By Michael Flachmann
More than in any other Shakespearean play, affection and avarice are uneasy bedfellows in The Merchant of Venice (1600). When Solanio mimics Shylock’s anguished cries of “My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!” in Act 2, Scene 8, his lines suggest one of the principal motifs of this intriguing script: Money may placate the flesh, but only love can enrich and satisfy our souls. Part of a rich fabric of themes and images in the play, this central truth is immediately apparent in the preoccupation with finance displayed throughout the script.
In the opening scene, for example, Bassanio describes Portia as “a lady richly left, / And she is fair” (1.1.160–161). Wealth first, then beauty seems to be his principal motivation. Similarly, the Jewish moneylender Shylock admits in an aside in 1.3 that he hates Antonio because he is a Christian, but more so since “He lends out money gratis, and brings down / The rate of usance here with us in Venice” (35–36), an assertion suggesting that finance is stronger than both love and hate. Later in that same scene, Shylock distorts the Biblical story of Jacob and Laban (Genesis 27) to help justify the relatively new practice of charging interest on loans—a necessary evil for entrepreneurs like Antonio during this period of rapid mercantile expansion in Renaissance Italy. Although the roots of usury go back to the early Greeks, where money was described as “barren,” the ancient word for “interest” (tokos) meant “child,” which betrayed a deep ambivalence over the ethical and moral propriety of earning money without the slightest hint of physical labor. Nowhere is this paradox more clearly articulated than in the playwright’s own Timon of Athens (1606), where the title character’s naiveté about the compounding of interest drives him to financial ruin.
Although Antonio and Portia give lip service to the commonplace adage that money can’t buy happiness, both characters, like Bassanio, are obsessed with wealth. Antonio’s avaricious pursuit of foreign markets stretches his fleet of ships to the breaking point, while Portia, newly won in the casket stratagem, declares to Bassanio that she wishes to be
trebled twenty times myself,
A thousand times more fair, ten thousand times
More rich, that only to stand high in your account
I might in virtues, beauties, livings, friends,
Exceed account (3.2.153–157).
Later, when she learns of Antonio’s peril at the hands of Shylock, Portia blithely tells her new husband to double payment of the bond, then double that sum again, then “treble that, / Before a friend of this description / Shall lose a hair through Bassanio’s fault” (3.2.298–301). As interest compounds in the play, so too does love.
Unfortunately for the Christians, Shylock’s affection is not so easily bought as Bassanio’s. When offered twice the sum in court, the usurer claims that “If every ducat in six thousand ducats / Were in six parts, and every part a ducat, / I would not draw them; I would have my bond” (4.1.84–86).
As this cruel arithmetic implies, the dramatic arc of Shylock’s character has evolved greatly from the beginning of the play, where “monies” was his only “suit” (1.3.111). Devastated by his daughter’s elopement with a Christian and her theft of so much of his hard-earned wealth, Shylock begins to understand that human relationships are more precious and ephemeral than the pursuit of riches. When his friend Tubal tells him earlier that Jessica had traded his deceased wife’s ring for a monkey, Shylock replies in anguish that he “would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys” (3.1.96–97). In contrast, Bassanio and Gratiano cavalierly offer their wedding rings to the disguised Portia and Nerissa after Antonio’s acquittal. No amount of money can bring back Shylock’s wife and daughter, just as nothing but Antonio’s death can compensate for years of anti-Semitic scorn and ridicule. In his Old Testament world of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” Shylock reasons that only the death of a Christian can compensate for the loss of his Jewish child.
Shylock’s attempt to cut out Antonio’s heart nicely parallels Shakespeare’s own artistic effort to pluck hatred out of his Christian audience. Though cloaked in such admirable virtues as romantic love, devotion to close friends, and the attempt to move upward on the social and economic ladder, the Christians of Shakespeare’s play, like Antonio’s “goodly apple” (1.3.93), are rotten at the core. When Portia returns home after her victory in the trial scene and likens the conquest of Shylock to “a good deed” shining brightly “in a naughty world” (5.1.91), her words prefigure the abhorrent ethnic cleansing of later cultures and the religious myopia so prevalent in today’s society. The dearth of any normative role models in the play, save perhaps Portia’s deceased father, means that audiences will always have difficulty identifying with characters whose bigotry and xenophobia consistently betray their lack of moral integrity.
This Christian hypocrisy is only apparent, however, if we, as Portia’s suitors are invited to do, look beneath surface appearances to find a deeper reality in the world around us. Shakespeare’s play, like a dramatic “casket,” hides many truths within its glittering exterior of loving Christians triumphing over a greedy Jewish moneylender, one of which is that Shylock is the only person in the script who truly evolves from his obsession with wealth to a more profound understanding of the importance of humanity. Part of Shakespeare’s genius is that he ironically chooses his antagonist, the “evil” blocking character, as the sole exemplum of change within the play. Because all the other characters remain static in their pursuit of love and money, Shylock must be excised as an alien presence in their midst since he is a constant reminder of their avarice and cruelty towards those different from themselves. Like Roderigo Lopez, the Portuguese Jewish physician convicted of plotting to poison Queen Elizabeth just prior to the play’s initial performance at the Globe Theatre, Shylock is a scapegoat figure whose defeat at the end of the play signals a return to social homogeneity and wedded bliss, as opposed to the discord and conflict so apparent earlier in the script.
If any hope exists for the Christians in the play and in Shakespeare’s own society, it lies in the union of Jessica and Lorenzo, two characters from very different worlds who, like the dissimilar geographic locations of Venice and Belmont, must come together in concord for the play to end happily. As Lorenzo explains while tutoring his wife in the mysteries of Christian theology, God’s “harmony” exists within our perfect souls, but we cannot hear it while the “muddy vesture” of our bodies “Doth grossly close it in” (5.1.63–65).
A multitude of stars, like a wilderness of monkeys, look down upon us as audience members, each promising that God’s blessings will be conferred on those who strive for more perfect lives free of hatred, prejudice, and the lust for money. Only love, which sits at the center of the universe, will ennoble us all, Christians and Jews alike.