What do I mean when I call you “gentle”? Is it out of affection, because you are courteous and polite? Do I consider you a person of distinction? Or am I reflecting on the character of your birth?
And if I am, is it in derision, praise or with the intent of reinventing you?
Gentle, when applied by the characters of “The Merchant of Venice” to each other, assumes each of these meanings and interpretations at least once.
Sometimes it seems a moniker of affection. Sometimes it more obviously has the undertones of class and birth, as when Bassanio calls Portia a “Gentle lady” in Act III Scene 2.
The word gentle gets more complicated when applied to Shylock and his daughter. Up until the trial Shylock is far and away the most financially well-off of the Venetians. But money does not mean you are of gentle birth.
Considering the root of the word, as given in the OED, gentile, there are complicated and frankly confusing Biblical allusions and centuries of interpretation at play. One oversimplification is that gentile refers to someone who is not Jewish and/or is a Christian. This definition was solidified by the King James Bible, which was in development at the time of “Merchant of Venice,” but still offers a window into two relationships in the play.
In Act I Scene 3, before Jessica has run off and confused—for the viewer maybe at least—the source of Shylock’s anger, Shylock most clearly explains why he’d desire a pound of flesh from Antonio. Shylock says, ““Fair sir, you spit on me Wednesday last, / You spurned me such a day, another time. / You called me dog, and for these courtesies / I’ll lend you this much money.”” Antonio answers, “I am as like to call thee so again, / To spit on thee again, to be spurn thee too. / If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not / As to thy friends…” (122-130).
According to Shylock, their animosity is fueled by Antonio’s anti-Semitic remarks, and Antonio just as well owns up to that and threatens more of the same. It’s due to this escalation that we see Shylock demand his price and is outright given a rationale for it’s severity by Antonio.
At the end of their talk, Antonio derides him with, “Hie thee, gentle Jew, / The Hebrew will turn Christian; he grows kind.” Even without the second line, the sarcastic intent of gentle is clear. The second line clarifies exactly how gentle is an insult. It’s not just that Shylock hasn’t been courteous. It’s that gentleness is a quality of a Christian, and the only way Shylock could ever hope of attaining it is through conversion.
Lorenzo uses the word twice to describe Jessica, both times before her conversion, and neither time to her face. He’s speaking to Lancelot, in Act II Scene 4, before he’s stolen her away from her father.
What is his intent? Lancelot has worked for her father and knows her. Lorenzo seems to be emphasizing the gentleness she was born with though not into to justify their marriage, and explain how she is unfit to remain with her father. The fact he feels the need to convince someone so close to both of them already is telling of his own doubts.
He can convert her and then he can marry her. But will these things in collusion ever make her gentle? Will they ever correct for her birth? Seeing as, unlike the other two couples, he never calls her gentle while she’s present as a term of endearment, I doubt how completely Lorenzo ever lets her convert in his own mind.
Now, I’ve spent this post inquiring into what the characters mean, but not what the play does. To open that up, though, is to go back to Shylock, and to ask if he is presented sympathetically or if he’s the evil moneylender. To answer that, in a line, I’d point back to that conversation with Antonio, and to the ugliness and cruelty evident in our Merchant of Venice. I’d also question if at the end of the play we are to believe Jessica has had a happy ending—she’s with a man who will always be uncomfortable with where she is from, and she has participated in her father’s ruin.
Maybe we can aspire to the vision of gentleness given by Portia in her famous speech—though religiously tinged—that is figured in the rain, falling “Upon the place beneath”: indiscriminately.