The Merchant of Venice: New Critical Essays, John W. Mahon and Ellen Macleod Mahon, eds., (New York and London: Routledge, 2002), 456 pp., ISBN 0415929997 Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice continues to fascinate and also to elude its critics. In this play, Shylock the Jew insists on his legal right, in lieu of moneys owed, to ‘a pound of flesh’ cut from the breast of the Christian merchant, Antonio – so it goes in the financial district along the Rialto – while in Belmont, the play’s other locale, suitors for the hand of the fair, rich Portia must venture a risky choice among caskets of gold, silver and lead. As the play entangles its flesh-bond with its casket-trial plot – both old stories, brought here to a life at once fantastical and all too real – we must ponder uncomfortable conjunctions. What do Venice and Belmont, money and love, outcast and community, justice and mercy have to do with one another anyway?
Everything or nothing; and most critics, pursuing what Barbara Lewalski once termed the play’s ‘thematic harmonies’ (p. 44), have sought to determine which. Midway through his probing hundred-page essay, with which he introduces the Shakespeare Criticism Series’ collection of new essays on the play, John W. Mahon considers the limits of such approaches: he asks whether they do not insist on ‘harmonies’ which a ‘consideration of the characters as staged’ will undermine (p. 44). In other words: what is possible on the page may not be possible on the stage. Indeed, a focus on Shakespeare’s drama as performed – one of the Series’ avowed goals – brings a special force to our grasp of the Merchant of Venice. After all, our work as viewers of this play is to follow Shylock as, to the perpetual bafflement of our sense of the play’s anti-Semitism, he sheds the role to which the Quarto text at times rather
coldly assigns him: ‘the Jew.’
In one of the four essays in this volume to focus on questions of performance history, Jay L. Halio urges actors and directors to resist the impulse to ‘simplify’ and, instead, to highlight the ‘ambivalence’ that touches most of the play’s characters (pp. 370 – 371). Shylock may very well be both villain and tragic hero; the Christians may be worse than him, hypocritical and shallow, and yet, for that matter, still as good as most of us. Halio is prepared to take Shylock at his word, and believe that a desire ‘to have’ Antonio’s ‘love’ (I. iii. 138) drives Shylock to propose the ‘merry’ bond in the first place (pp. 370-1). This notion of ambivalence is, I think, marvellously suggestive here: after all, Shylock’s violent and legal demand to be allowed to take Antonio’s heart, might very well contain the claimant’s first wish – grown perverse in failure – ‘to have’ the merchant’s ‘love.’
The Jew’s feelings towards the Christians with whom he ‘walks and talks,’ ‘buys and sells,’ reciprocate the ambivalence in which the Christian community holds him (I.3.35-6). In one of the volume’s most interesting pieces, Joan Ozark Holmer explores this latter ambivalence as she sets the play in a surprising new context: that of philosemitic tradition. Holmer wants to understand why Shakespeare’s bad Jew should have produced a good one – that is, his daughter Jessica. A will to explore ambivalence guides several other excellent considerations. For instance, with reference to the play’s allusive substructure, John W. Velz adumbrates the split in Portia’s character. And in her valuable comparative study, Karoline Szatek brings to light the limits of enchantment in Belmont: the place, as she shows, is no forest of Arden.
Many of these essays pause to consider characters which traditional criticism leaves behind. For example, several authors deal thoughtfully with the clown, Launcelot Gobbo, who has indeed his own delightful perspective to offer on the play’s central themes of conversion and filial connection. Several of these essays probe the play’s linguistic design. Interestingly, Grace Tiffany notes that Jessica’s name derives not only from Iscah, ‘she who looks out,’ but also from the word ‘jess,’ ‘the leather or silk strap that bounds a falcon to its master’s leash’; thus Jessica stands with the other heroines whom Shakespeare likens to falcons, trained or ‘unruly’ (p. 362). The breadth and scrutiny cited here characterize many of the essays in this volume. Absorbed in such rewarding close studies as these, one might even be pleased to abandon one’s quest for ‘thematic harmonies’ and suchlike resolutions, with the promise of which the sinuous play has teased our fancy.
And one might surrender oneself to the play’s schizoid energies with the sense of a certain freedom. This is the freedom that attends humility. The ‘arrogance’ which Mahon, in his introductory piece, attributes to ‘the theorists’ (p. 50) – those who, for the last thirty years, have been dispensing with the tendentiousness of their liberal humanist predecessors – finds itself displaced here by the unfashionably humble stance of a different sort of critic: namely, the close reader, who is not too proud to respond with full attention to the ‘mystery’, as several writers here term it, whereby the playwright has transformed familiar source materials into a relentlessly intangible whole. In their contribution, a look at the play’s analogues and ‘emblems’, John Cunningham and Stephen Slimp remind us, in a different context, that Pope located one of ‘bad criticism’s’ causes in ‘fashion’ (p. 221). With this group of humble, illuminating essays, we get a reminder of how useful a criticism based on attention – realized in this volume both as close reading, and as close watching – can be.