The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.1612  Wednesday, 13 August 2003

From:           David Wallace <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Wednesday, 13 Aug 2003 13:14:59 -0700
Subject:        Re: Denouements of Forgiveness and Gender

It is a commonplace observation to remark that the women in
Shakespeare's comedies and romances tend to have a healing effect on
conflicts largely created by the men. But I'm not convinced that the
evolution of the comedies can be described as "prioritizing
hetereosexual love" over male friendship as Donald Jefferson's former
professor does. Nor do I think TMoV is a turning point in establishing
"women as the ones who provide forgiveness". Annalisa Castaldo points
out that it requires little prompting to cause Bassanio and Gratiano to
betray their vows and to relinquish the rings they swore to keep. When
the ruse is revealed to them, they respond good-naturedly but what
little shame they profess is insufficient to convince me that they have
gained any insight by the experience. Indeed, Portia seems to recognize
what Valentine, in the conclusion Two Gents, makes explicit to Sylvia -
she is Bassanio's property to dispose of as he sees fit.

In TMoV 3.2 Portia makes it clear that she is making Bassanio her "lord,
her governor, her king" and is now turning over her entire fortune to
him. The ring she gives him is a symbol of Bassanio's constancy - which
is the only thing he has to offer. The irony in TMoV is that Bassanio
breaks his "bond" and is forgiven; Shylock insists on maintaining his
bond and is vilified. Portia/Balthasar, after the trial, seems oblivious
to the fact that, in urging the payment of the ring, she is essentially
asking Bassanio to do exactly what she has just pleaded of Shylock -
break his bond. And though she ultimately forgives him, she symbolically
identifies herself with Shylock when, in 5.1, she hands the ring to
Antonio and tells him he will be Bassanio's "surety". How will she exact
her pound of flesh from Antonio if Bassanio breaks faith again?

If the comedies consistently illustrate anything about marriage, it is
that marriage is a financial contract from which men consistently
benefit and which provides women absolutely no assurances. If the women
tend to re-establish the social order, it is because they are so utterly
vulnerable (and often victimized) when that order is disrupted. In the
"mature" comedies, the women are certainly more intelligent but the
forgiveness they teach often (ironically) seems a survival technique in
a world in which they have no real power. What choice does Portia have
except to forgive? In holding Antonio as surety, she is acknowledging
where the real power lies - once again with men and, if you like, with
male friendship.

David Wallace

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