Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Merchant of Venice: An Interpretive Note

The Merchant of Venice: An Interpretive Note
By Joel Friedman

            In The Merchant of Venice the meaning and larger significance of Shylock’s remark on the first meeting of Antonio:
                        How like a fawning publican he lookes.
has continued to remain enigmatic. There is no doubt it is an insulting epithet but precisely of what nature?
            Publican has been interpreted as a tax-gatherer or an inn-keeper, and editors have attempted several glosses:
Signet Classics- Publican sometimes glossed as Roman tax-gatherer, as in Mathew 11:17 and 31:30, and sometimes as an Elizabethan inn-keeper. Perhaps Shylock uses it as an inexact but bitter term of reproach.
The Yale Shakespeare- fawning publican: see Luke 18, 10-14.
The Arden Shakespeare- fawning publican an odd combination, for the publicani or farmers of Roman taxes were likely to treat Jews with some insolence rather than servility (so Clarendon)…It was appropriate for Shylock to call Antonio a publican, i.e., a servant of gentile oppressors who robbed the Jews of lawful gain (so F. T. Wood, N and Q., clxxxix (1945)), 252-3.
New Variorum Edition – Allen (MS): Shakespeare must have made Shylock, as a Jew, speak of a ‘publican’ as his fore fathers did in the New Testament; and yet the epithet he used shows that he conceived of him as an English inn-keeper.  In various dialects (see Halliwell’s Archaic diet.) ‘public’ is equivalent to an inn…
            None of these attempts clarifies Shylock’s observation. A fawning tax-gatherer makes no sense, but a fawning inn-keeper, it will be shown, is nearer the mark.
            Consider this passage: “Down to about the time (the 17th and 18th centuries) it had been customary of publicans to lend money on pledges that their customers might have the means of drinking, but the practice was at last stopped by act of parliament.” (James George Joseph Penderel-Bradhurst, editor of the Guardian [London]. Cited in All There Is to Know-Readings from the Illustrious Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, by Alexander A. Coleman and Charles Simmons, New York: Simon and Shuster, 1994-247.)
            Now a publican who fawns on his drinking patrons by continually giving credit fits Shylock’s description of Antonio perfectly and incisively. In the immediate lines that follow he enlarges and specifies:
                        I hate him for he is a Christian:
                        But more, for that in low simplicitie
                        He lends out money gratis, and brings downe
                        The rate of usance here with us in Venice.
            Here then, is the dominating incentive for Shylock’s determination to destroy Antonio. It overrides the ethnic hatred he has for him, and, later in the scene, Antonio’s hate for Shylock.
            This threat to his livelihood holds more importance for Shylock than the defection of Jessica, and the loss of his money and jewels. Indeed, he feels the loss of his property, which Jessica has squandered so carelessly, far more than the loss of his daughter.
            Tuball: Your daughter spent in Genowa, as I heard, one night fourscore                                     ducats.
            Shylock: Thou stick’st a dagger in me, I shall never see my gold againe,                                     fourscore ducats at a sitting, fourscore ducats.
In fact, on learning she has given his turquoise in exchange for a monkey, he curses her:
            Tuball: One of them showed me a ring that hee had of your daughter for a                                     Monkie.
            Shylock:  Out upon her, thou torturest me Tuball…
But what follows is of the utmost importance to him:

            Tuball:              But Antonio is certainly undone.
            Shylock:  Nay, that’s true, that’s very true, goe Tuball, fee me an Officer,                                     bespeake him a fortnight before, I will have the heart of him if he                                     forfeit , for were he out of Venice, I can make what merchandize I                                     will…
            At the close of this scene we are left with his cardinal consideration, the protection and maintenance of his business. Moreover, this explained the most puzzling speech in the play, the equivocation of Shylock’s reasoning in persisting in his action against Antonio:
            Shylock:            You’l aske me why I rather choose to haue
                                    A weight of carrion flesh, than to receiue
                                    Three thousand Ducats? Ile not answer that?
                                    But say it is my humor: Is it answered?
                                    So can I gieu no reason, nor will I not,
                                    More than a lodg’d hate, and a certaine loathing
                                    I beare Antonio, that I follow thus
                                    A loosing suite against him? Are you answered?

            He knows he dare not articulate in open court his true reason for persisting to destroy Antonio: that Antonio “lends out money gratis.” This was no crime but the accepted practice in conducting Christian business. Nor dare he say that in doing so Antonio “brings downe the rate of usance here with us in Venice,” for usury was considered a sin by the church and consequently a crime. His reasoning, then, must be abstruse in the extreme.
            Shylock’s characterization of Antonio as a “fawning publican” strikes to the heart of his contention with this enemy to his livlihood. It sets the dominant tone and rings in the suitable condition of his fall at trial’s end.

            Duke:            That thou shalt see the difference of our spirit,
                        I pardon thee thy life before thou aske it:
                        For half thy wealth, it is Antonio’s
                        The other half comes to the generall state,
                        Which humbleness may drive unto a fine.
            Shylock: Nay, take my life and all, pardon not that,
                        You take my house, when you do take the prop
                        That doth sustaine my house: you take my life
                        When you do take the meanes whereby I liue.                                    

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


By Joel Friedman

The First Folio. Measure for Measure, 111.i:

Isabella. This outward fainted deputie,

Whose settled vifage, and deliberate word

Nips youth i’th head, and follies doth emmew

As Falcon doth the Fowle, is yet a diuell:

His filth within being cast, he would appeare

A pond, as deepe as hell,

Claudio. The prenzie, Angelo?

Isabella. Oh ‘tis the cunning liuerie of hell,

The damnest bodie to inuest, and cover

In prenzie gardes:

The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Ed., Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1989:

prenzie. a, obs. A doubtful word…probably an error.

The Yale Shakespeare, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1926:

There has been no satisfactory elucidation of the word’s meaning. The context seems to require a meaning akin to ‘puritanical’ or ‘prim’. Hotson, however, believes that prenzie is Shakespeare’s translation of the now obsolete Italian word for prince (prenze) and the prenzie guards means therefore ‘prince-robes’, clothes with rich trimming. The explanation is not very convincing.

New Cambridge Shakespeare, Cambridge University Press, Gr. Br., 1991:

Prenzie: This crux still resists solution; F2’s emendation ‘princely’ and Tieck’s ‘precise’ are possible, the latter orthographically more plausible, the former attractive for its irony: but Collier supposed Shakespeare introduced the Italian word for ‘prince’, ‘prenze’ and this if unlikely cannot be ruled out with certainty. ‘Precise’ was often applied to Puritans in the sense ‘strict, scrupulous’ (OED). Perhaps ‘prenze’ is Shakespeare’s coinage, fusing ‘princely’ and ‘precise’?

The Arden Shakespeare, Routledge, London, New York, 1988:

The precise Angelo!

O ‘tis the cunning livery of hell

The damned’st body to invest and cover

In precise guards!

precise Angelo!...precise guards! Collier suggested prenze and Br. Nicholson, N & Q (1883) 464, described ‘prenzie’ (F) as an English adjective from the old Italian word used by Boccaccio and others, prenze alias prence, a prince or ruler. L Hotson (TLS, 22 Nov. 1947) mentions that prenze appears in Florio (1611) and compares the formation ‘prenzie’ with ‘countie’, from Italian conte ‘count’. But the word was certainly obscure, or it would not have been changed in F2 (princely). It is even less likely as an adjective with ‘guards’. ‘Precise’ could have been misread as ‘prenzie’, was sometimes accented on the first syllable (with ‘i’ normally pronounced as in French), and makes good sense in the second instance.

In considering the Arden’s choice of ‘precise’, several objections become evident:

a. It is used by the Duke in a highly complimentary context

1.3.11. 50-51:

Duke. Lord Angelo is precise;

Stands at a guard with Envy;

And earlier in his colloquy with Escalus,

1.i.11. 19-24:

Duke. Lent him our terror, drest him in our love,

And given his deputation all the organs

Of our own power. What think you of it?

Esc. If any in Vienna be of worth

To undergo such ample grace and honour,

It is Lord Angelo.

Isabella and Claudio, however, have had vastly different experiences. They have been threatened with dire punishments. The one with loss of virginity, the other with loss of life. It is most likely that ‘precise’ for the Duke holds the same meaning as ‘precise’ for them.

b. Its accent is on the second syllable which halts the rhythm of the speech in the Claudio/Isabella exchange.

c. To use a similar word or expression with disparate, unrelated meaning results in audience confusion.

The word, whichever it may be, is introduced by Claudio in response to Isabella’s severe depiction of Angelo as a hypocrite ‘outward sainted’, a murderer ‘nips youth i’th head’ and a devil. It is unlikely that he would respond with ‘priestly’ or even in its wide generic sense as ‘princely’. He would choose and expression that reflects what specifically disturbs him about Angelo:

Arden Shakespeare, I.2.11.154-160:

Claudio. But this new governor

Awakes me all the enrolled penalties

Which have, like unscour’d armour, hung by the wall

So long that nineteen zodiacs have gone round,

And none of them been worn; and for a name*

Now puts the drowsy and neglected act

Freshly on me: ‘tis surely for a name.*

’tis surely for a name’ suggests that arrogance and self-promotion are conveyed in the disputed word Claudio introduced as a response to Isabella’s scalding characterization of Angelo, and with which she eagerly agrees.

In the Postscript to Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Heart of MidLothian there is the following passage:

Helen Walker was held among her equals pensy, that is proud or conceited…

The Oxford English Dictionary:

Pensy, a. Now Scot. and dial. Giving oneself airs, self-conceited.

Dictionary of the Scots Language:

Conceited, overweening, ‘stuck-up’…

What, however, is strikingly significant is that the word ‘pensy’ is used in respect to clothing:

…of things, esp. clothes: neat, well-care-for, smart…

‘Guard’ has a double meaning: to defend, protect (in this instance, a reputation); and to preserve the edge of clothing by preventing it from fraying. Earlier it had been noted that ‘guard’ was used in its first meaning:

Duke: Lord Angelo is precise,

And stands at a guard with Envy; i.e. in a swordsman’s position of defense.

By use of ‘pensy’ Claudio in characterizing the deputy as the arrogant, the self-promoting Angelo, is expressing his animosity. Isabella’s vehement response augments the argument by employing the double meaning of ‘guard’, and by preparing ‘pensy’ in its association with clothing thus attaining the culminating epithet, ‘pensy guards’.

Cl. The self-serving, the conceited Angelo?

Is. Oh ‘tis the cunning livery of hell,

The damnest body to clothe and conceal

His appearance in proper, well-preserved clothing

So as to camouflage his arrogance and self-conceit.

The First Folio, Introduction p. xviii, the Norton Facsimili,

W. W. Norton, New York, 1968, Charlton Hinman, Ed.

The work didn’t always go smoothly. One or the other of the partners was fairly often required elsewhere for at least a short time. When this happened

* My italics

either the remaining compositor carried on alone…or another partner took the place of the absentee.

There were then ample opportunities for lapses and inconsistencies to occur as in the case of ‘prenzie’. Of the three traditional attempts at emendation: precise, princely, and priestly-pensy is closest in pronunciation. In working together is it not unlikely that one man may have dictated to the other, and the word ‘prenzie’ was not misread but misheard?

ã 2009

The Use of the Word ‘Comb’ in

Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and Cymbeline

Joel Friedman

Petruchio: A herald, Kate? O! put me in thy books.

Katherine: What is your crest? A coxcomb?

Petruchio: A combless cock, so Kate will be my hen.

(II i. 222-224, Arden Edition)

In The Taming of the Shrew this repartee has been insufficiently understood. The particular bawdy implications, no doubt, have either escaped the editors or kept them, due to a sense of propriety, at a distance.

The Yale Shakespeare:

coxcomb badge of the court fool

combless gentle, with the crest cut down.

The Pelican Shakespeare:

in thy books in your heraldic registers (playing on ‘in your good graces’)

crest armorial device

coxcomb cap or a court fool (playing on crest, comb: Petruchio then quibbles on cock’s comb)

combless gentle (with comb or crest cut down)

The Arden Shakespeare:

crest (i) a figure or device borne above the shield and helmut in a crest of arms.

(ii) a ‘comb’ or tuft of feathers, or the like, on the head of a bird or animal

coxcomb the professional fool’s cap, like a cock’s comb in shape and color.

A combless cock an aggressive cock, the cut comb being indicative of humiliation.

All the editors cited generally agree on the definitions to which we are giving our attention. However, even without specifically solving the problem one would be hard put to expect Petruchio to characterize himself as ‘gentle’, ‘unaggressive’, or a subject of humiliation.

In 1611 Thomas Coryat (1577?-1617) succeeded after several rejections in printing a book on his world travels called Crudities. Its opening lists a series of panegyrics to the author, most probably solicited and collected by him to facilitate its publication. One of them written by Inigo Jones is most relevant to our investigation. Its opening verses are:

Odde is the Combe from whence this Cock did come,

That Crowed in Venice gainst the skinless Jewes,

Odcombe was Coryats’s birthplace and its division into ‘Odde’ and ‘Combe’ was as well-used literary device. The book has a section where the life-style of the Venetian Jews is discussed including a description of their rite of circumcision.

Taking the couplet on its literal level what is odd about Coryat’s comb cannot be ascertained and is beyond the scope of this inquiry. But the word ‘skinless’ (circumcised) and its juxtaposition with the term ‘cock’ and ‘combe’ suggests particular genital implications. In this context the comb of the cock is equated with the foreskin of the penis, and a ‘combless cock’, in the case of the Jews, is the penis without a foreskin (skinless). Moreover, the association of comb with the crest of an armorial shield adds further substantiation since the function of the foreskin is to shield the penis.

But Petruchio’s retort to Kate of a ‘combless’ or ‘skinless’ cock depicts a condition other than that of circumcision. ‘What is your crest? A coxcomb?’, she asks. ‘A combless cock, so Kate will be thy hen.’ He is telling her his cock is combless due to an erection, and that he is sexually ready to use her as a ‘hen’ (the primary play on ‘cock’) or to bed her.

The Taming of the Shrew was performed in 1594. Jones, like Shakespeare, was a man of the theatre and his contemporary. There is a strong likelihood that he recalled Petruchio’s remark from this or a later revival of the comedy, or that the bawdy use of these terms, as evidenced in Jones’ panegyric to Coryat, may have been current during this period.

In calling Petruchio a coxcomb Kate invited more than she bargained for; but only momentarily. A few lines later, contemptuous of his sexual arrogance, to Petruchio’s, ‘Now, by Saint George, I am too young for you,’ she ripostes, ‘Yet you are withered.’

The further use of ‘comb’ signifying a foreskin is found in the following exchange in Cymbelline:

Cloten: …I must go up and down like a cock,

That nobody can match.

Second Lord: You are cock and capon too, and you

Crow ‘cock’ with your comb on.

(11 i. 1123-26)

The Yale Shakespeare:

Caponcomb on Both these words refer probably to the fool’s cap or coxcomb.

The Arden Shakespeare:

Capon idiot. There’s a play on the “fool’s cap” or “coxcomb,” which also meant simpleton.

Once more the editors’ limited knowledge and conventional use of these terms obscure the full appreciation of the author’s brilliant verbal imagery and ingenious use of the pun. Cloten boasts his penis goes ‘up and down’ and is such ‘that nobody can match.’ The Second Lord careful that he is not too well understood mumbles? (there is no direction of ‘Aside’ in the Folio): You boast you are the possessor of a cock but you are a capon (eunuch) as well. But a further meaning is: Your cock has a ‘cap on’, i.e. as a cock it acts like that of a eunuch-it is incapable of an erection. Furthermore, you boast of your masculine prowess by crowing “’cock’ with your comb on,” i. e. your comb or foreskin tells us your penis is not erect. Is it any wonder Cloten’s response is: Sayest thou?

ã 2009


A reassessment


Joel Friedman

Commentators and interpreters of Shylock have, for the most part, given the impression of a confident, self-sufficient predator. In so doing much of Shakespeare’s subtlety in building the character has been overlooked. Shylock is by no means the stalwart figure that has been generally accepted. The clue to his true disposition lies in the strange choice of his story of Jacob and Laban.

Shylock’s narrative of Jacob outwitting Laban as to the acquisition of the parti-coloured lambs (Genesis xxx 31-43) is puzzling in that it does not adequately respond to Antonio’s denial of taking interest:

11. 56-57 Ant. Shylock, albeit I neither lend nor borrow

By taking nor giving of excess,

Curiously, in the next moment Shylock asks:

11. 64-65 Shy. Me thoughts you said, you neither lend nor borrow

Upon advantage.

And Antonio repeats:

11. 65 Ant. I do never use it.1

It is at this point that Shylock tells the story of Jacob and Laban:

11. 66-83 Shy. When Jacob grazed his uncle Laban’s sheep,-

This Jacob from out holy Abram was

(As his wise mother wrought in his behalf)

The third possessor: ay, he was the third.

Ant. And what of him? did he take interest?

Shy. No, not take interest, not as you would say

Directly int’rest, -mark what Jacob did, -

When Laban and himself were compromis’d

That all the eanling that were streak’d and pied

Should fall as Jacob’s hire, the ewes being rank

In end of autumn turned to the rams,

And when the work of generation was

Between these wooly breeders in the act,

The skillful shepherd pill’d me certain wands.

And in the doing of the deed of kind

He stuck them up before the fulsome ewes,

Who then conceiving, did in eaning time

Fall parti-colour’d lambs, and those were Jacob’s.

That the response to Antonio is off the mark, and that the story itself misses the point has struck several commentators:

The argument has been variously interpreted; (1) it is “Shylock’s bid for mutual undrerstanding” and undermines the differentiation between “natural” and “unnatural” kinds of money-making by showing that profit is always “controlled by the exercise of human skill and ingenuity” (H. B. Charlton, Shakesperian Comedy (1938), pp 141-2;… (2) it is a “sophistical and specious defense of what to an Elizabethan was manifestly wrong” (H. R. Walley, Essays in Dramatic Lit., ed. H. Craig (1935), p 237); (3) it “indicates Shylock’s preoccupation with the problem of…how he may match the cunning of his ancestor…and collect interest without taking interest” (L. W. Wilkins, M. L. N., lxii (1947), 28-30); and (4) it shows that Shylock expects a miracle-“…as God gave the flesh of cattle to Jacob…so will He give Antonio’s flesh to Shylock”…(S. Q., 1 (1950), 256-7.2

The wide variety of these interpretations merely begs the question, i. e., Why does Shylock reply to Antonio’s never taking interest with the telling of the story?

Now Shylock is anything but dull-witted. He has received Antonio’s answer twice, yet we know he is perfectly aware of the merchant’s position regarding interest. He has told us so in his first soliloquy upon encountering Antonio:

11. 39040 Shy. He lends out money gratis, and brings down

The rate of usance here with us in Venice.

Why, then, his insistence on knowing what he already knows and to such an extent that:

11. 41-47 Shy. If I can catch him once upon the hip,

I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.

He hates our sacred nation and he rails

(Even there where merchants most do congregate)

On me, my bargains, and my well-won thrift,

Which he calls interest: cursed be my tribe

If I forgive him!

Now, why does he tell us Antonio does not take interest, hears Antonio tell him he does not take interest, upon that, immediately asks Antonio if he takes interest, again receives Antonio’s negative response, and then proceeds to tell Antonio the story of Jacob and Laban?

Shylock no sooner begins when Antonio interrupts to ask if Jacob took interest. No, says Shylock, not “Directly interest.” This further confounds the matter for Shylock himself most definitely takes interest, and in so doing puts himself in a bad light in comparison to his ancestor as well as to Antonio. What is gained then by the telling of the story? Surely not its conclusion which Shylock promptly offers:

11. 84-5 Shy. This was a way to thrive, and he was blest:

And thrift is blessing if men steal it not.

In spite of the questionable “eugenics” of Jacob in acquiring possession of the parti-coloured lambs, Shylock justifies Jacob’s behavior because he did not steal and he was blest. But look carefully at, “And thrift is blessing if men steal it not.” Shakespeare is insidiously clever in creating the line’s ambiguity. The reading that first comes to mind is: thrift is a blessing if men do not steal to gain thrift; but alternatively it reads: thrift is a blessing if men do not steal the blessing.

Every member of Shakespeare’s audience was acquainted with this story, and every member of the audience was acquainted, as well, with the circumstances under which Jacob obtained the blessing. Shakespeare is careful to introduce this idea early in Shylock’s narrative:

11. 67-9 Shy. This Jacob from our holy Abram was

(As his wise mother wrought in his behalf)

The third possessor; ay, he was the third.

The nature of the blessing is powerful in the extreme for Abraham, the initial leader of his people, the first possessor, by conferring the blessing onto his son, Isaac, by virtue of its mythic omnipotence, relegated the leadership of the Jews into Isaac’s hands, the second possessor. Now, in his declining years Isaac wished to pass the blessing on to his son Esau, but Rebecca, mother of Esau and Jacob, wished her favorite, Jacob, to receive Isaac’s blessing: “(As his wise mother wrought in his behalf).” She placed Jacob before the blind Isaac, and because Esau was hirsute and Jacob was not, she covered him with skins so that Isaac when he placed his hands on the young man would believe he was blessing Esau. When the ruse was discovered it was too late, the blessing had been delivered, could not possibly be rescinded, and Jacob became the third possessor of his people. Shakespeare is leading his audience toward one conclusion in spite of Shylock’s effort at justification: the blessing is stolen as well as the parti-coloured lambs. And to be doubly certain that his auditors will be aware of this deception, Antonio has this response:

11. 89-90 Ant. Was this inserted to make interest good?

Or is your gold and silver ewes and rams?

Shylock’s rejoinder is patently lame:

11. 91 Shy I cannot tell, I make it breed as fast, -

How can Shylock known for his intelligence, his cunning, in the face of this critical confrontation with his sworn enemy come off so poorly?

At this point it would be enlightening to consider Shakespeare’s position toward usury.

“By laws civil and ecclesiastical, usury – that is, the exaction of interest of any

sort – was a crime. With expanding trade and manufacture the practice was widening, but was by no one approved in principle. By 37 Henry viii cap ix, the old laws against usury are indeed abolished, and a rate of ten per cent is indirectly legalized by the fixing of severe penalties for any rate higher; but the practice is condemned, and classed with corrupt bargains.” Under Edward vi the act of Henry viii is annulled but by 1570 Elizabeth has re- enacted Henry’s law, but “foreasmuch as all Usurie, being forbidden by the law of God is synne and detestable,” it ordains that interest even at ten per cent is a criminal act.3

In spite of ecclesiastical opprobrium business was conducted as usual for it could not possibly be conducted without the instrument of interest or “usury” as the church would have it. There was hardly a business man in Shakespeare’s audience who did not charge or pay interest at some time or other, and at the same time attend Sunday sermons fulminating against the practice. Both the church and the mart simply looked the other way. Shakespeare, then, was writing for an audience largely ambivalent to the practice of usury. Therefore, he took every opportunity to emphasize its employment as a crime by taking pains to establish its negative character, for example, in this short scene selects a wide variety of terms deprecating it, viz., thrift, advantage, excess, use, usage, and interest. Shylock, the villain of the piece, had to be presented at the outset as the criminal, the alien, the outsider; Antonio, the victim, strange as it may seem from a business point of view and regardless of his prosperity as a successful merchant, must remain innocent of Shylock’s crime.

Although Shylock is undoubtedly the criminal there is however, ground for mitigation. The supposition that many commentators would have that Shylock asks enormous rates of interest and gouges his debtors out of their property is not evident anywhere in the play nor is it substantiated by the facts just cited. Shylock who is ever conscious of the letter of the law would never dare charge more than the legal ceiling of ten per cent. In fact, his tenacious adherence to the law is the very cause of his downfall. In act IV, scene I, it is his insistence that the letter of the bond be followed that provides Portia with the means of saving Antonio’s life, i.e., not shed one drop of blood or weight of flesh beyond the strict stipulation of the bond.

1. 310 Shy. Is that the law?

Shylock is introduced to the play by going over the terms of the bond with Bassanio. It is evident that it is the latter, eager to secure the money who seeks out Shylock. Antonio, considering the profound hatred existing between him and the money-lender would never approach Shylock. Later, it is established that Bassanio does not seek him out and initiates the terms of the bond:

11. 59-62 Ant. …(To Bassanio) is he yet possessed

How much ye would?

Shy. Ay, ay, three thousand ducats.

Ant. And for three months.

Shy. I had forgot, - three months, - (To Bassanio) you told me so.

Bassanio has informed Antonio of the bond’s conditions before the present encounter. Shylock approves the money to be loaned, the length of time of the loan, and in the third instance, approves the fact that Antonio shall be bound to its payment:

11. 1-5 Shy. Three thousand ducats, well.

Bas. Ay, sir, for three months.

Shy. For three months, well.

Bas. For the which, as I told you, Antonio shall be bound. Shy. Antonio shall be bound, well.

This last statement is given emphasis on its placement as the third and final provision of the bond. But, more importantly, in the choice of language: “Antonio shall be bound, well.” That final “well” is like the strike of an anvil. Shylock at long last has made a concrete connection to his adversary. Up to now there have been only insults hurled at him by Antonio in the mart and on the Rialto. The question before him is how to make capital of this opportunity. Bassanio asks him for his response but he hedges. He says Antonio is a reliable business risk, “a good man,” but then proceeds to summarize the perils of taking him on: he has “squandered” his ships throughout the seas, ships are flimsy vessels, sailors unreliable, the threat of pirates, the weather unpredictable. Yet after enumerating these conditions, oddly enough, he tells Bassanio he will take the bond. He asks to speak with Antonio. Bassanio says he may see him at dinner to which he is invited. He refuses the invitation but later accepts. What is Shylock doing? He has consented to the terms of the bond, why, then doesn’t he close with Bassanio? Evidently he is biding his time – he doesn’t know what his next move should be. But then he catches sights of Antonio. To appear at ease he aimlessly asks, “What news on the Rialto? Who is he comes here?” Now, in an aside, he expresses his hatred for him:

11. 41-2 Shy. If I could catch him once upon this hip,

I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.

He senses he has been given his opportunity but still doesn’t know what to do with it. To gain time he claims he cannot readily come up with the money but, no matter, his friend Tubal, will furnish him. Now Antonio is at his elbow. Again he asks how many months are desired. Of course, he knows. But here stands Antonio and he is contemplating his next move. He greets Antonio who ignores the greeting. Instead, Antonio goes straight to the business of the bond, telling him he will make an exception of giving or taking interest for the sake of his friend. Ignoring Shylock once more, he asks Bassanio if Shylock, “is yet possessed of how much ye would?” To gain a footing Shylock interrupts and answers the question. Antonio adds, “And for three months.” Still playing for time he claims he had forgotten the term was for three months.” Still playing for the time he claims he had forgotten the term was for three months. He attempts to calculate the rate, “and let me see, - “ of course he knows the rate perfectly well. He brings up the question of Antonio never taking interest which Antonio has just expressed. An unwise question since he is well aware of the answer and reveals what a tentative state he is in. Antonio repeats that he never uses it. Still not quite knowing how to proceed and not in any way responding to Antonio’s reply concerning his never using interest, he plunges into the story of Laban and Jacob. The story fails to make its point with Antonio and results in his bitter barb:

11. 90-1 Ant. Is your gold and silver ewes and rams?

Shy. I cannot tell, I make it breed as fast,-

A lame rejoinder. Sensing this, and at a standstill, he resorts to business, “But not me, signior.” He is about to calculate the rate of the bond for the second time when Antonio, ignoring him once more, addresses Bassanio with his most insulting remark, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,-“ Shylock disguises his humiliation by repeating the conditions of the bond, and, for the third time, needlessly attempts to calculate the rate. Antonio turns to him:

11. 100 Ant. Well, Shylock, shall we be beholden to you?

After the last insult and the arrogance of this question Shylock can contain himself no longer, and lashes out with all the vehemence stored up for so long, culminating in:

11. 123-25 Shy. You called me dog: and for these courtesies

I’ll lend you thus much moneys?

Antonio responds venomously:

11. 125-6 Ant. I am as like to call thee so again

But then:

11. 127-32 Ant. If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not

As to thy friends,……………………………….


But lend it rather to thine enemy,

Who if he break, thou may’st with better face

Exact the penalty.*

In the instant Antonio has furnished Shylock with his opportunity! Out of his own mouth Antonio has delivered to Shylock the instrument of his own possible destruction. Shylock has “caught him on the hip” at last. Now he sees his way clearly. Three times he had tread water by pretending to estimate the bond’s rate – but no more. He must make the terms of the bond as attractive as possible. He will take “not a doit of usance” for his money. The ducats will be obtained on the instant. He urges Antonio to hurry with him to a notary and seal the bond. He will “purse the ducats straight.” No need for the Tubal ploy now. And the pound of flesh? Well, a passing jest, a jolly idiosyncrasy, nothing of the slightest concern. Anything to conceal the device dealing the death blow. All is done in friendship, in kindness. But only let us hurry to seal this merry bond.

The action rushes forward now, for there must be no time for the audience to wonder at Antonio’s precipitate acceptance of this ridiculous proposition. They have Shylock’s “this is kind I offer,” Bassanio’s “This were kindness,” again Shylock’s “This kindness will I show,” and Antonio’s “There is much kindness in the Jew,” ringing in their ears. Anyway, the stipulation of the pound of flesh is so outrageous an idea that in spite of Bassanio’s objections Antonio accepts it without question. The scene is rich in subtlety. Shylock’s inability to directly pursue his incessant intention to harm Antonio, reveals his misjudgement in the selection of Laban and Jacob, and through the cunning justification of Jacob’s shady practice exposes his own duplicity. Only with the fortuitous admonition of Antonio to lend money, “rather to thine enemy” does he provide Shylock with a direct path to his revenge.

* (My italics)

1 All quotations from The Merchant of Venice are to be found in The Arden Shakespeare, Harvard Univ. Press, 1959.

2 Ibid., Act 1, scene 3, p. 26, n. 72-85.

3 The Merchant of Venice, The Signet Classic Shakespeare, New York, 1987, p. 165.

ã 2009