Saturday, April 24, 2010

Al Pacino's Sad-Dad Eyes

The 2004 film of The Merchant of Venice, directed by Michael Radford, was better than I expected. I mean, Al Pacino as Shylock. I still shudder whenever I think of the embarrassment that was Looking for Richard, Pacino's documentary about playing Richard III.  Godawful.  This wasn't anything like that disaster. For one thing, it's a period piece, all velvet and silk and funny hats, and I confess I love those.

Pacino wasn't really Shylock, he was Pacino playing Shylock, but it still kind of worked. Before I go any further, however, I have to fess up about something that completely colored my viewing of this film. Al Pacino with a beard is a dead ringer for my dad. For real, it was freaky. He's got those same sad Italian eyes, and, unfortunately, that same east coast accent. For this film, he kind of gave it a foreign lilt, but it still sounded faintly Lower Manhattan, or maybe East Boston (where my dad grew up). This film really plays up the father-daughter drama, so that kind of weirded me out, too. Many women of Italian-American heritage have ambivalent relationships with their fathers--it's that Catholic, patriarchal culture, I guess--and I'm no exception. So it was pretty wrenching to see Shylock tear up (which he did a lot in the movie) and run around wailing after Jessica leaves. Also, the movie makes Jessica herself more ambivalent about her betrayal of her dad. The very last scene has Jess looking out into the distance, and then at her mother's turquoise ring, which, as the film would have it, she didn't trade for a monkey. That, apparently, was just a rumor, which gives the whole thing--Shylock's rage, Jessica's indifference--a completely different spin. Tubal tells Shylock about the monkey-trade, you see it in Shylock's imagination, but clearly it's just a reflection of what the Jewish community thinks about Christians: they're indifferent to history, mindlessly acquisitive, prodigal in their recreations.

Pacino wasn't equal to the language, but that's to be expected. For the whole first part of the film, before the really dramatic stuff, he speaks his lines in this halting and annoying way--not a trace of the sly, even snide tone you'd expect Will's Shylock to have. And I have to say, when he gets to the "well, then, it appears you need my help" speech in Act 1, he totally channels Brando as The Don, when he says to Bonasera at the beginning of The Godfather I, "you don't offer friendship...you don't even think to call me godfather, and yet you ask my help...".

Yeah, you could say that movie played a part in my family mythology...but we won't go there today.

Pacino even has that raspy voice down. But mostly, it's his eyes that carry this film. Really, those sad, Italian basset hound eyes. They fill the whole screen. And they're so filled with tragedy, with a lifetime of oppression and disappointment, you can totally forgive Pacino for phoning in his lines. This guy has presence! Who cares about poetry?

Okay, I do. But this is a film, not a play. It's visual medium, and words are necessarily secondary. Even without the fabulous poetry, it's still a great story.

A lot of interpretation is possible in film, and this one definitely takes a strong stand on several issues that are only implicit in the original text.  I mentioned the liberties the director took with the Shylock/Jessica pathos.  He also does a lot of "filling in the blanks" on the homoerotic front. Antonio is unambiguously in love with Bassanio. And Bassanio, while perhaps not as passionate about it as Tony, has obviously not discouraged the sentiments. During Antonio's Act 1 speech about melancholy, he's looking out the window and sees Bassanio arriving, looking young and delectably full of life. Totally hot, in a velvety Renaissance sort of way.  Antonio's buddies suggest he's in love, and he protests way too vociferously. As he's gazing longingly out the window.

Subtle.

Jeremy Irons is great as Antonio, I must say. He looks like he should be in Death in Venice, not this play. He's definitely got that Aschenbach thing down. Aging gay man who sees his youth fading, hopelessly in love with a feckless, somewhat selfish youth. Closeted, tragic.  If you wanted to explain what "melancholy" means to someone who doesn't speak English, you could just show them this picture.

When Bassanio shows up to ask his friend for a loan, they have their discussion in...you guessed it, Tony's bedroom! And Bassanio lounges on the bed invitingly as he's making his pitch. Then, after Antonio promises to help him--pain etched in every sad line of his face--B. kisses him goodbye. A for-real kiss, not a dry peck.

Playing up the homoerotic hints in the play really works on the screen. It gives the story more psychological--and less philosophical--weight, and thus makes it more modern. Abstract ideas like justice are hard to translate into pictures. Unrequited love and father-daughter pathos are easy, because you can see emotions pretty clearly in camera close-ups. We're not much for abstractions these days, or larger ethical dilemmas. We like feelings, not ideas. Pictures, not words.

We also like simple moral oppositions, and we get lots of those here, too. The movie starts with a little visual history of Renaissance anti-Semitism.  Venetian Jews are stigmatized, ghettoized, and even lynched by religious fanatics in the first few minutes of the film.  The most gripping image in those first few minutes is that of a lock clanging shut on the gates of the Jewish ghetto/prison. So we're set up to be on Shylock's side from the beginning. Combine that with lots of extended shots of Al/Shylock staring mournfully into the distance, missing the camera's eye--and thus, ours--by only a few feet, and you have a pretty simple morality play.


The excessiveness of the Christian contingent is extravagantly represented by Portia's lavish estate. She owns a whole island, which her suitors row across to--sort of Mystic Isle of Avalon meets Balmoral Castle.  The mansion would put any royal palace to shame, and the gardens make Versailles look modest. Portia herself (played someone named Lynn Collins, whom I'd never heard of) is pretty in a Jane Austenish way, Nerissa only slightly less so, as befits a best friend. The movie really plays up the horror of the courtroom scene, so when the Venetians retreat to Belmont afterward for the Return to Romance ending, they seem superficial and soulless.

There are some sensationalizing moments--the aforementioned lynching, for example. When Bassanio seeks out Shylock with the intention of asking for a loan, he finds him slaughtering a lamb. Very graphically. I'm pretty squeamish about animal cruelty, so I had to look away. But in that small, visually arresting scene, we can see all of the play's sheep/lamb imagery sort of compressed into one violent moment.

Venetian hedonism is a visual theme in the film--the creepy Salerio and Solanio are portly middle-aged leches who drink too much and spend a lot of time in whorehouses. These gratuitous scenes gave jobs to a lot of young female extras willing to stand around topless. According to one reviewer, Venetian prostitutes were required by law to walk around showing off the merchandise because of the "rampant homosexuality" of the era. I read that statement over a few times, and still couldn't figure out how it would have worked, if it was indeed some sort of law. I mean, was it because there were lots of men in drag, pretending to be ladies of the evening in the age before surgical implants? Or maybe it was because the authorities thought that a lot of bare-breasted women would deter men from becoming gay?  Weird. I suspect that those scenes--and scenery--were just in the film to put a little more sex into a story that was really about other, less titillating things. Like justice, and human community, and loyalty.

I know. Dullsville.

The courtroom scene is the heart of the film, as it is in the play. It really lets Pacino do his moral outrage thing, a la And Justice For All--when Shylock says "Fie upon your law!" (a line that isn't in the play), I couldn't help but hear a younger Al yelling "You're out of order! The whole court is out of order!"

That's the problem with famous actors playing (more) famous roles--their resumes tend to get in the way of the performance.

In the courtroom, everything is literalized. When Bassanio offers Shylock three times the money Antonio borrowed, he brings in a chest full of gold. When Shylock reminds the Christians that they keep slaves, the camera cuts to a rich guy with an African slave. Just in case we don't believe him.

Bassanio, I should point out, is played by Joseph Fiennes--the same guy who played the neurotic Will in the popular, Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love. I have to confess I really disliked that movie. There was something annoyingly smug about it.  And I guess the imagined private lives of my favorite authors just don't interest me much.

I'm in the minority, I realize. More on this in the future, when I tackle the messy Authorship Question.

Anyway, the courtroom scene is set up like a rowdy football (soccer) match, with the Christian and Jewish contingents yelling at one another, and lots of unpleasant cheering when Shylock gets his come-uppance.  Portia-as-Balthasar looked pretty good (see pic), but totally sounded like a woman. This reminded me of a funny thing in the play. When Portia gets back from her fake lawyer gig, Lorenzo hears her before he sees her. And recognizes her voice! "That is the voice," he says, "or I am much deceived, of Portia."

And Bassanio, her putative soulmate, didn't notice a thing during the whole trial.  Hmm.

I dig the little goatee.

Ms. Collins, as I pointed out earlier, doesn't really get Shakespeare--her Portia looks great, and is clever-seeming, but there's something missing there. The "Quality of Mercy" speech sounds like she's reading it before her high school class--but really, it's so cliched that it's hard to make it sound fresh, I think. Like about a third of Hamlet's speeches. She completely misreads--or mis-speaks--the "tarry a little" part. That should be said with deadly quiet. I about jumped off the couch when she shouted it at the top of her lungs.

The pretended sacrifice of Antonio is done with all the suspense you'd expect in a Hollywood film. Antonio weeps in fear, and later, in relief. It's awful to watch.

But the most moving moments in the film are Shylock's.  He crumbles with admirable restraint (for Pacino) when he realizes he's lost the case, and everything else that matters to him. At the end, he's broken and so alone it makes you want to cry. Even if you never cry at movies.

But the dad thing probably played a role in the waterworks, too.

The Venetians retreat to Belmont to forget what bastards they've been. Jessica is subdued, and we later find out why. The "ring game" between the Belmont women and their men seems hollow, and not at all funny.  In a pretty big deviation from the play, Antonio never gets his money back. He ends up solitary and excluded at the end, too--and we last see him fishing on Belmont Lake (or whatever it's called), all alone as the happy couples consummate their nuptials. From a modern perspective, he's as alien as Shylock. The Jew and the gay man, left out of the happy Christian-hetero ending.  Jess is there, too, looking out over the lake and twisting her mother's ring around her finger. Missing her dad.

I'm still choked up.

The most important thing you can say about this film is that it is in no way a comedy. Nothing funny about it at all. It's tragic, in the way Othello is tragic. That is to say, a modern way. It's a tragedy of a man so oppressed by history, by hypocrisy and bigotry, that he loses his own humanity. It's about the banality of evil (yeah, I know some people hate that phrase, but I think it's because they hate Hannah Arendt), and the ways people can justify just about anything to themselves. It's about the stuff that's left over when all those justifications and exclusions have been nicely knit up and agreed upon.

Human remains. 

So, I guess my assessment would be this.  The movie isn't Shakespeare--and not only because of the language. It's erased all the ambivalence and irony that inhabits The Merchant. But it's still entertaining on its own terms. And it looks gorgeous. Venice without the reek! I guess one could make an analogy there--the film has cleansed the play of the stink of equivocation...

Well, that's all I have to say about that. I think I'll go call my dad now.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Happy Shakespeare Day

I feel obliged to point out that today might have been William Shakespeare's birthday. He was baptized on April 26th, 1564. It is assumed by some (and contested by others) that in those days, baptisms in the Church of England took place three days after a child's birth. It's known that Shakespeare did die on April 23rd, 1616, so the symmetry of it all was probably hard to resist. That and the fact that the 23rd is also the Feast of St. George, mythical dragon-slayer and patron saint of England. Lacking any hard evidence for the Bard's birth on this day, and reluctant to celebrate something as morbid as a deathday, I'll just call it Shakespeare Day.

My intention was to get up a long post about The Authorship Controversy today, tracing the whole history of the anti-Stratfordians--supporters of Bacon, Marlowe, or Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. But I just finished two longish posts this week, and I'm not really ready to get all into it right now. So, I promise this post will be forthcoming, after I finish the two Merchant of Venice  films and before I start anything else. Somewhere in there there will also be a hiatus while I--as has become my wont--consider the future of this blog, given its, um, rather modest readership and my limited time.

So, happy Shakespeare day. Even if you don't believe he wrote all these marvelous plays, narrative poems and sonnets, the guy must have had some excellent karma to get the credit, don't you think?  Personally, I'm a traditionalist. And the undercurrent of snobbery in the arguments of many of these nay-sayers annoys me. What really seems to bother them is that William Shakespeare simply lacks the proper pedigree. Keats wasn't an aristocrat, either, and his poetry still leaves Byron's in the dust.

Well. I'll get into that later. For now, light a candle for the Bard, whoever he was. His work continues to teach us that evil exists, but courage matters. That pain is unavoidable, but not unendurable. And that our greatest gift is not reason, or even imagination, but love.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Shylock's Ghost

My last post bugged me. At first I wasn't sure why--but then I realized it was because I had to write it, to finish up the play.  I resented leaving Act 4 behind, resented writing about the happy ending--even if, as I claimed, it wasn't happy at all--and felt that I'd been forced to leave the trial scene too soon.  My post--or rather my discomfort with it--echoed the whole discordant vibe of Act 5.

And besides that, it was way too long. I've been trying to keep them shorter, but I think I just wanted to deal with Act 5 in one go. Because you know, I've never really liked it as an ending. I hate that the Venetians get to retreat into romantic comedy-land after their unjust, hypocritical actions in Act 4. I'm always reminded, somehow, of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, that old high school warhorse. At the end, Nick describes Daisy and Tom Buchanan in terms that seem apt here, too:

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy--they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

Different story, obviously, but that "type" is pretty transhistorical.  The Venetians are like that--extravagant, expansive, attractive, bigoted.

And I just don't want to let them have the last word.

Shylock haunts Act 5, although he's never mentioned by name. Because he's more or less erased from the play, I want to give him a voice in the last act. I refuse to let the Venetians off so easily.

The whole discussion of music, for example, seems directed at Shylock the music-hater. Lorenzo's musings on the pacifying power of music make little sense otherwise.  Jessica, moreover, seems to have some ambivalence on the subject--a melancholic response that reminds us of her father:

Jessica:  I am never merry when I hear sweet music.

Lorenzo: The reason is your spirits are attentive,
For do but note a wild and wanton herd
Or race of youthful and unhandled colts,
Fetching mad bounds, bellowing and neighing loud,
Which is the hot condition of their blood,
If they but hear a trumpet sound,
Or any air of music touch their ears,
You shall perceive them make a mutual stand,
Their savage eyes turned to a modest gaze
By the sweet power of music. Therefore the poet
Did feign than Orpheus drew trees, stones, and floods,
Since naught so stockish, hard, and full of rage
But music for the time doth change his nature.

"Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak," in other words. That's not Will, by the way. It's William Congreve, a playwright of the late 17th century. But it's the same sentiment. And who but Shylock could be so "stockish, hard, and full of rage" that music can't "change his nature?"

The Venetians are big on nature-changing. As I discussed in previous posts, they're sort of proto-Americans that way. We're a country that's all about re-invention. Capitalism thrives on it, and Christianity promises it. Those two great ideologies of the modern era found fertile ground here, in this land where we wear history so lightly. History's full of moral ambiguities, and we're not big on those. We like change, and memory always seems to get in the way of that, doesn't it? Personally and politically.

The ghost of Shylock, the ghost of history in the modern world.  That kind of works for me as an analogy.

If Shylock is hard and immutable, Belmont is a protean place, like the fairy woods in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Portia's rather like Oberon--a stage director and music lover. She's not a real woman, after all--so she might as well be made of fairy dust. "If a woman live to be a man," anything is possible.

That phrase is repeated three times in Act 5, like a magical incantation. It means, "if a woman should grow up to be a man." It's funny, because all these boys who are playing women will grow up to be men. It's supposed to mean something like "when pigs fly," but in Will's theatrical world, pigs can fly. Men can be women and women can be men--sometimes men can be women who pretend to be men.  Theatrical Belmont is a place full of possibility.

And infidelity. The dark side of a protean nature. A chameleon never will be true. The last lines of the play--given to the virulent anti-Semite, Graziano--say it all:

...while I live I'll fear no other thing
So sore as keeping safe Nerissa's ring.

Good luck with that. Nerissa, like all the denizens of beautiful Belmont, likes change, so her "ring" may be difficult to keep. It's a creepy way for the play to end, in some ways.  It leads into Othello-land--jealous husbands, mythically unfaithful wives. Nothing is certain, no one can truly be trusted.

And Shylock?  He's a stony guy. Unmoved by music, unwilling to forgive. A steward of the past--he remembers every slight, every insult, every gob of Christian spit on his beard. But one senses there's loyalty in him--were one able to win it.

Yes, I finally have to admit it. I identify with this guy! Maybe it's because, at this stage of life, shape-shifting holds no appeal for me. Truth be told, it never did. I've kind of always been the same. If you look at pictures of me thirty years ago, I look...the same. Younger, yes. Prettier, certainly. More innocent, naturally. But it's still very recognizably me. I've worn my hair the same since the first grade. I'm like that inside, too. I can read something I wrote in high school, and still hear my own voice.  I don't like change.  Or surprises. I always read the end of a book first. If I don't like the ending, I won't read the book. I imagine Shylock like that, too.

I don't like this ending, but it's too late to un-read it. I guess I'll just complain about it, instead!

I know he's not a nice guy. He's a master grudge-holder. And guess what? That's one of my major failings, too! It comes with the Sicilian DNA, I guess. Although I don't think I would be capable of cutting a pound of flesh off my enemy's chest--not really into blood and gore. But could Shylock have done it? He stalks around the stage with a butcher knife in his hand, and we're supposed to believe him capable of any ferocity, any barbarism. But I wonder.

At the end of Act 4, Shylock's been--paradoxically--exiled from himself, and assimilated into the Christian community. But really, he's dead. He said it himself. "You do take my life." He's got no future, and he's cut off from his past, his cultural history. So, dead.

I have to say, I know how that feels. When you've been exiled from the tribe you ought to belong to--be it your birth tribe, or your professional one--it's like being dead, at least to the people who are still active tribe members. You might, say, drop them an occasional email--say, about something you've been writing that you're pleased with--and they will, inevitably, be polite, a bit cold, and very uneasy. Because you're supposed to be dead! Don't you know that? How dare you lurk around like some creepy revenant!

And so my sympathies will always be with Shylock, not with Portia. Yes, I see Portia as the enemy, not Antonio. Not because I'm one of those "blame the woman" fake feminists. No, because Portia is totally alienated from her own motives, yet smugly self-righteous about her ill-considered actions. And, unlike Antonio, she's smart enough to know better.

It's not fair she gets the best speech in the play, even if it's ironic. Because no one remembers the context, just the speech.  Interestingly, she knows how important context is. "Many things by season seasoned are/To their right praise and true perfection," she says in Act 5. I've never known exactly how to take that, but it seems important. I think it implies something like "things that seem ugly and reprehensible in one context can be really cool in others."  A true moral relativist, our Portia.

Shylock, of course, is one of the great Shakespearean roles--right up there with Richard III, Lear, Hamlet, and Othello. He's the one we come to see. He's the one we remember long afterward.  And all the pretty music in Belmont can't silence his voice, or erase him from our memory.  

Next:  Al Pacino, Shylock, and my dad! Yes, the Bard Blog goes to the movies.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

For Love or Money

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Um, no naughty pun intended.

I Bought Him, He's Mine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Will Have My Ring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am th'unhappy subject of these quarrels.

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

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

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

Then you shall be his surety.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 16, 2010

Belmont By Night

The Merchant of Venice ends in darkness. I'm reminded of the end of Romeo and Juliet--"The sun for sorrow will not show his face."  And yet, Act 5 is all about reconciliation--husbands and wives reunited, fortunes recovered, and all the rest of the stuff that constitutes a happy ending. It's all good. So why does Will set this final scene at night?

Night, as we saw in R & J,  is the time of fantasy, eroticism, romance. It's when poetry triumphs over history, and love is all that matters. It's a purely theatrical construct, too--remember that Elizabethan dramas were all performed in the afternoon. So "night" was wholly imaginary on the stage--like women.

Not only does the play end at night--it ends in Belmont, which, as we've seen, is supposed to be the "anti-Venice." Where Venice is about deal-making and cutthroat business dealings, Belmont is an altogether softer place, more feminine and less real. Think Manhattan as opposed to, say, Cape Cod. But it's strange that Will decided to end the play here. In other comedies, the fifth act represents a return to the real world. The Forest of Arden in As You Like It, the fairy woods in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the "little academe" of Love's Labour's Lost are all temporary, somewhat dreamy places. The characters retreat to these magical otherworlds in order to sort out their romantic and social issues, before emerging wiser and properly paired up at the end.

But The Merchant of Venice ends with a retreat from reality. As if the play, and the characters, are hiding in the dark, ashamed to face the daylight.

Act 5 begins with Lorenzo and Jessica, who were completely absent during the trial scene, and thus, presumably, innocent of its excesses.  They're in Romeo and Juliet mode, waxing poetical about famous literary lovers.  The language is lovely, so let's just listen in for a bit:

Lorenzo: The moon shines bright. In such a night as this,
When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees
And they did make no noise--in such a night,
Troilus, methinks, mounted the Trojan walls,
And sighed his soul toward the Grecian tents
Where Cresseid lay that night.

Kissing wind and sighing souls. Etymologically, poetic inspiration is a breathy thing. To be "inspired" is to be breathed upon by the gods.  Jessica gets into the inspired spirit of things:

Jessica:   In such a night
Did Thisbe fearfully o'ertrip the dew,
And saw the Lion's shadow ere himself,
And ran dismayed away.

I see your Ovidian tale, says Lorenzo, and I raise you one Great Latin Epic:

Lorenzo: In such a night
Stood Dido with a willow in her hand
Upon the sea banks, and waft her love
To come again to Carthage.

Well, I see your spurned Queen, and give you--a child-murdering witch!

Jessica:  In such a night
Medea gathered the enchanted herbs
That did renew old Aeson.

Funny that Jess would choose a daughter/father-in-law story, since she betrayed her dad and stole his money. Ah, love.

What's odd is that all these stories ended really badly.  Cressida was a Trojan noblewoman who was traded to the Greeks during the Trojan war, and cheated on her lover, Troilus, with another guy. The Troilus/Cressida story had been famous since Chaucer's time (late 14th century), and was often invoked as an example of faithlessness in love. So it's odd in this context.  Sort of like modern lovers comparing themselves to those legendary exemplars of undying passion, Charles and Diana.

The story of Pyramus and Thisbe is also jarring, since it ends in a bloodbath, a la Romeo and Juliet.  In some ways, the story is really about the perils of bad crime scene investigation. Owing to a misinterpretation of evidence--in this case, Thisbe's bloody scarf--the star-crossed lovers commit suicide. Will uses the tale to comic effect in A Midsummer Night's Dream, but it's not supposed to be funny here.

Lorenzo then lauds the fidelity of Queen Dido, who was abandoned by her lover Aeneas, and killed herself in a fit of grief and self-loathing. I wrote a little about this story before beginning my series of posts on Romeo and Juliet. The Dido/Aeneas story was told in Book 4 of Virgil's epic The Aeneid. It was kind of a subplot there--Virgil's tale was really about the founding of Rome. Nevertheless the Dido story is the most "modern" bit in Virgil's epic, and the only part normal people (i.e., those who didn't waste their youth reading dead Latin poets) remember today, thanks to Purcell's opera.  It's a great story, but definitely a downer.

The final allusion, to Medea, is off-the-charts weird.  Medea is one of those evil sorceress types from classical lore who later, during the "her-story" movement of the 1970's, metamorphosed (yeah, that's an Ovid joke) into a feminist heroine. You know, representing an originary matriarchal culture at war with the Evil World of Men.  That kind of silly, delusional feminism has always creeped me out, I have to say. And anyway, I wouldn't pick Medea for my mytho-feminist poster girl. She was a very bad witch and a super bad mom. She appeared in lots of poems and plays, so her wickedness must have had wide appeal. Especially to men, who for several thousand years had sole responsibility for making stuff up and writing it down.

Here's her story, synthesized and abridged.  Medea uses her magical powers to help Jason win the golden fleece, on the condition that he marry her. In some versions, the goddess Hera makes her fall in love with him, but no matter. Jason gets the fleece, they marry and have a couple of kids. She further helps Jason by getting rid of an uncle, Pelias, who wanted the fleece for himself. How does she do this? Well, it's pretty grisly. She tricks Pelias's daughters into thinking they can make Daddy young again. The trick works this way: she slits the throat of Jason's dad, Aeson (the guy Jessica mentions), then boils him in a pot, and then, via enchantment, he jumps out, minus about 50 years!

They totally don't make stories like they used to.

Anyway, she tells Pelias's daughters that they can have a youthful dad if they do the same to him. So, to show Daddy how much they love him, they hack him up and toss him in a pot of boiling water. But, uh-oh, Medea has taken her husband and teenage father-in-law and left town. And all the king's daughters can't put Daddy back together again. Later, Jason decides he wants another wife, and dumps Medea. Very bad idea. She's so mad at him, she kills their sons to get back at him. In some versions, she boils them up in a stew and serves them up to Jason with some fava beans and a nice Chianti. Then, after he's told her how great the meal was, she gives him the ingredient list. For real.

Bottom line: none of these couples were really good newlywed role models. They mostly end up dead in bad ways. The stories, like the setting of Act 5, are all pretty dark.

The Medea story does have some resonance for our tale, however. After Bassanio successfully completed the Casket Challenge, back in Act 3, Graziano exulted that "we are the Jasons; we have won the fleece."  By which he meant Portia's money.

There's that sheep thing again!  This play has a sheep fetish--tainted wethers, sacrificial lambs, and priceless wool. Hmm.  Somewhere, a student is probably writing a paper entitled "The Significance of Sheep in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice."

I will leave it to them to unravel this woolly mystery. I hope it has a biographical angle. Maybe the real Shakespeare was neither Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, nor Edward de Vere. Maybe he was a shepherd! Maybe if we look closely, we'll find sheepish hints hiding in every play!  And a new field of study will be born.

It's clearly time to wrap this up.

Anyway. Lorenzo and Jessica retreat from the real world of commerce, taking refuge in love and literature--but their analogies are all about misreading, betrayal, and death. It's as if all the bad stuff in Act 4 is still lurking somewhere, infiltrating everyone's poetry and casting a pall over the happy ending.

You can run, but you can't hide.

Next:  Portia gets mean again, but it's all okay in the end.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Poetic Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Wow. That's ironic.

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

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

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

Art thou contented, Jew? What dost thou say?

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

I am content.

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

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

Or not.

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

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

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Winner Takes All

Today, a special treat! I've been corresponding with my friend and fellow blogger, the Bad Lawyer, about some of the legal implications of the trial scene. We've agreed to post (more or less) simultaneously on the topic. He's written a fascinating and detailed assessment of the legal aspects of the play, keeping in mind, of course, that this is Renaissance theater and not contemporary litigation. I have, as is my wont, been reading the play from a literary/historical perspective, but I also wanted to explore some of the broader legal issues involved. Alas, I'm not really equipped to do that. Or at least not well.  So I prevailed upon the Bad Lawyer (hereafter, BL), to help me out. Check out his blog post--and his blog, which is fabulous. It's part legal/cultural commentary, part quasi-Augustinian confession. He's a brave, honest guy, and an insightful cultural reader. Despite his chosen sobriquet, he's no worse, morally speaking, than the rest of us--and a good deal better than many. The Venetians in the play could take lessons in (genuine) humility from him, it seems to me.

I'll comment on some of his observations as this post unfolds.

The Quibble

Tarry a little. There is something else.

So begins Shylock's reversal of fortune. Before Portia speaks these words, everything has been going his way. Or so it seemed. In fact, she's been messing with him big time, like a cat with a doomed mouse. "You must cut this flesh from off his breast," she tells Shylock. "The law allows it, and the court awards it."

He can hardly contain his joy. "Most learned judge!" he exclaims. And then, to Antonio, "Come, prepare."

But not so fast:

This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood.
The words expressly are 'a pound of flesh.'
Take then thy bond.  Take thou thy pound of flesh.
But in the cutting it, if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are by the laws of Venice confiscate
Unto the state of Venice.

This folkloric loophole is called a "quibble," I recently found out. There's a nice little Wikipedia article about it, which my friend BL alerted me to. Wikipedia is great for these little things--on big issues, not so much. (Don't ever look up, say, "Enlightenment Philosophy." We still need libraries for Big Ideas). The article offers other examples of the quibble motif--stories in which someone escapes a potentially lethal legal predicament through an excessively literal reading of the original agreement. So Portia quibbles with the precise terms of the bond, and Shylock is trapped by his own literalism. The Jew then agrees to take three times the original amount, an offer Bassanio had made earlier. Shylock refused it then, but in light of the quibble, changes his mind. Portia says uh-uh. You wanted the bond, now you shall have it. You can almost hear her feline purr:

Soft, the Jew shall have all justice. Soft, no haste.
He shall have nothing but the penalty. 
...
Therefore prepare thee to cut off the flesh.
Shed thou no blood, nor cut thou less nor more
But just a pound of flesh. If thou tak'st more
Or less than just a pound, be it but so much
As makes light or heavy in the substance,
Or the division of the twentieth part
Of one poor scruple--nay, if the scale do turn 
But in the estimation of a hair,
Thou diest, and all thy goods are confiscate.

Notice how the stakes are higher now. First, he's going to lose all his "lands and goods." Now, he's going to die, too. She's not the secular authority in Venice, so it's hard to see how she has the right to levy a capital punishment. But she's clearly enjoying the power, and it's gone to her head. Shylock then asks for just the principal, the original amount of the loan, but again she refuses. All he's entitled to is his pound of flesh, to be taken at his peril.  Beaten, Shylock then turns to go, giving up the case and his money altogether. But our girl isn't done yet:

Tarry, Jew. 
The law hath yet another hold on you. 
It is enacted in the laws of Venice,
If it be proved against an alien 
That by direct or indirect attempts 
He seek the life of any citizen,
The party 'gainst which he doth contrive
Shall seize one half his goods; the other half
Comes to the privy coffer of the state,
And the offender's life lies in the mercy
Of the Duke only, 'gainst all other voice--
In which predicament I say thou stand'st,
For it appears by manifest proceeding
That indirectly, and directly, too,
Thou hast contrived against the very life
Of the defendant, and thou has incurred
The danger formerly by me rehearsed.
Down, therefore, and beg mercy of the Duke.

Are there any scarier words than "wait, the law's not done with you yet?" It suggests limitless power, against which an individual can do nothing. Except, of course, beg for mercy. This is the passage that prompted me to write BL and ask for some legal insight. Because what Portia is really saying is that Shylock intended to kill Antonio from the word go. That he "contrived"--plotted--to murder him. I simply don't think that's true. I think Shylock reveres the law. He knows that the laws of Venice and of God prohibit murder. He wanted the law to kill Antonio for him. Most of all, he wanted the law on his side for once.

In short, he wished for Antonio's death, but didn't contrive to get it. "Contriving" would have meant he somehow made all Antonio's investments fail in order to ensure his compliance with the terms of the bond. He obviously didn't--couldn't--do that. So Portia, it seems to me, oversteps again.

But, as BL points out in his post, intention is a pretty slippery thing to nail down. And this makes perfect sense. Personally, I'm often alienated from my own intentions. I think I act for one reason, and much later realize that my motive was something quite different.

"It appears by manifest proceeding," she says. It looks for all the world as if you wanted to kill him. This is interpretation; Portia's very good at that. And I have to admire her as a fellow reader. I'm good at that, too. Sometimes too good, according to my husband. In fact, in our last squabble, he pretty much threw up his hands and told me I should have gone to law school.

Ah, the road not taken.

Again, the issue of intention is central to our understanding of this play. Because we all want to know what William Shakespeare, the Immortal Bard and greatest dramatist in English, intended in writing The Merchant.  Did he intend to write an anti-Semitic play? Or did are we supposed to read it ironically?

Well, by now you know what I think about that.

"This Gate Was Made Only For You"

That's not a quotation from the play. It's from Kafka's  "Before the Law," a parable I've referred to before in conjunction with the juridical implications of this story. Full disclosure: I'm a real Kafka freak. I've read most of his stuff in German and English (the German is pretty easy), and visited his house in Prague. I've linked to the parable, which is really short, because I think it explains something about what happens to Shylock here.  Portia says "if it be proved 'gainst any alien" that he has sought "the life of any citizen," his life and goods are forfeit. Shylock's predicament is the result of an inequity that inhabits the law itself. He's an alien, because he's a Jew. No matter how established he may be in Venice, how many generations his people have lived there, he can never be a citizen because he's a Jew. And there are, obviously, separate laws for Jews.

Kafka's status as a Jew in Prague--a city notable for both its Jewish culture and its tradition of antisemitism--doubtless influenced his writing about the law. In the parable, the "man from the country"--an alien, in other words--waits to be admitted to the law. He waits for justice. He waits his entire life, but he's never admitted. At the end of his life, he wonders why no one else ever sought admission at the gate. The gatekeeper explains that "this gate was made only for you."  This is your particular justice. There is no universal justice. All men are not equal. The impartiality of the law is a lie.

What Shylock has been after from the beginning is this: he wants the law to be universally applicable. Because the Christians trade in human flesh--slaves--he sees no problem with his pound of flesh demand. Because slaves are human, as Jews are. They are no different from the Christian aristocracy. What applies in one case should apply in all. There should only be one gate, one justice.

Failing this, he wants to reveal the hypocrisy of his enemies. "If a Jew wrong a Christian," he asks in Act 3, "what is his humility?"  Where is the mercy they are always talking about? Where is their vaunted compassion?

It lies dormant in the land of rhetoric. In other words, it's a pose.

As BL points out in his post, Jewish law is much more equitable. In Leviticus 19: 34, God enjoins his chosen people to treat strangers as equals:

When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Judaism is not a missionary religion. You won't have Jews coming to your door trying to convert you. Jews realized from the beginning that they would have to coexist with people of other customs and beliefs, and so were careful to establish laws for dealing with these others. Christians, on the other hand, have a troubled history on this whole coexistence thing. Christianity is more like the Borg, in the old Star Trek: The Next Generation. All must be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

Exaggeration, but with some truth.

One of the creepiest parts of the play is when the Duke puts on his holier-than-thou hat and addresses the defeated Jew with these sanctimonious and thoroughly hypocritical words:

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

The difference of our spirit, indeed. This is ironic on so many levels, it's hard to know where to start. So I think I'll save that discussion for next time.

Next:  The care and feeding of scapegoats

Sunday, April 4, 2010

World Without End

Today is Easter. It's an old holiday, older than Christianity--the pagan feast honored Ostara, the goddess of spring. Ancient peoples needed to celebrate spring, because winters were hard, and usually one emerged from them having lost a lot. Children born in winter often didn't make it, old people (and for much of history, a person my age was considered old) relinquished their fragile hold on life, and farmers whose fall harvest hadn't measured up to expectations often starved. Things are different now, but we're still grateful when the ice melts. In spring, we celebrate what remains, and begin again. New lambs, new growth, new possibilities.

Passover celebrates this, too. Those who were spared the wrath of God, and of the elements.

But Easter is a Christian holiday, and that's what I wanted to write about today. If you've been reading this blog with any regularity, you'll have ascertained that I've read my Bible, and I've studied religious history. I'm not a theologian, but I am a medievalist, which is sort of like a watered-down religious historian. I've said little about my own faith here, and I'm not going to start now, because I'm a contemplative sort--more Mary than Martha, if you remember that story--and I believe that faith grows best in the quiet places of the human heart.

But I do want to think, and write, about how Shakespeare understands Christianity. Christians come off pretty poorly in The Merchant of Venice, as I've discussed. But I don't think that means Will was anti-Christian, or a secularist. Yes, the Venetian Christians are hypocrites, and they don't practice what they preach. Those of us who grew up Catholic are confronted daily with this spiritual dissonance. About the scandals that are once again shaking the moral foundation of the Vatican, I will say--or rather quote--only this:

But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
Matthew 18:6.

I think we're going to need quite a few of those millstones.

But what do the plays tell us about Christianity? In order to address (but not answer) that question, we have to think about death.  Hamlet is perhaps Will's most enduring and explicit meditation on faith, so it's a good place to start. Hamlet worries about death. It cuts into his rationalist world-view and stops time. He's just back from college, full of philosophical rationalizations and scientific questions. He believes in reason.

And then he sees a ghost. Imagine it. You're, say a budding physicist. You believe in what your senses tell you. Empiricism all the way. And then your father dies, and you're wondering about death. What is it? Where do dead people really go? Are we just molecules, or is there something else? You've just about rationalized this whole thing, when...your dead father appears to you, all ghosty-looking and muttering about vengeance. Conjuring up old stories, ancient ideas that you, in your scientific smugness, had dismissed as mere superstition.

There are more things in heaven and earth than are written about in college textbooks. Lots more.

So Hamlet becomes an extended question. Or series of questions. What dreams may come when we've shuffled off this mortal coil? Is sweet religion just a meaningless rhapsody of words?  What does social hierarchy mean when a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar?

In the end, there are no answers. A man's life is no more than to say "one." In the cosmic scheme of things, our lives last as long as one breath. So there isn't enough time for all our questions to be answered. We've gotta just go for it, even without certainty. We have to defy augury--to believe in free will--but also, paradoxically, remember that there's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. We are free, but we are part of a plan, too. It makes no sense rationally, but it's no less true for all that.

In King Lear, Will worries about community. All the best people end up wandering the heath, homeless, while the worst take over the world. Sometimes things seem like that, don't they?  It's a bleak vision, and a paranoid one, too--Lear has trouble distinguishing his own pain from everyone else's.  But mostly it's about hierarchy, and what it means. What is honorable service? What is a ruler? A father? There's a lot of angry misogyny in this play--the evils done by Lear's two wicked daughters are linked to the moral failings of Woman. There's a strong thread of antifeminism in Christianity, and Lear makes a whole world out of it. But there's hope, too, and it's a Christian kind of hope.  Edmund is a character made in the Machiavellian tradition of Richard, or Iago, or Don John. He's a man who proclaims his own desires as his only god. And yet, at the end of his life, he repents. "Some good I mean to do," he says, dying, "despite of mine own nature." 

None of these other evil men--or women--are capable of repentance. It's a radical idea. A Christian idea. The last shall be first.

And then there's that final, sublime image of Lear holding his dead daughter in his arms--a Pieta in reverse. The woman as Christ figure. She won't be resurrected, but he still believes.  "Look on her, look, her lips! Look there!"

We need faith. We need to believe in a world without end. We need the expansiveness of the Venetians, their sense of the limitless--even if they can't measure up to it.  We need to believe in mercy, un(con)strained. Portia is a poor Virgin Mary, and Antonio a flawed Christ figure. They're fallen people in a fallen world. But they're adventurers, risk-takers, believers in the infinite. And you have to admire that, at least.

Today is a beautiful, sunny day in my part of the globe. It's warm, but the air has that cool edge I always associate with spring. My dog is blissed out, running around like a wild thing. There are ducks on my pond, male and female. Some days life is so good, it can't just be an accident.

Happy Easter, Passover, and Ostara.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Down By Law

It's been a week since my last post, and this time I can't blame my own health. I've been in Florence Nightingale mode all week, taking care of a sick kid and a sick husband. Things seem to have stabilized, so I hope to post at least a couple more times in the next week. We're really getting to the heart of Act 4 now--two more posts should do it, I think.

In the trial scene, Shylock gets his comeuppance. And then some. As we'll see, the quality of mercy isn't only strained, it's positively suffocated to death.

But first, a few more thoughts on the problem of similarity and difference.

My Enemy, Myself

On the surface, the whole play grows out of a founding opposition between the rapacious, miserly Jew and the generous, spendthrift Christians. On the other hand, one could say that, while Shylock's venality is explicit, that of the Christians is implicit--I've already written about this in conjunction with Bassanio's mercenary motives for courting Portia, and the fact that Jessica and Lorenzo's marriage begins with a robbery. When it comes to trafficking in human flesh, moreover, the slave-owning Venetians haven't a moral leg to stand on.  And for all their talk about mercy and charity, they're way better at revenge and retribution.

Nevertheless, the Christians spend a lot of time telling each other that they're different from Shylock. Antonio insists that he doesn't lend money at interest, which is true as far as it goes. He loans money out of love. When one borrows money from a bank, one pays off the principal and the interest, and that's the end of it. Money loaned out of love or friendship exacts a much higher price--the emotional interest, one might say, is potentially infinite.

Again, just ask anyone who's ever borrowed money from family.

In Venice, the lack of precise accounting makes indebtedness measureless. Shylock doesn't understand how this turns money into power. Literalist that he is, he sees money as...money. That's why Jessica feels free to rob him without remorse--because he's attached no other meaning to money in her eyes. She, however, understands that her father's money will buy more than material objects. It buys her a future, and admission to the Christian aristocracy.

I've already written a lot about the differences between Shylock and the Venetians. But it seems to me that Will was more interested in the similarities that inhabit those differences. In the course of Act 4, Shylock and Antonio become mirror images of one another. Initially the victim of Antonio's scorn and harassment, Shylock turns the tables, making Antonio his victim. Then Portia turns them back again. Antonio proves to be just as vengeful as his enemy--arguably more so, because while Shylock wanted Antonio's life, Antonio demands more. He takes the Jew's livelihood and his identity, forcing him to live a lie. He kills him symbolically. After hearing the court's verdict against him, Shylock tells Portia that he'd rather die, because "you take my life when you do take the means whereby I live."

This is a direct paraphrase of Ecclesiasticus 34: "He that taketh away his neighbor's living, slayeth him." But then the Venetian Christians have never seen the Jew as a neighbor.

Unjust as it is, this kind of vengeance appeals to my Sicilian heart. I, too, have an enemy--just one, which, at this point in life, I take to be a triumph. This person, however, did something so bad, so undeserved to me that I used to wish hard for karmic justice. Unfortunately, this evil guy remains at the top of his profession and is unlikely to be karmically punished in this lifetime. And the badness in question was over ten years ago, so I certainly don't think about it on a daily or even monthly basis. But if I could exact some perfect punishment, it wouldn't be the Jew's simple and bloody revenge. It would be Antonio's utter eradication of his enemy's sense of self. Like Antonio, I wouldn't want my enemy's life. I'd want his soul.

Can you tell I had a Catholic education? Too much Dante, I guess.

But morally, I can see that this is a trap. Hatred--real, visceral, gut-twisting hatred--is a parasite. It kills the thing it feeds on. Before it does that, it turns the hater into a mirror image of her own enemy. And since my enemy is a morally desiccated, egocentric bastard, an empty husk corroded by vanity, I really don't want to become him. I have to let my hatred go, or accept the fact that my moral growth ended in southern Indiana sometime in 1997.

This mirroring thing works with ideas as well as individuals.  Look at the Cold War. Under McCarthyism, capitalists violated individual freedoms in the name of, well, freedom. Similarly, communists created an oppressive class of overlords that were fully as iniquitous as the monarchs they replaced.

And so it is with Shylock and Antonio. Shylock is at least up front about it. "The villainy you teach me I will execute," he says. Nothing subtle about that. "I'll be as nasty to you as you are to me." Antonio, like all the Christians, is in denial from beginning to end. He's not like Shylock. He's generous, and open-minded. Totally a victim of the Jew's bloodthirsty wolfishness. A sacrificial lamb. A Christ figure. A great guy.

And yet, he makes sure Shylock not only loses all his wealth, but also is forced to convert to a religion he hates. With Portia's help, Antonio exacts a cruel revenge against a man who has committed no crime. It's easy to forget that, but it's true. Shylock has done nothing but demand what the law owes him. Yes, the pound of flesh thing is reprehensible, but Antonio signed the paper. I'm going to say it again: Shylock committed no crime. Remember it.

A Daniel, A Daniel!

Portia is a good lawyer, despite having neither training nor credentials. But this is theater. I don't recommend trying this at home. If you find yourself or someone you love in legal hot water, hire a professional. My fellow blogger the Bad Lawyer has lots of tragi-comic stories about laypeople who think that lawyering is easy, a simple matter of shouting "You're out of order!" or, "Objection, hearsay."  Repeat after me: TV and movie trials have nothing to do with reality. Nothing.

And neither do Shakespearean trials. But there's nothing like a fake trial for drama, is there? I'm kind of surprised Will didn't write more of them. He could have been the Elizabethan Jodi Picoult. Every play could have had a trial. Just think of the possibilities.  Hamlet vs. Claudius! Desdemona vs. Iago! Juliet vs. her dad! Edgar vs. Edmund! MacDuff vs. Macbeth!

Just kidding.

At first, (as I pointed out last time), Portia pretends to be objective:  "Which is the merchant here, and which is the Jew?"  Although she asks the question for theatrical reasons--i.e., to pretend to an impartiality she has no intention of showing--it's really the question at the heart of Act 4.  You might remember that the play's earliest Elizabethan title was A Book of the Merchant of Venice, or Otherwise Called the Jew of Venice. Of course the actual merchant is Antonio, not Shylock. Jews weren't allowed in trade--that's why they became moneylenders. But Antonio is a moneylender, too. And also an outsider. Maybe that's why he hates Shylock so much. In the alien Jew, he sees something of his own strangeness--his tainted wether-ishness. He's a man who can't ever take part in the patriarchy. No cojones, culturally (and morally) speaking. No wonder he's such a sad sack at the beginning. 

But back to Portia. She's also depressed at the beginning of the play, but she perks up in Act 4. She gets to have some social and moral authority, and bossy girls love that. Take it from someone who knows....

She goes over the text of bond, and seems to find no loopholes. When Bassanio asks her to "wrest the law to [her] authority," she shakes her head with mock-regret:

It must not be. There is no power in Venice
Can alter a decree established.
'Twill be recorded for a precedent,
And many an error by the same example
Will rush into the state. It cannot be.

She knows her legalese--and her law. I can't bend the law to suit this case, she says, because otherwise the law itself will suffer. (This never stops real judges, even in the Highest Court of the Land, it seems to me, but never mind).

Shylock's overjoyed. "A Daniel come to judgment, yea, a Daniel!/O wise young judge, how I do honor thee!"

Well, not so fast. Shylock's exclamation turns around to bite him in the derriere, because the biblical Daniel story is about another fake lawyer, a young man who defends a virtuous woman against her prurient accusers--and ends up turning the tables on them. Susanna was a Hebrew wife who was spied upon in the bath by some religious elders. They accosted her while she was still naked and tried to force her to have sex with them, on pain of death--as punishment for promiscuity. Using a lot of puns involving trees (as I recall), Daniel proves that the elders are to blame. And so the accusers are accused.

Like Shylock.  You'd think, as a practicing Jew, he'd realize the dangerous irony lurking in his Daniel outburst, but apparently not--he's losing his literalist edge, it seems. In the end, he's out-literalized by a girl.

Next:  Portia makes up the law as she goes along.