Tuesday, April 20, 2010

For Love or Money

The final act of The Merchant can't help but be anticlimactic. Act 4 was dominated by Big Issues--justice, mercy, retribution, hypocrisy. Act 5 is pretty straightforward romantic comedy, albeit with a bitter aftertaste. It's hard to downshift so radically--from high drama to light banter. As recently as the 19th century, most productions didn't even include the fifth act, and it's easy to see why.  It hangs onto the rest of the play like a tenuous afterthought, a discordant, awkward attempt to gloss over everything that went before. Shylock is gone, but the ugliness of the trial scene lingers, and the questions that were raised earlier in the play--about the relationship between love and commerce, and (by implication) Bassanio's commitment to his heiress wife--return with a vengeance.

The play ends with three ostensibly happy couples, but they all seem doomed to misery. Each woman doubts the quality of her husband's love, and with good reason. Lorenzo and Jessica's marriage was built on betrayal and theft--no wonder all they can think about are tragic analogues to their own situation. Analogues in which the women bear the brunt of the misery. Like some of the couples they invoke--Aeneas and Dido, Jason and Medea--they come from two different cultures. And Jessica--like Portia--has got to wonder how much her erotic allure has been enhanced by Daddy's money.  Lorenzo's teasing remark makes it explicit:

In such a night 
Did Jessica steal from the wealthy Jew,
And with an unthrift love did run from Venice
As far as Belmont.

It's kind of a creepy thing for him to say--adding Jessica to that list of  notorious erotic losers.  And bringing money into it, too--although "steal" can mean "run away from," the other meaning is clearly intended as well. Her love is "unthrift"--excessive. Perhaps in relation to his?  There's an undercurrent of anxiety in Jess's reply:

In such a night
Did young Lorenzo swear he loved her well,
Stealing her soul with many vows of faith,
And ne'er a true one.

Lorenzo teasingly berates her for the "slander," but the issue has been raised, and it's going to color the entire last movement of the play.

Comedy, remember, is all about community. The happy ending of a comic romance is a social promise, in investment in the future. In other words, comic couples have to live happily ever after so that they can make (legitimate) babies. Communities must be fertile.

But the specter of barrenness haunts all of Will's plays. Remember Juliet's predecessor, Rosaline, and her icy chastity, Hamlet's refusal of Ophelia, the stark lifelessness of Lear's heath, Richard's England, sick and unfruitful. Tragic catharsis--usually involving a lot of dead bodies--is necessary to restore fertility to the land. But it has no place in comedy. Comedy's all about love, and sex, and channeling erotic energies in the right direction. Heterosexual love, as it's understood here, is a stand against sterility.

Um, no naughty pun intended.

I Bought Him, He's Mine.

Both Antonio and Portia can make that claim about Bassanio, can't they?  But this whole fruitful community thing leaves Antonio, and his homoerotic passion for the B-boy, out in the frozen tundra. It has to, because this "tainted wether"  is a threat to the future. How big a threat?  It's pretty clear his love for Bassanio is more than platonic. Whether those feelings are returned or not is open to argument, but Will wants us to wonder. Solanio says in Act 2 that Antonio "loves the world only for" Bassanio. After Shylock calls in the bond, Antonio asks only that "Bassanio come to see" his debt paid--i.e., to see Antonio die for him. And then, most telling of all, Bassanio interrupts the trial to proclaim his loyalty to his friend:

Antonio, I am married to a wife
Which is as dear to me as life itself,
But life itself, my wife, and all the world
Are not with me esteemed above thy life. 
I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all
Here to this devil, to deliver you.

Portia, disguised as Balthasar, is not impressed. She remarks in an aside that

Your wife would give you little thanks for that
If she were by to hear you make the offer.

Graziano, not to be outdone, makes a similar boast, prompting a veiled threat from Nerissa. These imprudent remarks lead into the "ring game" at the end of the play. The ring represents the bond (and I use that word on purpose) between Portia/Nerissa and their husbands, but it also has a more salacious meaning, which is made explicit at the end of the play--a woman's ring on a man's finger represents sexual consummation.

Think about it, and you'll see what I mean.

Bassanio's gushy avowal triggers Portia's rich girl insecurities--so, as Balthasar, she demands the ring she's given her husband as a legal fee. When B. wavers, remembering his promise to his wife (that he'd wear the ring till he dies), Antonio steps in and forces the issue.

It's pretty obvious that the whole joke centers around whether a man or a woman is going to get the ring, which (I think) is now associated with Bassanio, not Portia.

How can I explain this without being too graphic? Hmm. In the interest of maintaining this blog's PG-13 rating, I'll just say that the contest seems to be about where Bassanio's sexual loyalties lie. With a man (Balthasar) or a woman (Portia). That the two are one and the same diffuses a potentially explosive situation, and keeps everything safely within the family-friendly realm of comedy. But really, it's a pretty subversive moment.

As for Bassanio himself, he's pretty much a cipher throughout--a beta male, as we say these days. Even his name has a lowly ring to it, doesn't it? One imagines him to be very good-looking, exceedingly charming, with excellent manners and a lighthearted way about him. A perfect foil to those two melancholic alphas--the rich, aging merchant and the witty but neurotic heiress. He's married Portia for her money--now the only remaining question is who gets his heart. Or, to put it more cynically, he's spent some years as Antonio's boy toy--now he has to decide if he wants to be Portia's exclusively.

I Will Have My Ring

So how does Portia handle this erotic power struggle? Pretty brilliantly, but with a heavy dose of irony, too. Basically she re-enacts the whole trial scene, with the ring, rather than the bond, at the center of it all. And she's pretty mean to Antonio, too, as befits a rival.

From the moment she arrives home to Belmont, it's clear she's in a bitchy mood:

This night, methinks, is but the daylight sick.
It looks a little paler. 'Tis a day
Such as the day is when the sun is hid.

No romantic moonlight for her. The night's no more than a sickly day.  When Bassanio arrives with Antonio, she immediately brings up the possibility of her infidelity. Not exactly what a new husband wants to hear, especially after he's given her an effusive compliment linking her radiance to the sun:

We should hold day with the Antipodes
If you would walk in absence of the sun.

You're so radiantly lovely that you could make the sun shine all night and day, he says.  Her reply is sour, and even embarrassing, considering Bassanio's brought a guest:

Let me give light but let me be not light;
For a light wife doth make a heavy husband,
And never be Bassanio so for me.
But God sort all. You are welcome home, my lord.

A light wife--a wife of easy virtue--makes her husband sad. I hope never to make Bassanio sad, but it's all in God's hands (not mine).  You can almost see Bassanio and Antonio exchange a confused look here. Her greeting to the latter is just short of rude:

Sir, you are very welcome to our house.
It must appear in other ways that words, 
Therefore I scant this breathing courtesy.

I'll show you you're welcome by inviting you into my fancy home. I can't be bothered with courtesy.

And then the fun begins. Nerissa opens the "ring question," and Portia follows up with her own query. When it's clear Bassanio doesn't have the ring, she insists that she'll never consummate the marriage until she sees it again. From Bassanio's point of view, the ring becomes the snake in their paradisal garden, a fly in the ointment of love, a spanner in the connubial works...you get the picture.

And speaking of pictures, isn't that a cool snake ring, on the right?  I want it. Since the image came from Christie's, however, I'm guessing it's out of my price range.  Ah, well.

For Portia, the ring takes on the importance of "the bond" for Shylock; she repeats her magic word over and over, just as Shylock did:

If you had known the virtue of the ring,
Of half her worthiness that gave the ring,
Or your own honour to contain the ring,
You would not then have parted with the ring.

She goes on to interpret the ring literally, as the body part it supposedly signifies. Since you say you gave the ring to a man, she says, I guess I'll just feel free to give him the rest of me, too.

I'll not deny him anything I have,
No, not my body nor my husband's bed.
Antonio, embarrassed, makes the truest statement of the evening:

I am th'unhappy subject of these quarrels.

Damn right. Bassanio begs her forgiveness, and Antonio adds his voice to the plea, in terms that recall the trial once again:

.... I dare be bound again,
My soul upon the forfeit, that your lord
Will never more break faith advisedly.

This time he offers his soul, not his body. It's what Portia's been waiting for--Antonio's promise that he'll step out of the picture:

Then you shall be his surety.

You'll guarantee the payment/fulfillment of his promise. Just as you did for Shylock's loan, only now the stakes are spiritual, and thus much higher.

Game over. Portia's crushed her opponent by tricking him into making a sacred oath--to protect her marriage! This is one smart cookie.

Now that she's got everything the way she wants it, she can afford to be nice. She reveals the masquerade, tells Antonio that, by the way, she has a letter in her possession reporting that all his ships came in, and he's rich again! Ta-da! Happy ending, right? Antonio's response is heavy with irony:

Sweet lady, you have given me life and living...

Surely we're meant to hear an echo of Shylock's lament here: "you take my life/When you do take the means whereby I live."

Portia giveth, and Portia taketh away. Antonio's got his money back, but he's still the odd man out of all this conjugal merriment. And given what Portia's made him promise, one could imagine him saying these grateful words through gritted teeth, not unlike Shylock's "I am content."

In the end, both the Merchant and the Moneylender remain outside the comedic community, exiled from the circle of reconciliation. They're men without progeny, with no purchase on the future. Portia, for all intents and purposes the director of these happy proceedings, has put them both in their place.  Brilliantly.

Next: Last thoughts on Shylock, slippery gender roles, and all the rest.


  1. Gayle--

    As usual "you give light. . ."

    That was beautifully rendered, thank you.


  2. Thanks, BL. I didn't intend this post to be so long, but I really dislike Act 5, and I didn't want to spread it out over several posts. I mean I dislike it as an ending, not as literature. I'm going to talk about why next time...then on to the movies!