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Home :: Archive :: 1999 :: June ::
Re: Chooseth
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.1003  Tuesday, 15 June 1999.

[1]     From:   Chris Stroffolino <
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        Date:   Sunday, 13 Jun 1999 23:08:08 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.0993 Re: Chooseth

[2]     From:   Clifford Stetner <
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        Date:   Monday, 14 Jun 1999 13:01:44 -0400
        Subj:   Chooseth

[3]     From:   Judith Craig <
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        Date:   Monday, 14 Jun 1999 13:43:03 -0500
        Subj:   SHK 10.0993 Re: Chooseth


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Chris Stroffolino <
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Date:           Sunday, 13 Jun 1999 23:08:08 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: 10.0993 Re: Chooseth
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.0993 Re: Chooseth

In response to Mike Jensen, it's possible that Portia is not telling an
out and out lie when she vows to live in prayer and contemplation in
3.4. Sure, she dresses up as a male judge, but there is no indication
that her actions in Act 4 definitively preclude "prayer and
contemplation" as such. Given the comically severe skepticism in this
play, as well as its attempts to break down the "worldly" vs.
"otherworldly" dualism so beloved of traditional popular Xtianity ("what
does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his soul" for
instance), it would be in line that Shakespeare is asking us to
reconsider, and perhaps redefine, the relationship between "prayer and
contemplation" and Portia's worldliness. Certainly she's contemplative,
and she also has her prayers.

----chris

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Clifford Stetner <
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Date:           Monday, 14 Jun 1999 13:01:44 -0400
Subject:        Chooseth

I am busy completing papers so I don't have ready access to the
citations, but two things I came across recently support my views of the
meaning of the Merchant of Venice:

An Elizabethan play or poem called "Jacob and Esau," which takes a
biblical legend once used by the Roman Church as an Old Testament
prophecy of the passing of the old dispensation of the Jews to the
Christians and adapts it to the English Reformation.  This is the kind
of ideology I see unifying the various threads of the plot of the
Merchant (note also that Jacob appears in Shylock's relation of one of
the most morally problematic episodes in the Old Testament: the story of
Jacob and Laban, as a defense of capitalism)

Second, I originally read Portia as representing a kind of Spenserian
aspect of Elizabeth's persona.  Her father's will in this play primarily
figures the sovereignty over the English Church bequeathed to her by
Henry VIII (a legal status with profound spiritual implications).
Nerissa's opening comment about those being happiest being seated in the
mean is a reference to the middle way characterizing Elizabeth's
approach to reformation.  Last week I discovered two of Spenser's
characters named Lerissa and Merissa (or something like that) from the
Fairy Queen (or somewhere. I'm sorry, I just don't have the time. If you
email me I'll look up the exact refs.  Maybe someone else can furnish
the info).  While this doesn't say anything about problems of
Elizabethan theology, it confirms, for me at least, that middleness is a
significant element of Nerissa's function.  Given its consistency with
the unity of the themes I have defined, I consider the Spenserian source
of Nerissa's name more good evidence.

As to Portia's racism, I think it goes far beyond the slur on Morocco's
tone, hue, cast, golden complexion.  Portia trots out all the latest
Elizabethan bigotry in describing all of her suitors.  While she seems
to save the worst for the Englishman, his only fault is that he imitates
all the others.  In other words, he has no national character of his own
which is a kind of a backhanded compliment: i.e. all his faults are
imitations of the faults of others.  Portia exemplifies a kind of rabid
nationalism that for the Elizabethan English was perfectly politically
correct.  Her description of the characterless English suitor expresses
the anxiety that created this nationalism, and it was this nationalism
that induced common Englishmen to support the monarchy in its
excommunication from the Roman Church.

As to the location of Belmont.  Wouldn't it be natural for a London
audience to recognize the contrast between  town and country in Venice
and Belmont?  In part, Belmont's air of superiority over Venice reflects
the valorization of the wealth of the old landed aristocracy over new
bourgeois capitalism.  I see Bassanio and company as modeled on middle
class courtiers like Sidney, etc., seeking more or less successfully
after favorite status, in which case Belmont primarily figures the royal
court in London, but the life of a royal favorite would be divided more
or less equally between town and country.  I see Belmont as the life of
leisure of a royal favorite, whether at Penshurst or Essex House.

As to Portia's clues, until we can get into a wayback machine and hear
the original company sing the song, the question seems to me to be
ultimately subject to opinion.  Both readings are supported by the text,
therefore both must remain equally authoritative.  I certainly disagree
that giving Bassanio clues would contradict the nature of Portia's
character.  As others have pointed out, she practices a great deal of
deception (though all of it ostensibly benign (unless you're Shylock)

As I mentioned in an earlier post, her clues reflect Reformation
theological issues involving the relative efficacy of works and grace in
achieving salvation.  You may have heard that the Pope has just declared
salvation attainable through grace alone.  I don't know if the Catholics
of the world are aware yet that they are now Protestants.  Perhaps this
will end the insanity in Ireland.  Be that as it may, many Elizabethan
Calvinists would have liked an Anglicanism which acknowledged the
efficacy of grace alone.  The constructing of an English religion,
however, involved work: like the caskets trial, the work of choosing
among guiding principles.  Bassanio's success reflects therefore the
Elizabethan middle way in that his works earned him salvation but not
without the grace of Portia's election.

If Portia's clues help Bassanio, moreover, she has broken the spirit but
not the letter of the law (her father's will).  This contrast between
letter and spirit of law, also figured in the lead casket, the flesh
bond, and the ring bond, as well as Launcelot's dilemma, Jessica's
filial disloyalty, Jacob and Laban, etc. was one of the defining
theological issues of the English Reformation and the reason I feel
confident that that historical movement is the real subject of the
Merchant of Venice.

Clifford Stetner
CUNY
www.columbia.edu/~fs10/cds.htm

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Judith Craig <
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Date:           Monday, 14 Jun 1999 13:43:03 -0500
Subject: Re: Chooseth
Comment:        SHK 10.0993 Re: Chooseth

Mike Jensen writes:

>I think there is a
>difference between telling a lie as a plot device and making a
>commitment.  I should have stuck with the idea of commitment.  I don't
>see the two as a problem for her.  She keeps her commitments and expects
>others to keep theirs.  If there is a failure to do so, there is
>forgiveness, but the commitment is taken seriously.  Unless I'm wrong.

I don't think you are wrong, Mike.  Portia doesn't "lie" in the sense of
breaking a commitment or swearing falsely:  she simply gives the
impression that she and Nerissa will "see our husbands/Before they think
of us" (3.4.58-59) "in such a habit,/That they shall think we are
accomplished/With that we lack" (3.4.61-63).  As all readers of Love's
Labours Lost know, life in the academy or in school is equated with
monkish behavior by Berowne, and Portia's subsequent lawyer's habits
(dress as well as actions) don't betray the rank sensuality that
Bassanio's past reveals.

Judy Craig
 

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