The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 26.306 Monday, 29 June 2015
Date: June 29, 2015 at 1:07:00 AM EDT
Subject: Re: SHAKSPER: MV Dialog
To John (and whomever else may be interested)
Thank you very much for your thoughtful response of 6/15.
Before I get to the Overview, I have some questions. Your first response has gone right over my head. To what duplicity do you refer? To what equivocation? What does this have to do with the act of “reading” and the spread of print culture?
This Overview is for informational purposes, and is not intended to elicit any responses. Those can best come later, after I have set out my more general thoughts. I feel quite confident that you (and interested others) will disagree about many, if not most or even all, of my current observations and conclusions. Of course, you (and any others) are always welcome to respond whenever you wish.
We have already disagreed about Venice vs London. I contend that it is Venice in the first three dimensions identified below, and London in the rest.
We have not yet discussed Belmont, which is spelled Belmonte in the Source dimension. In the Story, Source, and Literature dimensions, it is a real — albeit idyllic — place. In the Recent History/Current Affairs and Sexual dimensions, it is the court of Queen Elizabeth. In the Theological dimensions, it is Heaven.
DIMENSIONS OF MEANING
The main dimension is the Story dimension; that is, the basic narrative of the bond plot and the casket plot as Shakespeare mashed them up from several different sources. This dimension is both the skeleton upon which Shakespeare hung a number of other meanings, and the disguise that permitted him something like plausible deniability regarding the impermissible, often subversive, and possibly treasonous ideas that he expressed in these other meanings. On this dimension, Venice is certainly Venice.
Related to the Story dimension is the Source dimension. The main source, “Il Pecorone,” is set in Venice, and can therefore augment plausible deniability. Some of the other sources are not set in Venice but others are.
As your comprehensive edition and scholarly responses demonstrate, there is also a Literature dimension. It amazes me that Shakespeare was consciously creating Literature. At the time, plays were not considered Literature. Erne to the contrary notwithstanding, Shakespeare could not have known as he was writing the play how it would be received or whether it would even be published. But he was a Poet at heart, and was probably writing the play as much for himself and his friends as for any audience or potential readers.
Most of the other dimensions do not run all the way through the Story dimension. However, they are all interrelated in some way, and can flicker in and out. One character can stand for one thing one moment and another thing the next, or sometimes more than one thing simultaneously. It is critical to listen to or read the words very carefully, and with the awareness I just described.
One of these other dimensions is the Source dimension. It is not sufficient simply to identify a probable source. Shakespeare selected those sources for a reason, and made significant changes to them. One must read them carefully and ask oneself why Shakespeare chose that source and made those particular changes. Sometimes a particular change will carry with it elements of the original context. Friends, audience members, or readers may be familiar with the source and may, consciously or unconsciously, connect the original context with how Shakespeare changed it for the play. (I have in mind particularly the relationships among the original Lady of Belmonte, Portia, and Elizabeth I.)
I never realized until I started work on this play that Shakespeare’s references to mythological, Roman, or Greek individuals and events actually carried meaning. I thought that they were simply “grace notes” as it were, which poets used to show off their learning and to flatter the audiences and readers by demonstrating that they expected them to recognize and understand them.
I also never realized how many sexual references and puns Shakespeare included. This should be an interesting discussion.
The dimensions that I have thus far identified are: (1) the Story dimension; (2) the Source dimension; (3) the Literature dimension; (4) the Legal dimension; (5) the Biblical dimension; (6) the Recent History/Current Affairs dimension; (7) probably several Theological dimensions; (8) the Sexual dimension; (9) the Mythological dimension; (10) the Roman History dimension; (11) the Marlowe dimension; and (12) the Personal dimension. We will discuss these dimensions in some detail later. For now, I will simply identify them and indicate to which characters in the play these dimensions relate.
PORTIA stands for the Lady of Belmonte in “Il Pecorone,” but changed from a rich widow who does not desire a husband and who devised a larcenous bed trick, to a rich heiress who does; Portia, daughter of Cato and wife to Brutus; Elizabeth I; Sibilla; Diana; Hera; Medea; Deianira; Hesione; Jesus, as described in the Gospel of John; and the Risen Christ. Runs a brothel.
NERISSA stands for Portia’s Lady-in-Waiting and not the simple maid to the Lady of Belmonte who served the spiked wine; Elizabeth Vernon, Elizabeth’s Lady-in-Waiting, cousin to the Earl of Essex, and Southampton’s lover (and, shortly later, wife).
ANTONIO stands for Ansaldo from “Il Pecorone,” but changed from godfather of Giannetto to friend/lover/creditor of Bassanio; Anthony Browne, Viscount Montague (Southampton’s grandfather), as head of the Catholic church in England; Job; the old ram that Medea used to prove that she could make Jason’s father young again; and, perhaps Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, fifth Earl of Derby. Runs a brothel.
BASSANIO stands for Giannetto from “Il Pecorone,” but changed from godson of Ansaldo to friend/lover/debtor of Antonio; Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex; Brutus; one of the Elect; Jason; Hercules/Alcides; Peter, Disciple of Christ; John, Disciple and lover of Christ; Endymion.
GRATIANO stands for Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton, lover (then husband) of Elizabeth Vernon; one of the Elect. No similar character in “Il Pecorone.”
LORENZO stands for the husband of Jessica (who is the daughter of Satan); William Shakespeare, who had just become a gentleman and who doubled this role with that of Shylock. (Name comes from Kyd’s “The Spanish Tragedy,” perhaps enacted by Shakespeare.)
SHYLOCK stands for the Jew of Mestri from “Il Pecorone” but here given a name; Gerontus from “Three Ladies of London”; Truculento from “Zelauto”; Jew in “The Orator”; Satan/Mephistopheles from “Doctor Faustus”; Barabas from “The Jew of Malta”; Shakespeare, who wrote himself into the play as Shylock and doubled as Lorenzo (who married Jessica, the Devil’s daughter [I suspect that Shakespeare was making some Theological point by doing so]); a Puritan (who were known as “Christian Jews” because they loaned money at interest); Sir Francis Walsingham (whom Elizabeth called “Moor”), who was a Puritan; perhaps Robert Cecil, whom Elizabeth called Pygmy; and his father, William Cecil, Lord Burghley (whom Elizabeth called “Spirit” or “Sir Spirit”). Runs a brothel.
JESSICA stands for Frances Walsingham Sydney Devereaux, Countess of Essex (the daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham, the widow of Sir Phillip Sydney, and the wife of the Earl of Essex); and the daughter of the Devil. A whore in Shylock’s brothel.
THE DUKE stands for the Monarch of England, particularly in the role of Supreme Head of the Church of England (who could not be Portia-as-Elizabeth because she/he was already involved in the Trial Scene as Portia-as-Christ). No counterpart in any of the probable sources. Runs a brothel.
LAUNCELET JOBBE stands for a devil (perhaps the Merry Devil of Edmonton); Jacob in the burlesque of Jacob fooling his father in order to obtain the blessing meant for Esau; Robert Cecil, the hunchback son of William Cecil, who was seeking his father’s blessing to succeed him as Elizabeth’s chief advisor; parodies the debate between the Good Angel and Evil Angel in “Doctor Faustus”; last name spelled “Jobbe” to bring into the play the Book of Job. No counterpart in any probable source. Personifies Lust, Gluttony, and Sloth from “Doctor Faustus.”
OLD GOBBO stands for Isaac in the burlesque of Jacob fooling his father; William Cecil, from whom Robert Cecil was seeking the blessing to succeed him as Elizabeth’s chief advisor. No counterpart in any probable source.
BALTHASER stands for Romeo’s man, who went to Mantua to deliver the news that Juliet had poisoned herself and was being laid to rest in the Capulet crypt. No counterpart in any probable source.
BELLARIO (off stage) stands for Christopher Marlowe. No counterpart in any probable source.
BALTHASAR (off stage) stands for Shakespeare. No counterpart in any probable source. Name may call to mind Balthasar Gerard, who assassinated William of Orange (whose death caused Elizabeth to send the Earl of Leicester to the Netherlands to continue the fight against Spain).
BALTHAZAR is Portia in disguise, although she is identified as such only in the stage direction for her entrance. Given that Portia is often referred to as a second Daniel, the name probably refers to the son of Nebuchadnezzar, Balthazar (Bishop’s Bible spelling), who asked Daniel what the writing on the wall meant and was told “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.” Balthazar died the next day. Could be a reference to Elizabeth I. The name may call to mind a character in “The Spanish Tragedy”; and the Lady of Belmonte in her disguise as a nameless lawyer.
MAGNIFICOES stand for courtiers to the Duke and to Elizabeth (from Commedia dell’arte — also known as Pantaleone — heartbreaker who was always hunting new conquests); whores in the brothel that is the Court of Elizabeth.
STEPHANO stands for an Italian, who was sent by the Guise faction to assassinate Elizabeth.
More to come, later.
Very best regards,