All that glisters is not gold, –
You that choose not by the view,
Chance as fair and choose as true!
Since this fortune falls to you,
Be content and seek no new.
Shakespeare opens the play with a morose protagonist, a melancholy merchant uninspired by his wealth, unimpressed with his reputation and lacks the arrogant contentment usually common amongst those with numerous friends. The world and her materials cannot fill Antonio’s apparent void. I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano – A stage, where every man must play a part, and mine a sad one. Perhaps the impending pound of flesh represents the hole in Antonio’s life, a natural home for happiness and a sense of meaning now vacant. It would seem that the law would enforce his unhappiness but love from others fills him again by demonstrably breathing new life into the law. Of course, one might see the conquest of law under the power of love, especially because of Shylock’s religious heritage and the dominance of the Judeo-Christian tradition in Western culture. Yet a more diverse audience may understand these concepts through different terms and embrace a broader spiritual endeavor. Considering Shakespeare’s immediate development of Antonio’s sadness, he may consider Christian themes as terms by which to describe a more universal longing for happiness, fulfillment and meaning. If we associate legalities with the material and temporal processes of the world, we can then interpret how these processes fail to foster happiness and meaning and, moreover, perpetuate the continual squalor of mankind. Yet the love exemplified by Antonio, Bassanio, Portia and Nerissa, also of this world, fails to relieve this squalor as well.
Consider also how Portia begins the second scene by bemoaning her plight. Like Antonio, she has money and people who care for her…and suitors. Her father’s edict, preventing her the right of free will in choosing her husband, propels her to reason her way to love or despair when imagining her life with any given suitor. Because she must marry, she employs reason to map a path to a happy union. She judges every characteristic of every suitor according to what she thinks will make her happy. The impossible mix between inevitable destiny and free will renders Portia stunted in melancholy. However, the play will show that destiny, unmolested by free will, brings Portia happiness. I imagine that her father understood the kind of destiny naturally paved before his daughter and the kind of man who would suit her. His game of caskets ensures that this natural progression of destiny to happiness move unhindered by anyone’s choice, even his.
Shylock – never have I sympathized with an antagonist to this degree. This sympathy lays the foundation for any further insights I may have gleaned from this play. These Christians, secure in their self-righteousness and blinded by their bigotry, cannot fathom Shylock as a human but only as a hateful, immoral and inferior cur on society. Of course, such detestable qualities cannot but render him beneath those of brotherly love and moral virtue. While Gratiano and friends praise Antonio for his virtue in hating and spiting Shylock, they slander Shylock for his frugality, miserliness and natural reactions toward Antonio’s, and others’, slander. I do commend Antonio for his speed to sacrifice in friendship. But what difficulty can Antonio find in practicing Christian charity and virtue for friends and loved ones? And what sort of men judge another for the similarities they share with him? They accuse Shylock for openly and maliciously seeking to murder a man with passionate prostrations to the Duke for Shylock’s death! These hypocrisies litter the play, not the least of which bulges from the page in the pity over Antonio’s pound of flesh while they steal away Shylock’s flesh and blood – Jessica, with nary a hesitation or considerate thought! If they wanted to steal a daughter from any one of their peers they would not feel nearly so noble about it, or take the action with such disregard for the father.
During the trial, Shakespeare, not only the poet, flashes his uncanny story-telling powers with a massive twist, displacing the conqueror with the conquered. During an apparent representation of Christ’s passion, with Antonio ready to sacrifice his life for a friend and the Jew demanding his death before the Duke, we witness a different result. When they pronounced the verdict and sentence, I did not feel happy for Antonio and his friends, nor did I feel relief or the same pleasure in antagonizing Shylock. The final ruling only seems to feed their already ungratifying bigotry. As the law once fueled Shylock’s revenge, it now shifts its alliance and fuels Antonio’s perverted sense of mercy. Surely Antonio feels merciful in demanding Shylock’s conversion (his soul) and that Shylock bequeath his estate to his lost flesh and blood (Jessica) when he gets to keep his own. But Antonio’s misguided notion of mercy serves him, just as Shylock’s revenge would have served him.
Perhaps Shakespeare does not intend to justify our sympathetic, self-sacrificing hero by relieving him, but rather to equate him and his peers with Shylock, to expose them as hypocrites, blurring the lines of absolute justice, the natures of protagonist and antagonist.
Consider also how Portia and Nerissa conjure a reason to test their husbands’ resolve, chastise them when they fail and then expose themselves and their plot. Even in the end, in the paradise of love’s embrace, we have Antonio, still melancholy for the debt he owes them, and Bassanio and Gratiano indebted to Portia and Nerissa for their actions. When will Portia and Nerissa ask for their bond – demanding perfect love from these men or else they should incur their wives’ displeasure?
Shakespeare exposes two kinds of debt: that from wrong-doing and from love. Yet real love abolishes debt and cultivates true happiness in people and meaning in life. Debt, not love, binds our heroes and heroines, as it bound Antonio and Shylock, but does not unite them as one flesh or reconcile them in life.
The law cannot provide happiness or reconciliation, nor calm hatred or sooth sadness. It merely propels the pendulum back and forth between people, divided by their vices and injustices, their self-righteousness and revenge.
Love, a doctrine preached so liberally by some claiming Christians who cannot practice it in deed any more than they can infuse it in their natural perspective, has the power to eliminate the pendulum all together, something neither Christian nor Jew wanted to happen in this story. I hoped love would save the day. And it looks as though it did. But this is not Christian love nor Jewish hate. These are people, still yearning for happiness.