The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.2042 Monday, 22 November 1999.
Date: Friday, 19 Nov 1999 11:22:25 -0500
Subject: Lords of the Rings
As a general rule, rings and other betrothal gifts and gifts of
affection have about the same longevity in Shakespeare as a new
girlfriend in a TV cop show (or the only black person in a horror
movie). They have a way of getting lost (with extremely negative
consequences, if handkerchiefs) or given away, often for bad reasons
(Bertram's purported use of his ancestral ring to seduce Diana,
Shylock's ring bartered for a monkey). We don't know what happens to
Olivia's ring (TN II,ii) except that Malvolio won't take it back and
Viola doesn't want it.
Olivia must have had plenty of rings, because by V,i,153 the priest says
that her contract with Sebastian is "strength'ned by interchangement of
your rings"-i.e., each gave one to the other. Although I would suspect
Petruchio of carrying a wedding ring on the off-chance of encountering
an heiress, I don't think Sebastian would. I just hope the ring wasn't a
gift from Antonio.
So far, it looks as though the pattern is that rings are not successful
in establishing lasting same-sex relationships. However, the experience
of the OTHER Antonio is a mirror image. In effect, Bassanio surrenders
his wedding ring because he places the homosocial (whether or not
homosexual) relationship higher than the more socially sanctioned
heterosexual marriage relationship.
"Keeping safe Nerissa's ring" is, as you'd expect of Gratiano, a crude
dirty joke-but at least in Yorkshire (see Reginald Hill's Dalziel and
Pascoe detective stories), "ring" is an anal rather than a vaginal
reference. Presumably also in Stephen King's Maine, where "ringmeat" is
a favored intramale insult.