Sunday, February 28, 2010
Today I've been thinking about risk, about gambling on an uncertain future. I've been reading an interesting book called Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, by Peter Bernstein. It's about the historical, social and intellectual changes that transformed Westerners from oracle-reading, past-oriented fatalists into probability-calculating, future-oriented gamblers. So while I'm reading this I'm thinking about The Merchant, of course, since risk or "hazard" plays such a large part in the story.
But, being me, I also started thinking about life, and how we manage uncertainties. Superstitions work this way, especially in childhood. If I don't step on any cracks on the way to school, I'll pass my spelling test. Having succeeded in avoiding cracks, I may in fact sit down to my test feeling all calm and orthographically smug. Instant A! Past experience is also a useful indicator of future outcomes--not only my own experience, but that of my friends. If all my friends speed down a section of interstate without getting caught, I'm likely to do that, too. If one of them gets caught, I'll probably stop speeding--at least for awhile. These, however, are ancient ways of dealing with risk--they aren't scientific, or even future-oriented. They're mystical, passive. The future, in these two scenarios, is either determined by some murky, mysterious power that governs sidewalk cracks, or it's just a mirror of the past. There's no gambling or calculation involved.
I'm kind of a risk-averse person, which is why I initially became an academic. The academy is where many riskophobes go to hide. Think about it--you're surrounded by people exactly like yourself, guaranteed a job for life (if you don't get culled from the herd, as I did) in a business that essentially hasn't changed since the nineteenth century. Not much there would appeal to gamblers--you can take risks, but the stakes are embarrassingly low. In deciding to toil for six years in a well-endowed upstate New York library, making about ten thousand dollars a year (and even back then, this was peanuts), I wagered that I would never have to take any more risks ever!
Uh-huh. Although the odds against my getting denied tenure were quite low, given my publications and the success rates of people with identical track records, I nonetheless lost my job, because of...circumstances that weren't part of my initial calculations (academic politics). The devil, as they say, is in the details. Still, gambling-wise, I made the right choice. It should have turned out differently, but didn't. Similarly, one can live a healthy life, have no known genetic risk factors, and still get some horrible disease. Because, you know, sometimes you do get struck by lightning.
Nevertheless, some people remain confused by these issues of risk and probability, and opt for the old-fashioned oracle approach. This world-view survives in supermarket tabloids, wherein the end of the world, the devolution of species and the death of celebrities are regularly foretold with eye-catching, retro-look visual aids. For millennia, this was the way most people thought about the future--as something arbitrary, dangerous, a whim of the gods.
Btw., I still have one Weekly World News front page from a few years ago, which shows the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse somewhere in Arizona. I'm pretty sure they just cropped out four of the original Magnificent Seven for the picture, and then made it look blurry. But it was still kind of cool.
Although any thinking person knows that the Four Horsemen have their ranch somewhere in Texas, not Arizona.
Because of probability theory, an insurance industry became possible. There was insurance in Will's day--had been for centuries, but it had been mostly unregulated and haphazard. In 1601, Francis Bacon introduced a bill in Parliament to regulate insurance policies, which were said to be "tyme out of mynde an usage amonste merchants, both of this realm and of forraine nacyons."
Will wasn't really interested in the nascent insurance industry--if Antonio had had insurance on his ships, none of the events in Act 4 would have happened--but he was interested in risk. As in so many of his plays, he here makes a clear distinction between old ways and new. The Venetians, as I've mentioned before, are New Men. They live in a multicultural city teeming with international commerce, and they are fully aware that there's money to be made in trade. Global trade was primarily a maritime business, however, and the one thing that couldn't be predicted with any degree of certainty--then as now--was the weather.
The ancient Greeks were pretty hip to this problem, and--if we can believe the stories--didn't hesitate to sacrifice a kid or two to the wind gods when necessary.
Despite the considerable potential for weather-related ruin, Antonio considered his investments safe because they were diversified, spreading the risk over a larger space and time:
My ventures are not in one bottom trusted,
Nor to one place; nor is my whole estate
Upon the fortune of this present year;
Therefore, my merchandise makes me not sad.
And yet, they all failed--at least as far as we know in Act 3. Ironically, Bassanio learns of his friend's loss just as he has, in Graziano's words, "won the fleece," i.e., won the game, the girl, and all her money besides. Remember, he picked the lead casket, which warned that the one who chooses it must be ready to "hazard all he hath." "Hazard," is a gambling word--it comes from the Arabic al zahr, which means "dice." Bassanio's risk paid off.
Or did it? After he receives Antonio's letter, telling him the the Jew is calling in the debt, he confesses to Portia that he hasn't been entirely honest with her:
...When I told you
My state was nothing, I should then have told you
That I was worse than nothing, for indeed
I have engaged myself to a dear friend,
Engaged my friend to his mere enemy,
To feed my means.
It turns out Bassanio hasn't "hazarded" anything at all. Antonio took all the risk. And in freeing Antonio from the bond, Portia will assume another kind of risk by acting the part of a man--the lawyer Balthasar. Bassanio, beloved of both, seems pretty unworthy of all this hazarding, doesn't he? One has to assume that he's really good-looking, or something. Because he's neither as rich as Portia, as entrepreneurial as Antonio, nor even as witty as Graziano. He's kind of a cipher in this whole drama--rather like the lady in a medieval romance. Desired, but devoid of personality.
So what does Portia do? What any rich girl would do--she offers to throw money at the problem to make it go away:
Portia: What sum owes he the Jew?
Bassanio: For me, three thousand ducats.
Portia: What, no more?
Pay him six thousand, and deface the bond.
Double six thousand, and then treble that,
Before a friend of this description
Shall lose a hair through Bassanio's fault.
Although Salerio has said Shylock won't take money to "deface the bond," Portia is sure that her excessive offer will change his mind. Because, after all, he's a Jew. Only concerned with money.
In fact it's the Christians who see money as the means to win and prove love, and to solve virtually any problem. For Shylock it's not about money at all--it's about vengeance. Or as that old Visa commercial puts it:
Winning an heiress: 3,000 ducats
Avenging Yourself on an Enemy: Priceless
Portia's generosity is an insult, really. She has no sense that anything else might be at stake, that it is precisely this prodigality, this expansive and reckless use of capital that Shylock finds abhorrent.
Shylock's understanding of capital is, well, pre-capitalist. He has no interest in global investments or risky ventures. He makes money on the risky behavior of others, but takes few risks himself. In the play, this fiscal conservatism is allied with his religion, which sees the Law in similar terms. You get back what you put in--an eye for an eye. Adherence to the Law defines the Jewish community.
During the Renaissance, as Bernstein points out, people became risk-takers. They made perilous journeys to distant lands in hope of financial or spiritual rewards--the missionary industry also took off at this time. They took chances on cures, on machines, on new ways of understanding the world. The future, once opaque and burdened by the past, suddenly beckoned like those heavenly gates. For those with the vision, courage (or maybe foolhardiness) to venture into the unknown, anything became possible.
And this new attitude, more than religion or even ethics, is what separates Shylock from the Venetians. He's yesterday's man, practicing yesterday's religion--the Old Law, like the old ways of managing risk, is outdated and morally irrelevant. The Venetians, despite their hypocrisy, are the wave of the future. They send their capital and their ideas out into the wider world, instead of keeping them locked up in the family safe. Jessica knows which way the wind is blowing--she's a material girl, who's ready to take that leap into the future.
Shylock, wary of change and unwilling to risk, is left to lament the passing of the old ways. In one sense, the fact that he's a Jew is only incidental. He's mired in the past, and that alone is enough to ensure his defeat.
Next: The Courtroom Scene!
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
I've gotten a little sidetracked by the Olympics--I'm a big winter games fan--and a big Michigan snow, which has provided hours of wet, cold outdoor fun. Sitting in front of the computer just hasn't made my must do list. But here I am, with another scintillating post on Shakespearean drama! I know, I know. It's hard to contain your excitement. Me too. Be still, my heart.
And speaking of hearts--this play is partly a romance, too, although the Belmont plot takes a deserved backseat to the Venice one. In bringing up romance today, I'm not really interested in the love story (which is, like everything else in the play, also a money story), but rather in the way romance structure informs the drama.
The traditional structure of romance is pretty straightforward. The lovers endure a test, come together, rejoice in their union (in modern genre fiction this is when you get the first hot sex scene), then face a much more difficult test that threatens to destroy the relationship. The first "resolution" always proves to be false or incomplete--it's the second "test" that matters. Read any grocery-store romance novel and you'll see what I mean.
The Merchant of Venice is structured along these lines, too. Bassanio wins Portia by passing the marriage test, the lovers engage in a lot of high-flown rhetoric (Elizabethan substitute for hot sex), but we know they are headed for a much bigger challenge. Will weaves other conventions into the text as well-- most notably the "rash promise," which you'll recognize from fairytales like Rumpelstilskin. In these stories, the protagonist promises something out of desperation or ignorance, which then proves to be his or her undoing. Antonio's eagerness to prove his love to/for Bassanio leads him to promise something--anything--that will get him the loan from Shylock. These two elements are highly conventional, not really innovative on Will's part.
The brilliance of this play lies in the way Will inserts something strange into a familiar structure, and thereby creates a completely new kind of story--a romantic comedy with a tragic heart.
Today I want to think a little about Shylock's rage. The Christians portray him as an animal, an "inhuman wretch/Uncapable of pity, void and empty of any dram of mercy." But Will uses the Jessica/Lorenzo subplot to give Shylock a heart--a human response to the betrayal of his child, a feeling with which any parent could identify.
Parents and Children
It's true that Jessica isn't dead--but to Shylock, who puts such store in family, in blood, and in "bonds," she is worse than that. She has joined his enemies in rejecting and humiliating him. And that's more painful by far than a physical death, which could be integrated into his theology, mourned with centuries-old rituals. Elizabethan people lived with death--even death of the young--every day. But this other kind of loss, the severing of an emotional bond that is also a foreclosure on the future, is beyond bearing.
After his unpleasant exchange with Sal and Sol in Act 3, Shylock encounters Tubal, "another of the tribe." Tubal has been on the lookout for Jessica since she vanished with a significant portion of her dad's ducats and jewels. Tubal says that he's been unable to find her, although he's heard a lot about her from various merchants in Genoa. Shylock's reply would seem, on the surface, to be yet more evidence that he values his money more than his daughter:
Why, there, there, there, there. A diamond gone cost me two thousand ducats in Frankfurt. The curse never fell upon our nation till now--I never felt it till now. Two thousand ducats in that and other precious, precious jewels. I would my daughter were dead at my foot and the jewels in her ear! Would she were hearsed at my foot and the ducats in her coffin! No news of them? Why, so. And I know not what's spent in the search. Why thou, loss upon loss: the thief gone with so much, and so much to find the thief, and no satisfaction, no revenge, nor no ill luck stirring but what lights o' my shoulders, no sighs but o' my breathing, no tears but o' my shedding.
Things have been stolen--diamonds, ducats, a daughter. "A diamond gone"--it's hard not to see that as a metaphor, isn't it? Jessica was his diamond, his most precious possession. Yes, still a possession, but precious beyond all the others. Shylock sees his personal misery in global terms: "The curse never fell upon our nation till now." The suffering of the Jewish people, the basis of so much Judaic theology, is no longer an abstraction. In the loss of his daughter, Shylock sees the shadow of all the other losses, all the other injustices he and his people have suffered. He's made the leap from the particular to the universal.
I want to think about what this means for a few moments. Yep, it's time for one of my Crazy Philosophical Digressions!
Universal and Particular
I probably don't need to tell you that "global thinking" isn't a recipe for emotional well-being. And I speak as someone who constantly wrestles with this tendency. Just because someone makes a sexist comment doesn't mean he's a raving misogynist. Just because you're enduring a run of bad luck, it doesn't mean you're cursed by fate. If a partner cheats on you, it doesn't mean that all human beings are inherently faithless. The ability to generalize is an intellectual asset, but it can be an emotional liability. That's why intellectual people are often unhappy. They make that leap--which is hard for a lot people--with alacrity. Everything personal becomes political, philosophical, ontological.
This is Shylock's conundrum, too. He wants the Venetians to acknowledge a universal common humanity, wants them to see him as one of them. But he also argues for the specificity of his loss, and the literal interpretation of his bond. I am just like you, but I will accept no substitutions for what the Law owes me. I want you to see the world in universal terms, but I refuse to.
It's that terrorist's logic again.
You can't have both. You can't demand that the Law treat people with universal equality, but that your particular case be viewed absolutely literally. The movement from the particular to the universal is a move into metaphor. It has to be. If everything is unique unto itself, Law is impossible. But if everything is subsumed under the general, there can't be justice. Justice is what I demand for my personal loss. The Law will give me justice only to the extent that it can be applied to everyone else in a similar (but not identical) situation.
Hmm. Getting too abstract here. This is a subject I've obviously thought too much about. Time to retreat back to the particular.
Anyway, Shylock is lamenting the loss of his daughter and his ducats, and says something that most of us would naturally find abhorrent--that he'd rather have her dead, and his money back. Why does he say this? Because it's true? Or because her betrayal is so painful that he lashes out in rage? "There, there, there, there..." it's a lament, a disoriented series of monosyllables. Will uses monosyllabic words a lot in the most emotional scenes. "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!" wails Lear. I hear the same anguish in that incantatory "there." He doesn't distinguish between the "stealing" of his daughter and the theft of his money because she is a commodity to him--but she's no less valued for all that.
As we've seen throughout the play, the Christians also put a price on human flesh as well as human affections--they're just willing to take bigger financial risks than Shylock is.
Shylock links Jessica and his ducats because they were both his, both hoarded and kept out of circulation. And now his daughter "circulates" like currency and spends extravagantly, like a Christian. "Your daughter spent in Genoa. as I heard, one night fourscore ducats," Tubal tells him. Shylock can't get his head around this: "fourscore ducats in a sitting? Fourscore ducats?" he repeats, incredulous.
In a final insult, he discovers that Jessica has traded away a prized possession for "a monkey,"--a frivolous purchase that makes Jess look like a spoiled brat on a spending spree with daddy's credit cards. Why a monkey? Monkeys are exotic, monkeys appear in Italy because trade is now global. So they represent the outer reaches of commerce, but also materialistic excess--what the hell is Jessica going to do with a monkey? One gets the feeling she bought it just because she knew it would drive her father nuts.
Animals, of course, figure largely in this play. Sheep, dogs, wolves, monkeys. But that's a subject for another post.
Jessica has traded her father's ring--a precious thing whose symbolic value far exceeds its monetary worth. Upon hearing the news from Tubal, Shylock can't contain his grief:
Here we see our only real glimpse of Shylock's heart. His wife Leah, Jessica's (presumably dead) mother, gave him the ring when they were both young. This moment looks forward to the other "ring business" in the play--when Bassanio and Graziano "lose" the rings their wives have given them by giving them to their (disguised) wives. But oh, how different this feels. It's not a game. It's Shylock's link to the past, to a time before he became bitter. To his own long-ago romance. In a very real sense, Jessica has traded away what's left of her father's heart.
At the end of this scene, Shylock's revenge takes on new energy. This, he decides, is all Antonio's fault. It's not a coincidence that the bad news about Jessica is accompanied by "good" news about Antonio's financial ruin--his ships, Tubal reports, are said to have been wrecked, all their contents lost. Tubal comforts him by reminding him that, although Jessica is gone, "Antonio is certainly undone." Fueled by the wreckage of his hopes, Shylock's bitterness is now as extravagant as Jessica's spending:
...Go, Tubal, fee me an officer. Bespeak him a fortnight before. I will have the heart of him if he forfeit, for were he out of Venice I can make what merchandise I will. Go, Tubal, and meet me at our synagogue. Go, good Tubal, at our synagogue, Tubal.
Shylock will call upon legal authorities to ensure his bond is honored. But he will also go to the synagogue--because the issues here are not just particular, but also universal. He believes that the laws of Venice will protect him--but the Law of Moses, absolute and uncompromising, is the moral foundation of his demand.
An eye for an eye. Or, in this case, a heart for a heart.
From Shylock's perspective, it's only fair.
Thursday, February 18, 2010
I've been reading this fascinating book, which would seem to have nothing to do with Shakespeare or The Merchant, yet I found myself really struck by the ways the two works are intersecting in my mind. So as a preamble to my reading of Act 3, I thought I'd share some of those thoughts with you, my few but faithful readers. The book is called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It's nonfiction--despite its title, which makes it sound like one of those dreary Contemporary Fiction Things that's all full of interpersonal angst, magical realism and heavy doses of irony. There's a lot of irony in the story, but it's the real-life kind. You can read a review of the book here.
Essentially, the book is about how the cancer cells of a poor black woman who died in 1951 refused to die themselves, becoming the first cells successfully grown in culture, and the basis for many of the medical advances we now take for granted, like the polio vaccine. The book is so compelling because it interweaves the story of Henrietta Lacks's family, who remained poor and uneducated, with the history of science---her cells revolutionized microbiology, histology, and lots of other ologies. In reading it I confronted my own history a little, too--my father was a high-powered microbiologist in the 1960's, and I'm sure he worked a lot with these cells, called HeLa, after Henrietta Lacks.
Since I've been re-reading The Merchant while I read this book, I couldn't help but see a lot of similarities. Not in the plot, of course, but in what I'd call the "ethical subtext" of the stories. One of the things you notice right away in the story of HeLa and Henrietta is that these "magical" cells that have saved so many lives were taken from a woman who was deemed to be so different, so inferior by virtue of her race, that she had to be treated in the "colored ward" of the hospital. And yet her "immortal" cells are the undying testament to a common humanity. Another irony.
A lot of things occurred to me here. Literature, and Shakespeare in particular, is often called "immortal." One of the reasons these plays are still read in high schools and colleges all over the world is because they supposedly speak to and of something "universally human" that transcends time and cultural difference. Like HeLa, they live on long after the being that created them has passed into dust.
I also thought of Shylock, his insistence on similarity in the face of a culture that persists in seeing him as different and inferior. "I will have my bond," he cries, when Antonio proves unable to pay the debt. He means, "I will make you pay me what you promised," but the word "bond" can be taken in another way, too.
I will have my bond. I will, no matter what you say, prove that we share a common humanity, even if I have to cut into your flesh to do it. I will find your heart, even if I have to use a knife.
But then, you might look at your bookshelf, which is full of science fiction, and think again. The freaky things the Lacks family worries about are the speculative fantasies sci fi trades on--cloning, genetic immortality, mutants. And when you realize this, you might feel the tug of that bond again.
Another thing that occurred to me was the way money played into the HeLa drama. Several biotech concerns have made billions on HeLa cells, and yet her family is too poor to afford health insurance. When they found out about HeLa, they made a halfhearted attempt to sue the hospital, or the researcher who took the cell sample, to try and get even a small part of the wealth their mother's cells had generated. The way they saw it, the scientific community had stolen part of their mother, and thus part of themselves, so they were owed something.
Of course this raised all kinds of other legal concerns about science, progress, and who owns genetic material once it leaves a body. I won't go into that here--read the book, it's really interesting--but I was reminded of The Merchant yet again. One of the things the Christians accuse Shylock of is trafficking in human life, because of his refusal to accept Portia's money (more on this next time) in lieu of Antonio's flesh. But Shylock points out that the Venetians are slave owners, who use human beings "in abject and in slavish parts." This charge remains unanswered by the Venetian contingent, but Will wants to make sure we hear it. Along these same lines, Bassanio and Graziano make a substantial wager (presumably also with Portia's money) on which new marriage will produce a son first--a reminder that an heir has an obvious monetary value for any aristocratic family. In a sense, Shylock's "bond" is a failed attempt to force the Venetians to confront their own mercenary attitude toward human life, love, and flesh.
Both texts, it seems to me, ask us to consider what it means to be human. Is a cell human? Is one's genetic material human in and of itself? If so, is it unethical to trade it for money? The Merchant poses similar questions, with similar urgency. Is a Jew as human as a Christian? Are slaves less human than their owners? Can one be human and still inhumane, or does an inhumane act diminish one's humanity? Is it possible to lose one's humanity if one is consistently treated as an animal?
I want to keep those questions open in thinking about the rest of the play.
In the first scene of Act 3, Shylock encounters Salerio and Solanio. Is it an accident that these two have such similar names, and seem interchangeable? Because they are both hateful, cruel men. As the scene opens, they're discussing the rumor that Antonio's ships have been lost, when Shylock enters and accuses them of taking part in his daughter's defection. For all he is portrayed as an unfeeling miser, the loss of his only child has affected him deeply:
Shylock: You knew, none so well, none so well as you, of my daughter's flight.
Salerio: That's certain. I for my part knew the tailor that made the wings she flew withal.
Solanio: And Shylock for his own part knew the bird was fledge, and then it is the complexion of them all to leave the dam.
Shylock: She is damned for it.
Salerio: That's certain, if the devil may be her judge.
Shylock: My own flesh and blood to rebel!
Solanio: Out upon it, old carrion, rebels it at these years?
Shylock: I say my daughter is my flesh and blood.
Salerio: And yet there is more difference between thy flesh and hers than between jet and ivory; more between your bloods than there is between red wine and Rhenish.
Sal and Sol play around with words here, in a way that offends Shylock. Sal takes the notion of Jessica's "flight" literally, and talks about wings (in the current fashion, a tailor makes "wings" on gowns) and fledgling birds. Shylock picks up on their bantering, but his retort is angry and bitter. The fledgling may leave her dam (parent), but she will be "damned" for it.
Shylock must be suffering indeed to let these enemies see his pain. But he does--when he calls Jessica his "flesh and blood," I always imagine his words as a wail of betrayal and loss. Here's where Sal and Sol get really mean. The idea of the flesh "rebelling" refers to one's carnal appetites, too--he's an old piece of dead meat, Sol suggests, who still wants to get laid. It's a cruel, crude, and disgusting thing to say at such a time. Shylock is too angry to play the game anymore, and simply repeats what he literally meant--that Jessica is his offspring. Sal snarls back that Jessica is white to his black--his moral opposite.
This is a kind of interesting moment in terms of the Elizabethan view of Jewishness. Jessica later says that she will be "saved" because of her husband, which suggests--as does Sal's derisive comment--that conversion erased the "Jewish taint." In other words, being Jewish, at least to Renaissance Christians, was a religious and cultural choice, not a racial destiny. When the play was performed in Austria under the auspices of the Nazi propaganda machine, Jessica was recast as an adopted daughter. Because to to the Nazis, Jewishness was something in the blood, and no amount of renunciation could erase that racial stain. In the Nazi fantasy, there was no bond of blood between Jew and Christian; had the Nazis won the war, no one would have dared use a black woman's cells for anything.
Something to think about, for you virtual history buffs.
Well, that's all I've got for today. Oh, and the book on Henrietta Lacks is by Rebecca Skloot. Check it out--it's really thought-provoking.
Monday, February 15, 2010
...--I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his suffrance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
This speech has often been quoted as a poignant and trenchant defense of human rights. We are all the same species, and should be treated with the same respect, irrespective of superficial differences such as skin color, religion, cultural practices. Shylock argues for similarity, resemblance, bonds of nature or, in the terms established by the play, "kind." We are the same kind, therefore we should treat one another with kindness.
But wait, that's not what he says, is it? No, he says we are the same kind, but you have not treated me with kindness. Therefore I will do my best to destroy you.
It's the terrorist's argument. Look in the mirror and see your own hypocrisy. See how little you live up to your own "democratic" or "Christian" ideals. See "the villainy you teach me." You made me what I am, now you must reap the fruits of that sowing. We are the same, but you have not acknowledged it, so I must kill you. Or, we are not the same, because you are a hypocrite and I am not, so I must kill you. Whatever circuitous path this argument takes, it always ends up in the same place.
There's a powerful and seductive illogic at work there.
These days, our whole relationship to the problem/question of "diversity" is fraught with contradictions. We insist that all people are similar, that there is no difference. This is the basis of democratic ethics. And yet, whenever those differences are elided or erased, some of us get mad. We're asked both to ignore and to celebrate difference. We're proud of our minority status, but resentful if someone else mentions it. We claim special privileges because we're different, but get angry if someone says we've gotten special privileges for being different.
Because this is all so confusing, some parents insist that their children not mention racial or other differences at all. They aren't allowed to remark on the fact that some people have a different skin color, different features, different hair. This, of course, is silly--but it speaks to the anxiety we all have about diversity. Many college applications now have a mandatory "diversity question," which asks students to write about how they might "contribute to the diversity" of the college community. It's a trick question, of course. The only right answer is one that a) asserts and celebrates one's difference, and b) proclaims that differences aren't really relevant.
This, we now believe, is an ethical stance. Ethics as irony.
But what is the ethical subtext of Shylock's speech? See me, he says. Recognize me. See how we are the same--we will both die, the Jew and the Christian. See my suffering and death as the mirror of your own, and know me as part of yourself.
That's a genuine ethical moment, and that's why this speech is so often quoted without its terroristic finale. It's true, and courageous, and urgent. But as soon as Shylock makes this plea--and it is a plea--he closes off the possibility of dialogue. See me and see what you made. I have no responsibility for what I have become, because you, you hypocrite, you who insist on differences and inequalities, have created my hate. See in my rage the mirror of your own. You have killed me already, and now I must kill you.
"The villainy you teach me I will execute." Murderous extremists say that, and school shooters. This is your fault. I bear no responsibility.
But without responsibility, there can be no freedom. It's not enough to be similar, to be equal. We have to be responsible for our choices, too. Personal responsibility is the bedrock of a free and just society. By blaming the racial/religious/political other, we give up our freedom utterly.
Shylock voices what Nietzsche called "slave morality" here--the morality of the victim who defines himself solely against a villainous oppressor. His values aren't his own; he's doomed to forever re-valuing the morality of the master. In some ways, I think that we've all become Shylocks--angry victims of some perceived hegemonic other--the government, the media, the insurance industry, the guy who just cut us off on the freeway.
Which isn't to say Shylock hasn't been wronged--he has. But when his plea for justice becomes a promise of vengeance, he subverts the very notion of common humanity. He becomes the caricature his enemies have created.
Which means, in essence, that they've already won.
Friday, February 12, 2010
I am starting something new today. I'm finding that I have neither the time nor, to be honest, the will to write three longish posts a week, the way I used to. But I would still like to think of a way to keep the blog going--so my new plan is to write one long post, like the one I did on Wednesday, and a couple short ones that just deal with one passage or speech from the play I'm reading. These short ones will look at Will's lines out of context and muse about their possible relevance, their aesthetic allure, or whatever. Sort of like one of those "quote of the day" calendars. As of now I'm thinking Fridays and Mondays for these, and one long post on Wednesday.
It's worth a try, anyhow. I've given up on a lot of the goals I had for this blog, and right now I'm just trying to sustain my own interest. If what I write catches someone else's interest, too, great. But I am trying to divest myself of expectations here. It's a better, happier way to live, I think.
Today's passage is a pretty appropriate one for me, because it's about losing interest in things. Or rather, about how desire and excitement fades in love, in careers, in blogs, in household maintenance, in nearly everything! It's from Act 2, scene 6, when Graziano and Salerio are waiting for Lorenzo to meet them under Jessica's window. Lorenzo is late, which prompts Graziano, ever the cynic, to assume that his friend has lost interest in Shylock's pretty daughter. Here, he muses about how quickly desire wanes:
...Who riseth from a feast
With that keen appetite that he sits down?
Where is the horse that doth untread again
His tedious measures with the unbated fire
That he did pace them first? All things that are
Are with more spirit chas-ed than enjoyed .
How like a younker or a prodigal
The scarf-ed barque puts from her native bay
Hugged and embrac-ed by the strumpet wind!
How like the prodigal doth she return,
With over-weathered ribs and ragg-ed sails,
Lean, rent, and beggared by the strumpet wind!
I've hyphenated those words that should have an accent on the "ed" for the meter. Basically, he's saying that no one sustains desire for very long. Once you've had your fill of something--implicitly, a woman, but it could be anything--you lose interest. "All things...are with more spirit chased than enjoyed." The ship that leaves port amid fanfare, bedecked with flags and fancy decorations, soon returns bedraggled and looking like hell. "Lean, rent, and beggared by the strumpet wind."
Isn't that a great image for a relationship gone bad? You blow out of port on a high wind, all shiny and full of hope, and return all wrecked and broken. The same high passion that whirled you out into the sea of love blows you back in pieces.
Hmm. Not a good image for Valentine's Day, I guess. But you know what I'm talking about.
Youthful relationships--and immature ones--are more likely to be rent by the wind. They're more fun at the outset, but they run their course pretty fast. After limping into port all wrecked and broken a few times, most of us come to prefer a soft breeze to a high wind.
There's a biblical allusion in there, too--the story of the Prodigal Son. This is from the Gospel of Luke, 15: 11-32. The younger son of a wealthy man takes his inheritance while his father is still living, and wastes it "in riotous living." He loses everything and eventually has to take work as a swineherd, which is pretty low in Jewish culture, since swine are considered unclean. Eventually he returns home, just hoping for a job as a servant. His father welcomes him and kills the fatted calf and all that. The older brother gets mad, since he's been good and no one is killing a fatted calf for him. The father explains that the older brother has "always been with him," but the younger brother had been "dead" and is now again "alive," and this is a cause for celebration.
Obviously Will meant this to refer back to the wasteful habits of Bassanio and the Christians of Venice. But I think it relates to this question of desire, too.We all have trouble waiting for things--that's why there are credit cards. There are emotional credit cards, too--but the fees are pretty high. It's really better to pay up front.
Reading this passage, I thought of other things besides romance--careers, blogs, and just aging in general. How to find contentment when the strumpet wind isn't behind you anymore, pushing you forward. When inspiration--which is etymologically related to wind--is in somewhat shorter supply, and the flags and banners on your ship are somewhat tattered.
I also thought about mountain climbers. Do you know that most climbing fatalities happen on the way back down the mountain? For real. Like the horse in the passage--climbers ascend with "unabated fire," but have trouble with the "tedious measures" of the return trip. They reach the top, experience the rush of attaining a hard-won goal, and then they just...lose focus.
One of the reasons for this blog is to make sure I keep mine. If I were really an optimist, I'd insist that I haven't peaked yet. I'm willing to concede that there may be a summit of sorts ahead. But until I figure out whether I'm ascending or descending, I guess I'll just keep writing.
Have a good weekend.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
In mythic terms, three is the most powerful of all numbers. Fairytales are full of threes--Cinderella was the third sister, there were three bears, three little pigs, three blind mice. Events happen in threes--Rumplestiltskin gives the queen three days to guess his name, Christ rises on the third day, three strikes and you're out. Usually, threes are auspicious. Third time's a charm.
Twos, on the other hand, can be dangerous. Twos are two-faced, duplicitous. In some cultures, twins are thought to be bad luck. If you see your doppelganger, you're going to die. A dyad is two parents without a child, a good twin and an evil one, two opposing forces that will fight forever, without the possibility of transcendence or change.
The other example that comes to mind is that of Siegfried and Brunhild, in the medieval German epic The Nibelungenlied. Brunhild is an Icelandic warrior Queen, and Gunther, a Burgundian prince, wants to marry her. She's super-strong, however, so she sets up a test. Her suitors must defeat her in three Olympic-style events--I think there's javelin-throwing, shot-putting, and some sort of jumping contest. If they fail...you guessed it--they're history. Gunther, being kind of an effete princeling type, hasn't a prayer. But his bud Siegfried is an Arnold-type he-man, who happens to be smitten by Gunther's sister, Kriemhild. Because he's a mythic hero, he's also got lots of cool magical gadgets, like invisibility hats and stuff. So he basically helps Gunther cheat at the game, and wins Brunhild's hand for his future brother-in-law.
I love that part.
Well, Siegfried can't let his good buddy down, so he goes in and puts her in her place. In just the way you imagine. After she's been deflowered (read: raped), she's miraculously weak and submissive. Ta-da! Ziggy then turns her over to her little pissant of a husband. A sad, but somehow typically German story.
Do you remember that old TV show, The Dating Game? That was a game of threes, as well. It was on when I was about twelve, and that's about the intellectual level it aspired to. A man or woman--I remember there being more female choosers than male--would pick from three potential "dates" who were hidden from view. She would ask them really stupid but somewhat titillating questions (e.g., "if you were a dessert, what would you be?) and eventually pick one of them on the basis of their answers. It was, like Portia's casket test, a game of interpretation--the contestant had to figure out which of the three would be the best match for her without seeing them. Like the casket game, it also attempted to circumvent superficial judgments. Although I remember how obviously disappointed the contestant seemed to be when she realized she had passed up the best-looking one for a less attractive "bachelor."
Yes, Dr. Freud, I can figure that one out.
So, Portia. She's rich, everyone wants her, and her dead father has set up this marriage test, to make sure--what? That she marries a poor guy who wants her money? Because that's what happens. Mostly it seems like the test is just a way for her father to exert control over her from beyond the grave--the outcome proves neither strength (as in the German tale), cleverness (as in the Greek one) or integrity. It seems arbitrary. The test has to be her dad's idea, in order to distance good-girl Portia from the mythic archetype of the man-hating, powerful virgin. And it has to be dangerous, too--although it can't involve literal death, since this is a comedy. In this version, the losers have to agree never to marry. Among the nobility this was a kind of symbolic death, because it meant that they would have no legacy, no one to legally bequeath their name and their fortunes to.
The Prince of Morocco, whom we met previously, is the first to be dismissed. He has to choose the gold casket because it's the most superficially valuable. Like most tests of this kind, the obvious choice is always the wrong one.
One wonders why the suitors don't realize they're in a folkloric universe and just go for the ugly lead one right off.
But the fairytale is one of the few genres that exhibits no literary irony whatsoever. People in those stories never seem aware that they're stuck in a cycle of repetition--that the golden-haired girl always gets the prince, that the third comer always wins, that the thing that's least valuable on the outside is always the one with the magical, transformative power. All one has to do is inject a little generic self-consciousness into these stories and you have an instant spoof, a la Monty Python.
Bachelor Number One
As the first suitor, Morocco gets to introduce all the quasi-magical items:
This first of gold, who this inscription bears:
'Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.'
The second silver, which this promise carries:
'Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.'
This third dull lead, with warning all as blunt:
'Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.'
Morocco reasons it out, dismissing the lead casket first--no one, he reasons, would hazard everything for lead. Of course he mistakes the meaning of the riddle--he's not asked to gamble to get the casket, after all. It's the lady he's after. It's just a symbol that he reads too literally. He contemplates the silver one, deciding that he does in fact deserve Portia because of his high birth, good breeding and fortune. Before deciding he turns to the gold one, this time interpreting the riddle to mean Portia herself, the lady whom "many men desire":
...All the world desires her.
From the four corners of the earth they come
To kiss this shrine, this immortal breathing saint.
The Hyrcanian deserts and the vasty wilds
Of wide Arabia are as thoroughfares now
For Princes to come view fair Portia.
The watery kingdom, whose ambitious head
Spits in the face of heaven, is no bar
To stop the foreign spirits, but they come
As o'er a brook to see fair Portia.
This passage reminds me of a line in Antony and Cleopatra--Antony regrets the hold Cleo has on him and his honor, and wishes he "had never seen her." His loyal lieutenant, Enobarbus, replies that, had he never met her, he would have missed out on some memorable erotic tourism:
"O, sir, you had then left unseen a wonderful piece of work, which not to have been blessed withal would have discredited your travel."
Morocco's vivid description of the men flocking over deserts and waterways to court Portia similarly objectifies her, turning her into a landmark, a natural wonder, a rare commodity. It's almost funny, really, the picture of all these princes clogging the oceans and paving over the deserts to get to her.
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold.
I'm reminded of Romeo here, throwing money at the apothecary:
There is thy gold--worse poison to men's souls,
Doing more murder in this loathsome world,
Than these poor compounds...
Gold is pretty much always a seductive and dangerous thing in Will's plays, and often a harbinger of doom. Ironically, Morocco is reprimanded for choosing according to the "outside," but Portia bids him farewell with this racist line:
Let all of his complexion choose me so.
I've already written about this creepy moment, so I won't belabor the point. Suffice it to say it's an unequivocal reminder of the hypocrisy of the game, and of the Christians themselves. The winner must prove himself able to see beyond the surface, but Portia, obviously, doesn't hold herself to the same standards.
Bachelor Number Two
Portia's next suitor is the Prince of Aragon, and of course he chooses the silver casket. He, too, dismisses the lead one on the basis of its appearance:
'Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.'
You shall look fairer ere I give or hazard.
In other words, he's not willing to gamble on something that looks so cheap and ugly. He rejects the gold for reasons of snobbery--he doesn't want to be associated with
...the fool multitude, that choose by show,
Not learning more than the fond eye doth teach."
What he finds is a "fool's head," "the portrait of a blinking idiot." The casket also contains a somewhat cryptic explanation of its contents--in this case, a little poem that likens the failed suitor to a narcissistic fool who pretends to wisdom. This pretty much describes Aragon, who's not very smart.
As Aragon leaves, a messenger announces that another suitor has come:
Madam, there is alighted at your gate
A young Venetian, one that comes before
To signify the approaching of his lord
From whom he bringeth sensible regreets
To wit, besides commends and courteous breath,
Gifts of rich value.
Bassanio has sent some fancy packages ahead of his arrival--all bought with Antonio's borrowed money. The messenger is impressed:
...Yet have I not seen
So likely an ambassador of love.
His fine gifts make him a good candidate, in other words. Of course it's all a pose--he's got nothing but his good name. But Nerissa speaks for both women when she hopes that the newcomer is the (doubtless) hot-looking and suave Bassanio.
Bachelor Number Three
I'm skipping a couple of scenes ahead so that I can treat all the suitors in one post. In the second scene of Act 3, Portia entreats Bassanio to "tarry a little" before he "hazards." Using that word is a pretty bald hint, isn't it? It's right there in the lead casket's inscription. She'll give him a few more hints before it's over, too. It's cheating, but as we've seen, the Christian characters make their own rules in this play.
Anyway, she's enjoying his company, and fears he will make the wrong choice. She more or less reveals her feelings; although she insists "it is not love" that makes her feel so funny, the rest of her speech suggests otherwise. She wants him to stick around "a month or two," then considers breaking her oath to her father and telling him the right answer. He insists on taking his chances:
Let me choose,
For as I am, I live upon the rack.
"This not knowing is torture." In fact, I imagine he doesn't have enough money to keep impressing her with his fake wealth for two more months. So he goes for it. Portia points to the caskets, and tells him that she is "locked in one of them." The metaphoric connection between locked boxes and virginal bodies would have been pretty obvious to Will's audience. The right man has the "key" to the untried receptacle. By unlocking it, he will possess her (and her money) completely.
Portia asks for music while he chooses. I'm hearing the "Jeopardy" theme here, but I think it's supposed to be something more melodic. One of her servants sings
Tell me where is fancy bred
Or in the heart, or in the head?
How begot, how nourish-ed?
As you see, all the lines rhyme with...lead.
Bassanio seems to take the hint--his whole "choosing speech" is about how one needs to look behind veil of "ornament" and "outward parts" to see the truth within:
Thus ornament is but the guiled shore
To a most dangerous sea, the beauteous scarf,
Veiling an Indian beauty; in a word,
The seeming truth which cunning times put on
To entrap the wisest.
So let's think about this. Portia says that she's locked in one of the boxes--but really all of them are aspects of her, and aspects of this play. In gold we see fortune and wealth in its idealized state--she was earlier likened to the Golden Fleece of mythology, and Belmont seems, on the surface, to be a "golden" place, untainted by commerce. Silver is money, currency, filthy lucre. The stuff that runs Venice. Lead, of course, is the Christian choice--"the last shall be first," says the Parable of the Vineyard. The meek shall inherit the earth. But if Portia is the Golden Fleece, she's also a sure source of silver. If she and her father imagine they are sifting out the fortune hunters with this game, they are in fact rigging the game in favor of gamblers and big risk-takers. Bassanio--and the Venetian capitalists generally--are more that willing to "hazard all" in the hope of a big win.
That phrase "hazard all he hath" is reminiscent of the New Testament, too--the Christian soul must risk everything, be willing to lose everything, to attain treasures in heaven.
Once Bassanio wins, Portia practically throws herself at his feet, proclaiming that she wishes she had more to give him than her humble self. She wishes she were "ten thousand times more rich, a thousand times more fair..." She seems to know enough about him to raise the number when she's talking about money, doesn't she? But it's pathetic, really. He's come to win her fortune, and she's so damned grateful to have him she's willing to give him even more. Her language is full of commercial metaphors:
...only to stand high in your account,
I might in virtues, beauties, livings, friends,
Exceed account. But the full sum of me
Is sum of something which, to term in gross
Is an unlessoned girl, unschooled, unpractised...
"I'll go in debt to be more of what you value." Interesting choice of words, under the circumstances. She then goes on to proclaim him her "governor" and "king," and essentially gives him all her stuff--house, servants, fortune. Her one (fairytale) condition is that he not take off the ring she gives him, lest it "presage the ruin of [his] love." It's an old motif, and of course he will violate the pact before the play ends.
But for now, he's hit the jackpot. Ka-ching!
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
That old movie poster doesn't have much to do with all this, except that The Trouble with Angels was one of my favorite movies as a kid, and it's set in a Catholic girls' school. I still love this movie. It's like the Harry Potter movies, only instead of wizards and witches, there are Catholic nuns and priests!
Okay, it was better than it sounds.
In retrospect, it seems weird that The Merchant should be the play chosen for inclusion in a Catholic high school reader. I suppose one could rationalize this by pointing out that, unlike the tragedies and many of the other comedies, this play doesn't have any sexual language or innuendo--or not much, anyway. But given the thematics--the brutal antipathy between Christians and Jews in the play--I suspect that the editors had other things in mind. It goes without saying that the play didn't make me--or anyone in my class--the least bit uneasy back then. We all took the simple oppositions at face value, and saw the ending as happily comedic.
I'm older now, and I've eaten the forbidden fruit of irony. For better or worse, I've been kicked out of the Garden of Certainty, and shall live out the rest of my days in the windy wilderness of ambivalence. It's a cold, foggy place, but you get used to it.
I think she looks sneaky in that painting, don't you?
Of course Will could have given us a reason for Jessica's betrayal of her father. She would have been more sympathetic, and Shylock more contemptible, had he made her more Julietish. But instead, we join the romance in medias res--Jess and Lorenzo have already hooked up, and are just about to elope. It's clear that, on some level, Will expected us to sympathize with Jessica just because her father is a miserly Jew.
Allegory can be ethically problematic, when you think about it.
When makes his pitch to Antonio in Act 1, Bassanio mentions Portia's wealth first ("a lady richly left), her beauty second, and her virtues last. Similarly, Lorenzo fesses up to his friends about the elopement scheme in decidedly unromantic terms:
...She hath directed
How I shall take her from her father's house,
What gold and jewels she is furnished with,
What page's suit she hath in readiness.
The elopement itself is no less crass. Lorenzo calls up to her window, and she tosses a bag of stolen gold and jewels down first:
Here, catch this casket. It is worth the pains.
I am glad 'tis night, you do not look on me,
For I am much ashamed of my exchange;
But love is blind, and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit;
For if they could, Cupid himself would blush
To see me thus transformed to a boy.
A lot of irony here. First, it's a faint echo of that other balcony scene, isn't it? In R and J, night was the time when love's truth was revealed, when poetry triumphed over meaningless decorum. Here, it's a covering for shame. Jessica says she's ashamed of her "exchange" of clothes--she's dressing as a boy to make her escape--but one has to wonder if maybe the other "exchange" is bugging her too. Jews become Christians, girls become boys. The suggestion is, of course, that they're both theatrical affectations, easily donned and doffed like costumes.
That's not true for Shylock, though. He's one of Will's least theatrical characters. His "tribe" is who and what he is. If Jessica is protean, changeable, her father is "a stony adversary," as the Duke says at the end of the play. He is intractable, but also unchangeable. He is the antithesis of the self-fashioning theatrical man.
I will make fast the doors, and gild myself
With some more ducats, and be with you straight.
Gild herself with ducats, indeed. It's almost as if she knows she's buying Lorenzo's affections. I've always found that line particularly creepy.
Like everything that happens to Shylock in this play, this dual betrayal seems excessive. Will didn't make it easy for us to sympathize with the Jew's "gentle daughter."
Which isn't to say that Shylock is a likable guy. He's not. There are a lot of reasons to despise him. He hates music, for one thing--a sure sign that something is spiritually wrong with him. Who doesn't like music?
Okay, since I asked--Puritans don't. Although Will's audience was unlikely to know any practicing Jews, they most certainly knew some practicing Puritans. Puritans saw music, dancing, revelry of all kinds as sinful, and wanted none of it. When Shylock hears the masquers making merry in the streets, he commands Jessica to shut the windows against the noise:
What, are there masques? Hear you me, Jessica,
Lock up my doors; and when you hear the drum
And the vile squealing of the wry-necked fife,
Clamber not you up to the casements then,
Nor thrust your head into the public street
To gaze on Christian fools with varnished faces,
But stop my house's ears--I mean my casements,
Let not the sound of shallow fopp'ry enter
My sober house.
This was surely meant as a dig at those religious "dissenters" who wanted to close the theaters (and eventually would), prohibit festivals, and generally wreck everyone's party. Shylock is a villain in the Scrooge/Grinch tradition, rather than the Joker/Darth Vader one. He's personally affronted by the sound of merriment, hates anything smacking of sentiment or affection. The Venetians, like the Whos down in Whoville, are just having too much fun.
Once Shylock finds out that Lorenzo has run off with his daughter and his ducats, he raises holy hell, demanding that the Duke find her and arrest her Christian abductor. Interestingly, we only hear about his reaction through hearsay. Salerio and Solanio--the Rosenkranz and Guildenstern of this play--have a good laugh over the story:
So strange, outrageous, and so variable
As the dog Jew did utter in the streets.
'My daughter! O, my ducats! O, my daughter!
Fled with a Christian! O, my Christian ducats!
Justice! The law! My ducats and my daughter!
A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats,
Of double ducats, stol'n from me by my daughter!
And jewels, two stones, two rich and precious stones,
Stol'n by my daughter! Justice! Find the girl!
She hath the stones upon her, and the ducats!'
Salerio: Why, all the boys in Venice follow him,
Crying, 'His stones, his daughter, and his ducats!'
Moving Shylock's humiliation offstage keeps the comedy from turning tragic--the audience can't sympathize with him when he's just the butt of a joke. "Stones" meant pretty much the same thing as "family jewels" today: testicles. Jessica "hath the stones upon her," i.e., she has gelded him. This is absolutely true. In fact, she's unmanned him twice over--taking away herself, and his money, both of the means he had to "breed," to leave a legacy.
Once again, Will reveals how dangerous it is to have only daughters.
Finally, we don't know if Shylock actually ran through the streets equating his daughter and his ducats. We've only got Solanio and Salerio's word for it. We're forced to trust them, because otherwise, as I said, the whole thing tips over into pathos. Even if he did, he's not the only one to put a price on a human being. One of the commodities to pass through the port city of Venice was, of course, human flesh--Venice was a slave-trading city. And Shylock's materialism is surely matched by that of the Christians, who put a price tag on everything--even love. Ironically, the Venetians seem most outraged by Shylock when he's most like them.
In some ways, the play can be reduced to a simple struggle over this one issue. Shylock insists he's like the Christians, and they like him. They reject that assessment utterly, and destroy him for even suggesting it.
Next: Morocco goes for the gold.