Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Eat or Be Eaten

Before getting to Portia's Big Scene, a few words about imagery. For a play that so worries the question of humanity and humane behavior, there are an awful lot of dogs and wolves running around--not to mention sheep, pigs, and (implicitly) scapegoats.  On some level, The Merchant asks us to consider what it means to be civilized. Even before the whole drama of "the bond" unfolds, Shylock is called a "dog," "a cur," a creature less than human. The immorality of usury is linked to the trade in and breeding of sheep, and Lancelot makes jokes about Jewish dietary prohibitions, teasing Jessica by asserting that her conversion will "raise the price of hogs." That is, more pork-eaters will cause a shortage of bacon.

Although the play is, on the surface, about the opposition between Jews and Christians, it's also about predators and prey, consumers and consumed.

In Act 4, the melancholy Merchant casts himself in the role of sacrificial lamb. Or rather sheep:

I am a tainted wether of the flock,
Meetest for death. The weakest kind of fruit
Drops earliest to the ground; and so let me.
You cannot be better employed, Bassanio,
Than to live still and write mine epitaph.

What a self-pitying whiner. I can totally see him as someone's Jewish or Italian mama (or in my case, Italian grandma--may she rest in peace): "Don't worry about me, children. I'm not long for this world. You go on, have fun...never mind your poor, worthless mother..."


A wether, in case you're not up on your ranching terminology, is a castrated sheep or goat. Now you may wonder why sheep and goats need to be castrated...okay, probably you never thought about this at all until right now. But castration is common in sheep ranching, because you only need so many males for breeding. If you don't castrate the others, they'll fight and be generally disruptive. And they smell bad, too. But a "tainted wether" is, one assumes, a castrated sheep that has to be culled from the herd. It can't reproduce, and isn't good for anything else.  So that's how Antonio sees himself--he's "tainted," and can't breed.

Hmm. Not very subtle, especially when you remember that Antonio "only loves the world for" Bassanio. When he thinks he's going to be killed, his only wish is to have his friend watch him die:

Pray God Bassanio come
To see me pay his debt, and then I care not.

He wants Bassanio to witness his death, as proof of his love. Which is kind of, I don't know--kinky at worst, disturbing at best. Lots of productions have used these hints to bring out the homoerotic elements of the play, suggesting that Antonio is gay, and thus as much an outsider as Shylock. At the end of the play, he and Shylock are both outsiders, unwanted fifth wheels to the happy couplings that close out the comedy--but more on this anon.

By the time we get to Act 4, Shylock has devolved from a "cur" into a ravenous wolf. Graziano, perhaps the most vocal of the anti-Shylock contingent, makes the transformation explicit:

O, be thou damned, inexorable dog,
And for thy life let justice be accused!
Thou almost mak'st me waver in my faith
To hold opinion with Pythagoras
That souls of animals infuse themselves
Into the trunks of men. Thy currish spirit
Governed a wolf who, hanged for human slaughter,
Even from the gallows did his fell soul fleet,
And, whilst thou lay'st in thy unhallowed dam,
Infused itself in thee; for thy desires
Are wolvish, bloody, starved, and ravenous.

This is some seriously harsh stuff. Graziano says that justice itself was at fault for letting Shylock be born. Then he invokes Pythagoras--yeah, that's the geometry guy--in asserting that Shylock must have been infused with a wolf's spirit while he was in utero. He also insults Shylock's mother, calling her an "unhallowed dam" which basically means a profane beast-mother--"dam" is still the word that dog breeders use to describe the mother of a litter.

That's low.

In Act 1, Shylock was just a dirty stray dog, kicked and spat upon--i.e., victimized--by Christian aristocracy of Venice.  In Act 4, he's cast as the predator, the hungry, irrational beast that craves the law of nature--the "law of the jungle," rather than the law of man. The predator/prey imagery reminds us that human laws were created precisely to mitigate this "eat or be eaten" law of the jungle--justice demands that might, be it economic or physical, not determine what is right, or legal. The prey shall be treated as fairly as the predator. Or, to put it in Christian terms, "the last shall be first."

But it's never really clear who's the predator, and who's the prey--who dines, and who's dinner. In Act 3, Solanio sneers at Shylock's anguish about his daughter, calling him "old carrion"-- dead flesh fit only for ravens and wild dogs. Now the tables are turned, and the Jew craves his "weight of carrion flesh" to be butchered from Antonio's body.

This predator and prey imagery also works as a kind of economic metaphor, of course. In a capitalist system, so the old lefty saying goes, it's eat or be eaten. You're the wolf or the sheep. The dinner or the diner. Eat the rich before they eat you.

This fleshy imagery foregrounds the whole problem of people as commodities. Shylock calls the Christians on their hypocrisy by pointing out that they traffic in human flesh, too. I quoted this in an earlier post, but it's worth doing so again:

You have among you many a purchased slave
Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules,
You use in abject and slavish parts
Because you bought them. Shall I say to you,
'Let them be free, marry them to your heirs.
Why sweat they under burdens? Let their beds
Be made as soft as yours, and let their palates
Be seasoned with such viands.' You will answer
'The slaves are ours.' So do I answer you.

When you stop buying and selling human flesh, I will relinquish my demand, he implies. You treat human beings like animals. Why then should I not do the same?  Why indeed? It's interesting that he not only calls upon the Venetians to free their slaves, but also to breed with them and to feed them. Let your human "beasts" dine at your table, breed with your kind. 

Like that will ever happen. Significantly, no one addresses this point at all. Instead, Antonio and Bassanio quickly shift the argument, making themselves into the victims. Both proclaim their willingness to be scapegoats--to sacrifice themselves to the Jew's rapacious jaws. "The Jew shall have my flesh, blood, bones, and all," gushes Bassanio, before Antonio shall "lose one drop of blood."

Of course there's a religious aspect to all this as well. One can't help but think of the story of Abraham and Isaac, and its Christian analogue, the crucifixion of Christ. The Eucharist is, through the miracle of transubstantiation, supposed to be the body and blood of God's son. Will was obviously thinking about this with the whole pound of flesh motif--Shylock is the Jew/Pharisee who kills the lamb of God, the crucified Christ. Many productions play this up, by having Antonio laid out on stage with his arms outstretched in an echo of the crucifixion. The sacrificed lamb--er, sheep.

The point is simple. In Venice, human flesh is a commodity, and it's delusional to pretend otherwise. Portia is wooed for her money, Jessica finances her marriage with her father's stolen ducats, and Antonio's willing to buy Bassanio's love with his blood. Love, justice, even the much-vaunted mercy are all for sale. As we'll see next time, all the high-flown rhetoric in the world can't disguise the fact that economic and political might still determine who's the winner, and who's for dinner.


  1. I've already alluded to the power of this blog post at Bad Lawyer, but can I tell you, GM, that your writing in this post is lovely and amazing? Really wonderful!

  2. Thanks, BL--you're always my most affirming reader, and I really appreciate it. Btw.,I loved your Jacob wrestling the Angel thing over at Bad Lawyer. It made me look up all the fabulous paintings depicting that text--I wanted to think of an excuse to post some here, they're so cool. I'm reading this novel called "Angelology," which isn't as good as I'd hoped, but it seems angels are fashionable again. I like your reading better. Ego with wings...