THE MERCHANT OF VENICE 1.161–76:
Is Bassanio a Mercenary?
Keywords: Bassanio, financial motivations, The Merchant of Venice,
Modern critics have been unkind to Bassanio in Shakespeare‘s The
Merchant of Venice. Where the comedy seems to call for a virtuous
young man driven by love to win the object of his affection, recent critics have seen in Bassanio agreedy opportunist, motivated primarily, perhaps exclusively, by financial gain ,not emotional fulfillment.1 Bassanio‘s description of Portia in the first scene—in which he refers to
her as a ―lady richly left‖ (1.1.61)—is the primary evidence for this line
of argument. Critics put aside the fact that Bassanio and Portiahave a connection from their past encounters (1.1.163–64), just as they tend to
downplay Bassanio‘s long speech of praise for Portia after he has chosen the correct casket (3.2.115–48), a speech longer by ten lines than the
earlier, supposedly opportunistic, speech. Those critics likewise put aside Bassanio‘s unwillingness to relinquish his wedding ring to ―Balthazar‖
though he supposes that Portia is nowhere nearby (4.1.432–41). But even
if these facts are ignored, it is still the case that the very speech that supposedly exposes Bassanio as a mercenary does nothing of the sort when read closely. First, we must acknowledge that an Elizabethan audience would expect any young nobleman to give some thought to the
fortune of a potential bride, particularly after he has ―disabled‖ his own
estate (1.1.123).2 Other Shakespearean bachelors, after all, make wealth a factor in marriage negotiations. Lysander, for example, defends his potential marriage to Hermia by arguing that he is ―as well possessed‖ as
his rival, and that his ―fortunes‖ are in ―every way as fairly ranked‖ as
those of Demetrius (A Midsummer Night’s Dream 1.1.99–102; emphasis
added). In Measure for Measure, Angelo is exposed as a brute for
abandoning Mariana after she loses her dowry, but not for having
22).3 Moreover, while early negotiated it in the first place (3.1.214–
modern writers on marriage cautioned that one should not place too much emphasis on money, they nonetheless recognized it as an important factor. For instance, the 1594 edition of the popular and encyclopedic tome The
French Academy provides a detailed defense of marriage and cites
disapprovingly the case of a man who stubbornly refuses to wed despite having a potential bride who was ―beautiful in body, stayed in countenance, eloquent in speech, noble by race, rich in dowry, happy in good name, and adorned with virtue‖ (la Primaudaye HH1v). Here, as
with Bassanio‘s speech, wealth (―dowry‖) takes its place alongside other
attributes of the ideal wife. In addition to the historical context, we cannot neglect the immediate dramatic context: this speech comes in a scene in which Bassanio is asking for a loan from Antonio, to whom he is already deeply indebted (1.1.127–34). Moreover, the play implies that Bassanio is
aware that Antonio‘s financial situation is strained. Shylock knows it
(1.3.17–24), Salerio and Salanio suspect it (1.1.8–40), and in his response
to the speech, Antonio indicates that Bassanio has known it all along (1.1.17–19).With all this in mind, one must surely read some reference to Portia‘s wealth not as an indication of cupidity on Bassanio‘s part, but
rather a pragmatic assurance to a lender who might understandably be reluctant. In any case, Bassanio puts far less emphasis on Portia‘s wealth than most critics claim. He does indicate that she is ―richly left,‖ that the whole world knows of her ―worth‖ (line 167), that many suitors have been travelling to Belmont to win her as Jason did the Golden Fleece (170–72), and that he himself would find ―thrift‖ should he be one of
them (175). But each of these references is ambiguous. That she is ―richly
left,‖ for instance, refers to her monetary inheritance but also suggests
another kind of wealth, the richness of nobility and character.4 The ―worth‖ of international renown is more ambiguous, and although it may also indicate monetary wealth, the word implies personal and moral worth as well.5 Finally, that Portia is like the Golden Fleece may not suggest financial wealth at all since Jason sought the Golden Fleece not for monetary value but for a nobler purpose, to attain his rightful place as King of Iolcus (Leeming 215). At any rate, the Fleece is certainly meant to evoke Portia‘s beauty since the allusion is part of a simile for her
―sunny locks‖ (69). Finally, although ―thrift‖ could suggest financial
gain, it was also used to signify success more generally.6 All these phrases, balanced to suggest both Portia‘s wealth as well as her
virtue, are not the only compliments that Bassanio bestows. He calls Portia ―fair,‖ and then immediately finds the word insufficient to her
63). He plays on her name, likening her to ―wondrous virtues‖ (162–
―Cato‘s daughter, Brutus‘ Portia‖ (165–66), an icon of female merit
(Hardman 198–99). In all, many of Bassanio‘s references to Portia‘s
money are calculated to simultaneously praise her beauty 214 The Explicator and virtue, while others simply, but unambiguously, praise only her beauty and virtue. Weighed fairly, the balance tips in
Bassanio‘s favor. Critics who have read the speech closely can account for the abundant praise of Portia only if they assume the speech is
primarily a romantic monologue ironically undercut by the ―tawdry‖
interposition of the ―financial foundations‖ of courtship (Whigham 96).
But such critics have the speech backwards. Indeed, any praise is strictly
irrelevant to the immediate fiscal purpose; Bassanio‘s earlier speeches in
the scene keep to his financial argument, but once Antonio asks for
details about the woman who has necessitated the loan, Bassanio cannot help but infuse enthusiastic praise for his would-be mistress into a speech meant for a more utilitarian purpose. I contend that modern critics, eager to problematize the play, have been too harsh in their evaluation: rather than being cynically uneasy that Bassanio introduces so many financial
concerns into a speech about love, we should, instead, be delighted that he introduces so much love into a speech about finance.
1Lawrence Hyman contrasts, for example, Antonio‘s willingness to give, with Bassanio‘s tendency only to take (114). Monica Hamill suggests that Bassanio cannot sustain the idealism of love in the speech which collapses into ―a mercantile enterprise‖ (233). Gary R. Grund is more direct, saying that ―despite the hints of Christian love in the opening scenes of the play, Bassanio‘s goal is purely mercenary‖ (158), while
Lars Engle, although less critical of Bassanio generally, still finds that he ―represents the voyage as a financial ‗plot and purpose‘ ‖ (26). Simon Critchley and Tom McArthy put it another way by saying that Portia is reduced to a ―commodity upon which Antonio and Bassanio are
speculating‖ (6). 2Acommon quip from the period indicated that ―hewho marries for love and nomoney, hath good nights but sorry days‖ (Cressy
261). Similarly, as Amy Louise Erickson demonstrates in Women and
Property in Early Modern England, ―the only people to whom property
was unimportant in marriage were the vagrant poor‖ (85).
3A truer matrimonial mercenary is, of course, Petruchio, who comes ―to wive it wealthily in Padua; / If wealthily, then happily‖ (The Taming of
the Shrew 1.2.74–75). 4Compare Pericles: ―My dearest wife / Was like
this maid . . . her eyes as jewel-like / And cas‘d as richly‖ (5.1.107–12).
5Regan asserts that she is ―made of the self-same metal that my sister, / And prize me at her worth (King Lear 1.1.69–70). Similarly, the Countess in All’s Well That Ends Well urges her Steward to write ―To this
unworthy husband of his wife; / Let every word weigh heavy of her worth
/ That he does weigh too light‖ (3.4.30–32). 6Hamlet, for example,
explains flattery by remarking that ―thrift may follow fawning‖ (3.2.63).
Cressy, David. Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997. Print.
Critchley, Simon and Tom McCarthy. ―Universal Shylockery: Money and
Morality in The Merchant of Venice.‖ Diacritics 34.1 (Spring 2004):
2–17. JSTOR. Web. 12 Aug. 2010. THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
1.161–76: Is Bassanio a Mercenary? 215 Engle, Lars. ― ‗Thrift is
Blessing‘: Exchange and Explanation in TheMerchant of Venice.‖
ShakespeareQuarterly 37.1 (Spring 1986): 20–37. JSTOR. Web. 12 Aug.
2010. Erickson, Amy Louise. Women and Property in Early Modern England. London: Routledge, 1993. Print. Grund, Gary R. ―The Fortunate Fall and Shakespeare‘s Merchant of Venice.‖ Studia Neophilologica:
A Journal of Germanic and Romance Languages and Literature 55.2
(1983): 153–65. Print. Hamill, Monica J. ―Poetry, Law, and the Pursuit of Perfection: Portia‘s Role in The Merchant of Venice.‖ Studies in English
Literature, 1500–1900 18.2 (Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama, Spring
1978): 229–43. Print. Hardman, Christopher. ― ‗Trouble being gone,
comfort should remain‘: Tranquility and Discomfort in
The Merchant of Venice.‖ The Yearbook of English Studies 23 (Early Shakespeare, Special Number 1993): 189–205. JSTOR. Web. 12 Aug. 2010. Hyman, Lawrence W. ―The Rival Lovers in The Merchant of Venice.‖ Shakespeare Quarterly 21.2 (Spring 1970): 109–16. JSTOR. Web. 12 Aug. 2010. Leeming, David. Oxford Companion to World Mythology. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. Print. Primaudaye, Peter de la. The French Academie. Trans. T. B. London: n. pub., 1594. Early English
Books Online. Web. 9 Jul. 2010. Shakespeare, William. Complete Works. Ed. Richard Proudfoot et al. Walton-on-Thames: Thomas
Nelson, 1998. Print.
———. All’s Well That Ends Well. Complete Works, 89–119.
———. Hamlet. Complete Works, 291–332.
———. King Lear. Complete Works, 631–67.
———. Measure for Measure. Complete Works, 799–828.
———. The Merchant of Venice. Complete Works, 829–56.
———. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Complete Works, 887–910. ———. Pericles. Complete Works, 977–1003.
———. Taming of the Shrew. Complete Works, 1039–67.
Whigham, Frank. ―Ideology and Class Conduct in The Merchant of Venice.‖ Renaissance Drama 10 (1979): 93–115. Print.
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