A Not-Quite Happy Ending: Hazard and Love in Shakespeareâ€™s Merchant of Venice
By Hubert Ahn
William Shakespeareâ€™s Merchant of Venice begins on a note of melancholy. Antonio, the eponymous merchant, pronounces â€œIn sooth, I know not why I am so sadâ€ (1.1.1). His friends offer possible reasons, all of which are rejected by Antonio. The issue is quickly superseded by a more immediate one. Antonioâ€™s beloved friend Bassanio arrives with a proposed suit to win the lady Portiaâ€™s hand in marriage, Antonio immediately grants it, and nothing more is heard of Antonioâ€™s sadness. Portia herself is introduced by way of her own particular sadness--â€œBy my troth, Nerissa (her ...view middle of the document...
.while I live Iâ€™ll fear no other thing, So sore as keeping safe Nerissaâ€™s ringâ€ (5.1.306-7). Venice is widely considered a comedy with dramatic elements. Shylock provides the drama; the intertwining love stories the comedy. But even omitting the Shylock storyline, there is a very deep level of pathetic drama at work. This essay will argue that the undertone of melancholy is generated by the loversâ€™ failure to realize an ideal of love, and that this failure is gender-based.
What is the ideal of love, then, in Venice? Renaissance Neoplatonism depicted love as a â€œchain or ladder from the basest carnality to the supreme love of God for humanityâ€ (Bevington 75). This supreme love is almost senseless in its generosityâ€”nothing within humanity is worthy of it. Anything which hinted at baseness, anything lower than the absolutely spiritual, is considered a lower form of love. Bassanio correctly dismisses all base desire and artificial beauty when he chooses the lead casket, but the only positive motivation he has for choosing correctly sounds almost capricious: â€œthou meager lead, which rather threatenâ€™st than dost promise aught, Thy paleness moves me more than eloquenceâ€ (3.2.106-7). Bassanioâ€™s choice is quite lucky. Technically, if we are to believe these lines sincere, Bassanio chooses the casket simply because it is plain. But the choice is correct because of the casketâ€™s promise, which is borne out in the plot: to win true love one must â€œgive and hazard all he hathâ€ (2.7.9). Bassanio is leery of this message, but he is in fact already a practitioner: his speech about shooting a second arrow to reclaim the first (1.1.140-45) demonstrates his awareness of the principle. If we are to take the concept of â€œgive and hazardâ€ as the purest form of love that the world of this play has to offer (and if we believe Shakespeare was being sincere with the casket plot-line, as we must if we are to consider it anything but a mean joke), we may take it as the base-line from which to measure the relationships in the play.
It is inarguable that the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio comes closest to the mark, and it doesnâ€™t make a whit of difference whether you consider them friends, lovers, or closet homosexuals. Antonio must, indeed, hazard everything--first, everything he owns, then his own life. Bassanio ends up giving away Portiaâ€™s ring, an act which she has made it known would â€œpresage the ruin of your (Bassanioâ€™s) loveâ€ (3.2.173), to a near-stranger, simply to redeem the honor of his friend. Such reckless hazarding is rewardedâ€”nowhere in the play is trust betrayed between these two, nor even a sharp word spoken between them.
Hijinks abound amongst the playâ€™s male-female romances, some of them of a quite generous and daring variety. But they all fall short of the bench mark set by its two central men, often for reasons quite deliberate and unavoidable. Jessica and Lorenzo engage in a love affair which...