Saturday, April 21, 2007

Merchant of Venice - Antonio's Black Bile

A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …

Mike asked us "why is Antonio so sad?" I was walking by a colleague's ninth-grade class a couple weeks ago and heard a student, using the same words, ask exactly that. "Good question," my colleague said. (Ah, the unresponsive life of the student-centered education.) Act I, scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice offers us three answers. Salarino and Solanio, Antonio's good ol' boy friends, are first convinced he's just stressed about his current financial ventures. "Believe me, no," Antonio replies.

Moving on, they joke that he is in love. Maybe they've just come from a production of Romeo and Juliet, and so have a ready answer to why Antonio's sad hours seem long. Antonio: "Fie, fie!" He's no Romeo. My American Heritage Dictionary indicates that "fie" expresses "distaste" or "disapproval." If you're looking for something to hang your Antonio-is-gay interpretation on, it might be Antonio's "distaste" for the idea of a girlfriend.

Finally, Antonio dismisses his own "I know not why I am so sad," and concludes:

I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano,
A stage where every man must play a part
And mine a sad one. (1.1.82-84)

In a few years, another Shakespeare character will speak similar lines in As You Like It. "All the world's a stage, / And all the men and women merely players," Jacques tells Duke Senior. Jacques, as we know, is melancholy. (He is introduced directly to the audience as "the melancholy Jacques" by a First Lord in Act 2.) Is Antonio melancholy too? He certainly seems to believe that sadness is his nature, not just a temporary state of mind.

This would fit with Renaissance attitudes toward the four humors – sanguine (blood), choleric (yellow bile), melancholic (black bile), and phlegmatic (phlegm) – and join Antonio with other famous Shakespearean melancholics: be-Rosalined Romeo, Olivia'd Orsino, Hamlet, and Jacques. Beyond saying that they are all melancholy because they are sad in some way, can we find other commonalities that explain their melancholy? I think each finds himself (are there any melancholy women?) bereft of control regarding something that matters, giving a specific focal point to their unease and subsequent melancholia.

Hamlet says "how weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable / Seems to me all the uses of this world." His father's death has left him feeling empty and useless. Life has turned meaningless. And corruption is all around him. Students often talk about Hamlet's inability to take action, but I rather think that he's not convinced that any action would have an effect. "The universe is out of joint. O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right." He never really does set it right, and often makes it worse (killing Polonius, driving Ophelia off the deep end). He has no effective control, and because he is an intelligent man and a prince born to rule, this makes him melancholy.

Romeo is mildly melancholy, although he wouldn't describe it so. He says "griefs of mine own lie heavy in my breast." He has the lover's melancholy, which Jacques defines as ambitious, envious, proud, and more, but he is not by nature melancholy. I would categorize it as Petrarchan melancholy, rather than Greek, the difference being that the Petrarchan form comes from without (unrequited love) while the Greek is from within (too much black bile). But the immediate effect is the same – Romeo cannot control the object of his desire, and because he is a passionate man (or boy), this makes him melancholy.

Jacques is the Donald Trump of melancholic personalities; he is egotistically so. His dissertation on melancholy in Act 4 argues that he has discovered a unique form "compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry contemplation of my travels, in which my often rumination wraps me in a most humorous sadness" (4.1.15-19). Everything makes him sad. But I go back to the all the world's a stage thing, which echoes Antonio's comment. The attitude reflected here is a profound lack of human autonomy. The player's experience is thus: the director tells you what to do, the writer tells you what to say, and the narrative lays out your past, present, and future in fatal fashion. Setting aside the irony of having this lament delivered by characters in a play, this impression would leave anyone with a deep sense of existential horror. Jacques cannot control his life or the life of anything around him – he has watched a deer die; he has been expelled from the court to live in a forest – and because he is independent and perceptive, a scholar of the human condition, his knowledge and understanding are largely impotent; this makes him melancholy.

And so to Antonio, who also sees himself relegated to a sad part by the playwright deity. Jacques wouldn't consider Antonio to be in his league. In fact he'd probably categorize him as having the merchant's melancholy, which is economic. While Antonio says it's not so, he is at a point where he cannot control his financial future, and because he is a merchant … Well, I want to look at Antonio's last lines. Portia presents Antonio with a letter acknowledging that, despite greatly exaggerated rumors of their demise, three of his ships have arrived safely and richly home. "Sweet lady," he says, "you have given me life and living," hardly a melancholic rejoinder. So there, his sadness was driven by his financial concerns all along.

I am, as always, in your debt,

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Merchant of Venice - Menacing the Virgins

Somehow I missed Mike's fine and central questions. I will get to them. For starters, however, I will toss in some opening thoughts I wrote a couple of weeks ago--after listening to the play:

One cannot make it through The Merchant of Venice without being overwhelmed by the prejudicial remarks mouthed by all its characters. Everyone dumps on someone else—with the cumulative effect of making Shylock’s more extreme sufferings (and hates) seem merely one more (particularly noticeable) element of a sickeningly prejudiced world none of us would wish to live in.

Parts of Merchant of Venice are also reminiscent of Two Gentlemen of Verona, the main difference being that a much higher number of the later play’s characters are considerably more singularly sketched—in other words, Shakespeare takes general care to see that each one’s defining traits are clearly set forth soon after we meet each.

Two Gentlemen of Verona’s trip afar to obtain a wife has been polished into the elaborate moral allegory of Belmont. Its friendship has been complicated into the Antonio-Bassanio relationship. Its Sylvia character has been changed to the socially-diminished Nerissa (with the echo of Jessica serving to make the single Sylvia into a poetically neat threesome). And the Trip-to-save-your-man has been enriched and moved from the realm of physical comparisons to the poetical/intellectual one (sorry, we’ve just had visits with three impressive lawyers).

Of course, it is hard to regard or direct the play with indifference, and if one wishes to make something of the proto-homosexual relationship between Antonio and Bassanio or of the injustice served up by a rigged capitalistic social order on Shylock, one can—easily and powerfully. I listened to the play while driving from Ithaca to Kingston, and, somehow, came away from it without feeling great sympathy for anyone from the self-indulgently morose Antonio to the racist (if tough and articulate) Portia. I felt a strange sort of indifferent objectivity.

All of which is not to say that I have not seen powerful productions—most especially with Olivier playing Shylock and Antonio and Jessica looking into one another’s eyes in the final scene at Belmont (and knowing the terrible things each has wrought regarding Shylock) .

Perhaps this is an old man’s slightly cynical response to a play that still seems the product of a Shakespeare somewhat short of maturity. Perhaps it is also fed by the comments of those who wish to make something of Portia’s feminist heroics or Antonio’s and Bassanio’s “homosexual” relationship. Having felt neither while listening to the play, at this moment I feel such concerns as having been “pasted on” by critics who could not, really, find deeper stuff in what was on the page.

Shakespeare’s most striking move, however, is his brilliant creation of Shylock, into whose backgrounds, attitudes, and causes he has gone quite extensively. Arguably, he is the near equal of Richard of Gloucester in that respect.

As I tried to say when talking about Bill Matchett’s discussion of “forgiveness,” it’s more as if the concerns which will later become “themes” arise almost incidentally. The theme of forgiveness and mercy is one. The theme of women having to take upon themselves the paying for men’s flaws is also.

Shakespeare’s dislike of puritanical narrow-mindedness is another. Although Shylock’s extensive development as a Jew gainsays this in some regards, I have always wondered how much of Shakespeare’s annoyance with Puritans (of whom he probably saw many more than he saw Jews) is not part of Shylock’s creation (sure, Marlowe was being revived around the corner and someone had said, “Hey Bill, can YOU write us a Jew-play?”). Here we have a real Old-testament figure as opposed to those Puritan sorts whose attempt to return to Old-Testament governance was seriously flawed. (And still is.)

I asked my sister if she thought my opening comments above were audacious, and she, very prettily responded: “Not audacious at all. On Friday, as we finished Romeo and Juliet, I asked my kids to promise me that someday each one would read King Lear. I was pointing out that Romeo's remarks upon seeing Juliet "dead" in the tomb would not gain their real meaning until ten years later when Shakespeare would write King Lear. Just as he would transform the Friar into Polonius in Hamlet, Shakespeare would transform Romeo's misery into something truly agonizing in King Lear. Carrying the dead Cordelia in his arms, Lear would look helplessly for signs of life in her features. The immature Shakespeare is a great wordsmith; the mature Shakespeare breaks your heart.”


Friday, April 6, 2007

Merchant of Venice - Version of Menace

Here are a few questions and thoughts to kick things off. I'll send around a few more later, if need be, but my sense that shorter is often better at the outset:

1. First, why is Antonio so sad? He mirrors Shylock at the end in his "aloneliness" (his ship has come in, but he is rather glaringly unpartnered) – should we read him as a Christian mirror of the moneylender? Is it the impending loss of Bassanio that looms over him at the beginning? A premonition of his sinking fortune?

2. Are we supposed to read the riddle of the caskets as anything more than a charade? It takes a dim ninth grader to be befuddled by it, and I vacillate on wondering if that's the point, or if it's simply a necessary weakness on the part of a symbolic plot device? Silver as a "middle path" has always struck me a bit sideways (i.e. if gold is 100 and lead is 0, then silver comes in as a middling B at 83). And how far can we push the ubiquitous use of the word "casket" (i.e. Jessica tosses Lorenzo the goods in Act 2, scene 6: "Here, catch this casket. It is worth thy pains.") and all its connotations: treasure chest, corpse holder, stereotypical "box" for fathers to contain daughters, etc. (i.e. Shylock says of Jessica in Act 3, scene 1 "Would she were hearsed at my foot and the ducats in her coffin.")

3. Who would you cast as Shylock in a production today, and why? Grapple directly with the level of sympathy/antisemitism you read in the play, and how far a valid interpretation can go. "If you prick us, do we not bleed?"

4. What do we make of Shylock's demise? He ends with "I am content, "followed by, "I pray you give me leave to go from hence. / I am not well. Send the deed after me / And I will sign it." That's it. The rest is silence. Not with a bang but a whimper. How much sympathy do we have for him? Is there a critique of Christianity in the justice he receives? (Via the same new testament that brought us "The love of money is the root of all evil" and "Love one another as I have loved you.") Or are we comfortably inside a worldview that aligns more closely with Mel Gibson's?