Thursday, January 21, 2010

Belles of Belmont

This blog is totally on life support. However, in its waning days I have discovered something about myself--actually, one could generalize to a universal principle here. Latent Kantian that I am, I will: one's virtues can easily become weaknesses.

Deep, hmm? What I mean is, I have trouble giving up on projects. (On people, not so much.) I hate to throw in the towel when I've set out to do something.  Hate. It. This is great when you're, say, trying to get a doctorate in a useless field. But it can also impede growth, inhibit change, dim prospects for success in other areas.... On the other hand, it's easier to just stick with the program.

For now, onward.

We've already determined that Will likes to play around with oppositions. In Romeo and Juliet there seemed to be a clear dividing line between love and war, dark and light, public and private. That's the way romances work, as I discussed ad nauseam in earlier posts. The public/private dyad is the most important one, since it's the foundation of all the others. Again, this goes back to medieval romances, which figured that opposition in pretty reductive terms. The aristocratic court was set against the "forest of adventure," wherein knights encountered moral tests, magic, and, of course, true love. In literature, love is an alternate reality in itself. Like the Celtic Otherworld, it's timeless, alluring, dangerous. Oh, and always feminine.

The picture above isn't all that relevant, but I like it. It conveys the pathological romanticism of nineteenth-century Arthuriana. I've always liked Tennyson, too, although he's a terrible misogynist.

I am half-sick of shadows, said the Lady of Shalott.

I always think of those little onions, don't you? 

Back to public/private. There's a kind of emotional truth to this mythic structure--when one is in love, the public world does seem to fade into background noise. Later, if all goes well, you and your inamorata emerge from your erotic land of Avalon, pick up the car in the parking lot, and drive back to reality. Marriage and babies, or marriage without babies, or house-buying without marriage, usually follow soon after.

Some people--and in my experience these are mostly male people, although as a woman I admit I'm seeing only half the picture--never want to leave the mist-shrouded Avalonian woods. When it comes time to set the alarm clock, go back to the real, they balk. And then they disappear. Poof! Because they only like that drugged, all-encompassing fog part of a relationship, not the hard work and building a life part. These people aren't sex addicts. They're love addicts, which in some ways is worse. Actually they're sad, lonely narcissists--but that's a subject for another time.

I digress. I know, hard to believe...

By the time he writes The Merchant of Venice, Will has outgrown the misty forest. He'll make good fun of it in As You Like It, but right now he's more concerned with subverting metaphysics.

Did I really write "subverting metaphysics?"  Yuck. That was clearly one of those "return of the repressed academic" moments. Just ignore it, and it/she will go away.

In less obfuscatory terms, Will creates a bunch of oppositions in the play--Christian/Jew,Venice/Belmont, Male/Female, Love/Commerce--and then proceeds to tear them apart. It turns out the Christian and the Jew aren't moral opposites. Erotic Belmont is just as materialistic as commercial Venice. And women, of course, can turn into men.

At first, though, Belmont seems like the feminine Otherworld in relation to Venice. It's got fairytale games going on--people get married on the basis of folkloric tests, not money. It seems to be another place entirely. But right from the beginning, Will calls this into question, because Portia's first lines are just like Antonio's:

"By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world."

Unlike Antonio's clueless friends, practical Nerissa uncovers the cause her mistress's melancholy immediately:

"You would be, sweet madam, if your miseries were in the same abundance as your good fortunes are; and yet, for aught I see, they are as sick that surfeit with too much as they that starve with nothing. It is no mean happiness, therefore, to be seated in the mean. Superfluity comes sooner by white hairs, but competency lives longer."

It's weird that this whole scene is in prose. I had forgotten that. Weird because this is Belmont, where dreams come true, where happy endings are possible, and women--those dreamy, poetry-inspiring critters--reign supreme. Another indication that Belmont isn't all it seems, and won't conform to expectations--it may be that it's a more pragmatic, less chimerical place than Venice. Or maybe not--we'll see. What Nerissa says here, essentially, is that Portia ought to shut the hell up about her hard life, because she's incredibly rich and has nothing to complain about. She goes on to make a diagnosis, rather like Salerio, and later Graziano, do for Antonio.  Hers is simpler, though: wealth--too much wealth--is unhealthy.

Portia replies that she knows she shouldn't complain, but knowing and doing are two separate things. "I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done than to be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching." In other words, easier said than done.

But to the matter at hand:

"But this reasoning is not in the fashion to choose me a husband. O me, the word "choose!" I may neither choose who I would nor refuse who I dislike; so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father. Is it not hard, Nerissa, that I can neither choose one, nor refuse none?"

There's an obvious play on "will" here--her dead father's will (legal document) has power over Portia's will (wishes).  Nerissa explains the problem for the audience:

"Your father was ever virtuous, and holy men at their death have good inspirations; therefore the lottery that he hath devised in these three chests of gold, silver, and lead, whereof who chooses his meaning chooses you, will no doubt never be chosen by any rightly but one who you shall rightly love."

In the fairytale world of Belmont, it's sure to go that way. A father's draconian desire to control his daughter's libido even after his death is certain to end happily. If this were a nineteenth-century novel, the opposite would hold true, wouldn't it? Dead daddy's edict would doubtless force the heroine to marry some creepy Mr. Collins-ish guy, or worse. If it were a comedy by Austen, she'd trick her way out of this misery, and end up with someone handsomer and richer than herself. If, on the other hand, it were a Thomas Hardy novel, i.e., about a beautiful, innocent woman trapped by her dad's posthumous control mania, she'd almost succeed in getting out of it, but fail. Then she'd marry some abusive brute, maybe have an affair, her lover would be murdered, she'd be hanged, and the brute would get all her money. In the Henry James version, a pair of amoral faux siblings, male and female, would plot to get the heiress's money, a la Wings of the Dove.  They'd fail, the heroine would die, and everyone else would have learned some annoying humanizing lesson.

Isn't it funny how there are only a few stories in the world? It's all about how you tell them.

In magical Belmont, we know that everything will turn out okay because, as Nerissa says, the best reader/interpreter will be the most faithful lover, too. Portia won't even consider violating her father's will--in either sense. Or will she? When we get to that scene, there is a way one can read it that allows for some, shall we, say, hinting on her part. "Who chooses his meaning chooses you." "His," here, presumably refers to the caskets--there was no "its" (possessive) in early modern English. Interpretation is the key to Portia's desire, to her very self. Interpretation is central to this play as a whole--it's Portia's interpretation of the "bond" that allows Antonio to go free, and Shylock to be punished and humiliated at the end.

In literature, reading/interpretation always matters a lot more than it does in real life. They don't tell you that in your college English classes, but they should. In the real world, you can understand the hell out of something, but it won't make a damn bit of difference to anything. No one cares what their metaphors really mean, or why an argument is structured one way or another. It's too bad, but there it is.

I should say, almost no one. I didn't mean you, gentle readers.

Portia and Nerissa go on to critique P.'s suitors, one by one. The Neapolitan Prince is too horsey; Portia suggests wittily that his mother "played false with a smith." The County Palatine is a classic melancholic, a man who "hears merry tales and smiles not." This, of course, could describe Antonio at the play's beginning, but readers of the later plays will think of Jaques, the rustic melancholic of As You Like It. As for the Frenchman, Monsieur Le Bon, "God made him, and therefore let him pass for a man," but he's a fool who seems to have no stable personality of his own. Falconbridge, "the young Baron of England" is condemned for being monolingual in a language Portia (amusingly) claims not to speak. He also dresses oddly--

"I think he bought his doublet in Italy, his round hose in France, his bonnet in Germany, and his behavior everywhere."

He's a tourist, in other words, who makes no effort to communicate with the natives. A few hundred years later, the same sort of thing will be said of Americans.

Portia further condemns the Scot for being too likely to fight with the Englishman and the German for being drunk. These are cultural stereotypes, albeit harmless ones. In this play that deals so intimately with prejudice and bigotry, however, we shouldn't take her statements too lightly. In fact, at the end of the scene she betrays a very clear racial aversion to the Prince of Morocco, who's due to arrive that evening. "If he have the condition of a saint and the complexion of a devil," she confides, "I had rather he should shrive me than wive me."

For Portia, the Moor's external appearance--devils were thought to have black skin--is more important than whatever inner virtue he might have. This is ironic, of course, since the "casket game" asks that her wooers see beyond the obvious--the gold, silver, or lead of the box--to the truth within. Belmont, it seems, is just as hypocritical as Venice on matters of race and cultural difference.

Both Nerissa and Portia express their preference for the Venetian "scholar...and soldier" whom they judge, on the basis of one meeting "best deserving a fair lady."

This lighthearted "girlfriend" scene leaves us with a mixed impression of the pretty, witty heiress. She's spoiled, judgmental, but also intelligent and discerning. Belmont is a fairytale place, and she's got something of the princess about her--waiting for a prince to abolish the wicked custom (in a medieval romance, the failed suitors would be killed) and free her from her dead father's imprisoning edict. She also banters in prose, not poetry, is a bit cruel in her judgments, and more than a little superficial. I see Paris Hilton, only smarter.

Belmont, then, both is and isn't Venice. It's a place where wealth is inherited, not earned through commerce. It's got a princess in a (metaphoric) tower, while Venice has a broke playboy who needs cash for one last gamble to win the jackpot--a rich girl who, fortunately, will judge him on his good looks and nice manners rather than his prodigal ways.

That's a cynical reading, I guess. What can I say? It's been that kind of day.

Next:  Hath a dog money? Kindness in kind.


  1. How did your earlier post, slip by me? And this post has such a melancholy quality. Winter blues? Maybe it's the material, for a comedy the Merchant has a very dark aspect. Blog on Professor, tell us more! Structure, interpretation--all that!

  2. Feeling a bit aweary myself. Plus, I have a toothache--the pain of which is greatly exacerbated by the anticipation of dental bills.

    But it's true that there's something quite cynical about the play--I hadn't remembered that, really. Sometimes these hybrid works are difficult to process--next time (if there is one), straight comedy. Or maybe I'll "sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings." I have a perverse affection for that little-read masterpiece, Richard II.

  3. I really like Richard II, but I've never been able to totally separate him from Tricky Dick in my mind's eye.