Sunday, January 24, 2010

Fair Terms and a Villain's Mind

In high schools and colleges across America, teachers and professors read Othello as a drama about race and injustice. The play is certainly a valid context for that discussion--Othello internalizes racist fantasies, and ultimately becomes the savage that the bigots claimed he was all along. In the eyes of the world, there are two Othellos. He's an honorable military hero, as well as a violent, monstrous outsider. Othello is about the way racism colonizes the psyche--from a modern perspective, it's Will's most unambiguously tragic play.

But The Merchant of Venice is actually a better case study in prejudice, it seems to me. There is a plague in both houses--the Christians are sick with surfeit and self-satisfaction, while Shylock the Jew has become a caricature drawn by his enemies. He's a mean, miserly, vengeful old man who values his daughter no more than his ducats. Antonio, for his part, is a sanctimonious, self-deluded bigot. Bassanio is a weak-willed opportunist, and Portia is a privileged woman who's far more interested in having all the answers than in asking even one question of herself or others. But precisely because no one comes out of the play "smelling like a rose," as my mom says, it's an honest and brutal look at how prejudice works from both majority and minority perspectives. This is the play, I think, that really confronts the problem of "difference" from all angles.

The first act is structured like a triptych--Antonio's scene, Portia's scene, and Shylock's. The stage sets should reinforce Act 1's triadic structure by showing us first the male world of Venice, then the feminine realm of Belmont, and then an "other" space where Bassanio and Antonio encounter Shylock. Although Will doesn't specify the location of the third scene, I can imagine it in the Jewish quarter of the city--exotic and different, not least because Jews were required to dress distinctively. On the stage, they were often caricatured with bright red wigs and large false noses, wearing the classic "gaberdine"--a long cloak of rough-woven material. The scene could also be set in the Rialto, the Venetian marketplace--this setting would remind the audience that Venice, unlike London, was truly a multicultural city in Will's day. It was the gateway to the East, a port where spices, silks, and other exotica were traded by men from all over the world.

The Letter and the Spirit

One of the most interesting things about this third scene is the way Shylock and the Christians--Bassanio first, then Antonio--use language. Shylock takes everything literally. Insisting on the letter rather than the spirit of the word, he accentuates his difference from the Christians, who follow Saint Paul's dictum: "the letter killeth, and the spirit giveth life." I wrote about this quote earlier, in my "Love Thy Enemy" post (on Romeo and Juliet). It's an idea Will plays around with a lot, so it's worth reiterating. In this play, these two different ways of reading represent the difference between Shylock and the Christians. Let me show you how that works in the scene.

Bassanio and Shylock enter, discussing the loan request:

Shylock: Three thousand ducats. Well.
Bassanio: Ay, sir, for three months.
Shylock: For three months. Well.
Bassanio: For the which, as I told you, Antonio shall be bound.
Shylock: Antonio shall become bound. Well.

I have always heard a lot in that repeated "well."  Shylock's speaking to himself when he says it--the word is full of contempt and speculation.

Bassanio: May you stead me? Will you pleasure me? Shall I know your answer?
Shylock: Three thousand ducats for three months, and Antonio bound.

The trial scene of the play is often staged with Antonio literally bound, occasionally with his arms out, like a crucifixion victim.

Bassanio: Your answer to that.
Shylock: Antonio is a good man.
Bassanio: Have you heard any imputation to the contrary?
Shylock: Ho, no, no, no, no! My meaning in saying he is a good man is to have you understand me that he is sufficient.

Bassanio and Shylock understand "good"--and by implication, virtue itself--differently. Shylock means that Antonio's "good for" the loan--he has a good reputation, good credit. Bassanio takes offense, thinking that Shylock is impugning his friend's moral character.  After some consideration of Antonio's risky shipping business, Shylock agrees to consider the matter further, telling Bassanio that he "may take his bond."

Bassanio: Be assured you may.
Shylock: I will be assured I may, and that I may be assured, I will bethink me.

As with "bound," and "good," the two men have different understandings of "assured." Bassanio means it the way we would--"you can be assured (that he'll pay back the loan)". Shylock means, "I will have some insurance, some collateral, if I make this loan."  Bassanio's talking about a feeling of confidence, Shylock's talking about a literal, material guarantee.  This kind of thing is repeated over and over whenever the Christians try to converse with Shylock. He inevitably returns words to their original, pre-metaphoric meaning.

Shylock, like Richard III, speaks in villainous asides. Like Richard, he lets the audience in on his schemes, his resentments, his bigotry. Unlike Richard, he doesn't pretend--as much--to be a good guy. He also refers to Scripture throughout the play--he knows his biblical texts better than the Christians. Even the New Testament. In his first aside, he calls Antonio "a fawning publican, alluding to the gospel of Luke:

How like a fawning publican he looks.
I hate him for he is a Christian;
But more, for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis, and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.
If I can catch him once upon the hip
I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.
He hates our sacred nation, and he rails,
Even there where merchants most do congregate
On me, my bargains, and my well-won thrift--
Which he calls interest. Cursed be my tribe
If I forgive him.

According to Shylock, Antonio isn't one of those Christians who simply looks down on him and his people. He goes around dissing them--and particularly him--in public, proclaiming the immorality of usury (lending at interest). Now I don't know about you, but if my enemy came to me asking for a really big favor, when he'd done everything he could to ruin my livelihood and my reputation, I would most certainly feel a little smug, a little joyful, and yeah, I'd be thinking about how I could get my own back.

Actually, there is a guy like that on my vengeance list--just one--and I used to fantasize about just such a moment. This isn't an erotic grudge, but a professional one. Those last much longer, as Shylock can tell you. Since my fantasy is unlikely to ever come true, however, I'll just have to put my faith in karma.

The aside ends, significantly, with Shylock rejecting the cornerstone of the Christian ethos--forgiveness. He will not forgive. And, as we'll see at the end, neither will they. The difference is, they talk about how important forgiveness is all the time. He, from the very beginning, rejects it.

He goes over the terms of the deal--three thousand for three months, after which Antonio sanctimoniously interjects a comment about his own disdain for usury. Now it seems to me that if a person wants a loan, they should perhaps not denigrate the lender's financial ethics. But Antonio is of the ruling class and religion, and sees no problem with peremptorily biting the hand that he hopes to feed from:

Shylock, albeit I neither lend nor borrow
By taking nor by giving of excess
Yet to supply the ripe wants of my friend
I'll break a custom.

What a prig. "Although personally I find your practices repugnant, I will endure your loan to help out a friend." Good grief.  At this point in the play, how can you not root for Shylock over this prissy hypocrite?

Jacob, Laban, and the Spotted Sheep

Shylock then offers a little biblical lesson, the story of Jacob and his uncle Laban's sheep. Now if you've never read the Old Testament, I really do recommend it. It's better than any ultra-violent action movie, made for TV family drama, or apocalyptic documentary. It's got everything--incest, murder, polygamy, rape, genocide...great family entertainment. No wonder Christians decided it was better to read all these stories metaphorically. The "letter" of the OT is pretty grisly, and the Almighty doesn't really make a good impression, if you ask me. But then those were wilder days, and I am, for better or worse, the recipient/victim of a Jesuitical education.

But anyway, on to Laban's sheep.  Shylock uses this story to justify usurious lending, but it's not really about that. Jacob goes to work for his uncle Laban, tending his sheep. Laban's kind of a jerk--he keeps re-interpreting the terms of their agreement to Jacob's detriment. Oh, and he's Rachel's dad, too. Rachel was the love of Jacob's life, although he also married her sister, Leah, and a couple of housemaids. The housemaids, it should be noted, were offered for Jacob's procreative pleasure by his wives! Talk about male fantasies....

Jacob's lucky, because God loves him better than anyone. So He helps Jacob cheat on a couple of crucial occasions, this being one. The other involves his hairier brother, Esau, but we'll get to that in another post. Let's look at how Shylock tells the story:

Shylock: When Jacob grazed his uncle Laban's sheep--
This Jacob from our holy Abram was,
As his wise mother wrought in his behalf,
The third possessor; ay, he was the third--

Antonio: And what of him? Did he take interest?

Shylock: No, not take interest, not, as you would say,
Directly int'rest.  Mark what Jacob did:
When Laban and himself were compromised
That all the eanlings which were streaked and pied
Should fall as Jacob's hire, the ewes, being rank,
In end of autumn turned to the rams,
And when the work of generation was
Between these woolly breeders in the act,
The skilful shepherd peeled me certain wands,
And in the doing of the deed of kind,
He stuck them up before the fulsome ewes
Who, when conceiving, did in eaning time
Fall parti-colored lambs; and those were Jacob's.
This was a way to thrive, and he was blest;
And thrift is blessing, if men steal it not.

There's a lot in this speech. Jacob was "third," because he was the third after Abraham, his grandfather. Through the intervention of his tricky mom, Rebekah, he stole his brother's right of inheritance, and became Isaac's heir. But Antonio doesn't see what any of this has to do with usury, and asks if Jacob "took interest." Shylock replies that he didn't "directly" take interest--this, I think, is a dig at Antonio, who, like the moneylender, makes his fortune without lifting a finger of his own. He takes risks, certainly, but as an import merchant, does no actual work. Shylock is always pointing out ways that he and Antonio are alike, and this really pisses the Christians off.

The story of Laban's sheep is interesting because it actually could be used as an argument against usury. Believe it or not, early Christians, who first made it illegal to lend money at interest, condemned usury partly because it undermined the sanctity of life.  That's right--money-lending was the abortion of its day! How, you may wonder, did this work? Well, remember, a lot of people still paid for things "in kind," i.e., if they wanted a sheep, maybe they gave someone a few barrels of wine, or some dates. These are living things--plants and animals. They can reproduce, create more of themselves. So, it was okay to ask interest on something that was capable of reproducing itself, because you are losing out in its reproductive capabilities by selling it on credit. Interest pays for reproductive time, essentially.

Money is another thing entirely. It is inanimate, and can't reproduce. Charging interest is treating an inanimate thing like a living thing. And that's blasphemy, really. Usury was also condemned because it was uncharitable, and preyed upon the poor. On the other hand, the Parable of the Talents (Luke 19: 23; Matthew 25: 27) seems to argue that investing money (or spiritual capital) is a good thing. Well, whatever. There's a lot more that could be said about the history of usury. Here's the wikipedia article, which gives a good short summary.

Jacob's deal with Laban was that he would be paid not in money, but with all the parti-colored sheep. Which is to say, maybe one or two every season. But Laban didn't figure on God helping Jacob set up a breeding program. While the sheep were "doing the deed of kind"--i.e., the deed of nature, mating--Jacob put some stripped wooden sticks around, and lo and behold, praise the Lord, there were tons of these spotty sheep born! Hallelujah.

"Thrift is blessing," Shylock says. "Thrift" doesn't mean being thrifty--it's related to "thriving," and means "prospering."  Antonio sees it as a financial "venture," not an allegory for usury. Here, Shylock is the one reading metaphorically, while Antonio is trying to understand the story literally:

This was a venture, sir, that Jacob served for--
A thing not in his power to bring to pass,
But swayed and fashioned by the hand of heaven.
Was this inserted to make interest good,
Or is your gold and silver ewes and rams?

This was an investment, a financial risk that Jacob took. It worked out because of divine intervention. Are you telling this story to justify usury, or  because you are going to loan me sheep?  Shylock answers just as wittily, replying that he makes his money "breed so fast" that it might as well be livestock.

Making the analogy explicit, Shylock spits in the face of the Christian prohibition--which is why Antonio replies that

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!

This worrying about "false fronts" and corrupted interiors will be a central concern of the play--hence its emphasis on interpretation. It's also, as always, a way of thinking about "acting" and "theatricality" in general. But actually, this charge can be more readily laid upon the Christians than Shylock. He doesn't really put on much of an act, compared to the rest of them.  In some ways, his refusal to act, to be an actor, is what's most disturbing about him.

Well, this post is already too long, so I'll save the actual "bond"--the legal agreement--for next time.


  1. In Old English Common Law, usury is the reward/interest for the "use" of the money. Or put in a slightly different way, it is the taking of compensaton of any kind for the use of money.

    This was an excellent essay, Gayle. I satand in awe of your erudition. You rightly highlight the concept of spirit and letter of the law the animating force for nearly all litigation. Almost all legal writing wraps itself arguing for the letter application of the law, or the spirit application. There are adages upon adages--my favorite is: When you have the law, argue the law; when you have the facts, argue the facts; and, when you have neither, pound the table.

    Great post, one of your top 5!


  2. Thanks, BL. Now that I've gotten to the Shylock part, this is more fun. What a great character! On usury--yes, it was precisely this notion of "use" that bugged the early Christian thinkers, like Aquinas. It was like paying twice--once for the thing, and once for its use. Actually the whole history of usury is fascinating. I may have to get a book and read more about it.
    I am looking forward to more of your legal take on this--because it is really concerned, in a profound way, with the difference/disjunction between law and justice. One of my favorite things to wonder and worry about, too.

  3. I enjoy your writing greatly. You make a valid point from the perspective of forgiveness. By the end of the play those in power , the Christians, demand a confession of faith from Shylock, a Jew, to the Christian tradition- certainly a theme worth reflecting upon. In several of Shakespeare's plays do we find the Christian tradition mentioned, yet as a Christian reading The Merchant of Venice it is hard to miss the total religious decimation of a Jewish man for whatever the reason- Law and Justice, Christian Law and Christian Justice where the two- Civil and Ecclesiatical Law- are not always in sync.

  4. Yes, there is an excessiveness to the way the Christians treat Shylock, especially at the end. It's hard not to sympathize with S., although he is supposed to be the villain--precisely because the Christians don't "practice what they preach." I hadn't really thought about Ecclesiastical law as informing the end of the play, but it's an interesting idea. I will take a closer look at it--thanks for bringing it up.