Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Poetic Justice

I've been thinking about irony. Irony is subtle. Otherwise it wouldn't be irony; it would be, well, obvious. Irony is like the consolation prize you get when something bad happens and you realize that it fits nicely into a rather bleak picture you hadn't seen until that moment. Losers love irony--winners are too busy being successful to sit around and muse about how ironic everything is. That's why irony is the favorite trope of literary critics and other socially marginal types. Overeducated and underemployed people positively wallow in irony. They tend to be politically liberal, these irony-wallowers, and often (but not always) drink a bit too much.

That's why it's good for chronically ironical people to have kids. Kids don't live life at a distance, and thus can't do irony. They remind you that life isn't about pattern recognition. Being a mom totally saved me from a life corroded by irony.

But to be a good reader of literature, it still comes in handy.

The Merchant is chock-full of Ironic Moments. Here's a good one.  In Act 3, before Bassanio correctly picks the lead casket and wins the marriage lottery, he reasons through his choice this way:

The world is still deceived with ornament.
In law, what plea is so tainted and corrupt 
But, being seasoned with a gracious voice,
Obscures the show of evil?

Yes, what plea indeed? Perhaps one that continually repeats the word "mercy" as a preamble to showing absolutely none. Bassanio's musing on deception becomes ironic in light of Portia's speechifying on mercy's fine qualities. In fact, she even uses some of the same language, when she talks about mercy "seasoning" justice. Her voice is certainly gracious, her words eloquent, their sentiments sublime. But they're a smokescreen, ultimately, obscuring the show of injustice.

So as I'm thinking about this, I realize that I'm assuming, have assumed all along, that Will was fully in control of all this irony. That the play itself is ironic, not just my reading of it.  Do you see the difference? The play is either ironic at the root, ironic because Will wanted us to see the hypocrisy of the Christians. Or, it's only ironic from the reader/audience's perspective. If this is the case, then Will really was anti-Semitic, and Shylock is a two-dimensional villain rather than a victim. Either Will made him a scapegoat, to show us something about hypocrisy, or he scapegoated him, for the sake of the drama. And because he didn't like Jews.

Obviously I think it's the former, but the latter reading works, too. The Nazis liked it. But then they weren't big on irony.

Hmm. I'll have to think more about this later. But now, back to the problem of justice. When we left off last time, I was considering the Duke's "pardon," whereby Shylock gets to stay alive and lose everything that's important to him.  I'll quote that passage again, in case you haven't been thinking about it constantly the last four days, and have forgotten what he said:

That thou shalt see the difference of our spirit,
I pardon thee thy life before thou ask it.
For half thy wealth, it is Antonio's.
The other half comes to the general state, 
Which humbleness may drive unto a fine.

The difference of our spirit. The Duke pardons Shylock to prove that the Christian "spirit" isn't a bit like the Jew's. Because, you know, the Venetians are all about mercy, and Shylock isn't. Now let's think about this. The Duke is being merciful by not executing Shylock. But as I discussed last time, Shylock isn't actually guilty of anything. He said it himself, before Portia successfully cloaked retribution in the robes of justice. "What judgement shall I dread," he asked the Duke, "doing no wrong?"

Literally, he hasn't done anything wrong. But in spirit, he's made a lot of missteps. He's violated the unwritten laws of Venice, which state that an alien doesn't have the same rights as a citizen. That's the real difference here--it's a difference that inhabits the spirit of the law, not the letter. Now that Shylock's taken his place as "tainted wether," i.e., scapegoat, Antonio can afford to be magnanimous. Sort of.

So please my lord the Duke and all the court
To quit the fine for one half of his goods,
I am content, so he will let me have
The other half in use, to render it
Upon his death unto the gentleman 
That lately stole his daughter.

I like "stole his daughter"--talk about rubbing salt in the wound. And in the context of effectively "stealing" all Shylock's money, too.  I should point out that the language isn't exactly clear here. "Quit the fine" can mean either "make him pay" the fine or "waive" the fine.  But "in use" most certainly means something like "to invest." "Use" is the root of "usury," remember. Antonio is going to take Shylock's money and make it breed.

Voila! The merchant and the moneylender are now mirror images of one another. Shylock has become the "tainted wether," threatened with death, and Antonio the money-breeder. Not a usurer, precisely, but a user of other people's money. 

Wow. That's ironic.

But Antonio isn't done. No, here's the nail in the (purely symbolic) coffin:

Two things provided more: that for this favour
He presently become a Christian;
The other, that he do record a gift
Here in this court of all he dies possessed
Unto his son, Lorenzo, and his daughter.

To prove there is no difference between us, I shall force you to become me. The Duke likes this idea, and threatens Shylock with death if he doesn't accept. Portia does her mean girl thing and turns to Shylock with (I imagine) ill-concealed glee: 

Art thou contented, Jew? What dost thou say?

Here's a real test for an actor. Three simple words that have to convey immeasurable loss:

I am content.

Antonio said these words as well, but how different they must sound now. I am content. You have taken everything from me, and now I have to tell you I'm happy about it.

So, wasn't Portia a good lawyer? She saved Antonio from the knife, forced his creditor to forgive the original debt, and then, got him a fortune in punitive damages to "have in use!" Good grief. She's well worth whatever she charged. Wait! You mean she did all that for free? She's not only a good lawyer, she's an excellent human being!

Or not.

When I first stumbled upon the Bad Lawyer's blog, I wrote him a note asking how he intended his readers to understand its title. Being the decadent intellectual sort I am, I assumed the title was ironic. I.e., that he meant, "I'm an ethical person, and therefore a bad lawyer, because most "good" lawyers are unethical. Which I am not."  Or, it could mean that he was, in fact, not a very good (capable) practitioner of the law. Or, it could simply mean that he was an unethical lawyer. If you read the blog--which you should--you'll see that he plays around with all those meanings, although I think only the first is true.  In that sense, BL's blog is a lot like The Merchant of Venice. It's ironic, it's earnest, and it's self-conscious of the paradox. Which brings me back to Portia. Is she a bad (fake) lawyer, or a good one? I leave you to ponder that question. I'm off to sleep.

Next: The Venetians have a big party with Shylock's money. And the play tries to be funny again.

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