Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice

A miser gains but never gives. A moneylender gives in order to receive. A friend gives generously and gladly but never charges interest. A lover gives without calculating the cost, takes a risk without any guarantees, and gives without any forethought of reward only to receive more than ever imagined. In Shakespeare’s play Shylock hoards his wealth and counts his ducats, denying his daughter Jessica any portion of his riches as she elopes with some of her father’s gold: “Oh, my ducats! Oh, my daughter!” Shylock gives in order to receive, charging usurious interest for lending money and even demanding a pound of flesh if Antonio’s debt is not paid on time. Antonio, on the other hand, has already lent Bassanio money he has not repaid, but out of true friendship he agrees to borrow from Shylock to provide for Bassanio’s travels to Belmont to court Portia. The giving in friendship transcends contracts.

Antonio “ventures” for the sake of friendship, and Bassanio “hazards” all for the sake of his love for Portia as Antonio takes chances with his merchant ships at sea and Bassanio assumes a risk by guessing the right casket in the lottery Portia’s father has devised to select her husband. Bassanio explains this idea of chance by his parable of the arrow: “In my school days, when I had lost one shaft,/ I shot his fellow of the selfsame flight/ The selfsame way with more advised watch,/ To find the other forth, and by adventuring both,/ I oft found both.” Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Whereas the commercial world of money lending gives in order to get with no serious risk, the spirit of true friendship and the romance of love do not calculate or reckon in terms of gain, self-interest, and profit.

As the three suitors compete for the hand of Portia and seek to solve the riddle of the caskets, they read the three inscriptions, one of which contains Portia’s portrait: “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire” reads the golden casket; “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves” appears on the silver casket; and “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath” is written on the leaden casket. The Prince of Morocco, fixed on “gaining” and dazzled by gold, seeks the prize of wealth as he calculates his earnings in winning Portia. The Prince of Aragon, reducing love to just deserts rather than appreciating it as a heavenly gift, also uses economic terms to determine his choice and declares “I will assume desert” as if he has paid the right price for his purchase. Bassanio, on the other hand, does not value love as a financial debt or profitable transaction but as a blessing of good fortune that transcends the laws of the marketplace. By hazarding “all” with no calculations based on self-interest Bassanio—choosing the plain leaden casket—prizes Portia beyond gold and silver. Winning Portia’s love without consideration of gaining or deserving, Bassanio acknowledges that love demands “venturing.” Giving without expecting to gain, he receives the priceless gift of Portia’s love worth more than all the gold and silver in the world.

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Antonio, who lent Bassanio money without interest to court Portia and borrowed from Shylock to provide the funds, also receives more than he gave—not just the money he lent but also a miraculous escape from death. Just when Shylock demands his pound of flesh as forfeit for the unpaid debt that Antonio cannot reimburse on the due date, Portia appears in court in the disguise of Balthazar to plead Antonio’s case.  Grateful for the gift of Bassanio’s love and for Antonio’s generous friendship to her husband, Portia responds with the same ideal of giving without cost: “I never did repent for doing good,/ Nor shall not now,” she vows as she hastens to Antonio’s defense: “…this Antonio,/ Being the bosom lover of my lord,/ Must needs be like my lord. If it be so, / How little is the cost I have bestowed/ In purchasing the semblance of my soul/ From out the state of hellish misery.” Antonio’s generosity to Bassanio inspires more giving on the part of Portia—intercession in the trial: To give without expectation of receiving is to receive in unforeseen and mysterious ways.

When Portia appeals to Shylock’s humanity with her plea of mercy in the famous speech “The quality of mercy is not strained, / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/ Upon the place beneath,” Shylock only insists on his bond and the letter of the law—a pound of flesh. None of her praises of mercy (“It is enthroned in the hearts of kings” and “It is an attribute to God himself”) move Shylock to accept triple the payment for the debt rather than the pound of flesh. When Portia then interprets the letter of the law with the same exactitude of Shylock, she argues that Shylock is entitled to only one pound of flesh and no more and has no right to shed blood:  “This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood. The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh.’” She will grant Shylock no more mercy than he proffered to Bassanio. While Portia tenders mercy to Antonio, she enforces justice upon Shylock: “nay, if the scale do turn/ But in the estimation of a hair—/Thou diest and all thy goods are confiscate.” Antonio’s “venturing” of more money to Bassanio who then “hazarded all” to win Portia blesses him with the surprising gift of Portia’s eloquence delivering him from the cruelty of Shylock’s revenge. The law of love does not operate according to the laws of the financiers, money lenders, and marketplace.

Friendship, love, romance, beauty, and music abound in Belmont where the lovers and friends celebrate the gifts and graces they have received without profit-loss arithmetic, worship of gold, or economic calculation based on self-interest. Whereas Machiavelli in The Prince argues that Fortune is a woman and that he who would have her must take her by force, Shakespeare honors Fortune as a mysterious goddess of luck whose feminine mystique will not be subjected to man’s tyranny, avarice, or stinginess as Portia proves too much for Shylock.

  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian (1941-2018) was a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children’s Literature.

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