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Home :: Archive :: 2011 :: July ::
Merchant of Venice in a Las Vegas Setting


The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 22.0161  Monday, 18 July 2011

[1] From       Harry Berger Jr < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
     Date       July 15, 2011 4:49:01 PM EDT
     Subj:      Re: MV

[2] From       Sylvia Morris < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
      Date       July 17, 2011 6:36:17 AM EDT
      Subj:      RE: MV

[3] From       Nicole Coonradt < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
     Date       July 17, 2011 11:41:28 AM EDT
     Subj:      Re: MV

[4] From       Carol Barton < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
     Date       July 17, 2011 12:18:41 PM EDT
     Subj:      Re: SHAKSPER:  MV (long)

[5] From       John Drakakis < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
     Date       July 18, 2011 9:22:04 AM EDT
     Subj:      RE: MV


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:         Harry Berger Jr < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
Date:         July 15, 2011 4:49:01 PM EDT
Subject:      Re: MV

John W Kennedy writes:

>And, of course, there is the fundamental fact here that
>Shylock is irrelevant to the last act.


When the Duke and Antonio spare both Shylock’s life and his means of living, he suffers the defeat of mercifixion. He loses the game he could have won only if they had acted like Jews. Having been judged and mercified, he leaves. He doesn’t explode. He doesn’t go up in flames. As Gratiano continues to vilify him he slips out quickly, quietly, and forever, elbowed off stage not by embarrassment merely but, like Lear, by “a sovereign shame” (King Lear 4.3.42-43).[i] And the Duke’s “Get thee gone” has the effect of a kick administered to the departing figure.


He leaves but he doesn’t vanish. After he leaves and Portia (as Balthasar) turns down a ducal invitation to dinner, the Duke urges Antonio to “gratify this gentleman, / For in my mind you are much bound to him” (4.1.402-3).  Poor Antonio! No sooner has he been freed from Shylock’s bond, than he hears that he is “much bound” to someone else. Does “much bound” ring the same bell for him as for the reader? “For three months . . . Antonio shall become bound . . . . Three thousand ducats for three months and Antonio bound” (1.3.3-9). As he is about to find out, the bond to Shylock has just been replaced by a more embarrassing and bitter bond to Portia.

Shylock haunts the fifth act as a remnant or remainder, “a residual threat within the Christian scene,” even after his exit.[ii] When Portia and Nerissa at play’s end present Lorenzo with the deed, he responds, “Fair ladies, you drop manna in the way / Of starved people” (5.1.294-95). Shylock’s new heir glibly steps into the role of Wandering Jew headed for the promised land of property.[iii] References to the bond, the forfeit, and the deed of gift throw Shylock’s shadow over the closing conversations, even as the elimination of the scapegoat sharpens our awareness of another effect.[iv]

His defeat doesn’t pacify or placate the others. At the end of the play his marked absence resonates in and as the hollowness of their reassembly. They try without much success to keep their repartée sportive. Uneasiness of tone characterizes all the interchanges of Act 5 from the troubled moonlit badinage of Lorenzo and Jessica to the chivying that vexes the final discussion.

[i]Many thanks to Jody Greene for helping me sort out the distinction and interaction between embarrassment and shame.
 
[ii]Julia Reinhard Lupton, Citizen-Saints: Shakespeare and Political Theory (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), 92. See, more generally, 75-101. See also Lauren Silberman, “Shakespeare as Spenserian Allegorist,” paper delivered at the 2003 MLA meeting in San Diego.
 
[iii]Adelman notes that “manna spoils when it is used with the kind of greed that Jessica and Lorenzo have already amply demonstrated” (Blood Relations, 62).
 
[iv] See 5.1.14-17, 134-35, 142ff., 249-53, and 291-93.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:         Sylvia Morris < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
Date:         July 17, 2011 6:36:17 AM EDT
Subject:      RE: MV

I’m interested to see that most of the submissions about the Merchant of Venice in a Las Vegas setting have concentrated yet again on the Jewish question. For me, one of the most refreshing things about this production was that it encouraged a view of the play that wasn’t entirely about the play’s anti-Semitism or not. Several commentators have concentrated on Portia’s behaviour in the trial scene assuming that their twenty-first century attitudes can be carried back to Elizabethan London. This production cleverly indicates that Portia is unable to access the notes which she’s been given by the eminent lawyer and is instead forced to think out how own solution. She’s not playing with Shylock. Shakespeare wrote the scene to exploit its dramatic potential to the full so it’s necessary to keep the audience on the edge of their seats by not knowing how it’s going to end. In this production they push it as far as they possibly can to increase the tension, not to prove that Shakespeare is anti-Semitic. The production, in concentrating on Portia, has much more interesting things to say about how society treats individuals than simply looking at one ethnic group. See my blog for more detail: www.theshakespeareblog.com

Sylvia Morris

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:         Nicole Coonradt < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
Date:         July 17, 2011 11:41:28 AM EDT
Subject:      Re: MV

RE Mary Bonomi's post on MV:
 
"Forced conversion is no mercy; it is in many ways the worst punishment possible"
 
Bingo!  This is at the heart of the play--and the heart of the Elizabethan historical moment in which it was written/performed.  I have argued that it's not a play about the Jewish "Problem" so much as it is about the Catholic-Protestant one. John Klause has also written on this and sees Shylock as suitable cover to discuss this topical problem, reading him as an intolerant/extreme Puritan (also persecuted). See Religion & the Arts for both (11.1 [2007] and 7.1-2 [2003], respectively). Lots of evidence in the play to suggest Shylock is not really a Jew--I think Portia's repetition is ironic-- such as his citing the New Testament re why he won't dine w/ Christians, ergo he doesn't eat the same food, such as devilish pork ("to eat of the habitation which your prophet the Nazarite conjured the devil into" [1.3.354-55]), etc., which a Jew would hardly do.  Bill Blanton has also explored MV in other ways and members may remember a lengthy thread that debated this in the somewhat recent past.  See also Clare Asquith's study of MV in Shadowplay (Public Affairs, 2005) for another reading.
 
Anyway, I agree w/ Mary re forced conversion and suggest we might consider what that meant in context to Elizabethan audiences, many of whom had been forced to switch faiths, some multiple times, just as many were dying for their faith at a time when one must look closely at "The seeming truth which cunning times put on to entrap the wisest" (3.2).
 
Best,
Nicole Coonradt
University of Denver


[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:         Carol Barton < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
Date:         July 17, 2011 12:18:41 PM EDT
Subject:      Re: SHAKSPER:  MV (long)

Quick response to Donald Bloom (because that's all time allows):
 
No need to apologize. I didn't take your commentary as a personal attack (on me)--how could I? I haven't posted to SHAKSPER in many months. I do object, though, to the kinds of vitriol between and among the members of the list that I have witnessed in the past, and I don't buy into the kind of "reasoning" popular on Capitol Hill that says I make myself look "right" by dismissing those who oppose my position as fools (or bigots or liberal intellectuals, "bleeding heart" epithet understood). I say that not argumentatively, but as a reminder that it's possible to disagree--and vehemently--with someone else's perception of an ambiguity without rancor. Each of us comes to this table with his or her own predispositions based on who we are and where we've been and what we were taught in the classroom (and in life) . . . and each of us is bound to see something like MofV through the various lenses that comprise our individual psyches. I suspect that that's exactly what this mirror to nature was supposed to do--make us ask which of the characters we most resemble--and which (if any) of the characters we would *want* to be?
 
My answer to that is "none of them."  Shylock isn't pretty--but neither are Antonio and the rest. Yes, by definition, merchants purvey goods--but what kind of trafficking is going on in this play, and at what cost to the humanity engaged in it (in terms of their "humanity," and their souls)?
 
Victims are neither saints, nor martyrs. (Martyrdom implicitly involves a willing, even complicit, victim.) Victims are the objects of cruel, hurtful, or other abusive treatment without provocation of the attacker. (We don't see the loser in a boxing ring or bar brawl as a "victim"--he or she is a willing participant in the melee--but an innocent bystander hit by one of the combatants is a victim.) In this sense, Shylock is clearly a victim. He has been abused--solely for his ethnicity--in the past.
 
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances:
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,
For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help:
Go to, then; you come to me, and you say
'Shylock, we would have moneys:' you say so;
You, that did void your rheum upon my beard
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Over your threshold: moneys is your suit
What should I say to you? Should I not say
'Hath a dog money? is it possible
A cur can lend three thousand ducats?' Or
Shall I bend low and in a bondman's key,
With bated breath and whispering humbleness, Say this;
'Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last;
You spurn'd me such a day; another time
You call'd me dog; and for these courtesies
I'll lend you thus much moneys'? (1.


Understandably, whether we like him or not, or like his reaction or not, his first soliloquy provides far more justification than someone like Iago or Richard III can claim:
 
How like a fawning publican he looks!   
[Antonio, in the process of asking for a loan]
I hate him for he is a Christian,
But more for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.
If I can catch him once upon the hip,
I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.
He hates our sacred nation, and he rails,
Even there where merchants most do congregate,
On me, my bargains and my well-won thrift,
Which he calls interest. Cursed be my tribe,
If I forgive him!

One has to wonder to whether Antonio's beneficence ("He lends out money gratis") would extend so readily to Shylock or the other wearers of gabardine, were the situation reversed.
 
Like all self-righteous hypocrites, Antonio is willing to engage in the very practices he rails against so publicly when circumstances put him personally in need of them (do as I say) but has the temerity to pretend that he is demeaning himself even to come to Shylock as a businessman--and to insult his benefactor in the process of soliciting a favor.
 
ANTONIO
I am as like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.
If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not
As to thy friends; for when did friendship take
A breed for barren metal of his friend?
But lend it rather to thine enemy,
Who, if he break, thou mayst with better face
Exact the penalty.

The bargain that fails the contractual test of reasonability and legality on its face (attorneys--did such tests obtain in 16th century England?) promises an unreasonable recompense for default (with no recognition of or exclusion in the face of force majeure) and makes the parties complicit in an illegal act (the removal of a pound of flesh)--so that in modern terms, it would not even be an enforceable bargain. But even if the contract were viable--Shylock is abused, and mightily, for demanding only what his chief persecutor promised him in the first place, when the abuse not only continues but escalates.
 
Don, can you honestly say that Shylock's Christian adversaries don't "gloat over the infliction" of the pain they cause him? Does "the pathos not only of [Shylock's] situation but of his helplessness [to contest the penalties imposed on him or the loss of his daughter or the abuse heaped upon him] affect [Antonio or Bassanio or Portia] a whit? They will have their revenge, and [neither Christianity, nor mercy, nor pity (which ought to be synonymous)] will stop [them]."
 
To say that Shylock is "not concerned with the happiness of the couple [his daughter and her Christian husband], but uses all the power of the law and deceit to prevent or destroy it" is insensitive, I think. Jewish tradition holds that the religion of future generations is determined by the mother. Jessica's marriage to Lorenzo is far from a "happy event" in Shylock's eyes--and he has less reason to be concerned, from a Jewish perspective, about the couple's "happiness" than he does about the fate of his posterity:
 
Alack, what heinous sin is it in me
To be ashamed to be my father's child!
But though I am a daughter to his blood,
I am not to his manners. O Lorenzo,
If thou keep promise, I shall end this strife,
Become a Christian and thy loving wife.

I don't recall a single reference in the play to Shylock's infidelity to his faith. As anyone who has ever seen _Fiddler on the Roof_ will recall, even the far more genial Tevye has (for him) a violent and unrelenting opposition to his daughter's marriage to a gentile--and there is no deceit or dishonesty (or thievery) involved on the part of the "happy couple."  I think Shylock can be forgiven his wrath at Jessica's absconding with his treasury and her goyishe lover--and excused for having no burning desire for their joy.
 
I don't think Shylock's a "good man." I don't think anyone in this play is a good *anything*--and I think that's the point. Shylock is what he is--but even he has a right to exist, and a right to go through life unmolested as long as he harms no one else, and he is abused without active provocation by those who pride themselves on being his moral betters in a gut-turning demonstration of hypocrisy and bullying by a self-righteous gang that subscribes (supposedly) to charity and mercy but shows itself to be anything but "Christian."
 
I am reminded of the scene in "The Passion of the Christ" in which the Roman soldiers take the flogging of their helpless victim to unauthorized lows, simply because they hate him for proclaiming himself the Son of God.
 
Given the clear advantage of a perceived "upper hand," all of the characters in this play behave deplorably.
 
Alle is for to selle.
 
(And I apologize for the length of what was supposed to be a short note, and now must get back to the work at hand.)
 
Best to all,
Carol Barton

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:         John Drakakis < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
Date:         July 18, 2011 9:22:04 AM EDT
Subject:      RE: MV

Harry Berger Jnr. invokes Girard and raises a fascinating point about the operation of ‘difference’ in the play. The issue was taken up by Stephen Greenblatt in an early essay in which he distinguishes between the articulation of ‘difference’ by the Christians which appears ‘re-assuring’, but that under that carapace there is a sinister ‘sameness’.  I’ve suggested that elsewhere that the Jew is the principle of difference in the play, and I note that David Hawkes in his recent book on The Culture of Usury in Renaissance England (2010) implies as much in what he says about the representational force of money as it is articulated through the discourse of usury.
 
Portia’s apparent confusion of Merchant and Jew in 4.1. can certainly be read along the lines that Berger suggests, as part of a larger argument that pits her against Antonio for Bassanio’s affections. Although in the light of my comment above both might be seen as inhabiting the same discursive field insofar as they are involved in the circulation of money.  Alan Sinfield has explored the issue of the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio in a fine essay in Alternative Shakespeares 2.  I have also suggested elsewhere that there are references in the usury tracts to the claim that it is Christians in England who practice usury, and that certainly blurs the distinction between Antonio and Shylock.
 
But the problem with the play is that ‘Jew’ is a clear category, and Shylock (English name though it is) is made to think of himself as an ‘imitator’ of Christian values. There is also another difference that we need to consider: that between republican Venice, and a much more hierarchical England.  In the former case historically ‘strangers’ were equal before the law but even this principle seems to be compromised in a legal fudge that removes the Jew’s wealth – or to be more accurate, converts it for Christian purposes.
 
I fear we are in danger of re-opening a Pandora’s box.
 
As ever,
John Drakakis
 
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