… sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child! (Lear: I.iv) [a]
PTS read-through: The Merchant of Venice, Act III
Daughters. Who’d have them?
You dry their tears, usually as your dinner grows cold. You dab their grazed knees, incidentally making your fingers reek of disinfectant for days afterwards. You sit precariously on a child’s chair at interminable tea parties with toys for company and conversation. You applaud their clumsy attempts at ballet, thinking about the cup match you could be watching (and it always turns out to have been a classic). You allow them to ‘style’ your hair, and then have the humiliating results posted on social media because you look ‘cute’. The list is endless. You love them unconditionally …
And how do they repay you?
By running off with the first flashy chancer who gives them the eye, that’s how! * Yes, the lot of a Shakespearean father, across any number of the plays, is an unhappy one.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that Jessica, who in Act II complained:
‘What, must I hold a candle to my shames?’ (II.vi.42) [b]
seems to have decided that if she’s going to disgrace herself, she may as well do it in style. Absconding with her father’s fortune is bad enough, but her profligate spending would try any man:
‘Thou stick’st a dagger in me; I shall never see my gold again. Fourscore ducats at a sitting? Fourscore ducats!’ (III.i.100-101)
That’s one hell of a hen-do (bachelorette party) …
And the monkey. Oh, the monkey. To swap her father’s ring, impliedly given to him by his wife when they were courting … for an exotic pet. Why couldn’t she put down a deposit on a house, like a sensible daughter might? That might be understood, if not condoned.
So, it’s a (relatively) good thing that as the world drops out of his bottom, Shylock learns that he’s not the only one having an interesting time …
‘other men have ill luck too’ (III.i.89)
Those interchangeable Salanio/Salarino boys are back, salaciously gossiping (in prose, I noticed) over the rumoured wrecking of one of Antonio’s ships. And the moneylender’s compatriot, Tubal, is sure that another vessel has foundered, so Antonio is ‘certainly undone‘. (III.i.112)
Shylock’s helplessness is amplified by his inability to locate, let alone confront, his daughter. So when fate seems to put a target in his way, he takes aim, letting go of what he can’t control in favour of his one available expression of power and agency. I’ve written elsewhere about how Shakespeare uses Shylock’s famous monologue to shift him from pathetic to predatory; from victim to vengeful; from nothing to nemesis. Our sympathy quickly evaporates, replaced by the unease that despite the earlier contract between them, Shylock’s intentions for Antonio are the kind of ‘wild justice‘ that ‘putteth out the law‘, which Francis Bacon warns us against. [c]
Stop a minute and check that unease. Was the contract acceptable when there appeared to be no prospect of Antonio failing?
Let’s continue …
Elsewhere, I suppose I should be fair to Portia and acknowledge that she continues to implement ‘the will of the father‘, however inconvenient it is to her, personally. But, much like our beleaguered Prime Minister, she tries to ‘kick the can down the road’ (to employ the phrase du jour) by securing a pointless extension before any real decisions are taken. As I write, Brexit has infected everything in British discourse: apologies.
But Bassanio (and in this he’s a typically impetuous, impatient Shakespearean swain) simply wants to get on with it. Better to go crashing out with no-deal than extend and see if he can work things out to his advantage. Oops – there I go Brexiting again. My copy has Portia’s speech structured as a number of halting simple sentences, the pentameter littered with caesura that symbolise, perhaps, the fluttering of her heart and the tormenting inner conflict of hope and despair. Actually, we might reflect that the two daughters, foils to each other, have both had to choose between filial duty and happiness. We all, probably, know that Bassanio chooses well, eschewing the visual temptations of the gold and silver caskets. Thus, Portia is rewarded for her daughterly conduct.
Only to give it all away. She doesn’t even buy herself a monkey!
Stage time is artificial time, of course, but in the blink of an eye (and in a monologue with a strong semantic field of riches), the independent Portia surrenders, I dare say to the howls of feminists everywhere:
Myself and what is mine to you and yours
Is now converted. But now I was the lord
Of this fair mansion, master of my servants,
Queen o’er myself; and even now, but now,
This house, these servants and this same myself
Are yours, my lord (III.ii.166-171)
And, for the ring that Jessica so needlessly tossed away, we have a second ring. This one, perhaps given in much the same circumstances that Shylock received his. At least Portia secures the usual ‘may God strike me down’ promise, which I usually call ‘begging for a thunderbolt’:
when this ring
Parts from this finger, then parts life from hence;
O, then be bold to say, ‘Bassanio’s dead!’ (III.ii.183-185)
My final thoughts in this scene return to the implacable Shylock, reduced to repeated monosyllabic insistence that ‘I will have my bond‘ in the face of what might be a dawning realisation that Antonio may well wriggle out of their bargain. Antonio mourns his impending death whilst Bassanio, for whom he has doomed himself, is suddenly as rich as Croesus. Jessica returns as a stand-in for Portia. She now has the heiress’s fortune to spend, which is just as well, given her earlier spree.
Oh, and there’s no sign of the poor monkey.
* (None of this is from personal experience, by the way – I only have sons)
[b] all references to the play are from William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice (Arden Third Edition, ed. John Drakakis), (Bloosmbury Arden: London, 2013
[c] Francis Bacon, ‘On Revenge’ sourced from Bartleby.com