To Balk Logic and Practice Rhetoric: Allegories of Rhetoric and Dialectic in Shakespeare’s Plays
Chapter 5: To Be Ruled by Conscience: Material and Spiritual Blessing in The Merchant of Venice, Part 3
The Allegory of Launcelot Gobbo
The change in the late sixteenth-century debate over usury--from the common law view of things lent and borrowed to questions of the lender's intention in deciding whether a contract was usurious or not--can be seen as part of a larger social phenomenon in which personal actions and human relationships began to be judged by conscience and intention.
In England, Calvinist Protestantism reigned, but within Calvinism there was a notable split between Old Testament Law and conscience versus New Testament faith and grace.
Between these two groups, it was the followers of the covenant theology of the Old Testament who emphasized contract law, conscience, and intention. In The Merchant of Venice, these conflicting aspects of English Protestantism are represented by Shylock on one side and the Christians on the other. Whereas the dominant discourse of the play is clearly one of cruel enmity between Jew and Christian, the secondary discourse, the one I am concerned with here, pits a new, "Hebraic" Christianity against a somewhat earlier version of reformed Christianity solely informed by faith and grace.
In The Merchant of Venice, the discourses of Shylock as Jew and Shylock as Hebraicized Christian coexist, so that the condemnation of Shylock as Jew becomes a rejection of Shylock as Puritan Christian.1 In my view, this aspect of the play's secondary discourse is announced through the allegory of Launcelot Gobbo.
There is no compelling dramatic purpose for the amount of time taken up by the antics of Launcelot the clown, which include most of Act Two, scene two, between the arrival of Morocco at Belmont and the planned departure of Jessica from her father's household. However, if we look at the Launcelot scene as as an allegorical inset or emblem, it can be seen as a key to unlock aspects of the conflict of Shylock versus Antonio and Bassanio.
Launcelot's scene is actually an emblem in three parts: first, Launcelot experiences an internal conflict in which his conscience struggles against his desire to leave his master, Shylock; then Launcelot meets his aged father and asks for his father's blessing; finally, he and his father meet Bassanio, and they ask that Launcelot be taken on as his servant.
As allegory, this scene has been variously interpreted. In terms of the dominant discourse of the play, we can see that Launcelot's struggle with his conscience leads him to make a "Pauline" choice. In line with the teachings of St. Paul, Launcelot decides to leave the "Old Testament" Jewish household of Shylock and enter the service of the gracious Christian Bassanio.2
Then the allegory presents Old Gobbo as the figure of the blind, Old Testament patriarch Isaac, bestowing a blessing on his son Launcelot as Jacob. The dominant discourse of the play calls for us to interpret the allegory as typology, an allegorical reading in which the Old Testament prefigures the New. Old Gobbo as Isaac gets to be the representative of Judaism, and Launcelot as Jacob becomes the representative of Christianity, inheriting God's blessing from those no longer chosen.3
Since Shylock invoked the story of Isaac and Jacob earlier (1.3.70-72), we can see, according to this view, that Shylock the Jew may be seen as being dispossessed of the blessing he supposedly inherited as a descendant of (and thus analogous to) Jacob.4 According to the dominant discourse of the play, this typological reading of Old Gobbo/Isaac's blessing of Launcelot/Jacob and Launcelot's subsequent defection to a new, Christian master confirms the overall theme of the play, contrasting Shylock's "blind," Old Testament legalism and avarice with the Christians' "enlightened," New Testament mercy and generosity.5
Against this dominant direction of the allegory of Launcelot Gobbo--but clearly dependent on it--is a secondary, more muted discourse. It works against the dominant discourse, as dialectic, questioning the assumptions that the dominant discourse takes for granted.6
Judith Rosenheim, as part of her typological interpretation of the Launcelot scene, suggests that, as a New Testament figure, Launcelot most closely resembles Luke's Prodigal Son, "for just as the Prodigal runs away from his father in an act of rebellion, so we meet Launcelot in the rebellious act of running away from Shylock" (168).
Rosenheim's analogy between Launcelot and the Prodigal Son fits neatly into my larger theory that Launcelot’s scene is an allegorical key to reading the conflicts in the play. Early in the play, Bassanio admits to Antonio that his own spending habits are "something too prodigal" (1.1.129). Later, Shylock calls Bassanio "the prodigal Christian" (2.5.16), and at 3.1.41-42 Shylock refers to Antonio as "a bankrupt" and "a prodigal" in comparing Antonio to his runaway, prodigal daughter, Jessica.
This is the point at which Shylock decides to invoke the penalty of the bond should Antonio default:
There I have another bad match! A bankrupt,
a prodigal, who dare scarce show his head on the
Rialto; a beggar, that was used to come so smug upon
the mart! Let him look to his bond. He was wont to
call me usurer. Let him look to his bond. He was wont
to lend money for a Christian courtesy. Let him look to
his bond. (3.1.41-47)
Antonio and Bassanio are both associated with prodigality. Jessica, who turns Christian and absconds with her father's hard-won thrift, squanders Shylock's money just as Antonio's ventures have been "squand'red abroad" (1.3.21).
Further, one may add the connection Gratiano makes between faithless love and prodigal ventures at sea as he and Salarino cynically discuss Lorenzo and Jessica's plan to escape with Shylock's money:
All things that are
Are with more spirit chased than enjoyed.
How like a younger or a prodigal
The scarfed bark puts from her native bay,
Hugged and embraced by the strumpet wind!
How like the prodigal doth she return,
With overweathered ribs and ragged sails,
Lean, rent, and beggared by the strumpet wind! (2.6.13-20)
Gratiano's "prodigal" ship and "strumpet wind" are associated here (through syllepsis, a free association of ideas) with the planned flight of the young lovers. Do these lines also connect Lorenzo and Jessica not just with prodigality but with strumpetry or licentiousness? It seems likely that they do.
Launcelot is also associated with licentiousness. In his new life with Bassanio, he imagines a future of sexual adventure: "Alas, fifteen wives is nothing. Eleven widows and nine maids is a simple coming-in for one man. And then to escape drowning thrice, and to be in peril of my life with the edge of a feather bed!" (2.2.152-56).
By the end of Act Three, as Lorenzo tells us, Launcelot has managed to get a woman pregnant: "The Moor is with child by you, Launcelot!" (3.5.36). In its relation to the main plot of the play, Launcelot as Prodigal Son undercuts the play's dominant representation of the Christians as prodigal in the sense of liberal and generous, replacing it with Shylock's meaning, which is that they are spendthrift and profligate.
Further, the secondary discourse in the main plot subtly connects prodigal Christians, in this case Bassanio's friend Gratiano, with negative meanings of the word "liberal." When Gratiano asks to tag along with Bassanio to Belmont, Bassanio agrees but only if Gratiano can tone down his "too liberal" manner "with some cold drops of modesty" (2.2.176-77). By calling Gratiano "too liberal" Bassanio means "too wild, too rude, too bold" (2.2.172)--too free in manner, perhaps even lewd.
Gratiano's response is interesting if seen as a counter discourse in the play. Agreeing to do what Bassanio asks, Gratiano says,
If I do not put on a sober habit,
Talk with respect, and swear but now and then,
Wear prayer books in my pocket, look demurely,
Nay more, while grace is saying, hood mine eyes
Thus with my hat, and sigh and say "amen,"
Use all the observance of civility,
Like one well studied in a sad ostent
To please his grandam, never trust me more. (2.2.181-88)
This, of course, sounds like the demeanor of a Puritan. And through his proposed disguise in "sober habit," are we not being prepared to hear about the "sober house" of Shylock?
There is also evidence in Launcelot's allegory that announces the connection between Shylock the Jew and Shylock the Puritan. The word "Jew" appears over seventy times in the play, more by far than any other term. Is there a point at which some in the audience might feel that the word falls by weight of repetition into its opposite and, as antiphrasis, becomes not Jew but a certain kind of Christian?
If this be true, it occurs in Launcelot's allegory where the word is repeated more often than anywhere else in the play--sixteen times in the space of one hundred fifty-nine lines. Moreover, Launcelot not only calls Shylock "Master Jew" (2.2.37), but he says, "My master's a very Jew" (2.2.100). Here we have a syllepsis in which Shylock as Jew slides into Shylock as miser, one who is like a Jew.
Right after this, we hear the word "Jew" twice, again with two different meanings, as antanaclasis, when Launcelot says, "For I am a Jew if I serve the Jew any longer" (2.2.107). The first usage puns on the proverbial meaning of "Jew" as "villain," and the second means literally "Jew."
Thus, the various puns render the meaning of the word "Jew" unstable, and according to the rules of complex allegory, instability of language may announces the presence of allegory. The various, slippery meanings of the word "Jew" within the play would thus constitute an allegorical hint that whatever parallels we find between the Venetian Shylock and London Puritans are clearly intentional. If this is not the case, why give Launcelot such a large scene just to clown around?
There is much more in Launcelot's clowning than we have examined thus far. The binary opposites in the dominant discourse of the play between Jew and Christian are repeated in Launcelot's war with his conscience over leaving the sober, thrifty household of Shylock for the prodigal retinue of Bassanio. The interesting aspect of Launcelot's internal struggle is that he clearly knows he is wrong in what he intends to do. In his relationship with Shylock, Launcelot understands that conscience dictates that he remain faithful to his contract of service to Shylock.
This scene is an emblem, an allegory derived from the morality play tradition. Launcelot is caught in a psychomachia in which the good angel of his conscience dictates that he stay while the evil angel of his desire urges him to flee Shylock and enter Bassanio's service. He says,
To be ruled by my conscience, I should stay with the Jew my master
who, God bless the mark, is a kind of devil; and to run away from the
Jew, I should be ruled by the fiend who, saving your reverence, is the
devil himself. (2.2.20-24) (italics mine)
Launcelot realizes that to leave Shylock's service is to do the devil's work, but conscience is not enough to hold him. Launcelot's illogical logic leads him to demonize Shylock and follow the advice of his evil angel, "the fiend [who] gives the more friendly counsel" (2.2.28).
Thus, Launcelot follows the devil's advice. He violates his contract with Shylock, the follower of Old Testament morality, in order to serve the prodigal, gracious Bassanio. As Launcelot says to his new master: "You have the grace of God, sir, and he [Shylock] hath enough" (2.2.144-145). Launcelot says that Bassanio has God's grace, but what is he saying that Shylock has? What does he mean by "enough"? Shylock has money. Shylock also has the Old Testament Law. Is this what he means by "enough"? Perhaps there is more to it.
What else could Shakespeare mean by "enough"? If we read forward to Act Two, scene seven, we find the Prince of Morocco contemplating the meaning of "enough" as he interprets the inscription on the silver casket, "Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves" (2.7.23). The inscription has to do with merit.
He says to himself, “If thou be’st rated by thy estimation, / Thou dost deserve enough; and yet enough / May not extend so far as to the Lady” (2.7.26-28). After questioning his own "deserving," Morocco presumes to more than he knows he merits. He chooses the gold casket over the silver one and loses. Later, Arragon also presumes merit. He says, "I will assume desert" (2.9.51) and chooses the silver casket, but he loses, too.
"Enough" seems to be connected with a sense of deserving, the presumption of merit. And Launcelot says that Shylock has "enough."
Can we conclude, therefore, that Shylock presumes in his self-righteousness that he is blessed in the Old Testament way by a God who rewards him for his thrift, if he steal it not? Further, can we then conclude that Bassanio does not presume merit? He chooses the leaden casket in the lottery. Perhaps he is humble. Then again, it is possible that Bassanio's humility is conventional and formulaic: by exhibiting humility, he makes himself worthy, perhaps inevitably worthy, of God's grace. It sounds easy.
Is this the kind of Christian Bassanio is? We have evidence that Launcelot thinks so because he is counting on Bassanio's good luck or "grace of God" to outweigh the fact that Bassanio is currently an impoverished and debt-ridden nobleman. Launcelot is a clown, but is he a fool?
If as I contend there is ample warrant to read Shylock as both Jew and Puritan and to contrast him with Bassanio, Antonio and others as easy-going, "liberal" Christians--middle-of-the-road members of the Church of England perhaps--a question arises as to the nature of the religious debate (its rhetoric and dialectic) that Shakespeare inscribed as allegory in his play.
As it turns out, there was quite a controversy over both Christians of "precise" conscience, whom their enemies called "Puritans," and overly "liberal" Christians who had a kind of slack religious faith but whose consciences bothered them hardly at all.
Commentary about Judaized Christians was part of late sixteenth-century discourse in England. Its existence has been documented by James Shapiro in Shakespeare and the Jews. Shapiro remarks that emulation of Jewish practices by Calvinist, reform-minded Christians was "a problem that had begun to take on serious enough dimensions by the early seventeenth century to warrant imprisonment of a handful of Christians emulating Jewish ways" (20-21).7
Historian Patrick Collinson tells us that these "New Hebrews" preferred to be called "the godly," but their "unsympathetic neighbors called them 'puritans,' and 'precisions,' and with an equally derogatory intent, 'saints' and 'scripture men'" (1)8 These Puritans segregated themselves from English society at large and, as much as possible, "forebore to eat, drink, or do business with those not 'inclining their way'" (19). Puritans were particularly strong in the City of London. Their lives were informed by a scrupulous conscience guided by scripture, and their translation of choice was the Geneva Bible (34).
Hebraic Christianity probably arose in reaction to negative results of early Protestant acceptance of salvation by faith alone, the doctrine of Luther and Calvin. The problem was that, having accepted the principle of salvation by faith and having rejected the "papist" notion of salvation through good works, an increasing number of people did nothing to make sure they lived their lives in Christ.9
Famous Puritan preacher William Perkins wrote,
The most parte of Protestants are altogether secure, and careless, touching the obedience of faith, rather presuming in the pryde of their hearts of the mercies of God for their salvation, then by humble and trembling heartes to work, ratifie, and confirme unto their owne consciences the certaintie of their election.To terrify the self-righteous, Perkins introduced the figure of the unconscious hypocrite, who, sure of his salvation, "may deceive himselfe, and the most godly in the world, which have the greatest gifts of discerning" may be deceived also.10
The issue in both cases is conscience. Perkins was trying to wake up the spiritually torpid and to temper the pride of the hypocrite who is unconscious of his real intentions and deceives himself and others into believing in his godliness.
It seems to me that, as allegory, Shakespeare imports the rhetoric of these two aspects of religious controversy into The Merchant of Venice as prodigal versus precise Christian. On the face of it, one might doubt that the play as a whole or the Launcelot episode in particular could support the weight of such an argument, but, as we shall see, there is overwhelming evidence that this is exactly what Shakespeare has done.
The controversy is announced through the allegorical inset of Launcelot Gobbo. Further, Launcelot's allegory does one more thing for us. As biblical allegory, it gives us warrant to inquire into the complex way in which Shakespeare uses biblical allusions in the play as a whole.
Oddly, in the late-sixteenth century, those Londoners most likely to catch these biblical allusions would have been those, one would suppose, least likely to attend his play—the Puritans. However, there may have been a few precise Christians and Bible readers in his audience. Is it fair to assume that some of the more complex allusions were meant for them?
Scholars tend to agree that many of the allusions in the play seem to refer to marginal glosses in the Geneva Bible.11 These allusions offer a more complex view of issues of conscience and intention than simple allegorical readings have allowed. With the help of Shakespeare's probable allusion to the Geneva Bible and its glosses, I would like now to examine questions of conscience and intention in the play to see the implications of Shakespeare's dialectic as an allegory of prodigal versus precise Christians.
Returning to Launcelot's allegory and his struggle with his conscience over leaving Shylock for Bassanio, we can see that, as I stated earlier, in deciding to leave Shylock's service, Launcelot is in a situation directly analogous to one described by Paul. The scripture that applies is "There was given unto me a prick in the flesh, ye messenger of Satan to buffet me because I should not be exalted out of measure" (2 Cor. 12:7).12
Paul is stricken with the pain of moral scruple. The Geneva Bible glosses the passage as follows:
The Greek word signifieth a sharp piece of wood as a pale, or stake, and
also a little spill or sharp thing which pricketh one as he goeth through
bushy and thick places, and entering into the flesh cannot be taken out
without cutting of the flesh: and this was the rebelling of the flesh
against the spirit, and warned him that Satan was at hand.
(2 Cor. 12:7, note d)
In this crisis of conscience, Paul calls on the Lord who answers, "My grace is sufficient for thee: for my power is made perfect through weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9). With the help of God's grace, Paul is able to put aside Satan's call to the flesh: "Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecution, in anguish for Christ's sake" (2 Cor. 12:10). This text is explained by the Geneva Bible's comment: "He doth not only patiently bear his afflictions, but also joyfully, and as one that taketh pleasure therein for Christ's sake" (note g).
Launcelot should seek God's grace to stand with conscience in order to withstand Satan's call to his spiritual weakness. Instead, Launcelot avoids his pangs of conscience by projecting his own unease onto Shylock, demonizing him ("the Jew my master . . . is a kind of devil" 2.2.22). Thus, he is able to choose the easy way out, which he knows is wrong.
This may seem to be a heavy allegorical weight to put on the clown Launcelot, but the allusions point us there. In this "Calvinist" way of interpreting Shakespeare's text, which the play clearly invites, Launcelot's decision to follow Bassanio's cheap version of grace is just a way for Launcelot to quiet his scruples and put his conscience to sleep. Launcelot leaves Shylock the Jew, who in the allegorical terms of the play's secondary discourse would be a Hebraicized Christian. Thus, Launcelot abandons the home where his conscience resides and follows the path to Bassanio's prodigal Christianity, foolishly confident of God's grace no matter how questionable his conduct might be.
The allegory here is not so simple as I paint it, however. As we have seen, Shylock may have merit enough on his side, but, as Launcelot says, Bassanio has "the grace of God" (2.2.144). Bassanio may not merit his good fortune, despite what Nerissa says about him: "He of all men ever my foolish eyes looked upon was the best deserving a fair lady" (1.2.116). Yet Bassanio is lucky. In the "election" (3.2.24) at Belmont, he chooses the right casket and wins Portia.
Is Bassanio, therefore, one of God's elect? Is Bassanio's luck a sign of God's grace? Shakespeare's dialectic is complex here. As galling as it would be to any in his audience who had a precise conscience, Shakespeare seems to present Bassanio as a recipient of God's grace exactly because this grace is unmerited. As such, Bassanio is an example of a basic tenet of Calvinist theology: grace cannot be earned.
Occurring right after Launcelot's defection to Bassanio, Jessica's crisis of conscience over leaving her father Shylock is identical to Launcelot's. She knows that her choice is sinful: "Alack, what heinous sin is it in me / To be ashamed to be my father's child" (2.3.16-17).
Perhaps she is thinking about her violation of two of the ten commandments in leaving her father's house: the commandment against stealing and that against dishonoring her father and mother. (She dishonors her late mother, Leah, when she and Lorenzo sell her mother's ring for a monkey.) Jessica rejects conscience and violates her filial bond to Shylock. Like Launcelot, she demonizes Shylock ("our house is hell") because Shylock's "sober house" is "tedious" (2.3.2-3 and 2.5.36). It is a "Puritan" household, governed by thrift and work (2.5.36-54). But it is no fun, and Jessica chooses to turn prodigal Christian, stealing a fortune from her father's treasury.13
As she lowers the casket of her father's stolen money, Jessica may feel the pangs of conscience. Perhaps the lines refer to more than just embarrassment over her exchange of woman's clothing for male disguise when she says, "I am much ashamed of my exchange" (2.6.35). She has exchanged the role of dutiful daughter for that of Christian wife, paying off Lorenzo with a stolen dowry.
This is all in good fun, of course. The dominant discourse of the play tells us that it is good that Jessica is becoming a fun-loving "gentile and no Jew" (2.6.51). It is only the secondary discourse, coexisting alongside the dominant direction of the play, that says Jessica has violated her conscience and her flesh and blood bond with her father. Unlike Luke's Prodigal Son, Jessica never seeks forgiveness from her father, nor does he offer it, but unlike her prodigal Christian husband, Jessica may be burdened with a precise conscience.
The Merchant of Venice, with its discourse on conscience, intention, Jews, and Christians takes on a notably Calvinist tinge. Embedded in the comedy is a constant reminder of human demerit, a point made explicit in Portia's warning to Shylock "that in the course of justice none of us / Should see salvation" (4.1.196-7), or, as Hamlet says in another play, "Use every man after his desert, and who shall escape whipping?" (Hamlet 2.2.529-530).
In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare presents a light-hearted portrayal of the human capacity to prey and betray. This juxtaposition of light comedy and Calvinistic darkness explains to some extent the "uneasiness in an audience and difficulties for a critic" that Norman Rabkin insists we must not overlook or explain away with reductive arguments and evasions of evidence that does not fit.14
If we look through Calvinist lenses at the first relationship shown in the play, the friendship between Antonio and Bassanio, we can see that Bassanio is quite a bit like the Prodigal Son returning to his father (Luke 15:11-32). As a gloss to Luke 15:21, the Geneva Bible points out, the Prodigal Son understands his sin in wasting all that he had been given: "He was touched with the feeling of his sin and therefore was ashamed thereof, and heavy in heart" (note h). Does this comparison work in Bassanio's case?
Bassanio begins by sounding like the contrite Prodigal Son: "I owe you much, and like a willful youth, / That which I have is lost" (1.1.146-47), but, instead of repenting, he offers Antonio a double-or-nothing venture to recoup Antonio’s losses (1.1.147-152). Bassanio's expressed intention is to pay Antonio back. His Portia scheme is a "plot . . . to get clear of all the debts" he owes (1.1.133-34), but he abuses his friendship with Antonio, and his conscience is not bothered at all. Unlike the Prodigal Son, Bassanio remains prodigal.
Bassanio would be one of William Perkins' "careless people." He knows that as a nobleman he cannot be held liable for his debts, and he appears not to be much bothered by his moral obligation to repay Antonio. If his scheme does not work, he hopes to "bring [Antonio's] latter hazard back again / And thankfully rest debtor for the first" loan (1.1.151-52). Bassanio’s conscience is comfortably asleep.
Antonio seems undismayed at being used by Bassanio: "My purse, my person, my extremest means, / Lie all unlocked to your occasions" (1.1.138-139). In their tacit contract, Antonio gets what he wants from Bassanio, a spiritual and monetary bond that places Bassanio in his emotional as well as financial debt. Bassanio states specifically the nature of this contractual relationship: "To you, Antonio / I owe the most in money and in love" (1.1.130-131).
Yet Antonio may not be entirely happy about this arrangement; in fact, he suffers from melancholy. The question of Antonio's sadness is raised in the first line of the play. It is the first question in Shakespeare's dialectic, both as plot and as the opening of a discourse that interrogates the dominant assumptions the play sets up.
According to the play's dominant discourse, Antonio's melancholy can be attributed, eventually, to his role as Christian martyr. However, as the play's dialectic unfolds in opposition to its dominant rhetoric, we can see that Antonio is depressed before he verges on martyrdom. Also, Antonio's free loans to Bassanio are not disinterested Christian charity. Rather, Antonio is a lender who expects the love of the borrower. Antonio says that he has "much ado to know" himself (1.1.7); he may not want to acknowledge the cause of his depression: Antonio is about to lose the love of Bassanio to Portia. In terms of conscience, ignorance of one's unexpressed intentions, specifically Antonio's unacknowledged intention to buy Bassanio's love, is no excuse.
Next, we encounter the second major relationship of the play, that of enmity between Antonio and Shylock. After being introduced to Antonio by Bassanio, Shylock addresses the audience directly about Antonio: "How like a fawning publican he looks" (1.3.38). Shakespeare gives Shylock the role of the Vice figure of a morality play, engaging the audience directly, to subvert the established authority of the play, the belief in the gracious goodness of the pious Antonio, by pointing out that like Jesus's publican in the Book of Matthew, Antonio only loves those in his own circle: As Jesus says of such people, "For if ye love them, which love you, what reward shall you have? Do not the publicans even the same?" (Matt. 5:46).
Perhaps Antonio is one of William Perkins's unconscious hypocrites who looks "to be praised of men" for works that, as the Geneva Bible comments, "proceed not of a right faith, but are done for vainglory" (Matt. 6:2 and note a).
Shylock then makes an effort to create a debate with Antonio over usury, a practice Antonio despises. Shylock brings up as self-justification the example of Jacob and Laban. Although Shylock leaves out Laban's dishonesty over wives and sheep, perhaps assuming that Antonio knows the story, it is worth looking at the Geneva gloss on Laban's rationalization of the bait and switch tactic he employs to fool Jacob into marrying Leah, an abuse of his contract with Jacob that enables Laban to trick Jacob with a clear conscience. Laban "esteemed more the profit that he had of Jacob's service than either his promise or the manner of the country, though he alleged custom for his excuse" (Genesis 29:25, note d).
With this in mind, one can understand Shylock's use of the Laban-Jacob story as allegory to justify his own usury in terms of Jacob's conscious intention to practice on Laban in order to recover from Laban's abuse of their contract. When Jacob tells Laban's sons, "Thus hath God taken away your father's substance and given it to me," the Geneva gloss says, "This declareth that the thing which Jacob did before was by God's commandment and not through deceit" (Genesis 30:9, note c).
If Shakespeare was using the Geneva Bible as an intertext here, Shylock's allegorical point is now clear. Laban stands for Antonio and other Christians who have abused Shylock on the Rialto because he is a Jew and a moneylender. Shylock sees himself as Jacob, righting a wrong and following God's commandment, since usury to a stranger was perfectly acceptable under Mosaic Law (Deut. 23:19).
As Shylock says of Jacob, "This was a way to thrive, and he was blest; / And thrift is blessing, if men steal it not" (1.3. 87-87). Shakespeare may be recalling the Geneva Bible's comment on Jacob's words in Genesis 30:33: "God shall testify to my righteous dealing by rewarding my labors" (note k). Shylock asserts that his profit is a way of thriving and is blessed by God "if men steal it not." It is significant that in Elizabethan London the moneylenders tended to be Puritans, precise Christians like John Milton's father, a scrivener and usurer, known for honest dealings and a fair rate of interest.15
Antonio's conscience is not stirred when Shylock recounts the abuse Antonio has heaped upon him. Instead Antonio says he will curse and spit on Shylock again when he gets the chance. Again, Antonio shows a similarity to William Perkins' unconscious hypocrite, who, sure of his salvation, "may deceive himselfe, and the most godly in the world, which have the greatest gifts of discerning."
Later, we find that Shylock's conscience is as silent as Antonio's. Shylock may also be seen as an unconscious hypocrite, as he succumbs to self-righteousness, causing him to violate his stated intention that the bond for a pound of flesh is a merry jest, and turning an honest contract into revenge, which in both a legal and biblical context would be a form of theft.
Turning to the lovers at Belmont, we observe that Bassanio's contract of marriage with Portia is potentially as base as that between Jessica and Lorenzo. Bassanio is a noble fortune hunter, a self-admitted Jason after the golden fleece--the rich, fair-haired Portia. Yet Bassanio has the slender virtue of knowing what he is. Having borrowed Shylock's money through Antonio, Bassanio is quite aware that his show of riches is a falsehood.
When confronted with the caskets, Bassanio understands from his own imposture that "ornament" is but "the seeming truth which cunning times put on / To entrap the wisest" (3.2.97, 100-101). Portia on her part claims not to be led by outward show: "In terms of choice," she tells Morocco, "I am not sole led / By nice direction of a maiden's eyes" (2.1.13-14). But in fact she intends, if fortune and her father's will allow, to marry the fair-appearing Bassanio.
However, Portia is not a ninny. For one thing, she has a strong respect for the law, as represented by her father's will and the Old Testament law by which she is required to honor her father. Although Portia gives Bassanio more hints than she gave her other suitors, she is not willing to violate the letter of the law.16
Ultimately, fortune must decide. She will not lose her soul by breaking her filial bond with her father: "Let fortune go to hell for it, not I" (3.2.21). In terms of the discourse of conscience and intention, there appears to be hope for Portia. She has respect for law and moral scruple. In her marriage negotiations with Bassanio, she converts to Bassanio all that she is and has, over which she had been lord and master, on one condition:
I give them with this ring,
Which when you part from, lose, or give away,
Let it presage the ruin of your love
And be my vantage to exclaim on you. (3.2.173-176)
This seems to be a fair bargain, and a bargain it most certainly is. In fact, it sounds much like what Shylock offered to Antonio, a contract in which there is no advantage or penalty if the borrower deal in good faith.
However, this is Bassanio who, in hazarding all that he has, risks Shylock's money and Antonio's life. What is Portia to Bassanio? Is she just a "thrice-fair lady," the ideal package of riches, beauty, and virtue (3.2.146)? Does he have the moral scruple to be faithful to marriage vows? Bassanio pledges his faith with eloquent words:
But when this ring
Parts from this finger, then parts life from hence.
O, then be bold to say Bassanio's dead. (3.2.183-185)
He offers his very life in faith to his contract with Portia, just as Antonio pledged his pound of flesh for Shylock's money. Further, Bassanio's words echo Antonio's boast:
Why, fear not, man; I will not forfeit it.
Within these two months--that's a month before
The bond expires--I do expect return
Of thrice three times the value of this bond. (1.3.155-58)
Is Bassanio worthy of Portia's trust? Through the ring, Portia pledges her sovereignty and fortune in exchange for Bassanio's faithfulness, but Portia's conversion of herself and her estate to Bassanio comes with a catch that may give her an "advantage" over Bassanio.17 In giving him everything, Portia adds a forfeiture clause to the ring.
If Bassanio should "part from, lose, or give away" the ring, their love will be forfeit, and she can take whatever "vantage" she chooses (3.2.171-74). Again like Shylock in his dealings with Antonio, Portia is careful to express her intention in the contract with Bassanio. As with Shylock's bond, whether or not a penalty is invoked depends on the integrity of the recipient.
In any case, their marriage contract turns out to be encumbered by a third party, Antonio, whose life is in peril because of his lost ships and Bassanio's tardiness in returning from Belmont with Portia's gold. The prodigal Bassanio may finally be having pangs of conscience. As Bassanio explains to Portia, he has "engaged" himself "to his dear friend" Antonio (3.2.261) to get Shylock's bond money, enabling him to put on a pleasing show of wealth to Portia, who insists Bassanio get Antonio out of pawn so that he will not have Antonio's death on his conscience:
First go with me to church and call me wife,
And then away to Venice to your friend;
For never shall you lie by Portia's side
With unquiet soul" (3.2.301-304)
Like a Texas oil heiress, Portia generously offers to buy off Shylock for double the three thousand ducats Antonio owes, or if necessary "double six thousand, and then treble that" (3.2.298). Portia is the soul of Christian generosity as she tells Bassanio, "You shall have gold / Twenty times over" (3.2.306-7) Yet within the same grand speech she manages to measure the cost of loving Bassanio in monetary terms that have something less than the sound of Christian charity, an antanaclasis that puns on two meanings of the word “dear”: "Since you are dear bought, I will love you dear" (3.2.311).18 When she hears the terms of the bond, Portia sends Bassanio off to Antonio without the marriage ceremony (or even a kiss?), so concerned is she about scrupulously clearing up the numerous clouds on the title to her future husband.
Portia does not leave the extrication of Antonio to her prodigal husband-to-be. When she enters the trial scene as judge in the disguise of Balthazar, the young legal scholar with the head of wisdom, the possibility for a just solution to Shylock's vengeful, intractable bond seems possible. With her respect for law and her seemingly abundant Christian charity, Portia should be the ideal judge, a second Daniel, or so the dominant discourse of the play would have us believe.
There is, however, another valence to Shakespeare's discourse on Portia. By her own words, she is not good at practicing what she preaches:
It is a good divine that follows his own instructions. I can easierThis passage has grave implications for Portia's capacity to judge others. Her words here clearly allude to Romans 2:21:
teach twenty what were good to be done than to be one of the twenty
to follow mine own teaching. (1.2.14-17)
Behold, thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and glorifiest God.
And knowest thou his will, and allowest the things that are excellent, in
that thou art instructed in the Law:
And persuadest thyself that thou art a guide to the blind, a light of them
which are in darkness.
An instructor of them which lack discretion, a teacher of the unlearned,
which hast the form of knowledge, and of the truth of the Law.
Thou therefore, who teachest another, teachest thou not thyself?
The gloss to the above passage in the Geneva Bible (Note k) says, "He awaketh the Jews, who were asleep through a certain
security and confidence in the law." Portia may be a precise Christian. Is she also one of William Perkins' unconscious hypocrites well versed in the Law but "asleep" to her own intentions?
Portia enters the court room as Balthazar and utters the oft-cited question, "Which is the merchant here, and which is the Jew?" (4.1.172). Antonio, the prodigal Christian, and Shylock, the Jew and precise Christian (if one accepts the allegorical doubleness of this view), stand before her. When they stand forth, Portia asks Antonio, "Do you confess the bond?" Antonio admits it. Portia turns to Shylock, or she may speak in general and to no one in particular, but she does not address him by name, "Then must the Jew be merciful." Shylock responds to the word "must" in her declaration: "On what compulsion must I? Tell me that" (4.1.179-81 italics mine).
Here we may recall Shylock's great epideictic speech in favor of revenge in Act Three, scene one. His thesis is that Jews and Christians are men. Men avenge wrongs. Christian humility is a sham. Christians seek revenge. Therefore, Shylock "will better the instruction" (3.1.50-69). The gist of his speech is that revenge is not only natural but compulsory, not in the sense of external coercion but as internal volition.
In response to Shylock's challenge of the idea of compulsory mercy, Portia delivers the second great epideictic speech of the play. Portia speaks to Shylock's question and answers that he is right, mercy cannot be compelled or coerced. In her speech about mercy, Portia chooses an Old Testament text rather than a New Testament scripture such as the Lord's Prayer.19 Portia knows her Bible. She alludes to Ecclesiasticus 25:19: "Oh, how fair a thing is mercy in the time of anguish and trouble! It is like a cloud of rain, that cometh in the time of drought."
Portia says that mercy "droppeth as a gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath" (4.1.183-84). However, the sting in the peroration to her speech on mercy may also come from Ecclesiasticus 23:1-24: "He that seeketh vengeance, shall find vengeance of the Lord. . . . He that showeth no mercy to a man which is like himself, how dare he ask forgiveness of his sins." She says, still not referring to Shylock by name:
Though justice be thy plea, consider this:
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. (4.1.195-200)
Portia's speech locates the crux of religious debate between precise and prodigal Christians: how is one to be assured of salvation? Is it to be found through personal righteousness and merit by keeping a good conscience in following the duties of the law, or is it to be found by a sense of humble undeserving in hope of God's grace and the forgiveness of our sins?
This opposition forms the central conflict of both the bond plot and the casket plot, informing and confronting the dominant discourse of the play. These two plots merge in the trial scene, placing the central issues of the play on trial, as allegory, in the dominant discourse of Jew versus Christian and in the secondary discourse of Hebraicized Christian versus liberal Christian--of law and righteousness versus free grace and mercy.
The issue is even more complex than this, however. In the dialectic of the secondary discourse of the play--of precise versus prodigal Christian--each version of Christianity questions the other. Portia's allusion to an Old Testament text in her mercy speech has a double impact, as some members of the audience might notice.
Portia's allusion to Ecclesiasticus, the Old Law, tells us that revenge, an eye for an eye, is not all there is in the Old Testament; forgiveness and mercy are urged there as they are by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament. Because the Old Law urges forgiveness and mercy, Shylock's insistence on revenge makes him a bad Jew. Moreover, if we see Shylock as a Puritan, he is Perkins' unconscious hypocrite and a bad Christian.
Further, because Portia preaches the mercy of God's grace, one might expect her to have the humility and wisdom to know her own shortcomings. Both Shylock and Gratiano call her “a second Daniel” (4.1.220, 331 and 338). In the dominant discourse of the play, this is an unreserved compliment, although each speaker declares the judge’s wisdom for opposite reasons.
In the dialectical opposition provided by the secondary discourse, this allusion to Daniel is fraught with problems for Portia as judge, not in the Book of Daniel but in the Book of Matthew, where a reference to Daniel the prophet appears between references to false prophets:
And many false prophets shall arise, and shall deceive many. (24:11)
When ye therefore shall see the abomination of defoliation spoken of
by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place, (let him that readeth
consider it). (24:15)
Then if any shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there, believe it
not. For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall
show great signs and wonders, so that if it were possible, they should
deceive the very elect. (24:23-24)
Here, we should be reminded of Bassanio's skeptical interpretation of the golden casket as "the seeming truth which cunning times put on to entrap the wisest"--the elect--along with his comment on Portia's blonde-haired portrait in the leaden casket, which he describes as "a golden mesh t' entrap the hearts of men" (3.2.100-101 and 122).
As allegory, the dominant discourse of the play invites the audience to see Portia as a Christ figure dispensing justice leavened by mercy, but the dialectic of the secondary discourse warns against seeing Portia as prophet and Christ figure. Of course, as I said earlier, those in the audience (however few) most likely to realize the complexity of Shakespeare's biblical allusions would be "scripture men," precise Christians who knew (and tried to live by) God's word.
Still further, the syllepsis or slippage between biblical law and civil law inherent in Shylock's "I stand for judgment" and "I stand here for law" (4.1.103 and 142) is magnified by Portia's allusion to mercy and forgiveness in Ecclesiasticus as a higher law than justice. In Portia's words, mercy "is an attribute of God himself" (4.1.193).20 She then makes the connection between God's mercy and the laws of men: "And earthly power doth then show likest God's / When mercy seasons justice" (4.1.194-95).
Shylock rejects her suggestion, saying, "My deeds upon my head! I crave the law, / The penalty and forfeit of my bond" (4.1.201, 204-5).
Both Shylock and Portia have missed an opportunity here. Had she pursued the notion of mercy a bit further, to a consideration of equity (as John Calvin might have urged), she could have asked Shylock and Antonio about issues of conscience and intent regarding the bond, in which case she would have discovered that, despite the expressed intent (the written words) of the bond, the clear understanding between Shylock and Antonio was that the "pound of flesh" of the bond penalty was a "merry sport" not intended seriously.
Although Portia once more calls on Shylock to be merciful (4.1.231), she allows Shylock to insist on the "tenor" or written conditions of the bond (4.1233). Portia, too, interprets the "intent and purpose of the law" as the letter rather than the spirit (4.1.245). Thus, she gives Shylock enough rope to hang himself. Was this her intention all along? If not, why does she not pursue questions of conscience and intent?
Portia seems to concede the righteousness of Shylock's claim, but after this she invokes a hyperliteral interpretation of the law governing his bond, in which Shylock is entitled to a pound of Antonio's flesh but no blood. Shylock does not object but only asks, "Is this the law?" (4.1.311). Portia assures him it is so.
Shylock is the biter bitten; the wheel of fortune has turned against him, as Portia tells him, "For as thou urgest justice, be assured / Thou shalt have justice, more than thou desirest" (4.1.312-313). Shylock, who hoped to "better the instruction" of "Christian example" in seeking revenge (3.1.67-69) is about to be instructed. She warns Shylock that if he draws blood or exceeds a pound of flesh, "thou diest, and all thy goods are confiscate" (4.1.328).
At this point Shylock concedes defeat: "Give me my principal, and let me go" (4.1.332). Portia has the result she wanted. Tacitly, Shylock has offered mercy to Antonio. All he wants is his principal, which is all he is entitled to under the stated intention of his contract with Antonio. This is the moment where reconciliation and forgiveness would settle the dispute happily for all parties, but Portia denies Shylock the principal to which he has a legal right.21
Defeated of his principal, Shylock does not object but moves to leave: "I'll stay no longer" (4.1.342). Portia forces him to stay and invokes the Alien Statute, a catch-22, which says in effect that an alien such as Shylock does not win lawsuits against citizens; rather, he is to be punished for a crime not committed but only contemplated, a thought-crime by an outsider against an insider.
Using this statute, Portia manipulates the negotiations so that Shylock ceases to be the plaintiff but becomes instead the defendant, guilty of being an alien who imagines committing an act of revenge. As Portia explains, the punishment for intending "to seek the life of any citizen" is that
The party 'gainst the which he doth contrive
Shall seize one half his goods; the other half
Comes to the privy coffer of the state,
And the offender's life lies in the mercy
Of the Duke only, 'gainst all other voice. (4.1.350-54)
Portia then makes Shylock grovel: "Down therefore, and beg mercy of the Duke" (4.1.361). The Duke pardons Shylock's life and reduces the forfeiture of half his estate to a fine as long as Shylock shows enough humility. Portia is quick to clarify the Duke's intended meaning, "Ay, [a fine] for the state, not for Antonio" (4.1.371).
Then Portia turns to the not quite "injured party," Antonio--defendant magically transformed to plaintiff by Portia herself. Antonio is now entitled to one-half of Shylock's estate as compensation for Shylock's intention to take his life. She asks, "What mercy can you render him, Antonio?" (4.1.376). As a good Christian, and in the name of equity and mercy, Antonio agrees to give up his interest in half Shylock's estate and further offers to pay back to Shylock his three thousand ducats, which Bassanio has been trying to give Shylock anyway. Right?
Wrong. Antonio exacts his own pound of flesh. Shylock loses half his estate to Antonio plus the three thousand ducats he originally lent. Antonio will retain half of Shylock's estate "in use," in trust, with the interest going to Antonio for Shylock's lifetime, this to the man who eschewed usury so vehemently. Upon his death Shylock must leave his whole estate to Lorenzo, "the gentleman / That lately stole his daughter," and for this "favor" Shylock must turn Christian (4.1.382-383).
The audience must pay close attention to the balance of mercy and punishment in the agreement to realize that Shylock's becoming a Christian is clearly the price he pays for being allowed to retain half his estate, just as the pound of flesh was to be Antonio's penalty for forfeiting his bond. Shylock either accepts this contract, or the Duke revokes the pardon sparing Shylock's life. He can either live as a Christian with half his estate, or he can die. Thus, Shylock is put in the position of a marrano during the Spanish Inquisition, a Jew forced to profess a Christian faith he inwardly denies.
Further, in terms of the play's secondary discourse, Shylock as Hebraicized Christian faces a forfeiture similar to that awaiting Christian separatists in England charged with nonconformity before the ecclesiastical court of High Commission after 1584.22
To return to Portia's unjust justice toward Shylock, I find that certain of Portia's words have a curious resonance. Twice she insists that Shylock "tarry." Each time she delays him in order to persecute him and confiscate his resources. Before she denies him his suit and his principal, she says, "Tarry a little; there is something else" (4.1.302). When he tries to leave again, she holds him in order to invoke the alien law and confiscate his estate, saying, "Tarry, Jew" (4.1.342).
Considering the density of biblical allusion in the play, it may be no accident that Portia's words echo those of Laban to Jacob: "If I have now found favor in thy sight, tarry: for I have perceived that the Lord hath blessed me for thy sake" (Genesis 30:27, italics mine).
If this be the case, Portia stands in relation to Shylock as Laban to Jacob: Portia is holding Shylock to take advantage of the blessing given him by God to which Portia feels entitled. One might object that Portia has no need for Shylock's money. Nonetheless, the gracious Portia has managed to conduct the trial in such a way that Shylock pays everything, and she pays nothing. On reflection, this ought not to be surprising.
Although the dominant discourse of the play portrays Portia as wise and impartial, we know that she is by no means disinterested. Rather, Portia is deeply implicated in the outcome of the trial: Antonio is her husband's best friend and the cause of the bond between Shylock and Antonio; her own fortune is pledged to extricate Antonio from the bond since both Antonio and Bassanio are bankrupt; and the thieves responsible for Shylock's original loss, Jessica and Lorenzo, are ensconced in Portia's mansion at Belmont, having squandered all the money they stole.23
Does Portia intentionally arrange events so that no money comes out of her own pocket?24 The largess she distributes in Act Five is Shylock's money. She feels no qualms of conscience over her shabby treatment of Shylock or her multiple conflicts of interest. We know from her own words that her conscious intention all along was to protect her husband, his best friend, and her fortune.
Also, we might infer that she believes she has done "a good deed" because, when she arrives at Belmont at night and sees a candle burning in the hall, she is struck by a comparison: "How far that little candle throws its beams-- / So shines a good deed in a naughty world" (5.1.90-1). I assume she is alluding again to Romans 2:21, referring to herself as a "guide to the blind, a light of them which are in darkness."
Portia is a do-gooder who may be a Hebraicized Christian, careful to follow the law and keep a clear conscience, doing good works as a declaration of her Christian faith, but she may also be William Perkins's unconscious hypocrite, self-deceived and deceiving others, even "the most godly in the world, which have the gifts of discerning." Has Portia, the wisest of all, somehow entrapped herself in unconscious hypocrisy?
If so, we might look again at Romans 2:21 to instruct her: "You who preachest, A man should not steal, dost thou not steal?" This passage appears right after the one to which Portia alluded in Act One, scene two: "It is a good divine that follows his own instructions" (1.2.14). Romans 2:21 is about self-righteousness and unconscious hypocrisy. Portia instructed Shylock in the unconstrained power of mercy and forgiveness.
When Shylock chose justice and vengeance, there was nothing constraining Portia to give Shylock a dose of his own medicine. Shylock asks, "Is this the law?" We might ask Portia her own question, "Is this mercy?" Is it mercy to confiscate a man's estate on a technicality, and then give him back half of what is his? She could have invoked the harsh penalty against Shylock as a lesson in justice, and then completely cancelled it as an even better lesson in mercy.
Does it matter that the choric figure who cheers Portia and urges Shylock to the noose is Gratiano, a self-proclaimed fool (1.1.79)--Gratiano, "the gull" in Italian commedia dell'arte, who urges us to praise Portia and boo Shylock?25 The rhetoric of the dominant discourse of the play urges us to go in this direction.
However, the secondary discourse, the dialectical inquiry of the play, of which the allegory of the trial scene is the central focus, suggests another way to go. In terms of her own Christian principles as set forth in her affecting speech on mercy, Portia has sinned by not forgiving Shylock his trespass after he has forgiven Antonio his debt.
After the trial, in Act Five, at Belmont, Lorenzo and Jessica jest lightly about doomed and forsworn lovers such as Cressida, Thisbe, Dido, and Medea. Does this mean anything? According to the dominant discourse of the play, their conversation is just light-hearted banter. However, within the framework of the play's subversive dialectic, their conversation may have an ominous allegorical undertone.
As the audience would know from Arthur Golding's 1567 translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, Medea helped Jason steal the golden fleece. Afterward he married her, and they had two children. When Jason abandoned Medea to marry Creusa, Medea sent her a poisoned robe, then killed their own children, and burned down their palace in revenge. At the beginning of the play, Bassanio calls himself one of the "many Jasons come in quest of" Portia (1.1.172).
When Gratiano wins the hand of Nerissa, Portia's gentlewoman-in-waiting, he declares to the messenger Salerio--in the presence of Bassanio, Portia, Jessica, and Lorenzo--that "we are all Jasons; we have won the golden fleece" (3.2.241). If Bassanio and Gratiano (and perhaps even Lorenzo) are "all Jasons," do Portia, Nerissa, and Jessica get to play the role of Medea? These allusions to Jason and Medea sound a discordant note in the music of Belmont, a note that may be portentous for Bassanio and Portia in particular. We can only hope that, for his own sake, the prodigal Bassanio will remain faithful to his bride-to-be.
As Lorenzo and Jessica continue their carefree banter, the ominous, secondary discourse follows along with it, as a kind of somber counterpoint. Lorenzo says to Jessica,
In such a nightHere Lorenzo laughs about their successful venture and prodigality, and Jessica lightly replies,
Did Jessica steal from the wealthy Jew
And with an unthrift love did run from Venice
As far as Belmont. (5.1.14-17)
In such a night
Did young Lorenzo swear he loved her well,
Stealing her soul with many vows of faith
And ne'er a true one. (5.1.17-20)
In this light-hearted rejoinder there is something serious Jessica's conscience seems to give her an inkling of what she has done. Will Lorenzo be faithful to her? Does she suspect that she has sacrificed her soul, trading a spiritual blessing for a material one?
At Belmont Jessica seems to be on the verge of melancholy. She is not moved by Lorenzo's discourse on the music of the spheres (5.1.55-65), and when the musicians play, Jessica says, "I am never merry when I hear sweet music" (5.1.69).
Her "Puritan" father Shylock hated music (2.6.31). In terms of the play's secondary discourse, Jessica may be more of a “precise Christian” than she is willing to acknowledge. It could be that the "music" of prodigal Christian "grace" does not move her, and she is never merry when she hears it. Perhaps she is unconsciously aware, as Lorenzo is not, that her father might have been right; Lorenzo is just a "Christian fool with a varnished face," and she has exchanged the role of true daughter for Lorenzo's "shallow foppery" (2.5.33 and 35). However, this is an undertone. The harmonies of Act Five dominate.
When Portia returns to Belmont, she continues the control of events she established in Act Four. Portia manipulates Bassanio and Antonio into a position of emotional debt to her, as does Nerissa with Gratiano. The rings, which represent the loving bonds of marriage in the dominant discourse, carry a different meaning for the play's dialectical inquiry into human relationships.
Here the rings represent a kind of spiritual extortion in which the women get the better of their husbands by threatening to cuckhold them for blithely giving away their wedding rings to Portia/Balthazar and her clerk Nerissa. It is all very funny.
Antonio, who used his friendship with Bassanio to make Bassanio give his ring away, contracts with Portia to pledge his soul as a surety of Bassanio's renewed vow of marital fidelity:
I dare be bound again,
My soul upon the forfeit, that your lord
Will never more break faith advisedly. (5.1.251-253)
Antonio would be well-advised not to make such a contract for his soul. Bassanio's prodigality and easygoing way of breaking promises do not bode well for Antonio's new bond. Yet, perhaps Antonio pledges his soul so freely because, like Jessica, he unconsciously suspects it is already lost.
The characters in the play are an undeserving crew, all in all. Whether Jew or Christian, Puritan or prodigal Christian, none of the characters has much merit. As Portia says, "In the course of justice none of us / Should see salvation" (4.1.196-197). She alludes to Ecclesiasticus 3:9-10:
What then? Are we more excellent? No, in no wise:
for we have already proved that all, both Jews and Gentiles
are under sin. As it is written, There is none righteous, no not one.
Shylock self-righteously relies on the law to justify revenge. Jessica and Launcelot know what they ought to do because they have a conscience, but they violate their bonds anyway. Portia is an unconscious hypocrite. The rest are prodigals who make contractual relationships that they would know they intended to break if they were honest with themselves. In this Calvinistic reading of The Merchant of Venice, all of the characters may deserve a whipping.
There is a problem if we stop here, however. Shylock is not the only father whose "ghost" haunts the gaity at Belmont.26 There is also the ghost of Portia's father whose will set up the casket test. Bassanio chose the right casket, the leaden one that said, "Who chooses me must give and hazard all he has." The play's constant syllepsis between material and spiritual blessing makes it easy to forget the biblical aspect of the inscription, alluding to a parable in the Book of Matthew in which Jesus speaks not to the multitude but to the elect, his disciples:
The kingdom of heaven is like to a merchant man, that seeketh good
pearls, who having found a pearl of great price, went and sold all that
he had, and bought it. (Matthew 13:45-46)
Antonio, the "merchant man" of Venice hazarded all that he had and more, but he did not seek God, nor did his friend Bassanio, who used the merchant's money, seek the kingdom of heaven. As a Jason after the golden fleece, Bassanio was just looking for pearls. However, the final piece in the casket puzzle seems to be that we are invited to see that the object of the casket test ought to be spiritual, as Barbara Lewalski and other allegorical interpreters have observed.
Portia's father may have been a precise Christian who designed the casket riddles to ensure that Portia would find a good husband—perhaps a man like the men described by Puritan minister Laurence Chaderton: “Careful Christians,” who live "by humble and trembling heartes to work, ratifie, and confirme unto their owne consciences the certaintie of their election," rather than those who are "altogether secure, and careless, touching the obedience of faith, . . . presuming in the pryde of their hearts of the mercies of God for their salvation."27
Bassanio did not ponder the biblical allegory contained in the inscriptions on the caskets. Instead, he interpreted the caskets not as a good Christian but as a rhetorician explicating false ornament. Thus, it is possible that Bassanio subverted the intention of Portia's pious father, in which case, according to her father's "will," Portia may have married the wrong man.
1Among those who see Shylock as a Hebraicized Christian, Michael Ferber says "Shylock is a kind of surrogate Puritan. . . . Puritans were Judaizers, Christians of the Book, especially fond of the Old Testament, and considered themselves, although with frequent anxiety, as the chosen people, or the elect. . . . They were people of contracts and compacts as the Jews were people of the Covenant" (444). "Shakespeare makes the fit between the Jew and the Christian tighter by adding characteristics probably atypical of the Renaissance Italian Jew, or his stereotype in English thought, but certainly part of the stereotype, and often the reality, of the Puritan. Shylock dislikes masques, merrymaking, and music. . . . Shylock's manner of speaking, his laconic 'plain style,' his literalness ('ships are but boards, sailors but men') smack of the Puritan." Thus, says Ferber, Shakespeare seems "to invite his audience to take the play's gravamen as directed at the new class of individualistic Puritan merchants in the City" (445). "The Ideology of The Merchant of Venice," ELR 20 (1990): 431-463.
2Although she mentions Launcelot's scene only briefly, Barbara Lewalski would probably agree with such an allegorical interpretation because it conforms to her stable, idealist reading of the play as a whole. To Lewalski, Shylock represents "the emphasis of the Old Law upon perfect righteousness" as opposed to Bassanio and "the New Law that [says] perfect righteousness is impossible to fallen man and must be replaced by faith" (332). Bassanio represents "self-abnegation, risk, and venture set up throughout the play as characteristics of true Christian love" (335). "Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of Venice," SQ 13 (1962): 327-43.
3Judith Rosenheim makes a compelling case for a typological reading of Launcelot's allegory. "Allegorical Commentary in The Merchant of Venice," Shakespeare Studies, Albuquerque, N. M., 24 (1996): 156-210.
4Old Gobbo as Isaac may first have been seen by Dorothy C. Hockey, "The Patch is Kind Enough," SQ 10 (1959): 448-50.
5C. L. Barber stands for this view of Shylock versus the Christians. "The Merchants and the Jew of Venice: Wealth's Communion and an Intruder," Chapter 7 of Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1959) 163-191.
6Rene Fortin sees Launcelot's allegory working against the dominant suppositions of the play as a "counterstatement to the major allegorical statement of the play," the latter of which is a "naive allegory" that invites "one-sidedness and reductiveness of interpretation." "Launcelot and the Uses of Allegory in The Merchant of Venice," Studies in English Literature 14 (1974): 259.
7James Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews. Columbia UP, 1996. The new humanistic learning of the sixteenth century that led scholars to learn Hebrew seems to have had a part in this Judaizing tendency among Christians. As early as 1561, Richard Bruern, a Professor of Hebrew at Cambridge, was charged with Jewish practices, and in 1572 Archbishop Whitgift accused Thomas Cartwright of playing the Jew when Cartwright asserted that "we had the same laws to direct us in the service of God that the Jews had" (22). The rise of Sabbatarianism occurred in England at the time Shakespeare was writing The Merchant of Venice. Nicholas Bownd's Doctrine of the Sabbath was published in 1595. Bownd's movement to keep a strict Sabbath, specifically denounced as Jewish and rabbinical, was sufficiently strong that in 1599 Archbishop Whitgift ordered all books on the subject to be suppressed (237, n 41).
8Patrick Collinson, Godly People (London: The Hambleton Press, 1983) 1.
9Michael P. Winship is the author of Seers of God: Puritan Providentialism in the Restoration and Early Enlightenment (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1996). Because of my interest in Shakespeare's allegorical discourse on precise and slack Christians in MV, Michael P. Winship graciously allowed me to cite some of his historical findings from an unpublished essay, "Weak Christians, Hypocrites, and Carnal Gospellers: The Pastoral Origins of Puritan Practical Divinity." Winship observes that as early as 1577, Puritan minister John Knewstub complained, "A great number deceive them selves in a generall good meaning which they have to serve the Lord, taking that to be the true service of him: and in the meane time are nothing carefull to keepe a good conscience in the severall duties of the Lawe, nor any thing traveyling to traine up their affections to delight therein." John Knewstub, Lectures of John Knewstub upon the twentieth Chapter of Exodus, and certeine other places of Scripture (London, 1577) 44.
10Winship cites William Perkins, The Workes, 3 vols. (London 1613-1618), 1:284, sig. A2R and 1:sig. Hhr.
11The introduction to The Merchant of Venice, The World Classics, ed. Jay L. Halio (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993) says that M.M. Mahood in an appendix on Shakespeare's use of the Bible in The Merchant of Venice, New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge, 1987), 184-88, "notes that Shakespeare, like many of his contemporaries, would be familiar with both the Bishop's Bible (1584 edn.) and the Geneva (1596). Although echoes from the former outnumber those from the latter, allusions to the Geneva's marginal glosses indicate that Shakespeare was probably reading that version as he wrote the play" (fn 2, 22).
12All biblical references and glosses cited are from The Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969).
13In Jessica's defection from her father's tedious, Puritan household, I am reminded of Nathan Field (1587-1619/20), son of John Field, the outspoken Puritan minister. Nathan Field left his father's Puritan household and became a player. Field probably succeeded to Shakespeare's place as actor and shareholder in the King's Men. Of course, Shakespeare knew none of this c. 1597 when he wrote MV. See The Oxford Companion to English Literature, ed. Margaret Drabble (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995) 352.
14Norman Rabkin calls this a "procrustean kind of criticism" (8) that "denies to Shakespeare's intention or the play's virtue what the comedy actually does to us" (13), Chapter 1,"Meaning and The Merchant of Venice," Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981) 1-32.
15Edward Phillips (John Milton's nephew) refers to the poet's father as "an honest, worthy, and substantial citizen of London, by profession a scrivener." " The Life of John Milton," John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (New "York: Macmillan, 1957) 1025.
16Harry Berger, Jr. says that the "meta-clues" provided in the conversation between Portia and Bassanio "barely sustain the innocence of their speakers" in "observing the letter of the law" (159). "Marriage and Mercifixion in The Merchant of Venice: The Casket Scene Revisited," SQ, Wash., D.C., 32:2 (Summer 1981): 155-162.
17Berger points out that Portia, in giving everything to Bassanio, "uses the additional gift of the ring to convert this first gift to a loan, a bond, which can be forfeit" (161).
18Lars Engle calls Portia's careful accounting "a wonderful bow to the market" and notes that Portia "wisely chooses to follow [Bassanio to Venice] to protect her investment" (94).
19Barbara Lewalski shows the connection between the Lord's Prayer and Ecclesiasticus 25. She quotes from the Bishops Bible: "He that seeketh vengeance, shal finde vengeance of the Lord. . . . / Forgive thy neyghbour the hurt that he hath donne thee, and so shal thy sinnes be forgeven thee also when thou prayest / . . . . He that sheweth no mercie to man which is like himselfe, how dare he aske forgeveness of his sins (Ecclus. xxiii. 1-24)" (338-39).
20The Duke introduces the concept of mercy earlier in 4.1 when he asks Shylock, "How shalt thou hope for mercy, rendering none?" (4.1.88), but the Duke does not present it as "law."
21Sigurd Burkhardt observes that the various plots of the play invite a different--more comedic and harmonious--ending than Shakespeare allows (221), "The Merchant of Venice: The Gentle Bond," Chapter 7 of Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1968) 206-36. For me, the possibility of a different ending hinges on Portia's management of the outcome of the trial scene.
22Donna Hamilton explains that, beginning in 1584, a person accused of nonconformity to the Act of Uniformity could be charged before the ecclesiastical court of High Commission, which compelled an oath from him ex officio mero. Those found guilty of nonconformity could be stripped of all rights as citizens and be forced to forfeit their estates. During Queen Elizabeth's reign, Lord Burghley called these oaths a form of entrapment. Writing to Archbishop Whitgift, the man responsible for instituting the ex officio oath, Burghley said, I think the Inquisitors of Spain use not so many questions to comprehend and to trap their preyes" (36). See Hamilton for the origin of this controversy, Shakespeare and the Politics of Protestant England (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1992) 33-36.
23There is also a similarity between Portia as "interested" party and judge of Shylock and the Earl of Essex as interested party, prosecutor, and judge of Dr. Lopez, a Jew convicted of conspiring against the life of Queen Elizabeth in 1594. See Arthur Dimock, "The Conspiracy of Dr. Lopez," English Historical Review 9 (July 1894): 464.
24Lars Engle contends that Portia prudently arranges affairs so that she does not have to pay the tab (96).
25According to The Merchant of Venice, Oxford World's Classics, "Graziano was the name of the comic doctor in the commedia del'arte. Florio's Italian dictionary defines Gratiano as 'a gull, a fool or clownish fellow in a play or comedy' (M. J. Levith, What's in Shakespeare's Names (1978), 79; cited by NCS," (fn 79, 107).
26C. L. Barber and others have noted the way in which Shylock "raises an interest beyond [the] design" of the play (190). See Barber (190-91). It is Norman Rabkin's chief complaint against critics like Barber that their thematic allegories fail to account for Shakespeare's design and the complex responses that it evokes in the audience (7).
27Michael P. Winship cites Laurence Chaderton, An Excellent and Godly Sermon moste needefull for this time, wherein we live in all securityie and sinne, to the great dishonour of God, and contempt of his holy word (London, 1578), sig. Ciii 3r.