Shakespeare Over Time
02 May 2014
Fall’n Dignity in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and As You Like It Modern Western Ideology views wealth as the accumulation of capital. To be wealthy is to have money. The OED defines wealth as “Prosperity consisting in abundance of possessions; ‘worldly goods’, valuable possessions, esp. in great abundance: riches, affluence”. This OED definition spans from the Middle Ages to today. This definition was applicable to the social classes which dominated Europe in William Shakespeare’s time and to our modern capitalist system. However, the method by which wealth was acquired did undergo significant changes, in Early Modern England. The late 1590s marked the beginning of the separation between Protestantism and economic development in England. Prior to that point, social morality and commerce were united (Wilson 2). This union meant that there were moral restrictions to how wealth could be acquired. “The rise of the gentry in the century before the outbreak of the Civil War in England provoked the 'Storm over the Gentry', which led to the separation of religion and capitalism” (Thompson 507). This separation marked the beginning of the enclosure riots which enabled the gentry to appropriate the property of the peasants (Wilson 3). As a result, the exploitation of individuals and unjust appropriation of their property became prevalent in 17th century England. This “theft” undermined the moral standards set by the Protestant religion. It should come to no surprise then that the works of William Shakespeare are marked by this chaotic transition period in which he lived in. Two of Shakespeare’s works, the Merchant Of Venice and As You Like It, deal with the theme of the acquisition of wealth, but portray it in different ways. The acquisition of wealth, in the Merchant Of Venice, is represented as a sexually potent act which requires a great deal of intimacy; on the other hand, the acquisition of wealth, in As you like It is enacted as wicked because it challenges the spiritual sovereignty of God.
Antonio’s ability to be sexually potent is represented by his prostitution through all of his wealth, in the Merchant of Venice. Antonio’s promise to help Bassanio court Portia suggests an offer of his sexuality. He tells Bassanio: “My purse, my person, my extremest means/Lie all unlocked to your occasions” (1.1.137-138). By giving Bassanio access to his “purse,” Antonio is, in metaphorical terms, giving Bassanio the right to his testicles and in broader terms his entire body, which is later exploited as collateral. Antonio is able to satisfy the needs of Bassanio. Antonio’s bond with Shylock makes Shylock the owner of Antonio’s body and therefore his ability to perform sexually. Shylock demands “an equal pound” of Antonio’s “fair flesh” from any part of his body which “pleaseth” him (1.3.142-143). “Flesh” is a euphemism in reference to sexual intercourse (OED). Thus Shylock refers to Antonio’s male genitals. Therefore, if Shylock does not acquire what he is owed, Antonio will no longer be able to sexually perform as he has submitted himself as collateral to Shylock in terms of his sexuality. Moreover, Salerio’s explanation of how Shylock refuses payment from Antonio mirrors a rejection of sexual pleasure. He claims that if he had the money to “discharge the Jew” it would be rejected (3.2. 271). A man usually discharges only after sexual activity is completed. Hence, by refusing this sum Shylock refuses sexual pleasure and consolidates the fact that his hatred for Antonio triumphs over his sexual desires. In summary, Antonio is able to prostitute himself because of his wealth, which is what allows him to perform sexually. Bassanio is only capable of sexually performing after he has married Portia and therefore acquired all her wealth. The ring given to Bassanio represents both his acquisition of wealth and his right to sexually access Portia. She tells him “I give