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.
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 as...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.
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.
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!
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!
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!"
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.