"Objects of Desire"

Ambitions in "The Merchant of Venice", 
"The Taming of the Shrew" and 
"The Comedy of Errors"


Ana Isabel Bordas del Prado.

Universitat de València, 2007.


Introduction: Human’s restless capacity of desiring.



It is of human nature to have a capacity of desire that is never fulfilled. The human being is constantly desiring something material, which is considered “vital” for his life. However, once the goal is achieved, that “object of desire” is replaced by a new one, thus creating a continuum of necessity.


William Shakespeare was aware of that “dark” and never-ending ambition of human beings, and he recreated it in his comedies. Many of these plays include some objects which are most of the time crucial for the development of the plot. These objects play an important role, since they are of either physical or emotional value. Therefore, we will see characters desiring, lying or even fighting for money, jewels, dresses or more stunning, a piece of human flesh.


The aim of this paper is to analyse and compare some of the main objects of desire which are present in The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew. We will see what they do represent and the way in which each character wants them, thus defining their personalities.



1. Money, money, money!


Money is a recurring element in many of Shakespearean comedies. We see a merchant who needs 1000 marks to save his life in The Comedy of Errors, a cheeky man marrying a shrewd woman only for money’s sake in The Taming of the Shrew or a Jew who is more interested in his money than in his own daughter in The Merchant of Venice. In this last play, money is a very significant factor for the plot: the gentleman Bassanio asks his friend Antonio, a respectable merchant, to lend him some money with the purpose of marrying a rich woman he is in love with. Antonio offers him his riches, but after a problem with his properties he has to ask for a loan to his main enemy, the Jew Shylock, a greedy merchant who arranges a risky agreement which will put Antonio’s life in danger: “If you repay me not on such a day,/ Express’d in the condition, let the forfeit/ Be nominated for an equal pound/ Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken/ In what part of your body pleaseth me.” (I, iii). (http://oll.libertyfund.org/Home3/HTML.php?recordID=0612.10#toc_l612_head_193).


So, we can distinguish three main reasons for desiring this object: first, Bassanio’s aim of being rich enough to marry the woman of his dreams. Second, Antonio’s love for his friend that makes him risk his own life in exchange for the money. And third, the greedy and avaricious attitude of Shylock. On the surface, the main difference between Bassanio, Antonio and Shylock appears to be that the Christian characters value human relationships over business ones, whereas Shylock is only interested in money. Merchants like Antonio lend money free of interest and put themselves at risk for those they love, whereas Shylock agonizes over the loss of his money and is reported to run through the streets crying, “O, my ducats! O, my daughter!” (II.viii.). (http://oll.libertyfund.org/Home3/HTML.php?recordID=0612.10#toc_lf0612_head_193). With these words, he apparently values his money at least  as much as his daughter, suggesting that his greed outweighs his love. (http://www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/merchant/themes.html).


In the case of The Taming of the Shrew, we see how Petruchio does not mind to marry a woman “as foul as was Florentius’ love,/ As old as Sibyl, and as curst  and shrewd/ As Socrates’ Xanthippe, or a worse”, and he says firmly: “I come to wive it wealthily in Padua;/ If wealthily, then happily in Padua” (I, ii). (http://oll.libertyfund.org/Home3/HTML.php?recordID=0612.12#hd_l0612_head_259).   So, we can see that the economic aspects of marriage are emphasized, whereas the emotional desire plays a secondary role instead. Also, economic considerations determine who marries whom, and marriage becomes a transaction involving the transfer of money. (http://www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/shrew/themes.html). What is common to both plays is that money matters deal with men, and if women are involved, they are considered rather as the holders of that valued object.



2. Jewels, jewels, jewels!


            Another significant aspect which is repeated in the comedies is jewels and valuable objects. Rings, chains and beautiful caskets will be objectives of both men and women, and their misplacement will cause confusion and distrust amongst the characters. This is the case of the gold chain which is given to the wrong Antipholus in The Comedy of Errors, generating supposed unfaithfulness and debts. (http://www.gradesaver.com/classicnotes/titles/comedyoferrors/section2.html).


Rings have a special meaning in The Merchant of Venice. The young Portia gives his loving husband Bassanio a ring with the promise of not removing it from his finger under any circumstance. The ring means loyalty, faithfulness, honour, virtue and even if we look deeper, Portia’s virginity. This would depict the Freudian idea that the power of the rings and other signifying physical objects appearing in Shakespeare’s plays represent often fetishism and contribute to the often malevolent power of physical objects in the play. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgidb=pubmed&cmd=Search&itool=pubmed_AbstractPlus&ter=%22Sokol+BJ%22%5BAuthor%5D). The problem comes when Portia, disguised as a law doctor, tries to put his husband to the test and asks him for the ring. Bassanio, after some hesitations, gives the ring to whom is supposed to be a lawyer. When he meets his wife later, she blames him of having lost the ring and the promise: “If you had known the virtue of the ring,/ Or half her worthiness that gave the ring,/ Or your own honour to contain the ring,/ You would not then have parted with the ring.” (V). (http://oll.libertyfund.org/Home3/HTML.php?recordID=062.10#hd_lf0612_head_206).


            Another important ring in the play is Leah’s ring, the late wife of Shylock. When told that Jessica has stolen it and traded it for a monkey, Shylock laments very sadly its loss: “I would not have given it for awilderness of monkeys” (III.i.). (http://oll.libertyfund.org/Home3/HTML.php?recordID=0612.10#hd_l0612_head_206).   The lost ring allows us to see Shylock in an uncharacteristically vulnerable position and to view him as a human being capable of feeling something more than anger. It shows Shylock’s humanity, his ability to love, and his ability to grieve, since some human relationships do indeed matter to Shylock more than money. (http://www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/merchant/themes.html).


            In The Taming of the Shrew, jewels are substituted by beautiful clothes. Katharine, the “shrew”, during her process of “taming”, wants a cap, but Petruchio bans her from having it: “When you are gentle, you shall have one too;/And not till then.” (IV, iii). (http://oll.libertyfund.org/Home3/HTML.php?recordI2.12#hd_1612_head_268). The cap and gown that Petruccio denies Katherine, despite the fact that she finds them truly appealing, symbolizes his power over her. The outfit functions as a kind of bait used to help convince Kate to recognize and comply with Petruccio’s wishes. Only he has the power to satisfy her needs and desires, and this lesson encourages her to satisfy him in return.




3. Women, women, women!


            As I said before, women were seen in some cases as the holders of the material object of desire, as in The Taming of the Shrew where Petruchio wants to marry Katherine for her money. But contrary to this, an object can be desired for its purpose: to have a woman. This is the case of Portia in The Merchant of Venice. After his father’s death, Portia will find husband through a contest in which suitors from various countries have to choose among a gold, a silver and a lead casket, one of which contains a portrait of the young girl and therefore, her hand. Two dukes choose mistakenly, blinded by their hunger of richness and power, and also for possessing such woman. To win Portia, Bassanio must ignore the gold casket, which bears the inscription, “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire” (II.vii), and the silver casket, which says, “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves”. (II.vii). (http://oll.libertyfund.org/Home3/HTML.php?recordID=12.10#hd12_head_206).


The correct casket is lead and warns that the person who chooses it must give and risk everything he has. Appearances are often deceiving, and people should not trust the evidence provided by the senses. Portia’s father has presented marriage as one in which the proper suitor risks and gives everything for the spouse, in the hope of a divine recompense he can never truly deserve. The contest certainly suits Bassanio, who knows that he does not deserve his good fortune but is willing to risk everything on a gamble. (http://www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/merchant/themes.html).


Therefore, Katharine and Portia become as well objects of desire, and in both cases they do not have the chance of making their own choice. This is not strange considering Shakespeare’s period and its ideology, and although women are represented as intelligent and even wiser than men in Shakespearean plays, they are clearly under the man’s law and the patriarchal system.




4. Flesh and blood.


         Finally, what I have found to be the most unconventional object of desire is the pound of flesh that Shylock wants from any part of Antonio’s body in The Merchant of Venice. It represents the Jew’s most passionate desire of hurting his rival and it can be seen as a symbol of bitter revenge and an ambition taken to the extreme.


The fact that Bassanio’s debt has to be paid with Antonio’s flesh is significant, showing how their friendship is so binding it has made them almost one: The pound of flesh which I demand of him,/ Is dearly bought; ’tis mine and I will have it./ If you deny me, fie upon your law!” (http://oll.libertyfund.org/Home3/HTML.php?recordID=0612.10#hd_lf0612_head_211). Shylock’s determination is strengthened by Jessica’s departure, as if he were seeking recompense for the loss of his own flesh and blood by collecting it from his enemy. Lastly, the pound of flesh is a constant reminder of the rigidity of Shylock’s world, where numerical calculations are used to evaluate even the most serious of situations. Shylock never explicitly demands that Antonio die, but asks instead, in his numerical mind, for a pound in exchange for his three thousand ducats. (http://www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/shrew/themes.html).


It is, however, this mad desire of flesh which leads Shylock to his own ruin, since he does not accept his money back. So, Shylock’s ambition makes him lose all his possessions and convert to Christianism. With this example we realise that desiring can be sometimes dangerous if we do not take reality into account.



5. Conclusion.


            In conclusion, we have compared different desirable objects in three Shakespearean plays taking into account how are they desired, by whom and with what purpose. We have seen that almost everything can be an object of desire, from the more conventional precious objects to human flesh. We have also observed how women can become objects or a way to obtain them, and what is most important, we have realised that still nowadays, after hundreds of years, humans do desire more or less the same things. And it is this visionary and universal aspect of Shakespeare (among many others) which makes him be so interesting for study and investigation.




Web references.



  • “Analysis of Comedy of Errors. Comedy of Errors study guide.Gradesaver: Classicnotes. Ed. Smith, J. N.  6 Jan. 2007.



  • Constitutive signifiers or fetishes in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice” Sokol BJ. Pubmed. Ed. National Library of Medicine. 6 Jan. 2007.



  •  “Shakespeare, the complete works of William Shakespeare”, The Online Library of Liberty. Ed. Liberty Fund. 6 Jan. 2007.



  • The Merchant of Venice. Themes, motives and symbols”, Sparknotes. Eds. Phillips, B. and Stallings, S. 6 Jan. 2007.

<http://www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/shrew/themes.html >


  • The Taming of the Shrew. Themes, motives and symbols”, Sparknotes. Eds. Phillips, B. and Stallings, S. 6 Jan. 2007.




Academic year 2006/2007
© a.r.e.a./Dr.Vicente Forés López
© Ana Isabel Bordas del Prado
Universitat de València Press