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Home :: Archive :: 2005 :: October ::
Portia's Mysterious Letter
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.1692  Tuesday, 4 October 2005

From: 		Arnie Perlstein <
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Date: 		Tuesday, 4 Oct 2005 10:22:13 -0400
Subject: 	TMOV: Portia's Mysterious Letter

I've recently reread The Merchant of Venice fairly closely, and, fresh 
from my speculations about the veracity of Hamlet's report of his 
interlude with the pirates, I was thunderstruck by Portia's declaration 
in the climactic scene of TMOV:

"Antonio, you are welcome;
And I have better news in store for you
Than you expect: unseal this letter soon;
There you shall find three of your argosies
Are richly come to harbour suddenly:
You shall not know by what strange accident
I chanced on this letter."

At first I toyed with the conceit that Portia had, for whatever secret 
purpose, acted in Prospero-like fashion and had caused Antonio's cargo 
ships to be waylaid and placed in cold storage until they could be 
produced at the most propitious moment. Portia after all eventually 
shows herself to be quite the master dramaturge in the climactic portion 
of the play. However, I see no sign that she has any tentacles extended 
out into the commercial world of Venice. And, although we do learn that 
she has seen Bassanio and liked what she saw, that does not seem, to me, 
to be sufficient motivation for her to seek to interfere in the lives of 
Antonio and Bassanio by means of a complex multi-stage scheme. Then I 
was persuaded by the far simpler and elegant argument of Ronald A. Sharp 
in "Gift Exchange and the Economies of Spirit in TMOV", Modern 
Philology, Vol. 83 @3, Feb. '86, to wit: "It [i.e., the arrival of 
Antonio's three argosies] is a strange accident indeed-too strange, 
finally, to be credible, even if we grant that happy reversals are 
commonplace in comedy. How, after all, did Portia know the contents of 
the letter if it was sealed? One can understand why Portia might not 
want to explain the accident then and there, but one has to wonder why 
she makes a point of telling Antonio that he 'shall not know' the 
explanation. We need not literalize the point, but at least in terms of 
its figurative effect, it seems clear that Portia is giving a gift to 
Antonio.  For it is she who seems to be providing for him here. Just as 
she earlier disguised herself on his behalf, she now disguises her gift 
for him as a piece of good fortune. To preserve her husband's friendship 
with Antonio requires a very delicate handling of her own relationship 
with Antonio. By acting tactfully in these circumstances Portia has 
managed to give Antonio a double gift: the actual fortune and the sense 
that it is rightly his. 'Sweet lady,' Antonio tells her, 'you have given 
me life and living.' (5.1.286)"

That sounded quite reasonable to me, nothing supernatural, and fitting 
nicely with Portia's reconciliatory vision. But that then led me to 
consider the curiously disastrously timed (from Antonio's pov) 
disappearances of Antonio's cargo ships. Even if Portia was not 
involved, perhaps those disappearances arose at the behest of another 
key character in the play?  Follow the money, as they say, and in this 
case, consider the following curious comment:

"But ships are but boards, sailors but men; there be land-rats and 
water-rats, land-thieves and water-thieves,--I mean pirates,--and then 
there is the peril of waters, winds, and rocks."

I think that Shylock's "I mean" means more than it initially seems to 
mean.  Shylock, it is clear, has had it in for Antonio from Day One (for 
good reason, of course, but that is beside my point), and it would make 
a lot of sense for a canny, very rich moneylender like Shylock, someone 
who has his tentacles into a lot of places in Venice and seagoing 
commerce in general, to have a "working relationship" with pirates. 
After all, he takes security from Venetian merchants whose lifeblood is 
in seagoing commerce, and would it not be a sweet arrangement for him to 
tip the pirates to the itinerary of outgoing vessels, so that they can 
better do their piracy, and in return, he gets to foreclose on a lot of 
valuable collateral in Venice? So I see Shylock as having authorized the 
"hit" on Antonio's vessels, but this time not to get richer, but to get 
revenge. So he calls in some pirate favors.  And that is his tragic 
overreach, because, although he correctly perceives that Bassanio and 
Antonio are no match for his wiles, he does not reckon on Portia's 
entering the game in the fourth quarter and submarining his best laid plans.

And finally, that, in turn, casts Salarino's (and Salanio's) earlier 
comments to Antonio, which, in hindsight, seem oddly prescient, in 
another light as well:

"My wind cooling my broth
Would blow me to an ague, when I thought
What harm a wind too great at sea might do."

It sure sounds like Salarino and Salanio knew a whole lot more than they 
were letting on, and were trying to discreetly give Antonio a head's-up 
that things were not as safe as they seem. They feared Shylock, and so 
could speak openly, but in their own way, they try to help Antonio. But 
he was in a weird cocky malaise, and so was easy prey for Shylock's 
scheming.

But when Antonio failed to heed their veiled warnings, and they saw that 
(like Claudio in MFM) Antonio was about to go down for the count, they 
did what any self respecting Deep Throats would do-they sent an 
emergency letter to someone with the wits and wiles to save the day. And 
that is why and how Portia came to teach them both (and Bassanio, to 
boot) some serious life lessons!

Arnie Perlstein
Weston, Florida

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