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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: September ::
Re: Antonio and *MV*
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 738. Saturday, 30 September 1995.
 
(1)     From:   Bruce Young <
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        Date:   Thursday, 28 Sep 1995 18:15:06 -0700 (MST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0726  Re: Antonio and *MV*
 
(2)     From:   Stanley Holberg <
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        Date:   Thursday, 28 Sep 1995 22:31:22 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Reply to SHK 6.0732
 
(3)     From:   David Schalkwyk <
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        Date:   Friday, 29 Sep 1995 11:31:16 SAST-2
        Subj:   Re: Merchant of Venice
 
(4)     From:   Joseph M Green <
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        Date:   Friday, 29 Sep 1995 11:56:17 -0500 (CDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0732  Re: *MV* and Antonio
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bruce Young <
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Date:           Thursday, 28 Sep 1995 18:15:06 -0700 (MST)
Subject: 6.0726  Re: Antonio and *MV*
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0726  Re: Antonio and *MV*
 
Two recent postings have questioned how Antonio could be against or detached
from materialism if he is THE merchant of Venice (and a proto-capitalist,
etc.).  I don't mean to suggest throwing out any of the interpretations of his
character offered in these postings. Sometimes symbolic or thematic threads in
a play may be at cross purposes with character development, and even when all
threads seem headed in the same direction, Shakespeare's plays are notoriously
open to various interpretations.  But to consider Antonio simply another money
grubber ignores the contrast between his generosity (lending money gratis,
etc.) and Shylock's stinginess.
 
What I offer here is another way of looking at Antonio's "getting on Shylock's
case" for "breeding money."  Maybe it's not just one greedy money maker bashing
another.  Antonio tells Shylock that Jacob's breeding of sheep does not justify
usury since what Jacob did was a "venture ... / A thing not in his power to
bring to pass, / But sway'd and fashion'd by the hand of heaven" (1.3.91-93).
The word "venture" is used repeatedly in the play (along with the related word
"hazard").  The words are associated with courtship and marriage ("He who
chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath") as well as with Antonio's
sending out of ships.  Antonio's point seems to be that there is a difference
between (1) making money by binding people legally to pay you what you lent
them plus interest and (2) making money by "venturing" and--not having the
"power to bring to pass" what one hopes will happen--having to trust in heaven
or providence. By analogy, courtship and marriage are also "ventures" requiring
trust.
 
It seems to me the play is trying to portray two approaches to life: one
associated with Shylock and based on control and closure ("Bind fast, bind
fast"), the other associated with Antonio et al. and based on trust and
openness.  Of course, this simple dichotomy is complicated and made ambiguous
by the suggestion that the Christians are hypocritical and, in their openness,
too free and loose and easy ("prodigal," profligate, untrustworthy, etc.) and
by the suggestion that Shylock's controlling impulse also makes him in some
ways more reliable than the Christians (not to mention their persecution of
him, etc., including Antonio's remarkable lack of generosity in this one case).
 But the dichotomy is still an important part of the structure, the play of
ideas, in *MV* and I'd hate to lose it by explaining Antonio's speech away as
simply nonsensical or hypocritical.
 
If Antonio is a materialist, he is one in a very different sense than Shylock
is.  For Antonio, material things are for giving and enjoying.  For Shylock,
they are for gathering, for guarding, for lending, yes, but only with
guarantees.  For Antonio, since you never know what will happen, you may as
well "venture"; for Shylock, since you never know what will happen, you'd
better be careful.
 
Bruce Young
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stanley Holberg <
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Date:           Thursday, 28 Sep 1995 22:31:22 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: SHK 6.0732
Comment:        Reply to SHK 6.0732
 
Bill Godshalk's trenchant questions about the merchants of Venice almost answer
themselves.  Isn't the main difference between Antonio and Shylock one of
degree rather than kind?  They're both in the business of buying cheap and
selling dear.  Antonio does it with merchandise, Shylock with money.  It is
hard to imagine that Shakespeare did not grasp this fundamental reality.
 
--Stanley Holberg
  
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(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Schalkwyk <
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Date:           Friday, 29 Sep 1995 11:31:16 SAST-2
Subject:        Re: Merchant of Venice
 
Piers Lewis's comments about the difference between Shylock and Antonio set me
thinking about the _Jew of Malta_.  Barabas is certainly the kind of grand
merchant adventurer that Antonio is in MV:
 
But now how stands the wind?
Into what corners peers my halcyon's bill?
Ha! to the east?  Yes.  See how stands the vanes?
East and by south: why then I hope my ships
I sent for Egypt and the bordering isles
Are gotten up by Nilus' winding banks;
Mine argosy from Alexandria,
Loaden with spice and silks, now under sail,
Are smoothly gliding down by Candy shore
To Malta, through our Mediteranean sea.
 
                                    (I.i.38)
 
No "water rats" here!  Would it be useful to compare the two plays, and their
respective representations of merchants and Jews?
 
David Schalkwyk
University of Cape Town
 
(4)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Joseph M Green <
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Date:           Friday, 29 Sep 1995 11:56:17 -0500 (CDT)
Subject: 6.0732  Re: *MV* and Antonio
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0732  Re: *MV* and Antonio
 
Piers Lewis suggests that the "much admired" poetry of the line "enrobe the
roaring waters with my silks" splendidly celebrates Antonio's risk taking and
adventuring.  Antonio is a "lord of commerce" who sends his argosies hither and
yon taking risks that Shylock would ridicule.  Antonio's Venice is a city of
merchant adventurers and a contrast to Shylock's Venice of usury and money
grubbing.
 
However, all that glitters is not gold.  Precisely the Bards point in this
instance, I think.  For example, the speech that contains the line cited is one
of two speeches given by two gentlemen of Venice that (so saith M. M. Mahood in
the intro to the New Cambridge edition) "so strangely trivialize and
fictionalize the hazards of sea trade. Antonio's argosies are seen as
comfortable burghers or the water pageants of the tranquil Lagoon, tempests are
represented by a storm in a soup bowl, disasters at sea are reduced to
picturesque conceits such as "enrobe the roaring waters with my silks"
Salrino's shipwrecks come from the world of Greek romance, in which the
venturer always swims ashore to win and heiress, rather than from Shylock's
world of calculated risks where ships are but boards, sailors but men" (25).
 
In other words, the two gentlemen offer a very comfortable version of what it
might be like to be a merchant.  They are no more interested in the reality
than they are interested in Antonio's feelings. Another reason, I think, to pay
attention to Antonio's isolation.
 
Antonio's reply to all this is, of course:
 
"Believe me, no.  I thank my fortune for it,
My ventures are not all in one bottom trusted,
Nor to one place;  nor is my whole estate
Upon the fortune of this present year;
Therefore my merchandise makes me not sad."
 
Of course, after he dismisses these two, he tells Bassanio that his fortunes
are, indeed, all at sea and that he has neither "money nor commodity." That is,
he is, in fact, a merchant adventurer. He knows the reality -- and the reality
is not as comfortably romantic as the "reality" imagined by the two gentlemen.
He pretends to them that he is only taking a calculated risk and obviously
resents their romantic impositions and refuses to become a means through which
they can safely live out their fantasies: he refuses to be a
Merchant-Adventurer in the grand A. L. Rowse sense for them.
 
But, for some reason, he has taken a great risk and for some reason he wants to
keep this secret -- not only from the fellows at the exchange but also from the
glittering hangers on, Venetian aristocrats.  If he is, by risking all on the
throw of a die, enacting the myth of Venice, he is strangely secretive about
it.  More evidence, I think, for his isolation and alienation. He is isolated
both from the money grubbing of Shylock  and from those who want to celebrate
the myth of the Merchant Adventurer through him and who, of course, would treat
his ruin only as an occasion for gossip and celebration -- for the myth
requires the occasional ruin, silks prettily enrobing the waters, to maintain
its splendid force for those who are safely disatanced from the actual
consequences.
 
Taking the risk that he does is actually a symptom of alienation from the myth
and from the values of Venice, and not a celebration of them. Risking all for
Bassanio is another instance of this alienation.
 
Or -- restating my case anent Antonio as a fairy tale embodiment of the
Merchant Adventurer.  If Shakespeare wanted to employ the myth in an uncritical
way he wouldn't have put the usual version of the myth in the mouths of two
characters whose glassy essence seems to be superficiality and then, at once,
had Antonio undercut them by lying to them.  Inside the glittering gold casket
of the myth is a carrion death.
 
And, just to complicate things, it isn't at all clear to me that Shakespeare's
contemporaries would be all that ready to celebrate the Merchant Adventurer --
or believe that he really existed. The actual Merchant Adventurers, of course,
presented themselves as patriots and risk takers.  There were plenty who didn't
believe this.  They were resented by retailers, accused of impoverishing the
realm by trading english bullion for trinkets and foreign gee-gaws, keeping
prices artificially high, of refusing to take risks by restraining free trade,
of creating and sustaining a taste for foreign fashions, of monopoly, of undue
influence in the government, -- all of these accusations came to a head in a
Report on Free Trade drawn up in the House of Commons in 1604. There might have
been much less unstinted admiration for "Lords of Commerce" by Shakespeare's
audience than is often suggested.
 

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