Perilous Networks: Risk and Maritime News in The Merchant of Venice

Abstract

The Merchant of Venice challenges audiences to reckon with the uncertainties of maritime venturing. It does so by marking out a network of news that extends between Venice and Belmont, then making the news itself seem doubtful and even perilous. Merchant opens with Antonio in a state of melancholy, ostensibly awaiting a report of his ventures that never quite materializes. And yet over the course of the play, a great deal of other news does: Shakespeare’s merchants and lovers bring up news with great persistence, asking after or delivering news seventeen times in all until the network of news in The Merchant of Venice includes nearly the entire dramatis personae. In discourse and material exchange, the accumulation of Venice’s news transmutes the risk of venturing into theatrical practice, implicating spectators in the process of evaluating news and risk together. Shakespeare’s news network operates according to a logic of uncertainty even when it has nothing to do with commerce-as-such; or, rather, the theatricality of news makes ventures out of every form of action. Using contemporary venturing accounts and insurance documents, this article demonstrates how The Merchant of Venice uses stage-news to articulate maritime risk in two ways: first, incidentally, in the dramatizations of evaluation, uncertainty, and contradiction that accompany news of Antonio’s wrecked ships and ruinous finances, and second, systemically, as an unreliable social and financial network subject to continuous evaluation by the those bearing and receiving the play’s perilous news.