Because this play is so disturbing, so potentially damaging to Will's reputation as the Father of English Drama and The Greatest Writer in English, interpreting it is a risky business. We don't want him to be an anti-Semite, or a racist, or anything else we now associate with ignorant anti-humanism. Interestingly, interpretation is an issue in the play itself, too. Portia's suitors have to correctly interpret the meaning of the three caskets to win her. Antonio incorrectly interprets Shylock's "bargain" as a change of heart. Portia's literal interpretation of the law eventually restores a kind of order to both Venice and Belmont.
But, wait, no it doesn't.
Now if I were still an academic, I'd have to write something like "this play remains ambivalent on the question of race, as on the question of justice. In its refusal to decide, to cast its lot definitively with either the Christians or the Jew, it can be said to problematize interpretation itself, and by implication, the certainties of both theology and law."
How's that for smart-sounding, cowardly equivocation? Here's what I really think. Will is interested in the problem of justice, for sure. And he wonders how and why bigotry gets started, and how it's justified by people who claim to be "fair." He's interested in the relationship between law and religion because both of them claim to serve a higher ideal--call it God or call it Justice--and both inevitably fall short. He picked Jews and Moroccans because those were the most exotic, scary people to Elizabethans. Most of his countrymen hadn't ever seen either one. He's not an anti-Semite, because that idea just didn't exist then. He's interested in what links people together, and why they all spend so much time and moral energy trying to deny that link, or, if you will, "bond."
I guess I started thinking about this question because the beginning of Act 2 is all about the problem of fathers--dead ones, good ones, bad ones. Shakespeare is a kind of dead father figure too. We want him to be a good daddy, not a bad one. A humanist hero, not a racist fiend. Like a good daughter, I'm going to argue for the former. But we'll see how it goes--I haven't read this play in over 10 years, so it's kind of an adventure for me, too.
So, on to Act 2.
"Let Us Make Incision For Your Love"
Mislike me not for my complexion,
The shadowed livery of the burnished sun,
To whom I am a neighbor and near bred.
Bring me the fairest creature northward born,
Where Phoebus' fire scarce thaws the icicles,
And let us make incision for your love,
To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine.
I tell thee, lady, this aspect of mine
Hath feared the valiant. By my love I swear,
The best regarded virgins of our clime
Have loved it too. I would not change this hue
Except to steal your thoughts, gentle queen.
Simply put, he's black and proud. But the language is lovely, isn't it? "...my complexion, the shadowed livery of the burnished sun...." "Livery," of course, implies servitude--noble houses had their servants all wear the same colors. But he follows that with a claim of equality--he's the sun's "neighbor, and near bred." He's realistic enough to realize that he can't make a strong argument for beauty, since black skin was considered devilish, so he makes a claim for valor, instead. And in making that claim, returns us to the argument of the previous scene--about what's on the outside, and what's on the inside. "Let us make incision for your love/to prove whose blood is reddest..."--let's look inside and see who's the bravest. We're reminded that we all bleed red, regardless of skin color. We're obviously meant to see Shylock's pound of flesh and Morocco's bloody incision in similar terms--as a way of thinking about the similarities among men, rather than their (superficial) differences. And of course "incision" looks forward to the slicing and dicing that's threatened in the courtroom scene at the end. Antonio is willing to suffer a fatal incision for Bassanio's love--Morocco's metaphor literalized.
But Morocco's different in other ways, too. He reminds me of a bad blind date, where the guy, eager to impress, talks about how tough he is, or how much he can bench-press. Maybe that's alluring in the wilder parts of the world, but in decadent, effete Venice, a guy who boasts about his battle prowess--hinting at other kinds of prowess--is just a freak. Like putting Beowulf in a Noel Coward play, or something. Belmont is a gentle, feminine place, and Morocco's way out of his element.
Portia's next lines are an out-and-out lie, although I suppose one could excuse her on the grounds of decorum:
In terms of choice I am not solely led
By nice direction of a maiden's eyes.
Besides, the lott'ry of my destiny
Bars me the right of voluntary choosing.
But if my father had not scanted me,
And hedged me by his wit to yield myself
His wife who wins me by that means I told you,
Yourself, renowned Prince, then stood as fair
As any comer I have looked on yet
For my affection.
One could split hairs and assume that the line "as any comer I have looked on yet," keeps her from outright mendacity, but when Morocco later fails to choose the right casket, Portia will breathe a sigh of relief, saying
A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go.
Let all of his complexion choose me so.
So much for seeing beyond the surface.
Morocco, for his part, misunderstands the game itself, thinking it's just a matter of blind chance:
I would o'erstare the sternest eyes that look,
Outbrave the heart most daring on the earth,
Pluck the young sucking cubs from the she-bear,
Yea, mock the lion when a roars for prey,
To win the lady. But alas the while,
If Hercules and Lichas play at dice
Which is the better man, the greater throw
May turn by fortune from the weaker hand.
"In a game of chance, strength and bravery count for nothing." But of course it's not a game of chance, it's a game of reading and interpreting. There is "hazard," or risk involved, but the winner will be the man who's willing "to hazard all he hath," i.e., to risk everything. It rewards the willingness to risk, but it's not like those old game shows, where you have to choose what's behind door number 3."Who chooses his meaning chooses you," Nerissa says. The emphasis is on meaning, on understanding what the caskets, each in turn, signify.
Portia is a good daughter. Although her father's dead, she's still playing by his rules--her inheritance, apparently, is contingent on this game. She's not above cheating a little bit, as we'll see when it's Bassanio's turn, but she follows the letter of her father's edict. The winner must choose from among the gold, silver, and lead caskets. As a dutiful daughter, Portia provides a contrast to Jessica, who rebels against her father's will, steals from him, and ultimately profits from his humiliation--although not as much as her husband, Lorenzo, does. Jessica is a bad daughter, but her rebellion is justified in the Venetian (and Elizabethan) world, where Jews are forced to turn from the Old Law to the New--i.e, become Christians. Her deed is "fiendish," but it's okay because, as the clown Lancelot Gobbo says, the Jew is "a kind of devil" himself.
Jacob and Esau
Gobbo's comic interlude in the second scene gives Will the opportunity for more religious allegory and analogy. As the scene opens, Shylock's servant is debating whether or not to abandon his master and seek a new, kinder one:
Lancelot's loyalty to or rebellion against his master is structured as a moral dilemma--which it was, in Elizabethan England. The revolt of the serving classes was seen as a threat to the hierarchical order of society, and wasn't something to be taken lightly. The church and the state both saw "knowing one's place" as a virtue. To rebel against one's master was a sin.
Unless, of course, that master is a Jew, and "the very devil incarnation," as Gobbo amusingly malaprops. Ultimately, he decides that when choosing between a devilish act and the devil himself, there's no contest. He runs, seeking employment with a new, younger--albeit poorer--master, the Christian Bassanio.
This little morality play quickly shifts into a theological burlesque. When Gobbo meets his half-blind father, Old Gobbo, on the road, he plays a cruel but funny game with him. Old Gobbo is looking for his son, and is too blind to recognize him. Lancelot insists that the man he seeks in "young Master Lancelot," i.e., not a servant but a gentleman, and is, sadly, "deceased."
At Gobbo's wail of sorrow, he reveals himself: "do you know me, father?"
In the Old Testament, one sibling was always the favorite. It's like a textbook on bad parenting.
Early Christian thinkers saw this as a "typological" moment. Typology is the hermeneutic science of making everything in the Old Testament into an allegory of the coming of Christ. You know--leaving the old master, the Jew, for the new one, the Christian. In a manner of speaking. So for these typologists, Jacob, though younger, inherits the his father's wealth just as the younger Christian church--the New Covenant--will supersede the Old (Jewish) Covenant, the law of Moses. In The Merchant, this is the occasion for comedy, as Old Gobbo pats his son's head blindly:
Finally Gobbo recognizes his son, and says he's brought presents for Shylock, the boy's master. Lancelot tells him to save the presents for Bassanio, the man he now wants to work for because B. "gives rare new liveries," i.e., has cool uniforms for his servants. Meanwhile, as luck would have it, Bassanio comes along. Old Gobbo wants to give him his "dish of doves" (this has metaphoric significance, too--doves signify the coming of the Holy Spirit in the Christian Age of Grace), while Lancelot wants to be hired into his service.
It turns out Shylock was ready to be rid of the rebel, anyway, according to Bassanio:
...Thou hast obtained thy suit.
Shylock thy master spoke with me this day,
And hath preferred thee, if it be preferment
To leave a rich Jew's service to become
The follower of so poor a gentleman.
It turns out the "fiend" isn't above giving his disloyal servant a good recommendation. Lancelot once again makes the religious point:
"The old proverb is very well parted between my master Shylock and you, sir: you have the grace of God, sir, and he hath enough."
The old proverb is "the grace of God is gear enough." In other words, divine grace is more important than material goods. Lancelot points out that Shylock has a lot of money, but Bassanio, as a Christian, has God's grace. But it bears thinking about, doesn't it? Bassanio is borrowing three thousand ducats to "gear himself up" in order to win Portia and her considerable fortune. It seems grace is good to have, but it's hardly enough.
Next: Risky undertakings and broken bonds