The Merchant of Venice and The Second Tetralogy
By Clifford Stetner
Intro: The Comic Emplotment of History and the Ordering of the Tetralogies
The order of composition of Shakespeare’s history tetralogies develops the metonymic aspect of the comic emplotment of Tudor history with which the author was engaged metaphorically in his alternation between comedies and history plays prior to the Jacobean succession. With the entrance on stage of Henry VII, the first tetralogy brings the historical narrative to the onset of the reigning dynasty in the tradition of the Aeneid and of the Book of Kings in the Old Testament, but as we are so frequently reminded by authors of the period that “the end crowns all,” having inherited a formally tragic Richard III, the conclusion of the first tetralogy merely continues in the medieval tradition of representation of secular history as tragedy. A metonymic approach to comic emplotment requires the cycling back of the chronological narrative to culminate in its symbolic ideal, the unification of England and France (as well as of the English aristocracy and of the nations of Great Britain) in the hieros gamos of “the mirror of all Christian kings,” Henry V. The reading in the previous chapter of comedies such as The Taming of the Shrew as metaphoric resolution of the apparently tragic ambiguities of the history represented in the first tetralogy confirms the generic motivation for the reverse chronology of Shakespeare’s historical narrative. The hypothesis of comic emplotment of the dynastic historical narrative as the unifying principle in Shakespeare’s early dramatic production makes it likely that the two tetralogies were structural components in his initial project which could not have concluded in tragedy, a principle that we have seen also accounts for the mislabeling and consequent misplacement of Cymbeline at the conclusion of the First Folio. The composition of the linear chronology of the two tetralogies: from the fall of Richard II to the fall of Richard III—already conventional to Tudor literary and scientific historiography—instead as a temporal circle: from the funeral of Henry V that opens the first tetralogy to his wedding that closes the second, instead reinforces the subordination of chronicle history to the circular principle of comic renewal and regeneration. This pattern, furthermore, mimics that identified by myth/ritual studies in the oldest record of drama: the annual ritual performance of the death, resurrection, and divine marriage of the god of summer fertility from which a continuous tradition can be traced, especially on the level of genre, from Classical to Renaissance drama.
Owing to the nature of the history play genre as the mimesis of a non-fictional chronological progression, the Folio editors were obliged to restore the linear chronology in the arrangement of the Histories section, but they compensated for the consequent tragic emplotment of the author’s comic history by embedding their linear history narrative in the overarching circularity of the Folio outlined in the previous chapter. The Folio ordering, however, cannot conceal the greater sophistication of the second tetralogy in respect to the first, which inevitably generated more sophisticated means of comic emplotment.
Toward the close of the composition of the second tetralogy, moreover, Shakespeare had begun “contaminating” his historical narrative, not only as Mallin claims, in the history plays themselves, but in his problem comedies: plays which were far less concerned with stimulating carnival laughter than with the metaphoric treatment of sociopolitical ambiguities. Not only must Shakespeare’s knowledge of the deeply flawed historical record and its self-contradictions have immeasurably grown, but Mallin observes that the problematic nature of historical representation itself increasingly intrudes into the texts.
Finally, the looming political and cultural crises arising from the approaching succession began to engulf his aristocratic patronage, so that, paradoxically, as Shakespeare approached the concluding comic resolution of his history epic, its political premises in the present actualization of the Tudor dynastic myth radically deteriorated. The effect of this counterpoint on Shakespeare’s drama is more evident in the generic complications of the “problem plays” than in the resolution of the second tetralogy itself, which many critics continue to read as an enthusiastic panegyric. Shakespeare’s attitude towards Elizabeth’s reign at the outset of the second tetralogy remains obscure, Richard II being often cited in the context of the Essex rebellion, and much of it kept off the stage until 1607; apart from his personal position in regard to current sociopolitical issues, the comic emplotment of history nevertheless seems to remain the unifying theme of his epic project. During the composition of the second tetralogy this project follows three separate strategies: 1) the culmination of the tetralogy in the formally comic Henry V, 2) the comic subplot from 1Henry IV through Henry V, and 3) in contemporary comedies from A Midsummer Night's Dream to Much Ado About Nothing. This chapter will read Shakespeare’s first problem comedy, The Merchant of Venice, as an allegorical treatment of problematic issues arising from the dramatization of usurpation and regicide at the beginning of the second tetralogy.
While A Midsummer Night's Dream continues the strategy of containment of historical trauma within the terms of regenerative seasonal ritual identified above in The Taming of the Shrew, this chapter argues that Shakespeare’s next comedy, The Merchant of Venice, turns to the strategy of allegory to develop a comic emplotment of the Protestant Reformation. According to this reading, the principle of “fortunate fall” which Shakespeare adopted from the Tudor myth, defining the murder of Richard II as the providential means to the triumph of the Tudor dynasty, is used to define the problematic schism of Henry VIII with the Roman Catholic Church as the providential means to the New Dispensation of the Church of England. The theocratic aspect of the Tudor monarchy joined secular to sacred history which its historiographers were therefore obliged to emplot as comic. The traditional conception of history as the turning wheel of fickle Fortune, whose providential purpose was merely to emphasize the folly of earthly ambition, could not apply to a political state that claimed once and for all to have unified the secular and sacred in a “New Jerusalem.” While the Catholic Thomas More had given the history of Richard III its tragic emplotment, the Tudor Protestants worked to transform it into a tragicomic fortunate fall whose political premises were theocratic. The settings of the history plays, however, were restricted to a Catholic England, and, apart from the representation of King John as a prototype of rebellion against the Roman Church, the genre did not attempt directly to emplot the sacred aspect of the Tudor myth. The thesis of this chapter is that The Merchant of Venice co-opts the “fortunate fall” principle of the second tetralogy in a manner to encompass sacred history within the multiple strategies of comic emplotment in Shakespeare’s historical narrative.
In discussing the historical progression from the death of Richard II to the advent of Henry VII, the period represented in Shakespeare’s two tetralogies, Samuel Daniel claims that:
‘the deformities of Ciuile Dissension. . . followed (as in a Circle) vpon that breach of the due course of Succession by the vsurpation of Hen. 4: … thereby to make the blessings of Peace, and the happiness of an established Gouernment (in a direct line) the better to appeare’. The fall from the innocence of an unbroken line of rule by divine right is thus a fortunate fall that makes possible, in Daniel’s words, ‘the glorious Vnion of Hen. 7: from whence is descended our present Happinesse’. (Kastan 45)
As the previous chapter remarks regarding the conclusion of the first tetralogy, “our present happiness,” i.e. the glorious summer of Elizabethan England, could not be the subject of history plays which conclude, like epic poetry, with the inception of the current dynasty. The first tetralogy merely figures the winter of discontent that has past, emplotted as comedy indirectly in plays such as The Taming of the Shrew, while the second extends this strategy of metaphoric comic emplotment by introducing a subplot and culminates in a metonymic comic resolution through the manipulation of narrative genre. The two tetralogies are furthermore structured according to the patterns of tragedy and comedy that Murray and Cornford have shown to have developed from the winter and summer components of the ritual drama, and as such, each tetralogy is a unit in itself. While the first embodies the fortunate fall principle defined by Kastan whose happy ending is the authorial present following the close of the tragic narrative, the second embodies the entire fortunate fall principle in itself: i.e. from the usurpation of “an unbroken line of rule by divine right” by Henry IV to the “happiness of an established government in a direct line” under Henry V. This chapter will argue that the representation of the political fortunate fall in Richard II, in which the fall into regicide, rebellion and civil war makes possible the triumph of the ideal Christian monarchy in Henry V, raised the issue of an analogous theological principle in the Protestant Reformation, for which the fall into schism, excommunications, and persecutions, precipitated by the divorce of Henry VIII, makes possible the triumph of the New Dispensation of the Church of England. The theological aspect of this fortunate fall is allegorized in Bassanio’s successful negotiation of the trial imposed by Portia’s dead father. The Merchant of Venice, therefore, is not a “contaminating” comedy in Mallin’s sense, as its aim is not to problematize, but to contain an already problematized “order and meaning” at the foundation of the Tudor state.
II. Comic Emplotment of History in the Structure of the Second Tetralogy
As in the first tetralogy, history is represented in the second as seasonal, beginning with the summer of Richard II turning to a winter of rebellion, scourged by the winter interrex, Henry IV, and returned to glorious summer under the new sun-king Henry V. Not only does the structure of the tetralogy conform to this seasonal pattern with its close analogues in ancient religious ritual, but the tetralogy form itself mimics the four seasons of a complete year, and, as has been shown, each of the two tetralogies emplots its historical mimesis according to the season in which it concludes: the winter of discontent of Richard III, and the glorious summer of Henry V respectively. As a cycle composed in reverse chronology, the end of each tetralogy leads to the other’s beginning, and the cycle therefore is able to represent historical progression, as in the chronicles, as unconcluded, but not as therefore open and uncontained. Shakespeare’s representation of the position of the historical subject prior to the Jacobean succession attempts to function according to the tradition of ritual drama as a recoil from a terrifyingly random linear eschatology into an eternally self-regenerative tragicomic circle without its concomitant anti-historical denial of the value of historical change. Not only was such value necessary to the legitimacy of the Tudor theocratic state which it had produced, but the palpable confrontation with radical foundational transition in the Early Modern period overwhelmed the sense of the immutably cyclical phenomena of nature in which the mass of laboring classes previously had been immersed.
The second tetralogy develops its seasonal pattern similarly to The Taming of the Shrew by manipulation of the plot structure. The Boar’s Head plot that splits off from the main plot following the murder of Richard II is identified as the winter principle of the tetralogy by the boar’s head symbol itself, one of the oldest of English Christmas traditions. “The grand feast given by the feudal chieftain to his friends and retainers,” says the Book of Days, “took place with great pomp and circumstance on Christmas-day. Among the dishes served up on this important occasion, the boar's head was first at the feast and foremost on the board” (12/25). In the second tetralogy, however, rather than an inversion of main plot and subplot figuring the Saturnalian inversion of the social hierarchy, as in The Taming of the Shrew, the subplot figures the underworld in which during his winter nadir the sun god must contend with the demons of night and death before ascending above the horizon to his resurrection. His apogee as Henry V is marked, as in the conclusion of The Taming of the Shrew, by the reunification of the plot in the concluding marriage.
At the opening of the tetralogy, Richard II undergoes the fall of the old Year-God that is identified by Murray as the link from ritual drama to tragedy.
According to Murray, the triumph of the Year-God in his ritual agon involved him in hybris, for which he is slain by his adversary and successor, the embodiment of sophrosyne; in tragedy this agon became internalized in the hero himself. …Tragedy, committed to finding myths that illustrate the rise and fall of the Year-God-become-hero, commits itself also to jettisoning …the Year-God’s eventual triumph in a new form (which comedy retains in the marriage and komos). (Henderson xx)
Richard as the old Year-God falls subject to hubris and is slain by his successor Henry IV. But while Henry is first presented as the embodiment of sophrosyne (moral balance) in the tragic component of the ritual pattern, his aspect as winter interrex in the comic pattern immediately emerges. Bolingbroke, the exile who has broken the law to redress a righteous grievance, immediately becomes the usurper and regicide who has breached the due course of succession. With Richard aloft on the walls of the castle, accompanied by a litany of solar references, Bolingbroke sends his oath of allegiance:
Prouided, that my Banishment
And Lands restor'd againe, be freely graunted:
If not, Ile vse th 'aduantage of my Power,
And lay the Summers dust with showers of blood… (Histories 1624-7)
Yet after descending from his apogee “like glist'ring Phaeton” (1766) and granting Bolingbroke’s demands, Richard surrenders himself to his custody. Bolingbroke seems to protest:
Bull. My gracious Lord, I
come but for mine owne.
Rich. Your owne is yours, and I am yours, and all.
Bull. So farre be mine, my most redoubted Lord,
As my true seruice shall deserue your loue.
Rich. Well you deseru'd:
They well deserue to haue,
That know the strong'st, and surest way to get. …
What you will haue, Ile giue, and
For doe we must, what force will haue vs doe.
Set on towards London:
Cousin, is it so?
Bull. Yea, my good Lord.
Rich. Then I must not say, no. (Histories 1790-1804)
While Richard’s transformation at this point from tyrant to tragic hero has sometimes been taken as the imperfect character development of an early play, the equally abrupt and simultaneous alteration in Bolingbroke’s role at this admission that Richard indeed is in his custody problematizes the text in the same way at the same point at which the Sun King descends from his summer apogee. The impossibility of reconciling the earlier literary trope of tyrant vs. avenger with the later tragic hero vs. usurper as nonfictional historical persons “implodes neat distinctions between text and history and coerces the breakdown of representational categories” and “contaminates” Shakespeare’s study of the simplistic conventional fortunate fall myth defined above by Daniel. Shakespeare’s poor character development in Richard II therefore mimics a flaw in the Tudor historical narrative itself, one of many examples of the texts becoming obscured at precisely the points at which historiography becomes morally ambiguous or self-contradictory, points at which Tudor mythographers such as Daniel conventionally attempt to efface ambiguity with jingoism. By contrast with his sources, Shakespeare declines for the most part to comment on Bolingbroke’s real vs. feigned motives, presenting both Richard and him as irreconcilably self-contradictory literary characters.
The status of Henry IV as seasonal interrex in the ritual drama pattern is historicized through the monarchist principle that a usurper is not a divinely anointed, and therefore legitimate, king, but his heir, having been created by divine rather than human will, resumes the interrupted divine right of the crown. While Henry IV is not slain by his successor, the ritual performance is approximated in Hal’s taking of the crown from his supposedly dead father who accuses him of wishing him dead. This reworking of the slaying of the interrex provides the opportunity for Hal’s confession and penance, an episode identified by Gaster as closing the “negative side of the ceremony.” In the second tetralogy as in the ancient seasonal religious drama, then, the negative side of the ritual concludes with 2 Henry IV, while Henry V concludes the positive side which began in the subplot of 1Henry IV. Taken together, these two aspects of the annual cycle provide the genealogical basis for the genres of tragedy and comedy as they passed from Classical Greek to European culture.
In addition to its replication of the annual or semi-annual seasonal ritual pattern of the earliest dramatic tradition, culminating in the triumph and sacred marriage of the fertility god, impersonated originally by the divine king himself, the second tetralogy taken as a whole is structured by the principle of comic circularity in a number of ways. The English crown passes from divinely anointed king to usurper and back to divinely anointed king. The unified plot of Richard II splits following the slaying of the king into main plot and subplot, signaled by Henry IV inquiring after Hal’s fraternization with lowly companions of the London underworld. When, at the end of 5.1 of Henry V, Pistol informs us that the last of the Boar’s Head company is dead, and sets off to London to join the swelling ranks of masterless men, the subplot is officially closed and the tetralogy returns to a unified plot as Katherine enters to signal the approaching sacred marriage. Finally, the spatial trajectory of Henry V itself is a circular passage from England to France and, through the narration of the Chorus, back to England and finally back to France. These several approaches to structural circularity in the second tetralogy in conjunction with the cycling back to the historical period of the first tetralogy after its conclusion, reveal Shakespeare’s strategy as the comic emplotment of history through the recoil from a tragically linear eschatology by overdetermination of an obsolete circular “world time” which attempts to contain English history within the regenerative and redemptive functions traceable in public drama continually from the mystery cycles of Egypt to those of Wakefield. The recognition of this strategy therefore supports the contention that the circular structures discernible in the arrangement of the First Folio do not result from the accidents of transmission, but from an interpretation of the author’s metanarrative discourse.
III. The Reformation According to Launcelot Gobbo
As has been suggested above, in addition to the unification of the nations of Great Britain in a single national identity, the comic emplotment of Shakespeare’s narrative history of the Tudor dynasty was compelled somehow to encompass the theocratic claims of the new state religion. The representation of the triumph of the Tudors at the end of the first tetralogy as providential within the Hall/Holinshed tradition did not in itself attempt directly to address the theological question of a “new dispensation” and a “new covenant” which its providentialist claims implied. The doctrine of the Church of England remained vaguely defined under Elizabeth in an attempt to be as inclusive as possible, prescribing only a minimal number of liturgical requirements, endorsing some of the doctrine of Calvin and Luther, and leaving the details of personal belief largely to the individual. This inclusiveness, referred to as the Elizabethan “middle way,” developed into the religious conflicts between Puritans, conservatives, and antinomians of the next century which eventually brought down the monarchy. This chapter contends that the absence of a positive doctrine presented Shakespeare with the problem of reification of Elizabeth’s authority as pontiff of the new Church of England, as he attempted to fit the contradictions of the fortunate fall of Richard II into a coherent dynastic ideology culminating in the triumph of the archetypal Christianized divine king Henry V.
An analogous question regarding the duty of the Christian subject vis-à-vis the monarch is addressed in Henry V, when the disguised Henry suggests to three soldiers that they should be glad to die for their king, “his cause being just and his quarrel honorable.” The soldier Williams objects that the justice of the king’s cause is more than mere soldiers can know. The soldier Bates continues: “Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know enough, if we know we are the king’s subjects: if his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us.” Williams adds concerning those who will be slaughtered the following day: “… if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.” Despite the weakness of Henry’s rhetoric, the duty of the subject to die and kill for the king regardless of the justice of his rule is assumed by king and subjects to be a theological rather than merely a political question. Henry’s assertion that: “every man’s duty is the king’s, but every man’s soul is his own” and that war is God’s “beadle, war is vengeance,” together with the prominence given to the completely unhistorical dispute, which appears in no source, between Henry and Williams in the final acts of the play, attest to the centrality of the question of sacrosanct obedience to the reigning monarch in Shakespeare’s tetralogy project. “‘The old allegory of man’s duty towards God, within His Catholic and universal church,’ as A.P. Rossiter has aptly put it, ‘was narrowed toward the allegory of men’s duties as subjects under a God-representing king” (Ribner 35).
While theologians such as Lancelot Andrews and Richard Hooker attempted to set out the doctrinal terms of Elizabeth’s claim to divine authority, in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare constructs a myth of the triumph of the spirit over the letter of the law, in which several bonds must be broken for England, primarily figured in Bassanio and in Launcelot Gobbo, to escape a condition of spiritual peril and to achieve a new state of grace in Portia’s Belmont.
Portia’s kingdom, like Elizabeth’s is constrained by the legacy of her father to a trial in which the most authentic of a given set of spiritual principles must be chosen to avoid tragedy and bring about the play’s comic resolution. That Shakespeare’s weaving of the casket trial tale of the Gesta Romanorum into the pound of flesh tale of the Gesta and of Il Pecorone constitutes an allegory is clear from the explicitly allegorical sources. The casket trial itself is an allegory of allegories in the sense that selections are made between pieces of text that are merely labels on containers whose real meaning is hidden, and in the sources, the trial story begins with the interpretation of a dream which is a demonstration of allegorical exegesis. Shakespeare’s substitution of this allegory of allegories for the bed trick of the pound of flesh sources comes as near to an explicit statement of allegorical intention as drama is capable of, and the implication of an allegory of a matriarchal state in search of a lord, a motive made very explicit in Il Pecorone, is obviously contemporarily Elizabethan.
The contention of the present thesis is that the context of the allegory of The Merchant of Venice is a specifically theological complement to the historicist political discourse of the second tetralogy. In the first place, the Gesta source allegories are explicitly theological, and in the second, Shakespeare’s emendations of the sources reinforce their original theological premises. Contrary to the preponderance of readings of the play’s theology, however, the contention of topical allegory defines the terms in question, not as a dispute between the relative merits of Christianity and Judaism, but primarily as between Protestant and Catholic Christianity. In allegorical terms, the Jew is therefore representative of the Roman Church, which Elizabethan theologists did not hesitate to equate with the Pharisees who persecuted Christ in their claim to inheritance of the biblical covenant. As the English Reformation theologists equated the Catholic persecutions of the Book of Martyrs with the persecutions of the early Christians by the Pharisees, Shakespeare’s Shylock stands as an expression, not of English anti-Semitism, but of English Protestantism which, in fact, increasingly controverted the anti-Semitism of Catholic Europe.
 “By a ‘contaminating’ history I mean an episode or memory that problematizes the tidy order and meaning of the new reign…” (Mallin 2).
 Mallin explains Shakespeare’s historicist development by observing that: “The trope of resemblance within a work, like the theater’s intussusception of literary features and parallel historical forms, implodes neat distinctions between text and history and coerces the breakdown of representational categories” (14).
 To illustrate the deterioration of the Tudor myth at the end of the sixteenth century, Mallin cites Dekker’s Pleasant Comedie of Old Fortunatus, which “appeared in 1599, in Elizabeth’s sixty-sixth year,” in which “the topic of Eliza (whose age goes unmentioned in the passage) is introduced by two old men.” While the old men engage in the conventional hyperbolic epideixis of Elizabeth, Mallin observes that: “The younger generation, of which Dekker was part, had conspicuously greater difficulty than do these characters in sustaining such praise” (11).
 The course of the second tetralogy may be seen strikingly to parallel Gaster’s description of a pattern “recognized in many of the calendar festivals of the ancient Near East”: “It opens with a series of public rites designed to express the state of suspended animation which besets society and its total environment, i.e., the ‘topocosm,’ at the expiration of each annual or seasonal lease of life. … The king, as representative of the topocosmic spirit, is deposed or slain. This initial stage is frequently accompanied or followed by a “vacant period” marking the interval between the expiration of the old lease and the inauguration of the new. This period is regarded as “epagomenal,” or outside the normal calendar. The customary order of society is reversed, the customary activities suspended. A temporary king, or interrex, is appointed. Next, machinery is set in motion to remove all evil influences and noxious powers. This is done by such ceremonies as the expulsion of human or animal scapegoats, the exorcism of demons, the lustration of crops, fields and people by fire and water, and—in the more advanced cultures—by a ceremonial shriving of sin. The king is ceremonially purified or performs penitential rites, often including a confession of sins. The negative side of the ceremony being thus completed, the positive side ensues. The king engages as antagonist in mock combat. Efforts are made to introduce new life and vitality. A combat is staged between the forces of the old and the new, Life and Death, Fertility and Blight, the positive, vital force being triumphant and his opponent discomfited and/or banished. (Often the combat comes to be historicized and is then interpreted as the commemoration of an historical event.) The king undergoes a “sacred marriage.” Finally, the ceremony issues in a joyous celebration of the new-won life. A feast is held as a method of cementing through commensality the social bond of the community” (Thespis 61-62).
 Gaster’s description of the ritual pattern to which Murray and Cornford attribute the origins of the two major dramatic genres also reflects a circular time emplotted only according to the arbitrary choice of the beginning and end of its narrative myth: “The winter festival marked, of course, the end of a crisis which had begun in summer, and in many cases the demise or withdrawal of the god of fertility was likewise marked by a festival. Apart from the familiar wailings for Tammuz in June-July, Plutarch informs us (De Is. et Os., 69) that the Attis cult, centered in the figure of a dying and reviving god of vegetation, recognized two sacred moments during the year: ‘the one when he fell asleep, and the other when he awoke’; and this testimony is corroborated by an inscription of the second century B.C. … in which mention is made expressly of ‘both the Attis festivals.’” (Gaster 280). The “wailings for Tammuz in June-July” seems to represent the semi-annual converse of the carnival laughter attributed by Bakhtin to the winter Saturnalia. Cornford similarly writes that: “…our supposed ritual drama… could be given a sad or happy turn, according as emphasis were thrown on the conflict and death of the hero, or on the joyful resurrection and marriage that followed. … We remember … the feast of Adonia, on the which the custom is that women … represent the mournings and lamentations made at the funerals of the dead, with blubbering, and beating themselves, in token of the sorrow the goddess Venus made for the death of her friend Adonis [n35 Plutarch]. …in the ritual there is only a difference of emphasis. The resurrection and epiphany of the risen God with his divine bride is the necessary conclusion, as surely as the spring must follow the winter” (Cornford 185). Shakespeare’s later use of Plutarch as a primary source, furthermore, raises the possibility of his knowledge of these patterns of ancient ritual.