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Home :: Archive :: 1999 :: April ::
Re: Chooseth
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.0790  Friday, 30 April 1999.

[1]     From:   Sean Lawrence <
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        Date:   Thursday, 29 Apr 1999 09:21:44 +0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.0780 Various Responses

[2]     From:   Brian Haylett <
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        Date:   Thursday, 29 Apr 1999 15:52:21 +0100
        Subj:   The Merchant


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sean Lawrence <
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Date:           Thursday, 29 Apr 1999 09:21:44 +0000
Subject: 10.0780 Various Responses
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.0780 Various Responses

Thanks, Frank, for your thoughtful response to my ideas about generosity
and exchange in Merchant.  I particularly appreciated your citation of
Harry Berger, since I enjoy his work enormously, though not always
agreeing with it.

I suppose that our disagreement comes down to two items, starting with
the most central:

1. What is a gift?  According to Hobbes, it's always to be understood as
part of an exchange.  "For benefits oblige; and obligation is thraldome;
and unrequitable obligation, perpetuall thraldome; which is to ones
equall, hatefull."  He goes on to say that gratitude is a sort of
retribution (part 1, chapter 11 of Leviathan).  Montaigne, on the other
hand, claims that in a gift between true friends, it is the donor who is
truly placed under obligation, since he's given the opportunity to
present a gift ("On Friendship.")

The question, in my mind, comes down to whether it's possible to give a
pure gift, or whether all gift-giving is to be understood as part of a
system of exchange.  This is also a question in recent theory, with
Derrida claiming that pure gifts are impossible, but perhaps necessary,
while Jean-Luc Marion and Emmanuel Levinas claim that completely
assymetrical relations are possible, though antecedent to reason.

2. Is Portia giving a gift in Montaigne's sense (the way, say, that I
might cheerfully make dinner for my wife without feeling that she owes
me one) or in Hobbes's?  I won't begin to answer this, but just want to
note that it's at least possible that she really is giving away
everything, and becomes worried by the assymetry of her gift to Bassanio
after the fact, on realizing that he remains far more committed to
Antonio than to her, or perhaps immediately on realizing out loud her
conspicuous impoverishment.  The play would then raise the possibility
of pure love with a pure gift, only to show that it's incompatible with
social order, represented under the figure of matrimony.  One could make
a similar argument about the "quality of mercy" speech:  it raises the
possibility of an essentially Divine generosity, only to show that it
has no purchase in the all-too-human Venetian world of debts, merchants,
and commercial law, with its demands for equity in exchanges. The play,
then, meditates on the difference between the ex nihila purity of Divine
giving, and the exchanges which govern this world.  The Jews and
Christians become equal because both rely on networks of (at least
symbolic) exchange, outside the gratuity of Grace.

Cheers,
Se

 

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