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Why the long face?

Enda O'Doherty writes: Antonio is in bad humour and he’s getting everyone else down too. What’s eating him? Is he worrying about his money ‑ again? Or could he be – is it possible that he is – in love? But when did you ever see him with a woman? Anyone?

In sooth I know not why I am so sad,
It wearies me, you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,
That I have much ado to know myself.

This drippiness on Antonio’s part may be tedious, but he has friends, or rather he is a rich man. Salerio and Solanio, two interchangeable nothings full of empty bonhomie, suggest he must be thinking about his ships, which are at sea, and therefore at the mercy of winds, tides and pirates. But no, Antonio insists, he didn’t come down the Brenta in a bucket; he has spread his risk (“My ventures are not in one bottom trusted”) and has resources enough in reserve to survive a bad year. Well then it has to be love, Solanio insists. Nonsense (“Fie, fie!”), Antonio replies. Well then,

                                     let us say you are sad
Because you are not merry;

Now perhaps we are getting somewhere. Antonio is sad because he is a sad man. As Salerio and Solanio exeunt and Bassanio, Lorenzo and Gratiano enter, the gloomy merchant tells the latter:

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

Of the dramatis personae so far featured in this opening scene of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, only one, Antonio, would seem to have “a job” or function. Bassanio is defined simply as Antonio’s friend, and “suitor to Portia” (more of this shortly). Gratiano, Salerio and Solanio are “friends to Antonio and Bassanio”, while their other companion, Lorenzo, is “in love with Jessica”. Jessica is “daughter to Shylock”, and Shylock is “a Jew”, which apparently speaks for itself.

The plot, the elements of which are set out in this short but busy scene, is that Bassanio, who is also Antonio’s “kinsman”, is rather short of money, having “disabled my estate, / By something showing a more swelling port / Than my faint means would grant continuance” – that is “having spent a lot of money I didn’t have in order to act the big shot”. But there is perhaps a remedy at hand in the fair shape of Portia, “an heiress”. If Antonio will stake him sufficiently to go and woo Portia he has every reason to believe things could turn out very nicely indeed; he’ll be able to pay back Antonio in due course and the rest of his life will be spent ... well, in clover at the lady's expense. And of course it might all have all turned out like that had it not been for the concurrence of two events: Lorenzo stealing not just Shylock’s daughter but also his ducats (which is worse?) and Antonio’s ships going, one by one, to the bottom of the sea. Well, you know the rest. In the end, after a really bad scare, everything turned out just fine for everyone – except of course the Jew.


But why is Antonio sad? In Michael Radford’s 2004 film version of the play, with Jeremy Irons as Antonio and Al Pacino excellent as Shylock there is more than a hint that Antonio is indeed, as Solanio suspected, in love. But with Bassanio – so nothing doing there. But there is another explanation. The Russian historian of medieval Europe Aron Gurevich (a disciple of the French Annales school) has written of the existential angst – in Italian malinconia ‑ which often attended the profession of merchant in the late Middle Ages and early modern period, an angst which derived from a number of sources, both practical and ideological/religious. Quite obviously, the merchant’s calling involved risk: financing long and complex expeditions, bringing in silks and spices from the Orient or wood, tar, hides or slaves from the Black Sea. And risk involves worry. The goods might disappear, be destroyed in transit or seized (“There be land rats and water rats, water thieves and land thieves”); there might be a glut on the market of the goods on offer; or war or plague could have disrupted the expected market entirely. Plenty of matter there for worry and malinconia.

Gurevich points to the medieval obsession with fortune and the wheel of fortune, an antique and essentially pagan notion that sometimes was given a Christian overlay but was sufficiently deeply rooted in the psyche – and particularly the psyche of the rich or powerful ‑ to survive over the centuries more or less intact. (The notion would have been of less relevance to the peasant, tied to the land - "Where do you see yourself in twenty years?" "Looking at the arse of an ox.") Fortune was often represented as a large wheel (like the wheel of a ship), with people hanging to the sides: for a time you might be on the up, all smiles and confidence; then you’d reach the top and quite suddenly you’d be plunging down again, trying desperately to hang on but seeing your fine clothes and your moneybags falling away from you into the nothingness. (This could be a good metaphor for electoral politics too.)

That was what you might expect in this world. But what about the next? Merchants, and even more so bankers (they were often the same people), had had a great deal of trouble establishing any moral legitimacy for themselves at all in the Christian world view. Traditionally there were three orders of men (ordained by God of course): knights, religious and peasants, those who fight for us, those who pray for us and those who feed us. Where did merchants come into this? Nowhere. They made nothing – simply bought things cheaply in one place and sold them dear in another. That looked like plain trickery.

Eventually, however, mercantile activity was admitted into the sphere of the licit. A noble function was found (they bring things of which there is a shortage in one place from another place where they are plentiful) and a modest recompense could be allowed for this necessary activity. With growing urbanisation and the increased sophistication of the city economy, merchants (and artisans) could not be ignored. It was also found that they could be useful in endowing churches and churchmen. If there was a hole in their moral balance sheet this could be mended by appropriate donations. In fact this was sometimes literally true. Commercial account books have been found in Italy incorporating a separate column (conto di Messer Domeneddio – the account of Sir Lord God) to record donations to charity. And yet one could never be sure. Merchants, it seems, often combined an unfeigned religious faith (genuine atheism, one suspects, was rare) with an extremely robust take-no-prisoners commercial practice that involved treating rivals harshly and, frankly, cheating customers. Perhaps this could all be settled up in the end, with a will stipulating repayments to the families of those you had wronged and paying for a large number of Masses to be said in the years after death to pluck your soul, in due course, from the fires of Purgatory – always assuming you had been fortunate enough to escape the other place.

All in all, it would seem, melancholy and anxiety were an almost inescapable part of the merchant’s lot. Little wonder that so many of them tried to get out, or to get their children out, of the whole racket, buying up landed property and transforming themselves from bourgeois into gentry. This certainly seems to have been the path Bassanio has marked out for himself, trading his virility and looks for the good life at the expense of Portia (“a lady richly left”). And in this venture his unhappy, rich, selfless merchant kinsman is only too glad to help. Poor Antonio didn’t get the boy, though he did finally escape with his breast intact. For the rest of us, there is some comfort, I suppose, in knowing that the rich are not happy. Though I suspect Bassanio was happy enough.

31/5/2019