The Merchant of Venice pits relentlessly economising forces against figures who insist on unknowable interiority. The play, in its compulsive acts of accounting, repeatedly measures, weighs, and translates value into tangible replacements, stand-ins, and prostheses. As Simon Critchley and Tom McCarthy observe, one can simply flip ‘through the text to almost any passage’ to discover ‘variants on owing, exchanging, bequeathing, expending, accounting, and converting applied as the default vocabulary for all manner of subjects and phenomena one would not normally consider to be “economic” ’. Antonio and Shylock, seeming antagonists, both stubbornly and even perversely oppose this radical broadening of economic processes, and as a result, they share an uncanny bond beyond their actual bond of monetary promise. Both have a deep disdain of explaining their motives, and their expressions of denial lend symmetry to the dramatic action: the play opens with Antonio dismissing attempts to identify the cause of his sadness, and the trial climaxes with Shylock dismissing attempts to identify the cause of his hate. Throughout, both of them resist, with varying repertoires of techniques, any attempt to place their inner selves on a grid of valuation.
Looked at differently, the conflict of the play could easily be described in terms precisely opposite to what I have sketched out here. Shylock could represent the more economic side with Antonio, along with his fellow Venetians, embodying a belief in grander and more abstract principles, such as mercy, friendship and love. As a Jewish usurer, Shylock accommodates – and as a canny performer, he manipulates – a host of associations that characterise him as obsessively valuing, counting, assessing and correlating worth. And the Christian citizens of Venice habitually deny the seduction of surface value; they celebrate instead the moral lesson impressed onto Bassanio at Belmont: ‘The world is still deceived with ornament’ (III, ii, 74).
This chapter will try to have it both ways. Shylock is indeed an economising figure, but in a radically different manner than the Christian Venetians. When read as an elaboration of the soul's placement in the ‘tough world’ of space and tangibility surveyed in the previous chapter, Merchant reveals a deeper negotiation of how the unknowable can be reflected – though not determined – through the ornament of physical means.