Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Daughters and Ducats

The Merchant of Venice was the first Shakespeare play I ever read all the way through. I was a freshman in a smallish Catholic girls' high school in a big Midwestern city, and The Merchant was included in the diocese-approved literature anthology we used in my English class. I remember this well because we did a dramatic reading of the play in the class, and I discovered I had some (limited) acting talent. I wasn't Portia--I was Lancelot Gobbo. When I quoted the dialogue between his conscience and "the fiend" in my last post, I did it all from memory. I find that amusing because whenever I hear from old classmates, they invariably tell me about something I did or said in high school that I have no memory of whatsoever. But I remember Lancelot's speech like it was yesterday.

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. 

All this is a preamble to today's post, which could have been subtitled "Mean Girls and the Mercenaries Who Love Them." Yes, today's topic is, once again, romance and commerce--one of Will's favorite themes. Jessica, Shylock's daughter, is about to run away with Lorenzo, one of the young Venetians in Antonio's entourage. Will doesn't really give us any clear reason for her defection--we don't see Shylock mistreating her, or locking her up, or forcing her marry someone against her will. It's nothing like Juliet's situation.  Jessica says only that living with her father "is hell," which echoes Lancelot's ramblings about fiends and "the very devil incarnation."

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.

Jessica is one of a long line of women in Will's plays who choose husband over father. A rabid matrimonialist, Will was interested in generativity, fertility, the propagation of the species. One of the constant threats to social and psychic order in his plays is the specter of celibacy and barrenness. The husband-wife bond has to take precedence over the father-daughter one. Thus we have Juliet, Cordelia, Desdemona, Hermia, Miranda and Jessica choosing their husbands over their fathers. But there's something else here--Shylock's daughter is his only connection to the future. Through her, his line and his faith live on. When she defects, he loses more than a daughter, and more than the ducats she steals--he loses his legacy, he becomes barren himself. When Jessica chooses husband over father, she also chooses Christianity over Judaism. Typologically, she represents the soul who embraces the New Law of Christian caritas. Thematically, she betrays her father, steals his money and his goods, and buys herself a place on the winning team.

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.

It's hard not to read Jessica's elopement cynically: it's one thing to flee her father's house in the interest of True Love. It's another to commit theft along the way.  She's not content with just a casket, either:

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.

In fact, there's something a little bit Shylocky about the old Grinch, isn't there? He hates Christian holidays and has a heart three sizes too small...but then I can't really see the Venetians joining hands and singing joyfully after they wake up to find their presents all gone. They'd like to think that they value human community over money, but of course they don't. Their values fall pretty far short of Whoville standards, it seems to me.

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:

Solanio: I never heard a passion so confused,
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.


  1. My daughter and my son are my gold. It's funny how Shylock seems so "lensed" by the Christians--yet when he speaks I feel so much pathos for him--unmanned as he is.

  2. Yes, I think it's partly as a mother that I feel for Shylock when his daughter abandons him--there are very few things worse than losing the love of one's only child.