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Home :: Archive :: 1999 :: May ::
Re: Chooseth
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.0862  Monday, 17 May 1999.

[1]     From:   Larry Weiss <
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        Date:   Friday, 14 May 1999 11:26:10 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.0860 Re: Suffering and Choosing

[2]     From:   Clifford Stetner <
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        Date:   Friday, 14 May 1999 12:45:37 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.0823 Re: Chooseth

[3]     From:   Pete McCluskey <
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        Date:   Friday, 14 May 1999 11:37:50 -0600 (CST)
        Subj:   Where's the fancy bread?

[4]     From:   Ben Schneider <
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        Date:   Sunday, 16 May 1999 12:27:23 +0000
        Subj:   Chooseth


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Larry Weiss <
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Date:           Friday, 14 May 1999 11:26:10 -0400
Subject: 10.0860 Re: Suffering and Choosing
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.0860 Re: Suffering and Choosing

Brian Haylett wrote:

>Please explain how this would work. If you assume - as I hope - that
>Bassanio would make the same choice unaided, then the point is a
>harmless one. But if you are claiming that he makes his choice guided by
>her, then you have undermined much of the play.
>
>1. The caskets scenes become either pointless or ironic.

True, but so what?  It could well be the point that Portia should try to
circumvent having her will thwarted by the will of a dead man.

>2. Seeing through superficial appearances is no longer an issue - it is
>who you know that counts.

In other words, Shakespeare was making a point about reality and not the
fairy kingdom.  How unusual.

>3. Bassanio is a hypocrite in his major speech, and we could reasonably
>look for some comeback on that later.

Isn't Bassanio's hypocrisy a recurring theme?

>4. Portia should have played songs to put off the suitors she did not
>like, instead of helping them with the 'hazard' clue.

She might not have know which was the correct casket until Morocco and
Aragon chose the wrong ones.

>5. Bassanio's earlier carefree attitude to money is no longer a
>meaningful clue to his eventual choice.

I never considered Bassanio to have a carefree attitude toward money-"In
Belmont is a lady richly left."  The fact that he isn't good at managing
money doesn't mean that it is of no consequence to him.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Clifford Stetner <
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Date:           Friday, 14 May 1999 12:45:37 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: 10.0823 Re: Chooseth
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.0823 Re: Chooseth

>As for Clifford Stetner's ingenious allegorization of Jessica as Divine
>Grace producing the Elizabethan Settlement, it seems to me impossible to
>sustain through the images of the eloping lovers' profligacy (Leah's
>turquoise for a monkey is bad stewardship in any economy) and those
>curious dark allusions in the garden scene-Troilus and Cressida, Dido
>and Aeneas, Pyramus and Thisbe, Medea (5.1.1-14).

I agree that, if this is an example of Shakespearean allegory, it does
not follow the rules of the allegory of the Middle Ages.  I would argue
that the nature of allegorical narrative changed in the Renaissance in
ways analogous to changes in the visual arts and music (you can probably
tell that I'm fascinated by analogies and metaphors).   Medieval
allegory, such as the Divine Comedy, the Romance of the Rose, and
Morality plays pretended to the symmetry and consistency that was
believed to underlie the biblical narrative (as well as the natural
world), so that any character or event, if examined, should reveal a
coherent meaning on each of the four levels of signification.

We can see this same kind of obsession with structure over naturalistic
representation in medieval painting.  I believe this similarity is
pretty generally acknowledged as indicative of qualities of medieval
European culture and phenomenology, as is the change from a medieval
European art, based on iconography, to one based on naturalism, which
was believed to be a return to Classical purity and part of the whole
notion of "Renaissance" that was originally generated by the recovery of
the ancient texts.

At the risk of seeming reductionist (this is often the consequence of
trying to trace the reductionism in much Renaissance thought) a move in
poetry similar to the transformation of painting, can be seen as a move
from a Virgilian to an Ovidian mode of allegory, in which the naturalism
is emphasized defining the poem as an aesthetic object while allegorical
iconography is communicated largely through suggestion.

Shakespeare's allegory is conveyed by suggestion rather than consistent
one-to-one correspondences of sign to meaning.  Rather than placing the
dove at the center of the top of the painting, symbolizing the place of
the holy ghost in the divine architecture, the dove is placed on a
branch in the background where its symbolic connotation seems to come to
us by our own inspiration.

Jessica's behavior is certainly not consistent with her role as divine
grace passing from the Roman to the English church.  However, her
exchange of ring for monkey is described in the context of Shylock's
misfortunes, and in that context is a fitting metaphor for the loss of
grace he must suffer through his attempts to keep her through loveless
authority and law.

As Christ represented the principle of Love which fulfilled and rendered
obsolete the Mosaic law represented by the Pharisees, the Elizabethan
Anglicans, represented by Bassanio and Lorenzo, et al, draw her away
with love from the legalistic bond to the Romish Church represented by
Shylock.

The English Reformation began with the breaking of a bond: namely, the
marriage bond of Henry VIII to Aragon (note the name of the silver
prince).  Portia's defense of Antonio's release from his bond to Shylock
resembles arguments the lawyers of the English ecclesiastical law courts
might use to defend what is in itself a kind of real life allegory: the
simultaneous divorce of Henry from Katherine and of England from Pope.

This reading depends on an assumption that dramatists and audience were
obsessed with these issues when the play was staged and that that
obsession would have determined their interpretation of symbols like the
caskets.

Portia descends from her bel mount to Bassanio like Beatrice to Dante.
But she also resembles Elizabeth in her role as spiritual head of the
English Church. It is her father's will that she feels compelled to
uphold, and the rhyming clues she offers Bassanio represent the role of
God's mercy in the Protestant scheme of salvation, another of the many
incidents of less than strict adherence to bonds and laws.  The
protestants, of course, rejected the Catholic notion of the sufficiency
of works to attain salvation.  For the Calvinists, God, like Portia, had
to choose you, and for the Lutherans, He had to give you a little help.
I realize that, if Spain or Morocco had won, this logic would not hold,
but they don't. It is clear that what Bassanio achieves is salvation,
not so much of his body, in being transported to the paradise of
Belmont, but of his soul figured in his altruistic love for the
merchant.

In trying to discover overriding themes in Shakespeare's plays, I'm
always drawn to the clownish characters.  Like Autolycus in the Winter's
Tale, much of what Launcelot speaks seems like madness, yet I think
there's method in it.  Much of the audience would relate to the dilemma
of a good guy tied to a bad master more than to a dissolute courtier
seeking a marriage of advantage.  If we can forgive Launcelot for
breaking his bond, then may God forgive the English commoner for his
apostasy.

Clifford Stetner
CUNY

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Pete McCluskey <
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Date:           Friday, 14 May 1999 11:37:50 -0600 (CST)
Subject:        Where's the fancy bread?

Brian Haylett offers a generous two cent's worth in response to my
suggestion that Portia offers Bassanio several clues in the Fancy Bred
song.

>Please explain how this would work. If you assume - as I hope - that
>Bassanio would make the same choice unaided, then the point is a
>harmless one. But if you are claiming that he makes his choice guided by
>her, then you have undermined much of the play.

I agree that Bassanio would make the correct choice unaided.  In fact, I
doubt that the clues really register with him, unless subliminally.
Nevertheless, the idea that Portia is offering clues does not
necessarily undermine the play.

>1. The caskets scenes become either pointless or ironic.

What's wrong with irony?  As for being pointless, the game does fulfill
its intended purpose of selecting Portia's spouse.  What is interesting
about the idea of her coaching the suitor she desires is that Portia has
found a way to uphold the letter ofher father's law but not its spirit.
As I pointed out in my original post, she fulfills both her will and her
father's, thus resolving the tension introduced in her speech to Nerissa
about a living daughter's will curbed by that of a dead father.
Furthermore, this manipulation of the law offers an interesting parallel
to the courtroom scene, thus strengthening the connection between the
play's twin plots.

>2. Seeing through superficial appearances is no longer an issue - it is
>who you know that counts.

Just like in real life, I'm afraid.  Actually, it is worth noting that
Portia herself fails to see through Bassanio's counterfeit appearance of
wealth-he has to confess himself to her after he has claimed his prize.

>3. Bassanio is a hypocrite in his major speech, and we could reasonably
>look for some comeback on that later.

Bassanio is a prodigal and an imposter; why can't he also be a
hypocrite?  And the entire fifth act strikes me as a comeback to
Bassanio and Gratiano.

>4. Portia should have played songs to put off the suitors she did not
>like, instead of helping them with the 'hazard' clue.

Your statement is unclear-Portia doesn't help out the others with the
hazard song.  As for her trying to subvert the process, well, I don't
get the impression that she knows the correct casket until the first two
have been opened, so she couldn't use clues or red herrings to Morocco
and Arragon.  (As for Portia's willingness to subvert the process,
consider her desire to distract the drunken German suitor with a glass
of wine placed upon a losing casket.)

>5. Bassanio's earlier carefree attitude to money is no longer a
>meaningful clue to his eventual choice.

I don't understand.  Who uses this meaningful clue and what is its
function?  Is it for the audience?

>How much easier to conclude that the song is meant for the audience, who
>now know what casket should be chosen and whose desires for Bassanio can
>be echoed by the opening rhyme. The song marks the culmination of the
>whole casket sequence, and here the audience are told that Fancy
>(fantasy, superficiality, false love) is being replaced by reality,
>depth of feeling, true love. Any more ironic approach would have to
>explain the discrepancy with the appearance-reality arguments in so many
>other Shakespeare plays.  When I directed this play for a school some
>thirty years ago, I had the song played from offstage, and no one -
>audience or cast - ever suggested it was a tip-off. I had heard the
>claim, of course, but it comes from the study, not the stage.

Hmm...the audience desires Bassanio?  I hope Portia doesn't find out.

As for the dismissive study/stage remark, I would like to hear from
other listmembers about how the song functions in other productions.
Has it ever been played as a tip-off?

In any case, there's no need to privilege the stage over the study (or
vice versa); both are important to our collective understanding and
appreciation of Shakespeare.

From my study,
Pete McCluskey

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ben Schneider <
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Date:           Sunday, 16 May 1999 12:27:23 +0000
Subject:        Chooseth

Dear Bill Godshalk,

Are you joking?  I don't think there is a shred of evidence, internal or
external, to support your claim that Bassanio is gay.  The play takes
great pains in the early scenes to show that dealing with a classical
Damon and Pythias relationship.   Portia herself praises the institution
in act 3.   External evidence abounds (see www.stoics.com) that such
friendships are admired specifically because they don't involve the
distraction of  sex.   See especially Montaigne on Friendship.  But you
know all this, so you must be pulling our legs.

 Yours ever to command,
     BEN
 

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