The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0365 Saturday, 18 April 1998.
Date: Friday, 17 Apr 1998 14:59:27 +0000
I think we should not resort to speculation about Jessica until we have
exhausted the play's own resources. Bassiano's giving away Portia's
ring to pay back "the lawyer" is an analog of Jessica's giving away
Leah's ring to buy a monkey. The episodes have more in common than is
at first evident.
When Shylock took Leah's ring from his finger and put it in his strong
box it immediately lost any sentimental patina it might have had and
became cash. When Jessica spends at a rate of fourscore ducats per
sitting, as if there were no tomorrow, she commits an act of
magnificence. It is Shylock who takes thought for the morrow; he has no
interest in today.
Likewise, Bassanio flouts the sentimental significance of Portia's ring
when he takes it off his finger and gives it to "the lawyer." He does it
for his friend Antonio, who was ready to die for him, because Antonio is
deeply indebted to "the lawyer" for having saved his life. Here we have
an act of magnificence paralleling Jessica's, but on a heroic level,
because the ring is the most valuable thing Bassanio owns, he having
given an oath to protect it with his life. This way it becomes much
more than cash, because it magnificently requites a friend, and the
lawyer to whom the friend is very much obliged.
Both rings represent contracts, and this fact takes us to the central
argument between the Belmontese and Shylock, about whether you can own
anything. Shylock says yes, and demands a pound of flesh for Antonio's
breach of contract. The Belmontese say no, and make a joke out of
Bassanio's breach of contract. Bassanio insists to Portia. "If you had
been there I swear you would have given the ring to the worthy doctor,"
Of course she would have. For she understands perfectly the bind she
put him in, and knows there was no other way out.
By their treatment of contracts you may know them. Jessica's ring for a
monkey is a little precursor of Bassanio's ring for a friend's life.