Image 1: Title page of the first quarto.
The Merchant of Venice, written by William Shakespeare, in a nutshell, is a comedy as well as a tragedy that tells the story of Antonio, an anti-semitic merchant, owing a debt to the money-lender, the Jew Shylock, to help his friend Bassanio for his romantic affairs. What is interesting to see is that throughout the play, Shakespeare often makes use of violence, but it is never shown, that is, it is not carried out or done by any character. Instead, the violence stays below the surface of the play. It only echoes through the conversations: whether it is about what they want to do to each other or about what has been done to them. This article is going to ask, what point Shakespeare is making by raising violence as a possibility but not following through with it? It is going to argue that Shakespeare uses violent language because he wants to show that violence is a part of humanity even if it is not noticeable at all times. Perhaps, he makes the readers notice what is in human nature and what lies beneath the surface that people do not attempt to perform violently but still, hold onto it as a possibility.
Image 2: Shylock, The Merchant of Venice.
In The Merchant of Venice, one of the major conflicts appears between the money-lender Shylock and Antonio as well as the given community, and the way their relationship is based on violence is what stands out throughout the play. In this sense, the following dialogue between Shylock and Antonio can support this claim more:
Signor Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances.
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,
For suff’rance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat, dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own (Shakespeare 1.3.103-110).
I am as like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again, to spurn thee, too (Shakespeare 1.3.126-127).
Here, it can be understood what Shylock has had to endure just because he is a Jew and that there has always been an insulting label Antonio attributes to him such as “misbeliever, cut-throat,” and “dog” even though Shylock is the one who helps him when he is in need. That is, all Antonio does is to remind him that he holds a different place in society, a place that the Christians do not favour with the way he believes, looks, and even the way he dresses. But what does this have to do with the violence in the play? And the answer to this question is that this dialogue, the way Shylock has experienced hate speech, in fact, gives an insight about what stays just underneath the surface of the play. In other words, this conversation reveals to us that violence is not only defined as being physical and visible but instead, can be performed in other non-physical forms. This means that even though there is no harm and damage done to Shylock, at least not physically and evidently, what Antonio does, the fact that he abuses him verbally has the same meaning. Moreover, Antonio’s response, emphasizing that he will continue treating him in the same way and simply ignoring Shylock, can also be another way for Shakespeare to demonstrate that even when violence is not displayed and done, it still can be there.
That is to say, reading Antonio’s lines, it seems almost as if his desire for violence can be sensed deep down and perhaps how much he wants to harm Shylock since the whole community disdains and condemns him. Therefore, in a way, this violent language implies that violence is one of the core elements of society and humankind in general. It shows that even if it is not seen at all times, it is probable that there is something brutal and wicked in humans. Another point on the use of violent language is to see the way William Shakespeare plants the violence that will never appear visibly in the play and the way Bassanio reveals this in his conversation with his lover Portia is also worth looking at:
Among the buzzing pleaséd multitude,
Where every something being plant together
Turns to a wild of nothing save of joy,
Expressed and not expressed. But when this ring
Parts from this finger, then parts life from hence.
O, then be bold to say Bassanio’s dead (Shakespeare 3.2.180-185).
This passage appears just after Portia presents Bassanio with a ring to symbolize their commitment to their relationship and each other. Here, what is bizarre is hearing Bassanio telling her that this ring will define his death assuming that he ever takes this ring off, or loses it. This is probably not the best moment for talking about death especially when he has put a lot of effort into this occasion of marriage. So, why does Shakespeare put such an extreme depiction in the moment like this and foreshadow a scenario that will never happen? What is his point of foreshadowing events about dismemberment and dying even when he knows that this will never be the case? This is related to the fact of not being able to attempt acting in such a horrific way but still keeping this in mind as a way of feeding the subconscious desire to be physically violent. In this way, even when it is obvious that there will be no display of violence, by using this language, Shakespeare is trying to demonstrate that the violence still stays put just under the surface. Besides, through this passage, it can also be added how people deep down tend to think in a violence-oriented way. No matter what the situation is, as it can be seen from this certain example, human beings may be fascinated with the existence of brutal and destructive force. Likewise, as the play continues, another important message on this issue is also carried out by Portia when she explains why Shylock cannot ask for a pound of Antonio’s flesh (Shakespeare 3.3.33-34):
Tarry a little; there is something else.
This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood;
The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh’.
Take then thy bond. Take thou thy pound of flesh.
But in the cutting it, if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are by the laws of Venice confiscate
Unto the state of Venice (Shakespeare 4.1.302-309).
Image 3: Portia, The Merchant of Venice, Sir John Everett Millais.
This is the very moment when Portia reveals the truth that Shylock cannot get what he has wanted as it is against "the laws of Venice". And the interesting point here is that Portia has known this fact for a long time and that she has waited until this very moment to tell that what Shylock has wished for is not going to happen. That is to say, basically what she has done is to create a place for people to enjoy the possibility of violence. Even though in this case, how she talks is not associated with the use of violent language as in the previous instances, the way she has brutally prepared this almost script-like thought in advance and thus, has taken pleasure in the possibility of the violence shows that even if there is no act of violence, there still may be an urge and an embracing of violence just below the surface. Then, both for Portia and for the other members of this community as they have been also quiet all this time and probably enjoying this moment, it can be said that even if they do not perform any physical force against each other, the possibility of violence is always there.
To conclude, in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, it seems as if there is no sign of actual violence as it never gets to the point that it is actually carried out. However, what happens is that through the strategy he puts into use, the fact that he makes use of violent language in the play, it then becomes possible to say that not all violence is physical. Therefore, the violent language in this play may imply the probability that even when there is no actual violence, there is always more happening just beneath the surface.
Shakespeare, W., & Halio, J. L. (1994). The Merchant of Venice (The Oxford Shakespeare) (First Edition). Oxford University Press.
Image 1: The Merchant of Venice. (2011). [Wikipedia]. Retrieved on March 9 2022 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Merchant_of_Venice.
Image 2: Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. (1914). [Painting]. Retrieved on March 9 from https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O85272/herbert-beerbohm-tree-as-shylock-painting-buchel-charles/.
Image 3: Portia, The Merchant of Venice, Sir John Everett Millais . [Wikipedia]. Retrieved on March 9 2022 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portia_(The_Merchant_of_Venice).