In our interpretation of The Merchant of Venice we choose to prioritize the modern reader’s comprehension while sticking closely to the folio’s text. Words were changed to modern spellings, grammar was regularized, and italicization was removed from dialogue. Preservation of the original delivery was an important factor in the interpretation, with minimal changes to allow for easier understanding of irregular spellings. In the text we choose to emphasize the agency of the characters as divided by gender and sexuality. Portia and Antonio’s lack of agency contrasts to Arragon and Bassanio’s freedom. We represented the contrast through specific text color. As a woman, Portia has less agency than the men. Lines showing the objectification of Portia are highlighted in dark green. If viewed through a queer lens, Antonio’s affection for Bassanio can be seen as romantic, which is a limiting factor for him. Anything associated with Antonio's relationship with love and Bassanio specifically are colored in light green. Antonio’s lighter color signifies his ability as a man to have freedom in some areas despite not having it romantically as a queer person. This contrasts to the darker lines associated with Portia and her romantic agency which show the depth of her constraints. Lines spoken by Arragon are colored complimentary to Portia and Antonio. While their agency is limited, Arragon is given freedom in his choices as a heterosexual man. His words are given the most contrast to the others.
The Comical History of
Sal. He wrung Bassanio's hand, and so they parted.
Sol. I think he only loves the world for him1,
I pray thee let us go and find him out
and quicken his embraced heaviness2
with some delight or other.
Sal. Do we so.
Enter Nerrissa and and a Serviture.
Ner. Quick, quick I pray thee, draw the curtain straight,
The Prince of Arragon has taken his oath,
and comes to his election presently.
Enter Arragon, his train, and Portia.
Por. Behold, there stand the caskets noble Prince,
if you choose that wherein I am contained3
straight shall our nuptial rights be solemnized:
but if you fail, without more speech my Lord,
you must be gone from hence immediately4.
Arra. I am enjoined by oath to observe three things,
First, never to unfold to any one,
which casket twas I chose; next, if I fail
of the right casket, never in my life
to woo a maid in way of marriage5
lastly, if I do fail in fortune of my choice,
immediately to leave you, and be gone.
Por. To these injunctions every one doth swear
that comes to hazard for my worthless self6.
Arr. And so have I addressed me, fortune now
Who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he has.
You shall look fairer ere I give or hazard.
What says the golden chest, ha, let me see.
Who chooseth me, shall gain what many men desire,
What many men desire, that many may be meant
by the fool multitude that choose by show
not learning more then the fond eye doth teach,
which pries not to the interior, but like the Martlet
Image credit: Rare Books & Manuscripts Department, Boston Public Library, copy G.176.16. The most excellent historie of the merchant of Venice. First Quarto. London: 1600.
Citing this page: Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice, D4v. London: 1600. Cacodemon Digital Shakespeare. Edited by Rachel Silva and Lia Schlegel. Source edition: Rare Books & Manuscripts Department, Boston Public Library (copy G.176.16). http://cacodemonshakespeare.com/comedies/merchant/d4v.
- Solanio comments on Antonio’s devotion for Bassanio, which is so immense that Antonio's biggest reason for living on this Earth is Bassanio. This devotion, which can be viewed as romantic love, shows what Antonio is willing to do for Bassanio. When viewed through a queer lens, Antonio willingly helps Bassanio woo Portia, perhaps knowing that a queer relationship would be looked down upon and that Bassanio does not view him in that way. Because of the bigoted society they live in (seen through the antisemitism Shylock faces and patriarchal society the women constantly have to navigate through), one can understand why Antonio would help Bassanio woo Portia since he knows he has no ability to safely have that relationship with Bassanio.
- Antonio's emotional health is discussed throughout the play and is actually the situation the characters are discussing in the opening of the play. In that opening scene, Antonio tries to figure out why he is depressed, and his friends ask him if it is associated with the safety of his ships, or perhaps love. Antonio denies both reasons, especially the latter, but although he logically explains that his ships are okay, he doesn't really give an solid explanation as to why his depression cannot be linked to issues with love. Antonio's 'heaviness' follows him throughout the play, but in this scene, Solanio and Salerio are discussing it because they are off to break the news to Antonio that one of his ships might be shipwrecked, which he had been so sure was safe in the opening scene. Solanio and Salerio think on how kind Antonio is, instantly coming up with examples of his generosity to in regards to Bassanio.
- The ability to marry Portia is found within a certain casket. This description objectifies her, containing her within a movable object. The women are also depicted as movable objects throughout the play as they move between men and their agency to love and build relationships with others is dependent on whether the men in their life (fathers and love interests) allow them to. A casket is also an interesting specification as Shakespeare could have used a word like box, package, chest, etc. but labeling the container as a casket additionally associates Portia and the marriage to the winning suitor with death, especially since her portrait is located inside the casket. Despite her father being dead, he continues to watch over her through this riddle, emphasizing his power as a dead man over Portia, a living woman. The portrait inside the casket further labels her as a object or prize to be won, and takes away her humanity.
- The rules of attaining Portia in marriage are listed, further stressing her inability of choice in her own marriage. Arragon holds the power here as the one to choose, putting the agency on him. It also stresses how serious the consequences of the riddle are, which only intensifies how precious Portia must be as a potential bride if the suitors are willingly attempting the riddle.
- If Arragon fails to get the riddle correct, one of the consequences is that he is unable to marry another woman. This would make it impossible to produce an heir and continue on with his family name, which is incredibly important as he is a prince. This would emasculate Arragon especially in such a patriarchal society, which is already emphasized in this scene since the riddle was created by Portia's dead father. By failing, Arragon loses his agency in relationships as well. However, where Portia as a woman and Antonio as a queer man lacks agency from birth due to gender and sexuality, Arragon willingly attempts this riddle, and his agency is lost only due to his own choice.
- Portia is smart in her word choice here, acknowledging her lack of agency in this situation and that she is worthless as she has no say in what is happening. Worthless contrasts with the idea of being kept in a coffin, a very valuable object. It also hints at her being kept in the lead coffin, the least valuable of the three options. Despite her not knowing the location of her portrait, she has a better idea than Arragon does of where she lies.
- The word ‘hope’ reflects the chance of the game. The wishes of her father cause Portia’s marriage to never be a result of choice, always chance. Portia is further seen as a movable object between men, as it is her father’s work that puts her fate in the hands of chance. While it is partially chance, the rest of the riddle needs to be parsed through. Arragon is given the opportunity to interpret the riddle and make a decision, his ‘hope’, is based on his wit, and his decision. Regardless of what Portia may be able to devise of the riddle, she is left without choice while Arragon has the ‘hope’ that the fortunes are in his favor.
- As Arragon looks at the caskets, he discusses the metal that they are all made of, connecting to the play's theme of money and greed. Not only is Portia's hand in marriage connected to death through the caskets, the metal of the caskets also connects to her worth, which objectifies her once again. Portia's portrait is actually found in the lead casket and not in the silver or gold, which means that the suitors must look beyond simple desire and greed.