Medieval & Early Modern History Research article

Questions of value in The Merchant of Venice and Elizabethan England

 The valuation of property and people – particularly women – in Shakespeare’s Venice reflected contemporary anxieties nearer home

6 minute read

The casket trial scenes in The Merchant of Venice sometimes provoke laughter in performance and are noted by Shakespearean scholars as an expression of Elizabethan cultural and racial stereotypes. But these scenes also gesture towards one of the most vital concerns in the play: value. The notion of what is valuable and how we determine the value or worth of an object, an individual or a vow, sits at the heart of each character’s story in the play, including the central one of Shylock the Jew and his demands for his bond.

Value is a term that is also intrinsically linked to the representation of women and their status in the play as commodities, or objects to be won or stolen, like jewels; in fact, the emphasis on jewels and rings in the play is a continual reminder of this association. In the stories of Portia and Jessica, Shakespeare highlights the various conditions under which women were viewed as property in Elizabethan England. The language of Bassanio and Portia’s courtship, for example, is dominated by words pertaining to commerce: ‘thrift’, ‘value’, ‘debt’. This highlights for us the fact that marriage was a contract, a negotiation underpinned by property and money.

The language of commerce and mercantilism, particularly in relation to the status of women, reflects not only the cultural climate of Shakespeare’s England, but also how the playwright and his contemporaries viewed Venice itself. Venice is in some ways another character in the play – a female character, veiled in mystery – and attempts to define what Venice meant were inevitably marked by the same binary in England that women were subject to: the city was viewed as either Virgin or Whore. Writers and translators referred to Venice as a modest woman, a ‘fair flower’ or ‘maiden city’. But the other version of Venice was embodied by the city’s notorious courtesans, a unique community of prostitutes many of whom had access to education, noble patrons, wealth and the objects of luxury that attended such privilege.

An actor stands in front of a casket looking to the right. Another actor stands behind him, a tense expression on their face.

Ben Lamb as Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice (2015). Photograph: Manuel Harlan

Two actors stand on stage, one with an arm outstretched to the other

Rachel Pickup as Portia and Giles Terera as the Prince of Morocco in our Globe on Tour production of The Merchant of Venice (2016). Photographer: Marc Brenner

As such, Venice was a symbol of luxury in Shakespeare’s London. Its geographical position made it an intermediary between the Europe and the East and its authorities and business leaders were tolerant of a variety of races and cultures. They saw the economic advantages of exploiting the skills and perceived business acumen of, for example, the Jews. As a result, Venice came to be associated with material wealth and exotic goods; objects of all descriptions, perfumes, textiles and ingredients were traded and imported to Europe’s shores via Venice and its enterprising merchants. The traveller Thomas Coryat whose 1611 account of his travels tells us that he had the ‘sweetest time’ he ever had in his life in Venice, ‘and partly for that she ministered unto me more variety of remarkable and delicious objects then mine eyes ever surveyed in any city before’.

A painting of a busy scene in Venice, with a bridge and boat in the water, surrounded by lots of people

Carpaccio’s Miracle of the Relic of the True Cross on the Rialto Bridge. Credits: British Library

With this backdrop of luxury, Shakespeare’s play brings to light the ways in which anxieties about an overemphasis on goods and money was beginning to permeate English culture. This is especially true with regard to the fears English moralists had about the effect of excessive materialism on England’s women in particular. In 1616 the English writer Barnabe Rich lamented that ‘we have spoyled theVenetian Curtizansof their alluring vanities, to decke our Englishe women in the newe fashion’. He begs English women not to entangle themselves with ‘Lady fashions’, whom he imagines ‘meeteth andconverseth with Ladies and Gentlewomen, some shee teacheth to paint themselves, some to powder their periwigs’. Curiously, what Rich is satirising is a custom among noble women of Venice, who ‘formed a society and (elected offices) for learning and testing new discoveries in the cosmetic arts’.

‘Shakespeare’s play brings to light the ways in which anxieties about an overemphasis on goods and money was beginning to permeate English culture’

A painting of two women on a balcony. A dog is at the kneews of one

Symbols of marital fidelity – the peahen and the dog – contribute to a scene of luxury, sensuality and boredom in Vittore Carpaccio’s ‘Two Venetian Ladies on a Terrace’, c. 1475. MuseoCorrer, Venice / Topfoto

What would Shakespeare’s original audiences have thought of the portrayal of women in this play? Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, is especially complex given her status as a Jew who converts to Christianity, steals her father’s jewels and marries a Christian clandestinely. Her behaviour would have been seen by a portion of the audience as acceptable and by another portion as unacceptable because of her disobedience. Disobedient daughters were frowned upon, of course, in Elizabethan England, but as we know, Jessica is the daughter of a Jew, which complicates responses to her actions.

Crucially, when she goes missing, Shylock’s response is shock and dismay, not just because she has gone, but because she has stolen his casket of jewels. She was also his property and both his jewels and his daughter have been stolen from him. His affection for his long-dead wife is also expressed in his lamentation that the ring he associates her with is missing. Wives, daughters, jewels: they are all property that when stolen can be equally dismaying, provoking equivalent feelings of loss. But Jessica makes a choice. The value of that choice is still up for debate.

When we meet Portia in Belmont we see that, although she is a noble or patrician woman with wealth and status, she is also imprisoned by her father’s decree that whichever suitor passes the casket test shall marry her. Shakespeare presents marriage metaphorically as a form of containment and trafficking of women, specifically within aristocratic circles; in this case, a daughter is being controlled from the grave. The suitors are told to guess which casket holds Portia’s likeness (orminiature portrait) and the actual woman will be the prize. The fact that one casket is gold, one silver and the other lead means that Shakespeare is asking us to think carefully about value: the value of precious materials and the value of women deliberately placed side-by-side. We know the outcome of the trial.

Bassanio’s victory is helped along by a woman who is much more than just an object to be valued. She manipulates the outcome herself, allowing, for example, a song with clues in its rhymes to be sung while Bassanio deliberates the caskets. And once Bassanio wins the trial, we realize that Portia has won something too. She claims her own prize. Her skill and intelligence is clear when she disguises herself as a lawyer, winning the more important trial and later tricking off, then forcing her wedding ring back upon her husband’s finger. If you had known the virtue of the ring,Or half her worthiness that gave the ring, Or your own honour to contain the ring ,You would not then have parted with the ring

A woman stands behind another woman, tying the back of her dress

Sophie Melville as Portia in the Globe on Tour production of The Merchant of Venice (2016). Photographer: Marc Brenner

In a play in which some people do not get what they want, Portia seems to do quite well regardless of an atmosphere that elides women with property. Portia’s trick demonstrates that in a money-centred world hierarchies are in flux, and women, though especially linked to materiality and consumerism within the context of the play, are shown to have more freedom to get what they want by manipulating the patriarchal structures that attempt to hold them in place.