The Constitution of India has a short and sweet preamble. A preamble is kind of an introduction which has a great bearing on the main text. The preamble of our constitution expresses the constitution’s true spirit. With a majority of two third votes in the Parliament, almost all of the constitution can be amended. However, an amendment may go against the Preamble and in that case the preamble will also have to be amended. We don’t need a constitution which doesn’t follow the spirit of the preamble, do we?
Coming to the second part of the title of this article, Shakespeare’s famous play, The Merchant of Venice, contains more than a single story. There is the story of the three caskets and that of the pound of flesh to be cut from the debtor.
We have heard these stories even before we came across the original text. Same thing with Shakespeare. He had come across these stories before he wrote the play. But then, who hadn’t! These were popular stories of the time and what silly stories they are! So are all Shakespearean stories. He used only the popular stories of the time. He even renovated an entire play. No wonder Thomas Kyd called him ‘an upstart crow, beautified by our feathers’. A plagiarist, for sure.
Shakespeare used these stories either as an excuse or as a background for his more sublime mission than that of a ‘story teller’. So, it is really poor taste to teach these stories as Tales from Shakespeare. The students will have no respect for him, for two different reasons. As tales they are too dumb and then to hear later that they were stolen! At least, so inconsiderate of what he stole. He could have stolen better stuff. There was so much available during the renaissance. And what kind of a writer is he to lack the ability to come up with a decent plot of his own!
Well, Shakespeare has good answers for all that. One is, it is easy to work with a story which is well known to the audience. It will go easy on them and their attention will be on more important stuff, the poetic rendering, the comments on life, the realistic characterization etc. Putting together a plot was not his cup of coffee.
Going back to the first part of the title, it is a good idea to consider that the very first speech in the play, the one that comes from Antonio, to whom the title refers to as the merchant, is a preamble to the whole play. When seen in this light, the play becomes more than mere story telling at its best. It becomes a work of art.
Now, the last part of the title is used at the end of this article to explain how much thinking goes into a good narration. For, now let us look at the first two parts of the title.
As mentioned earlier, Antonio’s first speech sheds light on the nuances of the play.
The scene opens midway.
In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,
That I have much ado to know myself.
Something has been said just before this and what could it be? From “you say it wearies you”, we can safely assume that they did comment on his sadness. One of them has said that he is fed up of Antonio’s melancholic nature.
For the audience, ‘in sooth’ is the first word. Someone has come on stage and is about to say something true. When someone says anything with this introduction, it has to be a lie because truth needs no reinforcement. But, people generally fall for this trick and listen. Antonio continues to say that he does not know why he is sad. This first sentence is an extremely psychological uttering. We react to it in two ways. Internally we all admit that covertly and say to ourself ‘Yeah, just like me only’ but to the person sitting to our left or right we openly say ‘O, poor thing!’ and what does our neighbour say? ‘Yeah, how sad,’ playing the same game. So, with the very first sentence itself Shakespeare has wormed himself into our mind. The next line is an echo of our own feelings because, basically we are all sad people,though we pretend to be happy.
It wearies me; you say it wearies you
The ambiguity here is whether the word ‘it’ in each sentence means the same sadness, the sadness of Antonio, or does the second ‘it’ refer to the listeners’ sadness. There is no reason to assume the second one, but it is a possibility, because the play, like a spandex costume fits all.
What Shakespeare explains in the next three lines is the real human condition.
Not only Antonio, we all have this sadness in us but we don’t know its real nature. The problem becomes worse in the next line.
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,
‘Want’ is an interesting word. We want something because we don’t have it. So want means poverty or lack of something. ‘Want-wit’ is lack of brains, or foolishness. Thus sadness has made Antonio (and all of us) foolish, and,
I have much ado to know myself.
or blocked his self-awareness or mindfulness. It is this lack of self-awareness or total absence of mindfulness that leads Antonio to sign his own death warrant when he enters into a hazardous agreement with Shylock, his sworn enemy.
So, this is a vicious circle, a whirlpool. Sadness makes us foolish and foolishness blocks our self-awareness and our lack of self-awareness ruins our life, making us sadder.
Salarino’s words endorse this idea further this.
Your mind is tossing on the ocean
Now whose mind is not tossing on the ocean? In fact, this tossing is what we call the mind itself. Our mind is highly dynamic in nature, working so hard to make us happy at whatever cost, even when we don’t want happiness at such a high cost. No one needs to be happy at the cost of his honesty but many people want to be so. Mind is the seat of all our ‘wants’, thereby making itself the poorest part of our body.
After our brief childhood, we all become so sad for having been taken away from our true self, a divinely compassionate self. Work as much as the mind does, we are not devoid of the sorrow within. We go for painkillers instead of examining this canker (cancer, if you spell with a ‘c’). Almost all of our profitless activities are the painkillers that we use to numb the pain in our mind. It finally becomes depression and gobble us up. Our main business is structuring the time between the present and our death.
After Antonio’s speech here, we find Portia harping on the same theme. Strangely, it starts with a self-attestation just like Antonio’s,
By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world.
The play honestly explores our pains though it leaves the reason-hunting to us. It also depicts how we look for happiness outside of us. Launcelot looks for it at a new master’s household; Bassanio looks for it in Venice, wasting Antonio’s money in pursuit of it and then goes to look for it in Venice when he sees it in the guise of Portia; Shylock looks for it in his family, religion and in wealth and then, out of frustration, becomes revengeful; Jessica leaves one caretaker and goes to another looking for it; Portia and Jessica try to buy it from men, using their father’s money to do so; Antonio looks for it in the good company (which he buys with money) and the attempt almost backfires; all the suitors except Bassanio undertake a fool’s errand looking for happiness and lose what they had in the process. Strangely Nerissa on the bride’s side and Gratiano on the bridegroom’s side seem to have figure out something real. Nerissa says that sadness is only the flip-side of happiness and that they are always in the same proportion in any person’s life and Gratiano, her future husband, says he wants to play the fool and refuses to take life with any pretended seriousness. For the others, uniformly, happiness appears to be outside of themselves and we are told categorically that this or any other kind of appearance is deceptive.
The ocean in the play is the ocean of life and the big ships which ‘overpeer’ on the smaller ones also have a precarious existence. We are tossed this way and that and no one foresees anything. Surprise lurks under every wave, every ripple. The tide turns at every moment.
However, in the play, everyone returns from a tortuously tense period like in a sci-fi movie, having not learned any lesson at all. The experiences does not enrich them. There may not be any chance for them to go back to the situation and make a second attempt to learn. But the readers and the audience are welcome to go over it again and again and unlike the bird, martlet, pry into the interior and learn lessons.
Now, we saw why Shakespeare chose to work with well-known tales. More than that, he attempts a similar arrangement of the scenes, like in the movie cited above, with the not so discerning audience in mind.
In Act III, Bassanio comes to try the casket. This is part of the old fairly tale. But Shakespeare devised the inscriptions on the casket in a brilliant way. Portia’s father wants the most intelligent and the most loving man for Portia. So, the two wrong caskets have inscription to entice the wrong suitors and the third one has an inscription which will ward off the undeserving and the undesirable.
The suitors are led to think that the inscriptions come from the caskets and not from Portia. So, the gold one says that he who chooses it will get what many men desire. This cannot come from a girl of modesty. So, actually it cannot speak for Portia. Her picture cannot be inside it. The silver one says that he who chooses it will get as much as he deserves. This too is not a modest statement and cannot come from Portia. But these can come from a gold or a silver casket. What the inscription on the lead casket says is totally modest and it fits a modest girl. He who choses it will have to give and hazard everything. It offers no great promise, only loss. And seeing that it comes from Portia, the right person will say ‘yes, I will forsake everything for your sake’. It cannot come from lead, a base metal but it can come from a modest Portia whose picture is in that casket.
All this is too complex. So, Shakespeare opts for simplification.
It is in this scene that Bassanio and Portia come together before the audience for the first time.
It is an intensely amorous scene and the complex idea of the casket will ruin it. So, the complex scene involving the caskets is advanced to a previous point and is repeated for reinforcement, first with Morocco and then with Arragon. Thus we are made familiar with the inscriptions, the possible interpretations and the wrong perspective that they come from the caskets themselves. This also gives Portia a chance to suggest a clue mildly to Morrocco (‘hazard’ as a noun) less mildly to Arragon (‘to hazard’ as an infinitive) and strongly to Bassanio (‘hazard’ as a finite verb).
11 = 3c (c for caskets!) + 2 (Portia and Bassanio)
3c = 11- 2 (the casket scene moved to a previous scent for simplicity
3c = 9 (easily understood)
c = 9/3 (figured out)
c = 3 (solved)
and if you substitute this with the same joke repeated three times for the three caskets, you can see this simplification happening in the movie scene too!
In short, the play is not what it appears to be. True to its innate nature and that of Shakespeare himself, it repeats in many different ways that ‘appearance is deceptive’. Whom does the title refers to is anyone’s guess.
Just for gags:
What is Salarino’s profession?
None. He has no salary and that is his name!