Sunday, January 31, 2010

Fathers and Fiends


What did Shakespeare mean to say when he wrote this play? Did he want us to think that Jews are a rapacious, vengeful race? That Christians are hypocrites who seldom practice what they preach? That the law is arbitrary? That religion is a justification for injustice? One could make all these arguments based on a reading of The Merchant of Venice, but we won't ever know what Will intended. Literature, like any text-based theology, generates interpretation. Interpretation is culturally- and historically-specific. The play was read, performed and understood quite differently in nineteenth-century England, for example, from the way it was understood and performed in 1943 Vienna, under the auspices of the Third Reich.

Because this play is so disturbing, so potentially damaging to Will's reputation as the Father of English Drama and The Greatest Writer in English, interpreting it is a risky business. We don't want him to be an anti-Semite, or a racist, or anything else we now associate with ignorant anti-humanism. Interestingly, interpretation is an issue in the play itself, too. Portia's suitors have to correctly interpret the meaning of the three caskets to win her. Antonio incorrectly interprets Shylock's "bargain" as a change of heart. Portia's literal interpretation of the law eventually restores a kind of order to both Venice and Belmont.

But, wait, no it doesn't.

Now if I were still an academic, I'd have to write something like "this play remains ambivalent on the question of race, as on the question of justice. In its refusal to decide, to cast its lot definitively with either the Christians or the Jew, it can be said to problematize interpretation itself, and by implication, the certainties of both theology and law."

How's that for smart-sounding, cowardly equivocation?  Here's what I really think. Will is interested in the problem of justice, for sure. And he wonders how and why bigotry gets started, and how it's justified by people who claim to be "fair." He's interested in the relationship between law and religion because both of them claim to serve a higher ideal--call it God or call it Justice--and both inevitably fall short. He picked Jews and Moroccans because those were the most exotic, scary people to Elizabethans. Most of his countrymen hadn't ever seen either one. He's not an anti-Semite, because that idea just didn't exist then. He's interested in what links people together, and why they all spend so much time and moral energy trying to deny that link, or, if you will, "bond."

I guess I started thinking about this question because the beginning of Act 2 is all about the problem of fathers--dead ones, good ones, bad ones. Shakespeare is a kind of dead father figure too. We want him to be a good daddy, not a bad one. A humanist hero, not a racist fiend. Like a good daughter, I'm going to argue for the former. But we'll see how it goes--I haven't read this play in over 10 years, so it's kind of an adventure for me, too.

So, on to Act 2.

"Let Us Make Incision For Your Love"

Having scared off all her other potential husbands with the casket game, Portia must now entertain the suit of the Prince of Morocco. He's black-skinned. I mention that because Will wants us to remember it. That's Morocco's purpose in the play. To be noble, somewhat arrogant, and black:

Mislike me not for my complexion,
The shadowed livery of the burnished sun,
To whom I am a neighbor and near bred.
Bring me the fairest creature northward born,
Where Phoebus' fire scarce thaws the icicles,
And let us make incision for your love,
To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine.
I tell thee, lady, this aspect of mine
Hath feared the valiant. By my love I swear,
The best regarded virgins of our clime
Have loved it too. I would not change this hue
Except to steal your thoughts, gentle queen.

Simply put, he's black and proud. But the language is lovely, isn't it? "...my complexion, the shadowed livery of the burnished sun...." "Livery," of course, implies servitude--noble houses had their servants all wear the same colors. But he follows that with a claim of equality--he's the sun's "neighbor, and near bred." He's realistic enough to realize that he can't make a strong argument for beauty, since black skin was considered devilish, so he makes a claim for valor, instead. And in making that claim, returns us to the argument of the previous scene--about what's on the outside, and what's on the inside. "Let us make incision for your love/to prove whose blood is reddest..."--let's look inside and see who's the bravest. We're reminded that we all bleed red, regardless of skin color. We're obviously meant to see Shylock's pound of flesh and Morocco's bloody incision in similar terms--as a way of thinking about the similarities among men, rather than their (superficial) differences. And of course "incision" looks forward to the slicing and dicing that's threatened in the courtroom scene at the end. Antonio is willing to suffer a fatal incision for Bassanio's love--Morocco's metaphor literalized.

But Morocco's different in other ways, too. He reminds me of a bad blind date, where the guy, eager to impress, talks about how tough he is, or how much he can bench-press. Maybe that's alluring in the wilder parts of the world, but in decadent, effete Venice, a guy who boasts about his battle prowess--hinting at other kinds of prowess--is just a freak. Like putting Beowulf in a Noel Coward play, or something. Belmont is a gentle, feminine place, and Morocco's way out of his element.

Portia's next lines are an out-and-out lie, although I suppose one could excuse her on the grounds of decorum:

In terms of choice I am not solely led
By nice direction of a maiden's eyes.
Besides, the lott'ry of my destiny
Bars me the right of voluntary choosing.
But if my father had not scanted me,
And hedged me by his wit to yield myself
His wife who wins me by that means I told you,
Yourself, renowned Prince, then stood as fair
As any comer I have looked on yet
For my affection.

One could split hairs and assume that the line "as any comer I have looked on yet," keeps her from outright mendacity, but when Morocco later fails to choose the right casket, Portia will breathe a sigh of relief, saying

A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go.
Let all of his complexion choose me so.

So much for seeing beyond the surface.

Morocco, for his part, misunderstands the game itself, thinking it's just a matter of blind chance:

I would o'erstare the sternest eyes that look,
Outbrave the heart most daring on the earth,
Pluck the young sucking cubs from the she-bear,
Yea, mock the lion when a roars for prey,
To win the lady. But alas the while,
If Hercules and Lichas play at dice
Which is the better man, the greater throw
May turn by fortune from the weaker hand.

"In a game of chance, strength and bravery count for nothing." But of course it's not a game of chance, it's a game of reading and interpreting. There is "hazard," or risk involved, but the winner will be the man who's willing "to hazard all he hath," i.e., to risk everything. It rewards the willingness to risk, but it's not like those old game shows, where you have to choose what's behind door number 3."Who chooses his meaning chooses you," Nerissa says. The emphasis is on meaning, on understanding what the caskets, each in turn, signify.

Portia is a good daughter. Although her father's dead, she's still playing by his rules--her inheritance, apparently, is contingent on this game. She's not above cheating a little bit, as we'll see when it's Bassanio's turn, but she follows the letter of her father's edict. The winner must choose from among the gold, silver, and lead caskets.  As a dutiful daughter, Portia provides a contrast to Jessica, who rebels against her father's will, steals from him, and ultimately profits from his humiliation--although not as much as her husband, Lorenzo, does. Jessica is a bad daughter, but her rebellion is justified in the Venetian (and Elizabethan) world, where Jews are forced to turn from the Old Law to the New--i.e, become Christians. Her deed is "fiendish," but it's okay because, as the clown Lancelot Gobbo says, the Jew is "a kind of devil" himself.

Jacob and Esau

Gobbo's comic interlude in the second scene gives Will the opportunity for more religious allegory and analogy.  As the scene opens, Shylock's servant is debating whether or not to abandon his master and seek a new, kinder one:

"Certainly my conscience will serve me to run from this Jew my master. The fiend is at mine elbow, and tempts me, saying to me 'Gobbo, Lancelot Gobbo, good Lancelot,' or 'good Gobbo,' or 'good Lancelot Gobbo--use your legs, take the start, run away.' My conscience says 'No, take heed, honest Lancelot, take heed, honest Gobbo,' or, as aforesaid, 'honest Lancelot Gobbo--do not run, scorn running with thy heels.'"

Lancelot's loyalty to or rebellion against his master is structured as a moral dilemma--which it was, in Elizabethan England. The revolt of the serving classes was seen as a threat to the hierarchical order of society, and wasn't something to be taken lightly. The church and the state both saw "knowing one's place" as a virtue. To rebel against one's master was a sin.

Unless, of course, that master is a Jew, and "the very devil incarnation," as Gobbo amusingly malaprops. Ultimately, he decides that when choosing between a devilish act and the devil himself, there's no contest. He runs, seeking employment with a new, younger--albeit poorer--master, the Christian Bassanio.

This little morality play quickly shifts into a theological burlesque. When Gobbo meets his half-blind father, Old Gobbo, on the road, he plays a cruel but funny game with him. Old Gobbo is looking for his son, and is too blind to recognize him. Lancelot insists that the man he seeks in "young Master Lancelot," i.e., not a servant but a gentleman, and is, sadly, "deceased."

At Gobbo's wail of sorrow, he reveals himself:  "do you know me, father?"

Old Gobbo says that he's "sand-blind," and can't recognize him. Lancelot then kneels before him, asking for his blessing. An Elizabethan audience, well-versed in biblical lore, would immediately recognize this as an allusion to the story of Jacob and Esau in the Book of Genesis. If you've been to Sunday school, you probably remember this one. Jacob cheats his brother Esau--the older twin--out of his inheritance by dressing up in sheepskins and duping his father, Isaac, into giving him the ritualistic blessing that will make him the heir. Esau, you see, was "a hairy man," and Jacob "a smooth man." Now, to be fair, Esau wasn't too bright. He was really hungry, and let Jacob have this opportunity in exchange for a bowl of soup. Their mom, Rebekah, liked Jacob better, and colluded in this deception.

In the Old Testament, one sibling was always the favorite. It's like a textbook on bad parenting.

Early Christian thinkers saw this as a "typological" moment. Typology is the hermeneutic science of making everything in the Old Testament into an allegory of the coming of Christ. You know--leaving the old master, the Jew, for the new one, the Christian. In a manner of speaking. So for these typologists, Jacob, though younger, inherits the his father's wealth  just as the younger Christian church--the New Covenant--will supersede the Old (Jewish) Covenant, the law of Moses. In The Merchant, this is the occasion for comedy, as Old Gobbo pats his son's head blindly:

"Lord worshipped might he be, what a beard has thou got! Thou hast got more hair on thy chin than Dobbin my fill-horse has on his tail."

Finally Gobbo recognizes his son, and says he's brought presents for Shylock, the boy's master. Lancelot tells him to save the presents for Bassanio, the man he now wants to work for because B. "gives rare new liveries," i.e., has cool uniforms for his servants. Meanwhile, as luck would have it, Bassanio comes along. Old Gobbo wants to give him his "dish of doves" (this has metaphoric significance, too--doves signify the coming of the Holy Spirit in the Christian Age of Grace), while Lancelot wants to be hired into his service.

It turns out Shylock was ready to be rid of the rebel, anyway, according to Bassanio:

...Thou hast obtained thy suit.
Shylock thy master spoke with me this day,
And hath preferred thee, if it be preferment
To leave a rich Jew's service to become
The follower of so poor a gentleman.

It turns out the "fiend" isn't above giving his disloyal servant a good recommendation. Lancelot once again makes the religious point:

"The old proverb is very well parted between my master Shylock and you, sir: you have the grace of God, sir, and he hath enough."

The old proverb is "the grace of God is gear enough."  In other words, divine grace is more important than material goods. Lancelot points out that Shylock has a lot of money, but Bassanio, as a Christian, has God's grace.  But it bears thinking about, doesn't it? Bassanio is borrowing three thousand ducats to "gear himself up" in order to win Portia and her considerable fortune. It seems grace is good to have, but it's hardly enough.

Next:  Risky undertakings and broken bonds

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Pound of Flesh



It seems as if everyone is "extracting a pound of flesh" from someone these days. A few examples: Obama's attempt to rein in (or, if you prefer, take over) the banks has been hyperbolized in Shylockian terms. Baseball cheater Mark McGwire's recent confessional moment was the occasion for yet another fleshy headline, although I can't figure out how this one works. I think the author may have confused his plays, since he calls the whiny, lacrimal McGwire "the Hamlet of the steroid era." Credit card companies are invariably guilty of flesh-extraction, as is our tax code--I particularly like this one, because the author manages to squeeze Shakespeare, E.A. Poe, and the Hellenic underworld into one short article on our rapacious government. A lot of pseudo-erudition for your flesh pound there. The phrase is thrown around with such abandon that one academic journalist felt compelled to cry enough!

So what does "getting your pound of flesh" mean these days? Since the eighteenth century, it's been a code-phrase for any lawful, but nonetheless excessive, recompense. In short, it signifies the injustice that can inhabit the Law. Yes, you are entitled to collect 50% interest on my debt. I signed that paper. But it's not a bit fair, and you're evil for taking advantage of my desperate straits.



It's a powerful phrase because it restores materiality--corporeality--to the Law. When you hear "a pound of flesh," you're reminded that the Law affects people in real, quantifiable and sometimes visceral ways--it's not some abstract moral code. The phrase cuts through the bureaucratic fog of legal/institutional jargon, getting to the beating, blood-pumping heart of the matter. The Law can kill you. Now, the Law isn't supposed to wield a flesh-cutting knife--the sword in Lady Justice's hand is the power of the state, not a carving tool.

We trust her not to treat her suppliants like so many rump roasts.

The Law itself isn't supposed to have a body. Judges take care to veil their own corpus in sexless, sacerdotal black robes, so we know they don't have any salacious designs on the outcome of our case. They are disembodied and therefore disinterested. We don't want the the Body of the Law be truly incarnated, and we don't want it anywhere near our own fleshy selves if we can help it. 


One of my favorite parts of Franz Kafka's The Trial is when Josef K. goes to visit the magistrate, in hopes of finding out what his alleged crime is. He doesn't get anywhere, but he does find a cache of pornography behind the magistrate's bench. The Law, Kafka suggests, isn't free of desire. It's not impartial. It has unseemly urges, it's voyeuristic, and it's capable of petty vindictiveness.  My friend and fellow blogger, the Bad Lawyer, has posted lots of stories about judges who lack judgment, and a few about the libidinal excesses hiding under those judicial robes.  I highly recommend his blog for anyone interested, troubled, and occasionally outraged by the crimes and misdemeanors of our judicial system.

To summarize: the prodigality of the Law, its material investment in its own outcomes, is what "a pound of flesh" has come to mean. The sense that punishments are not commensurate with crimes, that the pound of flesh is something in excess of justice. And that there's a thinly-veiled violence behind the judgment itself. In this sense, it's truer to the Christian view of justice than the Jewish one, at least in The Merchant of Venice; the Christians both deny Shylock his literal pound of flesh and extract a figurative one from him at the end of the play. They've taken his demand and metaphorized it--and because of that, this "pound of flesh" has had a longer life than any organic matter has a right to.

So that's what the phrase means today. But what did Shylock want it to mean? And how did he get there? Let's look back at Act 1, scene 3. Antonio is frustrated by Shylock's invocation of the Laban story, because he doesn't really understand it. It's worth noting that the Jewish intellectual tradition is big on interpretation, commentary, and allusiveness in general. There's a strong hermeneutic strain in Christian theology, too, but these particular Venetians don't seem to be very intellectual. They're young Turks in the old-fashioned sense of that expression--adventurous, bold, creative. They're not deep thinkers.

Antonio's mad that Shylock had the nerve to use a biblical allusion, thereby depriving him of his favorite hangout, the moral high ground. This makes him petulant. But his outraged observation that "falsehood" has a "goodly outside" cuts both ways. Because he's hardly an exemplary Christian himself, as we'll see.

Shylock, pressed for a decision on the loan, speaks with brutal honesty. No false fronts here:


Signor Antonio,  many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances.
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,
For suff'rance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat, dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help.
Go to, then. You come to me, and you say
'Shylock, we would have moneys'--you say so,
You, that did void your rheum upon my beard,
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Over your threshold. Moneys is your suit.
What should I say to you? Should I not say,
'Hath a dog money? Is it possible
A cur can lend three thousand ducats? Or
Shall I bend low, and in a bondman's key,
With bated breath and whisp'ring humbleness
Say this: 'Sir, you spat on me on Wednesday last;
You spurned me such a day; another time
You called me dog; and for these courtesies
I'll lend you thus much moneys?

Gives you a whole different picture of our man Tony, doesn't it? He spat on Shylock's beard. That's like spitting in someone's face. Now I don't know about you, but if someone spat in my face, just because they didn't like what I did for a living, I would never ever consider doing them a favor. Unless, of course, that favor was a sure path to some nasty retaliation. Shylock says that he was treated like an unwanted stray dog--as if he were less than human. And yet, he says, he bore it "with a patient shrug." Of course this isn't entirely true--he's been harboring hatred and resentment for some time--but it does remind us of that Christian adage about turning the other cheek, and that Antonio's behavior falls rather short of this moral ideal. Realistically, Shylock doesn't have much recourse to the spitting and kicking. He's a member of a despised minority, and the power in Venice rests with men like Antonio. They didn't have anti-defamation societies and government agencies dedicated to rooting out public bigotry back then.

Tony, for his part, denies none of it. In fact, he says that he'd do it all again. I have always found this speech to be astonishing, a shameless unveiling of the workings of prejudice:

I am as like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again, and spurn thee too.
If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not
As to thy friends; for when did friendship take
A breed for barren metal of his friend?
But lend it rather to thine enemy,
Who if he break, thou mayst with better face
Exact the penalty.

This is the same guy of whom Salerio will say in Act 2, "a kinder gentleman treads not the earth." Uh-huh.

That word, "kind," is important here, too--I'll get to that in a moment. But first, let's look at Tony's nasty reply. He addresses Shylock with the informal "thee." Shylock always addresses the Christians with the formal "you." It's the equivalent of calling him "boy," really. Tony tells Shylock to loan him money purely as a business deal--the implication being that the Jew is so greedy that he'll overlook the spitting and kicking in order to make a few ducats. He implies that Shylock has no pride, no self-respect. It's a terrible insult. Antonio further says that a friend wouldn't take "a breed of barren metal of his friend." This refers back to my discussion in the last post. Metal is inanimate, and can't "breed." Usury makes it reproduce, and is therefore unnatural.

It's precisely this question of nature--of what is natural and unnatural, human and inhuman--that Shylock seizes on. That's why he makes the "jesting" proposal about the pound of flesh. A pound of flesh is the same, looks the same, whether it comes from Jew or Christian. Having been called an animal, Shylock insists that he and Antonio share a human nature. Hence his repeated emphasis on the word "kind" at the end of this scene:

Why, look you, how you storm!
I would be friends with you, and have your love,
Forget the shames that you have stained me with,
Supply your present wants, and take no doit
Of usance for my moneys; and you'll not hear me.
This is kind offer.

Why are you so angry? I just want to be friends. In fact, I'll forget all your bad treatment, and I won't take a penny in interest. This is a kind offer.

But that word, "kind" carries a lot of weight, and a lot of nuance. In Will's plays (and in early modern English generally), "kind" retained more of its original meaning--"natural." It implied a bond, a kinship among people--so when Hamlet says that Claudius is "a little more than kin, and less than kind," he means Claudius is unnatural, that he's related to him by blood and now by (incestuous) marriage, and that he's a real bastard, metaphorically speaking. Similarly, Shylock makes his (duplicitous) offer out of "kindness," which he understands to mean generosity, but also shared humanity. Will--like Shylock--won't let the word go. He harps on it incessantly here. Check out all the different meanings these lines evoke:

Bassanio understands "kind" in the modern, conventional way:

This were kindness.

That would be a kind act, to loan money without charging interest. Shylock then presents his proposal, which could be read as "payment in kind"--in some (often living) material other than money. This use of "kind" is related to the word "kine," the archaic plural of "cow." Shylock says several things here: "I will show you a kindness"; "I will remind you that we are both flesh and blood," and finally, "since you treat me like a dog, I will treat you like livestock":


This kindness will I show.
Go with me to a notary, seal me there
Your single bond, and, in a merry sport,
If you repay me not on such a day,
In such a place, such sum or sums as are
Expressed in the condition, let the forfeit
Be nominated for an equal pound
Of your fair flesh to be cut off and taken
In what part of your body pleaseth me.

Bassanio sees the implications immediately, and refuses to let his friend sign such a bond for him. Antonio is confident his ships will come in, and he won't be liable for the debt. Shylock plays to their cultural tendency to take things figuratively, and to see all Jews as greedy. He assures Bassanio it's just a joke:

If he should break his day, what should I gain
By the extraction of the forfeiture?
A pound of man's flesh taken from a man
Is not so estimable, profitable neither,
As flesh of muttons, beeves, or goats. I say,
To buy his favor I extend this friendship.

Since all I care about is money, I can't possibly have a motive here other than profit. And a pound of man's flesh is worth less than that of livestock, so of course it's a joke. I only want to "buy" Antonio's friendship.

The idea that love can be bought, of course, returns us to Antonio's motive for taking the loan out in the first place--to stake Bassanio in his quest for Portia.  But in Venice, everything is for sale--even human flesh. Although Shylock has no interest in buying Antonio's friendship, Tony's a Venetian, and it makes perfect sense to him. He agrees to the bond, and remarks to Bassanio that

The Hebrew will turn Christian, he grows kind.

This, of course, anticipates Shylock's forced, and decidedly unkind, conversion at the play's end. But it also foregrounds, once again, the word "kind." Here it suggests "he's becoming generous;" "he's becoming natural (less unnatural)"; or even "he's becoming one of us."

Bassanio is suspicious, distrusting "fair terms and a villain's mind." But as we've seen, there's a lot of mental villainy on both sides, and everyone's putting on an act--including Bassanio, who wants the money so he can seem to be something he's not. At the end of this powerful scene, we're left with questions: what is a human being worth? what "bond" can obtain between racial and cultural enemies? what does it mean to be "kind"?  and finally, what does it mean to be Christian?

Next: More racial tension, and a little comic relief

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Fair Terms and a Villain's Mind

In high schools and colleges across America, teachers and professors read Othello as a drama about race and injustice. The play is certainly a valid context for that discussion--Othello internalizes racist fantasies, and ultimately becomes the savage that the bigots claimed he was all along. In the eyes of the world, there are two Othellos. He's an honorable military hero, as well as a violent, monstrous outsider. Othello is about the way racism colonizes the psyche--from a modern perspective, it's Will's most unambiguously tragic play.

But The Merchant of Venice is actually a better case study in prejudice, it seems to me. There is a plague in both houses--the Christians are sick with surfeit and self-satisfaction, while Shylock the Jew has become a caricature drawn by his enemies. He's a mean, miserly, vengeful old man who values his daughter no more than his ducats. Antonio, for his part, is a sanctimonious, self-deluded bigot. Bassanio is a weak-willed opportunist, and Portia is a privileged woman who's far more interested in having all the answers than in asking even one question of herself or others. But precisely because no one comes out of the play "smelling like a rose," as my mom says, it's an honest and brutal look at how prejudice works from both majority and minority perspectives. This is the play, I think, that really confronts the problem of "difference" from all angles.

The first act is structured like a triptych--Antonio's scene, Portia's scene, and Shylock's. The stage sets should reinforce Act 1's triadic structure by showing us first the male world of Venice, then the feminine realm of Belmont, and then an "other" space where Bassanio and Antonio encounter Shylock. Although Will doesn't specify the location of the third scene, I can imagine it in the Jewish quarter of the city--exotic and different, not least because Jews were required to dress distinctively. On the stage, they were often caricatured with bright red wigs and large false noses, wearing the classic "gaberdine"--a long cloak of rough-woven material. The scene could also be set in the Rialto, the Venetian marketplace--this setting would remind the audience that Venice, unlike London, was truly a multicultural city in Will's day. It was the gateway to the East, a port where spices, silks, and other exotica were traded by men from all over the world.

The Letter and the Spirit

One of the most interesting things about this third scene is the way Shylock and the Christians--Bassanio first, then Antonio--use language. Shylock takes everything literally. Insisting on the letter rather than the spirit of the word, he accentuates his difference from the Christians, who follow Saint Paul's dictum: "the letter killeth, and the spirit giveth life." I wrote about this quote earlier, in my "Love Thy Enemy" post (on Romeo and Juliet). It's an idea Will plays around with a lot, so it's worth reiterating. In this play, these two different ways of reading represent the difference between Shylock and the Christians. Let me show you how that works in the scene.

Bassanio and Shylock enter, discussing the loan request:

Shylock: Three thousand ducats. Well.
Bassanio: Ay, sir, for three months.
Shylock: For three months. Well.
Bassanio: For the which, as I told you, Antonio shall be bound.
Shylock: Antonio shall become bound. Well.

I have always heard a lot in that repeated "well."  Shylock's speaking to himself when he says it--the word is full of contempt and speculation.

Bassanio: May you stead me? Will you pleasure me? Shall I know your answer?
Shylock: Three thousand ducats for three months, and Antonio bound.

The trial scene of the play is often staged with Antonio literally bound, occasionally with his arms out, like a crucifixion victim.

Bassanio: Your answer to that.
Shylock: Antonio is a good man.
Bassanio: Have you heard any imputation to the contrary?
Shylock: Ho, no, no, no, no! My meaning in saying he is a good man is to have you understand me that he is sufficient.

Bassanio and Shylock understand "good"--and by implication, virtue itself--differently. Shylock means that Antonio's "good for" the loan--he has a good reputation, good credit. Bassanio takes offense, thinking that Shylock is impugning his friend's moral character.  After some consideration of Antonio's risky shipping business, Shylock agrees to consider the matter further, telling Bassanio that he "may take his bond."

Bassanio: Be assured you may.
Shylock: I will be assured I may, and that I may be assured, I will bethink me.

As with "bound," and "good," the two men have different understandings of "assured." Bassanio means it the way we would--"you can be assured (that he'll pay back the loan)". Shylock means, "I will have some insurance, some collateral, if I make this loan."  Bassanio's talking about a feeling of confidence, Shylock's talking about a literal, material guarantee.  This kind of thing is repeated over and over whenever the Christians try to converse with Shylock. He inevitably returns words to their original, pre-metaphoric meaning.

Shylock, like Richard III, speaks in villainous asides. Like Richard, he lets the audience in on his schemes, his resentments, his bigotry. Unlike Richard, he doesn't pretend--as much--to be a good guy. He also refers to Scripture throughout the play--he knows his biblical texts better than the Christians. Even the New Testament. In his first aside, he calls Antonio "a fawning publican, alluding to the gospel of Luke:

How like a fawning publican he looks.
I hate him for he is a Christian;
But more, for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis, and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.
If I can catch him once upon the hip
I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.
He hates our sacred nation, and he rails,
Even there where merchants most do congregate
On me, my bargains, and my well-won thrift--
Which he calls interest. Cursed be my tribe
If I forgive him.

According to Shylock, Antonio isn't one of those Christians who simply looks down on him and his people. He goes around dissing them--and particularly him--in public, proclaiming the immorality of usury (lending at interest). Now I don't know about you, but if my enemy came to me asking for a really big favor, when he'd done everything he could to ruin my livelihood and my reputation, I would most certainly feel a little smug, a little joyful, and yeah, I'd be thinking about how I could get my own back.

Actually, there is a guy like that on my vengeance list--just one--and I used to fantasize about just such a moment. This isn't an erotic grudge, but a professional one. Those last much longer, as Shylock can tell you. Since my fantasy is unlikely to ever come true, however, I'll just have to put my faith in karma.

The aside ends, significantly, with Shylock rejecting the cornerstone of the Christian ethos--forgiveness. He will not forgive. And, as we'll see at the end, neither will they. The difference is, they talk about how important forgiveness is all the time. He, from the very beginning, rejects it.

He goes over the terms of the deal--three thousand for three months, after which Antonio sanctimoniously interjects a comment about his own disdain for usury. Now it seems to me that if a person wants a loan, they should perhaps not denigrate the lender's financial ethics. But Antonio is of the ruling class and religion, and sees no problem with peremptorily biting the hand that he hopes to feed from:

Shylock, albeit I neither lend nor borrow
By taking nor by giving of excess
Yet to supply the ripe wants of my friend
I'll break a custom.

What a prig. "Although personally I find your practices repugnant, I will endure your loan to help out a friend." Good grief.  At this point in the play, how can you not root for Shylock over this prissy hypocrite?

Jacob, Laban, and the Spotted Sheep

Shylock then offers a little biblical lesson, the story of Jacob and his uncle Laban's sheep. Now if you've never read the Old Testament, I really do recommend it. It's better than any ultra-violent action movie, made for TV family drama, or apocalyptic documentary. It's got everything--incest, murder, polygamy, rape, genocide...great family entertainment. No wonder Christians decided it was better to read all these stories metaphorically. The "letter" of the OT is pretty grisly, and the Almighty doesn't really make a good impression, if you ask me. But then those were wilder days, and I am, for better or worse, the recipient/victim of a Jesuitical education.

But anyway, on to Laban's sheep.  Shylock uses this story to justify usurious lending, but it's not really about that. Jacob goes to work for his uncle Laban, tending his sheep. Laban's kind of a jerk--he keeps re-interpreting the terms of their agreement to Jacob's detriment. Oh, and he's Rachel's dad, too. Rachel was the love of Jacob's life, although he also married her sister, Leah, and a couple of housemaids. The housemaids, it should be noted, were offered for Jacob's procreative pleasure by his wives! Talk about male fantasies....

Jacob's lucky, because God loves him better than anyone. So He helps Jacob cheat on a couple of crucial occasions, this being one. The other involves his hairier brother, Esau, but we'll get to that in another post. Let's look at how Shylock tells the story:

Shylock: When Jacob grazed his uncle Laban's sheep--
This Jacob from our holy Abram was,
As his wise mother wrought in his behalf,
The third possessor; ay, he was the third--

Antonio: And what of him? Did he take interest?

Shylock: No, not take interest, not, as you would say,
Directly int'rest.  Mark what Jacob did:
When Laban and himself were compromised
That all the eanlings which were streaked and pied
Should fall as Jacob's hire, the ewes, being rank,
In end of autumn turned to the rams,
And when the work of generation was
Between these woolly breeders in the act,
The skilful shepherd peeled me certain wands,
And in the doing of the deed of kind,
He stuck them up before the fulsome ewes
Who, when conceiving, did in eaning time
Fall parti-colored lambs; and those were Jacob's.
This was a way to thrive, and he was blest;
And thrift is blessing, if men steal it not.

There's a lot in this speech. Jacob was "third," because he was the third after Abraham, his grandfather. Through the intervention of his tricky mom, Rebekah, he stole his brother's right of inheritance, and became Isaac's heir. But Antonio doesn't see what any of this has to do with usury, and asks if Jacob "took interest." Shylock replies that he didn't "directly" take interest--this, I think, is a dig at Antonio, who, like the moneylender, makes his fortune without lifting a finger of his own. He takes risks, certainly, but as an import merchant, does no actual work. Shylock is always pointing out ways that he and Antonio are alike, and this really pisses the Christians off.

The story of Laban's sheep is interesting because it actually could be used as an argument against usury. Believe it or not, early Christians, who first made it illegal to lend money at interest, condemned usury partly because it undermined the sanctity of life.  That's right--money-lending was the abortion of its day! How, you may wonder, did this work? Well, remember, a lot of people still paid for things "in kind," i.e., if they wanted a sheep, maybe they gave someone a few barrels of wine, or some dates. These are living things--plants and animals. They can reproduce, create more of themselves. So, it was okay to ask interest on something that was capable of reproducing itself, because you are losing out in its reproductive capabilities by selling it on credit. Interest pays for reproductive time, essentially.

Money is another thing entirely. It is inanimate, and can't reproduce. Charging interest is treating an inanimate thing like a living thing. And that's blasphemy, really. Usury was also condemned because it was uncharitable, and preyed upon the poor. On the other hand, the Parable of the Talents (Luke 19: 23; Matthew 25: 27) seems to argue that investing money (or spiritual capital) is a good thing. Well, whatever. There's a lot more that could be said about the history of usury. Here's the wikipedia article, which gives a good short summary.

Jacob's deal with Laban was that he would be paid not in money, but with all the parti-colored sheep. Which is to say, maybe one or two every season. But Laban didn't figure on God helping Jacob set up a breeding program. While the sheep were "doing the deed of kind"--i.e., the deed of nature, mating--Jacob put some stripped wooden sticks around, and lo and behold, praise the Lord, there were tons of these spotty sheep born! Hallelujah.

"Thrift is blessing," Shylock says. "Thrift" doesn't mean being thrifty--it's related to "thriving," and means "prospering."  Antonio sees it as a financial "venture," not an allegory for usury. Here, Shylock is the one reading metaphorically, while Antonio is trying to understand the story literally:

This was a venture, sir, that Jacob served for--
A thing not in his power to bring to pass,
But swayed and fashioned by the hand of heaven.
Was this inserted to make interest good,
Or is your gold and silver ewes and rams?

This was an investment, a financial risk that Jacob took. It worked out because of divine intervention. Are you telling this story to justify usury, or  because you are going to loan me sheep?  Shylock answers just as wittily, replying that he makes his money "breed so fast" that it might as well be livestock.

Making the analogy explicit, Shylock spits in the face of the Christian prohibition--which is why Antonio replies that

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!

This worrying about "false fronts" and corrupted interiors will be a central concern of the play--hence its emphasis on interpretation. It's also, as always, a way of thinking about "acting" and "theatricality" in general. But actually, this charge can be more readily laid upon the Christians than Shylock. He doesn't really put on much of an act, compared to the rest of them.  In some ways, his refusal to act, to be an actor, is what's most disturbing about him.

Well, this post is already too long, so I'll save the actual "bond"--the legal agreement--for next time.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Belles of Belmont


This blog is totally on life support. However, in its waning days I have discovered something about myself--actually, one could generalize to a universal principle here. Latent Kantian that I am, I will: one's virtues can easily become weaknesses.

Deep, hmm? What I mean is, I have trouble giving up on projects. (On people, not so much.) I hate to throw in the towel when I've set out to do something.  Hate. It. This is great when you're, say, trying to get a doctorate in a useless field. But it can also impede growth, inhibit change, dim prospects for success in other areas.... On the other hand, it's easier to just stick with the program.

For now, onward.


We've already determined that Will likes to play around with oppositions. In Romeo and Juliet there seemed to be a clear dividing line between love and war, dark and light, public and private. That's the way romances work, as I discussed ad nauseam in earlier posts. The public/private dyad is the most important one, since it's the foundation of all the others. Again, this goes back to medieval romances, which figured that opposition in pretty reductive terms. The aristocratic court was set against the "forest of adventure," wherein knights encountered moral tests, magic, and, of course, true love. In literature, love is an alternate reality in itself. Like the Celtic Otherworld, it's timeless, alluring, dangerous. Oh, and always feminine.

The picture above isn't all that relevant, but I like it. It conveys the pathological romanticism of nineteenth-century Arthuriana. I've always liked Tennyson, too, although he's a terrible misogynist.

I am half-sick of shadows, said the Lady of Shalott.

I always think of those little onions, don't you? 

Back to public/private. There's a kind of emotional truth to this mythic structure--when one is in love, the public world does seem to fade into background noise. Later, if all goes well, you and your inamorata emerge from your erotic land of Avalon, pick up the car in the parking lot, and drive back to reality. Marriage and babies, or marriage without babies, or house-buying without marriage, usually follow soon after.

Some people--and in my experience these are mostly male people, although as a woman I admit I'm seeing only half the picture--never want to leave the mist-shrouded Avalonian woods. When it comes time to set the alarm clock, go back to the real, they balk. And then they disappear. Poof! Because they only like that drugged, all-encompassing fog part of a relationship, not the hard work and building a life part. These people aren't sex addicts. They're love addicts, which in some ways is worse. Actually they're sad, lonely narcissists--but that's a subject for another time.

I digress. I know, hard to believe...

By the time he writes The Merchant of Venice, Will has outgrown the misty forest. He'll make good fun of it in As You Like It, but right now he's more concerned with subverting metaphysics.

Did I really write "subverting metaphysics?"  Yuck. That was clearly one of those "return of the repressed academic" moments. Just ignore it, and it/she will go away.

In less obfuscatory terms, Will creates a bunch of oppositions in the play--Christian/Jew,Venice/Belmont, Male/Female, Love/Commerce--and then proceeds to tear them apart. It turns out the Christian and the Jew aren't moral opposites. Erotic Belmont is just as materialistic as commercial Venice. And women, of course, can turn into men.


At first, though, Belmont seems like the feminine Otherworld in relation to Venice. It's got fairytale games going on--people get married on the basis of folkloric tests, not money. It seems to be another place entirely. But right from the beginning, Will calls this into question, because Portia's first lines are just like Antonio's:

"By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world."

Unlike Antonio's clueless friends, practical Nerissa uncovers the cause her mistress's melancholy immediately:

"You would be, sweet madam, if your miseries were in the same abundance as your good fortunes are; and yet, for aught I see, they are as sick that surfeit with too much as they that starve with nothing. It is no mean happiness, therefore, to be seated in the mean. Superfluity comes sooner by white hairs, but competency lives longer."

It's weird that this whole scene is in prose. I had forgotten that. Weird because this is Belmont, where dreams come true, where happy endings are possible, and women--those dreamy, poetry-inspiring critters--reign supreme. Another indication that Belmont isn't all it seems, and won't conform to expectations--it may be that it's a more pragmatic, less chimerical place than Venice. Or maybe not--we'll see. What Nerissa says here, essentially, is that Portia ought to shut the hell up about her hard life, because she's incredibly rich and has nothing to complain about. She goes on to make a diagnosis, rather like Salerio, and later Graziano, do for Antonio.  Hers is simpler, though: wealth--too much wealth--is unhealthy.

Portia replies that she knows she shouldn't complain, but knowing and doing are two separate things. "I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done than to be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching." In other words, easier said than done.

But to the matter at hand:

"But this reasoning is not in the fashion to choose me a husband. O me, the word "choose!" I may neither choose who I would nor refuse who I dislike; so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father. Is it not hard, Nerissa, that I can neither choose one, nor refuse none?"

There's an obvious play on "will" here--her dead father's will (legal document) has power over Portia's will (wishes).  Nerissa explains the problem for the audience:


"Your father was ever virtuous, and holy men at their death have good inspirations; therefore the lottery that he hath devised in these three chests of gold, silver, and lead, whereof who chooses his meaning chooses you, will no doubt never be chosen by any rightly but one who you shall rightly love."

In the fairytale world of Belmont, it's sure to go that way. A father's draconian desire to control his daughter's libido even after his death is certain to end happily. If this were a nineteenth-century novel, the opposite would hold true, wouldn't it? Dead daddy's edict would doubtless force the heroine to marry some creepy Mr. Collins-ish guy, or worse. If it were a comedy by Austen, she'd trick her way out of this misery, and end up with someone handsomer and richer than herself. If, on the other hand, it were a Thomas Hardy novel, i.e., about a beautiful, innocent woman trapped by her dad's posthumous control mania, she'd almost succeed in getting out of it, but fail. Then she'd marry some abusive brute, maybe have an affair, her lover would be murdered, she'd be hanged, and the brute would get all her money. In the Henry James version, a pair of amoral faux siblings, male and female, would plot to get the heiress's money, a la Wings of the Dove.  They'd fail, the heroine would die, and everyone else would have learned some annoying humanizing lesson.

Isn't it funny how there are only a few stories in the world? It's all about how you tell them.

In magical Belmont, we know that everything will turn out okay because, as Nerissa says, the best reader/interpreter will be the most faithful lover, too. Portia won't even consider violating her father's will--in either sense. Or will she? When we get to that scene, there is a way one can read it that allows for some, shall we, say, hinting on her part. "Who chooses his meaning chooses you." "His," here, presumably refers to the caskets--there was no "its" (possessive) in early modern English. Interpretation is the key to Portia's desire, to her very self. Interpretation is central to this play as a whole--it's Portia's interpretation of the "bond" that allows Antonio to go free, and Shylock to be punished and humiliated at the end.


In literature, reading/interpretation always matters a lot more than it does in real life. They don't tell you that in your college English classes, but they should. In the real world, you can understand the hell out of something, but it won't make a damn bit of difference to anything. No one cares what their metaphors really mean, or why an argument is structured one way or another. It's too bad, but there it is.

I should say, almost no one. I didn't mean you, gentle readers.

Portia and Nerissa go on to critique P.'s suitors, one by one. The Neapolitan Prince is too horsey; Portia suggests wittily that his mother "played false with a smith." The County Palatine is a classic melancholic, a man who "hears merry tales and smiles not." This, of course, could describe Antonio at the play's beginning, but readers of the later plays will think of Jaques, the rustic melancholic of As You Like It. As for the Frenchman, Monsieur Le Bon, "God made him, and therefore let him pass for a man," but he's a fool who seems to have no stable personality of his own. Falconbridge, "the young Baron of England" is condemned for being monolingual in a language Portia (amusingly) claims not to speak. He also dresses oddly--

"I think he bought his doublet in Italy, his round hose in France, his bonnet in Germany, and his behavior everywhere."

He's a tourist, in other words, who makes no effort to communicate with the natives. A few hundred years later, the same sort of thing will be said of Americans.


Portia further condemns the Scot for being too likely to fight with the Englishman and the German for being drunk. These are cultural stereotypes, albeit harmless ones. In this play that deals so intimately with prejudice and bigotry, however, we shouldn't take her statements too lightly. In fact, at the end of the scene she betrays a very clear racial aversion to the Prince of Morocco, who's due to arrive that evening. "If he have the condition of a saint and the complexion of a devil," she confides, "I had rather he should shrive me than wive me."

For Portia, the Moor's external appearance--devils were thought to have black skin--is more important than whatever inner virtue he might have. This is ironic, of course, since the "casket game" asks that her wooers see beyond the obvious--the gold, silver, or lead of the box--to the truth within. Belmont, it seems, is just as hypocritical as Venice on matters of race and cultural difference.

Both Nerissa and Portia express their preference for the Venetian "scholar...and soldier" whom they judge, on the basis of one meeting "best deserving a fair lady."


This lighthearted "girlfriend" scene leaves us with a mixed impression of the pretty, witty heiress. She's spoiled, judgmental, but also intelligent and discerning. Belmont is a fairytale place, and she's got something of the princess about her--waiting for a prince to abolish the wicked custom (in a medieval romance, the failed suitors would be killed) and free her from her dead father's imprisoning edict. She also banters in prose, not poetry, is a bit cruel in her judgments, and more than a little superficial. I see Paris Hilton, only smarter.

Belmont, then, both is and isn't Venice. It's a place where wealth is inherited, not earned through commerce. It's got a princess in a (metaphoric) tower, while Venice has a broke playboy who needs cash for one last gamble to win the jackpot--a rich girl who, fortunately, will judge him on his good looks and nice manners rather than his prodigal ways.

That's a cynical reading, I guess. What can I say? It's been that kind of day.

Next:  Hath a dog money? Kindness in kind.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Ventures, Vendibles and Virtues


Few middle-class people would admit to marrying for money these days. When choosing a mate, most of us like to think that we live in a Romeo and Juliet world rather than a Merchant of Venice one. But of course money--material wealth or lack thereof--is so embedded in our moral framework that it's almost an invisible criterion now. We're attracted to people who share our values, and those values cost money. I have a lot of acquaintances who embrace a "green" lifestyle, for example. Admirable stance, but extremely expensive. Some years ago, one of them berated me for feeding my then-toddler son non-organic milk. "Do you know what's in that?" she asked, outraged on my son's behalf. I did, actually. I also knew that my kid was (and still is) a total milk addict, and that organic milk costs close to 3x as much as the regular stuff. I simply couldn't afford that much virtue.


Among younger people, technological accoutrements are pretty much de rigueur.  One must have iphones, ipods, laptops, gaming consoles, and so on. Would a hip twenty-something girl ever be attracted to a cute guy who had none of this stuff, and maybe not even his own car? Perhaps. But his dating options would be pretty limited, if only by obstacles to communication.

In some sense, we are our stuff. When I was young, I affected a "bohemian" (now called boho) style. Lefty politics, dangly earrings, thousands of record albums by obscure bands, Frye boots and, of course, my extremely cool Fiat 124 sport coupe. I wasn't rich, but I had enough money to announce my values with a fairly elaborate and somewhat costly sign-system.

This is a lifestyle. Not a life. As a professor, I would often get papers from students who wrote about "medieval lifestyles," "Elizabethan lifestyles" and even "ancient lifestyles."  No such thing ever existed, I told them. Pre-modern, pre-capitalist people had lives. Not lifestyles.  A lifestyle is a life constructed around commodities. Italian cars, English boots, imported vinyl, a collection of small digital devices for entertainment, communicating and/or archiving.  Very few ancient or medieval people could afford to "style" their lives around stuff--only those few who breathed the rarified air at the summit of the economic food chain. The remaining 99% of the population had lives--usually of the nasty, brutish, and short variety.

Today, almost everyone has a lifestyle. We are our styles--the medium, as that old 60's guy said, is the message. What we now struggle to have are lives--a sense of ourselves that isn't about extraneous stuff, which includes degrees from enviable institutions, jobs at enviable places, and vacations of enviable length and expense.

The Merchant of Venice is, among other things, a play about this historical transition of lives into lifestyles--about fashioning oneself into the person one wants others to see.  When Bassanio leverages Antonio's affections into a loan that will help him win Portia's love and wealth, we might see his fortune-hunting as crass and materialistic. But from a twenty-first century perspective, it just looks prescient. He wants the girl, he needs stuff--the trappings of wealth, even if he's got nothing. As for Antonio, it seems to me that his sadness and sense of alienation derive in part from this unconscious awareness of himself as pure show--a lifestyle without a life. It's no accident that, right after the discussion of his motiveless melancholy, Bassanio arrives to ask him for a loan. No wonder he's depressed--on some level he's convinced people only like him for his money.

It's not all gloom and doom in the first scene, of course. The loquacious Graziano lightens things up a bit--he reminds me of Mercutio in the first two acts of R and J, actually. Significantly, he tries to tease Antonio out of his dolor by accusing him of being a poser--a guy who's putting on an act with no real substance behind it:

...I tell thee what, Antonio--
I love thee, and 'tis my love that speaks--
There are a sort of men whose visages
Do cream and mantle like a standing pond,
And do a wilful stillness entertain
With purpose to be dressed in an opinion
Of wisdom, gravity, profound conceit,
As who should say, "I am Sir Oracle,
And when I ope my lips, let no dog bark.'

We don't have too many people like this anymore, but it used to be that some varieties of self-importance made themselves known through an affectation of world-weary melancholy. I suspect this type of person still exists in other cultures--here in America, self-important people are much more likely to trumpet their accomplishments and opinions to anyone who'll listen.

Lorenzo berates Graziano for his garrulity, but G. replies that silence is only admirable in a dried ox's tongue or a woman whom no man wants to buy:

...silence is only commendable
In a neat's tongue dried or a maid not vendible.

It's an interesting choice of words--but then the play is full of economic language, as we'll see. Bassanio has in fact come to Antonio to borrow money precisely so that he can woo a very "vendible" (marketable) maid, Portia. Before asking for money, however, he confesses his sins. He may be an opportunist, but he's not self-deluded:

'Tis not unknown to you, Antonio,
How much I have disabled mine estate
By something showing a more swelling port
Than my faint means would grant continuance,
Nor do I now make moan to be abridged
From such a noble rate; but my chief care
Is to come fairly off from the great debts
Wherein my time, something too prodigal,
Hath left me gaged.


Bassanio has lived beyond his means, "showing a more swelling port" than his "faint means would grant continuance." In other words, he's got the clothes, the cars (I mean horses and carriages) and the wine collection, but it's all been bought on credit.  It's interesting that he mentions "time" here. It's hard to figure out exactly what he means, but I think it has to do with his leisure activities. He's spent his time doing expensive, wasteful things, and now he's got to find the means to pay for it.

Remember, none of these guys work. They're aristocrats, and they consider actual work to be demeaning. Bassanio's honest admission of prodigality is, however, a preamble to...another loan request! Like every true gambler, he's sure that this time he can win it all back. But before that, he has to soften his friend up a bit, with a reminder that he loves him best of all:

...to you, Antonio,
I owe the most in money and in love,
And from your love I have a warranty
To unburden all my plots and purposes
How to get clear of all the debts I owe.

Before he even gets to the punch line, Antonio promises him anything and everything:

I pray you, good Bassanio, let me know it.
And if it stand as you yourself still do,
Within the eye of honour, be assured
My purse, my person, my extremest means
Lie all unlocked to your occasions.

Wow. Talk about rash promises. There's an excessiveness to Antonio's speech that is characteristic of all the Christian Venetians. Not, "okay, how much do you need?" or ""I'll see what I can do," but "all I own, all I am is yours."  That "unlocked" is important, too, since it prefigures Portia's three caskets, and Bassanio's attempt to "unlock" the riddle and (thereby) her heart. It's a somewhat sexual image--Antonio's "open" and available for anything. I should mention here that many modern productions play up Antonio's putative homosexual love for Bassanio. To the extent that there's a "homoerotic angle" to this play, I would say it's present but understated. Remember, homosexuality wasn't really a "practice" or a category in Will's day. Puritan "anti-sodomists" aside, most people didn't really worry much about it as far as we can tell. Lots of visible men of means--including Francis Bacon and King James--had male lovers. And Will himself wrote all those lovely sonnets to a "fair young man." It's historically ironic, I think, that the play stigmatizes Judaism but makes no big deal about homoeroticism. Today it's pretty much the opposite--homosexuality is a culturally contested category, while Judaism is, for most people, just another religion.

In any case, it seems clear that Antonio loves Bassanio with something more than friendship--even by Elizabethan standards, some of the things he says are excessive--but I think we're meant to see this as just another aspect of Venetian luxus in all things.

Antonio's prodigal speech is echoed in Bassanio's narration of his life philosophy in the next lines. He's a gambler, and not a particularly wise one:



In my schooldays, when I had lost one shaft,
I shot his fellow of the selfsame flight
The selfsame way, with more advised watch,
To find the other forth; and by adventuring both,
I oft found both. I urge this childhood proof
Because what follows is pure innocence.
I owe you much, and, like a wilful youth,
That which I owe is lost; but if you please
To shoot another arrow that self way
Which you did shoot the first, I do not doubt,
As I will watch the aim, or to find both
Or bring your latter hazard back again,
And thankfully rest debtor for the first.

It's a gambler's promise: if you just lend me one more stake, I promise I'll either win back this loan and the previous one--or at least this one, which would mean I owe you no more than I do now.  Of course this is nonsense--his marriage venture in Belmont is a zero-sum game. Win or lose. Either Bassanio will win enough to pay back both debts, or he'll lose all the money he spends fashioning himself as a suitable suitor. I can't see any way that he'll win the second debt back but not the first.

But look at his archery metaphor. He says that, by shooting another arrow after the lost one, he "oft" found both. Not always. And he doesn't mention the obvious--that by "adventuring" both, he sometimes lost both. Antonio doesn't seem to care how lame this "innocent" proposal is, however:

...out of doubt you do me now more wrong
In making question of my uttermost
Than if you had made waste of all I have.
Then do but say to me what I should do
That in your knowledge may by me be done,
And I am pressed unto it.

You offend me more by doubting my generosity than you would if you'd spent all my money, he says. What's interesting about this is that today we would absolutely take this as a disinterested sign of pure love. We would not assume that Antonio is trying to buy Bassanio's affections. And who wouldn't love to have a friend like this? Anyone who has ever had to humble oneself to ask for a loan knows how degrading it can be, how absolutely alienating. This generosity seems virtuous indeed.


But, on the other hand,  who in their right mind would loan money to a guy like Bassanio? He's a gambler, a risk-taker, and he's already wasted his entire inheritance. However good-looking and charming he is, he's not proved himself reliable. He wants this money so he can seem richer than he is--so he can have the style that goes with the life. He's a fortune-hunter and aspiring boy-toy. In another story, he'd be a con-man.

His next speech shows him in a better, and more poetic, light. It's lovely and romantic, but still all about value, worth, and wealth:


In Belmont is a lady richly left,
And she is fair, and, fairer than that word,
Of wondrous virtues. Sometimes from her eyes
I did receive fair speechless messages.
Her name is Portia, nothing undervalued
To Cato's daughter, Brutus' Portia,
Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth,
For the four winds blow in from every coast
Renowned suitors, and her sunny locks
Hang on her temples like a golden fleece,
Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchis' strand,
And many Jasons come in quest of her.
O my Antonio, had I but the means
To hold a rival place with one of them,
I have a mind presages me such thrift
That I should questionless be fortunate.

This is the language of myth--Portia is a golden fleece, Bassanio a man on a heroic quest, like Jason. She's as faithful and virtuous as Brutus' famed wife of the same name, her reputation has spread widely, into distant lands. And yet the language is still that of commerce. She is "richly left"--an heiress. She's "nothing undervalued," everyone knows of her "worth"--which can be taken as a moral quality as well as a financial one. Had Bassanio "means," he's sure he could gain "such thrift"--prosperity--that he'd be "fortunate." Lucky, but also in possession of a fortune. Portia's reputation brings suitors from all over the world--here we are made to remember Queen Elizabeth, who similarly was "richly left" by her father, and internationally courted.

Antonio reminds his friend that all his "fortunes are at sea," but that Bassanio can use his good name to acquire credit. And then, ominously, he promises that his credit

...shall be racked even to the uttermost
To furnish thee to Belmont, to fair Portia.

"Racked" means "stretched," but it's not without another, more violent meaning--"stretched on the rack," a means of torture to which criminals and, not long before, heretics had been subjected. Figures of speech, as in all Will's plays, have a way of returning to their original meaning.

And Shylock is, as we shall see, a very literal reader.

Next: Girl talk

Friday, January 15, 2010

Leveraged


I'm kind of surprised The Merchant of Venice hasn't inspired any Hollywood spin-offs--you know, films that take the basic premise and characters of an old story and update them. Like Clueless did for Emma, or 10 Things I Hate About You for The Taming of the Shrew. It wouldn't be a high school story, of course. It would be, like Will's original, a tale of two cities. Not Venice and Belmont, but New York and Hollywood. Bear with me while I pitch this idea.


Young handsome day-trader (or something equally financially risky) loses his shirt in the market. He's brilliant, maybe a future Warren Buffett, but he's had some bad luck. He's sexy, too, in a kind of dissolute way--maybe we can get that Twilight guy, Robert Pattinson, to play him. This insolvent high-stakes gambler has an idea for a great movie (film within a film--an old idea that's due for a comeback), but he needs some capital up front. 

Okay, market junkies don't make films. But in fiction, anything's possible. It could happen this way:



He meets a lovely young starlet on the way up at some...environmental fundraising thing. This gives him the idea for the film. Plus, he wants her. If it all goes well, he'll get the girl and produce an Oscar winner. But he won't be able to get her--personally or professionally--if he doesn't have the cash to look like a high-roller when he goes out to LA. So, he goes to his mentor, a suave older financial genius, played by George Clooney. George is secretly in love with Rob, but he's closeted, and so it's kind of a Death in Venice scenario.



Thomas Mann's Death in Venice is one of the most fabulous stories ever written, by the way. You must read it, if you haven't already. Oh, and the movie's great, too--the 1971 film made by Luchino Visconti, starring Dirk Bogarde--who was probably the greatest dissolute-character actor of all time. I highly recommend it. The film I'm proposing here will be miles, fathoms, light-years out of that league. It will be unworthy to even speak the name Visconti. But I still think it could rake in some cash.

And so...

George is tapped out at the moment, too--he's got all his assets riding on a big merger, but it hasn't come through yet. But George will do anything for Rob. He's just that kind of guy--and secretly, he hopes Rob will realize he's also gay, and they can have their own Hollywood Happily Ever After. But realistically, he knows that won't happen. 

This kind of alt-Hollywood ending is never a big draw, so it's just not in the cards. Poor George.


But George loves Rob, so he promises to help. In order to fund Rob's big California adventure, he has to go to his worst enemy to borrow money. Now, in the new version, this guy can't be Jewish--because anti-Semitism is neither as widespread nor as (semi-) acceptable now as it was in the heyday of Old Hollywood. So maybe this guy's some rich Saudi or something. He has to be a Serious Actor, though, preferably an award winner. So maybe Ben Kingsley, or Daniel Day-Lewis, or someone like that. 

The Portia character must be blond, so that the audience underestimates her intelligence. But she also has to be kind of princessy, and a bit spoiled.  I'm thinking a young Gwyneth type, maybe a newcomer.  The Lorenzo-Jessica subplot should stay--maybe Natalie Portman/Orlando Bloom. But younger, of course. 

I bet the phrase "but younger" comes up a lot in real Hollywood pitch meetings.


The pound of flesh thing has to go. Maybe an organ donation instead? There's big money in those. I see George being wheeled into some illegal operating theater...but Rob and Younger Gwyneth burst in, there's gunfire, an explosion...

Gotta pump up the violence, of course.

We'll call this remake/analogue Leveraged. It's Zeitgeisty, it's business-speak, and it can be taken sexually if you use your imagination.

So, what do you think? Will anyone give me money for this crappy remake?

My point is that The Merchant of Venice speaks to our times in ways that, I think, Romeo and Juliet doesn't anymore. Mark my words, somebody will make this film.

Not me, of course. I can barely keep this blog going.

Next: Back to the (real) play.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Alien Nation



The Merchant of Venice is a comedy. It says so, right on the first page. Actually, it claims to be a "comical history," which may be something else entirely. History, as I suggested last time, is rarely played out in the comic mode--at least not until the passing of centuries grants us the luxury of irony. Richard III, if you'll recall, was said to be a "tragical history." Will has trouble with generic boundaries; this is apparent right off the bat, since this putative comedy begins with an exploration of melancholy.

Antonio, the title character, isn't feeling the joy. He's depressed, and doesn't know why:

In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.
It wearies me, you say it wearies you,
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me
That I have much ado to know myself.


Nowadays we have drugs for this--which mostly don't work, in my (admittedly limited) experience. For confirmation of my suspicions, see this recent study. It seems to me Will has it right here--as Antonio's whining suggests, depression stems from a lack of self-knowledge, and no serotonin inhibitor's going to fix that. It's worth pointing out that historically, "melancholia" was a more encompassing term than it is now. We think of it as a synonym for depression, an enervating sense of sadness and psychic malaise, but ancient physicians and philosophers used the term as a catch-all for everything from generalized mournfulness to outright psychosis.  For theologians, it was a form of tristitia--sadness as spiritual sloth. If you were depressed, you were morally and spiritually lazy.

There's something to that, I think.  I'm not saying that everyone who's depressed is being self-indulgent--but speaking for myself, I often find that there's something morally slothful about giving in to melancholy. Which doesn't mean I don't occasionally do it anyway.

Freud distinguished melancholia from mourning. While we may mourn a lost loved one, he theorized, our melancholy stems from loss "of a more ideal kind."  We're depressed because something important is missing, but it's not anything tangible, like grandma. It's more abstract, and more about us. We need to feel connected, to feel valued, to know where we belong. Mourning is about loss; melancholia/depression is about alienation.


Marx talked about alienation, too--in terms that are, I think relevant to an understanding of this play. Capitalism alienates workers from the means of production--they no longer produce anything in its entirety (like a chair, or a pair of shoes), so they can't take pride in--or know themselves through--their work. They are cogs in a machine, and thus alienated from their human nature (the German term is Gattungswesen, or "species essence").

In case you're wondering, I'm not a Marxist--whatever that might mean in 2010, after the fall of communism and the global embrace of the free-market thrill ride. But the early Marx was very good a describing the psychic effects of capitalism. He was just lousy at prescribing an alternative. 

Marx couldn't have envisioned that a hundred fifty years later factories would be dead, and millions of underpaid people would work in service industries. There's a different kind of alienation in this work, I think--an alienation from one's own affect. I think of this every time I go to the grocery store near my house. I'm greeted at the door by a sixty- or seventy-year-old person who obviously should be retired, but now has to make minimum wage selling good cheer, i.e., by saying an animated hello and goodbye to shoppers who barely notice. It's dispiriting on so many levels.

To inject a little comedy into this gloomy picture, here's another:


Sorry--I found that in my web wanderings, and couldn't resist. Marxists are such a humorless lot.

Okay, enough levity. Back to our lugubrious comedy.

Antonio, the Merchant of Venice, is a capitalist in the Marxian sense: he doesn't produce anything but capital. He's an early venture capitalist, in the original sense of the term. He invests money in global "ventures," but in these early days of international commerce, weather, piracy, and any number of other disasters make the import business a very high-risk endeavor. While his ships are abroad, he waits.  He's essentially passive, and, like Marx's alienated subject, not in control of his economic future. His ventures are often highly leveraged--so his wealth--or appearance thereof--may, at any given time, have no liquid assets to back it up. In short, he's often broke and living on credit. Sound familiar?

While he's waiting to see whether he makes a big killing or loses his shirt, he's got plenty of time to think about why he's not happy. Historically, happiness is a relatively recent concept--in the distant past, being happy simply meant not dying of the plague, or being slaughtered by roving mercenaries, or unjustly imprisoned by some corrupt regime. Not losing your crops to drought, and starving the next winter. Not having all your babies die in infancy. Happiness was simply the absence of misery.  The American insistence that each citizen has a right to "the pursuit of happiness" is a historically unprecedented idea, an idea that's rooted in capitalist ideology.

The flip side of this attitude of entitlement--this moral insistence on pursuing personal fulfillment--is, of course, depression. The acute awareness of the absence of happiness. Like a lot of modern maladies, this free-floating sadness is a luxury.


So why does Will start the play this way, with a depressed venture capitalist whose only role in the drama is to borrow money he can't pay back? Well may you ask. It seems to me that Antonio--the guy who doesn't do anything but make money on other people's labor, whose only love object is a man who's chasing a rich heiress--represents the emptiness at the heart of Venetian society. He's the real locus of anxiety in this play--not Shylock. Shylock and his "tribe" are scapegoated because a society that has no cohesion--that lacks a genuine sense of community--needs aliens.Venice needs Jews, and Antonio needs Shylock--his shadow self--to camouflage the fact that they/he no longer understand value. Everything in Venice has a price--love, loyalty, honor. It's all for sale.

Antonio's "friends"--or entourage--try to figure out why he's so bummed out. Solanio assumes he must be worried about his ships--i.e, his current economic ventures:

Believe me, had I such venture forth
The better part of my affections would
Be with my hopes abroad. I should be still
Plucking the grass to know where sits the wind,
Peering in maps for ports and piers and roads,
And every object that might make me fear
Misfortune to my ventures out of doubt
Would make me sad.

Salerio (these two guys are like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, or Rosenkranz and Guildenstern) continues this thought. Consolation clearly isn't his forte, however: his efforts to "cheer" Antonio involve a very evocative--and rhetorically gorgeous--description of a shipwreck. Were he in Antonio's precarious financial position, he says, he'd be obsessed with sea disasters:

... Should I go to church
And see the holy edifice of stone
And not bethink me straight of dangerous rocks
Which, touching but my gentle vessel's side,
Would scatter all her spices on the stream,
Enrobe the roaring waters with my silks,
And, in a word, but even now worth this,
And now worth nothing?

It still amazes me that Will can put lines like this in the mouth of a minor character--his poetry is like those spices and silks, scattered on the stream, enrobing the waters. What I mean is, there's a profligacy of language here that reflects the extravagance of all the Venetians. A few lines later, Antonio will promise Bassanio all his money, his person, anything at all to help him in his quest for Portia and her fortune. Bassanio, similarly, will be asked to "hazard all he hath" to win her. Excess in all things is the Christian way, in contrast to Shylock's miserly hoarding of his money, his affections, his daughter.

Antonio insists that he's not worried about his "ventures," since they're spread out over many ships in many places. "Why then," Solanio presses, "you're in love."  Will drives home the point that love and commerce are pretty much interchangeable in the play--Bassanio loves Portia, but wants her money. Lorenzo loves Jessica, but runs off with Shylock's cash and jewelry as well. Antonio loves Bassanio, so he promises him everything he has. Again, it's a completely mercenary world.

Antonio doesn't admit to being in love, but his "fie, fie," isn't exactly a denial, either. Solanio decides to make a joke, then, acknowledging that Antonio's moods are a mystery. "Then let us say you are sad because you are not merry." This whole happy/sad thing at the beginning of the play obviously speaks to the issue of genre. Tragedy or comedy? Reconciliation or isolation?

For the three couples, there will be the usual comedic synthesis--in marriage--at the end. For the play's two aliens, Antonio and Shylock, no such happy endings. Shylock will be punished with an excessiveness typical of the Christian/capitalist world, and Antonio will remain alone, un-paired, with only his wealth to keep him warm at night.

But that's a long way off--we're just getting started.

Next: Money can't buy me love. Oh wait, yes it can. On credit!