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.

Titus Andronicus

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

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Shakespeare, William. Titus Andronicus. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 115-79).

Act 1, Scene 1 (124-135, Bassianus & Saturninus advance their cause; Titus’ sons sacrifice Alarbus; Titus makes Saturninus emperor; Bassianus absconds with Lavinia, enraging Titus; Saturninus makes Tamora his empress; Tamora promises revenge against Andronici)

The play seems to be set late in the fourth century CE, and it depicts a Roman world turned upside down—one in which a Goth leader only recently brought to Rome in chains is elevated to nearly supreme power, and a valiant Roman is crushed by his rigid belief in an ancient code of honor that virtually no-one around him takes seriously.  In the eventful first scene, Titus Andronicus, a soldier of forty years’ standing, returns to Rome with his trophy Goths Tamora and her sons, only to be confronted with the bickering of Saturninus and Bassianus over the imperial succession.  While Saturninus proclaims his right as the first-born son of the late emperor, Bassianus advances his cause in the name of virtue: “suffer not dishonor to approach / The imperial seat” (125, 1.1.13-14), he pleads to the Tribunes, Senators, and his own followers. 

Titus has just returned from ten years of fighting in Rome’s cause, and all ears await his sentence as to who should take the throne.  The general’s speech to the assembled Romans is magnificent in its honest reckoning of the losses he has willingly borne for his country, and moving in its attention to the children he has lost: “Titus, unkind and careless of thine own, / Why suffer’st thou thy sons, unburied yet, / To hover on the dreadful shore of Styx?” (126-27, 1.1.86-88)  He is a Roman of the old school and a believer in strict pietas to family and state. 

At his remaining sons’ request, therefore, Titus will sacrifice conquered Tamora’s eldest son.  Titus’ sons explain clearly why they want to commit this act: “… so the shadows be not unappeas’d, / Nor we disturb’d with prodigies on earth” (127, 1.1.100-101).  Titus agrees to this demand without hesitation, but Tamora is quick to see the affair as hypocrisy: “must my sons be slaughtered in the streets / For valiant doings in their country’s cause?” (127, 1.1.112-13)  Her sons have only done what Titus’ would do in defense of their homeland.  Tamora’s plea, “Thrice-noble Titus, spare my first-born son!” (127, 1.1.119) is revealing in that its numerical quality suggests a world in which everything can be quantified or accounted for: surely, this strange honor code in which Titus believes is expansive enough to allow for generosity towards the eldest son of a valiant, defeated queen!  Titus is thrice noble, and ought to be magnanimous in victory.  But Titus disagrees: the honor code is strict, and a demand by blood for blood cannot be refused without shame.  It would, in fact, constitute an outrage against the memory of Titus’ dead sons.  So Tamora’s individual heartache, her natural appeal as a mother, must be subordinated to Roman ritual: piety must be upheld, and the general tells her to “Patient” (127, 1.1.121) herself while this supposed act of Roman religiosity is accomplished.  Tamora’s denunciation seems appropriate: “O cruel, irreligious piety!” (127, 1.1.130)  Tamora may be a barbarian queen, but she is no fool.  “Barbarism” is a worthy concept in Shakespeare’s play: the powerful Goths serve as a ground for the anxieties of a civilized people about their relationship to violence, their sense of identity, and the efficacy of their language.  Tamora and her sons both do and do not understand Rome.  The question is, how well does Rome understand them?

The aftermath of the deed done by Titus’ sons is announced with the words, “Alarbus’ limbs are lopped, / And entrails feed the sacrificing fire, / Whose smoke like incense doth perfume the sky” (128. 1.1.143-45).  The alliteration of the first line is deliciously absurd, and lets us in on the comic undertone of this otherwise tragic play: Titus Andronicus has an over-the-top quality, a tendency to revel in its scenes of violence and criminality, that mark it as a fine example of Elizabethan revenge tragedy.  “Shakespeare was young when he wrote Titus,” as an old professor of mine used to suggest by way of accounting for the play’s exuberance and outright silliness (there are approximately 217 references to body parts in Titus Andronicus—surely no accident on Shakespeare’s part), but we might as well admit that it’s a masterpiece of its kind.  The Elizabethans loved this kind of limb-hacking, blood-spattered spectacle, as the popularity of other plays such as Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy attests.  Dexter Morgan, eat your heart out!

With Alarbus’ limbs duly lopped, Titus must return to public responsibility.  Offered the throne in his own right, he magnanimously turns it down with the utterance, “Give me a staff of honor for mine age, / But not a scepter to control the world” (129, 1.1.198-99).  As kingmaker he chooses the eldest son of the departed Caesar as the new emperor, and Saturninus promises to wed Lavinia out of gratitude for this service (130, 1.1.240). 

But Bassianus, with the aid of Titus’ sons, escapes with his beloved Lavinia.  Titus kills his son Mutius when the latter bars his way in pursuit of the absconders (131, 1.1.288), but Saturninus flies into a rage anyhow, and chooses Tamora for his empress in place of Lavinia. 

The perverse nature of this choice is implied in Tamora’s promise to the young man: “If Saturnine advance the Queen of Goths, / She will a handmaid be to his desires, / A loving nurse, a mother to his youth” (132, 1.1.327-28).  Titus has given control of great Rome to a man who seeks a mother in the “barbarian” woman who wants nothing more than to destroy it as a means of revenging her losses in battle and the slaughter of her child.  As empress, Tamora  deviously smooths things over for Titus (134, 1.1.428ff), who has been left to lament the betrayal by his sons of the reputation he held dear.  As she explains to the inexperienced young emperor, she does this the better to crush Titus and his entire line when Saturninus is secure on the throne: “I’ll find a day to massacre them all …” (134, 1.1.447).  And so the act ends with Saturninus’ offer of a double wedding, and Titus’ promise of fine hunting.

Act 2, Scenes 1-2 (135-39, Aaron exults in Tamora’s success; Aaron helps Chiron and Demetrius plot the rape of Lavinia)

Aaron is exultant at Tamora’s advancement because it means great rewards for him, not only in terms of wealth but also personal pride: he will “be bright, and shine in pearl and gold,” but more than that, he will “wanton with this queen” (136, 2.1.19, 21) who promises to be the ruin of the hated Romans and their emperor.  Chiron and Demetrius scheme with Aaron’s aid to ravish Lavinia: says Aaron the strategist, “The woods are ruthless, dreadful, deaf, and dull” (138, 2.1.129), and therefore they can absorb in silence the savage crime these young men desire to commit against Lavinia.  They will all conspire with Tamora to refine the plot.  Scene 2 tells us of the hunting party’s beginning.

Act 2, Scene 3 (139-46, Bassianus and Lavinia discover Tamora and insult her; Aaron brings in Chiron and Demetrius, who kill Bassianus and rape & mutilate Lavinia with Tamora’s approval; Saturninus is duped by Aaron into arresting Martius and Quintus)

Tamora and Aaron converse in the woods, with Aaron counseling sexual restraint while revenge is yet to be had: “Madam, though Venus govern your desires, / Saturn is dominator over mine” (140, 2.3.30-31).  Then Bassianus and Lavinia discover Tamora and insult her at length (140-41, 2.3.55-87).  Aaron brings back Chiron and Demetrius, who kill Bassianus and rape and mutilate Lavinia, with Tamora’s explicit and sadistic approval (142, 2.3.114); she mocks Lavinia’s appeals to feminine compassion, reminding all present of Titus’ utter lack of compassion for her own heartrending pleas in support of her son (143, 2.3.161-64), and admonishes her sons, “The worse to her, the better loved of me” (143, 2.3.167).  Tamora goes off to enjoy herself with Aaron while the deed is done (143, 2.3.190-91).  Saturnine is easily duped by Aaron’s forged letter and planted bag of gold into thinking that Titus’ sons Martius and Quintus are Bassianus’ murderers (145, 2.3.281-85).  They are dragged from the pit into which they have fallen and brought to prison.  Tamora pretends to Titus that she will yet again assist him (146, 2.3.304).

Act 2, Scene 4 (146-47, Marcus finds Lavinia, likens her to Philomel; Titus must be informed)

Titus’ brother Marcus finds Lavinia and wonders what has happened.  Waxing poetical, he likens the scene to the story of Tereus and Philomel: “But sure some Tereus hath deflowered thee …” (146-47, 2.4.26-27).  Worse yet, he says, the ravishers have improved upon the dastardly practice of the original: “… he hath cut those pretty fingers off / That could have better sewed than Philomel” (147, 2.4.41-43).  Off they’ll go to afflict Titus with the sight of his ruined daughter, as if he hadn’t suffered enough already: as usual, the reference to suffering is harshly physical: “Come let us go, and make thy father blind …” (147, 2.4.52-53).

Act 3, Scene 1 (147-53, Titus abandoned, addresses sorrows to the stones; Lucius is in exile; Titus sees ravished Lavinia, and his post-cathartic thoughts turn towards revenge)

Everyone ignores Titus’ self-sacrifice of four decades, and the tribunes he implores are nowhere to be found, so he tells his “sorrows to the stones” instead (148, 3.1.36).  His entire world view has crashed, and Rome seems “a wilderness of tigers” (148, 3.1.54) intent on devouring only Titus and his kin.  Lucius has been banished for trying to assist his brothers.  At this point, we pity Titus already, but now he is shown Lavinia to top off his grief: “But that which gives my soul the greatest spurn/Is dear Lavinia” (149, 3.1.101-02).  Of course, pity has its limits when a man insists on serving up puns such as the one Titus offers Lavinia: “… what accursed hand / Hath made thee handless in thy father’s sight?” (149, 3.1.66-67).  Titus’s sacrifice of Tamora’s sons in the name of piety now appears worthless since piety is dead in Rome.  To be “wondered at in time to come” (150, 3.1.135) for the intensity of his wretchedness now seems appropriate to Titus, and his thoughts turn to what they can do to bring this about, by any means necessary.  Here Titus responds to unspeakable pain, both physical and mental.  In 3.2, he will reach a point at which there are no more tears, only vengeance, but not in the present scene; he is still processing his raw grief.

Aaron enters and offers to lend the Andronici a hand—or rather take one, and Titus, who had already thought it appropriate to “chop off” (149, 3.1.72) the hands that had vainly defended Rome, falls for the ruse: in spite of all that’s happened, he still thinks that when a man has given his word, honor will bind him to it.  Aaron’s pitch to any one of the Andronici is, “… chop off your hand / And send it to the King” (150, 3.1.153 -54).  As for Aaron, he is as always the ultimate stage villain: “Let fools do good, and fair men call for grace, / Aaron will have his soul black like his face” (151, 3.1.203-04).  Aaron’s cynical, selfish perspective is that codes exist only to get others to do what you want them to do.  But the Moor also pledges allegiance to pure wickedness, and as we can see from his exultant comments when he is in great danger later on, he is almost religious in his devotion to evil.  Titus’ rigidity in adhering to old Roman honor and morality has opened a window for Aaron’s excesses, and the man indulges his sadistic brand of individualism when Roman morality breaks down.

A messenger soon undeceives Titus (152, 3.1.233-39), and the absurd spectacle of “thy two sons’ heads, / Thy warlike hand, thy mangled daughter here,” as Marcus describes the sight (152, 3.1.253-54), brings no more weeping from the old man but instead determination to plan the destruction of Tamora and the Emperor: “Why, I have not another tear to shed” (153, 3.1.265).  This is a critical Senecan turning point in the play: Titus has turned from grief towards revenge and will not look back.  Lucius is instructed to go to the Goths to raise an army (153, 3.1.284).  Titus, Marcus and Lavinia continue the grotesque body parts motif by carting their dismembered kinsmen’s particulars off the stage: “Come, brother, take a head, / And in this hand the other I will bear …” (153, 3.1.278-81); even Lavinia is asked to pitch in and carry the severed hand of Titus.

Act 3, Scene 2 (153-55, banquet theme of hands, revenge against a fly: macabre interlude in preparation for revenge, but Titus is not insane)

Just when we thought the hand theme couldn’t be more over-the-top, along comes the second scene, with Titus and family seated at a banquet.  When Marcus clumsily blurts out, “Fie, brother, fie, teach her not thus to lay / Such violent hands upon her tender life” (154, 3.2.21-22), Titus responds with the immortal lines, “O, handle not the theme, to talk of hands, / Lest we remember still that we have none” (154, 3.2.29-30).  Titus continues to think on revenge, connecting even Marcus’ killing of a fly to this imperative: the family is not yet so reduced, he says, “But that between us we can kill a fly / That comes in likeness of a coal-black Moor” (155, 3.2.76-77).  Marcus thinks Titus is out of his mind, but that doesn’t seem to be the case; I suppose it’s just that by now his overflowing pain and grief have been transformed into a macabre sense of humor.  Titus and Lavinia soon go off to read “Sad stories chanced in the times of old” (155, 3.2.82).  Titus doesn’t know yet how informative those stories will turn out to be, but Ovid is about to provide some enlightenment about Lavinia’s travails.

Act 4, Scene 1 (155-58, Lavinia uses Ovid to reveal the truth, spurring Titus to revenge)

An excited Lavinia explains what happened to her via Ovid’s tale in the Metamorphoses about Procne, Philomel, and the wicked Thracian King Tereus, which Titus recognizes easily: “This is the tragic tale of Philomel…” (156, 4.1.47), and she writes “Stuprum–Chiron–Demetrius” (157, 4.1.77). Stuprum means rape, as in the Latin phrase, per vim stuprum, “violation by main force.”  Titus says he will be another Lucius Junius Brutus, this time expelling not Tarquins but Goths (157, 4.1.86-93), and he writes a note to be carried along with presents by the boy Lucius to Tamora’s sons at the palace (158, 4.1.113-15).  As for Ovid’s “Tereus, Procne, and Philomela” from Book 6 of The Metamorphoses, a lot of the details from this story seem to be distributed amongst the revenging factions of Titus and Tamora—the wooded setting for the rape of Lavinia mirrors the forest setting of the Thracian King Tereus’ rape of his sister-in-law Philomela, and so forth.  The strange disguises of Tamora and her sons evoke the Bacchanalian disguise in Procne and Philomela’s ruse against Tereus: he’s served the cannibal pie during the course of a Bacchanalian festival.  Ovid’s Latin story is at least as deliciously barbarous—pun intended—in its details as anything Elizabethans such as Thomas Preston (Cambises, 1561) or John Pickering (Horestes, 1567) or Shakespeare himself ever wrote. The same might be said of the Stoic Seneca, author of such bloody plays as Thyestes, circa CE 60.   

Marcus continues to believe that Titus has gone insane: “Marcus, attend him in his ecstasy” (158, 4.1.124), he says to himself, but it may not be so.  Shakespeare has cleverly combined Ovid’s story from The Metamorphoses with the violent foundational myth of the Roman Republic: the rape and suicide of Lucretia.  Below is the momentous tale from Titus Livius’ The History of Rome, in which Lucretia lets death attest to her adherence to the female married chastity necessary to preserve dynastic Roman bloodlines. The matron’s death allows her determined husband Collatinus, Lucius Junius Brutus, and others to use her outraged corpse as a prop for the expulsion of the Tarquin (Etruscan) King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus.  Lucretia, more insightful about the severe implications of the rigid Roman honor code than her own husband, provides the blood that spurs Roman valor into throwing off 244 years of Tarquin rule.  Here’s a version of the story I have shortened from a public-domain copy of Titus Livius’ History of Rome, Book 1:

1.57: […]The royal princes sometimes spent their leisure hours in feasting and entertainments, and at a wine party given by Sextus Tarquinius at which Collatinus, the son of Egerius, was present, the conversation happened to turn upon their wives, and each began to speak of his own in terms of extraordinarily high praise. As the dispute became warm, Collatinus said that there was no need of words [….] “Why do we not,” he exclaimed, “[…] pay our wives a visit and find out their characters on the spot? [.…] Thence they proceeded to Collatia, where they found Lucretia very differently employed from the king’s daughters-in-law, whom they had seen passing their time in feasting and luxury with their acquaintances. She was sitting at her wool work in the hall, late at night, with her maids busy round her. The palm in this competition of wifely virtue was awarded to Lucretia….  Sextus Tarquin, inflamed by the beauty and exemplary purity of Lucretia, formed the vile project of effecting her dishonor [.…]

1.58: A few days afterwards Sextus Tarquin went, unknown to Collatinus, with one companion to Collatia. He was hospitably received by the household, who suspected nothing, and after supper was conducted to the bedroom set apart for guests. When all around seemed safe and everybody fast asleep, he went in the frenzy of his passion with a naked sword to the sleeping Lucretia, and placing his left hand on her breast, said, “Silence, Lucretia! I am Sextus Tarquin, and I have a sword in my hand; if you utter a word, you shall die.” [.…] When he saw that she was inflexible and not moved even by the fear of death, he threatened to disgrace her, declaring that he would lay the naked corpse of the slave by her dead body, so that it might be said that she had been slain in foul adultery. By this awful threat, his lust triumphed over her inflexible chastity, and Tarquin went off exulting in having successfully attacked her honour. Lucretia, overwhelmed with grief […] sent a messenger to her father at Rome and to her husband at Ardea, asking them to come to her [….] They found Lucretia sitting in her room prostrate with grief. As they entered, she burst into tears, and [said] …, “The marks of a stranger, Collatinus, are in your bed. But it is only the body that has been violated, the soul is pure; death shall bear witness to that. But pledge me your solemn word that the adulterer shall not go unpunished. [….]  It is for you […] to see that he [Sextus Tarquinius] gets his deserts; although I acquit myself of the sin, I do not free myself from the penalty; no unchaste woman shall henceforth live and plead Lucretia’s example.”  She had a knife concealed in her dress which she plunged into her heart, and fell dying on the floor [.…]

1.59: [….] Brutus drew the knife from Lucretia’s wound, and holding it, dripping with blood, in front of him, said, “By this blood-most pure before the outrage wrought by the king’s son-I swear, and you, O gods, I call to witness that I will drive hence Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, together with his cursed wife and his whole brood, with fire and sword and every means in my power, and I will not suffer them or any one else to reign in Rome.” [….]

1.60: When the news of these proceedings reached the camp, the king [.…] hurried to Rome to quell the outbreak [.…] Tarquin found the gates shut, and a decree of banishment passed against him; the Liberator of the City [L. J. Brutus] received a joyous welcome in the camp, and the king’s sons were expelled from it [.…] Lucius Tarquinius Superbus reigned twenty-five years. The whole duration of the regal government from the foundation of the City to its liberation was two hundred and forty-four years. Two consuls were then elected in the assembly [.…] They were Lucius Junius Brutus and Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus.  [End of Book 1]  From The History of Rome, Vol. I, Titus Livius. Editor Ernest Rhys. Translator Rev. Canon Roberts. Everyman’s Library. London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1912.

Act 4, Scene 2 (158-62, Aaron figures out Titus’ note to Chiron & Demetrius, and defends his child by Tamora fiercely, even killing the nurse: the boy is his future)

Titus’ note to Chiron and Demetrius reads “Integer vitae, scelerisque purus, / Non eget Mauri jaculis, nec arcu” (159, 4.2.20-21; [the man who’s] upright in his life and free of vices has no need of Moorish spears or bows”).  But the boys aren’t good enough readers of Horace’s Odes to realize that Titus knows they conspired with the Moor.  Aaron is clearly out for himself—he doesn’t even tell Tamora about this new information.  The Empress delivers a child by Aaron, who protects his newborn son fiercely (160) when Chiron and Demetrius think to kill the infant, bearing him away to the Goths with the intention of raising the child as a warrior.  Aaron kills the Nurse (161), horrifying even the wicked sons of Tamora.  A countryman’s fair-skinned baby will be substituted and presented as Saturninus’ legitimate heir.  What is the child to Aaron?  He makes the point succinctly: “My mistress is my mistress, this myself … / … / This before all the world do I prefer” (161, 4.2.106-08).  Rome and its politics can go hang; Aaron’s main concern is to take the portion of immortality that a child of one’s own promises.

Act 4, Scene 3 (162-65, Titus aims his arrows for justice to heaven, at Saturninus’ palace: how mad or sane is he at this point?)

Titus’ arrows bear messages soliciting the gods for justice nowhere to be found on earth: “sith there’s no justice in earth nor hell, / We will solicit heaven and move the gods …” (163, 4.3.50-51).  The whole scene seems to show him both unhinged and yet canny: he tells Publius and Sempronius, “… when you come to Pluto’s region, / I pray you deliver him this petition” (163, 4.3.13-14).  His stratagem, though, is to shoot arrows towards Saturninus’ palace, and thereby to unsettle the young Emperor.  Titus also pays a rustic or “clown” to present Saturninus with a short speech and some pigeons (164,  But then, perhaps we shouldn’t dismiss the notion that there’s something insane about Titus’ behavior all through the play: if insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results, Titus is at times close to a madman: he keeps supposing that if somebody makes a promise, it must be kept; and if somebody is legally entitled to an office, he’ll do his duty rather than taking advantage of the situation.  Such persistence in doing the honorable thing would make sense in a normal setting, but in decadent Rome it can only destroy the person who practices it.

Act 4, Scene 4 (165-67, Saturninus is angry at Titus, scared of Lucius: Tamora promises to neutralize the threat)

Saturninus is enraged before the Senate over Titus’ “blazoning our unjustice every where” (165, 4.4.18) and then has the clown hanged after reading the letter Titus wrote.  Tamora thinks she has at last driven Titus off the deep end: “Titus, I have touched thee to the quick” (166, 4.4.36).  The Emperor is frightened upon hearing that Lucius is headed for Rome with an army of Goths (166, 4.4.68-72), but he misunderstands Titus’ motive, which is revenge of a sort not reducible to politics.  Titus doesn’t want to rule Rome—what good would that do his battered spirit and maimed body now?  Tamora promises to soothe Titus’ anger, and thereby get him to separate Lucius from his invading force: “I will enchant the old Andronicus …” (167, 5.1.88-92).

Act 5, Scene 1 (167-71, The Goths will follow Lucius; Aaron recounts and exults in his allegedly numberless villainies; Lucius agrees to meet Saturninus at Andronici’s home)

The Goths swear loyalty to Lucius: “Be bold in us.  We’ll follow where thou lead’st …” (168, 5.1.13).  Aaron, captured with his child, is brought in.  He did not know about this new development.  Lucius threatens the child, so Aaron promises to reveal everything about his plots with Tamora and her sons, but Lucius must swear by the Christian god—for it seems that’s what Aaron attributes to Lucius by way of faith, based on his reference to Lucius’ ritualistic “popish tricks” (169, 5.1.76; see 74-85).  This is obviously a strange moment in the play since the ritual sacrifice in Act 1 has absolutely nothing to do with Christianity or, indeed, with properly pagan Roman ritual.  Well, all the plotting Aaron recounts (169-70, 5.1.87-120)—his getting a child by Tamora, the murder of Bassianus and the rape and mutilation of Lavinia that he inspired Chiron and Demetrius to do, and his own gleefully fraudulent taking of Titus’ hand — is news to Lucius because he left to raise an army of Goths before Lavinia revealed exactly what had happened to her and who did it.

When asked if he’s sorry, Aaron outdoes himself with a flourish of supervillain rhetoric (170, 5.1.124-44).  It would be hard to top the following claim for sheer malice: “Oft have I digg’d up dead men from their graves, / And set them upright at their dear friends’ door …” (170, 5.1.135-36; see 125-40).  He seems dedicated not so much to the kind of violence that furthers his self-interest or ambition but rather to a code of evil for evil’s sake, perhaps in part out of hatred for the Romans he so evidently despises: friendship is the target of Aaron’s alleged stratagem here, and readers of classical history and culture will know that loyalty in the cause of amicitia was among the primary Roman virtues.  More than that, Aaron asserts a fierce liberty in the face of a Roman culture that depends greatly upon the ties that bind people: ties of memory, friendship, and honor.

To round off the scene, Lucius hears that Saturninus “craves a parley at your father’s house” (171, 5.1.159), and agrees to hear the emperor out if proper pledges be given.

Act 5, Scene 2 (171-75, Tamora and sons try to fool Titus by dressing up as Revenge, Murder, Rapine; Titus slaughters Chiron and Demetrius)

Tamora and sons show up at Titus’ place dressed as Revenge, Murder, and Rapine (171-72).  He doesn’t believe them, but they consider him mad in spite of the clues he lets slip.  “Revenge” wants Titus to send for Lucius, and promises that when they are all at a banquet at Titus’ home, she will bring Tamora, Chiron, Demetrius, the Emperor and any other foes so that he may take revenge upon them (173, 5.2.114-20).  Titus insists that Rapine and Murder stay with him (173, 5.1.34) and then kills them, though not before he fully informs them that they are literally on the banquet menu: “Hark, wretches, how I mean to martyr you.… / … / “I will grind your bones to dust, / And with your blood and it I’ll make a paste …” (174-75, 5.2.179, 185-86).  Like the Thracian King Tereus in the legend Ovid recounts, Tamora will “swallow her own increase” (175, 5.2.190). 

Act 5, Scene 3 (175-79, Titus serves up some C & D pie, kills Lavinia, is killed by Saturninus, who is then killed by Lucius, who will be emperor; Aaron is sentenced to starve, and Tamora to be food for the birds, refused a proper burial)

Titus enters dressed as a cook.  The table is set and dinner is served (176, 5.3.25ff).  Titus asks Saturninus if Virginius (a decemvir from 451-449 BCE) was right to kill his daughter for chastity’s sake (176, 5.3.36-38).  (Appius had used legal trickery in an attempt to force himself on her, claiming that she was actually his slave; Virginius, disguised as a slave, killed her just after Appius’ co-conspirator Marcus Claudius judged in favor of Appius.)  Titus then kills Lavinia, saying “Die, die, Lavinia, and thy shame with thee,” explaining to all present that Chiron and Demetrius had ravished her (176, 5.3.45ff).  Asked where they are, he informs Tamora and Saturninus with an unforgettably gleeful rhyme: “Why, there they are, both bakèd in this pie / Whereof their mother daintily hath fed, / Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred” (176-77, 5.3.59-61).  Titus immediately stabs Tamora, and Saturninus kills him, whereupon Lucius kills Saturninus (177, 5.3.65). 

Aemilius asks for a full account of all the misdeeds, and receives it from Lucius (177, 5.3.95-107), who is chosen emperor.  Marcus asks all assembled if the Andronici have done wrong in exacting revenge; if they have, he offers that “The poor remainder of Andronici, / Will hand in hand all headlong hurl ourselves …” (178, 5.3.130-31).  But there’s no such call.

Aaron is carried in and judgment is sought against him (179, 5.3.175-77).  He is sentenced to starve while buried “breast-deep in earth” (179, 5.3.178), which seems like a spiteful way of denying him the sustenance that cannot be denied his child.  Still, Aaron maintains his standing as the play’s most remorseless evildoer: “If one good deed in all my life I did, / I do repent it from my very soul” (179, 5.3.188-89).  (In Julie Taymor’s adaptation, Aaron’s child is also brought in.)  The savage irony of this punishment is that, as mentioned earlier, Aaron had set himself up as a free spirit, unbound and untouched by Roman customs or values.  The Emperor will be properly buried, but Aaron will be pinned down to this lean fate and “that ravenous tiger, Tamora” (179, 5.3.194) will feast the birds.

All in all, the play is a delightfully outrageous, bloody instance of Elizabethan revenge tragedy in the tradition of Seneca and Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, in which the protagonist Hieronymo seeks wild, violent justice for the vengeful murder of his son.  Melodramatic as it may seem, Kyd’s early revenge tragedy is serious and philosophical. It considers life’s great questions, above all what constitutes justice in a wicked world, and is perhaps worthy of comparison with similar efforts by Aeschylus or Sophocles.  Shakespeare’s play is sometimes dismissed as frivolous, and of course it isn’t exactly the metadramatic extravaganza that is Hamlet, but it has a serious dimension that repays study.  Titus is no mere villain, and neither is Tamora.  Only Aaron seems to be a thoroughgoing dastard, with Tamora’s foolish sons coming in a distant second—they lack Aaron’s cunning and brains. 

Shakespeare’s genius leads him to employ the Romans versus Goths theme in a manner that confounds any simple opposition between Roman and Goth.  Titus turns out to be more of a Goth than we might have thought: excessive, bloody, and barbarous in his revenge.  Tamora is more than a cardboard or stage barbarian; her motive for revenge is at least legitimate, and she shows herself a skilled manipulator of Roman politics. 

Aaron’s race adds yet another perspective on the Goth/Roman opposition: it’s true that the “villain plot” he drives sets itself up against the twin revenge plots of Titus and Tamora and in part displays the man’s dedication to wickedness, but Aaron shows considerable loyalty to his child as the image of himself, and exults in his blackness.  Moreover, while Shakespeare may not be subjecting the revenge code to the kind of scrutiny it receives in Hamlet (where it’s understood that revenge is against God’s law), he seems quite interested in the complexities of Roman honor.  The allusions he makes to the Lucretia story from Livy’s History of Rome and to the Philomela tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses allow him to explore the significance of those key Roman myths. 

What is the play suggesting about moral codes?  Perhaps that people must live by them and within them, but also that they must not be imprisoned by them altogether.  Rigidity, failure to reflect on one’s values, allows cynicism and outrage to flourish: extremes beget counter-extremes.  Titus is an “honorable man,” to be sure, but the play as a whole keeps iterating that claim in action until the iterated actions generate a Mark Antony effect: by the fourth and fifth acts, what’s needed isn’t more old-fashioned honor but a plan for revenge against the barbarous Goths and Moors who have taken advantage of Titus’ stiff morality. 

Julie Taymor’s 2000 production Titus sets the play in a strangely neo-fascist Italy, with its futuristic architecture and art.  Taymor’s choice makes sense because the 1920’s-40’s dictator and Hitler ally Benito Mussolini appropriated the ancient Roman symbols of power and tried to turn Italy into an empire.  (For one thing, he invaded Ethiopia.)  And even in ancient times, the image of Rome in its imperial phase was due at least partly to the well-oiled propaganda machine of Augustus Caesar and the wisest of those who followed him as rulers.  Augustus promoted the idea that Rome’s anachronistic republican values were still operative, even though by his day, such values were probably more of a fashion statement than anything else.  By Titus’ era, his Rome no longer exists, in spite of his stubborn (if stylized) adherence to it.  Titus’ stylization, its earnestness aside, is itself decadent and not much more than an anachronistic fashion.  Of course, fashion statements can have political implications and reflect political facts on the ground, whether sincere or not.  Perhaps Shakespeare would praise Taymor’s concentration on the role of fabrication and stylistic borrowing and recycling in politics and history, with the definition of “reality” as consisting significantly (though not necessarily entirely) in a people’s perception of themselves rather than being reducible to some external standard.  Taymor’s film version ends by opening out onto the future; Aaron’s barbarian child seems the victor, the one who will inherit the time beyond the play’s frame.  Taymor’s version takes up a significant attitude towards the pageant of destruction and creation, struggle and lapse, memory and loss that we call history.

Finally, Titus Andronicus revels in gory violence, but the celebration is a response to the pain of life, a response to outrage and unfairness, a response to the simple fact of the tragic dimension of life: the world and human desire do not run parallel or accord with each other.  We may remember the scene in Martin Scorsese’s film Taxi Driver where the antihero Travis Bickle forces himself to hold his hand over an open flame for as long as he can.  This sort of grim endurance is the stuff of revenge tragedy, to which we should add a big heap of gallows humor and high-impact imagery (the Elizabethans, as Muriel Bradbrook would say, valued imagery and direct moral statement over narrative or characterization).  I prefer this revenge-play response to some of the ways we have of handling violence and pain today: violence in songs and films that justifies itself not as concentrated spectacle or protest but instead as a low species of realism: how many rappers (I don’t mean all of them, by any means) have defended their music’s gender-based and ethnic insults and raw gangster violence on the simple basis of “telling it like it is”?  I think art can do better than mindlessly perpetuate a sordid reality or claimed reality.  There are at least two legitimate ways to achieve this goal: one is an understandable retreat into the world of art—you can’t “live in art,” as a friend of Lord Tennyson correctly reminded him, but you can go there frequently and draw something good from your experience.  The other way is something more like an indirect, sophisticated exploration and even a protest with regard to the conditions of life, the human condition.  Some modern people’s sensibilities may be too delicate to handle Elizabethan or Jacobean revenge tragedy, but the plays themselves are serious efforts in the tragic and philosophical Senecan mode, with the aim being to explore the limits of pain and injustice, the better to inure an audience to its own sufferings without resorting to despair.

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

Titus Andronicus

Questions on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

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Shakespeare, William. Titus Andronicus. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 115-79).


1. In Act 1, Scene 1, discuss the play’s presentation of Roman religious ritual: why does Titus believe that his sacrifice of Tamora’s eldest son Alarbus is honorable and necessary? In what does the sacrifice consist, and how does Shakespeare represent it onstage?

2. In Act 1, Scene 1, how does the captured Tamora, Queen of Goths, react to the prospect — and then the fact — of her eldest son’s slaughter? How does her response affect the way an audience might perceive the conduct and attitude of Titus with regard to the sacrifice?

3. In Act 1, Scene 1, how does Titus present to the Roman public his view of the death of several sons in his latest military campaign? How does he appear to feel about it privately, to himself, and how much scope do his private sentiments have with him?

4. In Act 1, Scene 1, what is the political situation in Rome? What claims do Saturninus and Bassianus respectively make to succeed their departed father the emperor? What clues does the text offer about the character of these two young men?

5. In Act 1, Scene 1, how does Titus handle the authority given to him by the people and leading politicians, including his brother, the Tribune Marcus Andronicus? In particular, what is Titus’ rationale for lending his voice to Saturninus and ignoring Bassianus?

6. In Act 1, Scene 1, the newly elevated Saturninus chooses Titus’ daughter Lavinia as empress, but is promptly love-struck by the alluring Tamora. How does Titus take the offer of his daughter being raised to empress, and how does he handle the rebellion this prospect sparks on the part of Bassianus, Lavinia, and his own sons? Who is in the right here, and why?

7. In Act 1, Scene 1, what does Tamora (newly made empress) understand about Roman ethics and politics that Titus doesn’t (at least until later)? Explain how she asserts her authority over Saturninus and begins to take control of the situation in Rome by manipulating that nation’s codes of language and conduct.


8. In Act 2, Scene 1, how does Tamora’s long-time lover, Aaron the Moor, see his situation now that Tamora has become Empress of Rome? How does he deal with the argument between her sons Chiron and Demetrius over their desire for Lavinia — what advice does he offer them, and what is his purpose in advising them as he does?

9. In Act 2, Scene 3, how does Aaron’s stratagem play out? In what ways do Chiron, Demetrius, Tamora and Aaron heap injury upon injury on the Andronici in this scene? In particular, how does Tamora respond to Lavinia’s pleas to kill her instead of ravishing her?

10. In Act 2, Scene 4, characterize Marcus Andronicus’ response when he lights upon the ravished and mutilated Lavinia: what classical allusions come to him when he sees her in distress, and what use does he make of them? How does he connect the dreadful scene in front of him with what has so far occurred in the play, and what does he think it necessary to do?


11. In Act 3, Scene 1, Titus is confronted with two shocks: the impending execution of two sons, and the sight of his mutilated daughter Lavinia, brought to her by his brother Marcus. How does he understand Rome now? To what extent is the representation of Titus’ suffering at this point designed to elicit pity? What in the representation might be said to work against pity?

12. In Act 3, Scene 1, what deception does Aaron practice against Titus, and on what basis is he able to get away with it — that is, why, with respect to Titus’ outlook and sensibilities, is Aaron’s stratagem so successful? In addition, what does Aaron reveal about his motivation for behaving as he has so far in the play — what are his allegiances and desires?

13. In Act 3, Scene 2, the remaining Andronici in Rome gather for a banquet. What do Titus’ reactions and words reveal about his mindset at this point? Is he distracted, as Marcus thinks, or would his mental state be best described otherwise? What is discussed at the banquet, and what elements of the scene inject comedy into an unbearable situation?


14. In Act 4, Scene 1, by what means does Lavinia reveal what has been done to her? How does Ovid’s book The Metamorphoses figure in her successful implication of Chiron and Demetrius? What lesson does Titus himself derive from Lavinia’s tale, beyond the obvious one that Tamora’s sons are the guilty parties?

15. In Act 4, Scene 2, Titus has his message delivered to Chiron and Demetrius, and news arrives that Tamora has given birth to a child by Aaron. How does Aaron handle this dangerous situation? What new dimension of himself do his words and actions regarding this event and its significance reveal?

16. In Act 4, Scene 3, how does Titus advance his designs on the Emperor? To what extent, if at all (as asked in a previous question), does he appear to be unbalanced? What is the point of having his supporters shoot “messaged” arrows in the direction of Saturninus?

17. In Act 4, Scene 4, how do Saturninus and Tamora, respectively, react to Titus’ threatening gesture against them from the previous scene, in which he ordered message-laded arrows shot in the Emperor’s direction? What errors beset their thinking with regard to Titus’ mental state and motives?


18. In Act 5, Scene 1, Aaron is captured by Lucius’ army while trying to escape from Roman territory with his child. From lines 124-44, Aaron utters one of the purest declarations of villainy in English drama: what opposition do his words constitute against Roman ethics, or indeed any kind of morality at all?

19. In Act 5, Scene 2, Tamora and sons show up at Titus’ place dressed as Revenge, Murder, and Rapine. What does Tamora apparently think she is accomplishing by this performance? How does Titus fool them all, and what does he do to Chiron and Demetrius? How does he explain his course of action to them as he kills them?

20. In Act 5, Scene 3, Titus ends Lavinia’s suffering and feeds Tamora and Saturninus “Chiron and Demetrius pie.” First, how does Titus justify his killing of Lavinia? And with regard to the dinner scene, why, after all that has happened thus far and based on the Ovidian source from which Shakespeare has drawn, is this cannibalistic catastrophe the most appropriate one?

21. In Act 5, Scene 3, what punishment does Lucius (newly proclaimed emperor) decree for Aaron? Why is that punishment a suitable revenge for what Aaron has done? Also, to what extent does Lucius’ heaping of blame on Aaron for what has happened seem adequate as an explanation for the tragic events that have occurred? Explain.

22. General question: why are there so many references to body parts in this play that they begin calling attention to themselves as such? What theme is Shakespeare exploring — or what goal is he achieving — when he makes his characters refer so clumsily, and so frequently, to the body parts they or others have lost: tongues, hands, heads, etc.?

23. General question: is Titus Andronicus a straightforward revenge tragedy, a parody or send-up of revenge tragedy, or something in between? In other words, do you think the play is meant to be taken seriously as tragedy? Or do you find its chief value in the realm of jest, spectacle, and mockery? Explain.

24. General question: if you have seen Julie Taymor’s film Titus (2000), how does it explore the play’s conflicts between Romans, Goths, and Aaron the Moor? How might the film be said to enhance our understanding of the play? What does the “neo-fascist” setting (and perhaps other decisions Taymor makes) add to the text?

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