The Merchant of Venice: an Epilogue

This story has been in circulation since 1998. Editors like it; they just won't published it. I can see why. It is my epilogue to Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, a controversial play in its own right. My story isn't controversial--at least I don't think so--but it goes against any interpretation of the play that I've encountered. So it isn't politically correct. Or politically incorrect. Which is the way I like things but makes said things difficult to categorize.

Side note: I wrote this as part of a much longer piece. The much longer piece wasn't very good (I'd still like to write a longer piece, but from a different perspective than I did originally). This story was a chapter near the end. I ended up getting rid of the longer piece (figuratively; I still have it on disc; I never get rid of anything I write), and started sending out the chapter as a short story . . . which never sold, so here it is.

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Shylock heard the news in the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. He was on his way home from the Piazza San Marco. Amazed and stirred, he leaned against the wall behind the rows of bankers, his newly purchased books clasped to his side.

Tubal--pompous ass--had delayed Shylock in the print shop: "I'm afraid Michael told Antonio your address. If you need help--"

Shylock said brusquely, "I wasn't aware Antonio didn't know," cutting off Tubal's sympathy as he had after the trial.

He had sold his goods without protest, moved to his new home in the ghetto: an apartment on the third floor of a seven-storey building. Tubal had visited more than once, wearing the face of charitable rebuke for Tubal had objected to both bond and trial.

Shylock regretted only his own gullibility: that he had allowed Balthasar--Portia--to outwit him, that he had succumbed in the end of things to fury and so doing, lost his ironical edge.

But for the bond, no regrets.

He edged his way out of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi and turned to the right to follow the Grand Canal into the Cannaregio sestiere where he crossed bridges to reach the ghetto's gates. He bowed obsequiously to the sulky Christian guards.

"We are so dangerous," he had mocked Antonio once. "We will turn you all into Jews?"

"They save us from too much conscience," Antonio had said, and Shylock had laughed, the reply truly funny; Antonio had been barely twenty at the time and anxious to show his wit.

Which had turned cruel. Shylock could never guess when or what had transformed it--so fine and sardonic--to a savage defensiveness.

Did I trounce him too often? Embarrass him too many times before his idiot friends? I never showed him violence. That he learned at another's hands: the young boy in the marketplace ducking a father's scolding, slapping palm, tensing at the sharp, preemptive voice, "Fool of a boy. You're dealing with silks, not wools. Think, young stupidity."

Shylock had marveled at the boy's stillness, had silently applauded the child's strength, had believed, This boy will grow beyond his father, until--the years passing, five, ten, twenty--he heard the father's voice from the son's lips: dry, dispassionate, so wanting to harm.

He heard it now as he rested on the landing outside his apartment:

"The Courier."

Another voice, a husky alto: "Machievelli."

And again Antonio, awe battling contempt, "Do you think he's read them all?"

Shylock climbed the remaining steps and entered his new lodgings.

Antonio stood near the table at the center of the room, his fingers caressing a book cover. Beyond him, robed in black, Portia/Balthasar squatted beside the books piled under the windows.

And who was Shylock to mind that they trespassed?

Yet he said, "I didn't issue invitations."

Antonio's head jerked up, and Shylock slowed his steps, muted his gestures as one would with a savage.

Shylock said, "My collection," meaning the books: the Christian bible, the Talmud, De Humani Corporis fabrica, Concerning the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, Shulhan Arukh, even Castiglione's The Courtier: the second half of his daughter's inheritance accumulated over the past three months.

They could be sold--as his daughter surely would do--but it pleased Shylock to increase her difficulties. She had stolen his wife's keepsakes and shrugged off her family and religion, but Shylock would not allow her to go easily into shallow gentility.

Antonio said, "I've come to make reparation."

"Can you compensate for every spit and strike against me?"

"My injuries balance yours--"

"But nothing provable in a court of law. Ask her," motioning to Portia and--scenting their surprise--"Oh, yes, I know her sex. Your performance, Portia, was creditable, brilliant even. 'The quality of mercy' and such mercy," and Shylock tried, too late, to smooth away the bitterness in his voice.

Antonio reacted to that bitterness as he had ever reacted to it: "You had me imprisoned. You had me stripped--"

"Portia had you stripped. She brought us all to that fine dramatic climax--will he live, will he die?--and had even me believing in Venetian justice."

"You would have taken my flesh then?"

Shylock almost said, "Yes," but couldn't--the instinct to speak truth was stronger than the instinct to taunt; he said instead, "I wanted to. I could afford such anticipation since I never believed I would get my wish."

"You hated me," Antonio said.

Such incredulity. Shylock laughed.

And should I not, boy? Have I reason to love you?

"The trial excised my memories of you: the little boy chasing melons in the marketplace, angry when his papa swept them away--'No, no, little fool'--the young man: so assured, so ready to practice his wit on 'that Jew there'; the man in affecting black, learned in lies and surrounded by friends he cannot show cruelty on therefore 'here, Jew, here.'"

Antonio said, "You remember me as a boy?"

Shylock stilled.

"You singled me out," Antonio said--how quickly that voice surged from fear to relief--"You began this as much as I."

"I ended it, drove away the biting hand. Out. Go."

"Don't you believe in the hand of God?"

Shylock pondered the tense, waiting face. As if what I say could give sense to the past year, the events that piled behind us until they broke like cause water into our lives and beyond.

"Do you?"

"I didn't--don't--didn't then, but now . . . I dreamed," Antonio said, "in jail," and Shylock listened because Antonio wasn't accusing, was explaining. "I dreamed of my youth, of light. Perhaps all imprisoned men dream of the sun. I don't know. I dreamed outside the patterns."

"Everyone does," Portia said.

Shylock said, "No, not when we're awake, dream in waking," and Antonio continued, unrelenting, "As if I were bigger, larger than I am, not in size but larger in spirit, as if I had no fears. I thought--I went to the trial expecting death; you held all the cards and lady chance's dice as well. I never expected life," the last word almost harsh. "What was waiting for me, if not death? What did I dream?"

"Your future dreams," Shylock said, and the boy-man breathed out (slow, stop) and in, and believed what he heard.

"Refuge," Shylock said, "some place to keep your soul. We all do--even Portia."

"Yes," she said equably while Antonio listened.

Shylock knew what Antonio wanted: to undo the final act between them--the bond and trial, "my pound of flesh"--Shylock's desperate attempt to push Antonio too far.

Which had worked.

And now.

And now the boy become man wanted answers. When it would have been so much cleaner, so much easier to have begun this way.

Shylock set down his books. "What do you want?"

"I didn't know what it would mean, your destruction. I don't want peace--" (But I do, Shylock thought)--"Portia's home is beautiful but dull, stilted: a pageant of puppets," and Shylock glanced towards Portia, expecting remonstrance; he saw--instead--agreement.

So. The trial undid her as well: woman become man, heiress become lawyer: clever, sharp with words, terrible in her ability, better than any man. And here she was now, dissatisfied--like Antonio--Antonio, who was never satisfied, who looked always to Shylock to curb his dissatisfaction.

Antonio said, "You were the only one ever fought back."

I almost didn't--an old, tired Jew--tired of the spits and sneers, the constant struggle for dignity:

"You again, Shylock? A usurer is a distasteful sight."

"The good Jacob now--"

"Did he use interest?" Antonio, anger edging his voice.

"With Laban's sheep."

Antonio, fully antagonistic, "The single purpose of the Jew's bible: to defend interest. Do you compare your gold to ewes and rams?"

Shylock, shrugging, "I make it breed as fast."

And Antonio had grinned, hunching his shoulders. Only couldn't let it go, couldn't walk away.

"The devil cites scriptures for his own purposes," scornfully and his friends--idiot friends who groveled and begged and borrowed, Shylock knew, more of Antonio's money than Antonio could afford--had murmured approval, while, Use your mind, Shylock had wanted to holler. Use your wits. Think, boy. How many words at your disposal? And you use none of them, resort instead to cheap sneers.

Again and again, he had pushed Antonio, chastised Antonio, mocked him, singled him out and always the boy had retreated (spit, sneer, kick).

Answer me, think, use your mind--all that intelligence, all that merchant's ability—think.

Now, he wants explanations; now, he perceives his motives:

"I never wanted your corpse. I never wanted Portia to destroy you."

Portia said steadily--(this is an old argument)--"I saw you stripped for cutting. I heard Shylock say, 'The flesh nearest the heart.'" And, to Shylock, "Until the trial, I had never seen two people so sure of their will: you to kill and he to die. Without pretense."

Antonio, wearily--(yes, an old argument)--"Romantic girl."

"I remember the sweat on your chest and Shylock's cold blade and the silence in the court for me, not because I was a woman or rich Portia or kind Bassanio's wife, but silence for my words. The others mumbled about law, about friendship; I had words that stabbed through all theirs. Except yours, except Shylock's."

"Mine invoked Shylock's. You told me that."

"Without care for consequence or appearance. Either of you."

"We never planned on you, Portia," Shylock said, and Antonio laughed, looking his age--barely forty--his eyes rising to Portia's face.

He loves her. A sigh trembled in Shylock's chest. How many people have we changed? How far does this stretch? From the first time I saw him, the moment he decided to bait me (drive away the shadow of his father's hand) to--

Antonio said to Shylock, "I can give you money at least, a better living arrangement."

"What money?"

"I can get credit anywhere. No banker will refuse me after my last success."

He had not heard then, and Shylock--feeling more gentleness than he had felt for any since his wife's death--said, "You have no cargo. You dared the gods too often. Your last ships were raided. The crews killed. There is no doubt this time. I heard the news in the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. They are already speaking of it in the Rialto."

Antonio made no answer. Shylock said--mocking as he had a thousand times before, trying to surprise Antonio out of self-consciousness--"Will you rent an apartment across the courtyard, share a gondola with me to the market?"

Portia whispered, "Oh, Antonio."

Too many risks. Shylock had said it how many times? while Antonio sent more ships and further, defining himself by his fears, by the things that threatened to overwhelm him.

"My money," Portia said, hesitant for the first time.

And "No" from both of them while the lines in Antonio's face eased, gentled.

("I don't want peace.")

While I, craving peace, never grasp it. You, boy, disdain it, yet it comes to you in awkward moments: in jail and now, in the collapse of your future. Until... what?--more ships miraculously returned, more sent and lost over again?

"I have some money," Shylock said. "While I live at least. Per your decree, Portia."

"A partnership," Antonio said to her. "You and Shylock."

"If he wants," she said, shrugging, effecting disinterest but her eyes were like
Antonio's; they held Shylock, entreated him.

Why should I care? Why should I let them practice their new-found empathy?

"I'm no merchantman," Shylock said.

"I am." Antonio's voice was eager. "I can help you." (No more. Walk away.) "You can send ships East for silks--"

Shylock heard his voice: "Spices would be better."

"Easily damaged."

"Nothing does you good at the bottom of the sea."

Scornfully, "Such as books?" as Antonio glanced around the apartment.

"Off the point, boy. Off the point. You think you can make a profit by flooding the market? Venice doesn't need more cloth. Why not timber if Portia wants a surety?"

"Quick and fast first and then two ships for further distances. I know what I'm saying."

"And nothing to show for it. Linens if you want cloth. Or wools."

"Also damageable."

"Risk, you said. Risk, I thought you said."

"I did," said Antonio. "Spices then," to Portia.

Portia looked at Shylock; she smiled as if she guessed what Shylock was thinking, what Shylock was seeing.

You don't know. I see mine. My creation, my fruit: Antonio, mouth curving, eyes full-alive, ready to argue, to plan.

Mine.

To dispose of as I please.