Saturday, January 16, 2010

Ventures, Vendibles and Virtues

Few middle-class people would admit to marrying for money these days. When choosing a mate, most of us like to think that we live in a Romeo and Juliet world rather than a Merchant of Venice one. But of course money--material wealth or lack thereof--is so embedded in our moral framework that it's almost an invisible criterion now. We're attracted to people who share our values, and those values cost money. I have a lot of acquaintances who embrace a "green" lifestyle, for example. Admirable stance, but extremely expensive. Some years ago, one of them berated me for feeding my then-toddler son non-organic milk. "Do you know what's in that?" she asked, outraged on my son's behalf. I did, actually. I also knew that my kid was (and still is) a total milk addict, and that organic milk costs close to 3x as much as the regular stuff. I simply couldn't afford that much virtue.

Among younger people, technological accoutrements are pretty much de rigueur.  One must have iphones, ipods, laptops, gaming consoles, and so on. Would a hip twenty-something girl ever be attracted to a cute guy who had none of this stuff, and maybe not even his own car? Perhaps. But his dating options would be pretty limited, if only by obstacles to communication.

In some sense, we are our stuff. When I was young, I affected a "bohemian" (now called boho) style. Lefty politics, dangly earrings, thousands of record albums by obscure bands, Frye boots and, of course, my extremely cool Fiat 124 sport coupe. I wasn't rich, but I had enough money to announce my values with a fairly elaborate and somewhat costly sign-system.

This is a lifestyle. Not a life. As a professor, I would often get papers from students who wrote about "medieval lifestyles," "Elizabethan lifestyles" and even "ancient lifestyles."  No such thing ever existed, I told them. Pre-modern, pre-capitalist people had lives. Not lifestyles.  A lifestyle is a life constructed around commodities. Italian cars, English boots, imported vinyl, a collection of small digital devices for entertainment, communicating and/or archiving.  Very few ancient or medieval people could afford to "style" their lives around stuff--only those few who breathed the rarified air at the summit of the economic food chain. The remaining 99% of the population had lives--usually of the nasty, brutish, and short variety.

Today, almost everyone has a lifestyle. We are our styles--the medium, as that old 60's guy said, is the message. What we now struggle to have are lives--a sense of ourselves that isn't about extraneous stuff, which includes degrees from enviable institutions, jobs at enviable places, and vacations of enviable length and expense.

The Merchant of Venice is, among other things, a play about this historical transition of lives into lifestyles--about fashioning oneself into the person one wants others to see.  When Bassanio leverages Antonio's affections into a loan that will help him win Portia's love and wealth, we might see his fortune-hunting as crass and materialistic. But from a twenty-first century perspective, it just looks prescient. He wants the girl, he needs stuff--the trappings of wealth, even if he's got nothing. As for Antonio, it seems to me that his sadness and sense of alienation derive in part from this unconscious awareness of himself as pure show--a lifestyle without a life. It's no accident that, right after the discussion of his motiveless melancholy, Bassanio arrives to ask him for a loan. No wonder he's depressed--on some level he's convinced people only like him for his money.

It's not all gloom and doom in the first scene, of course. The loquacious Graziano lightens things up a bit--he reminds me of Mercutio in the first two acts of R and J, actually. Significantly, he tries to tease Antonio out of his dolor by accusing him of being a poser--a guy who's putting on an act with no real substance behind it:

...I tell thee what, Antonio--
I love thee, and 'tis my love that speaks--
There are a sort of men whose visages
Do cream and mantle like a standing pond,
And do a wilful stillness entertain
With purpose to be dressed in an opinion
Of wisdom, gravity, profound conceit,
As who should say, "I am Sir Oracle,
And when I ope my lips, let no dog bark.'

We don't have too many people like this anymore, but it used to be that some varieties of self-importance made themselves known through an affectation of world-weary melancholy. I suspect this type of person still exists in other cultures--here in America, self-important people are much more likely to trumpet their accomplishments and opinions to anyone who'll listen.

Lorenzo berates Graziano for his garrulity, but G. replies that silence is only admirable in a dried ox's tongue or a woman whom no man wants to buy:

...silence is only commendable
In a neat's tongue dried or a maid not vendible.

It's an interesting choice of words--but then the play is full of economic language, as we'll see. Bassanio has in fact come to Antonio to borrow money precisely so that he can woo a very "vendible" (marketable) maid, Portia. Before asking for money, however, he confesses his sins. He may be an opportunist, but he's not self-deluded:

'Tis not unknown to you, Antonio,
How much I have disabled mine estate
By something showing a more swelling port
Than my faint means would grant continuance,
Nor do I now make moan to be abridged
From such a noble rate; but my chief care
Is to come fairly off from the great debts
Wherein my time, something too prodigal,
Hath left me gaged.

Bassanio has lived beyond his means, "showing a more swelling port" than his "faint means would grant continuance." In other words, he's got the clothes, the cars (I mean horses and carriages) and the wine collection, but it's all been bought on credit.  It's interesting that he mentions "time" here. It's hard to figure out exactly what he means, but I think it has to do with his leisure activities. He's spent his time doing expensive, wasteful things, and now he's got to find the means to pay for it.

Remember, none of these guys work. They're aristocrats, and they consider actual work to be demeaning. Bassanio's honest admission of prodigality is, however, a preamble to...another loan request! Like every true gambler, he's sure that this time he can win it all back. But before that, he has to soften his friend up a bit, with a reminder that he loves him best of all: you, Antonio,
I owe the most in money and in love,
And from your love I have a warranty
To unburden all my plots and purposes
How to get clear of all the debts I owe.

Before he even gets to the punch line, Antonio promises him anything and everything:

I pray you, good Bassanio, let me know it.
And if it stand as you yourself still do,
Within the eye of honour, be assured
My purse, my person, my extremest means
Lie all unlocked to your occasions.

Wow. Talk about rash promises. There's an excessiveness to Antonio's speech that is characteristic of all the Christian Venetians. Not, "okay, how much do you need?" or ""I'll see what I can do," but "all I own, all I am is yours."  That "unlocked" is important, too, since it prefigures Portia's three caskets, and Bassanio's attempt to "unlock" the riddle and (thereby) her heart. It's a somewhat sexual image--Antonio's "open" and available for anything. I should mention here that many modern productions play up Antonio's putative homosexual love for Bassanio. To the extent that there's a "homoerotic angle" to this play, I would say it's present but understated. Remember, homosexuality wasn't really a "practice" or a category in Will's day. Puritan "anti-sodomists" aside, most people didn't really worry much about it as far as we can tell. Lots of visible men of means--including Francis Bacon and King James--had male lovers. And Will himself wrote all those lovely sonnets to a "fair young man." It's historically ironic, I think, that the play stigmatizes Judaism but makes no big deal about homoeroticism. Today it's pretty much the opposite--homosexuality is a culturally contested category, while Judaism is, for most people, just another religion.

In any case, it seems clear that Antonio loves Bassanio with something more than friendship--even by Elizabethan standards, some of the things he says are excessive--but I think we're meant to see this as just another aspect of Venetian luxus in all things.

Antonio's prodigal speech is echoed in Bassanio's narration of his life philosophy in the next lines. He's a gambler, and not a particularly wise one:

In my schooldays, when I had lost one shaft,
I shot his fellow of the selfsame flight
The selfsame way, with more advised watch,
To find the other forth; and by adventuring both,
I oft found both. I urge this childhood proof
Because what follows is pure innocence.
I owe you much, and, like a wilful youth,
That which I owe is lost; but if you please
To shoot another arrow that self way
Which you did shoot the first, I do not doubt,
As I will watch the aim, or to find both
Or bring your latter hazard back again,
And thankfully rest debtor for the first.

It's a gambler's promise: if you just lend me one more stake, I promise I'll either win back this loan and the previous one--or at least this one, which would mean I owe you no more than I do now.  Of course this is nonsense--his marriage venture in Belmont is a zero-sum game. Win or lose. Either Bassanio will win enough to pay back both debts, or he'll lose all the money he spends fashioning himself as a suitable suitor. I can't see any way that he'll win the second debt back but not the first.

But look at his archery metaphor. He says that, by shooting another arrow after the lost one, he "oft" found both. Not always. And he doesn't mention the obvious--that by "adventuring" both, he sometimes lost both. Antonio doesn't seem to care how lame this "innocent" proposal is, however:

...out of doubt you do me now more wrong
In making question of my uttermost
Than if you had made waste of all I have.
Then do but say to me what I should do
That in your knowledge may by me be done,
And I am pressed unto it.

You offend me more by doubting my generosity than you would if you'd spent all my money, he says. What's interesting about this is that today we would absolutely take this as a disinterested sign of pure love. We would not assume that Antonio is trying to buy Bassanio's affections. And who wouldn't love to have a friend like this? Anyone who has ever had to humble oneself to ask for a loan knows how degrading it can be, how absolutely alienating. This generosity seems virtuous indeed.

But, on the other hand,  who in their right mind would loan money to a guy like Bassanio? He's a gambler, a risk-taker, and he's already wasted his entire inheritance. However good-looking and charming he is, he's not proved himself reliable. He wants this money so he can seem richer than he is--so he can have the style that goes with the life. He's a fortune-hunter and aspiring boy-toy. In another story, he'd be a con-man.

His next speech shows him in a better, and more poetic, light. It's lovely and romantic, but still all about value, worth, and wealth:

In Belmont is a lady richly left,
And she is fair, and, fairer than that word,
Of wondrous virtues. Sometimes from her eyes
I did receive fair speechless messages.
Her name is Portia, nothing undervalued
To Cato's daughter, Brutus' Portia,
Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth,
For the four winds blow in from every coast
Renowned suitors, and her sunny locks
Hang on her temples like a golden fleece,
Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchis' strand,
And many Jasons come in quest of her.
O my Antonio, had I but the means
To hold a rival place with one of them,
I have a mind presages me such thrift
That I should questionless be fortunate.

This is the language of myth--Portia is a golden fleece, Bassanio a man on a heroic quest, like Jason. She's as faithful and virtuous as Brutus' famed wife of the same name, her reputation has spread widely, into distant lands. And yet the language is still that of commerce. She is "richly left"--an heiress. She's "nothing undervalued," everyone knows of her "worth"--which can be taken as a moral quality as well as a financial one. Had Bassanio "means," he's sure he could gain "such thrift"--prosperity--that he'd be "fortunate." Lucky, but also in possession of a fortune. Portia's reputation brings suitors from all over the world--here we are made to remember Queen Elizabeth, who similarly was "richly left" by her father, and internationally courted.

Antonio reminds his friend that all his "fortunes are at sea," but that Bassanio can use his good name to acquire credit. And then, ominously, he promises that his credit

...shall be racked even to the uttermost
To furnish thee to Belmont, to fair Portia.

"Racked" means "stretched," but it's not without another, more violent meaning--"stretched on the rack," a means of torture to which criminals and, not long before, heretics had been subjected. Figures of speech, as in all Will's plays, have a way of returning to their original meaning.

And Shylock is, as we shall see, a very literal reader.

Next: Girl talk

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