The merchant of venice, written in 1596 or 1597, lays its scene in what is surely one of the most remarkable cities in history. It is a city which at its peak was richer and more powerful than almost any full-sized nation of its time. It was queen of the sea and a barrier against the formidable Turks.
This city, Venice, which was like an Italian Athens born after its time, or an Italian Amsterdam born before, had its birth at the time of the invasion of Italy by Attila the Hun in 452. Fleeing Italians hid in the lagoons offshore along the northern Adriatic and about this colony as the nucleus Venice arose.
While the Franks, the Byzantines, the Lombards, and the papacy all struggled for control over Italy, Venice, under skillful leadership, managed to gain for itself a steadily increasing independence and, through trade, a steadily increasing prosperity.
Venetian prosperity and power climbed steeply during the period of the Crusades, since it, along with several other Italian cities, had the ships to carry the Crusaders and their supplies-and charged healthily for it. By 1203 Venice could blackmail a group of Crusaders into attacking the Byzantine Empire first. In 1204 the Crusaders took Constantinople itself and the Byzantine Empire was divided as loot, with a considerable share going to Venice, which thus became a major Mediterranean power.
Venice embarked on a long struggle with Genoa, a port on the other side of the Italian boot, and by 1380 had won completely. The war made her aware of her need for continental territories to assure herself of food supr plies despite the ups and downs of naval warfare. She spread out into nearby Italy and by 1420 northeastern Italy was hers from the Adriatic nearly to Lake Como.
The fifteenth century, however, saw her pass her peak. The Turk captured Constantinople in 1453 and it became less easy to trade with the East The Portuguese explorers circled Africa by 1497 and, as it grew possible to bypass the Mediterranean, the Venetian stranglehold on trade with the East further diminished.
Then, ha the sixteenth century, France, Spain, and the Empire began to use Italy as a battleground and the entire peninsula, including Venice, was reduced to misery.
But even in Shakespeare's time, although Venice was no longer what she had been, she remained a romantic land, with the trappings of empire still about herself-an efficient, stable, and long-established government over wealthy merchants and skillful seamen with territory and bases here and there in the Mediterranean. What's more, Shakespeare's century saw Venice reach its artistic heights. Titian and Tintoretto were sixteenth-century Venetians, for instance.
Then too, even in decline, Venice remained Europe's shield against the Turks throughout Shakespeare's lifetime and for several decades after his death.
… why I am so sad
The play opens with Antonio on stage. He is the "merchant" of the title and he is in conversation with two friends, Salerio and Solanio. Antonio says:
In sooth I know not why I am so sad.
It wearies me, you say it wearies you;
– Act I, scene i, lines 1-2
The sadness is never explicitly explained in the play and it may be accepted as simply setting a mood. Antonio, after all, is to spend much of the play in a position of great danger.
However, it is possible to speculate that there is a more specific cause of sadness, one which Shakespeare does not care to elaborate upon. As will appear soon enough, Antonio has a male friend to whom he is devoted with a self-sacrificial intensity that is almost unbelievable. This friend, we are soon to find out, is about to woo a young lady in the hope of marrying her.
Antonio may very easily be meant by Shakespeare to represent the nobility of homosexual love, something he hints at in several plays (as, for instance, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, see page I-473) without quite daring to be specific about it.
Well then, if Antonio's friend has, in the eagerness of his new plans involving a lady, grown more distant, is not this reason enough for the poor man to be sad-and yet be unable to explain it, without disgrace, to his friends?
… your argosies…
His friends, however, have a more prosaic explanation. Salerio suggests that he is nervous over the state of his business affairs, saying:
Your mind is tossing on the ocean,
There where your argosies with portly sail-
– Act I, scene i, lines 8-9
The word "argosies" harks back to a city founded on the eastern shore of the Adriatic in the seventh century by refugees, as Venice had similarly been founded two centuries earlier. In this case, the founders were Greeks who were being pushed out of the interior by invading Slavs. The new city was named Ragusium, better known to us in the Italian version of the name, Ragusa.
Ragusa was, for a time, a flourishing trading city, much like Venice itself, or like Genoa and Pisa. Ragusa was particularly known for its large merchant ships, which were called ragusea. In English the first two letters were transposed and the word became "argosy."
It is clear from these opening exchanges, then, that Antonio is an extremely wealthy merchant, but one whose business involves extreme risk. Antonio, however, pooh-poohs the chances of these risks coming to pass.
… two-headed Janus
But if Antonio is not worried about business and is merely irrationally sad, then, says Solanio with a touch of impatience, he might just as well be irrationally merry. Solanio says:
… Now by two-headed Janus,
Nature hath framed strange fellows in her time:
Some that will evermore peep through their eyes
And laugh like parrots at a bagpiper,
And other of such vinegar aspect
That they'll not show their teeth in way of smile
Though Nestor swear the jest be laughable.
– Act I, scene i, lines 50-56
In other words, some people are, by simple temperament, happy; others sad.
As for Janus, he is the most familiar of the purely Roman (that is, non-Greek) gods. He was the god of doorways and therefore the god of going in and going out. (The word "janitor" is derived from his name.) It is an easy extension from that to seeing in him the god of beginnings and endings, of comings and goings (and January, the beginning of the year, is named in his honor.)
In the Roman forum Janus was honored with a temple whose gates were open in time of war and closed in time of peace. Rome's military history was such that for seven centuries they were hardly ever closed.
Though on Roman representations he is shown with two identical faces in opposite directions, it is possible to improve on that. Since he is the god of beginnings and endings, he might be imagined to have one face turned toward the past and the other toward the future.
It could easily be imagined that the past-viewing face was cheerful, since the pains of the past were over, while the forward-viewing face was sad, since there was uncertainty as to what the pains of the future might be-hence the figure of speech in Solanio's statement.
… let my liver rather heat.. .
Three other friends of Antonio enter: Bassanio, Gratiano, and Lorenzo, while Salerio and Solanio leave.
Gratiano also notes Antonio's sadness and he too advocates merriment for its own sake. He says to Antonio:
Let me play the fool!
With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come,
And let my liver rather heat with wine
Than my heart cool with mortifying groans.
– Act I, scene i, lines 79-82
The link between liver and wine might seem at first blush to indicate that Shakespeare had a prescient knowledge of the connection physicians would eventually draw between cirrhosis of the liver and alcoholism.
Nothing of the sort. The liver is the largest gland in the body, weighing three or four pounds in man and being correspondingly large in other mammals. It is easy to equate size and importance and to argue that the liver is so large because it has a peculiarly important function and must therefore serve as the seat of life and of the emotions. (The similarity between "liver" and "live" is not accidental.)
Contributing to this also is the fact that ancient priests, looking for prognostications of things to come, would often study the liver of animals sacrificed to the gods. This is natural, since the liver is so large and varies so in detail from animal to animal that it is particularly easy to study. Yet it is not the ease that can be advanced as a reason, so special importance must be insisted upon instead.
In Belmont …
It is Bassanio with whom Antonio is in love and the strength of the lat-ter's affection is quickly shown. Bassanio has been living beyond his means and is deeply in debt. He has been forced to borrow and says, frankly:
… To you, Antonio,
I owe the most in money and in love,
– Act I, scene i, lines 130-31
But Antonio is willing to continue the support. He says earnestly to Bassanio:
… be assured
My purse, my person, my extremest means
Lie all unlocked to your occasions [needs].
– Act I, scene i, lines 137-39
Surely the attachment on Antonio's side can only be love in its fullest sense. Yet it may be one-sided. Bassanio's affection may be nothing more than friendship, for he seems to have no hesitation in attempting to draw on Antonio's support for a competing love.
Bassanio explains that he may be in a position to repay all he has borrowed if only Antonio will be willing to invest a bit more. He says:
In Belmont is a lady richly left;
– Act I, scene i, line 161
In short, Bassanio knows of a rich heiress and if he can marry her, he can pay off all his debts. All he needs is enough money to appear a respectable suitor; he cannot go as a beggar.
(The beginning of Bassanio's speech makes him sound like a fortune hunter, but the play will amply show that he wants the woman for herself and that the money is secondary. He stresses the money now because he wants to explain that he will be able to pay off his debt to Antonio, and not that he is greedy for wealth for himself.)
As for Belmont, that may well be a fictitious name for the estate left to the heiress. In the Italian tale from which this portion of the plot is derived, the place is Belmonte, and there is a Belmonte in Italy, on the western shore of the Italian toe, a little over five hundred miles south of Venice. Probably there is no connection, and as far as the play is concerned, it doesn't matter where Belmont is, but it is interesting that a Belmonte exists.
Her name is Portia.. .
Bassanio has seen the lady and knows her to be beautiful and virtuous. He says:
Her name is Portia, nothing undervalued
To Cato's daughter, Brutus' Portia;
– Act I, scene i, lines 165-66
Brutus' Portia-that is, his wife-appears as a pattern of Roman virtue in Julius Caesar (see page I-281), a play Shakespeare wrote some two years after The Merchant of Venice.
… Calchos' strand
Bassanio goes on in his lyrical praise of Portia to say:
… her sunny locks
Hang on her temples like a golden fleece,
Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchos' strond,
And many Jasons come in quest of her.
– Act I, scene i, lines 169-72
The tale of the Golden Fleece is one of the most famous in Greek mythology. Two children, the son and daughter of a king of Thebes, had a wicked stepmother. With the help of the gods they were whisked away from Thebes on the back of a winged ram with a golden fleece (see page I-541). The ram flew them to what must have seemed the end of the world to the very early Greeks-the easternmost shore of the Black Sea.
On the way, the girl, Helle, fell off and drowned in one of the narrow waterways between the Aegean and the Black seas, a waterway known as the "Hellespont" in consequence. The boy, however, was carried safely to the kingdom of Colchis (called Colchos in this Shakespearean passage). The King of Colchis, Aeetes, sacrificed the ram and suspended the Golden Fleece from a tree, leaving it under the guard of a never sleeping dragon.
To attain that Golden Fleece and bring it back to Greece was a worthy aim for an adventurer, and Jason, an exiled Thessalian prince, undertook the quest. With a fifty-oared ship, the Argo, and a crew of heroes, he penetrated the Black Sea and won the Fleece.
… the County Palatine
When Bassanio is done explaining, Antonio promptly offers to finance the project in a characteristic burst of selflessness. With that done the scene shifts at once to Belmont, where we meet Portia and her companion, Nerissa.
It seems that Portia's father, in dying, has left three caskets behind, one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. Each suitor must choose one of the caskets, and only he who picks the correct casket, the one with Portia's portrait inside, can marry her. If the suitor loses, he must swear to leave at once and never to reveal which casket he had chosen.
There are many suitors come to take their chances and Portia has an opportunity to display her mocking wit at their expense (and Shakespeare has a chance to air his prejudices).
Nerissa mentions a prince of Naples first and he is dismissed by Portia at once as interested only in horses and horsemanship. Nerissa then says:
Then is there the County Palatine.
– Act I, scene ii, line 44
In the early Middle Ages a "count palatine" was a high official who served in the King's household; that is, in the palace. Eventually, the title came to be inherited only as a tide and without any special house-holdly duties.
In only one case did the title remain prominent, and that was hi connection with a tract of land along the middle Rhine River whose ruler remained the Count Palatine. The territory was therefore known as the "Palatinate." Its capital was at Heidelberg.
In Shakespeare's time the Palatinate was a center of German Calvinism, a form of religion which was similar to English Puritanism. In 1592, just a few years before The Merchant of Venice was written, Frederick IV succeeded to the title. He was a sincere Calvinist (he was called "Frederick the Upright"), which meant he was grave and solemn to a degree.
It was perhaps with that in mind that Shakespeare has Portia say with respect to him:
He hears merry tales and smiles not;
I fear he will prove the weeping philosopher
when he grows old, being so full of unmannerly
sadness in his youth.
– Act I, scene ii, lines 46-49
There was a "weeping philosopher"; he was Heraclitus of Ephesus, who lived about 500 B.C. and whose gloomy view of life caused him to weep over the follies of mankind. (There was also a "laughing philosopher," Democritus of Abdera, who lived about 400 b.c. and whose cheerful disposition enabled him to laugh over the follies of mankind.)
… every man in no man.. .
A reference to a French suitor has Portia say:
Why, he hath a horse better than the Neapolitan's,
a better bad habit of frowning than the Count Palatine;
he is every man in no man. If a throstle sing,
he jails straight a-cap'ring;
– Act I, scene ii, lines 57-60
This is, in part, the old stereotype of the Frenchman-a frivolous person without strong convictions who takes on the coloring of his surroundings. In this case, Shakespeare may even have a specific case in mind.
In 1593, just three years before The Merchant of Venice was written, the French Protestant leader Henry of Navarre (pictured so favorably in Love's Labor's Lost, see page I-423) accepted Catholicism to establish himself as King Henry IV. To English Protestants this was a perfect case of French lack of principle.
… his behavior everywhere
An English suitor does not escape Portia's sharp tongue either. Concerning him, she says:
How oddly he is suited [outfitted]!
1 think he bought his doublet in Italy,
his round hose in France, his bonnet in Germany,
and his behavior everywhere.
– Act I, scene ii, lines 72-75
This is the old complaint of the conservative nationalistic Englishman (of whom Shakespeare is so often a spokesman) that the younger generation is mad for foreign novelties and has nothing but contempt for the traditions of their own land. (This view is not confined to England or to the sixteenth century.)
… borrowed a box of the ear…
The mention of a Scotsman brings forth an expression of contempt from Portia, who says:
… he hath a neighborly charity in him,
for he borrowed a box of the ear of the Englishman
and swore he would pay him again when he was able.
I think the Frenchman became his surety.. .
– Act I, scene ii, lines 78-81
Scotland was, like France, one of England's traditional enemies. Since Scotland was much weaker than France it was regularly beaten, so that Shakespeare can indulge in a rather cheap vaunt over an enemy that was often defeated but never accepted defeat.
As a matter of fact, the sixteenth century saw England inflict two disastrous boxes of the ear upon Scotland. In 1513 England defeated Scotland in the Battle of Flodden Field (see page II-746), and then again, in 1542, at the Battle of Solway Moss.
Shakespeare's reference to the Frenchman becoming the Scotsman's surety refers to the traditional friendship between France and Scotland. France was always ready to support Scotland financially in her wars against England, but was never able to support her by direct military force.
Then Nerissa asks about another:
How like you the young German,
the Duke of Saxony's nephew?
– Act I, scene ii, lines 83-84
To which Portia replies:
Very vilely in the morning when he is sober,
and most vilely in the afternoon when he is drunk.
– Act I, scene ii, lines 85-86
This was no more than a matter of making fun of the proverbial German habit of drunkenness, but Shakespeare hit closer than he knew. The Elector of Saxony (a title unique to Germany, which Shakespeare converts into the more familiar "duke") had, at the time The Merchant of Venice was written, a younger brother who was then about twelve years old, and who grew up to be a notorious drunkard.
… as old as Sibylla. ..
However, none of these suitors will even try the casket test. They are there only to serve as butts for Portia's jokes, and now Nerissa reports they are leaving. Portia is relieved, but she insists she will marry only in accordance with the casket test just the same:
// / 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 I, scene ii, lines 105-7
Sibylla's age was proverbial (see page I-452) and Shakespeare makes use of that in several plays.
… the Marquis of Montferrat
But now we get down to business. Nerissa asks:
Do you not remember, lady, in your father's time,
a Venetian, a scholar and a soldier, that came hither
in company of the Marquis of Montferrat?
– Act I, scene ii, lines 111-13
The marquisate of Montferrat was an independent state in Shakespeare's time located just north of Genoa. In 1587 Vicenzo I became marquis. His immediate predecessors had been enlightened rulers who had patronized art and literature and were therefore looked upon with great favor by artists and writers. Vicenzo himself helped deliver the great poet Torquato Tasso from the insane asylum to which he had been sent as a result of his paranoid mania.
Nevertheless, Vicenzo was a most extravagant and wasteful ruler, and at the time The Merchant of Venice was written, these proclivities of his were quite clear. If Bassanio was his friend and had been forced to keep up with him, no wonder he managed to go through so much of Antonio's fortune.
It was undoubtedly on this earlier visit that Bassanio had seen Portia and discovered her beauty and virtue. She had not been unaffected either, for on the mere mention of him she grows excited. But new suitors are coming and the scene reaches its end.
Three thousand ducats. ..
Back in Venice, there is the problem of financing Bassanio. Antonio's ready cash is tied up in his merchant vessels, so the young man must borrow the actual money elsewhere. Antonio, however, is willing to act as guarantor of the loan. (Otherwise, Bassanio would lack the credit to borrow anything at all.)
The third scene of the play opens, then, with Bassanio in conversation with a prospective source of money. The man of whom the loan is being requested says musingly (for it is a large sum):
Three thousand ducats-well.
– Act I, scene iii, line 1
In the Middle Ages there were few regions with a sufficiently reliable supply of silver to issue good coins. Venice was one of the exceptions. Her rich trade brought precious metals to her gates and it paid her to use them in producing good coins of full weight and honest value. The reputation of Venice lay behind the coins and merchants from all over Europe and the Mediterranean lands were anxious to accept those coins-which was to the benefit of Venetian trade.
These coins were put out by the Duchy of Venice, a state which in the Italian language was the "Ducato di Venezia," so that the coins were called ducati or, in English, "ducats." Good coins, also called ducats, were put out by the Duchy of Apulia in southern Italy.
In either case, three thousand ducats was a huge sum for the tune. Bassanio was not skimping.
The person to whom Bassanio is talking is not an ordinary Venetian. We can picture him (and he is usually presented on the stage) as a tall man with a beak of a nose, a long black beard, curly sideburns, a skull cap, and a long black coat. He is, in short, a Jew, and his name is Shylock.
Shylock is not a Jewish name; there was never a Jew named Shylock that anyone has heard of; the name is an invention of Shakespeare's which has entered the common language (because of the power of the characterization of the man) to represent any grasping, greedy, hard-hearted creditor. I have heard Jews themselves use the word with exactly this meaning, referring back to Shakespeare's character.
Where did Shakespeare get the name? There is a Hebrew word shalakh, which appears twice in the Bible (Leviticus 11:17 and Deuteronomy 14:17). In both places, birds of prey are being listed as unfit articles of diet for Jews. No one knows exactly what bird is meant by shalakh, but the usual translation into English gives it as "cormorant."
The cormorant is a sea bird which eats fish so voraciously that the word has come to mean personified greed and voraciousness. Shakespeare apparently is using a form of the Hebrew word both as name and characterization of the Jewish moneylender.
… upon the Rialto…
Shylock hesitates. The loan is a large one but Antonio, who is being offered as surety, has a good reputation for honest business dealing and is known to be wealthy enough to cover the sum. And still Shylock hesitates, for Antonio's ventures are thinly spread and he is at the moment in a period of unusual risk. Shylock says of Antonio:
… he hath an argosy bound to Tripolis, another to the Indies;
I understand, moreover, upon the Rialto, he hath a third at Mexico,
a fourth for England-and other ventures he hath, squandered abroad.
– Act I, scene iii, lines 17-21
Of the places listed by Shylock, the least familiar is Tripolis. This word means "three cities" in Greek and any city built up out of the union of three towns is liable to be given that name. As an example there is one in northern Africa, which is better known to us by the Italian version of the name, Tripoli. It is the capital of the modern kingdom of Libya.
There is also a second Tripolis on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, in what is now Lebanon. It is the second largest city of that nation nowadays, and is better known to the west as Tripoli. Its Arabic name is Tarabulus.
Which Tripoli Antonio's argosy was bound for, whether the one on the southern or the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, we have no way of telling.
Shylock heard his news "upon the Rialto," a phrase that needed no explanation for the audience of the play.
In 1590, some seven years before The Merchant of Venice was written, the Venetians built a magnificent marble bridge across the Grand Canal, their chief waterway. The Latin rivus altus means "deep stream," and a bridge crossing the stream would very likely adopt its name. The Italian version of the phrase is "Rialto."
The Rialto bridge was lined with a row of shops on either side and with a broad footpath between. It became a busy commercial center and Venetian merchants and traders would gather there to exchange news and gossip.
… your prophet the Nazarite …
Despite his misgivings, Shylock thinks Antonio is good surety for the loan. Bassanio, eager to help Shylock come to a favorable decision, invites him to dinner, and Shylock draws back at once:
Yes, to smell pork, to eat of the habitation
which your prophet the Nazarite conjured
the devil into!
– Act I, scene iii, lines 31-33
So far the exchange between Bassanio and Shylock has indicated nothing of the religious difference; it might have been any two men discussing a business deal. But now, with the mention of eating, comes the first clear stamp of Jewishness upon Shylock. He won't eat pork!
The Jewish abhorrence of pork is based on biblical statutes. The eleventh chapter of the Book of Leviticus states that only those beasts that have a cloven hoof and that chew the cud are ritually clean and may be eaten and sacrificed. As one example of a beast that is not ritually clean, the seventh and eighth verses say: "And the swine, though he divide the hoof, and be cloven-footed, yet he cheweth not the cud; he is unclean to you. Of their flesh shall ye not eat, and their carcase shall ye not touch."
Many other creatures are listed as unclean in the chapter; such as the camel, the hare, the owl, the cormorant, the shellfish, and so on.
It is the pig, though, that stands out. Most of the other creatures forbidden to Jews were not a customary part of the diet of Gentiles either. Pork, on the other hand, was a favored dish of Gentiles, and for Jews to have so extreme an abhorrence of it seemed most peculiar.
It became a hallmark of the difference between Jew and Gentile. When Antiochus IV of the Seleucid Empire tried to eradicate Judaism in the second century b.c., he insisted that Jews eat pork as the best way of indicating they had abandoned their religion (and a number of Jews suffered martyrdom rather than comply). In medieval Europe too the value of a conversion from Judaism was judged by the eagerness with which the erstwhile Jew ate pork.
Shylock, in his comment on pork, does not, however, refer to the Old Testament prohibition. The Elizabethan audience would not have been familiar with that. The dietary laws of the Mosaic Code had, in the Christian view, been superseded through a vision St. Peter had had (as is described in Chapter 10 of the Book of Acts) and the Leviticus chapter was therefore a dead letter.
Instead, Shylock is made to express his disgust by means of a reference to the New Testament. The reference is to a wonder tale concerning Jesus which describes how at one time he evicted many devils from a man possessed and sent them into a herd of swine. The version in Matthew states (8:32) that the devils "went into the herd of swine and, behold, the whole herd of swine ran violently down a steep place into the sea, and perished in the waters."
Presumably, Shylock scorns pork as evil-haunted, and feels swine to be a fit habitation for demons and therefore most unfit food for men. And, of course, we might also view the passage as a mocking reference by Shy-lock to the kind of childish and superstitious tales (in his view) that made up the Christian religion.
In actual fact, a Jew of the time would have been careful to avoid mocking at Christianity or to refer sneeringly to "your prophet the Nazarite," out of consideration for his own safety in a hostile world. Shakespeare, however, was intent on constructing a villain, and how better to do so than to have him sneer at what the audience held sacred.
It is also important to remember that neither Shakespeare nor his audience had any firsthand knowledge of how Jews talked or acted anyway. The Jews had been driven out of England by Edward I in 1290, and save for a few special exceptions, they were still absent from the land in Shakespeare's time. They were not allowed to return, in fact, until the time of Oliver Cromwell, forty years after Shakespeare's death.
… a fawning publican. ..
Now Antonio enters and Shylock views him with instant hate. He says, aside:
How like a fawning publican he looks.
I hate him for he is a Christian;
– Act I, scene iii, lines 38-39
The word "publican" occurs on a number of occasions in the New Testament, where it is used for those who collected taxes on behalf of the Roman masters of Judea. A tax collector is never popular and one who collects on behalf of an occupying power is doubly damned. "Publican" was therefore a term of opprobrium among the Jews of Roman times. The word is frequently coupled with "sinners," so that when the Pharisees wished to express their disapproval of Jesus, they pointed out that he ate "with publicans and sinners" (as in Matthew 9:11, for instance).
Certainly Antonio cannot possibly be considered a publican and it is very likely that an actual Jew would not so glibly have used a term that does not occur in the Old Testament. But Shakespeare's audience knew "publican" as a word associated with the only Jews they really knew, those spoken of in the New Testament, and as a word of opprobrium besides.
Thus, the very use of the word, whether sensible or not, indicated Shy-lock's Jewishness, and that is what Shakespeare wanted it to do.
Shylock's next remark about hating Christians further emphasizes his unrelieved villainy to a good Christian audience. They are not likely to reflect that the Jews of Shakespeare's time had little to associate with their Christian neighbors but abuse, blows, and worse and could scarcely be expected to love them for it. (As Israel Zangwill, the English-Jewish writer, is supposed to have said with sardonic bitterness in the last years of the nineteenth century: "The Jews are a frightened people. Nineteen centuries of Christian love have broken down their nerves.")
And yet the Christians were but victims of their training too. Each Christian knew of Jews from the New Testament tales that were repeated in church week in and week out. The Jews had rejected Jesus and demanded the crucifixion. The Jews had opposed and persecuted the apostles. In the time of the Crusades, tales arose that Jews poisoned wells and sacrificed Christian children as part of the celebration of the Passover.
Furthermore, added to all these abstractions, there was in England a contemporary case of an actual Jew of alleged enormous villainy. Queen Elizabeth I had had as her personal physician one Roderigo Lopez. He first accepted the post in 1586.
Lopez was of Portuguese origin, which made him a foreigner, and he had once been a Jew, which made him worse than a foreigner. To be sure, he was converted to Christianity, but born Christians generally suspected the sincerity of a Jew's conversion.
In 1594 Lopez came under suspicion of trying to poison the Queen in return for Spanish bribes. It is the modern opinion that he was innocent, and certainly Queen Elizabeth seemed to believe he was innocent. The Earl of Essex (of whom Shakespeare was a devoted follower) held a strong belief in Lopez' guilt and forced a trial. A Portuguese ex-Jew could scarcely expect a very objective or fair trial, and Lopez was convicted and then executed before a huge crowd under conditions of utmost brutality.
The execution made the whole question of Jewish villainy very topical, and a play entitled The Jew of Malta was promptly revived. This play, first produced in 1589, had been written by Christopher Marlowe (who had died in 1593) and dealt with the flamboyant and monstrous villainy of a Jew. The revival was enormously successful.
Shakespeare, who always had his finger on the popular pulse, and who was nothing if not a "commercial" writer, at once realized the value of writing a play of his own about a villainous Jew, and The Merchant of Venice was the result.
The rate of usance …
But Shakespeare is Shakespeare; he cannot make his Jew a simple straw man of unreasoning villainy. Shylock must have rational motives, and he says, in further explanation of his hatred of Antonio:
He lends out money gratis, and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.
– Act I, scene iii, lines 41-42
"Usance" represents the "use" of money, and closely allied to it is the word "usury." In early times money was usually lent as a gesture of friendship or charity, to relieve distress; and it would seem a most ignoble act to take back more than was lent. To charge "usance" (or "interest") was strongly condemned by the ethical teachings of Judaism. In Exodus 22:25 God is described as saying: "If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury."
In a more complicated society, however, money is lent not necessarily to friends, but to strangers; and not to those who are in personal need, but to those who need ready money to begin a course of action that will eventually (it is hoped) lead to profit The money is hired for business purposes and the hire should be paid for. Naturally the rate of payment should be greater if the risk of loss is greater.
The medieval church did not distinguish between lending out of charity and lending out of business need, and interest on both were alike forbidden.
The Jews, however, might interpret the Exodus verse as applying to "my people" (i.e., Jews) only. Lending at interest to non-Jews would therefore be permissible. Furthermore, Jews in Christian countries found themselves locked out of one type of employment after another, until very little was left them but the profession of moneylending, which was (in theory) forbidden to Christians.
Thus was set up the sort of vicious cycle that is constantly used to plague minorities of any land. Jews were forced into becoming usurers and then the fact that they were usurers was used to prove how villainous and hateful they were.
To make matters still more ironical, Christians were by no means as virtuous in the matter as theory had it. The church's strictures could not stand up against economic needs. Christian usurers arose in northern Italy to the point where the term "Lombard" (see page I-447) became synonymous in England with "pawnbroker" or "moneylender." In fact, it was because Italian moneylenders came to England in the thirteenth century that Edward I was able to do without Jews and could expel them from the nation.
… once upon the hip
Shylock broods on the wrongs he and his have suffered, and he mutters:
If I can catch him once upon the hip [at a disadvantage], /
will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.
He hates our sacred nation.. .
– Act I, scene iii, lines 43-45
The hatred is thus mutual (and in a passage shortly to come Antonio makes it clear that it is). The villainy is not, however. To the Christian audience, Shylock's hatred of Christians is a mark of dark and malignant villainy, but Antonio's hatred of Jews is very natural and even praiseworthy. Undoubtedly, if the audience consisted entirely of Jews, the view would be precisely reversed-and no more rational.
This double standard in viewing the ethical behavior of oneself and one's enemy is common to almost all men and is the despair of the few.
The skillful shepherd …
Antonio and Bassanio are anxious for a definite reply from Shylock, but Shylock delays as he considers how best he might turn Antonio's need to his advantage.
Shylock is stung, too, by Antonio's scornful hint that ordinarily he does not lend or borrow at interest. Shylock feels it necessary to prove that shrewd bargaining is not sinful.
He turns to the Old Testament and cites the case of Jacob, who agreed with his uncle, Laban, to herd his sheep and goats and take for his own pay only those lambs and kids who were born streaked, spotted, or otherwise not of solid color.
Ordinarily these would have made up a tiny minority of the young (which was why Laban agreed to the bargain), but Jacob peeled wands in such a way as to give them a striped appearance and placed them where the ewes would see them during the act of mating. Shylock says:
The skillful shepherd pilled me certain wands,
And in the doing of the deed of kind [mating]
He stuck them up before the fulsome ewes,
Who then conceiving, did in eaning [lambing] time
Fall parti-colored lambs, and those were Jacob's.
This was a way to thrive, and he was blest;
And thrift is blessing if men steal it not.
– Act I, scene iii, lines 81-87
The story is a reasonably accurate rendition of the second half of the thirtieth chapter of Genesis. The belief that the characteristics of the young can be influenced by the nature of the environment during conception and pregnancy is part of the folklore of the ages, but it lacks any real foundation. No reputable biologist accepts this view, nor can real evidence be cited for it, and even the authority of the Bible is insufficient to put it across.
If the biblical tale were true and if the young animals were born as described, it would have had to be the result of a miracle and not of any natural event brought about by Jacob.
… cite Scripture…
The case of Jacob is a poor one to support usury (something Antonio quickly poults out), and a real Jew could easily have found better arguments. However, the use of the Jacob tale is to condemn Shylock to the andience rather than to support him. Since he is made to quote, with approval, a shady act of business on the part of Jacob, the audience can nod to each other and say "Jews were always like that from the very beginning."
But to avoid some of the blame appearing to stick to the Bible rather than to Shylock (for Shakespeare never knowingly sought trouble with the authorities) Antonio is made to remark in an aside to Bassanio:
The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
– Act I, scene iii, line 95
This is not merely a metaphorical reference to Shylock, but is a direct derivation from a biblical tale. Matthew tells of Jesus being tested in the desert by the devil, who tries to persuade Jesus to display miraculous powers for prideful self-aggrandizement.
Thus, the devil takes Jesus to the top of the Temple in Jerusalem and urges him to jump off in order that he might display the protection that angels would afford him. The devil accompanies his urging with a quotation from the Old Testament, saying: "… for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone." (This is from Matthew 4:6 and the quotation is from Psalms 91:11-12.)
… my Jewish gaberdine
As Shylock continues to be pressed, his politeness suddenly snaps and his hatred peeps forth. Bitterly, he begins:
Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated [reviled] me
About my moneys and my usances.
Still [Always] have I borne it with a patient shrug.
For suffranee [patience] is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
– Act I, scene iii, lines 103-9
The Jewish gaberdine was a long, coarse cloak of the kind pilgrims wore in humility, to show that they were approaching some shrine as sinners hoping to be forgiven. In many places, Jews were forced to wear some distinctive garb of humiliating nature that had the double duty of indicating to the world what sinners they were and at the same time warning Christians from afar, so that they need not be sullied by showing Jews any kindness or courtesy.
Indeed, in the very city of Venice in which this play is laid, and in 1516, some eighty years before the play was written, the authorities went further. It was decided to herd the Jews into a special quarter which could be efficiently isolated. In part, this was a further development of the idea that Jews should not pollute Christians with their presence; and in part there was a kind of humanity behind it, since the Jews were safer in their own section and could be more easily protected by the authorities against looting and lynching. (They could also be more easily massacred en masse if the authorities chose to look the other way.)
For the purpose, the Venetians chose an island on which an iron foundry (gheto in Italian) must once have stood, for that was the name of the island. It was established as the Jewish quarter and "ghetto," with an additional "t," has gone ringing down history ever since as the name for any Jewish quarter anywhere and, in very recent times, for any city area occupied largely by any minority group.
Again, a vicious cycle was established. The Jews were forced to dress differently and live separately and were then hated for being different and exclusive.
… an equal pound of your fair flesh.. .
Shylock's point is that he can scarcely be expected to lend money to someone who has treated him with such scorn and hatred. If Antonio had, at this point, been diplomatic, the loan might have been made in ordinary fashion and that would have been that. Instead, however, Antonio answers cruelly:
I am as like to call thee so [dog] again,
To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.
– Act I, scene iii, lines 127-28
This is utterly out of character for Antonio, who throughout the play is shown to be the soul of courtesy, gentleness, and love, and in the end has mercy even on Shylock. But Shakespeare needs a motive for Shylock's behavior in this play, and Antonio's harshness now, when Shylock all but begs for some sort of Christian remorse for the cruelty shown him, turns his persecuted heart to stone.
He agrees to make the loan but only on a queer condition, saying:
If you repay me not on such a day,
In such a place, such sum or sums as are
Expressed in the condition, let the forfeit
Be nominated for an equal pound
Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken
In what part of your body pleaseth me.
– Act I, scene iii, lines 142-48
On the surface, there is some generosity being shown here. Shylock is lending money without interest. If he is repaid on time, he will take only the three thousand ducats he is lending, no more. And if the money is not repaid, there is a forfeit of a pound of flesh, no money at all.
Shylock suggests this as a kind of merry jest, but it is clear that he is playing a long shot. He has already expressed his doubts of the safety of Antonio's manifold sea ventures, and if something should happen to them, by means of the forfeit he can kill Antonio. If the ships come home safe, he loses interest, of course, but after Antonio's remarks, the loss of interest is worth the slender chance of killing him legally.
Bassanio and Antonio both realize this, and Bassanio, in horror, refuses the deal. Antonio, however, convinced that his ships will return, insists on agreeing to the terms.
It is from this passage and from those following in the play that the phrase "pound of flesh" has entered the language as meaning the wringing out of the last bit of a bargain, however harsh and brutal the consequences.
… my complexion
The Shylock and Portia scenes now alternate. Back in Belmont, a new suitor arrives, the Prince of Morocco, who begins:
Mislike me not for my complexion,
The shadowed livery of the burnished sun,
To whom I am a neighbor and near bred.
– Act II, scene i, lines 1-3
There is nothing here to indicate that the Prince of Morocco is anything more than a Moor, that is, a swarthy member of the "white race." However, Shakespeare's emphasis on his complexion induces us to think that he was imagined as a black, for Shakespeare confused Moors and blacks, as in Titus Andronicus (see page I-402).
… Sultan Solyman
As Morocco prepares to take the test of the casket, he can't resist boasting a little. He swears he would dare anything to win Portia:
By this scimitar
That slew the Sophy, and a Persian prince
That won three fields of Sultan Solyman,
– Act II, scene i, lines 24-26
"Sultan Solyman" is Suleiman I the Magnificent, under whom the empire of the Ottoman Turks reached the peak of its glory. He reigned from 1520 to 1566 and during that reign he was the strongest ruler in Europe, far greater in war and peace than the contemporary Christian monarchs: Henry VIII, Charles V, and Francis I (see page II-747), whose names make so much greater noise in the West-oriented chronicles of our historians.
During the early part of his reign Suleiman led the Ottoman armies deep into Europe. In 1526 he destroyed the Hungarian army at the Battle of Mohacs and absorbed most of Hungary into his realm. In 1529 he reached the peak of his fortunes when he actually laid siege to Vienna (which, however, he did not succeed in taking).
Suleiman might have done even better against Europe, had he not also had to face eastward and battle the Persians, who, although Moslems, were of a different sect. Between 1548 and 1555 there was strenuous war between Suleiman and the Persians; a war which was won by Suleiman, but not by a very great margin. There were further wars between the Ottoman Empire and the Persians after Suleiman's death. Indeed, one was in progress at the time The Merchant of Venice was being written, so that Morocco's reference was topical.
From Morocco's words we might suppose he fought as an Ottoman ally, for it was Persians he claims to have beaten. When Morocco says he "slew the Sophy," he is referring to the Shah of Persia.
In the sixteenth century Persia was undergoing one of its periods of greatness under the rule of a family descended from one San-al-Din, who had lived in the thirteenth century. The family was called the Safavids, and this became "Sophy" in English.
The first ruler of the Safavid line was Ismail I, who came to the throne in 1501. In 1587 Abbas I became shah. He was the greatest of the line and is sometimes called Abbas the Great. He labored to reform and revitalize the Persian army and make it more fit to defend the land against the Ottoman Turks. In this he had some help, for in 1598 an English mission arrived in Persia to negotiate a treaty against the common Turkish enemy.
Thus, at the tune that The Merchant of Venice was written, references to Persia and the Sophy were easily understood.
Nevertheless, Morocco, despite his vauntings, realizes that the casket choice means that luck, not valor, will give the victory. He says:
// Hercules and Lichas play at dice
Which is the better man, the greater throw
May turn by fortune from the weaker hand.
So is Alcides beaten by his page.
– Act II, scene i, lines 32-35
Lichas is the attendant of Hercules (or Alcides, see page I-70), and, as it happens, he comes to a bad end (see page I-380).
… thou a merry devil
Before we come to Morocco's casket choice, however, it is back to Venice and a distant glimpse of Shylock's home life. Onto the stage comes Launcelot Gobbo, Shylock's Christian house servant. Launcelot is considering leaving Shylock, for as a good Christian, he has qualms about serving a Jew.
Eventually, after an encounter with his blind father, Launcelot enters the service of Bassanio. He announces this change of service to Shylock's daughter (who makes her first appearance). She says:
I am sorry thou wilt leave my father so;
Our house is hell, and thou a merry devil
Didst rob it of some taste of tediousness.
– Act II, scene iii, lines 1-3
There is, of course, nothing to indicate that Shylock is cruel to his daughter or anything but a good family man (although he is later shown to be puritanical and intent on keeping his daughter from participating in foolish merrymaking). Nevertheless, the audience would readily assume that a Jew's home would be bound to be hellish.
Jessica is beautiful and lacks all the stigmata associated by Elizabethan audiences with Jews. Thus, Launcelot weeps at leaving her, even though she is as Jewish as Shylock.
This is, of course, an old convention. The villainous Jew (or Moslem, or Indian chief, or Chinese mandarin) very frequently has a beautiful daughter who falls in love with the handsome Christian and betrays her people for his sake to the cheers of the audience. In modern action tales, the beautiful Russian girl can hardly wait to fall in love with the handsome American spy and switch sides. (The audience would consider it unspeakably horrible if the situation were reversed, however.)
The name "Jessica" by the way, is not likely to strike modern readers as particularly Jewish, yet is much more so than "Shylock." Toward the end of the eleventh chapter of Genesis, the sister of the wife of Abraham's brother, Nahor, is given as Iscah. It is of this name that Jessica is a form.
Become a Christian…
That Jessica is in love with a Christian appears at once, for she loves Lorenzo, who has already appeared as a friend of Antonio's. Jessica says in a soliloquy after bidding Launcelot goodbye:
Alack, what heinous sin is it in me
To be ashamed to be my father's child!
But though I am a daughter to his blood,
I am not to his manners.
O Lorenzo, If thou keep promise,
I shall end this strife,
Become a Christian and thy loving wife!
– Act II, scene iii, lines 16-21
This demonstrates that medieval prejudice against the Jew was, in theory at least, religious rather than racial. If the Jew were to consent to become a Christian he would then be accepted into the Christian community on an equal basis.
Actually, this was by no means always so. In Spain and Portugal in the fifteenth century, extreme pressures forced the conversion of many Jews, who were then nevertheless discriminated against by those who took to calling themselves "Old Christians." The converts were called "marranos" ("swine"), and no matter how they attempted to be Christian they were forever suspected of being secretly Jewish.
… Black Monday …
The opportunity for Jessica to run off with Lorenzo soon appears. Shy-lock has been invited to dinner with Bassanio, and he is going despite the fact that he will "smell pork." This means Jessica will be left alone.
Launcelot Gobbo, who has carried the invitation from his new master to his old, promises there will be entertainment (to Shylock's further discomfort, for he is puritanical in his outlook-another proof of villainy to a theatergoing audience). Launcelot says:
I will not say you shall see a masque, but if you do,
it was not for nothing that my nose fell a-bleeding
on Black Monday last at six o'clock i' th' morning,
– Act II, scene v, lines 22-25
This is a satire against the habit of finding a premonition in everything. After all, what can a nosebleed "on Black Monday last" have to do with a masque tonight?
The adjective "black" is sometimes used to commemorate some particularly disastrous occurrence. This particular case dates back to 1360, some two and a quarter centuries before The Merchant of Venice was written. At that tune Edward III, who had won two great victories in France (see page II-257), settled down in March to lay siege to Paris itself.
The army was reduced in numbers as the result of the previous winter's campaigning and was in want of provisions besides. It was not equipped to withstand a really bad siege of weather, but it was hoped that with spring well under way and the French badly demoralized the siege would not last long.
How wrong they were! On Monday, April 14, 1360, the day after Easter Sunday, a tremendous hailstorm struck the English camp. The fierce wind and unseasonable cold, the hail and the darkness all combined to strike a superstitious fear into the hearts of those who survived the horrible day.
The siege was lifted and Edward himself was sufficiently disheartened to decide on peace. This was signed on May 8 and the rest of Edward's long reign was an inglorious anticlimax. England was not to regain the upper hand in France until the reign of Henry V and the Battle of Agincourt (see page II-498) a half century later.
This Black Monday of 1360 left enough impression on English minds to give the name to Easter Monday ever after.
… Hagar's offspring …
But Launcelot is doing more than bringing Bassanio's invitation to Shy-lock. He is also bringing a secret message from Lorenzo to Jessica, arranging for the elopement, and he cannot resist hinting to her of this in phrases that Shylock imperfectly overhears. Shylock says sharply to Jessica:
What says that fool of Hagar's offspring, ha?
– Act II, scene vi, line 43
Sarah, the wife of Abraham and the ancestress of the Jews, had a handmaiden named Hagar. Since Sarah herself was barren, she gave the handmaiden to Abraham in order that he might have a son by her. This, indeed, came to pass and Hagar's son was named Ishmael.
When, years later, Sarah herself bore Abraham a son, Isaac, it was this younger son who was designated as Abraham's heir. Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, were evicted from the family and sent away in order that there be no dispute over the inheritance.
Thus, one might metaphorically speak of Hagar's offspring, Ishmael, as representing those who did not really inherit the covenant God made with Abraham and over whom the mantle of the true religion did not fall. Shylock would use such a term as a contemptuous designation for any Christian.
Jessica quiets her father's suspicions and, as soon as he is gone, she disguises herself as a boy and joins Lorenzo, taking with her a good supply of her father's money.
That she should escape from her father and elope with a lover, anyone would be ready to excuse since we are all sympathetic with the drives of love. That she should also steal from her father is a less sympathetic action in modern eyes. However, to Elizabethan audiences, stealing from a Jew was not really stealing.
The Hyrcanian deserts. ..
Meanwhile the Prince of Morocco, back in Belmont, must choose among the three caskets. The gold casket bears a legend that says:
"Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire."
-Act II, scene vii, line 37
Morocco does not hesitate. Surely this can only refer to Portia, for as he says:
The Hyrcanian deserts and the vasty wilds
Of wide Arabia are as throughfares now
For princes to come view fair Portia.
– Act II, scene vii, lines 41-43
Regions are named which are as distant and unattainable as can be imagined. Arabia is an utterly unknown desert to Christians of Shakespeare's time, and the original home of the feared Moslems.
As for Hyrcania, that was the name of the region south of the Caspian Sea (which was therefore called the Hyrcanian Sea in Roman times). Hyrcania reached its period of greatest prominence in the time of the Parthian Empire during the first and second centuries. Parthia was then the great enemy of Rome and its Hyrcanian heartland was never reached by Roman armies.
So Morocco chooses the golden casket and finds a skull inside. Apparently many men desire gold and, in searching out their heart's desire, find death instead. He loses and must leave forthwith.
… he shall pay for this
In Venice, Jessica's elopement has been carried through. Shylock has discovered the loss of his daughter, together with the money and jewels she has stolen, and is distracted.
He suspects Lorenzo and is sure that he is escaping by way of the ship that is taking Bassanio (along with his friend, Gratiano) to Belmont. A search of the ship reveals nothing, but Shylock is nevertheless convinced that Antonio, the friend of Lorenzo, is at the bottom of it.
Solanio tells the tale, mimicking the distracted Shylock, who has gone raging through Venice crying for justice against those who stole his daughter and his ducats. The boys of Venice run after him, mocking, and Solanio himself thinks it is all terribly funny, and so, no doubt, did the Elizabethan audience.
The modern audience, if Shylock is played properly as the tragic character he is, is very likely to find it not funny at all, and to find themselves sympathizing with Shylock Instead.
Solanio does say one thing rather uneasily:
Let good Antonio look he keep his day,
Or he shall pay for this.
– Act II, scene viii, lines 25-26
The forfeit of the pound of flesh had been set in a moment of extreme irritation on Shylock's part. If it had come to the touch it is conceivable that Shylock might have relented. But now, maddened by the conspiracy to rob him of possessions and daughter by the very men (as he was convinced) to whom he had supplied necessary money, he could scarcely be expected to want anything but revenge-revenge to the uttermost. And while the thought of the kind of revenge he anticipates is not something we can sympathize with, it is something we can understand if we can bring ourselves to occupy his shoes for a moment in imagination.
The Prince of Aragon …
And in Belmont there comes another suitor. Nerissa announces him to Portia:
The Prince of Aragon hath ta'en his oath,
And comes to his elections presently.
– Act II, scene ix, lines 2-3
Aragon was the name of a region on the Spanish side of the central Pyrenees to begin with. It was ruled by the kings of Navarre (see page I-422), but in 1035 Sancho III of Navarre left Aragon to his third son, separating it from his kingdom. Independent Aragon then expanded southward at the expense of the Moors, who at that time controlled much of Spain.
By the middle of the fifteenth century Aragon occupied the easternmost fourth of what is now Spain. Most of the rest was occupied by the kingdom of Castile. In 1469 the heir of Castile was an eighteen-year-old girl named Isabella, while the heir of Aragon was a seventeen-year-old boy named Ferdinand. It seemed natural to arrange a marriage. In 1474 the girl became Isabella I, Queen of Castile, while her husband ruled jointly with her as Ferdinand V, King of Castile. In 1479 the old King of Aragon died and Isabella's husband also became Ferdinand II of Aragon.
The two lands were united to form modern Spain and were never separated again. The union was followed by the final defeat of the southern remnant of the Moors in 1492. In that same year Christopher Columbus' first voyage laid the foundation for Spain's vast overseas empire and made her the first true world power.
Although Aragon thus vanished from the map as an independent power a century before The Merchant of Venice was written, its name remained green in the minds of Englishmen. Ferdinand and Isabella had a daughter who became a famous and, in her time, popular queen of England-Catherine (or Katherine) of Aragon (see page II-754).
The Prince of Aragon is displayed as a far less attractive character than Morocco. For one thing, he is proud, but then this was taken as a national characteristic of the Spanish stereotype. And, no doubt, the happy accident that Aragon resembles "arrogant" helped Shakespeare choose the title.
The Prince of Aragon dismisses the leaden casket at once since lead is beneath his dignity. The golden casket offers him what many men desire and that is not for him either, since he is not satisfied with what "many" men desire. He is special. The silver casket has a legend, reading:
"Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves."
– Act II, scene ix, line 35
Aragon recognizes no limits to his own deserts and chooses it. He finds it contains the caricature of a fool's head. Only a fool, in other words, places too high a value on his own deserving, and Aragon loses too.
… the Goodwins.. .
But now things suddenly turn black for Antonio. Even when Solanio had been mocking Shylock's grief-stricken outcries two scenes earlier, his friend Salerio had spoken of rumors concerning lost merchant vessels. Now the news is more specific and more damaging. Salerio reports to Solanio the news that
… Antonio hath a ship of rich lading
wracked on the narrow seas-the Goodwins
I think they call the place-a very
dangerous flat, and fatal…
– Act III, scene i, lines 2-5
The "narrow seas" is the English Channel, or perhaps the Strait of Dover (only two dozen miles wide) in particular. It would seem to us that a Venetian would be more likely to refer to the strait between Italy and Sicily or Spain and Africa as the "narrow seas," but to the English audience of the play, the phrase would have only one meaning.
The "Goodwins" are the Goodwin Sands, seven miles east of the southeastern tip of England. These are a ten-mile-long stretch of treacherous shoals, where the sands are actually partly exposed at low tide.
… I am a Jew. ..
Shylock enters, sorrow-laden and bitter. The two Venetians jeer at him, but when they ask about news concerning Antonio, it is clear that matters are worse and worse. Shylock is now grimly intent on his bargain and he echoes Solanio's earlier remark when he says of Antonio:
Let him look to his bond.
He was wont to call me usurer. Let him look to his bond.
– Act III, scene i, lines 44-45
When Salerio, rather shaken out of his mockery, asks what use Shylock will find in a piece of human flesh, Shylock bursts out into a moving defense of himself and his fellows. It would almost seem that Shakespeare, driven by the force of his own genius and the necessity of creating a well-rounded character at all costs, gives Shylock-all against the playwright's own will, one might think-a tragic dignity and puts words in his mouth that the mocking Venetians can find no words to answer.
What does he want with the pound of flesh? Shylock grinds out:
To bait fish withal. If it will feed nothing else,
it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me,
and hind'red me half a mil lion,
laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains,
scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains,
cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies-and what's his reason?
I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes?
Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses,
af fections, 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 sum mer 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 [the Christian's theoretical] humility?
Revenge! If a Christian wrong a Jew,
what should his sufferance [patience] be by Christian example?
Why re venge! The villainy you teach me
I will execute, and it shall go hard but
I will better the instruction.
– Act HI, scene i, lines 50-69
Remember this is a Jew's defense as placed in his mouth by someone not friendly to Jews. It is not, therefore, the most effective defense a Jew can make. Even so, the points are clear. Shylock does not claim to be better than a Christian. He merely claims to be no worse, and even in the context of the play, that gives him a great deal of room. Everyone in the play humiliates and torments him without conscience or remorse and nowhere and at no time do they consider it wrong. Even the saintly Antonio sees no wrong here.
Shylock, at least, recognizes villainy when he sees it. He admits his own plan to be villainous. His defense is that it has been taught him by Christians. In recognizing the villainy, he rises, in a way, an ethical notch above his tormenters.
How now, Tubal. ..
Solanio and Salerio leave the stage with another sneer, but with no attempt at a real answer. Another Jew enters. Shylock greets him at once with feverish anxiety:
How now, Tubal! What news from Genoa?
Hast thou found my daughter?
– Act III, scene i, lines 75-76
Tubal is no more a personal Jewish name than Shylock is. The name is to be found in the listing of nations in the tenth chapter of Genesis, where in the second verse it is written, "The sons of Japheth; Gomer, and Magog, and Madai, and Javan, and Tubal, and Meshech, and Tiras." These are taken to be the names of tribes and regions rather than of true individuals.
The one place where Tubal occurs in a context familiar to the casual biblical reader is in Genesis 4:22, which reads, "And Zillah, she also bare Tubal-cain, an instructor of every artificer in brass and iron."
According to biblical legend, then, Tubal-cain was the first metallurgist. But even here the name means "smith of Tubal," a region in eastern Asia Minor (one suspects from Assyrian records) famous for its metal production.
Tubal has brought no definite news of Jessica's whereabouts, but has evidence that she gave one of Shylock's jeweled rings to a sailor in exchange for a monkey. Shylock groans in agony and says:
Thou tortures! me, Tubal. It was my turquoise;
1 had it of Leah when I was a bachelor.
I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.
– Act III, scene i, lines 113-16
Shylock's frustrated outcry is undoubtedly designed to get a laugh, and the Elizabethan audience undoubtedly obliged. For us, however, this is surely a remarkably touching moment. Could Shylock, this monster of evil, so love his dead wife and honor her memory? Could there be a spark of love in his harsh heart? Was he a human being?
And what of Jessica, with whom the audience is expected to be completely in sympathy? The ring was her mother's. Was she so completely dead to family affection as to part with it for so trivial and unworthy an exchange? What might this tell us of the effect of conversion from Judaism to Christianity-and does anyone in the audience think of that?
And at the very tune Shylock's heart is ground by the loss of his wife's ring, he hears that Antonio is losing everything through a succession of shipwrecks. More than ever now, he must have his pound of flesh of the man who has abused him so much and who (he surely believes) has arranged the elopement of his wicked daughter.
… a swanlike end
Meanwhile Bassanio and Gratiano have arrived in Belmont. Portia is desperately in love with Bassanio and does not want him to choose, fearing he will guess wrong and be forced to leave. He, however, wants to choose, for he cannot bear the suspense. He advances to the test and Portia, in agony, says:
Let music sound while he doth make his choice;
Then if he lose he makes a swanlike end,
– Act III, scene ii, lines 43-44
From classical times it was believed that swans sang before they died. Apparently it seemed natural to suppose that a bird so dignified, graceful, and austerely beautiful ought to be admirable in everything. So many birds were remarkable for the sweetness of their song that if the beautiful swan was mute, surely it could only be because it was saving something supremely wonderful for some divine climax. When better could this climax come than at its death?
This was prettified by legend makers. The swan was felt to be sacred to Apollo and to be filled with his spirit of song at the approach of death, glorying in translation, perhaps, to a better world.
This symbolism of a glorious afterlife, which many of the ancients longed for and which became part of Christian dogma, must have kept the legend going despite the fact that no one ever heard a swan sing at any time. "Swan song" is still used for the last work of a creative artist of any sort.
… young Alcides…
Portia feels Bassanio is going to fight the demon of chance for her hand and compares him to
… young Alcides, when he did redeem
The virgin tribute paid by howling Troy
To the sea monster.
– Act III, scene ii, lines 53-57
The reference is to the rescue of Hesione (see page I-403).
Hard food for Midas. ..
Portia has self-righteously declared she cannot give Bassanio any hints, but the music she orders played contains hints just the same. The song urges him to judge not by his eyes alone.
Bassanio gets the point and at once begins to ruminate on the way in which objects that are fair without may be worth nothing within. Apostrophizing the golden casket, he says:
… Therefore then, thou gaudy gold,
Hard food for Midas, I will none of thee;
– Act III, scene ii, lines 101-2
In Greek legend Midas was a king of Phrygia-a land in western Asia Minor that existed prior to 700 b.c. and was then destroyed by nomadic invaders from the east. It did have kings named Mita, which could easily become Midas in Greek.
Phrygia, which gathered its wealth from over a large territory and concentrated it in the royal palace, must have seemed powerful and rich to the tiny city-states of Greece, who were in those days sunk in a Dark Age. Naturally, the wealth of King Midas became legendary.
The story that arose was that Midas had come across the drunken Sile-nus, a favorite of the wine god, Dionysus. Midas treated Silenus well and in return Dionysus offered him anything he might wish. Greedily, Midas asked that anything he touched be turned to gold. This worked well for a while, until he tried to eat. His food turned to gold as he touched it and Midas realized that the "golden touch" meant starvation. He had to beg Dionysus to relieve him of the dangerous gift.
This legend has always been popular among those who, lacking wealth, find in it the consolation of knowing that "money isn't everything," and Bassanio, in scorning gold, gives it the most unfavorable allusion he can think of. It was merely "hard food for Midas."
In speed to Padua.. .
Bassanio chooses the leaden casket as the one least subject to dissimulation without, and, of course, it contains Portia's portrait The two may now marry and are in transports of delight Portia gives Bassanio a ring which he must never part with and the young man swears he will surrender it only with his life. Gratiano chimes in to say he has fallen in love with, and will now marry, Portia's lady in waiting, Nerissa. She gives Gratiano a ring, also.
At the height of their happiness, Lorenzo, Jessica, and Salerio arrive from Venice with the news that Antonio, beggared by the wreckage of his fleets, was unable to meet his debt to Shylock, who is now demanding his pound of flesh.
Portia hastens to send Bassanio back to Venice, placing her entire fortune at his disposal so that he might buy of! Shylock. For herself, she has additional plans. She gives a message to a servant, saying:
Take this same letter,
And use thou all th'endeavor of a man In speed to Padua.
See thou render this Into my cousin's hands, Doctor Bellario;
– Act III, scene iv, lines 47-50
Portia's cousin Bellario is apparently a professor of law at the University of Padua (see page I-447), and her plan involves him and, as she quickly explains to Nerissa, their masquerading as men. (This is a favorite device in the romances of the period. Shakespeare has already used it in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, see page I-469, and in this play, Jessica has already made use of the masquerade. Thus, all three female characters in The Merchant of Venice appear, at one time or another, in the costume of a man.)
… the sins of the father…
With Portia and Nerissa gone, Lorenzo and Jessica are in charge at Belmont, and with them, of course, is Launcelot Gobbo, who affects to be unimpressed by Jessica's conversion. He refers to an Old Testament text to make his point when he says:
… look you the sins of the father
are to be laid upon the children.
– Act III, scene v, lines 1-2
This is taken from the Ten Commandments themselves. As part of the second commandment, God is quoted as saying: "… I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me" (Exodus 21:5).
This is actually a rather primitive view, which is altered in the course of the Old Testament itself. The prophet Ezekiel, writing in the time of the Babylonian Exile, quotes God as saying: "Yet say ye, Why? doth not the son bear the iniquity of the father? When the son hath done that which is lawful and right, and hath kept all my statutes, and hath done them, he shall surely live. The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him" (Ezekiel 18:19-20).
Nevertheless, the harsher and more primitive verses of the Old Testament seem always the better known to Christians (perhaps for the greater contrast they make with the New).
… Charybdis your mother. ..
Of course, Launcelot admits, it may be that Jessica's mother was unfaithful and that Jessica is not truly the daughter of Shylock. Jessica points out that then her mother's sin of infidelity would be visited upon herself and Launcelot agrees and says:
Thus when I shun Scylla your father,
I fall into Charybdis your mother.
Well, you are gone both ways.
– Act III, scene v, lines 15-17
Scylla and Charybdis were a pair of deadly dangers which in Homer's Odyssey are described as being on either side of a narrow strait. The strait in question is generally accepted as being the Strait of Messina between Italy and Sicily-which is two and a half miles wide at its narrowest
Scylla is described as a monster on the Italian side of the strait. It has twelve legs and six heads. Each head is on a long neck and is armed with a triple row of teeth. (It is almost impossible to resist the temptation that this is the distorted description of a large octopus with its sucker-studded tentacles.) The heads bark like so many puppies and during the confused yelping, the necks dart forth, with each head snatching at a sailor on any ship that passes beneath.
Charybdis was the personification of a whirlpool on the Sicilian side of the strait, which three times a day sucked down the waters and then threw them up again.
Odysseus had to pass the strait twice. First, with a full ship, he chanced Scylla and lost six men. The next time, alone on a raft, he passed across Charybdis, seizing a branch overhead when the raft was sucked down and waiting for its return before proceeding.
To be "between Scylla and Charybdis" is the classical way of saying "between the devil and the deep sea." The statement "avoiding Scylla, he fell into Charybdis" was used by the Roman poet Horace, whom Launcelot is here paraphrasing.
… saved by my husband. ..
Jessica, however, counters all Launcelot's misgivings with a reference to the New Testament, saying:
/ shall be saved by my husband.
He hath made me a Christian.
– Act III, scene v, lines 18-19
St. Paul in his first epistle to the Corinthians says "… the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean…" (1 Corinthians 7:14).
All this may be mere persiflage, but one is at least entitled to wonder if the cautious Shakespeare is trying to save himself trouble. Anticipating the reactions of those displeased at making a heroine of a Jew's daughter, he places their arguments in the mouth of the clown and answers them.
… hope for mercy.. .
In Venice, Antonio must stand trial. All of Venice, from the Duke himself on downward, are on Antonio's side; all plead with Shylock not to insist on the forfeit. Shylock does insist, however. What's more, he will not accept money in place of the pound of flesh. He wants his revenge, not money.
The Duke says:
How shalt thou hope for mercy, rend'ring none?
– Act IV, scene i, line 88
Here is another New Testament reference, for it is an echo of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says: "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy" (Matthew 5:7).
Shylock does not bother to defend himself directly; nor does he hypocritically pretend to be merciful. Instead, he faces down the angry crowd of Christians in the courtroom with a neat poniarding of their hypocrisy. Scornfully, he says:
You have among you many a purchased slave,
Which like your asses and your dogs and mules
You use in abject and in slavish parts,
Because you bought them.
– Act IV, scene i, lines 90-93
Shylock has bought human flesh as the Venetians have and has done it at three thousand ducats a pound, a far greater price than any Venetian paid for his. If Shylock is expected to give up what he has bought, why are not the Venetians expected to give up their purchases? (The argument is not foolproof. Shylock is being offered a huge sum to give up his pound; and his purchase means death for a man, as the purchase of an entire body does not. Nevertheless, the point of hypocrisy is made.)
… opinion with Pythagoras
The Duke can see no way out of the Shylock-imposed dilemma, unless Bellario, the renowned lawyer from Padua (Portia's cousin), has some helpful opinion to offer. While they wait for a message, Shylock gets his knife ready and Gratiano bitterly berates him, saying:
Thou almost mak'st me waver in my faith,
To hold opinion with Pythagoras
That souls of men infuse themselves
Into the trunks of men. Thy currish spirit
Governed a wolf who, hanged for human slaughter,
– Act IV, scene i, lines 130-34
Pythagoras, an ancient Greek philosopher of the sixth century b.c., believed in the transmigration of souls. There is a famous story that he once stopped an animal from being beaten because he insisted he recognized the voice of a dead friend. (I wonder if that might not have been merely a humane device to stop the beating of an animal.)
Clearly, such transmigration is counter to Christian doctrine, and for Gratiano to accept it would mean that he had wavered in his faith.
The reference to a hanged wolf may well have referred to Lopez (see page I-514), whose very name is related to the Spanish word for wolf.
The quality of mercy.. .
Now Portia's plan reveals itself. The message from Bellario comes, brought by Nerissa in man's costume. Bellario cannot come himself but sends a young lawyer, Balthasar, in his place. Balthasar is, of course, Portia in disguise.
Portia too calls for mercy and says Shylock must be merciful. Shylock demands where in the law it says he must be merciful and Portia retreats, but in doing so delivers one of the most famous speeches in all of Shakespeare, one which begins:
The quality of mercy is not strained [forced];
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath,..
– Act IV, scene i, lines 183-85
It is true, then, that one is not compelled to be merciful, but mercy doesn't require compulsion. One is merciful simply because it is so wonderful to oneself and to others to be merciful.
Wrest once the law.. .
Shylock nevertheless refuses. He insists on the letter of the law and nothing else, crying:
I crave the law,
– Act IV, scene i, line 205
Bassanio desperately offers ten times the original loan, and if that fails, he urges the young judge to
Wrest once the law to your authority.
To do a great right, do a little wrong,
– Act IV, scene i, lines 214-15
In a sense, this reflects a great philosophic struggle between Jew and Christian (as interpreted through Christian thought) between the letter and the spirit. In the New Testament the orthodox Pharisees are pictured as insisting on the letter of the law, while the more liberal Jesus is willing to bend the letter if that means retaining the spirit.
St. Paul makes this specific by saying that God "… hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life" (2 Corinthians 3:6).
A Daniel come to judgment …
But it is not so easy to bend the law. Venice is a commercial, trading city and must deal with a wide variety of foreigners with other customs and beliefs. Venetian law, like Venetian money, must inspire confidence and it cannot unless it is equitable and just and never bent to personal advantage.
Portia points out that to palter with the law would set bad precedents, and Shylock cries out exultantly:
A Daniel come to judgment! Yea, a Daniel!
O wise young judge, how 1 do honor thee!
– Act IV, scene i, lines 222-23
Daniel, in the biblical Book of Daniel, is a wise interpreter of dreams, but the reference here is to Daniel's role in the apocryphal book of The History of Susanna.
The heroine of the book, Susanna, a chaste wife, is lusted after by two wicked elders. Her virtue was proof against their ancient charms and they conspired to accuse her of adultery to punish her. They stated they had seen her intimate with a young man and the court condemned Susanna to death.
At this point Daniel, a young man at the time, entered the story (just as "Balthasar" did). He demanded the right to cross-examine the elders separately before the council. He asked each the name of the tree under which he had seen the criminal intimacy take place. Not having concerted this part of the story, they named different trees and it was plain that they were lying. Susanna was freed and the elders executed.
Of course, since Susanna is an apocryphal book and not part of the Bible in the Jewish tradition, Shylock would not be apt to refer to it in reality.
… the stock of Barabbas
It seems that all is lost for Antonio. Shylock even refuses to pay the expense of a surgeon to help Antonio after the operation, because that is not part of the agreement (something which loses any sympathy any Elizabethan might possibly have for him).
Antonio makes a last touching speech that so moves Bassanio that he says (and, one can only believe, sincerely) that he would gladly deliver his new wife to Shylock's ruthless clutches if only that would save Antonio (and here Shakespeare's feeling of the utter nobility of male affection and its greater strength than that between man and woman shines through). Gratiano chimes in with a similar wish, and both Portia and Nerissa, in their male disguises, cannot hide the fact that such gestures sit rather poorly with them.
As for Shylock, the strong family man, he finds these remarks revolting and says:
These be the Christian husbands! I have a daughter;
Would any of the stock of Barabbas
Had been her husband, rather than a Christian!
– Act IV, scene i, lines 294-96
There is scarcely a name that rings so unpleasantly in Christian ears as "Barabbas." In the New Testament, it is the name of a prisoner who was slated for execution when Jesus was. Because it was the time of Passover, Pontius Pilate offered to free a prisoner and put it up to the populace: "… Whom will ye that I release unto you? Barabbas, or Jesus…" (Matthew 27:17). Since the populace demanded the release of Barabbas, Jesus was led out to crucifixion.
Matthew merely describes Barabbas as "a notable prisoner" (Matthew 27:16), but Mark says that Barabbas 'lay bound with them that had made insurrection with him, who had committed murder in the insurrection" (Mark 15:7). Barabbas, in other words, had been taken after having participated in a rebellion against Rome. In the nationalistic spirit of the times one can see that to the Jewish masses Barabbas may have been a hero, but to the Christians of later times, he was a murderer whose life was unjustly traded for that of Jesus.
Marlowe in his The Jew of Malta called his Jew Barabbas, so that his villainy would be expressed in his very name. Shylock's remark can thus be interpreted as being a wish that Jessica had married even the worst kind of Jew (or, from the Christian standpoint, any Jew) rather than any Christian. (It is an odd point in favor of Shylock, and one rarely remarked upon, that despite what his daughter has done to him, he regrets her marriage because of his belief that a Christian would make an unkind husband. It would seem he still loves his daughter.)
Again, since Barabbas is a name that does not occur in the Old Testament, Shylock, in reality, would not have made the reference.
… become a Christian
Shylock is ready to take his pound of flesh when suddenly Portia stops him. She turns his insistence of the letter of the law against him. There is no mention of blood in the bond and therefore Shylock must take his pound of flesh without spilling one drop of Christian blood. What's more, he must take exactly a pound, neither the tiniest fraction more or less.
It is a legal quibble, but under the circumstances, it has its logic.
Shylock finds himself caught and offers to take the three-times payment Bassanio has offered. Bassanio is willing, but Portia grimly insists on the letter of the law. Shylock asks for his bare principal, but Portia insists on the letter. Shylock offers to abandon the money altogether and even that cannot be done, for in planning to take the pound of flesh he was a foreigner seeking the life of a Venetian, and as such, half of all his goods is forfeit to Antonio and half to the state.
(Actually, if we were arguing law, then, in the existence of a statute against a foreigner seeking the life of a Venetian, the agreement to accept a pound of flesh as forfeit for non-payment of a loan to a foreigner was illegal to begin with.)
Antonio now displays his magnanimity most impressively. That half of Shylock's fortune that is to go to the state he urges be returned to Shylock on the payment of a mere fine (a suggestion first made by the Duke). That half that is to go to Antonio himself, he would turn over to Shylock's daughter, Jessica, and her Christian husband, on Shylock's death.
But then one thing more is added, which sits less well with a modern audience than with an Elizabethan one. In return for all this, Antonio sets a condition:
… that for this favor
He presently [immediately] become a Christian;
– Act IV, scene i, lines 385-86
The notion of forced conversion to Christianity was often justified by a verse in Luke. In a parable told in that Gospel, a man giving a feast found that his guests refused his invitation. He therefore sent his servants out to find strangers to attend the feast, and, if necessary, to make them attend by force. "And the lord said unto the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled" (Luke 14:23).
And indeed, Christians have converted Jews and pagans at the point of a sword. (So have Moslems and, to be truthful, on at least one occasion, Jews. In the second century b.c. the Maccabean King of Judea, John Hyrcanus I, conquered the Idumeans, a non-Jewish people who lived to the south of Judea, and forced them to accept Judaism.)
The present Western liberal tradition considers such forced conversions in any direction to be abhorrent, but the Elizabethans would not find it so. To force a Jew to turn Christian was, in their view, a crowning mercy, since it rescued him from the certainty of hell and placed him on the route to salvation. Many in the Elizabethan audience may well have thought Antonio was being entirely too softhearted, and it is not impossible to suppose that Shakespeare himself wanted to do Shylock this favor out of a sneaking affection for this full-rounded villain he had managed to create. After all, Marlowe had given his Jew in The Jew of Malta an unrepentant and horrible death.
… renew old Aeson
After the tension of the trial, there is a final act of idyllic happiness back in Belmont, where Lorenzo and Jessica are continuing their blissful honeymoon. The night is glorious and they hymn it alternately in classical allusion to sad and tragic loves, as a delicious contrast to their own happy one.
… in such a night
Troilus methinks mounted the Troyan walls,
And sighed his soul toward the Grecian tents
Where Cressid lay that night.
– Act V, scene i, lines 3-6
The tale of Troilus and Cressida was handled by Shakespeare five years after the writing of The Merchant of Venice (see page I-71 ff). Jessica responds:
In such a night
Did Thisbe fearfully o'ertrip the dew,
And saw the lion's shadow ere himself,
And ran dismayed away.
– Act V, scene i, lines 6-9
Shakespeare had treated the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, in burlesque form, a year or two earlier in A Midsummer Night's Dream (see page I-48).
In such a night
Stood Dido with a willow in her hand
Upon the wild sea banks, and wait her love
To come again to Carthage.
– Act V, scene i, lines 9-12
The sad tale of Dido and Aeneas (see page I-20) is one of Shakespeare's favorites.
But then Jessica comes up with an allusion that doesn't fit at all. She says:
In such a night
Medea gathered the enchanted herbs
That did renew old Aeson.
– Act V, scene i, lines 12-14
Medea was the archetype of the powerful witch in Grecian myth, a woman of passionate desires who would stop at no crime to gratify them. She was the daughter of Aeetes, to whose guardianship the Golden Fleece (see page I-161) was entrusted. When Jason and his companions came searching for it, she fell in love with Jason and betrayed her father. She returned to Jason's kingdom with him and, according to one tale, restored the youth of Jason's old father, Aeson, by the use of her enchantments.
Medea might be included in the list of tragic loves because Jason tired of her eventually and abandoned her. In rage, she killed her own children by the faithless Jason. Still, it is odd that Jessica should refer to the tale of a woman who betrayed her father for her lover and who was regarded not as a heroine by the Greeks but as a villainess, and who came to so bad an end besides. Might we argue that Shakespeare's sneaking sympathy for Shy-lock shows itself here yet again?
… like an angel sings
Lorenzo and Jessica are interrupted by messengers reporting that Portia and Nerissa on one hand and Bassanio and Gratiano on the other are returning. (They are arriving separately; the young men don't know even yet that their wives were at the trial in masculine guise.) Yet Lorenzo cannot bear to leave the night. He says:
Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold.
There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'si
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still [always] quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls,
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
– Act V, scene i, lines 58-65
This notion of the "music of the spheres" (see page I-199), first advanced by Pythagoras, was still extant in Shakespeare's time. The great German astronomer Johann Kepler tried to figure out the exact notes being sounded by the various planets. This was done just about the time Shakespeare was writing The Merchant of Venice. Could Shakespeare have heard about it and could he have been inspired by it to write this lyrical passage?
… sleeps with Endymion
Portia, returning, is also captivated by the night, saying:
… the moon sleeps with Endymion,
And would not be awaked.
– Act V, scene i, lines 109-10
Endymion, in the Greek myths, was a handsome prince who, asleep in a cave one night, was spied by Selene, goddess of the moon. Ravished by his beauty, she descended to the cave and kissed the sleeping youth. She wanted no more and, throwing him into a magic, eternal slumber, she returned night after night to kiss him and sleep awhile by his side.
… like Argus
Portia has returned home before her husband and gives orders that no one is to reveal the fact she has been away at all. She is ready for the last complication of the play.
After Antonio had been saved, Bassanio, in gratitude, had offered the young judge (whom he did not recognize to be his wife) some reward. She would take nothing but the ring which Portia had given him and which he had sworn not to surrender. Reluctantly, Bassanio (recognizing his debt to Antonio) gave up the ring. Doubling the fun, Nerissa made Gratiano give up his ring too.
(Surely one must see the contrast with Shylock, who would not have given up his wife's ring for anything.)
When Bassanio and Gratiano come, bringing Antonio with them, the women at once ask for the rings. Naturally, they refuse to believe their husbands' explanations and pretend to be sure the rings were given to other women.
Portia, in particular, swears that if Bassanio did give her ring to some man, as he says, then she would take that man for her bedmate. She says:
Watch me like Argus. If you do not, if I be left alone-
Now by mine honor which is yet mine own,
I'll have that doctor for mine bedfellow.
– Act V, scene i, lines 230-33
(Of course she will. If she is alone, she will sleep with herself as the only person in the bed.)
Argus was a giant in Greek mythology, whose special monstrous attribute was a hundred eyes, some of which were always open (see page I-86).
But then, before the quarrel can grow more fierce than suffices to amuse the audience, the truth is revealed, Lorenzo and Jessica learn they will be Shylock's heirs, and all ends in a blaze of happiness.