‘RICHARD: Vouchsafe to wear this ring.
ANNE: To take is not to give.’ (RIII, I.ii)
PTS read-through: The Merchant of Venice, Act V
Occasionally, actually quite often if you’re me, you say things in class which get far more of a reaction than you anticipated. One of those moments came recently, when I suggested that an engagement ring was a symbol of ownership, not so different from a brand on a cow, if you thought about it.
‘Silence invaded the room’, as Steinbeck might have said.
The students were either reappraising their world-views, or they were reappraising me. It’s never easy to tell which.
On a lengthy car journey with my Dearest Partner of Greatness, we discussed this, and went further. ‘What’s in it for the woman,’ I asked, ‘apart from bragging rights about the size of the fish they’ve netted (or the size of carat they’ve dug up, to mix my metaphors)?’
‘Well, if society is set up so that women consider themselves as objects to be owned, they get the validation of feeling owned; proof that someone considers them worth owning.’ Time for ME to fall silent. What a cynical couple we are. She’s not the marrying kind, as you may have guessed.
We talked a bit more about why men don’t receive engagement rings and why many don’t want to wear wedding rings, either, and that was all pretty jaundiced stuff too. Finally, I steered us on to the final act of The Merchant of Venice: where I was aiming all along. You have to take a route with people who don’t like the plays. That said, she is easily intelligent enough to see through me every time, so on this occasion perhaps she just preferred chatting to enduring my snoring all the way to South Wales.
Of course, in the play the rings WERE given by the women to their men, almost like the tokens noble ladies gave to their knights errant as they went off to slay a dragon. Which some might say was actually their mission. Again, I suppose there are bragging rights to a lady’s favour, not least the notion that someone is waiting for you at home, that you are playing Ulysses to some proto-Penelope. That someone is prepared to remain chaste for you. All the more reason not to lose them, then. Or give them away: right, lads?
Whilst I’m thinking about it, we shouldn’t forget that there are three rings in the play. Shylock’s came to him from a woman too, in what looks like similar romantic circumstances. In this case, let’s not forget Jessica stole it from him and traded it … for a monkey. I’m still angry on Shylock’s behalf.
But in Act V it’s Bassanio and Gratiano who are made to look like monkeys.
Jessica seems ill at ease as the act begins. She accuses her new husband of:
Stealing her soul with many vows of faith
And ne’er a true one.
Ouch. Even in the banter of that exchange this feels regretful. Has she married in haste, only to repent at leisure? Couple it with:
‘’I am never merry when I hear sweet music.’
When her husband speaks so beautifully about the music of the spheres. Remarkably, this is her final line in the play. No happy ending for her, I fear.
The world and his (melancholy) wife will tell you to ‘watch the play, don’t read it’, but this is one of those occasions where an interesting frisson is too easily missed. The dramatic irony of the rings’ whereabouts and the recent actions of Portia and Nerissa should provide plenty of laughs. The trouble is, reading and thinking at a much slower pace than watching, I’m still dwelling on the wrongs done to Shylock. He’s like Twelfth Night’s Malvolio with the volume turned up to 11 – cruelly used, ‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you’ takes the shine off the general celebrations. Because he deserves redress.
So this reread leaves me dissatisfied with the ending. The conventional messages of Shakespeare’s plays are muddied. If Antonio is in fact THE merchant of Venice, his story has been a highly unsatisfactory one. He receives a happy ending he really doesn’t deserve, with the miraculous resurrection of his ‘lost’ ships and therefore his fortune. No thought of a refund to Shylock, by the way. Antonio’s been a cipher in the play; a wearing, melancholy and unpleasant one; other than belonging to their club, I have struggled to see how he inspires loyalty and sacrifice in others. At least he doesn’t get a wedding out of it …
And the married couples?
Jessica strikes me as a rare and delicate plant, uprooted and relocated away from the soil and sunshine she requires. The play’s ending suggests that she is beginning to wilt already. I look at Portia and Nerissa and see two strong, intelligent and capable women defy expectations and win a battle over their men. So far, so Shakespearean comedy. But pillow promises have no currency in the male dominated world of Venice, and despite veiled threats against future foreswearing, these are wars our women cannot win. The presence of Antonio on stage, and the extravagant extrapolation of his earlier guarantee, this time pledging not a pound of his flesh but his soul, demonstrates how the bonds between men will always supersede those between husband and wife.
Two unusually bleak morals emerge from the story:
Firstly, life isn’t fair.
Secondly, you need to remember that, if you are a woman, that as Balthasar sings in Much Ado About Nothing:
‘Men were deceivers ever.’
Even – perhaps especially – the ones you love?
All play quotations were taken from http://www.opensourceshakespeare.org