Merchant/Much Ado
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(Assignment as stated: #1. From "The Merchant of Venice", III. Ii. 73-107: write an explication raising the general issues of the play and, at the same time, the character of Bassanio.

#2 From "Much Ado About Nothing", write an explication on the confrontation between Benedick, Claudio and Don Pedro)

Both the Merchant of Venice and Much Ado About Nothing are plays which explore character and provide examples of a few consequences that may be brought about by its most positive and negative aspects. As a result, the specific passages addressed here are significant in development of plot primarily by virtue of what they reveal about the main characters involved in these plots.

If one were to read only III.ii.73-107 of The Merchant of Venice, the wisdom Bassanio displays in making his choice among the caskets would very likely lead to the belief that indeed Bassanio is a man of consistently careful thought and righteous action. One need only read the opening scene, and consider the circumstances under which this character is introduced, however, to determine that this apparently reasonable conclusion is, in fact, highly inaccurate. Furthermore, having once read the entire play and noted the manner in which Bassanio deals with the various situations he encounters elsewhere, this passage no longer prompts admiration for his insight, but rather provokes a feeling of sadness that someone possessed of such insight would fail so completely to utilize it in his daily life.

This observation is particularly interesting in light of the religious themes that permeate this play, surfacing in the form of various puns (such as the recurring use of the word "gentle") and Biblical references scattered throughout the text. It is argued in the introduction to the Signet edition of the play that perhaps Shakespeare painted an unfairly negative picture of Shylock, the Jew, in that Shylock (as the most obvious villain in the play) displays negative behavior once stereotypically associated with members of his faith. However, in Shakespeare's defense, it should be noted that Shylock is by no means the only character in the play who provides a less than sterling example of behavior reflective of the more positive sides of the religious beliefs he professes. Despite protestations of honor and his before mentioned evidence of some degree of wisdom, it seems safe to argue that Bassanio is hardly a man devout Christians would be proud to count among their ranks.

Because we know that it is Christ's sacrifice for the benefit of others that serves as the basis of Christianity, and thus the model of selfless behavior that its adherents (theoretically, at least) strive to follow, it is not unfair to state that Bassanio's actions are clearly not in keeping with this representation of a Christian. In fact, there is not a single incident in the play where it can be determined with reasonable certainty that Bassanio acts out of anything other than self-motivated interests. Not only does he allow Antonio to put his life in jeopardy in exchange for Bassanio's debt (behavior on Antonio's part which is clearly analogous with the sacrifice of Christ), but also, when moved to attempt to redeem Antonio's life, it is Portia's sacrifice (again, an exhibition of true Christian character) which provides the means for him to do so. Even the wisdom he displays in choosing the correct casket is connected with self-motivation, for he knows he will be well rewarded for these moments of careful thought.

Incidentally, in regard to the caskets, Shakespeare has used irony most richly in allowing Bassanio to correctly choose the one bearing the words "Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath." Because Portia wishes for him to be successful here, it is only natural for the reader to wish Bassanio success as well; even so, it seems a sad commentary on how little many of us know ourselves that Bassanio feels worthy to open a chest requiring him to "give and hazard all" when it is clear to the reader that he can neither give nor hazard (in the positive sense of this latter word) at all.

Similarly, while this passage specifically points out the incongruity of Bassanio's words and deeds, in so doing it also raises questions regarding the possible incongruity between the apparent images (or stereotypes) and actual actions of other characters in the play. For example, one must consider whether their motivations spring from a Christian or Jewish heritage, or merely the decision to serve either the forces of good or evil which co-exist within each individual regardless of race or religion. In support of this latter assertion, one need only look at the differences between Shylock and Jessica, and their ultimate failure and success, respectively, to illustrate this point regarding individuality. Needless to say, as Shylock's daughter, Jessica, like her father, is a Jew. Yet, her Jewish background does not prevent her from being accepted by the Christians in the play, nor from being chosen by one of them as his wife (a relationship she enters into most willingly, a fact indicative that she, unlike her father, holds no grudge against Christians in general - proof of her words in I.iii.18-19 that she is "a daughter to his blood...not to his manners"). It must, therefore, be questioned whether the insults (and abusive action) admittedly leveled at Shylock by Antonio (as described in I.iii.103-126) are to be interpreted (as Shylock - who, we must recall, has a fixation with literal interpretation - takes them) as a consequence of prejudice against his Jewish heritage or merely as a reaction to the fact that he is a most unpleasant individual.

In conclusion, it must be said that all of the preceding focus on character, and this passage which raises the many questions regarding it, are indeed central to the events of the play as a whole. For, it is Bassanio's willingness to let Antonio take care of his debt by borrowing from Shylock that creates one of the main plots of the play, and it is Shylock's vengeful nature and unbridled greed that bring about the need for the matter to be settled so harshly in court. Furthermore, in regard to the other main plot of the play - the caskets which determine Portia's marital fate, it is character that her father had hoped to ascertain in devising this method of selecting her husband. And, while clearly her first two suitors proved their unworthiness in this area by their inability to distinguish the meaning of his words, Bassanio's ability to do so only shows that he is possessed of the knowledge of what constitutes good character and integrity, not necessarily that he possesses these attributes themselves.

In a similar way, the confrontation enacted in V.i.110-186 of Much Ado About Nothing is beyond question one of the most significant passages in the play for the sharp distinction it draws between the characters of Benedick and Claudio, and for the disparity it reveals between the types of "love" each shares with his respective partner. In addition, it propels the dramatic action forward by presenting an ultimatum, one whose resolution will define the play as either a tragedy containing many highly comic elements or a comedy made doubly interesting and meaningful by this potentially tragic twist.

Although the arrival of Dogberry and the watch in the very next passage signals that it will indeed prove the latter, the tension sustained throughout the confrontation scene is nonetheless genuine and affecting. Gone is the crackling wit of Benedick, replaced here by a grave, yet energetic, dignity that evidences his maturity and testifies to the high value he places on his relationship with Beatrice. Furthermore, while his willingness to engage in potentially mortal combat at her command could in some be misconstrued as a matter of male pride -- a feat to prove his worthiness of her admiration -- in Benedick it bears no trace of ego, but instead merely proves both the depth of his love for Beatrice and his innate sense of justice, as he realizes -- friend or no -- that indeed Claudio has committed an act worthy of dire punishment. In regard to this sense of justice, it is interesting to note (as our course guide also points out) that at the wedding fiasco, Benedick does not leave with Claudio and his friends (a separation which prepares us for their subsequent opposition) but stays behind, intuitively aware of Hero's innocence and deeply concerned for her welfare. It is further interesting that his concern is given even greater weight by the fact that this is only one of two passages in the entire play where Benedick speaks in formal verse (even his challenge to Claudio, though unmistakably serious, is delivered in his customary - though unusually simplified - prose).

In regard to Claudio's character, the confrontation passage verifies the suspicion that the behavior displayed in the wedding scene was indeed simply another of several examples throughout the play that attest to his immaturity and shallow regard for the object of his supposed love. We have already seen, in The Merchant of Venice, the potentially catastrophic results of self-motivation and an unwillingness to forgive; here again, in the form of Claudio, we see the peril these negative characteristics pose not only for their possessors, but also for those who genuinely care for such individuals. As a result of this prior example of negative behavior, it is not surprising to see that Claudio unwisely responds to Benedick in sarcastic jest, thereby heedlessly adding insult to the injury he has committed at the wedding.

Furthermore, while his attitude in this passage is offensive enough in itself, it becomes even moreso when it is considered that he has learned only moments before of Hero's death (a circumstance he cannot, of course, know has not actually occurred). Clearly his lack of guilt bespeaks an equal lack of love, and serves as proof that his cruel display against Hero was not prompted by genuine pain borne of love's betrayal, but instead by nothing more than the ill-tempered pride of an individual unable to "give and hazard all" as love requires.

An additional insight provided by this passage and the conclusions drawn from it as described above pertains to the female counterparts of Benedick and Claudio, and the part each plays in this confrontation. It is clear from their behavior that Benedick and Beatrice know each other very well; surely Benedick would not be moved to challenge a friend at Beatrice's urging without understanding completely the violence of her feelings and trusting completely in her judgment regarding Hero's innocence. In light of the potential outcome of such an event, Beatrice's insistence that Benedick challenge Claudio, and Benedick's agreement to do so, more than adequately prove that each truly possesses a willingness to "give and hazard all" for love.

Claudio's lady, in contrast, is in essence a stranger to him, and while this can be partially excused by each's youth and their relatively short acquaintance, ultimately it must be considered a shared character flaw that plays a part, at least as great as that played by Don John, in their unhappiness. For, had Claudio truly known Hero, he would also have known her to be innocent, and the confrontation scene we are discussing would, therefore, never take place. After all, Benedick, who could not possibly know Hero as well as Claudio should have, does not doubt her innocence (note his participation in the dialogue of IV.i.111-252). How much more easily should Claudio, therefore, have believed in it. Conversely, had Hero known Claudio well enough to understand his jealous nature and often rash conduct, she would have taken precautions that would have prevented her innocence from ever being questioned by him or anyone else.

In conclusion, the confrontation scene serves the play by bringing its serious elements into very sharp focus, thereby providing a believable and tension-filled climax. It also forces us to pause and reflect on events leading up to it and speculate about those that will follow. And, while many other points could surely be made regarding it as well, perhaps it is most appropriate to simply add that it serves most significantly as yet another example of Shakespeare's unique ability to capture his audience and suspend us on his penpoint as we await his cue directing us to laugh or cry, while resting in the assurance that, whichever his decision, we'll be left the richer for the experience.