By Michael Flachmann
After the tragic death of his only son, Hamnet, in 1596, Shakespeare began an extensive theatrical study of the relationships between parents and children during the rest of his career. Although Hamlet, King Lear, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest are the most notable plays devoted to this theme, The Merchant of Venice, written less than a year after his son died, offers rich and varied insights into the issue of paternity in Shakespeare’s scripts. The topic is particularly germane this season because of the emphasis director Ina Marlowe has placed upon “the love of children” in her production of the play.
The first and most obvious paternal relationship is between the Jewish moneylender, Shylock, and his daughter, Jessica. Devastated by the death of his wife, Leah, many years earlier, Shylock has kept the house in mourning out of respect for her, and this deification of her image has created distance between Shylock and his daughter, who can never understand the great love her parents shared and still feels anger at her mother for deserting her.
Antonio, the “merchant” of the title, also fulfills a paternal role in the play through his foolishly indulgent friendship with Bassanio, who eventually wins the beautiful and affluent Portia by solving the riddle of the gold, silver, and lead caskets. Acting as a father figure to the young man, Antonio borrows money from Shylock, pledging in the process the infamous pound of flesh as security, so that Bassanio can travel to Belmont to court his love. Antonio’s great devotion to his friend, however, is in ironic contrast to the bigotry and prejudice he has showered upon Shylock prior to signing their “merry” bond.
This same theme of father-child relationships resurfaces in the comic subplot of the play through the kinship between Old Gobbo and his son, Launcelot, who is first a servant to Shylock, then later to Bassanio. Old Gobbo’s physical blindness echoes the spiritual myopia of the first two father figures in the play, Shylock and Antonio, and implies that clarity of vision is an important metaphorical ingredient in religious as well as paternal disputes. In addition, the genuine loving rapport between this aged father and his son helps to betray the inadequacy of the relationships between Shylock and Jessica and between Antonio and Bassanio.
The fourth and final parent-child association in The Merchant of Venice features Portia, the wealthy heiress, and her deceased father who set up the stratagem of the caskets prior to his death. A paternalistic and controlling figure in the play, Portia’s father reaches out from the grave in his attempt to protect his daughter from her own innate xenophobia and from the greed and duplicity of the world around her. By requiring her various suitors to seek out the truth beneath the appearance of each of the caskets, he hopes that Portia’s eventual spouse will see her personal value clearly through the highly polished surface of wealth and privilege. In this fashion, he can bequeath her directly from father to husband as if she were inherited property being handed down from one generation to the next, in much the same way Shakespeare must have presided over the lives of his two surviving daughters.
Ironically, neither Portia nor Jessica has a living mother with whom to identify. Although the absence of female parents in the script may have much to do with the limited number of boy actors available to play the women’s parts in Shakespeare’s company, the lack of feminine role models in The Merchant of Venice requires that Portia and Jessica must instinctively disguise themselves as males to find independence within their respective worlds. Abandoned by their parents, they can only discover romance by denying their proper gender and adopting the masculine identity of their dominant fathers. Viewed in this fashion, the two women usurp parental control in order to take charge of their own lives.
Shakespeare’s emphasis upon the importance of parenting in the play pales in significance, however, when contrasted with the immense power of religion and ethnicity to corrupt humankind. Despite the best attempts of Shylock, Antonio, Old Gobbo, and Portia’s father to inoculate their children against the evils that surround them, the indignities of racism and bigotry infect everyone in the play. In fact, the only hope for the future comes not from the parents, but from the children themselves. For example, Portia and Bassanio, who are less encrusted by the weight of social tradition than their father-figures, have the opportunity to begin new lives by fusing together the play’s awkward geographical dichotomy. Through their amorous union, Portia represents the female-dominated, magical, harmonious, nighttime world of Belmont, while Bassanio symbolizes the male-dominated, mercantile, discordant, daytime world of Venice.
Joined together in marriage, these two fragmented Jungian halves of the play evolve into a complete and well-balanced universe for the lovers to inhabit.
Likewise, Jessica and her lover, Lorenzo—two children of opposing religions—bring together Judaism and Christianity through an inter-faith marriage that achieves the social symmetry so alien to Shylock and Antonio, mortal enemies who are inextricably entwined in their hatred for each other. Listening to the “sweet harmony” of the spheres in Act 5, Scene 1, the two lovers help us forget for a precious moment the religious discord that mars both Shakespeare’s world and our own, thereby transporting us to a heavenly future where such prejudice will be merely a distant memory. Through their relationship, Shakespeare seems to be saying that the journey will be a hard passage for such odd companions as Lorenzo and his “Jew’s daughter,” who is still struggling with unresolved issues concerning her parents and her own religious loyalties. Although the sins of the fathers are indeed visited upon their children, each generation marks an improvement over those who have gone before. Perhaps, as Shakespeare suggests, the child of such a union offers our best hope for success. This is the playwright’s legacy of happiness for parents and their offspring—forbidden in his own life due to the death of his son, yet proclaimed eternally through his theatrical genius.