The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 26.324 Tuesday, 14 July 2015
Date: July 12, 2015 at 12:36:18 PM EDT
Subject: MV Dialog
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.
(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.)
(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.
(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.
(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.
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 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.
(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.”
(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.”
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.
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.
(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.
(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.
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.
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.
Shakespeare did not have to name the city in which the invisible Bellario might be found; yet he named two such cities, each with particular meaning to the Catholic community in England.
Thank you again for your thoughts.