The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.0695  Tuesday, 20 April 1999.

From:           Clifford Stetner <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Monday, 19 Apr 1999 14:02:48 -0400 (EDT)
Subject:        Allegory

I apologize for abandoning a discussion I started, but thanks to two
unrealistic course loads (the one I teach and the one I take) I feel
like a drowning man taking a moment to appreciate the sunset.  If you've
said anything about allegory, wade through this long post and you'll
find a reply.

Way back on April 7, Moira Russell wrote:

>A Hawk is Really a Handsaw

>While I am a little uncertain about Mr. Stetner's use of the word
>"allegory" as being equivalent, apparently, to "folk tale" (or fable?
>myth? -- perhaps we need to define "allegory" a bit more)

Certainly not equivalent.  Many folk tales, fables, and myths are
allegorical, however, and few I think would dispute the trial of the
three caskets as such.

<snip>...the motif of a choice between three objects-usually bronze,
>gold, and silver-is repeated often.... The numbers may vary (although
>the number three has a potent presence in fairy tales), but the motif of
>the broken-down scabbard, or cup, or plate, etc., being the one which
>actually has the truest value, has been popular for quite a number of
>centuries. It predates the Reformation by-well, a while. If it is
>indeed allegorical, it may be referring to something other than the

As an allegory, it signifies only the nature of wisdom as the capacity
to recognize some principle of value as in some way internal
irrespective of some unappealing external principle.  When a particular
bard weaves this allegory into a particular narrative at a particular
historical moment for the benefit of a particular audience, the terms
can be given particular topical significance.  While the allegory indeed
predates the English Reformation (although the conflict between church
and empire goes back to Ur) Shakespeare may have found it particularly
apt for a discourse concerning contemporary issues.

<snip> if Indiana Jones had read some fairy stories during his youth he
>would have known which cup to go for immediately! This allegory does have
>obvious Christian connotations (the treasure of this world is as dust,
>the stone the builders rejected has become the head of the corner, those
>who were last shall then be first, rejection of worldly wealth, etc. etc.
>etc.) but it is not necessarily limited to just a Christian meaning.

However, there is a conflict between Christians and Jews in the Merchant
and it is only by successfully navigating the three caskets riddle that
the Christians win.

I said
>>...Either Shakespeare includes it for its narrative and
>>dramatic value, or he uses it as a vehicle for allegory.

Moira Russel said:
>Not to quibble, but couldn't it be used for ~both~?

Yes, I should have said, *merely* for narrative value.

>While certain contemporary references may be included, in somewhat coded
>form, in plays by authors from Shakespeare to Stoppard, I think it is
>futile, and perhaps even dangerous, to reduce them to a kind of crossword

Dangerous to what?  I would contend that it is not futile to seek to
grasp the meaning attached to these narratives by their contemporaries.
Such an understanding can give us insight into how meaning has been
produced in the past and how it is produced today.

<snip> Authors are born, live, write and die
>within a particular limited time, but their stories must eventually
>stand on their own as stories, able to be read and enjoyed in any time.

I'm all for reading and enjoyment, but these are not the only value in
literature.  Literature is history, and an understanding of history is
important for all members of a participatory democracy.

>If the allegorical interpretation of valuing something for its inner
>worth, not its outer appearance, stands, I personally think this is more
>profitable applied to Shylock, who, in his famous appeal ("Hath not a
>Jew...." etc.) wants to prove that he has the same interior emotions and
>reactions that Gentiles do-his humanity is proved by his inner worth, or
>the inner similarity all human beings possess, not external or
>conventional appearances.

This is very true, and perhaps this is Shakespeare's final condemnation
of anti-Semitism.  However, Bassanio does not choose Shylock.  Shylock
as a Jew is more closely figured in the silver casket which is chosen by
the one who shall "get as much as he deserves."  In the context of the
Reformation debate concerning salvation, this might signify either the
reliance of the Jews on a superseded covenant, or the reliance of
Catholics (like Aragon) on the sufficiency of works.  English
Protestants believed, like Hamlet, that if every man were treated
according to his deserts, none would escape damnation.

Back on April 10, Brian Haylett wrote

>Although Clifford refers us to the casket sequence, I still find his
>argument that all four levels are relevant to be a bit arid without
>detailed illustration. ... it would be convincing if the claim should be
>shown to solve something.

I think the allegorical reading sheds light on the project with which
Shakespeare was involved during the early part of his career.  The
history plays represent the construction of a mythology that was to act
in support of Tudor imperialism as Virgil was understood to have
supported Augustan Rome.  The Merchant of Venice addresses the problem
of religion which was vital to the success of England's imperialist

<snip>Harold Goddard ...  As far as the caskets go, he
>feels they are metaphors of characters in the play, and matches them as

>Gold casket: Bassanio (all outward appearance with no substance), but
>also Portia!

>Silver casket: Antonio

>Lead casket: Shylock (he believes him to have been trying to make
>friends with these Venetians who so mistreat him, and to have been
>dreadfully treated by Portia. Getting close to Moira Russell here?)

>One does not have to agree in detail to find the principle of a
>casket-character parallel worth pursuing. I am not personally worried
>what label is put on any kind of criticism as long as it can say 'In
>this scene, X is to be explained by Y and relates to the overall
>structure thus ...'

I can do this.  My paper is online at:

Keep in mind, it's an undergrad effort and needs some editing. The
problem with Goddard's interpretation as you've described it is that it
has nothing to do with the contest that's presented in the play.
Bassanio chooses the lead.  Has he rejected himself and Antonio in favor
of Shylock?  What does that have to do with winning Portia's hand?

Explicit allegorists like Spenser and Dante claim to keep the four balls
in the air throughout, but no allegory can really be consistent all the
way through a naturalistic narrative.  Shakespeare, having made no such
claim, is even less obliged to be consistent.  That being said, the four
traditional levels of allegory are discernible in the narrative of this
play and most clearly in the caskets trial.  On one level, Bassanio
represents the common Englishman faced, like John Donne, with a conflict
over the nature of the "true church."  Portia, symbolizing Elizabeth,
presides over this conflict because of her father's legacy.  Nerissa's
words to her: " is no mean happiness, therefore, to be seated in the
mean" allude to the via media of the Elizabethan settlement.

Of the following post formatted in HTML, I was unable to discover the
author, or if it was directed to me or the list:

<snip>  How would it be if a spiritual world does exist?...If instead of
>largely arbitrary, or at least programatic, assignment of correspondences
>that makes for allegory, there really were four levels of meaning
>representing four levels of truth accessible to human understanding? Call
>them, e.g., practical, personal, religious (i.e., reflecting agreed
>doctrine and conventions), and cosmic-eternal? ... Then Shakespeare and
>other great art is mimetic instead of allegorical ...

I think it was believed to be mimetic in being allegorical (although I
tend to think of Shakespeare as ahead of his time, generally speaking,
and more of a Cartesian as he got older), but it is also consciously
rhetorical.  That is, it is not content to represent an ontological
tetrad that it perceives ordering the world, but recognizes its own role
as art in the construction of that tetrad, (especially in the poetics of
political power).

<snip> I'd be glad to hear how your four levels "work" together. Are
>congruent, inconsistent, alternative, or random? Do they add up to a
>generalizable theme? Are they in any other Shakespeare? Is there a
>pattern, or is this a one off, as the Brits say?

As far as I know, it's a one-shot deal, as the Yanks say.  The form is
dictated by the theme: the new covenant (Jessica) passing from the Roman
church to the English state, and the obtaining of Belmont by the English
contestant.  Shakespeare is dealing with a Reformation that has
historical, tropological and anagogical significance.

Finally, on the 16th Brian Haylett continued:

>'Who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath' When you think about
>it, Bassanio has nothing to give or hazard, apart from love, though he
>certainly gains what many men desire. Antonio, on the other hand, gives
>all he has(and more)in money and hazards his life and (in Act V) his
>soul - all in aid of Bassanio. Moreover, to choose the lead casket one
>must forgo the gold and silver: is it coincidence that Antonio's wealth
>- in the argosies - are withheld from him until after he has risked all,
>when some of them are restored? In other words, are the three caskets
>emblematic of the possible choices in the main action? (Sorry to add
>another rhetorical term!)

This strikes me as a question of emphasis.  You might as easily say that
the choices in the main action serve to reinforce the fundamental
conflict figured in the allegory of the caskets.  Bassanio has a great
deal to lose: the life of a friend to whom he has prayed for salvation
and who has sacrificed all for his sake.  Isn't this the tropological
condition of all Christians?  Christ commands us to give all we have to
the poor and follow him.  He tells the parable of the pearl of great
price.  Bassanio gets what many men desire (as Christ says: seek ye
first the kingdom of heaven, and all other things shall come to you (or
something like that)) only by choosing first what only few desire.  Many
men, like the Moslem Morocco, think they desire gold and finery, lavish
temples and outward shows of wealth, but they do not really desire the
death that worldly wealth is subject to.  Furthermore, Bassanio is too
much of a sinner to ask for what he deserves as do the fools (be they
Jews or Catholics) who believe that obedience to the letter of the
Mosaic law (as in Shylock's harping on justice and the law and Portia's
response) rather than God's mercy and grace is sufficient to salvation.

Clifford Stetner
York College
C.W. Post College

Subscribe to Our Feeds


Make a Gift to SHAKSPER

Consider making a gift to support SHAKSPER.