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Love and Money in The Merchant of Venice

Winter 2010 - Vol. 52, No. 1

RICHARD HARP is Charir of the Department of English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. His most recent article was a discussion of the unpublished literary correspondence of Fr. Martin C. D'Arcy in the Times Literary Supplement of December 11, 2009.

Fy on Love without Money!

—John Wodroephe, The Spared
Hours of a Soldier, 1623

A perennial question for some persons ofevery generation is: shall I marry forlove or for money? It is typical of the openmindedShakespeare that he finds nothingwrong with marrying for both. There isin him no niggardly stinginess, no ghostlyidealism that fi nds something amiss withcombining the noblest spiritual ideal—love—with the most fundamental materialreality—money. Without of coursewishing to challenge the general wisdomof the Beatles' classic formulation "I don'tcare too much for money, 'cause moneycan't buy me love," there is more compatibilitybetween the two than is sometimesacknowledged. The richest king in the OldTestament, for example, Solomon, was alsothe one who indulged the most his romanticdesires (albeit beyond all reasonableboundaries) and to whom was traditionallyascribed one of the world's greatest lovepoems, the Song of Songs. The Old Testamentpatriarch Jacob, praised by the comicvillain Shylock in The Merchant of Venicefor his clever industriousness in multiplyinghis financial gains when breeding hisfather-in-law Laban's sheep, was also themost romantic of the patriarchs, workingfor seven years to marry his heart's desire,Rachel, only to be tricked by Laban intohaving to work still another seven yearsto gain her hand—and doing this withoutcomplaint. And even Shylock, who dreamsat night of moneybags, has a sentimentalside; when his friend Tubal tells him of therumor that his daughter Jessica had sold afamily ring "for a monkey," the old moneylenderlaments, "It was my turquoise; Ihad it of Leah when I was a bachelor. Iwould not have given it for a wilderness ofmonkeys" (3.1.90–92).

One stereotyped romantic plot familiarto everyone has parents warning theirdaughters against fortune hunters andconsequently insisting on arranging marriageswith young men of equal fortuneso that their social status and wealth willbe safeguarded. But great stories havebeen written that also work against thistheme. Pride and Prejudice, for example, isthe famous account of a rich aristocrat, Mr.Darcy, rejecting (after much soul searchingand self-infl icted distress) his peers'expectations about whom he should marryand choosing fi nally a spouse of modestincome. But the novel still makes clear thecompatibility of love and money; its heroine,Elizabeth Bennet, without questionloves Darcy, but she also has no hesitationin responding to her sister Jane's questionabout when she first started to lovethe romantically-challenged gentleman bysaying, "I believe I must date it from myfirst seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley,"1 Darcy's grand country estate.

Love and money are both transformingagents, able to change, like the magic ofthe sea in The Tempest, otherwise pedestrianrealities into something "rich andstrange." Ovid told such stories again andagain in his Metamorphoses (one of Shakespeare'sfavorite sources for his plays) whenthe love of gods for mortals or of mortalsfor each other causes one or the other tochange from a human being into a tree ora bush or, somewhat more magnificently, aconstellation. Trees and bushes and stars arenot more precious, of course, than humanbeings, but what gives them their worthin Ovid's eyes is their greater permanencethan transient human lives, which theymay eternally memorialize and celebrate.Apollo's love for the nymph Daphne, forexample, who was turned into a laurel treeso that she would not have to succumb tothe great Roman god, was commemoratedwhenever one of the god's devotees, suchas victors at the ancient Pythian games,wore a wreath made of leaves from thattree. Or to take another example from thesame book, the mulberry bush was a timelessreminder of the tragic unrequited loveof Pyramus and Thisbe, a story retold byShakespeare in Romeo and Juliet and alsoalluded to extensively in his contemporaneousA Midsummer Night's Dream. Allthese stories are allegories of human love,emphasizing the profound transformationalquality of desire. Perversions of lovedeny change and metamorphosis; in lustthe dynamism of the person is paralyzedand rendered immobile, as is seen in pornographyor in a false romantic idealismwhere a woman is placed on a pedestal shecan never leave.

It is much the same with money. Accordingto the Biblical parable of the talents,money is properly used when it is investedand brings forth a good return, not whenit is hoarded or buried and kept back fromsupporting good enterprises. In the parableJesus tells of the master who rewardshis two servants who double the money hegives them but takes away the single talenthoarded by a third servant who feared hismaster's wrath if he lost it in business. Themaster gives that servant's talent to one ofthose who had made a profit. The moralgiven by Jesus is, "For everyone who haswill be given more, till he has enough andto spare; and everyone who has nothingwill forfeit even what he has" (Matthew25:30). In these texts, so familiar to allpersons in Shakespeare's time, money haspower to build up and transform societyfor the common good, as love has powerto change the supple human form to somethingmore enduring. The perversion ofcommerce and the pursuit of wealth in TheMerchant of Venice is usury, the exorbitantcharging of interest on transactions whereno new wealth is created. "For, if the merchantmay be allowed to make gain of hismoney," wrote Thomas Wilson in A Discourseupon Usury in 1572, he will most certainlydo that rather than engage in morerisky but socially necessary commerce. Asa result, says Wilson,

The plough man will no more turnup the ground for uncertain gain,when he may make an assured profitof his money that lies by him. Theartificer will leave his working.The clothier will cease his makingof clothes, because these tradesare painful and chargeable [burdensome].Yea, all men will give themselveswholly to live an idle life bytheir money [i.e., by lending theircapital], if they have any.2

In The Merchant of Venice love and desireare everywhere in evidence, as are theboundaries which seem to, but ultimatelydo not, hold them in check. Antonio, theplay's title character, is "sad" in its firstscene and literary critics have ever sincetried to discover why—because of concernover some of his wealth being tied upin cargo at risk on the high seas? Becausehis good friend Bassanio wants to marrythe rich and witty Portia and so will nothereafter be his close companion? Bothare quite possible but in fact Antonio, theone who should know, says (in the play'svery first line), "In sooth, I know not whyI am so sad" (1.1.1) and denies specificallythat affairs of business or the world havemade him melancholy: "I hold the worldbut as the world / A stage where everyman must play a part, / And mine a sadone" (1.1.77–79). This is common Shakespeareanwisdom: "all the world's a stage"says another temperamentally melancholycharacter, Jacques, in As You Like It, "andall the men and women merely players;/they have their entrances and their exits"(2.7.139–41). In addition, to be "sad" or"melancholy" did not necessarily mean inthe late sixteenth century to be self-indulgentlygloomy and introspective; it couldalso mean simply to be serious, a person ofgravitas, to use the Roman term, of weightinessor intelligence.3 Antonio, then, maybe constitutionally melancholy, that is,serious or sober; that he is not merely selfabsorbedis evident when Bassanio entersthe stage in this same first scene and Antonioinquires in a lively manner for newsabout the object of Bassanio's love, Portia,and assures his friend that, if he needsfinancial help in his romantic quest, themerchant's "extremest means / Lie allunlocked to your occasions" (1.1.137–38).

Act 1.3 elaborates upon this theme oflove and money and their compatibility.Shakespeare is considered by some criticsto be notable for his subtle thematicambiguities, but the vast majority of thetime he leaves us in little doubt aboutwhat to think. Shylock's first appearancein the play, for example, is in this scene,and it starkly reveals his character. WhenAntonio enters the stage at 1.30, Shylockis so disturbed that he must speak in anaside, revealing his clear hatred of Antonio:"How like a fawning publican helooks! / I hate him for he is a Christian"and because he "lends out money gratisand brings down / The rate of usance herewith us in Venice" (11.31–32, 34–35). Hecould hardly be much clearer: the wholespeech is an indication of his desire toharm Antonio and the fact that they arevery nearly the first lines Shylock speaksgives them additional weight. Such linesof Shakespeare's villains often ironicallyreveal their characters. Iago's first wordsin Othello, for example, are a curse (1.1.4),and those of Macbeth are, "So foul and faira day I have not seen" (1.3.38), an ironicecho of what the witches have said in thatplay's first scene, "Fair is foul, and foul isfair" (1.1.11).

It would be an inventive critic indeed,then, who could find ambiguity in thisinitial speech of Shylock. Shylock doesspeak with unconscious irony, though,when he compares Antonio to a "fawningpublican," which to Shakespeare's Christianaudience would be a clearly favorablereference to the suppliant publican in St.Luke's Gospel (18:9–14) who humbly begsfor God's forgiveness at the temple becauseof the dishonesty he has practiced in hisprofession; the self-righteous Pharisee,praying beside him, piously claims that hehad no need of such forgiveness.

Shylock also misinterprets Jewish as wellas Christian Scripture. In this same scenehe distorts the story in Genesis of Jacob'sbreeding Laban's rams and ewes as a justification of usury, leading Antonio to commentthat "the devil can cite Scripture forhis purpose," a reference to Satan's temptationsof Jesus in the wilderness. But alongwith sacred texts Shylock is also twistingbasic human relationships. He pretends tolend Antonio money as to a friend; Shylocksuggests that the pound of flesh thathe asks from the merchant as security forthe loan of 3,000 ducats to Bassanio is uselessto him and would not be collected; heis, he avers, making a "kind" offer (1.133),making a business deal a "merry sport"(1.137), for "what should I gain / By theexaction of the forfeiture?" (1.155–56).

The intentional ironies here are many.Shylock is pretending to be "kind" in atleast two senses of that much played-uponword in medieval and later literature. Heclaims to be kind, that is, "generous," inmaking the bargain, but also at issue is theidea that he is responding in a "natural"way (as the Middle English word "kinde"meant "nature") to a fellow human beingin need, the same way that Antonio hadresponded to Bassanio's request for furtherloans to support his expedition to Belmont.As well as in etymology, importantbackground for this exchange betweenAntonio and Shylock is found in the OldTestament's discussion of usury in Deuteronomy23:19–20. There Moses instructsthe Israelites that they must not "lendupon usury to thy brother" but that "untoa stranger thou mayest lend upon usury."There were Jewish writers in Shakespeare'sage who argued that Jews and Christianswere in fact "brothers" who should notpractice usury toward one another.4 Andon the Christian side of the discussion St.Thomas Aquinas, whose writings were stillgreatly infl uential in the sixteenth century,said that as Christians were brothers of allmen, the text in Deuteronomy thereforeprohibited practicing usury at all.5 So thatis perhaps what Antonio has in mind whenhe says that he would have Shylock lendhim money as "to thine enemy" (1.130)—he wants interest charged, as he does notwish, contra St. Thomas, to be Shylock's"brother"—and why Shylock says—hypocritically—that "I would be friends withyou" (1.134) and is willing therefore tosubstitute the "merry bond" of the poundof flesh rather than charging conventionalinterest.6

Bassanio, not so caught up in hisromantic desires that he cannot see thedanger inherent in this sort of deal,exclaims to Antonio, "You shall not sealto such a bond for me! I'll rather dwellin my necessity" (146–47). But Antonioshrugs off this objection, expressing hisconfidence that he will easily be able torepay the debt before it is due. It is possible,I suppose, to see in Antonio's abandoningall business sense here, as well asconcern for personal security, his despairin losing Bassanio's affectionate companionshipbecause of his possible marriage toPortia. His later plaintive confession, whenit looks as though Shylock will be able tocollect his bond, "I am a tainted wetherof the flock,/ Meetest for death" (4.1.114–15), might support such a notion. But asShylock uses human virtues such as friendshipand generosity to disguise his hatred,so Antonio subordinates here his businessacumen to the demands of friendship. Asone of the most perceptive commentatorson Shakespeare, W. H. Auden, has said,Shylock's "unlimited hatred is the negativeimage of the infinite love of Venetian andBelmont society, which proposes that oneshould behave with a love that is infinitelyimprudent." 7 Also resonant here is thefamous biblical text from St. John's Gospel,"Greater love hath no man than this, thathe lay down his life for his friends" (15:13).

Even though Antonio's role in the playdiminishes after this first act, his unreservedand risk-filled act of friendshipis the model for similar kinds of otherpassionately virtuous acts, such as thoseof Bassanio and Portia and Jessica, all ofwhom, to different degrees (but none tothe extent of Antonio), are moved by loveto accept great risk in return for greatreward. Bassanio's venture in love involvesa kind of gambling; in order to visit Portiaat her home in Belmont, he must firstreceive a loan from Antonio for which hehas no collateral, being already in debt tohis friend for a previous loan. He must thenchoose the casket that has the picture ofPortia in order to win her hand; if he doesnot, he must 1) leave Portia's home at Belmontimmediately, 2) tell no one whichcasket he guessed, and 3) promise never tomarry. Bassanio seldom gets any credit forhis role as a suitor but in fact love requireshim to risk his livelihood and his freedomever to marry—everything, that is, shortof his life—in order to gain the beautiful,intelligent and wealthy Portia in marriage.

Portia, in her turn, gives up a cherishedpossession—her freedom to choose a husband—in return for following the terms ofher father's will that dictates that she canmarry only the person who chooses thecasket with her picture. For all the talk ofarranged marriages in this period, it wasnonetheless commonly acknowledgedthat a woman did in fact have the right tochoose her spouse,8 and Portia is emphaticthat acceptance of her father's will is alsoher own choice. Although she initiallycomplains about its hard terms to her maidNerissa, she also says, "If I live to be asold as Sibylla, I will die as chaste as Diana,unless I be obtained by the manner of myfather's will" (1.2.103–05). Nerissa's supportfor this resolve is telling: "Your fatherwas ever virtuous, and holy men at theirdeath have good inspirations," and therefore,Portia will undoubtedly "never bechosen by any rightly, but one who youshall rightly love" (1.2.27–28, 31–32).This, too, is Portia's own conviction, as shetells Bassanio as he prepares to make hischoice: "If you do love me, you will findme out" (3.2.41). That this is indeed whathappens results from Bassanio's wiselyinterpreting the riddle of the caskets. Hechooses the despised leaden one becauseof its inscription, "Who chooseth me,must give and hazard all he hath" (2.7.16).Where others had despised the leadenbox—the suitor from Morocco, for example,had complained that "A golden mindstoops not to shows of dross, / I'll then norgive nor hazard aught for lead" (2.7.20–21)—Bassanio says that lead's "palenessmoves me more than eloquence, / Andhere choose I" (3.2.106–7). The appropriatenessof choosing lead was that love, beit philia or eros, friendship or romantic love,ought indeed to require the hazarding ofall one has, as both Antonio and Bassaniodemonstrate. The connection betweenlove and money here is not in the materialworth that each has but in the necessity of"hazarding all one has" to gain their fruits.Antonio's wealth is important because hecan sacrifice it in friendship to Bassanio,as Bassanio's courtship is made virtuousby his having to risk his freedom to marrywhen he seeks Portia's hand.

But success in love and business alsorequires intelligence and wit—Portia callsher previous suitors "deliberate fools!When they do choose, / They have thewisdom by their wit to lose" (2.9.80–81)and it is to intelligence, reason, personified in Portia, that the last half of the playturns. As love and money are no necessaryenemies, neither is reason and desire. Thegolden mean, the famous term Aristotleused to describe virtue, implies compromisebut it is a very different kind ofcompromise than is usually practiced incontemporary politics or society. In TheMerchant of Venice compromise ("Howmany things by season seasoned are / Totheir right praise and true perfection!" saysPortia [5.1.107–08]) is achieved, not bypolitical calculation or backroom deals butrather by various persons' passions havingtheir sway until reason discovers virtue'sgolden mean. Perhaps Portia could be seenas a "deal maker'" when she comes to Venicedisguised as Balthazar to rescue Antoniofrom his bond, but her aim is not to take alittle bit from each competing side for thepresumed good of the whole—the typicalpolitical procedure—but rather to find away to give everyone what they want: toAntonio his life, to her husband Bassaniothe friend who exposed that life to financethe expedition to Belmont to win herhand, to the Duke of Venice the integrityof the city's commercial reputation. Evento Shylock she would have given a returnon investment that exceeded his wildestdreams if he had let her. But Shylock wasnot as interested in money as in revenge:his abandonment of financial good sense infavor of passion led to his ruin.

Portia's name suggests her role inthe trial scene in Act 4: it is her duty to"apportion," to judge fairly what variouscharacters deserve. This role suits herboth because of her wisdom and status andalso because she was required to be passivein the first half of the play because ofher father's will. Now her role is changedas she takes charge of the action, and herself-control is evident. In her excitementover Bassanio's choosing the right casket,she tells "love," in an aside, to be "moderate,allay thy extasy, / In measure rain thyjoy, scant this excess! I feel too much thyblessing, make it less / For fear I surfeit"(3.2.111–114). She also tells Bassanio thatthey will say their wedding vows but postponethe physical consummation of theirmarriage until Antonio's situation overthe bond with Shylock is resolved. Portiashows here the spiritual basis of bothfriendship and marriage: friendship is notin the first place giving another his materialresources, as romantic love is not in thefirst place the union of bodies.

Portia's reason is most in evidence, ofcourse, in her famous speech about "thequality of mercy." As Antonio's extremepassion of love was shown in his friendshipfor Bassanio, so is Shylock's hatred in hisinsistence on execution of his bond againstAntonio. He is offered double and even tentimes the 3,000 ducats that he is owed andwhen he refuses these, Portia asks him ifhe will not at least offer his victim a handkerchiefto stop the fl ow of blood (a clever,ironic suggestion, as this of course is whatwill ultimately invalidate Shylock's bond:in his cutting a pound of Antonio's fleshhe cannot shed a drop of the merchant'sblood); this, too, is refused. Shylock is nowmaking clear in public what had been obviousfrom his first soliloquy: he hates Antonioand wants his life. Portia's speech, andher subsequent insistence that Shylock mustobserve the literal terms of his bond, is thetriumph of a reason eloquent in articulatingthat in "the course of justice none ofus/ Should see salvation" (4.1.195–96).

Shylock of course has had his defendersand the Venetian Christians their critics.Many readers for at least two centurieshave seen something noble in Shylockbecause of the contempt with which hehas been treated by those now seeking hisassistance. I cannot think for a momentthis was Shakespeare's intention. Thereare so many and such obvious ways thatthe dramatist portrays Shylock as a villain;to those already cited, we might add howhe is deserted by his daughter Jessica, asympathetic character, to marry Lorenzo,Shylock's comic juxtaposition of his franticconcern for the wealth that his daughtertook from him and his indifference, to putit mildly, to the loss of the daughter herself("I would my daughter were dead at myfoot, and the jewels in her ear: would shewere hears'd at my foot, and the ducats inher coffin" [3.1.80–82]), the hypocrisy ofthe bond he makes with Antonio, his contemptfor merriment and festivity—really,almost everything Shylock does or says isobviously and completely out of step withthe Shakespearean canons of comedy. Theprime example of those who see Shylock assomething more than a villain is the speechin which Shylock defends his humanity bysaying "Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not aJew hands, organs, dimensions, senses,affections, passions. . . ." and in which heconcludes:

If a Jew wrong a Christian, what ishis humility? Revenge! If a Christianwrong a Jew, what should hissufferance be by Christian example?—why revenge! The villainyyou teach me I will execute, and itshall go hard but I will better theinstruction. (3.1.52–65)

This is a powerful speech, but the way itinsists on all men's common humanity isonly partial and ultimately reveals what'swrong with Shylock's own view of humanity.For everything that he cites as an exampleof human nature—"if you prick us dowe not bleed? If you tickle us do we notlaugh? If you poison us do we not die?"—has to do with the senses and the passions;none of it concerns reason. Desire and passioncut off from reason have become, inthe modern Western intellectual world, thehallmark of human authenticity, so it is notsurprising that Shylock's speech has wonadmiration and cheers in the theatre and inscholarly journals. Typical of the severingof desire from reason in some intellectualcircles is this comment, found in an articlediscussing The Merchant of Venice:

Desire is perilous because it annihilatesthe speaking, knowing, masteringsubject, the choosing, commandingself so precious to the Free West.Lovers are conventionally speechless(what can they say that would do justiceto desire?).9

Well, lots of things. Lovers are "conventionallyspeechless"? In Shakespeare? Theplays, including The Merchant of Venice (forexample, Portia's speech to Bassanio at3.2.149 ff. after he chooses the correct casket),are full of lovers finding innumerableverbal outlets for their passion. Romeo andJuliet are not exactly tongue-tied. Desirefinds its way to reason in the plays if it isnot perverted by a malicious will.

But it is also true, of course, that Shylockhas achieved a larger-than-life imagefor some very good reasons. While statingthat it is his "stubborn villainy that generatesthe uneasy tension that runs throughthe drama," R. V. Young also notes "therecan be no question that the Jew suffers illuse at the hands of the Christians."10 Shylockdoes, for example, in his hard-headedfury and outrage, point up the manifestinadequacies of Venetian society—its useof slavery, its Christian citizens who haveno interest in loving their enemy, its adherenceto a business code that would requirethe execution of a manifestly inhumanagreement in order to have its commercialreputation upheld. And some of Shylock'sanger can be justified as a response to thecontempt with which he is treated.

In listening to claims for Shylock's virtue,though, says A. D. Nuttall, we mustnot forget "the real generosity, howeverproduced, of the Christians, the real ferocity,however explained, of Shylock. Theydid forgive Shylock. Shylock would havetorn open the breast of Antonio. These arethings which no theatrical experience ofthe play will ever let you forget."11 Andwhen Lorenzo tells Jessica, in one of theplay's many beautiful speeches, that "Theman that hath no music in himself, / Nor isnot moved with concord of sweet sounds,/ Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils .. . . / Let no such man be trusted (5.1.81–83, 86)," the application to Shylock, whohates all music and revelry, is obvious.

But in general, desire, when motivatedby what Hawthorne called the "sanctity ofthe human heart," is given free rein in theplay to indulge, variously, a businessman'sgenerosity to his friend, a father's controlof his daughter's marriage, a suitor's desireto have one woman and no other, and evena wife's pleasure in watching her husband'sstruggling between the (apparently) conflicting demands, in the fifth act's comedyover the rings, of spouse and friend. Andreason, surprisingly but typically, vindicatesthese extreme demands of the heartin public and coherent ways in the play'sdouble conclusions in Acts 4 and 5. As Pascalsaid in his most famous pensée, "Theheart has reasons the reason knows not of."

The title of this play has often beenthought odd. Antonio has little to doafter the first act except offer himself withdignified charge to Shylock's knife; whyshould the play be named for him? But theplay is about taking risks, essential both tobusiness and to love. As Antonio is willingto entrust his whole financial empireon various enterprises at one time, so is hewilling to offer his life as collateral to furtherBassanio's romantic desires. In bothlove, friendship, and business, Antoniooffers all he has—as did the two prudentservants in the parable of the talents—andeven puts himself under obligation to hisenemy as a condition for serving his friend.For this no reward is promised him exceptgratitude. Portia, too, willingly foregoesher freedom in exchange for obeying herfather's will, and Bassanio risks his abilityever to marry by accepting the lottery ofthe caskets. Unlike Antonio, though, bothPortia and Bassanio stand to gain greatreward for their bargains—each marryingwhom they love and, in the case ofBassanio, receiving great wealth as well.But it is Antonio, the merchant of Venice,who sets the standard for risk-taking inboth business and love and who thereforedeserves to be the eponymous hero of theplay.


  1. 3.17.290. London: T. Egerton, 1813.
  2. The Merchantof Venice: Texts and Contexts, ed. M. Lindsay Kaplan(Bedford/St. Martin's, 2002), 199–200.
  3. See C. S.Lewis, Studies in Words (Cambridge, UK: CambridgeUniversity Press, 1967), 75–85.
  4. See the interestingtexts discussing this in Kaplan's edition of the play,217–20.
  5. Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 78, reply obj. 2.
  6. At the time of the play's performance, English lawpermitted charging 10 percent interest on moneylending.
  7. Lectures on Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Kirsch (Princeton,NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), 81.
  8. See,for example, the remarks by Thomas Becon, The Catechism,p. 322 in Kaplan's text: " . . . though the authorityof the parents be great over their children, yet inthe matter of marriage the consent of the children maynot be neglected."
  9. Catherine Belsey, "Love in Venice,"in The Cambridge Shakespeare Library (Cambridge,UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 105.
  10. Seehis article in the March, 2004 issue of First Things.
  11. ANew Mimesis: Shakespeare and the Representation of Reality(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, [1985] 2007),131.