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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: October ::
Re: PBS Masterpiece Theatre/Merchant
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.2331  Friday, 12 October 2001

[1]     From:   Hardy M. Cook <
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        Date:   Friday, October 12, 2001
        Subj:   Apology

[2]     From:   Aubrey Chan <
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        Date:   Thursday, 11 Oct 2001 16:39:20 +0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.2323 Re: PBS Masterpiece Theatre/Merchant of Venice

[3]     From:   Larry Weiss <
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        Date:   Thursday, 11 Oct 2001 13:23:55 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.2323 Re: PBS Masterpiece Theatre/Merchant of Venice

[4]     From:   Louis Swilley <
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        Date:   Thursday, 11 Oct 2001 16:28:14 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.2323 Re: PBS Masterpiece Theatre/Merchant of Venice

[5]     From:   Sean Lawrence <
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        Date:   Thursday, 11 Oct 2001 20:33:44 -0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.2323 Re: PBS Masterpiece Theatre/Merchant of Venice


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Hardy M. Cook <
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Date:           Friday, October 12, 2001
Subject:        Apology

Let me apologize to Yacov Kenigsberg for not attributing to him his
excellent post of yesterday, which follows:

Although I did not recognize the melody to the song Jessica sang at the
end of MOV, but I did recognize the words. They were from "Eishet Chayil
(Woman of Valor)," which is traditionally sung by Jewish men at the
beginning of the friday night Sabbath meal in honor of their wives.

The words to "Eishet Chayil" are verses 10-31 of Proverbs 31 (the last
22 verses of the book). The verse Jessica sang was verse 12: "Gemalatu
tov, v'loh rah, col y'may chayehah (she repays his good, and not bad,
all the days of her life)" (my rough translation and even rougher
transliteration).

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Aubrey Chan <
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Date:           Thursday, 11 Oct 2001 16:39:20 +0000
Subject: 12.2323 Re: PBS Masterpiece Theatre/Merchant of Venice
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.2323 Re: PBS Masterpiece Theatre/Merchant of Venice

> Chris Stroffolino asked
> Does anybody know when this will be on TV in the bay
>area.....

Merchant was on KQED on Monday 08Oct2001 and KTEH on Tuesday 09Oct2001.
I guess you missed it.

Aubrey Chan
San Francisco

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Larry Weiss <
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Date:           Thursday, 11 Oct 2001 13:23:55 -0400
Subject: 12.2323 Re: PBS Masterpiece Theatre/Merchant of Venice
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.2323 Re: PBS Masterpiece Theatre/Merchant of Venice

Philip Tomaski wrote:

>  It seems strange to me that no
> one thinks of the 'alien' law until after Shylock has renounced his
> contract.  In fact, the implication is that the law has no bearing on
> the contract at all.  This flies in the face of my admittedly limited
> understanding of the law.  Killing an innocent person, whether done by
> an 'alien' or not, is pretty much universally a criminal offense.  It
> does not become legitimized simply by virtue of a contract.  I can't
> imagine this was not true in Venice at any point in its history.  Does
> anyone know if there is any basis for this, or is it simply one of those
> plot devices that does not bear 'thinking too precisely on the event'?

The important legal point to remember is that this is a fairy tale.   I
do not believe that English common law or equity would ever have granted
specific performance of a pound of flesh forfeiture, whether or not it
was prohibited by an alien law.  There were statutes aplenty forbidding
murder; but apart from that, a forfeiture which would result in the
death of defaulting party (other than by slow starvation in debtor's
prison, of course) would have been contrary to the common law.  (As an
aside, there is a question as to whether Shylock was seeking legal or
equitable redress.  Hew was asking for specific performance of his
contract, and today most courts regard that as equitable relief, but
from an historical standpoint that is in error as the law courts
traditionally granted specific performance as a legal remedy.)

An interesting point that I have never seen mooted is why Shylock did
not simply take his forfeiture without legal process.  There is no
indication that the bond required a foreclosure proceeding.  Since
Shylock could simply "fee ... an officer" to arrest Antonio, he might
have been able to take the pound of flesh by self-help.  In any
prosecution for murder, Shylock would have set up the defense of the
contract -- volente non fit iniuria.  Of course, the poor draftsmanship
on which Portia relied would presumably have defeated the defense.

Of course, if WS was intending to depict legal proceedings of any sort,
he had English process in mind, not Venetian.  But I doubt that Venetian
law of the Renaissance would have been any different on this point,
unless, of course, it received the ancient Roman legis actio per manus
iniectionem, which did not depend on a contract -- it was a statutory
procedure (legis actio) deriving from the Twelve Tables under which
creditors had the right to tear their debtors to pieces.  Interestingly,
the Roman statute anticipated Portia's argument, as it specifically
provided that if any creditor took more or less than his fair share it
was not a wrong.  It is probable that the creditors usually preferred
the alternative remedy of selling the debtor into slavery to realize the
debt.

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Louis Swilley <
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Date:           Thursday, 11 Oct 2001 16:28:14 -0500
Subject: 12.2323 Re: PBS Masterpiece Theatre/Merchant of Venice
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.2323 Re: PBS Masterpiece Theatre/Merchant of Venice

Philip Tomposki writes,

"It seems extremely cavalier of Portia to risk Antonio's life without a
clear foolproof plan.  In the PBS version Portia (Derbhle Crotty) seemed
to have assumed that her (and her money's) powers of persuasion would
carry the day.  When she realizes the depth of Shylock's hatred and
resolve, she appears to be in shock, thinking her bit of sport had
doomed her husband's friend.  This makes for high drama (Trevor Nunn was
clearly not aiming for comedy) but puts it Portia in a very bad light,
and I doubt it's what WS had in mind."

[The sense of all that has gone before in Portia's conduct at the trial
is her earnest desire to bring Shylock around to mercy and common sense
(twice to ten times the debt?) out of his own conscience.  In the PBS
production, she is almost successful in this, as  Shylock has early
shown his distaste for the task he is to perform and even at the very
point of cutting,  weeps and backs away from the gruesome task of taking
his pound of flesh.  But when he pulls himself together in his hate and
moves forward quickly and finally to cut, even against his own better
feeling, it is clear that every hope for self-correction in Shylock  has
been exhausted and Portia's next step must be taken to save Antonio's
life.  Granting her intentions, I don't believe that this puts Portia in
any but the best possible light.  As for Shakespeare's intentions, those
are whatever any good director and actor, faithful to the argument of
the play, makes them.  (And they appear to be so delightfully ambiguous
in this play as to warrant several possible interpretations.)]

"A more logical approach (not that logic necessarily is the best
approach in the theater) is to have Portia string Shylock along,
preparing a trap for him.  When it become undeniably clear that he does
intend to murder Antonio, Portia stops him, with a rather casual 'Tarry
a little' before presenting her 'jot of blood' ploy.  When he finally
abandons his suit, she springs the 'alien' on him.  This works better in
a comic setting, with Portia calmly making her pronouncements, thereby
signifying she has something up her sleeve.  The audience can then enjoy
the tribulation of Antonio and his friends and Shylock's triumph,
knowing that the situation will soon be reversed, all the while
wondering what the clever gal has planned."

[Although there is a possible consistency in this, inasmuch as Portia
will later test her husband's fidelity by insisting on the gift of the
ring, the much greater seriousness of the attempted evocation of mercy
in Shylock does not suggest anything comic.  At the end of the trial,
the treatment of Shylock (above all else, requiring him to become a
Christian!) is so fraught with ugliness on the "Christian" side, one is
reminded of the overpowering nastiness of Orozco's satirical painting,
"Sisters of Charity." This play has no happy ending as is attested by
the conventional treatment of Jessica as sharply feeling her desertion
of her father. (And did she really trade for a monkey the ring her
mother gave her father ?!)]

"Alternately, Portia could intend to spring her trap, but becoming
increasingly sympathetic to Shylock as she becomes aware of the
legitimacy of his grievances.  In this case, her pleas for mercy are not
to save Antonio, but to save Shylock from himself.  Again, she waits for
the last minute to stop Shylock to be sure of his intentions."

[Yes!  This is so much of the very heart of the argument of the play -
the same "heart" that leads Antonio to pledge his life for Bassanio,
then, later, to Portia, his soul for him - it is irrestible as an
interpretation of Portia's intentions relative to Shylock. ]

"This is probably not what WS was thinking, but might work better with
the more serious interpretations a post-Holocaust MOV seems to demand.
(In fact, I thought I detected hints of this in Goodman's and Crotty's
performance.)"

[Ideally, post- or pre- Holocaust should have nothing to do with this,
our eternal struggle with the need to forgive, which "blesseth him that
gives and him that takes."]

" I have a question of my own to present.  It seems strange to me that
no one thinks of the 'alien' law until after Shylock has renounced his
contract.  In fact, the implication is that the law has no bearing on
the contract at all.  This flies in the face of my admittedly limited
understanding of the law.  Killing an innocent person, whether done by
an 'alien' or not, is pretty much universally a criminal offense.  It
does not become legitimized simply by virtue of a contract.  I can't
imagine this was not true in Venice at any point in its history.  Does
anyone know if there is any basis for this, or is it simply one of those
plot devices that does not bear 'thinking too precisely on the event'?"

[This "law" is best considered a construction by Shakespeare for the
play, rather than anything Venice or any other legal body ever
recorded.  That this "law" has been made specifically to deal with
aliens rather than with anyone whatever stresses the hypocrisy of this
"Christian" community in its failure to embrace an outsider as a
brother.  I think it should be played so. ]

          [L. Swilley]

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sean Lawrence <
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Date:           Thursday, 11 Oct 2001 20:33:44 -0700
Subject: 12.2323 Re: PBS Masterpiece Theatre/Merchant of Venice
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.2323 Re: PBS Masterpiece Theatre/Merchant of Venice

Philip Tomposki asks,

>Alternately, Portia could intend to spring her trap, but becoming
>increasingly sympathetic to Shylock as she becomes aware of the
>legitimacy of his grievances.  In this case, her pleas for mercy are not
>to save Antonio, but to save Shylock from himself.  Again, she waits for
>the last minute to stop Shylock to be sure of his intentions.

There's another possibility (IMHO) which you haven't listed:  could she
be keeping Antonio on death's door for as long as possible to gauge her
position within the emerging triangular relationship with Bassanio and
Antonio?  After all, immediately before giving the pound of flesh to
Shylock, she elicited Antonio's speech in which he convinces Bassanio to
favour himself over her:  "You, merchant, have you anything to say?"

The whole procedure is perhaps cruel not only in how it treats Shylock,
stringing him along before pointing out that (surprise, surprise) murder
is illegal, but also in how Antonio is made to wait, like a captive on
death-row, for the sentence.

As to why nobody else notices the obvious, I would suggest that it might
have to do with the way in which everyone's mental outlook in this
fictional Venice is taken up by commercial law.  One would think that
the Duke (at least!) would have recalled the murder statutes, since they
specify his prerogatives, but nobody does, because their city is a
commercial city, ruled by contracts.  Even though her own interpretation
is even more literalist, Portia at least finds away around the bond
where everyone else seems to be in awe of it.

Cheers,
Se

 

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