The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.0157 Friday, 29 January 1999.
Date: Friday, 29 Jan 1999 11:10:00 -0000
Subject: Is The Merchant a psychodrama?
The Act V quarrel between Bassanio and Portia shows no sign of settling
until the otherwise silent Antonio speaks up for Bassanio 'my soul upon
the forfeit'. This adds an element that was missing in the fight for his
flesh in Act IV, and indeed in his previous thinking. What he says stops
the quarrel on the spot - but why? It is perhaps the achievement of what
was foreshadowed with Empsonian ambiguity in the opening speech of the
play: he had to know himself, and in this play he was to learn.
Is the quarrel real or simulated to achieve this end? It feels
simulated, but then why would Portia and Bassanio set out to save
Antonio's soul? Having recently reread John Fowles's The Magus, I felt
again that we were on the same kind of ground. There is a mystery about
characters that both exist in their own right but also as manifestations
of a conflict in the hero's psyche. Psychodrama (for want of a better
name) is a sophisticated form of allegory, a form that Shakespeare
obviously knew well. But he seems to have leapt outside his time to play
out this soul-searching in realistic form - if Belmont is completely
Psychodrama brings with it literary dilemmas (or intriguing complexity)
as it tries to reconcile the dual role of the 'psychic' characters; and
this is certainly so in The Merchant. For instance, how can Portia
almost instantly tell Antonio his ships have come home? There is more
than a hint here of 'Seek ye the kingdom of God; and all these things
shall be added unto you', for the play's metaphor is distinctly
Christian (though 'Know thyself' comes from the Delphic Oracle).
This interpretation suggests some conclusions about the role of Shylock
- and his punishment. But it would be good to hear some feedback at this
point, Clinton and Psalm 46 permitting.