Risk, Reward, Justice & Fairness: The Merchant of Venice in Early Modern England & the Age of #Ferguson

Vim, Ph.D.
39 min readFeb 7, 2015


The following is a lecture I wrote in December of 2014 and delivered on February 4, 2015 before the students and faculty in a course called “Culture and Expression,” in my university’s Honors College program. The centralizing concepts for the semester’s readings—texts that are basically canonical works for courses in the Humanities and Social Sciences—are risk and reward. The edition I cite from is Lindsay Kaplan’s edition from Bedford/St.Martin’s. When I refer to “you” in the text below, I’m addressing students directly; they are all or mostly freshmen. Because I spent a fair amount of time writing it, and because I know that the play is often taught, I figured I should make my contribution to teaching Shakespeare and to creating a #FergusonSyllabus public in case others might find it useful in their teaching.

Opening Remarks

The Merchant of Venice is a play centrally concerned with our semester’s theme. To be sure, the word “risk,” French in origin, does not come up in the play, nor any other play by Shakespeare. In fact, the earliest instance The Oxford English Dictionary records of the word’s use in English appears five years after the playwright’s death, in an English translation of a French text, The Wise Vieillard, or old man. Interestingly, the instance of the word in that text appears in a firm denunciation of “The covetous Marchant,” a man who will “runne vpon all hazards and risques for a handfull of yellow earth.”

OED definition of risk; screenshot of the exemplary quotation in the The Wise Viellard (1619), from EEBO database.

This example provides great insight into the language of risk in the period, linking a term that was not yet in regular use in England to another that was much more common: “hazard,” the name of a dice game, was adopted from the French two centuries prior; it was the term writers were most likely to during Shakespeare’s lifetime, from 1564–1616, when they wanted to invoke chance, dangerous ventures, and the potential for loss or harm.

As we can see from this online concordance, Shakespeare uses “hazard” in his plays a total of 43 times in 38 speeches, and the word appears in more speeches in Merchant of Venice than any other play he wrote. His merchant Antonio is not a “covetous merchant,” but he does take on “hazards and risks” simply by virtue of his profession and his friendship with Bassanio, a man with “ripe wants” (1.3.54)and a man whose casket choice defines him as one who willingly “give[s] and hazard[s] all he hath” (2.9.21). The play’s investment in individuals willing to take risks is not only apparent in the play’s language but also manifests thematically in the manner in which its conclusion rewards and punishes those individuals; this lecture aims to attend to both.

In its first two parts of this lecture, I’ll point out some of the key moments in the text where Shakespeare foregrounds risk and reward through the diction and images in various speeches, and then contextualize these moments in relation to early modern economic and legal institutions that would have shaped audiences’ perceptions of characters and their actions. The third part of the lecture will consider the way the play links the concept of risk to mercy and justice. I will argue that its valorization of only some risks should make us question the “quality of mercy” (4.1.179) that Portia advocates in her famous speech; for mercy in the play is not “an attrribute to god,” as she contends, but rather, a facet of proto-capitalism—something that only those who are already socially and economically privileged may exercise. In the last section and conclusion, I will discuss the play in light of recent grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York. I will argue that, as in our 21st century system, the play’s ideological framework both masks and reinforces various kinds of inequality that this new mercantile economy sustains, revealing that these supposedly fair institutions are predicated on the superior value of fair skin—and that they are, therefore, deeply unjust.

I. Risk / Reward

The play’s plot is masterfully built around the experience of loss and the threat of future losses. We begin in Act 1, Scene 1, with Antonio’s admission of his sadness, the source of which remains unknown; “In sooth I know not why I am so sad,/ it wearies me, you say it wearies you” (1.1.1–2) he says, and his friends confirm that he doesn’t look well and is even “marvelously changed” (1.1.76) Although he denies that he is weary from the stress of his occupation, we are treated in this exchange to the first of many passages that invoke his business as a source of inordinate risk. Indeed, as a merchant, Antonio is a professional risk-taker, a man whose mind, Salanio suggests, is likely “tossing on the ocean” (1.1.8) along with his ships. As Salerio describes it, the mercantile trade is an anxious endeavor wherein one must always be “plucking the grass to know where sits the wind” “peering in maps for ports,” and living constantly in fear (1.1.18–20). He marvels further at “What harm a wind too great at sea might do” (1.1.24) and notes how the every day activities of checking the time or going to church conjure up horrific images in which ships go awry. Should he consult the hourglass, he’d envision the ship, capsized and “dock’d in sand”; if he goes to church, “the holy edifice of stone” would remind him “of dangerous rocks,” that could send spices and silks to their ruin in water. The fleeting safety of the merchant’s life and the security of his goods can be summarized by Salerio’s claim, “in a word, but even now worth this, / And now worth nothing?” (1.1.30–36)

Antonio insists that neither his profession nor his ships are the source of his sadness; he assures us that his “ventures are not in one bottom trusted” (1.1.42) so we see he has mitigated the risk with what something akin to “diversification.” But Antonio’s professional acumen is undermined by his personal affection for Bassanio, who readily, if somewhat apologetically, admits to having “disabled” (1.1.122) his own estate.

To fully understand Bassanio’s losses, we must take a quick look at matters of social hierarchy that Shakespeare superimposes onto a couple of young aristocrats living in or migrating to Venice. The economy in England in 1596 was one in which wealth was rooted almost entirely in land ownership, and those who owned land were aristocrats whose families owned land in an earlier feudal system, and who inherited land and the estates on it as a right of noble birth. In Shakespeare’s England, one’s noble birth was evidence of one’s noble blood, and that blood both entitled an individual to that land and also obliged him or her to ensure by strategic, aristocratic marriage that it stayed in the hands of aristocrats of equally high standing. This brings us right back to the play, for in many ways, this strategic marriage is precisely what connects all of the play’s plots together, and Shakespeare sees to it that audiences see Portia and Bassanio as the protagonists—despite the title’s focus on Antonio—and as the correct and natural match.

As boyfriends go, however, Bassanio’s got some dealbreakers, and, as I’ll note in a few minutes, he’s as problematic a mate for Portia as he is a friend for our sad merchant Antonio. His risky treatment of both friend and girlfriend is made clear in his first exchange with Antonio, which carefully sets up the interconnectedness of bonds of affection and risk. Bassanio is an aristocrat whose social rank in late Elizabethan hierarches vastly exceeds the place of a merchant, but those hierarchies are complicated and temporarily disrupted because the former is in the latter’s debt. Antonio assumes that his friend is there to share the details of his secret visit to Portia — a visit that Antonio has likely bankrolled—but instead Bassanio has to ask for another loan. Here, he confesses to having shown a “more swelling port / than my faint means would grant contrivance” (1.1.122–23) and also admits to having been “too prodigal” (128). He expresses his desire to “come fairly off of the great debts” he owes, but his contrite rhetoric “to you, Antonio/ I owe the most in money and in love” (129–30) raises the question of just how fairly he is treating his friend.

Antonio’s assurance that “his purse and his person” will remain “unlocked” (138–9) to Bassanio anticipate the stakes of the play’s romantic conflict, for his ability to make good on this offer is contingent upon a set of locked caskets and indeed his literal willingness to risk his person in the form of a pound of his flesh. In this moment and many that follow, Shakespeare sets up a pattern in which characters acknowledge a loss and the potential for future losses: rather than take steps to mitigate further loss by ceasing their risky behavior, they double down instead or go all in.

By his own admission, Bassanio is a terrible candidate for a loan; and yet, he nonetheless goes on to make a case for it. He does so by drawing a rather troubling analogy based on “childhood proof” (1.1.143) from “schoolday” sports (1.1.139). When he lost an arrow at school, he says, he’d fire a second one in the same direction, and by watching more carefully where the second one went, he’d end up finding both arrows. Maybe Bassanio got really good at archery after getting so many second shots, but we can see here how fundamentally risky this strategy is when we replace the arrow of his boyhood gaming with real, adult cash money.

Now, if you’re #TeamBassanio, you might defend your guy by saying that he’s got a decent point. In our modern business parlance, after all, one has to spend money to make money; you can only get a high yield on an investment if you are bold enough to invest. So with the bold logic of “willful youth,” the adult Bassanio asks Antonio to make another investment so that he can get the money back—not by earning it through skill or labor, of course, but by marrying “a lady richly left” (160). He needs his friend to “give him the means / to hold a rival place with” (172–3) the multiple suitors that descend upon Portia’s estate in Belmont. Of course, the very fact that there are other suitors makes the investment a major risk, but the risk is minimal in Bassanio’s mind: he is certain that Portia will choose him over the others.

Here again we are left for a minute to imagine that the risk has been averted only to find that there are further complications. Even before we get to Portia’s lack of choice in the matter, there’s the fact that Antonio has no ready cash. And though we were initially invited to take comfort in the fact that his funds are dispersed in many ships, his lack of immediate funds for sending Bassanio to Belmont in the style in which he is accustomed means taking out a line of credit. How many of you who just got your first credit card would be willing to give it to your friend and have it “racked even to the uttermost” (180) so he or she could date a rich person?

Here, Shakespeare helps us see that Antonio’s solvency is tied to Portia’s estate, and he further emphasizes their connection through repeated diction in Act 1 Scene 2. Much like Antonio’s claim that his sadness “wearies [him],” Portia calls attention to her own “weary” “little body” (1.2.1) and the fatigue that comes from not having a choice. Her marriage plans are dictated by “the will of a dead father” (1.2.19), with the will being both a literal and figurative force; his will and testament, which Nerrissa annoyingly describes as guided by wisdom, has dictated that Portia can “neither choose…nor refuse” (1.2.18) her suitors and that she must marry whomever picks the correct casket.

The casket game is predicated on the risk it presents for suitors. If they lose, they must agree to depart and never marry anyone. But it is in fact riskier for the “richly left” Portia. Since she is ostensibly an only child, a strategic aristocratic marriage to anyone would benefit the party she married more so than it would benefit her.

It is common for people who don’t study the early modern period to assume that women had no rights in the 16th century, despite having an unmarried Queen Elizabeth on the throne for nearly 50 years. And it is true that women in Shakespeare’s England could not attend a grammar-school or university, hold an office in the church or the parliament; their exclusion from the latter meant that they could not contribute in any official way to public debates or participate fully in matters of state governance. Moreover, under the system of primogeniture that governed English common law, women did not have inheritance rights to family land — as I noted before, the primary basis of wealth at the time. In this system, the bulk of an Earl or Duke’s land was passed down to his eldest son.

And yet, as the editors of the Norton Shakespeare write,

Women were not in practice as bereft of property as, according to English common law, they should have been. Demographic studies indicate that the inheritance system called primogeniture, the orderly transmission of property from father to eldest male heir, was more often an unfulfilled wish than a reality. Some 40 percent of marriages failed to produce a son, and in such circumstances, fathers often left their land to their daughters, rather than brothers, nephews, or male cousins. (Volume 1, page 9)

So while the correct casket offers a foreboding message to Portia’s suitors, practically speaking, she is the only one who is genuinely forced to “hazard all she hath” by giving it all to a man.

It is, I think, this clear sense of her own vulnerability that motivates her willingness to defy the rule that she cannot reveal the proper casket to her suitors—this is what we are seeing when she jokes about putting a glass of wine on the wrong casket for a German alcoholic. “I will do anything,” she says desperately, “ere I will marry a sponge” (1.2.70–73). While we laugh at her wit here, we also know she’s not just kidding around.

Portia’s castigation of the German suitor, like her mockery of the others, not only speaks to her resourcefulness but also exemplifies Shakespeare’s apparent investment in #TeamBassanio. Despite his profligate ways and willingness to make transactions with the money and goods that belong to others, the bros at Antonio’s, Lorenzo, Salanio, and Salerio praise him as Antonio’s “better company” and a “worthier friend” than themselves. Likewise, Nerissa’s comment about him suggests that if Portia’s will were more powerful than her father’s, she would indeed pick Bassanio of her own accord.

Composite from stills from The Merchant of Venice, Sony Pictures, 2004. Screen shots here and elsewhere from EEBO editions from 1600 and 1619 (the choice of which determined solely by the clarity of the text).

When Bassanio arrives in Belmont, of course, she makes a big deal about not being able to give him any hints. But then she strategically influences his choice anyway, not with a red-herring wineglass, but with an unprecedented concert while he chooses and a musician whose end rhymes—“bred,” “led,” and “nourishéd” signal that he should “reply reply” with the word that rhymes (“Lead.”)

Whether Bassanio takes the hint is open to interpretation, for makes quite a production of coming to the right conclusion by himself. Regardless of whether either one cheats the game, it’s clear that both Portia’s risk and Bassanio’s risk pay off to some degree: he gets her money, and she avoids the suitors she despises. Of course, though she doesn’t know it yet, Bassanio is another kind of sponge.

Lest we forget, the happy couple’s respective risks were not theirs alone, and their successful transaction — social and economic—both depends on and impacts the security of the lender, and, by some measures, it is Antonio that has taken on the greatest risk. While that risk-level is, to some extent, an occupational hazard, it is also ideologically inflected, and this element is the subject I will turn to at the end of this lecture. But before I turn there, I’d like to note that once more, we see a moment in which risk escalates, and rather than work to diminish it, our heroes once again double-down. Upon receiving a letter from Antonio indicating that his ships have all crashed on “merchant-marring rocks” (3.2.253), Bassanio comes clean with Portia about his financial state, noting that all the wealth he had “ran in [his] veins” (253)—that is, all he has is debt and noble blood. Rather than taking Bassanio’s admission as evidence of fraud — which one would hope could release Portia from the bond that is her father’s will—Portia demands that they follow through with its tenets: Bassanio should marry her right away, and agree to take ownership of all she has, before taking some of her money to pay back his and Antonio’s debts. Once again, we have an instance in which a character is presented with the riskiness of an endeavor and an option to back out — and rather than do so, she goes all in. This insistence upon upping the stakes of a contract the more risky it gets is so baffling that we’re forced to chalk up this irrational behavior to the antics of love.

But there’s more to it than that.

II. Merchant / Jew

We might wonder why a comedy about love that so clearly valorizes aristocratic marriage even involves a merchant and a Jew in the first place. But if we remember that the play is also fundamentally concerned with the riskiness of bonds — love and other kinds—then Shakespeare’s decision to make the main plot revolve around a deal between Antonio and Shylock makes quite a bit of sense. In fact, by the late sixteenth century, the land-based economy was starting to cede ground to a market-based economy, one that increasingly included English participation in global trade. 1585 saw the incorporation of England’s first joint stock company, the East India Company, and, as a trader of relative means, Antonio represents an emerging kind of self-made man. Indeed, to be a merchant was one of the few means of gaining social mobility in this period, and it meant that access to wealth and even land was a possibility for those who could invest in the sea.

By the same token, of course, to be a merchant was to be a professional risk taker, and though Antonio insists that he is not, in fact, worried about his money, Shakespeare gives us ample evidence that he should be. All the risks that Solanio and Salerio invoke in Act 1, Scene 1 find reinforcement in scene 3, with Shylock’s itemizing of risks to explain why he should be reticent about loaning the merchant money.

“Ships be but boards,” he says; if they survive the weather, they are still subject to “land rats and water rats, water thieves and land thieves — I mean Pirates” (1.3.17–18). And of course the usual, water, wind and rocks. In entering into the bond with Antonio, then, Shylock is also agreeing to take on a risk. But he has a calculated means of mitigating that risk in the practice of usury, or charging interest on loans.

Shylock’s speech justifying usury using a sheep breeding analogy. Mark Shell’s work on this passage is fantastic.

Shylock presents his own version of risk management not as risk management, but rather, “well-won thrift” (1.3.40) — that is, something that he has competed for and earned. In the analogy he uses to justify his practice, the story of Jacob and Laban (1.3.68–81), an imagined form of genetic engineering yields a greater number of sheep with spots and therein suggests that Jacob’s shrewd calculations when he entered into a bargain with Laban make him deserving of extra sheep. Antonio dismisses Shylock’s interpretation of the story and insists on the validity of a different one: Jacob shouldn’t take credit for the extra sheep he gets out of the deal, since it was God’s will for the ewes to give birth to more sheep with spots. In Antonio’s explication, one shouldn’t try to get more sheep from fewer, or rely on nascent notions of genetic probability; one simply needs to acknowledge that his fortune are simply up to God.

Their different interpretations of the scripture foreground the personal, religious, and cultural differences that perpetuate the primary plot conflict in the play; they also reveal the size and scope of the conflict between Antonio and Shylock, as well as Bassanio’s apparent obliviousness to it. When tasked with seeing what Antonio’s credit can do in the city, he found the absolute worst lender possible: a man whose practices are abhorrent to Antonio and furthermore, one who confesses to the audience that he bears “an ancient grudge” (1.3.32) toward him. Shylock explains his hatred by noting that “he is a Christian” (1.3.32) that he lends out money gratis; that is, he keeps down the interest rate that Shylock can reasonably expect from his borrowers. Antonio accuses Shylock of being deceitful in justifying his practices, noting even “the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose” (89). Yet Antonio’s no angel either; when Shylock says in public that the merchant has called him a dog and “spit upon [his] Jewish gabardine,” Antonio does not deny his former conduct (1.3.108) and in fact promises to do so again in the future (121–122).

Clearly, Bassanio and Antonio should find another lender. But they don’t; faced with these obvious challenges, they double down and take the bond.

Here’s a good time to note that your textbook has a section on Finance, with significant attention to the practice of usury starting on page 188. In that section, you can see that support for ursury comes from Deuteronomy in the Old Testament, which allowed lenders to charge interests on loans to strangers, though not to brothers. You can also see in that section that attitudes about usury were changing in the period and also varied; the approval of it could not really be identified with specific groups — many experts of rabbinic law deemed it evil, and many Christian lenders saw it as a necessary evil. Still others saw it simply as an economic necessity that had no moral implications whatsoever. In The Merchant of Venice, however, usury is not only a key plot point, but also a concept that allows Shakespeare to signal distinctions in economic practices as facets of religious difference. In fact, Shakespeare’s emphasis on their opposing philosophies can easily prevent us from making a very simple observation based on Bassanio’s “schoolboy proof”: that lending money with interest and hoping to collect more from a risky loan recipient is merely spending money to make money, shooting an arrow to find two arrows, and, on the whole, not any worse than Bassanio’s own economic goals. But rather than emphasize these strategies as compatible forms of free enterprise, Shakespeare reinforces these loan differences as deeply rooted cultural and spiritual differences, and then draws further distinctions between the Christian characters’ constant socializing and Shylock’s reluctance to leave his closed-up and “sober house” (2.5.35).

Shylock’s house is so sober, in fact, that his own daughter calls it “hell” (2.3.2) — a typical teenager complaint couched in pointedly spiritual terms—and his servant Launcelot describes his strong desire to flee from it in similarly suggestive language. The Jew, he says, “is a kind of devil” (2.2.17), and he tells his father that he risks becoming a Jew “if [he] serve[s] the Jew any longer” (85). The fear of enforced conversion that he expresses in this line no doubt had some resonance for early modern viewers of the play. Shakespeare’s contemporaries in England were at least nominally Protestants, some four decades after Elizabeth’s sister and predecessor Mary I had reversed the Reformation of the Anglican church and executed anyone who refused the official religion of Catholicism. Forty years may seem like a long time for a period in which life expectancy was significantly lower than our own, but the memories of those who were burned, hanged, or torture for their refusal to convert were, in 1596, in heavy circulation, documented in a book by John Foxe, called Actes and Monuments, often called the Book of Martyrs (you can read excerpts of this work in your textbook on pages 250 and 295). The 1580s and 1590s were also decades in which Catholic Spain launched serious military threats and closeted English Catholics plotted various conspiracies to have Elizabeth killed so that they could put a Catholic monarch on the throne. These fears and the repeated circulation of tales of persecuted Protestants under bloody Mary make Launcelot’s desire to leave Shylock’s service, one that late Elizabethan audiences might find sympathetic and justifiable, despite his pretense that a good angel urges him to be a good employee and stay on.

Though he seems marginal to the play’s plot and largely comical, the figure of Launcelot is particularly compelling in the text because he helps to remind readers first, that perceptions of Shylock are partly a matter of perspective, and second, that Shylock’s desire for vengeance is such that he is willing to take on various kinds of loss. The loss I mean here is his voluntarily release of Launcelot to Bassanio’s household. Launcelot, you’ll remember, complains that he is treated poorly by Shylock, specifically that his master “famishe[s]” (2.2.80) him. Shylock, by contrast, refers to Launcelot as a “huge feeder” and lazy — “he sleeps by day / More than the wildcat” (2.5.45-

Shylock’s loss of a servant is a net-positive.

If this claim is true, in household economics, Launcelot is liability for Shylock; he costs more than he’s worth. Whether he’s actually starved or not is a matter of casting, though the productions I’ve seen have all bought into the idea that he is malnourished at Shylock’s house. But consider the additional detail that he wants to leave Shylock’s service not just out of fear of becoming a Jew by working for one, but also that he wants to join Bassanio’s household because he gives “rare new liveries” (2.2.83) or uniforms.

Launcelot’s all about that Bass(anio)

The perception that Bassanio will be a better and more generous master may be true, but he’s basing this claim on something rather superficial, and one might argue that the “rare new liveries” that his servants wear are part of the “swelling port” that keeps him in perpetual financial trouble. The intriguing detail then is not that Shylock keeps a starving servant but that he sees parting with the servant as a way to further cripple his rivals financially. After detailing Launcelot’s capacity to consume more than he earns, he says, “Therefore I part with him, and part with him / To one that would have him help to waste / His borrow’d purse” (2.5.46–50). Here we see yet another version of interest or earning more from an initial loss. The passing on of a servant is a one-time loss, but also a transaction that has economic effects that extend beyond the initial exchange: a vengeful gift that keeps on giving, by taking. A loss for Shylock begets further ruin for Bassanio, which Shylock sees as a significant gain.

If this plan to unleash a lazy and “huge feeder” into the home of a paradoxically impoverished rich person seems a little bit comic, Shylock’s harsh comments about his daughter after she departs his house are harder to laugh off. His claim that he prefers a return in which his ducats are safe but his daughter is dead betrays a ruthless materialism that even now circulates as a Jewish stereotype. In Shakespeare’s time, audiences would have had very few examples of real people on which to hang this perception, since Jews were expelled from England in the 13th century and almost none of them lived on English soil until the 1650s, when Oliver Cromwell temporarily licensed their return.

Still from Bedford/St.Martin’s edition of the play; but the scholar Stephen Orgel has reminded us that the example of Lopez is complicated; witnesses at Lopez’s depositions, as Emma Smith has recounted, were primarily concerned with his status as a Catholic or agent from Spain, not his status as a converted Jew.

Yet in 1596, they had at least one example in one Roderigo Lopez, a former Jew of Spanish descent. As you can learn on page 304 of your edition, Lopez was accused of attempting to poison the Queen, a prospect that seemed all too possible given his access to Elizabeth: he was, at the time, appointed as her physician. In 1594, his case went to trial, and he was quickly found guilty of conspiracy and attempted murder.

Two years later, Shakespeare put Shylock on trial, though the hearing he attends is initially not even intended for him. In the next and final part of this talk, I want to bring together all the strands I’ve laid out here about risk, and argue that the play rewards risk-taking differently for different people. Or rather, that the play’s depiction of risk and reward is inextricably linked religious and racial categories, and that difference—and in the play’s case, anything that is not strictly white European Christian—ensures that some people pay a far greater price for the risks they take than others. In this way, then, the play is not just about the risks that lovers take. It’s about the fact that these lovers are white aristocratic Christians and therefore that the risks they take only seem like risks. The structure of Venetian — and by extension English—society in the play provides only the illusion of a competitive market and the constraints that dictate rationale actors: even if you’re a merchant, a symbol of social mobility and unpredictable danger, you’re too big to fail and therefore entitled to a bail-out.

III. Risk/Fairness /Justice

It is impossible to talk about risk and justice without talking about mercy because of the famous speech Portia delivers at the court scene, where her masterful handling of Shylock is a prelude to the way she’ll entrap her own husband into giving up his wedding ring. In the mercy speech, she encourages Shylock to drop his suit for justice and instead be merciful, a trait that is so Christian it “droppeth as the gentle rain from Heaven.” Portia invites Shylock to be merciful and “mitigate the justice of [his] plea” and, in so doing, relieve the “strict court of Venice” of its “need” to “give sentence ’gainst the merchant” (4.1.198–200). The fact that Venice “needs” to give Antonio a sentence affirms the fact that he has defaulted on a signed contract. It is one of several lines in the play that suggests to audiences that the court is legally bound to uphold Shylock’s bond.

Another is her earlier statement to Shylock that “the Venetian law / Cannot impugn you as you do proceed” (173–4), which also reinforces what we learned in an earlier scene: In act 3, when Salanio suggests the Duke will just step in and rescue Antonio, the latter says “The Duke cannot deny the course of law,” and cites “the commodity that strangers have” in Venice: denying the law, he admits, “Will much impeach the justice of the state, / Since that the trade and profit of the city / consisteth of all nations” (3.3.26–31).

Portia suggests that Shylock’s bond is legitimate in the eyes of the law when she tells Bassanio she will not bend it to save Antonio because “There is no power in Venice / Can alter a decree established,” for it will be “recorded for a precedent / An many an error by the same example / Will rush into the state” (4.1.213–217). This comment earns her high praise from Shylock and helps establish the sense that the court and those who act within it are invested in the law and justice, and that the city-state’s institutions are unimpeachable champions of both.

But then within 5 lines, we find Portia advising Shylock to take the very offer from Bassanio she has just dismissed as an option.

…the structure of Venetian — and by extension English — society in the play provides only the illusion of a competitive market and the constraints that dictate rationale actors: even if you’re a merchant, a symbol of social mobility and unpredictable danger, you’re too big to fail and therefore entitled to a bail-out.

Shylock claims he can not accept the offer because to do so is to perjure himself in the bond the three men drew up together, swore upon, and had notarized; but rather than grounding him in a safe position, this obedience to their agreement subjects him to greater risk, for Portia introduces another law on the books that supersedes the one she’s just cited: the shedding of Christian blood — even one drop — will mean he loses his land and goods to the State. Rather than exercise the mercy she advocated for in Shylock, she suddenly refuses to allow him to accept the previous offer of three times the bond from Bassanio—and then tacks on an additional penalty: if he sheds Antonio’s blood, she tells him, “Thou diest, and all thy goods are confiscate” (327). With the new addition that he must die for receiving what the bond entitles him, the interest is far too great and so he finally agrees to forfeit the bond altogether in order to emerge from the court with his life.

Going all in, Portia then informs him that “the law hath yet another hold” on him:


I will return to that word “alien” momentarily, but first it will be instructive to lay out the remaining parts of Shylock’s punishment and how Portia authorizes them. The Duke, who Antonio observes earlier as having responsibility to maintain fair terms amongst foreign and Venetian traders, has the power to determine an accused alien’s life or death, despite the fact that his title comes strictly from landownership and not any special expertise in the law. And so we should not be surprised when he decides to award half of Shylock’s wealth to Antonio and the other half to the state, though that half will be reduced to a fine. Antonio’s forfeiture of his own half is a calculated loss that results in a far greater gain: at his behest, Shylock will be forced to give half his wealth to “the gentleman / that lately stole his daughter” (380–81) so that Lorenzo not only gets to keep what he took, but also will receive additional profit. Moreover, Antonio’s bargain requires that Shylock convert to Christianity and leave the remainder of his goods in his will to Lorenzo and Jessica.

This outcome is praised as merciful by the Duke, who touts the “difference of…spirit” (4.1.363) inherent in his pardon and Shylock’s ruthless pursuit of the bond. But this emphasis on how different the Venetian Christian “spirit” is also invites us to interrogate the extent to which it is genuinely merciful, and furthermore, asks us to examine whether the play’s justice is actually fair. In fact, the play valorizes global trade and international relations only until those concepts run up against the reality that its fun-loving Christians may not prosper from risky financial endeavors. Indeed, Portia expends much of her labor and wealth in the play to ensure that any existing laws or protections that don’t benefit her friends never come into effect in a courtroom.

While we might personally find the terms of Shylock’s bond to be ruthless and cruel, it’s worth noting that neither Antonio nor Bassanio deem it so, and both voluntarily sign on to its terms. It’s true that Bassanio expresses reservations about it, telling Antonio “You shall not seal to such a bond for me! / I’ll rather dwell in my necessity” (1.3.144–5). But Antonio ignores this rare moment of reasonable caution from his profligate friend. “I’ll seal to such a bond” he declares, and tells Bassanio, “fear not, man, I will not forfeit it.” He even indicates his consent a second time: “Yes, Shylock, I will seal unto this Bond” (1.3.163), and then more officially a third time when he accompanies Shylock to the notary to sign it. Even when Bassanio frets that the bond is expressed in “fair terms and a villain’s mind” (171) he describes the terms explicitly as fair. In response, Antonio confidently assures him “In this there can be no dismay” (172). It is crucial to note this acceptance of the bond’s terms in the moment, that the pound of flesh is not deemed excessive and rejected until much later in the play when it seems possible that Antonio and his “fair flesh” may suffer harm.

And indeed, the fairness of Antonio’s flesh is crucial to note in the play’s verbal and visual landscape. When Shylock demands “a pound of [his] fair flesh, to be cut off and taken / In what part of [Antonio’s] body pleaseth me” (1.3.42–44), he makes a wry circumcision joke, and he also emphasizes the relative whiteness of his enemy’s flesh.

Shylock’s use of “fair” to describe Antonio’s flesh is merely one of many instances in which the word appears.

Other characters use the word fair to mean “light skinned” in a similar manner, urging us to see the relationship between attractiveness — defined almost exclusively in the play as whiteness — and just behavior.

Fair usually means light-skinned and pretty; some instances suggest it conveys “just” or fair-dealing, but most are more clearly signaling attractiveness and a light complexion. I’ve used the extremely fun Voyant Tools for quick analysis here.

For instance, in the scene directly following this one, the Prince of Morocco recognizes the prejudice of his would-be companion and implores Portia to “Mislike [him] not for [his] complexion, / the shadowed livery of the burnished sun” (2.1.1–2) and defiantly asserts that the blood underneath his dark skin is every bit as red as “the fairest creature northward born” (4). Portia demurs, insisting that she is “not solely led / By nice directions of a maiden’s eyes,” and that the prince stands “as fair / as any comer [she has] looked on yet” (2.1.20–21). But audiences recognize this as both a backhanded compliment and a lie. In her opening scene, she utters the oblique but also telling conditional:


Later, when he chooses the wrong casket, she invokes his complexion again with relief, noting,


To be sure, complexion means more than just skin color, as your editor takes great pains to note. But we would be naïve to pretend here that Portia is commenting primarily on something intrinsic to Morocco’s character.

Shylock is likewise associated with the dark complexion of the devil, not just in the moments I have already noted, but also in additional scenes where Lorenzo and his friends draw attention to the contrasting fairness of his daughter.

In 2.4, Lorenzo invokes her “fair hand” twice and describes it as “whiter than the paper it writ on” (11–13). Gratiano echoes his friends’ language when asking after “fair Jessica” and Lorenzo calls her “fair Jessica” yet again after noting that she is “issue to a faithless Jew” (2.4.37). The proof of her fairness is again reinforced when Salerio and Salanio bring it up while taunting Shylock, noting that she is as different from him as ivory is to jet (2.4.39)—an image that takes figurative virtue and recasts it in literally white and black terms. Lorenzo links his perception of Jessica to what he sees and what she does, noting that “Fair she is, if that mine eyes be true” (2.6.55) before confirming “And true she is, as she hath proved herself.” We aren’t told explicitly how she has proven her fairness, but we are left to conclude that the proof lies in the fact that she’s left her father and brought with her enough ducats to sink a gondola.

These moments, like the famous “hath not a Jew” (3.1.40–54) speech, practically beg us to note with some smug praise of our playwright, that Shakespeare is so good and fair for showing us that Jewishness isn’t unequivocally associated with darkness or dark skin — after all, Shylock gets a good speech and a few chances to be nice, and Jessica is Jewish and still is described repeatedly as attractive. And yet these insistences still pitch darkness in relative and pointedly moral and religious terms: whatever Jessica’s skin actually looks like, her deception and robbing of Shylock makes her lighter and, in Gratiano’s assessment, a Gentile and no Jew”— her radical and risky act of theft is met with approval from Christian figures, and because it benefits our fair-skinned lot of protagonists, her actions are not risky or radical at all.

These small moments build as the play offers us more of them, for instance the revelation that Launcelot, once worried about the implications of serving the devil Jew, has used his liberty and fancy livery in Bassanio’s household to engage in the “getting up of a Negro [servant’s] belly.” When we are told that “the Moor is with child by [him]” (3.5.27–29), another messy conflation of race and religion, we are not really asked to imagine how this woman’s life and work will be affected nor how this child will fare — her belly and other parts are invoked solely to make us laugh at the antics of our fair-skinned Venetians.

Throughout the play, we are asked to casually accept the off-handed and negative comments on dark bodies, whereas we are encouraged repeatedly and increasingly to feel concern and sympathy for Antonio’s “fair flesh.”

The clear value of that flesh and its fairness helps to gloss over his and others’ bad decisions, inflecting even the play’s central conceit of the three caskets, wherein we are taught about the value and appearance of precious and less precious metals. As Bassanio picks the casket that will seal his and Portia’s bond, his thoughtful assessment locates their worth not their substance, but in their hue, insisting to us that it’s not lead itself, but lead’s simplicity and “paleness,” that makes it so unfairly maligned. “The world is still deceived with ornament” (3.2.74) he muses while he looks at the gold and silver caskets, and we are supposed to praise him for knowing that embellishment on the outside isn’t what really counts. The outside, he says, is only supposed fairness,” akin to “the guiléd shore, / to a most dangerous sea” (94, 97–98)

As we can see here, these metaphors for external appearances link the play’s depiction of mercantile risks to the dangers of poor choices; they also connect the play’s depiction of virtue with its assessment of complexion and race, particularly when Bassanio applauds himself for recognizing “the beauteous scarf / Veiling an Indian beauty” as merely “The seeming truth which cunning times put on / To entrap the wisest” (98–100) Like the Indian beauty that is mostly attributable to a “beauteous scarf,” the other caskets hide some indeterminate ill under a veil; what’s on the outside is deceptive, for without that ornamentation or scarf, “an Indian beauty” is no beauty at all. Congratulating himself on his wisdom in avoiding the outward trappings of wealth and false fairness, he assures the lead casket “Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence” (106) and wants us to know that we should never devalue its common paleness because paleness is what separates the false choice from the truth.

I suspect that on #TeamBassanio, we are supposed to see our hero here as growing up before our eyes; the guy who has spent too much outfitting his posse is now the man rejects the trappings of wealth and recognizes inner beauty instead. But the imagery Shakespeare gives to him to show this recognition still reveals a deep-seated investment in whiteness and thus a still-superficial understanding of intrinsic worth. In fact, the logic that we see in the victorious “fortune” of the lead casket, “You that choose not by the view / Chance as fair and choose as true” (130–131), is ideology at its purest—and you don’t have to have an Indian’s brown skin like mine to recognize this. We are told Bassanio doesn’t choose by what he sees, but we know for a fact that he does; at best, we can say that Bassanio is no more prejudiced than his wife Portia, the character who most openly articulates the culture’s biased sentiments about dark skin. But to be persuaded by “paleness” is hardly virtuous (and “hazarding” all you have is hardly a hazard) when you can sink your losses in a bride whose exceeding “fairness” is second only to the fact that she is “richly left.”

…our legal institutions are similarly set up to benefit whiteness, and that long-standing and sometimes unrecognized privilege accorded by the state too often ensures that dark skin absorbs the bulk of risk that white bodies voluntarily seek out.

IV. Venice / England / Ferguson / Staten Island

I want to end with what I hope will be a provocative meditation on “fairness” in the play that takes a bit of a risk for me as a scholar of early modern literature culture. In my published scholarship, I carefully ground my readings of literature in the conditions in which texts were composed and originally performed, and I’m always wary of making anachronistic comparisons with modern American culture. I also don’t believe these old works need to be related to today’s world or to be “relevant to today’s society” — whatever that means—for them to be important or worthy of attention. That said, the things that do seem relevant still in the text always produce some discomfort. When I teach this play each year, my students often want me to help make that discomfort go away, and, ask me anxiously whether I think the play and Shakespeare are anti-Semitic. For some, I think it alleviates some anxiety when I say yes, the play certainly is, as if acknowledging that fact unburdens it of the charge. For others, it helps to point to portions of the play where Shakespeare seems to be drawing attention to, and even critiquing Anti-semitism, such as Shylock’s appeal to his common humanity and physicality, his reference to Christians keeping slaves, and his observations in the courtroom about the audacity of “Christian husbands.” These moments, I think, do not absolve the play of its anti-semitism, for it is possible for a literary work to be aware and critical of any ism (including not-isms, like homophobia) and simultaneously perpetuate it. By the same token, it’s possible to witness unfairness, point it out, even, and yet still undertake courses of action that support rather than dismantle the structures that lead to inequality.

But to say so makes the text untenable for some of the readers in my courses, and so, still hoping for some comfort, they suggest that maybe it’s okay because Shakespeare was writing during a very different time. It would be unthinkable for a Protestant writer in the late16th century, after all, to have the enlightened and tolerant views on race, religion, and culture difference that we have now. There’s a way in which that’s true, but there are many ways in which it is not. Scholars such as Janet Adelman and Emma Smith have discussed other English plays written shortly before and after Merchant with more neutral depictions of Jewish figures and moneylenders, for instance, and we are kidding ourselves if we think our legal institutions and social behaviors are fully enlightened now.

In fact, the thing that is so valuable about the Merchant of Venice is that it forces us to confront some uncomfortable things about Shakespeare and many other things we hold dear—and it is from this sort of discomfort that we can sharpen our critical thinking skills.

So I want to conclude here by thinking about the courtroom scene in Merchant in light of some recent Grand Jury decisions on the deaths of two unarmed African Americans, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, respectively, in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York. Though I will start with the necessary caveats — that 21st century America works differently from late 16th century England, just as 1590s England was also distinct from city states like Venice in 1590s Europe) — I will leave you with the arguments that our legal institutions are similarly set up to benefit whiteness, and that long-standing and sometimes unrecognized privilege accorded by the state too often ensures that dark skin absorbs the bulk of risk that white bodies voluntarily seek out.

In the play, those bodies belong to Bassanio and Antonio when they willfully pursue a deal with an angry, vindictive lender whom Antonio has abused. But there’s also the “weary” white body of Portia, perhaps the play’s most complicated figure, a woman whose resourcefulness is matched only by the depth of her financial resources and disdain for her foreign visitors. With respect to the question of whether usury is a just or justified financial practice, she has no metaphorical skin in the game; but for all her professions about mercy and the law, it is clear that her actions are motivated almost entirely out of self-interest. Though she’s described as “fair” multiple times in the play, she’s arguably the least fair-dealing character in the play. Her actions in the courtroom can be described as a virtuoso performance of masculinity and legal expertise, but they are also acts of fraud. It is not just that she fakes her credentials and thereby negates the validity of anything that happens inside that room; it is that she enters the room with gestures intended to convey her unbiased perspective and therein her absolute neutrality. Like Bassanio, she pretends to not buy into outward appearances, and denies even being able to distinguish between the party who stands to collect by the bond and the one who is in default.

When she asks “Which is the Merchant here? and which is the Jew?” she offers the early modern equivalent of people claiming now that “they don’t see race.” It’s true that Portia has never met Antonio or Shylock. But we know from various instances in the text that the physical differences between them are readily apparent. The notion that Portia doesn’t see religion and its attendant site markers— whether rooted in complexion or clothing—both heightens and threatens to gild over the brand of xenophobic justice that she skillfully exploits. When Portia asks which man is which, she offers us the most powerful and also the most insidious instance of a fair-skinned character insisting that she doesn’t render decisions by sight, and, in insisting she doesn’t “see” difference, she enables the widening of inequities intrinsic to the Venetian social landscape. Portia doesn’t need to admit to seeing difference here because she has already recognized that the white merchant and white aristocrat are two of a kind:


Because those “whose souls do bear an equal yoke of love” are necessarily alike, she’s always already on Antonio’s side, the very definition of a biased judge.

You might see this moment as one that Shakespeare’s deliberately pointing out, but the play does not, I would argue, problematize Portia’s insistence on her own neutrality. instead, it seems at pains to obscure the dark underbelly of supposed legal fairness, the fact that Bassanio and Antonio can behave as irresponsible economic actors without ever truly being vulnerable. Both Jessica and Portia are complicit in perpetuating the male figures’ privileged status, taking on the consequences of risk that their male counterparts enter into and eliminating any potential damage for them; without exerting any effort, and even without their knowledge, they can, as Bassanio predicts in his opening scene, still “come fairly off.”

In our American system, we define “fairness” by invoking every person’s right to a fair trial by a jury of his or her peers; and take comfort in the fact that all accused persons will get their day in court. I could point to many cases that present challenges to this inarguable right, but I will focus on the two recent cases I mentioned a few minutes ago, Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

Screen shots of what you might find in a google search for each victim and their respective “crimes”

The unarmed black seventeen-year old Brown was shot multiple times by an officer who justified his actions by citing stolen cigars—later revealed to have been paid for—and the fact that the younger man charged at him. In his deposition before a Grand Jury that would ultimately not charge him with homicide, the officer described the moments leading up to the shooting, claiming that Brown came at him angrily with his hands up, and that his face was “like a demon.”

An oft-cited passage from the testimony of Darren Wilson in Missouri v. Darren Wilson, available here. A charitable grammarian would note that Wilson’s pronoun “it” here refers to Brown’s face, not Brown himself. But beyond pointing out the clear antecedent for the pronoun, a charitable grammarian has nothing to add.

Eric Garner was approached by multiple officers who attempted to arrest him for selling single cigarettes from a pack, against the law because it circumvented the taxes charged in retail; when he resisted, citing past instances of harassment, they surrounded him and placed him in a chokehold, a practice every bit as illegal as selling single cigarettes but more immediately lethal.

None of the officers involved with these two homicides were penalized by the state. More to the point of this lecture, these officers were not even required to stand trial, because in both cases, grand juries opted not to charge them with any crime. Rather than “have their days in court,” the grand juries the state assembled came to the conclusion that those who admitted to shooting and using an illegal chokehold did not need to defend their actions. In fact, in both cases the focus in the grand juries was largely on the conduct and the physical appearance of the men who were killed. Garner was so big that multiple cops couldn’t bring him down without the illegal hold; and though officer Darren Wilson was almost the exact same height as Michael Brown, he claimed that he was intimidated by his adversary’s bulk and cited his own physical injuries as proof that Brown could inflict great harm without a weapon. Although these officers were armed against unarmed men, and though they were in fact, themselves powerful enough to kill, Brown and Garner were portrayed as invulnerable and threatening.

In Merchant, Shylock is frequently described as a kind of demon—a devil or akin to the devil; he is also characterized repeatedly as being like one of the rocks that crushes a merchant’s ship.

In the moment he enters the courtroom, the Duke commiserates with Antonio, and calls Shylock “a stony adversary, an inhumane wretch / incapable of pity” (4.1.4–5); Antonio calls him “obdurate” (8) and Bassanio “unfeeling” (63), building on Solanio’s earlier assertion that he’s an “impenetrable curr(3.3.18). They marvel at his “hard” and stony heart, and liken him unfavorably twice to a wolf (4.1.73/134).

But Shylock’s hard invincibility is a matter of construction and perception, and in fact, the danger Shylock faces for taking on Antonio and Bassanio’s risky venture is far graver than anybody else in the room. Shylock’s alien status is not the same as that of a 21st century black American citizen, but his body and goods nonetheless exhibit a similar form of structural vulnerability to state authority; that vulnerability allows Portia to turn the charges of darkness and cruelty back upon him, effectively glossing over Antonio’s voluntary but risky action and licensing it as a reasonable and legitimate response.

As with Portia’s feigned inability to distinguish Christian merchant from Jewish lender, Duke’s overt denigration of Shylock at the outset of the court scene makes clear that he is not an objective party, but the power to favor citizens over “aliens” is precisely the power accorded to him by Venetian law. So it’s not surprising that he gives over that power to Antonio, allowing the man who willingly took on great risk to offload the punishment for Bassanio’s deviant, defiant insolvency onto his business rival. Lawful or not, this outcome is, I think, deeply unfair. And yet the play sort of bullies us into seeing it in another light: Shylock rejected his chance for a better outcome, and his bond was excessively cruel. That Portia pre-empts any legitimate legal treatment of his case is, in its jaundiced view, beside the point.

The word “fair” comes up repeatedly in some the Ferguson grand jury depositions; as we can see in this visualization, witnesses were repeatedly asked to confirm the prosecutor’s re-framing of their statements with the question “Is it fair to say?”

Screen Shot posted with thanks to Mitch Frass, Curator in Digital Research Services at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries, who uploaded the Ferguson Deposition documents to Voyant Tools (the suite of tools created by Stefan Sinclair, Associate Professor of Digital Humanities at McGill University).
Screen shot from Washington Post story, published on December 20, 2014.

The fact that some of these witnesses which were determined by the FBI and even the standing prosecutor to be lying makes clear that what is “fair to say” is in the eye of the beholder, and that what people say about what they see is not neatly synonymous with what is fair.

But where Garner and Brown’s deaths have been described as tragedies—even by those who believe the officers committed no crime—The Merchant of Venice is described in its front matter as a “comicall history” and its generic claims suggest that Shakespeare’s audiences might have felt comforted and amused rather than troubled by the ending.

Inside the title page of the 1616 edition

Rather than insist we read the play as Shakespeare’s contemporaries might have, however, I instead say we should risk the charge of anachronism, and, instead of endorsing the eloquence it ascribes to paleness, we should take its insights about the privileges of paleness to heart.

If we read its language closely, we must consider how institutional structures perpetuate inequality, and reckon with the fact that we ourselves might be profiting from them, and that their unfairest beneficiaries might be people we otherwise want to like. What we learn from this kind of accounting is not easy. It is not comforting. It does not “droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven.” Unlike Portia’s conception of mercy, it won’t make us godlike or make us feel like kings. Indeed, this reckoning with privilege requires putting less stock in hierarchies of that sort overall.

In short, it is not the “quality of mercy” that we should strive for, but the mercy of equality. Until we all embody that version, justice will not prevail.

For further reading on Merchant of Venice, I recommend the edition I mention above, edited by Lindsay Kaplan.

I also recommend this fascinating essay by Emma Smith and this one by Kim Hall. If you also have written something great on race or anything else in the play, I’m sorry I haven’t cited it here. I haven’t read everything. You can leave your citation in a note somewhere on this page.

One last rec: here’s an editorial by Rabbi Jeremy Weidner, urging students at Yeshiva University to protest Eric Garner’s death.



Vim, Ph.D.

Early Modernist, Associate Prof, college hoops fan, crazy cat lady. Tweeting out of conviction or exhaustion or both. Views my own. My head hurts.