Joan Ozark Holmer. The Merchant of Venice: Choice, Hazard and Consequence. New York: St. Martin's P, 1995. xxii+369pp. ISBN 0 312 12411 2 Cloth.
Bryan N.S. Gooch
University of Victoria

Gooch, Bryan N.S. "Review of The Merchant of Venice: Choice, Hazard and Consequence." Early Modern Literary Studies 3.2 (September, 1997): 8.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/03-2/rev_goo4.html>.

  1. Joan Ozark Holmer in The Merchant of Venice: Choice, Hazard and Consequence offers a number of useful lessons about a play which has suffered overmuch from misinterpretation or misreading as a result of the application of current sensibilities regarding racial issues. Indeed, careless -- or deliberate -- application of a set of values, however virtuous, to an artwork of another period, conceived with a different set of precepts laudable and comprehensible in that day, may be instructive in one way (as we point with pride to our apparently unassailable modern mores), but tends to lead to a series of dangers, not the least of which is the exclusion of the work in question from our list of comfortably acceptable cultural ornaments. Such seems the present fate of Shakespeare's Merchant in some quarters, and Holmer's book is a welcome response to the problem: she argues convincingly that the issues concerning Shylock have to do with religion and character, not race (here she is at one with John Russell Brown, Kenneth Myrick, et al.) and that the play, far from offering a double focus (split between Venice and Belmont, strife and love, materialism and idealism), demonstrates a striking artistic and thematic unity which is supported in terms of characters, action, image, and language (Holmer notes particularly, for instance, the verbal congruity of the trial scene).

  2. The overall arrangement of the volume appears to be straightforward. Following the front matter are six chapters concentrating on 1) the historical background, 2) "structure and language," 3) "friends and lovers," 4) Antonio and Shylock, 5) the trial, and 6) "union and reunion." Extensive and helpful notes to each chapter are grouped together after the text and are followed by a bibliography and an index. However, the very real coherence of the play produces a potential problem for a critic who attempts to discuss it in detail and who brings to bear such a well-grounded, thoughtful approach as Holmer demonstrates: it is not merely difficult, but demonstrably impossible, to separate the historical issues (e.g., politics, theology and law -- including usury, here seen as involving gain without risk, given a bond of security), thematic concerns, characters, and so on into more or less tight compartments, or to avoid, in a discussion of even more significant scenes, the necessity of throwing out lines of connection to other scenes. The result is that there is more than one discussion of usury, of Shylock (and also his relationship to Antonio), and of the necessity of choosing correctly and risk-taking ("hazard"), for instance. The reader may well have, at times, a certain sense of déjà vu, and even a cursory glance at the index will demonstrate the problem. Ironically, though, the repetition which surfaces as one works through this superbly detailed text goes to support Holmer's contention of the play's unity and offers a nice rebuttal to those who would contend that Shakespeare only came into his own in this respect in the magisterial tragedies of the 1600s. A less considered treatment of, say, background material, and a more superficial discussion of major scenes (not that every one is treated with relatively equal detail here), would also have been fraught with difficulty -- without providing much substance. What supports Holmer's arguments, and sustains a reader's patience, is her level of scholarship (including criticism), her extensive knowledge, for instance, of biblical names, genealogy, and allusions, her explanation of iconographical elements, her sense of the play's theological, social, and political context, and her willingness to run her own organisational risks. This is clearly a book by someone who has not only marshalled a great deal of relevant detail but who has thought about it with care and concern, and particular rewards are to be gained by readers willing to go back, after a first reading, to reconsider individual sections -- to ponder the arguments about the casket or trial scenes, for example -- or to use the index in order to link the discussions of usury. It is a book not to be read and put down but to be worked with -- a companion, in the best sense, to one's own ruminations about the play. It will also be useful to actors and directors as well as scholars of drama and theatre history. To "hiss the mystery lesson," if one might think of Lewis Carroll, is to miss the point. And, to fail to understand how Shakespeare's age would have seen the play and its issues is, ultimately, to lose sight of the work. As Holmer argues, the casket scene with its emphasis on risks, on correct choice, is central to the play and criticism also needs to get beyond appearances. Holmer's work does just that.

  3. Merchant emerges, if this book is given due attention, as a far less troubling and far more exciting dramatic/literary tapestry than some modern approaches might allow. Venice and Belmont are clearly linked, both in terms of theme (parent/child relationships, vows, choices, risks, money, gifts, exchanges, bonds, and friendship) and character (Bassanio, Lorenzo, Jessica, and Gratiano, for instance); Shylock is as present in the mind when he is off-stage as when he is in front of the audience; the struggle between Antonio (who is not perfectly virtuous and not, according to Holmer, anti-Jewish) and Shylock is a central threat (and both characters are punished in the end, with half a fortune and half the argosies). And if the play ends in Belmont (with Lorenzo and Jessica, with stars above and the sound of music, and with the spirited, jesting, forgiving inquisition about the rings-gifts/bonds), the beginning of the end occurs in Venice, with an emphasis on right judgment and redemption. (Requiring Shylock because he broke Venetian law to become a Christian, Holmer asserts, was, for the Elizabethans, to save his soul, not to impose a cruel, apparently racist penalty.) In the end, as so often, Shakespeare argues for balance, and even at the mid-point of his career he was prepared, at the close of a comedy, to present the notion of redemption which he would take up again so markedly in the romances, especially in The Tempest and A Winter's Tale. As Prospero remarks: "Though with their high wrongs I am strook to th' quick, / Yet, with my nobler reason, 'gainst my fury / Do I take part. The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance(V.i.25-28)." And, to draw attention to dislocation in the play because of all the contrasts which reverberate through its scenes (again, Venice and Belmont, revenge and mercy, hate and love, etc.) is to miss the point as well, for as Geoffrey Tillotson has observed (in discussing Pope's couplets), linkage is inherent in contrast. And when did Shakespeare ever miss an instructive opportunity in that regard, or an opportunity to argue for a perceptiveness which would distinguish between the appearance and the reality, between the outer and the inner (here, in his pursuit of vengeance, Shylock fails), between the flesh and the blood/spirit? Holmer clearly puts Shylock between the Barabas of Marlowe and the Gerontus of Wilson (191) and so further defines the problem of coming to terms with his character: extremes are always easier to describe and to categorize. Clearly, one of the play's features is its emphasis, certainly in terms of the central figures, on humanity, and that is true for Shylock as for the others: he is not without sympathetic attraction.

  4. If the organisational dilemma which this book confronts and demonstrates is without a neat solution, another difficulty remains -- at least for this reader. That is Holmer's adherence to Q2's inclusion of Salerino with Solanio and Salerio. John Dover Wilson long ago suggested, as John Russell Brown and others also point out, that the name Salerino was the result of scribal or compositorial error and that given textual evidence, Salerino and Salerio are one and the same -- a view rather upheld in recent years. To be blunt, the revivification of Salerino (perhaps a good name for an aberrant member of the flute family of instruments) seems as unusual as it is unhelpful.

  5. That said, this is still a fine book, written by a thoughtful scholar who appears to enjoy and value the play. As noted, this is a volume for study and reflection, and Holmer's insistence that we will mistake or mishandle Merchant if we do not thoroughly understand its context is one that critics and audiences would do well to remember when coming to terms with other works in the canon as well.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

© 1997-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(JD, PB, LH, RGS, 15 September 1997)