A Grossly Villainous Stereotype and a Wise Woman

This week I finished The Merchant of Venice. There is a lot to appreciate in this play—it leaves much to think about, some great quotes, at least one great character, but . . .  I’ve got to stop there till I’ve ranted a bit:

In 2012, the one idea that oozes disgustingly from this work more than anything else is that Shakespeare must have been in this play reflecting, promoting and increasing the horrendous antisemitism that existed in England circa 1600. Judging from Shylock’s—the wealthy Jewish merchant—words, deeds and the way others treat him and scorn him, there was a lot of hate directed at the Jewish community. I came away with the impression that Shylock was a personification of what Christian England saw when they imagined someone Jewish and the Jewish religion—after all, they probably didn’t actually see many Jewish people in Shakespeare’s day since Jews had been expelled from England for 300 years. I cannot like this play because of this ignorant, biased, vicious caricature of a religion and people. I wonder if our current culture doesn’t offer direct descendants of this approach, just tuning the mocking of religion and groups of people to the ear of a modern audience.

The amazing contrast in this play to the unkind portrayal of a Jewish merchant is Shakespeare’s treatment of women. The true hero (almost a super hero), the savior of nearly everyone else in the play, is Solomon-wise, independent, pleasingly manipulative Portia who is most kind and loving—except toward Shylock. Of course, she had to be manipulative because she had to exercise all her wisdom, influence and control indirectly, secretly and subtly in the culture where Shakespeare placed her.

The themes that I saw as I read The Merchant of Venice are justice versus mercy—we must give and hope for mercy–and the importance of keeping oaths and promises —all taught to us by Portia.

The Merchant of Venice (balancing its very negative and positive attributes carefully) earns 2 Bards:


Quotes that appealed to me for various reasons (and a brief thought on a few of them):

Antonio: “I know not why I am so sad: It wearies me; you say it wearies you; but how I caught it, found it, or came by it, what stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born, I am to learn; and such a want-wit sadness makes of me that I have much ado to know myself.”

Gratiano: “You have too much respect upon the world: They lose it that do buy it with much care.”

Bassanio: “Gratiano speaks an infinite deal of nothing…His reasons are as two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff: you shall seek all day ere you find them; and, when you have them, they are not worth the search.”

Nerrissa: “…they are as sick that surfeit with too much as they that starve with nothing. It is no mean happiness, therefore, to be seated in the mean….” (One of the first arguments for the middle class?)

Portia: “If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces. It is a good divine that follows his own instructions: I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching.” (Talk is cheap.)

Gratiano: “All things that are, are with more spirit chased than enjoy’d.”

Shylock: “I am a Jew! Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?” (A powerful argument against all race and creed-based prejudice, after all, in the oft-quoted words of John Donne: “No man is an island … each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main….”)

Bassanio: “The world is still deceiv’d with ornament.”

Bassanio (later in the same monologue): There is no vice so simple but assumes some mark of virtue on his outward parts.

Bassanio (later in the same monlogue): …Thus ornament is but the guiled shore to a most dangerous sea; the beauteous scarf veiling an Indian beauty; in a word, the seeming truth which cunning times put on to entrap the wisest.

Portia: This comes too near the praising of myself; therefore, no more of it….

Duke: How shalt thou hope for mercy, rend’ring none?

Portia: The quality of mercy is not strain’d; It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath: it is twice bless’d; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes: ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes the throned monarch better than his crown, his sceptre shows the force of temporal power, the attribute to awe and majesty, wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings; but mercy is above this scepter’d sway,—It is enthroned in the heart of kings, it is an attribute to God himself; and earthly power doth then show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew, though justice be thy plea consider this—that in the course of justice none of us should see salvation: we do pray for mercy; and that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy. (Wonderful discussion of mercy and why we need to “render” it.)

Portia: …As thou urgest justice, be assur’d thou shalt have justice, more than thou desir’st. (I am sure none of us really want what we deserve. We crave mercy for ourselves. How then can we not proffer it? Reminds me of the great exchange from Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband”: LORD CAVERSHAM: You don’t deserve her, sir. LORD GORING: My dear father, if we men married the women we deserved, we should have a very bad time of it.)

Portia: That light we see is burning in my hall: How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.

Portia: He is well paid that is well satisfied.

Bassanio: Pardon this fault, and by my soul I swear, I never more will break an oath with thee. (Would have been better if he had never broke an oath to her. Tough to re-establish trust when we once break a promise/oath.)

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3 Responses to “A Grossly Villainous Stereotype and a Wise Woman”

  1. Mark Alexander Says:

    Did you really fail to notice that the “hero” Portia who extols Christian mercy shows none? Did you not pay attention to the first lines of Antonio, Bassanio, Gratiano, and Portia, and wonder why they all exhibit a kind of unconscious depression and meloncholy (read guilt) that they try to avoid by living lives of distraction? Did you take time to wonder which character is the lead cask, the silver cask and the gold cask?

    Have you really read so much of Shakespeare without recognizing Shakespeare’s mastery of seeming vs. being, appearance vs. truth? That Shakespeare is both a playwright AND and poet, a dealer in apparances AND a subtle dealer in truth?

    Did you never get a single hint that Shakespeare is sticking it BIG TIME to the hypocritical Christians?

  2. Mark Alexander Says:

    Let me expand on one aspect.

    “All that glisters is not gold.”

    Dimly, in varying degrees, these Venetians and Belmontese reveal an uneasiness, a vague discontent, an unexplained sense of something wrong. This note, significantly, is sounded in the very first words of four or five of the leading characters.

    In sooth, I know not why I am so sad, says Antonio in the first line of the play.

    “By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world,” are Portia’s first words.

    “Our house is hell,” Jessica announces in her opening speech. And we wonder what cruelty her father has been guilty of, until she goes on to explain that the hell she refers to is tediousness.

    Melancholy, weariness, tedium—the reiteration of the note cannot be coincidence. And the other characters confirm the conjecture. Over and over they give the sense of attempting to fill every chink of time with distraction or amusement, often just words, to prevent their thinking.

    Bassanio makes his bow with a greeting to Salanio and Salarino: Good signiors both, when shall we laugh? say when?

    And Gratiano (after a reference to Antonio’s morose appearance, from which he takes his cue) begins:

    Let me play the fool!
    With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come,
    And let my liver rather heat with wine
    Than my heart cool with mortifying groans.

    Gratiano’s cure for care is merriment and torrents of talk.

    He is not the only one in Venice who “speaks an infinite deal of nothing.” Launcelot Gobbo, the “witsnapper,” is merely a parody and reduction to the absurd of the loquaciousness that infects the main plot as well as the comic relief. Lorenzo condemns as fools those of higher station who, like Launcelot, “for a tricksy word defy the matter,” and then proceeds in his very next speech to defy it in the same way.

    We can feel Shakespeare himself wearying of “wit”—the verbal gold that conceals paucity of thought—and it would scarcely be far-fetched to find a prophecy of his great taciturn characters, like Cordelia and Virgilia, in the declaration: “How every fool can play upon the word! I think the best grace of wit will shortly turn into silence, and discourse grow commendable in none only but parrots.”

    What is the trouble with these people and what are they trying to hide? Why should the beautiful Portia, with all her adorers, be bored? Nerissa, who under her habit as waiting-maid has much wisdom, hits the nail on the head in her first speech in answer to Portia’s: “For aught I see, they are as sick that surfeit with too much as they that starve with nothing.” What these people are trying to elude is their own souls.

  3. admin Says:


    Thanks for your feedback and insight. Shakespeare does seem to deal with multiple levels of meaning, and thus allows us to revisit his plays again and again, each time gaining new insight and perspective. I do agree with you that the playwright does challenge us with Portia’s lack of “Christian” kindness.

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