The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.258 Friday, 1 August 2016
Date: July 31, 2016 at 6:57:22 PM EDT
Subject: 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.