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Radical skepticism and the logic of Shakespeare’s artistry, by Robert Schneider

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Robert Schneider is the author of a very important book-length reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice called Shylock, The Roman (, 2001).

I find this book to be very important as a basis for investigating the relationship between Shakespeare and Star Trek as twin canonical texts of what universities call “Western Civ.”

I publish here a previously unpublished text (originally a lecture) that provides quite a good overview of the entire book — covering the major points, without getting lost in the scholarly detail:

Radical skepticism and the logic of Shakespeare’s artistry, by Robert Schneider

Can anyone doubt this statement?  Superficial appearance can be deceptive.

If you wanted to write a play that illustrates this point, what would you do?  How far would you go?  How far could you go?

The Merchant of Venice is a deceptive play about the deceptiveness of superficial appearance.

The play is deceptive because, for the most part, no one notices that it’s about the deceptiveness of superficial appearance.

Instead, people focus on emotionally volatile themes related to the conflict between the Christian merchant and the Jewish moneylender:

  • Christian mercy and Jewish justice
  • Christian love and Jewish vengeance
  • New Testament salvation and Old Testament law.

Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, has only 251 lines in this play.  He speaks in fewer than 10 percent of the play’s 2,600 lines.  But this character has dominated interpretation of the entire play.

Today I’m going to take a different approach that uncovers what is in effect a new play, a new Merchant of Venice – different from the one we thought we knew.

  • First I’m going to make the case that ancient Roman honor and ancient Roman comedy are more important to the meaning of the play than the traditional Christian-Jewish issues.
  • Second, I’m going to explain the “logic of Shakespeare’s artistry,” which reconciles my radical interpretation of the play with traditional interpretation.
  • And third, I’ll show how the artistic logic within The Merchant of Venice illuminates other Shakespeare comedies and tragedies as well.

So we’re going to follow a path that begins with a fairly narrow focus on specific problems in a single play, but concludes with some broader insight into the logic of Shakespeare’s artistry in general.

But before we begin, I want to take three minutes to summarize the plot of The Merchant of Venice, so that we all enter the discussion from a common starting point.

Bassanio is in debt to Antonio, the merchant of Venice.  He asks for another loan so he can afford to court a wealthy heiress, marry her, and then pay back all the money he owes.

Antonio agrees to finance the trip with a loan from Shylock, the Jewish money lender.  Shylock offers Antonio an interest-free loan, but there’s a catch: if Antonio doesn’t pay him back, Shylock can take a pound of Antonio’s flesh.

Bassanio then courts Portia, but the terms of her father’s will don’t allow her to pick a husband of her own choosing.

Instead, she has to pick the bachelor who makes the correct choice among three boxes – gold, silver or lead.  The simple-minded suitors pick the gold and silver boxes.  They lose.  The more sophisticated Bassanio isn’t fooled by the gold and silver boxes, which are decoys.  He picks the lead box, and wins Portia and her fortune.

Portia says: “This house, these servants, and … myself/ Are yours.  I give them with this ring.”

So Bassanio hits the jackpot.   He arrives in Belmont a debtor.  He leaves as lord of the manor, master of the house.  There’s only one catch: The ring seals the deal.  Portia cautions him: hold onto this ring.

Well, Antonio defaults on his loan, and Shylock wants his pound of flesh. Bassanio goes off to save Antonio with a big pile of Portia’s money.

In the courtroom, Shylock refuses a very generous offer. He’s not interested in money.  He’s intent on getting a pound of Antonio’s flesh.

Portia’s in the courtroom, pretending to be a legal expert.  That’s where she hears Bassanio say:

Life itself, my wife, and all the world

Are not with me esteemed above thy life.

I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all

Here to this devil, to deliver you.


Does anyone imagine that Portia, the newlywed, is glad to hear her husband say that she is expendable in a way that Antonio is not?  Well, she isn’t particularly glad about it, but she proceeds to save Antonio’s life.

Here’s how she does it: First she asks Shylock to show mercy.  He says that mercy isn’t specified in the bond.  So then she says he can take Antonio’s flesh, but no blood – because blood isn’t specified in the bond.   She says he can take only a pound, but not even a fraction of an ounce more or less than a pound – because the bond specifies exactly one pound.  If he violates the least letter of the bond, he will be killed and the state will confiscate his property.

So Portia saves the day.  Everyone is overjoyed, except for Shylock. And so the play has a happy ending – except that it’s still act four, and the play has five acts.

Out of gratitude, Bassanio offers the judge some compensation.  But the judge asks for Bassanio’s wedding ring.  He hesitates, but he gives it to her.

Bassanio then returns to Portia’s house, ready to consummate his marriage – but the ring is gone. Portia says that the one with the ring belongs in her bed, so perhaps they’d better find the judge that Bassanio has been telling her about.  But Bassanio promises that he won’t break his future promises; she forgives him, and all is well.

There are other plot elements in the play.

  • Shylock’s servant leaves Shylock to work for Bassanio.
  • Shylock’s daughter runs away from home to marry a Christian.
  • Bassanio’s man, Graziano, courts and marries Portia’s lady-in-waiting.

But the conflict between Antonio and Shylock, concluded in act four, has traditionally defined the play’s themes.

There are problems with this approach:

  • For one, if the play is about the conflict between Jewish revenge and Christian love, why doesn’t it end with act four?  What does the story of Portia and Bassanio have to do with the conflict between Jewish justice and Christian mercy? You could ask the same question about Graziano’s courtship of Nerissa.
  • Second, if the play is about the goodness of the Christians, why is Bassanio’s man so mean-spirited? Why does Bassanio wish his wife were dead?
  • And third, if there is a moral rationale for allowing Antonio to break a bond that would have killed him, what is the rationale for allowing Bassanio to break the terms of a bond that makes him wealthy and marries him to the beautiful Portia?  If it’s okay to excuse Antonio from the terms of a bad deal, why is it also okay to excuse Bassanio from the terms of a good deal – and from the consequences of his own bad behavior?  What is the common denominator that integrates the Antonio-Shylock story and the Bassanio-Portia story into a coherent play with a unified theme?

Traditional interpretation can’t answer these questions.  So let’s take a non-traditional approach, and look at the play from a different perspective.

The Twelve Tables of Rome is one of the seminal legal documents of Western civilization.  It’s quite a famous document. You should know two things about it:

  • It permitted creditors to cut flesh from the bodies of the debtors.
  • And it said that an exact measurement of the flesh didn’t matter.

Now compare the Twelve Tables of Rome to Portia’s legal opinion in The Merchant of Venice:


The Twelve Tables of Rome says an exact measurement of flesh doesn’t matter.  Portia says the opposite: that the tiniest deviation from an exact measurement matters greatly.

Portia’s judgement may be many things, but it’s also an exact inversion of ancient Roman law, in the style of ancient Roman comedy.

Shakespearean comedy was based on ancient Roman comedy, which was performed on festival days, when it was customary to make fun of Roman law and morality. In this light, it seems that Portia does what a character in an ancient Roman comedy would do: she turns Roman law and morality on its head.

Scholars have recognized the allusion to The Twelve Tables of Rome in The Merchant of Venice. And scholars agree that Roman comedy was a major influence on Shakespeare, but traditional interpretation can’t explain what ancient Roman law and its festive inversion could have to do with the meaning of the play.  Let’s suspend disbelief for the time being and take a closer look at the play from the ancient Roman angle.

Portia wants to measure Antonio’s flesh by the scruple, which is an ancient Roman unit of measure.  She is disguised as a “young doctor of Rome.”  And this young doctor of Rome is a scholar of law who has “turned over many books,” an ambiguous statement that implies the festive inversion of Roman law.

Keep in mind that when Portia meets Antonio in the court room, the only thing that she knows about him is that Bassanio has described him as the “one in whom/ the ancient Roman honour more appears/ Than any that draws breath in Italy.

Of course, Antonio is a Roman name; and I would say that in Shakespeare’s mind, it was an ancient Roman name.  In Antony and Cleopatra and in Julius Caesar several characters actually call Marc Antony “Antonio.”

When Shylock sees Antonio for the first time in the play, he says:  “How like a fawning publican he looks.”  Now you shouldn’t confuse a publican with the owner of a pub.  A publican was a petty bureaucrat of the Roman empire – a tax collector or a toll taker.

“Portia” was the wife of Brutus, the daughter of Cato.  So by birth and by marriage she is among the most elite of noble Romans.

Now the Portia in The Merchant of Venice seeks to save Antonio from the knife, but the Portia of ancient Rome didn’t have any problem with cutting flesh.  Far from it.

Before she asks Brutus about the plot to assassinate Julius Caesar, she takes a knife and stabs herself in the thigh.  And then she says to him (in so many words), if I’m tough enough to mutilate myself in this way without flinching, you can be sure that you can trust me – the wife of Brutus and the daughter of Cato, she emphasizes – to keep my promise to protect your secret.

Ancient Rome was a military power, and the ability to suffer physical pain and wounds to the flesh was greatly admired as proof of nobility or honor.

When Portia commits suicide, she doesn’t pick a painless way to die.  Far from it.  Pain isn’t a problem for Portia. She’s believed to have taken hot coals into her mouth, and to have died by “swallowing fire.”  So her life of honor is one of self-mutilation, bodily pain and a torturous, self-inflicted death.

Isn’t it odd that Shakespeare picks the name of a suicidal, pagan self-mutilater for a character who is widely believed to be a beacon of Christian morality?

Bassanio plays up the association with Portia, the Roman, when he tells Antonio about the wealthy heiress that he’s picked out. “Her name is Portia,” he says, “Nothing undervalued/To Cato’s daughter, Brutus’ Portia.”   What’s missing here are Christian associations with the name of the person who – in the view of traditional interpretation – is considered to be the celestial visitant, the visitor from heaven who comes to earth to tell the Jew about the glories of Christian mercy.

Now let’s take this approach one step further to ask:  what does the play mean in the context of ancient Roman comedy’s festive inversion of ancient Roman law?  This approach turns the meaning of the play upside down, mirroring the way festive comedy turns normative morality upside down.

From the Christian perspective, Shylock is a cruel villain to demand a pound of flesh.  But from the ancient Roman perspective, cutting flesh was legal, moral and just. It’s not a cruel trick of a vengeful devil. It’s just a simple matter of law for an honorable, law-abiding citizen.

Christianity may condemn revenge, and preach that it is better to turn the other cheek.  But the Romans favored revenge.  For example, when the Romans crushed Spartacus’ slave revolt, they crucified some six thousand rebels along the Appian way. That was a spectacular display of Roman revenge, Roman cruelty and Roman justice.

From the Christian perspective, usury was immoral.  But the ancient Romans didn’t have moral qualms about lending money at interest, and as we have seen, they weren’t particularly soft-hearted about enforcing the terms of a debt.

From the Christian perspective, Portia represents Christian love and mercy.  But in the context of Roman comedy, Portia represents the lawless immorality of a pagan festival day.

It’s true that Bassanio is a frivolous character who goes into debt due to numerous failed romances.  He doesn’t keep his promises.  But from the perspective of Roman comedy, that’s okay.  The heroes of Roman comedy aren’t thrifty; they’re spendthrifts.  They’re not noble; they lie, they trick, they deceive.

When Bassanio says he wishes that his wife were dead, that type of disrespect for his wife has no meaning in the context of noble Christians versus the cruel Jew.  But it is a traditional joke in the context of Roman comedy, which is greatly disrespectful of wives – because remember, on the festival day, immorality is taken to be humorous.

If you interpret the play in terms of ancient Roman honor, the moral value that is turned upside down in the festive manner of Roman comedy is the importance of keeping a promise or a commitment.  The comic inversion of legal and moral bonds is the theme that integrates all the play’s subplots into a coherent unity.

  • Antonio breaks his bond, and in the comic fashion gets away with it.
  • Bassanio breaks his promise, and in the comic fashion gets away with it.
  • Bassanio’s man, Graziano does the same.
  • Shylock’s daughter Jessica desecrates her family bond, and goes unpunished.

The festive inversion of ancient Roman honor resolves the contradictions of traditional interpretation that I described earlier.  This theme integrates all five acts and all subplots.

This approach to the play is truly revolutionary in the original sense of the term: it turns upside down everything that’s been thought about the play so far. We have inverted two opposite extremes: we are interpreting the play as if Portia represents pagan immorality, when Portia has so far been believed to represent Christian morality.

Nevertheless, we don’t wish to deny that the conflict between Christian and Jew is obvious and prominent in this play. How can we reconcile traditional interpretation with the alternative approach that I am proposing?

The answer to this question, as it happens, is quite simple.  At some of the most significant moments in the play, the leading characters explain that what seems to be self-evident is deceptive, that superficial appearances are contrary to the truth.

The most elaborate exposition of this point of view is the speech that Bassanio gives at the moment that decides his fate, just before he makes a choice among the three caskets. He says, in part:

So may the outward shows be least themselves.

The world is still deceived with ornament.

In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt

But, being seasoned with a gracious voice,

Obscures the show of evil? In religion,

What damned error but some sober brow

Will bless it and approve it with a text,

Hiding the grossness with fair ornament?

There is no vice so simple but assumes

Some mark of virtue on his outward parts.

How many cowards, whose hearts are all as false

As stairs of sand, wear yet upon their chins

The beards of Hercules and frowning Mars,

Who inward searched have livers white as milk? …

Thus ornament is [he says] …

The seeming truth which cunning times put on

To entrap the wisest.


Again and again, Bassanio explains that superficial appearance is contrary to the truth.  Superficial appearance is antithetical to the truth.  Outward show is least itself.

At another point in the play, Antonio says essentially the same thing.  He says:

An evil soul producing holy witness

Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,

A goodly apple rotten at the heart.

O what a goodly outside falsehood hath!


A goodly apple – shiny and red – hides a rotten core. The villain smiles, and looks friendly.  Superficial appearance hides a contrary reality – which is also the main lesson taught by the challenge of the three caskets: what appears golden on the outside is worthless on the inside; what is ugly, worthless on the outside contains the beauteous Portia and her fortune.

For The Merchant of Venice, the superficial issues that are deceptive are the seemingly obvious ones: the conflict between Christian love and Jewish revenge, between Christian mercy and Jewish justice.  These issues mask the central issue of the play – deception, hiding behind a mask of honor – even though the play repeatedly warns us that appearances are deceptive.

  • Bassanio appears to be a loyal spouse who will keep his promises;  he isn’t.
  • Portia purports to represent Christian morality, but she’s a fraud.
  • Antonio is said to be the one in whom the ancient Roman honor most appears, but he isn’t a man of ancient Roman honor.
  • And Shylock, who is superficially Jewish, is in a deeper sense representative of ancient Roman honor.  He functions as the comic foil in a comedy modeled after ancient Roman comedy.

We’ve come a long way.  We’ve come to understand how this play can be deceptive even while it repeatedly warns that superficial appearances are deceptive. On the surface, the play is a defense of Christian spirituality, but underneath there is a contrary level of meaning that celebrates pagan immorality.

Now I’d like to take my observations about The Merchant of Venice one step further by asking:  what does the logic of Shakespeare’s artistry in this play tell us about the logic of Shakespeare’s artistry in general?

There are five observations that we can make about the logic of Shakespeare’s artistry in The Merchant of Venice.

First, the deceptiveness of appearance was a matter of major concern. We don’t know if this issue greatly concerned Shakespeare personally.  We only know that it makes logical sense as a technical aspect his art:

  • As a poet, Shakespeare understands how words can cast a spell;  they can flatter, mislead, deceive.
  • As a dramatist, Shakespeare understands how plays can create powerful illusions that cause us to suspend disbelief, to laugh, to cry, to be moved profoundly – by an illusion.
  • And deceptive appearance is the traditional subject matter of comic drama.

Second, ancient Roman honor offers a possible anchor of solidity in a sea of moral chaos. Ancient Roman honor is an unshakable and solid commitment to personal integrity that excludes any possibility of dishonesty or deception. Again, we don’t know if this issue was a matter of personal belief for Shakespeare.  We only know that it makes logical sense as a technical aspect his art:

  • The art form of drama derives from a pagan, Greco-Roman tradition.
  • Shakespeare’s plays refer to ancient Roman honor.
  • And ancient Roman honor makes logical sense as a moral counterbalance to the festive deceptiveness of comedy that derives from ancient Roman comedy

Third, Shakespeare casts issues in terms of extreme opposites.  In The Merchant of Venice, superficial appearance isn’t merely different from reality; it’s antithetical to reality.

  • Outwardly, the box is gold, but inside it’s worthless.
  • Ornament hides grossness.
  • Christian morality hides pagan immorality.

Fourth, these opposite extremes converge; they come together in a way that makes it difficult to tell them apart.  Conventional wisdom suggests that extreme opposites should appear very different, but in Shakespeare, opposite extremes appear the same.

  • Both the good apple and the rotten apple share the same shiny red surface.
  • Hercules and the coward both have the same beard.
  • Both Christianity and the Roman festival favor mercy rather than harsh justice.

And finally, Shakespeare takes the contrarian view that the truth is most likely antithetical to superficial appearance.  In other words, the shinier the apple, the more likely that it’s rotten on the inside.

We make these observations about the logic of the artistic perspective that lies within The Merchant of Venice. Now we’ll apply this artistic logic to other Shakespeare plays. Here’s where we make the transition from specific observations about one particular play to some broader observations about the logic of Shakespeare’s artistry in general.

Let’s start with an easy one:  Much Ado About Nothing.


First there’s the “merry war” between Beatrice and Benedick.  “Merry war” is an oxymoron, a convergence of opposites.  Do they love each other or hate each other?  Both emotional extremes converge in their relationship.

In a flash, Benedick’s hatred for Beatrice switches over to love because he is fooled by outward appearances. His friends trick him into believing the impossible:  that Beatrice loves him. He assumes that he has overheard a private discussion, and he reasons that they couldn’t be joking, because they appear to be quite serious.

But once Benedick believes that Beatrice is in love with him, he no longer accepts appearances at face value; instead, he believes the inverse of what he sees.  Beatrice continues to mock him, but now Benedick sees love hidden behind the insults. Like Bassanio, Benedick believes that outward show is least itself.

The sub-plot of Claudio and his fiancée, Hero, is a mirror image of what goes on between Beatrice and Benedick.  By mirror image I mean: the two subplots are opposites, but also identical.

In the case of Beatrice and Benedick, a good-humored deception results in their marriage.  In the case of Claudio and Hero, a mean-spirited deception breaks up their marriage.

The results are contrary, but both Benedick and Claudio have made the same mistake.  Like Benedick, Claudio stupidly takes outward appearance at face value.  He believes the show that the evil Don John puts on for him, never suspecting that appearances could deceive.

Now consider how the constable, Dogberry, straightens things out.  He consistently inverts opposites: he calls the defendants “plaintiffs.”  He calls himself and his men “malefactors.” He indignantly accuses the criminals of “piety” – as if piety were a crime (which it is, in the context of festive comedy.)

There is a logic behind the lunacy;  and that logic tracks very closely to the artistic logic behind The Merchant of Venice: appearances are deceptive, opposite extremes are mistaken for one another; we see the convergence, confusion and inversion of opposites.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream also follows this pattern. At the center of the play you have the hee-hawing windbag country bumpkin with the head of a jackass, but the queen of the spirits sees something contrary to all appearance: to her he is beautiful, he sings beautifully, and she swears she loves him.

The two couples, Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius, illustrate something similar.  By tradition, Hermia is short and dark, while Helena is tall and fair – extreme opposites.  Lysander at first swears undying love to the short and dark one.  Then suddenly he swears undying hatred for her, and loves the tall and fair one.  So you see how one extreme emotion flips over to its opposite, how opposite extremes are confused and interchangeable rather than absolute and distinct.

You can see the convergence and confusion of extreme opposites in the Pyramus and Thisbe play, which is said to be “tedious and brief, merry and tragical – hot ice and wondrous strange snow.”  It is said to be a very short play that lasts too long.

By the moon’s sunny beams, Pyramus firmly believes that his beloved Thisbe is dead – even though she is alive.  On the basis this tragic misperception he commits suicide, but in this rendition the tragedy is hilarious.

Romeo and Juliet is the tragic mirror image of the comic Pyramus and Thisbe story.  In the tomb that he declares is “a feasting presence full of light,” Romeo kills himself because he believes that his true love lies dead before him.  Whatever else goes on in Romeo and Juliet, ultimately the play is a tragedy of misperception: superficially Juliet appears to be dead.  Romeo is absolutely certain that she’s dead, but he’s entirely wrong.

The play is a powerful illustration of the convergence of two extremes: love and violence.


Consider the convergence of murder and marriage in Romeo, who marries Juliet and murders Tybalt all within the same hour.  The wedding ceremony comes first.  Killing Tybalt comes second.  Consummating the marriage comes third.

As Juliet waits for Romeo to come to her bed on their wedding night, she wrestles with the news that Romeo has killed her kinsman.  The conflicting emotions of love and hate converge in her soul with far more intensity than in the “merry war” between Beatrice and Benedick.  Juliet speaks of this convergence of opposite extremes in oxymora:

O serpent heart, hid with a flow’ring face!

Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave?

Beautiful tyrant! Fiend angelical!

[Dove feather’d] raven!  wolvish ravening lamb!

Despised substance of divinest show!

Just opposite to what thou justly seem’st,

A [damned] saint, an honourable villain!


Just as in The Merchant of Venice, Juliet concludes: outward show is least itself;  “Despised substance of divinest show/  Just opposite to what thou justly seem’st.”

The Taming of the Shrew is also focused on the deceptiveness of appearance. Appearances say that Bianca will make a better wife than the shrewish Katherine, but like Bassanio who sees beauty in the plain, lead box; or Benedick, who hears affection in Beatrice’s insults,  Petrucchio responds to appearances in a contrarian manner. He says that if Katherine “rails,” he will tell her that :

She sings as sweetly as a nightingale.

Say that she frown, I’ll say she looks as clear

As morning roses newly wash’d with dew.

Say she be mute and will not speak a word,

Then I’ll commend her volubility,

And say she uttereth piercing eloquence.

If she do bid me pack, I’ll give her thanks,

As though she bid me stay by her a week.


He claims they have agreed that she should continue to be shrewish outwardly, but affectionate in private. He arrives for the wedding dressed outlandishly, saying that appearances don’t matter.  She likes the look of fashionable clothes, but he shreds the clothes, telling her that fashionable notions of beauty are in fact ugly. Appearances deceive and extreme opposites converge to the point where ultimately Petrucchio insists that the sun and the moon are interchangeable.

Don’t forget that the story of Petrucchio and Katherine is actually a play-within-a-play that is performed to fool the drunkard, Christopher Slye. Is it possible to deceive this miserable wretch into thinking that he is a mighty lord? That’s what festive comedy does for the slaves; it elevates them to master for the day.

An inversion of opposite extremes is at the root of festive comedy.

An inversion of man’s perception of opposite extremes is at the root of Shakespeare’s comedy.

I don’t want to over-simplify the variety and complexity of Shakespeare’s work.  But it seems to me that the logic of Shakespeare’s artistry in The Merchant of Venice has a direct bearing on a cluster of five plays that were written in close order to one another.

  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet. 1595.
  • The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew. 1596.
  • Much Ado About Nothing. 1598.

In conclusion, let’s get back to The Merchant of Venice, again. Frank Kermode, a former professor of English Literature at Cambridge University, is one of the most distinguished critics alive today.  In his book, Shakespeare’s Language – which came out this summer – he says of The Merchant of Venice:

“The framework of [its] thought is clear:  Justice and Mercy, Jew and gentle [gentle, he says, punning on Gentile], venture and usury, love and its impossibility for some.” p. 74.

The framework is clear, Kermode says with some confidence.  But if he is right, then The Merchant of Venice is the only play in all of Shakespeare that is a work of Christian apologetics.

But what if the play is instead about the deceptiveness of what appears to be clear?  In that case, the play is closely linked and greatly similar to a cluster of five plays that Shakespeare wrote in the same time period.

Ultimately, which is the more reasonable approach – the supposedly self-evident celebration of Christian mercy that is the exception to the general pattern of Shakespearean comedy – or the counter-intuitive solution to a mystery that is hidden only because it is so obvious?

I’ll give Shakespeare the final word:

So may the outward shows be least themselves.

The world is still deceived with ornament….

The seeming truth which cunning times put on

To entrap the wisest.


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