11 September 1993
The problem of The Merchant of Venice has always been its unity. Most critics state there are two plots being interwoven together, the Shylovk plot and the romance plot. In Graham Midgley's "The Merchant of Venice: A Reconsideration," the romance plot is thrown out altogether. Midgley suggests that the two focal points of the play are Shylock and Antonio. "The scheme of the play is, if I may reduce it to ratio terms: As Shylock is to Venetian society, so is Antonio to the world of love and marriage."
Shylock and Antonio are seen as kindred spirits by Midgley. They share a kinship of loneliness. As to Midgley's ratio, they are both outcasts.
Shylock is only a part of the Venetian society because of his money. Midgley points out that Shylock is not an accepted man to begin with. "The important thing is that he is a Jew in a Gentile society, that all he is and all he holds dear is alien to the society in which he has to live. He is an alien, an outsider, tolerated but never accepted." Midgley goes on to say that being a Jew is not important in itself but what being a Jew has done to his personality is. Shylock's values and ideas are far left of the liberals that inhabit Venice. He is an outcast by the society, not the society outcast by Shylock.
When his daughter Jessica elopes, this is the crucial point in Shylock's development. It pushes him over the edge in that he now coldly and calmly tries to collect his fee from Antonio, Antonio representing all the evils that the Venetian society has imposed upon him. "And behind this calm front, the burning sorrow of Jessica's shame is still there:
The pound of flesh which I demand of him
Is dearly bought. (IV.i.99)
Dearly bought by Jessica's shame, surely, for which he holds Antonio scapegoat."
Antonio is not outcasted by his society but rather by his loneliness within. Midgley delves deeply into the homosexual overtones of his character. "Antonio is an outsider because he is an unconscious homosexual in a predominantly, and indeed blatantly, heterosexual society. . . The fact which strikes one above all about Antonio is his all-absorbing love of Bassanio, his complete lack of interest in women. . .and his being left without a mate in a play which is rounded off by a full-scale mating denouement." Midgley states that it was Bassanio's mention of the possiblity of marriage which place Antonio into such a melancholy state at the beginning of the play. He would gladly give up his life for Bassanio. "The death is, in a way, welcome, for it is his greatest, if his last, opportunity to show his love." This is why he never fights Shylock's claim or even questions it. Antonio does not want to live in a cruel world without Bassanio.
"I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano,
A stage, where every man must play a part,
And mine a sad one. (I.i.77-9)
The parallel between Shylock and Antonio is the framework of the play. Shylock is outcast by society and Antonio is outcast by his love for Bassanio. "There is the basic kinship in the Jew and the Merchant. the kinship of loneliness."
In the final analysis, I agree with Midgley's main points. I read this play before in high school and never encountered the possibility of Antonio's homosexuality. After reading this article more of the play makes sense. It also makes it easier to revolve the play around Shylock and Antonio.
As Midgley said himself in his opening paragraph, he wrote this piece to discuss exactly what the central issues of the play are. Critics have disagreed in the past and Midgley wanted to clear all the gibberish, making a new point that is more sensible than its predecessors. This article clears up many questions I have had with my experiences of the play.
Midgley, Graham. "The Merchant of Venice: A Reconsideration." Essays in Criticism, 10 (1960): 121-133.