Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Merchant of Venice: Commentary

It is vital, when commenting on this passage, to be aware that it was not meant to be read in silence, but to be performed on the stage. This makes such a difference because characters on a stage literally come to life: they are embodied, close and present. Their positions on the stage are also very important, and so I have drawn a rough sketch of how I imagine this scene:

This highlights how Shylock is alienated from the other characters: he is the only one standing alone, apart from Portia, who has the power over the situation in her role as the judge. This hints at Shylock’s impending humiliation. In her position of power and in the tension of the scene, the playful aspect of Portia’s cross-dressing is lost, as Palfrey notes:[1] unlike Rosalind in As You Like It, she makes no asides about her hidden identity. A closer look at the text itself also reveals how it would sound vocally on the stage, which likewise influences the audience’s impression of the characters. Portia’s speech, beginning “The quality of mercy is not strained…,”[2] is even and measured in tone. This reflects her control, both over herself and over the fates of Antonio and Shylock. Shylock’s words, however, include a caesura in almost every line and frequent exclamations. The fractured intensity of his speech reflects how he is rapidly losing control over both himself and also the situation, though he does not yet realise it.

This passage, and the scene from which it comes, are vital to the play as a whole in terms of symbols. The characters both embody symbols and are themselves, which is unsurprising as Shakespeare wrote at a time between the purely symbolic characters of medieval morality plays and our own often non-symbolic, character-based modern plays. Put simply, Shylock, as the Jew, stands for the Old Testament and for justice: he says “I crave the law,” (4.1.201) and demands the pre-determined punishment and recompense of Antonio’s “pound of flesh” (4.1.227). Portia, on the other hand, stands for the New Testament and for mercy, as she says earlier in the scene: “I stand for sacrifice.” (3.2.57) She understands the law: “There is no power in Venice / Can alter a decree establish├ęd,” (4.1.213-4) but she requests that Shylock be merciful and accept pecuniary recompense instead. This is linked thematically with God’s mercy to mankind, made possible by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

These themes are reflected in the ubiquitous religious language of Portia’s speech. She describes mercy as like “a gentle rain from heaven” [my italics] (4.1.180): soothing, nourishing, peaceful and essentially divine. Mercy, like Christ, is both “gentle” (4.1.180) and “mightiest,” (4.1.183) and the link is continued with language pertaining to royalty: “it is enthron├ęd in the heart of kings.” (4.1.189) God himself is mentioned a number of times, as is salvation and prayer. She uses the verb “to bless” in her assertion that it benefits both the giver and the recipient, an argument which is particularly interesting because it almost seems to encourage a selfish motive, rather than a Christian one. Shylock is, after all, a Jew, and so is not to be persuaded by any talk of being Christ-like or indeed any other Christian argument. Portia, it seems, is blind to this: she even tells him: “We do pray for mercy, / and that same prayer should teach us to render / The deeds of mercy.” (4. 1. 195-6) Another failing in Portia’s argument is that she contradicts herself, since she claims that mercy “is not strained” (4.1.179) and yet she has just told Shylock that he “must” (4.1.177) be merciful.

This echoes how, throughout the play, the behaviour of the Christians is far from perfect. It is impossible to comment on this passage without considering what comes so soon afterwards: Shylock is humiliated and forced to convert. This forced conversion not only robs Shylock of his identity, it is ultimately pointless: forced love is not true love, and there is something distressing about disguising humiliation as mercy. This passage is particularly significant in respect to this, as we see Portia steadily getting Shylock’s hopes up: “lawfully by this the Jew may claim / A pound of flesh,” (4.1.226-7) which suggests a certain relish in the cruelty she is planning. Shakespeare was perhaps engaging in social commentary here, subversively likening Portia to the powerful and supposedly Christian state of the time.

That is not to say that Shylock is to be entirely sympathised with here, though there is a kind of perverse heroism in his turning down money for revenge. Shylock’s demanding a pound of Antonio’s flesh is disgusting, yet fascinating, and real dramatic tension is created when it seems that Portia is about to let him have it. This “pound of flesh” is surely symbolic too. Ryan believes that it reflects the concealed nature of the Christians: being near the heart, it is a literal expression of the heartlessness of Venice.[3]

The audience is also prevented from sympathising, at least wholeheartedly, with Shylock in this passage because he is presented as a deeply unpleasant character. One of the great ambiguities in this play is that Shylock is the miserly Jewish stereotype, which was an iconic figure at the time, and a fully rounded character. Palfrey speculates that he may have been dressed as a typical stage Jew, perhaps even wearing a ‘Jew mask.’[4] Shakespeare thus seems to be endorsing that image. Yet he includes these poignant words:

“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions, fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?” (3.1.49-55)

Yet Shylock ensures in the passage that he is not pitied, not only by his demands, but by his being generally difficult to like. He seeks to further his cause by flattering Portia as the judge, calling her a “wise young judge” (4.1.219), a “worthy judge” (4.1.231) and “a Daniel” (4.1. 218), after the Old Testament king who showed great wisdom in his youth. His final speech in this passage is also sickeningly self-righteous in tone: “I charge you, by the law / Whereof you are a well-deserving pillar” (4.1.234).

I would like to conclude by pointing out that the trial scene, of which this passage is part, is actually an alternative ending to the play. As a comedy, The Merchant of Venice is required to have a happy ending, but the final scene seems to me to be almost the ghost of a happy ending as it is far less powerful than this scene. Whether or not the trial scene ends happily depends on one’s point of view, but Shylock’s destruction, cruel as it is, seems necessary to The Merchant of Venice’s ending happily. Shylock is sacrificed to the teleology of the play. Perhaps it is he, after all, who stands for sacrifice.

Word Count: 1195


Greenblatt, S., Cohen, W., Howard, J. E and Maus, K. E. (eds.) The Norton Shakespeare (New York: W. W. Norton and Co. Ltd., 1997).
Palfrey, Simon, Doing Shakespeare, (London: The Arden Shakespeare, 2006).
Ryan, Kiernan, Shakespeare, (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002).

[1] Simon Palfrey, Doing Shakespeare, (London: The Arden Shakespeare, 2006), p. 200.
[2] Stephen Greenblatt, Water Cohen, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisamann Maus, (eds.) The Norton Shakespeare (New York: W. W. Norton and Co. Ltd., 1997), p. 1132. Subsequent references are to this edition.
[3] Kiernan Ryan, Shakespeare, (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002), p. 19.
[4] Palfrey, Doing Shakespeare, p. 192.

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