Honesty in The Merchant of Venice

So. Here’s a paper I wrote for my graduate class last semester, Shakespeare and His Contemporaries. Basically, we’d read a play by a semi-obscure or even totally forgotten (as in Anonymous) renaissance playwright and one by Willy the Shake and compare and contrast. And what became immediately obvious was that, despite how he’s viewed and taught nowadays, Shakespeare did not operate in a void. He was part of a thriving theatre scene, where the movers and shakers—as in the film Shakespeare in Love, actually—knew each other, saw each other’s productions, even socialized, so that themes and plots were bandied about everywhere. Which is why you can have a plethora, a veritable cornucopia even, of plays about…shoemakers. Strange but true.

Obviously, most folks who’ve taken a course in Shakespeare know he invented virtually none of his own plots, either revamping well-known tales from the past or actual historical events, or as in The Merchant of Venice, of course, borrowing liberally from Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. He’d then generally go on to sprinkle his own offerings with liberal doses of his unique and unprecedented and unsurpassed genius.

So taken out of context, his plays can obviously stand on their own quite nicely indeed. But looked at in context, it’s truly striking to see how certain concerns run through a string of plays at the same time, reflecting obvious distress over, say, the dissolution of the monasteries or unease over Elizabeth’s lack of an heir.

Anyhoo, with so many topics to choose from, how could I possibly single out one single thesis?

It was easy. I just wrote about Shakespeare.

Which seems, in retrospect, kinda stupid o’ me. But what can I say? Rereading The Merchant of Venice for the first time in a dozen years, something leapt out at me and doing some research indicated that, bizarrely, no one else had ever noticed it. Well, I’m sure someone and prolly many someones have over the past four hundred plus years. But no seems to have ever published a paper on this precise idear.

In fact, the professor—one of the most kickass I’ve ever had the pleasure to know and with generally unimpeachable taste in musicks to boot—wrote “the distinguished critic Debora Shuger talks about something she calls the ‘hermeneutics of the obvious.’ Meaning, I take it, that critics have a habit of going after seemingly tenuous or far-fetched themes, while what we need to deal with is right in front of us. So in the case of Measure for Measure, it’s not about King James, but about the regulation of sexuality. In your case, you’ve isolated something that is so blindingly obvious that nobody, to my knowledge, has really acknowledged it.”

Which is pretty awesome to hear, that after four hundred plus years, and hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of pages, you’re the first. (On the other hand, nice as it is to hear that your paper is sui generis, it’s a little disconcerting to also be told that your thesis is “blindingly obvious.”)

So. There you go. Since I’m never going to spend the dozen hours needed to get this puppy up to the snuff required to even think about submitting it, I offer it up to the internets at large. And, yes, I know there are several problems with the paper, including some formatting issues and at least one argument which might not hold water. As I said, it would require hours of work to fix and, really, I can’t be arsed. Besides, this way if anyone steals it they’ll be that much more likely to get busticated.


Walter Cohen wrote, “The Merchant of Venice (1596) offers an embarrassment of socio-economic riches. It treats merchants and usurers, the nature of the law, and the interaction between country and city. But since it is also about the relationship between love and friendship, the meaning of Christianity, and a good deal more, a thematically minded critic, regardless of his or her persuasion, may be in for a bit of difficulty” (Cohen, “The Merchant of Venice and the Possibilities of Historical Criticism,” ELH, Vol. 49, No. 4. P. 766). Indeed, there sometimes seems to be an endless number of different ways to view the play, but as Cohen points out, various relationships are at its heart. Yet when one examines the major relationships in the play, it becomes apparent that there are few which do not appear to be fatally flawed, based as they are upon a foundation of betrayal and deception. “Each [of the play’s two] trials teaches that mercy is necessary to a community’s honoring of the bonds (qua law) that tie each member together,” Trish Olson writes, “for it is mercy that allows sturdy and sympathetic relationships to grow and endure” (Olson, “Pausing upon Portia,” Journal of Law and Religion, Vol. 19, No. 2, p. 303-304). But even more basic to the success of a relationship than mercy, strain’d or otherwise, is trust.

The titular character in The Merchant of Venice is often mistakenly assumed by the casual reader to be Shylock, and for good reason. Shylock is the most memorable character in the play and has one of the two most memorable speeches. The actual merchant, of course, is Antonio, Shylock’s enemy (and vice-versa), and through the course of the play the two characters are both contrasted and/or bound together in many ways—financial, legal, religious—and yet at the end they share a common bond. They are the only major characters who do not commit a falsehood in the course of a relationship. And they are the only characters left alone and unmarried at the end.

Antonio’s friend Bassanio is presented from the beginning as a profligate spendthrift, a playboy seemingly without ambition or even a vocation. Upon learning of the rich and eligible Portia, Bassanio sets out to woo and win her, quite cognizant of her enormous dowry. As he doesn’t have anywhere near the funds to present himself properly, he turns to Antonio, who immediately offers to finance his trip, despite his own current lack of liquidity, forcing him to turn to the hated usurer Shylock for backing. Thus from the very beginning of Bassanio and Portia’s relationship, Bassanio is deceptive: “The richness of his appearance and gifts when he arrives in Belmont is false, for though he is a gentleman, he is in debt—as he only later confesses to Portia” (Walter F. Eggers, Jr., “Love and Likeness in the Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 3, p. 331).

Bassanio. …I should then have told you
That I was worse than nothing; for, indeed,
I have engaged myself to a dear friend,
Engaged my friend to his mere enemy,
To feed my means. (III.ii.258-263)

Things do not improve from an honesty standpoint as their relationship progresses, as Portia in turn deceives Bassanio by assuming the guise of the young legal sage Balthazar. While there can be no doubt her motives were pure, the fact remains that from the moment she stepped into the courtroom in disguise, Portia was deceiving every single person there (with the exception, of course, of Nerissa, herself also in disguise and also deceiving the entire court, including her husband). But Portia’s deception started even earlier. There’s no sign in the text of exactly when she decided to assume a new identity in order to save Antonio, nor does she ever articulate just why she feels it necessary. But the thoroughness of her plan indicates that it’s not likely she only thought of it the moment she mentions it to Nerissa. So when she said to Lorenzo

Portia. …for mine own part,
I have toward heaven breathed a secret vow
To live in prayer and contemplation,
Only attended by Nerissa here,
Until her husband and my lord’s return:
There is a monastery two miles off;
And there will we abide. (III.iv.26-32)

she was obviously lying. A mere 22 lines later, she tells her waiting-gentlewoman, “Come on, Nerissa; I have work in hand / That you yet know not of: we’ll see our husbands / Before they think of us (III.iv.57-59).” Why the deception? There’s never a reason given in the play. Does she doubt Antonio or Bassanio will be able to secure adequate legal counsel? There simply seems no motive to lie. But even after that, the deception continues. For even if we grant that Portia, in a flash of insight, conceived of a brilliant legal loophole while they were all still assembled in Belmont, and that although unspoken, it was tacitly understood a woman would never have been granted a fair hearing, and that for some reason she could not simply lay out the flaws in Shylock’s case for Bassanio to argue in court—even if all that is taken as a given, it is still difficult to reconcile the manner in which Portia and Nerissa test Bassanio and Gratiano after the trial is over.

Portia. And for your love I’ll take this ring from you.
Do not draw back your hand, I’ll take no more,
And you in love shall not deny me this!

Bassanio. This ring, good sir, alas, it is a trifle!
I will not shame myself to give you this.

Portia. I will have nothing else but only this,
And now methinks I have a mind to it.

Bassanio. There’s more depends on this than on the value.
The dearest ring in Venice will I give you,
And find it out by proclamation;
Only for this, I pray you pardon me.

Portia. I see, sir, you are liberal in offers.
You taught me first to beg, and now methinks
You teach me how a beggar should be answer’d.

Bassanio. Good sir, this ring was given me by my wife,
And when she put it on, she made me vow
That I should neither sell, nor give, nor lose it.

Portia. That ‘scuse serves many men to save their gifts,
And if your wife be not a mad woman,
And know how well I have deserv’d this ring,
She would not hold out enemy for ever
For giving it to me. (IV.i.427-428)

Bassanio could not be more plain: he has made a promise to his wife and he takes that most seriously. Clearly Portia knows she has a way with words—that’s why she went to court as she did and the events there have just proven her opinion correct. Yet even after Bassanio is shown to be faithful to her, Portia continues to torment him relentlessly, most skillfully but cruelly setting him in an unwinnable situation, between the promise he gave his new wife and the debt he owes the person who saved his best friend from a gruesome, horrific death. Portia knows this is what she’s doing by continuing to pretend to be Balthazar, and yet she expresses no qualms whatsoever about doing so. Bassanio ultimately proves unable to thread this moral needle, but in this case his failing is far from entirely his own; an enormous proportion of the blame must be laid at the feet of his new wife. The fact that Bassanio fails does not prove Portia was right to lie to him in order to test him.

Furthermore, even Portia’s vaunted relationship with her dead father is shown to be flawed. Regardless of the validity of his wish that her husband pass the casket test, Portia has promised to abide by his decree and not give any hint to any potential suitor. Portia admits that she’s tempted, despite the clear-cut situation:

Portia. I could teach you
How to choose right, but I am then forsworn;
So will I never be: so may you miss me;
But if you do, you’ll make me wish a sin,
That I had been forsworn. (III.ii.10-14)

So far, so good: the very fact that she suffers the temptation to break her oath and does not break it speaks to the firmness of her commitment. There is more honor (and difficulty) in keeping an oath one has motive to break than in keeping a vow which works to one’s advantage. But Portia’s resolution soon wavers when her heart’s desire is truly on the line.

As the scene unfolds, we see Bassanio resolute in his desire to make his choice and be done with the waiting. In response, Portia pulls out some surprising metaphors:

Portia. Upon the rack, Bassanio! then confess
What treason there is mingled with your love.

Bassanio. None but that ugly treason of mistrust,
Which makes me fear th’ enjoying of my love;
There may as well be amity and life
‘Tween snow and fire, as treason and my life.

Portia. Ay, but I fear you speak upon the rack,
Where men enforced do speak any thing.

Bassanio. Promise me life and I’ll confess the truth. (III.ii. 26-35)

It is as though Portia is unable to believe love can be pure and true, without ulterior motives or hidden quicksand. The rest of the play will prove her right, of course, but one is left to wonder if it’s not a self-fulfilling prophesy, whether the lack of honesty to come simply shows she’s not naïve, or whether it is her cynical attitude that contributes to an environment in which truth is a matter to be regarded lightly.

As for her promise to her father, Portia may say she’s loathe to forswear, yet she proceeds to do precisely that: as others have pointed out, while Bassanio contemplates which casket to choose, Portia sings a song whose opening couplet, “Tell me where is fancy bred / Or in the heart or in the head” (III.ii.63-64) rhymes quite conspicuously with “lead,” the correct answer. She has already spoken most harshly of her previous suitors and admitted Bassanio is the only one she’s found agreeable so far. For someone as cognizant of the power of words and suggestion as Portia unambiguously proves herself to be in the courtroom scene, the likelihood that this song is not a hint is remote, tying this scene even tighter to the main plot thematically. “Shylock stands for the necessity of keeping contracts,” Cynthia Lewis notes, “a necessity that Portia is forced to recognize by keeping her oath to her father” (Cynthia Lewis, “Antonio and Alienation in ‘The Merchant of Venice,” South Atlantic Review, Vol. 48, No. 4, p. 29). But by dropping even this small and subtle hint to the only suitor she’s ever favored, Portia has broken the oath to her father, betraying the promise she had previously kept—an agreement apparently easy to uphold when one’s suitors are distasteful, but considerably more difficult when a pleasing gentleman shows up.

And Portia’s faithlessness seems to have something of a domino effect—once she breaks the oath she gave to her father, she seems to have little compunction about practicing further deceptions, such as upon the court and later Bassanio directly. It’s as though once she broke down herself and failed to stay true to her dead father, her previously unshakeable adherence to truth and promises were considered malleable to her, kept or not as whim dictates. And if she herself could not stay true, then of course she has doubts about the veracity of others, leading her to put Bassanio to a test he could not possible survive unblemished either way.

The most obvious and inexcusable instance of one member of a relationship being untrue to the other is displayed by another daughter—Jessica, who betrays Shylock in just about every way imaginable. “As lovers,” Sigurd Burckhardt write, “Jessica and Lorenzo stand in the sharpest imaginable contrast to Portia and Bassanio. Their love is lawless, financed by theft and engineered through a gross breach of trust” (Burckhardt, “The Merchant of Venice: The Gentle Bond,” ELH, Vol. 29, No. 3, p. 253). Leaving aside that Portia and Bassanio are not, in fact, a particularly admirable couple to hold up in comparison, Burckhardt is absolutely correct that the marriage of Jessica and Lorenzo is predicated entirely upon her lack of fidelity to her own father. As Douglas Anderson writes, “Lorenzo teasingly reminds Jessica that their marriage began in theft. Jessica teasingly replies that all Lorenzo’s vows of love are faithless” (Anderson, “The Old Testament Presence in The Merchant of Venice,” ELH, Vol. 52, No. 1, p 130). Jessica lies directly to Shylock when he asks what their former servant, Launcelot, had just said to her.

Launcelot. I will go before, sir. Mistress, look out at
window, for all this, There will come a Christian
boy, will be worth a Jewess’ eye.
Shylock. What says that fool of Hagar’s offspring, ha?
Jessica. His words were ‘Farewell mistress;’ nothing else.

By now the audience knows that she’s constantly lying to her father indirectly, a lie of omission, by concealing her plans. And she steals from him, an obvious crime as well as a sin, but even more so, from Shylock’s point of view, a betrayal, one made all the more reprehensible in this case as Jessica knows how much both her elopement and the loss of his treasure will mean to him.

Camille Slights downplays this act considerably: “Shylock’s fidelity to Leah’s memory sharpens our discomfort at Jessica’s betrayal, but it does not obliterate our recognition that life requires growth and the courageous acceptance of new responsibilities” (Slights, “In Defense of Jessica: The Runaway Daughter in The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 3, p. 365). Yet excusing her heinous treatment of her father, absent any evidence in the play that whatever his other faults he has ever been less than a loving father, is extraordinarily difficult. That Jessica does not just steal from and lie to her father but moreover leaves him for a member of the very group which has scorned him so over the years—going so far as to spit upon and kick him in public—merely compounds the injury further, as even Slights acknowledges: “In fleeing to Christian marriage from a house that has become a hell, Jessica moves from Judaism to Christianity, but she also deceives disobeys, robs and abandons her father” (Slights, p. 359).

Even the minor supporting character of Launcelot emphasizes how prevalent this theme of deception and betrayal is, as he too lies to his father. When the old man, half-blind, first shows up seeking him, Launcelot toys with him, telling his father that his son is dead. Here, writes Douglas Anderson, “…Shakespeare makes it clear to any member of his audience who is even casually acquainted with Genesis that Launcelot is unwittingly reenacting two popular stories from Jewish legend: Jacob’s deception of his own blind father, Isaac, when he steals a blessing meant for Esau, and the deception carried out by Joseph’s brothers when they, in turn, tell Jacob that Joseph is dead” (Anderson, “The Old Testament Presence in The Merchant of Venice,” ELH, Vol. 52, No. 1, p. 120).

It seems at times as though there’s not an honest character in the play. Bassanio lies when he appears before Portia as a wealthy gentleman, Portia lies to Bassanio when she appears before him as Balthazar, Jessica lies to her father, Nerissa lies to Gratiano and Launcelot lies to his own father. It is, perhaps, a sign of just how flawed the entire relationship structure is that when Nerissa says she too is going to try to con her husband out of the ring she gave him, that Portia is not only quite certain the attempt will be successful, as indeed it is, but that “We shall have old swearing / That they did give the rings away to men” (IV.ii.14-15). In this context, it’s notable that it barely even occurs to the husbands to attempt deception when called upon to explain their missing rings. Perhaps Portia’s conscience does weigh heavily upon her, as her entire marriage is laced with deceit: Bassanio deceiving her initially, Portia deceiving him at court, and Portia deceiving her dead father.

Of all the major relationships in Merchant, two in particular stand out as being notably different from the rest in at least one respect. Neither Antonio nor Shylock ever lie to a loved one—in fact, they don’t lie at all. Both men are utterly honest about who and what they are: they say what they mean and they mean what they say, which is why Shylock insists upon his bond and Antonio never attempts to shirk his legal culpabilities. Antonio never lies to Shylock, Bassanio or Portia, and Shylock never lies to Antonio, Bassanio, Portia or Jessica. As Steve Patterson points out, “As for the trope of well-matched or twinned lovers, Antonio finally mirrors Shylock, not Bassanio” (Patterson, “The Bankruptcy of Homoerotic Amity in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 50, No. 1, p. 29).

It is all the more telling, then, that Antonio and Shylock are the only two major characters left alone at the end of the play, as they have mirrored each other from the very beginning: “Merchant repeatedly draws the antagonist as one. Each seems from his entrance not only socially alienated but an obstacle to the progress of courtship and romance…” (Patterson, p. 29). Shylock has lost his daughter, his only family. Antonio has seen his best friend in the world, and very possibly the love of his life, married off to a woman whose wealth would indicate Bassanio will have far less need of Antonio in the future—and the last scene would lead the audience to believe that, in any case, Portia will be ensuring that Antonio is seeing quite a bit less of Bassanio henceforth. Patterson sees Shylock’s conversion as having a negative effect on the play’s last scene: “This enforced transformation casts a pall over Act 6 as the married couples struggle to collect on the promise of an ecstatic reunion in such a night that seems to be ‘the daylight sick’ (V.i.124)” (Patterson, p. 27). And while that may have an effect on the audience’s reaction, in the world of the play it has no effect whatsoever on any of the couples themselves. Rather, it is the myriad betrayals which have begun to pile up which are dragging down what should be a moment comprised of couples in a state of euphoric marital bliss.

Cohen contends that Merchant “…is entirely typical of comedy in its movement toward resolution and reconciliation, and typical of specifically romantic comedy in its reliance on married love as a means to those ends” (Cohen, p. 781). But the married couples in the play are treading on shaky ground: Portia and Bassanio have been untrue to each other a number of times before spending even a single night together, as have Nerissa and Gratiano. As for Jessica and Lorenzo, if she could lie to and rob her father, how can he possibly trust her in the future? In a sense, then, it is Antonio and Shylock who are in the least precarious situation: they are alone, but it’s entirely possible that they have at least hit the bottom, whereas the married couples would all seem to have very rough seas still ahead of them, with little indication they’ve the fortitude to weather the storm. “This irony, a bonding of the merchant with the Jew, is made apparent in the way friendship’s twin motif, significantly absent between Antonio and Bassanio, yokes the supposedly contrary figures of the usurer and the friend” (Patterson, p. 29). These two characters, aliens in this society due to situations beyond their control—the Jew and the homosexual, both subject to genetic backgrounds over which they obviously had no power—are at the end, still bound together. “All the exchanges between Antonio and Shylock are marked by the sense of a long and bitter past. Together they fittingly constitute the Venetian abominations that must not be permitted to corrupt Paradise” (Anderson, p. 130).

The entire play is rife with instances of lying, deception and betrayal, both minor (Launcelot teasing his blind father) and major (Jessica stealing her dead mother’s ring from her father). Lewis points out that “the Christian men show their failure to understand the importance of such contracts by urging Portia (Balthazar) to ‘wrest…the law’ (IV.i.215). Shylock also criticizes ‘Christian husbands’ in this scene for their laxity toward marital bonds (IV.i.294), and Portia reinforces his criticism emphatically (IV.i.288-289, V.i.166-255)” (Lewis, p. 29). The entire culture, it seems, both legal and interpersonal, has a remarkably relaxed attitude towards the truth.

Some of these instances may seem trivial, but there is a reason people are sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth during a trial, and why a charge of perjury so often has an obstruction of justice charge attached. The act of lying is a breaking of a contract, a generally unspoken agreement which is, in most cases, tacitly understood to be at the heart of any relationship between people, as in the absence of such an understanding, no transaction, no matter how minor, is possible. This is the flawed foundation upon which the relationships in The Merchant of Venice rest, leaving considerable doubt as to their long-term stability.


About the other scott peterson

Writer of comics and books and stuff.
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One Response to Honesty in The Merchant of Venice

  1. scott says:

    I’m not sure why, but after nearly four years, this piece has suddenly become very popular in Asia and Australia over the past few months, now getting dozens of hits per week. If any of you who’ve found this page could drop me a line and let me know why, I’d surely be grateful.

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