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How does Act I Scene I set mood of the play 'The Merchant of Venice' throughout?

by Shehanaz, May 25, 2013

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-The moon shines bright: in ‘such a night’ as thus.
When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees.
And they did make no noise.-

It is a genre, in which Shakespeare is a master. For the other great comedy of the world’s literature, the comedy of Moliere or Ben Jonson, is different in kind to his. The play, ‘The Merchant of Venice’, resolves itself purely into a simple form. It illustrates the clash between the emotional and the intellectual characters, the man of heart and the man of brain. The man of heart, Antonio, is obsessed by tenderness for his friend. The man of brain is obsessed by lust to uphold intellect in a thoughtless world that makes intellect bitter in every age. Shylock, is a man of intellect, who born into a despised race. It is a tragedy, that the generous Gentiles about him can be generous to everything, except to intellect and Jewish blood. Intellect and Jewish blood are too proud to attempt to understand the Gentiles who cannot understand. Shylock is a proud man. The Gentiles, who are neither proud nor intellect, spit upon him and flout him.

“How like a fawning publican he looks!
I hate him for he is a Christian;
But more that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis, and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.”

All we can say, is that in the tragedies, the dramatist seeks to entertain generally mainly by playing on our capacity to shudder and shed tears whereas in the comedies are the Elizabethan feelings, whether humorous or sentimental. Shakespeare has a careful selection of the titles of his plays. His tragedies and historic plays are named after the central character of the play. His comedies on the other hand, are named after weak and passive characters; similar is the case with the present play. It has been named after Antonio, the merchant of Venice, a weak and passive character suffering from nameless melancholy. As with character, so with the feelings, the gaiety and folly and pensive sentiments of love are portrayed to the life, but not its pain, nor its mystery-its profounder influence on the character of the lover.

“Let me play the fool:
With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come,
And let my liver rather heat with wine
Than my heart cool with mortifying groans.
Why should a man, whose blood is warm within,
Sleep when he wakes , and creep into the jaundice
By being peevish?”

If there is a moment of anxiety or sorrow, it passes and leaves no mark when things go well again. Melancholy Antonio is so not very melancholy at the end of the play, though he has been in danger of a dreadful death hours before. Shakespeare has been regarded as a master of opening scenes. No matter what terms we may use, the fact cannot be denied that an author, while portraying life and human nature in his work, gives his own point of view to us in the process. Every author looks a life from a certain angle, and that determines the kind of reality he depicts in his work.

“Then let us say you are sad
Because you are not merry: and ‘twere as easy
For you to laugh and leap, and say you are merry
Because you are not sad.”

The opening scene of play’ The Merchant of Venice’ fully illustrates this view. The play simply begins on a street in Venice. Antonio , the protagonist, a rich and prosperous merchant appears as a kind of a brooding man, who says that he regards this world as the stage of a theatre on which every man has to play a certain role, his own role being a sad man.

“ I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano;
A stage where every man must play a part,
And mine a sad one.”

Gratiano, another friend, who says in contrast that he would like to play the role of a happy and jovial man wanting that the wrinkles of old age should come to him with mirth and laughter. He ridicules the man who is too serious and solemn, and who pretends to be “Sir Oracle”, wanting all others to become silent when he is about to open his mouth to speak.

“I’ll tell thee more of this another time:
But fish not, with this melancholy bait,
For this fool-gudgeon, this opinion.”

Salerino and Solanio, other friends, are talkative persons as Gratiano is, though Gratiano has more wit and is more glib-tongued than they. Solanio says that he too would be feeling melancholy at this time if his ships were sailing upon the sea; and Salerino elaborates this view as his speech contains of vivid pictures of a ship being tossed by the sea-waves and getting struck in shallow waters or over-turning after a collision with dangerous rocks.

“Should I go to church
And see the holy edifice of stone,
And not bethink me straight of dangerous rocks,
Which touching but my gentle vessel’s side
Would scatter all her spices on the stream,
Enrobe the roaring waters with my silks..”

Salerino, in another speech is reasonably distinguishes now between the two kind of men, those who are always melancholy and sullen, those who are always laughing and chattering.

“Nature hath fram’d strange fellows in her time:
Some that will evermore peep through their eyes,
And laugh like parrots at a bag-piper;
And other of such vinegar aspect
That they’ll not show their teeth in the way of smile,
Though Nestor swear the jest be laughable’’..

Bassanio, Antonio’s best friend, however, is a prodigal young intelligent man, is also romantic with an enterprising and adventurous spirit. He wants to try his luck at Belmont but he has no money. He had previously taken a loan from Antonio, whom he has not yet repaid. He now asks him for again, another loan. He has an ingenious and fertile mind therefore too. Asking for a second loan, he refers over here to one of his boyhood habits. He says that whenever as a school-boy he lost one arrow, he used to shoot another arrow in the same direction, succeeding in finding the first arrow, besides recovering the second.

..”I donot doubt,
(As I will watch the aim) to find both,
Or bring your latter hazard back again,
And thankfully rest debtor for the first.”

This scene, further introduces to the play’s compassionate natured heroine, Portia, who is quite obviously resourceful and confident of herself can able to take quick decisions to put them into action with intelligent plans. She has been much praised during two centuries of criticisms. She is one of the smiling things created in the large and gentle mood that moved Shakespeare to comedy. The scene in the fifth act, where the two women, coming home from Venice by night, see the candle burning in the hall, as they draw near, is full of naturalness that makes beauty quicken at heart.

“The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, strategems, and spoils;”

However, though not directly, but through Bassanio’s description of her in the opening scene, he is speaking to Antonio about his to go to Belmont in an effort to win ‘her’. In this description, loyal Portia is here described as “a lady richly left”, as “fair, and, fairer than that word”, and “of wondrous virtues.” Bassanio becomes eloquent when he goes on to describe her:

“Her name is Portia; nothing undervalu’d
To Cato’s daughter, Brutus’ Portia;
Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth,
For the four winds blow in from every coast
Renowned suitors;”..

Of the mature comedy, the foundations of the major stories of the play hence have been laid very clearly and firmly. Indeed, Shakespeare became successful in his skill of becoming an architect who had built up the plots with his many-sided genius in the portrayal of his characters. It is wonderful that Shakespeare has built up this play in such a way that the impacts of each of ‘the two stories’ are found in the opening scene.

‘The Merchant of Venice ‘consists of four plots- two major and two minor, so intricately interwoven to form one whole integrated story. The two main plots comprise ‘The Bond Story’ and ‘The Lottery of Caskets’. These two plots are closely interlinked. The main plot of this play pertains to Antonio and the Jew and money-lender, and of the bond that Antonio sighs and subsequently forfeits. This story is known as ‘The Bond Story’.

“Why thou-loss upon loss! the thief gone so much,
And so much to find the thief; and no satisfaction,
No revenge: nor no ill luck stirring but what lights
O’ my shoulders; no sighs but o’ my breathing;
No tears but o’ my shedding.”

The other major story pertains to the will left by Portia’s father, laying down the condition which a suitor of Portia must fulfil before he can claim Portia’s hand in marriage. This is known as ‘’The Casket Story”.

“O my Antonio, had I but the means
To hold a rival place with one of them,
I have a mind presage me such thrift
That I should questionless be fortunate.”

Bassanio, asks therefore for a loan of three thousand ducats from Antonio in order to be able to go to Belmont to try to win Portia as his wife. Antonio, who has no cash in hand, hence asks Bassanio to borrow money in his name as the guarantor from some money-lender or merchant. Both the stories hence have been set afoot at the same time and the stories have closely interwoven also. Without the one, the other has no obvious significance of its own.

“You know me well, and herein spend but time
To wind about my love with circumstance;
And out of doubt you do me now more wrong
In making questions of my uttermost
Than if you had made waste of all I have.”

The two sub-plots in the play are- The Jessica-Lorenzo love story and The Ring Episode. Both these sub-plots are interrelated to each other and to the main plot as well. However, this former story includes Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, falls in love with Lorenzo, a friend of Antonio and Bassanio. Both the lovers go to Belmont, where Portia entrusts them with the responsibility of looking after her household, till she remains in Venice for the trial of Antonio. When the Court scene reveals Shylock at his most horrible and the Christians also not at very best, the scene immediately shifts to a peaceful vicinity of Belmont, where on a glorious moonlit night the run-away lovers Lorenzo and Jessica are seen in Portia’s garden engaged in a highly romantic conversation bandying the names of lovers of bygone times and distant climes. Lorenzo and Jessica get half the share of Shylock’s wealth when Shylock loses the case against Antonio.

The next episode constitutes one of the important stories in the play. It is only after Bassanio wins the lottery of caskets, that Portia marries him and gives him a ring as a token of their love. She takes a promise from Bassanio that he will never part with the ring. At the same time, Nerissa married Gratiano and gives him a ring, with the promise from him that he will not part with it at any cost. The rings represent wealth as well as emotional value. This is known as ‘The Ring Episode’, acts as an offshoot of the Casket story. Then it is connected with the Bond Story in the Trial scene, as Bassanio and Gratiano give their rings to Portia and Nerissa respectively as a token of gratitude for saving Antonio.

“The quality of mercy is not strained
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath; It is twice blessed
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

Justice and mercy, as delivered in the play, do not appear to be as sweet, selfless and full of grace as presented by Portia. The play depends on the theme of appearance and reality to enrich the plot and to present the atmosphere and to create the suspense in the storyline. The exposition of the play is therein to the audience to convey the circumstances that unfold, leading up to the events of the play. Outward appearances are liable to be deceptive. This principle is best demonstrated through the lottery of the caskets. In the choice of caskets, not only their appearance but the mottoes inscribed on them are to be considered:

“Gold: Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.
Silver: Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.
Lead: Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.”

Thus the plot of the play, determines the general framework but into it are fitted the other elements which enrich and diversify their sense of pleasure. There is an Elizabethan phrase-‘A Paradise of Dainty and Delight.’ The phrase well described the romantic comedy except that daintiness is not essential. Any delight has a right to be admitted to the paradise. In the words of Raleigh, the last Act of the play of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is ‘an exquisite piece of Romantic Comedy’ and Shylock has no place there. It is easier to find an analogy to Shakespeare’s comedies in musical compositions than in his classical comedy proper. Shakespeare is closer to Mozart that to Moliere.

‘’ The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.”
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[References, words, sentences, ideas, settings, orientation of words and its elaboration, contextualized from Dr. S. Sen (of Critical Evaluations), Rajinder Paul, Textual Workbook and other]

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