Shakespearing #15 by David Foley
The Merchant of Venice
Antonio is sad. Shakespeare begins The Merchant of Venice in psychological media res. The merchant’s first line is a response to his friends: “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad./It wearies me, you say it wearies you[.]” “Your mind is tossing on the ocean,” Solanio says, making the first connection between the psychological world of the play and the merchant fleets on whose voyages the plot depends. Salerio goes him one better, producing a dreamlike image of a ship wrecking on
Which touching but my gentle vessel’s side
Would scatter all her spices on the stream,
Enrobe the roaring waters with my silks[.]
The puzzle of The Merchant of Venice is how a play so marred by anti-Semitism can be, like that dreamlike image, so mysteriously thrilling. My first answer to this question, when I was in high school, was that Shakespeare started out to write the usual caricature of the evil Jew but his human vision got the better of him, and so Shylock emerges as an unsettling combination of the vicious and the sympathetic. I was quite proud of this answer, though I’ve since learned it’s a commonplace. Still, it’s not a bad answer. For all his villainy, Shylock affects us as intensely human. Richard III’s villainy we take on faith; it’s an abstract of ambition and ruthlessness. Shylock’s twisted hate is rooted in particulars and achieves at times a harrowing human grandeur.
A better answer is that The Merchant of Venice is built on the tensions that Shylock raises. The world of The Merchant of Venice is anxiously inclusive, portraying a society whose mobility is both energizing and scary, like that beautiful shipwreck. A servant changes masters, a Jew becomes a Christian, a woman becomes a man. And Shylock is not the only character who refuses to come into focus as good or bad. Is Bassanio a love-struck wooer or a money-driven spendthrift? Both, it seems. I’ve read that an Elizabethan audience would have felt simple satisfaction when Jessica robs her father. Possibly, but they’d have to blank over some disturbing details. It’s a typical Shakespearean touch that Jessica uses her dead mother’s ring to buy a monkey, and the anguished hyperbole with which Shylock responds—“I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys”—skyrockets her betrayal into lyric flight. The thrill of The Merchant of Venice is that it puts us in a constant state of irresolution, not knowing what to think or feel, inhabitants, like Shakespeare, of a world in flux.
When we do think, we think about the bargains made for human flesh, whether it’s Shylock’s bond, Launcelot’s dilemma, or the fairy tale test that Portia’s father has assigned her suitors. Portia and Antonio are sympathetic poles of the play’s moral world. With Portia, old imprisoning forms fall away. She may submit herself to Bassanio as “an unlesson’d girl, unschool’d, unpractic’d,” but dressed like a man, she shows herself wiser than all the men combined.
Antonio, her partner in humanism, is rudderlessly adrift, bewildered that spitting on a Jew is no longer so unassailable an assertion of moral authority. The play seems wistful for such lost certainties, but Shylock relentlessly exposes their hypocrisy. Even at the height of his villainy, he gives a pointed discourse on Venetian slavery, the ultimate merchandising of human flesh.
Maybe Merchant thrills us because it places us where we always are: in a world that’s both falling away and coming into being, a world in which, to paraphrase Antonio in his opening speech, “[we] have much ado to know [ourselves].”
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.