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A Visit to ‘The Merchant of Venice’.

Shakespeare as a ‘lover of wisdom’.



SHAKESPEARE LOVED TO philosophize. I don’t mean, of course, philosophize in the manner of an Immanuel Kant, but simply as a “lover of wisdom”. Every now and then this love of his overcame the attention he paid to his work as a craftsman whose business it was to fashion popular plays, and when the moment came he didn’t scruple to halt the dramatic movement of his work in order to make time and space for his reflections on anything and everything.

Let us take an attentive walk through The Merchant of Venice (a typical text in this respect) and stop at the scenes in which this phenomenon appears.

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In the first fifty or so lines of the play we are given the essential information that Antonio has a number of argosies sailing the seas. But we are also told from the very start that Antonio suffers from a “want-wit sadness” which is due neither to worry about the argosies nor to love. Now, this melancholy will play no role whatsoever in what will happen to Antonio when all his vessels are wrecked. So why invent it? Because it gives Shakespeare an opening for a little philosophizing. This he does from the mouth of Solanio, that is to say anyone who happens by. Solanio jests that Antonio is sad because he is not merry, just as he might be merry because he is not sad. A sprinkle of serious wisdom follows:

Nature hath fram’d strange fellows in her time:
Some that will evermore peep through their eyes,
And laugh like parrots at a bagpiper:
And others of such vinegar aspect,
That they’ll not show their teeth in way of smile
Though Nestor swear the jest be laughable.1

Our play is not advancing. And Shakespeare is clearly not in a hurry to make it move on. For now, joining Antonio, Solanio and Saliero, come three more Venetian idlers, Bassanio, Lorenzo and Gratiano. The audience may become confused, so Shakespeare has Solanio and Saliero go home. Still the action stalls, for the subject is again Antonio’s melancholy: “You look not well, Signior Antonio,” says Gratiano. Why bring up this dramatically idle matter again? Because the poet has yet more wisdom to impart. Antonio explains that the world’s a stage in which each of us plays a part, “and mine a sad one.” Well, says Gratiano, he at any rate will play the fool. As for Antonio, let him not be sad, or affect sadness, in order to impress the world:

There are [says Gratiano] a sort of men whose visages
Do cream and mantle like a standing pond,
And do a wilful stillness entertain,
With purpose to be dress’d in an opinion
Of wisdom, gravity, profound conceit,
As who should say, “I am Sir Oracle,
And when I ope my lips, let no dog bark.”
O my Antonio, I do know of these
That therefore only are reputed wise
For saying nothing; etc.2

Dissolving the iambs, one might be reading a passage in Montaigne. Interestingly, this is a very insulting speech, and were it a functioning element in the drama Shakespeare is writing, he would surely have made Antonio resent it. Having no function whatever, it passes without notice. Except that, after Gratiano is gone Bassanio remarks that “Gratiano speaks an infinite deal of nothing (more than any man in Venice)”, words that suggest to me that the poet was conscious of this little difficulty and tried to disarm the insult and make plausible Antonio’s not taking umbrage.

I would judge that at this point we stand some ten considerable minutes into the play, with no fewer than six Venetians talking and talking, yet we have learned only a single vital fact that concerns the action, namely that Antonio has a number of argosies sailing the seas — whether he be melancholy or jolly.

Done with his meditations, Shakespeare finally clears the stage except for Antonio and Bassanio, the latter remaining behind so that at last! the action can truly be launched, when Bassanio momentously asks Antonio for money so he can take ship to woo Portia in style. Incidentally, Shakespeare decided to reduce the amount he needs from the ten thousand ducats mentioned in the wretched Italian tale that was his source to three thousand ducats — feeling, perhaps (but who knows?) that Bassanio should make the journey as a gentleman, not as one of the princes we will be meeting in Belmont.

LET’S TURN NOW to the first appearance in the play of Portia and Nerissa. Unlike Antonio, who is, apparently, melancholy by the workings of his “humours”, Portia has an excellent reason for saying “my little body is aweary of this great world.” But we the audience don’t know yet what that reason is. A mere craftsman would oblige us at once by having either Nerissa or Portia herself tell us all about the deceased father, his bizarre testament, and those troublesome chests. Nerissa might have responded to her mistress either by asking, “Why aweary, madam?” or else by going to the point herself, saying (more or less) “Of course I know why you are weary, but your father, who was a virtuous and holy man, knew what he was doing,” and so forth, concluding with those chests of gold, silver, and lead. Instead, the girl responds to Portia with a pregnant thought about Life — the dissatisfaction one may feel as much for being too rich as for being too poor. This is followed by a much longer meditation — in prose this time, but of course Shakespeare’s prose is often as sparkling as his poetry. It is Portia speaking:

If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces, — it is a good divine that follows his own instructions, — I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching: the brain may devise laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps o’er a cold decree, — such a hare is madness the youth, to skip o’er the meshes of good counsel the cripple.3

This said (Montaigne would have approved) Portia can now be allowed to conclude, “but this reasoning is not in the fashion to choose me a husband,” thus finally taking us to the essential matter of the virtuously oppressive father’s commands.

Here let me note that Shakespeare (typically for his time) was far more interested in ethics — good and evil, virtue and sin — than in problems of motivation. Iago hates Othello, point c’est tout. Hence, he felt no need to explain why Portia is willing to destroy her entire life’s happiness — to the extent, o horror! of marrying a dark-skinned man — from plain filial duty to her buried father. A later writer would surely have invented some curse, some calamity to follow disobedience — death, disinheritance, utter poverty at the very least! But for Shakespeare, and most probably for his audience, a daughter’s reverent obedience needed no explanation; it was her virtue that mattered. Subtly searched out and believable motivations are our imperative.

NOW FOR OUR first encounter with Shylock. The very first words of the scene are his: “Three thousand ducats, well.” This  tells us at once that the action is on its way. The conversation between Bassanio and Shylock is all about the loan and those vulnerable argosies. The drama continues when Antonio enters: Shylock expresses his hatred of the Christian in an aside, then turns to the two men to continue the negotiation. Antonio asks Bassiano whether the Jew has been apprised of the amount of the loan.

SHYLOCK. Ay, ay, three thousand ducats.
ANTONIO. And for three months.
SHYLOCK. I had forgot — three months, you [Bassanio] told me so.4

At this point, had Shakespeare concentrated his attention on pure drama, he would have completed Shylock’s speech with words he placed a distant 37 lines later: “Three thousand ducats, ‘tis a good round sum.” Followed by the sensational demand, larded with powerful invective, for a pound of flesh if the loan is not repaid in time: Shakespeare at his best.

How did the poet spend those 36 lines? On an abstract debate about charging or not charging interest on loans. On an intellectual discussion in the midst of dramatic deal-making. Shylock, it will be remembered, makes his case for charging interest by telling the Old Testament tale of Laban and Jacob. Antonio retorts with what was evidently the reason he made room for this dialogue:

Mark you this, Bassanio,
The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,—
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
O what a goodly outside falsehood hath!5

The very next line to this is, implausibly, Shylock’s “Three thousand ducats, ‘tis a good round sum,” the line whose real place I showed as belonging thirty-six lines earlier. The essayist in Shakespeare once again trumped the dramatist.

That his brief essay happens to be immortal poetry is not my concern here.

NEXT, WE TURN to the shocking scene, in the second Act, in which Jessica elopes with Lorenzo. Normally, people elope without witnesses, hence it may be asked why Lorenzo has invited Gratiano and Salerio to the event; there is no indication that he needs help. One answer is that, as a matter of minor craftsmanship, Shakespeare needed to have Antonio announce that the wind is up and that Bassiano must cancel his “masque” — his party — and set sail for Belmont. This needs to be said to someone, and since Lorenzo and Jessica have by now eloped into the off-stage, it is announced to Gratiano, perhaps also to Salerio. Were it not for this important news, Shakespeare could have enacted a normal elopement à deux.

But he had another reason for inviting friends to the happy flight of the lovers: it gave him a chance to philosophize again a little in his best poetic vein. However, in order for this to happen, he needed to introduce a tiny event for which there was not the slightest dramatic need: Lorenzo is late for his own elopement! The two friends have come to it ahead of him! Gratiano calls this a marvel, for “lovers ever run before the clock.” To be sure, replies Salerio (in words somewhat obscure for the modern reader), we’re quicker at flying to new loves than to keep old loves unbroken. Agreeing, Gratiano launches into some fine maxims and images — he has sufficient time for them, since, luckily for the world of poetry, Lorenzo still hasn’t arrived for his elopement:

That ever holds. Who riseth from a feast
With that keen appetite that he sits down?
Where is the horse that doth untread again
His tedious measures with the unbated fire
That he did pace them first? — all things that are,
Are with more spirit chased than enjoy’d.
How like a younger or a prodigal
The scarfed bark puts from her native bay —
Hugg’d and embraced by the strumpet wind!
How like the prodigal doth she return
With over-weather’d ribs and ragged sails —
Lean, rent, and beggar’d by the strumpet wind!6

Once this little essay is done, the play picks up where it has left off.

Here I allow myself another aside from the subject I have been treating. I called the elopement shocking. Why so? Because of Jessica’s brazen, gleeful and remorseless plunder of her father, which everyone applauds — including, clearly, the poet himself, his audience and his readers. True, Jessica has told the clown that “our house is hell,” but “tediousness” is the only evidence Shakespeare offers us. (That her father has been mistreating a servant would hardly have caused a young lady in the days of our foremothers to feel that her home was hell.) When Shylock leaves the house he asks his daughter nothing worse than to lock the doors and not lean out of the casement “to gaze on Christian fools with varnish’d faces.” By contrast, Marlowe’s Jew, in The Jew of Malta, has had the Christian his daughter loves murdered. And her response is to become a nun, not to joyously rob her father. But never mind! For Shakespeare and his time, this hoist from a rascal Jew-usurer was a hilarious Till Eulenspiegel sort of prank. It would take more than two centuries before a writer would feel obliged to provide much more substance for calling Shylock’s home hell; it would take an instance or two of brutal treatment of his daughter; and the author would surely portray a Jessica with a troubled conscience.

A useful reminder that no writer, giant or otherwise, has ever been “universal.”

Next comes Shylock’s immortal “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, but I leap over it just now and will return to it later for inspection. I turn instead to Bassanio’s meditation as he ponders his choice of “caskets”. Beginning with “The world is still deceived with ornament,” it takes up 29 lines.7 This stretch of philosophizing is notable for the present purpose in that, unlike my other instances, it does belong heart and soul to the drama unrolling before us, since it determines Bassanio’s choice of the lead chest. The play cannot dispense with it. We are reminded that the philosophizing that enters a play is by no means necessarily useless to the forward motion of drama.

This said and noted, let me turn to Shylock’s famous speech.

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? 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 humility? revenge! If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? — why revenge! The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better your instruction.8

This is, undoubtedly, one of Shakespeare’s philosophical tirades, and it is not, strictly speaking, necessary to the forward-motion of the action.

This is, undoubtedly, one of Shakespeare’s philosophical tirades, and it is not, strictly speaking, necessary to the forward-motion of the action. When Salerio asks Shylock what good it will do him to take Antonio’s flesh, Shylock’s “it will feed my revenge; he hath disgraced me” and a few words more would suffice. However, the eloquent argument which follows, to the effect that just as a Jew is physically like a Christian, so his thirst for revenge is the same as that which a Christian feels, makes this a powerful speech of self-justification for a main character, hence absolutely pertinent.

To be sure — here I digress again — this speech has long baffled and disturbed directors, spectators, and readers, and set  critics loose, because it appears to demand sympathy for the villain of the piece all of a sudden and for just those few minutes, after which the villainy returns: apparently a puzzling inconsistency. Now, strictly speaking, a villain who tells his enemy “you are a villain too” remains a villain — and that is the whole Shylock’s argument: you Christians savor revenge and so do we Jews — we are as morally alike as we are physically alike; but the fact remains that for us, sentimentalized since the eighteenth century, Shylock’s speech “humanizes” him. Had Shakespeare thought of rebutting Shylock by making Solario cry out (in Shakespearean prose) “Yes we are vengeful too, but we also have charity, compassion, generosity, which you lack,” the audience might disagree as to the fact, but consistency would have been insured and the great speech would have ceased to be perplexing. My guess is that it occurred neither to Shakespeare nor to the seventeenth-century audience that there was an inconsistency.

We can now look at our next instance of by-the-way wisdom. It occurs when Shylock appears before the Duke to claim his pound of flesh. The Duke offers no argument and makes no threat; he only asks Shylock to show mercy and even to forgive half the debt. “We all expect a gentle answer, Jew!” is his last line.

Shylock’s short answer is that he has sworn “by our holy Sabbath” to have his due.

If you deny it, let the danger light
Upon your charter and your city’s freedom!

To this Bassanio has a normal reaction:

This is no answer, thou unfeeling man,
To excuse the current of thy cruelty,

followed, with due logic, by Shylock’s

I am not bound to please thee with my answer.

But in fact, Bassanio’s normal “This is no answer” occurs a long 24 lines after its proper dramatic place! Why so? Let’s begin again:

If you deny it, let the danger light
Upon your charter and your city’s freedom!
You’ll ask me why I rather choose to have
A weight of carrion flesh than to receive
Three thousand ducats.9

“You’ll ask”? Nothing the Duke has said suggests that he was about to raise this question, or for that matter any other. But the poet had some wonderful image-loaded wisdom-lines in his head, to the effect that mere whims sometimes dictate our actions, and he decided to hold the drama so as to make room for them:

What if my house be troubled with a rat,
And I be pleas’d to give ten thousand ducats
To have it ban’d? what, are you answer’d yet?
Some men there are love not a gaping pig!
Some that are mad if they behold a cat!
And others when the bagpipe sings i’th’nose,
Cannot contain their urine—for affection
(Master of passion) sways it to the mood

Of what it likes or loathes, etc.10

In conclusion, Shylock gives his reason, which we, as well as the play’s Christians, already know: he hates Antonio; and everyone in the play also knows the reason, or the main reason, for this hatred, namely that Antonio doesn’t lend on interest. It is distinctly not as a whim that he wants Antonio’s flesh. No one would dream of cutting the little essay from the play, but it is dramatically void. Nor (by the way) does it add anything to our understanding of Shylock’s character.

Portia’s discourse on the quality of mercy when she appears in the guise of lawyer Balthasar causes another substantial delay in the forward motion of the comedy for the sake of Thought. Here is how sheer drama would have proceeded:

PORTIA. Is your name Shylock?
SHYLOCK. Shylock is my name.
PORTIA. Of a strange nature is the suit you follow,
Yet in such rule, that the Venetian law
Cannot impugn you as you do proceed.
You stand within his danger, do you not?
ANTONIO. Ay, so he says.
PORTIA. Do you confess the bond?
PORTIA. Then must the Jew be merciful.
SHYLOCK. On what compulsion must I? tell me that.

PORTIA. Is he not able to discharge the money?
BASSANIO. Yes, here I tender it [etc].11

The blank I have inserted in the dialogue allows Portia to lecture us about mercy, beginning with the famous “The quality of mercy is not strained.” The lecture takes up 19 lines, and to conclude it Portia can only confess that if Shylock decides not to be merciful, Antonio’s flesh must be cut. Shylock, of course, reiterates his demand: “I crave the law.” This prompts Portia to ask of Bassanio, “Is he not able to discharge the money?” I have placed this after the blank. This is a question which, it seems to me, should have been the first one that occurs to Portia, followed by the prayer for mercy. Be that as it may, the drama does resume the moment Bassanio offers to discharge Antonio’s debt.

I take the liberty again of changing the subject for a few minutes in order to question the plausibility of the entire central scene we are watching at this point (what the French were to call la scène à faire). Having urged mercy in vain, Portia pleads with Shylock to take “thrice the money” he is owed and allow her to “tear the bond.” What? She will make Bassanio disburse 9000 ducats to Shylock when, all that time, she has been concealing a weapon under her robe, so to speak, that must kill Shylock’s claim on the spot?

……………………..If thou tak’st more
Or less than a just pound, be it but so much
As makes it light or heavy in the substance,
Or the division of the twentieth part
Of one poor scruple, nay if the scale do turn
But in the estimation of a hair,
Thou diest, and all thy goods are confiscate.12

Plausibility demands that Portia should have pointed her legal pistol at Shylock’s head from the start and not kept all the good Venetians in anguish with her pleading for mercy and offer of 9000 ducats. Unless, indeed, Shakespeare had shown that her stupendous idea was a sudden inspiration, provoked by despair of saving Antonio. But nothing in the dialogue suggests this, and we are obliged to conclude that Shakespeare was more interested in drawing out this splendid scene than in strict likelihood.

But that’s not all. There was never any need for Portia to disguise herself as a “doctor” at all. She would have obtained the same sensational success had she delivered her idea as the lady of Belmont. Indeed, the most natural and believable course of events would have been Portia’s going to consult the legal brain of “learn’d Bellario”, as he is called, then sailing in haste to Venice with Bellario’s opinion in her purse to hand the Duke the moment, so to speak, she arrives, without wasting time and prolonging anguish with discourses on mercy and offering Shylock 9000 ducats.

Scenes can be admirable without making much sense.

To be sure, if Portia had been Portia and Nerissa Nerissa, the demand of the doctor of law and his assistant for Bassanio’s and Gratiano’s rings could not have happened, and since the ring comedy, which ends Act IV, provides the substance of Act Five, Shakespeare would have been obliged to fill his last Act with another story of his invention or drawn from another author.

It might have been a better one.

Turning to this final Act, we discover that it takes 112 lines for the ring-comedy to begin., namely at the point where Lorenzo cries to Portia, “Dear lady, welcome home!” Thereafter, no more musings, no more meditations, no more maxims — the dialogue steps briskly to the end.
These 112 lines are occupied by some of Shakespeare’s loveliest lyrical passages. We hear the “In such a night” duet all but sung by Lorenzo and Jessica; Lorenzo’s musing on the stars that sing, but we are too gross to hear them; a marvelous “lecture” on the power of music, with its sublime conclusion:

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;

and, more briefly, Portia’s

A substitute shines brightly as a king
Until a king be by,13

all this, again, before the action begins.

A final off-my-subject remark. The contrast in this business of delayed action (as with so many other characteristics) between the paragon of English drama and the hero of the French theatre is striking. In Racine’s plays every speech either moves the action forward directly or reports on an event without which the action can’t proceed. One finds in his drama no discourse on the nature of mercy or the power of music, no lecture on royalty, no meditation on mortality. Surely Racine the man pondered life and death as much as Shakespeare, but he kept his musings to himself. In this respect, his tragedies are more true-to-life — more realistic — than Shakespeare’s plays, because when people are facing each other in “dramatic” situations with friend or foe, they don’t drift into  generalizations about  the world. At most, they will say “Decent people don’t act this way, my friend” and then move on. That was not sufficient for Shakespeare.

The  conclusion? Racine is pure, Shakespeare is rich. We are fortunate to have them both.

OSCAR MANDEL is a Belgian-born American author and professor emeritus of literature at the California Institute of Technology. His fabulist fiction has been widely staged and his many published works range across the fields of poetry, drama, fiction, the essay, literary scholarship and theory, translations (especially from French and German), and art history. His website is here.

  1. I, i, 51 ff. I will be using the Riverside Shakespeare, second edition (1997) throughout.
  2. I, i, 88 ff.
  3. I, ii, 12 ff.
  4. I, iii, 65-67.
  5. I, iii, 103!
  6. II, vi, 8 ff.
  7. III, ii, 74 ff.
  8. III, i, 59 ff. “What is his humility?” is troublesome. Shakespeare clearly meant “What will he suffer?” — as in the “sufferance” that follows.
  9. IV, i, 38 ff.
  10. “Affection” is glossed in the Riverside edition as “instinctual feeling”. The “it” in “sways it” must refer to “passion”.
  11. IV, i, 172-179, then 205.
  12. IV, i, 322 ff. “Scruple” is glossed as “twenty grains.”
  13. V, i, 83-85 and 94-95.
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