Salerio, Solanio, and “all the boys in Venice”

Mark Jones
Trinity Christian College

Mark Jones. 'Salerio, Solanio, and “all the boys in Venice”'. Early Modern Literary Studies 15.1 (2009-10) <URL:>.


  1. In the critical history of The Merchant of Venice, surprisingly little has been said concerning two of the play’s most visible characters, Salerio and Solanio.  Moreover, what has been said has generally been unenthusiastic.  To Norman Rabkin, for example, these Venetians are “negligible,” a judgment that begins to sound like a compliment when compared with Harley Granville-Baker’s earlier assessment of them as “the two worst bores in the whole Shakespearean canon; not excepting, even, those other twin brethren in nonentity, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.”  Leslie Fiedler echoes Granville-Baker, dismissing the two as an “indistinguishable pair of bores.”[1]

  2. The sentiment that these characters are negligible, indistinguishable, and boring may owe something to a textual problem designated by John Dover Wilson as “the muddle of the three Sallies.”[2]  Although Wilson argues convincingly that only two characters are intended, there are, in fact, three names distributed among the play’s various quartos, and scholars differ on the question of just how many “Sallies” we actually have.  Some modern versions of the play, most recently Jay Halio’s 1993 Oxford edition, retain a third character, the “Salarino” of the 1619 Quarto.  In the end, however, it does not especially matter whether we are dealing with two Sallies or three (indeed, the more the merrier).  Moreover, if the charge is nonentity, it should be noted that complexity of character is neither necessary nor desirable in every dramatic situation, a point that may be demonstrated by comparing The Merchant of Venice with its most immediate analogue, Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta.[3]  


  3. In The Jew of Malta, Marlowe creates a protagonist who, in speech as in action, is uncanny, but purposefully so, and disturbingly adept at improvisation.  Barabas is keenly alive to the language of the marketplace and is able to manipulate its finest nuances.  He is as much in his element when parodying the words of Jesus—“Now will I show myself to have more of the serpent than the dove; that is, more knave than fool” (2.3.36-37)—as when invoking “the blessings promised to the Jews” (1.1.104).  Within the world of the play, he proves as persuasive in the tropes of the confessional (4.1.58-62) as in the cadences of imported minstrelsy (4.4.30-71).  Yet this is only possible because, as Stephen Greenblatt has noted, “Barabas is inscribed at the center of the society of the play, a society whose speech is a tissue of aphorisms.”[4]  This is the Maltese lingua franca by which islanders perfunctorily conduct their business, quite unaware of the shaping capacity of idiom.

  4. Barabas alone has a vision for this kind of power, and it is a measure of the play’s success that the Jew’s linguistic finesse so easily entices an audience into silent complicity.  Twice in the play, Barabas falls back on a Spanish phrase:
    “Bien para todos mi ganada no es.”  (2.1.39)
    “Hermoso placer de los dineros.”  (2.1.64)
    Such recitations may hint at Sephardic heritage, and thus at something that is fixed and knowable about a Jew, but like so much of the language we encounter in Marlowe’s play, these expressions (as suggested by the modern editor’s use of quotation marks) bear a well-worn, proverbial texture.

  5. What we learn from the linguistic variety of The Jew of Malta, in short, is that alterity is so much theater.  Marlowe’s play draws attention to the fabricated nature of such categories as “Jewishness” by staging a highly stylised and self-conscious construction of ethnicity.  Centuries before Bertolt Brecht, we find Marlowe cynically displaying the machinery by which both ethnicity and religiosity are sustained, and it is likely, as J. L. Simmons suggests, that his death-defying Jewish protagonist exuberantly led the play’s original audiences “in undermining the moral pretences of the Establishment and in opening the gates to expose ‘unseen hypocrisie.’”[5]

  6. As resolutely subversive as is “the will to absolute play”[6] in The Jew of Malta, however, certain limits inhere within the conspiratorial method by which it pursues its work of cultural sabotage.  For by portraying ethnicity not as a signifier of irreducible difference, but as a facade that a skillful performer may adopt or relinquish as readily as “the artificial Jew of Malta’s nose,”[7] the play has a way of exorcising its own demons.  Indeed, its very theatricality is a mode of representation that healthily contests the “radical realism” of the discourse that pervades the island.[8]  By insisting dramatically that there are no monsters in Malta apart from the specters set in motion by Machiavellian “policy,” The Jew of Malta justly relocates an elaborate legacy of medieval superstition within a machinery of early modern power. 

  7. Yet this demystification comes at a cost.   It is far sighted, to be sure, to imagine a world in which the only truth-language is the language of the marketplace and in which Christians, Jews, and Turks alike “count religion but a childish toy” (Prologue 14).  Such a world picture is foreboding in its intimation of mercantile ascendancy; but, significantly, it allocates astonishingly little space to the sacred.  This is precisely the point: Marlowe’s Malta is a kind of utopia, an extrapolation projecting a thoroughly secular society in which fragments of lapsed truth-languages (Greenblatt’s “tissue of aphorisms”) circulate as worldly goods.  Yet it is crucial to bear in mind that this utopia, like Thomas More’s, is a “no-place.”  As such, although the play powerfully imagines a society that is unified by “The wind that bloweth all the world besides, / Desire of gold,” (3.5.3-4), this is not to say that it necessarily reflects such a society or that Marlowe’s England itself was just such a homogeneously irreligious mercantile realm. 

  8. What The Jew does, rather, is to isolate on the stage an intensely volatile element of the emergent culture that was well on its way to becoming dominant, but that was not yet dominant. So engaging, however, is the provisional world picture enacted in the play, and so vigorous its theatricality, that once the performance is underway, an audience is unlikely to care very much whether the protagonist or the scene of his diabolical schemes is based on a true story.  The play’s the thing, as it were, and its coherence as play requires that its audience temporarily ignore certain cultural strata that might otherwise complicate its totalising vision.  For two-hours traffick in Marlowe’s streamlined world, we must leave such encumbrances as love, pity, piety[9]—and, above all, romance—at the door of the Rose.

  9. When we come to The Merchant of Venice, however, we find ourselves in a different world, and in a different theatre. Whereas it serves the extrapolative design of The Jew of Malta to hypothesise a univocal society, the success—some would say the failure—of The Merchant depends upon its rejection of precisely this sort of social homogeneity as a coherent cultural system.  Of course, this is not to suggest that The Merchant refuses theatricality: it is at least as self-conscious in its stagecraft as The Jew.  But the dramatic self-referentiality of Shakespeare’s play is quite distinct from that of Marlowe’s. 

  10. In The Jew of Malta, Barabas’s production of his own ethnicity works to challenge inherited notions of difference by disclosing a world so united in cupidity that there is no way to distinguish among its Christians, Jews, Turks, courtesans, knights, and thieves: figuratively, if not literally, everyone in Malta stinks equally.[10]  Undeniably, The Merchant covers some of the same dramatic territory as its predecessor.  Indeed, such moments as Shylock’s affirmation that he bears the abuse of being called “dog” in the Rialto with “a patient shrug” (1.3.109-11) and the idea that he mentally equates his daughter and his ducats (2.8.12-24) so distinctly recall Barabas that the connection could scarcely have been lost on a playgoing public.[11]  Yet to conclude, on the basis of such similarities, that The Merchant is essentially an adaptation of some of the more deliciously subversive features of The Jew[12] is to minimise Shakespeare’s dynamic transformation of his source material.  Indeed, as M. M. Mahood avers, “Marlowe’s powerful and grotesque tragedy was so vivid in the memories of Shakespeare’s audience that it must have presented itself to him as a challenge rather than a source.”[13] 

  11. To contend dramatically with a controversial play by the late Christopher Marlowe would have presented numerous challenges.  I would submit, however, that Shakespeare’s most impressive achievement vis-à-vis The Jew of Malta is the way in which he augments the tensions of Marlowe’s already subversive world picture by reimagining them within a landscape much closer to home.  Graham Holderness acknowledges as much when he remarks, in reference to The Most Excellent Historie of the Merchant of Venice (the title given in the Quarto of 1600), that
    “Historie” here means something closer to our term “story” than to historiography and since the genre of the history play (very much a new form in the late sixteenth century) was more sharply defined than either tragedy or comedy, “history” here cannot mean what it meant when applied to Richard II or Henry V.  But it is at least possible that the inclusion here of “history,” meaning a story of a representative or exemplary kind, was used as an indication that the play was not entirely a fictional romance; that it contained disturbing, perhaps even potentially tragic, elements; and that it was designed to be read as in some way “true”—implying, that is, some form of mimetic relationship between its narrative and the historical conditions of sixteenth-century Europe, or even England.[14]
  12. Following a distinction that Ursula K. Le Guin draws between types of science fiction, we might say that the world of Marlowe’s play is chillingly extrapolative: “If this goes on, this is what will happen,” it suggests.[15]  Shakespeare’s Venice, by contrast, is essentially descriptive—or, to repeat Holderness’s phrase, mimetic.  As such, it is more nearly a metaphor for Elizabethan society than is Marlowe’s Malta, and in this respect, as we shall see, The Merchant is every bit as radical as The Jew.


  13. One way in which Shakespeare cultivates mimesis in The Merchant of Venice is by investing the play with a range of language varieties differing in privilege.  Thus a signifier of the “complexion” that precludes a suitor like Morocco from possessing the Lady of Belmont is his linguistic strangeness, which comes across not so much in a foreign accent as in a particular manner of self-expression  As Frank Whigham contends, Morocco is
    handicapped by his race, his lack of sophistication and his outmoded style.  The attribute of his style most relevant here is his lavish claims made for his own desert.  In the early days of Elizabethan drama the non-European setting and character, presented with extensive rhetorical ornament, gave the exotic an incantatory power over Elizabethan audiences.  In the courtly context, however, the imperialistic titanism is ill-adapted to purposes of wooing.[16]
    Similarly, Shylock is endowed with a distinctive and consistent manner of speech.  Indeed, while recognizing that on the Elizabethan stage his lines would not have been delivered in the East-European cadences that are typical of modern productions, we might still cautiously assert that the character speaks with a kind of accent.  Schlegel is one of the earliest critics to remark on this:
    It is easy for both poet and player to exhibit a caricature of national sentiments, modes of speaking, and gestures.  Shylock, however, is anything but a common Jew: he possesses strongly-marked and original individuality, and yet we perceive a light touch of Judaism in everything he says or does.  We almost fancy we can hear a light whisper of the Jewish accent even in the written words, such as we sometimes still find in the higher classes, notwithstanding their social refinement.  In tranquil moments, all that is foreign to the European blood and Christian sentiments is less perceptible, but in passion the national stamp comes out more strongly marked.[17]
    That there is an irreducibly Jewish quality to Shylock’s language per se is, of course, unsupportable.  What can be demonstrated, however, is that unlike Barabas, who is remarkable for his protean adaptability to a wide variety of speech communities, Shylock communicates his difference whenever he speaks.  This point has been made persuasively by Simon Palfrey and Tiffany Stern, who argue that Shylock’s idiolect, characterized by repetition and solipsistic wordplay, consistently mark him not merely as an outsider, but as one who “treasures a different measure of centrality, discursive and ideological, from the rule-makers.”[18]

  14. Indeed, so idiosyncratic is Shylock’s language that it is unmistakable even when he is not on stage, as is the case in the second act, where his words are parodied not only by Solanio, but also, reportedly, by all the boys in Venice:

    SOLANIO.  I never heard a passion so confus’d,
       So strange, outrageous, and so variable
       As the dog Jew did utter in the streets.
       “My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!
       Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!
       Justice! the law! my ducats, and my daughter!
       A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats,
       Of double ducats, stol’n from me by my daughter!
       And jewels, two stones, two rich and precious stones,
       Stol’n by my daughter!  Justice! find the girl,
       She hath the stones upon her, and the ducats.”
    SALERIO.  Why, all the boys in Venice follow him,
       Crying, his stones, his daughter, and his ducats.  (2.8.12-24)

  15. One might argue that by investing his Jew with speech habits that are at once strange and imitable, Shakespeare betrays a desire for fixity, a concept Homi Bhabha identifies as central to any discourse predicated upon alterity.[19]  And it is true that the passage quoted above, which derives its humor almost entirely from caricature, well illustrates what Bhabha calls fixity’s “major discursive strategy,” the stereotype, which he characterises as “a form of knowledge and identification that vacillates between what is always ‘in place,’ already known, and something that must be anxiously repeated . . . as if the essential duplicity of the Asiatic or the bestial sexual license of the African that needs no proof, can never really, in discourse, be proved.”[20]

  16. Yet despite the rehearsal of difference that is undoubtedly at work in this scene, there is something else here as well.  For if, by persistently marking Shylock’s language as strange, The Merchant participates in a broader social project of “fixing” the Jewish other, at the same time it objectifies the everyday strategy by which such fixity is produced.  Critics sometimes wonderingly remark that Shylock himself appears in a relatively small number of the play’s scenes.[21]  So commanding is his character, suggests John Gross, that we feel that we have spent more time with him than this.  “How well we get to know him!” he exclaims:
    He is present in only five of the play’s twenty scenes, and for the purpose of the plot, it would have been enough for him to be mean and vengeful—which he is.  But he is also remarkable for pride, energy, quickness in argument.  He has an abrasive sense of humor and a large capacity for being hurt. Character means more than a list of attributes, however.  It means a distinctive aura, a unique flavor.  As G. K. Chesterton once said, we can talk for hours about a person’s identity, and still jump on hearing his voice.  With Shylock, we can hear the voice.[22] 
  17. Gross rightly posits a connection between Shylock’s commanding presence and his uniquely powerful voice.  I would suggest, however, that a related, and crucial, reason we seem to know Shylock better than we ought is that throughout the play we are made to experience not only his difference but also the construction of his difference.  In the scene cited above, for example, we may recognise the distinctive accents of Shylock’s voice, but we do not hear them directly; what we hear instead is the earnest work of impersonation by which the Jew’s difference is held in place.

  18. To be precise, however, what holds the Jew’s difference in place throughout the play is not so much a work of impersonation as one that we might call “de-personation.”  By mimicking Shylock’s voice, Salerio, Solanio, and, it is important to repeat, “all the boys in Venice” are merely tending to the necessary, street-level business of keeping the alien at a distance.  This is among the most urgent of the play’s concerns, and we see it at work in Venice and Belmont alike.  In both settings, moreover, questions about what it means to be different lie very close to questions about what it means to be human.  To insist that there is something essentially different about Shylock—or, in Belmont, about Morocco—is to suggest, however subtly, that these men are not really men at all.  They appear human, to be sure, and Morocco and Shylock argue from similar evidence that their humanity is more than skin deep:

    MOROCCO.  Bring me the fairest creature northward born,
       Where Phoebus’ fire scarce thaws the icicles,
       And let us make incision for your love,
       To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine.  (2.1.4-7) 

    SHYLOCK.  If you prick us, do we not bleed? (3.1.64)

  19. But for this reason, all the more vigilance is called for when it comes to enforcing the boundaries of difference.  Indeed, it is precisely because Jews and Moors bleed when you prick them (and, perhaps more to the point, because they most humanly crave revenge when wronged) that their difference is rehearsed so relentlessly.  It is, after all, an easy matter for a Christian to justify calling a Jew “dog” and spitting upon his gabardine (1.3.130-31) if it is understood that the object of his aggression, if not literally a dog, is at least more bestial than human. 

  20. In fact, in Elizabethan England, this way of thinking was implicit in laws that had been on the books for three centuries and which, James Shapiro writes, “condemned to death Christians who had sex with Jews (and link[ed] this activity to the comparable crimes of sodomy and bestiality).”[23]  This legal backdrop may help to explain why Shylock is so frequently referred to as a “dog” or “cur.”[24]  Gratiano is not merely being rhetorical when he rails at the Jew in the courtroom:

      Thy currish spirit
    Govern’d a wolf, who hang’d for human slaughter,
    Even from the gallows did his fell soul fleet,
    And whilst thou layest in thy unhallowed dam,
    Infus’d itself in thee; for thy desires
    Are wolvish, bloody, starv’d, and ravenous.  (4.1.133-38)

  21. Nor is Salerio speaking only figuratively when he asserts that he has never known “creature that did bear the shape of man / So keen and greedy to confound a man” (3.2.274-76), a sentiment that is echoed in the very next scene, when Solanio remarks of Shylock: “It is the most impenetrable cur / That ever kept with men” (3.3.18-19).

  22. A great deal of this work of estrangement is, in fact, carried out in the streets of Venice by those “twin brethren in nonentity,” Salerio and Solanio.  And “nonentity” is precisely what makes these characters such effective agents of ideological dissemination, for it is their social anonymity that enhances their capacity for this kind of work.  Far subtler than a decree handed down from above, Salerio, Solanio—all the boys in Venice—transparently enforce the social boundaries between what is Venetian and what is other, and in a manner that recalls Louis Althusser’s depiction of the interpellative function of Ideological State Apparatuses:
    [I]deology “acts” or “functions” in such a way that it “recruits” subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or “transforms” the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: “Hey, you there!” Assuming that the theoretical scene I have imagined takes place in the street, the hailed individual will turn round.  By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject.  Why?  Because he has recognized that the hail was “really” addressed to him, and that “it was really him who was hailed” (and not someone else).[25]
    As we shall see, there is quite a lot of Althusserian-style interpellation in The Merchant of Venice.


  23. It should first be noted, however, that the hailing function in the play is not the exclusive privilege of the Sallies and the boys.  Sometimes the work is openly carried out by the Venetian state itself.   In the courtroom, for example, when the Duke enjoins Shylock to act like a Christian, he does so by way of a pun that hails Shylock as an other: “We all expect a gentle answer, Jew” (4.1.34).  Similarly, even though Portia may gesture toward inclusivity by using the first person plural in her “quality of mercy” speech, she too enforces the idea of Shylock’s essential difference by using the generic ethnic marker, “Jew,” and by invoking the Lord’s Prayer as part of her argument, a move that Shylock can hardly be expected to find persuasive:
  24. Therefore, Jew,
    Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
    That in the course of justice, none of us
    Should see salvation.  We do pray for mercy,
    And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
    The deeds of mercy.  (4.1.197-202)
    Of course, the ultimate act of hailing comes just as Shylock is forced to dismiss his claims, not only on Antonio’s flesh, but also his principal of 3,000 ducats.  At just that moment, Portia produces the obscure law providing that
    If it be proved against an alien,
    That by direct or indirect attempts
    He seek the life of any citizen,
    The party ’gainst the which he doth contrive
    Shall seize one half his goods; the other half
    Comes to the privy coffer of the state,
    And the offender’s life lies in the mercy
    Of the Duke only, ’gainst all other voice. . . . .  (4.1.349-56)
    This law, produced, as it were, out of Portia’s scholar’s hood, officially and unambiguously designates Shylock as other even as it makes clear that power ultimately resides with the Duke and Magnificos of Venice.  It has never been otherwise.

  25. Yet it is important to note that such bold demonstrations of repressive state power are not always explicitly available to the Venetian civil authorities.  Indeed, Shylock’s earlier charge in open court—
    I have possess’d your Grace of what I purpose,
    And by our holy Sabaoth have I sworn
    To have the due and forfeit of my bond.
    If you deny it, let the danger light
    Upon your charter and your city’s freedom!  (4.1.35-39)
    —has some basis, if not in historical fact, then at least in reputation.  As James S. Grubb reports, Venice in the sixteenth century enjoyed a longstanding reputation as “a unified and civic-minded patriciate [. . .]; a republic of wisdom and benevolence, provider of fair justice and a high degree of toleration.[26]  David C. McPherson further observes that “[t]he greatest fame Venetian justice enjoyed was for its supposed impartiality, even toward the lower classes and outsiders.”[27]

  26. The Venetian court is a function of what Althusser terms “the Repressive State Apparatus,” specifying that the word repressive “suggests that the State Apparatus in question ‘functions by violence’—at least ultimately (since repression, e.g. administrative repression, may take non-physical forms).”[28]  Here, of course, the conditions are unambiguously physical, a fact that is poignantly emphasised by the presence of the scales and knife on stage.  Undeniably, the scenario is exaggerated: even granting its widespread reputation for impartiality, it is hard to imagine a Venice in which a trial scene like this could have taken place.  Gross is quick to concede this point, writing that “no one, even allowing for theatrical artifice, could possibly argue a courtroom case in such terms.”[29]  But he also meaningfully remarks that “[l]aw makes good theater [ . . .] when it is heightened, simplified, speeded up, bent to the dramatist’s purpose.”[30] 

  27. What is thus emphasised in the trial scene is that the Duke and Magnificos of Venice have their hands tied.  Because they stand for “Venice the just,”[31] they are constrained, at least publicly, to grant Shylock the same legal recourse that would be available to any other denizen of the city.  Consistent with this mandate, the Duke, who most visibly represents the republic, addresses Shylock with considerable civility at the beginning of the trial scene:
    Shylock, the world thinks, and I think so too,
    That thou but leadest this fashion of thy malice
    To the last hour of act, and then ’tis thought
    Thou’lt show thy mercy and remorse more strange
    Than is thy strange apparent cruelty;
    And where thou now exacts the penalty
    Which is a pound of this poor merchant’s flesh,
    Thou wilt not only loose the forfeiture,
    But touch’d with humane gentleness and love,
    Forgive a moi’ty of the principal [ . . . ].  (4.1.17-26)
    The official tack, then, is to preserve the fiction that in the eyes of the state a Jew is as human as any Venetian Christian.  Of course, it is precisely this putative equality that has entitled Shylock to pursue his revenge in the first place; but here it serves the Duke as an argument for mercy.  Implicitly, since “the world,” as represented by the Venetian state, has always treated Shylock humanely—since, indeed, it is doing so even now by granting him his day in court—it may reasonably expect him to reciprocate.  This is a long shot, but the best the Duke can do: because the court is a highly visible repository of repressive power, he cannot afford to make exceptions by fiat.  The very “myth of Venice” as a model of civic justice hangs in the balance of Shylock’s scales.  It is true that the Duke affirms his right to dismiss the court (4.1.104), but to halt the machinery by which justice is dispensed—even if the violence by which it is underwritten should be directed against an amiable Christian merchant—would be to expose a contradiction at the core of the repressive state apparatus. 

  28. Shylock banks on this: more than an act of revenge against an individual Christian, his demand for satisfaction constitutes a challenge to the integrity of the Venetian state.  More than this, even, it forces an issue that we have heard him voice before, on the city streets:
    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, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same summer and winter as a Christian is?  If you prick us, do we not bleed?  If you tickle us, do we not laugh?  If you poison us, do we not die?  And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?  If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.  (3.1.58-68)
    The courtroom scene is the play’s ultimate staging ground for these questions.  By insisting upon his bond, Shylock also spectacularly insists that the Duke and his Magnificos commit themselves to a response.  He demands, in short, whether a Jew living in Venice is to be considered as fully human as any other Venetian.  And by admitting his suit, however reluctantly, the Duke, on behalf of the state, issues the official answer: yes.


  29. Shakespeare’s Venice, however, is not maintained solely by such official answers; indeed, it is of vital interest to the Venetian state that unofficial answers be available as well.  Of Portia’s virtuosic legal performance, Shapiro writes that “hostility is reimagined as originating with the aliens and directed against the citizenry and is enacted in a way that does not contradict the more tolerant laws governing the freedom of the city that guarantee equality before the law to strangers.”[32]  Yet this work of “reimagining” is not set in motion for the first time when Portia enters the sanctioned space of the courtroom.  It begins much earlier than this and is sustained throughout the play, most notably in those scenes where the Venetian streets are represented. 

  30. These spaces, being less formal and more communal than those in the play that are presided over by state officials and dead fathers, would appear a step closer to the play’s audience.  Less like a courtroom, and more like the Elizabethan theater itself, the Venetian street allows for a kind of imagining that is ostensibly fluid, natural, and independent of the state’s repressive power.  Ultimately, however, the word on the street is neither autonomous, nor is it necessarily at odds with the pronouncements of the courtroom.  Rather, despite superficial contradictions, these two modes of discourse are complementary: what the state may find difficult to maintain officially in the context of its repressive institutions is given over to social configurations that are governed more by ideology than by the implicit threat of violence.

  31. Among such configurations are the casual gatherings of gentlemen and merchants in the Rialto and on the surrounding streets.   So casual are these, so natural to all appearances, that their relation to the state is elusive—yet this is precisely what makes them so very effective.  Because conversations taken up in the marketplace or on the street are by nature spontaneous, it may not immediately occur to us that they belong to an ideological state apparatus, but they most certainly do.  To be specific, they are a function of what Althusser would term “the communications ISA,”[33] and as such, they answer to the will of the ruling class—which is to say, of the state.  As Althusser goes on to explain:
    Given the fact that the “ruling class” in principle holds State power (openly or more often by means of alliances between classes or class fractions [sic]), and therefore has at its disposal the (Repressive) State Apparatus, we can accept the fact that this same ruling class is active in the Ideological State Apparatuses in so far as it is ultimately the ruling ideology which is realized in the Ideological State Apparatuses, precisely in its contradictions.[34]
    By situating its audience variously beneath the formality of the Venetian judicial system and within the swirl of the city streets, The Merchant is able to convey both the superficial contradictions that exist between repressive and ideological state apparatuses and the congruity of purpose that often underlies them.  In the process, we come to know state power as something that is subtly and effectively distributed across a range of voices, both official and “alternative.”  Yet I would assert that as we experience the play in performance, we are especially susceptible to the shaping power of ideology as it is disseminated by Salerio and Solanio.

  32. It is noteworthy that these characters appear in nearly twice as many scenes as does Shylock.[35]  Indeed, when we are in Venice, it seems that they are always at our elbow.  It is they who teach us how to get along in the city, introducing us very early in the play to its characteristic obsessions.  Here, to take just one example, is Salerio explaining how hard it is to enjoy a simple cup of soup in this place of merchants and ventures: “My wind cooling my broth / Would blow me to an ague when I thought / What harm a wind too great might do at sea” (1.1.23-25).  In fact, our experience of Venice is so thoroughly mediated by Salerio and Solanio that it would be fair to say that the city, as we know it, cannot exist without them.  Far from being negligible, they play an invaluable role in managing the action of the play and shaping the audience’s response to its characters and events.  Indeed, in this respect, they anticipate even that extraordinary player, the Chorus, who commands the gaze of Shakespeare’s audience throughout Henry V

  33. But they are most commanding within the world of the play, where they perpetuate a kind of mimicry whereby the purportedly irreducible difference of the Jew comes to be registered in a parody of his language.  This is a feat that, for all their dignity and power, the Venetian Magnificos themselves cannot realise—at least not until Portia arrives on the scene.  In a republic renowned for its fair treatment of strangers, it ultimately falls to Salerio, Solanio, and the boys of Venice to police the boundaries between self and other, to enforce the alterity of the alien. 

[1] Norman Rabkin, “Meaning and Shakespeare,” Shakespeare 1971: Proceedings of the World Shakespeare Congress, ed. Clifford Leech and J. M. R. Morgan (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1972) 90; Harley Granville-Baker, Prefaces to Shakespeare, vol. 1 (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1947) 345; Leslie Fiedler, The Stranger in Shakespeare (New York: Stein, 1972) 90.

[2] John Dover Wilson, ed., The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1926) 100.

[3] Quotations from The Merchant of Venice are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, et al., 2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton, 1997) 284-319; quotations from The Jew of Malta are from the Revels edition, ed. N. W. Bawcutt (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1978).  These plays are cited parenthetically throughout.

[4] Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984) 207.

[5] J. L. Simmons, “Elizabethan Stage Practice and Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta,” Renaissance Drama ns 4 (1971): 104.

[6] “The will to play flaunts society’s cherished orthodoxies, embraces what the culture finds loathsome or frightening, transforms the serious into the joke and then unsettles the category of the joke by taking it seriously, courts self-destruction in the interest of the anarchic discharge of its energy.  This,” writes Greenblatt, “is play on the brink of an abyss, absolute play” (220).

[7] The phrase derives from Rowley’s 1609 play, A Search for Money: or, The Lamentable Complaint for the Loss of the Wandering Knight, Monsieur l’Argent, ed. J. Payne Collier (London: Percy Society, 1840) 19.

[8] On the “radical realism” of the stereotype, see Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage-Random, 1979) 72.

[9] For, as Abigail poignantly avers, “there is no love on earth, / Pity in Jews, nor piety in Turks” (3.3.50-51).

[10] On the foetor judaicus in The Jew of Malta, see James Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews (New York: Columbia UP, 1996) 36-37.  Marlowe ingeniously democratizes this myth by having Barabas smell out the two grasping friars before they arrive to blackmail him (4.1.21-23). 

[11] Cf. Marlowe 2.3.23-25; 2.1.47-54.

[12] This view is represented in Thomas Cartelli, “Shakespeare’s Merchant, Marlowe’s Jew: The Problem of Cultural Difference,” Shakespeare Studies 10 (1988): 255-60.

[13] M. M. Mahood, introduction, The Merchant of Venice (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987) 8.

[14] Graham Holderness, The Merchant of Venice, Penguin Crit. Stud. London: Penguin, 1993.  xi-xii. 

[15] Ursula K. Le Guin, introduction, The Left Hand of Darkness (New York: Ace, 1969) xi.

[16] Frank Whigham, “Ideology and Class Conduct in The Merchant of Venice,” Renaissance Drama ns 10 (1979): 98-99.

[17] August Wilhelm von Schlegel, Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, trans. John Black (London: Bohn, 1846) 388.

[18] Simon Palfrey and Tiffany Stern, Shakespeare in Parts (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007) 195.

[19] Homi Bhabha, “The Other Question: Stereotype, Discrimination and the Discourse of Colonialism,”  The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994) 66.

[20] Bhabha 66.

[21] Mahood, for example, observes that “Shylock, for all his dramatic prominence, does not have a long part and makes only five appearances” (43). 

[22] John Gross,  Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy (New York: Simon, 1992) 64.

[23] Shapiro 132.

[24] Cf. 1.3.111-29, 2.8.14, 3.3.6-7, and 4.1.128-38.

[25] Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation),” [trans. Ben Brewster], rpt. Slavoj Žižek, ed., Mapping Ideology (London: Verso, 1994) 130-31.

[26] James S. Grubb, “When Myths Lose Power: Four Decades of Venetian Historiography,” Journal of Modern History 58 (1956): 43-44. 

[27] David C. McPherson, Shakespeare, Jonson, and the Myth of Venice (Newark: U of Delaware P, 1990) 36.

[28] Althusser 110.

[29] Gross 83.

 [30] Gross 78.

[31] The phrase is from McPherson, who describes four strands of the early modern “Myth of Venice”: “Venice the rich,” “Venice the wise,” “Venice the just,” and “Venezia-città-galante” (27-48).

[32] Shapiro 189.

[33] Althusser 111.

[34] Althusser 112.

[35] They appear together in 1.1, 2.4, 2.7, 3.1, and arguably in 4.1 as well, though Salerio is the only one who speaks in the courtroom scene.  Salerio appears alone in 2.6 and 3.2, as does Solanio in 3.3.


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