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Home :: Archive :: 1999 :: May ::
Re: Chooseth
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.0828  Friday, 7 May 1999.

[1]     From:   Frank Whigham <
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        Date:   Thursday, 06 May 1999 08:26:57 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.0823 Re: Chooseth

[2]     From:   Brian Haylett <
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        Date:   Thursday, 6 May 1999 16:16:49 +0100
        Subj:   The Merchant

[3]     From:   Sean Lawrence <
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        Date:   Thursday, 06 May 1999 12:18:04 +0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.0823 Re: Chooseth

[4]     From:   W. L. Godshalk <
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        Date:   Thursday, 06 May 1999 17:18:49 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.0823 Re: Chooseth


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Frank Whigham <
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Date:           Thursday, 06 May 1999 08:26:57 -0500
Subject: 10.0823 Re: Chooseth
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.0823 Re: Chooseth

I definitely agree with Ed's sense of Antonio's embrace of his death
(with its repeated self-sacrificing refusals of trial aid) as combative,
seeing death as the gift that cannot be repaid (by Bassanio) or trumped
(by Portia), without presuming (not that Ed does) that we must see it as
simply agonistic.  After all, loss of the uttermost goal may also
simultaneously trigger the essentially self-referential desire to check
out. Still, shrinks routinely read suicide as vengeful (too). Without
waxing too psychoanalytic, if we read Antonio's introductory "sadness"
as depression (in my view, over lost love: see "fie, fie"), and if we
see depression as rage turned inward, as popular psychology (seldom just
stupid) suggests, a nice doublet arises. Perhaps Calvin and Hobbes offer
a less doctrinaire version: on a day when Calvin has a rotten time at
school, his mom reams him out, etc., and he tells Hobbes "I wish I was
dead!" Then he gets a little light bulb, and his eyebrows knit into that
single evil one that's so eloquent, and he says, "No! I wish everybody
else was dead!"

The caskets are, as Dave says, very important. In my first publication
(RenD 1979) I argued that they function as Portia's father's status
filter, and raised the question of whether the filter works or is fooled
by Bassanio. I still wonder about that, these decades later, but if they
(the caskets) work, then indeed Bassanio can be said to receive the
dowry from the father along with, and past, the bride. (If he cheats the
test, successfully assuming the mantle of the father's vestments, then
we have a partial analogy with Jessica stealing her dowry/birthright.)

There's another variable, though. Are we to see Portia as a Venetian
bride or an English one? It is my understanding (this is old research,
and I can't on the spot say where I got it, and maybe I'm just wrong)
that Venetian brides could hold, withhold, and bequeath such things as
land despite husbands' will. In other words, no automatic coverture. In
England, though, the acquisition by marriage would ipso facto accomplish
what Dave speaks of: the transfer of the lands right past Portia to
Bassanio. If this scenario applies, then Portia's fantasy multiplication
of the assets would seem to operate at least partly as an attempt to
extract whatever surplus or symbolic value she can get as her father's
lands pass her by, to use to indebt Bassanio. What she has left to give
(after the choosing) is what she can conjure up in Bassanio's head. Not
so in Venice, where the lands may be seen as genuinely hers to give.  (I
probably need to reread this stuff. I'm not sure I've been clear.)

One other thing. MV is a play that arouses audience passions still, and
I know that I am temperamentally inclined, perhaps even driven, to
experience it as a very bitter play. Lots of smart people experience the
marital transaction here as quite otherwise. I suspect that at bottom I
am incapable of giving a fully genuine hearing to the kind of argument
Dave makes, owing to root presuppositions. I don't say that I'm
incapable of believing in some of the basic idealizations of marital
self-commitment in general, or in other cases (such as my own marriage),
but the degree to which I simply ("simply"?) find Portia repellent
clearly tells me that I'm not just constructing a rational
interpretation based on prior and controlling textual facts (presuming
for the moment that such a thing is possible). I still think it's
perfectly credible to view Portia as I do, professionally credible, but
I think that in some such cases the role of the interpreter's needs is
epistemologically quite significant. One essential thing the theater
people on this list offer us is the continual reminder that that
"meaning" is an incomplete account of a play, that some theatrical
economy of desire (such as Tom Cartelli presents so richly in Marlowe,
Shakespeare, and the Economy of Theatrical Experience) is also crucial.
Those of us professionally inclined to a hermeneutic of suspicion and
unmasking need a complex account of the longings that plays arouse and
nourish.  It's easy to recognize and respect a longing to take as real
that it's "humanly possible [to make] a free, unconditional, and
authentic gift of the self by one person to another," as Dave puts it;
by no means whatever do I want to seem to know, to suggest archly, that
it's a silly longing. Quite the reverse.

Anyway, I make no claims that my take (I use the word advisedly) is just
a view driven by the text. But I sense a large gap between Portia's
capacities for authentic self-binding giving and that of humans in
general.

Frank

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Brian Haylett <
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Date:           Thursday, 6 May 1999 16:16:49 +0100
Subject:        The Merchant

The casket scenes show clearly enough the distinction between appearance
and reality, the fallacy of judging a box by its appearance or label.
But what does that imply about the other section of the plot? Why are we
concerned that Shylock shall henceforth bear the label of 'Christian'
when he will still be Shylock? I realise there could be a theoretical
argument based on the numbers who died for their religion, but that
never seems an issue in The Merchant. We are instead presented only with
the application of a false outside to a character unwilling to change in
reality.

Are we completely sure that even a willing conversion, that of Jessica,
is the last word? Is a Jew still a Jew? If so, she will, with Lorenzo's
assistance, 'fall parti-colour'd lambs' - which will be a kind of
victory for Shylock. Talking of labels, what does 'Christian' mean in
this play?  Someone who does not approve of the taking of interest, just
as 'Jew' means someone who does - nothing else of importance is at
stake. This means that any anti-Semitism is of a very restricted kind,
and it also raises the question of whether there is not an ironic
backlash against the Christians.  Would Christian moneylenders be quite
so magnanimous, or is their position based on the historical accident
that nearly all the moneylending was done by the Jews? One of Goddard's
arguments was that Antonio's ships are out there making money for him,
so he can afford to spit on someone who makes his money at home. It
could be claimed that there is a disparity beween the appearance and
reality of the Christian cause (though not, I claim, of Antonio
personally).

These issues are liable to turn back upon themselves; perhaps here we
have a true case of drama presenting the problems and leaving the
audience to look for their own answers. Perhaps indeed our discussions
of the Hal/Henry trilogy and other plays reveal only this: that we
cannot give more than our personal prejudices - which is valuable,
provided that we do not, as was mentioned the other day, merely talk
past each other.

May I quickly add that I have read Clifford Stetner's Gobbo essay, as
well as his contributions to the list. We must differ.

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sean Lawrence <
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Date:           Thursday, 06 May 1999 12:18:04 +0000
Subject: 10.0823 Re: Chooseth
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.0823 Re: Chooseth

David Evett suggests that

>On this
>basis I would argue that within Mer (and at other points as well)
>Shakespeare offers as humanly possible a free, unconditional, and
>authentic gift of the self by one person to another.  Which doesn't mean
>that such a gift won't get banged around by circumstance, and remain
>forever as pure and whole as when first offered.

I think that this goes to the heart of the issue-can a gift be both
gratuitous and a matter of exchange simultaneously?  Can it exist in the
(economic) world without being of the world?

There's a parallel, I think, in Levinas's theory of language.  Quite
apart from the content of what is spoken (the said) is the interpersonal
generosity of speaking to someone (the saying); Stanley Cavell might
say, "acknowledging." Robert Eaglestone, in Ethical Criticism:  Reading
after Levinas, explains this by quoting Louis Armstrong's "It's a
Wonderful World":  "I see friends shaking hands / Saying 'How do you
do?' / They're really saying / 'I love you'."  There's a sense in which
the specific signs don't really matter, or at least not nearly as much
as the fact of reaching out to another person.  In fact, as soon as love
is spoken, it's betrayed.  It ceases to be a "saying"-interpersonal and
generous-and becomes a "said"-a series of words that can be manipulated
like any other object.  We can think of how the generosity with which
Antonio lays down his life for Bassanio becomes a "bond" that can be
manipulated into an instrument of murder, or an excuse for forced
conversion and impoverishment.

We might be able to apply this to gift-giving.  The generosity of giving
has a value in itself, that is betrayed at the moment of its
realization, when the gift becomes just another sign, another object of
exchange and manipulation.  Portia's surrender is a moment of pure
generosity, but as soon as such generosity is spoken, as soon as it is
"signed" by the transfer of house, lands, goods and self, it becomes a
"said", an object in an economy of exchange.

Despite this betrayal, according to Levinas, every "said" contains a
"trace" (he was using this term decades before Derrida) of a "saying".
Even the formality of "How do you do?" contains a trace of "I love
you."  I'm not in a position to really explain this-I haven't done the
necessary reading, and it would probably take too long even if I had-but
I think that such a structure would allow a gift to retain at least an
element of generosity, even while being "banged around by circumstance."

Cheers,
Se

 

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