Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Quality of Mercy

Next to the phrase "a pound of flesh," Portia's lovely paean to mercy is probably the most memorable part of The Merchant. Mercy, whose quality--as we all know--is "not strained."  I don't know about you, but when I first read that phrase as a high school student, I assumed that it meant mercy shouldn't be  forced, or filtered. You know, pressed through some sort of moral colander.  It actually means "constrained," which is to say, held back or limited. This idea of mercy flowing freely, un(con)strained, fits right in with the Venetians' all-out, full-on, prodigal approach to life. And it stands in sharp contrast to Shylock's tight-fisted, ungenerous ways.

Taken out of context, the rhetoric of the speech is sublime, moving, and utterly compelling. It's one of those great Christian Humanist moments that Will's so good at.  But in context, it's something else entirely--because only a few lines later, the Christians--and Portia in particular--will prove to be vindictive and merciless. Like Polonius's "to thine own self be true" speech in Hamlet, this one exceeds the moral limits of its speaker. Polonius is a sententious fool who uses his own daughter to curry favor with a corrupt regime, but his advice isn't without wisdom. Similarly, Portia's mercy speech reminds us of her own words in Act 1. "I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done," she tells Nerissa, "than to be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching."

A lot of us have that problem, don't we? Hypocrisy seems to be one of those quintessentially human things. It's not all bad, really--one could argue that our hypocrisies represent a (failed) moral striving beyond our lesser selves. On the other hand, it's appearance with no substance. Hypocrisy, as the old saying goes, is the homage vice pays to virtue.

Dressed as the "lawyer" Balthasar, Portia bedecks herself in the somber robes of impartiality. "Which is the merchant here," she asks the Duke, "and which the Jew?"  Many readers have pointed out that Renaissance Jews were forced to dress in a very distinctive way, and that no one could doubt which of the two men was Shylock. So why does she ask that? Two reasons. Her question serves to foreground a major theme of Act 4--that Shylock and Antonio are really mirror images of one another. It also makes her seem like an impartial judge, which of course she isn't. I won't judge by appearances, she suggests. I'll consider this case on its merits only.

A patent lie. She's come to save her husband's beloved friend, and in some ways, her own marriage. Because Antonio's death would forever taint Bassanio's courtship, and cast a pall over the relationship. Portia's smart enough to know that the best way to defeat her competition is to put both men, her husband and his lover/friend, in her debt.

So let's take a look at her Big Moment:

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway.
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute of God himself.
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this:
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much 
To mitigate the justice of thy plea,
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there.

Reading this over, I got stuck on that word "quality."  What does it mean, exactly? Once I started mulling this over, I was reminded of one my favorite books as a teenager, Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Do you know this book? Then you're at least as old as I am, and were probably a weird hippie bookworm in your youth, too. Anyway, the narrator in the book worries a lot about the word "quality," but to him it's a moral term, an expression of value and valuation. I don't think it's meant that way here. I think Will means something like "active essence." The quality of mercy is what it does. It falls down from above, from greater to lesser beings. From God to man, from kings to subjects. In order to show mercy, you have to have power. Otherwise, it's just sympathy or kindness--a lateral move. Mercy isn't lateral, it's hierarchical. It moves from top to bottom. Not ethical, but political.

Mercy is also a radical, earth-shaking idea. Along with its ethical cousin, forgiveness, it's what made Christianity a revolutionary movement. A transvaluation of all values, as Nietzsche put it. Of course Nietzsche hated Christianity--but I think he mistook the practice for the theory. (Which isn't to say that he wasn't right--just that he was also wrong).

But who's really in favor of mercy these days? Judging by the news (a risky thing to do, I realize), it often seems like the most religious people are the least interested in mercy. Historically, Christianity has more often followed the teachings of Machiavelli than those of Christ. Machiavelli insisted that power is all about perception, and that, far from showing mercy, as effective ruler must be ruthless.

Bring on the Inquisitors.

What Portia's speech seems to suggest is that mercy isn't for everyone. In fact, only God and His immediate family seem to be capable of it. Kings are merciful once in awhile--but let's face it, a ruler can't be merciful very often. He'd be deposed by his enemies in, like, a minute. Mercy can "season" justice, but it's not a meal in itself.

Mercy belongs in the realm of the spirit, really. The power of the Virgin Mary in Catholic theology is precisely this--she intercedes between God and unworthy sinners. Whispering merciful suggestions in God's ear. Arguing our case, as it were. A bit like Portia, who, as we recall, is still a virgin herself.

My favorite part of Portia's speech is when she points out "that in the course of justice,/ none of us should see salvation."  Hamlet says something similar: "use every man after his desert, and who shall 'scape whipping?" If we were all judged according to our actions, we'd all be punished.

I guess that's the appeal of the notion of karma--none of us escapes whipping in some form or another. But it also seems to me that many of us are pretty good at whipping ourselves. Or other people in our stead...but that's a discussion for another time.

Well, as you know, this lovely speech moves Shylock not at all. He's not susceptible to the lures of rhetoric or the power of theater. No, he just wants his bond. He has it in writing. He won't "yield to Christian intercessors." He doesn't like interpretation. The written word is etched in stone. End of story.

All legal trials are, in a sense, a battle between speech and writing, aren't they? The law as written, and the voice that tells you what it really means. Lawyers give voice to the law--they try to show that the written word is incomplete in and of itself. It needs to the supplement of the voice. Legal argument reminds us that there was once a time, before writing, when the spoken word had power. Communities were bound by oaths, not by documents. And if you broke an oath, you were ostracized. "Oathbreaker" was a terrible insult. It meant that your words were empty. You were incapable of loyalty.

I like this idea a lot. Oaths should be sacred. Now, however, it's all about writing. Even marriage vows, the last faint vestige of an oathbound culture, are just window dressing.  All our promises, to paraphrase Mary Poppins, are constructed of pie-crusts.  If you don't have it in writing, you're screwed.

And sometimes, as Shylock finds out, you're screwed even if you do.

Next: Antonio and his Evil Twin

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Eat or Be Eaten

Before getting to Portia's Big Scene, a few words about imagery. For a play that so worries the question of humanity and humane behavior, there are an awful lot of dogs and wolves running around--not to mention sheep, pigs, and (implicitly) scapegoats.  On some level, The Merchant asks us to consider what it means to be civilized. Even before the whole drama of "the bond" unfolds, Shylock is called a "dog," "a cur," a creature less than human. The immorality of usury is linked to the trade in and breeding of sheep, and Lancelot makes jokes about Jewish dietary prohibitions, teasing Jessica by asserting that her conversion will "raise the price of hogs." That is, more pork-eaters will cause a shortage of bacon.

Although the play is, on the surface, about the opposition between Jews and Christians, it's also about predators and prey, consumers and consumed.

In Act 4, the melancholy Merchant casts himself in the role of sacrificial lamb. Or rather sheep:

I am a tainted wether of the flock,
Meetest for death. The weakest kind of fruit
Drops earliest to the ground; and so let me.
You cannot be better employed, Bassanio,
Than to live still and write mine epitaph.

What a self-pitying whiner. I can totally see him as someone's Jewish or Italian mama (or in my case, Italian grandma--may she rest in peace): "Don't worry about me, children. I'm not long for this world. You go on, have fun...never mind your poor, worthless mother..."

Please.

A wether, in case you're not up on your ranching terminology, is a castrated sheep or goat. Now you may wonder why sheep and goats need to be castrated...okay, probably you never thought about this at all until right now. But castration is common in sheep ranching, because you only need so many males for breeding. If you don't castrate the others, they'll fight and be generally disruptive. And they smell bad, too. But a "tainted wether" is, one assumes, a castrated sheep that has to be culled from the herd. It can't reproduce, and isn't good for anything else.  So that's how Antonio sees himself--he's "tainted," and can't breed.

Hmm. Not very subtle, especially when you remember that Antonio "only loves the world for" Bassanio. When he thinks he's going to be killed, his only wish is to have his friend watch him die:

Pray God Bassanio come
To see me pay his debt, and then I care not.

He wants Bassanio to witness his death, as proof of his love. Which is kind of, I don't know--kinky at worst, disturbing at best. Lots of productions have used these hints to bring out the homoerotic elements of the play, suggesting that Antonio is gay, and thus as much an outsider as Shylock. At the end of the play, he and Shylock are both outsiders, unwanted fifth wheels to the happy couplings that close out the comedy--but more on this anon.

By the time we get to Act 4, Shylock has devolved from a "cur" into a ravenous wolf. Graziano, perhaps the most vocal of the anti-Shylock contingent, makes the transformation explicit:

O, be thou damned, inexorable dog,
And for thy life let justice be accused!
Thou almost mak'st me waver in my faith
To hold opinion with Pythagoras
That souls of animals infuse themselves
Into the trunks of men. Thy currish spirit
Governed a wolf who, hanged for human slaughter,
Even from the gallows did his fell soul fleet,
And, whilst thou lay'st in thy unhallowed dam,
Infused itself in thee; for thy desires
Are wolvish, bloody, starved, and ravenous.

This is some seriously harsh stuff. Graziano says that justice itself was at fault for letting Shylock be born. Then he invokes Pythagoras--yeah, that's the geometry guy--in asserting that Shylock must have been infused with a wolf's spirit while he was in utero. He also insults Shylock's mother, calling her an "unhallowed dam" which basically means a profane beast-mother--"dam" is still the word that dog breeders use to describe the mother of a litter.

That's low.

In Act 1, Shylock was just a dirty stray dog, kicked and spat upon--i.e., victimized--by Christian aristocracy of Venice.  In Act 4, he's cast as the predator, the hungry, irrational beast that craves the law of nature--the "law of the jungle," rather than the law of man. The predator/prey imagery reminds us that human laws were created precisely to mitigate this "eat or be eaten" law of the jungle--justice demands that might, be it economic or physical, not determine what is right, or legal. The prey shall be treated as fairly as the predator. Or, to put it in Christian terms, "the last shall be first."

But it's never really clear who's the predator, and who's the prey--who dines, and who's dinner. In Act 3, Solanio sneers at Shylock's anguish about his daughter, calling him "old carrion"-- dead flesh fit only for ravens and wild dogs. Now the tables are turned, and the Jew craves his "weight of carrion flesh" to be butchered from Antonio's body.

This predator and prey imagery also works as a kind of economic metaphor, of course. In a capitalist system, so the old lefty saying goes, it's eat or be eaten. You're the wolf or the sheep. The dinner or the diner. Eat the rich before they eat you.

This fleshy imagery foregrounds the whole problem of people as commodities. Shylock calls the Christians on their hypocrisy by pointing out that they traffic in human flesh, too. I quoted this in an earlier post, but it's worth doing so again:

You have among you many a purchased slave
Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules,
You use in abject and slavish parts
Because you bought them. Shall I say to you,
'Let them be free, marry them to your heirs.
Why sweat they under burdens? Let their beds
Be made as soft as yours, and let their palates
Be seasoned with such viands.' You will answer
'The slaves are ours.' So do I answer you.

When you stop buying and selling human flesh, I will relinquish my demand, he implies. You treat human beings like animals. Why then should I not do the same?  Why indeed? It's interesting that he not only calls upon the Venetians to free their slaves, but also to breed with them and to feed them. Let your human "beasts" dine at your table, breed with your kind. 

Like that will ever happen. Significantly, no one addresses this point at all. Instead, Antonio and Bassanio quickly shift the argument, making themselves into the victims. Both proclaim their willingness to be scapegoats--to sacrifice themselves to the Jew's rapacious jaws. "The Jew shall have my flesh, blood, bones, and all," gushes Bassanio, before Antonio shall "lose one drop of blood."

Of course there's a religious aspect to all this as well. One can't help but think of the story of Abraham and Isaac, and its Christian analogue, the crucifixion of Christ. The Eucharist is, through the miracle of transubstantiation, supposed to be the body and blood of God's son. Will was obviously thinking about this with the whole pound of flesh motif--Shylock is the Jew/Pharisee who kills the lamb of God, the crucified Christ. Many productions play this up, by having Antonio laid out on stage with his arms outstretched in an echo of the crucifixion. The sacrificed lamb--er, sheep.

The point is simple. In Venice, human flesh is a commodity, and it's delusional to pretend otherwise. Portia is wooed for her money, Jessica finances her marriage with her father's stolen ducats, and Antonio's willing to buy Bassanio's love with his blood. Love, justice, even the much-vaunted mercy are all for sale. As we'll see next time, all the high-flown rhetoric in the world can't disguise the fact that economic and political might still determine who's the winner, and who's for dinner.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

I Crave the Law

Shylock "craves the law." I've always stopped short at that phrase, because it bothers me. The law isn't supposed to be craved. It's supposed to be meted out with impersonal objectivity. Cravings are for things like ice cream (see comments on previous post), sex, a glass of wine you shouldn't have. Cravings are about appetite, and the law is supposed to be about reason. In fact, the law pretty much exists to rein in our appetites, doesn't it? So it's an interesting choice of words.

Sometimes I crave the law. Yes, I do.  Except when I'm the guilty party, of course. Then I'm all for mercy. Mercy for me, the law for everyone else!

What Shylock craves is the law at its most literal. As I discussed in an earlier post, he's a fundamentalist. Judeo-Christian history is full of fundamentalists. Remember the Pharisees?  Old-time fundamentalists, insisting on the letter, not the spirit, of the law. They were often set up as straw men in the New Testament--puritanical fanatics who had no compassion for sinners. Christ's New Covenant of mercy and love is specifically established in opposition to Pharisaical rigidity. If Shylock is a type of Pharisee, an intransigent and merciless literalist, then the Venetian Christians become, almost by default, types or representatives of Christ. One by one they urge mercy, but are met with stony refusal. 

The Duke--as so often in Will's plays--is a well-meaning but impotent secular authority figure. He insists that the Jew not only be merciful, but generous. In fact, he's sure that Shylock's insistence on his "bond" is only a joke:

Shylock, the world thinks--and I think so too--
That thou but lead'st this fashion of thy malice
To the last hour of act, and then 'tis thought
Thou'lt show thy mercy and remorse more strange
Than is thy strange apparent cruelty,
And where thou now exacts the penalty--
Which is a pound of this poor merchant's flesh--
Thou wilt not only loose the forfeiture,
But, touched with human gentleness and love,
Forgive a moiety of the principal,
Glancing an eye of pity on his losses....

"I'm sure," he says, "that you're just pulling our leg here. You just want to surprise us with your generosity at the last minute! Not only will you release Antonio from the bond, but you'll forgive half the original debt! Because you're so cool!"

What planet is this guy from? It's hard to believe that anyone could actually be the ruler of a commercial Babylon like Venice and be this naive. Although I suppose it could be a tactic, an attempt to shame or bully Shylock into relenting.  In any case, it doesn't work. Because Shylock craves the law. He wants his pound of flesh.

He refuses to take twice the amount he loaned, then three times, proving that it's not about money at all.  Bassanio then entreats the court to

Wrest once the law to your authority.
To do a great right, do a little wrong,
And curb this cruel devil of his will.

This view of the law as malleable, as adaptable to different circumstances, stands in sharp contrast to Shylock's craving for the literal. In fact, these two views of the law still obtain today. Every time there's a Supreme Court seat up for grabs, one hears about "strict constructionists," who believe that the Constitution should be treated as immutable, and those who are willing to--more or less--wrest the document to their authority. My fellow blogger the Bad Lawyer would doubtless be able to offer more explication of this difference as it plays out in today's legal system. In the play, the opposition is structured as a religious and cultural one. The Christians want to find a loophole, but Shylock wants his weight of carrion flesh.

Next: The masquerade of justice. In other words, there's a girl under those robes!

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Stony Adversary


As I was saying last time, Will sets up a pretty unsubtle opposition between Shylock and the Venetians. While Antonio and Co. are all about far-flung ventures, risky wooing schemes and theatrical transformation, Shylock is implacable, immutable, rigid in his hatred and his demand for justice.  He is, as the Duke calls him at the beginning of Act 4

...a stony adversary, an inhuman wretch
Uncapable of pity, void and empty
From any dram of mercy.

A stony adversary. It's a compelling image, isn't it? Strong, invulnerable, almost inanimate. A position of power, usually. Powerless people can't afford to be "stony."

Unless they've lost everything but their pride. Enduring repeated injustices with no recourse can actually turn a person to stone. It's only temporary--but for a time, it keeps the floodwaters at bay.

I know this because, once upon a time, I was temporarily petrified. It's the feeling of frustration solidifying into bone-deep resentment. The heart immured in rage. It passes, especially if you're lucky enough to build a family with someone wonderful.  But even now, happy and grateful as I am, I still sometimes slough off little chunks of granite.  I guess that's why I can't help feeling some sympathy for Shylock, despite his terroristic rationalizations and narrow puritanism.

Shylock will live up to that stony label--in fact we already saw a preview in Act 3, when he appears onstage with Antonio and the jailer. Antonio begs him to listen to reason, but he's having none of it:

I'll have my bond. Speak not against my bond.
I have sworn an oath that I will have my bond.
Thou called'st me dog before thou hadst a cause,
But since I am a dog, beware my fangs.

Antonio conveniently forgets all the spitting and racial slurs, claiming the moral high ground:

He seeks my life. The reason I well know:
I oft delivered from his forfeitures
Many that have at times made moan to me.
Therefore he hates me.

"He hates me because I'm so nice, so generous, and have helped people escape his evil clutches."

Uh-huh. Let's not mention all the name-calling, expectorating, or daughter-seducing. Okay, that was Lorenzo, not Antonio--but to Shylock they all play for the same team. Antonio's explanation is so self-deluded and dishonest here that it really is impossible to see him as a wholly innocent and injured party.

Antonio's disingenuous speech enrages Shylock even further--as so it should. He refuses to listen to more pleas or seductive explanations. The Christians are as profligate with language as they are with money, and he's had enough.  You can almost hear him biting back the fury as he repeats that same phrase, "I will have my bond," over and over. He also speaks almost exclusively in words of one syllable:

I'll have my bond. I will not hear thee speak.
I'll have my bond, and therefore speak no more.
I'll not be made a soft and dull-eyed fool
To shake the head, relent, and sigh, and yield
To Christian intercessors. Follow not.
I'll have no speaking. I will have my bond.

The multisyllabic phrase "Christian intercessors" stands out awkwardly amidst all these declarative and imperative sentences. You almost want to trip over it, it's so out of step with the rest of the speech. It sounds excessive, and really breaks the incantatory rhythm of the rest: I-will-have-my-bond. I-will-not-hear-thee-speak. You could say that to a slow, funereal drum beat.

Solanio then calls Shylock "the most impenetrable cur/that ever kept with men", giving us two powerful images of the Jew's inhumanity. In a play that's all about interpretation, he's "impenetrable," a stony surface without a heart. In an era fascinated with humanity and its possibilities, he's an animal--a vicious dog, a wolf, a carnivorous monster.

This is the Shylock who enters the courtroom, butcher's knife in hand. 

Act 4 is really one long scene--there's a short scene after the trial, but it's limited to a few lines. When Shylock enters, the Duke--the highest secular authority in the city-- says he's sure that the Jew isn't serious about his threat. He's confident that he'll relent at the last minute, showing "mercy and remorse more strange" than his present "strange apparent cruelty."  "Strange" here means "extraordinary."

The Duke wants a conversion story, a narrative structure familiar to Christians. "The last shall be first," according to the Parable of the Vineyard. He who comes last, at the final hour, to salvation shall enjoy the same spiritual benefits as those who have toiled since sunrise.

Shylock doesn't want to be in that story. He demands his bond, and refuses to give a reason. The law, he thinks, is on his side. He doesn't need to explain himself. He remains willfully "impenetrable":

You'll ask me why I rather choose to have
A weight of carrion flesh than to receive
Three thousand ducats. I'll not answer that,
But say it is my humour. Is it answered?
What if my house be troubled with a rat,
And I be pleased to give ten thousand ducats
To have it baned? What, are you answered yet?
Some men there are love not a gaping pig,
Some that are mad if they behold a cat,
And others when the bagpipe sings i' th' nose
Cannot contain their urine; for affection,
Mistress of passion, sways it to the mood
Of what it likes or loathes. Now for your answer:
There is no firm reason to be rendered
Why he cannot abide a gaping pig,
Why he a harmless necessary cat,
Why he a woollen bagpipe, but of force
Must yield to such inevitable shame
As to offend himself being offended
So I can give no reason, nor will not,
More than a lodged hate and a certain loathing
I bear Antonio, that I follow thus
A losing suit against him. Are you answered?

He refuses to justify what seems to be an irrational desire for worthless flesh over money, except to say that he hates Antonio. But his analogies are interesting. He talks about pigs, which have been mentioned before in conjunction with Jewish dietary prohibitions. He says some might prefer to pay ten thousand ducats to get rid of a rat, rather than get a cat to do the job, simply because they don't like cats. And finally, the weirdest example, a man who pisses himself because he hates bagpipe music. It seems clear that the animal imagery is pointed at Antonio, in retaliation for all the dog-cur-wolf language he's used against Shylock. Both pigs and rats are unclean to Shylock, and so is Antonio. The bagpipe thing seems gratuitous, except we already know Shylock hates music and associated it with Christian revelers. In refusing to give a reason, he's given several. He hates Antonio for treating him as if he's less than human, and hates Christians in general.

It's the argument of a man who's long since realized he can't win arguments. The Venetians are better rhetoricians--Shylock's dialogue throughout the play is often terse and to the point, while the Christians throw poetry around like it grows on trees. Remember Salerio's lovely description of a shipwreck in the first scene of the play? Metaphors to burn. Shylock holds onto his words like he holds onto his money. His "I won't tell you why" speech is one of his longest in the play, and he's really just talking about why he won't talk.

Next:  Wolves and sheep.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Change Me


At the end of Act 3, Portia decides that her hapless, spendthrift fiance needs help saving the life of his friend, Antonio, who's about to be carved up by his enemy, the nasty, miserly Jew. The bold and quick-witted heiress hastily installs Lorenzo and new bride Jessica as caretakers for her estate, then dashes off a note to her cousin, the esteemed lawyer Bellario, demanding fake ID's and lawyerly garb so that she and her faithful sidekick, Nerissa, can pose as the learned Balthasar and his clerk.

It's one of Will's most famous cross-dressing moments. I'm not going to do an extended riff on Shakespearean cross-dressing, because I already wrote about it back when I was blogging The Taming of the Shrew. You can read that post here.

One thing I love about Elizabethan theater is that no one ever sees through these disguises. Having suspended their disbelief in taking a boy for a woman, it's nothing at all to take a woman for a man. But don't you wish it were that easy to dupe people in the real world? I can think of a bunch of situations in which a really effective disguise would have saved me a lot of grief. But I can't imagine anyone taking me for a man. It would be more camp than convincing--like a farm girl channeling Marlene Dietrich.  Well, maybe an aging Goth farm girl.

I know. Freaky concept.

Portia takes to cross-dressing with great enthusiasm, as if she'd just been waiting for the chance to cast off her stays and petticoats, or whatever (I'm not an expert on Elizabethan fashion--the little I know comes from old portraits of Queen Bess and The Tudors) and do a man's job.  She tells Lorenzo that she and Nerissa are going to enter a convent "to live in prayer and contemplation" while their husbands rush back to Venice to save Antonio.

It's clear she's really given some thought to the whole gender-bending thing. Nerissa is confused, and asks for clarification. Portia replies that their husbands will see them

...in such a habit that they shall think we are accomplished
With that we lack  I'll hold thee any wager,
When we are both accoutered like young men
I'll prove the prettier fellow of the two,
And wear my dagger with the braver grace,
And speak between the change of man and boy
With a reed voice, and turn two mincing steps
Into a manly stride, and speak of frays
Like a fine bragging youth, and tell quaint lies
How honourable ladies sought my love,
Which I denying, they fell sick and died.
I could not do withal. Then I'll repent,
And wish for all that I had not killed them;
And twenty of these puny lies I'll tell,
That men shall swear I have discontinued school
Above a twelvemonth. I have within my mind
A thousand raw tricks of these bragging Jacks
Which I will practise.

Of course on the Elizabethan stage this whole speech would drip with irony, since "Portia" was already being played by a boy in drag. The phrase "accomplished with that we lack" would have drawn a big laugh, since it refers to both the "accomplishments" of a lawyer--i.e., professional credentials--and male genitalia, which of course women lack. It's about acting, really, and--to borrow one of those phrases that was popular among academic Shakespeareans a couple of decades ago--"self-fashioning." In addition to being the first risk-takers, Renaissance people were also the first to embrace self-improvement and personal reinvention.

In other words, our American obsession with cosmetic enhancements, dietary regimes, religious transformation, and self-help of all kinds can be traced back to Renaissance theatricality. Because isn't that what we're talking about here? The ability to become "a whole new you" with the right diet, implants, attitude, belief system? Before the Renaissance no one saw him or herself as malleable or fixable. You were born into a class, a gender, a religion, a profession, and you stayed there until you died. Your kids inherited this place, profession, belief system, and they passed it on to their kids. And so on.

The picture on the right is a little crude humor, but I like it because it combines an icon of the Renaissance with (what I would call) the logical consequence of five hundred years of "Renaissance thinking." Mona Lisa, reinvented for the cosmetic surgery age.

And you have to admit, except for the ludicrous balloonish breasts, she does look hotter after the makeover. Although still like a man in drag, in my opinion. Maybe that's what that sneaky smile is about.

I'm not saying that Elizabethan people believed they could transform themselves to the extent we do today. They couldn't have imagined that, several hundred years in the future, men would really be able to metamorphose into women. But they believed that we were theatrical creatures, who could take on a role and cast it off. Add a few centuries of technological and scientific innovation, combine it with a love of risk, change, and newness, and voila! Modern, malleable man (and woman) is born.

This theatrical notion of the self dovetails nicely with a gambler's temperament.

Gamblers are optimists; they're big believers in fresh starts and second (third, fourth...) chances. They believe that they can refashion themselves, that "one big score" can radically change their lives for the better. They tend to collect self-help manuals and/or mantras, to believe that "attitude is everything."  These qualities are also quintessentially American. As a culture, Americans embrace risk and shun negativism--more than any other nation, we believe in personal transformation and rebirth. That's why certain forms of ecstatic/evangelical Christianity appeal to us.

Christianity promises that one can be born again into a new life--so it was the perfect religion for this new kind of person. In the Renaissance, the idea of reinvention--the whole-life makeover--took hold in all sorts of other contexts. One could travel to distant lands, get rich, come home and buy oneself a title. One could invest money in far-flung ventures. One could look up into the heavens and see not only eternity, but change. People weren't just waiting for the afterlife anymore. They were remaking this life, envisioning a future that their ancestors couldn't even imagine.

Although life was still nasty, brutish and short for the majority, new things were in the air. And on the stage! On stage, men could become women who could become men again. Actors could become kings, fairies, witches, misers, magicians, Jews, Moors, and madmen. Anything.  When Will wrote that "all the world's a stage," he was just pointing out the obvious. If there was a whole world of possibility onstage, then why not in the real world? It's both the ultimate self-actualizing statement--I can become whatever I want--and, in a less optimistic sense, kind of disturbing. Because everything becomes a pose.

Personal aside: that's why I quit Facebook. Weary of staging myself. And not very good at it, either. More of a recalcitrant Shylock type, I guess.

Anyway, it's not a coincidence that Portia's ironic gender-bending speech is followed by a religious version of the same thing. In the last scene of Act 3, Lancelot and Jessica banter about conversion:

Lancelot: Yes, truly; for look you, the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children, therefore I promise you I fear you.  I was always plain with you, and so now I speak my agitation of the matter, therefore be o' good cheer, for truly I think you are damned. There is but one hope in it that can do you any good, and that is but a kind of bastard hope, neither.

Jessica: And what hope is that, I pray thee?

Lancelot: Marry, you may partly hope that your father got you not, that you are not the Jew's daughter.

Jessica: That were a kind of bastard hope, indeed. So the sins of my mother shall be visited upon me.

Lancelot: Truly then, I fear you are damned both by father and mother. Thus, when I shun Scylla your father, I fall into Charybdis your mother. Well, you are gone both ways.

Jessica: I shall be saved by my husband. He hath made me a Christian.

Lancelot teases Jessica about being the Jew's daughter, pretending to fear for her salvation. As I pointed out in an earlier post, however, Elizabethan people saw Jewishness as a religious category, not a racial one--although Shylock does talk about his "tribe," there were lots of coverted Jews around, and no one worried about what their parents or grandparents had believed. That line about the "sins of the father" sounds biblical, doesn't it? It isn't. In fact the Bible says the opposite--that sons shall not bear the sins of their fathers. Will, like other modern men of his day, didn't believe that history was destiny. He was, after all, a great re-writer of histories--an accomplished propagandist.

I especially like the reference to Scylla and Charybdis, which brings to mind the one risk-taker in all of Classical literature, Odysseus. But even he had riskiness thrust upon him--he didn't choose to sail around aimlessly for ten years while his wife wove and unraveled tapestries. He was just making the best of some nasty divine meddling. So basically he was a reaction hero, not an action hero.

When Jessica claims that she will be saved through her husband, she's paraphrasing scripture. "The unbelieving wife," writes St. Paul in 1 Corinthians, "is sanctified by the husband."  As Portia reinvents herself as a respected legal scholar, so Jessica converts to Christianity, saving herself from the fate that Lancelot jokingly insists is her spiritual destiny.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Nazis didn't like this idea. To them, once a Jew, always a Jew. So in the 1944 Viennese production, Jessica was re-imagined as an adopted daughter. I wasn't able to find a copy of the altered text in either language, but I imagine this was the point in the play when they made the switcheroo, violating not only the text, but a central idea of the play--that modern people embrace self-improvement, while "stony" anachronisms like Shylock turn their back on it. Jessica has to be a real Jew so that she can be remade into a real Christian. It just doesn't work any other way.

For Will, the antithesis of Jew and Christian is also an opposition between past and future, intransigence and change. Shylock, like Margaret in Richard III and the older Capulets and Montagues, is yesterday's news. When he's forced to convert at the end of the play, he's both cruelly severed from his own history and, in a less negative sense, dragged  unwillingly into the modern world.

Next:  The Jew as anti-renaissance man. And yes, the trial scene. For real this time.