Genre and Geometry in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice
By Clifford Stetner
This paper will offer a reading of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice as an allegory in which the Anglicans of the Reformation—figured by the Venetian Christians—are represented as inheritors of a state of grace forfeited by the Roman Church—figured by Shylock. While Barbara Lewalski has interpreted the allegory of the “New Dispensation” in the play in terms of forced conversion of Jews to Christianity (242), a more pressing concern for Shakespeare’s audience was the claim of the English Church—under a monarch excommunicated by the Roman Church—to having received the authority of Christ (forfeited by its Roman delegate) to make doctrine and bestow absolution. This paper argues that any discourse on English anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice is staged only in the context of an allegorical claim to divine authority for Elizabethan Anglicanism vis-à-vis the Roman Catholic Church. I will further argue that through the manipulation of its circular structures, the ring bond subplot participates in the play’s undermining of its own ideal comic resolution.
By interweaving a group of medieval folk tales—the pound of flesh, the casket trial, and the parable of the three rings—The Merchant of Venice allegorizes a “myth of origins” for the New Anglican Dispensation. The parable of the three rings, although not an acknowledged source of The Merchant of Venice often appears in collections near the casket trial tale and is easily recognized as an analogue of it: a father, symbolizing God, bequeaths his three sons each a ring symbolizing Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but declines to say which is the authentic ring:
And after their father's death, each of them claimed the honour and the inheritance, and each denied it to the others; and to prove that they were acting rightly, each one brought forth his own ring. And the rings were found to be so much alike that no one could tell which was the true one, so the question as to which was the father's real heir remained unsettled and is not settled yet.
This roughly is how Boccaccio puts it, and Masuccio’s Novellino draws roughly the same moral. the Gesta Romanorum—where it appears with the similarly explicit theological allegory of the casket trial (in which Portia is explicitly Christ and the female suitor the true church)—is more partisan. The true ring cures the sick showing that “the knight is Christ. The three sons are the Jews, Saracens, and Christians. The most valuable ring is faith, which is the property of the younger, that is, of the Christians.”
Most people notice the two rings of the ring bond in the final act of The Merchant of Venice, but if you read the play carefully, you see that the rings are like the marriages that resolve the conventional comedy. There are two ideal weddings in Belmont: Bassanio marries Portia, and Gratiano marries her maid Nerissa. The play, however, actually involves three marriages, as Lorenzo also elopes with Jessica. Because the play is full of triples, as the three caskets, the three suitors, three appeals to Shylock in the trial scene followed by three punishments, and probably more, but the triple wedding is lopsided, and because the weddings of the romantic protagonists creates the resolution in all comedies including all of Shakespeare's, the Merchant of Venice is a problem comedy.
Even by Elizabethan standards, Lorenzo and Jessica's elopement is not socially acceptable. A very similar episode occurs in Marlowe's Jew of Malta, another play whose antisemitism is taken for granted, and the Christian suitors are villains up to no good whom the daughter helps the father cheat. The same kind of lopsided triple reveals the meaning of the ring bond. Shylock says that his lost ring which-Tubal tells him-Jessica and Lorenzo traded for a monkey on their wild spending spree around Italy after the elopement-was given to him by "Leah" when he was a bachelor, as the two rings were given to Bassanio and Gratiano by their new wives. He says that he would not have traded it for a whole wilderness of monkeys and it is the one loss of his goods that really hurts him.
Why does Shakespeare include this detail? It says, even more explicitly than the famous soliloquy, that the Jew is not a stereotypical greedy usurious devil who would only care about the monetary value of the monkey Jessica got for the ring. Shylock's distraction is represented as wandering the streets crying about "my ducats, my daughter, my ducats, my daughter, married a Christian, oh my Christian daughter, oh my Christian ducats" or something like that, as though he cares no more for one than the other, a major part of his stereotypical Jewish greed, but Shakespeare does not have Shylock speak these lines; the anti-Semitic portrait is only the hearsay of Christians who are shown to be consistently bigoted against him. They include Tubal in their demonization of the "tribe," who can be played as a perfectly rational good man. During this scene, Shylock wishes Jessica were dead and lying at his feet with his chest of treasure, and Tubal responds to his self-pity by remarking that other men, including the Christian Antonio, have ill luck too. Depending on the director, this can be Jewish malice, as it becomes for Shylock, or an admonition to Shylock for thinking all the world's sorrows lie on his shoulders alone which would make Tubal seem more moral than the bigoted Christians: profligate revelers living off of Antonio's generosity whose motives are also questionable.
All in all, I think it looks like any father's nightmare, and I can't believe the fathers in the audience don't empathize with Shylock's emotional outburst. Is it any worse than King Lear's towards his daughters? I suspect that the forest of monkeys is Shylock's nightmare of a tribe of degenerate Italian Christian grandchildren from a daughter he had expected to marry a rabbi, just as an Elizabethan might think, if his daughter eloped with an Irishman. He looks like a widower who is overzealous in trying to protect his daughter from a town full of gigolos in which his claims of persecution and abuse are acknowledged by the Christians.
Jessica says the house she is cooped up in is like hell, and the anti-Semitic view of the play makes this charge credible and justifies her elopement and robbery, but many adolescent girls say the same thing about their fathers, when they are not allowed to go to parties, and Shakespeare gives no independent confirmation of her or of his servant Launcelot's complaints. Again, any father who has yelled at his daughter for sticking her head out of the window during festivals must have squirmed at the situation, and any successful capitalist would have been familiar with servants who do nothing but eat and sleep all day and still complain that they're being starved by the "devil incarnal."
Here also Tubal tells Shylock that Antonio's ships have had some bad luck on the seas, and it's the first time Shylock displays relish at the idea that Antonio might forfeit his bond, and Shylock will be able to kill him. In an anti-Semitic play, the author would not mitigate Shylock's blood lust for Christians by putting it into the context of his grief over the sentimental value of (probably) his lost wife's ring and the collapse of his paternal hopes. He unambiguously would make Tubal another stereotypical Jew, complicit with Shylock's anti-Christian plots. As it is, we end up only with Jessica's report that Shylock did not mean it when he said the interest free loan to Antonio was intended to make peace with the Christian who had always spurned and spat upon him.
The presumption that Shylock's offer is intended as a trap from the beginning depends on taking for granted the anti-Semitic conventions that the play pretends to represent. If Shylock's desire for revenge comes out of these heartbreaking and perhaps unjust losses, they are no worse than Hamlet's. Iago's malice was given no such mitigating motive. Then why give it to Shylock? Whether you think arguments against the play's anti-Semitism are modern anachronisms or not, I don't think it is an accident of history that this debate has so dominated the history of criticism of the play. It's not a question of whether the play is or is not anti-Semitic, but rather, the play places the two readings in an irresolvable opposition to each other and an unambiguous anti-Semitic reading relies on a strong prejudice about the literary genre which is analogous to racial prejudice.
Leah's lost ring, then, symbolizes the human vs. the demonized Shylock and is part of the ring bond subplot insofar as the happiness of the man depends on never losing possession of the ring. In the end, Bassanio and Gratiano recover their lost rings, but Shylock never does. His third ring bond is therefore like the lopsided third wedding which problematizes the play's conventional comic resolution. It also points to the allegorical subtext of the play. In my analysis, I have to defend an allegorical reading of the play, but simply stated, the three caskets is taken from a number of medieval allegories whose subtexts are explicitly religious. In one version, a prospective bride has to choose from three caskets in order to marry an emperor, and the writer tells us it represents the true church choosing the true marriage with Christ.
Shakespeare's choice of this tale points to his allegorical intention. Likewise, there is a parable of three rings which turns up in the same sources as the three caskets tale, in which the rings represent Judaism, Islam, and Christianity (it's also one of the first tales in Boccaccio's Decameron). As I've said before, the issue for Shakespeare's audience was more about Catholics and Protestants than Christians and Jews, but suffice it to say that the play's choice of source tales references allegories of theological dispute between the religions of the book. The suitors that proceed Bassanio are a Moroccan Moslem and a Spanish Catholic, and the inscriptions on the caskets reflect rival theological doctrines. The introduction of a three ring parable into an allegory that centers around the three casket tale therefore also suggests a theological subtext to Shakespeare's ring bond.
The point of the ring episode is that Bassanio and Gratiano have, by the strict letter of the law, forfeited their nuptial rights. But as with Portia's arguments against Shylock, this legal forfeiture is recovered by adherence to the spirit, rather than the letter, of the bond, which must include mercy and which is emphasized by the fact that Bassanio and Gratiano gave away the rings in a spirit of Christian gratitude to those to whom they, in fact, really belonged. This principle is reflected in Launcelot's flight from a master who, unbeknownst to him, had already sold him to the master he runs to. That is, no actual bond breaking has taken place, despite the letter of the law, and the sin is forgiven, but under the condition of future fidelity. It thereby serves in a manner to allegorize the ideal of Christian holy matrimony symbolized in the wedding ring.
My dissertation is concerned, however, with the play's repetition of the breaking and mending of legal bonds, which references the apostasy of the early Christians and associates its punishment with the crucifixion of Christ by the Pharisees, but primarily evokes the events of the English Reformation which began with a divorce, followed by an excommunication: the breaking of a thousand year old bond to the Roman Church and a period of spiritual jeopardy necessary to arrive at the Belmont of the new dispensation and New Jerusalem of Anglican Protestantism under Elizabeth. The breaking of the ring bond and the conditions of its forgiveness are necessary to forge a more ideal marriage union, as the breaking of the bond to Rome is necessary to forge a more ideal marriage of Church to Christ. Had Bassanio and Gratiano chosen the letter of the ring bond over the spirit of Christian principles, they would be unworthy of their wives and of the salvation of Belmont.
The breaking of the neat triple ring tale by Shylock's irrecoverable loss, while comic to an anti-Semitic audience, prevents the anti-Semitic reading of the play from becoming comically resolved according to dramatic convention and forces a confrontation between what now seems to many the "original" anti-Semitic reading from the "modern" revised version as a critique of anti-Semitism, but which were really both opposed facets of the original play.
Too little attention, therefore, has been paid to the religions of the three suitors to Portia in interpreting the outcome of Shakespeare’s version of the contest. The Merchant of Venice makes the disputants Moslem, Spanish Catholic, and “Christian.” Although he has effaced the explicit theology of the sources, Shakespeare thus applies allegory as a strategy of mythopoetic containment to the theology of the Reformation that he simultaneously had been constructing politically and metonymically in the history tetralogies.
In addition to its analogy with the three caskets tale, the three rings tale also is referenced by the ring bonds, whose resolution in Act V purport to close the comedy neatly and conventionally within the regenerative union of marriage, symbolized in the flawlessness of the circle. In its reference to the Gesta tale, the three rings subplot of The Merchant of Venice confirms the theological theme implicit in the choice of sources and their interplay of metaphors. It also, however, confirms the identification of The Merchant of Venice as a “problem play,” which undermines the comic resolution it has led us to expect.
In describing the way that historical sensibility was invented among the civilized and civilizing peoples of the Ancient Near East, Mircea Eliade makes use of the geometrical circle vis-à-vis straight line to distinguish the old way of experiencing the passage of time from the new “historical” experience:
“… [F]or the first time,” he says, “the [Hebrew] prophets placed a value on history, succeeded in transcending the traditional vision of the cycle (the conception that ensures all things will be repeated forever), and discovered a one-way time” (104).
Oscar Cullmann similarly claims that “...the symbol of time for Primitive Christianity as well as for Biblical Judaism and the Iranian religion is the upward sloping line, while in Hellenism it is the circle” (51).
The idea of the circularity/linearity of time among premodern cultures is referred to by a number of other thinkers both ancient and modern including Aristotle and Augustine as well as Reinhold Niebuhr and, in his way, Nietzsche. Niebuhr, for instance, says “efforts to comprehend history ontologically have been many,” but that in “the history of Western civilization “…they all fall into two primary categories: (A) the classical idea of the historical cycle and (B) the modern idea of historical development.”
As opposed to Eliade and Cullmann—who put the emergence of the antithesis, whether diachronic between historical eras, or synchronic between cultures in the Ancient Near East—Niebuhr claims that “this modern idea” of history as development rather than cycle “has been elaborated [in the West, only] since the Renaissance.”
There is a similar dispute concerning the geometry of literary forms. David Kastan in Shakespeare and the Shapes of Time claims that:
…the significant shape of the drama [is found] in its beginning and end (in much the same way as we discover the significant shape of Christian history in its beginning and end, the alpha and the omega)… The consuming rhythms of tragedy close off the action with terrible decisiveness and finality; the inclusive action of comedy opens out with the promise of renewal and continuity. (9)
This closedness of tragedy and openness of comedy seem respectively to evoke circular and linear “shapes of time,” but I rather sympathize with the view (expressed by Tom Driver in The Sense of History in Greek and Shakespearean Drama) that it is containment and circularity of structure that makes both Greek and Elizabethan drama comic, as the circularity of time itself among ancient peoples according to Eliade was an active defense against a linear and therefore tragic historicity.
The premise of my dissertation currently in process is that a discourse involving the geometry (for lack of a better word) of the temporalized and historicized phenomenological field was fundamental to whatever constituted the intertextual space of the Elizabethan public theater, and I’m using Shakespeare’s Phoenix and Turtle and Loves Martyr to show the collaborative nature of the discourse.
Heidegger claims that: “…the history of the discovery of time, is the history of the question of the being of entities,” and Ricardo Quinones in The Renaissance Discovery of Time identifies a quantum shift in the representation of time as the distinguishing feature of the literature of both Shakespeare and Rabelais. All of the foregoing is to say that I’m treating the discourse of temporality and historicity in Elizabethan drama, especially in its manifestation as forms of genre, not as an historically detached aesthetic question, but as a reflection of (and a primary medium of) what are widely acknowledged to be foundational processes in the evolution of cultural consciousness.
It’s always risky to claim that any of Shakespeare’s work is allegorical. In the absence of a Dantesque Convivio, explaining the subtexts, allegory is a matter of interpretation of irrecoverable authorial intention. The strongest argument I can make for allegory in The Merchant of Venice (besides the many allegorical readings that have been done) is that the folk tales of which it is largely composed are patent allegories, which did come with explications, a fact that hardly could have escaped Shakespeare.
Stylometric and Bibliographical studies, like their philological precedents tend to evade questions of connotation as unscientific and “mere guessing,” but it’s, of course, impossible to approach language devoid of connotation (or anything else for that matter) and while I suppose, it’s possible that the playwright chose the allegory of the three caskets merely for its dramatic effect without reference to its aspect as a double narrative with a theological subtext, erroneously to efface a carefully composed allegory because it can never be established as intentional restricts us to the literal level of the text which, in allegory, is constrained by its deeper meanings to superficiality and insignificance.
Whenever I feel that there is a subtext I am missing in a Shakespeare play, I am always drawn to what the clown says, especially when he’s being most apparently nonsensical. Like Polonius with Hamlet, I am always sure that there is matter somewhere in their madness, and if so, it is the place where the playwright hides what he declines to say directly. In The Merchant of Venice, the clown is one of the very few actually “funny” things about the comedy. Some argue that Elizabethan humor is strange to modern ears, but the humor in comedies like Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew, like Launcelot’s slapstick routine with Old Gobbo is not strange at all. What is strange in Shakespeare’s clowns is how carefully composed is their ostensible gibberish, often iambic blank verse. While explicating Launcelot’s nonsense is not within the focus of this paper, I do want to emphasize the centrality of his character to unifying themes of the play. Launcelot says:
Certainly my conscience will serve me to run from this Jew my master. The fiend is at mine elbow and tempts me saying to me … use your legs, take the start, run away. …to be ruled by my conscience, I should stay with the Jew my master, who, God bless the mark, is a kind of devil; and, to run away from the Jew, I should be ruled by the fiend, who, saving your reverence, is the devil himself. Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnal; and, in my conscience, my conscience is but a kind of hard conscience, to offer to counsel me to stay with the Jew. … I will run, fiend; my heels are at your command; I will run. [Enter Old GOBBO, with a basket]
If this is not exactly Lancelot Andrews on the right to break with mother Church despite untuning the string of order in the great chain of being and breaking a bond forged by God almighty, to be suffered as a scourge, not challenged and fled from, it is a convincing rendition of the thought patterns of the illiterate proletariat faced with the spiritual jeopardy entailed in schism.
Launcelot’s tale is grim. Though we are tempted, for comic relief, to take his equations of Shylock with the devil as farcical hyperbole, we are expected to take the pound of flesh bond quite seriously. Shylock is not an Autolycus content with merely fleecing his victims, but a devil incarnal who supplies most, but not all, of the play’s oppressive danger. Launcelot’s dilemma is archetypically “damned if I do; damned if I don’t” i.e. run from service to the devil i.e. Shylock.
God only asks that we serve our masters and patiently wait our reward and leave judgment to His infinite wisdom. But He also forbids us to serve the devil. But not only is Launcelot “providentially” prevented from damning himself in breaking his master/servant bond to Shylock by being stumbled into by his blind father with a tray of doves for master Jew, but we discover, offhandedly that he had already been sold to the master he intended to run to when he decided to run.
Whether such an offense would be damnable is another question for Lancelot Andrews. As the soldier Williams concludes in Henry V, if the cause be not just, the souls of those who serve are on the head of their master. In the same way that Williams’s, Bates, and Court’s souls are argued to be at stake in the justness of Henry’s chosen cause, Launcelot’s, Jessica’s and Lorenzo’s, Gratiano’s, and Antonio’s fate all depend on Bassanio’s choice of caskets, as do Portia’s, Nerissa’s, and ultimately Shylock’s. That this jeopardy is a metaphor is demonstrated as plainly as anyone has a right to expect by the fantastical nature of the casket trial itself. Naturalize as he will, Shakespeare has not placed Belmont in fairyland, and even in the absence of the sources, the episode is clearly a fairy tale.
That the choice made by Bassanio is of the true religion from among its rivals is made clear first by his rivals in the trial, but second, I am arguing, in the ring bond episode at the close of the play.
The ring bond is presented as one of the play’s many doubles: the bond imposed by the disguised Portia after releasing Antonio from the debt to Shylock is imitated by the disguised Nerissa on Gratiano. It is also however part of one of the play’s many triples in that three rings have been given to three young husbands by three brides: the third being the ring given by Leah to Shylock; although he was a bachelor and she is not identified as his wife, the affinities with the triple plot outweigh the distinction of Shylock as odd man out.
The ring bond of Portia and Nerissa has affinities also with the escape of Launcelot from his bond to Shylock. As we discover that by running to whom he had already been sold, Launcelot was committing no sin in fact, by giving away the rings to their disguised donors, Bassanio and Gratiano have similarly committed no sin in fact. In the former case, however, we are even shown that Launcelot had resolved to commit a sin of intention, but was prevented by apparent accident from executing it, although, after Launcelot’s monologue, we are not certain that fleeing from an evil master constitutes a sin. It is clear, however, that the fate of the soul and the issue of broken bonds shows the very age and body of the Protestant Reformation its form and pressure.