Insincerity in people is recognized as a problem, which is why Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is recognized as the “problem play.” The Merchant of Venice is a play about insincere people and, therefore, it is problematic. It is a drama that has duped audiences for centuries, posing as full of pure lovers, wise women, and noble friends—but this is not the case. The play pretends to be pure, wise, and noble but at its heart it is dark, deceitful, and devious. The only honest creature on the boards is the villain, who declares his villainy openly even he poses as what he is not. The insincerity of these famous characters, so often praised and revered, makes The Merchant of Venice rare and raw material for Lenten meditation. There is nothing more important in this time of spiritual springtime than to come to a sincere appraisal of self and remove the waxen masks every person is wont to wear.
Enter Antonio, the “noble” merchant of Venice, with pathetic complaints and manipulative lies. He claims to be unaccountably and incurably sad—which Gratiano, speaking as the infallible Shakespearean fool, insists is a mere show of gravitas. Though Antonio assures Salarino and Salanio that lack of money is not the cause of his depression, as soon as the wastrel Bassanio enters begging for further benefactions, Antonio claims he has no available moneys. Hearing Bassanio has fallen in love with the richly-left Portia, Antonio suggests that they borrow from the Jew, Shylock. Why support such frivolous passion? Why give the prodigal—one who admits he is in the habit of assuming a greater show of wealth than his means can supply—further funds? Does Antonio find strange pleasure in having Bassanio in his debt? By which debt, perhaps, he buys a false, sycophantic “friendship?” Is this friendship?
Enter Portia, the “virtuous” heiress of Belmont, who immediately speaks in prose rather than verse (a sign of low character in the world of Shakespeare’s stage), complaining how weary it is to be virtuous. She and her maid, Nerissa, review the harshness of her father’s dying wish that her marriage be determined by a lottery: every man seeking Portia’s hand and fortune must choose rightly between three caskets of gold, silver, and lead. For a so-called virtuous girl, Portia admits to tampering shamelessly with the riddle to avoid men whose aspect does not please her. But when she learns that the assembled undesirables wonder if she might be won by some means other than the caskets, she adamantly upholds their system and her father’s will. Then, with the announced arrival of the Prince of Morocco, she wrinkles her nose, insisting she would not marry such an ugly man even if he had the soul of a saint. Is this virtue?
Enter Shylock, the only “honest” one in the play because he is the only one to speak his heart to the audience and disclose his duplicity before enacting it. Even in his hypocrisy of seeming friendship, Shylock is a straight speaker, asking Antonio why he should loan money to one who has abused him for his religion and race, recalling how Antonio has called him cut-throat dog, kicked him, reviled him in public, and spit in his beard and on his Jewish gabardine. After tense discussion, Shylock lends Antonio the money for Bassanio’s quest, securing the penalty of a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Shylock presents this penalty as a joke—as a price impossible to pay and therefore to be interpreted as a sign of goodwill. Shylock seals this bond and thereby sets the scene for legal murder, smiling through to the moment of revenge, though his being retches with hate for Antonio and his Christian humbuggery. Shylock is not ethical. But he is, in a sense, honest.
Enter the rest, charlatans and liars all. The brash Launcelot tries confusions upon his blind father between backstabbing conspiracies. The musical Lorenzo lures away Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, in the guise of a pageboy during a masquerade, stealing a trove of Shylock’s wealth; and then condemns all unmusical men as fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils (the very crimes for which he himself is guilty). The artless Bassanio chooses the leaden casket rightly, only because he knows from personal experience that the outward shows of things are least themselves (while Portia nudges the handsome lad on with a song in which every last word rhymes with “lead”). They marry after Bassanio swears to keep Portia’s ring, which, if he should part with, give away, or just lose, Portia has the right to claim advantage over him. (Sound strange? It would between people who trust each other.) Meanwhile, Antonio’s vessels miscarry, his wealth is lost, and Shylock demands his bloody forfeiture. The merchant writes a letter to prick Bassanio’s conscience, requesting his presence at the horrific execution in the name of friendship. (What friend would desire his friend to witness his gruesome death?)
All are self-centered. All are dissembling. All are manipulators.
In the end, Bassanio returns to Venice for Antonio’s grisly, guilt-inspiring demise at Shylock’s hands. But Portia determines to save Antonio’s life by disguising herself as a young judge. She delivers a moving and truly magnificent speech on the quality of mercy. Shylock rejects it. Portia then overthrows Shylock on the point that though the bond allots him a pound of flesh, it does not give a jot of blood. When Antonio is restored to a position of power over Shylock, he proceeds to abuse him as before, punitively assigning what money remains in Shylock’s coffers to the eloped Lorenzo and Jessica, and forces him to be baptized on pain of death. While the Christians thus have at the Jew, Portia—the eloquent and seemingly angelic advocate of mercy—says nothing. At the first opportunity, she tricks her unknowing husband into giving as payment the ring she made him promise to keep, thus winning advantage over him. In the end, back in Belmont, Portia grills her groom into submission, tells Antonio that she (who has never known Antonio before now) has news that his ships have escaped the storm and come to harbor, and, promising to explain all of these amazing mysteries, she closes the doors in the audience’s face, leaving them in the dark.
What is truth?
The word “sincere” come from the Latin sine cera, meaning “without wax.” Wax was the material used in fashioning masks. Those who are sincere are “without wax,” or “without masks.” The insincere are “not without wax,” or “not without a mask.” The dramatis personae of The Merchant of Venice are a company whose countenances are buried in masks—and that is why they fool so many people. Antonio is not a Christ figure. Antonio is an anti-Christ figure who seeks to burden his “friends” with eternal debt and eternal guilt as opposed to eternal freedom and felicity. Portia is not a wise and wonderful woman. Portia is a wildly manipulative woman that gets her will, bar none. Bassanio is not an innocent lover. Bassanio is a Machiavellian simpleton that knows his falseness and embraces it unabashedly. Shylock alone is tragically honest, though a monster nonetheless whose rigid adherence to the letter of the law proves ruinous. For a play that appears to go harshly against the Jewish, there is no character in the cast free from pharisaical hypocrisy. Everyone in this play—Christian and Jew alike—is a fake. Sincerity is the problem in this play because none of its characters recognize sincerity as a problem worth solving, and so is the play insoluble. Instead the players follow the prompts of insincerity, only to spread bewilderment, entrapment, and tyrannical power.
The overarching problem of insincerity in this problem play lies in an underlying question Shakespeare asks through his poetry. The Merchant of Venice not only questions the integrity of mankind, but also the integrity of theater itself in presenting mankind to himself. Shakespeare questioned the sincerity, and therefore the validity, of his art—an art of masks—in the context of his own plays, such as Hamlet’s Mousetrap and Prospero’s machinations. Portia’s caskets of gold, silver, and lead are boxes inviting self-assessment, like the boxes of so many stages. Each casket holds a trap, however: a form of danger. Does the stage hide and hold this threat as well? Is there anything of lasting value to be gained by the exits and entrances of so many varnished faces?
Such self-examination is the principle purpose of the Lenten season—a time to lengthen the light in the soul in order to diagnose and dispel the dirt that hides the truth of every person. Insincerity is a problem with people just as it is the problem with this play. Dramas like The Merchant of Venice, as mirrors of society, will struggle with sincerity until people strip away their masks and present themselves truthfully, giving hope for the reign of Truth.
Editor’s note: Great literature not only bears re-reading, it also offers such richness that various readers can find different levels of meaning and wisdom. The Merchant of Venice is certainly such a work. In an earlier issue of the Civilized Reader, Mitchell Kalpagkian approached the play in a different light. Readers will benefit from comparing the two reviews. (The image above depicting Shylock and his daughter Jessica was painted by Thomas Gray in 1868.)
This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Crisis Magazine.