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Authors: William Shakespeare

The Merchant of Venice

BOOK: The Merchant of Venice
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The RSC Shakespeare
Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen
Chief Associate Editors: Héloïse Sénéchal and Jan Sewell
Associate Editors: Trey Jansen, Eleanor Lowe, Lucy Munro,
Dee Anna Phares

The Merchant of Venice
Textual editing: Eric Rasmussen
Introduction and Shakespeare’s Career in the Theater: Jonathan Bate
Commentary: Eleanor Lowe and Héloïse Sénéchal
Scene-by-Scene Analysis: Esme Miskimmin
In Performance: Karin Brown (RSC stagings), Peter Kirwan (overview)
The Director’s Cut and Playing Shylock (interviews by Jonathan Bate
and Kevin Wright):
David Thacker, Darko Tresnjak; Antony Sher, Henry Goodman

Editorial Advisory Board
Gregory Doran, Chief Associate Director,
Royal Shakespeare Company
Jim Davis, Professor of Theatre Studies, University of Warwick, UK
Charles Edelman, Senior Lecturer, Edith Cowan University,
Western Australia
Lukas Erne, Professor of Modern English Literature,
Université de Genève, Switzerland
Jacqui O’Hanlon, Director of Education, Royal Shakespeare Company
Akiko Kusunoki, Tokyo Woman’s Christian University, Japan
Ron Rosenbaum, author and journalist, New York, USA
James Shapiro, Professor of English and Comparative Literature,
Columbia University, USA
Tiffany Stern, Professor and Tutor in English, University of Oxford, UK



“Which Is the Merchant Here?”

“In Belmont Is a Lady Richly Left”

“… And Which the Jew?”

About the Text

Key Facts

The Merchant of Venice

Textual Notes

Scene-by-Scene Analysis

The Merchant of Venice
in Performance: The RSC and Beyond

Four Centuries of
The Merchant
: An Overview

At the RSC

The Director’s Cut: Interviews with David Thacker and Darko Tresnjak

Playing Shylock: Interviews with Antony Sher and Henry Goodman

Shakespeare’s Career in the Theater



The Ensemble at Work

The King’s Man

Shakespeare’s Works: A Chronology

Further Reading and Viewing


Acknowledgments and Picture Credits


In the summer of 1598, Shakespeare’s acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, registered their right to allow or disallow the printing of “a book of the Merchant of Venice or otherwise called the Jew of Venice.” They seem to have been a little bit uncertain as to what they should call their new play. Or perhaps they were anxious to forestall any unauthorized publisher from producing a volume called “The Jew of Venice” and passing it off as their play. Christopher Marlowe’s comi-tragic farce
The Jew of Malta
had been one of the biggest box-office hits of the age, so an echo of its title would have been an attractive proposition.

Fourteen comedies were collected by Shakespeare’s fellow actors in the First Folio of his complete plays, published after his death. The majority of them had titles evocative of an idea (
All’s Well That Ends Well
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Much Ado About Nothing
) or a time of year (
Twelfth Night
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The Winter’s Tale
). Two of them indicate a group of characters in a particular place: gentlemen of Verona in one case, merry wives of Windsor in the other. One suggests a character type:
The Taming of the Shrew
. In the light of these patterns, it would have been reasonable to name the comedy registered in 1598 after an idea—Bassanio’s successful quest for Portia is a case of “Love’s Labour’s Won,” Portia’s judgment on Shylock metes out “Measure for Measure.” It would also have been reasonable to indicate a group of characters in a particular place: “The Merchants of Venice” (Bassanio, Lorenzo, Gratiano, Salerio, and Solanio are all merchants of one kind or another). Or it would have been possible to suggest a character type: “The Taming of the Jew.”

In 1600 the play was published with a title page intended to whet the prospective reader’s appetite:
The most excellent History of the Merchant of Venice. With the extreme cruelty of Shylock the Jew towards the said Merchant, in cutting a just pound of his flesh, and the obtaining of
Portia by the choice of three chests
. The character of Shylock and the courtship of Portia by Bassanio were clearly considered to be the play’s principal selling points, and yet it is “the merchant,” Antonio, who gets the top line of the title to himself, a unique distinction in the Folio corpus of Shakespearean comedy (his only rival in this regard is “the shrew” in her play, but “the taming” implicitly gives equal weight to her antagonist, the tamer). Given that Antonio has this unique distinction, one would have expected him to be the central focus of the action. Yet in no other Shakespearean play does the titular character have such a small role: Portia’s is much the largest part, followed by Shylock and then Bassanio. Antonio is no more prominent in the dialogue than his friends Gratiano and Lorenzo. Ask a class of students “Who
the merchant of Venice?” and they will hesitate a moment—as they will not when asked who is the Prince of Denmark or the Moor of Venice.

The part almost seems to be deliberately underwritten. “In sooth I know not why I am so sad,” says Antonio in the very first line of the play. His friends suggest some possible reasons: he is worried about his merchandise, or perhaps he is in love. Antonio denies both, proposing instead that to play the melancholy man is simply his given role in the theater of the world. Intriguingly, Shakespeare gives the name “Antonio” to discontented characters in two other plays. One is Sebastian’s nautical companion in
Twelfth Night
, who keeps company with his friend day and night, even risks his own life for him, only to be ignored when Sebastian finds the love of a good woman. The other is Prospero’s usurping brother in
The Tempest
, who has no wife or child of his own and who is again marginalized at the end of the play.

Some productions have explored the sense of exclusion associated with the Antonio figures by suggesting that they are made melancholy by unrequited homoerotic desire. Probably the first critic to identify this possibility as a hidden key to
The Merchant of Venice
was the (homosexual) poet W. H. Auden. In a dazzling essay called “Brothers and Others” (included in his volume of criticism
The Dyer’s Hand
, 1962), Auden deftly identified Antonio as “a man whose emotional life, though his conduct may be chaste, is concentrated upon a member of his own sex.” Auden wondered if Antonio’s feelings for Bassanio were somewhat akin to those suggested by the closing couplet
of Shakespeare’s twentieth sonnet, addressed to a beautiful young man: “But since she [Nature] pricked thee out for women’s pleasure, / Mine be thy love, and my love’s use their treasure.” The idea that the love of man for man may have an unrivaled spiritual intensity, whereas the congress of man and woman is bound up with breeding and property, has a long history.

It is Antonio rather than Bassanio, Auden suggests, who embodies the words on Portia’s leaden casket: “‘Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.’” Antonio is prepared to give and hazard his own flesh as bond in the deal with Shylock that will provide Bassanio with the financial capital he needs in order to speculate on the marriage market. In Auden’s view, this creates a strange correspondence between the merchant and the Jew: “Shylock, however unintentionally, did, in fact, hazard all for the sake of destroying the enemy he hated; and Antonio, however unthinkingly he signed the bond, hazarded all to secure the happiness of the man he loved.” By setting Antonio’s life as a forfeit, Antonio and Shylock enter into a bond that places them outside the normative rule of law that regulates society. Auden speculatively notes the “association of sodomy with usury” that can be traced back to Dante’s

Whether or not it is appropriate to invoke the idea of sexual transgression, Shakespeare often returned to a triangular structure of relationships in which close male friendship is placed at odds with desire for a woman. The pattern recurs not only in several of the plays but also as the implied narrative of the Sonnets.
The Merchant of Venice
begins with Bassanio seeking to borrow from his friend in order to finance the pursuit of a wealthy lover. He sets himself up as a figure from classical mythology: Jason in pursuit of the Golden Fleece. The analogy establishes Gratiano and Lorenzo as fellow Argonauts. Jason was renowned for being clever and brave, but also selfish and materialistic. His pattern of behavior was to gain the assistance of a woman—Ariadne, Medea—in realizing his ambitions, to become her lover and then to desert her and move on to a new adventure. With Jason as his role model, Bassanio has the potential to join the company of those other lovers in Shakespearean comedy—Claudio in
Much Ado About Nothing
, Bertram in
All’s Well That Ends Well
—who are not worthy of the women they obtain.

To make such comparisons is to see that
The Merchant of Venice
is one of Shakespeare’s darker comedies. The blurring of perspectives between the romantic and the sinister is especially apparent in the beautiful but ironic love-duet of Lorenzo and Jessica at the beginning of the final act. They compare themselves to some oft-sung partners from the world of classical mythology. But what kind of exemplary figures are these? Cressida, who was unfaithful to Troilus; Medea the poisoner; Thisbe, whose tragical fate, though comically represented in the Mechanicals’ play in
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
, was identical to Juliet’s; and Dido, whom Aeneas deserted in his quest for imperial glory. They are all figures in the pantheon of tragedy, not comedy.

The cleverness that Bassanio shares with the mythological figure of Jason is apparent from his choice of casket. Portia’s late father has devised a simple test to find her the right husband: those suitors who choose the golden or silver caskets are clearly motivated by desire for wealth and must therefore want to marry her for her money. The man who chooses lead obviously does not care about cash, so he is likely to love Portia for herself alone. Bassanio, however, recognizes that appearances are not to be trusted. Venice, sixteenth-century Europe’s preeminent city of commercial exchange and conspicuous consumption, has taught him that credit allows a man to display himself above his means. He does not want to look like a fortune hunter when wooing Portia, so he borrows from Antonio in order to dress like a wealthy man: “By something showing a more swelling port / Than my faint means would grant continuance.” He chooses the lead casket because he knows from his own example that “outward shows” may be least themselves and that the world is easily deceived “with ornament.” Gold, he reasons, is for greedy Midas, so he spurns it—this is what he imagines Portia wants to hear. He is, of course, assisted by the hint she drops for his benefit; whereas Morocco and Aragon had to make their choice in silence, Bassanio’s is heralded by a song that warns against trusting what appears to “the eyes.” And yet the fact remains that Bassanio is driven by the quest for a wealthy spouse. Antonio is the one who really cares about love more than money, about the “bond” of friendship more than the legal and financial bond, about what is “dear” to his heart more than
what is “dear” in the sense of expensive. For Shakespeare’s audience, the words “merchant” and “Venice” were both synonymous with the pursuit of money, but paradoxically, Antonio is, of all the characters in the play, the one who is least bound to material possessions.

BOOK: The Merchant of Venice
3.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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