Friday, March 5, 2010

Change Me

At the end of Act 3, Portia decides that her hapless, spendthrift fiance needs help saving the life of his friend, Antonio, who's about to be carved up by his enemy, the nasty, miserly Jew. The bold and quick-witted heiress hastily installs Lorenzo and new bride Jessica as caretakers for her estate, then dashes off a note to her cousin, the esteemed lawyer Bellario, demanding fake ID's and lawyerly garb so that she and her faithful sidekick, Nerissa, can pose as the learned Balthasar and his clerk.

It's one of Will's most famous cross-dressing moments. I'm not going to do an extended riff on Shakespearean cross-dressing, because I already wrote about it back when I was blogging The Taming of the Shrew. You can read that post here.

One thing I love about Elizabethan theater is that no one ever sees through these disguises. Having suspended their disbelief in taking a boy for a woman, it's nothing at all to take a woman for a man. But don't you wish it were that easy to dupe people in the real world? I can think of a bunch of situations in which a really effective disguise would have saved me a lot of grief. But I can't imagine anyone taking me for a man. It would be more camp than convincing--like a farm girl channeling Marlene Dietrich.  Well, maybe an aging Goth farm girl.

I know. Freaky concept.

Portia takes to cross-dressing with great enthusiasm, as if she'd just been waiting for the chance to cast off her stays and petticoats, or whatever (I'm not an expert on Elizabethan fashion--the little I know comes from old portraits of Queen Bess and The Tudors) and do a man's job.  She tells Lorenzo that she and Nerissa are going to enter a convent "to live in prayer and contemplation" while their husbands rush back to Venice to save Antonio.

It's clear she's really given some thought to the whole gender-bending thing. Nerissa is confused, and asks for clarification. Portia replies that their husbands will see them such a habit that they shall think we are accomplished
With that we lack  I'll hold thee any wager,
When we are both accoutered like young men
I'll prove the prettier fellow of the two,
And wear my dagger with the braver grace,
And speak between the change of man and boy
With a reed voice, and turn two mincing steps
Into a manly stride, and speak of frays
Like a fine bragging youth, and tell quaint lies
How honourable ladies sought my love,
Which I denying, they fell sick and died.
I could not do withal. Then I'll repent,
And wish for all that I had not killed them;
And twenty of these puny lies I'll tell,
That men shall swear I have discontinued school
Above a twelvemonth. I have within my mind
A thousand raw tricks of these bragging Jacks
Which I will practise.

Of course on the Elizabethan stage this whole speech would drip with irony, since "Portia" was already being played by a boy in drag. The phrase "accomplished with that we lack" would have drawn a big laugh, since it refers to both the "accomplishments" of a lawyer--i.e., professional credentials--and male genitalia, which of course women lack. It's about acting, really, and--to borrow one of those phrases that was popular among academic Shakespeareans a couple of decades ago--"self-fashioning." In addition to being the first risk-takers, Renaissance people were also the first to embrace self-improvement and personal reinvention.

In other words, our American obsession with cosmetic enhancements, dietary regimes, religious transformation, and self-help of all kinds can be traced back to Renaissance theatricality. Because isn't that what we're talking about here? The ability to become "a whole new you" with the right diet, implants, attitude, belief system? Before the Renaissance no one saw him or herself as malleable or fixable. You were born into a class, a gender, a religion, a profession, and you stayed there until you died. Your kids inherited this place, profession, belief system, and they passed it on to their kids. And so on.

The picture on the right is a little crude humor, but I like it because it combines an icon of the Renaissance with (what I would call) the logical consequence of five hundred years of "Renaissance thinking." Mona Lisa, reinvented for the cosmetic surgery age.

And you have to admit, except for the ludicrous balloonish breasts, she does look hotter after the makeover. Although still like a man in drag, in my opinion. Maybe that's what that sneaky smile is about.

I'm not saying that Elizabethan people believed they could transform themselves to the extent we do today. They couldn't have imagined that, several hundred years in the future, men would really be able to metamorphose into women. But they believed that we were theatrical creatures, who could take on a role and cast it off. Add a few centuries of technological and scientific innovation, combine it with a love of risk, change, and newness, and voila! Modern, malleable man (and woman) is born.

This theatrical notion of the self dovetails nicely with a gambler's temperament.

Gamblers are optimists; they're big believers in fresh starts and second (third, fourth...) chances. They believe that they can refashion themselves, that "one big score" can radically change their lives for the better. They tend to collect self-help manuals and/or mantras, to believe that "attitude is everything."  These qualities are also quintessentially American. As a culture, Americans embrace risk and shun negativism--more than any other nation, we believe in personal transformation and rebirth. That's why certain forms of ecstatic/evangelical Christianity appeal to us.

Christianity promises that one can be born again into a new life--so it was the perfect religion for this new kind of person. In the Renaissance, the idea of reinvention--the whole-life makeover--took hold in all sorts of other contexts. One could travel to distant lands, get rich, come home and buy oneself a title. One could invest money in far-flung ventures. One could look up into the heavens and see not only eternity, but change. People weren't just waiting for the afterlife anymore. They were remaking this life, envisioning a future that their ancestors couldn't even imagine.

Although life was still nasty, brutish and short for the majority, new things were in the air. And on the stage! On stage, men could become women who could become men again. Actors could become kings, fairies, witches, misers, magicians, Jews, Moors, and madmen. Anything.  When Will wrote that "all the world's a stage," he was just pointing out the obvious. If there was a whole world of possibility onstage, then why not in the real world? It's both the ultimate self-actualizing statement--I can become whatever I want--and, in a less optimistic sense, kind of disturbing. Because everything becomes a pose.

Personal aside: that's why I quit Facebook. Weary of staging myself. And not very good at it, either. More of a recalcitrant Shylock type, I guess.

Anyway, it's not a coincidence that Portia's ironic gender-bending speech is followed by a religious version of the same thing. In the last scene of Act 3, Lancelot and Jessica banter about conversion:

Lancelot: Yes, truly; for look you, the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children, therefore I promise you I fear you.  I was always plain with you, and so now I speak my agitation of the matter, therefore be o' good cheer, for truly I think you are damned. There is but one hope in it that can do you any good, and that is but a kind of bastard hope, neither.

Jessica: And what hope is that, I pray thee?

Lancelot: Marry, you may partly hope that your father got you not, that you are not the Jew's daughter.

Jessica: That were a kind of bastard hope, indeed. So the sins of my mother shall be visited upon me.

Lancelot: Truly then, I fear you are damned both by father and mother. Thus, when I shun Scylla your father, I fall into Charybdis your mother. Well, you are gone both ways.

Jessica: I shall be saved by my husband. He hath made me a Christian.

Lancelot teases Jessica about being the Jew's daughter, pretending to fear for her salvation. As I pointed out in an earlier post, however, Elizabethan people saw Jewishness as a religious category, not a racial one--although Shylock does talk about his "tribe," there were lots of coverted Jews around, and no one worried about what their parents or grandparents had believed. That line about the "sins of the father" sounds biblical, doesn't it? It isn't. In fact the Bible says the opposite--that sons shall not bear the sins of their fathers. Will, like other modern men of his day, didn't believe that history was destiny. He was, after all, a great re-writer of histories--an accomplished propagandist.

I especially like the reference to Scylla and Charybdis, which brings to mind the one risk-taker in all of Classical literature, Odysseus. But even he had riskiness thrust upon him--he didn't choose to sail around aimlessly for ten years while his wife wove and unraveled tapestries. He was just making the best of some nasty divine meddling. So basically he was a reaction hero, not an action hero.

When Jessica claims that she will be saved through her husband, she's paraphrasing scripture. "The unbelieving wife," writes St. Paul in 1 Corinthians, "is sanctified by the husband."  As Portia reinvents herself as a respected legal scholar, so Jessica converts to Christianity, saving herself from the fate that Lancelot jokingly insists is her spiritual destiny.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Nazis didn't like this idea. To them, once a Jew, always a Jew. So in the 1944 Viennese production, Jessica was re-imagined as an adopted daughter. I wasn't able to find a copy of the altered text in either language, but I imagine this was the point in the play when they made the switcheroo, violating not only the text, but a central idea of the play--that modern people embrace self-improvement, while "stony" anachronisms like Shylock turn their back on it. Jessica has to be a real Jew so that she can be remade into a real Christian. It just doesn't work any other way.

For Will, the antithesis of Jew and Christian is also an opposition between past and future, intransigence and change. Shylock, like Margaret in Richard III and the older Capulets and Montagues, is yesterday's news. When he's forced to convert at the end of the play, he's both cruelly severed from his own history and, in a less negative sense, dragged  unwillingly into the modern world.

Next:  The Jew as anti-renaissance man. And yes, the trial scene. For real this time.


  1. excellent, excellent prefatory remarks re: Portia and transformation mystical Judaism an individual is believed to be born with a purpose and that purpose is to recieve and share light of the creator. But to receive the light one must confront the darkness in their human soul, which is defined as pure ego. In preparation for transformation one must wrestle with their particular, life problem.

    Transformation then is both the path and the outcome.

    Gayle, this post was beautiful and provocative. Thanks!


  2. I didn't know that about Jewish mysticism, BL. Actually, while I've read a lot of medieval Christian mystical texts, I'm woefully ignorant of other traditions. Although I guess there are ways in which they are all similar--confronting the obstacles to enlightenment and growth, which are, invariably, associated with ego. This is something one thinks a lot about at this time of life, it seems to me. Small example: in continuing the blog after my doubts of a month or so ago, I think I had to make it not about my ego, about how many readers I did or didn't have--it had to be about thought, the pleasures of reading and thinking that are unrelated to one's worldly recognition or image. It's been more fun and less work for me since coming to that realization.
    Now if I could just translate that wisdom to the rest of you say, it's about the path as well as the outcome.
    I guess it's just important to remember that nothing's decided yet. We're still moving forward.

  3. Just have to comment on the boob job mona lisa. Classic! Now that's a head shot!