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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: August ::
Re: Denouements of Forgiveness and Gender
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.1620  Friday, 15 August 2003

[1]     From:   Sean Lawrence <
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        Date:   Thursday, 14 Aug 2003 13:33:08 -0700
        Subj:   SHK 14.1612 Re: Denouements of Forgiveness and Gender

[2]     From:   Donald Jellerson <
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        Date:   Friday, 15 Aug 2003 01:55:16 -0700
        Subj:   Re: Denouements of Forgiveness and Gender


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sean Lawrence <
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Date:           Thursday, 14 Aug 2003 13:33:08 -0700
Subject: Re: Denouements of Forgiveness and Gender
Comment:        SHK 14.1612 Re: Denouements of Forgiveness and Gender

David Wallace asks,

>What choice does Portia have except to forgive?

She offers one:  she could cuckold Bassanio.  Moreover, the forgiveness
doesn't come without strings.  It increases Portia's claim over
Bassanio, and conscripts Antonio into reinforcing that claim.  Antonio
hasn't just been defeated in his competing claim upon Bassanio, but
co-opted, something altogether more insidious.

Sincerely,
Sean Lawrence,
Okanagan University College

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Donald Jellerson <
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Date:           Friday, 15 Aug 2003 01:55:16 -0700
Subject:        Re: Denouements of Forgiveness and Gender

Thanks to Annalisa Castaldo and David Wallace for responding to my
query.

About The Merchant of Venice, Annalisa Castaldo writes:

"Bassanio describes her as 'a lady richly left' and suggests that she
favors him 'Sometimes from her eyes/I did receive fair speechless
messages.' The rest of his discussion with Antonio is how, if he had the
money to woo her, he is sure he would win her (tellingly calling himself
another Jason after another Golden Fleece) and so pay off his debts."

This is correct.  But, to my mind, it should be seen as only part of the
dialectic that Shakespeare is working with in MV.  The point of the
riddle of the three caskets (and much of the action of the play) seems
to be that Antonio and Bassanio must be willing to risk everything -
worldly wealth, pride, ego, even love - in order to succeed.  The
paradox is something like the proposition that only a renunciation of
desire will achieve it.

Bassanio and Antonio enter the heart of this paradox with the question
of the giving of the rings.  The nature of the world (in MV) is such
that male friendships are necessarily in conflict with heterosexual
love, and the only way out of the conflict is some kind of forgiving
rapprochement between the two demands.  What is required is a kind of
life-affirming flexibility (that Shylock, for example, cannot bring
himself to show).

Consider Portia's speech in III.iv:

                for in companions
That do converse and waste the time together,
Whose souls do bear an equal yoke of love,
There must be needs a like proportion
Of lineaments, of manners, and of spirit;
Which makes me think that this Antonio,
Being the bosom lover of my lord,
Must needs be like my lord.

Here Shakespeare plays on the same kind of interchangeability - or union
of three - that we see in the denouement of TGV ("All that was mine in
Sylvia I give thee") or in Sonnet 40 ("Take all my loves, my love...").
But this time, importantly, we're seeing it from the woman's
perspective.  Portia hints at the possibility that the male friendship
of B. and A. can be resolved within the context of her own
(heterosexual) love.

Annalisa Castaldo writes:

"As far as the men in the play know, the relationships they have are
exactly those of TGV--male friendship trumps romantic love, women are
indistinguishable (both plays have lovers completely unable to recognize
their women), and the only power women have is their value, both
monetary worth and virtue."

I'm not sure about this.  At the end of TGV, the women are silent and
presumably helpless.  Not so in MV.  The sinners in both plays are men.
But in TGV the man forgiving his male friend brings about the
resolution, and in MV forgiveness is the province of women.  The
resolution of MV is dependent on the quality in Portia that is absent in
Shylock: mercy.  Perhaps the question of which kind of love "trumps" the
other is arguable?

David Wallace writes:

"If the comedies consistently illustrate anything about marriage, it is
that marriage is a financial contract from which men consistently
benefit and which provides women absolutely no assurances. If the women
tend to re-establish the social order, it is because they are so utterly
vulnerable (and often victimized) when that order is disrupted. In the
'mature' comedies, the women are certainly more intelligent but the
forgiveness they teach often (ironically) seems a survival technique in
a world in which they have no real power."

Okay, but my argument is not based on the social power of women, or that
men in the value systems of the plays are - or are not - more powerful.
My proposition is that, in the TGV denouement, heterosexual
relationships (given: dominated by men) seem to take a clear back seat
to male friendship.  In Act V of MV the two types of love are in
conflict again, and the emphasis seems to me to be on some kind of
balance between the two forces.  For this balance to occur, women are
given a different kind of agency in the resolution than in that of TGV.
In some measure, then, can't we see MV as a revision of the earlier
play?  Isn't it fair to say that Shakespeare is working out the way to
bring off romantic comedy?

At the risk of being facile, how about this...  Shakespeare starts with
TGV, perhaps a failed experiment, but certainly a proving ground for
many of the motifs he will later use to better effect.  The ending,
however, with its interchangeable women and clear subjugation of
heterosexual love to the homosocial, stands in need of development.
(Even Shakespeare must have seen that the ending of TGV was not so
good.)  In MV he works on the problem of the conflict of the two kinds
of love again, but this time tries to bring them into a more convincing
balance, giving more agency to women in the resolution.  In the later
comedies, male friendship will come up again, but never in such a
prominent plot position (in direct, sustained thematic opposition to
heterosexual love).  Women, however, will retain their position in the
romantic comedies as those who practice Christlike forgiveness.

Donald Jellerson

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