Monday, March 8, 2010

A Stony Adversary

As I was saying last time, Will sets up a pretty unsubtle opposition between Shylock and the Venetians. While Antonio and Co. are all about far-flung ventures, risky wooing schemes and theatrical transformation, Shylock is implacable, immutable, rigid in his hatred and his demand for justice.  He is, as the Duke calls him at the beginning of Act 4

...a stony adversary, an inhuman wretch
Uncapable of pity, void and empty
From any dram of mercy.

A stony adversary. It's a compelling image, isn't it? Strong, invulnerable, almost inanimate. A position of power, usually. Powerless people can't afford to be "stony."

Unless they've lost everything but their pride. Enduring repeated injustices with no recourse can actually turn a person to stone. It's only temporary--but for a time, it keeps the floodwaters at bay.

I know this because, once upon a time, I was temporarily petrified. It's the feeling of frustration solidifying into bone-deep resentment. The heart immured in rage. It passes, especially if you're lucky enough to build a family with someone wonderful.  But even now, happy and grateful as I am, I still sometimes slough off little chunks of granite.  I guess that's why I can't help feeling some sympathy for Shylock, despite his terroristic rationalizations and narrow puritanism.

Shylock will live up to that stony label--in fact we already saw a preview in Act 3, when he appears onstage with Antonio and the jailer. Antonio begs him to listen to reason, but he's having none of it:

I'll have my bond. Speak not against my bond.
I have sworn an oath that I will have my bond.
Thou called'st me dog before thou hadst a cause,
But since I am a dog, beware my fangs.

Antonio conveniently forgets all the spitting and racial slurs, claiming the moral high ground:

He seeks my life. The reason I well know:
I oft delivered from his forfeitures
Many that have at times made moan to me.
Therefore he hates me.

"He hates me because I'm so nice, so generous, and have helped people escape his evil clutches."

Uh-huh. Let's not mention all the name-calling, expectorating, or daughter-seducing. Okay, that was Lorenzo, not Antonio--but to Shylock they all play for the same team. Antonio's explanation is so self-deluded and dishonest here that it really is impossible to see him as a wholly innocent and injured party.

Antonio's disingenuous speech enrages Shylock even further--as so it should. He refuses to listen to more pleas or seductive explanations. The Christians are as profligate with language as they are with money, and he's had enough.  You can almost hear him biting back the fury as he repeats that same phrase, "I will have my bond," over and over. He also speaks almost exclusively in words of one syllable:

I'll have my bond. I will not hear thee speak.
I'll have my bond, and therefore speak no more.
I'll not be made a soft and dull-eyed fool
To shake the head, relent, and sigh, and yield
To Christian intercessors. Follow not.
I'll have no speaking. I will have my bond.

The multisyllabic phrase "Christian intercessors" stands out awkwardly amidst all these declarative and imperative sentences. You almost want to trip over it, it's so out of step with the rest of the speech. It sounds excessive, and really breaks the incantatory rhythm of the rest: I-will-have-my-bond. I-will-not-hear-thee-speak. You could say that to a slow, funereal drum beat.

Solanio then calls Shylock "the most impenetrable cur/that ever kept with men", giving us two powerful images of the Jew's inhumanity. In a play that's all about interpretation, he's "impenetrable," a stony surface without a heart. In an era fascinated with humanity and its possibilities, he's an animal--a vicious dog, a wolf, a carnivorous monster.

This is the Shylock who enters the courtroom, butcher's knife in hand. 

Act 4 is really one long scene--there's a short scene after the trial, but it's limited to a few lines. When Shylock enters, the Duke--the highest secular authority in the city-- says he's sure that the Jew isn't serious about his threat. He's confident that he'll relent at the last minute, showing "mercy and remorse more strange" than his present "strange apparent cruelty."  "Strange" here means "extraordinary."

The Duke wants a conversion story, a narrative structure familiar to Christians. "The last shall be first," according to the Parable of the Vineyard. He who comes last, at the final hour, to salvation shall enjoy the same spiritual benefits as those who have toiled since sunrise.

Shylock doesn't want to be in that story. He demands his bond, and refuses to give a reason. The law, he thinks, is on his side. He doesn't need to explain himself. He remains willfully "impenetrable":

You'll ask me why I rather choose to have
A weight of carrion flesh than to receive
Three thousand ducats. I'll not answer that,
But say it is my humour. Is it answered?
What if my house be troubled with a rat,
And I be pleased to give ten thousand ducats
To have it baned? What, are you answered yet?
Some men there are love not a gaping pig,
Some that are mad if they behold a cat,
And others when the bagpipe sings i' th' nose
Cannot contain their urine; for affection,
Mistress of passion, sways it to the mood
Of what it likes or loathes. Now for your answer:
There is no firm reason to be rendered
Why he cannot abide a gaping pig,
Why he a harmless necessary cat,
Why he a woollen bagpipe, but of force
Must yield to such inevitable shame
As to offend himself being offended
So I can give no reason, nor will not,
More than a lodged hate and a certain loathing
I bear Antonio, that I follow thus
A losing suit against him. Are you answered?

He refuses to justify what seems to be an irrational desire for worthless flesh over money, except to say that he hates Antonio. But his analogies are interesting. He talks about pigs, which have been mentioned before in conjunction with Jewish dietary prohibitions. He says some might prefer to pay ten thousand ducats to get rid of a rat, rather than get a cat to do the job, simply because they don't like cats. And finally, the weirdest example, a man who pisses himself because he hates bagpipe music. It seems clear that the animal imagery is pointed at Antonio, in retaliation for all the dog-cur-wolf language he's used against Shylock. Both pigs and rats are unclean to Shylock, and so is Antonio. The bagpipe thing seems gratuitous, except we already know Shylock hates music and associated it with Christian revelers. In refusing to give a reason, he's given several. He hates Antonio for treating him as if he's less than human, and hates Christians in general.

It's the argument of a man who's long since realized he can't win arguments. The Venetians are better rhetoricians--Shylock's dialogue throughout the play is often terse and to the point, while the Christians throw poetry around like it grows on trees. Remember Salerio's lovely description of a shipwreck in the first scene of the play? Metaphors to burn. Shylock holds onto his words like he holds onto his money. His "I won't tell you why" speech is one of his longest in the play, and he's really just talking about why he won't talk.

Next:  Wolves and sheep.


  1. What we hate is what we fear. What we hate in others is what we fear about ourselves, we hate the manifestations of our ego. You ask me why I want what I want?--Shylock asks and he answers: it is my right, I need not say more.

    I can think of a current colluquy that resonates this sort of "reasoning," that is political and personal: the second amendment, argument over the "right to bear arms." Strange, huh?

  2. It's true--an "etched in stone" idea of the law. The same reasoning informs many religious dictates--if it was okay in the first century, it's fine now. Fearful people barricade themselves behind stony laws, afraid that if they give even an inch, they'll lose everything.

    I'm totally sick today--so forgive me if I sound feverish...

  3. oh, my comment was a model fo clarity! I just re-read it and I have no idea what I was talking about!! Something about how the argument over the right to bear arms sounds just like Shylock's reasoning.

    In reality, so much of what passes for legal argument is "outcome-based" and skips all logic. That was the graveman of Portia's defense, she says,"let's see how we get to your outcome, Shylock...oops, that doesn't work!" You can't spill blood to get your pound of flesh, Shylock--if you do, you reduce the law to an absurdity. Ideally, the law is not supposed to be absurd, it should neither work an absurd result or operate absurdly. Ideal not practice.