Looking into the text

The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s ‘break-through’ plays; its use of prose is interesting, but what is striking is the way in which its verse shows Shakespeare leading us away from the end-stopped lines of his earliest works towards lines in which the thoughts run over from one line to the next. Look at how the super-confident King in Richard III (one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays) expresses himself at the play’s outset:

Now is the winter of our discontent,
Made glorious summer by this son of York:
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house,
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

Phrase and line run together: this is the sound of confidence, the punctuation all occurring at the line’s end. Fifteen years later Shakespeare captures the sound of a different king, a confused Lear, who is not even confident that the woman he is talking to is really his own daughter:

Yet I am doubtful: For I am mainly ignorant
What place this is: and all the skill I have
Remembers not these garments: nor I know not
Where I did lodge last night. 

Because these thoughts and phrases over-run the line endings, a more diffident sound is created. And this development in the form of the verse is clearly shown by some of the verse in The Merchant of Venice, written a decade before King Lear. 

Here’s Portia, late in the play, returning to her house, happy after successfully saving Antonio’s life and keenly anticipating her reunion with Bassanio. The dawn has yet to break and the whole world seems to her new and surprising, as she shares her thoughts with Nerissa. You will see that the form of these lines has much in common with those we were just looking at from King Lear. Here we have another three observations that for clarity’s sake are purposely, by the line divisions, expressed in parts. 

The crow doth sing as sweetly as the lark
When neither is attended: and I think
The nightingale if she should sing by day
When every goose is cackling, would be thought
No better a musician than the wren.
How many things by season, season’d are
To their right praise, and true perfection:

But why has this happened and how should we deal with it? The answer is simple – Shakespeare has learnt to hear how people – people like you and me, actually speak; how frequently we will shape the expression of any thought into two or more parts. It is a deliberate technique we all use to achieve clarity: Lear is unsure where he is, where the clothes he’s wearing came from, and where he spent the previous night; but by expressing each of these three concerns in two parts, his thoughts are expressed clearly. Portia is overwhelmed by things she has never thought of before, and likewise wants to shape the expression of her thoughts as carefully as she can. 

But there is something else too. How we are feeling also affects the way we speak. While we always aim in speaking to achieve clarity, we are less in control of our emotions. The scarcely perceptible breaks in Lear’s and Portia’s three statements, as one line ends and the next takes over, are no doubt also an indication of how they are both feeling. 

It is the absence of punctuation at the ends of the lines that clue us into these imperceptible breaks that both achieve clarity of expression and throw open a window onto the emotions of the speaker. 

Prose is first and foremost the language of jokes, of being witty, so the comic characters in these plays tend to speak, not in verse, but in prose. But many characters speak in both verse and prose, and Portia when we first meet her talking to Nerissa is speaking in prose. Why?

In part it’s because she is being witty, having fun and isn’t wanting to be taken too seriously. But, as always happens with prose, she wants, for one reason or another, to hide what she is feeling – maybe how tough it is for her to have to marry the first man to choose the correct casket, and whether she will ever see Bassanio (who she met once and rather liked) again. The fun of this for the audience is that they can begin to question what lies behind this frivolous surface. 

One very strange and dramatic scene in this play is also written in prose: it is the one that contains these most well-known lines of Shylock’s:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?

This surely is not meant to be witty and frivolous. So what is happening here?

The answer is that prose is also the way Shakespeare’s characters speak when they have lost control of themselves, when they have a brainstorm, when they become deranged. In King Lear, Lear flips in and out of verse into prose, as his mind slips in and out of lucidity into madness. And in this scene from The Merchant of Venice it is as if the whole world has gone mad, as first the two Christians, Solanio and Solario contemplate the unthinkable possibility that Antonio could be facing ruin, which is immediately picked up by Shylock and his fellow Jew, Tubal, who begin to imagine that what is unfolding might prove to be their hour of triumph over the Christians for all that they have suffered. 

And like all prose passages we can also detect that behind its surface, something is hidden, something is not being expressed by any of the characters fully, yet is the fuel that is setting light to all these passions – and that is the abduction of Shylock’s daughter Jessica. Behind Shylock’s plea for racial and religious tolerance sits his unspoken grief for the loss of his daughter. 

But the madness cannot be allowed to last. And it will be set to rest by an equally ‘mad’ solution in which a mad law will argue that ‘flesh’ does not mean ‘blood’ and will be declaimed triumphantly in the highest of the land by a young man, who is actually a young woman in disguise and Bassanio’s wife. 

Giles Block
Globe Associate – Text