Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

Salerio, Solanio, and "All the Boys in Venice"

Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

Salerio, Solanio, and "All the Boys in Venice"

Article excerpt


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. …

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