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

 

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 24.0417  Tuesday, 27 August 2013

 

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

     Date:         August 26, 2013 3:24:03 PM EDT

     Subject:     Re: Shylock 

 

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

     Date:         August 26, 2013 3:27:03 PM EDT

     Subject:     RE: Shylock 

 

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

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

Date:         August 26, 2013 3:24:03 PM EDT

Subject:     Re: Shylock

 

Harry Berger, Jr., says that “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.” This is more or less the standard line these days. One thing it’s missing is a sense of humor. Joking about unfaithfulness may on the contrary show how confidently untroubled two people can be about the possibility of betrayal. These lines, like Portia’s “Since you are are dear bought, I will love you dear”, might more naturally be taken to show a merry cheer—a lightheartedness and lack of superstitious dread that shows an awesome faith in the truth of their love.

Shylock showed in his attachment to his turquoise, along with his ducats, how an object can outweigh a person. I think we may imagine that Jessica did not know that this ring was her mother’s gift, since Shylock has confined the “fledged” Jessica—ready for marriage—to being his housekeeper, and because Jessica is too sympathetic a character to treat her mother’s memory so lightly. We tend to read sentimental value into Shylock’s lament about the ring, but this might be a presentist response. Considering that the provenance of the ring has not been shared with Jessica could put it in a different light. You might say that Shylock knows all of his jewels by name. Janet Adelman’s tendentious reference to “the kind of greed that Jessica and Lorenzo have already amply demonstrated” ignores the context. The robbing of a miser who has kept his daughter immured from music and marriage is not generally, in dramatic convention, an ample demonstration of greed. Nor, one would suppose, is profligate spending of the spoils. 

The tweaking of the men for giving away their rings can be enjoyed because the serious betrayal it might have signified has been defused by our presence in the court, where the prevented horror makes the gift of the rings supportable, and also by Portia’s implied forgiveness when she recognizes that the appearance of anything depends on the circumstances: “Nothing is good, I see, without respect.” The natural transference of first love and loyalty from friend to wife is a troubled passage, but is here negotiated successfully—though not without some unavoidable loss to Antonio. Absolute attachment to love-symbolizing rings—or any material things—is warned against by Shylock’s fanaticism for his ducats at the price of Jessica’s life, but the symbol still has vital meaning, which is re-consecrated at the end.

Best wishes,

David Bishop

 

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

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

Date:         August 26, 2013 3:27:03 PM EDT

Subject:     RE: Shylock

 

David Basch’s response to my comment about ‘the play that Shakespeare wrote’, rather gives away the unsteady position of his own argument. I moves quickly from a statement of ‘fact’ – and I chose my words carefully – to one concerning Shakespeare’s ‘intention’. Had he followed a much earlier round-table on ‘intention’ he would have seen the implications of the slippage in his own argument.

 

The idea that Shakespeare ‘intended’ to write for us 21st century people is so quaint that I hesitate to dismantle it. It would be like breaking the wings of a butterfly. But in the face of his claim I would prefer Harry Berger’s desire to pay attention to word-by-word, and moment-by-moment of the play that we have. Indeed, Harry Berger has opened a very interesting can of worms, or perhaps a Pandora’s box, with the claim that Shakespeare wrote about ‘people’. This raises at a very fundamental level the issue of ‘representation’ which in the case of Shylock or, say Othello, is not quite as straightforward as that formulation suggests. In both cases (and I suppose we really need to admit Morocco into this discussion too), there appears to be a direct conflict between a stereotype and what for the moment let us call a ‘realistic’ representation. By this I don’t mean that Shakespeare was concerned to depict a ‘real’ Jew or a ‘real’ Moor. For one thing there were no Jewish moneylenders in England in 1597, so the Jew is ‘really’ English (since they were the moneylenders), and we are offered here a kind of pragmatic realism but one that falls far short of ‘people’ in the characterological and novelistic sense of the term. I am assuming that that is not what Harry Berger meant when he used the term ‘people’. However, we really do need to be careful with our terms here since we are in danger of slipping (as David Basch does) into a kind of vulgar presentism. On the subtleties (and the historical investment that it implies) see Terence Hawkes’ various writings from 2000 onwards, but also ‘Meaning By Shakespeare’.

 

There is no reason to suppose that Shakespeare didn’t provide us with the opportunity to brush a play like The Merchant ‘against the grain’ so to speak (though we will never know if he did so ‘intentionally; that way Pirandellian madness lies. In order to present the dominant then he cannot avoid presenting what it stands against can he? Otherwise there would be no drama. David Basch might like to recall that Satan and his avatars always have the best lines in these plays, BUT there may be a danger in identifying too closely with them. In a secular world we give the two sides equal weight, but I doubt whether an Elizabethan would have. The mechanism is exposed for us in Aemilia’s comment in Othello at 4.3.101-2 that echoes almost exactly the Jew’s comment about ‘imitating’ Christians: “Then let them (men) use us well; else let them know, / The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.” If I were a card-carrying feminist, I would have those lines tattooed on both my arms!! It is here that Harry Berger’s ‘people’ need just one more qualification, since ‘people’ are shaped in complex ways by circumstance. The subtlety in both The Merchant and in Othello is, surely, that they both explore the intertwining of politics and historically overdetermined human behaviour. Those overdeterminations have a strong ideological and (for the late 16th-early17th century especially) religious flavour and one that aligns both the Jew and the Moor (and, we have to admit with some embarrassment) the woman.

 

I’m almost persuaded that David Basch is too humane to be a liberal neo-con. The trouble is that Nigel Lawson (former English Chancellor of the Exchequor under Thatcher) may be right in claiming that if Shakespeare had been alive today (he made the comment in the 1980s) he would have been a Tory.

 

And on that sobering thought. . . . 

 

Cheers

John Drakakis

 
 

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