- Sweet Use:Genre and Performance of The Merchant of Venice
Like Troilus and Cressida, it is hard for a contemporary audience to place The Merchant of Venice; perhaps it was always so. While Troilus was placed in unnumbered pages between the histories and the tragedies of the first folio, the play seems more like a cynical and biting satire—and it extends its cynicism even to the well-known and generally respected literary tradition arising from Homer. And then, according to its introductory address to the "Eternal Reader" it was "never clapper-clawed with the palms of the vulgar, and yet [is] passing full of the palm comical."1 History, tragedy, comedy—which is it? The Merchant of Venice is, on the other hand, listed in the middle of the first folio's comedies (1623), and in its own first edition (1600) had the running head "comical historie." It was probably played with considerable bite and farce rousing audience laughter at the Jew. And yet . . . and yet it does not take a hundred years before there are records of playgoers who, despite such playing, "cannot but think it was design'd Tragically by the Author";2 and, though it ends with the lovers coupling, there is no Shakesperean comedy which has its principals—much less its female principals—so baldly confess to sale and easy bedding (5.1.302–35) upon the very conclusion. What other play ends with a line barely covering such venereal imagery as "while I live I'll fear no other thing / So sore as keeping safe Nerissa's ring" (5.1.306–7)? There is no comedy like it—save Troilus—which ends in such "grossness" (in Portia's sense, 5.1.266) of imagination.
There are, it seems, three general takes in performance and criticism of this play. Though sometimes quite exceptionally performed, each [End Page 280] fails to plumb the troubling depths that the full text opens under us and can really only work by cutting some lines which contradict that take on the play. There is, first, the play in which the cartoon Jew—who measures his daughter by ducats and his enemies as pounds of flesh—is, for his own salvation, driven into the Christian society.3 It is a play which parodies Marlowe's parodic Jew of Malta, and one which, we may hope, saw its last performance in Nazi Germany4—but might well be popular for the foreseeable future in the Eastern Mediterranean and Gulf states. We are left with two other takes: the tragedy of Shylock5 and the romantic comedy of Belmont.6 To think that the play accommodates all three or two of the three (the romantic comedy and the tragedy) is too simple an answer, unhelpful and untrue. It is too simple because with appropriate cuts any version can be played; it is a machine for the generation of "director's visions." Without such cuts, however, we are left merely confused. So, an accommodation, which makes its cuts to achieve the double end, however true it is to the director's vision is untrue to Shakespeare's text, and such an accommodation is unhelpful in trying to understand what the play itself is and means, if anything.
Not only does each of the three versions of the play undercut the others, but the text of the play appears to arrange that each undercuts itself. That the first is undercut by the fuller structure of the play has already been noted as a patent interpretive problem within the first century of the play's performance—for all we know it was visible and remarked on from its first performances. Nor should we seek long for evidence that the merchant, Antonio, and his friends in the society of Venice have any deep virtue—Christian or otherwise; the evidence is, rather, considerable and patent against it—digging deeper only finds more. To be baptized into such a community of sad wealth, gold-diggers and open spite (named Gratiano) could hardly be considered salvific even in Las Vegas. To be saved so is at least as much farce as, and certainly more tragic than, a...