Friday, April 16, 2010

Belmont By Night

The Merchant of Venice ends in darkness. I'm reminded of the end of Romeo and Juliet--"The sun for sorrow will not show his face."  And yet, Act 5 is all about reconciliation--husbands and wives reunited, fortunes recovered, and all the rest of the stuff that constitutes a happy ending. It's all good. So why does Will set this final scene at night?

Night, as we saw in R & J,  is the time of fantasy, eroticism, romance. It's when poetry triumphs over history, and love is all that matters. It's a purely theatrical construct, too--remember that Elizabethan dramas were all performed in the afternoon. So "night" was wholly imaginary on the stage--like women.

Not only does the play end at night--it ends in Belmont, which, as we've seen, is supposed to be the "anti-Venice." Where Venice is about deal-making and cutthroat business dealings, Belmont is an altogether softer place, more feminine and less real. Think Manhattan as opposed to, say, Cape Cod. But it's strange that Will decided to end the play here. In other comedies, the fifth act represents a return to the real world. The Forest of Arden in As You Like It, the fairy woods in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the "little academe" of Love's Labour's Lost are all temporary, somewhat dreamy places. The characters retreat to these magical otherworlds in order to sort out their romantic and social issues, before emerging wiser and properly paired up at the end.

But The Merchant of Venice ends with a retreat from reality. As if the play, and the characters, are hiding in the dark, ashamed to face the daylight.

Act 5 begins with Lorenzo and Jessica, who were completely absent during the trial scene, and thus, presumably, innocent of its excesses.  They're in Romeo and Juliet mode, waxing poetical about famous literary lovers.  The language is lovely, so let's just listen in for a bit:

Lorenzo: The moon shines bright. In such a night as this,
When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees
And they did make no noise--in such a night,
Troilus, methinks, mounted the Trojan walls,
And sighed his soul toward the Grecian tents
Where Cresseid lay that night.

Kissing wind and sighing souls. Etymologically, poetic inspiration is a breathy thing. To be "inspired" is to be breathed upon by the gods.  Jessica gets into the inspired spirit of things:

Jessica:   In such a night
Did Thisbe fearfully o'ertrip the dew,
And saw the Lion's shadow ere himself,
And ran dismayed away.

I see your Ovidian tale, says Lorenzo, and I raise you one Great Latin Epic:

Lorenzo: In such a night
Stood Dido with a willow in her hand
Upon the sea banks, and waft her love
To come again to Carthage.

Well, I see your spurned Queen, and give you--a child-murdering witch!

Jessica:  In such a night
Medea gathered the enchanted herbs
That did renew old Aeson.

Funny that Jess would choose a daughter/father-in-law story, since she betrayed her dad and stole his money. Ah, love.

What's odd is that all these stories ended really badly.  Cressida was a Trojan noblewoman who was traded to the Greeks during the Trojan war, and cheated on her lover, Troilus, with another guy. The Troilus/Cressida story had been famous since Chaucer's time (late 14th century), and was often invoked as an example of faithlessness in love. So it's odd in this context.  Sort of like modern lovers comparing themselves to those legendary exemplars of undying passion, Charles and Diana.

The story of Pyramus and Thisbe is also jarring, since it ends in a bloodbath, a la Romeo and Juliet.  In some ways, the story is really about the perils of bad crime scene investigation. Owing to a misinterpretation of evidence--in this case, Thisbe's bloody scarf--the star-crossed lovers commit suicide. Will uses the tale to comic effect in A Midsummer Night's Dream, but it's not supposed to be funny here.

Lorenzo then lauds the fidelity of Queen Dido, who was abandoned by her lover Aeneas, and killed herself in a fit of grief and self-loathing. I wrote a little about this story before beginning my series of posts on Romeo and Juliet. The Dido/Aeneas story was told in Book 4 of Virgil's epic The Aeneid. It was kind of a subplot there--Virgil's tale was really about the founding of Rome. Nevertheless the Dido story is the most "modern" bit in Virgil's epic, and the only part normal people (i.e., those who didn't waste their youth reading dead Latin poets) remember today, thanks to Purcell's opera.  It's a great story, but definitely a downer.

The final allusion, to Medea, is off-the-charts weird.  Medea is one of those evil sorceress types from classical lore who later, during the "her-story" movement of the 1970's, metamorphosed (yeah, that's an Ovid joke) into a feminist heroine. You know, representing an originary matriarchal culture at war with the Evil World of Men.  That kind of silly, delusional feminism has always creeped me out, I have to say. And anyway, I wouldn't pick Medea for my mytho-feminist poster girl. She was a very bad witch and a super bad mom. She appeared in lots of poems and plays, so her wickedness must have had wide appeal. Especially to men, who for several thousand years had sole responsibility for making stuff up and writing it down.

Here's her story, synthesized and abridged.  Medea uses her magical powers to help Jason win the golden fleece, on the condition that he marry her. In some versions, the goddess Hera makes her fall in love with him, but no matter. Jason gets the fleece, they marry and have a couple of kids. She further helps Jason by getting rid of an uncle, Pelias, who wanted the fleece for himself. How does she do this? Well, it's pretty grisly. She tricks Pelias's daughters into thinking they can make Daddy young again. The trick works this way: she slits the throat of Jason's dad, Aeson (the guy Jessica mentions), then boils him in a pot, and then, via enchantment, he jumps out, minus about 50 years!

They totally don't make stories like they used to.

Anyway, she tells Pelias's daughters that they can have a youthful dad if they do the same to him. So, to show Daddy how much they love him, they hack him up and toss him in a pot of boiling water. But, uh-oh, Medea has taken her husband and teenage father-in-law and left town. And all the king's daughters can't put Daddy back together again. Later, Jason decides he wants another wife, and dumps Medea. Very bad idea. She's so mad at him, she kills their sons to get back at him. In some versions, she boils them up in a stew and serves them up to Jason with some fava beans and a nice Chianti. Then, after he's told her how great the meal was, she gives him the ingredient list. For real.

Bottom line: none of these couples were really good newlywed role models. They mostly end up dead in bad ways. The stories, like the setting of Act 5, are all pretty dark.

The Medea story does have some resonance for our tale, however. After Bassanio successfully completed the Casket Challenge, back in Act 3, Graziano exulted that "we are the Jasons; we have won the fleece."  By which he meant Portia's money.

There's that sheep thing again!  This play has a sheep fetish--tainted wethers, sacrificial lambs, and priceless wool. Hmm.  Somewhere, a student is probably writing a paper entitled "The Significance of Sheep in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice."

I will leave it to them to unravel this woolly mystery. I hope it has a biographical angle. Maybe the real Shakespeare was neither Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, nor Edward de Vere. Maybe he was a shepherd! Maybe if we look closely, we'll find sheepish hints hiding in every play!  And a new field of study will be born.

It's clearly time to wrap this up.

Anyway. Lorenzo and Jessica retreat from the real world of commerce, taking refuge in love and literature--but their analogies are all about misreading, betrayal, and death. It's as if all the bad stuff in Act 4 is still lurking somewhere, infiltrating everyone's poetry and casting a pall over the happy ending.

You can run, but you can't hide.

Next:  Portia gets mean again, but it's all okay in the end.


  1. Thank you for parsing this part of the denouement, these passages went right past me as nothing more than "sweet nothings" when it's pretty clear that Shakespeare is warning these careless lovers that they have a karmic debt. Wow!


  2. I never thought of it that way--as a debt, but I think you're right. That makes it an issue of justice, too--I'm going to think about this some more!