Thursday, February 15, 2007

Week 03, Merchant of Venice

General Notes on The Merchant of Venice

The play turns on a key point of Christian theology: the opposition between the letter of God’s Law and the spirit of that Law. This opposition implies that the New Testament (the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which tell the story of Jesus, along with other texts such as the Acts of the Apostles, Revelation, and the Letters of Saint Paul), with its emphasis on forgiveness and agape or love, is the Christian fulfillment of the Hebraic Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, the Psalms and Prophetic books, etc.), which emphasizes strict obedience to Yahweh’s commandments. In Saint Paul ’s words, “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (2 Corinthians 3:06 ). Paul also says that “a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28) One final passage will turn out to be important in capturing the nuances of Shakespeare’s treatment of the Christian characters in The Merchant of Venice: In Galatians 3:23-28, Paul writes, “But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”

It is obvious from such passages that for Saint Paul , acceptance of Jesus’ divine mission and continuing faith in him is the one thing necessary—not strict observance of the formal codes of conduct set forth in Old Testament books like Deuteronomy. Jews face censure because they do not agree with the characterization of Jesus of Nazareth as the long-promised Messiah and God’s Son, which rules out their accepting the allied notion that Jesus’ crucifixion made redemption from sins available to all who believe in him. Based on statements such as those in The Gospel According to John (“…the Jews sought to kill him” 7.01, etc. In the original, περιεπάτει ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἐν τῇ Γαλιλαίᾳ, οὐ γὰρ ἤθελεν ἐν τῇ Ἰουδαίᾳ περιπατεῖν, ὅτι ζήτουν αὐτὸν οἰ Ἰουδαῖοι ἀποκτεῖναι. Translation: Jesus went unto Galilee, for he did not wish to go into Judea, where the citizens sought to kill him.), a tradition of vilifying Jews as the “murderers of Christ,” etc. took hold in Europe and, to some extent, it persists to this day. John Chrysostom in particular (347-407 CE) has become the focus of much debate about how much anti-Semitic commentary one can find in patristic theology. (A web instance of this debate: Simply put, many Christians have long criticized Jews for not being Christians, and of course Jewish people have also had to contend with a broad, culturally reinforced anti-Semitism that takes on a life of its own and goes far beyond any disputes about theological truth—as when Hitler and his Nazi Party claimed that “international Jewry,” in league with western capitalist powers such as Great Britain and France, was responsible for Germany’s social and economic woes after WWI. In order to understand Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, we must factor in the already ancient tradition of European anti-Semitism. Although I don’t for one minute believe Shakespeare himself was a vicious anti-Semite who advocated violence against Jews, it’s clear that the history between Christians and Jews is the backdrop of his dark comedy and that it is by no means a peripheral issue in the play’s overall meaning.

We know that things do not end well for Shylock, a successful Jewish financier at the Rialto in Venice. He loses his daughter and most of his wealth, and is forced to abandon his Judaism and swear to become a Christian, while the Christians in the play end happily married—excepting Antonio, of course, though he fares much better than we had thought he would. Since the play’s conclusion leaves Shylock out in the cold and offers no overt condemnation of what has happened to him—indeed the play’s title refers to Antonio the merchant, not to Shylock—what are we to make of such treatment? I suspect that Shakespeare’s audience would, for the most part, have considered Shylock’s punishment entirely just and even hilarious; they may well have reveled in the forced conversion and the taking-away of most of his wealth at the behest of Christians. We can’t know exactly what Shakespeare himself thought of Shylock, for the simple reason that all we have are the words spoken by characters in the play. All attempts to know the author’s intention about any work of art (dramatic or not) are doomed to failure for much the same reason, so the best we can do is probably to say, “well, Shakespeare is a Christian author, so it’s likely that his basic sentiment would have favored the Christian characters, at least to some extent.” Certainly the play is a Christian comedy, however dark—not a Jewish tragedy. In my view, Shylock is anything but a “stock Jew” or a stage villain like Barabas in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta . ( This doesn’t mean he is portrayed in a positive light. My sense is that there’s something deeply ambivalent about Shakespeare’s representation of Shylock—for almost every instance or utterance that makes him out to be a sympathetic figure and a wronged man, there’s another that shows him to be unsympathetic or even ridiculous. It all comes down to where you think the emphasis lies—are we to weight the sympathetic moments more, or the unflattering ones? Consider just the ending of Act 3, Scene 1:

SHYLOCK. Why there, there, there, there! A diamond gone, cost me two thousand ducats in Frankford! The curse never fell upon our nation till now; I never felt it till now. Two thousand ducats in that, and other precious, precious jewels. I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear; would she were hears’d at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin! No news of them? Why, so—and I know not what’s spent in the search. Why, thou loss upon loss! the thief gone with so much, and so much to find the thief; and no satisfaction, no revenge; nor no ill luck stirring but what lights a’ my shoulders; no sighs but a’ my breathing; no tears but a’ my shedding! TUBAL. Yes, other men have ill luck too: Antonio, as I heard in Genoa —

SHYLOCK. What, what, what? Ill luck, ill luck? TUBAL. Hath an argosy cast away, coming from Tripolis.

SHYLOCK. I thank God, I thank God. Is it true, is it true? TUBAL. I spoke with some of the sailors that escap’d the wrack.

SHYLOCK. I thank thee, good Tubal. Good news, good news! Ha, ha! [Heard] in Genoa ?

TUBAL. Your daughter spent in Genoa , as I heard, one night, fourscore ducats.

SHYLOCK. Thou stick’st a dagger in me. I shall never see my gold again. Fourscore ducats at a sitting, fourscore ducats! TUBAL. There came divers of Antonio’s creditors in my company to Venice that swear he cannot choose but break.

SHYLOCK. I am very glad of it. I’ll plague him, I’ll torture him. I am glad of it.

TUBAL. One of them show’d me a ring that he had of your daughter for a monkey.

SHYLOCK. Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal. It was my turkis, I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.

TUBAL. But Antonio is certainly undone.

SHYLOCK. Nay, that’s true, that’s very true….

This passage contains a great deal—Shylock is by turns genuinely sorrowful and frantically vengeful against both his daughter and Antonio. He seems confused here and elsewhere in the play about the relative value of his money and his family, as when we hear from Christian report that he has conflated his “daughter” with his “ducats.” There is pathos in his statement that he wouldn’t have traded his departed wife’s ring “for a wilderness of monkeys,” and yet there’s something ridiculous about such a comparison phrase, too, so we are tempted to laugh. And just as the Christians tend to be dealt with as individuals and to talk about themselves as individuals, we find Shylock often referring to himself in terms of his “tribe” and his “nation,” as if being an Israelite made him not an individual but a representative member of this collective identity: “ The curse never fell upon our / nation till now; I never felt it till now.” Shakespeare isn’t working from a romantic concept of the self as unique—the Renaissance tends to treat the individual as an aggregation of virtues, vices and “faculties” or capacities—but it’s also the case that Shakespeare’s individuals are often strongly marked in a way that lends them nobility if not correctness. Shylock, to be fair, gives us an intimate sense of his inner thoughts and feelings, but a good deal of it makes him seem muddled and confused about important matters. And the references to his “tribe” tend to reduce him to the level of a stereotype, even if he is too complex a character to remain at that level.

It’s common for Shakespeare’s plays to offer parallels between one character or set of characters and another – for example, consider the many pairings in King Lear: the three daughters and their husbands, Gloucester and the King, and, above all, the Fool and the King. This is perhaps Shakespeare’s best way of enabling us to make sophisticated judgments about his characters and about the ethical and political questions the plays explore. It is seldom easy to say that a character in Shakespeare is “all good” or “all bad.” Lear, at his moments of greatest pathos, is dragged down from sublimity by the near-constant presence of the twaddling, bawdy-minded Fool, who in many productions actually resembles him in appearance. Presumably, that is because we are not to take Lear’s pronouncements about human nature or kingship at face value—he is a character offering us his perspective at points of extreme distress, isolation, and even madness. But it’s worth considering whether Shylock in The Merchant of Venice might have a twin of sorts – his “tribe,” the Jews as the popular imagination would have them. Even as he speaks some of his most sympathetic lines, this shadow of the comic “stock Jew” hangs over him, and prevents him from rising to a level of tragic dignity. To the Christian characters in the play, Shylock is either a devil or a figure of fun—there seems to be nothing in between for him, and he finds it almost impossible to get himself considered as a human being with a genuine grievance.

But what about the Christians in this play? Beyond Shylock, there are other parallels between characters and character sets in The Merchant of Venice . These parallels seem to me to cut both ways with regard to the behavior of the main Christians. Consider, for example, the love match between Lorenzo and Jessica as a lower-ranking parallel to the love match between Bassanio and Portia. On the surface, the pursuit of Jessica by Lorenzo might seem to be completely unrelated to Bassanio’s pursuit of Portia. But what about the possibility that Lorenzo’s obvious erotic interest in his lover and his willingness to abscond with her father’s ducats and jewels (conveniently in a chest not unlike Portia’s “caskets,” by the way) is meant as a way to bring the idealistic Bassanio down to earth? His Portia, after all, is “a lady richly left”—aren’t we being invited to ask ourselves just how much difference there is between his desire for Portia and Lorenzo’s less exalted desires for Jessica?

Then, too, while Shylock’s frenetic concern for his ducats often makes him look foolish and confused, what about the way in which the Christians Antonio and Bassanio continually make money out to be a thing of no importance—that is, in comparison with their high ideals and spiritualized notions about love and friendship? But isn’t Bassanio a prodigal who has squandered his own wealth on high living and appearances, and now has to put his friend’s life at risk so he can go in search of the perfect woman? Neither is Shylock solely concerned with money—certainly by the time of the trial scene in Act 4, he is no longer interested in recovering his 3,000 ducats or even in accepting several times that sum; the pound of the Jew-hater Antonio’s fair flesh will make good his “oath to heaven.” Finally, Portia’s interpretation of Shylock’s bond in Act 4 is that it doesn’t contain all the necessary qualifications—flesh may be taken, yes, but blood mustn’t be spilt. The Christian point is that fallen humanity can never sufficiently justify itself in God‘s sight. By implication, human beings cannot sufficiently qualify strict contracts and oaths and be truly just in their demands, so there is no point in making such hard bargains in the first place. Mercy is not something that can be divided up or quantified, and mercy is the only proper framework for human conduct. Jesus weighs in on this issue in The Gospel According to Saint Matthew 6.14-15: “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Shylock is aware of what others think of him and his religion (his voicings of this awareness often strike hard at Christian pretense to kindness and fair dealing), and he self-consciously tries to pay them back by conforming to their estimation of his “hard-heartedness,” insisting that every last stipulation of his bond be adhered to: he is a strict literalist in his interpretation of the bond he has made with Antonio. The point for Shakespeare’s audience, I believe, is that Shylock is unmerciful when he has the chance to show mercy, and therefore he not only deserves to lose his case against Antonio, but he even deserves the punishments he receives at Christian hands. The letter/spirit opposition is made clearest in Saint Paul ’s epistle 2 Corinthians 3:3-6: “Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart. And such trust have we through Christ to God-ward: Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.”

But for modern audiences—Christian or otherwise—Shylock’s punishment may well appear every bit as unjust as his own attempt on Antonio’s life: the political, economic, and religious establishments of Venice gang up on him and take away all he has, even his very faith. His sensibilities seem to us those of a deeply wronged man. For what it is worth, I incline towards the view that Shakespeare is conscious of an irony in the fourth and fifth acts that was available to him at the time: it is fallen human beings who are meting out the punishments, not God, and the “quality” of their mercy is at least an open question. The Merchant of Venice may not be a tragedy, but its status as a comedy is not entirely stable, either, and I don’t believe that the “darkness” of this comedy is entirely the product of apologetic modern interpretation. Shylock is no hero, but he has at least the potential—however undeveloped—to be a “second Job” in the honesty of his questionings.

Act-by-Act Notes on The Merchant of Venice

Act 1, Scene 1

Antonio sets himself up to play the willing victim—he is sad and doesn’t know the reason why, except that the melancholia he feels isn’t about commerce or, in his estimation, love (though the latter seems to us the obvious reason since, in general, modern directors tend to assert an homoerotic bond between Antonio and Bassanio even though Antonio tells us he is sad before he learns that his friend seeks the hand of a beautiful young woman). Gratiano and other Christians would prefer to play the fool and be merry, while Antonio luxuriates in his melancholia. There’s a cheerful side to Christianity, but the other side is well characterized as the religion of sorrow. There seems to be an absolute trust between Antonio and Bassanio in this first scene. They also swear excessively, a process Antonio begins. At 161, Bassanio first names Portia as “a lady richly left” and “fair” (161), but comparing her to Brutus’ Portia also alludes to moral excellence. Well, Antonio ends the scene by hazarding all he has, as will Bassanio later on.

Act 1, Scene 2

Portia is the active agent in this play; she is constrained but not a passive sufferer with respect to her departed father’s marriage arrangements for her. Along with Nerissa, Portia trusts her father’s wisdom, but she doesn’t leave aside her own judgment – witness her snide remarks about the men who are pursuing her.

Act 1, Scene 3

The scene is partly about the different understanding of terms between Christians and Jews – to be a “good” man, in Shylock’s view, is to have sufficient funds; to “be assured” is to acquire the necessary information about a person’s finances. With the Christians, these are more abstract moral terms. We see Shylock’s resentment almost from the outset – his “ancient” grudge is both individual and collective; the personal insults are insults to his “sacred nation” as well. He considers it a duty not to forgive Antonio. Around line 76, cunning appears to be Shylock’s main attribute; he lacks the generosity of Portia’s father or the other Christians. Later, in 1.3, Shylock generates some sympathy – he has been treated like a stage villain, a stock Jew, and he responds in kind. Shylock offers his infamous conditions as “kindness” and “a merry sport.” A chance to injure Antonio has come his way, and he takes it up gleefully. This is a high-stakes wager, like Christian salvation. Antonio seems rather self-assured and dismissive, which may be hubristic. He has no doubts about his ability to pay his debts, so Shylock’s absurd conditions don’t much trouble him, as they do Bassanio. Around line 165, Shylock points out that a pound of flesh isn’t worth much—this is about revenge.

Act 2, Scene 2

Gobbo accepts the “fiend’s counsel” to abandon Shylock. So should we accept treatment of Shylock as comic raillery, something easy to do? Gobbo sees Shylock as the devil incarnate, but the play as a whole doesn’t reduce him to that. Consider the scene between Launcelot Gobbo and his father, which alludes to the story in Genesis about Jacob stealing Esau’s birthright and tricking father Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing as the first-born son. The father has brought a present for Shylock, but Gobbo wants the present to go to Bassanio. The comic spirit overcomes all, accomplishing something like “grace,” which at 150-51 Gobbo attributes to Bassanio, who cheerfully accepts Gobbo’s verbal mistakes and his suit to become his servant. In general, the process of abandoning Shylock begins right after the bargain of flesh has been struck. First Gobbo, then Jessica. What binds people? Well, the binding is supposed to be effected by generosity and love, but Shylock refuses these commands. Abandoning him is the “natural” result of his refusal, in the Christian context of the play.

Act 2, Scenes 3-5

Jessica says she’s ashamed to be Shylock’s daughter; the man insists on observance in all things and is a retailer of stale proverbs like “fast bind, fast find.” Launcelot speaks of Shylock with contempt. But in the fifth scene, Shylock’s interaction with his daughter doesn’t seem cruel – he tells her to shut her doors and avoid gazing on “Christian fools.” He prefers to remain isolated and to maintain the purity of his household. Increasingly, he will be isolated and a figure inviting the other characters’ mockery; that seems to be the process whereby the play proceeds.

Act 2, Scene 6

Shylock now loses both his daughter and a portion of his ducats. Gratiano makes pleasantries about how people fail to meet their love obligations; this mention is a setup for the weightier wrangling between Portia and Nerissa later on. It’s comically grotesque that Shylock loses his daughter and money to Christian masquers, presumably during Venice ’s carnival season – a time of great liberty and temporary overturning of conventional morality. Freedom to change is the key here, the quality to transform one’s identity is a Christian prerogative in this play – Shylock’s “change” will be forced upon him cruelly, and no doubt he will remain isolated forever after in spite of his involuntary conversion.

Act 2, Scenes 7-9

Morocco chooses between desert, desire, and hazard. He chooses what “many men desire,” on the assumption that outward appearances correspond to inward qualities. In the eighth scene, Salerio and Solanio mock Shylock’s confused babbling about his daughter and his ducats, in contrast to the generous relations between Antonio and Bassanio: “I think he only loves the world for him” (2.8.50). In the ninth scene, the prideful Aragon (a stock Spanish nobleman) assumes “desert,” and is rewarded with the portrait of “a blinking idiot.”

Act 3, Scene 1

Shylock assumes that Antonio, now bankrupt, will be easily isolated from his fellow Christians: the cash nexus is the only tie Shylock seems to recognize as binding. At lines 53-73, Shylock makes his noteworthy “Hath not a Jew eyes” declaration: Jews are part of a common humanity, but he and his entire people have been scorned and mocked. Revenge is the law of his being – he will repay Christian injustice with “usury,” with increase. To Tubal (85ff), Shylock constantly brings up money and expense—he is comically, if painfully, confused about priorities. But I suppose this scene would be played by most actors with some sympathy—after all, Shylock’s lines are powerful (“no tears but of my shedding,” etc.), and it is (at least today) common knowledge that Jews were more or less forced to take on the role of moneylenders thanks to Christian hypocrisy about the accumulation of interest on loans. At this point, Shylock is more than a stage villain – he is that, but Shakespeare’s peculiar genius seems to be that he can represent a stage villain as that and something more. Line 123 is revealing in this regard; Shylock says to Tubal, “I would not have given [Leah’s turquoise ring for a wilderness of monkeys.” The line is comic, but how could it be played, given the context, with anything less than deep feeling? At 127, Shylock tells us what part of Antonio’s flesh he has nominated: “I will have the heart of him if he forfeit.”

Act 3, Scene 2

Some strain shows between Portia and her departed father: “these naughty times put bars between the owners and their rights.” What does the song that follows mean? “Tell me where is fancy bred, etc.” We are told that “fancy dies in the cradle where it lies.” This is a warning to Bassanio – love begins with the eyes, so perhaps we had better not trust our eyes too much. Bassanio understands the warning, evidently – at 105, he chooses the threatening lead container rather than the attractive silver or gold one. Portia makes a fine speech about her qualities and shortcomings, and offers a condition – she’s all his, unless he gives away the ring, in which case she will have the upper hand. Around 181, Bassanio admits that her words have all blended together for him, but he seems to understand her words about the ring, and even takes things up a notch (again the excessive, exuberant rhetoric) by swearing that death will take him before he gives away the golden keepsake. Portia didn’t condemn him to death, after all. Bassanio is soon informed by Salerio of Antonio’s disastrous commercial loss; Portia will take the part of his friend. Bassanio, we note, uses the language of Roman honor in referring to Antonio’s friendship (line 294ff). The two men somewhat overvalue their bond, as becomes increasing apparent.

Act 3, Scene 3

Here Shylock is implacable – 17 “I will have my bond” (3.3.17). At line 22, Antonio says the Jew’s hatred stems from resentment of Christian interference in his harsh dealings with benighted creditors. But that’s obviously not the whole story—it’s hard to sustain the notion that Shylock’s revenge is simply about money. Antonio also points out that Venice must be nearly as hard-hearted as Shylock: a bargain struck is a bargain struck. Venice depends on the cash nexus, too. Antonio is a man exhausted—his commercial and other losses have wasted him almost to the bone, and he would rather suffer than fight.

Act 3, Scene 4

Portia is drawn to Antonio because friends are so much alike, and then she springs her “lawyer’s clerk” scheme: she will play the role of a male who can wield the weapon of law against Shylock and the Venetian Commercial State . To accomplish this task, she must play fast and loose with her own gender, since a woman of Shakespeare’s time (leaving aside Queen Elizabeth) was in no position to take on such authority.

Act 3, Scene 5

Jessica and Gobbo dispute comically over salvation and damnation; this is a precursor of a more serious argument during the trial about how mercy is granted, and to whom. Gobbo stands accused of egregious quibbling with words (line 43ff): “how every fool can play upon the word.” Launcelot Gobbo’s misstatements and quibbles are the light-hearted version of the play’s weightier regard for terminological and spiritual misinterpretation, equivocation, and hypocrisy. Here, “wit” takes the place of Shylock’s blind literalism and savage cunning.

Act 4, Scene 1

Antonio again appears resigned: why bother with the “stony” Shylock? That is the Duke’s term—at this point, the anti-Jewish invective is severe. But Shylock shows great harshness in this scene, to be sure—he is, as Richard III might say, “determined to prove a villain” by Christian lights. He isn’t claiming to be better than his adversaries; his attitude is that he has “bought” the flesh of a Christian hypocrite at great personal cost, and he “will have it.” Money isn’t the issue; revenge (personal and collective) is the issue. “I stand for judgment,” he insists. At 184ff, Portia advises him that “the quality of mercy is not strained,” but Shylock doesn’t understand or value this claim. The State can’t help here, and Shylock protests that he has “an oath in heaven” to stick to the bond, ever the literalist. At 257 as elsewhere, Portia goes out of her way to demonstrate the callous attitude of the Jew—witness his refusal to keep a surgeon nearby because no such thing is mentioned in his contract with Antonio. Bassanio makes an extreme utterance at this point, wishing his wife and goods to heaven to redeem the situation. Even Shylock picks up on the outrageousness of this remark: “These be the Christian husbands.” At 305, Portia insists that the bond must be read even more literally than Shylock can conceive. The other shoe drops at line 346: Shylock has sought the death of a Venetian citizen; the penalty for this may well be death, unless the Duke decides to be merciful. Half of Shylock’s goods will go to Venice as a fine, it seems, and the rest he must will to his Christian son-in-law Lorenzo and his daughter Jessica. At 394, Shylock is forced to say that he is “content” with his lot, now that he has been commanded to convert to Christianity and give away much of his fortune. The word can hardly mean what it usually would, given the context: he has simply given up, confronted as he is with the full power of Venice and a religion alien to him. Around line 427ff, Portia (disguised as the lawyer’s clerk) demands as her fee Bassanio’s ring. The point of this episode is that she will exercise mercy with respect to the decree she had previously issued. She didn’t mean the decree of faithfulness in the deadly fashion understood by Bassanio. She interprets her own words liberally rather than literally, and is generous enough to forgive Bassanio since at least he put up a struggle, however brief, over the loss of the ring. That doesn’t amount to full merit of pardon, but such perfection isn’t necessary under Portia's dispensation.

Act 5, Scene 1

Lorenzo and Jessica discuss faith and faithlessness and about the power of music to transform the soul: redemption and transformation are the theme here. Lorenzo says that music (even earthly music as opposed to the heavenly harmonies lost to us because of the “muddy vesture of decay”) will soften Jessica if she will only listen intently enough, and open herself to the experience. The whole scene is in comic contrast to Shylock’s hard-heartedness, his inability to change. Portia appreciates the fine music, but at line 109 she makes it stop because she has another vehicle of transformation: the playfully stern lecture she’s about to deliver. The extremeness of Antonio and Bassanio’s oath-taking must be tempered. Mercy doesn’t like extremes—to swear excessively is to take one’s responsibilities lightly. Bassanio in particular has shown a willingness to break an oath to his intended wife to satisfy a male-centered pressing demand—that of giving a gift to the “man” who helped Antonio win his case. He and Gratiano trivialize the marriage bond when, after making such a show of their fidelity, they break their excessive oaths at will. So Bassanio must be schooled by Portia about his responsibilities towards her as a faithful husband; she asserts that this marriage bond entails a kind of reciprocity and generosity, and accommodation that he has not yet fully acknowledged. Portia may be obedient to her father, but she is not a fool, a slave, or a child. In fact, her actions show her to be far more mature than most of the men in The Merchant of Venice.

Well, Antonio finds out that he isn’t a pauper after all, and (at line 292) we hear that Shylock has “gifted” part of his estate to Lorenzo and Jessica. Bassanio, with Antonio’s help, gets the chance to make a second affirmation of his constancy towards Portia at line 254ff. A generous understanding of speech and act is the essential contrast in the play between Christians and Jews. The former have the flexibility to transform and to be transformed, while Shylock remains implacable and experiences his enforced change as nothing short of torture; he remains outside the circle of happiness that concludes the play. (So does Antonio, who is not amongst those happily married in the comic ending.) Jessica, however, seems to hold out the possibility of redemption for all; she’s a Jewish woman whose free conversion for the sake of love stands in comic defiance of a spiteful Christian witticism “till the Jews be converted” as a way of saying “never.”


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