Richard J. Daley College
Genre, Culture, and the Moment of The Merchant
1> The Merchant of Venice is the first written of Shakespeare’s plays to generate controversy over its genre, since Edmund Kean transformed the red-wigged villain of Portia’s golden comedy into the Romantic era’s dignified tragic victim of finally unbearable injustice (Barnet 65). Post-Holocaust critics Stephen Greenblatt, Harold Bloom, John Gross and Kenneth Gross have responded to their discomfort with the play’s anti-Semitic content (Bloom even wishes the play, with its “bottomless” ironies, had never been written) by focusing on Shylock’s dramatically transcendent “inwardness” as marking a transformative deepening in Shakespeare’s treatment of character. With all the great respect due the Bradleian cult of character, a consideration of the play’s genre and culture can restore our bearings about its tone by exposing the materially based realism in The Merchant of Venice and with it core values that underlie not only this play but Shakespeare’s most profound work to follow.
Comic Genre and Conservative Culture
2> Genre was the scaffolding from which Shakespeare built his early theatrical triumphs, bringing the two comedies that immediately preceded Merchant to brilliant effect by tapping their very devices for his themes: identity in The Taming of The Shrew and imagination in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If there is a comparable intensity of creative energy at work in The Merchant of Venice it too comes from Shakespeare’s turning one of his artistic tools to thematic purpose. For in The Merchant, Shakespeare holds his all but proverbial “mirror” up to the life of his own changing social and economic culture. James Shapiro’s historical study of attitudes towards Jews in England in a proximate period, though it too owes its existence to Shylock, concludes that those early modern attitudes reflect the dominant Christian culture’s need to define itself. It is the social reality Shakespeare’s mirror reflects in The Merchant of Venice that for the first time in his career unbalanced his comedy’s effect.
3> Foregrounded against an era of expanding trade and adventurous enterprise whose risks are invoked in the play’s opening scene, both the aristocratic gentility nostalgically centered on Portia’s Belmont, and the choral community of convivial Christian friends in Venice, challenged by the realistic commercial values of Shakespeare’s Venetian Rialto—the universal solvent and its material power—prove conspicuously conservative.
4> Portia’s fairy-tale predicament as a daughter whose all-provident father sets the terms of her betrothal by the casket test is the conservative linchpin of the comic plot. Like the rebellious daughters of the senexes in Shakespeare’s early romantic comedies, Portia restlessly chafes in her golden cage, but unlike her saucy peers, she responsibly conforms, albeit not without some humorous hint of supervention on her part (“bred’ / ’head’ / ’nourish’ed’ / ‘engendr’ed’ / ’fed’ [3.2.63-68]), for which she is rewarded by marriage to the object of her generous heart and head-over-heels attraction— extraordinary cooperation, for a Shakespeare play, with patriarchal conservatism.
5> Conservatism is also implicit in the play’s rewarding of Portia’s graciously profligate suitor Bassanio, whose prodigality has led him into indebtedness and fortune-hunting. His appeal to his devoted friend Antonio to advance the cost of his courtship issues in the crux of the play’s other main plot, Antonio’s bond to Shylock. For all his lame vows to compensate when the plan backfires—he would give the bond many times over, in Portia’s money, or legally irrelevantly, give his “hands . . . head . . . heart” (4.1.208-16)—Bassanio is willing to venture the life of his friend to woo the wealthy Portia in style. Shakespeare does not mock Bassanio’s courtroom rhetoric for being all he has to be generous with, but gives him no economic activity except to spend, borrow, or seek to marry wealth. In Shakespeare’s most likely source for the casket test, Fiorentino’s Il Pecorone, Bassanio’s counterpart omits to tell his godfather that he has twice lost his fortune to circumstances of that test (trickery, drugs) (Myrick 105). Shakespeare gives Bassanio no such excuse for needing the loan; he is merely extravagant. He wins the service of Launcelot Gobbo because he provides “rare new liveries” (2.2.11), and Portia, because the Renaissance gentleman knows how to say the right thing at the right time; in this case, understanding that a patriarch who held on to the power of his wealth would have known his Machiavelli, that appearances can be expected to deceive—that those golden locks could be a wig (3.2.88-97), strategy to be used as well as defended against. The rewarding of this charming, cultured Bassanio’s dependent profligacy by the liberality with which the lady he wins disposes her superabundant wealth, a male Cinderella story, does little to avoid appearing like the static exploitation of aristocratic privilege and luxury it is.
6> The genteel Bassanio fears Gratiano’s “vulgar tongue” unsuitable to accompany him on his quest for the refined lady, but in the Venetians’ spirit of generous friendship, allows him to tag along nonetheless to Belmont, where Gratiano proceeds to gratify the needs of the comic plot by acting in comic imitation of his aristocratic friend, first in contracting with Portia’s maid, then in transgressing his vow not to part with the gift of “her ring,” a vulgarism in his speech. When Gratiano plays the taunting chorus in the famous courtroom scene, calling for the pillorying of the defeated moneylender, his popular, or vulgar conservatism, memorably captured by a student’s costuming herself in a baseball cap worn backwards, is the conservatism of rednecks who, given occasion to tap into their prejudices, like the jeering citizens at the execution of Roderigo Lopez Stephen Greenblatt feels Shakespeare must have deplored (277), think no farther than their unexamined prejudices, their need for reinforcement by peers, and narrow social conformity.
7> Cultural conservatism is implicit in Portia’s satirical mockeries of her foreign suitors, who fail to suit her tastes; the most insidious kind, because it is justified by comedy’s biological objective, marriage. As Shylock shrewdly observes, the last thing the privileged of a dominant culture would want is to marry their daughters to their foreign-born slaves (4.1.94). We still debate whether to call this cultural, biological, or xenophobic conservatism.
8> It is from the ironically qualified conservatisms of the eponymous merchant that the action of the play springs. Antonio is the embodiment of generosity, of Christian largesse and self-sacrifice—anything for a friend. But this very quality shades perceptibly into saccharine excess and is colored by a not unrelated emotional need to be recognized for his sacrifices, showing that Antonio is, after all, a mere mortal, whose unexamined application in his material social world of Matthew 25’s “spirit” of unlimited charity, a “brotherly love” to which Shakespeare adds suggestively homosexual overtones, disquietingly reproaches us. Antonio’s friends speculate that it is his worldly risk taking that provokes his anxiety (he “knows not why” he “feels so sad” [1.1.1-2]). He dismisses that, claiming the great number of his ventures protects him. And he rejects that love is the cause. But as the plot unfolds, Antonio proves in denial on both counts, not knowing his own boundaries. He signs an absurd bond in overconfidence, only for all his ships to appear lost, and signs it on behalf of his special friend knowing he will at best lose him by it to marriage. The plaintive strain in Antonio persists.
9> But the aspect of Antonio’s Christian conservatism at the root of the play’s intense drama is his conflation of religion and economics. Antonio, Shylock complains in his only aside in the play, “rails / Even there where merchants most do congregate, / On me, my bargains, and my well-won thrift, / Which he calls interest” (1.3.46-48). A little later, addressing him: “you call me cutthroat dog / And spet upon my Jewish gaberdine”’ (1.3.108-09), to which, Antonio: “I am as like to call thee so again, / To spet on thee again, to spurn thee too” (1.3.127-28). Antonio hates Shylock because he charges interest, and in a play where genteel manners prevail and are valued, he feels righteously justified in spitting on him for it.
11> Culturally, as well as economically, Antonio and Shylock could not be farther apart. They cannot read the same text in the same way. If Shylock, to justify his Jewish dietary aversion to pork, distorts the New Testament by ignoring the context of Christ’s purging a demonic legion by drowning the swine possessed by them, to dwell instead on Christ’s “conjuring the devil into pigs” (1.3.32), Antonio returns the favor by bringing an absence of context to Shylock’s use of the Old Testament. To defend “thrift,” prospering by one’s enterprise, Shylock offers the example of Jacob, who, many times tricked by his father-in-law into continuing dependence and inability to provide on his own for his growing family, figures out a contractual means to win a portion of the wealth he helps Laban accumulate (Genesis 29-30). Shylock, with obvious relish, calls this clever enterprise (1.3.73-87). Jacob’s Biblical fate was to found the Jewish nation. Antonio takes the conservative religious view of the exploited, hard-working Jacob’s primitive experiment in voodoo genetics: Jacob’s fortunes, like his own, were in God’s hands. Shylock is making the case that Jacob’s cleverness, like the interest Shylock charges, enables his “godspeed.”
12> In this play where fellowship and manners matter so much, Shylock is the entrenched, stand-offish outsider who, conspicuously conservative of his own culture in the Christian community in whose midst his kind were permitted for their historical utility as sources of capital to dwell, refuses to eat with Christians, stops the ears of his house to avoid hearing their music, and creates an oppressive isolation for his daughter in their home. Shakespeare makes Jessica’s elopement a direct consequence of Shylock’s contravening his own expressed prohibition against dining with Christians, so that the plot here serves as an ironic confirmation that Shylock was right to play his position defensively. Reciprocally, when Antonio “softens” towards the Jew because Shylock agrees to lend him the sum he is seeking without interest, Antonio makes a strategic mistake, which argues that he too would have done better to maintain an attitude of mistrust. Shakespeare has captured in the action of his play the unrelenting cycle of xenophobic prejudice.
The Universal Solvent and the Law
13> Shylock may never have gotten his dinner. During Lorenzo’s delay absconding with the conventionally maidenly modest Jessica, and her father’s gold and jewels, the literal winds of opportunity come up and his host heads for Belmont, canceling the masque, an aristocratic revel, for fortune hunting. Historian Theodore Rabb has bluntly called The Merchant of Venice “a play about capitalism” (67). Stephen Mentz finds that “attention to Launcelot Gobbo,” the go-between of its Christians and Jews, “leads to a broader economic reading of the play . . . that the servant . . . represents the inexorable urge to exchange that was part of the emerging ideology of capitalism” (185). That both the enabling of Bassanio’s suit for Portia’s aristocratic wealth, hence the comic plot, and the courtroom drama that menaces and resolves it, depend on the money Antonio borrows from Shylock hovers ironically over the entire action of the play and its conservative Christian society.
14> While the Christian spirit of transcendent “mercy” emerges from the nostalgic gentility of Belmont and makes for the memorable set piece of the play, what wins in the trial scene is legal one-upsmanship, not Christian charity, the law of man that operates in the commercial world of the Rialto, not God’s. Antonio himself recognizes that Venice’s reputation as a trading city is on the line if he filches on a contract (3.3.26-31). Shylock’s power to exact his penalty proceeds from the letter of the law in a mutually signed “bond,” emphatically upheld by Portia (4.1.217-21), and in the drawing out of the trial with melodramatic exaction that power is undermined only by supervening laws—against spilling blood—for which Shylock would lose his wealth, then against taking “in excess” of the pound of flesh—for which he would lose his life. At this, Shylock ceases to pursue his claim.
15> But Portia finds a counter suit against him as an “alien” seeking “the life of any citizen,” that calls for the forfeit of all his goods and puts his life at the mercy of the Duke. Though Venice allows Shylock to profit by his enterprise, its law, otherwise admirable for its equity, does not regard him as “like” its Christian citizens (3.1.64). Shakespeare’s Duke, however, contrastingly quickly, mitigates Shylock’s penalties:
"Duke. That thou shalt see the difference of our spirit,
I pardon thee thy life before thou ask it.
For half thy wealth, it is Antonio’s;
The other half comes to the general state,
Which humbleness may drive into a fine." (4.1.367-71)
16> Shylock, suggestively either too proud or too preoccupied with his devastation, responds as if he does not grasp the Duke’s implication:
"Nay, take my life and all! Pardon not that!
You take my house, when you do take the prop
That doth sustain my house. You take my life
When you do take the means by which I live." (4.1.373-76)
17> This equation of life and wealth is no more satire of the Jew’s greed—Shylock would have profited nil had Antonio made good his loan—than it is Antonio’s when. earlier in the proceeding, reconciling himself to his doom after characteristically “transcending”—but not without mentioning—his dear friend’s responsibility for his plight: (“Give me your hand, Bassanio; fare you well, / Grieve not that I am fall’n to this for you”), he too partakes of Shylock’s material perspective:
"Antonio. For herein Fortune shows herself more kind
Than is her custom; it is still her use
To let the wretched man outlive his wealth,
To view with hollow eye and wrinkled brow
An age of poverty: from which ling’ring penance
Of such misery doth she cut me off." (4.1.265-71)
18> Antonio’s tone is plaintive, pathetic, self-comforting; Shylock’s poignant, outraged, bitter, tragic, but their necessary association of worldly wealth and life worth having, identical. In real life, the material matters.
19> In the resolution of the courtroom drama, Shakespeare plays rhetorically with the punitive disposition, at Antonio’s bidding, of the power of Shylock’s wealth, a disposition variously misread, when not ignored, in the critical literature (Bloom 184; John Gross 89). Shakespeare has Antonio ask the court to return to Shylock the half of his wealth due the state, less the unspecified fine, while Antonio himself, ironically, gets to keep the other half of Shylock’s wealth to “use” in his lifetime (i.e., profit from). Antonio’s further stipulation that all Shylock’s wealth revert upon his death to his Christian son-in-law and his daughter turns the knife that they will inherit her father’s money though she has abandoned him, even as it rests ironically upon the prized value of his scorned economic activity. Insofar as Shylock is present in the fifth act of the play, it is, claims about her callousness to the contrary (John Gross 74-75), in Jessica’s uneasy joking consciousness of herself as a betrayer of her father in an “unthrift” love (5.1.13-16).
The Material Nexus: The Matter of Life
20> The Merchant’s legacy to Shakespeare’s development as a creative artist is at least as much to values, to what “matters,” as to inwardness in the portrayal of Shylock’s character. Eric Sams’ rigorously documented account of Shakespeare’s early cultural influences: family, nature and animal husbandry, religious politics and the law, as well, of course, as theater, resonates with both the underlying realism and the cruxes of this text.
21> Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity on pain of death, felt by many as the worst affront he suffers, is rhetorically colored by its source, religiously conservative Antonio; by the Duke’s putting authority behind it despite having elsewhere shown that mercy is indeed “mightiest in the mightiest” (4.1.87); and by Shylock’s choice. It is not “nice,” that his conservative Christian antagonist and the voice of political authority impose outward conformity on his difference. But no religious fanatic, Shylock chooses life. His “I am content” (4.1.393) is the only social reply he can make, as he is once again socially defined. Just as Shakespeare mirrors the conservative fault lines and the pervasive hypocritical subjection to the universal solvent in his society, he mirrors the religious politics of his time. Caught between her father’s ambitions and her Catholic foreign competitors, the reign of England’s insecure queen could still be marked by politically motivated pendulum swings of religious oppression. Members of Shakespeare’s family had been punished as Catholic recusants (Sams 12-14). There is no record of The Merchant of Venice being performed at court during Elizabeth’s reign (Barnet 162).
22> Shylock’s last speech asks leave to go, assumes his right to a certain courtesy, and accepts his obligation under the law, the social commonality whose authority has brought order despite his culturally vulnerable social position, and, after all, more justice than his fulfillment of his wrath would have done. But when he says that he is “not well,” making indistinguishable his emotional and his physical state, we experience him as a sentient human creature whose feelings are implicated in a material world; not just by his rage for vengeance, but in his balance sheet at the departure of Launcelot, “a patch,” but “kind enough”; and for the symbolic importance Shylock attaches to material things—the stolen turquoise ring his dead Leah gave him when he was a bachelor; the monkey for which his daughter trades it; his, like Portia’s father’s, mutually implicated “daughter” and “ducats.” Even as such allusions reinforce Shylock’s cultural isolation, they show Shylock attaching himself to the material world with honest emotion, and living with its real human and economic conflicts. The exceedingly generous, self-sacrificing Antonio, meanwhile, is melancholy, morbidly emotionally needy of the recognition of the object of his suggestively homosexual affections, and familialy unconnected.
23> Shylock is often complimented for his rhetorical intelligence, but rhetorical skill, and even immense cleverness—Richard III’s, Iago’s, Edmund’s—have by themselves no moral weight for Shakespeare. They demand and gratify our attention, and we admire them, but they do not touch us. The morally outrageous fallen aristocrat Falstaff, in Shakespeare’s very next play, who won Harold Bloom to Shakespeare in his childhood, and who so compelled his creator’s, as he does our fascination that it took Shakespeare three plays to kill him off, captivates us all not just because he is a master of clever casuistry, but because of his devastatingly realistic material vision. To the materialist Falstaff, “Honor is a mere scutcheon” (Henry IV, Part One 5.1.141). The lives of the rabble he recruits to battle for his own profit do not matter to him; only his sack. His appeal for understanding? “I have more flesh than another man, and therefore more frailty” (3.3.172-3).
24> Shylock’s language is vivid, sometimes to the reader’s embarrassment, for being riddled with animal references—over a hundred in his five scenes—most to particular animals, but also to parts of the human body, physical actions it performs or receives, and the objects that impose on it, grounding his language, like so much else in the play, in material reality. One of the lasting contributions of Eric Sams is his solid documentation of Shakespeare’s minute familiarity with the language of the country and his father’s agricultural trades: the raising, trading and processing of animals, including the tanning of hides. Given that Shylock’s thematically all-important trade as a moneylender is a city trade, for the historical reason that Jews were forbidden to own land in medieval and Renaissance Europe, Shakespeare’s imparting to him so singularly the vocabulary of his own childhood association with animal nature deepens the connection of this play, through the language of Shylock, with the significance of imagery of animals and of the body in what Shelley, and most of its serious readers since regard as the greatest drama in all of literature, King Lear.
25> When, doubly abandoned by daughters and the tragic self-inflictor of the loss of a third, Lear comes to feel that as king he had “ta’en/Too little care” to shake the superflux” to “wretches in need,” instead of showing “the heavens more just” (3.4.33-360), his insight is grounded, like Shylock’s appeal for recognition as a sentient creature by the human community from which he is culturally alienated (“Hath not a Jew eyes? . . . ” [3.1.55 ff.]), in the painful truth that socially “unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, fork’d animal” as Edgar disguised as a besmirched, naked Bedlam beggar. The nature and clothing imagery integral to the shattered existential world of King Lear unequivocally establishes that Shakespeare at his most profoundly poetic resorted to the language of our animal nature. And Lear, like The Merchant of Venice, uses this language to reinforce the need to take account of that animal nature, and be socially responsible for transcending it, by law and compassion. Hamlet’s moment of detached reflection in the graveyard upon his return to his alienating social world is expressed as well in the language of the body as part of the cycle of physical nature: “Imperious Caesar, dead and gone to clay / Might stop a hole to keep the wind away” (5.1.215-16).
26> These are tragic plays, about kings, but their grounding in material reality and their profoundest insights are already implicit in the ironic observation of conservative culture that unbalanced the genre of a comedy about Shakespeare’s changing social world. The same may be said of the solacing relationship of fathers and daughters in Shakespeare’s late romances, set in motion, perhaps, when for the first time in his plays, comic or tragic, the reader is invited to think with sadness about the pain of the abandoned senex and of the daughter who does what she has to do to survive in the real, material world.
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Sharon Bittenson Meltzer, Ph.D., English Language and Literature, Yale 1970, Assistant Professor in English and Humanities, University of Chicago, and Professor of English, Richard J. Daley College, City Colleges of Chicago to 2007, has taught Shakespeare at Tufts University, the University of Chicago Extension, and Daley College.
APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture, http://appositions.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume One (2008): Genres & Cultures