Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Nerissa’s Wisdom: The Key to Understanding the Merchant of Venice

By M.D. Amesse

Author's Note: I wrote the following for a class I took on Shakespeare. Since it deals with Divine Providence, I thought it might work for a Durendal post. Since it was for an American university, it was written according to MLA rules and not in our normal format. I am not sure if a spoiler warning is necessary on a four hundred year old play, but if it is, considered yourself warned.

There are at least three major themes in The Merchant of Venice (MV): the evil of usury, the value and necessity of friendship, and the working of Divine Providence. While the first two are obvious, the third is easily overlooked without the key Nerissa provides. She is not a superfluous character; she is necessary to peer into and unravel Shakespeare’s tightly woven plot and theme, which may, at first, appear to be governed by extraordinary happenstance. These three themes are incredibly intertwined. In MV the fate of Shylock, unbeknownst to him, is tied to the reason why Bassanio wants the loan from him (MV.I.i.161-176). The usurer does not see his fate and fortune is tied to what Divine Providence has decreed, and we only see it because of Nerissa. Make no mistake; Shakespeare would not have seen the world as governed merely by material forces. We will find fate, fortune, and the celestial bodies in the heavens, but above all of this there was Divine Providence governing it all (Tillyard). For this reason, there was little place in his world for chance. The workings of Divine Providence are most convincingly illustrated, and, furthermore, it is necessary that we perceive its workings or horribly misunderstand certain the key themes in the play—this is the key Nerissa provides.

When we are first introduced to Nerissa and her mistress, the wealthy heiress Portia, we find Portia in a dilemma (MV.I.ii). She is constrained to marry the first suitor that is able to figure out the riddle, devised by her late father, and choose the correct casket with her portrait in it (MV.I.ii.21-25). Up to this point, she has been presented with ghastly suitors, and she has little hope that the scheme devised by her father will produce a proper match (MV.I.ii.36-91). From the materialist’s point of view, this test is a ludicrous gamble, and she is right to lament her inability to choose for herself: there is no reason to believe that anything other than chance rules her destiny. Nerissa, despite the affection she seems to have for her mistress, does not seem troubled. The maid has placed her trust in Divine Providence, and she calls on Portia to do the same. She councils her in these words:

Your father was ever virtuous; and holy men at their
death have good inspirations: therefore the lottery,
that he hath devised in these three chests of gold,
silver and lead, whereof who chooses his meaning
chooses you, will, no doubt, never be chosen by any
rightly but one who shall rightly love.


The test, this lottery, which her father designed, is not his own creation but a product of divine inspiration.

Portia’s fortune and beauty has attracted vain and avaricious men, but the test proves to work as time after time it weeds out the unsuitable prospects. Each suitor, overcome by self-importance and lack of true love, fails to choose the correct casket. First, the Prince of Morocco decides that only gold would be fitting for him and for Portia’s beauty, and thus he picks the wrong casket (MV.II.vii.49-60). Second, the Prince of Aragon decides that he is better than what other men deserve and desire, and he foolishly chooses the silver casket (MV.II.ix.34-52). Despite the fact that the test is working admirably, we are given no suggestion that Portia is confident it will prove true. She blames it on the suitors’ faults (MV.II.ix.80-81). Bassanio’s arrival gives hope to Portia, but she still does not trust in the inspiration behind the test or trust that his coming is destiny. Nerissa responds, once again, by calling on Divine Providence and the will of God (MV. II.ix.101).

The arrival of Bassanio, made possible by Antonio’s loan from Shylock, is more than fortuitous. He is the husband Portia was destined to have. When it comes time for him to choose, a minstrel plays a song that enlightens Bassanio’s reason. From it, he learns to set aside outward appearances, and he is able to pick the casket which holds the portrait of Portia (MV.III.ii.63-107). Nerissa’s wisdom is vindicated, and the two are soon after married (MV.III.ii.303).

The song presents us with danger, and thence it is necessary to digress. It would easy to dismiss the song as an intervention by material forces, unaided by the divine. We may be tempted to think that Portia concocted the song to aid her desired suitor or that it was concocted by the maid or even the minstrel. We may dismiss the idea that Nerissa has played Jeeves to Portia’s Wooster. We are never given any reason to doubt Nerissa’s sincerity, and it would seem to be outside her character to devise such a crafty plot. For instance, when it comes to rescuing Antonio, it is Portia, after all, who comes up with the idea to taking up a disguise in Antonio’s defense (MV.III.iv.60-78). And it is Portia who thinks to ask for Bassanio’s ring (MV.IV.i.427). Also, we have no reason to believe that the minstrel would anticipate Portia’s call for music or know her desire for Bassanio. This leaves us with Portia. She was the only one, as mistress, who could have called for music. From the text, it does not appear that she had anticipated Bassanio’s arrival or had time to order the creation of the song.

There is another problem, too. If she had intended to use the song, everything we have seen her suffer and say would be a lie. If she was willing to cheat, she could have removed her portrait from the leaden casket when she was presented with an unworthy suitor or have her portrait placed in all three when she approved. She did, after all, have the keys to the caskets. There is also the matter of her temptation. Was it sincere? When Bassanio first arrives she is tempted to give him hints, but she resists this temptation, calling it a sin and the breaking of an oath (MV.III.ii.10-14). If she was willing to break her oath, the juxtaposition is lost between her faithfulness to her father and the failure of Bassanio to keep his oath regarding the ring (MV.III.ii.452-453). In fact, the entire drama of the test is shown to be fictitious. We are left wondering why we were put through the ordeal if she was not. We cannot, therefore, take her ordering the minstrel to play to be part of a scheme to direct Bassanio to the correct casket; we are left to conclude that Nerissa’s council has proven true, and Divine Providence has intervened through material means to bring the couple together.

The title of this essay mentions a key, and this key is necessary to understanding the connection between the themes of the complicated plot of The Merchant of Venice. If we look back to before Bassanio arrives, Nerissa gives us the key when she says,Hanging and wiving goes by destiny” (MV.II.ix.83). Chance did not rule the day. Shylock’s money enabled Bassanio to marry the woman that would outsmart the murderous usurer. For that matter, if Bassanio and Portia’s marriage was destined, Lorenzo and Jessica were also destined to marry and break Shylock’s heart (MV.II.viii.15-16). Friendship, marriage, and the downfall of a villain are all tied to destiny, to Divine Providence. This is the key Nerissa provides us, and without it we will fail to understanding the important interconnection between the themes in The Merchant of Venice.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. "The Merchant of Venice Navigator." Shakespeare Navigators. Web. 26 Nov. 2011. .

Tillyard, E. M. W. "The Elizabethan World View." WVU Parkersburg: Your Future Begins Here. Web. 27 Nov. 2011. .