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William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus: The Role of Trade

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Upon visiting London in 1592, the Duke of Wurtumberg observed,

“Most of the inhabitants are employed in buying and selling merchandise, and trading in every corner of the world.”

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Explore and compare the dramatists’ use of trade in Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” and William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” with reference to a range of critical writing.

Trade is a key theme in both Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, represented through the literal trades defining the plays and the metaphorical influence of trade on the characters’ lives. Both dramatists explore the true depth of trade, and how far it has permeated everyday life – it is represented in marriage and friendship, love and religion, parental and child relationships. Trade is designed with each member seeking to gain, therefore never will all be content with what they receive and it will always be one-sided. Shakespeare, especially, shows that instances of giving without expecting to receive are extremely isolated, yet the desire to benefit at the expense of others is all too common.

Both plays are set during the Elizabethan era; Shakespeare’s play, although not in London, is focused around Venice which mirrored England’s capital at this time. Shakespeare did this so that he could draw upon direct parallels and criticise or highlight ways of life without it seeming too direct to the audience – much like the idea of a morality play, it teaches a lesson, though it is hidden within the story. Trade was extremely important in Elizabethan life (and in Venice) as it was the only means of requiring certain materials, herbs, spices and products, which made it vital to the people, providing them with income. However, it could also be a gamble, as ships were often lost at sea to ‘flats’ and ‘dangerous rocks’ or raided by pirates, so their profits very much relied on luck. Where the play is set, Jewish people were atrociously segregated, forced to live in ghettos and obey rules of curfew – the Christians hated them, and would treat them harshly because of their differing views: Christians believed Jesus was the son of God, whereas Jews saw him as a false messiah. Tensions were high between the races, especially since Rodrigo Lopez, believed to be a hidden Jew, was accused of trying to poison the Queen Elizabeth. These tensions are seen during the play; when Shylock discovers that his daughter, Jessica, has disappeared, Solanio describes his passion as ‘confused’, for he was unsure whether to worry more about his money or his child: ‘O my ducats! O my daughter!’ This is a key point regarding the hatred of Jews, as this may well have been exaggerated by the Christian due to Shylock being Jewish. Alternatively, if it is true, it shows that Shylock, at least on the surface, cares more for his earnings than for Jessica – this links to the stereotypical image conceived at the time. During this period Germany was ruled by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, therefore the setting of Doctor Faustus was also a Catholic country. It, too, would have shared the strict racial divide.

Although heavily embedded with points of metaphorical trade, both Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice are centred on literal trades. In Faustus this is the defining aspect of the play: his soul in return for twenty-four years ‘in all voluptuousness’ with Mephastophilis the devil as his servant. In the Merchant of Venice, Antonio offers Shylock ‘an equal pound of [his] fair flesh’, borrowing three thousand ducats from the usurer; a second literal trade can be seen in this play through Portia and her three caskets, the winner receiving her as their bride. Firstly comes the trade between Antonio and Shylock, a bond between enemies. Shylock refers to when Antonio did ‘void [his] rheum upon [his] beard’, and the insults he has had to endure such as ‘misbeliever’ and ‘dog’.

Trade is always created seeking to gain, so with each character seeking to gain there will always be a disappointed party. Antonio seems the one exception, willing to hazard his own life simply to please the man he loves, yet this is arguable as it allows him to spend abnormal amounts of time with Bassanio, permitting him to gain in a different manner. Equally, in Doctor Faustus, both Lucifer and the protagonist form a trade, each intending to be the one to benefit from the other. Faustus ‘surrenders up to him his soul so he will spare him four and twenty years’, bartering eternal damnation for a few years of magic. Meredith Molly Hand claims ‘Faustus, lost in the disorderly, fluctuating world of exchange, cannot clearly gauge the value of good’, suggesting that his poor bartering is due to the chaotic, confusing world he lives in – however, it may be interpreted that in his hubris he believes this to be a fair trade, just as Shylock views the opportunity to kill his enemy as just. (This would label Faustus with the blame, thus continuing the intent of the playwright to teach the audience the danger of the sin of pride.) In this sense, Marlowe and Shakespeare similarly present trade as never getting what one expects to. Faustus has ambitious intentions to become ‘great emperor of the world’ yet he finds himself grovelling at Charles V’s feet, using such titles as ‘gracious lord’ and ‘imperial majesty’, promising ‘to do whatsoever[he should] command’. This also links to the Great Chain of Being, believed at the time that one should not rise above the status God has given, that Faustus should have been humble and not aspired so highly. Likewise, Bassanio is not the man Portia believes he is, merely a poor ‘braggart’ indebted to his friend. Also shown in the Merchant of Venice, Shylock does not get his pound of flesh and is instead converted to a Christian and loses everything he has. Trade and ‘bond’ are equated numerously – trade is binding and always driven by a motive, this is often concealed. The casket test, designed by Portia’s father to select a worthy suitor, shows boxes of gold, silver and lead. In this way, Portia is presented as little more than an object of trade, and the fact she cannot choose her own husband shows how she cannot negotiate in this trade. Although a key involvement in trade throughout the play, Shakespeare presents her merely as an object to acquire – the profit of choosing correctly, bound by the relationship between her and her father. Gold and silver share a lexical field of ‘receivership’ – ‘shall gain what many men desire’ and ‘shall get as much as he deserves’ – whereas the casket of lead is contradictory and speaks of giving. This metaphor of the caskets represents how isolated instances of giving truly are. She becomes bound by this trade, just as Faustus is more literally bound by blood.

Marriage, or love, is seen as both a physical and a metaphorical trade. Although very rare in Faustus, it is a key theme in the Merchant of Venice, binding Bassanio and Portia, Gratiano and Nerissa, and Jessica and Lorenzo. Despite all of Faustus’ majestic aspirations, his first demand is ‘let me have a wife, the fairest maid in Germany’, used mainly to highlight how trade is never what it seems, as Mephastophilis cannot perform such a holy act: uniting the couple under God. He dismisses it as ‘a ceremonial toy’, but the fact that his first thought is a wife when Faustus can seemingly have whatever he desires accentuates the importance of marriage. This was a central part of society, Faustus being unable to marry represents how he has become isolated from the rest of the world and he is no longer involved in this dominant trade. When Bassanio first talks of Portia, he mentions how she is ‘a lady richly left’, representing the truth behind their relationship as this is what he tells Antonio first. He later comes to mention other ‘wondrous virtues’, but by firstly labelling her as wealthy indicates the true intent behind the marriage, defying the purpose of the casket test. Indeed, their first speeches after successfully choosing lead are riddled with references to trade, where Portia offers ‘the full sum’ of herself to him, wishing she could be ‘a thousand times more fair.’ Yet she also seeks to benefit from this, following Shakespeare’s rule that one trades only to gain, she calls herself ‘unlessoned’ and ‘unpractised’. Through her marriage to Bassanio, Portia hopes to learn things, and will be allowed to leave the house unaccompanied (as a maiden was not allowed to do so). Despite claiming ‘I come by note to give, and to receive’, Bassanio offers nothing, promising with use of hyperbole that ‘when this ring parts from [his] finger, then life parts from hence’. The use of hyperbole foreshadows how it is not a genuine promise. The critic John Russell Brown states that ‘Shakespeare wrote about love as a kind of wealth in which men and women traffic’ – while this is true, it fails to reference the vast complications surrounding marriage. During the Elizabethan era, love was not the main purpose of upper-class marriage, instead it is centred about the exchange of wealth and the influence of status. Just as Bassanio receives intangible assets such as ‘virtues, beauties’ and ‘friends’, he also acquires Portia’s wealth, her ‘house’ and her ‘servants’, which was Bassanio’s real intent behind the marriage.

Both in Faustus and the Merchant of Venice, marriage is used to portray the difference between what one thinks they are getting and what one actually gets in trade. Faustus was led to believe he would get ‘whatsoever [he should] ask’ for, yet his first demand is proven impossible. Similarly, through Bassanio Portia believes she is getting a giving husband, one who does not seek anything from the marriage other than herself. Primarily, her hair is described as a ‘golden fleece’ – a classical allusion to Jason and his Golden Fleece, where this object is necessary to gain his rightful kingdom. So too in this, she is merely presented as an object to regain Bassanio’s wealth. Nerissa, while the two are returning from playing Balthazar and his clerk, says ‘when the moon shone we did not see the candle’, through the use of this metaphor Shakespeare tells how Portia can never truly be respected and admired for who she is with a husband by her, just as the moon outshines the candle. While she hopes to gain more independence from this trade by being allowed out alone, she is also sacrificing her independence: her control of her home in the place of her father. In this way, Portia gives a lot more than Bassanio ever does.

This bond is represented physically by the rings, one also given to Gratiano, which Shakespeare uses to analyse the power struggle through trade, equally in marriage. The two cannot both be dominant, by tradition it is the man – however, this is not the case due to Portia’s term that the loss of the ring would be her ‘vantage to exclaim’ on him. This imbalance of power is seen throughout Doctor Faustus, with Faustus beginning the play using imperative verbs to command Mephastophilis, but as the play progresses he becomes less a servant and more a partner in childish tricks.

Religion is a theme defining Faustus and the Merchant alike, through which the protagonist of Marlowe’s play is equated most closely to Jessica. Just as Shylock does, she must sacrifice much for her beliefs, trading a life of sufferance in the hope of an afterlife of eternal bliss. Shylock is ‘laughed at’ and ‘mocked’ and ‘scorned’ for his Jewish beliefs, for God he endures abuse and mistreatment. However, Jessica trades her religion, turning from her views. Likewise, Faustus turns his back on God for mortal pleasures. Marlowe presents religion as a trade, giving your life wholly to God, yet Faustus uses it as a trade in a different sense – bargaining it and his soul to Lucifer for twenty-four years ‘in all voluptuousness’. Throughout the chorus there is a semantic field of profit, showing how he has aspired and achieved great things, transferring from ‘base of stock’ to a doctor. The consequences of mounting ‘above his reach’ is represented by the classical allusion to Icarus, flying too close to the sun in pride. Thus in both plays, religion is seen not only as a trade, but as something to be traded. It is given up for pleasures in life in an attempt to earn something greater, never realising that the life beyond is the most one could ever possibly gain.

Another metaphorical expression of trade is friendship. Shakespeare presents this as ultimately one-sided, as it can be exploited for one’s own benefit, and often is used when seeking something. Bassanio is the prime example of this, admitting to Antonio that to him he owes ‘the most in money and in love’. Here it is clear that one gives more than the other, seemingly making friendship an unfair trade – a good friendship should show mutual benefit. The verb ‘owe’ proves that this is not a fair trade, as there would be no need to repay him. While Antonio inputs money to fund Bassanio’s quest, Bassanio admits ‘I owe the most in money and in love’, proving he gives little of either. This example of unfair trade reflects how it is defined by greed, or the pursuit of profit. Here Bassanio manages to profit greatly from his relationship with Antonio, as Shakespeare is exploring the idea of relationships being harsh trades at heart: people use one another to get what they desire. Some interpretations, such as Michael Radford’s The Merchant of Venice film, present Antonio’s love for Bassanio as homosexual desire. This is seen through use of proxemics, placing the two men together on a bed while they talk of the ‘love’ owed, creating many sexual connotations. In this case Antonio is bound by the restraints of religion and must trade his love for eternal life with God by obeying his teachings – at this time homosexuality was illegal and unholy. Yet from this seemingly unfair trade with Bassanio, Antonio does get to spend time with the man he loves; he also trades his own affections for Bassanio’s happiness. Sacrifice such as this is a trade without profit, which Shakespeare proves to be very rare in the world. In Faustus, the main relationship seen is that between Faustus and Mephastophilis. Whilst this cannot exactly be called a friendship, it follows the same principle and heavily emphasises how any relationship between two people is engineered to gain from it. Like Bassanio, Faustus is using Mephastophilis ‘to do whatever Faustus shall command’; alternatively Mephastophilis is serving Faustus to earn Lucifer his soul. The two are equally there for a reason, and effectively both plays present a ‘friend’ as someone known simply to serve a purpose – in its most brutal form, these ties of companionship bind people together simply because one has the something the other requires or can use, and vice versa.

In Faustus, the only mention of his parents is when he curses them for birthing him (blaming them for his own mistakes) – ‘cursed be the parents that engendered me’. Marlowe creates no metaphorical link to trade, they are simply responsible for making him ‘base of stock’, causing him to defy the Great Chain. Contrastingly, Shakespeare presents ‘flesh and blood’ as one of the most binding trades of all. This is explored through Shylock and his daughter Jessica. Jessica describes their house as ‘hell’, yet she is kept there because it was the traditional duty of the father to care for the daughter until a suitable match was found. He is enraged when he finds she has left, yet before Tubal he curses her and worries more for his money, wishing she were ‘dead at [his] foot, and the jewels in her ear’. This reveals the negative relationship the two had, yet at the time, despite the fact ‘the bird was fledged’, she was bound by the will of her father. Similarly this is seen through Portia, constrained by the will of her late father. This bond of family has immense power, therefore when Jessica flees she is trading her father for a husband. Therefore both plays differ on the importance of parental relationships as a trade, with Shakespeare expressing their importance and Marlowe dismissing them.

In conclusion, although trade should be seen as an equal sequence of compromises, it is most often exploited to serve one’s own purposes. Although apparent in literal trade, this is most prominent metaphorically where trade has managed to permeate everyday life, defining people and their actions. Shakespeare and Marlowe similarly present trade as a quest to benefit from one another, bargaining to give as little as possible and receive as much as one can. The dramatists prove that trade is at the heart of every human deed, and gain is often the desire. Where some seek ‘as much as [they] deserve’, and others ‘what many men want’, the playwrights suggest that one must value the true prizes in life over materialistic goods, or they will never truly gain.

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