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"A Carrion Death": the theme of the gold casket in The Merchant of Venice.

Portia: "I had rather be married to a death's-head with a bone in his mouth" (1.2.49-50).

Critics in recent years, from James Shapiro in Shakespeare and the Jews and Janet Adelman in Blood Relations to Stephen Greenblatt in the popular biography Will in the World, have continued to focus, and with provocative results, on the centrality of Shylock and the suffering that he bears as a Jew, a usurer, a scapegoat, an outsider and an alien forced by the bad faith of his persecutors to convert and to proclaim himself content. (1) Even prior to the Holocaust, especially on the stage, Shylock dominated critical and popular discourse, whether portrayed as devil or victim. Harold Bloom's popular book on Shakespeare and the invention of the human has encouraged us to return to the criticism of literary characters and to imagine them as prescriptive paradigms of real human behavior. (2) But I will have little to say about Shylock as a character--whether he is a villain or a figure of pathos. The purpose of this essay is to ground itself in the impersonal, the non-characterological, by exploring a pattern of imagery in the play, especially the dominant motif of gold. Gold coin, ducats, is the currency that moves not only the economy of Venice but also motivates the three suitors' pursuit of the fabulously wealthy Portia. But there is more to gold than its use or exchange value, for it is steeped as well in a literary and moralizing tradition, a tradition of interpretation and allusion, which entails a proverbial rhetoric along the lines of "All that glisters is not gold" (2.7.65). (3) This allegorical mode seeks openly to dismiss gold while secretly cherishing and hoarding it as the value of all values. Gold holds forth the lure of fortunate prospects, prospects ultimately betrayed by death, castration, the severing of the futurity of love.

Shakespeare's play contradicts itself so often in its attitude towards gold as to challenge the possibility of coherent interpretation. (4) Anticipating the first casket scene, Portia speaks the lines that I take as my epigraph, indicating that eating dead flesh would be preferable to marrying either the Neapolitan prince or the County Palatine--a sentiment relevant for elucidating, even as it complicates, the relationship between gold and death. Portia cannot know at this early stage in the drama that the gold casket will indeed contain a skull of "carrion Death" and that her father's will will accord with hers in rejecting Morocco and the gold casket containing the skull. Portia's father wills her not to marry any suitor greedy for gold since such desire is implicated in necrophilia: the suitor wants his wife dead so that he can appropriate her ducats. The suspicion that love is linked to an undercurrent of avarice and necrophilia will arise with respect to all of the suitors, including Bassanio.

The symbolic association of gold with death is not Shakespeare's innovation but lies in his ancient source story of the three caskets in the Gesta Romanorum, in which the gold casket, full of "dead mens bones," is "engraven with this posey, Who so chooseth mee shall finde that he deserueth," while the silver casket is "fylled with earth and wormes" and given the moralizing superscription, "Who so chooseth me shall finde that his nature desireth." (5) Death is what man deserves and what he desires, it seems, the latent consequences of his pursuit of wealth, perhaps even his latent motive as well--he deserves death, he desires death. The connection between gold and death is so deeply rooted in the depths of time and of literary history as to qualify as primal--in other words, untraceable, not available to the conscious mind. Does gold carry the valence of death because too often people kill others and then are themselves killed in their obsessive-demonic pursuit of it, as in a tale by Kipling or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre? The goal of boundless wealth may be as much an exercise in futility as the dreams of alchemists, or so Thomas More implies in Utopia. Is gold not only the elixir vitae of alchemy but also the petard upon which the alchemist dies immiserated, his hopes transmuted into despair, his body worn to a skeleton? Voltaire's Candide stumbles into the heart of the jungle of El Dorado, whose savages are notably eccentric and unsophisticated in their contempt for gold, a contempt to which their longevity and happiness are above all due. The literary anthropologist is not lacking for a long catalog of narratives on the vanity of gold. The study of sources and analogues, however, has little to tell us about The Merchant of Venice. Better to plumb the devices of the play itself, rich in its imagery of gold, the analysis of which will not yield, however, a consistent morality or a coherent political economy. (6) To say that in this Shakespearean play the gold casket enfolds bones and an admonitory scroll is accurate enough as forensic inventory, but the yield in terms of fundamental anthropological structuration or the unconscious universals of myth criticism is richly ambiguous at best, at worst hopelessly muddled.

Bassanio's familiar speech to Antonio in the opening scene, in which he praises Portia's "value" and her "worth," makes the first allusion in the play to the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece:
   In Belmont is a lady richly left,
   And she is fair, and (fairer than that word),
   Of wondrous virtues,--sometimes from her eyes
   I did receive fair speechless messages:
   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, and her sunny locks
   Hang on her temples like a golden fleece,
   Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchos' strond,
   And many Jasons come in quest of her.
   O my Antonio, had I but the means
   To hold a rival place with one of them,
   I have a mind presages me such thrift
   That I should questionless be fortunate. (1.1.161-76)

Bassanio's speech is laced with words that tack in more than one direction, for example terms like "worth" and "value" ("nothing undervalu'd") that may refer to either Portia's moral or financial endowments. Bassanio prizes her because her worth and value, her character and her money, together will make her husband "fortunate." He makes clear in this speech and elsewhere in this scene that he values Antonio's friendship at least in part because Antonio is generous with his money and is willing to hazard it for the benefit of his friends. Without a loan, Bassanio cannot hope to make the voyage to Belmont to try to win the good fortune of being Portia's husband. That "worth" and "value" are ambiguously motivated words has been remarked often enough and needs no further elaboration. The reference to Portia's hair as Jason's golden fleece calls for pause, however. Jason wins his fleece at great cost, and his relationship with Medea entails even greater cost to himself, his children, and Medea as well. The implicit analogy of Portia to Medea does not bode well. Bassanio's fetishizing of her sunny golden locks is portentous, for later in the play Bassanio himself will warn against the many women who wear wigs of "crisped snaky golden locks" (3.2.92) that are shaved and collected from corpses. The question of the authenticity of a woman's golden hair--are the locks hers, or are they stolen from the head of a dead person?--is unsettling. Is the golden fleece a fleece--a hoax--or a good fortune that holds forth authentic promise of marital bliss? (7) Bassanio seems naive when he lauds the golden fleece of Portia's hair and casts himself as a Jason in quest of it, seeing in Belmont a replay of the romance on Colchos' strond. The golden fleece as synechdoche for Portia reveals that it is more the part (the gold) than the person that excites Bassanio. The ominous Medea serves as a bookend, since Shakespeare alludes to her in both the first and the last scenes of the play. In the final scene, Lorenzo and Jessica sing of doomed lovers like Troilus and Cressida, Thisbe, Dido, and Medea, to whom they compare their own love and predict that it too will turn tragic since it involves betraying the father: "In such a night ! Did Jessica steal from the wealthy Jew, / And with an unthrift love did run from Venice" (5.1.13-15). Although Bassanio's actions are entirely in line with the will of the deceased father-in-law, the mention of Medea as an archetype implies the possible betrayal of some father figure. Allusions to Medea imply that death may be the ultimate telos of marriage.

I. Morocco and the Rhetoric of Gold

The first of the three casket scenes in Belmont is crucial for understanding some of the mixed messages concerning the value of gold. Morocco chooses the gold casket and is rewarded with the skull, a "carrion Death," whose satirical scroll points the moral in sing-song simplicities and jiggling cliches worthy of an admonitory fable for children:
   All that glisters is not gold,
   Often have you heard that told,--
   Many a man his life hath sold
   But my outside to behold,--
   Gilded tombs do worms infold:
   Had you been as wise as bold,
   Young in limbs, in judgment old,
   Your answer had not been inscroll'd,--
   Fare you well, your suit is cold. (2.7.65-73)

This amusing jingle does not pretend to be anything but superficial and hackneyed moralism, proverbs from Tilley and commonplaces that an audience has tired of hearing rehearsed. "Gold" rhymes with "cold" (and with seven other words in this tag), as elsewhere in the play some readers are inclined to hear an implicit rhyme of "lead" with "dead." It is child's play, at least in hindsight, to see that the gold casket is death. That Morocco is unaware of the gold trap in making his choice of casket is simply an obvious signal that as an African nobleman he has not been privy to the Christian tradition that teaches suspicion of gold. He does not know how to read the caskets allegorically because gold for him is an unadulterated good. But it would be hard to accuse Morocco of being a gold digger, since he is rich enough not to need more of it, and for him the primary use value of gold is as a rhetorical vehicle for praising Portia. He laces his wooing with aureate images, loading every rift with ore.

The moralized scroll that points the finger at Morocco for choosing falsely does little justice to him or to his poetic intuition. Although he is capable of using the gold trope in uninspired ways--at the beginning of his long deliberative speech, for example, he reasons unoriginally that "A golden mind stoops not to shows of dross, / I'll then nor give nor hazard aught for lead" (2.7.20-21)--many of his arguments in favor of gold express sound reasoning infused with a symbolism that pays rich and justified compliment to Portia. For example, although it was once common to bury the dead in lead, Morocco demurs. Addressing Portia de vivant, face to living face, Morocco cannot hold back his sense of disgust in contemplating her buried alive, as it were, in a casket of lead, a metal far too base for her:
   Is't like that lead contains her?--'twere damnation
   To think so base a thought, it were too gross
   To rib her cerecloth in the obscure grave,--
   Or shall I think in silver she's immur'd
   Being ten times undervalued to try'd gold?
   O sinful thought! Never so rich a gem
   Was set in worse than gold. (2.7.49-55)

These are sincere thoughts, expressed powerfully and with due poetic complexity, not the doggerel of one easily dismissed because his supposed lack of sophistication derives from the fact that he hails from foreign climes and is of dark "complexion" (1.2.124, 2.7.79). (8) In these lines Morocco seems to imagine Portia as already dead, like her father, for in his question about whether lead "contains her," "her" may refer ambiguously either to her portrait or to her person. The fantasy of Portia as dead is hardly surprising in light of the fact that caskets are, after all, an obvious memento mori and are not symbols commonly associated with wooing. A portrait too connotes the absence of the person represented; painterly representation may imply death as much as the casket does. The whole ceremony of matching young lovers is overcast by death. In "The Theme of the Three Caskets," Freud argues that the fantasy of choosing one's beloved is a wish-fulfilling screen that seeks to deny the fact that death is inevitable, at odds with the young and beautiful partner whom one seems to choose freely as his bride. The man's apparent choosing of a bride covers over the non-choice (the inevitability) of death. The wish-fulfillment of marriage forestalls the hard fact of death by driving it underground. (9)

Morocco's logic for choosing the gold casket he expresses as follows:
   Let's see once more this saying grav'd in gold:
   "Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire":
   Why that's the lady, all the world desires her. (2.7.36-38)

The concatenation of gold, desire, and "grav'd" may indicate that what men desire unconsciously is death; more precisely, the writing ("grav'd") of man's desire is death ("grav'd"). (Shakespeare anticipates Blanchot as much as he does Freud.) Thanatos, the death drive, is the counterpart of Eros, the life instinct. What begins as desire tends eventually towards death. The assertion is the more credible given the saturation of death imagery in the scenes in which the suitors seek fulfillment in love.

Morocco's foreignness notwithstanding, he is familiar with a favorite literary device of Shakespeare and other native English poets, the play on the double sense of the word "angel" as heavenly messenger and as coin:
      They have in England
   A coin that bears the figure of an angel
   Stamp'd in gold, but that's insculp'd upon:
   But here an angel in a golden bed
   Lies all within. (2.7.55-59)

Morocco runs with the figure of the gem set in gold, which he amplifies as an angel set in a golden bed. As a coin the angel is two-sided: St. Michael's image appears on the face, whereas a trading ship is on the reverse side. (10) The angel-coin is engraved (recalling "grav'd" at 2.7.36) and rendered as figural relief ("insculp'd upon") on the metal ground. The earthly arts of engraving and sculpture are a techne, whereas ("But here...") Portia is the heavenly ideal that serves as the model for the coin-maker's artistic representation. To call Portia an "angel" is a conceit--itself a techne, that of rhetoric--that points less to some envy for Portia's gold than to Morocco's admiration for her angelic beauty. His verse aims to underplay (though not cancel out) the sense of gold as wealth; instead, gold is taken in a symbolic, even ethereal sense in that Morocco seeks to leave behind the worldly world of money (angel-coins) and translate himself to the heavens in order to be in the company of angels whose bodilessness frees them from the dyer's hand, as it were, from the techne of being "grav'd" and "insculp'd." Portia is like the angel-coin except that ("But here ...") she is the thing itself--pure gold sans inscription--unincorporated, immaterial. (11)

The dismissive doggerel penned on the scroll held in the empty eye of carrion Death--"All that glisters is not gold," etc.--is a snide caricature of Morocco as a mere gold digger. But nothing in his speech or conduct supports the sneer. Of the three suitors Bassanio is most plausibly open to the charge of seeking gold through marriage. Morocco is a rich aristocrat who neither needs nor wants more money, whereas Bassanio is a climber without enough resources of his own to be a serious contender, the only suitor who has to take out a loan in order to reach Belmont. Bassanio's indebtedness to Antonio for the loan, and his vicarious subjection to Shylock's bond with Antonio, is the secret condition that makes possible his wooing, the disguised debt that he is forced to reveal immediately after his victory in the game of the caskets, when he offers the embarrassing, unmanly explanation to Portia that he cannot consummate the wedding since he has prior obligations, both affective and financial, to another man back in Venice, who loaned him three thousand ducats (a coin made of gold, of course). Morocco has no embarrassing financial secrets that compromise his suit to Portia. Unlike Bassanio, he does not have ducats on the brain, nor is he in debt to anyone.

II. Bassanio and the Golden Dowry of a Second Head

When given his turn to make the choice of caskets in 3.2, Bassanio demonstrates considerable savvy in distinguishing between the golden locks in the painter's counterfeit of Portia and the gold wig of the artisan--a savvy that was absent earlier in the play, when a glib Bassanio cast himself rhetorically as Jason eager to pursue the golden fleece, seemingly oblivious to Jason's fate at the hands of Medea. In 3.2 Bassanio is no longer willing to be seen jumping headlong for the gold. Although he is not privy to the fates of previous suitors like Arragon and Morocco, Bassanio seems to have been vouchsafed some premonition that the gold casket is a chimerical fleece, whereas it is the lead casket that contains the golden counterfeit.

Bassanio rehearses and dismisses the arguments of the rival suitors whom he has not heard. He deploys the pious denunciation of gold as a trap: "outward shows be least themselves,--/ The world is still deceived with ornament" (3.2.73-74). Portia is who she is, not what she wears (a point that will escape Bassanio entirely in Act 4). In his wooing and choosing of Portia, Bassanio understands that gold is the symbol of death that forecloses any possibility of marriage. Gold is vanity, and for the purposes of this wooing scene both Portia and Bassanio manifest that they value humility, at least rhetorically. In his great speech on the vanity of hair, the ornament that is "excrement," Bassanio catalogues figures of heroic men whose seemingly daunting beards belie their cowardice, and the women who seek to impose an impression of beauty and gravity by porting golden tresses, an ornament that in fact designates, even in the act of attempting to cover, the follies of the "light" and "wanton":
   There is no vice so simple, but assumes
   Some mark of virtue on his outward parts;
   How many cowards whose hearts are all as false
   As stairs of sand, wear yet upon their chins
   The beards of Hercules and frowning Mars,
   Who inward search'd, have livers white as milk?--0
   And these assume but valour's excrement
   To render them redoubted. Look on beauty
   And you shall see 'tis purchas'd by the weight,
   Which therein works a miracle in nature,
   Making them lightest that wear most of it:
   So are those crisped snaky golden locks
   Which make such wanton gambols with the wind
   Upon supposed fairness, often known
   To be the dowry of a second head,
   The skull that bred them in the sepulchre. (3.2.81-96)

The "snaky golden locks" effect a masquerade of liveliness and beauty, and an appearance of virtue, that ill disguise the fact that the hair is but a wig confected of hair shorn from corpses. One should beware of the ordinary means of mensuration in the marketplace, of the scales that claim a woman is worth her weight in gold hair. Such a "miracle in nature" is anything but natural, and is more travesty and impious imposition than genuine miracle. Despite his vaunted insight into hair as masquerade, Bassanio will fail to remark the fake beard with which Portia so easily transforms herself from male into female in the trial scene and disarms the highly experienced, expert, and exclusively male lawyers who form her audience. (12)

The "snaky golden locks" that entrap and deceive the naive, glib suitor recall the phallic snakes of Medusa's hair, the sight of which kills the male viewer by turning him to stone, a petrification which Freud reads as castration in his essay "Medusa's Head." (13) In the story as told by Ovid and others, Medusa's hair is far from golden. Its dark tangles and snaky snarls make no pretense of welcome or comfort but announce instead, in an obviously admonitory and apotropaic way, that the snaky head is fatal. The snakes that Bassanio dreads in contemplating the golden locks of the wig are close kin to the "worms" that Morocco discovers that the gold casket enfolds. Bassanio eschews golden locks, the gold casket that encloses a skull, and the "gaudy gold, / Hard food for Midas" (3.2.101-02) because he has learned to read in the mode of allegory, whether one takes allegory to be the art of moralized reading, as in the Ovide moralise tradition (which includes a version of the Jason and Medea story as well as the tale warning against Midas' vain love of gold), or instead defines allegory as that hermeneutic of suspicion whose deconstructive method aims to ferret out the non-being of what is. A woman who wears golden locks lives on the stolen, second-hand remains of the dead. Her vitality is not what it appears to be. Her head is the "living" epitome or analogue of the carrion Death's head buried in the golden casket, her golden locks like the menacing phallic worms in the lead casket. Bassanio understands this lesson of death masquerading as life even though he was not present when Morocco made his fatal choice of gold, nor has he had access to Morocco's fate by hearsay, but the sequence of the three casket scenes is arranged in such a way that each one contains traces and echoes, both conscious and unconscious, of its predecessor(s). As careful readers of 3.2 we cannot help but see how Shakespeare sets Bassanio up to avoid the mistakes of Morocco in 2.7 and of Arragon in 2.9. (14)

What makes Bassanio a canny allegorical reader is that he is able to distinguish between the painted gold of Portia's "counterfeit" that signals victory and access to her dowry, on the one hand, and the second-hand golden hair, the "dowry of a second head," on the other hand, that signifies defeat and death. He wants no spurious dowry that could be called into question on legal grounds. He wants to do the will of Portia's father because only by this means will he secure the real gold that is his goal, not the fool's possession of the snaky golden wig. Just twenty lines after speaking of the pitfall of the latter, Bassanio praises the gold hair of Portia's "counterfeit," the token of victory that he lifts from the lead casket:
      here in her hairs
   The painter plays the spider, and hath woven
   A golden mesh t' entrap the hearts of men
   Faster than gnats in cobwebs. (3.2.120-23)

The word "entrap" would ordinarily indicate a warning, to the reader if not to Bassanio, but the latter believes that the golden web of painted hair entrances rather than entraps in some admonitory way. Bassanio is as happy to fall for the painted image of Portia's golden hair as he was wary to forgo the "crisped snaky golden locks," the dowry of death and fool's gold, that he avoided just a few lines earlier. The painter's art presents a metaphorical trap that sounds dangerous, as gnats are trapped fatally in cobwebs, but the gold paint of the counterfeit of Portia is life-affirming and pleasure-giving. Portia cannot be a temptress spider who weaves webs of doom; she is not one of the Moerae like Clotho the spinner of fate or Atropos who cuts the thread (or the hair); she cannot be the wig maker whose recycled art preys on the gold hair of the dead. Or can she? Perhaps it is just a wish fulfillment, a dream image framed in the artist's counterfeit, that sees Portia as immutable. Immortal beauty is a counterfeit; it is to be found only in factitious images forged by the vision of an artist, whether painter or poet, but evidently not in the manufacture of an artificer such as the perruquier.

The continuation of the lines just quoted broaches the theme of castration in the image of the aesthetic vision that blinds the eye of the artist:
      --but her eyes!
   How could he see to do them? having made one,
   Methinks it should have power to steal both his
   And leave itself unfurnish'd. (3.2.123-26)

In Shakespeare Among the Moderns, Richard Halpern comments perspicuously on these lines: "Bassanio's reaction to the image verges on idolatry or fetishism. Moreover, his fantasy of an eyeless portrait surely recalls the ["carrion death"] skull with the 'empty eye' (2.7.63) contained in the golden casket, just as the 'golden mesh' of the portrait's hair evokes the golden casket itself and its false allure. Thus Portia's picture somehow doubles or reproduces the vacant death's head which symbolized the void." (15) The symbolic valences of gold and lead, life and death, are as interchangeable as the eye and its empty socket (which is its grave).

The apotheosis of golden-haired, angelic Portia in her portrait cannot cover over the oddness, verging on inappropriateness, of Bassanio's image of the painter as spider and of Portia's golden mesh of hair as cobwebs, or the analogy of himself to a gnat caught in the golden web of Portia's hair. It is a quick slide, a short circuit built into this threatening metaphor, to pass from the painter as spider to Portia as spider. The spider's web is often taken to be a symbol of destiny--for the gnat, for the human--not of free and happy choice. The wishful assertion that Portia is not one of the Moerae is belied by the mixed metaphor whose confusion and sense of threat Bassanio seems willful in ignoring. Although he does not cite this passage-indeed he quotes only one line from The Merchant of Venice in "The Theme of the Three Caskets'--Freud comments on the fatal destiny of the lover who prevails in a love contest, and his observations are borne out by these odd lines in which Bassanio seems to welcome being trapped (and devoured) by the spider and presents this fate as a free choice in favor of love, his choice of the lead casket. Over against Bassanio, one recalls Morocco's typical association of lead as the material of choice for burying people, although he avers that for Portia lead "were too gross / To rib her cerecloth in the obscure grave" (2.7.50-51).

III. Caskets and Jewelry

If the golden "counterfeit" with its spidery "golden mesh" of Portia enclosed in the lead casket is a life symbol--and I have argued above that this is too simple a valuation--its vitality is undoubtedly clouded by the many negative associations for gold in the text, like the gold casket that enfolds worms, bones, and carrion Death, or the snaky golden hair that masks its origins in the gleanings from a corpse, or the gold patens in the heavens which Lorenzo praises in song to Jessica, whose aureate rays mock our all too distant and mortal regard as souls grossly clad in "this muddy vesture of decay" (5.1.64). I want now to emphasize the meaning of jewelry often enclosed in a container for safe keeping. As we have seen, Morocco refers to Portia not only as an "angel" (gold coin) but also as "an angel in a golden bed" (2.7.58), which may be taken to mean a jewel set in a bed of gold as its background or foil, or the phrase may have another sense, which the Arden editor glosses, citing Pooler, an earlier editor of the play, as "Portia's picture in a golden casket." (16)

There is no need for Shakespeare to belabor the two common but antithetical meanings of "casket": a container for a corpse, and a container for jewelry. Nor would there be any need for the critic to do so, save that so few critics mention the obvious double play on the word or make anything of it. It is a corpse that one expects to find in a casket, as Shakespeare's source tale in the Gesta Romanum makes abundantly clear, whereas to find a golden counterfeit therein--"an angel in a golden bed"--would indeed be a pleasant surprise, but a surprise licensed by the positive meaning of the word "casket" as a jewelry box. The word "casket" epitomizes what Freud calls the antithetical sense of primal words, in his famous essay so entitled, (17) in that the "identical" word has two referents that not only are not identical but are usually taken to be quite different in meaning, as the word "casket" refers both to death, on the one hand, and to life, love, marriage, and wealth, on the other hand, that nexus of happy destinies often associated with jewelry placed securely in a chest.

Jessica uses "casket" to designate a jewelry box when she says to Lorenzo, "Here catch this casket, it is worth the pains" (2.6.33). This quotation puts into play again the two senses of the word "worth"--monetary and moral--that formed in Act 1 an important ambiguity in characterizing Portia, and an ambiguity regarding Bassanio's motives for pursuing her, but in this case Jessica's use of "worth," it is safe to say, refers solely to the monetary value of what the casket contains. And just what are the casket's (monetary) contents? Shylock specifies the inventory, like the accountant that he is, as soon as Tubal tells him of the elopement--the theft of his daughter by Lorenzo, and the daughter's theft, in turn, of the family jewels:
   Why there, there, there, there! a diamond gone cost me two thousand
   ducats in Frankfort,--the curse never fell upon our nation until
   now, I never felt it till now,--two thousand ducats in that, and
   other precious, precious jewels; I would my daughter were dead at
   my foot, and the jewels in her ear: would she were hears'd at my
   foot, and the ducats in her coffin. (3.1.76-82)

Shakespeare places Shylock's fantasy of his newlywed daughter dead at his feet and her "coffin" loaded with ducats just one scene before Bassanio chooses the lead "casket" and wins his bride. That Shylock curses his daughter's marriage is not surprising in light of the fact that she, unlike Portia, has violated the will of the father and has stolen his casket of jewelry in order to appropriate a dowry for herself. Shylock's sense that marriage in defiance of the father should be cursed by death, that the bride merits "hearse" and "coffin" for having stolen the jewels, receives a further ironic turn of the screw a few lines later when Tubal informs him of another article purloined in the casket: the turquoise wedding ring that Leah gave to Shylock, which Jessica has sold in exchange for a monkey. One dies intestate, without his jewels, as Shylock laments the traumatic loss of his patrimony: "And jewels, two stones, two rich and precious stones / Stol'n by my daughter" (2.8.20-21). The jewels that represent Shylock's wealth ("my ducats!" [2.8.15]) and the stones (testicles; jewels that form one's patrimony) whence his flesh and blood ("my daughter!" [2.8.15]) had its genesis are now stolen goods hidden in Jessica's casket and her two bags. (18) The body may be dismembered after death (the decapitated carrion Death's head that Morocco finds in the lead casket is a case in point) or de vivant in the case of Shylock's stones (or in the case of Antonio's heart in the trial scene)--in any event there is no possibility of remaining intact or of securing a patrimony for one's heirs.

The death drive is always already implicit in the desire that consummates itself in marriage. The union that rings symbolize cannot completely stave off underlying threats of castration. Shylock's marriage ends in death, and the wedding ring finds its ultimate end as alienable property, to be passed on and on to the highest bidder. No trick of gender impersonation can return Leah or the turquoise wedding ring to Shylock, as opposed to the rings returned to their rightful spouses in the comic ending of Act 5. Jessica's transvestism, unlike Portia's, is not recuperative but instead serves as conduit and cover for Jessica to steal away from her father and to rob him of his jewels and his ducats. In Jessica's vow to "make fast the doors and gild myself / With some moe ducats" (2.6.49-50), the possible off-rhyme consonance of "gild" and "guilt" and her understanding that what she is doing must take place behind locked doors, surreptitiously, indicates her awareness that the love of gold is a dark and guilty pleasure since she is alienating the family's patrimony. Janet Adelman traces puns on "geld," "gild," and "guilt" that are relevant as well to Gratiano's wish that the clerk to whom he gave his wedding ring "were gelt" (5.1.144). (19) As Jessica crosses over in dress to impersonate a man when she elopes with Lorenzo, concurrently she gelds her father in stealing his "gelt" (money) or "stones," thus placing him in the feminine position. In cross-dressing as a man, Jessica converts not so much in terms of gender as in terms of religion, from Jew to Christian. The Jewish ducats cross over or convert to become "Christian ducats" (2.8.16), which Shylock rails against. Jessica's elopement with Lorenzo flies in the face of the marriage of Leah and Shylock and of the patrimony that they had hoped to transmit to their daughter. The religious conversion of Jessica, the conversion of her father's goods into the hands of Christian Lorenzo, and the forced conversion of Shylock at the end of the trial scene are irreversible and tragic from a perspective that centers on Shylock, unlike the comic because reversible gender conversion of female Portia into male Balthazar.

IV. The Teleology of Death

The three caskets are a continuum that belies the defensive, false compartmentalizations into birth, life, and death. In a well-known passage Freud writes that the three caskets are the three women that determine the trajectory of a man's life, "the three inevitable relations that a man has with a woman--the woman who bears him, the woman who is his mate and the woman who destroys him; or that they are the three forms taken by the figure of the mother in the course of a man's life--the mother herself, the beloved one who is chosen after her pattern, and lastly the Mother Earth who receives him once more." (20) Life, wife, and death are the three women / caskets that telescope to form a continuum; in one's beginning is one's end. (21) The continuum model, in effect a nesting of the caskets, effaces the model of separate and insulated stages of human development by effecting a massive reduction: One's birth is one's marriage is one's fatality. (22) We find in the details of Bassanio's "choice" of the winning casket in 3.2 the many images, explored in this essay, that combine and conflate love and death in confusing, often haunting ways. The muddled contradictions implied in the play's imagery of gold and lead, of death and life, suggest that the lead casket implicates death as much as the gold one does, as if gold and lead are obverse and reverse of the same emblematic coin. The lead casket, like its gold counterpart, is an inevitability masquerading as free choice, and desire for love and life ultimately find their telos in the death drive. (23)

It is not my desire as some incorrigible pessimist to turn The Merchant of Venice into King Lear, although were I to do so I would enjoy the precedent of many a nineteenth-century production that did just that by omitting Act 5 in order to concentrate on the sad fate of Shylock at the end of Act 4. (It was Henry Irving, by the way, who restored Act 5 of the play in his 1879 production.) (24) But I do wish to emphasize how gold, gems, rings, and jewels may get lost; as a defense against mutability they are not reliable. Many critics and spectators feel that the superfluous romantic ending of Act 5 does not compensate for Shylocks irremediable losses in the first four acts of the play. The metaphysical Donne, pondering the longevity of love on the basis of relics left in the grave, wonders what becomes of the reliquary tokens of love when the flesh wears away or the grave is robbed. The corpse that opens before the eyes of Morocco, we recall, has been dismembered, perhaps by some species of grave robber, and none of the priceless relics remain intact. Morocco finds instead a skull severed from the rest of the skeleton, all of whose other parts, including the digits and whatever jewels they supported, are absent. Even Bassanio's prize of the golden counterfeit, the artist's effort to eternize the golden locks of Portia, is likened unsettlingly to a fatality, a spider's web that entraps gnats--uncannily at odds with one's expectations of idealizing Italian Renaissance portraiture. Our muddy bodies are deaf to the music of the spheres, and the golden music of the empyrean mocks mortals like Jessica and Lorenzo who are deaf to it. Death conducts towards fragmentation, dissolution, erasure; and gold, for all its symbolic weight, cannot stop this decay. One thinks of the inversion of Ariel's song on Alonso's sea-change after death: Where pearls used to shimmer are now empty sockets--shorn the golden hair, the ruby lips no more. We die intestate, without our jewels, our precious stones now lost.

James W. Stone, National University of Singapore


(1.) James Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996); Janet Adelman, Blood Relations: Christian and Jew in The Merchant of Venice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008); Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (New York: Norton, 2004).

(2.) Harold Bloom, Shakespeare. The Invention of the Human (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998).

(3.) All quotations from the text of The Merchant of Venice are taken from the Arden edition, ed. John Russell Brown (London: Methuen, 1955).

(4.) One finds ambivalence about gold in Sidney and Spenser too, whom C.S. Lewis typed as poets of the golden decade of the 1580s, just before Shakespeare began to write for the stage, but Lewis uses the word "golden" as a term of approbation, in a wholly non-ambivalent way. See English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954).

(5.) Quotations from the Gesta Romanorum are taken from the Arden edition of The Merchant of Venice.

(6.) In The Development of Shakespeare's Imagery (London: Methuen, 1951), Wolfgang Clemen confines his few pages (81-84) on Merchant to a discussion of how images of shipwreck early in the play foreshadow the fate of Antonio's ships in Act 3. In Shakespeare's Imagery and What it Tells Us (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935), Caroline Spurgeon devotes her attention to the money motif in Cymbeline but not in Merchant, and her catalogue and analysis of the imagery of jewels leaves out Merchant altogether. Subsequent treatments of Merchant have also tended to neglect analyzing the many images of gold in the play, although Richard Halpern (see below) is one recent critic whose Marxist analysis of value and the money form yields insight into the varied processes of commodification in the play.

(7.) The OED makes clear that both literal and figurative senses of "fleece" were available in Shakespeare's day. "Fleece" may designate sheep's wool (1a) or booty (2b), and as a verb it may indicate either the legitimate removing of the fleece (1) or the effort to cheat someone of his rightful property (3). In "The Lead Casket: Capital, Mercantilism, and The Merchant of Venice," in Money and the Age of Shakespeare: Essays in New Economic Criticism ed. Linda Woodbridge (New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), Mark Netzloff argues that references to Jason's "golden fleece" are designed to suggest how the English wool trade proved more reliable than Spain's dedication to specie. Citing passages from Donne's "Elegy 11: The Bracelet" to Bassanio's remark that gold is "Hard food for Midas" (3.2.102), Netzloff demonstrates how in English eyes mercantilist Spain's greed for gold caused the inflation that would ultimately prove to be its undoing, 166-71. If we contrast Spanish adventuring for gold to British "venturing" in a capitalist mode, then it is possible to see Morocco as a mercantilist and pre-capitalist, like the Spanish, in that he does not put gold into circulation; he takes no hazard or risk with his money, the way that Antonio does. As an aristocrat he is true to his class in that he literalizes the money form.

(8.) I do not focus in this essay on Morocco's blackness, which Portia subjects to withering critique, but instead on how Morocco's rhetoric belies for the most part the negative stereotypes of Africans held by Europeans. For the genesis and deployment of racialist discourse in Shakespeare's time, see Kim F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995).

(9.) Freud regards Bassanio's apparent "choice" of Portia as an expression of the wishful illusion of his being intelligent and forceful enough to be able to elect love and life over death. I believe that the same may be said of Morocco's choice. The wishful replacement of death by love harks back to a primeval identity between them that has been repressed:
   The same consideration answers the question how the feature of a
   choice came into the myth of the three sisters. Here again there
   has been a wishful reversal. Choice stands in the place of
   necessity, of destiny. In this way man overcomes death, which he
   has recognized intellectually. No greater triumph of
   wish-fulfillment is conceivable. A choice is made where in reality
   there is obedience to a compulsion; and what is chosen is not a
   figure of terror, but the fairest and most desirable of women.

In The Merchant of Venice, this fairest and most desirable of women is Portia, an inevitability masquerading as a choice and a victory in a contest. See Freud, "The Theme of the Three Caskets" (1913), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74), 12:289-302. For a graphing of Freud's three caskets onto Lacan's schema of the Imaginary (the pre-Oedipal mother of loss), the Symbolic (the mother/wife as object of desire and lack), and the Real (the mother's "uncanny post-Oedipal complement, woman as death" [147]), see Julia Reinhard Lupton and Kenneth Reinhard, After Oedipus: Shakespeare in Psychoanalysis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993).

(10.) Richard Wilson, Shakespeare in French Theory: King of Shadows (London and New York: Routledge, 2007), 104. See also Sandra K. Fischer, Econolingua:A Glossary of Coins and Economic Language in Renaissance Drama (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985), 41. Netzloff, 163-64, notes that the angel was one of the few coins whose rate of valuation remained stable during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. In "Healing Angels and 'golden blood': Money and Mystical Kingship in Macbeth," Stephen Deng discusses how monarchs from Edward the Confessor to James I used golden angels to cure scrofula. In Macbeth: New Critical Essays, ed. Nick Moschovakis (New York and London: Routledge, 2008), 163-81.

(11.) Gustav Ungerer demonstrates that England got most of its gold for the minting of angels from the Saadian kings of Morocco. Ungerer sees in Shakespeare's prince an allusion to Moroccan ambassadors who tried to persuade Queen Elizabeth to sign a League of Amity with Ahmad al-Mansur. He argues that the Prince of Morocco is portrayed in a more flattering light than the stereotype of the villainous black Moor. "Portia and the Prince of Morocco," Shakespeare Studies 31 (2003): 89-126.

(12.) Like the boy actors in Shakespeare's day, most contemporary actresses wear a beard for the role of Balthazar. Unlike other Shakespearean transvestite heroines, Portia as Balthazar is not androgynous. Male characters in the courtroom comment on how youthful Balthazar looks, but not on how good he looks. In his letter of introduction Bellario comments on Balthazar's appearance: "I beseech you let his lack of years be no impediment to let him lack a reverend estimation, for I never knew so young a body with so old a head" (4.1.159-61). Portia/Balthazar's lack of years never translates into doubts about his maleness. Balthazar seems too young to be so learned in jurisprudence, but he does not seem too womanly to be a man. In male dress Portia, unlike Viola/ Cesario or Rosalind/Ganymede, does not swoon--the woman inside does not rear its head or rise to the surface and "out" Portia as a woman--and Bassanio, unlike Olivia, Orsino, or Orlando, never feels any subliminal recognition or sexual attraction for his cross-dressed partner. Perhaps one should keep in mind the premises of transvestite theater, that it calls for a suspension of the skeptical faculty, and thus absolve Bassanio for failing to recognize his wife behind the beard. See Stephen Cohen's "(Post)modern Elizabeth: Gender, politics, and the emergence of modern subjectivity" for an analysis of how Portia's assumption of male power, not just a man's costume, sets her apart from other transvestite heroines. In Shakespeare and Modernity: Early modern to millennium, ed. Hugh Grady (London: Routledge, 2000), 20-39.

(13.) Sigmund Freud, "Medusa's Head" (1940), Standard Edition, 18:273. The proliferation of phallic symbols like snakes and worms, so often in Freud as in Shakespeare, is a defensive reaction against an impending threat of castration. On the Renaissance Ovid see Leonard Barkan, The Gods Made Flesh: Metamorphosis and the Pursuit of Paganism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), and my essay, "The Mirror of Hermaphroditus," Sty/e 36 (2002): 169-85.

(14.) In her introduction to Merchant in the Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt (New York: Norton, 1997), Katharine Eisaman Maus reiterates the consensus among critics that the choice of caskets is stacked in Bassanio's favor, primarily because as an insider, a Venetian Christian, Bassanio understands that he must appear to value the spiritual over the monetary in choosing his wife (1086). In Money, Language, and Thought (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), Marc Shell points out that in 3.2 Portia uses as line endings a number of words that rhyme with "lead" in order to point the way to the lead casket as the wining choice, 57.

(15.) Richard Halpern, Shakespeare Among the Moderns (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1997), 200.

(16.) Brown, 60.

(17.) Sigmund Freud, "The Antithetical Sense of Primal Words" (1910), in Standard Edition 11:153-62.

(18.) Shell, 62, adduces a relevant biblical reference to stones. According to Jewish law, "he that is wounded in the stones ... shall not enter the congregation of the lord" (Deut. 23:1). Castrated Christian men, by contrast, are allowed to be members of the congregation.

(19.) Adelman, 100-01.

(20.) Freud, "On the Theme of the Three Caskets," 301.

(21.) Burton A. Melnick suggests that there may be a fourth woman in a man's life: his daughter, who symbolizes rebirth for her elderly father. Melnick quotes a letter from Freud to James S. H. Bransom, in which he refers to "the secret meaning" of King Lear as being "the repressed incestuous claims on the daughter's love," (25). Melnick unravels multiple valences for gold: as a symbol of infancy, of Ovid's account of the Golden Age, of the faeces that are the child's first gift to the mother, and of a futile, regressive attempt to deny death by seeking in fantasy to recapture an idealized mother-figure. "Psychoanalysis as Poetry, Psychoanalysis as Rhetoric: Freud's 'On the Theme of the Three Caskets,'" Studies in Psychoanalytic Theory 4 (1995): 18-28.

(22.) Othello sees a man's wife's adultery as "destiny unshunnable, like death" and characterizes the compacted birth-marriage-death trajectory thus: "Even then this forked plague is fated to us, / When we do quicken" (3.3.280-81). Othello, ed. M. R. Ridley, The Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1958). Marriage, the intermediate term, hastens the transition from infancy to adulthood to death. The end (final cause) of birth is death via the adultery not only of his wife, Othello implies, but also of the mother who created her son a forked and death-destined bastard in the first place.

(23.) The death drive enters into Freud's work seven years after "The Theme of the Three Caskets," in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), in Standard Edition, 18:3-66.

(24.) John W. Mahon gives an extensive critical and stage history of the play in "The Fortunes of The Merchant of Venice from 1596 to 2001 ," in The Merchant of Venice: New Critical Essays, ed. John W. Mahon and Ellen Macleod Mahon (New York: Routledge, 2002), 1-93. The essays in the same volume by Jay L. Halio and John O'Connor, on Shylock in performance, are also helpful.
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Author:Stone, James W.
Publication:The Upstart Crow
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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