THE MERCHANT OF VENICE


Venice. A street.

Jessica:
I am sorry thou wilt leave my father so;
Our house is hell, and thou, a merry devil,
Didst rob it of some taste of tediousness.
But fare thee well; (She gives him some money) there is a ducat for thee,
And Launcelot, soon at supper shalt thou see
Lorenzo, who is thy new master's guest;
Give him this letter, do it secretly,
And so farewell; I would not have my father
See me in talk with thee.

Launcelot:
Adieu! tears exhibit my tongue, most beautiful pagan, most sweet Jew! if a Christian do not play the knave and get thee, I am much deceived; but adieu! these foolish drops do something drown my manly spirit; adieu!

Jessica:
Farewell, good Launcelot.
Alack, what heinous sin is it in me
To be ashamed to be my father's child!
But though I am a daughter to his blood
I am not to his manners. O Lorenzo,
If thou keep promise I shall end this strife,
Become a Christian, and thy loving wife!

The Merchant of Venice is often seen as an anti-Semitic work due to the stereotypical portrayal of the Jewish character Shylock. Some critics would argue that the almost inevitable interpretation of Shylock as a miserly wretch who cares for nothing but his money is Shakespeare expressing now-unfashionable anti-Jewish views. However, one must remember that this view was seen as entirely normal and acceptable at the time, and most of the Jews of Elizabethan England had stoicly accepted such treatment.

There is also another Jewish character in the play, and it is Shakespeare's portrayal of her that suggests that his views are not so anti-Semitic after all. Instead, one might argue that Shylock is set up as a hyper-typical Jewish character and is used for comic effect and actually serves to undermine the traditional [perception of Jews as inferior. His daughter Jessica, on the other hand, is often seen in a most favourable light and is clearly well-liked by all the characters she encounters. Here, I will explore her role in the play.

There are a number of key themes that run throughout the play and pertain to all the characters in it; the character of Jessica is able to link each of these themes and tie them together. The extract presented is taken from Act II Scene III, immediately after the comic scene of Launcelot Gobbo and Old Gobbo.

Jessica, as the daughter of Shylock, is born a Jew and is brought up in a Jewish household. As the reader will have seen in earlier scenes, Jews in general and in particular Shylock were faced with constant persecution. This discrimination would seem quite normal to the Elizabethan audience of the time. Jessica, however, seems to encounter an altogether different attitude, which could be seen as evidence that Shakespeare did not see Jews as inherently inferior but rather as a product of the treatment they received at the hands of the Christians of the time. In this passage, there is not a single negative epithet bestowed upon her, quite in apposition to the scenes of Shylock and Antonio; indeed Launcelot calls her a “most sweet Jew”, which appears to be an oxymoron when seen in it’s historical context.

This “most beautiful pagan” also has another crucial role in the play, and that is to extend the theme of love, by her relationship with Lorenzo. This is surely the closest to the archetypal Classical love story that we come to in the play, as two characters with wildly different backgrounds fall in love, much to the dismay of the parental figure of Shylock. There are also parallels to the romance of Portia and Bassanio, as Portia too is controlled by her father, even though he is dead, and is attracted to a man of far lower class than herself. In the extract, we see Jessica’s willingness to convert to Christianity; again, a quite shocking revelation to the audience of the time! But when she promises to “become a Christian, and [Lorenzo]’s loving wife”, it is apparent that her volunteering to convert is a demonstration of the depth of her love for Lorenzo. Indeed, so obvious is her affection for the Christian that even Launcelot, speaking in prose, realises that “if a Christian do not … get [her], [he] is much deceived.” This is Shakespeare suggesting that Jessica’s love for Lorenzo is so apparent and over-flowing that even the fool can recognise it. Addressing a soliloquy to an off-stage character further emphasises her devotion to him.

Shylock’s control of his daughter leads to another key aspect of the play; the universal dislike for Shylock. Jessica admits she is “ashamed to be [her] father’s child”, and clearly if she is willing to desert her religion then she must hold little trust in her father’s beliefs. It is worth remembering that Shylock is the only family Jessica has. Therefore to leave him behind demonstrates not only that she is disillusioned with the identity forced upon her by the attitude towards Jews of the time but also that she is completely in love with Lorenzo. When she describes her house as having a “taste of tediousness”, the strong dental alliteration immediately creates images of words being spat out with distaste and powerful passion. However, she is unable to forget that she is “a daughter to his blood”; that part of Shylock will always be in her and she is inescapably a Jew. It is perhaps hard for a modern audience to imagine how it must feel to receive such tireless persecution that one would want to disown one’s own race, but it is part of the power of the play that the audience is able to empathise at least a little with Jessica’s plight.

Shakespeare imbues Jessica with a number of characteristics that would certainly not be seen as stereotypically Jewish by an Elizabethan audience. In the extract, she presents the house servant Launcelot with a ducat, showing that she has generosity. On the one hand this act suggests her closeness to the servant and sympathy for him. On the other hand this serves to reinforce the mistress-to-servant relationship that is seen to so comically break down between Portia and Nerissa. If the latter interpretation is taken - that Jessica is keen to maintain the status quo on mistress seniority - surely it is all the more surprising and even impressive that she makes such a gesture, and certainly it raises the audience’s sympathy for her unfortunate circumstance.

Another unexpected characteristic is the way in which, in the extract, she is seen to encourage the “merry devil” Launcelot; quite the opposite of her father who later tells her to lock up the house when the masque parade comes past. This desire for light-hearted entertainment is deliberately designed to separate her own manner from that of her father in the minds of the audience. In addition to “merry devil”, Jessica makes use of a number of other Christian images in the extract, saying that her “house is hell” and lamenting, “What a heinous sin is it in me.” The use of these overtly Christian ideas would no doubt appear ironic to an audience who saw Jews as pagans and altogether ignorant of their own, supposedly superior, spiritual concepts. Such provocative language as “heinous sin” might even have seemed comic.

Indeed, despite the emotionally charged nature of the extract, there is no doubt that this scene could be performed in an amusing fashion. Launcelot exaggerated style in “these foolish drops do something drown my manly spirit” and his parting cry of “adieu,” coming from a fool and presented in prose, could only be seen as deliberate high-style and therefore comic. His muddled words, for example “exhibit” where “inhibit” is intended, show that he is neither adept at nor accustomed to speaking in such a fashion, and is doing so presumably to impress and console Jessica. Following on from such a comic scene as the exchange of Launcelot Gobbo and Old Gobbo, it is inevitable that the audience is in a mood for laughter. An interpretation that left this extract completely devoid of humour might well leave the performance disjointed and the audience in the wrong state of mind to receive such a powerful speech. By showing that she is good-humoured and surrounding her with other like-minded characters, Shakespeare further separates her from her father in the audience’s perception.

Jessica also has some part in another major theme of the play; that of money. For although many characters in the play are driven by money, Jessica herself seems rather generous. This has been touched on before, as again such an attitude is not one that the audience of the time would associate with Jews, although today we would barely give it a second thought. Just as she passes the money to Launcelot, she warns that she “would not have [her] father see [Launcelot] in talk” with her, which is clearly linked to her resentment of her father and the way in which she is presented as a very different character from him. However, there is an apparent conflict with this view of her selfless attitude to money just a few scenes later - Solanio reports that, when she absconded with Lorenzo, Jessica took with her “two sealed bags of ducats … and two rich and precious stones.” Of course Solanio is exaggerating to parody Shylock but, even with this in mind, it seems Jessica has been greedy in stealing from her father. However, I would see this as evidence of just how detached from her father Jessica has become. For a character in other ways so unconcerned with money to take such an excessive sum there must surely be an act of retribution involved, along with the need for financial provision.

In conclusion, I would say that Jessica has a key role to play in the comedy. For those looking for evidence that Shakespeare was not anti-Semitic, the positive light in which Jessica is portrayed is undoubtedly compelling evidence. If anything, she shows that Jews are on an equal footing with Christians but can only be recognised as such if they abandon their faith, and thus Shakespeare mocks the idea that they are somehow an inferior race. The love story with Lorenzo and her attitude towards money help separate her from her father in the way the audience perceive the two Jewish characters of the play, and show that there is much variation within the race and therefore the traditional stereotypes are inaccurate. In the extract, her own ironic dialogue and the amusing exchange with Launcelot show that she is as good-humoured and amusing as any of the Christians in the play. Her key role, I believe, is to counteract any impression that Shylock is intended to display a stereotype to which all Jews would be expected to conform.

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Two essays on The Merchant Of Venice

On the juxtaposition of head and heart

The first problem posed in The Merchant of Venice is that of Antonio who is wondering about the reasons for his feeling weary and down. Like a typical, well-respected Renaissance gentleman, Antonio goes about his predicament in an intelligent manner. He looks within himself, down to his centre of being to try and discover the rational meaning of his emotions - he searches to the very core of his soul. With clear objectives, Antonio uses his head and thinks philosophically. There is no hint of rash self-pity or bemusement, only incisive cogitation. This shows how Antonio can be a calm, measured man, capable of carefully thinking things over in order to come to the best conclusion - he can control his natural impulses and uses his intellect to reason. It reflects his attitude to his job and Antonio is evidently a competent and successful businessman. He deliberately fathoms out the cause of his sorrow and is able to comprehend the true meaning of things. Antonio eloquently dismisses his friends' reasoning, ignoring Salerio's vivid scaremongering imagery and responding with the measured, "My ventures are not in one bottom trusted" (I, i, l. 42).

However, Antonio's response to a later problem provides a stark contrast to his apparent shrewd composure and calculated deliberation. Although he is clearly able to comfortable and skilfully trade with large sums of money in business, when it comes to personal relations, Antonio's apperception of important issues is rather lacking. His lack of concern in relation to loaning the indebted Bassanio an exorbitant amount of money is so absurd it even brings us to question how deep Antonio's love for such a close friend is. Away from business transactions, his heart rules his head and Antonio gives in to Bassanio's cunning attempts to have his latest expedition financed for nothing. By merely throwing in snippets of emotional blackmail and petty childhood mental pictures, Bassanio convinces the overly generous Antonio to say, "My purse, my person, my extremest means/Lie all unlocked to your occasions" (I, i, ll. 137-8). In this scene Antonio displays a distinct lack of self-control, awareness and rationality. By giving in so easily to Bassanio's wordy spiel, he displays a mind that can behave in drastically different ways. One moment, Antonio is the definitive ponderous intellectual and the next, he's a whimsical weak-willed loveable old man with too much warmth in the bottom of his heart.

Shylock is another canny businessman who is unlikely to be irrationally swayed by his emotions in an important usury deal. He is calm, collected and knowledgeable because he knows he is well informed from his contacts upon the Rialto. When dealing with Bassanio and Antonio, Shylock is very cunning and avoids awkward questions whilst keeping the negotiations efficiently short, sharp and to the point. This is emphasised by the short line lengths and quick interchanges at the beginning of scene three. The haggling is not convoluted, though Shylock is wary and deliberative - he never allows his head to give way during important business. With careful management, the Jew believes he can design and create success; a point highlighted by Shylock's retelling a story from the Old Testament. By weighing up the risks and the "peril of the waters" (I, iii, l. 20), he thinks things over carefully and even uses social engineering so as to be sure to glean the most out of Antonio and his desperate companion Bassanio. Shylock contrives and expertly extracts all the money he can get out of Antonio who, in this situation, has to agree to any offer he is given.

When Shylock mentions the pound of flesh penalty as "a merry sport" (I, iii, l. 139), it is not clear whether this was intended and planned malice designed as revenge on his Christian nemesis or a light-hearted joke thrown in for the sake of humour. As such, it cannot really be said whether Shylock is allowing himself to be ruled by his head or his heart. I tend to believe that it was more likely to be premeditated and thus, was an action thought about from his head. Still, strong emotions from the heart are prerequisite for someone to want to seek retribution in such a way. If it had been a spontaneous decision on Shylock's part, there would have been more of a case for him following his heart, as it would be a petty way to cozen his bitter rival Antonio for no real economic gain.

Another character with crucial and influential judgements to make is Bassanio. He has already made the decision to travel to Belmont to seek Portia's hand in marriage. This is partially a conscious decision, as marrying into money was a shrewd thing to do and would enhance his social status no end. However, despite the fact she is a woman "richly left" (I, i, l. 160), Portia hold far more attractions for Bassanio. She was probably beautiful and was worthy enough to attract many meritorious and grand suitors. Although he has only met Portia once from a distance, she favourably recollects his visit ("I remember him well" (I, ii,, l. 102)) and it's quite possible that he may be in love with her. Either way, it is an important choice with strong repercussions and Bassanio must have thought about taking out another loan from Antonio very deeply as well as being swayed enough by his feelings to risk everything and venture out to woo Portia.

Portia herself has some knotty decisions to deal with. Her head tells her that the declaration in her father's will shall be beneficial. Despite being forcefully bound to it and having no choice herself, I think she comes to the conclusion that overall, it will end with a propitious outcome. Portia trusts her father, believes that he will always do what is best for her and, although the rules set down in his will do not very clearly manifest a timeless wish for her felicity, she believes it will be prosperous to obey his wishes. Portia has faith in the three caskets test and thinks that her father has designed it so that only someone really worthy of her, someone who chooses well, could ever become her husband. When she confides in her maid Nerissa, she is more than resigned to having to follow her father's will - she even treats it in a light-hearted and jocular manner, eloquently joking about prospective partners-to-be. Nerissa articulately agrees that it is not necessarily bad thing: she believes in the "Golden Mean" Renaissance philosophy that "it is no mean happiness...to be seated in the mean" (I, iii, l.6-7).

Still Portia confides that her heart does have a say in the matter. Like all girls, she dreams and her heart tells her that she will someday marry for love, not a place in society, and is still waiting for her sweet prince to come. In her conversation with Nerissa, we find that her ideal man is the opposite of all the suitors see has met so far: joyous, modest, generous, interesting and a good communicator. She wants to be the wife of someone noble and have a good relationship, but so far, has been unimpressed and frustrated by her suitors saying "I pray God grant them a fair departure" (ll. 94-5). Portia is wise enough to realise that sometimes the heart will overrule what the rational brain tell her: "The brain my devise laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps o 'er a cold decree" (I, iii, 15-6). Luckily for Portia, she doesn't face much of a dilemma and is able to carefully balance head and heart in accepting her fate by her father's design.

Later, in the second act, Portia reveals that should anyone want to choose a casket in order to win her hand and fail, they shall never be able to "speak to lady afterward/In way of marriage" (II, i, ll. 41-2). As such, many of her wooers use their heads to weigh up the odds and consider it too big a risk to take. Only those who care enough about her are willing to make such a hazardous plunge again. It is also interesting to see how freely Antonio agrees to Shylock's loan conditions with a complete lack of caution. He is overconfident and one suspects that he would have been more wary and attentive had personal issues not been involved. As it is, he swiftly agrees without even an infinitesimal pause for thought and says, "I'll seal to such a bond," even though Bassanio objects. This is unusually harebrained and unwise for a businessman such as Antonio, again demonstrating how he lets his heart rule his body.

Throughout the play, we can observe conflict within characters between their heads and their hearts. When people rely on just their head, they are successful but often miss out on more subtle sensitivities, whereas always following your heart means imprudent judgements are made and it is foolish at best - especially when people are unable to return or understand your love. As the story progresses, the compromisers tend to come out best as they can balance their brain and their emotions equally.


Shylock, the most interesting and complex character, commands our respect and even our sympathy, yet is his own worst enemy

Shylock is certainly an interesting character made even more intriguing by Shakespeare's portrayal of him. Much before the twentieth century, anti-Semitism was rife and The Merchant of Venice is a curious tale, as we are able to see how Jews were viewed in the late 1500s - especially as Shakespeare's depiction was at odds with the accepted anti-Jewish prejudiced views in that he considers both sides of the argument. This play is an insight into the general opinions of Jews, the daily hostility facing them Shakespeare's time and helps us understand why the hatred facing them through the ages came about.

When Shylock is first encountered in Act I, scene iii, he strikes the reader as contemplative and very shrewd businessman. He takes his time over deliberative answers and never overcommits - by saying, "...well" (I, iii, ll. 1, 3, 5) at the end of each sentence, Shylock allows himself time to think and weigh up the information he is just received. Everything he does is precisely relevant and he conducts fast, efficient business that is not at all convoluted with exactly measured short utterances. He is canny and avoids Bassanio's direct questions with ambiguity. Shylock is always in full control of the conversation and seems to be aware of everything that is going on in Venice from a myriad of contacts "upon the Rialto" (I, iii, ll. 15-6). Shylock does not appear to bear any strong grudges against the Christians despite the fact that Antonio has previously "spat on [him]" (I, iii, l. 119), "spurned [him]" (I, iii, l. 120) and "called [him] dog" (I, iii, l. 121). Instead, he treats him without any contempt and even hints of respect - Shylock focuses on the business dealings, and ignores any malice he may feel when there is money to be made. Shylock may not like the people he is dealing with, but he adores the rewards of dealing with them.

However, our opinion of Shylock drastically changes when Antonio enters. Before, he seemed like an unfairly persecuted Jew, hated only because of his race and usury. But, once the merchant arrives, Shylock states, "I hate him for he is a Christian," (I, iii, l. 35) and then rattles off a plethora of reasons why he dislikes him so. What strikes the reader is that, coming from someone often facing prejudice, Antonio is hated not for personal reasons or particular wrongs, but because of his profession and religion. Though, Shylock can be sympathised with a little later when confronted with Antonio's flagrant superciliousness and unfounded moral superiority. Shylock displays a deep-rooted enmity for Antonio because they have been long-standing enemies, while he is more civil and forthcoming toward Bassanio. However, his hostile and antagonistic attitude towards others does nothing to alleviate the disapprobation and antipathy he faces - Shylock would be much more easily accepted if he did not constantly refer to his Judaism and behave in such an élitist manner.

In Act II, scene ii, we can understand Shylock from the angle of him as an employer. Launcelot clearly dislikes the Jew, describing him in a typical way as "the very devil incarnation" (II, ii, ll. 22-3). Later, it is made clear that Shylock is a bad master and Launcelot says, "I am a Jew if I serve the Jew any longer," (II, ii, ll. 100-1) as though the feared Jewish condition is contagious. The cruelty and miserliness of Shylock is emphasised by the generosity of Launcelot's new master, Bassanio - the perfect Christian offers fine new clothes to his new obsequious servant. It is clear that Launcelot has chosen the "righteous" path despite Shylock being much richer and previously holding a more prosperous position - even betraying your father was considered acceptable in the pursuit of Christianity.

Scenes iv and v then display Shylock from yet another perspective - though the eyes of his daughter. This part again shows the Jew to be an immoral person with little respect for others and a spineless heart of stone. He is even unable to truly love his own daughter and instead, tries to shelter her from perceived threats from sinful heathens by means of Draconian rules. Jessica feels very restricted by her father, and the fifth scene opens with Shylock juggling her orders with a conversation with Launcelot. She even comes second best to a servant, and gracefully accepts her characteristically female subservient position under her father responding to his every whim as she answers his calls, "Call you? What is your will?" (II, v, l. 10) Shylock thinks of money foremost, leaving Jessica to guard his riches. In his speech from lines twenty-seven to thirty-eight, Shylock adequately illustrates how he enforces a Jewish divide and is caring toward Jessica but overly protective and restrictive. He issues many orders and commands her to not "thrust [her] head into the public street" (II, v, l. 31) lest she be corrupted by the non-Jews perceived as being unholy. Shylock is proud of his excessive sobriety and Jewishness. However, ironically, he does not realise that by locking his daughter up, he finally grants her freedom and that, by worrying only about having his jewels stolen, he stands to lose something far more precious to him.

Shylock is a very different person to his daughter and servant than the businessman who dealt with Bassanio and Antonio. He seems less calm and measured, as well as not as alert and omniscient and, despite dishing out imperatives, does not appear to the reader to be as in control of the situation. The tone is almost insecure as though he is scared that his daughter will betray him as he constantly reminds her to "lock up [his] doors" (II, v, l. 28) and ignore raucous partying outside. When specifying the terms of a loan, Shylock knew he had the upper hand and that Bassanio was desperate, as well as regarding the Christians with contempt, so he could deal with them without invoking strong emotions. By being so detached, he can work effectively and maximise profit and well as staying unflustered. Shylock was not at all threatened by Antonio and Bassanio and controlled the conversation so much he even briefly uncovered some empathy in the audience. However, in this scene, he clearly knows that ultimately Jessica will do whatever she chooses herself and this worries him. He tries to control her as much as possible with all sorts of oppressive restrictions but Jessica has no second thoughts or last-minute doubts about leaving her own father - the scene ends as she states, "I have a father, you a daughter, lost" (II, v, l. 55).

Shylock does command our respect as a businessman as he always seems to be on the qui vive and aware of every happening in Venice. He conducts deals professionally and is more easily respected nowadays as the practice of charging interest on loans is very much acceptable in capitalism society. It is easy to see that Jews are unfairly persecuted in Venice and ergo, elicits some sympathy. However, Shylock does not help his cause by being so unwelcoming himself and coming up with cruel terms such as his desire for "An equal pound/Of [Antonio's] fair flesh" (I, iii, l. 143-4). It is easy to feel sorry for a widower and social outcast who is hated by his servants and only daughter but, when confronted with the details, it is very obvious why he is disliked. Even taking account of people's prejudice, Shylock is not a particularly pleasant or amicable character. It is usually natural to support the underdog, but Shylock just makes things hard for himself by being hostile and repugnant to everyone despite clearly being aware how it feels to be disliked by people. Any affinity and pity we feel for Shylock is countered and cancelled by his blatant adversity to getting on with other people and the negativity felt by those closest to him.

All quotations of the text are courtesy of William Shakespeare's The Merchant Of Venice. This work has been confirmed to be in the public domain free from copyright, and is availible on Project Gutenberg at http://www.ibiblio.org/gutenberg/etext00/0ws1810.txt

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