“The world is still deceiv´d with ornament./ In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt/ But, being season´d with a gracious voice,/ Obscures the show of evil? In religion,/ What damned error but some sober brow/ Will bless it and approve it with a text,/ Hiding the grossness with fair ornament?/ There is no [vice] so simple but assumes some mark of virtue on his outward parts”
[The Merchant of Venice (III.ii.74-82)]
These lines from William Shakespeare´s The Merchant of Venice portray a world consumed with appearances. In order to win the hand of the wealthy Portia of Belmont, the speaker, a young Venetian named Bassanio, must judge the underlying worth of three separate caskets (gold, silver, lead). He notes that Venice´s ornamentation of affluence (gold and silver) conceals a reality of greed and superficiality that confuses human relationships with material possessions, exchange values, and contracts. Yet, though it may appear that the mercantile reality of the Rialto (Venice) and the moonlit, airy, fairy-tale land of Belmont represent extremes of corruption and virtue respectively, these worlds are not mutually exclusive. Despite the “happily-ever-after” suggestions in Belmont (where truth, justice, and fairy-tail endings purportedly set everything “right”), once the moonlit veil is lifted from Belmont, the audience finds alarming similarities-evident in the diction and exchange systems-to the superficiality of Venice. In both worlds, love and money are intimately intertwined and interchangeable while exchange values confuse the body with the material and faithful vows with mere literal contractual obligations. The worlds converge even more as the line between the “justice” of Belmont and corruption of Venice blurs. Thus, Shakespeare implies that removal to an ornamental realm of moonlight in Belmont cannot substitute for the lack of moral metamorphosis in Venice at the end; how can true Christian virtue and love triumph when, underneath a Christian facade, the Christian characters adhere mercilessly to contractual exchanges in trade and love?
From the play´s start, clearly love and money are bound closely in the characters´ value system. A port of exchange, Venice is a city where everything has a price tag, whether material goods, love, or flesh; and happiness or sadness revolve around these exchanges. Thus, when Antonio, a Venetian merchant, sighs, his two friends (Solanio and Salerio) first assert that Antonio is grieving over a mercantile venture: “had I such a venture forth,/ the better part of my affections would/ Be with my hopes abroad” (I.i.15-16). Solanio´s very use of the word “affections” in relation to a monetary venture is a telling confession of the value system on the Rialto. Further, when Antonio assures them that his fortune (ships) is safe, Solanio instantly assumes, “then you are in love” (I.i.46). Upon Antonio´s ambiguous dismissal of love, Solanio seems lost, and applies to ridiculous arguments–“Then let us say that you are sad/ Because you are not merry” (I.i.47-48)–because emotion (love/sadness) and money are so intimately linked in the Venetian mindset to the exclusion of other associations.
Love and money become further entangled as the language of love takes on double meanings in Venice. Upon Solanio´s and Salerio´s exit in the first scene of the play, Antonio notes that the two friends “embrace th´ occasion” (I.i.64) of their business–suggesting an amorous love affair with financial enterprises–but assures them that their “worth is very dear in [his] regard” (I.i.61). Here, Antonio may mean that he values their friendship emotionally, yet the words “worth” and “dear” suggest financial value as well, hinting at the ambiguity between emotional and financial obligations that plague the characters in both Venice and Belmont. The “worth” of love gets further garbled as Bassanio talks to Antonio of his intentions to court Portia; the audience expects a lover´s distracted, excited manner as he praises his lady, yet a highly rational Bassanio first and foremost exalts her wealth: “in Belmont, there is a lady richly left” (I.i161); and, almost as an afterthought, tacks on “and she is fair” (I.i.162). Yet, he almost immediately reverts back to financial terminology by calling her “nothing undervalued” (I.i.165). Comparing her to the golden fleece, he values her as a wealthy prize, for “many Jasons come in quest” (I.i.172) of her. Instead of the hero´s glory, Bassanio´s reward is wealth– to “questionless be fortunate!” (I.i.176) in this business venture. Yet, it is questionable exactly what Bassanio loves, Portia, her money, or his confusion of Portia as a monetary item.
The women in mercantile Venice also subscribe to the code of money, reinforcing the confusion of meanings of worth in love and money. For instance, Jessica, the Jewish usurer´s (Shylock) daughter, is in the same situation as Portia. Though Lorenzo, Jessica´s suitor, professes to love her, he judges her worth as Bassanio appraises Portia, as a wealthy possession: “she hath directed/ how I should take her from her father´s house,/ what gold and jewels she is furnish´d with” (II.iv.29-31). Interestingly, Jessica seems to share this view of herself as a money prize valued for its pecuniary furnishings, telling Lorenzo that she will “gild [herself]I with some more ducats” (II.vi.49-50) before she elopes with him. This imagery of Jessica having to gild or adorn herself with money; to turn her worth, which should be of virtue and love, into a superficial ornament of gaudy gold, reveals that not even love is sacred in the business transactions of the Rialto. Further, Lorenzo´s outspoken admission of his love for Jessica is really an admiration for her “wisdom” in stealing most of her father´s money. Calculating the value of Jessica´s love, he boasts to his friends, “true she is, as she hath prov´d herself” (II.vi.55); but, ironically, Jessica has proved her trueness only by deception and theft, and her perversion of love into a selfish exchange of wealth.
Not even Belmont, that supposed sanctuary where love, justice, and fellowship prevail, is secure from confusions of love and money, notions of worth. Outwardly, it is a land of myth and fairy-tale where exotic suitors (the princes of Morocco and Aragon) come in quest of a lovely lady who is only to be won and freed from maidenhood by a lottery of three caskets representing moral truths. In typical romantic fashion, it is the lowly, impoverished, yet worthy youth (Bassanio) who sees beyond beauty and into the very soul of the lady (Portia); by choosing the barren lead casket, he accepts not only the riches, but also embraces the hazards of life with Portia. Yet, Belmont´s seemingly magical and romantic exterior, an outward embellishment, cannot smooth away faults engendered and viciously propagated within human nature. Though Bassanio seems to dismiss mere pecuniary desires and elevate an honest love untainted by monetary gain, the language of both lovers reveals their confusion of “worth” as well as love and money.
Portia especially, as a product of Belmont´s airy idealism, illustrates that even in a fantasy world, human faults bubble underneath the ornamental surface. As Portia first addresses Bassanio upon his coming to Belmont to try his luck with the caskets at the start of act III, scene ii, she begins with the cold, financial assessments of marriage associated with Venice. The
first eight lines of her speech are enjambed, indicating emotions so passionate as to spill uncontrollably onto the next lines. Yet, even within this emotional outpouring of her fearing to lose Bassanio, she modestly and rationally asserts that “it is not love” (III.ii.4). What other agenda she has in keeping Bassanio as her husband remains uncertain until her passion ceases in line 9, at which point the enjambed lines give way finally to a marked pause. Here, self-seeking rationality and business take over as she starts using the mercantile, money-filled language of Venice: “I would detain you …/ Before you venture for me” (III.ii.9-10). Portia´s very use of the word venture brings her akin to the merchants of Venice whose ventures–ships and their merchandise–bring them wealth and position. Portia, a rich heiress, seems to see herself as the treasure for a deserving, worthy young knight, whom she judges to be Bassanio. The rationality, rather than emotionality, of her plan to obtain Bassanio for her husband is preceded and accentuated by a caesura, a deliberate pause within a line, as she hints, “I could teach you/ how to choose right” (III.ii.10-11). A caesura in line 18–“O these naughty times/ Puts bars between the owners and their rights!” (III.ii.18-19)–clearly marks her final descent into a rational, pecuniary view of marriage. The confusion of emotional and financial attachments in love transcends the two worlds of Venice and Belmont, for, like Jessica of Venice, Portia of Belmont needs to “gild” herself to prove her worth to Bassanio, who can then boast of his conquest´s (Portia) worth, as Lorenzo does of Jessica: “for you,/ I would be trebled twenty times myself,/ a thousand times more fair, ten thousand times more rich/ that only to stand high in your account.” Again, Portia´s use of the word “account” suggests Bassanio´s monetary estimation of her worth. The striking parallel between Portia–raised in fairy-tale Belmont–and Jessica–surrounded by money in Venice–shows the money/love exchange system thriving in seemingly opposite worlds and suggests that underneath its airy facade, Belmont is not that different from Venice.
Linked to the confusion of money and love is the concept of contracts or obligations of flesh and money in both business and love; here, again, Venice and Belmont may seem to represent the extremes of depravity and justice respectively, but closer analysis reveals that the two worlds are similar beneath their outward ornamentation. Principally, the confusion in these contracts stem from Christian ideas concerning capitalism and especially usury that figure prominently in Venice and equally, though less obviously, in Belmont. The argument that the Christian characters use to censure and vilify Shylock (the Jewish usurer) is the notion that money is barren and, thus, that it is unnatural for money to “breed” more money, making usury (lending money for interest) immoral. Yet, Shylock´s comment that he makes money “breed as fast” (I.iii.96) as the ewes that Jacob bred in the Old Testament raises the question whether flesh can breed flesh, money breed money or even flesh itself. Bassanio and Antonio, despite condemning usury, do seem to make money breed more money–Bassanio will use Shylock´s money to gain the wealth and person of Portia–and in essence become “usurers” themselves. In censuring Shylock for justifying usury, Antonio exclaims, “what a goodly outside falsehood hath” (I.iii.103), yet only ends up criticizing himself (Antonio) for the ornamental “goodly outside” that he (Antonio) purports in lending money without interest to conceal the reality of his own breeding of money and love for money. Though Antonio speaks of Christian principles that forbid usury, he cannot escape the heritage of trade and the money breeding values of the Rialto; that is, by its very nature, his own capitalistic trading is usury. Merchants use money to purchase goods, sell those goods at a profit, and accrue interest from the profitable sale of goods; now, money has bred money. Additionally, as The Bible dictates in Deuteronomy 23:19, it is basically wrong to take any type of interest–essentially profit–whether on money or other goods. Thus, the Christians not only see Shylock´s usury as an affront to their beliefs, but also have set him up as a scapegoat in order to assuage their own consciences; particularly telling is their indiscriminately labeling him as evil just because he is Jewish: “Thou call´dst me a dog before thou hadst a cause” (III.iii.5-6).
Money not only breeds money, but also seems to breed flesh in contracts of love and friendship; another kind of “interest” or gain. First, it is important to note monetary and emotional obligatory contracts take precedence over Bassanio´s love for Portia; he does not immediately talk of Portia to Antonio when Antonio asks about his intended courtship, but instead goes into a confession of his financial state: “´tis not unknown to you, Antonio/ How much I have disabled mine estate” (I.i.122-123). His overwhelming concern with money continues as he admits that he owes Antonio “the most in money and love/ and from [Antonio´s] love [Bassanio has] a warranty/ to unburthen all [his] plots and purposes/ how to get clear of all the debts” (I.i.130-134). Again, love and money are closely linked not only in the direct statement of Bassanio´s debt to Antonio, but also through the juxtaposition of the words love and warranty, which introduces the notions of contractual bonds in love. Here, it seems that the love stems partly from the money that Antonio has supplied Bassanio, as well as the “warranty” that obligates money to love; in other words, Antonio´s lending without interest (monetary) engenders friendship while friendship obligates companions to assist each other. Ironically, his lending of money is not really free of interest or usury; instead of money, he charges love and friendship. Thus, Antonio not only is a usurer in capitalistic trade, but also in the friendship contract. Struggling to maintain his claim on Bassanio´s love, he outbids Portia by offering to pay with his life; telling Bassanio to “bid [Portia] be judge/ whether Bassanio had not once a love” (IV.i.276-277), Antonio reclaims Bassanio, who vows that he loves Antonio more than Portia.
Contracts of interest also pervade the wonderland of Belmont, particularly that of the marriage contract. Interestingly, Antonio urges Bassanio to “[slubber] business not for [his] sake” (II.viii.43-44), which suggests courtship as a business and an employment– a campaign of show (“ostents”) to win a contract of love (and the dowry). A key moment is when Bassanio finally does choose the “right” (lead) casket and reads the note inside that instructs him to “claim [Portia] with a loving kiss” (III.ii.138). The very combination of the words “claim”–suggesting a business proposition–and “kiss,” which should indicate love, hints at the confusion even in Belmont of love as an emotion or as a monetary contract. There is also a significant amount of financial and highly legalistic terminology in Bassanio´s “claiming” Portia as his wife: “I come by note, to give and receive/ like one of two contending in a prize” (III.ii.141-142). Essentially, Bassanio has made a shrewd, worldly business deal with Portia´s father and comes to fulfill the exchange (“give and receive”) that the marriage contract (the “note”) requires. Further, when Portia has “confirm´d, sign´d, and ratified” (III.ii.149)–again using suggestive financial, legalistic jargon–the contract will be valid and the deal closed. Even Portia uses marriage as a financial contract when news comes of Antonio´s bankruptcy and Shylock´s intent to cut out Antonio´s heart. Portia offers money to save Antonio, but first, Bassanio must “go with [Portia] to church and call [her] wife/ and then away to Venice to [Antonio]” (III.ii.303-304). Her comment that “since you are dear-bought, I will love you dear” (III..313) clearly implies that she has purchased Bassanio–his flesh and his heart–at great cost (i.e., the money to save Antonio.)
Yet, in these contracts of flesh, money, and love, there is also the forfeiture of that business agreement or marital vow that raises disturbing questions of morality, true justice, and Christian mercy in Venice as well as in Belmont. Perhaps the most striking example is Shylock´s claim on the forfeiture of Antonio´s flesh bond and the resulting questions about not only contracts, flesh, and money, but also Christianity. Though the scene begins with the Christians pleading with a cruel Shylock to forgive and dismiss the debt in gentle mercy, the arrival of Portia from Belmont in disguise as a young male lawyer soon turns the judgment against Shylock. Nor can any sense of moral transformation be implied in Venice in the “triumph” of the Christians over the “evil,” greedy Jew, for Portia´s entire line of reasoning is based on a technicality of the law–a contract in itself–that allows Shylock to take exactly one pound of flesh, but no blood, or else Shylock´s life is forfeit. Ironically, the Duke´s previous plea to Shylock–“how shalt thou hope for mercy, rend´ring none” (IV.i.88)–becomes all the more distressing in view of the Christians´ own mercilessness as they systematically strip Shylock of his wealth, his religion (through a forced conversion to Christianity), and almost his live. Even within Shylock´s perverted justifications for his ownership of Antonio´s flesh, the audience gets glimpses into Christian hypocritical “mercy” and justice: “you have many a purchas´d slave,/ which like your ….. dogs and mules,/ you use in abject and in slavish parts,/ because you bought them” (IV.i.90-94).
Since Venice has remained a foggy moral conundrum where love and money still intertwine and where justice is a matter of technicalities in contracts of law, it seems natural for the characters to seek a sanctuary in moonlit, exotic Belmont. Yet, in the end, Belmont has remained an ornament without true substance, a dream world that cannot effect moral change in Christians who refuse to shed their hypocrisy or immorality. There is a judgment in Belmont at the end of the play (as there was in Venice), as Portia censures Bassanio for giving his wedding ring as payment to the young lawyer (a disguised Portia) who saves Antonio form Shylock. Ostensibly, she appears to be teaching Bassanio that the sacred vows represented by a symbolic ring cannot be exchanged–“a thing stuck on you with oaths upon your flesh” (V.i.168)–in Belmont, as they can in Venice, where everything has a price. Yet, she asserts that in losing the ring–made of gold and thus, a form of currency itself–Bassanio has also forfeited his rights to her body/flesh, which now rightfully belong to the lawyer: “I´ll not deny him any thing I have,/ no, not my body nor my husband´s bed” (V.i.227-8). Thus, she renews the confusion of the flesh (her body) and the material (a gold ring) and reemphasizes that marriage is more a contract of money and flesh than of love. Then, as in Venice, another flesh contract is set up as Antonio “[dares] be bound again,/ [his] soul upon the forfeit” (V.i.251-2) and be the surety for Bassanio´s faith; this time, for his constancy. Additionally, as in Venice, the problem of the money/flesh contract is resolved only by a technicality, that Portia herself is the lawyer; as in Venice, no real lesson has been learned and no moral transformation effected, only a series of tricks and deceptions carried out in an attempt to make everything “right”. Hence, not only has Venice remained unchanged, but Belmont isn´t exactly the fantasy world that the characters had hoped it would be. Thus, Shakespeare suggests that the facade of goodness in the invocation of religion without its effective practice cannot make everything right; one cannot escape the reality of inner corruption through outer fantasy.
Though Belmont wears the garments of Eden and underneath bears the burdens of human vice equal to that in Venice, there does seem to be an underlying (if faint) thread of hope of possible future redemption in Belmont; moments of inner reflection and meditation in which the characters briefly reveal an honest assessment of themselves and the materialistic world that they live in. Some sort of understanding, an admittance of folly seems present in Belmont when characters are reflecting to themselves rather than to the outside world, a reminder of human fallibility. For instance, as Portia contemplates life, the lesson is that “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 food to be done, than to be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching” (I.ii.12-17); in other words, the words and principles are easy to formulate (like Christianity), but are much more difficult to follow, and so hypocrisy reigns and follows in the body of the play. Yet, in the last act, as Portia comes back to Belmont after saving Antonio, that thought is brought full circle as she glimpses a candle–formerly hidden by the moonlight symbolic of the romantic idealism of Belmont–that “shines a good deed in a naughty world” (V.i.91). In other words, the elusive glass of inner reflection occasionally does penetrate Belmont, allowing honest insight and fleeting, though true realizations of human moral corruption. Thus, Belmont is not just a reflection of the extremely twisted morals of Venice, but a place where hope will not die if the Christians can look directly into their hearts, admit their hypocrisy, and reform. To catch the magic of Belmont is not to look for how these new surroundings can effect an inner change, but to seek for the answers within oneself.
Julia Kwan recently graduated from UCLA with a B.S. in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, as well as a minor in English. She is currently writing a novel, working as a private tutor, and collaborating on a research project with a European graduate student. “The Merchant of Venice: For Love or Money” is Julia´s first published essay.