the merchant of venice

The Motive of Imposters

William Shakespeare attained literary immortality through his exposition of the many qualities of human nature in his works. One such work, The Merchant of Venice, revolves around the very human trait of deception. Fakes and frauds have been persistent throughout history, even to this day. Evidence of deception is all around us, whether it is in the products we purchase or the sales clerks’ false smile as one debates the purchase of the illusory merchandise. We are engulfed by phonies, pretenders, and cheaters. Although most often associated with a heart of malice, imposture varies in its motives as much as it’s practitioners, demonstrated in The Merchant of Venice by the obdurate characters of Shylock and Portia.
We frequently see the intent of greed and selfishness covered up by the words and face of virtue. Such exploit is displayed by the exceptionally stingy Shylock, an unpopular Jew who makes his living through the practice of usury. When confronted about his unsympathetic trade, he resorts to citing scripture, thus comparing his selfish trade with the actions of holy men (I, iii, 73-87). Antonio, a well respected and honorable merchant, sees right through the falsehood of the justification and asks Shylock, “Was this inserted to make interest good? Or is your gold and silver ewes and rams?” (I, iii, 91-92). The response from Shylock to the question reveals a glimpse of his true meaning. “I cannot tell; I make it breed as fast” (I, iii, 93-94) is a rather boastful reply of his wealth than a righteous rationalization. To which Antonio can only turn to his friend and say “The devil can site Scripture for his purpose. An evil soul producing holy witness is like a villain with a smiling cheek” (I, iii, 95-97).
Words alone are not the only means by which imposters operate. A far more effective mode is one that fools the eye for it cannot pierce through the surface. Portia, the new wife of Antonio’s friend, dresses as a lawyer in order to deceive the court. However, unlike Shylock’s motive, Portia’s intent is far more noble and selfless. She manipulates the law in such a way to save Antonio from certain death by the hand of Shylock. Through the eyes of the law, the imposture of a lawyer, especially by a woman at that time, was seen as extremely illicit. But Portia saw impersonation as the only means by which to save a man’s life. The action more than warranted the cause. Unquestionably a motive of honorable ethical values.
The distinction between the intentions of Shylock and Portia is clear. Even though Portia did save the life of a noble man, she did use deception in order to do so. Nevertheless, one may argue that imposture of any form is dishonesty and the motive behind it cannot change that. The only way to preserve absolute truth would be with steadfast integrity.

-Stan Szubiak, 9/22/99