Saturday, April 3, 2010

Down By Law

It's been a week since my last post, and this time I can't blame my own health. I've been in Florence Nightingale mode all week, taking care of a sick kid and a sick husband. Things seem to have stabilized, so I hope to post at least a couple more times in the next week. We're really getting to the heart of Act 4 now--two more posts should do it, I think.

In the trial scene, Shylock gets his comeuppance. And then some. As we'll see, the quality of mercy isn't only strained, it's positively suffocated to death.

But first, a few more thoughts on the problem of similarity and difference.

My Enemy, Myself

On the surface, the whole play grows out of a founding opposition between the rapacious, miserly Jew and the generous, spendthrift Christians. On the other hand, one could say that, while Shylock's venality is explicit, that of the Christians is implicit--I've already written about this in conjunction with Bassanio's mercenary motives for courting Portia, and the fact that Jessica and Lorenzo's marriage begins with a robbery. When it comes to trafficking in human flesh, moreover, the slave-owning Venetians haven't a moral leg to stand on.  And for all their talk about mercy and charity, they're way better at revenge and retribution.

Nevertheless, the Christians spend a lot of time telling each other that they're different from Shylock. Antonio insists that he doesn't lend money at interest, which is true as far as it goes. He loans money out of love. When one borrows money from a bank, one pays off the principal and the interest, and that's the end of it. Money loaned out of love or friendship exacts a much higher price--the emotional interest, one might say, is potentially infinite.

Again, just ask anyone who's ever borrowed money from family.

In Venice, the lack of precise accounting makes indebtedness measureless. Shylock doesn't understand how this turns money into power. Literalist that he is, he sees money That's why Jessica feels free to rob him without remorse--because he's attached no other meaning to money in her eyes. She, however, understands that her father's money will buy more than material objects. It buys her a future, and admission to the Christian aristocracy.

I've already written a lot about the differences between Shylock and the Venetians. But it seems to me that Will was more interested in the similarities that inhabit those differences. In the course of Act 4, Shylock and Antonio become mirror images of one another. Initially the victim of Antonio's scorn and harassment, Shylock turns the tables, making Antonio his victim. Then Portia turns them back again. Antonio proves to be just as vengeful as his enemy--arguably more so, because while Shylock wanted Antonio's life, Antonio demands more. He takes the Jew's livelihood and his identity, forcing him to live a lie. He kills him symbolically. After hearing the court's verdict against him, Shylock tells Portia that he'd rather die, because "you take my life when you do take the means whereby I live."

This is a direct paraphrase of Ecclesiasticus 34: "He that taketh away his neighbor's living, slayeth him." But then the Venetian Christians have never seen the Jew as a neighbor.

Unjust as it is, this kind of vengeance appeals to my Sicilian heart. I, too, have an enemy--just one, which, at this point in life, I take to be a triumph. This person, however, did something so bad, so undeserved to me that I used to wish hard for karmic justice. Unfortunately, this evil guy remains at the top of his profession and is unlikely to be karmically punished in this lifetime. And the badness in question was over ten years ago, so I certainly don't think about it on a daily or even monthly basis. But if I could exact some perfect punishment, it wouldn't be the Jew's simple and bloody revenge. It would be Antonio's utter eradication of his enemy's sense of self. Like Antonio, I wouldn't want my enemy's life. I'd want his soul.

Can you tell I had a Catholic education? Too much Dante, I guess.

But morally, I can see that this is a trap. Hatred--real, visceral, gut-twisting hatred--is a parasite. It kills the thing it feeds on. Before it does that, it turns the hater into a mirror image of her own enemy. And since my enemy is a morally desiccated, egocentric bastard, an empty husk corroded by vanity, I really don't want to become him. I have to let my hatred go, or accept the fact that my moral growth ended in southern Indiana sometime in 1997.

This mirroring thing works with ideas as well as individuals.  Look at the Cold War. Under McCarthyism, capitalists violated individual freedoms in the name of, well, freedom. Similarly, communists created an oppressive class of overlords that were fully as iniquitous as the monarchs they replaced.

And so it is with Shylock and Antonio. Shylock is at least up front about it. "The villainy you teach me I will execute," he says. Nothing subtle about that. "I'll be as nasty to you as you are to me." Antonio, like all the Christians, is in denial from beginning to end. He's not like Shylock. He's generous, and open-minded. Totally a victim of the Jew's bloodthirsty wolfishness. A sacrificial lamb. A Christ figure. A great guy.

And yet, he makes sure Shylock not only loses all his wealth, but also is forced to convert to a religion he hates. With Portia's help, Antonio exacts a cruel revenge against a man who has committed no crime. It's easy to forget that, but it's true. Shylock has done nothing but demand what the law owes him. Yes, the pound of flesh thing is reprehensible, but Antonio signed the paper. I'm going to say it again: Shylock committed no crime. Remember it.

A Daniel, A Daniel!

Portia is a good lawyer, despite having neither training nor credentials. But this is theater. I don't recommend trying this at home. If you find yourself or someone you love in legal hot water, hire a professional. My fellow blogger the Bad Lawyer has lots of tragi-comic stories about laypeople who think that lawyering is easy, a simple matter of shouting "You're out of order!" or, "Objection, hearsay."  Repeat after me: TV and movie trials have nothing to do with reality. Nothing.

And neither do Shakespearean trials. But there's nothing like a fake trial for drama, is there? I'm kind of surprised Will didn't write more of them. He could have been the Elizabethan Jodi Picoult. Every play could have had a trial. Just think of the possibilities.  Hamlet vs. Claudius! Desdemona vs. Iago! Juliet vs. her dad! Edgar vs. Edmund! MacDuff vs. Macbeth!

Just kidding.

At first, (as I pointed out last time), Portia pretends to be objective:  "Which is the merchant here, and which is the Jew?"  Although she asks the question for theatrical reasons--i.e., to pretend to an impartiality she has no intention of showing--it's really the question at the heart of Act 4.  You might remember that the play's earliest Elizabethan title was A Book of the Merchant of Venice, or Otherwise Called the Jew of Venice. Of course the actual merchant is Antonio, not Shylock. Jews weren't allowed in trade--that's why they became moneylenders. But Antonio is a moneylender, too. And also an outsider. Maybe that's why he hates Shylock so much. In the alien Jew, he sees something of his own strangeness--his tainted wether-ishness. He's a man who can't ever take part in the patriarchy. No cojones, culturally (and morally) speaking. No wonder he's such a sad sack at the beginning. 

But back to Portia. She's also depressed at the beginning of the play, but she perks up in Act 4. She gets to have some social and moral authority, and bossy girls love that. Take it from someone who knows....

She goes over the text of bond, and seems to find no loopholes. When Bassanio asks her to "wrest the law to [her] authority," she shakes her head with mock-regret:

It must not be. There is no power in Venice
Can alter a decree established.
'Twill be recorded for a precedent,
And many an error by the same example
Will rush into the state. It cannot be.

She knows her legalese--and her law. I can't bend the law to suit this case, she says, because otherwise the law itself will suffer. (This never stops real judges, even in the Highest Court of the Land, it seems to me, but never mind).

Shylock's overjoyed. "A Daniel come to judgment, yea, a Daniel!/O wise young judge, how I do honor thee!"

Well, not so fast. Shylock's exclamation turns around to bite him in the derriere, because the biblical Daniel story is about another fake lawyer, a young man who defends a virtuous woman against her prurient accusers--and ends up turning the tables on them. Susanna was a Hebrew wife who was spied upon in the bath by some religious elders. They accosted her while she was still naked and tried to force her to have sex with them, on pain of death--as punishment for promiscuity. Using a lot of puns involving trees (as I recall), Daniel proves that the elders are to blame. And so the accusers are accused.

Like Shylock.  You'd think, as a practicing Jew, he'd realize the dangerous irony lurking in his Daniel outburst, but apparently not--he's losing his literalist edge, it seems. In the end, he's out-literalized by a girl.

Next:  Portia makes up the law as she goes along.


  1. Perfect!

    Your Shylock/Justice posts have me re-reading the OT law, and selections from the Talmud. Great, great reading and meditation material. As I was noting, the last time I posted, the Torah, the 5 books of Moses deal explicitly with law and justice. Explicitly with commercial law. I can see from my notes in the margin of my Oxford/English Bible that I've read this material at least a couple of times over the years, but it is always surprising to go back and look again. Old testament scholars write doctorate theses in exegesis of every aspect of the Old Testament, but there is no greater work of width and breath than the Talmud, which is a writing down and canonization of the Oral Law, and a record of Rabbinical exploration and debate on the meaning of nearly every word and application of the Old Testament and Oral Law to myriad life situations. The Talmud is huge and its study a lifetime as you no doubt sense from an outsider's view of orthodox Judaism. Now imagine that on top of this there are multiple mystical views and oral traditions that hold that every word in Torah is a cryptic puzzle and allegory that once unlocked delivers humankind into a world of pure connection to the creators light, this is the Zohar.

    One of the great life lessons is that crises like that which occurred in your life circa 1997 and which are in my life, currently can almost always an effect to which if we are honest with ourselves, we caused. While we certainly can find and name antagonists, my "reaction is my enemy," and if I can stop and insert consciousness, I might be able to transform the crises into an opportunity.

    In fact this is the lesson of Easter for me.

    Your post most recent post on Easter really triggered this reflection, we are sharing beautiful weather this Easter and I had a lovely day over at my friends' house with many old and dear friends. As I wrote at my "blawg" today (scheduled to run Monday morning) reminded me of the happiest Spring memories. The whole theme for me now is to transform--if I can. The scary part are the feelings and odd seemingly unrelated recollections, I do see how some peoples' (Shylock's)minds come undone. It is one thing to be or feel shame and disgrace it is quite another to come unhinged. It is my reaction that is my enemy.

    Trivia, one of Handel's most successful compositions apart from the Messiah, was Susanna!

  2. Just as I was bragging (or humbly acknowledging, depending on how you read it) that I know my bible pretty well, I'm reminded that I mostly know the Old Testament through the distorted lens of late Latin exegetes, a.k.a the Church Fathers. I would love to learn more about Old Testament law and exegesis--because I'm an interpretation addict, as you may have guessed. It sounds fascinating.
    On blame/responsibility. I've learned, over the years, that the only way to put something behind one is to take some responsibility for what happened, even if the event in question was out of one's control. Even if one was the victim rather than the victimizer. At some point in the process, one became at least partly responsible for the way things unfolded. That's certainly true in my case.
    But self-renewal is one of our best things, as a species. Take the responsibility, but leave the shame, for sure.
    Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful comment, BL. I'm glad you had a lovely day, too!