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Home :: Archive :: 2013 :: August ::
Merchant of Venice—Recent Essay & Question

 

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 24.0392  Sunday, 11 August 2013

 

[1] From:        Marianne Novy < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         August 7, 2013 9:11:48 AM EDT

     Subject:     Susan Rojas’ Comment about Merchant and Religious Persecution 

 

[2] From:        Anthony Burton < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         August 9, 2013 2:20:07 PM EDT

     Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Jew in SQ 

 

[3] From:        Harry Berger Jr < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         August 10, 2013 1:03:58 AM EDT

     Subject:     Re: Jew in SQ 

 

 

[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------

From:        Marianne Novy < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         August 7, 2013 9:11:48 AM EDT

Subject:     Susan Rojas’ Comment about Merchant and Religious Persecution

 

My book Shakespeare and Outsiders, in the Oxford Shakespeare Topics series, recently published in England and about to be officially published in the US, suggests an approach to Shylock in part comparable to Susan Rojas’. You can now order it from the US branch of Oxford UP, or pre-order it from Amazon.

 

Marianne Novy

 

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------

From:        Anthony Burton < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         August 9, 2013 2:20:07 PM EDT

Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Jew in SQ

 

Like nearly everything Shakespeare wrote, there are in Merchant rich secondary resonances evoked by the declared subject matter. In particular with this play, the unstable distinction between Christian and Jew is a declared subject of consideration brought to the attention of the audience repeatedly by Shylock and most famously by Portia’s “Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?” An even more prominent and arguably central topic of consideration is the matter of usury. In an England nominally without a Jewish population, the two subjects are made to converge through the circumstance that usury was universally practiced in England despite its illegality, and was just as universally known and deprecated as “Judaizing.”   

 

I explored some of the many ramifications of this convergence in an essay appearing in Who Hears in Shakespeare, (Laury Magnus and Walter C. Cannon eds.) Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickenson Univ. Press, 2012) as Chapter 7, “Asides and Multiple Audiences in The Merchant of Venice.” Arguing that a principal feature of the play was its critique of Christian behavior and hypocrisy in the matter of usury, I too found support for my views in the presumed absence of Jews among audience and readers.  It does not in my mind lead to any useful contrast between catholics and protestants except as a springboard for reflecting on contemporary religious debate.  

 

I could nevertheless easily construct such an argument as a debating exercise, but like Portia herself (and all Christians in the audience) not to the effect of causing me to follow my own teaching. But for those interested in Shakespeare’s use of Jewishness in the play, I commend me and my chapter to their service. And oh yes, the book itself is chock-full of valuable essays, very well worth reading and having in one’s library.

 

I have no mercantile interest in the proceeds of sale.

 

Tony Burton

 

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------

From:        Harry Berger Jr < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         August 10, 2013 1:03:58 AM EDT

Subject:     Re: Jew in SQ

 

Three cheers for Hannibal’s very perceptive and very sensible comment on Shylock. And thanks also for reminding us of the great studies by Janet and Jim. 

 

Here’s another way to look at it:

 

Against any assertion or enactment of the stand for sacrifice, Shylock pits his Old Testament imperative. The Duke asks Shylock how he can “hope for mercy, rendering none,” and Shylock brushes that hope aside: “What judgment shall I dread …? / ………….. / I stand for judgment” (4.1.89, 103). Jewishness would triumph over Christianity if Shylock’s call for judgment were to be repaid in kind, for then the Christians would be playing by Jewish rules and be untrue to themselves. But at the end he abandons the stand for judgment. His three whining demands are tests of Christian mercy: “Pay the bond thrice / And let the Christian go” (4.1.315-16); “Give me my principal and let me go” (4.1.333); give Antonio the principal and let me go—”Why, then, the devil give him good of it! / I’ll stay no longer question” (4.1.342-43).

 

Despite her paean to the gentle rain, Portia responds to Shylock’s demands not with mercy but with strict justice. She respects his claim and treats the bond as seriously as it deserves. Since the forfeit in question would jeopardize Antonio’s life, she changes the charge to attempted murder. For she has done her homework and found among “the laws of Venice” one that applies to an alien guilty of this charge: he is to forfeit one half of his estate to the injured party and the other half to the state. Let the villain therefore kneel down and “beg mercy of the Duke” (4.1.343-360).

At this point Gratiano shoots off another of his trademark insults which the Duke immediately counters with a good deed as if to show that Venetians are more gracious and generous than Gratiano. He mercifies Shylock: “That thou shall see the difference of our spirit, / I pardon thee thy life before thou ask it” (4.1.365-66). He then goes on to impose the penalty Portia had just described.

 

Shylock protests that to keep him alive so he can suffer punishment is factitious mercy: “Nay, take my life and all, pardon not that” (4.1.370). This could be a demand that they commit themselves to strict Jewish justice and bypass Christian mercy. Or it could be a request for mercy: if you’re going to spare me and show true mercy, you’ll have to do better. Shylock may expect or even hope to be condemned to death to prove the Jewishness and hypocrisy of the Christians. 

 

Asked what mercy he can render Shylock, Antonio offers to sprinkle some gentle rain along the path to lawful revenge: “I am content” to let Shylock keep “one half of his goods” provided that he invest the other half in a trust for “the gentleman / That lately stole his daughter” (4.1.377-87). The last line commands attention because its shortness—it is an iambic trimeter—intensifies the effect of “stole.” “Stole” twists the knife: let Lorenzo’s thievery be rewarded with a trust fund. Antonio then adds a gratuitous and humiliating and not very merciful rider: let Shylock “presently [immediately] become a Christian” (4.1.384).

 

 Portia drives this package home, “Art thou contented, Jew?,” and insists on a response: “What dost thou say?”  His “I am content” is an act of submission. Danson states that although it “may be pronounced bitterly” the deeper feeling it expresses is “profound weariness.”[i] But because Shylock echoes Antonio’s words it has the force of a riposte (4.1.390-91).[ii] It may also be read as a conspicuous refusal to betray true feelings to the enemies who fill the courtroom. After Portia instructs the clerk to “draw a deed of gift,” his final words are “I pray you, give me leave to go from hence; / I am not well.” He asks to have the deed sent to him, promises to sign it, and hurriedly departs.

 

The feelings registered in Shylock’s language have been well described by Kenneth Gross in the course of explaining a variant in 4.1. After the Duke opens the session by asking Shylock whether and why he intends to persist in his demand, Shylock curtly answers that “it is my humor.” He goes on to cite other examples of irrational prejudice and concludes that “I can give no reason, nor I will not, / More than a lodged hate and certain loathing / I bear Antonio” (4.1.43, 59-61).

 

In one of these examples a man can’t contain his urine when he hears a bagpipe “but of force / Must yield to such inevitable shame / As to offend himself being offended” (4.1.56-58, my italics).  This is the First Quarto and Folio reading. Subsequent editors often follow the Second Quarto text and place a comma after “offend”: “to offend, himself being offended.” Gross prefers the compressed-chiasmus effect of the unpointed Folio version (“to offend himself being offended”) because it intensifies the “idea of self-offense”: “Shylock … implicitly acknowledges something of his own shame, humiliation, and terror in this scene, his willful abandonment of human dignity and answerability in the process of making his revenge ‘inevitable’.”[iii]

 

In David Miller’s words, Antonio “manipulates and entraps” Shylock, “maneuvering him into the role of latter-day Christ-killer and using him ruthlessly to underwrite a sanctimonious homoerotic martyrdom.”[iv] When the Duke and Antonio spare both his 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).[v] 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.[vi] 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.[vii] 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.[viii]

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]Danson, Harmonies, 168. Danson’s analysis of Shylock’s deterioration is detailed, compelling, and persuasive. See pp.126-169 in general, but especially 157-69. For the idea that “I am content” expresses “weary acknowledgment” rather than  “mean-spiritedness,” see Barbara K. Lewalski, “Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Quarterly 13 (1962): 341; 327-433.

 

[ii]“Art thou contented, Jew?”: placing the accent on “thou” sharpens the challenge. It invites an echoing accent on the first word of Shylock’s “I am content.” Were an actor to accent Shylock’s third word, the tone would shift from submission to anger. To accent “am” would produce too obliging a response.

 

[iii]Gross, Shylock is Shakespeare, 69.

 

[iv]Personal communication.

 

[v]Many thanks to Jody Greene for helping me sort out the distinction and interaction between embarrassment and shame.

 

[vi]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.

 

[vii]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).

 

[viii] See 5.1.14-17, 134-35, 142ff., 249-53, and 291-93.

 
 

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