The Frailty of Human Trust

The human need for social interaction with other humans is intrinsic to the nature of man. The relational bond of friendship meets that need, but what is friendship? The Oxford English Dictionary defines friendship as “a state of mutual trust and support between peoples,” which places trust as the cornerstone of friendship (“Friendship”). Trust, which is the same as faith, is not tangible but rather emotional. The act of trust in a friendship is based on how one perceives the outward behaviors and intent of others, which can often be misleading and cause one’s trust to be misplaced. The was a common theme expressed in many of the plays that William Shakespeare wrote in which his inspiration may have come from having his trust betrayed or from a story he read. In either case, it seems Shakespeare had an evident curiosity about the dynamics of friendship and the often deadly consequences of misplaced trust. In the plays The Merchant in Venice and Othello, Shakespeare explores the frailty of trust and the honest and corrupt nature of the human heart through the lens of male friendship.

Shakespeare’s interest in friendship and the feebleness of trust likely link to the changing times he lived. Peter Burke, the author of Humanism and Friendship in Sixteenth-Century Europe, asserts that during the latter part of the Renaissance, a fundamental shift in the view of friendship took place (93). According to Burke, several cultural signs point to society’s shifting mindset about the role of friendship. For example, among some of the cultural practices was the formation of male groups where rules of friendship were put in place. Burke also notes how the changing mindset of friendship appeared in literary works citing that “inscriptions [appeared] on books that express the idea that friends should share everything” (96). We can assume that Shakespeare observed these changes because they can be seen in his play The Merchant in Venice. First, there is the all-male group of friends Antonio, Bassanio, Salarino, Lorenzo, and Gratiano. Secondly, the willingness of Antonio to share everything with Bassanio easily lends itself to the idea that friends should share everything. It could be that Shakespeare came across one of those books so inscribed and chose to use the concept in his play to relate to the changing times of friendship. If so, Shakespeare knew that man will always struggle with his sinful nature, and the trust that binds friendship together is most fragile and easily broken.  

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While trust plays a pivotal role in Shakespeare’s The Merchant in Venice, there are subtle nuances where such trust was on the verge of betrayal. Bassanio approaches his friend Antonio for a financial loan in the act one opening that seems to be in line with many prior loans yet to be repaid. However, since Antonio does not have any cash to give, he tells Bassanio to “Try what my credit can in Venice do,” meaning use his excellent name and worth to secure a loan. That is a powerful display of trust on the part of Antonio and his honest nature. Lara Bovilsky suggests this trust stems from his desire to have more than a friendship with Bassanio–something more sexual in nature (131-133). There is, however, no clear evidence to support her assertion or that it was Shakespeare’s intent for these two characters. It seems Antonio’s role is more of a father figure to Bassanio because what true father would not do anything for his son–even risk all that he has for love’s sake. Antonio says, “Within the eye of honor, be assured, my purse, my person, my extremest means, lie all unlocked to your occasions” (1.1.144-46). The term extremest means that Antonio is willing to go to such lengths that will exceed great, as a father would do for a son or a daughter (“extremest”). However, such trust, even between father and son, can be betrayed. As the play unfolds, it becomes easy to see how Bassanio teeters on the line of trust given to him by Antonio.

Bassanio secures a loan from a Jewish man who happens to be a rival of Antonio named Shylock. The collateral applied to the loan is one pound of Antonio’s flesh if Bassanio fails to make good on his loan by the specified date. Antonio’s agreement to such terms is another powerful display of his honest nature and the trust he has in his friend, who has yet to repay his debts. Antonio’s trust is also based, in part, on his yielding a return on his seafaring investments. When his investments fail to pay off and the deadline to repay the loan passes, the trust placed in Bassanio is then put to the test. At this point, Shakespeare places Bassanio into question because the audience already knows Bassanio is one who never repays his debts. Therefore, it begs the question: What would Bassanio do if he failed to choose wisely and did not win the hand of Portia? It is conceivable to think that he would not rush to the aid of Antonio and thus betray his word and trust once again. Shakespeare gives a glimpse of Bassanio’s deceitful heart when he betrays the trust of his new wife, Portia. He says, “I am married to a wife… [and] I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all here to this devil [Shylock], to deliver you” (The Merchant. 5,1,2226-32). Shakespeare reveals how weak the bond of trust is in The Merchant in Venice. He also shows his audience that the cohesion that binds trust is often dictated by the life circumstances of the one being trusted, which is prevalent in many of Shakespeare’s plays.

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The power of love can often blind one’s eyes to the fissures that form in a line of trust. Timothy Hacksley, in his review of Tom McFall’s work Male Friendship in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, notes that, according to McFall, Humanist ideals are impossible in Shakespeare plays. He writes, “it is possible for friends to love (or be loved) too much as in the case of… Othello” (78). To solidify his point, he further shares the words of Othello, who refers to himself as “one that loved not wisely but too well…” (Othello 5,2,3711). Perhaps no other play by Shakespeare best depicts the treachery of the human heart like The Tragedy of Othello, Moor of Venice. Unlike The Merchant of Venice, where love triumphs, it is love that brings about tragedy and death in Othello’s story.

In comparison, the two plays seem to represent the ongoing battle between the forces of good (The Merchant) and evil (Othello). In the opening scene of Othello, Iago reveals the true nature of his heart and his plan for revenge against the Moor. Shakespeare gives the audience an inside track into the treacherous heart of humanity. He shows how man connives, deceives, and feeds on the trust of unsuspecting hearts, all of which is seen in Iago. It gives the audience a clear, straightforward picture that shows the frailty of trust. Iago himself puts this fact into words by saying, “Yet, for necessity of present life, I must show out a flag and sign of love, which is indeed but sign” (Othello 1.1.169-71). Iago plans to use the frailty of trust and the power of love to blind the eyes of Othello from the truth about Desdemona’s faithfulness.

In as much as trust can be frail, it can also be sturdy. However, within the human heart, it can quite easily drift back and forth between the states of frail and sturdy like a leaf that is blown about by the wind. This known fact is best revealed through the minor character Emilia who is the wife of Iago and friend of Desdemona. For example, in Act III, when Emilia observes that her mistress dropped the handkerchief given to her by Othello, she takes it and gives it to her husband, who has long begged her to steel it. In doing so, Emilia violates Desdemona’s trust while at the same time strengthens Iago’s trust in her. She has no concern for Desdemona’s loss, which is evident in her response to Iago asking if she stole it. He replies, “No, ‘faith; she let it drop by negligence. And, to the advantage, I being there, took’t it up” (Othello 3,3,1980-82). At this point, the audience is left to believe Emilia is no better than Iago. However, in Act V, when she discovers Iago’s treachery, her lines of trust and loyalty shift again. She violates her husband’s trust (for a good reason) by exposing Iago’s evil plot, and in return, she restores the trust of her mistress. Nicholas Porter explains this by quoting author Samuel Johnson who wrote, “The virtue of Emilia is such as we often find, worn loosely but not cast off, easy to commit small crimes but quickened and alarmed at atrocious villainies” (114). In other words, it is one’s moral compass that determines where one’s loyalty lies and how strong or how frail the bond of trust is between himself and someone else.

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It seems Shakespeare explored friendship and the frailty of trust that binds it together in many if not all of his plays. In History, if Henry IV, Part I, the lines of trust between Prince Henry and Falstaff are broken when Falstaff claims for himself the Prince’s victory over Percy. The betrayal of trust between Hamlet and his uncle Claudius comes when Hamlet learns that his uncle murdered his father, the King in The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Another Shakespeare play that reveals the frailty of trust is The Tragedy of King Lear, where the King is betrayed by his daughters Goneril and Regan. However, not all friendships portrayed in Shakespeare’s plays stood on such frail lines of trust. John Garrison, author of Shakespeare and Friendship: An Intersection of Interest, states that the “ideal form of friendship testifies to the qualities of the men involved: Perfect friendship is the friendship of [individuals] who are good, and alike in virtue” (372). Although no relationship is perfect, as Garrison asserts, some such friendships are portrayed in Shakespeare’s plays. There is Portia and Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice and Hamlet and Horatio in The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, where the bond of friendship, the line of trust, is vital.

Shakespeare explores the realm of friendship and the frailty of trust through tragedy. It could be that Shakespeare was depicting his own experiences with friendship, trust, and tragedy through the art of his theatrical plays. Will Tosh, the author of Shakespeare and Friendship, shares, “[Shakespeare], understood friendship as we do today, to mean affectionate companionship, but just as frequently he used ‘friends’ when he meant ‘family’ (par 2). If, indeed, Shakespeare was expressing both the anguish of betrayal he experienced through life, then perhaps it is his work The Tempest that reflects the final peace he achieved in his heart. Then this would be seen in the character Prospero whose trust is betrayed by her brother, and yet, she finds peace in the end through the simplicity of forgiveness. Perhaps this was true for Shakespeare–to have found peace of heart among his family and friends through forgiveness at the end of his remarkable career and final years of his life.


Bovilsky, Lara. Racked … to the Uttermost’: The Verges of Love and Subject hood in The Merchant of Venice. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016. 21. University of Virginia Alderman Library Interlibrary Services. Adobe (pdf) file. 

Burke, Peter. “Humanism and Friendship in Sixteenth-Century Europe.” University of Groningen Press, n.d. Web. Accessed‌=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwiYr7yI4b_
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Garrison, John. “Shakespeare and Friendship: An Intersection of Interest.” Literature Compass, vol. 9, no. 5, May 2012, pp. 371-379. EBSCOhost,‌ Web. Accessed 16 Sept. 2017. 

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Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Othello, Moor of Venice. George Mason University, n.d. Web. http://www. opensource‌othello&Scope=entire&pleasewait=1&msg=pl. Accessed 10 Oct. 2017.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. George Mason University, n.d. Web. http://www.‌ plays/play_view.php?WorkID=tempest&Scope=entire&pleasewait=1&msg=pl. Accessed 10 Oct. 2017.

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