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Playing, Gambling and Cheating in Early Modern England and France

Taking chances: Gambling and Providence in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice

Jeu et providence dans Le Marchand de Venise de Shakespeare
Louise Fang

Résumés

Cet article vise à explorer en quoi les références aux jeux qui parsèment Le Marchand de Venise de William Shakespeare amènent une réflexion sur les rôles respectifs du hasard, de la providence, et de l’action humaine dans la destinée des personnages. Les métaphores liées au jeu que l’on trouve tout au long de la pièce tendent à mettre en avant l’habileté des joueurs bien plus que leur chance, et soulignent ainsi leur mérite dans le dénouement heureux de la pièce. Elles attirent aussi notre attention sur les calculs et les stratégies qui permettent aux protagonistes de minimiser les risques qu’ils prennent dans leurs différentes entreprises d’une façon qui rappelle la théorie, alors émergente, des probabilités. Ces stratégies ludiques discréditent l’idée selon laquelle un pouvoir divin quelconque serait à l’origine du succès des personnages. Le rôle de Portia dans le procès d’Antonio en particulier montre comment son action et son jeu d’actrice peuvent être travestis en une manifestation de la providence divine et interprétés comme telle. Les jeux nous mènent ainsi à modérer les lectures de la pièce voyant dans son dénouement une fin miraculeuse voire « irrationnelle ». Bien au contraire, Le Marchand de Venise se présente comme une pièce éminemment pragmatique dans laquelle l’existence même du hasard, ou de la providence, est mise en doute.

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  • 1 “Between 1500 and 1700 gambling in Venice changed from a private activity for small groups of noble (...)
  • 2 John Marckant, Of Dyce, Wyne and Women, London, printed by William Gryffith, 1571.

1The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s plays in which gambling features most prominently. It is a crucial element to both plots throughout the play since Portia’s submission to the outcome of her father’s ‘lottery’ – the word is used by Nerissa in act 1 scene 2 – bears striking similarities to the uncertainty of Antonio’s financial wagers. In addition to this central relevance to the plot, gambling is also explicitly mentioned by the characters themselves as they repeatedly bet on events to come. Graziano, for instance, offers a bet to Portia and Bassanio on their first born in act 3 scene 1: “We’ll play them the first boy for a thousand ducats” (3.1.212-213). Later in the play, when Portia decides to go to Venice in disguise, she tells Nerissa: “I’ll hold thee any wager, / When we are both accoutered like young men / I’ll prove the prettier fellow of the two” (3.4.62-64). These allusions are more than mere figurative phrases of the time. They draw on common stereotypes linked to Venice, a town which was by then already renowned for its gaming culture.1 More importantly, they echo debates about the moral acceptability of different ludic practices that were raging in Elizabethan England. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, gambling was considered by many as the most reprehensible form of play. Those who openly opposed it in treatises and pamphlets on games often put to the fore the widespread impoverishment such practices could lead to, and the risks this entailed for society as a whole. In a cautionary broadside ballad, John Marckant uses a reformed player as a speaker to warn his readers against the pitfalls of dice-playing: “Let this example of my smarte, teache others to be ware, / Of Wemen, Dyce and Wyne also, which have made me thus bare.”2 However, the most frequent argument against gambling was essentially religious in nature. Puritans in particular saw any form of gambling as a corrupted appeal to God’s Providence motivated only by the players’ covetousness. In 1581, Thomas Wilcox, a puritan clergyman, wrote a treatise on the subject entitled A Glasse for Gamesters in which he argued, like most of the other adversaries to gambling of the time, that the luck experienced by players at games was nothing but a blasphemous use of divine power:

  • 3 Thomas Wilcox, A Glasse for Gamesters, London, printed by John Kyngston for Thomas Man, 1581, sig. (...)

I take these games of Dice and Cardes, beyng as I saied before, games of lot, hazard, or chaunce, to bee flatly againste the thirde commaundement, thou shalte not take the name of the Lorde thy God in vaine. The reason that leadeth me thereunto is this. Lot, or chaunce (as we call it) is one of the principall testimonies of the power of God, because it is ruled and governed immediately, by his hand and providence, and was never ordained of God for any thyng, but for matters of greate weight, and never used amongst the Godly, but in causes of greate importaunce, as in partyng of goods, dividing of lands, election of Magistrates, choice of Ministers, and such like thynges, […] Besides that, it seemeth to bee a maner of tempting of God, when wee knowe, that he will not have this used, but in matters of greate weight and importaunce, and yet wee will use it, in thynges of no value, as though we would make God, a servaunt of our pleasures, laughters and delightes, and woulde knowe whether he have any care thereof, then the which, what can bee more straunge to utter, or fearefull to thinke:3

2In the course of this article, I argue that allusions to the polemical dimension of games in The Merchant of Venice lead to a reflection on the combined roles of providence and human agency. The numerous references to games and gaming in the play draw our attention to the contemporary debates and emphasise the decisive role of the players’ skill. As such, they suggest that players are in fact partly in control of the game and therefore indirectly highlight the importance of human agency in the play’s happy ending. Conversely, the action of providence itself is called into doubt as we shall see through the analysis of gaming references in the trial of the three caskets and the resolution of Antonio’s trial.

Playing for money in the Merchant of Venice

  • 4 Marie-Laure Legay, “Joueurs et spéculateurs”, in Histoire de l’argent, Paris, Armand Colin, 2014, p (...)
  • 5 “The unprecedented popularity of gambling in the seventeenth century has to be seen in the wider co (...)
  • 6 Craig Muldrew, The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and Social Relations in Early Moder (...)
  • 7 Oystein Ore, Cardano, the Gambling Scholar, with a translation from the Latin of Cardano’s Book on (...)

3The chief reason why references to games recur in the play is undoubtedly linked to the centrality of economy in its main plot. By the end of the sixteenth century, the structure of commerce had become increasingly analogous to that of games through the generalisation of financial speculation.4 According to Gerda Reith, the growing popularity of games of chance throughout the early modern period was directly linked to the economic developments of the time: not only did the new mercantile economy enable a greater number of people to participate in fashionable bets and wagers for play, but a growing parallelism also existed between gambling and trade, as both activities encouraged participants to bet on a potential future profit.5 As shown by Craig Muldrew, early modern English economy increasingly relied on credit and pledges.6 Shakespeare’s contemporaries were well aware of this growing likeness between economy and gambling. In his Book on Games of Chance, which is believed to have been written around 1550 and was first printed in 1663, the Italian mathematician Girolamo Cardano states that “it is agreed by all that one man may be more fortunate than another, or even than himself at another time of life, not only in games but also in business”.7 This parallelism is also significant in The Merchant of Venice. In the play, the characters’ frequent betting on their futures reminds us of Antonio’s risky financial ventures: whether it is Graziano’s bet on his first child as previously mentioned, or Lancelot’s bet when he “sets [his] rest to run away” (2.2.98-99) from Shylock’s household. In the latter example, Lancelot takes up a phrase commonly used in the popular card game of primero in which to set one’s rest meant to bet all of one’s reserve stakes. Lancelot’s choice to leave his master, like Antonio’s investments, involves a degree of risk-taking which is, in his eyes, very similar to the decisions a gambler makes at a card game.

4Merchant adventurers in particular – whose fortune rested entirely on the safe return of their ships from faraway lands – were often likened to heedless gamesters in the early modern period. In a collection of satirical portraits entitled Whimzies and printed in 1631, Richard Brathwaite compares the constant worrying of the gamester with that of the merchant-adventurer:

  • 8 Richard Brathwaite, Whimzies, or a new cast of characters, London, printed by Felix Kingston, 1631, (...)

[A Gamester] is a Merchant-venturer, for his stocke runnes alwaies upon hazard. Hee ha’s a perpetuall Palsey in his Elbow; which never leaves shaking till his fortunes bee shaken. Hee remembers God more in Oaths than Orisons. And if hee pray at any time, it is not premeditate but extemporal. The summe of his devotion consists not in the expression or confession of himselfe like a penitent sinner, but that he may come off at next meeting a competent winner.8

5The typical anxiety caused by hazardous bets which Richard Brathwaite describes in this text brings to mind the opening scene of Merchant of Venice, when Salanio and Salarino try to fathom the source of Antonio’s despondency:

  • 9 All references to The Merchant of Venice are from William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, 2nd edit (...)

SALANIO [to Antonio] – Believe me, sir, had I such venture forth
The better part of my affections would
Be with my hopes abroad. I should be still
Plucking the grass to know where sits the wind,
Peering in maps for ports and piers and roads,
And every object that might make me fear
Misfortune to my ventures out of doubt
Would make me sad. (1.1.15-22)
9

  • 10 Thomas Gataker, The Nature and Uses of Lotteries: A Historical and Theological Treatise, ed. Conall (...)
  • 11 Although Calvin discouraged such interpretations, they were widespread and very popular, see Max We (...)
  • 12 Neil Carson, “Hazarding and Cozening in The Merchant of Venice”, English Language Notes, vol. 9, n° (...)

6Although the comparison of merchant adventurers to gamesters was of course meant to be disparaging it could, paradoxically, also cast a favourable light on their successes. As I mentioned earlier, for Thomas Wilcox, and for many other authors in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, chance, luck, and divine providence were one and the same thing. The fact that divine providence was at work in any game of chance, ranging from financial bets to any game of dice, even gave rise to a debate which culminated in 1619 when Thomas Gataker printed his Treatise on Lots in which the author tries to draw a line between the actions of mere chance, which in his view owe nothing to divine power, and providence: “Being a chance event does not make it part of God’s providence.”10 However, his opponents’ view was much more common and was undoubtedly the prevailing one when The Merchant of Venice was written and performed in 1596-1597. This led to an ambivalent attitude towards risk-taking in economy as the success of enterprises such as those of Antonio’s could consequently be perceived as a form of divine reward.11 The risks taken by merchant adventurers could therefore be equally seen as a form of recklessness, of hubris even, or as a leap of faith and a sign of divine election. In light of this, the happy ending of the play could be read as a reward for Antonio and Bassanio’s risk-taking. Their willingness to risk a lot or even, in Antonio’s case, everything, testifies to their trust, their love, and ultimately their faith. We find such a reading in Neil Carson’s paper, “Hazarding and Cozening in The Merchant of Venice”.12 According to him the play opposes two sets of characters:

  • 13 Ibid., p. 172.

The contrast here intended, I believe, is between the “cozeners” who think that good fortune may be earned by merit or endeavour, and the “hazarders” whose recklessness is a token of their faith in God’s divine providence.13

7Shylock’s mistrust, which is closely linked to his practice of usury, therefore amounts to cheating providence whereas Antonio and Bassanio’s risk-taking shows that they act as faithful Christians. According to Walter Lim too Shylock’s condemnation in Venetian society and throughout the play directly derives from his wary attitude towards risk-taking in business:

  • 14 Walter Lim, “Surety and Spiritual Commercialism in The Merchant of Venice”, Studies in English Lite (...)

[Shylock] is portrayed in a cruelly negative light not only because of his adherence to the legalistic letter of the law and his mean-spiritedness but also because he is not open to the taking of risks requisite for profit making in capital ventures.14

8We find many examples of comparisons between usurers and cheaters in the early modern period. In his sermons on usury Henry Smith compares both practices:

  • 15 Henry Smith, The Examination of Usury in Two Sermons, London, printed by R. Field for T. Man, 1591, (...)

As other crafts are called Mysteries, so I may fitly call it, the Mysterie of Usurie, for they have devised mo sorts of Usurie, tha[n] there be trickes at cardes, I cannot recken halfe, and I am afrayde to shew you all, least I should teach you to be Usurers, while I disswade you from Usurie, yet I will bring forth some; and the same reasons which are alledged against these, shall condemne all the rest.15

  • 16 Among the most famous are those written by Robert Greene, A Notable Discovery of Cozenage, London, (...)

9The indictment voiced by Henry Smith here is reminiscent of “conny-catching pamphlets”, texts which exposed the tricks and methods of thieves and outwardly warned their readers against the cheaters haunting tavern games.16 Like the shady characters from these popular pamphlets, Shylock tries to dupe Antonio and Bassanio by displaying all the outward signs of friendship and the seemingly flippant clause of his “merry bond” (1.3.170): “I would be friends with you, and have your love” (1.3.136), he says to Antonio. However, a closer look at the metaphors of games and playing in the play challenges this binary reading opposing cautious cheaters to faithful risk-takers.

“Taming” Chance:17 games, skill, and probability theory

  • 17 Ian Hacking, The Taming of Chance, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990.
  • 18 T. Wilcox, Glasse for Gamesters, op.cit., sig. [B6r]
  • 19 William Perkins, The Whole Treatise, London, 1606, p. 589-590.

10First of all, the actions and decisions taken by the characters in the play are not exclusively likened to games of chance. Shakespeare alludes to other kinds of games throughout the play, games which even Puritan authors in favour of banning dice and cards would have been likely to consider as “lawful” or even “honest”. These games were acceptable because they supposedly allowed the players to win through skill rather than luck and as such were not guilty of “misusing” divine power. This distinction between the notions of luck and skill was fundamental at the time and it favoured what would today be called “sports” or games such as chess that were deemed more intellectually stimulating than cards and dice in which players were seen as being almost entirely passive. According to Thomas Wilcox games of chance are morally flawed because “men are directed, rather by chaunce, to obtaine the game and victorie, at suche a plaie, [rather] then by cunnyng and industrie.”18 Similarly, in a treatise printed in 1606 William Perkins argues that what he terms “[games of] industry of the mind & body […] are very commendable and not to be disliked” and in that respect he opposes them to what he calls “games of meere hazard”.19 Chance and skill were the decisive criteria to determine the moral acceptability of a game. Perhaps it should come as no surprise then, that in act 1 scene 1 Bassanio should use the metaphor of archery, rather than that of ‘lottery’ or other games of chance which might seem more suited to the occasion, to describe the second loan he wishes to make – even though he still has not repaid his first – and the profit he hopes to make:

BASSANIO – In my schooldays, when I had lost one shaft,
I shot his fellow of the selfsame flight
The selfsame way, with more advisèd watch,
To find the other forth; and by adventuring both,
I oft found both. I urge this childhood proof
Because what follows is pure innocence.
I owe you much, and, like a wilful youth,
That which I owe is lost; but if you please
To shoot another arrow that self way
Which you did shoot the first, I do not doubt,
As I will watch the aim, or to find both
Or bring your latter hazard back again,
And thankfully rest debtor for the first. (1.1.140-152)

11By equating his second loan to a trick used by children to find a missing arrow in a game of archery Bassanio makes his request sound both safe and rational. The comparison considerably downplays the risks taken by his potential creditor: after all, his argument is even based on experimental “proof” (l. 144). He also draws on the reputation of archery as one of the most, if not the most, commendable ludic practices of the time. Unlike games of chance and gambling, archery had been repeatedly promoted by the Tudor monarchy. Its virtues were famously extolled in Ascham’s 1545 treatise Toxophilus. Ascham too pits the virtues and skills associated with archery against the uncertainties of games of chance:

  • 20 Roger Ascham, Toxophilus, London, printed by Edward Whitchurch, 1545, sig. F2v.

So let youthe in steade of suche unlefull games, whiche stande by ydlenesse, by solitarinesse, and corners, by night and darkenesse, by fortune & chaunce, by crafte and subtiltie, use suche pastimes as stand by labour: upon the daye light, in open syght of men, havynge suche an ende as is come to by co[n]ning, rather then by crafte: and so shulde vertue encrease, and vice decaye.20

12However, although Bassanio’s use of the metaphor is obviously self-serving it is not altogether deprived of logical sense. As hazardous as his enterprise might seem at first, multiplying his loans in order to secure a prize – Portia’s hand – that would allow him to repay all his debts is not entirely irrational, especially in light of the mathematical discoveries of the time.

  • 21 “And so (and now I tell the truth, there being no reason why I should lie) I contrived for myself a (...)
  • 22 “Galileo was less prone to error. In a brief memorandum he relates that someone has been puzzled by (...)
  • 23 John Northbrooke, A Treatise Against Dicing, Dancing, Plays, and Interludes, with Other Idle Pastim (...)

13 By the end of the sixteenth century players had started to become interested in ways of figuring out regular patterns in the most random games of chance. In Girolamo Cardano’s treatise on games of chance of 1550, which has often been thought to herald probability theory, the author noted, much like Bassanio in the preceding lines, that by betting on the same numbers repeatedly he was almost guaranteed to win back the money he had lost in a first round.21 It was common knowledge among diceplayers too, that the numbers 10 and 11 came up much more frequently than 9 and 12 even though all these numbers could be made up in just as many ways. This combinatorial problem was solved by Galileo who demonstrated that it was due to the higher number of permutations that can form 10 and 11: 27 permutations instead of 25 for 9 and 12.22 Following these early findings, which would later be more fully developed by Blaise Pascal’s probability theory, it became apparent that some degree of skill and calculation could also be used in even the most random games of chance: dice were indeed considered to be much more hazardous and random than any other kind of game which is why most writers on the subject thought games of dice in particular should be banned. It appears then that the line that puritans so eagerly sought to draw between “games of industry” and “of mere hazard” could in fact be easily questioned. In his treatise against games, John Northbrooke even acknowledges that dice playing is a form of “skill”, even though it is not the type that should be praised: “For the obteyning of this skill (of filthie Dice playing) they have made it as it were an arte”.23 The Spanish physician Juan Huarte – who, meanwhile, did not oppose games – went so far as to underline the intellectual merits of card players in his treatise on The Examination of Mens Wit which was translated into English in 1594:

  • 24 Juan Huarte, Examen de Ingenios, The Examination of Mens Wits, trans. R. C. Esquire, London, printe (...)

To play well at Primero, and to face and vie, and to hold and give over when time serveth, and by conjectures to know his adversaries game, and the skill of discarding, are all workes of the imagination.24

  • 25 According to the OED “hit” was used in a variety of sports (including billiards) but it is most all (...)

14The use of the image of archery in Bassanio’s cue is, therefore, not entirely artificial; it hints at a probabilistic way of thinking that appears elsewhere in the play and can also account for Antonio’s investments. The metaphor is implicitly extended later in the play, when Bassanio learns that Antonio’s ships have been lost at sea. He uses the term “hit” which was often used in archery:25

BASSANIO – […] But is it true, Salerio?
Hath all his ventures failed? What, not one hit?
From Tripolis, from Mexico and England,
From Lisbon, Barbary, and India,
And not one vessel scape the dreadful touch
Of merchant-marring rocks? (3.2.264-269)

  • 26 Daniel Drew, “‘Let me have judgment, and the Jew his will’: Melancholy Epistemology and Masochistic (...)

15Again, using a game of skill rather than a game of chance to describe Antonio’s investments implies that the merchant adventurer was at least partly in control of the outcome of his affairs. Moreover, the quick succession of questions in these lines underlines Bassanio’s disbelief and consequently emphasizes the improbability of Antonio’s loss. It is worth noting that the other Venetian characters are perhaps just as surprised by the loss of Antonio’s ship as they will be by their return at the end of the play. The confidence displayed by Antonio himself regarding his investments is far from being groundless: “In this there can be no dismay / My ships come home a month before the day” (1.3.180) he says to Bassanio in an attempt to allay his fears about the terms of Shylock’s bond. Of course, this is not to say there is not a sacrificial dimension to Antonio’s love for Bassanio, as has been argued by Daniel Drew for instance.26 This dimension is fully apparent during the trial scene. But there is no reason to think that his confidence in his affairs is not genuine. When Antonio’s other friends mention the risks he is taking in sending so many ships abroad together in act 1 scene 1, he opposes a very logical explanation for his peace of mind:

ANTONIO – Believe me, no. I thank my fortune for it,
My ventures are not in one bottom trusted,
Nor to one place; nor is my whole estate
Upon the fortune of this present year.
Therefore my merchandise makes me not sad. (1.1.41-45)

  • 27 Peter Musgrave, The Early Modern European Economy, London, Macmillan press ltd., 1999, p. 56.
  • 28 David Margolies, Shakespeare’s Irrational Endings: The Problem Plays, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2 (...)

16Antonio’s strategy simply consists in not putting all his eggs in one basket. He insists on the fact that his investments are both geographically and temporally diversified in a way that should ensure him a regular flow of income. Again, this strategy is a basic application of probabilistic thinking. In the early modern period, diversifying investments was in fact the most common and most rational method of risk management available according to Peter Musgrave.27 Those who adopted it did not hope for a “maximisation of income” but rather aimed at reaching a relative form of stability. And this is indeed what Antonio gets in the end when three of his argosies come back to Venice: “There you shall find three of your argosies / Are richly come to harbour suddenly.” (5.1.276-277). If we compare that number to Bassanio’s enumeration in act 3 scene 2 we notice that even though this is both an unexpected and welcome turn of events for the protagonists, no more than half of Antonio’s ships have actually come back. We can therefore qualify what has often been seen as the miraculous or even “irrational”28 dimension of the resolution of the plot.

17Although the strategies respectively adopted by Bassanio and Antonio might appear contradictory and reckless at first, they are quite rational and efficient as long as they are consistently applied to their enterprises. In the end, both strategies pay off. Like the gamesters and mathematicians of their time, the protagonists of The Merchant of Venice have found regular patterns and laws of frequency that enable them to ‘tame chance’, according to Ian Hacking’s phrase, and rationally predict the outcome of their seemingly hazardous wagers. Their successes testify to their clever calculations rather than to their unwavering faith in divine providence. The play’s resolution therefore inevitably raises the question of the respective roles of human actions and providence: does taming chance amount to taming providence?

The “lottery of destiny”: a rigged game

18Human agency appears to be even more decisive when it comes to the supposed “lottery” of the three caskets designed by Portia’s deceased father to choose her husband. This trial is first referred to as a “lottery” by Nerissa in act 1 scene 2 when Portia expresses the despair often associated with gamblers in her time, as we have seen earlier:

PORTIA – […] O me, the word ‘choose’! I may neither choose who I would nor refuse who I dislike; so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father. Is it not hard, Nerissa, that I cannot choose one nor refuse none?
NERISSA – Your father was ever virtuous, and holy men at their death have good inspirations; therefore the lottery that he hath devised in these three chests of gold, silver, and lead, whereof who chooses his meaning chooses you, will no doubt never be chosen by any rightly but one who you shall rightly love. But what warmth is there in your affection towards any of these princely suitors that are already come? (1.2.21-34)

19In these lines, Portia’s destiny seems to rest entirely on a game of chance in which she has no say whatsoever. Her father, a godlike-figure, has decided her fate for her in a “mysterious way” which is not to be questioned. And yet, after Nerissa assures her that the outcome of this lottery will undoubtedly bring her happiness, she immediately turns to Portia’s own preferences: “But what warmth is there in your affection towards any of these princely suitors that are already come?” (ll. 33-34). What appears here to be an attempt at a more light-hearted conversation is actually illustrative of what happens afterwards in the plot where the will of Portia’s father seems to make way for Portia’s own preference. Despite her repeated allusions to the “lott’ry of [her] destiny” (2.1.15-16) and to the “hazard” (2.1.43-44 and 2.9.16-17) to which her suitors are also submitted, Portia leaves little, if not nothing, to chance.

  • 29 Maurice Hunt, “Ways of Knowing in The Merchant of Venice”, Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 30, n° 1, wi (...)
  • 30 Line Cottegnies, “Trust and Risk in The Merchant of Venice”, in Trust and Risk in Early Modern Lite (...)

20Some critics have even argued that Portia may be cheating by hinting at the right casket through the song she requests when Bassanio’s turn comes.29 Through what has been described as an act of trickery, her father’s lottery ends up playing in her hand. Moreover, the nature of the trial itself is perhaps not as hazardous as it first seems. As Line Cottegnies has shown in her forthcoming article on “Trust and Risk in The Merchant of Venice30 the trial of the three caskets actually rests on the suitors’ grasp of the grammar of the memento mori motif. Morocco completely misunderstands this when he simply equates material gold with moral value: “A golden mind stoops not to shows of dross.” (2.7.20). Arragon similarly misreads the riddles of the caskets. Bassanio is the only suitor who is able to play with the code of the memento mori and manages to find the right casket in spite of his own very self-interested motives in marrying Portia. What was initially meant as a moral trial for Portia’s suitors has been superseded by his intellectual command of the rules of the game, which allows him to exercise his wit. Portia herself attributes the failure of Morocco and Arragon to understand the nature of the trial to their lack of wit: “O, these deliberate fools! When they do choose, / They have the wisdom by their wit to lose.” (2.9.79-80). Both wit and perhaps even trickery have therefore determined the outcome of what was initially presented as a random, unpredictable “lottery”. In this perspective we might compare Portia, and also Bassanio, to those Blaise Pascal would later call “habiles”, the “clever ones”, who understand and accept the rules of the game they are playing:

  • 31 Blaise Pascal, Pensées, éd. Gérard Ferreyrolles, Paris, Librairie Générale Française, 2000, p. 98. (...)

Gradation. Le peuple honore les personnes de grande naissance. Les demi-habiles les méprisent disant que la naissance n’est pas un avantage de la personne, mais du hasard. Les habiles les honorent non par la pensée du peuple, mais par la pensée de derrière.31

21Here Pascal underlines how the “half-clever ones” are unwilling to accept that high birth owes nothing to personal worth and merit. Bassanio and Portia, like Pascal’s “clever ones”, understand that the “lottery” is not about moral virtue at all, nor is it about the will of Portia’s father. This allows them to read the signs and communicate accurately in order to obtain victory. By contrast Morocco and Arragon are “half-clever” figures who do not accept what they perceive as being the essential injustice of the lottery they are submitted to. Morocco in particular voices his indignation and puzzlement at the realisation that the trial of the three caskets in no way takes into account his knightly virtues and qualities:

MOROCCO – […] I would o’erstare the sternest eyes that look,
Outbrave the heart most daring on the earth,
Pluck the young sucking cubs from the she-bear,
Yea, mock the lion when a roars for prey,
To win the lady. But alas the while,
If Hercules and Lichas played at dice
Which is the better man, the greater throw
May turn by fortune from the weaker hand.
So is Alcides beaten by his rage,
And so may I, blind Fortune leading me,
Miss that which one unworthier may attain,
And die with grieving. (2.1.27-38)

  • 32 R. Ascham, op.cit., sig. F2v.

22Morocco blames his defeat on “blind Fortune” comparing himself to Hercules whose strength does not allow him to win at dice. The successive use of three comparatives underlines the lack of logic the character perceives in the situation by highlighting the break in the additive logic from “better man”, “greater throw”, to “weaker hand”. However, Morocco’s analysis of the game fails to register all the parts of the equation. Although his defeat may not be accounted for in terms of virtue or strength, it is not altogether random and owes a great deal to the superior wit or, as Roger Ascham called it, the superior “crafte”32 of his opponent.

23Later, when Portia rescues Antonio, she goes one step further as she masquerades her own action as a mysterious act of divine favour. As she is about to leave Belmont for Venice she pretends she is retiring to a monastery:

PORTIA – […] Lorenzo, I commit into your hands
The husbandry and manage of my house
Until my lord’s return. For mine own part,
I have toward heaven breathed a secret vow
To live in prayer and contemplation,
Only attended by Nerissa here,
Until her husband and my lord’s return.
There is a monastery two miles off,
And there we will abide. (3.4.24-32)

  • 33 Ellen M. Caldwell, “Opportunistic Portia as Fortuna in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice”, Studies i (...)

24This is especially worth noting as we do not find this excuse in Shakespeare’s source for the play, Il Pecorone (1554). And when Portia returns to Belmont after rescuing Antonio, she declares: “We have been praying for our husband’s welfare, / Which speed we hope the better for our words.” (5.1.114-115). At that point, the audience knows quite well that the “words” to which Portia refers do not have much to do with her supposed prayers in a monastery and that they have everything to do with the actual words she used during Antonio’s trial. Similarly, the seclusion and “contemplation” she claims to live in hide her enterprising actions in Venice to save Bassanio’s friend. We might therefore suggest that rather than offering an incarnation of “blind Fortune”33, Portia’s character in The Merchant of Venice shows how unexpected luck may be played with, replicated and constructed, and later construed as providential sign. Here again, as in the lottery of the three caskets, Portia’s role in Antonio’s trial shows the human hand behind the apparent miracle.

25To conclude, the metaphor of and references to games in The Merchant of Venice shed new light on the issue of providence and human agency in the play. By blurring the line early modern moralists so eagerly tried to draw between games of chance and games of wit and “industry”, Shakespeare reveals the active hand the protagonists’ have in the course of their own destinies. This outlook suggests a logical and rational cause for their success echoing the incipient probability theory of the turn of the century. Another significant consequence of these references to games is that in underlining the role of human agency they considerably play down the miraculous dimension of the play’s resolution. The gaming metaphor that pervades the play brings to the fore an optimistic and pragmatic ideal according to which the characters’ cunning and sagacity enable them to tame chance. As such, The Merchant of Venice makes no real distinction between “cheaters” and “gamblers”, quite the opposite: characters like Bassanio, Portia, or Antonio who are seemingly at the mercy of luck have in fact successfully managed to cheat the apparent contingency of the games they are playing. This has far-reaching moral and religious implications as it puts into question the role of providence in the play so much so that we may even wonder whether its actions, at the end of the play in particular, are not entirely constructed by Portia herself, the invisible hand behind the characters’ fortune. The pragmatism that underpins the play through gaming metaphors and references therefore hints at the potentially artificial nature of its own concluding deus ex machina.

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Notes

1 “Between 1500 and 1700 gambling in Venice changed from a private activity for small groups of nobles and others to a major feature of the social life of the city. By the early eighteenth century gambling was, along with the Carnival (with which it was closely associated), one of the principal attractions of Venice for foreign visitors.” (Jonathan Walker, “Gambling and Venetian Noblemen c.1500-1700”, Past & Present, n° 162, February 1999, p. 28) Evelyn Welch adds: “Between the Venetian draw of the 1520s and the later Roman version, lotteries grew to become one of the most important forms of public finance and private speculation across much of sixteenth-century Europe. […] While Italy did not invent the formula, the financial success of peninsular lotteries ensured that they were increasingly regarded as a solution to problems of state finance and private profit.” (Evelyn Welch, “Lotteries in Early Modern Italy”, Past & Present, n° 199, May 2008, p. 71-72)

2 John Marckant, Of Dyce, Wyne and Women, London, printed by William Gryffith, 1571.

3 Thomas Wilcox, A Glasse for Gamesters, London, printed by John Kyngston for Thomas Man, 1581, sig. [B7v] and [B8r].

4 Marie-Laure Legay, “Joueurs et spéculateurs”, in Histoire de l’argent, Paris, Armand Colin, 2014, p. 169-176.

5 “The unprecedented popularity of gambling in the seventeenth century has to be seen in the wider context of the growth of a mercantile society. Increased affluence allowed greater participation in games previously played only by the very rich, but more important were new notions of making money and the parallel between the dynamic of commercial development and that of games of chance. The growth of a money economy created a standardised, universal measure of value, and as such, its place in gambling was central. The universal equivalent in a capitalist economy became the universal wager in games of chance.” (Gerda Reith, The Age of Chance: Gambling in Western Culture, London, Routledge, 1999, p. 59)

6 Craig Muldrew, The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and Social Relations in Early Modern England, Basingstoke, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 1998, p. 95-172.

7 Oystein Ore, Cardano, the Gambling Scholar, with a translation from the Latin of Cardano’s Book on Games of Chance, by Sidney Henry Gould, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1953, p. 215.

8 Richard Brathwaite, Whimzies, or a new cast of characters, London, printed by Felix Kingston, 1631, p. 48-49.

9 All references to The Merchant of Venice are from William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, 2nd edition, eds. Gary Taylor and Stanley Wells, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005.

10 Thomas Gataker, The Nature and Uses of Lotteries: A Historical and Theological Treatise, ed. Conall Boyle, Exeter, Imprint Academic, 2008, p. 18-21.

11 Although Calvin discouraged such interpretations, they were widespread and very popular, see Max Weber, L’Éthique protestante et l’éthique du capitalisme, Paris, Plon, 1967, p. 126.

12 Neil Carson, “Hazarding and Cozening in The Merchant of Venice”, English Language Notes, vol. 9, n° 3, March 1972, p. 168-177.

13 Ibid., p. 172.

14 Walter Lim, “Surety and Spiritual Commercialism in The Merchant of Venice”, Studies in English Literature, vol. 50, n°2, Spring 2010, p. 377.

15 Henry Smith, The Examination of Usury in Two Sermons, London, printed by R. Field for T. Man, 1591, p. 17.

16 Among the most famous are those written by Robert Greene, A Notable Discovery of Cozenage, London, printed by John Wolfe, 1591 and a year later, The Defence of Conny-Catching, London, printed by A.I., 1592. Unlike Smith’s sermon, these texts suggest a form of complicity with the cheaters and thieves they expose. See Pascale Drouet, “‘I’ll have the knave of trumps’: cartes et arnaques, ou l’art d’attraper les conils selon Robert Greene”, Actes des congrès de la Société française Shakespeare, n°23, 2005, p. 25-42.

17 Ian Hacking, The Taming of Chance, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990.

18 T. Wilcox, Glasse for Gamesters, op.cit., sig. [B6r]

19 William Perkins, The Whole Treatise, London, 1606, p. 589-590.

20 Roger Ascham, Toxophilus, London, printed by Edward Whitchurch, 1545, sig. F2v.

21 “And so (and now I tell the truth, there being no reason why I should lie) I contrived for myself a certain art; I do not now remember what it was, since thirty-eight years have passed, but I think it took its rise in geomancy, by which I kept in mind on up to twenty-four plays all the numbers whereby I should win and all those whereby I should lose; by chance the former were far more numerous than the latter, even in the proportion (if I am not mistaken) of seven to one; and I do not recall now in what order these were against me.” (Oystein Ore, Cardano, The Gambling Scholar, op.cit., p. 217-218)

22 “Galileo was less prone to error. In a brief memorandum he relates that someone has been puzzled by a seeming contradiction between two facts. With three dice ‘9 and 12 can be made up in as many ways as 10 and 11’. Each, that is, can be decomposed into 6 partitions. However, ‘it is known from long observation that dice players consider 10 and 11 to be more advantageous than 9 and 12’. Galileo’s solution is immediate. There is a ‘very simple explanation, namely that some numbers are more easily and more frequently made than others, which depends on their being able to be made up with more variety of numbers.’ In particular the 6 partitions of 9 and 12 break down into 25 permutations, while the 6 partitions of 10 and 11 decompose into 27 permutations.” (Ian Hacking, The Emergence of Probability, 2nd edition Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006 [1975], p. 52)

23 John Northbrooke, A Treatise Against Dicing, Dancing, Plays, and Interludes, with Other Idle Pastimes, London, printed by H. Bynneman, 1577, p. 88-89.

24 Juan Huarte, Examen de Ingenios, The Examination of Mens Wits, trans. R. C. Esquire, London, printed by Adam Islip for Richard Watkins, 1594, p. 112-113.

25 According to the OED “hit” was used in a variety of sports (including billiards) but it is most alluded to in the context of a fencing or an archery metaphor in Shakespeare. As Bassanio has already used the archery metaphor earlier in the play I would argue this is the most likely practice to come to mind when he uses the term here.

26 Daniel Drew, “‘Let me have judgment, and the Jew his will’: Melancholy Epistemology and Masochistic Fantasy in The Merchant of Venice”, Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 61, n° 2, Summer 2010, p. 206-234.

27 Peter Musgrave, The Early Modern European Economy, London, Macmillan press ltd., 1999, p. 56.

28 David Margolies, Shakespeare’s Irrational Endings: The Problem Plays, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, p. 86-111.

29 Maurice Hunt, “Ways of Knowing in The Merchant of Venice”, Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 30, n° 1, winter 1979, p. 91-92 and John Drakakis’s introduction in William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, ed. John Drakakis, London, Arden Shakespeare, 2010, p. 82-83.

30 Line Cottegnies, “Trust and Risk in The Merchant of Venice”, in Trust and Risk in Early Modern Literature, eds. Alison Findlay and Joseph Sterrett, forthcoming.

31 Blaise Pascal, Pensées, éd. Gérard Ferreyrolles, Paris, Librairie Générale Française, 2000, p. 98. Here is the translation of this passage by A. J. Krailsheimer: “Cause and effect. Gradation. Ordinary people honour those who are highly born, the half-clever ones despise them, saying that birth is a matter of chance not personal merit. Really clever men honour them, not for the same reason as ordinary people, but for deeper motives.” (Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. and ed. A. J. Krailsheimer, London, Penguin books, 1995, p. 23-24)

32 R. Ascham, op.cit., sig. F2v.

33 Ellen M. Caldwell, “Opportunistic Portia as Fortuna in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice”, Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, vol. 54, n° 2, Spring 2014, p. 349-373.

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Louise Fang, « Taking chances: Gambling and Providence in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice »Études Épistémè [En ligne], 39 | 2021, mis en ligne le 15 mai 2021, consulté le 18 septembre 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/episteme/11579 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/episteme.11579

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Louise Fang

Louise Fang is a lecturer in Shakespeare and early modern theatre at the Université Sorbonne Paris Nord (Paris XIII). After graduating from the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Paris-Saclay in English, and passing the agrégation examination, she defended her PhD thesis entitled “Games and Theatre in Shakespeare’s Plays” in 2019 at Sorbonne Université (Paris IV). This research places Shakespeare’s theatre within the wider historical context of early modern debates on games and sports.

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