Enter Shylock: A Note On Language
By Stanley Kauffmann
In John Gross’s Shylock: A Legend and Its
Legacy, a scintillating and thorough study, he has a chapter called
“Three Thousand Ducats.” It begins:
Shylock reveals a great deal of
himself with his opening words. “Three thousand ducats.” The phrase
can be spoken dryly or slyly or thoughtfully; it can be savored or
rasped out. But however it is delivered, it is identified from the
outset with the spirit of calculation--and money.
All this is true, but I think that Shylock’s
phrase reveals even more. Those words emphasize a particular aspect
of Shakespeare’s genius.
The line opens the third scene of the play. To
savor it fully, look again at the first two scenes, concentrating on
the language. At the start, Antonio, a merchant in the import business,
is chatting with friends about his inexplicable moodiness. One of the
Your mind is tossing on the ocean;
There, where your argosies with portly sail,
Like signiors and rich burghers on the flood,
Or, as it were, the pageants of the sea,
Do overpower the petty traffickers
That curtsy to them, do them reverence,
As they fly by them with their woven wings.
This gorgeous language, hardly rare in Shakespeare,
continues to roll through the scene. Then enters Bassanio, Antonio’s
closest friend, who wants to court a young woman whom he loves. He says:
In a Belmont is a lady richly left;
And she is fair, and, fairer than that word,
Of wondrous virtues....
And her sunny locks
Hang on her temples like a golden fleece;
Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchos’ strand
And many Jasons come in quest of her.
Bassanio needs money to present himself appropriately
as this lady’s suitor. Antonio says he is short of cash, but he will
take a loan to finance Bassanio’s wooing. He and Bassanio go forth to
see what they can borrow in Antonio’s name.
Scene Two presents the center of the enterprise,
Portia, attended by her maid-confidante, Nerissa, and in a scene written
entirely in prose, they discuss the “many Jasons” who have come a-wooing.
The conversation of the two women is in glittering dialogue that prides
itself on verbal acrobatics, the style exalted in Thomas Lyly’s Euphues,
the Anatomy of Wit. As Nerissa names the suitors who have already
appeared, Portia blithely dismisses them.
say you by the French lord, Monsieur Le Bon?
Portia: God made him, and therefore let him pass
for a man.
On they go, deriding saucily, until Nerissa tells
her that the present group of four suitors are leaving. Portia says,
“I am glad this parcel of wooers are so reasonable; for there is not
one among them but I dote on his very absence.” A servant announces
that another suitor has arrived, and Portia says, “If I could bid the
fifth welcome with so good a heart as I can bid the other four farewell,
I should be glad of his approach.”
Then comes Scene Three. Enter Bassanio and Shylock.
Their conversation has already begun. Bassanio is quiet, having already
made his request. Shylock says: “Three thousand ducats; well.” He can
say it with any of the colors that John Gross suggests: I add only that
the last word of the line is very much a part of it. That word is the
signet of internal simmer.
Consider, simply as a matter of diction, the
effect of that line on a reader or audience, a line placed as carefully
as four drum beats after scenes of golden verse and airy wit. Four plain
words. As Bassanio restates conditions, Shylock’s rhythmic pattern continues.
Bassanio: Aye, sir, for three
Shylock: For three months; well.
Bassanio: For the which, as I told you, Antonio shall
Shylock: Antonio shall become bound; well.
Only after fifteen lines of the scene are spoken,
after those repetitions of the word “well,” Shylock begins to expand,
disclosing what those repetitions have signified within him. But it
is his very first line that stuns the ear with spareness.
That taciturn line has several powers. First,
most obviously, it fractures the mellifluous flow of sound that we have
been hearing. Second, it broadens the texture of the play. What has
been a romantic comedy with a gentle melancholy tinge now includes a
strand of menacing drama. Third, those words announce, in their very
economy, that the speaker is different in kind from the society that
we have so far encountered. Throughout the play this sinewy difference
is sustained in Shylock’s diction, but Shakespeare puts it in place
with just four words.
Here arises a critical term that is always troublesome:
modernism. Shylock’s first line sounds modern. About modernism, mountains
of theory have accrued, and a chief question is the dating of the term.
Modernism begins, we can read, when the so-called modern age begins,
which might be specified as the period in the nineteenth century when
the best writers began to differ with the societies in which they lived
much more stringently than earlier writers had done. Moliere hated the
hypocrisies and lies around him, but Moliere is not Ibsen. Part of that
change in writers was the discarding of verbal upholstery. But aren’t
there clear signs of the stripping off of old trappings long before
the nineteenth century? Isn’t the very word “modern” imprecise? Shylock’s
first line, unlike anything we have so far heard in the play, could
have been written today.
The criterion is not that it doesn’t contain
a “thou” or a “would’st,” but that it is pared, quintessential. It doesn’t
glory in language -- or, to put it properly, it glories in a different
view if it. Hemingway could have written it. Beckett, if he had ever
got that close to a plot, might have written it.
The point is not that Shakespeare determined
here to try a kind of writing ahead of his time. The issue of modernity
could not have troubled him. The fitting of the word to the action,
which he talked about elsewhere, the concept of the character who utters
the words and that character’s place in the world, might have brought
him Shylock’s four bare words, heard by Shakespeare differently from
the speech of his other people. In any case, after the richness of the
music in the play’s first two scenes, those four drumbeats always thrill.