In the opening moment of The Merchant of Venice, we learn that Antonio is sad, and even he doesn’t know why. Enter his friends, Bassanio, Gratiano and Lorenzo.
Gratiano, seeing how changed Antonio has become lately, decides to let him know that he looks unwell. Antonio responds:
I hold the world but as the world Gratiano,
A stage where every man must play a part,
And mine a sad one.
This reflection spurs Gratiano into action:
Let me play the fool…
Language & Thought Breakdown
The first thing I noticed was that Gratiano leaps in immediately with “Let me play the fool”. He finishes Antonio’s iambic line, indicating that there is no pause. In other words, come in hard on the cue. It also tells us perhaps that Gratiano is impulsive and will speak his mind.
To highlight this, I would like to draw your attention to the beat beginning, “I tell thee what Antonio…” and finishing with “let no dog bark”. This is a long beat. I broke it down in this way, as I think it is a clue. Gratiano has a wonderful ability to describe using imagery, making him able to sustain long thoughts. We do indeed find out during the course of the speech, that Gratiano is very good at talking.
Below is my breakdown of the text. It’s divided into thought and beat changes. Hopefully by doing this, we can gain some other insights into Gratiano.
Thought Change: /
Beat Change: Space
Feminine Ending: (F)
Let me play the fool: /
With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come, /
And let my liver rather heat with wine
Than my heart cool with mortifying groans. /
Why should a man, whose blood is warm within, /
Sit like his grandsire cut in alabaster? / (F)
Sleep when he wakes and creep into the jaundice (F)
By being peevish? /
I tell thee what, Antonio – / (F)
I love thee, and it is my love that speaks – /
There are a sort of men whose visages
Do cream and mantle like a standing pond, /
And do a wilful stillness entertain, /
With purpose to be dress’d in an opinion
Of wisdom, gravity, profound conceit, /
As who should say ‘I am Sir Oracle, /
And when I ope my lips let no dog bark’! /
O my Antonio, I do know of these
That therefore only are reputed wise
For saying nothing; when, I am very sure,
If they should speak, would almost damn those ears,
Which, hearing them, would call their brothers fools. /
I’ll tell thee more of this another time: /
But fish not, with this melancholy bait, /
For this fool gudgeon, this opinion. /
Come, good Lorenzo. / Fare ye well awhile: /
I’ll end my exhortation after dinner. /
Let me play the fool,
Let me grow old with joy and laughter,
And let my liver be destroyed by wine,
Rather than waste way, groaning to death.
Why should a warm-blooded man, still alive,
Sit there dead like his grandfather’s tombstone?
Be lifeless while he’s a awake and get jaundice
By being angry all the time?
I’ll tell you something, Antonio –
I love you and it is my love that’s speaking –
There are a sort of men whose faces,
Become covered in scum like a stagnant pond,
And put on a deliberate stoic expression,
With the intention of gaining a reputation for being,
Wise, deep, profoundly understanding,
So they can say ‘I am Sir Oracle,
And when I open my mouth to speak, let no dogs bark’!
Oh, my Antonio, I know these people,
That have this standing of being ‘wise,
Only because they don’t say anything, when I am certain,
If they did speak, would condemn the ears
Of the hearer, forced to call their friend a ‘fool’.
I’ll tell you more about this another time:
But don’t go trying to fool people with this sadness,
This gullible person trick, into thinking you are wise.
Come on, good Lorenzo, See you later,
I’ll end my passionate speech after dinner.
Unfamiliar Words & Phrases
Mirth: Amusement, laughter.
Liver: Thought to be where passion resided.
Heart: To this day, thought to be where love resides.
Mortifying groans: Deadly groaning. In other words, your groaning will be the death of you.
Alabaster: Material used in carving statues or monuments, usually on tombs.
Jaundice: Medical condition of yellowing skin from an excess of yellow bile.
Peevish: Irritable, angry.
Cream and mantle: Become covered in a layer of skin. Like cold soup.
Gudgeon: A gullible fish.
Exhortation: Passionate speech, persuasive speech.
Although certainly a boisterous and rowdy character, to me, this speech reads as a warning. Gratiano is letting Antonio know what can happen to those people who sit in pretence of being melancholic or stoic all the time.
In the first four lines of this speech, we get a very clear picture of who Gratiano is. Someone not afraid to play the idiot who loves a laugh and a drink. This speech is somewhat of a performance as well. With Bassanio and Lorenzo also present, there is a small audience for Gratiano to play to. Not only is this clever direction from Shakespeare 450 years on, but also it gives the actor wonderful license to be outrageous and make playful choices. The clues are all in the text.
Despite being potentially outrageous, Gratiano walks the tightrope of Antonio’s patience. Antonio is higher in status than Gratiano, and he knows it. Therefore, Gratiano doesn’t outright say “You are like this, Antonio”. Rather he prefers the more indirect “I know people like this…”. A clever and possibly comedic tactic to employ.
What I love about this piece is that it comes full circle. From the opening remark “Let me play the fool” Gratiano has a point to make. That “If they (Antonio) should speak, would almost damn those ears (Gratiano, Bassanio, Lorenzo), which, hearing them, would call their brothers (Antonio) fools”. Essentially Gratiano’s intention here: “Antonio – yes you can sit and be silent and have people think you are wise but when you finally do open your mouth to speak, your friends will realise you’re just a fool – like me”.
How offended Antonio is or not is up to the actor playing the role. It is clear enough however, that when Gratiano leaves, Bassanio feels the need to defuse the situation a little, describing Gratiano as one who “speaks an infinite deal of nothing, more than any man in all Venice”.
These are all great clues, useful for an actor to help create a playful character.