Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Merchant of Venice

A Reader-response tour through Shakespeare's plays continues.

In acts four and five, I found myself more riveted to the text than I can ever recall being while reading Shakespeare.

If the world is a stage, what matter is the role we choose to play. 
Antonio: I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano,
A stage, where every man must play a part,
And mine a sad one.
Gratiano: Let me play the fool, (I.i. 80-83)

Though the world as stage is a common expression in Shakespeare, this particular passage uniquely hits me.  The emphasis is on the characters acting their roles--and if the world is a stage, we the players must consider our roles upon it.

I have a recurring dream in which I am an actor, but while on stage I struggle to remember my lines, my blocking, the scene I'm in, even the play I'm in.  I sometimes think this dream is where I play out my tension in life, where I may feel like I am acting a part, and I fear that soon an audience will discover that I really don't know what I'm doing.  And I'm also a recovering existentialist, so I do find this focus on the roles we choose to play interesting.   So there are reasons a passage like this draws me.

But it also makes me think about the importance of character in drama.  In fiction or poetry, there are many elements of the work that can be ascendant.  But in performed drama, character must be ascendant--it is the actors upon the stage which must command our attention.  If 20th century dramatists like Beckett, Pinter, or Stoppard worked toward abolishing the traditional conventions of drama, perhaps their greatest challenge was smashing consistent characters.

Is any racism in the play offset by the playwright's giving to Shylock this, as poignant a passage as any in Shakespeare?

"I am a Jew.  Hath not a Jew eyes?  Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?  fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?  If you prick us, do we not bleed?  If you tickle us, do we not laugh?  If you poison us, do we not die?" (III.i)

I have trouble believing it was an anti-Semite that wrote these lines.  Furthermore, when Shylock is accused of cruelty, he counters the accusation by referencing the cruelty of the Christian world.  In Act 3, scene 1:

"And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?  If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.  If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility?  Revenge.  If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example?  Why, revenge.  The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction."

And in Act 4, scene 1, lines 90-100:

"Duke: How shalt thou hope for mercy, rend'ring none?
Shylock: What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?
You have among you many a purchased slave,
Which, like your asses and your dogs and your mules,
You use in abject and in 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.'"

Appearances and Disguise
In Act 3, scene 2, Bassanio has a lengthy speech on distrusting appearances, and later in the play Portia and Nerissa disguise themselves as men.  I've noted before that the disconnect between appearance and reality is a common theme in literature and in my lit course.  It goes further: in the composition class I teach this semester, our first unit is on Fairy Tales with an emphasis on Cinderella.  A common theme we find in Fairy Tales is deceit, disguise, and the importance of distrusting appearances.  This is theme is runs deep--it is old and ubiquitous, appearing in stories from many ages and told for many audiences.

Antonio's Nonresistance
I often read books on religious pacifism (notably works by Yoder and Tolstoy) which emphasize the Christian command not to return evil with evil, to respond to threat of violence with internal and external peace.  Antonio's words as he prepares to face his own violent death strike me as an expression in the Christian pacifist vein:

                               "I do oppose
My patience to his fury, and am armed
To suffer with a quietness of spirit
The very tyranny and rage of his." (IV.i.11-14)

Mercy and Justice
I might also here reference one of the firmest lessons I took from the religion of my youth--because you are forgiven your sins, you must forgive others their sins against you.  Says a disguised Portia:

"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." (IV.i.203-207)

Jesus tells a parable about a servant being forgiven a large debt, then demanding immediate payment from another servant for a small debt; when the master who forgave the large debt hears about that, he gets angry and punishes the servant.  This theme is shown in the treatment (or is it cheating?) of Shylock--he cruelly withheld mercy, and is thus treated with no mercy.   Yet I see a contradiction.  Isn't it a form of "justice" to withhold mercy from Shylock because he withheld mercy?  And didn't Portia just tout mercy over justice?  To follow the standard Portia asked of Shylock, they should now mercifully forgive Shylock, letting him go on his way without punishing him.  Though the Duke and Antonio grant him some leniency, they still do punish Shylock (pretty severely, I would think).  Shylock gets his "just" reward because he demanded justice instead of mercy--and the very people who asked him to show mercy are not now willing to show him terribly much mercy at all.

The theme of mercy gets a more light-hearted treatment in Act 5, when Portia and Nerissa forgive their husbands for giving away their rings.

Sprigs on a Barrel Organ
Dostoevsky's underground man insists on irrational motivations driving human behavior, and that furthermore, these irrational drives are directly tied to free will.  Here's what Shylock has to say:

"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,
Master of passion, sways it to the mood
Of what it likes or loathes.  Now for your answer:
As there is no firm reason to be rend'red
Why he cannot abide a gaping pig,
Why he a harmless necessary cat,
Why he a woolen bagpipe, but of force
Must yield to such inevitable shame
As to offend, himself being offended,
So can I give no reason, nor I will not." (IV.i.48-60)

This passage perhaps makes us sprigs on a barrel organ: though we don't know the psychological reasons we loathe certain things, nonetheless we do, and are compelled beyond our will to respond in certain ways to those things we loathe.  It is not a free unreason--there are many schools of psychology that could try take us beyond "there is no firm reason."


  1. Nice post. I was wondering how you were coming along with all of this.

  2. And not only have I seen Mama Mia, this weekend I was tortured with the ABC Family classic "A Cinderella Story" starring Hillary Duff. Luckily, I was able to get out of the sequel, "Another Cinderella Story."

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