Sunday, January 31, 2010

Fathers and Fiends

What did Shakespeare mean to say when he wrote this play? Did he want us to think that Jews are a rapacious, vengeful race? That Christians are hypocrites who seldom practice what they preach? That the law is arbitrary? That religion is a justification for injustice? One could make all these arguments based on a reading of The Merchant of Venice, but we won't ever know what Will intended. Literature, like any text-based theology, generates interpretation. Interpretation is culturally- and historically-specific. The play was read, performed and understood quite differently in nineteenth-century England, for example, from the way it was understood and performed in 1943 Vienna, under the auspices of the Third Reich.

Because this play is so disturbing, so potentially damaging to Will's reputation as the Father of English Drama and The Greatest Writer in English, interpreting it is a risky business. We don't want him to be an anti-Semite, or a racist, or anything else we now associate with ignorant anti-humanism. Interestingly, interpretation is an issue in the play itself, too. Portia's suitors have to correctly interpret the meaning of the three caskets to win her. Antonio incorrectly interprets Shylock's "bargain" as a change of heart. Portia's literal interpretation of the law eventually restores a kind of order to both Venice and Belmont.

But, wait, no it doesn't.

Now if I were still an academic, I'd have to write something like "this play remains ambivalent on the question of race, as on the question of justice. In its refusal to decide, to cast its lot definitively with either the Christians or the Jew, it can be said to problematize interpretation itself, and by implication, the certainties of both theology and law."

How's that for smart-sounding, cowardly equivocation?  Here's what I really think. Will is interested in the problem of justice, for sure. And he wonders how and why bigotry gets started, and how it's justified by people who claim to be "fair." He's interested in the relationship between law and religion because both of them claim to serve a higher ideal--call it God or call it Justice--and both inevitably fall short. He picked Jews and Moroccans because those were the most exotic, scary people to Elizabethans. Most of his countrymen hadn't ever seen either one. He's not an anti-Semite, because that idea just didn't exist then. He's interested in what links people together, and why they all spend so much time and moral energy trying to deny that link, or, if you will, "bond."

I guess I started thinking about this question because the beginning of Act 2 is all about the problem of fathers--dead ones, good ones, bad ones. Shakespeare is a kind of dead father figure too. We want him to be a good daddy, not a bad one. A humanist hero, not a racist fiend. Like a good daughter, I'm going to argue for the former. But we'll see how it goes--I haven't read this play in over 10 years, so it's kind of an adventure for me, too.

So, on to Act 2.

"Let Us Make Incision For Your Love"

Having scared off all her other potential husbands with the casket game, Portia must now entertain the suit of the Prince of Morocco. He's black-skinned. I mention that because Will wants us to remember it. That's Morocco's purpose in the play. To be noble, somewhat arrogant, and black:

Mislike me not for my complexion,
The shadowed livery of the burnished sun,
To whom I am a neighbor and near bred.
Bring me the fairest creature northward born,
Where Phoebus' fire scarce thaws the icicles,
And let us make incision for your love,
To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine.
I tell thee, lady, this aspect of mine
Hath feared the valiant. By my love I swear,
The best regarded virgins of our clime
Have loved it too. I would not change this hue
Except to steal your thoughts, gentle queen.

Simply put, he's black and proud. But the language is lovely, isn't it? " complexion, the shadowed livery of the burnished sun...." "Livery," of course, implies servitude--noble houses had their servants all wear the same colors. But he follows that with a claim of equality--he's the sun's "neighbor, and near bred." He's realistic enough to realize that he can't make a strong argument for beauty, since black skin was considered devilish, so he makes a claim for valor, instead. And in making that claim, returns us to the argument of the previous scene--about what's on the outside, and what's on the inside. "Let us make incision for your love/to prove whose blood is reddest..."--let's look inside and see who's the bravest. We're reminded that we all bleed red, regardless of skin color. We're obviously meant to see Shylock's pound of flesh and Morocco's bloody incision in similar terms--as a way of thinking about the similarities among men, rather than their (superficial) differences. And of course "incision" looks forward to the slicing and dicing that's threatened in the courtroom scene at the end. Antonio is willing to suffer a fatal incision for Bassanio's love--Morocco's metaphor literalized.

But Morocco's different in other ways, too. He reminds me of a bad blind date, where the guy, eager to impress, talks about how tough he is, or how much he can bench-press. Maybe that's alluring in the wilder parts of the world, but in decadent, effete Venice, a guy who boasts about his battle prowess--hinting at other kinds of prowess--is just a freak. Like putting Beowulf in a Noel Coward play, or something. Belmont is a gentle, feminine place, and Morocco's way out of his element.

Portia's next lines are an out-and-out lie, although I suppose one could excuse her on the grounds of decorum:

In terms of choice I am not solely led
By nice direction of a maiden's eyes.
Besides, the lott'ry of my destiny
Bars me the right of voluntary choosing.
But if my father had not scanted me,
And hedged me by his wit to yield myself
His wife who wins me by that means I told you,
Yourself, renowned Prince, then stood as fair
As any comer I have looked on yet
For my affection.

One could split hairs and assume that the line "as any comer I have looked on yet," keeps her from outright mendacity, but when Morocco later fails to choose the right casket, Portia will breathe a sigh of relief, saying

A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go.
Let all of his complexion choose me so.

So much for seeing beyond the surface.

Morocco, for his part, misunderstands the game itself, thinking it's just a matter of blind chance:

I would o'erstare the sternest eyes that look,
Outbrave the heart most daring on the earth,
Pluck the young sucking cubs from the she-bear,
Yea, mock the lion when a roars for prey,
To win the lady. But alas the while,
If Hercules and Lichas play at dice
Which is the better man, the greater throw
May turn by fortune from the weaker hand.

"In a game of chance, strength and bravery count for nothing." But of course it's not a game of chance, it's a game of reading and interpreting. There is "hazard," or risk involved, but the winner will be the man who's willing "to hazard all he hath," i.e., to risk everything. It rewards the willingness to risk, but it's not like those old game shows, where you have to choose what's behind door number 3."Who chooses his meaning chooses you," Nerissa says. The emphasis is on meaning, on understanding what the caskets, each in turn, signify.

Portia is a good daughter. Although her father's dead, she's still playing by his rules--her inheritance, apparently, is contingent on this game. She's not above cheating a little bit, as we'll see when it's Bassanio's turn, but she follows the letter of her father's edict. The winner must choose from among the gold, silver, and lead caskets.  As a dutiful daughter, Portia provides a contrast to Jessica, who rebels against her father's will, steals from him, and ultimately profits from his humiliation--although not as much as her husband, Lorenzo, does. Jessica is a bad daughter, but her rebellion is justified in the Venetian (and Elizabethan) world, where Jews are forced to turn from the Old Law to the New--i.e, become Christians. Her deed is "fiendish," but it's okay because, as the clown Lancelot Gobbo says, the Jew is "a kind of devil" himself.

Jacob and Esau

Gobbo's comic interlude in the second scene gives Will the opportunity for more religious allegory and analogy.  As the scene opens, Shylock's servant is debating whether or not to abandon his master and seek a new, kinder one:

"Certainly my conscience will serve me to run from this Jew my master. The fiend is at mine elbow, and tempts me, saying to me 'Gobbo, Lancelot Gobbo, good Lancelot,' or 'good Gobbo,' or 'good Lancelot Gobbo--use your legs, take the start, run away.' My conscience says 'No, take heed, honest Lancelot, take heed, honest Gobbo,' or, as aforesaid, 'honest Lancelot Gobbo--do not run, scorn running with thy heels.'"

Lancelot's loyalty to or rebellion against his master is structured as a moral dilemma--which it was, in Elizabethan England. The revolt of the serving classes was seen as a threat to the hierarchical order of society, and wasn't something to be taken lightly. The church and the state both saw "knowing one's place" as a virtue. To rebel against one's master was a sin.

Unless, of course, that master is a Jew, and "the very devil incarnation," as Gobbo amusingly malaprops. Ultimately, he decides that when choosing between a devilish act and the devil himself, there's no contest. He runs, seeking employment with a new, younger--albeit poorer--master, the Christian Bassanio.

This little morality play quickly shifts into a theological burlesque. When Gobbo meets his half-blind father, Old Gobbo, on the road, he plays a cruel but funny game with him. Old Gobbo is looking for his son, and is too blind to recognize him. Lancelot insists that the man he seeks in "young Master Lancelot," i.e., not a servant but a gentleman, and is, sadly, "deceased."

At Gobbo's wail of sorrow, he reveals himself:  "do you know me, father?"

Old Gobbo says that he's "sand-blind," and can't recognize him. Lancelot then kneels before him, asking for his blessing. An Elizabethan audience, well-versed in biblical lore, would immediately recognize this as an allusion to the story of Jacob and Esau in the Book of Genesis. If you've been to Sunday school, you probably remember this one. Jacob cheats his brother Esau--the older twin--out of his inheritance by dressing up in sheepskins and duping his father, Isaac, into giving him the ritualistic blessing that will make him the heir. Esau, you see, was "a hairy man," and Jacob "a smooth man." Now, to be fair, Esau wasn't too bright. He was really hungry, and let Jacob have this opportunity in exchange for a bowl of soup. Their mom, Rebekah, liked Jacob better, and colluded in this deception.

In the Old Testament, one sibling was always the favorite. It's like a textbook on bad parenting.

Early Christian thinkers saw this as a "typological" moment. Typology is the hermeneutic science of making everything in the Old Testament into an allegory of the coming of Christ. You know--leaving the old master, the Jew, for the new one, the Christian. In a manner of speaking. So for these typologists, Jacob, though younger, inherits the his father's wealth  just as the younger Christian church--the New Covenant--will supersede the Old (Jewish) Covenant, the law of Moses. In The Merchant, this is the occasion for comedy, as Old Gobbo pats his son's head blindly:

"Lord worshipped might he be, what a beard has thou got! Thou hast got more hair on thy chin than Dobbin my fill-horse has on his tail."

Finally Gobbo recognizes his son, and says he's brought presents for Shylock, the boy's master. Lancelot tells him to save the presents for Bassanio, the man he now wants to work for because B. "gives rare new liveries," i.e., has cool uniforms for his servants. Meanwhile, as luck would have it, Bassanio comes along. Old Gobbo wants to give him his "dish of doves" (this has metaphoric significance, too--doves signify the coming of the Holy Spirit in the Christian Age of Grace), while Lancelot wants to be hired into his service.

It turns out Shylock was ready to be rid of the rebel, anyway, according to Bassanio:

...Thou hast obtained thy suit.
Shylock thy master spoke with me this day,
And hath preferred thee, if it be preferment
To leave a rich Jew's service to become
The follower of so poor a gentleman.

It turns out the "fiend" isn't above giving his disloyal servant a good recommendation. Lancelot once again makes the religious point:

"The old proverb is very well parted between my master Shylock and you, sir: you have the grace of God, sir, and he hath enough."

The old proverb is "the grace of God is gear enough."  In other words, divine grace is more important than material goods. Lancelot points out that Shylock has a lot of money, but Bassanio, as a Christian, has God's grace.  But it bears thinking about, doesn't it? Bassanio is borrowing three thousand ducats to "gear himself up" in order to win Portia and her considerable fortune. It seems grace is good to have, but it's hardly enough.

Next:  Risky undertakings and broken bonds


  1. You grapple compellingly in this post with an argument that I've participated in many times over the years in many different settings concerning art and artists. Must our artistic, literary and musical heroes be politically correct. In fact can oour artistic heroes be loathsome and still merit our fan[naticism?] Then you throw in a right and left hook--what about historical context--where notions of race and religion are unelightened and so in looking at these questions we necessarily are culturally and historically-suspect.

    I have an artist friend who was cynically laughing at the idea of a new biography of Jackson Pollack--the new bio opines that he was bi-polar--my artist pal and I were like so what? The great poet Ezra Pound a fascist, lunatic and somewhat taboo in part because he participated in fascist broadcasting from Italy during WWII. While the anti-semite, TS Eliot remains near and dear and in the western canon despite being a lesser poet because he remained loyal?

    It's funny because the same debates repeat themselves over and over--can I like this sports figure or that actor. Close Jewish friends sent me a boycott Mel Gibson email upon the release of his newest film--I would have boycotted the film just because it was a Mel Gibson film in the same way that I will ot of my own volition sit through a Barbara Streisand movie! In otherwords not because of their politics.

    As I think about it, a great deal of Ulysses is taken with the very isssue of whether Shakespeare was a good and righteous person and what was the meaning of this or that in the plays--which reminds me, Molly Bloom was remarked upon for her Moorish-ancestry.

    For me it boils down to the art, while knowing that the artist was a good, righteous, humanist might enhance my regard for the art and the artist. The politically correct artist is not terribly relevant to whether the art work is meritorious.

    Your reference to the so-called heores of the Old Testament are apt--is there any greater shithead than the John Edwards of the Old Testament, King David? Biblical notions of justice, particularly Old Testament justice will drive any Bad Lawyer right out of his mind!

  2. At my son's (alternative) grade school they are reading the Old Testament stories (they also do Greek and Norse myths--it's not a religious thing). Anyway, he's had very little religious education, because I'm of the opinion that he should make his own choices about such things. So these stories are freaking him out--he doesn't understand why anyone would want to worship a God who wipes out whole cities. He said, "mom, he's like a terrorist." And here's something funny--he calls him "The Godfather." I think b/c they call him "God the Father" and "Godfather" is easier to remember. But I can't help but think of Brando in a long beard.... So yes, the Old Testament is full of wild stuff. But I love the way Will uses the Jacob story in this play.

    I am so with you on the art and politics thing. From a feminist point of view (and I used to be a "professional feminist") pretty much all the dead white men are terrible misogynists. But literature/art doesn't have to be innocent to be valuable. And, I think there are lots of ways that these guys subvert their own sexist assumptions, too. I absolutely can't see censoring anything because it offends someone, (except in the case of real exploitation of innocents--like kiddie porn). That was the premise of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, remember? Books had to be burned because they "upset people." Actually, this play, along with Huck Finn, etc, has periodically been banned because of its racist/anti-Semitic implications. I'm of the opinion that the play is all about questioning bigotry, not sanctioning it.