Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"I Will Have the Heart of Him"

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.

Actually, that's what I want to talk about today. Having a heart. Having compassion for Shylock, the miser, the proto-terrorist, the literal reader in a land of extravagant metaphors.

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 Shylock story is something else. It's a romance structure in reverse--instead of two victories, there are two defeats. First, Shylock loses his daughter and part of his wealth to the Christians. Defeat number one. Then, his fortunes seem to rise as Antonio's fall--the ships are supposedly lost, and Shylock has the law on his side. This "victory" unravels in the courtroom scene, where the Christians insist he show mercy, then refuse to show any themselves. The final defeat is absolute, a total symbolic death.

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

Parent/child pathos figures prominently in so many of Will's plays. Juliet's harsh treatment by her parents, the Duchess of York's rejection of her son Richard, Lear's tragic misjudgment of his daughters, Edgar's heart-wrenching recognition of his blinded father, Hamlet's own Oedipal issues (which make his father's vengeful ghost at least partly a reflection of his own guilt), and so on. We can't really separate Shylock from these other, less vilified parents, nor should we. As a parent, Shylock is neither Jew nor Christian--he's just a human being who has suffered one of the most terrible things any human can endure--the loss of a child.

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.

And once you make that leap to the universal, you ally yourself with the Law, too. There's a universal, absolute wrong here, and it must be righted in some universal, absolute way. This is the subject of one of my favorite novellas, Heinrich von Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas. In this story,a merchant runs afoul of a corrupt aristocratic legal system, and becomes a terrorist. I'm not going to go into plot details--read it! It's a fabulous story. The point I want to make is that, like Shylock, Kohlhaas has both a literal and a universalist interpretation of the law. His loss must be made right without substitution, without monetary compensation. Kohlhaas's horses are taken from him illegally and abused. When he gets them back, their value has diminished considerably. What does he want? Nothing less than that the horses be restored to their original state. He wants the Law, which owes him restitution, to turn back time. That's a very literal reading of "restitution." But he also sees the crime in terms of a larger social problem of inequality before the Law--aristocrats have claimed rights they have no legal/moral right to. The Law should be governed by universal principles, not particular, class-specific ones.

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.

Shylock's Heart

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:

Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal. It was my turquoise. I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.

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.


  1. I eally adore the insight of the "romantic comedy with a tragic heart." Your deconstruction of romance, generally wass wonderful. In reality my experience of romance was so "pathological" promising everything, followed by "buyer's remorse" followed by respect and deeply owned feelings and the shock of recognition. The breahed commitment relating to the ring was actually such a realistic touch by Shakespeare--the transformaton afterwards is hopeful and a hint at genuine adult love.

  2. Yes, it takes a long time to realize that mature love has little to do with "romance," which is really a commodity that's sold to us when we're young, I think. Will is so insightful here, bringing out the "commodified" aspects of it all--or maybe prescient. Generally I haven't been one of those with buyer's remorse, at least not in my adult life...but I suspect I may have engendered that feeling in others(!)--I think my buyer's remorse pertained more to other my academic career. There are all kinds of romance, of course. Not all of them have to do with interpersonal relationships.

    Thanks, as always, for your insightful comment, BL. It helps to know that someone's reading. It's been a little hard to get myself up for this lately, but I think it's a good moral and intellectual exercise, so I'll keep at it for now.