ANQ, Jan 1994 v7 n1 p13(6)

Disappointment in 'The Merchant of Venice.' Matthew A. Fike.

Abstract: William Shakespeare's play 'The Merchant of Venice' uses disappointment as a theme. For example, the love duet scene contains remarks that courtship may be more satisfying than marriage, and this applies to other marriages in the play. The disappointment of financial success is also portrayed. There is also an implication that divine love in the afterlife is more satisfying than mortal marriage, which is disappointing by comparison.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1994 University Press of Kentucky

While Jessica and Lorenzo's banter at the beginning of Act V of The Merchant of Venice has been viewed as out of character with the harmony one expects at this point in a comedy, it has not yet been analyzed in light of the theme of disappointment.(1) As Gratiano expresses it, "All things that are / Are with more spirit chased than enjoyed," a direct commentary on Lorenzo's tardiness for his liaison with Jessica ( Lorenzo, in other words, may derive more pleasure from striving for Jessica than he does from her permanent presence in his life. What may be true for him is definitely true for other characters: since it is more enjoyable to anticipate than to attain, disappointment is ascendant in the universe of the play. Thus the classical allusions in the "love duet" not only reflect disappointing circumstances earlier in the play but also contrast with what, ultimately, does satisfy.

Gratiano's comment introduces a simile that suggests a pardigm of disappointing experience: "How like a younger or a prodigal / The scarfed bark puts from her native bay, / Hugg'd and embraced by the strumpet wind! / How like the prodigal doth she return, / With over-weather'd ribs and ragged sails, / Lean, rent, and beggar'd by the strumpet wind!" ( Here is a nautical rendering of the prodigal son story, but with disappointment as a variation. There is a return, but it is not restorative. To illustrate his sense that all things are more heartily pursued than savored, Gratiano omits the part of the allusion that would qualify his assertion, stressing instead the negative effects on the ship of wind and water, which correspond to the prodigal son's debasement and destitution. That is, Gratiano stresses the flight from the stormy sea, and by implication from the sty, rather than the safe harbor or the positive life in the father's house. In reality, the return from sea or sty would presumably transcend expectations and be enjoyed with more spirit than it is pursued. But for Gratiano, if there even is a homecoming for son or ship, it is not the happy occasion that the parable depicts. What makes his allusion problematic is not only the omission of the welcome but also the implication that the homecoming, if it were achieved, would be a disappointment.

The fiscal ventures in the play bear out the prodigal's experience of pursuing what does not yield the hoped-for enjoyment. Bassanio, like the prodigal son, asks father-figure Antonio for an additional loan. His earlier use of borrowed money has not met his needs or fulfilled his expectations. Shylock pursues his bond with Antonio with great gusto, but his attempt to enforce it results in personal and financial ruin rather than satisfaction--the greatest disappointment suffered by any character in the play. Antonio himself suffers fiscal disappointment. While it is fortunate that three of his ships return, Shylock's earlier statement conveys the more significant fact that many more have been lost: "Yet [Antonio's] means are in supposition: he hath an argosy bound to Tripolis, another to the Indies; I understand moreover upon the Rialto, he hath a third at Mexico, a fourth for England, and other ventures he hath, squand'red abroad" (I.iii.17-21). The return by the three ships ironically implies the grim spectre of loss: the disappointing truth that most of Antonio's ships, in fact, have been wrecked or are still missing, much as the prodigal's return underscores his great financial losses. But Antonio, who denies in Act I that the anxiety of ownership causes his sadness, also subtly contrasts with the prodigal: he has achieved fiscal success. IfGratiano's insight holds, the hollowness of ownership causes Antonio's melancholy. His material wealth at the opening is enjoyed with less delight than presumably it was anticipated. If Antonio's prosperity has not lived up to his expectations and does not supply the happiness for which he yearns, disappointment results and sadness is its symptom.

Human relationships are fertile ground for disappointment as well. Antonio's sadness stems partly from his awareness that Bassanio's marriage to Portia diminishes Antonio's role in his friend's life. Solanio makes it clear how much Antonio loves Bassanio: "I think he only loves the world for him" (II.viii.50). The second loan affirms their friendship but ultimately results in diminished closeness. The suitors provide a more dramatic illustration of relational disappointment. Gratiano's image of a ship setting forth to encounter a natural force personified as a woman parallels their failure: they return home as romantic beggars, not having won Portia's hand but having sworn never to marry. They have chased marriage with great spirit but have forfeited married life along with the enjoyment it might have brought. Even apart from marriage, relationships cause disappointment in The Merchant of Venice. Shylock is devastated by Jessica's greed and insensitivity, and Lancelot's liaison with a black serving girl has resulted in a pregnancy. There is no evidence that this fazes the clown, but the pregnancy is clearly an unwanted inconvenience.

While Jessica and Lorenzo's banter in V.i is good-natured, their allusions suggest that the passage may participate in the disappointment that shadows the earlier action. They celebrate their love by allusion to mythical lovers--Troilus and Cressida, Pyramus and Thisbe, Aeneas and Dido, Jason and Medea--who come to grief because of misunderstanding or betrayal.(2)

A first possibility is that the allusions convey doubts about the stability of their marriage. Perhaps Jessica will betray Lorenzo as she has already betrayed Shylock--Lorenzo's reference to Cressida suggests that he is not unaware of that possibility. He may one day be to Jessica as Troilus is to Cressida, or as Gratiano's prodigal ship is to the "strumpet wind"--not just a disappointed husband but also the victim of betrayal. As for Lorenzo, Gratiano's insight may apply: perhaps he was more eager to pursue Jessica than to enjoy her in marriage. Shakespeare's own Cressida, in the later play bearing her name, offers words that sound very much like Gratiano's comment on his friend's tardiness, a connection furthering his suspicion about Lorenzo's attitude: "Women are angels, wooing: / Things won are done, joy's soul lies in the doing. / That she belov'd knows nought that knows not this: / Men prize the thing ungain'd more than it is. / That she was never yet that ever knew / Love got so sweet as when desire did sue" (Troilus and Cressida I.ii.286-91). For men, as Gratiano would agree, the chase is more enjoyable than the achievement of a romantic goal. Perhaps Lorenzo, not having heard Gratiano's wry comment of Act II, fears that he will not enjoy his marriage to Jessica as much as he has anticipated because all things that are, including marriage, are enjoyed more in prospect than in attainment. Jessica playfully implies an awareness of Lorenzo's potential for infidelity in her reference to Medea and Aeson, for the story of Aeson's rejuvenation includes Jason's betrayal of Medea after years of marriage. In their banter, Jessica and Lorenzo thus hint at each other's potential for betrayal. Despite the loveliness of the setting and their good humor, the potential for marital disappointment is the faint undertone of their love duet--the extent of implications for Jessica's and Lorenzo's attitudes toward each other. If doubts exist at this point, they are merely playful, as though they were a kind of inoculation against future infidelity or "a comic exorcism of the tragic side of love" (Leggatt 143).

Indicting unfaithful lovers of both sexes suggests a criticism of couples in general. In Lorenzo's statements the betrayers, Aeneas and Cressida, are both male and female--the myths he alludes to distribute blame for pain in relationships to both genders. It is tempting, however, to view Jessica's references in a different light, since her allusion to Pyramus and Thisbe evokes tragic misunderstanding, rather than betrayal. Moreover, her reference to Aeson's rejuvenation, a kind of rebirth, is appropriate to new life in Belmont. Yet the Medea-Aeson allusion undercuts itself because of the duet's parallelism. The earlier allusions to mythical women and their lovers call Jason to mind, despite specific reference only to his father. Shakespeare knew that, following the rejuvenation, Jason abandoned Medea who then burned "hir husbands bride by witchcraft" and "in hir owne deare childrens bloud had bathde hir wicked knife" (Ovid 146; VII.501, 503). Whereas Lorenzo refers to Cressida and Aeneas, unfaithful lovers, Jessica invokes Jason and Medea who are hateful to each other. The point of the four allusions, then, is not merely the fact that women like Cressida betray men like Troilus, or that men like Aeneas desert women like Dido, or that the mutual misunderstanding of a couple like Pyramus and Thisbe can lead to tragedy for both. More important than that, the recollection of Jason and Medea suggests mutual disappointment in marriage. The sad conclusion is that the sexes, in their shared humanity, are potentially hateful to each other, or more specifically that Jessica and Lorenzo will encounter their share of problems in married life.

Just as the love duet participates in the disappointment developed earlier in the play, it also signals disappointment in the future, as further parallelism reveals. The situation in each allusion is once removed from tragedy. Troilus mounts the Trojan walls and sighs for Cressida; he later achieves full understanding of her betrayal. Thisbe sees the lion and runs away ... later Pyramus's discovery of her bloody veil leads to double suicide. Dido, having loved Aeneas and been deserted, longs for his return; she has not yet killed herself in despair. Medea gathers herbs that renew her husband's father; abandonment and murder happen years in the future. The allusions, therefore, create the sense of a coming storm. For Thisbe and Dido, a present problem (the presumed death of Pyramus, abandonment by Aeneas) leads to future suicide. Troilus and Medea, though they perform positive actions in the present, are betrayed in the future. Thus the play invites seeing Jessica and Lorenzo in a similar way. Underneath their banter lies the sense that their happiness may one day yield to disappointment and discord. That is in harmony with the pattern of disappointment established in Acts I through IV: anticipation transcends outcome.

The love duet also casts doubt on the future of other marriages in the play. The invocation of Jason and Medea colors Gratiano's earlier statement about the successful trip to Belmont: "I know that [Antonio] will be glad of our success; / We are the Jasons, we have won the fleece" (III.ii.240-41). He and Bassanio have achieved their goals, but the recollection of Jason and Medea in Act V ironically undercuts Gratiano's delight: he celebrates his marriage in terms of a classical figure who is famous for infidelity. Moreover, whereas Gratiano's own prophecy in Act II qualifies his fiscal and marital success, he is now blind to the violation of expectations and the potential for disappointment in his own marriage and in Bassanio's. He has forgotten that, in the problematic universe of The Merchant of Venice, it is simply impossible to attain with the same savor as one anticipates. Marital happiness is not an exception to the rule.

But marriage is merely synecdoche: as marriage carries the potential for disappointment, so does all of life, as Shakespeare's treatment of Belmont reveals. For Jessica, Belmont "figures forth the heavenly city" (Lewalski 343): "It is very meet / The Lord Bassanio live an upright life, / For having such a blessing in his lady, / He finds the joys of heaven here on earth" (III.v.73-76). It turns out, however, that Belmont is to the heavenly city as human life is to immortality. One "figures forth" the other in Jessica's imagination, but conflating the two--burdening an earthly state with expectations of heavenly bliss--can cause disappointment. The actual nature of Belmont is implied by Lorenzo's statement: "There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st/But in his motion like an angel sings, / Still quiring to the young-ey'd cherubins; / Such harmony is in immortal souls, / But whilst this muddy vesture of decay / Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it" (V.i.60-65). Lorenzo refers to both the music of the spheres and the corresponding music within the human soul. As longing for heavenly music is frustrated in this life, so Belmont falls short of the heavenly city. If full spiritual enjoyment is not possible, then Jessica's prediction is unlikely to be realized. Lorenzo's message is simply that the afterlife transcends expectations; nothing earthly can satisfy. The happy banter of Jessica and Lorenzo, itself problematic, is fleeting, for marriage, Belmont, and all of life are subject to the same potential for disappointment.

Surprisingly Lancelot expresses the proper qualification in his statement to Bassanio, though he may not realize it. "The old proverb is very well parted between my master Shylock and you, sir: you have the grace of God, sir, and he hath enough" (II.ii.149-51). Whatever jokes Lancelot may be making, the important point is what the original proverb conveys: "He that hath the grace of God hath enough." Disappointment results from an earthly outcome's ultimate insufficiency, its inability to live up to expectations. Even rejuvenation like Aeson's cannot change the inner man, alter the fact of eventual death or ensure eternal life. Everything earthly is doomed to death, which is why Morocco finds a skull in the golden casket. God's grace, however, is sufficient in itself and does not disappoint us: "They called vpon thee, and were deliuered: they trusted in thee, and were not confounded" (Psalm 22:5). Ultimately, the play points toward the need for the salvation Portia alludes to--"mercy ... above this sceptered sway" (IV.i.193). The problem with the love duet, then, is that, despite Jessica's conversion, the allusions are based not on Christian mercy but on thinking that predates the old law: revenge is justifiable (Medea), and suicide is an adequate response to loss (Pyramus, Thisbe, Dido, and perhaps Troilus). However humorous their banter may be and however hopeful their future may seem, Jessica and Lorenzo are still operating in a universe of disappointment and indirectly imply the need for grace and charity.

So instead of offering marriage as an end in itself, the playwright implies that no ending, however comedic, can be totally unproblematic, since harmony in this life and of the earth forever falls one step short of celestial harmony. It is true that the lovers have avoided tragedy, though they voice subtle reminders of its everpresent possibility. But no one can enjoy the goal with as much spirit as one pursues it because full enjoyment, Shakespeare suggests, abides only in the next life and in the realization of divine love. Otherwise, disappointment is the burden of mortality.



(1.)For commentary on V.i.1-24 see Auden 113-15, Baxter 74-77, Cosgrove 57ff., Gnerro 19-21, Hassel 69, Hill 85, and Leggatt 143.

(2.)Jessica actually refers not to Jason but to his father: "In such a night / Medea gathered the enchanted herbs / That did renew old Aeson" (V.i.13-15). The reference to Aeson and the argument for invoking Jason are examined below.


Auden, W.H. "Belmont and Venice." Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Merchant of Venice. Ed. Sylvan Barnet. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1970. 113-15.

Baxter, John S. "Present Mirth: Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies." Queen's Quarterly 72 (1965): 52-77.

Cosgrove, Mark F. "Biblical, Liturgical, and Classical Allusions in The Merchant of Venice." Diss. Univ. of Florida, 1970.

Gnerro, Mark L. "Easter Liturgy and the Love Duet in MV V, I," American Notes & Queries 18 (1979): 19-21.

The Geneva Bible. A facsimile of the 1560 edition. Madison: The U. of Wisconsin P, 1969.

Hassel, Chris R., Jr. "Antonio and the Ironic Festivity of The Merchant of Venice." Shakespeare Studies 6 (1970): 67-74.

Hill, R.F. "The Merchant of Venice and the Pattern of Romantic Comedy." Shakespeare Survey 28 (1975): 75-87.

Leggatt, Alexander. Shakespeare's Comedy of Love. London: Methuen, 1974.

Lewalski, Barbara K. "Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of Venice." Shakespeare Quarterly 13 (1962): 327-43.

Ovid. The Metamorphoses. Trans. Arthur Golding. Ed. J.M. Cohen. London: Centaur, 1961.

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice and Troilus and Cressida. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974: 250-85; 443-98.