Monday, March 21, 2005

Week 08 Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice

The main point of Christian theology upon which the play turns is the opposition between the letter of God’s Law and the spirit of that Law. This opposition implies that the New Testament (the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which tell the story of Jesus, along with other texts such as the Acts of the Apostles, Revelation, and the Letters of Saint Paul), with its emphasis on forgiveness and love, is the Christian fulfilment of the Hebraic Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, the Pslams and Prophetic books, etc.), which emphasizes strict obedience to Yahweh’s commandments. In Saint Paul’s words, “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (2 Corinthians 3:06). And he says to the Romans, “…a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28) One final passage will turn out to be important in capturing the nuances of Shakespeare’s treatment of the Christian characters in The Merchant of Venice: In his Letter to the Galatians, Paul writes,
3:23 But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed.
3:24 Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.
3:25 But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.
3:26 For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.
3:27 For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.
It is perfectly obvious from such passages that for Saint Paul, acceptance of Jesus’ divine mission and continuing faith in him is the one thing necessary—not strict observance of the formal codes of conduct set forth in Old Testament books like Numbers and Deuteronomy. Jews come in for stricture most notably because they do not agree with the characterization of Jesus of Nazareth as the long-promised Messiah and God’s Son, which rules out their accepting the allied notion that Jesus’ crucifixion made redemption from sins available to all who believe in him. Based on statements such as those in The Gospel According to John (“…the Jews sought to kill him” 7.01, etc. In the original, περιεπάτει ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἐν τῇ Γαλιλαίᾳ, οὐ γὰρ ἤθελεν ἐν τῇ Ἰουδαίᾳ περιπατεῖν, ὅτι ἐζήτουν αὐτὸν οἰ Ἰουδαῖοι ἀποκτεῖναι), a tradition of vilifying Jews as the “murderers of Christ,” etc. took hold in Europe and, to some extent, it persists to this day, as current hate crimes against Jews there show. John Chrysostom in particular, a fourth-century (347-407 CE) Church Father, has become the focus of much debate about how much antisemitic commentary is in patristic theology. (A web instance:

Simply put, many Christians have long criticized Jews for not being Christians, and of course Jewish people have also had to contend with a broad, culturally reinforced antisemitism that takes on a life of its own and goes far beyond any disuptes about theological truth—as when Hitler and his Nazi Party claimed that “international Jewry,” in league with western capitalist powers such as Great Britain and France, was responsible for all of Germany’s social and economic woes after WWI. In order to understand Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, we must factor in the already ancient tradition of European antisemitism. Although I don’t for one minute believe Shakespeare himself was a vicious antisemite who advocated violence against Jews, it’s clear that the history between Christians and Jews is the backdrop of his dark comedy and that it is by no means a peripheral issue in the play’s overall meaning.

We know that things do not end well for Shylock, a successful Jewish financier at the Rialto in Venice. He loses his daughter, most of his wealth, and is forced to abandon his Judaism and swear to become a Christian, while the Christians in the play end happily married—excepting Antonio, of course, though he fares much better than we had thought he would. Since the play’s conclusion leaves Shylock out in the cold and offers no overt condemnation of what has happened to him—indeed the play’s title refers to Antonio the merchant, not to Shylock—what are we to make of such treatment? I suspect that Shakespeare’s audience would, for the most part, have considered Shylock’s punishment entirely just and even risible; they may well have reveled in the forced conversion and the taking-away of most of his wealth at the behest of Christians. We can’t know exactly what Shakespeare himself thought of Shylock, for the simple reason that all we have are the words of the play, which are all spoken by characters. All attempts to know the author’s intention about any work of art (dramatic or not) are doomed to failure for much the same reason, so the best we can do is probably to say, “well, Shakespeare is a Christian author, so it’s likely that his basic sentiment would have favored the Christian characters, at least to some extent.” Certainly the play is a Christian comedy, however dark—not a Jewish tragedy.

In my view, Shylock is anything but a “stock Jew” or a stage villain like Barabas in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. ( This doesn’t mean he is portrayed in a positive light. My sense is that there’s something deeply ambivalent about Shakespeare’s representation of Shylock—for almost every instance or utterance that makes him out to be a sympathetic figure and a wronged man, there’s another that shows him to be anything but sympathetic. It all comes down to where you think the emphasis lies—are we to weight the sympathetic moments more, or the unflattering ones? Consider just the ending of Act 3, Scene 1:
SHYLOCK. Why there, there, there, there! A diamond gone, cost me two thousand ducats in Frankfort! The curse never fell upon our nation till now; I never felt it till now. Two thousand ducats in that, and other precious, precious jewels. I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear; would she were hears'd at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin! No news of them? Why, so- and I know not what's spent in the search. Why, thou- loss upon loss! The thief gone with so much, and so much to find the thief; and no satisfaction, no revenge; nor no ill luck stirring but what lights o' my shoulders; no sighs but o' my breathing; no tears but o' my shedding!
TUBAL. Yes, other men have ill luck too: Antonio, as I heard in Genoa-
SHYLOCK. What, what, what? Ill luck, ill luck?
TUBAL. Hath an argosy cast away coming from Tripolis.
SHYLOCK. I thank God, I thank God. Is it true, is it true?
TUBAL. I spoke with some of the sailors that escaped the wreck.
SHYLOCK. I thank thee, good Tubal. Good news, good news- ha, ha!- heard in Genoa.
TUBAL. Your daughter spent in Genoa, as I heard, one night, fourscore ducats.
SHYLOCK. Thou stick'st a dagger in me- I shall never see my gold again. Fourscore ducats at a sitting! Fourscore ducats!
TUBAL. There came divers of Antonio's creditors in my company to Venice that swear he cannot choose but break.
SHYLOCK. I am very glad of it; I'll plague him, I'll torture him; I am glad of it.
TUBAL. One of them showed me a ring that he had of your daughter for a monkey.
SHYLOCK. Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal. It was my turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor; I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.
TUBAL. But Antonio is certainly undone.
SHYLOCK. Nay, that's true; that's very true.
This passage contains a great deal—Shylock is by turns genuinely sorrowful and frantically vengeful against both his daughter and Antonio. He seems confused here and elsewhere in the play about the relative value of his money and his family, as when we hear from Christian report that he has conflated his “daughter” with his “ducats.” There is pathos in his statement that he wouldn’t have traded his departed wife’s ring “for a wilderness of monkeys,” and yet there’s something ridiculous about such a comparison-phrase, too, so we are tempted to laugh. And just as the Christians tend to be dealt with as individuals and to talk about themselves as individuals, we find Shylock often referring to himself in terms of his “tribe” and his “nation,” as if being an Israelite made him not an individual but a representative member of this collective identity: “The curse never fell upon our / nation till now; I never felt it till now.” Shakespeare isn’t working from a romantic concept of the self as unique—the Renaissance tends to treat the individual as an aggregation of virtues, vices and “faculties” or capacities—but it’s also the case that Shakespeare’s individuals are often strongly marked in a way that lends them nobility if not correctness. Shylock, to be fair, gives us an intimate sense of his inner thoughts and feelings, but a good deal of it makes him seem muddled and confused about important matters. And the references to his “tribe” tend to reduce him to the level of a stereotype, even if he is too complex a character to remain at that level.

It’s common for Shakespeare’s plays to offer parallels between one character or set of characters and another – for example, consider that many pairings in King Lear: the three daughters and their husbands, Gloucester and the King, and, above all, the Fool and the King. This is perhaps Shakespeare’s best way of enabling us to make sophisticated judgments about his characters and about the ethical and political questions the plays explore. It is seldom easy to say that a character in Shakespeare is “all good” or “all bad.” Lear, at his moments of greatest pathos, is dragged down from sublimity by the near-constant presence of the twaddling, bawdy-minded Fool, who in many productions actually resembles him in appearance. Presumably, that is because we are not to take Lear’s pronouncements about human nature or kingship at face value—he is a character offering us his perspective at points of extreme distress, isolation, and even madness. But it’s worth considering if Shylock in The Merchant of Venice might have a twin of sorts – his “tribe,” the Jews as the popular imagination would have them. Even as he speaks some of his most sympathetic lines, this shadow of the comic “stock Jew” hangs over him, and prevents him from rising to a level of tragic dignity. To the Christian characters in the play, Shylock is either a devil or a figure of fun—there seems to be nothing in between for him, and he finds it almost impossible to get himself considered as a human being with a genuine grievance.

But what about the Christians in this play? Beyond Shylock, there are other parallels between characters and character sets in The Merchant of Venice. These parallels seem to me to cut both ways with regard to the behavior of the main Christians. Consider, for example, the love match between Lorenzo and Jessica as a lower-ranking parallel to the love match between Bassanio and Portia. On the surface, the pursuit of Jessica by Lorenzo might seem to be completely unrelated to Bassanio’s pursuit of Portia. But what about the possibility that Lorenzo’s obvious erotic interest in his lover and his willingness to abscond with her father’s ducats and jewels (conveniently in a chest not unlike Portia’s “caskets,” by the way) is meant as a way to bring the idealistic Bassanio down to earth? His Portia, after all, is “a lady richly left”—aren’t we being invited to ask ourselves just how much difference there is between his desire for Portia and Lorenzo’s less exalted desires for Jessica?

Then, too, while Shylock’s frenetic concern for his ducats often makes him look foolish and confused, what about the way in which the Christians Antonio and Bassanio continually make money out to be a thing of no importance—that is, in comparison with their high ideals and spiritualized notions about love and friendship? But isn’t Bassanio a prodigal who has squandered his own wealth on high living and appearances, and now has to put his friend’s life at risk so he can go in search of the perfect woman? Neither is Shylock solely concerned with money—certainly by the time of the trial scene in Act 4, he is no longer interested in recovering his 3,000 ducats; the pound of Antonio’s fair flesh will make good his “oath to heaven.” On the whole, Antonio and Bassanio themselves seem too fond of excessive oaths, repeatedly falling into the same error of making ridiculous attestations to facilitate whatever course of action seems convenient. That is one of the things Portia (now undisguised and free to be her female self) chides them for in the final act: their willingness to break an oath to their intended wives to satisfy some other (male-centered) pressing demand, like giving a gift to the “men” who helped Antonio win his case. They trivialize the things of the spirit by calling them to witness in the service of worldly oaths and purposes, and then they break the oaths at will. This hardly leaves their pretentions to Christian otherworldliness and earthly charity untouched.

Finally, Portia's interpretation of Shylock’s bond in Act 4 is that it doesn't contain all the necessary qualifications—flesh may be taken, yes, but blood mustn't be spilt. The Christian point is that fallen humanity can never sufficiently justify itself in God ’s sight. By implication, human beings cannot sufficiently qualify strict contracts and oaths and be truly just in their demands, so there is no point in making such hard bargains in the first place. Mercy is not something that can be divided up or quantified, and mercy is the only proper framework for human conduct. Jesus weighs in on this issue in The Gospel According to Saint Matthew 6.14-15: “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Shylock is aware of what others think of him and his religion (his voicings of this awareness often strike hard at Christian pretense to kindness and fair dealing), and he self-consciously tries to pay them back by conforming to their estimation of his “hard-heartedness,” insisting that every last stipulation of his bond be adhered to.

The ultimate point for Shakespeare’s audience, I believe, would be that Shylock is unmerciful when he has the chance to show mercy, and therefore he not only deserves to lose his case against Antonio, but he even deserves the punishments he receives at Christian hands. But for modern audiences—Christian or otherwise—Shylock’s punishment may well appear every bit as unjust as his own attempt on Antonio’s life: the political, economic, and religious establishments of Venice gang up on him and take away all he has, even his very faith. For what it is worth, I incline towards the view that Shakespeare is conscious of an irony in the fourth and fifth acts that was available to him at the time: it is fallen human beings who are meting out the punishments, not God, and the “quality” of their mercy is at least an open question. The Merchant of Venice may not be a tragedy, but its status as a comedy is not entirely stable, either, and I don’t believe that the “darkness” of this comedy is entirely the product of apologetic modern interepretation.