Questions of Value in The Merchant of Venice

The valuation of property and people – particularly women – in Shakespeare’s Venice reflects contemporary anxieties nearer home, suggests Farah Karim-Cooper.

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.

Friendship album of Moyses Walens

Friendship album of Moyses Walens

A man weighs up the value of love and the worth of a rich woman; from the friendship album of Moyses Walens, 1605–15.

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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’ (1.1.175), ‘value’ (4.1.434), ‘debt’ (3.2.307). This highlights for us the fact that marriage was a contract, a negotiation underpinned by property and money

Jewish marriage-ring

Jewish marriage-ring

Elaborate Jewish marriage-ring, possibly from Venice. Rings are exchanged repeatedly in The Merchant of Venice, reinforcing the connection between women and value.

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Copyright: © The British Museum

Venice: virgin or whore?

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.

Friendship album of Moyses Walens

Friendship album of Moyses Walens

A blindfolded man is led into a bedroom by a courtesan, from Moyses Walen’s friendship album, 1605–15.

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Luxury and materialism

As such, Venice was a symbol of luxury in Shakespeare’s London. Its geographical position made it an intermediary between 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 ministred unto me more variety of remarkable and delicious objects then mine eyes ever surveyed in any city before’.

Description of the Jewish Ghetto and the courtesans of Venice in Coryate's Crudities, 1611

Description of the Jewish Ghetto and the courtesans of Venice in Coryate's Crudities, 1611

A man is entertained by a Venetian courtesan, from Coryate’s Crudities (1611). Thomas Coryate describes Venice as a glorious ‘Virgin’, but also includes a long section on the city’s famous prostitutes.

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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 the Venetian Curtizans of 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 and converseth 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’.

Discussion of Venice and London in Florio's Italian language manual

Discussion of Venice and London in Italian-English language manual

John Florio’s Firste Fruites (1578) describes the many foreign traders in London, but worries that ‘Money ruleth al things’.

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Wives, daughters, jewels

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.

Lift-the-flap picture of a gondola in the friendship album of Erckenprecht Koler

Lift-the-flap picture of a gondola in the Friendship Album of Erckenprecht Koler

A romantic scene on a gondola, from the friendship album of Erckenprecht Koler, 1588. It might remind us of Lorenzo and Jessica who flee from Shylock in a gondola.

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Hierarchies in flux

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 (or miniature 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 placed side-by-side deliberately. 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 upon the caskets. And once Bassanio wins the trial, we realise 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 (5.1.199–202)

Golden casket from Venice

Golden casket from Venice

A bronze-gilt casket, made in 16th-century Venice.

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Copyright: © Victoria and Albert Museum

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.

This article first appeared in Around the Globe, the membership magazine for Shakespeare's Globe.

The contributor has asked for the following credit: Farah Karim-Cooper (Shakespeare's Globe).

  • Farah Karim-Cooper
  • Farah Karim-Cooper is Head of Higher Education & Research at Shakespeare’s Globe and co-convenes the MA in Shakespeare Studies in collaboration with King's College London. Some of her publications include Cosmetics in Shakespearean and Renaissance Drama, Edinburgh University Press (2006); Shakespeare's Globe: A Theatrical Experiment, Cambridge University Press (2008) co-edited with Christie Carson; Shakespeare's Theatres and the Effects of Performance, Arden (2012) co-edited with Tiffany Stern and The Hand on the Shakespearean Stage: Gesture, Touch and the Spectacle of Dismemberment, Arden (2016)

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

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