The Merchant of Venice: Shakespearean Insincerity

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.)

Sean Fitzpatrick

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Sean Fitzpatrick is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and the Headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy. He lives in Scranton, PA with his wife and family of four.

  • Samuel63

    The 2005 version on DVD of The Merchant of Venice is a treat. It is for mature audiences however. This review is also a treat. Thanks so much!

    • Heil Hitler!

      Salvation is not found by taking sides in the conflicts between devils… Jewish Mammonism is no less of a devil than Mahomet…

      • Samuel63

        Seems a little strange.

        • Heil Hitler!

          jewish mammonism = baphomet = mahomet = muslim brotherhood

          It is the same two face hermaphrodite devil… the decadent Goat of Khar.

      • Hans-Georg Lundahl

        That you are correct in.

        Fortunately not all Jews are Mammonists, but Jewish Mammonism is indeed bad.

        Neither Communism nor Islamism were so much worse that one could once and for all take sides for Mammonism against them. In each moment, it is rather a question of which of them is the worse threat.

        One cannot side with Islamism against Jewish Mammonists, only with Islamists for some time. One cannot side with Jewish Mammonism against Islamists, only with Jewish Mammonists for some time.

        • Heil Hitler!

          The Golden Calf has grown up to be a hollow Bronze Bull.

          • Hans-Georg Lundahl

            Sure.

            But this does STILL not make each and every Jew accomplice to it.

            • Heil Hitler!

              Matt. 10:33

              • Hans-Georg Lundahl

                Yes, they are risking their eternities (and those who persisted have most usually probably lost their eternities), but this criminality against God is sometimes mitigated in a person by BLINDNESS, while it is also sth else than the cult of the Golden Calf.

                Do you get what I am saying now?

  • John Flaherty

    I won’t claim to be a literature scholar, but I didn’t read this play as being a “problem”. If the people are frequently insincere or manipulative, well, so too are people in life. Seems to me that Shakespeare used this play as a means of demonstrating how people struggle with virtue.

    In particular, if the young lady manipulated the suitors she didn’t like, that would seem to demonstrate some sense on her part. Part of courtship inherently involves a man’s effort to demonstrate to a woman that he actually is worth her attention.

    • Heil Hitler!

      When men choose to be ruled by their own appetites they become servants of Mammon… Salvation is not found by taking sides in the conflicts between devils…

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_MkA1UeHi_4

  • Hans-Georg Lundahl

    Note that Jessica by the abduction gets the boon of becoming a Catholic.

    Note also that you seem to see a hypocritical paradox where there is none:

    “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).”

    “fit for” does not mean “capable of doing” but “deserving” in this context.

    You seem otherwise to take for granted that both Jessica and Portia ought to have scrupulously obeyed their fathers’ wills.

    That is not the position of St Thomas Aquinas, nor evidently the position of Shakespear.

    And calling Antonio an Anti-Christ figure is really too much.

    First part of the play he is a Christ figure:

    * a) he condemns the usury of the Pharisee Shylock
    * b) he volunteers to pay the price for his friends’ debt.

    Second part of play he is himself redeemed – by a virgin who is a lawyer, an advocate. Portia is a symbol of the Blessed Virgin.

    Shylock is up to then a symbol of the devil, who tricks Adam into a guilt trap he cannot escape – and who is fooled by the manipulation of God (yes, this is in St Irenee) when he grasps for more than his due (Jesus was guiltless, Shylock had no claim to a drop of blood).*

    And the tirade about Shylock being forced to baptism under pain of death, it’s missing that Shylock had plotted to murder his erstwhile critic (really demanding the pound of flesh in court, as Antonio had really denounced his bad business manners earlier). So, it was a case of his being condemned to death justly for plotting against the life of a Venetian, and of being graced by willing to take baptism – the moment where he ceases to be symbol of the devil.

    C. S. Lewis very rightly said : any reading which makes Shylock the hero is out of court.

    * This is the theology we see in LWW also : the White Witch preferred grasping to kill Aslan over merely killing a traitor. Which was of course her overthrow.

    • Heil Hitler!

      Judaism is a denial of Christ, it is antichrist… Matt. 10:33… the Jews chose Barabbas now, they are afflicted with his children of Islam… When men choose to be ruled by their own appetites they become servants of Mammon…

      • Hans-Georg Lundahl

        Actually, two things:

        1) Shylock though ostentatiously Jewish is partly a symbol of the devil and partly a standin for Puritans. Shakespear had no reason to deal with Jews, these having been already expulsed, and not yet back in England, especially not on a large scale.

        Also, Shylock being unmusical is more Puritan than Jewish.

        And Shakespear alas had to deal with Puritans.

        2) Nazism, which you honour by yur screen name, was alas too close to Jewish money (see Goebbels’ father in law) and too close to Puritanism, both by voters in North Germany and by Kantianism of Eichmann, to be a fully viable alternative for a Christian.

        Hence early on its laws for labour camps (with death penalty for shirkers) and abortion for eugenic reasons.

        If you want to oppose Jewish money intrigues, when at their worst, I recommend more like Austrofascism or Distributism. Dollfuss and Chesterton are fully Christian alternatives to Jewish ideas, not just on religion.

        As to the man, let’s hope the painter who was forced into undeserved failure escaped and got his Seelenheil by a good confession.

        • Heil Hitler!

          Der Muslimen, der Juden, und der Schwulen, alle antichrist…

          • Hans-Georg Lundahl

            Your German is faulty, and your Theology too if you consider that they are ALL so in ways that socially afflict Christians too much.

            • Heil Hitler!

              Judaism is a denial of Christ, it is antichrist… Matt. 10:33…

              • Hans-Georg Lundahl

                Sure. Judaism is, but some individual Jews don’t realise that. They think their religion is the Torah, which it is not.

        • Just a note: Puritans were not unmusical.

          • Hans-Georg Lundahl

            When it came to wordly music, like that played in Carnival of Venice, yes, they were.

  • Hugh Lunn

    Joseph Pearce provides a corrective to this misreading of the MOV:

    http://www.staustinreview.com/ink_desk/archives/a_really_bad_article_on_the_merchant_of_venice/

    • Paul Prezzia

      Joseph Pierce himself misreads Mr. Fitzpatrick’s article: not once does Mr. Fitzpatrick read Portia as a “bigoted anti-semite;” his criticism of Portia only superficially resembles that of the modern and post-modern academics.
      Here are some helpful distinctions:
      1) Modern academia sees Shylock as a hero; Mr. Fitzpatrick’s claim is that there are no heroes (he says Shylock is honest, not that he is virtuous).
      2) Modern academia focuses on race and anti-semitism in the play, which only incidentally concerns Mr. Fitzpatrick. Mr. Fitzpatrick is concerned with the morality of each character’s personal relationships in this review, not with the opposition of Christians and Jews, the oppression of Jews in the Renaissance, or anti-semitism.
      For myself, I think the play is ambiguous. The “good” characters do things which would be considered immoral in everyday life. At the same time, there is something compelling about, for instance, seeing Antonio as Christ-figure. Regardless of which point of view one takes, however, it is important to understand first what the argument is, and I think that the comment box here indicates that that has not been accomplished.

      • Hugh Lunn

        Thanks for the clarification Billy Shakespeare. I find Mr. Pearce’s approach, enlightening, yours, rather trendy and relativistic.

        • Michael Wallis

          I agree, Pearce at least has an approach. The shallow critics speak of “ambiguity” of meanings and “good” and bad” in parenthesis, as they go on to decry the very modern and postmodern critics that they are the Janus face of.

          In fact corners of the “modern” academy contain strong Catholic critics such as Father Peter Milward and compelling secular readers of Shakespeare from a Straussian perspective, among many other sensible appreciations oif Shakespeare. Stomping one’s fee that an argument has not been understood is not an argument.

          • Paul Prezzia

            Mr. Wallis, let me first thank you for a point well taken; I did paint the “modern academy” with a rather broad brush, and there are certainly many modern professors who are not modernist or postmodernist.
            Mr. Lunn, I apologize for being unclear. When I said that the play was ambiguous, I did not mean to be relativistic, only to say that I see compelling arguments on both sides, and I don’t know enough to pick one side yet.
            However, I haven’t seen Mr. Fitzpatrick’s points answered yet, and I do think that Mr. Pearce caricatured his argument. Can you show me where Mr. Fitzpatrick makes Portia out to be a “bigoted anti-semite?” He says several unflattering things about her being manipulative and insincere, but not much about her being anti-semitic.
            I also think there’s a problem with pointing to a website where Joseph Pearce “provides a corrective to this misreading,” when that is the very thing Pearce does NOT do at the site. Instead of being a corrective or any sort of a rebuttal, it is an advertisement: “Buy my book,” “buy the Ignatius Critical Edition.” Now, I am sure these are wonderful books, and they may even answer all of Mr. Fitzpatrick’s points, but I think it’s a bit lazy for you (not Mr. Pearce) to refer to that link as an argument in itself.

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