The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 26.331 Friday, 17 July 2015
Date: July 15, 2015 at 3:14:32 PM EDT
Subject: RE: SHAKSPER: MV Dialog
Here are my responses in square brackets below.
To John, in response to your post of 6/17
I agree that we disagree. Hardy surprising, given our very different perspectives on this great play. As I mentioned at the outset, I am interested in the historical and cultural aspects of the play, not so much its literary qualities.
I hope that I’m not trying to force something that is not there. But that’s always a possibility, and I will be grateful if you (or others) would correct me when I do.
I think that it would do both of us a great service if I were to give you an Overview of my ideas about what Shakespeare was Up To. That will probably take me a few weeks to pull together.
In the meantime, I ask for your thoughts (as well as anyone else’s) on the following:
I have noticed one of Shakespeare’s techniques (the Literature people no doubt have a better word). He created several obvious — and some not so obvious — contradictions, or something very like contradictions. I’m not sure what to make of them, so I’m bringing some of them up for discussion.
(1) One contradiction occurred right off the bat. Salarino postulated that Antonio was sad because he was worried that all of his merchandise might be lost at sea.
Believe me, no. I thank my fortune for it,
My ventures are not in one bottom trusted,
Nor to one place; nor is my whole estate
Upon the fortune of this present year:
Therefore my merchandise makes me not sad.
A short while later, Bassanio asked Antonio for another loan. Antonio replied:
Thou knowst that all of my fortunes are at sea;
Neither have I money, nor commodity
To raise a present sum; therefore go forth:
Try what my credit can in Venice do…. .
It can’t be both. Given time, we can imagine reasons why Antonio told Salarino one thing and Bassanio another. However, Shakespeare’s audiences did not have that time; the action continued apace.
[What you see here as a contradiction is perfectly explicable. Antonio’s ‘sadness’ has, I suspect a much deeper cause of which his financial affairs are but a superficial manifestation. Notice that Portia is ‘aweary’ of the world and the cause of that is her father’s patriarchal control. Also Shylock admits that after his enforced conversion he is ‘not well’. Antonio’s immediate problem is that he doesn’t have ready liquid capital since it is all invested elsewhere. His solution is to seek the aid of a usurer but that then introduces yet another anxiety into the equation. You need to have a look at the economics of the period (different in degree from our own) since there you will find out about the ways in which credit and the conditions (fraught) for lending operated. MV touches on this problem but I’m not sure that Shakespeare offers an accurate or detailed account of its details.]
(2) In that same exchange, Bassanio asked Antonio for the loan so that he could “hold a rival place” with the “Renowned suitors” that sought Portia’s hand. 1.1.167-174. However, we next find Portia bemoaning the fact that her father’s will required her to marry whomever chose the right casket. 2.2.20-31. “Holding a rival place” had nothing to do with it. (This circumstance made Antonio’s loan from Shylock unnecessary. But then we would have had no play.)
[No, you are being far too literal here. He wants to be part of the competition which is as much a financial project as it is a romantic pursuit. We know from what Portia and Nerissa say what Portia’s father’s stipulation was designed to produce. No reason why Bassanio should be in on this is there? ]
(3) Shylock first refused to dine with Bassanio and Antonio because he would have to smell pork, and vowed “I will not eat with you”. 1.3.30-33. Later, he went to supper with “The prodigal Christian”. 2.5.11-15.
[The ritual here is more important than what Shylock will eat. I think we can assume that he won’t eat the pork! Not a contradiction but what the play offers as a characteristic perversion of a particular social ritual.]
(4) Arragon noted that one of the “injunctions” was “never in my life/ To woo a maid in way of marriage.” 2.9.12-13. However, Arragon’s scroll read “Take what wife you will to bed… .” 2.9.69.
[Probably a piece of Shakespearean untidiness here BUT his original line is “never in my life /To woo a maid in way of marriage”. The scroll reads “Take what wife you will to bed”. It says nothing about a maid OR marriage which is the issue. Arragon is condemned to a life of loveless sex...that’s why he will always be a fool! I hadn’t thought of this as a dry run for Shylock’s later problem that Balthazar uncovers with his bond, might it might be similar? Just a thought.]]
(5) When Bassanio arrived to make his choice among the caskets, Portia told him:
I would detain you here some month or two
Before you venture for me. I could teach you
How to choose right, but then I am foresworn.
So I will never be, so may you miss me.
However, when Bassanio went into the place where the caskets were, Portia commanded “Let music sound while he doth makes his choice.”She did not ask for music for either Morocco or Arragon. Musicians then performed a song:
Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart, or in the head,
How begot, how nourished?
These lines each rhymed with “lead,” which was the casket containing Portia’s portrait. Portia may thus have devised a way to teach Bassanio how to choose, thereby contradicting her declaration that she would never be foresworn; “may have” because it is unclear whether Bassanio even listened to the song or understood its meaning. The text provides possibly conflicting guidance.
[This is an old chestnut. You will remember that Arragon has sworn NOT to divulge the contents of the box he chooses, and we must assume that this is the case with all of the suitors. Portia is in a difficult position because by the time Bassanio comes to choose she KNOWS what is in the box but is forbidden from disclosing its contents. I can’t think of one production in which the actress playing Portia registers this dilemma. Portia would need to be very devious (as devious as Jessica) if she were to resort to giving Bassanio a hint. Bassanio chooses correctly because it is ideologically necessary that he does. In Othello the tragic hero (who is ridiculed as Morocco in MV) lives out the full consequences of miscegenation.]
On the one hand, Bassanio did not read the inscriptions on the caskets out loud, unlike the other two suitors. It is thus unclear whether Bassanio chose the lead casket by deciphering the meaning of Portia’s father; “unclear” because Bassanio did say that the lead casket “rather threaten’st than dost promise aught.” 4.1.105. Morocco had earlier read out loud the inscription on the lead casket:
[What edition are you reading Bill? Look at 3.2. ll.131ff where he DOES read out the inscription]
What says this leaden casket?
‘Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath?’
‘Must give’, for what? For lead? Hazard for lead?
This casket threatens… .
“Threaten’st” suggests that Bassanio may have silently read the inscription.
On the other hand, Bassanio was commenting on the appearance of the three caskets, not on their respective inscriptions. He found the gold casket too gaudy. He rejected the silver casket because it reminded him of money. He chose the lead casket because its “paleness moves me more than eloquence.” 3.2.101-106.
[See my comment above]
(6) Which brings up another possible contradiction. The scroll in the lead casket began: You that choose not by the view… .” 3.2.131. Depending upon how one understands the last contradiction, Bassanio in fact chose “by the view.”
[No, not a contradiction at all. Compared to the other two who are taken in by gold and silver as indications of their own worth, Bassanio rejects the overt meaning of ‘lead’ as valueless. I don’t see the problem with this.]
(7) The following incident may not be a contradiction, exactly, but it is disturbing. Just before Bassanio went in to make his choice, the following exchange took place between him and Portia:
Let me choose,
For, as I am, I live upon the rack.
Upon the rack, Bassanio? Then confess
What treason there is mingled with your love.
None but that ugly treason of mistrust,
Which makes me fear th’enjoying of my love,
There may as well be amity and life
‘Tween snow and fire, as treason and my love.
Ay, but I fear you speak upon the rack,
Where men enforced do speak anything.
Promise me life and I’ll confess the truth.
Well then, confess and live.
Confess and love
Had been the very sum of my confession.
O happy torment, when my torturer
Doth teach me answers for deliverance!
But let me to my fortune and the caskets.
“When my torturer/ Doth teach me answers for deliverance” may relate back to Contradiction 5. Or it may relate to the purpose of torture upon the rack: the torturer would let the victim know what answer was required so that the torture would stop. The result is reflected in the proverbial saying, “Confess and be hanged.” As shown above, Portia reworded this saying into “Well, then, confess and live.”
[This is a bit of ‘flyting’ isn’t it? The issue is whether Bassanio is genuine or not. He has his reservations about feminine attractiveness earlier. Shakespeare is offering us a riff on a series of proverbial sayings here, and we are expected to take pleasure in the exchange. It is lighthearted, though the consequences of Bassanio’s choice (especially if he chooses wrongly) will be serious.]
In Shakespeare’s time, confession to treason would result in the victim’s being hanged, drawn and quartered: a lengthy, grisly, and excruciating death, such as the one the 69 year old Dr. Lopez suffered in June 1594 when he was accused of treason, shown the rack, and confessed to something he did not do.
[You are pulling in another red herring here. Torture was ‘normal’ and was not used necessarily to extract confessions. See John H. Langbein’s book ‘Torture and the Law of Proof’ thaat will help you with this.]
Perhaps today we can brush off talk of the rack, treason, and confessions as mere hyperbole between lovers. In Shakespeare’s time, however, these horrors were very real; they would have had no place in love talk. Placing them in the context of a romantic tete-a-tete served to make them only more horrific, which was probably Shakespeare’s purpose.
[You are making all sorts of assumptions here. The play makes the playful connection between ‘torture’ and ‘love talk.’ There are plenty of sonnet sequences where the lover is tortured metaphorically, so I don’t accept that what is at issue here is two incompatible discourses. Anyway, the same audiences that went to see MV went to bear-baitings, cock-fights, public executions, burnings etc., and apparently ‘enjoyed’ them. We have American professional wrestling where the violence is either fake or accidental, though the acrobatics are spectacular.]
(8) The very first contradiction I noticed occurred in the Trial Scene, just after Bassanio asked Portia to carve out an exception in the law in order to save Antonio:
It must not be: there is no power in Venice
Can alter a decree established.
“Twill be recorded for a precedent
And many an error by the same example
Will rush into the state. It cannot be.
If the law were unalterable, Judge Portia should have stopped after the second line. However, Shakespeare had her go on to state that a decision in favor of Antonio would have created a precedent that would alter the law, thereby allowing unspecified errors to occur in the future. Either the law was unalterable and Judge Portia could do nothing to help Antonio, or a judge did have the power to alter the law and thereby create a precedent; one or the other, not both.
[No, the Law is not altered here. Shylock asks for law and he is entitled to his forfeit. It is ‘un-Christian’ but legal. What Portia disguised as Balthazar does is to trump Shylock’s literal reading with an even more literal reading of the bond that does NOT violate the law. Portia begins by asking for mercy but when the Jew refuses she takes another tack. What happens to Shylock afterwards is mofr problematical since it cuts right across the claim that in Venice ‘strangers’ were welcome and treated equally before the law. See Lewis Lewkenor’s translation of Contarinini’s long account of the Governance of Venice (1599).]
(9) Most intriguing is the Mantua/Padua contradiction.
Portia sent her servant Balthaser (F1 spelling) to Mantua with a letter for her cousin Dr. Bellario. 3.4.45-50. Mantua was also Bellario’s location in Q1. However, in Act 4 all the references to Bellario placed him in Padua.
In the Arden 3 edition, John correctly observed: “Editors since Theobald have emended ‘Mantua’ to ‘Padua’, since the text subsequently contains references to the latter location where there was known to be a famous law school.” Indeed, even the recent RSC edition, which claims to be based on the First Folio, emends ‘Mantua’ to ‘Padua.’
I surmise that many of the editors who changed ‘Mantua’ to ‘Padua’ did so to avoid confusing their readers, who would not understand why Shakespeare placed Bellario first in Mantua and then in Padua. Because my perspective on this play differs from that of the Literature people, I believe I know why Shakespeare had Portia send Balthaser to Mantua: he thereby brought part of “Romeo and Juliet” into “The Merchant of Venice”.
In “Romeo and Juliet”, Romeo’s man Balthasar went to Mantua — where Romeo had been living in exile — to inform him that Juliet was dead and had been laid to rest in the Capulet vault. This information triggered the tragic end.
[I said in my edition that it was probably a Shakespeare confusion. There are a number of loose ends in this play which is why the prevailing view is that it was set from ‘foul papers’. I think that your reference to the Folio is not relevant here. The claim made for the RSC complete Shakespeare was that the Folio text was nearer to performance than others. In the case of MV this is not accurate since F MV was set from an annotated copy of Q1 (not Q2).]
Shakespeare dealt with serious matters concerning the struggle between the Protestants (Capulets) and the English Catholics (Montagues). He viewed them as “Two households, both alike in dignity,” whose senseless feud was destroying the prospects of newer generations for a peaceful, prosperous life. In “Romeo and Juliet”, he disguised his subversive ideas in a tragic love story; in “The Merchant of Venice”, he disguised similar ideas in a comic love story. Some disguise, even if perfunctory, was necessary in order to provide plausible deniability; otherwise, Shakespeare could not have obtained the approval of the Master of Revels, which was required before any play could be produced.
[This is where I think you take off on a roller-coaster ride. Much of the effort spent in trying to excavate Catholic sentiments from Shakespeare’s plays is based on a combination of fantasy and wishful thinking. Setting these plays in Italy (and especially in Venice) would suggest that there is an element of ‘catholicism’ there but there are also other ‘Italianate’ elements too: feuding, republicanism etc. etc. You pays your money and you takes your choice.]
You have already expressed your disagreement with my idea that the feud in R&J represented the presently ongoing struggle between Catholics and Protestants. I believe that it is no coincidence that Shakespeare chose his source because one of the feuding families was named “Montagu,” which was also the title of Southampton’s grandfather, Anthony Browne, Viscount Montague, who was a leading Catholic at the time (he died in 1592). In Shakespeare’s source Romeo’s “man” is nameless; Shakespeare named him “Balthasar”.
During the reign of Mary Tudor, Francis Walsingham (a Puritan) saw what was coming and left London for Padua, where he studied civil law at the University of Padua. He even became “consiliarius” (spokesman) for the law students there. His intelligence and ability must have been obvious; too bad that he would later employ those traits to persecute English Catholics after Elizabeth succeeded Mary as Queen. These Catholics would have hated Walsingham, and would have been very much aware of his history. The reference to Padua would have resonated with them.
[I’m sure that the names of these places resonated with Shakespeare’s audiences but not necessarily in the way you suggest. We have no way of excavating accurately the TONE of such references, and that’s the important thing here.]