The Merchant of Venice: The Importance of the Letter

The Merchant of Venice: The Importance of the Letter

One of the most interesting passages in The Merchant of Venice is Antonio’s letter to Bassanio (III. iii. 314-320). A letter is such an awkward feature to represent on the stage, that the fact of a letter being read aloud in the course of a play is significant. And indeed, this letter captures many of the main features of the play’s conflicts. Antonio does not waste any time in communicating bad news, “my ships have all miscarried”(314) he writes, meaning he is broke, but he does not want to press this point too forcibly, as he probably fears that his wealth is the only cause of Bassanio’s friendship.

The use of the word miscarried is interesting, as it suggests aborted pregnancy as well as failed investments. It thus becomes a metaphor for what Antonio is unable to provide Bassanio with. Male bonding is fine, but it provides no sex (supposedly) and certainly no heirs. Antonio’s “creditors grow cruel”(315), this statement has a tinge of offended pride, as the wording suggests that it is unreasonable for creditors to demand their money.

As we are told earlier in the play. is is not Antonio’s way of running business (which may be why he has no money, but that is another matter altogether), to the contrary, it is the way of Shylock. His “estate is very low”(315), and well it may be, as he has lost all his money, but this “low” may also mean that he is depressed. The presence of the alien is subtly stated, but forcibly felt. “The Jew”(316) is the usual term for Shylock in this play, it even figures in the stage directions. The term is de-individualising and de-humanising.

It identifies Shylock by his race and at once invokes all the negative assosiasions that the mythical figure of “the Jew” held in Elisabethan society. Interestingly enough, the main point, the veritable cathastrophy is presented almost as good news to Bassanio. His debts are cleared through the fullfillment of Antonio’s bond to Shylock. That this fullfillment means that Antonio will die, he adds as an “unimportant” parentheses, as a byline to explain why their debts are cleared. So far Antonio has presented his situation very matter-of-factly, it may be desperate, but he is not the one to complain.

But then comes the “if”, and turns the whole into pure emotional blackmail. Antonio’s mishaps leads him to let Bassanio off the hook, but only if Bassanio shows up to see him die. It is a clever trap. Unless Bassanio has no conscience at all (a possibility not to be forgotten, perhaps, regarding how he acts in other matters) he has two rather dismal choices. He can turn up to watch his friend die for the sake of ennabling him to marry, or he can keep away and have it on his conscience forever. The “use your pleasure”(318-9) has a rather ironic tone to it.

As for the last line, read literally it is self-contradictory, Bassanio did not know there was any reason to come until he read the letter, so in that sense the letter must be the persuasive agent. Thus this letter touches all the main themes of the play. “The Jew” as the alien antagonist, the differing attitudes towards money and most especially the conflict of male bondage versus marriage. In the light of the last, it is notable that Antonio’s phrase “your love”(319) has a similar ambiguity to the “miscarriage” of the first line.

It is quite possible to substitute “your loved one”–Portia–for “your love”. In the event it is Portia who sends Bassanio to Antonio. Perhaps stretching the point somewhat: What the letter is then saying, unintentionally on Antonio’s side, is that Bassanio has got to the point where male friendship is not enough (“miscarriage”), and in order for him to break away Antonio must “die”. The friendship can from now on only continue by Portia’s consent–or persuasion (that Portia is the one to save Antonio’s life is not unimportant in this reading).

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