"A Carrion Death": The Theme of the Gold Casket in the Merchant of Venice

Article excerpt

Portia: "I had rather be married to a death's-head with a bone in his mouth" (1.2.49-50).

Critics in recent years, from James Shapiro in Shakespeare and the Jews and Janet Adelman in Blood Relations to Stephen Greenblatt in the popular biography Will in the World, have continued to focus, and with provocative results, on the centrality of Shylock and the suffering that he bears as a Jew, a usurer, a scapegoat, an outsider and an alien forced by the bad faith of his persecutors to convert and to proclaim himself content. (1) Even prior to the Holocaust, especially on the stage, Shylock dominated critical and popular discourse, whether portrayed as devil or victim. Harold Bloom's popular book on Shakespeare and the invention of the human has encouraged us to return to the criticism of literary characters and to imagine them as prescriptive paradigms of real human behavior. (2) But I will have little to say about Shylock as a character--whether he is a villain or a figure of pathos. The purpose of this essay is to ground itself in the impersonal, the non-characterological, by exploring a pattern of imagery in the play, especially the dominant motif of gold. Gold coin, ducats, is the currency that moves not only the economy of Venice but also motivates the three suitors' pursuit of the fabulously wealthy Portia. But there is more to gold than its use or exchange value, for it is steeped as well in a literary and moralizing tradition, a tradition of interpretation and allusion, which entails a proverbial rhetoric along the lines of "All that glisters is not gold" (2.7.65). (3) This allegorical mode seeks openly to dismiss gold while secretly cherishing and hoarding it as the value of all values. Gold holds forth the lure of fortunate prospects, prospects ultimately betrayed by death, castration, the severing of the futurity of love.

Shakespeare's play contradicts itself so often in its attitude towards gold as to challenge the possibility of coherent interpretation. (4) Anticipating the first casket scene, Portia speaks the lines that I take as my epigraph, indicating that eating dead flesh would be preferable to marrying either the Neapolitan prince or the County Palatine--a sentiment relevant for elucidating, even as it complicates, the relationship between gold and death. Portia cannot know at this early stage in the drama that the gold casket will indeed contain a skull of "carrion Death" and that her father's will will accord with hers in rejecting Morocco and the gold casket containing the skull. Portia's father wills her not to marry any suitor greedy for gold since such desire is implicated in necrophilia: the suitor wants his wife dead so that he can appropriate her ducats. The suspicion that love is linked to an undercurrent of avarice and necrophilia will arise with respect to all of the suitors, including Bassanio.

The symbolic association of gold with death is not Shakespeare's innovation but lies in his ancient source story of the three caskets in the Gesta Romanorum, in which the gold casket, full of "dead mens bones," is "engraven with this posey, Who so chooseth mee shall finde that he deserueth," while the silver casket is "fylled with earth and wormes" and given the moralizing superscription, "Who so chooseth me shall finde that his nature desireth." (5) Death is what man deserves and what he desires, it seems, the latent consequences of his pursuit of wealth, perhaps even his latent motive as well--he deserves death, he desires death. The connection between gold and death is so deeply rooted in the depths of time and of literary history as to qualify as primal--in other words, untraceable, not available to the conscious mind. Does gold carry the valence of death because too often people kill others and then are themselves killed in their obsessive-demonic pursuit of it, as in a tale by Kipling or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre? The goal of boundless wealth may be as much an exercise in futility as the dreams of alchemists, or so Thomas More implies in Utopia. …