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,

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