A Not-Quite Happy Ending: Hazard and Love in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice
By Hubert Ahn
William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice begins on a note of melancholy. Antonio, the eponymous merchant, pronounces “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad” (1.1.1). His friends offer possible reasons, all of which are rejected by Antonio. The issue is quickly superseded by a more immediate one. Antonio’s beloved friend Bassanio arrives with a proposed suit to win the lady Portia’s hand in marriage, Antonio immediately grants it, and nothing more is heard of Antonio’s sadness. Portia herself is introduced by way of her own particular sadness--“By my troth, Nerissa (her waiting-lady), my little body is weary of this great world” (1.2.1-2). But her situation is explained immediately: she is bound by her dead father’s will to wed to the suitor who correctly chooses one of three caskets. Bassanio ultimately wins Portia’s hand, presumably ending her dilemma. But what of poor Antonio? By the play’s end he may have escaped death and retained his fortune, but he is no better off in that respect than at the beginning, and he has also essentially lost Bassanio, whom the play has reminded us in drumbeat fashion is the most cherished thing in Antonio’s life, to marriage.
In fact, from a certain perspective, an ending which seems to come together as textbook comedy, has also been tinged with melancholy. After the entire business of ring-swapping, identity reversal, and reclaimed fortune has been sorted out, Portia tells the assembled players “It is morning, And yet I am sure you are not satisfied” (5.1.296-97). She suggests further explanation will satisfy them, but we must ask if this is actually the case. The relevant points seem to have been laid bare already, at least for the reader. The marriages remain intact, but promises held to be sacred have been broken, and all of the characters now live under a certain burden, suggested by Gratiano when he finishes the play...