Allegoria Paranoia

To Balk Logic and Practice Rhetoric: Allegories of Rhetoric and Dialectic in Shakespeare’s Plays


Chapter 3:  To Be Ruled by Conscience:  Material and Spiritual Blessing in The Merchant of Venice, Part 1

The next three chapters examine one of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays, The Merchant of Venice.  It is an uncomfortable play, as Shakespeare’s comedies often are.  It invokes and portrays a number of stereotypes—the money-grubbing Jew Shylock, the pious Christian Portia, the hard-up gentleman Bassanio—and invites the audience to react in predictable ways.  However, counter to the dominent discourse of the play, Shakepeare offers a secondary discourse, another case to be made.  As a play within the play we have a court case with its own dialectic, lawyers’ logic, interpreting the facts of the case from opposing standpoints.  This court case I take as an emblem, one of many allegorical signs that the play is complex and that more than one way of interpreting is offered at every point.  To unravel this complexity, I offer the following, three, interconnected essays (Chapters 3,4, and 5).


In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare creates a double discourse, an allegory of rhetoric and dialectic, in which the action and rhetoric seem to offer mutually exclusive alternatives to sway each of us as audience and make us decide where we stand on issues of money and love.

In describing The Merchant of Venice as allegory, I would like to consider first a charge Richard Levin makes against finding allegories in Shakespeare.  His argument against allegorical interpretation of Shakespeare has to do with genre and audience expectation.  He says that Shakespeare's plays differ from plays like Middleton's A Game of Chess and Dekker's The Whore of Babylon, which, like "court masques and civic pageants," are clearly allegorical because "they present no literal surface of recognizable human actions that could embody a coherent meaning, and so serve as the object of our response" (22).1

Although the literal surface of The Merchant of Venice is, in general, perfectly comprehensible, I would like to suggest that in three places, at least, the play contains enigmatic fables or parables. Enigma is one of the marks of allegory. These three moments are

1) the entire casket plot, which presents itself as an allegory of reading through its concern with hermeneutics, the methodology of interpretation

2) Shylock's attempt to use the story of Laban and Jacob, a scene which is enigmatic because Antonio cuts off Shylock's allegorical reading before Shylock can fully explain it

3) Launcelot Gobbo's crisis of conscience in leaving Shylock for Bassanio and Launcelot's strange treatment of his father Old Gobbo, an enigmatic scene which is not important enough in the play to take up so much space unless there is an allegorical significance.

These scenes seem to function as emblems or miniature allegories, which, if we are listening carefully, may inform us as an audience that there is an allegorical intention for the play as a whole.  Indeed, I am saying that Shakespeare gives us warrant to apply the lessons of emblematic scenes to the rest of the play and beyond the play itself, but we need to be careful.  The dialectic of the play's rhetoric and action is complex.  Attempts to fix one-to-one historical, economic, or religious meanings onto the play can be misleading.

Richard Levin makes the familiar argument that allegorical interpretation of Shakespeare reduces "the rich complexity" of the plays (1).  Levin links allegorical criticism with thematic interpretation, "a less extreme form of allegorical criticism" (23).  In both cases the interpreter argues that the literal meaning "subserves" some higher "level or dimension of meaning" (22).

Levin is talking about allegoresis, in which the interpreter invents an allegorical meaning for a story not otherwise allegorical or takes a small part of what actually is in the play and says it is the meaning of the whole thing.  It is an old charge, one that is often made with good reason.

As an example of objectionable thematic or symbolic readings of The Merchant of Venice, my favorite (the one I love to hate) is that of C.L. Barber.  I will let his interpretation stand for the rest.2  After setting up binary opposites--Shylock (the Jew) versus Antonio, Bassanio, and Portia (the Christians)--Barber tells us that

The Merchant of Venice, as the title indicates, exhibits the beneficence of civilized wealth, the something-for-nothing which wealth gives to those who use it graciously to live together in a humanly knit group. It also deals, in the role of Shylock, with anxieties about money, and its power to set men at odds.3
Throughout his essay, Barber is at pains to make the Christians look good and to contain the meaning of Shylock.  However, in Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning,  Norman Rabkin points out that Barber seems to be somewhat embarrassed by his own interpretation of the play.4 Barber admits,
After all this praise for the way the play makes its distinction about the use of wealth, that on reflection, not when viewing or reading the play, but when thinking about it, I find the distinction, as others have, somewhat too easy. . . . About Shylock, too, there is a difficulty which grows on reflection, a difficulty which may be felt too in reading or performance.  His part fits perfectly into the design of the play, and yet he is so alive that he raises an interest beyond the design.  I do not think his humanity spoils the design. (190-191)

Quite likely what Shylock spoils is Barber's interpretation, unless we write off Shylock as the Christians in the play do by calling him devil, Jew, and dog--a move that makes Barber uncomfortable.

Among allegorical interpretations Richard Levin would object to, I nominate Barbara Lewalski's 1962 essay, "Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of Venice."  Her study, as she tells us,        

uncover[s] in MV patterns of Biblical allusion and imagery so precise and pervasive as to be patently deliberate; it finds, moreover, that such language clearly reveals an important theological dimension in the play and points toward consistent and unmistakeable allegorical meanings.5

Using a four-level scheme derived from medieval allegorizors, Lewalski offers an allegorical interpretation that adds biblical authority to Barber's reading.  Through the use of biblical allusions, Lewalski shows that the play blesses the Christians and damns the Jew:  "Bassanio's choice of the lead casket is the choice of life, the love of God" (337); Portia is the allegorical "'Quality of Mercy' enthroned in the New Law" (339); "Antonio becomes the perfect embodiment of Christian love" (331); Shylock "reflects the role of the devil" (334) but still receives "God's mercy" (340); and then the Christians all head for Belmont, "the Heavenly City" (343).

In representing the thematic reading of Barber and the allegorical reading of Lewalski, I have not been entirely fair.  Within the scope of what they are able to see, they read the play well.  The problem is not, as Levin would have it, that Barber and Lewalski have no warrant for their interpretations.  The play actually encourages the binary contrasts they see, even though they leave out things that do not fit into their scheme.  Further, I would argue that any understanding of the play must start with these binary contrasts in order to see what Shakespeare is doing with them.

In a 1990 essay, Michael Ferber notes that idealist readings, such as those of Barber and Lewalski, were by then mostly out of fashion, giving way to skeptical, subversive, ironic, and deconstructive interpretations (431).6  However, citing Rene Girard's ironic reading of The Merchant of Venice, Ferber objects (fairly I think) that the "modern taste for irony is surely anachronistically attributed to Shakespeare's audience" and wonders why "the subversive elements should take precedence over the more or less consistent if 'conventional' framework of the rest of the play" (462).

To trace "the ideas and practices of Shakespeare's historical moment" (431), Ferber proposes an "ideological" reading of the play.  As he defines it,

Ideology is a set of interrelated ideas, images, and values more or less distorted by the social or material interests of those who believe or propagate it. It gives "the form of universality" to a particular bias, ignoring certain facts while privileging others, and defining certain unequal social relationships as natural or divinely ordained. (434)

Ferber's ideological reading describes the way ideas of material blessing in the play slide into concepts of spiritual blessing. Rather than use contemporary terminology, I would prefer to describe these slippages in ways that would have been familiar to those among Shakespeare's audience trained in the art of rhetoric.7

In the play, habits of thought that we would call "ideological" are exhibited in various kinds of conscious and unconscious puns, figures of thought, such as antanaclasis, which repeats a word while shifting it from one meaning to another, as when Portia consciously shifts from an economic to a spiritual meaning when she realizes how much Bassanio is costing her:  "Since you are dear bought, I will love you dear" (3.2.313); or syllepsis, where there may be, perhaps unconsciously, two simultaneous meanings of a word or where a word slips from one meaning to another, as when Shylock says, "Antonio is a good man" (a good risk), and Bassanio asks, "Have you heard any imputation to the contrary?" (good as in morally good) (1.3.12-14).  This sort of slippage or syllepsis occurs throughout the play, and I suggest that this instability creates an "ideological" problem in reading it.

Further, what Ferber calls conflicting ideologies within the play I would prefer to call dialectic, not in a Hegelian or Marxist sense, although that would work well enough, but in an Aristotelian sense, as Shakespeare would have understood it. In Shakespeare's day it was called "lawyer's logic," like a courtroom contest between conflicting explanations, using the tools of logic and rhetoric to go from the particular to the general to arrive at the special qualities needed in order to judge a particular case.

In Ferber's ideological reading, "ideology" involves a self-serving system of ideas about power that holds these ideas to be total or natural when they are partial and socially constructed.  Ideology, as Ferber says, is "a part that pretends to be a whole, a false totality" (434).  In terms of rhetoric, "ideology" can be viewed as a logical fallacy called secundum quid, a rhetorical device in which a part is put forth, either unconsciously or sophistically, as the whole, creating a false conclusion.8

An educated member of Shakespeare's audience might have been able to discern this problem in logic as a mistake or as rhetorical sleight-of-hand.  In the question and answer of dialectic, as Elizabethan students would have learned in exercises on disputation, the proper response would be to question the faulty logic and refute it.  Would facility in rhetorical logic be required of the audience attending a comedy by Shakespeare?  Perhaps not.  Then again, much of the humor of the comedies depends on the audience's appreciation of various logical absurdities.

In light of the tendency of Shakespeare's interpreters to reduce the complexities of his plays to simplicity, and considering that these simple answers often contradict each other, I propose that the problem may be that Shakespeare took a dialectical approach to writing the play.9

In a brief digression in a 1982 essay, Marc Shell suggests that The Merchant of Venice works as a kind of Platonic dialectic, "but the series of contractual hypotheses that generates the dramatic movement of this political play does not cartwheel to the heavens as does Platonic dialectic.  That it does not do so lends the play its brilliantly critical aspect."10

If the play is dialectic, and since it does not "cartwheel" toward some heavenly truth as would Platonic dialectic, perhaps it is because the play is Aristotelian dialectic, in which we are given by Shakespeare not what is true or false, according to Platonic (ideal) truth, but what is unlikely, possible, and probable, according to the rules of demonstrative, forensic, and epideictic rhetoric.  (We find all three types of logic in the play.).  If the play is Aristotelian dialectic, it sets us up so that we must judge the play and the play must judge us.  As such it would be an allegory of reading.

The Casket Plot as an Allegory of Reading

Our skeptical critic, Richard Levin, objects to interpretations of Shakespeare's plays that divide audience responses into those of the "groundlings" and the "wiser sort" (Levin 22).  He questions claims of allegorical critics who seek support for their readings when they cite as evidence Sir John Harington's statement, in "A Brief Apology of Poetry," that an allegorical work is able satisfy various types of readers or audience

. . . with one kinde of meate and one dish (as I may so call it) to feed diuers tastes.  For the weaker capacities will feede themselves with the pleasantnes of the historie and sweetnes of the verse, some that have stronger stomackes will as it were take a further taste of the Morall sence, a third sort, more highly conceited then they, will digest the Allegorie. (22-23)11

Levin observes that Harington "was speaking of 'the ancient Poets'" and that Harington acknowledged that the authors of his own day had given up the practice of writing works that offered a sweet story, a moral sense, and an allegorical conception to appeal to a broad range of tastes and capacities (23).  Levin's objection to using Harington to buttress claims of allegory in Shakespeare seems fair enough, but is it? What if we find, as I claim, that Shakespeare actually announces an allegory of reading in The Merchant of Venice?  Would the skeptic be satisfied?  We shall see.

First of all, the three suitors--Morocco, Arragon, and Bassanio--are "readers" or interpreters of the caskets.  It has become a critical commonplace that the first two fail because of flaws in their respective hermeneutics, and that Bassanio is a good reader because of the supposed spiritual superiority of his interpretation over those of the "bad readers," Morocco and Arragon.  In their allegorical readings of the casket plot, Barbara Lewalski (1962) and Joan Ozark Holmer (1978), among others, have read the casket plot this way.12

Without calling the casket plot an allegory of reading, these critics assume, in practice, that it is such and have applied its lessons, according to their understanding, to the rest of the play.  Among dissenters from such idealist readings as Lewalski's and Holmer's, only Rene Girard, in an essay entitled "'To Entrap the Wisest,'" seems to have made a connection between these naive readings of the play and the casket plot as an allegory of our reading of the play.13

As the title of his essay implies, those idealist critics who consider themselves "wise" interpreters of the play have fallen into the "trap" Shakespeare has set for all of us--and has warned us against--in the casket plot.  However, Girard does not explore the nature of this trap that turns the supposedly sophisticated reader into the vulgar multitude.14

Although the casket plot begins in Act One, scene two and continues when the Prince of Morocco is introduced in Act Two, scene one, the lottery per se does not start until Act Two, scene seven, with Morocco's choice, continuing on in 2.9 with the Prince of Arragon's choice and the arrival of Bassanio and Gratiano, and ends at 3.2 with Bassanio's correct choice of caskets (and the revelation that Antonio has been "caught on the hip" by Shylock). The culmination of the casket plot is, thus, at the very center of the play, at which point it merges with the bond plot.

Let us begin at 2.7 with Morocco's reading. What kind of reader is Morocco?  It might be a good idea to ask at the same time what kind of person he thinks he is.  He examines the gold, silver, and lead caskets and reads aloud the inscription on each; then he interprets the inscriptions in reverse order:

What says this leaden casket? '"Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath."
Must give:  for what?  For lead?  Hazard for lead?
This casket threatens.  Men that hazard all
Do it in hope of fair advantages.
A golden mind stoops not to shows of dross.
I'll then nor give nor hazard aught for lead. (2.7.15-21)

The "golden mind" of Morocco will not stoop to hazard anything for "fair advantages" (perhaps an oxymoron and certainly a loaded term in the play).  He is a rich prince, not a merchant of Venice.  To Morocco, the profit motive means nothing, and Portia is not merchandise.

Next, Morocco gives glancing consideration to the substance of the silver casket, silver in its "virgin hue," and then interprets the silver casket's inscription:

"Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves."
As much as he deserves!  Pause there, Morocco,
And weigh thy value with an even hand.
If thou beest rated by thy estimation,
Thou dost deserve enough; and yet "enough"
May not extend so far as to the lady.
And yet to be afeard of my deserving
Were but a weak disabling of myself.
As much as I deserve--why that's the lady!
I do in birth deserve her, and in fortunes,
In graces, and in qualities of breeding;
But more than these, in love I do deserve. (2.7.23-34)

When he weighs his value with an even hand, Morocco is sure he deserves "enough" but "'enough'" may not win the lady.  He points at the word as he speaks it,"enough"; the rhetorical device is deixis.  Ever so briefly, he allows himself to weigh and judge his own worth.  Christian or not (and we never know), Morocco judges himself without a show of humility or false pride.

We would already have heard, if we were reading the play straight through, Launcelot's weighing and judging of Shylock and Bassanio, when he says to Bassanio:  "You have the grace of God, sir, and he hath enough" (2.2.142-3), but more on that later.  Morocco fears that he falls short of whatever is necessary to win Portia.  However, the moment of self-revelation passes.  He puffs himself up, remembering his high birth, his fortunes (a loaded word in the play), his graces (another loaded word), and his breeding.  He will assume superiority rather than mere deserving.

Then he turns to the inscription on the golden casket:  "'Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.' / Why that's the lady!  All the world desires her" (2.7.37-8).  He concludes that "never so rich a gem [as Portia] / Was set in worse than gold" (54-5) and compares the angelic Portia to an English gold coin with an angel (the archangel Michael) stamped on it.  For his careful but wrong interpretation, Morocco gets a death's head and a scroll that repeats the old proverb, "All that glisters is not gold."

Morocco has made the mistake of assuming a correspondence between appearance and reality; moreover, he has misjudged himself.  As a penalty, according to the terms of the lottery, the loser Morocco gets to enjoy the frosty and fruitless life of the perenniel bachelor--a tough reward for a loving "labor lost" (2.7.74) to a flawed hermeneutic.

Morocco chose the common understanding, "what many men desire."  The Prince of Arragon will make no such mistake.  He reads the inscription on the golden chest and says, "That 'many' may be meant / By the fool multitude that choose by show" (2.9.25-6).  Arragon's deixis points at the word "many," which he interprets as "the fool multitude" who assume appearance is reality.  He mulls over the implied warning and applies it to himself:                        

I will not choose what many men desire,
Because I will not jump with common spirits
And rank me with the barbarous multitudes. (2.9.31-3)

Arragon believes he is wiser than "the barbarous multitudes."  He will not "jump" at "what many men desire."  His "spirit" is above that of the common masses.  At this point it may be obvious that Shakespeare is drawing an analogy between Arragon's ruminations on the inscription and two different types of audience to the play (a distinction Shakespeare has Hamlet make a few years later regarding another play).15

Arragon presumes he is a sophisticated reader, superior to the common herd of men, but somehow, like Morocco, he is wrong.  Arragon reads the inscription on the silver casket and approves it:

'Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.'
And well said too; for who shall go about
To cozen fortune, and be honorable
Without the stamp of merit?  Let none presume
To wear an undeserved dignity.
O, that estates, degrees, and offices
Were not derived corruptly, and that clear honor
Were purchased by the merit of the wearer!
How many then should cover that stand bare!
How many be commanded that command!
How much low peasantry would then be gleaned
From the true seed of honor!  And how much honor
Picked from the chaff and ruin of the times
To be new varnished!  Well, but to my choice.
'Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.'
I will assume desert. (2.9.36-51)

This assumption proves to be a bad move.  Having gleaned the general principle, "Let none presume / To wear an undeserved dignity," and realizing that honor and merit are often bestowed on the undeserving, Arragon fails to apply the lesson to himself in particular.  In the dialectic of the casket plot, what species of reader is Arragon?  The scroll in the silver chest tells him he is a fool, "silvered o'er" perhaps with false deserving.  He may get to be a fool twice over for not correctly applying to himself the "seven times tried" silver words of truth contained in the silver chest's inscription and interpreted correctly by his own eloquent rhetoric.16  As he says, "With one fool's head I came to woo, / But I go away with two" (2.9.69, 64, 75-6).17

What have we learned so far?  As an allegorical key to reading the play, the lessons of the casket plot are simple.  Beware of false appearances.  Whatever shows itself to be "golden" is probably only gilded.  Beware of eloquent rhetoric.  It is probably self-serving and, if true, is probably misapplied.  Most importantly, be self-aware as a reader.  To avoid jumping to conclusions with "the common spirits," the reader or audience has to notice that closely cherished personal beliefs may be false gold and false silver in the play.

Shakespeare wrote his plays to make money. The Merchant of Venice is designed to pack a theater by entertaining the foolish multitude and confirming their (or our) prejudices.  That is the direction of the play's dominant discourse.  It is one in which no questions are asked, but we may also hear a more muted discourse, a dialectic that questions the assumptions of the dominant rhetoric of the play. Why would Shakespeare have constructed plays this way?  Perhaps he did it to amuse himself and a few others.  We will never know for sure.  However, we may decide this was his intention because he says so through the casket plot.

In this allegory of reading, how do we avoid wearing a death's head or fool's head?  Bassanio does it.  He gets the right answer.  How does he do it?  While music plays as accompaniment to a song that hints at the correct choice, Bassanio examines the three caskets.  I do not think he is listening to the clues, at least not consciously.  He has something else on his mind.

A number of critics have observed that Bassanio ignores the inscriptions and "reads" the substance--the gold, silver and lead as metals.18 So it seems, but is it true?  We may be sure that in his perusal of the caskets he carefully read the inscriptions.  Yet, in his interpretation of the caskets he never mentions one word from the inscriptions.  What is he up to?  We already know through Nerissa, if we were reading or hearing the play from the beginning, that Bassanio is a scholar (1.2.10).  From his reading of the caskets we can guess at his scholarly training.  Whatever else he studied, he learned the art of rhetoric.

 According to the rules of place logic (or topics) of rhetoric, Bassanio subsumes the outward show of the metals and the outward meaning of the inscriptions under the more general heading of "ornament," thus bypassing any apparent contradiction between the two.  This is his hermeneutic.  It depends on a fairly simple habit of thought if one happens to be trained, as Bassanio shows himself to be, in the use of logic and rhetoric.

In his long apostrophe directed at the caskets, he begins with the topos "ornament" and concludes with its even more general category, "eloquence."  Everything in between is an epideictic speech (in this case a speech not of praise but of blame) showing that the supposed fairness of each type of ornament is actually foul and false.  Bassanio begins with a series of rhetorical questions that cite examples of the misuse of rhetorical ornament:

So may the outward shows be least themselves.
The world is still deceived with ornament.
In law, what pleas so tainted and corrupt
But, being seasoned with a gracious voice,
Obscures the show of evil?  In religion,
What damned error but some sober brow
Will bless it and approve it with a text,
Hiding grossness with fair ornament? (3.2.73-80)
We cannot know what particular examples Bassanio has in mind, but in our own allegory of reading we ought to be reminded of what we have already heard (again, if we were reading the play straight through), and we ought to be prepared for such examples as the play moves along.  Bassanio does not know all the applications of false ornament in cases of law and religion to be found in the play, but Shakespeare does.  Is it safe to say that the names Shylock and Portia ought to come to mind? Next Bassanio considers ornament as a false show of outward, physical substance:
There is no vice so simple but assumes
Some mark of virtue on his outward parts.
How many cowards, whose hearts are all as false
As stairs of sand, wear yet upon their chins
The beards of Hercules and frowning Mars,
Who inward searched have livers white as milk?
And these assume but valor's excrement
To render them redoubted. (3.2.81-88)

Is Bassanio referring to himself?  Portia compares him to Hercules twice in her long speech leading up to his choice (3.2.55 and 60).  Does Bassanio's part call for a beard as "valor's excrement," false ornament belying a coward's heart?  Probably not.  It may just be something he copied down in a commonplace book and memorized for an occasion such as this.

Then again, perhaps he is as self-aware and humble as he seems.  If so, he is pretty tough on himself.  We know from what he acknowledged to Antonio earlier in the play that he has been excessively liberal in his spending, living beyond his means and living off Antonio's money.  In fact, he calls himself a prodigal (1.1.129).  Maybe he is humble.  It seems to be one of the requirements in the allegory of reading, and he does get the right answer.  We also know that he considers himself lucky.  In his ridiculous, throw-good-money-after-bad scheme to win Portia, Bassanio is sure he will be fortunate (1.1.176).  And he is.

To return to his speech on ornament, Bassanio's second example of the false appearance of physical substance is women's augmentation of their appearance through false ornamentation.  Again, this could be a line or two out of a commonplace book:

Look on beauty
And you shall see 'tis purchased by the weight,
Which therein works a miracle in nature,
Making them lightest that wear most of it.
So are those crisped, snaky, golden locks
Which makes such wanton gambols with the wind
Upon supposed fairness, often known
To be the dowry of a second head,
The skull that bred them in the sepulchre. (3.2.88-96)

Is this a description of Portia?  Does she put on makeup with a trowel?  It seems unlikely.  But "those crisped, snaky, golden locks" sound like Bassanio's description of her to Antonio:  "Her sunny locks / Hang on her temples like a golden fleece," and Bassanio is confident that he will be the winning "Jason" among all those who "come in quest of her" (1.1.169-172).  Bassanio's example of false ornamentation tells us further that "supposed fairness" of a woman's golden locks may actually be a wig made from the hair of the dead, "the dowry of a second head, / The skull that bred them in the sepulchre" (3.2.94-6).19

Although Bassanio cannot know the particulars, these lines connect to several themes or topics (topoi) in the casket plot:  the picture of the skull and the scroll's "gilded tombs" from the golden casket, the second (fool's) head of Arragon's "silver" mistake, and the "dowry" left by Portia's dead father.  With his knowledge of rhetorical logic and dialectic, Bassanio does not need to know the particulars of the casket plot.  Bassanio, the student of rhetoric and topical logic, knows the specifics; that is, he knows the commonplace examples of the special category or topos illustrating the general idea of false ornamentation.

He examines this idea using a term from rhetoric called suppositio, a mistaken idea put forth in sophistry as true but open to refutation:  Bassanio sees through "supposed fairness" to the death's head behind it. If Bassanio is an expert in the art of rhetoric, it is not surprising that he rejects as false ornament the beguiling gold coffin and its inscription:

Thus ornament is but the guiled shore
To a most dangerous sea, the beauteous scarf
Veiling an Indian beauty; in a word,
The seeming truth which cunning times put on
To entrap the wisest.  Therefore, thou gaudy gold,
Hard food for Midas, I will none of thee. (3.2.97-102)

In making his decision, Bassanio again deals in rhetorical commonplaces--an alluring shore hiding a "most dangerous sea," a lovely scarf "veiling" the swart "beauty" of a woman neither fair nor golden-tressed.  Is there an echo in "Indian beauty" of all the comments by Portia and Morocco himself about his dark "complexion"?20  In any case, these commonplaces about false ornamentation permit Bassanio to look beyond "the seeming truth" that would "entrap the wisest."  Thus, he wisely resists "gaudy gold."

In contrast to his long epideixis on the gold casket and inscription, Bassanio dismisses the silver and accepts the lead casket in two brief sentences:

Nor none of thee, thou pale and common drudge
'Tween man and man.  But thou, thou meager lead,
Which rather threaten'st than dost promise aught,
Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence,
And here choose I.  Joy be the consequence! (3.2.103-7)

Here, Bassanio still seems to be judging only the substance of the metals rather than both substance and inscriptions, but the discourse on ornamentation as false substance and false words continues.

Silver he addresses as "thou pale and common drudge 'tween man and man."  It is a commonplace.  Although silver is an attractive metal, it is the base coinage of common currency.  Further, Bassanio connects silver with another commonplace, as silver-tongued eloquence, a meaning Arragon discovered too late.  We see this meaning when Bassanio compares the "pale" of silvered eloquence to the paleness of "meager lead":  "Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence" and the colors of rhetoric.  Thus, Bassanio correctly chooses the lead casket.

As an allegory of reading, the casket plot may provide us with some clues as to how to interpret the play.  Bassanio's hermeneutic enables him to avoid the false gold and false silver of the outward appearance of words and things.  False words include any of the tricks of rhetoric that may mislead us;  false things include any outward show that is mere seeming.  Right and wrong answers will be found in the dialectic of the plot, in questions the play asks about its own false appearance. We must examine what is at play in the play, to avoid the "seeming truth" of suppositions designed "to entrap the wisest."

In my analysis of the casket scenes, I have not yet pursued the idea of economic and spiritual "blessing" contained in these scenes because Bassanio's winning hermeneutic does not directly consider these.  I have no warrant as yet to know how to judge the economic, legal, and biblical allusions except, as Bassanio warns, to proceed with caution.  There are numerous biblical allusions to material and spiritual blessings in the casket plot (and in the rest of the play).

For example, a possible allusion to Luke 18:19 that implies no one deserves merit ("None is good save one, even God") may be contained in the silver casket's inscription about deserving (or not deserving) merit, and, as Joan Ozark Holmer points out, Bassanio's line about seeming truth to entrap the wisest "appears in Il Pecorone but is Biblical in origin; the Geneva Bible states:  'He catcheth the wise in their owne craftiness . . . when they them selves are entangled in the same snares, which they laid for others' (1 Cor. 3:19 and gloss)."21

Then there is the inscription on the leaden casket, "Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath," perhaps an allusion to Matthew 13:45, the parable of the kingdom of heaven as the pearl of great price for which a merchant sold everything he had.
The leaden casket must have something to do with salvation, as Holmer insists.22  However, Bassanio is not seeking Christian salvation when he goes after Portia.  He is Jason in quest of the golden fleece, as skeptical critics are happy to remind us.  Portia may be a "pearl," but she is not a good stand-in for the Virgin Mary, nor is Belmont a good choice as an allegory of the kingdom of heaven.23

On the one hand, while the play invites such allegorization, all of these things in the play are far too complex to be pinned to simplistic allegorical interpretations.  Such "golden" readings are deadly.  On the other hand, skeptical or "silvered" economic readings may in fact be so cynical as to miss whatever spiritual implications the play might have.

 Bassanio may or may not be spiritually superior to Morocco and Arragon. In the case of the caskets, the point is moot. Bassanio succeeds as a reader not because of his spiritual state but because of his skill in rhetoric and dialectic.  Thus, we must follow the example of Bassanio the rhetorician in order to judge not by the sound of a gracious voice using law to "obscure the show of evil" or the "blessing" of a "damned error" with a text of scripture.  Rather, we need to look clearly at the substance of the play, the plot as dialectic.



1Richard Levin, "The Relation of External Evidence to Allegorical and Thematic Interpretation of Shakespeare," Shakespeare Studies 13 (1980):  22.

2Among a host of interpretations like Barber's are those of John Russell Brown, "Love's Wealth and the Judgement of The Merchant of Venice," Shakespeare and his Comedies (London:  Methuen, 1962) 45-81, and Lawrence Danson's The Harmonies of 'The Merchant of Venice' (New Haven:  Yale UP, 1978).

3C. L. Barber, "The Merchants and the Jew of Venice:  Wealth's Communion and an Intruder," Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton:  Princeton UP, 1959) 166-167.

4Rabkin takes exception to "the ingenious thematic critic, so adroitly delineated by Richard Levin, [who] is licensed to stipulate that 'in terms of the structure of the play Shylock is a minor character' and can be ignored. . . " (8).  Rabkin has in mind Lawrence W. Hyman, "The Rival Lovers in The Merchant of Venice," SQ 21 (1970), 109 and Peter G. Philias, Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies:  The Development of Their Form and Meaning (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1966) 135 (Rabkin, note 21, 142).  See also Norman Rabkin, Chapter 1:  "Meaning and The Merchant of Venice," Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1981) 10-11 and, for Rabkin's full argument, 19-32.

5Barbara Lewalski, "Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of Venice, SQ, 13 (1962):  328.

6Michael Ferber, "The Ideology of The Merchant of Venice, ELR 20 (1990).  Ferber says, "The last word on the play's unity and 'harmonies' seems already to have been said, and the reigning spirit of literary criticism today is skeptical, analytical, deconstructive, relentless in its search for ironies" (431).

7For Shakespeare's probable background in rhetoric, see T.W. Baldwin, William Shakspere's Small Latine and Lesse Greeke, 2 vols. (Urbana, 1944), summarized by Sister Miriam Joseph in Shakespeare's Use of the Arts of Language (New York:  Hafner Publishing Company, 1966), 3rd ed., 8-11.  Sister Miriam Joseph discusses Shakespeare's use of rhetorical tropes such as antanaclasis (165) and syllepsis (190). (See also Appendix 1 of this study for a summary of T. W. Baldwin and Sister Miriam Joseph).

8For a guide to the pitfalls of fallacious reasoning, see Sr. Miriam Joseph's section on the subject (190-203).  Aristotle shows how to refute logical fallacies in De sophisticis elenchis.  The logic of the elenchus was carried forward by Cicero and Quintilian in the study of arguments in utramque partem.  As T.W. Baldwin and Sr. Miriam Joseph point out Shakespeare and his educated contemporaries would have learned the refutation of logical fallacies in grammar school as part of their training in disputation.

9That reductive interpretations are so often "radically opposed" is one of the main points of Norman Rabkin's essay on The Merchant of Venice 19.

10Marc Shell's observation that MV may be a Platonic dialectic is a digression from his main argument in "The Wether and the Ewe:  Verbal Usury in The Merchant of Venice," Money, Language, and Thought:  Literary and Philosohic Economics from the Medieval to the Modern Era (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1982) 81.  In footnotes 57 and 58 (81), Shell explains that

Plato's Socrates says that dialectic is a kind of hypothesization that gets wholly over mere things by working its way up through partial hypotheses, or putting these hypotheses down (Republic).  In his discourse, hupothesis usually means "that which is placed under or substantiates," but it can also mean "the plot of a drama," which proceeds from hypothesis to hypothesis as do dialectical arguments. (fn 57)
In his essay, Shell concentrates on the play's discourse of generation, in which one sort of "generation" is privileged over another.  His generative categories (human versus "other" human animals or merchantry versus usury, for instance) are definitely in the play.  However, he does not connect these categories to his concept of dialectic in the play, nor does he see that these categories, as pairs of opposites, potentially become their opposites, or may be subsumed as opposite sides of the same manifestation under a larger general category, as the play's dialectic (or plot) offers, again potentially, a more inclusive hypotheses.  Other than Marc Shell's brief comments, I have found only one essay that deals specifically with MV and dialectic:  Anselm Schlosser, "Dialectic in The Merchant of Venice," Zeitschrift fur Anglistik und Amerikanistik, 1975.

11Levin quotes from G. Gregory Smith, Elizabethan Critical Essays (London:  Oxford UP, 1904), vol. 2, 201-203.  Harington's "Apology" appears as a preface to his 1591 translation of Orlando Furioso.

12Lewalski says,

The story of Bassanio and the casket choice . . . appears to incorporate a 'moral' and an 'allegorical' meaning.  At the moral level, the incident explores the implications of Christian love in the romantic relationship [with Portia].
. . . . At the allegorical level, the caskets signify everyman's choice of paths to spiritual life or death.  This analogy is explicitly developed in the Gesta Romanorum which is almost certainly Shakespeare's source for this incident; (335 and 336).
  In "Loving Wisely and the Casket Test:  Symbolic and Structural Unity in The Merchant of Venice," Shakespeare Studies, Knoxville, Tennessee, 11 (1978):  53-76, Joan Ozark Holmer examines the changes Shakespeare made in his presumed sources, Richard Robinson's 1595 edition of the allegorized stories of the Gesta Romanorum and Ser Giovanni Fiorentino's Il Pecorone (Day 4, Story 1), and asserts that "Shakespeare's refashioning of the casket plot provides a clue to his dramatic intentions" to show, according to Holmer, the way in which "wisdom is spiritual understanding that prompts emulation of divine love, the ability to perceive spirit behind the letter so that one can discriminate between appearance and reality" (53), and "the greater allegorical significance of the casket story [as opposed to the wooing test of Il Pecorone] . . . tends to ennoble the character of the hero and the character of the heroine since the emphasis is placed on being proven worthy of a peerless woman" (54).

13Rene Girard, "'To Entrap the Wisest':  A Reading of The Merchant of Venice," Literature and Society (Selected Papers from the English Institute, 1978), ed. Edward Said (Baltimore, 1980) 100-119.  In addition to Norman Rabkin and Michael Ferber, already mentioned above, other dissident readers of MV include, among others, Lars Engle, Chapter 4:  "Money and Moral Luck in The Merchant of Venice," Shakespearean Pragmatism:  Market of His Time (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1993) 77-106; Thomas Moisan, "'Which is the Merchant here?  And which is the Jew?'  Subversion and Recuperation in The Merchant of Venice," Shakespeare ReproducedThe Text in History and Ideology, eds. Jean Howard, et al (New York:  Methuen, 1987) 188-206; James Shapiro, "'Which is the Merchant here and which is the Jew?' Shakespeare and the Economics of Influence," Shakespeare Studies, Albuquerque, NM, 20 (1987):  269-279;  Leonard Tennenhouse, "The Counterfeit Order of The Merchant of Venice," The Merchant of Venice:  Critical Essays, ed. Thomas Wheeler (New York:  Garland, 1991) 195-215.  Both Ferber and Engle quote Rene Girard in their essays.

14Girard says, "Those critics who idealize the Venetians write as if the many textual clues that contradict their view were not planted by the author himself, as if their presence in the play were a fortuitous matter, like the arrival of a bill in the morning when one really expects a love letter" (101-2).  The "vulgar" are those who miss "the symmetry between the explicit venality of Shylock and the implicit venality of the other Venetians [which] cannot fail to be intended by the playwright" (100).

15Of the distinction within a play's audience between the "fool multitude" and the discerning few, Hamlet says,

I heard thee speak me a speech once, but it
was never acted, or if it was, not above once, for the
play, I remember, pleased not the million; 'twas caviar
to the general.  But it was--as I received it, and
others, whose judgments in such matters cried in the
top of mine--an excellent play. (Hamlet 2.2.434-9)
Like Hamlet, Arragon considers himself to be superior to the "common spirits" of "the barbarous masses" (MV 2.9.32-3).

16Citing Richard Robinson's 1595 translation of the Gesta Romanorum, Shakespeare's probable source for the casket plot, Joan Ozark Holmer correlates Arragon's silver casket mistake with the Gesta Romanorum allegorization of silver choosers, "wise men of this world which shine with fair speech" (Holmer 58).

17In my interpretation of Arragon's description of himself as a fool with two heads, I am assuming that he does not take away with him the picture of the fool's head in the chest as a memento of his stupidity.

18Sigurd Burghardt may have been the first to point out that Bassanio seems to interpret the metals rather than the inscriptions.  He says the others fail "because they try to interpret the lines inscribed on the casket rather than the substance."  "The Merchant of Venice:  The Gentle Bond," ELH, 29 (1962):  247, cited by Holmer (fn 12, 74).  Marc Shell makes the same observation:  Bassanio "pays heed, significantly, only to the metals" (58).

19Here, there is, of course, the additional awareness of all present that, on Shakespeare's stage, the lovely Portia was a young man "painted an inch thick" and wearing a goldilocks wig.

20Concerning "complexion" problems, we find the following:
Portia to Nerissa about Morocco:  "If he have the condition of a saint and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me than wive me" (1.2.127-8).
Morocco to Portia:  "Mislike me not for my complexion, / The shadowed livery of the burnished sun, / To whom I am a neighbor and near bred" (2.1.1-3)
Portia's response to Morocco:  In terms of choice I am not solely led / By nice direction of a maidens eyes" (2.1.13-14).
Portia after Morocco loses:  "A gentle riddance.  Draw the curtains, go. / Let all of his complexion choose me so" (2.7. 78-9).

211 Cor. 3:19 and gloss cited by Holmer 64-5.  The introduction to The Merchant of Venice, ed. Jay L. Halio, Oxford World Classics (Oxford:  Oxford UP, 1993) says, "Shakespeare apparently read the Bible (in the Geneva translation)" at the time he was writing MV.  A footnote attributes this insight to M. M. Mahood, in an appendix to The Merchant of Venice, New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge, 1987).  The note says Mahood "also notes that Shakespeare, like many of his contemporaries, would be familiar with both the Bishops' 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).  All Biblical references and glosses cited in this essay are from The Geneva Bible:  A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition (Madison:  University of Wisconsin Press, 1969).

22Holmer believes Shakespeare's casket plot works the same way allegorically as the casket story in the Gesta Romanorum, "which is allegorized as the story of man's salvation through Christ" (56).

23Ferber compares Portia's intervention in the court scene to "the Virgin Mary interceding against the devil" (457).