As a play about financial risk, it seems fitting that The Merchant of Venice should feature the language of economics. Some form of money talk arises in virtually every scene, suggesting that matters of exchange, value, debt, and risk permeate every aspect of Venetian society. The opening scene showcases how money serves as the go-to explanation for everything. When Antonio announces that he feels sad but doesn’t know why, Salarino posits that his thoughts must be bound up with merchant ships he’s recently invested in:
Your mind is tossing on the ocean,
There where your argosies with portly sail . . .
Do overpeer the petty traffickers
That curtsy to them, do them reverence
As they fly by them with their woven wings. (I.i.8–14)
Significantly, money talk also comes up in matters of love. Portia, for instance, refers to her casket game as “the lott’ry of my destiny” (II.i.15), wherein suitors can “try [for] my fortune” (II.i.24). Later on she uses the merchant’s language of weights and measures as she addresses herself in an aside: “In measure rein thy joy. Scant this excess. / I feel too much thy blessing. Make it less, / For fear I surfeit” (III.ii.112–14). No subject in Merchant escapes the language of money.
Although money talk represents a defining characteristic of the play’s style, the language in Merchant also features a great deal of wordplay. For the most part the wordplay has a comedic effect, as with Gratiano’s use of double entendres. A significant example appears in the play’s closing lines: “Well, while I live I’ll fear no other thing / So sore as keeping safe Nerissa’s ring” (V.i.306–7). Gratiano refers to the wedding ring that Nerissa bid him promise never to take off, but he also uses “ring” as a slang term for vagina. Another scene where wordplay has delightfully comedic effect comes in Act I, where Portia snarks to Nerissa about her unwanted suitors:
I am glad this parcel of wooers are so reason-
able, for there is not one among them but I dote on
his very absence, and I pray God grant them a fair
Portia cleverly reverses the lover’s typical use of dote, so that instead of lavishing attention on her suitors directly, she “dote[s] on” their disappearance. But not all instances of wordplay in Merchant are comedic. A more serious instance occurs in Act I, when Shylock, referring to Antonio’s interest-free bond, says: “This is kind I offer.” Shylock underscores the generosity of his offer. But kind here can also mean “of the same quality as that received,” indicating that he’s paying Antonio’s mistreatment back in kind.
This last example of Shylock’s dark wordplay indicates another stylistic aspect of Merchant. Despite being a comedy, the play’s most famous passages are very serious indeed, featuring powerful rhetoric and heightened emotions. In Act III, for instance, Shylock delivers his affecting speech about the Jew’s humanity:
Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not
a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections,
passions? . . . If you prick us, do we not
Shylock’s series of rhetorical questions encourages identification with the speaker and conjures sympathy for him. But these questions also serve logically to set up Shylock’s ultimate conclusion: if the Jew is similar to the Christian in all these ways, then he must also be similar in his desire for revenge. Aside from Shylock’s speech, the other most famous passage in Merchant appears during the courtroom scene, when Portia, disguised as a lawyer, addresses the subject of mercy:
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. (IV.i.182–85)
Portia’s style goes beyond legal language of the court and instead recalls the biblical rhetoric of a sermon. In essence, she bids Shylock, a Jew, to act more like the merciful Christian God of the New Testament: “earthly power doth then show likest God’s / When mercy seasons justice” (III.i.194–95). Portia’s biblical language foreshadows the sentence eventually given to Shylock, who, in addition to losing half his fortune, must also convert to Christianity.
Prose vs. Verse
The different uses of poetry and prose in The Merchant of Venice generally follow a division between social classes. Often in Shakespeare’s plays, uneducated members of the working class tend to speak in prose, whereas educated members of the merchant class and the nobility tend to speak in verse. Shakespeare rarely upholds this division in any strict way, but the general tendency certainly appears in Merchant. Take, for instance, the servant Launcelot. He first appears in Act II, scene ii, where he delivers a long and rambling prose monologue as he tries to decide whether or not to leave Shylock’s service. The humor of Launcelot’s monologue is amplified in the ensuing exchange he has with his blind father, Gobbo, also in prose. In the short scene that follows, Launcelot addresses Shylock’s educated daughter, Jessica. Whereas Launcelot makes his tearful exit in prose, Jessica responds in refined verse: “I am sorry thou wilt leave my father so. / Our house is Hell, and thou, a merry devil, / Didst rob it of some taste of tediousness” (II.iii.1–3).
In addition to the split between the lower and upper classes, the prose/poetry split also typically works along a divide between mundane matters of business and more heightened matters of emotion. For instance, the merchants typically use prose in their financial dealings. This use of prose is on display at the beginning of Act I, scene iii, where Bassanio approaches Shylock with his proposal for a loan. However, the use of prose gets interrupted when Shylock expresses his profound hatred of Antonio in an aside:
I hate him for he is a Christian,
But more for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice. (I.iii.38–41)
After these lines, the men continue to speak in verse, which signals that the loan under discussion has become a matter more serious than just a financial exchange. Indeed, the scene ends up with the infamous deal entitling Shylock to a pound of Antonio’s flesh should he forfeit his bond. Another example of the prose/poetry divide appears with regard to matters of love. Here, too, emotional intensity dictates form. In Act I, scene ii, Portia speaks in prose as she bemoans her miserable fortunes in love. This scene takes place in private with Nerissa. However, as soon as discourse on love becomes public, as when her suitors—especially Bassiano—play the casket game, more formal verse prevails.
The different uses of prose and poetry based on class and emotional intensity set up an implicit hierarchy that privileges verse. But Shakespeare also uses sudden shifts in register to invert that hierarchy. One key example appears early in the play, when Bassiano speaks for the first time. Gratiano has just given a long speech attempting to alleviate Antonio’s depression. Though delivered in verse and featuring numerous poetic turns of phrase, the speech is somewhat rambling. When Gratiano leaves, Bassiano switches to prose and says to Antonio:
Gratiano speaks an infinite deal of nothing, more than
any man in all Venice. His reasons are as two grains
of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff: you shall seek all
day ere you find them, and once you have them they
are not worth the search. (I.i.114–18)
The change in register underscores Bassiano’s humorous, ironic tone. But this register shift also echoes an important thematic undercurrent in the play, one that works against the characters’ investment in monetary value and instead emphasizes the greater value of that which is humble. The test Portia administers for her suitors represents a similar example. The test presents suitors with a choice between caskets made of gold, silver, and lead. Ultimately, it is the casket made from the humblest material that contains her portrait and the promise of marriage. Bassiano encapsulates this theme when he chooses the lead casket: “So may the outward shows be least themselves. / The world is still deceived with ornament” (III.ii.73–74).