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Home :: Archive :: 1999 :: April ::
Re: Who Chooseth Me
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.0763  Tuesday, 27 April 1999.

[1]     From:   David Evett <
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        Date:   Monday, 26 Apr 1999 17:01:48 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.0749 Re: Who Chooseth Me

[2]     From:   Frank Whigham <
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        Date:   Monday, 26 Apr 1999 22:52:23 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.0749 Re: Who Chooseth Me


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Evett <
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Date:           Monday, 26 Apr 1999 17:01:48 -0400
Subject: 10.0749 Re: Who Chooseth Me
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.0749 Re: Who Chooseth Me

Ed Taft states, perhaps only carelessly, that "Shylock . . . plots
revenge against Antonio."  Not so, unless unbeknownst to us he has
bribed sailors and boatwrights to sabotage Antonio's ships, hired the
witches from Macbeth to raise storms, etc.  At best he, like Bassanio,
shoots an arrow the self-same way-better, maybe, just impulsively fires
back the one Antonio shot at him, and then discovers that contrary to
all reasonable expectation the fates have delivered it right on target.
An important question in doing the moral calculus of this play seems to
me whether Portia is right in treating the cutting of the pound of flesh
as indeed an attack on Antonio's life.  Men had presumably survived
wounds far more severe, though the threat of infection was always
considerable. But if Antonio will die of this one the "revenge" is
incommensurate with the initial insult, unless Shylock inhabits a
culture in which spitting on somebody's robe and the unfair commercial
practice of lending money without interest are capital crimes.  If
that's the case Portia's repeated invitations to Shylock to back off,
accept more than his original sum, exhibit the generosity that the smug,
morally superior Christians (except she) have not exhibited, seem to me
to rig the game in a way that at least initially favors the antagonist.

David Evett

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Frank Whigham <
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Date:           Monday, 26 Apr 1999 22:52:23 -0500
Subject: 10.0749 Re: Who Chooseth Me
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.0749 Re: Who Chooseth Me

 [snip]
>
>I think it's misleading to suppose that Bassanio is in it only-or even
>predominately-for the money.  That is, it's misleading to qualify
>Bassanio's "love" for Portia with the quotation marks.  The argument
>that he presents to Antonio showcases the financial part of the bargain
>because Bassanio apparently feels that Antonio needs to be assured of
>the prospect of financial success.  Bassanio insists on ignoring
>Antonio's earnest conjurations to be even and direct; we can assume he
>has taken great pains to prepare his text, if not to con it, and he will
>not easily be drawn out of it.  The concern with Portia's riches is part
>of a rhetorically sound (if misdirected) argument designed to persuade
>Antonio that this last venture will redeem all.
>
>Matt Kozusko    
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I tried to use enough "among other things" language to avoid the charge
of reductive "just for the bucks" thinking, but the spirit of the view I
was advancing is certainly skeptical and anti-romantic. And you're
right, of course (or rather, I quite agree), that Bassanio is focused on
trying to get Antonio's money. But why this necessarily entails the
separate idea that he doesn't mean what he says, and/or that his
language should not be taken to reveal something of his posture to
auditors and readers, I don't see. Why do you think WS would want to
write Bassanio as misreading Antonio on this score? To reserve
Bassanio's "true feelings" for the courtship of Portia, I'm guessing?
(You do seem to want to preserve his "love" for Portia as the main
motive, but I know I'm putting words in your mouth, always an irritating
move. And quotation marks too, I fear.) Anyway, I don't see this
segregation of motive. However, The Merchant of Venice is a play that
famously arouses friction between those who read it skeptically and
those who read it romantically. I think these points of view finally
talk right past one another for the most part. (I do stand by the use of
quotation marks to foreground matters as consequential but non-obvious
and difficult of definition.)

I certainly think that the idea of "being in it just for the money" is,
on our own tongues, usually a reductive and impoverished notion (as is
equally, in my view, an unqualified "doing it [simply] for love"). Money
and the powers it bears are among the most complex of notions. In my
department English professors care quite a lot about, say, both relative
and absolute salary levels, and find the matter brimming with symbolic
capital, and requiring very complex management. So here too, I would
say. As for many another insolvent young early modern male lead,
uneasily balancing gentry and prodigality, for Bassanio money (or
better, wealth) is an incredibly impacted social form. I think he wants
seed money to use in a representational effort to reaffirm or regain and
secure a specifically (or at least nominally) wealthy way of life that
he takes to be essentially defining of himself, and from which he is in
some danger of coming unmoored.  He spends the money on gifts, liveries,
trained messengers, etc., spends it as a way of being seen and validated
as holding an appropriately rival place with the other well-to-do
suitors, by representing himself (to them, to Portia, and to himself) as
one of them, as who he wants to be, insists on being, fears losing the
right to be, etc. He's caught, dangling, struggling, somewhat as
Middleton's Witgood is: "All's gone! Still thou'rt a gentleman, that's
all; but a poor one, that's nothing" (A Trick to Catch the Old One
1.1.1-2). This network of desires and fears is deeply entangled with
matters and effects of "love" and marriage (as the Stone passage I
quoted, about the frequency of upward marriages for young gents,
suggests). I don't think it's simply degrading, either. Portia can
enable him to be who he wants to be, who he insists he is, etc. Whether
she could do so without the enormous wealth the play gives her, I doubt.
In any case, this is the Portia we have.  Such "love" (Bassanio's) is
not so different from "ours" (to reify, as if we all have the same one;
perhaps a silly way to talk). Neither is ours simply free from material
pressures and limits. Indeed, these often seem to me crucially (but of
course not solely) determining of the meanings of such social bonding.
None of this complex is adequately captured by a language of greed or
moneylust-nor, in my view, by uncritical talk of "love."

I further agree about Bassanio generally and significantly resisting
being direct (as he is begged to be). However, he does finish his plea
with "O my Antonio," a phrase that reintroduces a directness of emotive
appeal in a way that can easily be linked with the highly persuasive
homoerotic account of Antonio, just as Bassanio's discursive resistance
to Antonio's offer of "purse and person" also may suggest his discomfort
with Antonio's too-open appeal to be allowed to give. I think Bassanio
wants the money and wants rather actively for it to install only some
kinds of indebtedness, not others. Still, contradictorily as I see it,
he summons intimate (and at least quasi-erotic) arousal with the "my" in
"O my Antonio" as a peroration, after conspicuously resisting it
throughout. I think he can't finally bear to leave this resource
completely unused.

Lots of stuff going on here. Including this post, so I'll stop.

Frank Whigham
 

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