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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Merchant of Venice– Shylock and The Smart Set


After having read all Shakespeare’s Histories and most of the Tragedies, it was a bit of a transition to get into The Merchant of Venice.  I was not yet familiar with the concept of “comedy” in Shakespearean terms (nor am still, but this my first comedy), and so had to stop looking for passages that illustrated familiar themes or confirmed my take on them.  So no palace coups, jealous family rivalries, murders and beheadings on the way to the throne (the last play I read was Titus Andronicus, the most bloody although far from the most intricate and intriguing movement of the Grand Mechanism), just playful hijinks. 

On the other hand Bloom suggests that Merchant might be “Shakespeare’s first ‘dark comedy’ or ‘problem play’, centered around Shylock and the Christian-Jewish confrontations throughout.  As Bloom also points out, Shylock has relatively few lines in the play, but his character is present nonetheless; and most people who think of the play, think of him, not Portia, Bassanio, or Antonio.  Therefore, Merchant was for me probably a good entry into the comedies because of familiar themes from the Tragedies and the Histories – revenge, for example, complicated because of the anti-Christian sentiments if not hatred of Shylock.  Shylock makes it clear that he hates Antonio for many reasons – first, because he has stolen clients from him (by not charging interest); but more importantly because of his anti-Semitism:

You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog,

And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine….

You that did void your rheum upon my beard

And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur

Over your threshold….

‘Fair sir, you spit on me Wednesday last,

You spurned me such a day, another time

You called me a dog; and for these courtesies

I’ll lend you money?

Shylock’s hatred of Antonio goes deeper still to a hatred of Christians.  When Bassanio, pleased that Shylock will loan him the 3000 ducats and invites him to dinner, Shylock replies:

Yes, to smell pork, to eat of the habitation which your prophet the Nazarite conjured the devil into!.  I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following; but I will not eat with you, drink with you, pray with you.

Yet, Shylock lends Antonio the money.  As is clear throughout the play, especially in his reaction to Jessica’s, running away, he is more concerned about the money than his daughter; but the loan is for 3000 ducats, a small amount (Portia is shocked to hear that the ‘pound of flesh’ is really over such a small amount, and she says that the will pay ten times that to rescind the bond); so why did Shylock lend it at all?  Is it because Antonio and his crowd are more virulently anti-Semitic than the rest of the Christians to whom he lends?  Shakespeare doesn’t say.  Is it because Antonio is both a business competitor and a Christian in addition to the anti-Semitism?  Again not clear. 

Most importantly how did he know that there was a likelihood that Antonio will default; that is that Bassanio will not have his expected revenues?  Bassanio has sent out a fleet of ships, not just one; and the chance of total loss is very small indeed.  As a good businessman, he certainly knew that the chances of default were very slim indeed.  Wouldn’t it have been more satisfying and sure to simply refuse the loan?  In other words, how could he have known that this deal would produce the revenge that he sought?  He couldn’t have.

In any case, the negative intensity of Shylock and his caricatured Jewishness make him the center of the play; and because of this intensity, he is akin to Iago, Edmund, Aaron the Moor, and others, thus making my transition from History/Tragedy to Comedy easier. In all these plays, the reader wonders about motives, for getting at motives gets at history, psychology, human nature.

It is very interesting that Shakespeare placed the character of Shylock within the setting of the in-crowd.  Bassanio, Antonio, Lorenzo, and Portia are all wealthy and well-to-do.  Bloom says:

Antonio lives for Bassanio and indeed is willing to die for him, and mortgages his pound of flesh  to Shylock solely so that Bassanio can deck his good looks out in order to wive it wealthily in Belmont.  Bassanio is not a bad fellow, but no one would want to try the project of distinguishing between Bassanio and Lorenzo, two Venetian playboys in search of heiresses….Notoriously, Portia’s play, and Portia herself and her friends are all about money.  Belmont is delightful, and obviously very expensive, and Portia, while wiser than Jessica, Nerissa, Gratiano, Lorenzo, and Bassiano, requires no loftier company than these well-dressed sophisticates…

…Portia and her friends in Act V are not exactly partying in a pumpkin, or in a gingerbread house, but in a great hall, serenaded by musicians, with a trumpet sounding at each fresh arrival.  Once the pretty matter of rings has been gotten through…the only crucial question is whether to stay up partying until dawn…Everyone is a lot fresher than they were going to be four centuries later in La Dolce Vita, but basically they are the same set (Shakespeare, Invention of the Human)

Perhaps the contrast between the in-crowd and the ultimate outsider, the Jew, was what Shakespeare sought.  The easy money of the in-crowd vs. the hard-earned, calculated money of the Jew.  Yes, Antonio lost all his ships, but the in-crowd would probably join forces and help him out.  Bassanio could also be relied on because of his love for Antonio, particularly after his marriage to the wealth Portia.

Perhaps this is the nature of Shakespearean comedy (which I still have to learn about) and that unless it is ‘dark’ it is not much different than romantic comedy on today’s New York stage – lighthearted, fanciful, carefree lovers tangled in love.

The one particular thing I liked about the gallivanting of the in-crowd was the attitudes of the women, particularly Portia, with regards the men in her life.  In the very funny scene in Act I (I,ii), Portia cattily characterizes her suitors who have to guess the contents of the gold, silver, and lead boxes.  The Neapolitan who does nothing “but talk of his horse”; and “his mother played false with a smith”.  Or the Palatine who never smiles. Or the French lord who “is every man in no man”.   The men fare no better in Act II when Aragon and Morocco come to be her suitors.

Bassanio and Lorenzo fare no better in the trick of the rings.  Portia and Nerissa both delight in telling their husbands that they had one night stands with the Judge and the Law Clerk to whom the rings were given. 

This all is reminiscent of the scenes where Cleopatra is joking with her servants about Antony, their sexual escapades, her sexuality – all at the expense of Antony.   I read that women are very strong in Shakespeare’s comedies, and I look forward to meeting them.

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