and its holy union of marriage.

For her part, Portia does some swooning over Bassanio, but what are her motives. She resists the non-Christian suitors with a telepathic will. She sighs with relief when the Moor fails, “Let all of his complexion choose me so” (2.8.79). All through this game of the caskets, Portia knows that she is the one with the power. And she relishes it once she lays hold of Bassanio, who has no clue about the price he has paid for her fortune. On the surface, Portia swoops in to save the day, to save Antonio from death and her dear beloved husband from guilt. But think of the power that this gives her. In arguing Shylock’s case against him, Portia exerts the power over life and death. She forcibly converts Shylock to Christianity. She takes on a godlike role. Nor is that enough power. She then insists upon the ring, testing Bassanio’s commitment to her love. That commitment is as deep as she knew it was: the ring is valuable as a point of exchange, not as a symbol of undying devotion. In his rationale, once discovered, Bassanio argues that the worth of the ring is worth the life of his friend, and befitting for the “worthy doctor.”

There is a similar confusion, judged more harshly, when Shylock confuses his daughter and his “stones.” Shylock most loudly laments the loss of a turquoise, given him by his deceased wife. The stone is of little monetary value but great sentimental value. Shylock is entirely consistent in his value system – he is absolutely ethical (although not at all morally compassionate). At the court, he refuses all offers of money, but insists on receiving his due. He is not greedy for money. His insistence on the pound of flesh is motivated by revenge, not greed, a revenge based on a capitalist exchange sanctioned as the law of the land. The laws of Venice cater to the needs of mercantile exchange. We are reminded before the court scene and during it, that the Duke is impotent, powerless to override Shylock’s demand. It is entirely legal. The court and the community need a woman to sort it out.

At this point, the comedy starts to return as Portia navigates a complex legal argument in an exceedingly clever manner. Light-hearted in appearance, when the parties return to Belmont, Portia establishes her power once and for all. Bassanio may never have to borrow money from Antonio again, but he will have to live under the rule of a woman with the power over life and death, the power of sex. This is the stick with which Bassanio, and Gratiano are beaten into line. “I will ne’er come in your bed / Until I see the ring” (5.1.190-1). Eventually this all seems in good fun, and yet, there is a bitter irony in Gratiano’s closing pun. “Well, while I live I’ll fear no other thing / So sore as keeping safe Nerissa’s ring” (5.1.306-7). The ring is a sexual metaphor here, and these last lines reveal where the power will lie in these marriages. There is a lot more to the Merchant of Venice than meets the politically correct eye. The play is worthy of more performance and more study, beyond the Jewish question. Like many comedies, in all the fun there is embedded critique of the status quo. The power of comedy is to make us think without realizing that we have.

Brenda Machosky
Assistant Professor of English
University of Hawai‘i West O‘ahu


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