The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.261 Tuesday, 2 August 2016
Date: August 1, 2016 at 5:00:12 PM EDT
Subject: Re: SHAKSPER; MV Dialog
Date: August 1, 2016 at 4:29:58 PM EDT
Subject: MV Dialog
Date: August 1, 2016 at 5:00:12 PM EDT
Subject: Re: SHAKSPER; MV Dialog
To John Drakakis
In response to your post dated July 22, 2016.
Bill Blanton’s attempt to establish a link between Portia in MV and Elizabeth I, while interesting, doesn’t seem to me to be very convincing. There are a number of problems with the thesis although the methodology is not unfamiliar, and of the kind that one finds in allegedly ‘scholarly’ biographies of Shakespeare. I suspect that the (usually male) fans of Portia are not too dissimilar to those that many years ago Linda Woodbridge noticed had a soft spot for Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. There’s an odd, unacknowledged presentism in all of this that doesn’t quite get acknowledged, but might be worth investigating further. Terry Hawkes thou shoulst be living at this hour. Shakespeare he hath need of thee!
I had hoped for more specificity. I have numbered the paragraphs to make it easier to reply. If any specific example is mistaken in some way, please let me know. You have made it abundantly clear that you do not agree with my approach so I do not expect you to agree with any example. It would be helpful, however, if you could express your agreement or disagreement with any example by assuming without agreeing to that approach.
After all, this is supposed to be a dialog. I want to profit from your knowledge of the play in order to correct any errors in fact or logic that I may make. In return, I believe that you can learn from me some things about the play that you do not already know.
You say that “there are a number of problems with [my] thesis.” I would be grateful if you would spell them out.
I do not particularly mind that you dismiss my ideas as “allegedly scholarly.” I have acknowledged from the beginning that our respective approaches to the play are very different: yours is scholarly and geared towards Shakespeare as Literature; mine is that of an amateur who concedes you the scholarly analysis but who wants to analyze the play from the perspective of a sophisticated Elizabethan playgoer.
OK Bill, let me put it this way: Your basic assumption - in fact the assumption upon which your whole case rests is that Shakespeare had an intimate knowledge of Elizabethan court politics. In the plays there are passing references to particular events - and some of them are in MV. References to ‘the Andrew’, for example. In order to connect the play to the ‘history’ that you want to follow (an aristocratic history rather than a ‘popular’ history) you invest the details you focus on in the play with meanings that you claim to be ‘objective’. Your reasoning seems to be: (a) I think this happened in the court politics of the later 16th century and (b) Shakespeare must have been aware of it and incorporated it into his play. I can’t accept responsibility for the General Editors’ preface to the New Arden series. I didn’t write it. In any case the phrase ‘cultural context’ is open to very wide interpretation. It is wide enough to allow you from your own position to speculate, and I am prepared to concede that methodologically speaking. BUT whenever we speculate (and I do in my edition) we need to be careful to try to establish some kind of causal connection between the various elements that we are trying to connect. It all depends very much on what you understand by ‘cultural’ here, and I think that you will need to be a lot more explicit about you own methodology here.
I quote from your General editors’ preface:
“Both the introduction and the commentary are designed to present the plays as texts for performance, and make appropriate reference to stage, film and television versions, as well as introducing the reader to the range of critical approaches to the plays. They discuss the history of the reception of the texts within the theatre and scholarship beyond, investigating the interdependency of the literary text and the surrounding ‘cultural text’ both at the time of the original production of Shakespeare’s works and during their long and rich afterlife.” (emphasis supplied.) pp. xiv-xv.
This great play has a fascinating cultural context, wrapped up, I believe, in the continuing conflicts created by the English Reformation. I intend to demonstrate that Shakespeare was very much involved in those conflicts, did what he could to improve the situation in England, and tried to “open men’s eyes” to what was happening around them.
I agree with you about the play’s fascination but you would need to be more explicit about what you understand by ‘the English Reformation’ and where you might think Shakespeare was positioned in it. How was Shakespeare ‘involved’? You seem to think that ‘involvement’ here is a kind of lifestyle choice. I would put it to you that ‘involvement’ could be very dangerous, and there is little evidence to show that Shakespeare was ‘involved’ in any committed sense. I am not trying to suggest here that Shakespeare was event-handed, but I don’t think that we can deduce anything certain about his ‘involvement’ or otherwise from the plays.
I would ask Bill Blanton to consider this: at 1.1.161 ff. Bassanio gives a glowing description of Portia whose “sunny locks / Hang on her temples like a golden fleece, / Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchis’ strand, / And many Jason’s come in quest of her.” (ll.169-72). As an heiress Portia is desirable, and Bassanio’s quest is at root a business proposition if a little romanticised. This ‘might’ be connected to the alleged desirability of Elizabeth or of any eligible heiress.
I have considered 1.1.161 ff. In fact, in my post dated 8 June 2016 I specifically referenced 1.1.165-66, noting that Shakespeare had named the previously unnamed Lady of Belmonte as Portia, and further associated her with Cato’s daughter, Brutus’ Portia. That is in paragraph 3, which has incited some reaction to my speculation concerning “regime change.” I also mentioned “regime change” as a possible reason why Shakespeare connected Portia with the Sibyl (paragraph 5) in my post dated July 1, 2016.
I’m even more confused here Bill. Yes, the name Portia has ‘resonances’ (and Shakespeare went on to use the name again in JC). I think the place to start from here is the name and its historical rather than its mythical resonances. Let’s take the ‘regime change’ issue. Why would Shakespeare be interested in ‘regime change’ (even assuming that it was thinkable for him, which I don’t think it was) Here you are mixing up your discourses, and you are allowing a very modern concept to provide a gloss for something that would not have crossed the minds of ‘ordinary’ Elizabethans. Elizabethans were inventive readers, as the response to Sir John Hayward’s The History of Henry IV (1597) indicates, but if anybody thought that MV even hinted at ‘regime change’ Shakespeare would have been for the chop, after having been hung and drawn. .
On pp. 163-4 of your edition you provided a number of scholarly references to the name Portia. All of which are interesting, but most of which fail to address the cultural context with which I am interested. Of all the possible references, Shakespeare himself specifically identified only one: wife of Brutus. So I asked myself: why that particular reference? My answer: so that Bassanio becomes Brutus when he marries Portia on the Story Dimension, and Essex becomes Brutus when he marries Elizabeth on the Political/Religious/Current Events Dimension.
The key phrase here Bill is “the cultural context in which I am interested”. Now I’m all for ‘democratic reading’ (see my review in SHAKSPER of Harry Berger Jnr.’s excellent book on the Venetian plays, where he demonstrates that). It is also nonsence to say that Bassanio becomes Brutus when he marries Portia. This is NOT the Roman Portia; this is the Belmont Portia, and the only ‘evidence’ for your argument is a forced connection between two unconnected details. Even if you wanted to say that the Roman Portia was a ‘republican’, and that Venice is a ‘republic’, you would need to tease out the resonances of ‘republic’ much more carefully than your forced link suggests. Of course, you are perfectly at liberty to re-invent the play if you want, but if we are trying to proceed in a scholarly manner then we need to establish some protocols. A question: why would Shakespeare engage in these arcane links that few members of his audience would have understood or had knowledge of? And this time I’m afraid I can’t allow you to invent a ‘select few’ with whom Shakespeare was allegedly communicating. If we carry along that line then we’ll end up with the film Anonymous and we’ll be back into the crazed debate about whether Shakespeare was Shakespeare.
In particular, I will be analyzing this matter further when we discuss the identity of Bassanio on the Political/Religion/Current Events dimension of meaning. The myth of Jason and the Argonauts plays an important part in my analysis.
As you say, Shakespeare paints Portia as desirable and that Bassanio’s quest is for business, which “might” be connected to the desirability of Elizabeth or of any eligible heiress. To my mind, it must be to Elizabeth because Shakespeare specifically connected Portia to Diana, who was famously connected to Elizabeth at the time Shakespeare wrote the play. Surely this is obvious.
I think your ‘might’ gives the game away here. There is no connection with Elizabeth. In any case Elizabeth (or those around her) invented a number of occasional classical connections...which does not mean to say that anyone else who used classical narratives was referring to Elizabeth. I think the danger of your approach here is that you put two and two together and come up with five.
BUT if we move to 3.2. we find this speech that begins:
Look on her beauty
And you shall see 'tis purchased by the weight,
Which therein works a miracle in nature,
Making them lightest that wear most of it:
So are those crisped snaky golden locks,
Which maketh such wanton gambols with the wind
Upon supposed fairness, often known
To be the dowry of a second head,
The skull that bred them in the sepulchre.
Thus ornament is but the guiled shore
To a most dangerous sea; the beauteous scarf
Veiling an Indian beauty; in a word,
The seeming truth, which cunning times put on
To entrap the wisest.
What is Bassanio ‘thinking’ of here? Could Shakespeare be drawing upon archetypal notions of ‘woman’ that might be common in early modern male discourse of praise and doubt? The above passage, if Shakespeare had Elizabeth in mind would surely have earned him a visit to the local torture chamber wouldn’t it?
I do not think that Shakespeare was drawing upon “archetypal notions of ‘woman.’” As I described in my post of 7/1/2016, I believe that Bassanio/Essex was talking about Elizabeth in a most unflattering manner. Makeup. Hair fashions. Wigs. Changeable mind. Of course, Shakespeare might have been utilizing these archetypes as part of his plausible deniability, as discussed below.
Of course you reject ‘archetypes’ here because you are wedded to the Bassanio/Essex connection, and you flesh this out with a Portia/Elizabeth connection. Elizabeth wasn’t the only woman to use make-up. Look at what Claudius says about the ‘harlot’ in Hamlet and I’d be very surprised if this was a direct reference to Elizabeth’s “beutying o’er with the plastering art.”
Shakespeare knew how to avoid the torture chamber. Playing companies and their playwrights had worked out a modus vivendi with the Master of Revels so that they knew what would be acceptable and what not. If some dissident matters were to be included in a script, they knew how to disguise them sufficiently to pass muster, while at the same time making the subversive material sufficiently apparent to the cognoscente.
This is precisely why Shakespeare chose source material set in Venice, and why he set his story in Venice: plausible deniability. No offense intended here. See, it’s in Venice. It involves a Jew and generic Christians, not Protestants and Catholics. Portia is a beautiful young woman, not an aging monarch. Any notion that it might refer to London, or to the conflict between Protestants and Catholics, or to the persecutions of one against the other, or to the Queen, why, that’s all in your head. Nothing to do with me.
Besides, the Master of Revels answered to the Lord Chamberlain, patron of Shakespeare’s acting company and cousin to the Queen.
Here you go again Bill, You are trying to make the ‘facts’ that you determine fit the thesis. Your notion of ‘plausible deniability’ is interesting but implausible. Yes, Shakespeare seems to have been careful - more careful than Jonson, or Marston, for example. BUT that does not mean that he was in cahoots with the Master of the Revels. OR that he was nodding and winking to some ‘cognoscenti’. You have to invent these people in order to sustain your case, which is why I come back to protocols.
What we have to consider here is ‘context’, and it is this term that Bill Blanton stretches widely in one direction, just as he narrows it down in another to one specific sort (an aristocratic sort) of ‘history’. Nailing the play down to a specific ‘history’ reduces its appeal, and (by the way) tells us nothing specific about Elizabeth.
I beg to differ.
Cultural context is exactly what I am considering. I do not understand what you mean by “narrow[ing] it down in another to one specific sort (an aristocratic sort) of ‘history.’” Please explain.
I am not trying to nail the play down to a specific ‘history.’ I am trying to show that the play is vastly more appealing precisely because of the various Dimensions of Meaning that I have identified and am trying to explicate. The play does tell us some specific things about Elizabeth, which I have been at some pains to point out. The historical context is just one star in the fascinating galaxy of stuff going on in this play.
Indeed you are. You are claiming that all that you have discovered about Elizabeth was fully available to an audience, or (even more implausibly) that part of the audience who were allegedly ‘in the know’ for whom Shakespeare was writing. This is why I say that you are offering us a very traditional aristocratic history. I agree that there is a lot going on in this play, but you want to narrow it down to Elizabeth and Essex. You are telling me I can read this play in any way I want so long as I agree that it is about Elizabeth and Essex. As Dr Johnson once said: if I were starting out for Roscommon, I wouldn’t start out from there.
Certainly not that Shakespeare, or any of his contemporaries harboured a desire for ‘regime change’. We might as well say that Portia is a composite of George W. Bush and Tony Blair...with the gender switch to throw us off the scent, and that Shakespeare prophesied events in Iraq and Syria. Myself I think Shakespeare prophesied BREXIT, and that Julius Caesar is a key text (the knifing of the brute Boris Johnson...with Antony and Cleopatra prefiguring a fatal encounter between Angela Merkel and Boris Johnson, with the empress Teresa (Octavius) May - who, apparently shares a name with a porn star- pronouncing unctuously at the end of the fiasco!
To be fair to Bill Blanton, his proposal nowhere near as whacky as that, -given some of the nonsense that passes for ‘scholarship’ these days - though it seems to me to come out of a stable that is methodologically to close in proximity for comfort.
Let’s not fool ourselves. You are not trying to be fair to me; in fact, you are insulting me by comparing my ideas to the “whacky” examples that you dreamed up. I have not insulted you and do not intend to do so. Like you, I am a professional, and would prefer that our conversation be conducted in a professional manner.
OK Bill, my intention was to offer you a lighthearted example of what happens when people misunderstand ‘presentism’. There has been a lot going on here about BREXIT that probably won’t mean very much to you, and there have been a lot of Shakespeare quotations flung around in an opportunistic way. My point - and it is a serious one - is that you seem to me to be trying to offer an ‘objective’ kind of cultural history. The problem I have with it is that you also seem to me to occlude the part you are playing in fabricating the connections between its elements. I’ve tried to see some of the connections that you are proposing, but they simply won’t gel. I’ve probably said enough about Venice, so I won’t repeat myself. BUT I will repeat the view that Venice is NOT England, nor is it a cover for England (a common error that still persists in criticism). You might like to consider the difference between ‘a monarchical republic’ (the phrase that Patrick Collinson coined in his 1987 Manchester lecture) and the kind of republic that is described in great detail in Lewis Lewekenor’s translation in 1599 of Contarini’s History of Venice. The connection with Venice has to do with money - another segment of cultural history, that is much more pregnant with meaning in MV, and that Shakespeare can be shown to have had an interest (sorry, no pun intended!) in. In this connection have a look at Robert Bearman’s excellent recent little book Shakespeare’s Money
Best wishes, as ever
Date: August 1, 2016 at 4:29:58 PM EDT
Subject: MV Dialog
Bill Blanton, what is Shylock referring to by using the words ‘Pirates’ and ‘ducats’? Is this a cat and mouse game by the clever bard?
Oh, no, no, no, no: my meaning in saying he is a
good man is to have you understand me that he is
sufficient. Yet his means are in supposition: he
hath an argosy bound to Tripolis, another to the
Indies; I understand moreover, upon the Rialto, he
hath a third at Mexico, a fourth for England, and
other ventures he hath, squandered abroad. But ships
are but boards, sailors but men: there be land-rats
and water-rats, water-thieves and land-thieves, I
mean pirates, and then there is the peril of waters,
winds and rocks. The man is, notwithstanding,
sufficient. Three thousand ducats; I think I may
take his bond
How interesting that Michael Lok goes over the heads of the Masters of Stylometrics who cannot recognize a pun from the mind of Shakespeare. Do we need a poke in the ribs to recognize the RATS
In the word piRATeS or even duCATS?
MiChael Lok the Merchant of London?