By Patricia Truxler Coleman
Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is neither comedy, romance, nor tragedy, and consequently defies easy classification. Although it dates to between 1595 and 1600 and thus belongs to that period of enormous productivity during which time Shakespeare composed, in addition, to this play, six romantic comedies, three histories, and two tragedies, The Merchant of Venice is more properly a “problem play,” one that raises far more questions than it answers. With its intricate triple plot—the Shylock-Antonio bond, the Portia-Bassanio romance, and the ring trick—this play is an already complicated story which turns on our understanding of the relationships of mercy to justice and love to honesty.
Thus, at the outset of this play, we are introduced to the melancholic Antonio, who “hold[s] the world but as the world, . . . / A stage where every man must play a part, / And [his] a sad one,” to Gratiano, who “speaks an infinite deal of nothing,” and to Bassanio, who has “much disabled [his] estate” by running up extraordinary debt. Into this world steps Shylock who hates Antonio “for he is Christian” and resents that he “lends out money gratis and brings down / the rate of usance here with us in Venice.” Here then we have the material for one plot: Bassanio needs money; Antonio has tied all his money up in his ventures at sea, and Shylock has money to lend.
Up to this point, the plot seems straightforward enough. But it is not, and what complicates the plot is simply the moral bankruptcy of the citizenry of Venice. Bassanio thinks little of the consequences of his indebtedness; in fact, he intends to borrow more money in order to pay back what he owes. Antonio thinks little of doing business—borrowing money—from his avowed enemy and even less of the moral consequences of his providing Shylock with business. After all, Shylock is in clear violation of the letter of the law by loaning money with advantage, and Antonio is in clear violation of the spirit of the law by providing this “sinner” with the opportunity to “sin” by borrowing money from him. Thus the play raises the old questions of the nature of sin and the relationship of the tempted to the tempter.
MORALLY SMUG. Furthermore, the apparently “holy” Antonio is so morally smug that he cannot fathom the possibility of nature conspiring against him by preventing the return of his three ships. So, while Antonio fancies himself the universal exception to the ordinary rules which govern man in the world, Shylock sees an opportunity to revenge himself on those complacent Christians in Venice who have, by their own definition, made all Jews unworthy “sinners.” Bassanio, in the meantime, is so self-absorbed that he allows his friend Antonio to enter into a potentially deadly bond with Shylock in order that Bassanio might woo the wealthy Portia and end both his unrequited romantic longings and his long-standing indebtedness.
In apparent direct contrast to the corrupt world of Venice is the world of Belmont, which on the surface seems pure and elegant. But even here, lurking beneath the hope of moral consistency, is a world of potential chaos. We are told, when we first meet Portia, that she “can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow [her] own teaching.” Further, it is she who gives shelter to Jessica, Shylock’s thieving and dishonest daughter, and her lover Lorenzo. If we do not see the world of Belmont as a world of potential tragedy, at least one person does—Portia’s father, who, though dead at the outset of the play, has conspired to control his daughter’s choice in marriage even from the grave. Clearly, Portia’s father understands the lack of congruence in this world between appearance and reality, between words and deeds, between thought and performance. And thus we have the material for a second plot.
But Portia and Bassanio do genuinely love one another, and so she manages to guide her suitors in their choices of the caskets. Bassanio, while clearly a flawed individual who is willing to risk the life of a friend for the love of Portia, seems to understand the nature of real romantic love. He chooses the casket bearing the inscription to “give and hazard all” because he seems to understand that the only love that can be guaranteed is that in which the lovers are prepared to do just that—to give and hazard all. Of course, it may be argued that Bassanio isn’t “hazarding” much, at least financially, as his presence in Belmont is the direct result of Antonio’s generosity. But he is, nevertheless, willing to “give and hazard all” in more than merely monetary ways. So while Bassanio may succeed in alienating us in the first act, he redeems himself, at least in part, with us and with Portia when he demonstrates that he understands the nature of lasting love. (This season’s Utah Shakespeare Festival production of The Merchant of Venice, directed by Eli Simon, offers a different, and interesting, interpretation of Bassanio. —Editor)
LACKS MORAL SOPHISTICATION. Still, the worlds of Venice and Belmont are doomed to collide, and they do this through both Shylock and Portia. When Antonio’s ships do not return and he is incapable of paying the debt he owes to Shylock, the Jew demands justice—a pound of Antonio’s flesh. As in nearly all of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies and romances, it is the heroine—here Portia—who is intellectually sophisticated enough to solve the problem, a problem which is typically a male invention and which the heroine must be in male guise to solve. But, unlike Shakespeare’s other romantic heroines, Portia lacks moral sophistication. When, in the guise of a man, she cautions Shylock to show mercy, she reminds both him and us that “earthly power doth then show likest God’s / When mercy seasons justice.” And yet, having caught Shylock in a bind—he is due his pound of flesh, but not one drop of blood—she proceeds in her humiliation and destruction of Shylock, seasoning none of hers or Christian Venice’s justice with mercy. Apparently, for the citizens of Venice and Belmont, that mercy which “is an / attribute to God himself” is the just due only of those who are like them in appearance, behavior, beliefs, and values.
But, of course, Shylock is like them, and like us. He asks: “Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?” (3.1.62+)
And our answer must be “yes.” For we see Shylock suffer—at the hands of his daughter who betrays him by stealing the only thing of sentimental value to Shylock and by eloping with a Christian and turning her back on all that her father has valued; at the hands of Antonio, who is so completely able to separate his public and private selves that he will do business with Shylock but will not respect him; at the hands of Portia and the court of Venice, which will commend mercy to Shylock as a way of handling Antonio but which will show him none themselves; and at the hands of a system of Christian justice which teaches us on the one hand to love our enemy and on the other to strip him of his faith.
Furthermore, for all her intellectual sophistication, Portia lacks a certain softness of nature where love is concerned. While it may be amusing to her to trick Bassanio and Gratiano into parting with their wedding rings, it is certainly not amusing to the gentlemen. Here we have the material for the third plot. For even if only for a brief time, Portia and Nerissa have mercilessly trapped their husbands in a lie and made the men think that they might have been cuckolded. Thus, The Merchant of Venice ends in a final collision of the worlds of Venice and Belmont. For all that we may have hoped otherwise, we must conclude that Venice and Belmont have at least one thing in common: things are not as they seem. Once again, Shakespeare has reminded us of the perpetual incongruence, where people are concerned, between appearance and reality and of our capacity to be better at knowing what is good to do than we are at doing it.