PTS read-through: The Merchant of Venice, Act II
‘Watch the plays, don’t read them!’
Advice given so often to people who say they ‘don’t get’ Shakespeare – advice I almost always disregard, much preferring the film running in my head as I read. But there’s one time when I find reading difficult, and that’s the multi-scene act. It distracted me last time I read The Merchant of Venice, and it has done this time, too. Just don’t speak to me about Antony and Cleopatra‘s 42 scenes …
And yet, for all that there are nine scenes in Act II, there are only really two plots.
We’ll begin with those casks, shall we?
GOLD: ‘Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.’
In so many ways this is a play about money. Obvious, you might say, but that often gets lost in the debate about its attitude towards Shylock. Try to look at the various suitors with an Elizabethan eye: in an age without photography or instantaneous world-wide communication, Portia’s physical attractions amount to nothing more than hearsay; her fortune and position, more easily provable based on her ancestry, must have been the flame that drew suitors like moths from across the globe. There’s something almost ‘imperial’, about the notion of crossing the seas to conquer virgin territory and return loaded with riches, just as our merchants’ vessels are doing …
SILVER: ‘Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.‘
If the first casket appeals to greed, then the second appeals to ego. Arragon chooses it because he believes he is above the run of the ‘many’. I chatted to my ‘dearest partner of greatness‘ about this: she thinks (probably correctly) that this is the one I would choose now, having graduated – or just aged – from almost certainly picking gold at the time I met her. She’s probably got a point, sadly.
LEAD: ‘Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.’
One for the true gambler, perhaps. And, sigh, for the aforementioned Lady Macbeth, who swears she didn’t already know the answer, but is now looking primly smug, sat beside me. Here I’m reminded of Kipling‘s exceedingly good poem, ‘If’:
If you can make one heap of all your winningsAnd risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,And lose, and start again at your beginningsAnd never breathe a word about your loss [c]
I’m also reminded of the great Elizabethan heroes, people like Drake, who ventured everything on risky exploits. I’ll want, at some stage, to return and measure our merchants against Kipling’s definition.
Then, to the suitors. Actually, I want to focus on just one of them, with his ‘outsider’ status that links him to Shylock and other Shakespearean There’s a pride, verging on arrogance, but a nobility about Morocco that reminds me of Austen‘s Mr Darcy:
“Yes, vanity is a weakness indeed. But pride — where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation.” [a]
And so I tend to look a little more favourably, or at least neutrally, at lines like:
By this scimitar
That slew the Sophy and a Persian prince
That won three fields of Sultan Solyman,
I would outstare the sternest eyes that look,
Outbrave the heart most daring on the earth,
Pluck the young sucking cubs from the she-bear,
Yea, mock the lion when he roars for prey,
To win thee, lady. [b]
We have excused that type of braggadocio from other characters before. Example? Duke Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And we’ll see it again, in Othello.
IAGO: You were best go in.
OTHELLO: I must be found:
My parts, my title and my perfect soul
Shall manifest me rightly.
I allow Morocco’s confidence because like Shylock, he has to confront prejudice, and this line is surely a forerunner of Shylock’s famous speech later on.
‘Bring me the fairest creature northward born […]
let us make incision for your love,
To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine.’ (II.i.4,6-7) [b]
The comparison is slightly different, in that the superlative ‘reddest’ is describing bravery, but it fired some synapses in my skull at the end of a long day. Not least because ‘complexion’, with its double connotations of mood and skin colour, bookends these scenes: Morocco pleads not to be ‘misliked’ for it, and Portia dismisses all who have it.
So much for him.
By the end of the act, poor Shylock will be playing a different type of ‘find the lady’ game altogether …
In fact, his entire household is melting away. I looked for a good reason for Launcelot’s defection, and could only find his hunger, presumably for the kind of flesh his master won’t eat:
My master’s a very Jew […] I am famished in
his service; you may tell every finger I have with
It’s a bit like getting divorced because your partner has embraced veganism. Always looking for hints that Shylock is a good man, I noted that he had allowed Launcelot to leave and seems to have given him a decent reference:
Shylock thy master spoke with me this day,
And hath preferr’d thee
Thus escapes one member of the household. Jessica is similarly keen to leave, telling the servant:
Our house is hell, and thou, a merry devil,
Didst rob it of some taste of tediousness.
Whilst I note the recurrent religious motifs (Launcelot calls his master a kind of devil, too), which rebellious teenage girl, or indeed which teenager, full stop, eager to leave the restrictions of the family home, hasn’t described their home in these sorts of terms?
One thing I think both servant and mistress share is a sense that what they are doing is wrong. Launcelot’s conscience urges loyalty, and Jessica muses:
Alack, what heinous sin is it in me
To be ashamed to be my father’s child!
But though I am a daughter to his blood,
I am not to his manners.
‘Manners’ could refer to two things here, of course: his personality, or his religion. Actually, I’m with Shylock on his scathing description of masques:
Clamber not you up to the casements then,
Nor thrust your head into the public street
To gaze on Christian fools with varnish’d faces,
But stop my house’s ears, I mean my casements:
Let not the sound of shallow foppery enter
My sober house.
Whilst I try not to assume insight into Shakespeare’s opinions, I harbour a suspicion that he hated them, and that feeling obliged to write one into The Tempest, he decided enough was enough, and hung up his quill in a sulk!
Either way, our moneylender discovers his double loss. To add insult to injury, it then seems he is roundly mocked in his distress, as he too attempts to find the lady:
SALARINO: Why, all the boys in Venice follow him,
Crying, his stones, his daughter, and his ducats.
SALANIO: Let good Antonio look he keep his day,
Or he shall pay for this. […]
SALARINO: A kinder gentleman treads not the earth.
These two lads finish their scene reminding us of the impossible bet, foreshadowing Shylock’s desire for revenge, and reflecting on the perils of commerce which have recently seen a ship founder in the English Channel.
And I am still left waiting for some reason for Shylock to have deserved these desertions …
[a] Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice, quotation taken from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/198968-yes-vanity-is-a-weakness-indeed-but-pride—where
[b] all Shakespeare quotations taken from http://www.opensourceshakespeare.org
[c] Rudyard Kipling, ‘If’ (1910), taken from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46473/if—