The Merchant of Venice

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Notes on The Merchant of Venice

Shakespeare, William. The Comical History of The Merchant of Venice. (The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 467-521).

Of Interest: RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Gesta Romanorum, Historie 32 | Fiorentino’s Il Pecorone, English | Jews and Theater in England (JVL) | Blood Libel (JVL) |

Act 1, Scene 1 (467-71, Antonio refers to his own mystifying sadness; Solario, Solanio, and finally Graziano fail to cheer him up with their diagnostic attempts; Bassanio reports to Antonio on his apparent love quest to Portia, the rich, beautiful heiress of Belmont; Antonio generously promises to help Bassanio achieve his heart’s desire, no matter the cost.)

From the play’s beginning, Antonio sets himself up to play the willing victim: “In sooth I know not why I am so sad” (467, 1.1.1), he says, and laments that he has “much ado” (467, 1.1.7) to understand himself at all. Salerio and Solanio try to tease him into a better mood by painting a picture of a commodities-obsessed, materialistic consciousness, one bound to think obsessively about all the precious goods he must have currently at risk. Salerio even compares the movement of Antonio’s ships to a rich, stately pageant (467-68, 1.1.8-14), and everyone in Shakespeare’s day knew how expensive an aristocrat’s pageants, progresses, and courtly masques were liable to be.[1] Seldom will we find a better approximation in comic literature of Marx & Engels’s dictum that “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”[2]

Antonio the wealthy merchant, however, isn’t buying what his jaunty friends are selling, and he says only, “My ventures are not in one bottom trusted …” (468, 1.1.42). He has not staked all his fortunes on his business dealings, and he dismisses the notion than his consciousness can be neatly confined within the boundaries of objects produced for material gain. Well, if it isn’t money, insists Solanio, it must be love that’s getting his friend down. When he is rewarded by Antonio only with a double “fie!” (468, 1.1.46), he shoots back what sounds like “Snap out of it!”: “‘twere as easy / For you to laugh and leap and say you are merry / Because you are not sad” (468, 1.1.48-50). To Solanio, his friend the merchant is merely playing the contrarian.

But just now, in come Bassanio, Graziano, and Lorenzo, and Solario and Solanio take their leave. Now it’s the loquacious Graziano’s turn to serve up his own apparent specialty, rhetoric that pokes fun at the recipient. When Antonio says gravely, “I hold the world but as the world, Graziano— / A stage where every man must play a part / And mine a sad one” (469, 1.1.77-79), Graziano jovially accuses his friend of striking an ultra-serious pose just to “be dressed in an opinion / Of wisdom, gravity, profound conceit …” (469, 1.1.91-92). This produces only a civil but non-committal remark or two from Antonio, and the last man standing, aside from Antonio, is Bassanio, who promptly dismisses the memory of Graziano’s performance as “an infinite deal of nothing …” (470, 1.1.114) and gets to the point of his visit.

The point, it quickly becomes apparent, is the very thing that Antonio, for his part, has already sworn off: a love pursuit. Antonio may not be in love, but he has already been apprised that Bassanio is, or at least he means to be. The young man issues fair words at length, all of which boil down to acquainting a probably not surprised Antonio that he has greatly “disabled” (470, 1.1.123) his finances thanks to an excessively showy lifestyle. In sum, as we would say, Bassanio is serially unable to balance a checkbook and live within his otherwise ample means. To this rather slick performance, Antonio responds that so long as the venture is honorable, “My purse, my person, my extremest means / Lie all unlocked to your occasions” (470, 1.1.138-39). He even insists that Bassanio is insulting him by spending so many words on the matter, as if Antonio would give anything less than his “uttermost” (471, 1.1.156) to help his youthful, profligate friend attain his heart’s desire.

With such urging, Bassanio delivers a breathtaking description of the object of his affections, one Portia, heiress of Belmont: “In Belmont is a lady richly left, / And she is fair, and fairer than that word, / Of wondrous virtues” (471, 1.1.161-63). [3] Bassanio even compares her to Brutus’s faithful wife Portia, which is high classical praise. Better yet, her “sunny locks” are a “golden fleece” (471, 1.1.169-70) that he would snatch like Jason in the Greek myth.[4] Bassanio firmly believes that he can be the Jason who takes the prize, but he needs the means to play the role properly. Antonio doesn’t have liquid assets at the moment, but he gives Bassanio the answer that by now we knew he would give: “Try what my credit can in Venice do; / That shall be racked even to the uttermost / To furnish thee to Belmont to fair Portia” (471, 1.1.180-82).

The first scene has established for us the parameters of the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio. The older man started the play as a question-mark of sorts, certain only that his melancholia doesn’t stem from anxieties about commerce or the pangs of love. Still, to many modern readers and viewers, the latter seems to be the obvious cause of Antonio’s sadness. Modern directors tend to cast the bond between Antonio and Bassanio as resembling the classical Greek and Roman conception of male friendship, amicitia perfecta.[5] This kind of friendship —depending on the individuals involved—may or may not be deeply tinged with erotic attachment, and it is of course something that Shakespeare regularly explores in his drama and poetry. It may have more to do with the space that one man takes up in the mind and spirit of another than with anything physical.

Either way, Antonio’s depression, as we would call it, may be plausibly connected to his brooding over what for him must be a painful eventuality, one that he has known about for some time, and which he has so generously promised Bassanio he will advance with every ducat within his reach.[6] In sum, he has pledged to help Bassanio transfer his love from him to a beautiful, rich young woman who lives at some distance. We may suppose that this presents no problem since love, we would like to believe, is a spiritual quality, not a material good subject to the alleged Ricardian law of scarcity. But Antonio seems mature enough to intuit, in Shakespeare’s rendering, that such suppositions are naïve, and that they leave the heart open to still deeper wounds than it usually is.[7]

In any case, it’s clear that absolute trust exists between Antonio and Bassanio, but it’s also true that this trust, in the act of being given so freely, leads the two men to engage in excessive oath-making and promising, a process that Antonio begins by pledging, in effect, to “max out” his credit in Venice to help his young and somewhat foolish friend. Antonio promises to hazard all he has, as will Bassanio later on during the casket-choice episode by which he wins the hand of Portia. The impulse here is generous, but the hyperbolic quality of the men’s oaths will take on more importance, and become more problematic, as the plot moves forward. But more on that later.

Act 1, Scene 2 (471-74, Portia discusses frankly with Nerissa her dead father’s plans for her married future at Belmont; Portia weighs the merits—or rather the lack thereof—of her international suitors thus far; she declares that she will be obedient to her father’s will.)

Portia is the active agent in this play. She is constrained by the firm wishes of a departed father, but she is not a passive sufferer with respect to that father’s marriage arrangements for her. This is true in spite of her complaint when we first meet her: “I may neither choose who I would / nor refuse who I dislike; so is the will of a living daughter / curbed by the will of a dead father” (472, 1.2.20-22). Along with Nerissa, Portia trusts in the man’s wisdom: “I will die as chaste as / Diana unless I be obtained by the manner of my father’s will” (473, 1.2.91-92), but she doesn’t leave aside her own judgment. Witness her snide but perceptive remarks about the men who are pursuing her (472-73, 1.2.35-85), all of whom are shallow poseurs, fools, or narcissists: the Neapolitan prince, County Palatine, Monsieur le Bon, the English nobleman Falconbridge, the Scottish lord, and the Duke of Saxony’s nephew hardly sound like great catches. All the same, Portia does not fundamentally challenge the patriarchal nature of her father’s demands. She is no rebel against the order of things.[8] Nerissa sums things up well at the scene’s end: Bassanio “of all the men that ever my foolish / eyes looked upon was the best deserving of a fair lady” (473, 1.2.100-01). Bassanio is not exactly a paragon of achievement, but he belongs to the right class, he knows how to put on a good display, and he’s handsome. Bassanio will do just fine.

Act 1, Scene 3 (474-77, Shylock the Jewish moneylender voices his personal and collective grudges against Christians; at Bassanio’s urgent request, he assesses Antonio’s credit-worthiness and strikes an agreement with the cash-strapped merchant; Shylock offers the “merry sport” of a 3,000-ducat bond with its forfeit consisting in “a pound of flesh”; Antonio accepts the bond, though Bassanio mistrusts Shylock’s intentions.)

We are introduced to the Jewish moneylender Shylock. He is a strong character, and bold in his manner of speaking. We will find that his perspective and sensibilities are very different from those of the Christians in The Merchant of Venice. When we meet Shylock, he is following out his process of assessing the creditworthiness of the rich Merchant Antonio. What is his judgment? Well, even when one factors in the possibility of Antonio’s ships being ransacked by pirates, or of succumbing to “the peril of waters, winds, and / rocks” (474, 1.3.21-22), “The man is, notwithstanding, sufficient” (474, 1.3.22), and Shylock decides to take on the Christian’s request for a short-term loan of 3,000 ducats—a considerable sum, perhaps around $700,000 dollars in today’s currency.[9]

Act 1, Scene 3 is partly about the different understanding of linguistic terms between Christians and Jews—as Shylock and Bassanio, and then Antonio as well, engage in their spirited bargaining, we learn that to be a “good” man, in Shylock’s view, is to have sufficient funds, while to “be assured” is to acquire the necessary information about a person’s finances. Says Shylock to Bassanio before Antonio comes onto the scene, “My meaning in saying he is a / good man is to have you understand me that he is suffi- / cient” (474, 1.3.13-15). The play’s Christians use these words mainly as moral terms, not financial ones. Shylock is unintimidated by Bassanio’s advancement of his own perspective, and goes so far as to declare to him, “I will / buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, / and so following. But I will not eat with you, drink with you, / nor pray with you” (474, 1.3.29-32). As we would say, he’s “not that into” the Christian Bassanio or his older gentleman friend: he would prefer to keep things cordial, distant.

We see Shylock’s resentment of Antonio almost from the outset, and it certainly sounds like he has good reason for that bitter feeling: the Jewish outsider isn’t driven only by his desire to win an argument about the moral standing of interest-based lending, even though Shylock may sound as if he is fixated on that: “I hate him for he is a Christian; / But more for that in low simplicity / He lends out money gratis …” (474, 1.3.36-38). No, Shylock’s “ancient grudge” (474, 1.3.41) is both individual and collective: the personal insults and gobs of spit that Antonio and other Christians so casually toss his way (and that Shylock will mention in just a moment) are insults to his “sacred nation” as well as to his person (474, 1.3.42). All things considered, Shylock believes it to be his duty not to forgive Antonio for the demeaning conduct to which the Christian trader has subjected him: “Cursed be my tribe / If I forgive him” (475, 1.3.45-46).

The moment Antonio enters the scene, he treats Shylock in an unselfconsciously condescending manner: he expresses a lordly willingness to “break a custom” (475, 1.3.58) and deal with the lowly Jewish moneylender who takes interest on the principal sums he lends. The barbed quality of Antonio’s remark does not go unnoticed by Shylock, who promptly casts the words in the merchant’s face: as for interest, he says to Antonio, “Methoughts you said you neither lend nor borrow / Upon advantage” (475, 1.3.63-64), who responds with an obviously sheepish affirmation.

Shylock furthers his rhetorical takedown of Antonio by trotting out a story from the Hebrew Bible. He alludes to the story in Genesis 30:25-43 of how Jacob got the better of his uncle Laban, a man he served for seven years for the hand of Rachel, only to be given Leah instead and required to work another seven years for Rachel (who eventually gave birth to Joseph).[10] At the end of his second service period, Laban asked Jacob to stay on, and Jacob asked as his wages Laban’s speckled, spotted sheep and goats, and the dark-colored lambs. These supposedly inferior creatures were to be his own flock. Then he took some poplar branches and peeled the bark to expose the white inside, and he placed these in the animals’ watering troughs. To make a long story short, Jacob bred the stronger animals in the presence of these branches and their young were born spotted, so his flocks increased greatly. “And thrift is blessing,” says Shylock, “if men steal it not” (475, 1.3.84). Antonio finds the story inappropriate, and by no means a justification of Shylock’s moneylending practices: Jacob’s increased flock, insists Antonio, wasn’t really due to his own honest effort, but was “swayed and fashioned by the hand of heaven” (475, 1.3.87). It’s just money breeding money as if by magic, Antonio seems to be suggesting. We can see that there will be no agreement between these two men beyond the basic terms of the loan they are about to undertake.

Shylock is as blunt with Antonio as he has been with Bassanio. His manner is an odd shunting back and forth between cheerful courtesy and confrontation. He wryly rehearses his grievances, reminding Antonio of the shocking cruelty he has shown towards him in the past, and the patience Shylock himself, a member of an ethnic-religious group known for its “suff’rance,” has shown in turn: “In the Rialto you have rated me / About my moneys and my usances. / Still have I borne it with a patient shrug …” (476, 1.3.101-03). Antonio has done worse than badmouth the Jew: “You call me ‘misbeliever,’ ‘cut-throat dog,’ / And spit upon my Jewish gabardine …” (476, 1.3.105-06). This, and much more. All of it is the very sort of thing that Antonio and Bassanio are surely hoping Shylock will not cast in their teeth just now, when they badly need a loan. How can a Christian who behaves in such an abominable fashion ask a Jew for such a favor?

Still, Shylock backpedals for effect, saying with obvious insincerity when Antonio responds to his directness by threatening to repeat his breaches of civility, “Why, look you, how you storm! / I would be friends with you … / … and you’ll not hear me” (130-31, 134). This said, Shylock proceeds to accept his role as moneylender on his own terms: the infamous deal, so fairy-tale-like in its provenance, is cast by Shylock as “a merry sport” and “friendship” (476-77, 1.3.138, 161). The exact terms are that if the loan is not repaid on time, Antonio’s penalty will be set down as “an equal pound / Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken / In what part of your body pleaseth me” (477, 1.3.142-44). A chance to injure Antonio has come his way, and Shylock, who has already told us in soliloquy exactly how much he hates this Christian mocker, takes it up gleefully.

What is proposed is a high-stakes wager on the order of Christian salvation, but no matter that—Antonio seems self-assured and dismissive, even hubristic. He has no doubts about his ability to pay his debts, so Shylock’s grotesque, absurd conditions don’t trouble him. Shylock’s continued false good cheer is hardly necessary: “what should I gain,” he asks, “By the exaction of the forfeiture?” (477, 1.3.166-67) To this protestation, Antonio remarks jestingly, “The Hebrew will turn Christian—he grows kind” (477, 1.3.171). All the same, the conditions of the bond certainly trouble Bassanio, who warns Antonio, “I like not fair terms and a villain’s mind” (477, 1.3.172). Antonio should have listened to his young friend—we in the audience are better positioned to see the dark side of Shylock’s admission that a quantity of human flesh “Is not so estimable, profitable neither, / As flesh of muttons, beefs, or goats” (477, 1.3.159-60). Of course it isn’t—this “merry sport” is about revenge, not money, and Antonio’s characteristic stereotyping of Shylock as a greedy usurer blinds him to the peril to which he is voluntarily subjecting himself. Shylock has his moments in The Merchant of Venice—moments in which he may appear to be a sympathetic figure, as actors have been playing him for a few centuries now—but this is not one of them. Here, at the end of the first act, we see him cunningly trapping a feckless Christian into signing his own death warrant. Perhaps, as St. Paul wrote, “the Spirit giveth life,” but at present, Shylock is delighted with his instantiation of the other half of that pronouncement through his foisting of an exactly worded bond upon the unsuspecting Antonio: “the letter killeth.”[11]

Act 2, Scene 1 (477-78, Morocco makes his entrance to Belmont, and boldly declares that he will enter the casket contest; Portia responds with subtle, comic irony.)

Morocco joins Aaron from Titus Andronicus as one of Shakespeare’s “Moorish” characters, as will Othello in subsequent years. Morocco has none of the gravity of the other two: he’s a comic figure and cultural outsider who isn’t in a position to get the joke behind Portia’s polite dismissal: his exuberant “Mislike me not for my complexion” (477, 2.1.1) nets him only Portia’s agreement that the prince stands “as fair / As any comer I have looked on yet” (477, 2.1.20-21). Of course, we have already become acquainted with the wretched suitors who have so far made their way to Belmont.

Act 2, Scene 2 (478-82, Lancelet decides to abandon Shylock; Lancelet engages in comic banter with his nearly blind father Gobbo, and, like the biblical figure Jacob with Isaac, seeks his blessing; Bassanio accepts Lancelet’s awkward prayer to become his servant; Bassanio finalizes his plans to attend a masque and dinner; Graziano asks to attend him in Belmont and is told to tone down his attitude, at least after the festivities.)

Shylock’s Christian servant Lancelet accepts the “fiend’s” counsel (447, 2.2.24) to abandon his master, running against his own conscience. Should we, then, accept this treatment of Shylock as comic raillery, something easy to do? This servant gives a fine account of his internal dialogue, shuttling back and forth between a putative good angel who counsels him to stay put and a bad angel who tells him it’s time to quit Shylock’s employ.[12] Lancelet sees Shylock as a stock figure, “a kind of devil” (479, 2.2.20), even if the play as a whole doesn’t reduce him to that. Consider the conversation between Lancelet and his father, which alludes to the biblical story about Jacob stealing Esau’s birthright and tricking father Isaac into giving him the blessing as the first-born son that should properly have gone to Esau.[13] “Give / me your blessing,” asks Lancelet towards the end of his talk with the half-blind father who doesn’t recognize him (480, 2.2.69-70), thereby casting himself as a veritable Jacob in his striving to move onward and upward in life. Typologically, this biblical story has been read as indicating the rightness of choosing the Christian master (Christ) over the Jewish master, the old religion.[14] Lancelet’s father Gobbo has brought a present for Shylock, but Lancelet wants the present to go to Bassanio (480, 2.2.97-98), not to the Jew he’s abandoning.

The comic spirit overcomes all, accomplishing something like “grace,” which Lancelet attributes to Bassanio: “you have the grace of God, sir, / and he hath enough” (481, 2.2.135-36). Bassanio cheerfully accepts Lancelet’s linguistically inept suit to become his servant (481, 2.2.137-40). In general, we see that the process of abandoning Shylock begins right after the bargain of flesh has been struck. First Lancelet decides to flee, and finds an easy welcome with Bassanio, and then, in the next scene, Jessica makes her choice, which is also met with enthusiastic acceptance. It’s hard to avoid the notion that the text normalizes this abandonment of Shylock. Within the play’s Christian framework, the qualities that bind people together are generosity and love,[15] but Shylock appears to reject this imperative. Abandoning him seems to be cast as the “natural” result of this refusal. In this framework, Lancelet’s comic abandonment of Shylock is preparation for the far more serious and injurious, but apparently entirely licit, abandonment of him by other characters. There is some irony in Lancelet’s decision in that there is no evidence in the text for any claim that Shylock has abused or cozened his servant; he is rather dour at times, but not at all abusive towards his rather silly, word-mangling Christian helper.

Act 2, Scene 3 (482-83, Jessica admits to feeling anguish over her dislike of Shylock and her desire to abandon him, but she is firm in her decision.)

Shylock’s daughter Jessica is torn about what she is about to do: “Alack, what heinous sin is it in me / To be ashamed to be my father’s child!” (451, 2.3.15-16) But she gives Lancelet a ducat—a substantial gift for a man of his station—and makes him carry a letter to Lorenzo, sighing to herself, “O Lorenzo, / If thou keep promise I shall end this strife, / Become a Christian and thy loving wife” (2.3.18-20).

Act 2, Scene 4 (483-84, Lorenzo tells Graziano about his intention to help Jessica forsake her father and steal some of his gold and jewels during her escape.)

In 2.4, we hear Lorenzo confiding his elopement plan to Graziano: Jessica has made provision, he says, “How I shall take her from her father’s house, / What gold and jewels she is furnished with, / What page’s suit she hath in readiness …” (483, 2.4.30-32). The plot will take advantage of the disguise made possible by Christian festivities: Bassanio, who doesn’t yet know about the plot, means to hold a masked ball that night, which Lorenzo and Graziano realize will provide cover for the romantic escape Lorenzo has planned.

Act 2, Scene 5 (484-85, Shylock frets over attending supper with Christians, but tells Lancelet to announce that he will show up; Shylock admonishes Jessica to keep their home’s door shut lest “the sound of shallow foppery” invade the place; when he leaves, Jessica again voices her determination to go through with her plan to elope with Lorenzo.)

Lancelet had spoken of Shylock with contempt in Act 2, Scene 1, but in Scene 5, Shylock’s interaction with his daughter doesn’t seem cruel: he tells her to keep the doors shut against Christian revelers during what appears to be Carnival season,[16] which occurs just before the austere, fasting forty days of Lent are ushered in and capped by Easter, which in turn commemorates the resurrection of Christ. Shylock admonishes Jessica, “Let not the sound of shallow fopp’ry enter / My sober house” (484, 2.5.34-35). Taking the dismissal of Lancelet as a good break, he winds up his reflections with a proverb: “Fast bind, fast find: / A proverb never stale in thrifty mind” (485, 2.5.52-53). Shylock would prefer to remain isolated in Venice, but he will this once attend on them, the better, he says, “to feed upon / The prodigal Christian” (484, 2.5.14-15) and thereby waste their substance.

Shylock is determined to maintain the purity of his household, but increasingly, he will be an isolated figure whose situation and attitude invite Christian characters’ mockery: tracing the intensification of that isolation is in large part the task of the play’s remaining acts, and Jessica advances the process on the spot: after her father exits, she addresses him, “Farewell, and if my fortune be not crossed, / I have a father, you a daughter, lost” (485, 2.5.54-55).

Act 2, Scene 6 (485-86, Jessica steals Shylock’s money and jewels; and, dressed as a male page, and boards a small boat with Lorenzo, Graziano, and Salerio; Lorenzo tells his friends that his love for Jessica is genuine.)

Graziano makes pleasantries about how people fail to meet their love obligations: “All things that are / Are with more spirit chasèd than enjoyed” (485, 2.6.13-14). This observation is a setup for the weightier wrangling between Portia and Nerissa and their men later on. Jessica joins the Christians and absconds with some of Shylock’s wealth (485, 2.6.50-51). Shylock loses his daughter and money to Christian masquers, perhaps, as mentioned earlier, during Venice’s carnival season; but in any season, Venice kept about it as part of its grand myth[17] a sense of liberty and temporary overturning of conventional morality. Freedom to change is the key here, and the quality to transform one’s identity in a felicitous way seems to be a Christian prerogative in this play,[18] one that Jessica wins by her willingness to abandon her Jewish father and turn Christian. Lorenzo is duly impressed, declaring that Jessica will “be placèd in my constant soul” (486, 2.5.58).

Act 2, Scene 7 (486-88, Morocco makes his choice for gold, and is rewarded with a skull that contains a scroll proclaiming “All that glisters is not gold.”)

Morocco chooses between desert, desire, and hazard. He chooses gold, what “many men desire,” on the assumption that outward appearances correspond to inward qualities (487, 2.7.37-38). He also rates himself very highly, and so associates himself with the most precious of the three metals on display. One gets the feeling that with Morocco, “it’s all about him,” though to be fair, he also values Portia in terms of the same most precious metal. He is, of course, rewarded with crushing failure and is subject to the interdiction against marrying any other woman. In one act of misreading, then, he has traded his own futurity, his own family or dynastic line, for “all that glisters” (488, 2.7.65) or glitters. It was a Renaissance assumption that good is productive of still more good, while what is bad eventually exhausts itself. The underlying judgment involved in the casket contest, then, involves serious moral principles; it isn’t merely a trick or a chance-driven device. The performance note on pg. 488 reminds us that this scene ends unpleasantly, with Portia saying with relief, “Let all of his complexion choose me so.” Clearly, Portia is not attracted to this man with dark skin; even though he is a leader among his people and, we may presume, a valiant warrior, the text treats him as a figure of fun, which is bound to be distressing to a modern audience.

Act 2, Scene 8 (488-89, Reports of Shylock’s confusion)

Salerio and Solanio report on Shylock and mock his supposed babbling about Jessica and his squandered ducats: “I never heard a passion so confused, / So strange, outrageous, and so variable / As the dog Jew did utter in the streets. / ‘My daughter, O my ducats, O my daughter!’” (488, 2.8.12-15). To this equivalence-making between a human being and a gold coin, they contrast the generous friendship between Antonio and Bassanio: of Antonio, Solanio says, “I think he only loves the world for him” (489, 2.8.50). We may also surmise, though not prove, that Antonio and Bassanio may by now be apprised of Lorenzo’s elopement with Shylock’s daughter. Lorenzo had informed Graziano about it, and Graziano is traveling with Bassanio, so perhaps we should assume that he has informed that worthy about what is afoot. In any event, Lorenzo and his “torch-bearer” Jessica are not on board Bassanio’s vessel when the Venetian Duke went with Shylock to search it. Moreover, Bassanio’s ship sailed earlier than planned because the masque was canceled, which Antonio informed Graziano of at the end of 2.6. All of this may mean that the successful conspiracy to help Jessica make her break from her father Shylock is a bit larger than we might have thought. I any case, Salerio has heard that one of Antonio’s ships may have been wrecked while crossing the English Channel, so he will have to be given that anxiety-provoking news.

Act 2, Scene 9 (489-91, Aragon makes his choice, and silver nets him a picture of “a blinking idiot”; news comes to Portia and Nerissa that Bassanio is nearing Belmont.)

The prideful, falsely self-sufficient Aragon (a stock Spanish nobleman since Spaniards were generally considered more than commonly arrogant about status) assumes silver “desert,” and is rewarded not with Portia’s image but instead with the portrait of “a blinking idiot” (490, 2.9.50, 53). His fate is easy to predict since he treats the whole affair as purely transactional, insulting Portia by saying “You shall look fairer ere I give or hazard” (490, 2.9.21). We can at least say of Aragon that he gets the point about people’s tendency to be taken in by fair shows: that’s why he doesn’t choose the golden casket the way thoughtless Morocco did.

The scene closes with news that Bassanio is at Belmont’s gates. Morocco and Aragon will be no help to Bassanio, alas, since both had to assent to a non-disclosure agreement prior to the big contest. We find that out when Aragon says that one of the three conditions for being allowed to make his choice is “never to unfold to anyone / Which casket ‘twas I chose …” (489, 2.9.10-11). Oh well! Bassanio and his entourage can’t simply ask the losers why they fared as they did. Bassanio will have to get it right on his own. Life is so unfair! But Nerissa solicits the aid of Cupid, so no doubt all will go well.

Act 3, Scene 1 (491-93, Shylock lectures Salerio and Solanio about common humanity and revenge, but with no success; Tubal listens to Shylock unburden his grief, and tells him there’s good prospect of Antonio’s commercial ruin at sea; Shylock prepares to have Antonio arrested if he is cannot pay his debt.)

Solanio believes he has confirmed the loss of one of Antonio’s ships, probably the same one mentioned in the previous scene, and right away he catches sight of Shylock approaching and declares him to be the devil “in the likeness of a Jew” (492, 3.1.18). Shylock immediately accuses the two men of having known about Jessica’s plan to abandon him, and Salerio does not deny it. Salerio then asks Shylock if he has heard anything about Antonio’s possible loss at sea, and it seems as if the moneylender may indeed have heard that a ship had been lost since he responds with truculent mockery of the Christian “bankrupt” and “prodigal” (492, 3.1.36-37) who dared to accept a loan on the most frightening terms. Shylock apparently feels certain that Antonio, now in financial distress, will be easy to isolate and destroy. The cash nexus is the only tie he seems to recognize as binding, and as we will see later on during the trial scene, he places great faith in Venetian commercial contract law to uphold his terms. His only advice to the absent Antonio is the twice-repeated “Let him look / to his bond” (492, 3.1.38-39, 41).

Shylock seems gravely provoked at Salerio’s incredulous question as to what possible good taking a pound of a human being’s flesh could do anyone, and he at once launches into his famous mini-lecture on the jarring combination of common humanity and revenge. As for the pound of flesh, he says, it might as well serve “To bait fish withal” (492, 3.1.44). Or at least, he adds, it will feed his own desire for revenge. Antonio, Shylock points out, has insulted and injured him at every turn. And his “reason,” his excuse for doing so? The moneylender sums it up for his audience: “I am a Jew” (492, 3.1.48). From 3.1.49-60, Shylock makes his noteworthy “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, and it is all the more powerful for falling on deaf Christian ears: Jews are part of a common humanity, but he and his people have been scorned and mocked. Revenge, says Shylock, is now the law of his being: he will repay Christian injustice with increase, or with “usury,” as the play’s Christians would say. There is no hint of comprehension in either Salerio or Solanio’s response to Shylock’s words. Both decamp in disgust when they see Tubal approaching. Solanio even compares Tubal, as he had Shylock previously, to the devil.

Tubal has been searching without success for Jessica in Genoa, he says (493, 3.1.68). Shylock is by now in a state of agony, his mind warped by his losses and the insult involved in how they were inflicted upon him. He continually mingles money and expense with a deep sense of loss over his daughter and his damaged affiliation with the Jewish community. He seems painfully confused about spiritual and material priorities, to the point where he can utter a deplorable sentence such as, “I would my daughter were dead at my foot and the jewels / in her ear” (493, 3.1.73-74). Still, for the last few hundred years, most actors have played this scene with sympathy.[19] The choice is not without justification: some of Shylock’s lines are powerful, especially if we accept that even his unseemly obsession with financial loss stems not from simple greed, but instead from the psychic trauma of losing access to the signs of material success—ducats and jewels—that have long allowed him to thrive as a member of an unjustly despised group within a larger, hostile society. If we keep this in mind, statements like Shylock’s complaint that he has “no satisfaction, no revenge, nor no ill luck stirring but what / lights o’my shoulders, no sighs but o’my breathing, no tears / but o’my shedding” (493, 3.1.78-80), may inspire sympathy for his anguish.

Tubal brings Shylock momentary but strong relief when he tells him that Antonio also may have suffered from “ill luck”—he “hath an argosy cast away coming from Tripoli” (493, 3.1.84). This relief is dimmed, however, when the moneylender hears the words Tubal speaks about Jessica’s trading of a turquoise ring for a monkey: in extreme distress, Shylock can only say, “I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would / not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys” (493, 3.1.101-02). But again, when we factor in the severity of the psychic injury the man has sustained, we may feel that there is pathos even in this strange remark. Given the context, how could it be played with anything less than deep feeling? Jessica has laid waste his fond memory of the wife, Leah, whom we may presume death has taken from him. Still, the scene ends with Shylock buoyed by Tubal’s reminder that Antonio’s ruin is certain, and he directs Tubal to hire an officer in advance to arrest Antonio for forfeit of his bond when the appointed day comes. Shylock looks forward to the day when this Christian tormentor will no longer hinder him: “were he out of Venice I can / make what merchandise I will” (493, 3.1.106-07).

Today, it’s common knowledge that Jews were forced to take on the role of moneylenders (a function necessary to any commercial state) thanks to Christian hypocrisy about the accumulation of interest on loans. Shakespeare’s audience, it is true, might not have been aware of that historical fact, and to them, since England’s Jews were forcibly expelled from the country in 1290 by King Edward I, Jews were no doubt more fiction than fact. There were very few actual Jews living in England in Shakespeare’s time (and for four decades thereafter—Oliver Cromwell undid Edward’s cruel policy in the 1650s).[20] It must have been all too easy to dehumanize Jews in England when their presence was so limited that it was comprised of a tiny number who had converted to Christianity, and a very small number from Portugal living in London.”[21]

Be that as it may, by Act 3, Scene 1, it is clear that Shylock is worthier and more interesting than a one-dimensional stage villain. He is in part a stage villain, and in that sense kin to Christopher Marlowe’s brazenly wicked Barabas, the main character in The Jew of Malta, but for better and for worse, Shakespeare’s genius allows him to represent a villain as a villain and something more.[22] It is easy—perhaps too easy—to suggest that in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare is advancing to the audience their strong prejudices and cruel fantasies about Jews, but then using that advance as an opportunity to challenge those same defects and delusions. Today’s audiences must work this out for themselves: there is a range of opinion going from the deeply held conviction that the play is profoundly antisemitic to the claim that it is against precisely that abominable prejudice.[23]

Act 3, Scene 2 (494-500, Bassanio chooses rightly and everyone celebrates; Graziano announces the he and Nerissa are an item, too; a messenger brings news of Antonio’s extreme danger; Portia declares her loyalty and promises to help Antonio.)

In Richard Robinson’s 1595 English edition of the Gesta Romanorum or Deeds of the Romans,[24] Tale 32, we find the basic “casket choice” story from which Shakespeare is working. The daughter of the King of Ampluy, while sailing towards a marriage with the son of the Roman Emperor Anselme, is shipwrecked and then swallowed by a whale, which soon casts her ashore. A nobleman named Pyrris finds her and sends her to Anselme, who, to test her ultimate fitness for marriage to his heir, puts her through a trial similar to the one Shakespeare’s play adapts. Three vessels of gold, silver, and lead are placed before her, with the golden one bearing the inscription “Who so chooseth mee shall finde that [i.e. ‘that which’] he deserueth,” the silver vessel “Who so chooseth me shall finde that his nature desireth,” and the lead vessel “Who so chooseth mee, shall finde that God hath disposed for him.” The maiden rejects the gold vessel because, she reasons, “Though this vessel be full precious and made of pure gold, neuerthelesse know not I what is with in.” She also rejects the silver vessel because, she says, “my nature desireth the lust of the flesh.” Finally, we come to the lead vessel. The maid declares simply that “God neuer disposed any harme,” so she correctly chooses the least impressive vessel, and ends up marrying the emperor’s son and heir.[25]

The Gesta Romanorum in its Latin form dates back several centuries from Shakespeare’s day. It functioned as material from which preachers might develop their sermons, and it’s easy to see the scriptural quality in the tale from which Shakespeare developed his “casket scene” in The Merchant of Venice. The moral of the story in the Gesta’s terms is simple: the Emperor is a figure for God, and in choosing to follow God’s dispensation for her, the maiden represents a Christian soul choosing salvation in God and Christ the Son. We might also cite biblical passages such as 1 John 2.15: “Love not this world, neither the things that are in this world. If any man love this world, the love of the Father is not in him.”[26] In a sense, the entire casket scene works as an extended memento mori or vanitas display. These artifacts—skulls or images thereof would be one prominent example—were very common in medieval and Renaissance times as meditative objects to encourage Christian humility. Sometimes, the objects would display a fair front, but an ugly, worm-eaten reverse side or parallel image. The plain message was that we should be mindful always of death, but a second message, in some cases, was that we should never give in to the deceptive “lust of the eyes.” Hamlet, gazing at the skull of the jester Yorick, muses to Horatio, “Now get you to my / lady’s table and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this / favor she must come….”[27] In the Christian framework, the way to salvation is through honesty, self-restraint, and above all, acceptance of one’s frail mortality. The carefully chosen metal lead, thanks to Portia’s father, has much the same effect on the winning candidate Bassanio as the skulls and other artifacts of Christian iconography.

As Bassanio’s moment of choice nears, some strain shows between Portia and her departed father: “these naughty times / Puts bars between the owners and their rights” (494, 3.2.18-19). Still, her viewing of the momentous event is steeped in guiding literary precedent, as we see when she recalls by way of contrast the thoroughly materialistic bit of heroism shown by Hercules (“Alcides”) in rescuing a Trojan princess to win a pair of fine horses.[28] That, she understands, is not what her father had in mind when he devised the casket contest for her suitors. So what does the song that follows mean? “Tell me where is fancy bred: / Or in the heart or in the head; / How begot, how nourishèd?” (495, 3.2.63-65) We are told that “fancy dies / In the cradle where it lies” (495, 3.2.63-68-69).[29] This may be a warning to Bassanio, if indeed he isn’t too busy deliberating to catch the words: love begins with the eyes, so we had better not trust them too much. Whether he hears the song or not, Bassanio understands the warning. He chooses the threatening lead container rather than the attractive silver or golden one: “Thou meagre lead, / Which rather threaten’st than dost promise aught, / Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence” (496, 3.2.104-06). Bassanio has the right combination of appreciation for outward beauty and willingness to accept that this is only part of the matter: beauty does not banish the cares or duties of a life that, on the whole (even for a rich heiress or a privileged young man like himself), more closely resembles the base metal that Portia’s other suitors have scorned than glittering gold or even that “common drudge” (496, 3.2.103) silver that takes its value from transactional exchange alone. The scroll that greets him in victory offers sound advice for anyone to take: “Be content and seek no new …” (496, 3.2.134).

Once Bassanio has made the correct choice—and frankly, the maturity he shows in his lengthy assessment may strike many readers as unexpected, given the rather irresponsible figure he has cut previously—Portia delivers a fine speech in which she says she could (for Bassanio’s sake) wish herself “A thousand times more fair, ten thousand times / More rich” (497, 3.2.154-55) and emphasizes that she considers herself only “an unlessoned girl, unschooled, unpracticed” (497, 3.2.159) but willing to learn.[30] Portia muses that just moments ago, before Bassanio made his choice of caskets, she was master of a great estate and of her own person, and now she isn’t: “This house, these servants, and this same myself / Are yours, my lord’s” (497, 3.2.170-71). Even so, Portia remains unflappable: she is the very picture of “Renaissance girl, uninterrupted.”[31] Still, there is one condition for Bassanio to observe: Portia is all his, unless he gives away the ring she presents to him, in which case she will have the upper hand and may reproach him at will (497, 3.2.171-74). Bassanio admits that Portia’s words have all blended together for him (497, 3.2.175-85), but  he seems to understand what she has said about the ring, and even takes things up a notch, and again we hear the excessive, exuberant rhetoric from one of the play’s men—the kind of stuff that, to adapt a phrase from Kent in King Lear, “reverbs hollowness”[32] rather than leading us in humility to substantive virtue. Bassanio swears that death will take him before he gives away the golden keepsake: “But when this ring / Parts from this finger, then parts life from hence: / Oh, then be bold to say Bassanio’s dead” (497, 3.2.183-85). Portia didn’t condemn him to death—only distrust! To make up for it, though, before blurting out that oath, he offers her the wonderfully romantic thought, “Madam, you have bereft me of all words, / Only my blood speaks to you in my veins …” (497, 3.2.175-76). Well said, Bassanio!

Graziano at once announces that he has managed to sweet-talk Nerissa into marrying him, adding yet a third happy couple to the play’s circle of “shiny happy people holding hands.”[33] Graziano adds a bawdy pun to cap things off. Because of course he does. And since this is a comedy, we might as well expect a false catastrophe (i.e. happy ending): sure enough, in come Lorenzo and Salerio to announce that all is not yet well. These two men come bearing a letter from Antonio that turns Bassanio’s cheeks pale with distress when he reads it. Just at the moment, he must feel a lot like Fiorentino’s Giannetto in Shakespeare’s source text Il Pecorino, who, as discussed in an endnote below, forgets all about his godfather Ansaldo’s generous borrowing of 10,000 ducats for the young man at his request, with similarly grave results as impend here in Shakespeare’s play. Bassanio has no choice but to come clean about his showy suit to Belmont: “Rating myself at nothing, you shall see / How much I was a braggart” (499, 3.2.255-56). Can it be that the successful suitor to the dazzling and “richly left” Portia was just the sort of production we might identify as “glistering” gold eye candy rather than one grounded in truth and virtue? As Bassanio himself admits, “I have … / Engaged my friend to his mere enemy, / To feed my means” (499, 3.2.259-61). When he puts it that way, it sounds perfectly dreadful, as in fact it is, even if the comic genre ultimately makes light of the imposition. Meantime, as Salerio says, Shylock is in no mood to compromise. He knows Venetian law, and it’s said that “He plies the Duke at morning and at night, / And doth impeach the freedom of the state / If they deny him justice” (499, 3.2.275-77).

No matter: Portia will gladly take the part of Bassanio’s friend: “Pay him [Shylock] six thousand and deface the bond. / Double six thousand and then treble that, / Before a friend of this description / Shall lose a hair thorough Bassanio’s fault” (500, 3.2.297-300). Portia must be very rich indeed to conjure up such enormous sums as 36,000 ducats as if they were pocket change.[34] Bassanio, we note, uses the language of Roman honor in referring to Antonio’s friendship: Antonio is “one in whom / The ancient Roman honour more appears / Than any that draws breath in Italy” (500, 3.2.292-94). The two men somewhat over-talk their bond, as becomes increasingly apparent, but that is not to disparage its integrity. They now have the wealthy not boastful Portia as their guarantor, if Shylock will accept his enormous monetary windfall at the expense of his sense of injury.

Act 3, Scene 3 (500-01, Shylock remains implacable; Antonio despairs of rescue.)

Shylock is implacable against Antonio, that “fool that lent out money gratis” (500, 3.3.2). The sum total of his response to the anguished merchant is, “I’ll have my bond; I will not hear thee speak” (501, 3.3.12). Antonio then says Shylock’s hatred stems from resentment of Christian interference in his harsh dealings with benighted creditors: “I oft delivered from his forfeitures / Many that have at times made moan to me” (501, 3.3.22-23). 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 take up an attitude that is nearly as hard-hearted as Shylock’s: a bargain struck is a bargain struck. Venice depends on the cash nexus, too: “The Duke cannot deny the course of law, / For the commodity that strangers have / With us in Venice, if it be denied, / Will much impeach the justice of the state …” (501, 3.3.26-29).

There is a monetary categorical imperative involved in such calculations as both Antonio and Shylock are capable of making: a mercantile state such as Venice does not thrive when it is forced to operate by the laws of ordinary, compassionate humanity, which would entail forgiveness of debts instead of strict adherence to harsh laws in the financial and mercantile sectors. Marx and Engels weren’t the first economists to understand that in a capitalist society (or a proto-capitalist one, as here in Shakespeare’s Venice), it is money that matters, and not so much the people themselves. In any case, Antonio is a man exhausted. His commercial and personal losses have wasted him almost to the bone, and he would rather suffer than fight: “Pray God Bassanio come,” he says, “To see me pay his debt, and then I care not” (501, 3.3.35-36).

Act 3, Scene 4 (501-03, Portia puts Lorenzo and Jessica in charge of Belmont; she sends a servant to her learned cousin Dr. Bellario to ask for his advice about the law; she informs Nerissa about the lawyerly scheme they will carry out to save Antonio.)

Portia is drawn to Antonio, she says to Lorenzo, because friends are so much alike (501, 3.4.10-18). Then she places Lorenzo and Jessica in charge at Belmont since she must go on a trip, the purpose of which she dissembles about to these two. That done, Portia hatches her “doctor of laws” scheme. She sends her servant Balthasar to her cousin, Dr. Bellario, with a letter-request to send her back some legal notes and lawyer’s garments. With Dr. Bellario’s remote assistance, she will play the role of a male attorney who can wield the potent weapon of law against Shylock and the Venetian commercial state. To accomplish this task, Portia 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. She puts great faith in the power of disguise and in her own sly understanding of male posturing: as she tells her accomplice Nerissa, “I have within my mind / A thousand raw tricks of these bragging Jacks / Which I will practice” (503, 3.5.76-78).

Act 3, Scene 5 (503-05, Jessica and Lancelet argue wittily about salvation; Lorenzo light-heartedly reproaches Lancelet.)

Jessica and Lancelet dispute comically over salvation and damnation; Jessica summarizes Lancelet’s case against her and Lorenzo well: the couple are damned “because I am a Jew’s daughter, and he says you are no good / member of the commonwealth, for in converting Jews to / Christians you raise the price of pork” (503, 3.5.29-31). This quarrel is a precursor of a more serious argument during the trial about how mercy is granted, and to whom. After telling him that he has got a Moorish girl in Portia’s household pregnant, Lorenzo accuses Lancelet of egregious quibbling: “How every fool can play upon the word!” (504, 3.5.38) exclaims Lorenzo. Lancelet’s misstatements and quibbles are the light-hearted version of the play’s weightier regard for terminological and spiritual misinterpretation, equivocation, and hypocrisy. Lancelet’s wit is probably meant mainly to poke at Shylock’s literalism and cunning, but it may also be a proleptic dig at “Balthazar’s” upcoming defeat of Shylock, which results in a Jew’s forced conversion to Christianity. From Lorenzo’s exasperated question, “Wilt thou show / the whole wealth of thy wit in an instant?” (504, 3.5.48-49) we can tell that Lancelet is earning his keep as something on the order of Bassanio’s unofficial court jester. Or at least he’s trying to do that.

Act 4, Scene 1 (505-14, Trial scene: Antonio is resigned to death; Portia/Balthazar makes a two-pronged case—moral and legal appeals to show leniency; Shylock refuses both, and is trapped by the bond’s narrow language; Portia/Balthazar, Antonio, and the Duke work together so that Shylock loses half of  his fortune and must agree to convert to Christianity; when pressed, Portia/Balthazar asks for Bassanio’s ring as payment; urged by Antonio, Bassanio agrees and sends Graziano off to deliver the ring to Portia/Balthazar.)

As the trial is about to begin, Antonio again appears resigned: why bother with a man the Duke calls a “stony adversary” (505, 4.1.4)? At this point, the anti-Jewish invective is severe, which is evident even in the way the Duke wraps up his preamble with a mean-spirited pun: “We all expect a gentle [i.e., gentile] answer, Jew” (505, 4.1.34). But Shylock also shows great harshness in this scene, by Christian lights. He isn’t claiming to be better than his adversaries: “I give no reason, nor I will not, / More than a lodged hate and a certain loathing / I bear Antonio” (506, 4.1.59-61). We the audience may have some insight into what Shylock’s grounds for this hate are, but how is the play’s internal court audience to know that? When the Duke tries to shame him with the concept of mercy, Shylock offers the chilling response, “What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?” (506, 4.1.89) This rhetorical question is also an advance response to the claim that Portia, disguised as the attorney Balthazar, will soon stake for the concept of mercy. As far as Shylock is concerned, his stance conforms to and therefore reaffirms the law: he considers himself perfectly righteous in his suit to the assembled court.

Shylock has purchased the flesh of a Christian hypocrite at great personal cost; he will not give it up, and the State cannot afford to dismiss his suit. As he says to the Duke, “If you deny me, fie upon your law: / There is no force in the decrees of Venice” (507, 4.1.101-102). Money isn’t the issue, though Venetian commercial interests make up part of his justification. As Antonio himself said earlier in the play, the law Shylock invokes can’t be ignored lest the republic’s status suffer with international merchants. Personal and collective revenge is Shylock’s “matter,” not the ducats Antonio owes him. This angle is one that Antonio, Bassanio, and the other Christians simply cannot understand due to their insistent stereotyping of Shylock as a flinty-hearted, scarcely human bogeyman. This is obvious in such statements as the one Antonio makes early in the proceeding: “I pray you, think you question with the Jew” (506, 4.1.70). The merchant adds a few poetical images to reinforce his point, but in truth, the simple phrase “the Jew” says everything we need to know about Antonio’s attitude toward Shylock.

The Duke makes no headway with Shylock, and neither do Graziano’s vile, baiting imprecations have any effect on him. Antonio, for his part, seems prepared to give up the ghost: “I am a tainted wether of the flock, / Meetest for death” (507, 4.1.114-15). The wealthy merchant aligns himself with the dimension of Christian practice that has earned it the title “religion of sorrow.” That’s where Portia disguised as Balthazar comes in: she bears a letter from Dr. Bellario praising the young doctor of laws, and against Shylock she soon unveils the essence of her moral argument: “The quality of mercy is not strained. / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath” (508, 4.1.182-84). As far as the play’s Christian’s are concerned, the very fact that Shylock has to ask, “On what compulsion must I?” when he is enjoined to show compassion condemns him morally (508, 4.1.181). To Portia/Balthazar’s suggestion, “. . . in the course of justice none of us should / See salvation” (509, 4.1.197-98), Shylock hurls back, “My deeds upon my head! I crave the law, / The penalty and forfeit of my bond” (509, 4.1.204-05).[35]

Portia/Balthazar admits that the state can’t help here, and Shylock, ever strict, protests that he has “an oath in heaven” (509, 4.1.226) to stick to the bond. In his view, he is like the biblical Apocrypha’s Susannah, being championed by a veritable Daniel against the Elders who tried to seduce her and then falsely accused her, constituting a corrupt court.[36] Portia/Balthazar demonstrates what she considers the callous attitude of Shylock: witness his refusal to keep a surgeon nearby because no such thing is mentioned in his contract with Antonio (510, 4.1.255-56). It is hard to avoid the feeling that in mentioning the spilling of Christian blood so centrally in connection with Shylock’s bond, the play thereby connects the two in a way that at least obliquely suggests the infamous “blood libel”: the notion that Jews murder gentiles so they can use their blood in rituals such as the Passover. Its more distant implication is that Jews are guilty of shedding Christ’s blood. From this perspective, Shylock’s failure to note the presence of blood in his bond would look like mere evasion and shiftiness, not just strict, literalist reading.[37]

Antonio is ready to  depart from this world with a reaffirmation of his love for Bassanio (510, 4.1.271-75), which leads Bassanio to make an extreme utterance, wishing his wife and goods to heaven to redeem the situation: “I would lose all—ay, sacrifice them all / Here to this devil—to deliver you” (510, 4.1.284-85). After Graziano repeats the gesture, Shylock notes the outrageousness of such remarks: “These be the Christian husbands!” (510, 4.1.293) It would be hard to overestimate the smug self-certainty of this kind of reasoning and oath-making on some of the Christians’ part in this play: they would do any amount of wrong, it seems, to enforce their conception of right in favor of their own tribe.

Portia/Balthazar promptly insists that the bond must be read even more literally than Shylock can conceive. She has already advanced her moral argument and met with defiance: Shylock is ready to carve up his Christian rival. Now comes the legal argument: “This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood” (511, 4.1.304). The penalty for spilling Christian blood is forfeiture of one’s goods and property to the state (511, 4.1.308-09). Furthermore, says Portia, when an alien like Shylock tries to bring about the death of a Venetian citizen, the law prescribes that to the citizen shall go half of the offender’s goods, while “the other half / Comes to the privy coffer of the state, / And the offender’s life lies in the mercy / Of the Duke” (512, 4.1.351-54). Shylock has, in fact, sought the death of a Venetian citizen. The Duke pardons his life, and Antonio asks the Duke to allow Shylock to keep half his wealth so long as he wills it to his Christian son-in-law Lorenzo and his daughter Jessica (512, 4.1.378-83). In a scene of great pathos, Shylock had already begged the court not to impose ruinous financial penalties on him: “You take my house when you do take the prop / That doth sustain my house; you take my life / When you do take the means whereby I live” (512, 4.1.373-75).

Furthermore—and cruelest cut of all—this committed Jewish religionist must “presently become a Christian” (513, 4.1.385). This is Antonio’s request, and it becomes the Duke’s stern command: “He shall do this or else I do recant / The pardon that I late pronouncèd here” (513, 4.1.389-90). Shylock is forced to say—one wants to say “pretend”—that he is “content” with his lot (513, 4.1.392), now that he has been commanded to convert to Christianity and give away much of his fortune. The word “content” can hardly mean what it usually would, given the context: Shylock has simply given up, confronted as he is with the full legal and economic power of Venice and the implacable cultural weight of a religion alien to him.[38] One wonders if, during or after the trial scene, Shakespeare’s audience would have remembered Shylock’s strongest self-defense and collective defense in Act 3, Scene 1, which drew upon the common humanity he and his fellow Jews share with the Christians of Venice. There seems to be no trace of that argument in anything Shylock says during the trial scene here in Act 4, Scene 1, and soon after uttering the words “I am content” and promising to sign the necessary deed, he is gone from the play with no further consideration.

Immediately after the trial’s conclusion, Portia, still in disguise, responds to Bassanio’s offer of a gift that she wants his ring (513, 4.1.425), and to his rather feeble protest, she declares, “if your wife be not a madwoman, / And know how well I have deserved this ring, / She would not hold out enemy for ever / For giving it to me” (514, 4.1.443-46).[39] And with that, the two men decide to head back to Belmont in the morning.

Act 4, Scene 2 (514, Graziano catches up with Portia and Nerissa (both still in disguise) and gives her Bassanio’s ring; Nerissa tells Portia that she will see if she can get Graziano to give up his ring, too.)

Graziano hands over Bassanio’s ring to Portia/Balthazar, and Nerissa tells Portia that she will get her own ring from Graziano, too (514, 4.2.13-14).

Act 5, Scene 1 (515-21, While carrying on a mock argument about faith with Jessica, Lorenzo lectures her about the Music of the Spheres; Portia delivers a lecture to the men on absolute oaths vs. generosity; Shylock remains an outcast, Antonio will remain a charitable outsider)

Lorenzo and Jessica discuss faith and faithlessness by referencing disappointed lovers such as Troilus, Thisbe, and Dido (515, 5.1.1-24). Perhaps by these means they are transitioning into mature married life after their wild initial romance, one involving the betrayal of a father and a heady escape from Venice proper. After Stefano announces that Portia will soon be home in Belmont, and Lancelet announces that Bassanio is on the way, too, Lorenzo discusses with Jessica the power of music to transform the soul: in so doing, he touches upon the possibility of transformation and redemption. Lorenzo says that music—even earthly music as opposed to the heavenly harmonies lost to us because of our sin-induced mortality—will soften Jessica if she will only listen intently enough and open herself to the experience: “There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st / But in his motion like an angel sings … / Such harmony is in immortal souls, / But whilst this muddy vesture of decay / Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it” (516, 5.1.54-55, 63-65).[40] The whole scene is in comic contrast to what the play casts as Shylock’s hard-heartedness, his inability to change, as Lorenzo may be insinuating when he says, “The man that hath no music in himself, / Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, / Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils” (516, 5.1.83-85).

Portia appreciates the fine music (517, 5.1.99-100), 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 absoluteness 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 demand—that of giving a gift to the “man” who helped Antonio win his case. He and Graziano 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 reciprocity and generosity, an accommodation that he has not yet fully acknowledged: “If you had known the virtue of the ring, / Or half her worthiness that gave the ring …” (519, 5.1.199-208). Portia may be obedient to her father, but she is not a fool, a slave, or a child. Her actions show her to be far more mature than most of the men in The Merchant of Venice.

The point of the ring episode is that Portia will exercise mercy with respect to the decree she had previously issued. She didn’t require the decree of faithfulness in the deadly fashion understood by Bassanio. She interprets her own words liberally rather than literally, and here in Act 5 she 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 under Portia’s dispensation, perfection isn’t necessary.

Antonio finds out that he isn’t a pauper after all (489, 5.1.275-79), and we hear that Shylock, upon his death, will “gift” the remaining half of his estate to Lorenzo and Jessica (489, 5.1.290-92). Bassanio, with Antonio’s help, gets the chance to make a second affirmation of his constancy towards Portia, saying, “Pardon this fault, and by my soul I swear / I never more will break an oath with thee” (520, 5.1.247-48). It’s probably worth noting that the oath is just as extreme as the previous ones he and Antonio have made. Even so, a generous understanding of speech and act is the essential contrast in the play between Christians and Jews. The former are represented as having 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—this latter inference is represented explicitly, and sympathetically, in Michael Radford’s stellar 2004 production of The Merchant of Venice.[41]

How should we understand the play’s conclusion? Aside from all the concluding happiness, Antonio, somewhat like Shylock, remains outside the charmed comic circle of “shiny happy people holding hands,”[42] so his melancholy self-understanding seems to be validated by the play’s ending: Antonio’s part in life is a sad one, just as he had said in Act 1, Scene 1. That may be because Shakespeare recognizes the ambivalence of Elizabethan (and more ancient) attitudes toward the classical “homosocial” conception of male friendship that obtains between Antonio and Bassanio. The men’s excessive rhetoric notwithstanding, the play’s comic emphasis and structure positively demand that Antonio step aside so that Bassanio’s orthodox pursuit of happiness with Portia may succeed. Jessica’s story, 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 against the spiteful Christian saying “till the Jews be converted” as a way of saying “never.”[43]

We can reasonably contrast The Merchant of Venice with the religious skeptic Christopher Marlowe’s 1589-90 masterpiece The Jew of Malta, with its villainous merchant Barabas who dies horribly (and deservedly) at the play’s end, but we will never really know what Shakespeare’s own audience members thought about the conclusion, or indeed what the playwright himself thought of it.[44] Does Shylock “get what he deserves,” or is he (to borrow King Lear’s anguished phrase) a man “More sinned against than sinning”?[45] Which counts for more—the pathos of Shylock’s suffering and his earlier appeal, in Act 3, Scene 1, to universal humanity, or the undeniable malice and cruelty he shows in his sustained attempt to take down a longtime Christian enemy? Is Portia’s emphasis on the need to imitate God’s mercy worthy to stand on its own, or it is largely (or entirely) undercut by the play’s context, which underscores the Christian characters’ cliquishness and general failure to practice what they preach when it comes to outsiders? Perhaps what we can say with some confidence is that Shakespeare has provided enough strands and counter-strands in The Merchant of Venice to make the weaving of many interpretations at least plausible. This play is essentially comic, but for modern audiences, it seems, it is bound to remain an unsettling kind of comedy. Many directors, Michael Radford included, have chosen to present it as closer to a tragicomic or “mixed” affair instead of as a cheerful comedy. Perhaps some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries saw no need to worry about the fate of Shylock (or Antonio, for that matter), but we are not bound to cast aside those elements of the story in favor of rendering this difficult, disturbing play satisfying. We may do well to keep in mind Homer’s request of his muse in The Odyssey: he asks her to “sing for our time too.”[46] Each generation responds to a play, or any work of art, in a way that makes sense to them.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93862-3.

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake

Document Timestamp: 3/23/2024 12:36 PM


[1] See Greenblatt, Stephen. Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare. New York & London: W. W. Norton & Co., 2004. Pp. 45-50. Greenblatt points out that in 1575, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester put on a lavish entertainment program for the visiting Elizabeth I at Kenilworth Castle about twelve miles northeast of young Shakespeare’s own Stratford. The future playwright may, conjectures Greenblatt, have enjoyed some of the festivities himself, or at least heard them described in some detail.

[2] Marx, Karl. “Preface” to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977. Accessed 3/10/2024.

[3] Some critics insist that Bassanio’s main reason for pursuing Portia is her wealth, but that may be somewhat unfair: his motives are probably best described as “mixed.”

[4] With the love-struck Medea’s help, Jason and his Argonauts get hold of the Golden Fleece on Colchis, and take advantage of Pelius’s offer of the Iolchan throne in Thessaly. Perhaps it should give us pause that the story shows a man gaining power and mastery by betrayal of a woman who loves him, but of course in a comedy this is no more than a dark highlight or hint; its full potential will not be realized in Shakespeare’s play. See’s “What Is the Story of Jason and the Golden Fleece?” Accessed 3/23/2024.

[5] Amicitia perfecta. See Shakespeare’s Globe essay “Shakespeare and Friendship.” April 6, 2018. Accessed 3/22/2024.

[6] McPherson, David C. Shakespeare, Jonson, and the Myth of Venice. Newark: U of Delaware Press, 1990. McPherson suggests that Antonio’s sadness may exist at least partly due to the declining fortunes of Venetian merchants, in which case Salerio and Solanio might not be entirely wrong. See pg. 51.

[7] Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Folio with additions from the Quarto. In The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. Combined text 764-840. However undiplomatic she may be, King Lear’s daughter Cordelia may not be far from the mark when she implies that there’s something quantifiable about love, so that it is not entirely free of constraint. Cordelia tells the stunned Lear, “Happily, when I shall wed, / That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry / Half my love with him …” (766, 1.1.98-100).

[8] McPherson, David C. ibid. Indeed, if McPherson is correct, it may be plausible to view Portia as one of the high-born citizens of Venice—essentially part of a semi-aristocratic set in longtime republican Venice—who managed to distance themselves from the declining performance of the merchant profession, often moving to landed estates outside the city. Belmont might be construed as just such a removed estate. See pg. 56. See also Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998. He remarks that Portia is just fine bearing with Bassanio and his spendthrift, happy-go-lucky set. She is in no way morally superior, Bloom suggests, to many of the characters in this play’s Venice. See pp. 177-79.

[9] A ducat consisted of .11 Troy ounces of gold, which, multiplied by 3,000 at 2024’s gold prices yields 330 ounces, and then multiplied by gold’s value as of March 15 ($2159 per ounce), that would be a bit north of $700,000.

[10] With regard to the story in Genesis 30:25-43, Jacob is Esau’s brother, and the son of Isaac and Rebekah and the grandson of Abraham and Sarah; Jacob was subsequently renamed “Israel” by an angel and is the great ancestor of the tribes of Israel. Antonio seems to miss the point of the story, at least as far as Shylock is concerned: the deal that Laban made with Jacob, who was working so he might return to his family, turned out to be unjust because he kept changing the terms of the contract. It’s a matter of a pair of clever deceivers colliding, and Jehovah blesses Jacob as the chosen seed. Jacob, in perpetrating his trick against Laban, trusts that God will sustain him and thereby advance the story of the Jews in their quest for the Promised Land. The deception itself is not some kind of dark magic, and by implication, neither is Shylock the moneylender’s “trick” of making money breed money such dark magic: it is a licit way to survive and thrive in the presence of hostile others who treat them as alien and “less than.” The hypocrisy of the Christians in such economic matters here is ludicrously obvious since Venetian commerce, like all other advanced commerce, undeniably turns upon interest-based lending practices. Accessed 3/22/2024.

[11] See 2 Corinthians 3:6. The Geneva Bible of 1599. St. Paul writes, “for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.” The reference is to the purported truth of the New Testament, which demands, in his view, a new and liberating emphasis in interpretation. For those who find the theological undertones of The Merchant of Venice central, this Pauline principle would seem to be very important: one might say that Shylock conforms to the Christian slur that Jews read spiritual texts in a literalist, “dead-letter” fashion rather than with a view to their spiritual import. Accessed 3/20/2024.

[12] Rendering Lancelet’s speech fully comic is the sense that when he describes for us the content and progress of his thoughts, it makes sense to suppose there is nothing more going on in his head than this medieval-style allegorical debate.

[13] Genesis 25:29-34. Geneva Bible, 1599. Accessed 3/18/2024.

[14] Garber, Marjorie. Shakespeare after All. New York: Anchor Books, 2004. Pg. 304.

[15] The appropriate theological term would be charity, caritas.

[16] The text does not mention the season during which the play is set, so there is no reason to suppose that the season is Carnival-time. Still, Shylock’s description in 2.5 of the masquers he expects will soon be parading in the street below his home sounds like what one might say of Carnival revelers: he calls them “Christian fools with varnished [painted] faces” (12), and complains about the madcap music they will soon play. There is a general holiday ambience in Venice, as Shakespeare describes the place, and that is sufficient to reinforce the play’s contrast between Christian attitudes and Shylock’s somber demeanor.

[17] McPherson, David C. ibid., 27-28, 32, 35-36. McPherson’s general theme is that Shakespeare and Jonson are dealing with Venice as a mythic construction more than an actual place. Among other qualities, the beautiful city was noted for its wealth, devotion to pleasure, elegance, political wisdom and craftiness, as well as strictness and even severity in its justice system.

[18] Like the spendthrift Bassanio, who uses his friend’s money to step into the role of a man of great substance, and thence actually to become one when he marries Portia; or Portia, who disguises herself as a learned male doctor of laws to rescue Antonio from his forfeit. Incidentally, that Bassanio is something of a fortune-hunter would not necessarily have marked him for opprobrium in Shakespeare’s day—he is of sufficiently high social standing to make his enterprise seem respectable. See Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare after All. New York: Anchor Books, 2004. Pg. 287.

[19] See, for example, the RSC’s article “The Stage History of The Merchant of Venice.” Accessed 3/23/2024.

[20] See Susan Abernethy’s “Rodrigo Lopez, Royal Physician.” Accessed 3/23/2024. The harrowing story of Elizabeth I’s physician Rodrigo Lopez reveals the unhealthy combination of fear and contempt with which such an exotic figure was regarded. When he was about to be executed for his alleged treason against the queen in 1594, his pious claim that he loved Elizabeth as much as he loved Jesus Christ met with Christian derision.

[21] See, for example, the entry “London, England” at Accessed 3/8/2024.

[22] See Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998. One key point that Bloom makes in his essay on The Merchant of Venice is that Shylock is something other than pathos-inducing, even in his famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech to Christian onlookers in 3.1. In Bloom’s analysis, “Shylock kindled Shakespeare’s imagination and became enlarged beyond comedy, though into menace rather than pathos” (181).

[23] See Bloom, ibid., 171. The author writes, “One would have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to recognize that Shakespeare’s grand, equivocal comedy The Merchant of Venice is nevertheless a profoundly anti-Semitic work.”

[24] Gesta Romanorum. Trans. Richard Robinson. London, 1595. See Tale 32. This is the edition that Shakespeare appears to have consulted. EEBO/ Accessed 2/8/2024.

[25] This last point seems to conform to Augustine’s framework in The City of God: evil is a falling away from things that are in themselves good. See in particular Vol. 1, Book 13. Trans. Marcus Dodds. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1871. Project Gutenberg e-text. Accessed 3/23/2024.

[26] 1 John 2:15, 1599 Geneva Bible. Accessed 3/8/2024.

[27] Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Second Quarto with additions from the Folio. In The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. Combined text 358-447. Hamlet 435, 5.1.173-75.

[28] See Norton note 7 on pg. 495.

[29] Here, “fancy” means “attraction, love, affection.”

[30] One notices the difference between Portia’s oaths, which are grounded in humility and desire to please, and some of the oaths that Bassanio and Antonio casually offer up to each other and in other situations, as at court in Act 4. These seem more extravagant than Portia’s stated desires.

[31] A pun on the 1999 film Girl, Interrupted directed by James Mangold and starring Angelina Jolie, Winona Ryder, and others.

[32] Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Folio with additions from the Quarto. In The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. Combined text 764-840. Kent advises the King as follows: “Thy youngest daughter doth not love thee least, / Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sounds / Reverb no hollowness” (768, 1.1.150-52).

[33] The line is from R.E.M.’s 1991 song “Shiny Happy People Holding Hands” from the album Out of Time.

[34] A ducat consisted of 3.5 or so grams of gold. The sum of 36,000 ducats amounts to 281 lbs. of gold. In rough terms, that’s worth perhaps 5 or 6 million dollars in 2024.

[35] As the Norton editors’ note points out, this utterance sounds a good deal like what the crowd of Jews at Jesus’s trial supposedly said: in the Geneva Bible, the passage runs: “His blood be on us, and on our children.” Matthew 27:25. Accessed 3/22/2024.

[36] Daniel 13 is placed among the apocryphal texts. Accessed 3/22/2024. The import of this identification, for Shylock, may be that he has been unjustly condemned for his profession of moneylending by the very Christian “elders” who constrain him to follow that profession: they are hypocrites seeking to cover up their own sinful dealing.

[37] This is a very serious matter, the spreading of the “blood libel”: it has for centuries been used as a precursor of and justification for violence against Jews, not only in Nazi Germany but elsewhere in Europe and other parts of the world where antisemitism is present. See, for example, the Jewish Virtual Library’s entry ”Blood Libel.“ Accessed 3/18/2024.

[38] The phrase “io son contento,” or “I am content,” approaches the status of a refrain in Shakespeare’s main source for his play, the fourteenth-century novella il Pecorone, by Ser Giovanni Fiorentino (See Novella I, Giornata Quarta, pp. 41ff.; see also the English translation by W. G. Waters, 1897). Accessed 3/08/2024. In the Italian’s text, this phrase is uttered a number of times by the rich merchant Ansaldo (Antonio’s literary precursor) upon finding out that his godson (the precursor of our graceful spendthrift, Bassanio) has survived a presumed catastrophe at sea or elsewhere. We can’t know what Shakespeare and/or his audiences really thought about Shylock’s prospects for a happy ending, but there may be an extra charge of bitterness in the utterance “I am content” that he takes up, as it were, from the rather easily satisfied Christian Messer Ansaldo. Fiorentino’s story is in brief as follows: Giannetto, Ansaldo’s godson, twice loses a costly wager to a fabulously wealthy and beautiful lady in Belmonte—when he fails to bed her within the time period prescribed, she takes all the goods on his ship—only to gain her hand in marriage on his third try. After this triumph, Giannetto scandalously forgets that thanks to his two losses to the Lady, his godfather Ansaldo had to take out a loan for him of 10,000 ducats from a Jew, the terms of the bond being nearly identical to the one that Shakespeare’s Antonio agrees to. As in The Merchant of Venice, forfeit of the bond almost costs the merchant his life, but in the end the Jew must tear up his bond. In Fiorentino’s Il Pecorino, however, he is not forced to abandon his religion as he is in The Merchant of Venice. He simply rips the bond to pieces in frustration, and we hear no more about him.

[39] While Shakespeare follows Fiorentino’s plot from Il Pecorone very closely (aside from Shylock not being forced to convert to Christianity in the precursor text), neither Bassanio nor Antonio shows quite the same degree of regard as Fiorentino’s Giannetto for the ring that the younger man had pledged to hold dear: Giannetto had said of his lady, “So great are the love and the trust I have for her, that there is not a lady in the world for whom I would exchange her, so consummately fair is she in every sense…” (Il Pecorone, trans. W. G. Waters. London: Lawrence and Bullen, LTD, 1897. pg. 58.) In comparison to this, Bassanio’s protestation seems like weak tea, while Antonio considers it simple reason that a woman’s wishes should give way to the entreaties of a learned doctor.

[40] See “The Music of the Spheres.” Accessed 3/23/2024. See also Andrew Brown’s Nov. 5, 2009 article “The music of the spheres” in The Guardian. Accessed 3/23/2024.

[41] Director Michael Radford’s 2005 film version of The Merchant of Venice stars (among others) Lynn Collins as Portia, Al Pacino as Shylock, Joseph Fiennes as Bassanio, and Jeremy Irons as Antonio.

[42] The line is from R.E.M.’s 1991 song “Shiny Happy People Holding Hands” from the album Out of Time.

[43] See, for example, Theoharis C. Theoharis, “’For with God all Things are Possible’: Philip Roth’s ‘The Conversion of the Jews.’” Journal of the Short Story in English [online], 32. Spring 1999, posted online 01 July 2008, accessed 08 February 2024. URL: Theoharis points to Andrew Marvell’s witty poem “To His Coy Mistress” for its inclusion of the stock phrase “till the Jews be converted” as a way of saying “never.” Theoharis writes, “For centuries the phrase ‘conversion of the Jews’ has been a trope for the pragmatically unlikely, the tragically impossible, the heroically resisted, the idealistically sought for event.”

[44] Bloom, ibid. See the essay “The Merchant of Venice,” pp. 171-91.The well-known critic views Shylock as a character whose intelligence, studied malice, and deep cruelty catapult him beyond the immediate context of the play in which he is embedded. Shylock, in Bloom’s view, has come to seem lamentably archetypal of “Jewishness”—more so than Marlowe’s Barabas, the patently villainous Jew of Malta. As he describes the dynamic: “‘I’ll show you the Jew,’ Shakespeare says in reply to Marlowe, and so, alas, he has, to the everlasting harm of the actual Jewish people” (181). Bloom is not, of course, validating Shakespeare’s portrait of Shylock; he is instead testifying to its affective power through the centuries.

[45] Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Folio with additions from the Quarto. In The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. Combined text 764-840. Lear’s utterance “I am a man / More sinned against than sinning” occurs at 801, 3.2.59-60.

[46] Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1999. Book 1, line 12.

Measure for Measure

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies

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Shakespeare, William. Measure for Measure. (The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 891-959).

Of Interest: RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Summary of Cinthio’s “Epitia” in Hecatommithi | Whetstone’s Promos and Cassandra |

Act 1, Scene 1 (pp. 901-03, Duke Vincentio of Vienna says he must travel and appoints upright young Angelo to govern in his stead, with old Escalus as his second-in-command. A stunned Angelo accepts; he and Escalus withdraw to determine their powers.)

We can see from the outset that the Duke’s plan will not be simply to install the most experienced subordinate as his substitute while he’s gone. His absence will have the character of a test,  an experiment. When the Duke says to Angelo, “Spirits are not finely touched / But to fine issues” (1.1.35), he is setting forth the typical Renaissance understanding of virtue as an active power that reveals itself in welldoing. He professes to see this active power at work in Angelo. However, the young man himself seems uncertain about his sudden elevation, or at least that’s what he says.

The Duke tells Angelo that while he holds office, he will have the power “So to enforce or qualify the laws / As to your soul seems good” (1.1.65-66). He also professes a certain shyness when it comes to mingling with the people: “I love the people, / But do not like to stage me to their eyes” (1.1.67-68). In itself, this quality is by no means a defect in the Duke; we find a similar reticence in strategically wise rulers such as Henry the Fourth, who in the first of Shakespeare’s two plays on that king criticizes Richard the Second for his profligate willingness to mix with the common people. Henry tells Prince Hal that such rash conduct debases a king’s image, and he implies that by such rashness, Richard squandered his once-high currency in the realm, and became an eminently defeatable laughing-stock.

The problem is, the Duke of Vienna does not seem to be as good at maintaining his authority as was Henry the Fourth. We will soon hear from him that he has not been assiduous in upholding the law in Vienna. He has not, it seems, followed his own observation about turning one’s virtue towards action in the world. That kind of failure can cost rulers dearly in Shakespeare’s plays. In The Tempest, for example, Prospero, the Duke of Milan, prefers his private studies to actually governing his people. This defect opens the door for his greedy brother to exile him to a remote island. In such difficult circumstances as Duke Vincentio has allowed to develop, Angelo may have power to “mitigate” the law, but as we shall see, the expectation seems to be that he will do the reverse, and serve as a harsh corrective, with the end-goal being a lasting balance between justice and mercy. As the first scene concludes, Angelo and Escalus cordially withdraw amongst themselves to figure out the exact scope of the powers given to each man. This suggests that they mean to be precise in the carrying out of their duties.

Act 1, Scene 2 (pp. 903-07, Lucio and two gentlemen exchange witticisms about syphilis. Mistress Overdone announces that Claudio is being led off to prison for impregnating Julietta, and airs her fears that the city’s severe new moral dispensation will put her on the streets. Pompey cheers her up. Claudio gets perp-walked into the scene, and shares his views on Angelo’s harshness with Lucio. Claudio invests his hopes for release in his sister Isabella’s beauty and rhetorical skill.)

The BBC version sets this scene in a tavern, which works well. We have gone instantly from seeing Angelo and his second-in-command remove themselves to discuss the precise parameters of their own power to a silly scene in which precision becomes a matter of words used in jest. Lucio needles the first and second gentlemen about their lack of moral standing, and implies that one of them is afflicted with syphilis—hardly unlikely, given the nature of the conversation. Basically, these are the type of people the Duke is worried he’s given too much license to misbehave, and the place where they are enjoying themselves is one to which the law’s power has scarcely extended itself.

Soon, the Bawd (Mistress Overdone) interrupts all the jesting about syphilis to tell Lucio and his companions that Claudio has been arrested “for getting Madam Julietta / with child” (1.2.66-67). Lucio seems genuinely distressed, while Mistress Overdone takes to complaining about the sorry state of her business: war, plague, crime or the punishment thereof, and poverty have deprived her of a great number of customers. Pompey the Clown endeavors to cheer her up, promising that she will have some recompence even though the brothels outside the city are to be “pulled down” (1.2.93). He says that he will keep the alcohol flowing, which is what a tapster like him can do. Just as Shakespeare has highlighted the power structure in Vienna and will soon make plainer the problem that currently besets it, so in this second scene he gives us a little portrait of the red light district of Vienna, which constitutes a separate economy of its own, and which has deeply human problems to deal with, just as a legitimate or legal economy has. Mistress Overdone is sincerely worried about what will become of her in the new dispensation being established by the Duchy’s severe, even puritanical moralists. In this light, all the comic talk about venereal disease becomes more ominous: there were no effective treatments for diseases such as syphilis, which ravaged the underground economy constituted by Mistress Overdone and those like her. A prostitute who became unwholesome because of her affliction with such illnesses was liable to be cast out to oblivion and death. In a later era, William Hogarth would depict in his eight paintings collectively titled A Rake’s Progress (1735) the dreadful path followed by a wealthy merchant’s son who contracted syphilis and ruined his and others’ lives.

Enter Claudio, bitterly complaining that he is being grossly put on display by the Provost. This is what we would call a “perp walk” today. At the moment, Claudio is not waxing bitter towards those who have arrested him; he is rather philosophical about it, saying in accordance with St. Paul in Romans 9:15 that heaven will call down judgment “on whom it will” (1.2.111). All the same, he says, this is justice. The perspective Claudio offers does not greatly differ from what we will soon hear from the Duke: the looseness, the moral laxity, of men such as Claudio, is the cause of their suffering and shame. As this character admits eloquently, “Our natures do pursue, / Like rats that raven down their proper bane, / A thirsty evil, and when we drink, we die” (1.2.117-119). This understanding is of a piece with Shakespeare’s dark “Sonnet 129,” which describes the great power of lust as follows: “none knows well / To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.” Centuries later, the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins would write with similar clarity in one of his melancholy sonnets, “I see / The lost are like this, and their scourge to be / As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse” (“I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day”).

Claudio tries to reckon with Lucio the cause of the harshness that Angelo has just shown against him, first advancing the Machiavellian point that the governor may be trying to set a new example for an unruly public. Then he comes around to suggesting that Angelo has had him arrested “for a name” (1.2.157), which is to say for enhancing his own reputation. In this passage, the young man sounds bitter, not philosophical as before. We begin to see a certain vacillation of temperament in this character that will soon turn problematic. Lucio’s quibbles effectively trivialize the offense, reducing it to simple sexual pleasure. Claudio puts his hopes in his virtuous sister Isabella, saying, “in her youth / There is a prone and speechless dialect, / Such as move men. Beside, she hath prosperous art / When she will play with reason and discourse, / And well she can persuade” (1.2.170-174). Perhaps with these gifts of beauty and rhetorical skill, Isabella can obtain her brother’s release.

Act 1, Scene 3 (pp. 907-08, Duke Vincentio explains to a friar his purposes for wanting to disguise himself as a friar and return to observe Vienna: he wants Angelo to impose strict justice to reset the city’s moral conduct, and he wants to see how power affects this puritanical young man.)

The Duke reassures his friend the friar that his visit has nothing to do with romantic matters, and gets to the point. He reminds the friar that he has “ever loved the life removed” (1.3.8), and reports that he has appointed Angelo to govern in his absence. What’s the reason? It is essentially a Machiavellian shift: the Duke admits that he has not maintained law and order in Vienna—he has “let slip” (1.3.20) the “strict statutes and most biting laws” (1.3.19) that would otherwise have been sufficient to keep order. The picture he paints of present-day Vienna is not pretty. The laws are flouted, and good people are abused. The friar is no politician, so he asks why the Duke does not simply reassert the laws himself. To this, the Duke replies that the correction would seem “too dreadful” (1.3.34), so he wants to avoid the appearance of tyranny (his term). When Angelo imposes strict punishments, the Duke’s name may come into it, but not, he thinks, his nature, and in this way, he will not incur the people’s hatred. This is logic straight from Machiavelli’s famous conduct book for rulers, The Prince: a prince should strive to be loved, but since being loved is not always possible, he should seek to be feared without being hated. At the extremes of such logic, we may be reminded of something Machiavelli’s ideal prince Cesare Borgia did: he allowed a deputy to act with great severity, and then, when the people started to get really upset, he had the fellow cut in half and displayed in the public square. The Duke won’t carry things so far, but he delegates his severer functions of judgment and punishment to Angelo and Escalus. In essence, the balance between being loved and hated is to be respected. That seems to be what the Duke is aiming at. But the Duke’s description of the man he has appointed in his stead leads us to another purpose for disguising himself as a friar and returning to observe Vienna: “Lord Angelo is precise, / Stands at a guard with envy, scarce confesses / That his blood flows or that his appetite / Is more to bread than stone” (1.3.50-53). Given as much power as the Duke has granted Angelo, what will the latter man do, and what will be the consequences? The Duke will be interested to know: “Hence shall we see / If power change purpose, what our seemers be” (1.3.53-54).

Much about this scene might be taken as disturbing with regard to the Duke’s reasoning and even his character. He bears himself like an upright man, but his Machiavellian logic leads to a certain complexity or moral ambiguity in terms of how he plans to deal with a problem that, as he admits, he himself has largely caused and for which he bears responsibility. A common strain of interpretation in the criticism of Measure for Measure caststhe Duke as a godlike figure hiding himself but nonetheless dispensing ultimate justice to the souls in his charge. But is he, we might ask, instead treating his subjects like hapless animals in some potentially gruesome experiment?

Act 1, Scene 4 (pp. 908-10, Lucio visits Isabella’s convent of St. Clare, and enlists her aid in winning through her charm the release of her wayward brother Claudio. Isabella is at first doubtful, but agrees.)

Our first impression of Isabella is a rather strange one. She enters speaking with a more experienced nun, and immediately admits that she wishes the holy order which she is just now joining would impose even stricter rules. Critics have sometimes suggested that this desire may reveal something about Isabella’s psychosexual makeup. More on this later on. Lucio soon enters on a mission from Claudio, Isabella’s brother. He relates the unfortunate situation of this brother to her, and she can scarcely believe it. Neither does she trust Lucio’s manner, but the man seems sincere in his desire to help Isabella get her brother out of his predicament. He reassures Isabella as follows: “I hold you as a thing enskied and sainted / By your renouncement, an immortal spirit…” (1.4.35-36). At base, says Lucio, Angelo has chosen to center his efforts on the sexual mores of Vienna’s citizens, and he wants to make an example of Claudio for getting Julia pregnant. It has been said that the prospect of being hanged focuses the mind like nothing else, and Angelo seeks to impose such focus on the people of Vienna.

The most interesting part of the scene occurs near the end, at the point where Isabella, when asked to reflect upon or weigh the power she may have to help her brother, says, “My power? Alas, I doubt” (1.4.78). She probably just means, “I don’t believe I have any power to help my brother.” But Lucio’s response seems to suggest another act of reflection on her part: “Our doubts are traitors / And makes us lose the good we oft might win, / By fearing to attempt” (1.4.78-80). Lucio brings into the conversation the concept of fear, not simply doubt in the modern sense. For the word “doubt” in Shakespeare’s day contained both meanings. He may be asking Isabella to look within herself and reflect that she has powers to move men that may frighten her: her beauty, her sexuality. He wants her to consider these and use them. The rest of his speech to her makes this quite plain: “Go to Lord Angelo…” (1.4.80ff). Lucio is suggesting that even Angelo—severe, upright Angelo—is nonetheless a young man and that his shield of probity will prove no match for Isabella’s charm, if she will only deploy it. Isabella responds in a way that should give hope to Lucio and Claudio: “I’ll see what I can do” (1.4.84).

Aside on critical methodology: Lucio, a silly, foppish, and often dishonest character, gets some wonderfully eloquent lines. See his concluding remarks to Isabella in this very scene, as well as his admiring remarks about Isabella’s rhetorical performance later in the play, when she tries to convince Angelo to relent. The same is true of Isabella herself, and Claudio. But does the Duke receive a similar allotment of fine speaking? If not, this may be another sign that this character can’t control things to the extent he would like. We might do well to think of Measure for Measure like a “city comedy,” wherein the power shifts from royal, magisterial figures like the Duke to the citizens themselves. Of course, if we take that approach, we may somewhat undermine the play’s overt treatment of reasserting control as a royal function. In any case, it’s worthwhile attending to the distribution of eloquence throughout Shakespeare’s plays: who speaks finely, who speaks plainly, and who seems most self-conscious about his or her way of speaking and observing (or breaking) the polite rules of decorum.

Act 2, Scene 1 (pp. 910-16, Escalus counsels moderation, but Angelo insists on condemning Claudio to death. The Provost enters with Pompey and Master Froth, offering a convoluted story alleging that his wife has been abused by them in Mistress Overdone’s establishment. Escalus is bemused, but dismisses Froth and indulgently lets Pompey go after scolding him. Escalus tells the Provost to bring some replacements for his office to court.)

This scene begins with Angelo and Escalus hashing out their thoughts on the fate of Claudio. Escalus tries to soften Angelo’s rigorous application of justice, asking him if indeed, he might have been tempted to do the same thing as Claudio did at some point or other in his past. To this reasonable plea for reflection, Angelo responds in a truly Shylockian manner: “’Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus, / Another thing to fall” (2.1.17). He admits that sometimes those who impose justice are themselves rascals, and that faults often go unnoticed, but sees no reason to attenuate his severity on that basis. All he can say is, “When I, that censure him, do so offend, / Let mine own judgment pattern out my death, / and nothing come in partial” (2.1.30-31). This is not far from Shylock’s exclamation, “My deeds upon my head!” (The Merchant of Venice 4.1.204). To this, Escalus can say very little because the power belongs to Angelo, not to him, and Angelo says Claudio must be executed tomorrow morning. But to himself, Escalus remarks upon the inconsistency of the application of law: “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall” (2.1.38). That is a startling admission coming from a man tasked with applying the law.

With the entrance of the Provost followed by Constable Elbow and Master Frost along with the roguish Pompey, Escalus gets an opportunity to administer law more to his liking. What with all the double entendres, insinuations of immorality, malapropisms, and just plain confusion and prolixity, it takes Escalus a few hundred lines to figure out why Constable Elbow has brought these men in with him. It seems that the matter has to do with insults of a sexual nature being offered to the Constable’s own wife when she entered Mistress Overdone’s house of dubious propriety to buy some stewed prunes. Escalus and Angelo are both present at the outset of this comical interlude, but Angelo slips away as soon as he can, leaving the field to his second-in-command. Escalus takes the whole affair in good humor, and avoids imposing the severity that Angelo had already suggested. Escalus dismisses the addled Master Froth and lets Pompey go after scolding him for being something other than a “tapster,” as Pompey is pleased to call himself. Escalus has passed down a lax sentence of the very sort that allowed Vienna to slip into near-decadence. This is hardly the strict justice that the Duke had it in mind to reintroduce. All the same, it’s hard to blame Escalus since Constable Elbow is unable to specify the nature of the charges with anything like the precision needed to establish guilt. Pompey, as we can tell from his delighted reaction afterwards, has no intention of obeying the threat of a whipping: “I shall follow it as the flesh and fortune shall better determine” (2.1.230), says Pompey to himself. Still, Escalus’s decision seems in line with what Portia (as judge Balthasar) says incourt against Shylock: “The quality of mercy is not strained” (The Merchant of Venice 4.1.182). This scene has shown us that Escalus and Angelo are two very different men, operating at different levels of wisdom and maturity. Advantage, Escalus.

Act 2, Scene 2 (pp. 916-20, Isabella faces much resistance from Angelo in her suit to save her brother, but at last, with Lucio and the Provost looking on, her words and charm overcome Angelo’s denials, leaving him in agony.)

The Provost enters and in his way tries to get Angelo to delay execution of the sentence upon Claudio until he can reflect on its implications. But Angelo is in no mood to temporize. Isabella enters and soon begins her attempt to soften up Angelo. Her first gambit is to suggest, “let it be his fault, / And not my brother” (2.2.36-37). Angelo easily parries this attempt, and Isabella immediately gives up, only to be chided by Lucio, who tells her she is “too cold” (2.2.46). “Hate the sin, love the sinner” has not moved Angelo, so Isabella moves on to something like the modern driver’s complaint to a traffic cop: “But everyone else speeds too! What’s the big deal?” Isabella says, “I do think that you might pardon him, / And neither heaven nor man grieve at the mercy” (2.2.50-51). This line fails instantly, too, and Lucio again chides Isabella for her coldness. In Isabella’s next attempt, there is a mixture of straightforward pleading and expressions of anger, even reproach: “If he had been as you, and you as he, / You would have slipped like him, but he like you / Would not have been so stern” (2.2.65-67). She says that if she were a judge like him, she would show him a better way, a more merciful approach. Lucio is impressed with this, but Angelo still is not. Isabella next makes a bluntly religious appeal, saying, “Why, all the souls that were, were forfeit once, / And He that might the vantage best have took / Found out the remedy” (2.2.74-76). To this appeal to the pattern set by Christ, Angelo sets up a barrier by appealing to the law as an abstraction. Angelo, explains Angelo, does not condemn; the law does, and it cannot be put by.

Isabella’s next move is the Lucio-like claim that after all, the offense isn’t so terrible: “Who is it that hath died for this offense? / There’s many have committed it“ (2.2.88-89). Angelo’s response invokes the classic case for deterrence: when the law wakes up (his metaphor) to the evils being committed and punishes them appropriately, others will think twice before they do the same. Isabella moves on when this, too, fails to move Angelo, uttering beautiful lines that constitute a deep reproach to him, “Oh, it is excellent / To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous / To use it like a giant” (2.2.108-10). Isabella’s following lines sound angry; she condemns the arrogance of “man, proud man, / Dressed in a little brief authority, / Most ignorant of what he’s most assured…” (2.2.118-20). Lucio is almost beside himself with joy at this rhetorical turn, and we may suspect that it is not so much Isabella’s eloquent words that make him so happy as the passionate manner in which she speaks them. There is fire and righteous anger in her words. It’s clear that Angelo is moved, if not necessarily convinced by the logic of Isabella’s argument. But she tells him to look within himself, and examine his conscience: might he himself be guilty of something like the desire that led Claudio to sin? This seems canny on Isabella’s part because it is, we can tell from his words, precisely such desire that her words and manner have awakened in him: in an aside, he admits that his “sense breeds” (2.2.143) with hearing her good advice. He offers only to reflect more deeply on the matter, but Isabella stops him in his tracks by employing the word “bribe” (2.2.146). She will bribe him, that is, with “true prayers” (152) and not with gold or jewels.

Clearly, once he is alone, Angelo is profoundly shaken by what he has just experienced. He soon comes to the heart of the matter: “What dost thou, or what art thou, Angelo? / Dost thou desire her foully for those things / That make her good?” (2.2.175-177). He says that he always “smiled and wondered how” (2.2.189) when he came across infatuated lovers. He now finds that his dry, abstract notions of the good are no match for Eros, for love in its fully physical manifestation.

Act 2, Scene 3 (pp. 920-21, The Duke, disguised as a friar, enters the prison in Vienna and counsels Juliet on how to bear up under the weight of her transgression with Claudio. He also informs her that Claudio is scheduled to be executed tomorrow.)

In this brief scene, the Duke, now disguised as a friar, visits the prison-house in Vienna and counsels Juliet, informing her as well that her lover, Claudio, is set to be executed tomorrow. Juliet voices content to the friar, saying that she accepts “the shame with joy” (36). But privately, she is stunned at the news about Claudio and apparently feels that the law has stolen all hope from her even as it spares her life: “O injurious love, / That respites me a life whose very comfort / Is still a dying horror” (41-42).

Act 2, Scene 4 (pp. 921-25, Angelo makes his indecent proposal. If Isabella will have sex with him, he will spare her brother. At first, Isabella does not understand, but then she is outraged at his repeated offer, and even threatens to expose him. Alone at last, Isabella determines to visit Claudio in prison, sure that he will approve of her decision to preserve her chastity.)

Angelo continues to seethe with anxiety over his increasing passion for Isabella, and when she enters his chambers, he tenders her a brutally indecent proposal, repeating it—in a few instances garnished with hypothetical overtones—no fewer than four times without gaining her submission. It seems that Isabella values her chastity more than she values her brother’s life. In this way, she is just as much of a moral absolutist as Angelo had earlier professed to be when it came to enforcing the law. Isabella, however, shows herself more flexible than we might have thought, at least in the sense that she is willing to argue in a manner that softens Claudio’s so-called crime. She calls upon Angelo to consider not only heavenly justice but also the cost of his severity to those here on earth. Ultimately, her refusals expose Angelo’s utter hypocrisy, and he is left stammering that even if she exposes him, no one will believe an ordinary woman like her. As King Lear points out, “Robes and furred gowns hides all” (Lear Folio ed. 4.6.158). Isabella is certain that brother Claudio will support her insistence on maintaining her moral purity, even at the cost of his life. She’s in for quite a surprise.

It is worth noting the point-counterpoint structure that pits Angelo’s declaration “now I give my sensual race the rein” (2.4.157) against Isabella’s passionate rejection: “the impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies, / And strip myself to death as to a bed / That longing have been sick for, ere I’d yield / My body up to shame” (2.4.99-101). This is strongly masochistic language. One could make a Freud-inspired reading of such words, one that suggests the psychic strain that this refusal—as part of Isabella’s ongoing dedication to sexual abstinence and purity—puts on her as she squares off against Angelo with Claudio’s life in the balance. Shakespeare apparently did not need Sigmund Freud to tell him that one cannot simply dismiss “libidinal energy” even for the holiest purposes; the question comes down to how one invests such energy in life’s affairs. As passionately as Angelo allows his cruel sensuality to run riot (indeed, by the end of the scene he sounds like a typical stage villain), just as passionately does Isabella reject her oppressor’s lust.

Act 3, Scene 1 (pp. 925-36, the Duke visits Claudio in prison, counseling him to accept his sentence. Isabella enters and unsettles Claudio by telling him of Angelo’s dastardly attempt on her virtue. The Duke (as Friar Lodowick) takes Isabella aside, explaining how she can help rescue Claudio, do Angelo’s one-time fiancée Mariana a good turn, and expose Angelo’s misconduct. Constable Elbow brings Pompey by on his way to prison, and Lucio refuses to pay the man’s bail; Lucio slanders the Duke, not realizing his interlocutor is the man himself. Finally, Escalus marches Mistress Overdone off to jail, and briefly converses with the disguised Duke, who is then left alone to reflect on his plan to reestablish justice and equity in Vienna.)

The Duke (as Friar Lodowick) offers Claudio a set-piece performance as if he were playing at being Marcus Aurelius or Boethius, remarking upon the nothingness of earthly vanity. On the whole, though, his speech sounds medieval in its reduction of an individual human life to abstraction: “For thou exists on many a thousand grains / That issue out of dust” (3.1.20-21). The Duke at first seems to have won Claudio over with this rather wooden performance, but the young man’s resolve crumbles almost immediately when Isabella enters the picture. The two of them go back and forth, and when Isabella thinks she has brought him around to her eternity-regarding perspective, she tells him, “there my father’s grave / Did utter forth a voice” (3.1.85-86). But this victory is premature. When Claudio hears that the stumbling block is Isabella’s virginity, he loses his resolve, and begins almost to side with the now-corrupted Angelo: “Sure it is no sin, / Or of the deadly seven it is the least” (3.1.109-10). At last he is reduced to the utterance, “Death is a fearful thing” (3.1.116) and to some Dantean-sounding imaginings of what it is like to be dead and to suffer the pains of hell. This is too much for Isabella, who sharply rebukes him and calls him a coward. She asks him pointedly, “Is’t not a kind of incest to take life / From thine own sister’s shame?” (3.1.139-40). We need not take this literally, but there’s a strong point nonetheless: when Claudio seems almost to side with Angelo, he becomes that man’s confederate against Isabella: they’re practically the same man, as if they were members of an “old boys’ club.” Claudio would seem to dismiss the value of something that is more important to Isabella than life itself: her chastity. This portion of the scene (3.1.1-152) ends distressingly, with Claudio continuing to beseech his sister to save him, and Isabella becoming more and more hostile towards his efforts.

At this point, the disguised Duke reenters and again moves Claudio to accept his fate. He claims, falsely, that Angelo is merely testing Isabella. But when he speaks with the latter alone, he admits that it seems Angelo really has made her an immoral proposal. On her own, Isabella cannot see a way out of the predicament her brother is in. But the Duke has a clever plan: he tells Isabella that “you may most uprighteously do a poor / wronged lady a merited benefit; redeem your brother from / the angry law; do no stain to your own gracious person; and / much please the absent Duke…” (3.1.195-198). This plot will involve Mariana, the sister of a renowned soldier named Frederick. She was supposed to be married to Angelo, but this callous man was put off by the loss of her dowry when Frederick suffered a shipwreck and perished. The Duke explains that far from conceiving a hatred of Angelo, Mariana still loves him, and pines for him. This opens the door for Isabella to save the day: all she has to do, explains the Duke, is pretend she is willing to sleep with Angelo after all. Then, at the assignation place, Mariana will substitute herself for Isabella. This is the ancient “bed trick” of literary renown, and in the present play, it will help to rescue Claudio and make long-suffering Mariana whole. Isabella, for her part, is delighted with the plan. So ends this part of the scene (3.1.153-257).

Constable Elbow soon drags Pompey the pimp across the stage, intending to bring him to prison. The disguised Duke chastises Pompey severely, and recommends severe punishment to cure him of his sinful state.At least in disguise, the Duke seems to have benefited from his absence from the seat of power: he is able to speak bluntly to Pompey and call him out for what he is, rather than winking at his deep fault. Lucio, for his part, refuses to help Pompey, jestingly turning down the man’s request for bail money. Lucio’s reason has nothing to do with virtue—it’s merely “the wear” (3.1.323), meaning “fashion,” he says, that leads him to say no.

As soon as things have wrapped up with Elbow and Pompey (3.1.258-334), the Duke finds himself alone with Lucio, hanger-on and gossip-monger extraordinaire. This foppish, if articulate and witty, character proceeds to insult Angelo’s strict substitute for his unpleasant reign and to slander the Duke to his face, although unknowingly since the Duke is of course disguised as “Friar Lodowick.” Aside from being hilariously entertaining for the audience, the conversation suggests that Lucio aptly represents a portion of the general public in a state that has gone to seed, or that threatens to do so. While Lucio’s claims about the Duke’s corrupt and dissolute ways are utterly false, as suppositions they are not groundless. If immorality and criminality are rampant in a populace, we might suggest, the best place to look for the source is the people’s governors, who are probably setting a terrible example. At the same time, Lucio offers a cogent view of the prospects of austere do-gooders and reformers generally when he says of lechery, “it is impossible to extirp it quite, Friar, till / eating and drinking be put down” (3.1.348-49). But of course saying this in no way excuses pompous, insinuating Lucio, who is falsely asserting that he has personal, intimate knowledge of the Duke’s alleged transgressions (lechery, drunkenness, and even superficiality). The Duke shows considerable restraint in remaining civil in the face of such a brazen slanderer, who, though he claims he fervently wishes for the lax Duke’s return, ought to fear that outcome above all else. And so ends this portion of the scene (3.1.335-418).

All that remains from 3.1.419-509 is for Angelo’s second-in-command Escalus to order the Bawd (Mistress Overdone) off to prison and leave room for Escalus and the Duke (as Friar Lodowick) to hold some conversation. Before she’s swept away, however, she lets slip a damning piece of information against Lucio: he got the prostitute Kate Keepdown pregnant and then failed to do right by her and the child. Escalus, alone with the Provost and the disguised Duke, informs him that Angelo is constant in his decision to have Claudio executed tomorrow. The Duke apprises the state of the world’s affairs bleakly, saying that inconstancy and mistrust reign everywhere. The riddle that explains it all, he says, is “There is / scarce truth enough alive to make societies secure, but / security enough to make fellowships accursed” (457-59). One reading of this language might be that the Duke shares something of Sir Francis Bacon’s pessimism in his essay “Of Truth” (1625), which concludes (in homage to Luke 18:8), “When Christ cometh, ‘[H]e shall not find faith upon the earth.’” (See Bacon’s The Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral, of Francis Ld. Verulam, Viscount of St. Albans.) Add to this the melancholy realization that humankind’s faithlessness and scorn for truth lead them to load themselves down with financial and legal bonds, which are more symptomatic of universal corruption than curative of the ills they purport to redress.

When Escalus exits, ruing the rigid severity of his immediate superior Angelo—“he is indeed Justice” (3.1.482)—the Duke is left to his own reflections. The Duke sums up Angelo’s example in rhyming trimeter: “He who the sword of heaven will bear / Should be as holy as severe” (3.1.488-89). There’s a hint here that if the Duke ever believed mortals had any business acting with the severity of his deputy Angelo, the unfolding of the experiment is providing him with a powerful corrective. “Surprised by sin” is a phrase made famous by critic Stanley Fish in his sharp analysis of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and we might do well to apply it here: just as the pretended Saint Angelo is surprised by his propensity to indulge his own cruel lust, so is the Duke at least a little surprised, and more than a little displeased, that his experiment with Angelo has gone so far sideways as to threaten severe harm to his subjects. It is not for fallen humans to play Christ the Judge, and the Duke wisely determines that he must use a classic bit of deceit to establish the partial degree of virtue and equity (fairness) possible in a saucy world: “Craft against vice I must apply” (504). We know this means corralling Angelo into a marriage with Mariana, a woman who inexplicably still loves him, but the final two acts will reveal the rest of the Duke’s dispensation, such as it is.

Act 4, Scene 1 (pp. 936-38, Following a vignette of the jilted Mariana at her home, the Duke in disguise shows up and so does Isabella; these two confer on their plan to trap Angelo, and the Duke introduces the two women. The Duke worries about what his subjects are saying about him in his absence.)

This may be the scene that inspired Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood painter John Everett Millais and Victorian poet Alfred Tennyson to create their respective works of art titled “Mariana.” It is easy for us to suggest that Mariana’s match with Angelo is not exactly made in heaven—the hypocritical Puritan abandoned her when her dowry funding fell through thanks to her brother’s shipwreck. When we are introduced to Mariana in person, the first thing we hear is a boy singing a tale of frustrated romance that perfectly suits Mariana’s predicament. There is a strong sense of sexual frustration about Shakespeare’s entire portrait of her. In this scene, she herself refers to her “brawling discontent” (4.1.9) about what happened with Angelo. As yet, this lady does not know exactly what the Duke will be getting up to on her behalf, but Isabella soon enters and reports to the Duke how their plan is coming along. She has made the necessary promise to Angelo, and learned the way to her destination. The Duke calls Mariana back and introduces her to Isabella, whereupon the latter, at the Duke’s request, takes Mariana aside to inform her of the plan that will serve them both. When they return to the Duke, he reassures Mariana that her conduct will be upright, saying, “the justice of your title to him / Doth flourish the deceit” (4.1.73-74).

Act 4, Scene 2 (pp. 938-42, The Provost makes Pompey the executioner’s apprentice, and summons Claudio and Barnardine to tell them they are soon to die. A messenger arrives with a letter containing Angelo’s stubbornly restated order to execute Claudio. The Provost explains Barnardine’s recalcitrance with regard to his execution, but the Duke tells the Provost to execute this man and bring his head instead of Claudio’s to Angelo. When the Provost balks, the Duke (as Lodowick) reassures him and says the letter signifies the Duke’s imminent return.)

The Provost, ever efficient, decides that Pompey might as well assist the hangman Abhorson in the upcoming executions. Pompey takes up the offer with alacrity since otherwise, he knows, he will be severely whipped for his offenses. Abhorson is somewhat taken aback by this turn, and fears that his “mystery” (4.2.23-24) will be tarnished by the connection with a mere pimp. The Provost does not see matters that way, and neither does Pompey. Claudio and Barnardine are soon brought in and told they must be executed, and the Duke, in his usual disguise, enters soon thereafter. He makes as if to defend Angelo from the charge of tyranny, seeing as no reprieve has come yet for Claudio. The Duke tries to reassure the Provost that a reprieve will come, but the Provost seems uncertain. Soon, terrible news arrives: Angelo not only hasn’t countermanded the writ of execution, he demands “Claudio’s head sent me by five” (4.2.118) and threatens the Provost if this is not done.

Barnardine is also to be executed, and this gives the Duke an idea. Barnardine, according to the Provost, “apprehends death no more dreadfully / but as a drunken sleep; careless, reckless, and fearless of what’s past, present, or to come; insensible of mortality, and / desperately mortal” (4.2.136-39). The Duke begins to let the Provost in on his secret plans, at least on a need-to-know basis, and says he will soon find that Angelo is far worse a man than Barnardine. But the point is, Claudio’s execution is to be delayed and Barnardine’s head brought to Angelo instead. The Provost is still dubious, but the Duke shows his own “hand and seal” (4.2.181-82), and that proves sufficient. As for Angelo, says the Duke, he will soon be receiving some strange, rumor-filled letters, the contents of which will surprise him.

Act 4, Scene 3 (pp. 943-46, The drunken Barnardine refuses to be reconciled to his execution. The Provost tells the disguised Duke that Ragozine has died—a stroke of luck since he looked like Claudio—so the Duke tells the Provost to present Angelo with Ragozine’s head. The Duke will send letters to Angelo telling him to meet him publicly just outside the city. The Duke falsely tells Isabella that Claudio has been executed. He promises revenge: she will publicly expose Angelo. The Duke then sends her to Friar Peter to set up a strategy meeting.)

Pompey remarks upon the denizens of the prison in which he now assists Abhorson: “One would think it were Mistress Overdone’s / own house, for here be many of her old customers” (4.3.2-3). Barnardine is fetched and told it is his time to be executed. As Pompey cheerfully puts the matter, “You must be so / good, sir, to rise and be put to death” (4.3.24-25), but Barnardine is in no mood to comply. His reason? He has been drinking all night—as usual—and is therefore in no condition to be counseled spiritually as the occasion demands. Barnardine says peremptorily, “I swear I will not die today for any man’s persuasion” (4.3.53). This attitude on the condemned man’s part threatens to upset the discursive apple-cart where the justice system is concerned since its proceedings demand that all concerned in the business of punishment—including the most reprobate criminals—should willingly play their designated role in a deadly performance designed to uphold the moral and symbolic order.* The Provost deftly counters the danger that Barnardine’s refusal presents: the pirate Ragozine has just died of a fever, and he happens to look exactly like Claudio. Why not present his head to Angelo? That will do just fine, by the Duke’s lights. The Duke, meanwhile, writes a letter to Angelo summoning him to a location just outside the city gates, where he will make a public reappearance.

*This performative and symbolic aspect of “justice” is by no means absent in modern justice systems: consider what happens when accused people reject the prosecutor’s offer of a plea deal: if they refuse to admit to a lesser offence and agree to a supposedly reasonable punishment, they can be fairly certain that if they’re convicted, the judge will “throw the book” at them. In a sense, the assumption is that to be accused is already to be guilty, and lengthy punishment menaces anyone who dares to stand up for his or her constitutional right to a jury trial. But what if the accused is in fact innocent? Moreover, what happens when a newly convicted person, asked if he or she has anything to say that might mitigate the harshness of the impending sentence, refuses to utter words of sorrow and contrition? Such recalcitrance might well result in a longer sentence. The “criminal” is refusing to admit guilt and play his or her assigned role. But again, what if the person who has been convicted really didn’t commit any crime? None of this is to suggest that we don’t need a justice system; the point is that any system we come up with is bound to be troubled with imperfections and potential abuses, miscarriages, and outright injustices, all of which may have their ground in the human frailty of the prosecutors and judges themselves. The imperfection of human justice is one of Shakespeare’s major areas of interest, and we can find it in a number of his plays: King Lear, Hamlet, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, and The Merchant of Venice come immediately to mind, alongside the play we are currently studying.

Isabella enters and is told that her brother has already been put to death. The Duke explains to us that he is doing this only to increase her happiness and amazement when she finds out otherwise: “I will keep her ignorant of her good, / To make her heavenly comforts of despair / When it is least expected” (4.3.102-04). This seems like an extreme way to go about things, and perhaps it’s redolent of the Christian notion of the felix culpa or fortunate fall. Still, that’s what the Duke says, and such shifts are really not uncommon in Shakespeare’s plays. Consider, for example, Juliet’s taking of a potion in Romeo and Juliet that mimics the appearance and symptoms of death, or the mortal-seeming fainting spell suffered by Hero in Much Ado about Nothing. In any case, Isabella is to carry a letter to Friar Peter asking him to come to Mariana’s house this very evening. Soon, Friar Peter will escort Isabella into the presence of Angelo, and she will have her chance to accuse him.

Lucio caps off the scene, needling the Duke about his supposed decadence, and promising him, “Nay, Friar, / I am a kind of burr, I shall stick” (4.3.167-68). It is indeed difficult for a city, or a ruler, ever to shake off the kind of loose talk that issues from the mouths of many a Lucio, or entirely to escape the damage done to their reputation. “Public opinion” is a relatively new concern, but in some sense or other, it has been around for many centuries, even millennia. The great Roman politicians, patricians, and Caesars, for example, were much gossiped about, often in roundly salacious terms.

This is also a good place to refer to Shakespeare’s frequent preoccupation with the seamy underbelly of London, the underclass and its economy. Today, we sometimes use the term “prison-industrial complex” to describe the unhealthy relationship among the elements that constitute and interact with the penal system: mainly, a government that gains authority by passing harsh legislation against minor or manufactured crimes and a prison system (both its for-profit and governmental sectors here in the U.S.A.) that either makes billions in profits or gains an immense number of dependents who, by their very presence in the system, argue for greater power and funding. (The whole setup, by the way, inordinately impacts poor people and minorities, sweeping many into the penal system and making it extremely difficult for them ever to get entirely free.) What Shakespeare often describes might be called a “prison pre-industrial complex”: he uncovers a state and an early-capitalist sector determined to benefit from the old, sad tale of human frailty. Pompey the Clown/Pimp is hauled off to the prison-house, where the Provost drafts him into becoming the hangman Abhorson’s apprentice. The Provost has deftly turned a minor criminal’s predicament to the penal system’s advantage. The system has gained a hangman, and the Provost reminds quibbling Abhorson that he isn’t much better than a bawd, in spite of his talk about being an adept in a “mystery” (a craft, in this case one with sacred undertones). And while pimps, madams, and prostitutes (“punks”) were considered unsavory, they certainly made up a significant sector of the Elizabethan and Jacobean economy. Crime, vice, poverty, and misery are not aberrant, isolated things that happen for no reason; they exist in relation to the supposedly legitimate and moral parts of any political and social system. Perhaps the romantic poet William Blake says it best: “Pity would be no more, / If we did not make somebody Poor…” (“The Human Abstract” from Songs of Experience, 1794).

Act 4, Scene 4 (pp. 946-47, Escalus and Angelo fret over the strange letters sent to them about the Duke’s impending return. Alone, Angelo admits that his guilt over Claudio’s supposed execution is consuming him.)

Escalus is puzzled over the series of contradictory letters sent by the Duke, but Angelo is more than puzzled—he is alarmed. Even worse, his lustful offense against Isabella is consuming his soul with guilt. As he says, “This deed unshapes me quite….” Angelo also suggests that he ordered Claudio’s execution in spite of his promise to spare him because he feared that the young man’s shame would drive him to take revenge: “He should have lived, / Save that his riotous youth with dangerous sense / Might in the times to come have ta’en revenge / By so receiving a dishonored life / With ransom of such shame” (4.4.26-30). This is rich coming from Angelo, who has knowingly given in to his own erotic impulses where Isabella is concerned. This substitute ruler, this deputy, thereby confesses guilty knowledge of a fundamental truth about governance: they who upset the proper order of things threaten thereby to unleash uncontrollable riot and chaos in the societies they lead, confounding what many would say is the very purpose of civilization or society: the maintenance of harmonious, productive order instead of a violent free-for-all of the sort that Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan (I.xiii.9), captures so well with his phrase about life before the social contract: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” But all in all, there’s some hint in this passage that what most unsettles Angelo is the prospect of actually getting away with his cruel transgression against an innocent woman. Of course, he does not know what the Duke knows, or what we the audience know. That bit of dramatic irony will soon change.

Act 4, Scene 5 (pg. 947, Outside the city, the Duke—now in his own person—tells Friar Peter to gather together those who are loyal to him.)

The Duke cleverly tightens his plot to trap and expose Angelo in full view of the public. He calls together men he knows are loyal to him and instructs them how to bring his plan into effect with maximum effect and safety. Underlying this careful planning, of course, is a possibility any wise ruler would have to consider: what if Angelo suspects the worst and makes preparations to do some violence to the Duke and take power from him once and for all? We can also see that the play’s final scene will have the character of a play within the larger action, with some characters knowing the truth about the strange proceedings, and others kept in the dark until the very end.

Act 4, Scene 6 (pp. 947-48, Isabella is anxious about her role in the plot, but Mariana tells her to stand fast and accuse Angelo. The plot moves swiftly, with trumpets announcing the Duke’s arrival at the city gates.)

Isabella is still anxious about her role in the drama about to unfold outside the city gates, but Mariana and Friar Peter reassure her.

Act 5, Scene 1 (pp. 948-59, the Duke praises Angelo and Escalus, but Isabella demands justice. The Duke refers her to Angelo, but Isabella keeps up her accusation. The Duke feigns disbelief, and soon she calls for Friar Lodowick. Mariana exposes Angelo for jilting her, explains the plot’s bed-trick details, and unveils herself. The Duke encourages Angelo to judge severely, then exits only to reenter in disguise. Escalus weighs Lucio’s claims about “Friar Lodowick’s” alleged slanders against the Duke, but when Lucio pulls off the Friar’s hood, the Duke is revealed. Angelo confesses, and the Duke orders him to wed Mariana, then condemns him to die. Mariana and Isabella try to intercede, without initial success. The Provost brings in Barnardine, who is now pardoned, along with Claudio. The Duke forgives Angelo, proposes to Isabella, and condemns Lucio to marry a prostitute. He announces the couples’ dispensations, thanks Escalus, and repeats his proposal to Isabella.)

In arranging for his meeting at the city gates, the Duke has set up a venue for the public witnessing of justice. As the observation goes in its most accurate form, “Justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.” (The speaker was the Lord Chief Justice of England Gordon Hewart; see Rex v. Sussex Justices, [1924] 1 KB 256. Link to Bar & Bench Article.) Spectacle has a strong role to play in the administration of justice, and perhaps we should imagine that this is on the Duke’s mind when he tees up Angelo with decorous praise in front of the gathering throng: “Oh, your desert speaks loud, and I should wrong it / To lock it in the wards of covert bosom …” (5.1.10-11). No sooner does he speak these and other ceremonious words, however, than Friar Peter leads Isabella onto the stage and encourages her to do her part. Her plea is all for justice—so much so that she repeats the word four times, and the Duke refers her directly to his deputy, saying, “Lord Angelo shall give you justice” (5.1.29). Angelo is clearly rattled, and he front-loads the claim that this grief-stricken woman must have taken leave of her senses: “she will speak most bitterly and strange” (5.1.40). She proceeds to do just that, hurling accusations as yet unbacked by any show of evidence, and the Duke professes to accept Angelo’s judgment that his accuser must be insane. Soon enough, however, she comes to the point and gives a chilling summation of the abuser’s crime: “He would not but by gift of my chaste body / To his concupiscible intemperate lust / Release my brother” (5.1.103-05). Isabella claims that she yielded to this demand, and when this charge, too, receives only scorn from the Duke (Angelo has fallen silent for the time being), she is ordered off to prison. But not before she offers the name “Friar Lodowick” in answer to the Duke’s question about who sent her to the city gates to levy her accusations.

This mention of Lodowick brings Lucio to the fore, and he claims that this “meddling friar” (5.1.133) is the very man who has been slandering the absent Duke left and right. Friar Peter says Angelo has indeed been wronged, but so has Friar Lodowick, by Lucio. And with that, off goes Friar Peter to fetch not Lodowick just yet, but Mariana as a witness who can prove Isabella is lying about Angelo. Mariana explains the basic mechanics of the bed-trick subplot, which still more deeply implicates Angelo, and then she finally unveils herself. For her efforts, Mariana is branded by Angelo as having earned a reputation “disvalued / In levity” (5.1.226-27), which sounds like yet another whopping lie on his part. The Duke draws Angelo on to the verge of strictest severity in applying the law against Mariana and Lodowick. Somewhat like Portia dealing with Shylock, the Duke eggs Angelo on to exact his pound of flesh for the insults levied against him. Friar Peter then exits to fetch Lodowick, and (necessarily) the Duke also makes a brief exit so that he may return in disguise as the accused Friar. The interlude sees Escalus giving Lucio yet another go at denouncing “Friar Lodowick” as the slanderer of the Duke, and this is followed up when the Duke himself, in disguise as Lodowick, suddenly appears and promptly turns the accusation around to Lucio himself. It’s a tribute to Shakespeare’s uncanny eye and ear for the dramatic that this trivial character is present at the play’s most significant unmasking: when Lucio rips off “Lodowick’s” hood, there stands the Duke himself, who utters a finely comic reproach: “Thou art the first knave that e’er mad’st a duke” (5.1.358).

The Duke immediately pardons Lucio’s harsh and dishonest words, and rounds upon Angelo in what sounds like genuine anger: “Hast thou or word, or wit, or impudence, / That yet can do thee office?” (5.1.365-66). Hearing this, Angelo immediately does something that is, on the one hand, authentic, but on the other unacceptable for a comic conclusion: he says, “Immediate sentence then and sequent death / Is all the grace I beg” (5.1.375-76). And with this, the Duke gets his opportunity to make his dispensations. He summons Mariana and orders Angelo to go and marry her immediately. He then repeats the untruth to Isabella that her brother is dead, claiming that the execution outpaced his attempts to stop it. Isabella is expected to take this information patiently, and even to forgive Angelo, the man who has supposedly executed Claudio. But this same man who is to be forgiven must also himself be executed: after all, says the Duke, “Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure; / Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure” (5.1.413-14). At this pronouncement, Mariana is taken aback, and she utters a line that in its attractive simplicity completely rejects her new husband’s principle of treating money as more important than loyalty or faith: “I crave no other nor no better man” (5.1.429). Mariana immediately entreats Isabella to take her part in fighting for Angelo’s life. Between the two of them, they engage in an impressive bit of morally pliable lawyering that would make Saul Goodman of Breaking Bad proud. Mariana says, “They say best men are molded out of faults, / And for the most, become much more the better / For being a little bad. So may my husband” (5.1.442-44). As Mariana knows, Angelo has been much more than “a little bad.” He has behaved in a perfidious, abusive, and even potentially murderous way.

Isabella has already shown her willingness to participate in a scheme involving well-intended deception, and at this point, she shows us how far she has come from the rigid moralist we met in earlier acts. Her line of attack is, “My brother had but justice, / In that he did the thing for which he died. / For Angelo, his act did not o’ertake his bad intent / And must be buried but as an intent / That perished by the way” (5.1.451-55). This logic does not fundamentally differ from, say, the plea from an unsuccessful bank robber that, after all, he did not succeed in his criminal plans, so he should not be charged for the attempt. Even if we should not take for granted that the Elizabethans had precisely the same understanding of the relationship between crime and intentionality as we do today, it is hard to imagine such a claim succeeding in court anywhere, at any time. Still, it is essentially the argument Isabella sets forth to help Mariana save Angelo.

The Duke at once professes to have thought of yet one more fault, and this time it’s the Provost who receives his unwelcome attention. But this, of course, is a pretext for the two of them to reveal, by way of some temporal fudging and an attenuated doubling of Claudio’s identity, that in spite of all that’s been said, Isabella’s brother is still alive. The Duke is now able to pardon Angelo, and he is in such a good mood that he even pardons the murderous drunkard Barnardine, advising him to make something better of his miserable existence. Isabella and Claudio soon embrace, and the Duke asks for Isabella’s hand in marriage. The last piece of business is to deal with the rascal Lucio. The Duke at first sentences him to be whipped and hanged, but relents and simply orders him to marry the prostitute by whom he fathered a child. To Lucio’s comic plea that “Marrying a punk … is pressing to death, whipping, / and hanging” (5.1.525-26), the Duke answers only, “Slandering a prince deserves it” (5.1.527).

The Duke closes the play by making his second offer of marriage to Isabella, saying, “I have a motion much imports your good, / Whereto if you’ll a willing ear incline, / What’s mine is yours, and what is yours is mine” (5.1.538-39). He still receives no answer, and critics have made much of this lack of affirmation as a way of deepening the “problem play” status of Measure for Measure, but it’s hard to imagine that Isabella is going to walk away from the deal in a huff. Doing so would make little dramatic sense, and Isabella has already shown the flexibility necessary to make her an excellent match for Vincentio. The Duke is not tendering an imperious “indecent proposal” like the one Angelo threw down to Isabella; he is courteously asking if Isabella would like to marry him and, we may presume, exercise considerable power as the Duchess of Vienna.

Why is Measure for Measure considered one of Shakespeare’s darker comedies or along with All’s Well That Ends Well and Troilus and Cressida, and, according to some critics, The Merchant of Venice? The play’s status as problematic seems to come down to its moral complexity. The ending feels to some viewers and readers as if it is somewhat forced, and the play as a whole lacks the sunnier qualities of Shakespearean comedies such as As You Like It. Measure for Measure comes across as being willing to question the status of marriage in a not altogether comical way. In the end, the play brings into stark relief the astute pre-Freudian realization that while marriage is a vital institution that can knit and hold a society together, it is by no means equally efficient at rendering individuals and couples happy. We can speculate that the prospective marriage between the Duke and Isabella will approach the ideal and that the union between Claudio and Julietta is solid, but the marriage between Angelo and Mariana seems, if not purgatorial, less than ideal, and Lucio’s forced marriage with the prostitute Kate Keepdown, by whom he fathered a child, sounds like a dreadful punishment for both. Certainly, there are “odd men out” even in the sunnier comedies—characters such as Malvolio and Feste in Twelfth Night, or Jacques in As You Like It, not to mention less than picture-perfect, high-minded unions like that of Touchstone the Clown and his country lass Audrey. But there’s nothing quite approaching the dark quality of Act 5’s dispensation here in Measure for Measure.

As for the play’s exploration of the concept of justice, that, too, is ambivalent. Many viewers and readers seem not to be overly impressed with the Duke’s achievement by the play’s end. Perhaps, though, the sudden commutations he springs on us (along with the necessary marriages, happy ones and otherwise) may mirror God’s far grander dispensation for the whole of humanity—the divine redemptive process is, after all, often described as sudden, and unmerited on the part of those who receive its great reward. It may be that the demand levied on Shakespeare to prepare us elaborately for the resolution is, in the context of this play about justice, misplaced. Vulnerabilities such as pride, sensuality, and fear of mortality render human beings weak and fallible. “Balance” in administering justice is bound to be elusive, but perhaps the recognition of these defects can pave the way towards the recovery of sufficient virtue to keep a society together. That is a major concern in Shakespeare’s work: how to renew and perpetuate the social order when the material with which one must work is such crumbling, frail, mortal clay as humankind? What shifts and partial tactics and strategy will serve to protect this order from the hollowing-out that seems to beset so many of the societies in Shakespeare’s tragic plays? Critics may be right to claim that Measure for Measure is far from perfectly satisfying in terms of its comic impact, but at the same time, it is an honest play because it doesn’t sugarcoat the shortcomings of attempts to achieve a balance between justice and mercy. As such, in my view, it takes its honorable place in the spectrum of Shakespearean comedy. Anyone who demands perfect fidelity to genre conventions and expectations in Shakespeare is bound to be frustrated; Shakespeare never signed any oath to observe such fidelity, and I suspect that he would have considered it a betrayal of life in its full reality.

Copyright © 2023 Alfred J. Drake

Measure for Measure

Questions on Shakespeare’s Comedies

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Shakespeare, William. Measure for Measure (Norton Comedies, 3rd edition, pp. 891-951).

1. In Act 1, Scene 1, the Duke hands power to Angelo and Escalus. What advice does he offer Angelo, and how does Angelo describe the power that has been temporarily given to him?

2. Why does the Duke prefer to leave Vienna without fanfare? Moreover, why doesn’t he just hand over temporary power to the experienced counselor Escalus instead of to Angelo?

3. In Act 1, Scene 2, Shakespeare introduces us to the shady, loquacious character Lucio as well as to Mistress Overdone (a Madame) and Pompey the tapster and pimp. What implications do their presence and their perspectives have for the war on vice that is soon to be carried out by the Duke’s lieutenants Angelo and Escalus?

4. In Act 1, Scene 2, Claudio enters on his way to prison for impregnating a young woman out of wedlock. How does he describe his predicament to Lucio? What hopes does he invest in his sister, Isabella—why, that is, does Claudio suppose she might be able to get him out of his troubles?

5. In Act 1, Scene 3, what underlying logic does the Duke reveal to Friar Thomas concerning his decision to entrust his power to subordinates—what main reason, and what subsidiary reason, does he advance? Do his reasons seem appropriate? Should a ruler do such a thing for the reasons stated? Why or why not?

6. In Act 1, Scene 4, we get our first look at Isabella in the nunnery where she plans to take her vows. Lucio, informing her of her brother’s plight, relays Claudio’s call for help. How do you interpret her passion for order and strictness—does it sort well with her holy aspirations? How does Isabella construe her task with regard to Claudio at this early stage of the play?

7. In Act 1, Scene 4, we are treated to Lucio’s strong attempt to win Isabella to the cause of helping her brother Claudio escape the lethal consequences of his irresponsibility. What is Lucio’s rhetorical strategy for winning Isabella’s aid? What powers does he suggest to her that she possesses? Why does he believe she will be successful when she pleads with Angelo?


8. In Act 2, Scene 1, what makes it so difficult for Escalus to judge the case between Master Froth, Pompey, and Elbow’s wife? How does Escalus handle the situation, and in what sense does he thereby distinguish himself from Angelo, who is also present for part of the interrogation? Overall, how does this comic scene relate to the broader themes of justice and fairness or equity that Measure for Measure explores?

9. In Act 2, Scene 2, how does Angelo respond to Escalus’s attempt to soften him up with respect to the sad case of Claudio, whom Angelo has already condemned to die for a sexual transgression? What logic seems to underlie Angelo’s steadfast severity? What makes this newly minted deputy ruler so immune to humility and compassion?

10. In Act 2, Scene 2, what stages does Isabella cycle through in her rhetorical and logical performance meant to counter Angelo’s Puritanical sternness? What quality proves so attractive to Angelo during his encounter with Isabella, and what irony does he find in the fact that it is this young woman, and not someone else, who is supremely able to “tempt” him?

11. In Act 2, Scene 3, how does the Duke, disguised as a friar, interact with Juliet? How does he frame her “sin,” and what religious counsel does he offer her? What observations might be made about the justice or injustice of the legal framework and logic that governs the current situation of Claudio and Juliet?

12. In Act 2, Scene 4, Angelo makes his brazen demand of Isabella, who seems only with difficulty to comprehend such a wicked proposition. What possible contradiction does Angelo bring to light about Isabella’s stern refusal, given what she has already said about her brother’s offense? Explain.

13. In Act 2, Scene 4, what do you make of the strongly erotic language Isabella employs even at the heart of her refusal to yield to Angelo’s illicit lust for her? In what sense are these two opponents, Angelo and Isabella, well matched or pitted against each other in their struggle? What larger point could Shakespeare’s pitting of them this way be making about how a society’s values can be challenged and upheld?


14. In Act 3, Scene 1, what rhetorical strategy does the Duke (disguised as a friar) employ to reconcile Claudio to death? Then, after Isabella finds (to her extreme disappointment) that her brother is not as protective of her virtue as she is, what means of saving Claudio does the disguised Duke offer her? How does he describe the situation of Mariana, who will play a key role as the rest of the play unfolds?

15. In Act 3, Scene 1, what emotional arc does Claudio follow first upon hearing the disguised Duke’s counsel and then when he speaks with his sister Isabella? What is Isabella’s current understanding of Claudio’s situation, and how does she respond to his backsliding when he finds that the price of his survival is Isabella’s chastity? Why, in particular, does she describe the course of action he urges on her as “a kind of incest” (3.1.139)?

16. In Act 3, Scene 1, Constable Elbow brings in Pompey the Tapster (or, more accurately, pimp), whom he is escorting to prison. How does the disguised Duke treat Pompey, and what course of punishment does he recommend to rehabilitate him? What progress, if any, does this interaction indicate that the Duke himself has made in his capacity as Vienna’s chief upholder of the laws?

17. In Act 3, Scene 1, what should we make of Lucio’s cavalier treatment of his acquaintance Pompey when the latter, in dire distress, asks him for bail money? Then, too, what is Lucio’s apparent motivation for slandering the Duke (to his disguised face, as Lucio will later learn to his horror)? What specific accusations does he level against the Duke, and how does the Duke respond to these spurious accusations? All the same, what cogent counsel does Lucio offer the Duke regarding the nature of vice, and lechery in particular?

18. Towards the end of Act 3, Scene 1, Escalus, after ordering Mistress Overdone off to jail, informs the disguised Duke that Claudio is to be executed tomorrow. How does the Duke respond to this news of Angelo’s continued severity? Then, when Escalus and the Provost leave him, what do the Duke’s reflections suggest he has learned from the example of the Puritan Angelo, whom he initially empowered but now understands to be a vicious hypocrite? How does he characterize his plan to counter Angelo’s severity and cure the situation going forward?


19. In Act 4, Scene 1, how is Mariana presented, now that we get to meet her in person? What song is a young page (male attendant) singing when the scene begins, and how does that song reflect on Mariana’s situation and mood? Read Alfred Tennyson’s 1830 poem “Mariana” and view John Everett Millais’s 1851 pre-Raphaelite oil painting “Mariana”: what insights do these interpretations by Tennyson and Millais offer with regard to Shakespeare’s jilted character?

20. In Act 4, Scenes 1 and over the rest of the act, what steps does the still-disguised Duke describe and take, beginning with his conversation with Mariana and Isabella here in the first scene, to direct affairs towards the just and equitable outcome he desires? Which steps in his plan seem most important, and why? To what extent and to/from whom does he reveal (or keep as a secret) key aspects of that plan, and why?

21. In Act 4, Scenes 2-3, the audience is treated to the comic fireworks that ensue when the hardened felon Barnardine, long a denizen of Vienna’s main prison, is slated for imminent execution. How does this criminal respond to the news that he must (in newly minted executioner’s apprentice Pompey’s words) “be so good … to rise and be put to death” (4.3.24-25)? Aside from the initial need to use Barnardine’s head to trick Angelo into thinking his order to execute Claudio has been carried out, why does Barnardine’s recalcitrance present a serious problem to those responsible for enforcing justice in Vienna? In what sense does his refusal to play his allotted role undermine the ethical and performative aspects of the justice system that has condemned him?

22. In Act 4, Scene 3, the disguised Duke tells us that he is keeping from Isabella the critical knowledge that the execution of Claudio has not, in fact, been carried out. What reason does he provide for this arguably cruel omission? Critics have sometimes characterized the Duke as acting like a “playwright” who arranges the ultimate outcome of all the events in Measure for Measure. Do you find that the Duke’s actions here in the fourth act justify such a reading? Why or why not?

23. In Act 4, Scene 4, Angelo admits in soliloquy (i.e., alone) that he is consumed by guilt over his treatment of the innocent Isabella. How does he construe the nature and source of his offence against her? What else does Angelo reveal about his psychological state in this scene, not only with regard to his devious decision to go ahead with Claudio’s execution but also with respect to human nature and politics or governance?

24. In Act 4, Scenes 5-6, the plot moves quickly, in preparation for the unmasking of Angelo’s lecherous attempt against the virtuous Isabella and, thereby, his utter failure as Duke Vincentio’s deputy ruler of Vienna. In what key way does the Duke show a necessarily Machiavellian (i.e., savvy, pragmatic) understanding of his situation as a ruler returning to people of uncertain loyalties? Then, too, why is it important that Angelo’s corruption and dishonesty be publicly proved? We all know Lord Hewart’s 1920s aphorism about the fundamental importance of justice not only being done, but also seen to be done. Explain the logic underlying that pronouncement in connection to Measure for Measure.


25. In Act 5, Scene 1, the Duke begins what looks like a power-and-praise-fest between himself, Angelo, and Escalus, but Isabella’s stark repetitions of the word “Justice!” transform the scene. The previous question asked you to explain the general significance of a famous aphorism about justice being seen to be done. Here in Act 5, what significance do you find in the precise way in which this public demonstration of justice unfolds? In particular, why does Isabella come in for such rough, skeptical treatment when she accuses Angelo? Why does the Duke at first make such a show of trusting Angelo and then urge him to throw the book at both Mariana and Isabella, and the supposed “Friar Lodowick” for good measure?

26. In Act 5, Scene 1, what effect does the public staging of his own corruption have upon Angelo? How does he behave at critical points in this act, as his treachery against Mariana and Isabella are exposed? What punishment does he seek when he is finally and utterly unmasked as a lecher and a hypocrite? How does the Duke enlist the “miraculously” still living Claudio along with Mariana and Isabella in rehabilitating Angelo and facilitating his quick reentry into Vienna’s civilized orbit from what could have been lasting exile or even death?

27. In Act 5, Scene 1, what surprisingly important role does Lucio play in the conclusion of Measure for Measure? Why is this slanderous, slippery rascal the one character that the Duke says he finds it all but impossible to forgive? All the same, what fate does the Duke mete out to Lucio in the general dispensation that ends the play? How does that fate reinforce the exploration of justice and equity that Duke Vincentio set in motion when he left Vienna?

28. Towards the end of Act 5, Scene 1, the Duke twice proposes marriage to Isabella. Critics have pointed out—and sometimes made much of—the fact that Isabella never actually says “Yes” before the play concludes. What do you make of this omission? Is it significant, or should we just take for granted that Isabella accepts the Duke’s proposal? What might be implied about her (and possibly the Duke) if she did not accept? What might be implied if she did accept?

29. What do you think of the quality of the marriages that the Duke’s dispensation brings into being: Angelo and Mariana, Claudio and Julietta, and Lucio and Kate Keepdown? In the comedies and romance plays, marriages are a central mechanism for renewing a troubled society and its values as well as for providing individual pleasure and contentment for couples. In what sense, or to what extent, is that true of the marriages contracted in Measure for Measure?

30. Along with All’s Well That Ends Well, Troilus and Cressida, and (sometimes) The Merchant of Venice, the comedy Measure for Measure is often labeled one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” What qualities in the play’s overall attitude and its approach to certain themes (mainly the adequacy of marriage for human happiness and the balance between justice and law, mercy and strict morality) might lead critics to place it in this category of a “dark” or “problem” play? Do you find the label appropriate? Why or why not?

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93861-6.

Copyright © 2023 Alfred J. Drake

Troilus and Cressida

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies

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Shakespeare, William. The History of Troilus and Cressida. (Norton Comedies, 2nd ed. 751-839). (May still need to update from Riverside edition.)


The prologue reminds us of the great Homeric backdrop to the play, and in the end, the Homeric version seems to win out since Ulysses’ cunning fails to draw Achilles into the battle; it’s the death of Patroclus that accomplishes this in Act 5, Scene 5-6.

Act 1, Scene 1.

It’s seven years into the war, and Troilus is out of accord with the War’s imperatives; he sounds like a Petrarchan sonnet, with his sighing extremes—as in “I find no peace, but have no arms for war.”  By the end of the play he will be furious at Diomedes, disillusionment over Cressida having given him his cause.  But by then, Achilles has killed Hector and the Trojans are doomed.  Pandarus is eager to spur Troilus on.

At 109, we hear that Paris has been slightly wounded by Menelaus.  The play constantly undercuts the heroic version of the “great cause” that animates both Greeks and Trojans; it seems as if the play sides with Thersites, who puts it all down to stupidity and lechery and contemptible male pride.  Love and war are intertwined, to the honor of neither.

Act 1, Scene 2.

Cressida’s servant tells her that Hector is ashamed of himself since Ajax gave him a good blow or two.  Hector is spurred on by his shame to challenge any Greek to maintain his lady’s as good as Andromache.  At line 136, Pandarus pursues his private interest of bringing Troilus and Cressida together.  The girl seems worldly enough in her answers, at least until she meets Troilus later on.  From lines 177 onwards, there follows a pageant of Trojans—Aeneas, Hector, and others.  Cressida claims to opine that Troilus is “a sneaking fellow.”  Well, as she explains to us, at least, she must maintain her chastity.  And at 282ff, she gives the real reason for her supposed standoffishness: she fears she will be lightly prized once she is no longer chaste.  This is true, of course, but it doesn’t equate with wide-eyed innocence; she does not (to borrow a line from Polonius in Hamlet) “speak like a green girl.”

Act 1, Scene 3.

Agamemnon is trying to explain why seven years have passed with no victory; the joint argument from the King and Nestor is “trust us—this is policy beyond your devising.”  Ulysses then tells everyone to listen to him, and Agamemnon says that given the source, they fully expect to hear wise counsel, and not the sort of nonsense Thersites spews out.  Ulysses says at 109ff, “Take but degree away,” and the world will “turn wolf universally.”  Respect for rank is at low ebb, thanks to Achilles’ prideful refusal to do his part for the Greeks.  (In The Iliad, the reason given is that Agamemnon arrogantly asserted his supremacy by demanding as his share of the spoils Achilles’ favorite concubine, Briseis.)  Achilles and Patroclus mock Agamemnon, and this has spurred on Ajax (who is none too bright) to mock the King, too, and to make Thersites his agent for this purpose.  Ajax’s posturing, especially, is said to appeal to those who value nothing but stupid, brute force rather than shrewd policy.  Well, it’s hard to see how Agamemnon’s “policy” amounts to much more than incompetence. 

Aeneas visits Agamemnon to deliver Hector’s challenge.  The Greeks consider Troy’s men ceremonious courtiers rather than blunt fighters.  This is in line with traditional portrayals of the Trojans as indulgent, over-civilized, proponents of the “luxurious state” later found so blameworthy by that Athenian lover of all things Spartan, Plato.  Aeneas answers chivalrously that the Trojans are civil in time of peace, but deadly in war.  Agamemnon’s reply shows how inextricable love and war are in this play: all soldiers, he insists, are lovers or plan to be.  But Ulysses has a scheme going to take down Achilles a few pegs—Hector’s challenge is obviously aimed at Achilles, but Ulysses wants to arrange for Ajax to “happen” to win a lottery for the honor, thereby upstaging his rival attention-seeker Achilles.

Act 2, Scene 1.

Thersites and Ajax relate to each other in an interesting way; the first act went far towards undercutting the heroes’ insistence on honor.  Throughout the play, Thersites will rail at the biggest targets for their lechery, double-dealing, and stupidity, pride and enviousness, and he will become the target for their sexually charged taunts of cowardice, effeminacy, and so forth (some of which he will heap right back on none other than Patroclus, of course).  Thersites sees Ajax as nothing more than a blunt instrument for those who actually wield power; in a phrase, he is “Mars his idiot.”  At line 92 and elsewhere, Thersites attacks the principle of rank; he doesn’t believe those who stand upon it are worthy of it.  “I serve thee not,” he says to Ajax, who proceeds to beat him.  Achilles is much more “civilized” in his dealings with Ajax, but nonetheless Thersites lumps him together with Ajax, and prefers Hector; Thersites has more regard for Ulysses and Nestor, and prefers the company of the intelligent.  Agamemnon he despises.

Act 2, Scene 2.

Priam finds that his sons Helenus Hector would gladly agree to hand over Helen to the Greeks, restoring her to Menelaus of Sparta and thereby saving a lot of bloodshed on both sides.  Troilus (along with Paris) insists that the Trojans should be willing to fight over trifles if occasion bids them do it,  but Hector doesn’t agree, and he points out to his youngest brother that value is not the province of lone individuals, but the province of whole hosts.  The Riverside notes mention that neither side has any claim to absolute righteousness in its quest: Paris went to Greece to make away with Helen because Priam’s sister Hesione had been absconded with by Hercules and given to Ajax’s father Telamon, so it won’t do, really, to claim that “the Trojans started the trouble.”  Troilus maintains chivalric idealism at this point in the play, and his naïve idealism bids him recommend that the Trojans hold on to Helen at all costs.  Hector, who has been doing the actual fighting, thinks otherwise.  Nonetheless, his current challenge owes more to personal shame, most likely, than statecraft.  War, in Shakespeare’s representation of it, is a great distorter of motives and words, and it often sunders words from deeds.  Cassandra breaks in around line 97 and aligns herself with those who want to return Helen, knowing as she does that Troy is doomed.  Around 118ff, Troilus and Paris show some contempt for “reality-based” decision-making.  Nearly every Trojan soldier, he says, will defend the beautiful Helen, and will fight to the death for this icon and enabler of masculine valor and display.  Around line 156, Hector makes the strongest case in favor of recognizing brute reality, but then around 189, he comes around to Troilus’ cause: their ” joint and several dignities” demand that they hang on to their stolen woman.  She is a “theme of honor and renown.”

Act 2, Scene 3.

Thersites’ railing and the warriors’ stupidity and pretense need each other.  Thus Patroclus’ entreaty at line 23, “Good Thersites, come in and rail,” and Achilles calls him “my cheese, my digestion.”  Ajax is said to be upset at this point in part because Achilles has weaned his fool from him.  Well, the cynical clown has found his proper object, and they have found the object of their scorn, too.  He wishes venereal disease on the lot of these fools, all of them guilty of “warring for plackets” rather than the high honor they claim to uphold.  This satirical connection between war and promiscuous, unworthy sexual pursuits is common in literature and film: consider, to give just one instance, Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove, where that theme is managed hilariously: General Jack D. Ripper launches World War III because he’s been having some kind of problem like erectile dysfunction, which he calls “loss of essence.”  (And of course there’s the good Nazi Party expatriate Doctor himself, with his “strange love” of atomic destruction.)  Thersites finds that the war between Greek and Trojan is no better than a self-perpetuating, bloody pageant of lunatics and fools, begun by an act of whoredom and perpetuated by lust for wicked women and illusory honor.  He suggests that the very walls of Troy would crumble to dust before the likes of Agamemnon or Ajax will ever batter them down.  That turns out to be a false supposition, but it’s easy to see why he makes it in this seventh year of hostilities.  His speeches also suggest that he’s aware of the intractable problem confronting anyone (especially men) who opposes a violent mass confrontation: charges of cowardice, effeminacy, carping, and treachery are bound to fly at their heads.  Thersites’ attitude towards this kind of hypermasculine vitriol is “bring it on”; it’s the very stuff he feeds upon and turns to satirical account.  But for all his railing and undermining, the war will continue to bleed both sides for quite some time: fools learn not by instruction but rather (if at all) by bitter experience; for Thersites, the result is “good copy” and a pageant not to be missed.

Act 3, Scene 1.

Agamemnon and his subordinates butter up Ajax as a spur to Achilles’ pride—they need him back in the battle.

Act 3, Scene 2.

Troilus is here in a state of agonized expectation, and he fears the loss of self-identity that occurs when a person falls in love.  He attributes the same sort of confounding or loss of identity with the shock of great hosts in battle.  When Cressida is brought in by Pandar, she seems genuinely shy at first, and Troilus seems genuinely almost bereft of words, just as he says.  But soon the two (after a few long kisses) will recover their eloquence, and in this scene they go on to make extreme claims about how their faith (or lack thereof) will prove a byword for all others.  As John Donne would say, “beg from above, a pattern of our love.”  Pandarus pledges his own good name.  Cressida now realizes she has talked a great deal, perhaps said too much.  She has admitted to loving Troilus at first sight and has engaged in comically Petrarchan absolute declarations of fidelity.  Behind this whole dialogue—especially Cressida’s part of it—is the understanding that love is a kind of game, a power exchange in which “secrecy” is to some extent necessary.  Self-revelation generates intimacy, but it also breeds contempt and disloyalty.  As an old professor of mine would say, “idealizing eroticism” is necessary, but also inherently risky because it relies on the perpetuation of illusions.

Act 3, Scene 3.

Calchas calls in a favor for his old defection from the Trojans to the Greeks, and the favor consists in the Greeks giving up Cressida to Diomedes in exchange for the captive Trojan Prince Antenor.  Agamemnon agrees readily.  Ulysses counsels the King to ignore Achilles for a while, and treat him with indifference.  Achilles is easily gulled by this act, and worries that Ajax is stealing his thunder with present deeds of valor.  Ulysses points out to Achilles that “emulation hath a thousand sons” all at the ready to tread their father down in the dust the moment he slows down or strays from the path of heroic example.  “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,” says Ulysses: a desire for novelty, and a propensity to forget the past.  When Achilles pleads private reasons, Ulysses points out that everybody knows about his Trojan girlfriend Polyxena anyhow.  Well, Achilles says he’d like to gaze upon Hector in his own tent.  Thersites comes onto the scene and mocks the pride of Ajax, who has been peacocking around like Hercules in anticipation of his battle with Hector, disdaining speech and all manner of rank below his own godlike status.  (This issue of rank and reputation links the present scene with the previous one.)  Ulysses’ advice is that military renown is never entirely lost; one can always create it from scratch by performing worthy new actions in the public eye.

Act 4, Scene 1.

Cressida will indeed be turned over to Diomedes and the Greeks, with whom Calchas resides.  Paris points out that the “bitter disposition of the time” demands this arrangement.  (Diomedes doesn’t have a kind word to say about Helen, the object of the war from the outset.)

Act 4, Scenes 2-4.

In the aftermath of their love scene, Cressida re-experiences some of her prior fear in that Troilus and she must now part with the coming on of day; he has obtained his prize, she thinks, and so now he’s off to other things.  But both soon find out that they are to be parted much more permanently than this brief “cursing of the dawn” scene suggests.  Pandarus fears that Troilus will go mad, and Cressida protests she won’t go.  But Troilus dutifully turns her over for exchange nonetheless, demanding several times that she remain faithful and promising to make his way across the Greek lines to visit her.  Diomedes makes no promises and indeed treats the whole notion of female honor with scorn.  He will use Cressida as he sees fit.  All await the great event of Hector and Ajax’s single combat.

Act 4, Scene 5.

Cressida is welcomed into the Greek camp with many kisses, and Ulysses condemns her as a flirt who is all too well suited to the times: an opportunist.  Hector and Ajax fight, but Hector decides that since they are cousins, the battle should end happily with an embrace.  Hector is invited to the Greek camp to see Agamemnon and Achilles.  During the brief truce, the men all treat one another with the greatest civility, but this is soon shattered when Achilles gazes long upon Hector’s body, and declares that he is just trying to determine where exactly he will strike him the mortal blow.

Act 5, Scene 1.

Thersites again rails at Achilles and calls Patroclus a male “varlot” or whore.  Achilles, given a letter from Hecuba reminding him of a promise to Polyxena, for which vow he will yet again fail to take the field for the Greeks.  Thersites mocks the absent Diomedes and Menelaus, the latter for being cuckolded by Helen, of course.

Act 5, Scene 2.

Troilus (dogged by Thersites and accompanied by Ulysses) can hardly restrain himself when he sees Cressida (at first reluctant) hand over the sleeve Troilus had given her, and promise to meet him.  To herself she pleads the error of the eye, and faults her sex in general rather than herself individually.  What Ulysses had said about the general public with regard to martial reputation, it seems, applies equally well to the realm of love: only the present counts.  At 146, the embittered Troilus says that “this is, and is not, Cressid.”

Act 5, Scene 3.

Hector, declaring that honor is more precious even than life, will not be persuaded by Cassandra, Priam, or Andromache.  Troilus will fight, too, in spite of his youth—he will have his revenge on Diomedes.  Pandarus, sick with some venereal disease, gives Troilus a fair-sounding letter from Cressida, but of course Troilus no longer believes such pledges of fidelity.

Act 5, Scene 4.

Thersites just wants to watch the whole pageant of foolery, and hopes to see Diomedes stripped of his newly won sleeve.  Ajax, we hear, is refusing to fight, presumably in imitation of Achilles, and the Greek camp is overtaken by an anarchic mood.  Diomedes and Ajax fight, and then a comic scene ensues in which Hector threatens Thersites, who escapes by dint of cowardice. 

Act 5, Scenes 5-6.

Diomedes sends Troilus’ horse back to Cressida as a trophy.  Patroclus (who in The Iliad puts on Achilles’ armor) is killed by Hector, and Agamemnon is in dismay at the state of affairs: Hector is like Mars himself, slaying Greeks left and right.  Troilus has infuriated Ajax by killing a friend of his, and he and Ajax (along with Diomedes) fight inconclusively.  Now comes the much-awaited match between Achilles and Hector, and the former bows out, pleading rustiness.

Act 5, Scene 7.

Thersites mocks Menelaus’ battle with Paris, but when the bastard Margarelon challenges him, again Thersites, reveling in his own similar status, escapes injury.

Act 5, Scene 8.

Achilles makes his Myrmidons hack to death the unarmed Hector, and then making them tie the corpse to the tail of his horse.  Unable to defeat the chivalrous Trojan in a fair fight, he does not hesitate to claim new glory by means of an outrageously cowardly act.

Act 5, Scenes 9-10.

Troilus, still spoiling for a fight, counsels a move back towards Troy.  The sick Pandarus, struck on the pate by Troilus, retreats.  Chivalry is undone; the Trojans have lost their greatest champion, and Troilus, although he’s found his cause to fight, is deeply embittered.  For the moment, the knavery of the false warrior Achilles trumps all.  In conclusion, while it might be thought that Shakespeare’s version of the Trojan War is the exact opposite of Homer’s account in The Iliad, that would be an exaggeration since Homer is by no means unwilling to present the occasional pettiness of men such as Agamemnon and Achilles.  The ancient author gives us not so much propaganda as a complex presentation of a complex event (mythical or otherwise); Shakespeare’s account distinguishes itself in its thoroughgoing and successful attempt to weld the least attractive elements of both war and erotic pursuit, thereby undermining the heroic status of the great events behind the story of Troilus and Cressida.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

Troilus and Cressida

Questions on Shakespeare’s Comedies

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Shakespeare, William. The History of Troilus and Cressida. (Norton Comedies, 2nd ed. 751-839).


1. How does the Prologue address the Homeric context of the play’s action? What attitude towards that context begins to become apparent?

2. In Act 1, Scene 1, what sets Troilus apart from the play’s heroic, martial context? How does he describe his state of mind at this early stage? What seems to be Troilus’ opinion of Pandarus and his motives for trying to make him a match with Cressida?

3. In Act 1, Scene 2, what difference becomes apparent between the way Cressida speaks to Pandarus about Troilus and the way she thinks of him privately? How does she explain her reluctance to enter a love match with Troilus? On the whole, how would you characterize Cressida at this point — is it feasible to make any assumptions about her at this early stage? If so, what assumptions?

4. In Act 1, Scene 3, what role does Ulysses (his name in Homer is Odysseus) play in explaining the current state of affairs and in devising a scheme to improve the situation? Why, according to him, is Achilles’ conduct in this seventh year of the war such a disaster for the Greek army? What does Ulysses plan to do about it?

5. In Act 1, Scene 3, Aeneas meets Agamemnon to deliver Hector’s challenge to any Greek warrior who dares meet him in single combat. What are the terms of this challenge? Refer back to Scene 2 for its source, and attend also to Agamemnon’s reply to Aeneas’ speech in responding to the following: what connections between love and war has the play posited up to this point?


6. In Act 2, Scenes 1 and 3, describe the interchange between Thersites, Ajax, and Achilles — what are the terms of his denunciation of these famous warriors? And how do they treat him in turn — what attitude do Ajax and Achilles, respectively, take towards this scold? In what sense might their opposing viewpoints be said to feed off each other, or even to require each other?

7. In Act 2, Scene 2, when the question of turning Helen over to the Greeks and thereby ending the war comes up, what argument between Troilus (and Paris) and Hector (and Helenus) ensues? Why exactly does Troilus think it would be wrong to give in, and why does Hector think otherwise? Why does he nevertheless come round to Troilus’ side? How does this interchange affect your view of Hector?


8. In Act 3, Scene 2, as Troilus awaits his long-sought encounter with Cressida, what fear most besets him? How does Cressida respond to Troilus? What kinds of declarations do the two lovers make? Characterize them. On the whole, what understanding of the concept “love” emerges from this scene?

9. In Act 3, Scene 3, the one-time Trojan priest Calchas, who has defected to the Greeks, calls in a favor — he wants his daughter Cressida returned to him in the Greek camp in exchange for the captured Trojan Prince Antenor. Ulysses offers a plan for getting Achilles involved again in the war against Troy. What is his plan, and how does he follow up on it in his encounter with Achilles? According to Ulysses, what is the basis of military reputation?


10. In Act 4, Scenes 2-5, Cressida will indeed have to be turned over to the Greek Diomedes. How do Troilus and Cressida view themselves and each other after they first consummate their love? Then, after they find out about Cressida’s imminent departure, how do they respond to that disastrous news?

11. In Act 4, Scene 6, how does Cressida conduct herself when she is introduced to the Greek warriors halfway between Troy and the Greek camp? How does Ulysses assess her character? To what extent does his view seem accurate?

12. In Act 4, Scene 7, Hector gets his challenge match with Ajax. How does the contest go? How do the Greek and Trojan warriors behave after it is concluded? What does Achilles do to shatter the good mood? At this point, what assessment can you offer regarding the relative worth of Hector and Achilles?


13. In Act 5, Scene 1, Thersites again targets our favorite Greek warriors, this time including Patroclus. Again, in what sense might these opponents be said to need one another? Overall, how would you characterize the role and significance of Thersites up to this point in the play?

14. In Act 5, Scene 2, Troilus is guided by Ulysses to the tent where he may see how Cressida bears herself in the presence of the Greek Diomedes. What does Cressida do, and how does she justify it to herself? How, in this and the next scene (Act 5, Scene 3), does Troilus deal with what he has witnessed?

15. In Act 5, Scene 5, we learn that Hector has just killed Patroclus, throwing the Greek camp into dismay, but of course his friend’s death at last brings Achilles into the battle. What happens in the initial contest between Hector and Achilles — the great event so long awaited for much of the Trojan War? How does this contest between Hector and Achilles conclude in Act 5, Scenes 7-9? This is obviously not the Achilles we find in Homer’s Iliad — what principle seems to motivate him in these scenes?

16. In Act 5, Scene 4, with Ajax proudly hanging back and the Greek army in a seemingly anarchic state, Thersites plans to sit back and enjoy the pageant of bloody foolery. What observations does he make, and what role does he end up playing in the fighting in this scene and in Act 5, Scene 8? What kind of impact does his behavior have on your view of the other fighting that occurs around these scenes?

17. By Act 5, Scenes 9-11, Hector has been slain by Achilles, and the Trojans are left to register the grievous loss. Troilus strikes Pandarus and bids him be gone, and the latter complains of his sufferings from venereal disease and his ill usage by Troilus. To what extent should we hold Pandarus responsible for the outcome of the love match between Troilus and Cressida? What was “in it” for him with regard to the matchmaking, anyway?

18. General question. By the end of the play, would you say that Troilus has become thoroughly disillusioned and cynical (like Pandarus), or that he has transferred his quest for an object to idealize to the war? Explain your rationale by referring to Troilus’ words and actions in the concluding scenes.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

The Merchant of Venice

Questions on Shakespeare’s Comedies

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Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. (Norton Comedies, 2nd ed. 425-89).


1. In Act 1, Scene 1, what sense of community is affirmed between the Venetian merchant Antonio and his several gentile (non-Jewish) friends? Antonio is sad without knowing why — what kind of atmosphere does that fact set up for this comic play?

2. In Act 1, Scene 1, what seems to be the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio — what has led to the latter man’s need for Antonio’s help?

3. In Act 1, Scene 2, what constraint lies upon Portia’s future, thanks to her father’s will? What complaints does she have about her suitors?

4. In Act 1, Scene 3, Antonio and Shylock discuss the former’s need for a loan. Why doesn’t Antonio take Shylock’s terms seriously? What grievances does Shylock set forth against Antonio and other Christians whom he has come upon in the Rialto (the financial district of Venice)?


5. In Act 2, Scenes 1 and 7, and 9, respectively, the Princes of Morocco and Arragon choose amongst the gold, silver, and leaden caskets for Portia’s hand in marriage. Why do they make the choices they make, and what explanation of their error is provided in the enclosed scrolls?

6. In Act 2, Scenes 2-3, Lancelet (Shylock’s servant) and Jessica (Shylock’s daughter) decide to abandon him. Why is Lancelet disaffected from his master, and why is Jessica determined to run away? Does she do so with a clear conscience? Explain.

7. In Act 2, Scenes 4-6, Jessica, Lorenzo, and his companions Gratiano and Salarino plot Jessica’s escape, and then make good on it. What important concern arises from the fact that the Venetian custom of donning masques figures in their plans? Moreover, what can we make of Jessica’s disguising herself as a boy?

8. In Act 2, Scene 5, what forebodings does Shylock reveal as he prepares to dine with his gentile debtors? What are his concerns about his daughter Jessica and the possibility that she might come into contact with Christians?

9. In Act 2, Scene 8, how does Shylock react to the awful news that Jessica has run away and, to make matters worse, stolen his golden ducats and jewels? Would it be fair to say (see also 3.1) that he confuses the two losses, as the Christians suggest by their mockery — or is something else going on here?


10. In Act 3, Scenes 1 and 3, what good does Shylock say insisting on his bond will do — how does he justify what Christians in the play would call “Jewish” hard-heartedness?

11. In Act 3, Scene 2, what accounts for Bassanio’s success in choosing the leaden chest rather than the golden and silver ones? How might the song “Tell me where is fancy bred?” be a way of describing Bassanio’s choice?

12. In Act 3, Scene 3, how does Antonio, who stands within Shylock’s power, understand his predicament — why can’t the Duke help him, and what irony resides in that fact?

13. In Act 3, Scene 5, is there any significance in Lancelet’s theological quibbling with Jessica over her religion? How might we connect this comic scene with the play’s more serious events?


14. In Act 4, Scene 1, what lesson about mercy underlies the disguised Portia’s defense of Antonio? How does Saint Paul’s injunction that “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” apply to Portia’s final destruction of Shylock’s demand for a pound of flesh? (2 Corinthians 3:6)

15. In spite of Portia’s Christian lesson in Act 4, scene 1, do the Christians engage in some conduct that is less than charitable towards Shylock? Explain.

16. At the end of Act 4, Scene 1 and then in Scene 2, why does Bassanio (although grudgingly) set aside his oath regarding the ring Portia has given him and award it to the supposed Doctor? What does this act suggest about his understanding of the relative value of relationships between men and relationships between men and women?


17. In Act 5, Scene 1, what is the thematic significance of Lorenzo’s remarks about the heavenly music we can’t hear because of our fallen nature — i.e. because of “the muddy vesture of our decay”?

18. In Act 5, Scene 1, what allows for resolution of the controversy over the loss of Bassanio and Gratiano’s rings, given them by Portia and Nerissa, respectively? How do the two women assert a kind of power that the men didn’t know they possessed?

19. General question: this dark comedy about Christians and Jews has troubled many Shakespeare scholars and theater-goers. Shakespeare’s plot favors the Christian theological framework, not Shylock’s Judaism. But in what sense might we be doing Shakespeare an injustice if we take Shylock for a one-dimensional, stock ethnic character? In what ways is he more complex than that?

20. General question: similarly, in what sense does Shakespeare’s representation of Christian characters such as Antonio, Bassanio, Lorenzo, and Gratiano complicate what might otherwise be a straightforward victory for Christianity over Shylock’s principles?

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake