Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Re: Portia’s quality of mercy speech, there was a trial in Tacoma this week, Cecil Emile Davis accused of a brutally appalling rape and ruthless murder of a 65-year-old woman. He threw her in a bathtub and smothered her with towels soaked in a toxic solvent. In the summing up, his defense attorney asked the jury to show mercy in that “Earthly power doth then show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice.” I wonder what they teach in law school? Davis got the death penalty.
Cindy cited sources about the Jewish ghetto in Venice in the sixteenth century. May I call your attention to a novel for young people, Miriam Pressler’s Shylock’s Daughter: Sixteen-year-old Jessica, who longs to be free of the restrictions of her father and life in the Jewish ghetto of 16th C. Venice, falls in love with a Christian aristocrat. Translated from German. Pressler is co-editor of the definitive edition of Anne Frank’s Diary of Young Girl. Well researched and pretty well written, though gushy about teen romance.
I’ve only seen the much discussed Radford film once, but I was impressed with Pacino as Shylock. Like Cindy, I ached for Shylock. I also thought Jeremy Irons gave a convincing reading of Antonio in love with Bassanio. Certainly not necessary, but sufficient. A couple of years before, I saw a good Merchant of Venice at Ashland, Oregon, and their Antonio was also gay, enough like Irons that I now conflate the two productions in my memory. I do remember Ashland set the Rialto as the Bourse or the Big Board on Wall Street, with stock prices (and maybe “argosy futures”) running across the screen. The Christians were all “suits.” After I praised the Radford, my friend Roger Sale dismissed it as too narrowly focused on Shylock. I’m anxious to see it again. I guess maybe I should buy a DVD player.
I’ve just read Stanley Wells, Looking for Sex in Shakespeare. Pretty slight. He says “the meanings of works of art are stimulated and guided by the mind of the artist but exist finally only in the minds of those who experience them.” Amen. But then he devotes much of his lecture to refuting homosexual presentations, including Merchant of Venice.
Mike’s early question of how one might cast Shylock immediately tempted me to Mel Gibson. Delicious. One could consider it part of his “community service” punishment to say in front of millions “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh?” When it was announce Gibson would play Hamlet in Zefirelli’s film there was much scoffing about how Mad Max would mumble “To be or not to be,” but actually I though Gibson was entirely credible. My other suggestion might be one of the great British actresses, Judi Dench, Glenda Jackson, Janet Suzman, maybe Helen Mirren. I don’t know what I would expect.
Cindy wonders about whether anti-gay prejudice would equal anti-Jew bigotry. I think not because the Christians are such a closed circle. They know, support, forgive. When Bassanio is sent to find a loan of three thousand ducats, backed by Antonio, notice he goes to Shylock. Why? The Christians all owe Antonio for paying off their debts, etc. But they also know that Bassanio is not a good risk so they would not loan him the money to keep Antonio from making a foolish deal.
Sorry if I damaged Randall’s and Cindy’s affection for Portia. All you need as antidote is see a couple of quality actresses, as Portia, not as Shylock.
Basta, as we say in Venice,
I was bemused by Randall’s report of the paper he received arguing that Portia is a “tragic hero.” I’m no Aristotelian purist, but…, then Randall said, ya’ know—ninth-graders. My tragic sympathies are with Cindy and go toward Shylock, though I think we need a different term that could better fit Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman: “pathetic hero.” Alas, pathetic is one of those words that has eroded in our current usage [John?], as in “You heard Paris Hilton has claimed her jail sentence is cruel and unusual? That’s pathetic.” Sort of like “What do you mean Antonio is gay? It says right here ‘In sooth I know not why I am so sad.” Pathos evokes emotions, less cosmic than tragedy, more sincere than bathos. Shylock’s “If you prick [a Jew doth he] not bleed,” even if it a logical argument justifying revenge, strikes me as legitimately pathetic as anything in Shakespeare.
What, then, about “hero”? Aristotle reserves “hero” for tragedy, but I tend to corrupt the term to refer to the protagonist, the character who embodies the author’s values, or the character who has the most power at the end, who “wins.” Can we say the protagonist is Antonio, the eponymous “merchant,” no? The value bearing character hardly works in Shakespeare, who is of all authors the one about whom is most difficult to claim “Shakespeare believes,” in that he so deftly distributes all sides of any issue among competing characters (despite the 7,892 books expounding Shakespeare’s world view). So I almost choose Portia as the hero of The Merchant of Venice. She is in control of every situation, and yet…
Who is the merchant here? Portia. She says of Bassanio “since you are dear bought, I will love you dear” (III.2.313). After Nerissa has said of the casket lottery “who chooses [your father’s] meaning chooses you, will no doubt never be chosen by any rightly but one who you shall rightly love” (I.230-32), Portia indicates a clear preference for Bassanio from the beginning. I earlier noted that she has known him from her pre-heiress days. Nerissa says “he, of all the men that ever my foolish eyes looked upon, was the best deserving a fair lady,” and Portia subtly replies, “I remember him well, and I remember him worthy of thy praise.” She has already chosen. But she cannot be ignorant of who he is. She is economically informed. She must know he is a bankrupt, who has grubstaked himself with Antonio’s loan in order to make a little splash in Belmont. After he met her before she inherited her wealth, Bassanio has pursued other wealthy women. Remember the arrow metaphor:
“In my schooldays, when I had lost one shaft
I shot his fellow of the selfsame flight
The selfsame way, with more advised watch,
To find the other forth; and by adventuring both
I oft found both…
I owe you [Antonio] much, and like a willful youth
That which I owe is lost; but if you please
To shoot another arrow that self same way
Which you did shoot the first, I do not doubt,
As I will watch the aim, or to find both,
Or bring your latter hazard back again
And thankfully rest debtor for the first” (I.1.140-144, 146-152)
Bassanio’s business is speculation on rich women, though his previous “arrows” have miscarried. To him Portia is a commodity.
Meanwhile, her choice is a done deal. At risk of making a hot pad out of a kitchen knife, let me show how this works. We know Portia has eliminated half a dozen suitors without giving them a chance at the lottery. We know she would eliminate “all of Morocco’s complexion,” despite her two-faced declaration that he stands “as fair” as any comer, and she dismisses Aragon as typical of “all these deliberate fools.” Enter a Venetian, and Portia immediately says “come, come, Nerissa, for I long to see/ Quick Cupid’s post that comes so mannerly.” Who is it but the (pre-chosen) Bassanio? How does he win? Cindy and I agree that he has hints, “I stand for sacrifice” and the lead rhymes. Not enough? I earlier said the fairy tale conventions demand prince charming solve the secret riddle. But given Portia’s control there is nothing that says that her portrait was in any of the caskets when the despised Morocco and the pitiful Aragon chose, and now we have the desired Venetian choosing, there would be portraits in all three caskets. Ta, da!
You think I’m cheating, but look at the Portia who follows. Bassanio “wins” and Portia closes the transaction with the language of commerce:
“I would be trebled twenty times myself,
A thousands times more fair, ten thousand times more rich,
That only to stand high in your account,
I might in virtues, beauties, livings, friends,
Happiest of all, is that her gentle spirit
Commits itself to yours to be directed,
As from her lord, her governor, her king.
Myself, and what is mine, to you and yours
Is now converted. But now I was the lord
Of this fair mansion, master of my servants,
Queen o’er myself; and even know, but now,
This house, these servants, and this same myself
Are yours, my lord’s” (III.2.153-157, 163-171).
Though Bassiano/Gratiano exult, “We are Jasons, we have won the Fleece,” Graham Holderness notes this is identical to a line in Taming of the Shrew which we agree the woman cannot be saying what she means. At least, though knowing about Elizabethan “woman as chattel” legality, I still cringe as the controlled Portia gives up all of her sovereignty. But wait. In the next half line, she says “I give them with this ring,/ Which when you part from, lose, of give away,/ Let it presage the ruin of your love/ And be my vantage to exclaim on you.” (III.2.171-73). She gave him all, but it is on a contingency contract. And how long does it take for him to give up the ring in IV.1? Three lines.
So to the trial scene. Randall wonders how Portia she could come by a law degree in the time it takes to ferry from Belmont to Venice. But I speculated on that pre-trail mission she sends her servant Balthasar on to deliver a letter to her cousin, Doctor Bellario, and return with notes and garments. If you have not given up on me over the portraits-in-the-caskets trick, I’ll try this – she only needs three things: first the disguise together with enough law court decorum sufficient to sway a court predisposed to condemn the Jew; second, the clause in Venetian law that condemns an alien against a Christian; third, assurance that Antonio is no longer in jeopardy because some of his argosies have survived, this latter in a letter she can later present, as “manna,” to the suffering Antonio. Once she knows Antonio is good for the loan, the trial is moot, but she can continue with it to destroy Shylock, dazzle Bassanio, and humble Antonio. Hey ho, Nerissa, let’s put on some breeches and put on a show!
Finally, back at Belmont, where as Mike notes “the callow Christians frollick,” Portia still has the edge in all the transactions. Antonio, once THE merchant of Venice, is beholden: “Sweet lady, you have given me life and living” in return for which he swears he will pledge his soul that Bassiano will hereafter be Portia’s lap dog, “I dare be bound again,/ My soul upon the forfeit, that you lord/ Will never more break faith advisedly” (V.1.251-253). And all the sovereignty Bassanio had for a moment (he didn’t even get to consummate the marriage; he was not on top for a single thrust) was forfeit in the circle of a ring.
Why, when we first meet her, is Portia so sad? “By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world” (I.2.1-2). She, like Antonio, is melancholy [see Randall’s “black bile”], despite possessing all the riches the world affords. Sated. Imprisoned, Margery Garber says, in self-sufficient self. So she acts. Portia is not a fairytale princess, she is a woman in charge to anything she wants to be in charge of, is absolutely ‘her own woman.” One last Gil surprise: I really like this play. And though Cindy and I seem opposed, I see the same things, the little ennui at the beginning, the smack talk revealing her prejudice, the stacking of the casket lottery. But there is much to admire in this woman who, in the face of so much economic and cultural power, is able to grab the brass ring.
Free, free, at last
P.S. Sometime, somewhere, perhaps with another play—Twelfth Night or As You Like It—we might refute all of the above in a little posting entitled:
Portia Takes Off Her Breeches
It might begin…
Not until Portia commits herself to the world is she able to transcend her schoolgirl self. “But now I was the lord/ Of this fair mansion, master of my servants,/ Queen o’er myself” (3.2.167-9). After betrothal, Portia cedes this sovereignty and wealth to Bassanio (though attached to the ring), and after she then gets power from her male disguise as the young doctor of laws (Bassanio is helpless to save Antonio, despite access to Portia’s wealth), she regains her power as a woman when she returns (compare Odysseus), presents Antonio with evidence of his restored wealth, drops manna on Lorenzo and Jessica, and enthralls Bassanio with the conditions following the “ring trick.”
“Portia returns to Belmont from Venice, from disguise as Balthazar, a transformed character,” enhancing her status in the play world as a whole” (Leah Scragg), no longer dutifully submissive of her father’s will nor gender—traditionally resigning complete sovereignty to the fortune-hunting Bassiano, she asserts a strength of her own character more fully than the legalistic, anti-merciful quibbler of the trial scene.
Monday, May 21, 2007
“Portia and Power” may be only an hour away. As to goodness, this is a problem play, which to me means there are no solutions, only complex questions—prejudice, power, gender, class, commerce (as Elizabethan England is caught in the crux between feudal and mercantile, this play explores the ambivalences. No wonder it is the focal point for more Marxist criticism than any other).
I don't think I like Portia any more. Maybe Gil's final installment – "Portia and Power" – will resurrect my faith in her, but his previous two posts have all but put out that light. Both "Portia and the Caskets" and "Portia and Prejudice," combined with Ernst's comment on Merchant's "sickeningly prejudiced world" have left me with the impression that this is an extremely cynical play.
I preferred to read Bassanio's casket choice speech rather naively; you know, "look past my outward surface, for I, like the lead box, am more than ornament." That kind of stuff. But Gil's reading renders him spectacularly hypocritical.
And Gil's readings of Portia are awesome – especially that little observation about "I stand for sacrifice" and the song rhyming with "lead." Throw in a little farce and this could be one of the funniest scenes in the play, but to do so would completely reduce Portia to dishonesty. Maybe that's appropriate, given her assessment of the characters that Gil noted. I had said that Portia could be one of the most prejudiced characters in the play. Lo, and behold.
Finally, the "quality of mercy" speech, which I have really found to be powerful, takes a major hit in this reading, and also seems cynical in this light. Is there no where to turn in Merchant for goodness?
I realize this is not the only way to read the play, but Portia seems less fairy princess now than the evil witch princess from something like "King Stork." If Bassanio's not careful, he'll find his head on a pike. Now, where did he leave his ring … ?
Sunday, May 20, 2007
I promised a snippet of this and that between assignments that I am furiously grading to close out the school year.
I finally watched the Radford film of Merchant of Venice this weekend. I liked it. A lot. Something I recognized in myself was how I've always been sooooooo wrapped up in the characters, their prejudices, and my mixed reactions to them that I completely missed the setting itself. Merchant of Venice, Cindy. Duh. Should be obvious. But Venice never winked her exotic little eye in my mind until I saw the lush setting of the film. *sigh* (love Venice!) Radford's opening lines – not Shakespeare's – set the scene for an anti-Semitic Venice, a Venice of 1596. Sources I have consulted say that Europe's first Jewish ghetto was the foundry in Venice in 1516, so this Venice has been living with segregation for 80 years. The film clearly refers to the ghetto. Does Shakespeare? If so, I missed it. But I also missed the manna line; Randall, that was brilliant.
Other movie tidbits. In the category of the "way too obvious," was the slaughter of the goat in the market where Shylock is clearly purchasing a pound of animal flesh. The "baa" of the goats parallel the "baa" of sheep, yes? Slaughter of the lamb? Also the ageless excuse the Christians had for their scapegoating of those Christ-killing Jews. I would like to watch this with students to see if they catch that one.
Before this discussion and before this film, I had never thought to interpret Antonio as gay. Whoa. Any of that male bonding/friendship textual evidence merely fit with the value of male friendship over all other relationships. But hey, if we can make assumptions about Achilles and Patroclus, then why not Antonio and Bassanio? Radford's Antonio has either frolicked in the daisies with Bassanio or has always wanted to. The whispered name when he sees Bassanio glide by in gondola. The look of unrequited love as he peers out the window to Bassanio's arrival. In Act I, scene I, Bassanio and Antonio leave the table to discuss Bassanio's quest for Portia. Where do they go? The bedroom. C'mon, is that where these guys typically hang out? Question: if Antonio is actually gay, would he not be subject to the same – if not worse – prejudices as Shylock?
I'm with you, Randall, on your interpretation of Radford's last shot of Jessica with her ring. Despite "conversion" to Christianity, she was raised a Jewish girl and IS different from the Portias, Nerissas, and bare-breasted Venetian prostitutes (hi ho! Ooops, different movie. Serious laughter, Gil!). No stage or film production made that more clear than the stage production I saw last summer at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder. In the last scene, the ships have come in, the ring debacle resolved, and all are happy as they enter the house behind them. The doors close, leaving a forlorn Jessica ALONE onstage. Poignant indeed. How I ached for her.
Unlike her father in the CSF production. Shylock here was overblown, unlikeable, a caricature. I saw no motivation for his anger, for his revenge. And for me, Shylock is THE KEY to success. I WANT to ache for Shylock. I want to be angry with the "frolicking callow Christians" (nod to Ernst). I want to be left agitated and unresolved, having left a problem play, not a comedy where all the ends are tied up nicely in a bow. CSF's production last summer, despite a strong Portia and that bit of brilliant staging at the end, fell flat for me without a richly complex Shylock. Now, a few years ago, the Denver Center also staged Merchant of Venice, with John Hutton in the role of Shylock. I can still hear his voice, "if you prick us, do we not bleed?" (III.i.61). Gil, you may remember him in a number of roles at Denver Center; he played Claudius in the production of Hamlet – our chance meeting in the city! :-) His Shylock had those richly conceived layers, and the motivation behind his anger and need for revenge. I can still hear his voice… Pacino's Shylock worked for me as well. His weeping tore my heart out. Did you catch when Shylock left the court and somebody ripped his head covering off? And another spit on him? Yikes.
Women in this play? Radford's film? I used to think I liked Portia quite a lot. She's clearly very smart. I've changed my mind. Her little ennui bit at the beginning is too "poor little rich girl" a la Gloria Vanderbilt or Paris Hilton for me. "By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world" (I.ii.1). Waaaaah. She's catty as she "talks smack" about her suitors: "…when he is worst he is little better than a beast" (I.ii.88). And she lures Shylock into her trap where she can talk up a great song and dance about mercy, but deliver none? Hypocrite. Her bigotry? Totally distasteful. Strong woman? No. She has succumbed to her father's ploy of snagging her a husband. Sure, it inevitably works out in her favor, but the clues are all there to suggest she leads Bassanio to the correct casket (yes, pun intended). One of them, "To the sea monster, I stand for sacrifice" (III.ii.57) and the other clues lie in the song Gil already discussed. It's no coincidence that all the lines rhyme with lead. (Shakespeare doesn't throw away a line, right?!) Portia? Big game player. Don't confront this one at the tables in Vegas. She'll win every hand, rings and all.
"A little bit of this, a little bit of that…"Opening lines from "Anatevka," the song from Fiddler on the Roof at the end of the play where the Jews have been exiled from their little village. Most of them had a place to go. What happened to Shylock? *sniff*
A benefit of having to read a folio of Shakespeare plays at the same time is that sometimes the plays seem to talk to each other. As I said earlier, I'm reading Othello even as we discuss Merchant of Venice. And I noticed the following (identified by italics):
SHYLOCK (arguing that Jews are human and that mistreatment by Christians will have consequences):
[Antonio] hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies – what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge! The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
(Merchant of Venice, Folger edition, 3.1.53-72)
EMILIA (Iago's wife, arguing that women's faults are a product of their husbands' transgressions):
But I do think it is their husbands' faults
If wives do fall. Say that they slack their duties,
And pour our treasures into foreign laps;
Or else break out in peevish jealousies,
Throwing restraint upon us. Or say they strike us,
Or scant our former having in despite.
Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace,
Yet we have some revenge. Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them. They see, and smell,
And have their palates both for sweet and sour,
As husbands have. What is it that they do
When they change us for others? Is it sport?
I think it is. And doth affection breed it?
I think it doth. Is 't frailty that thus errs?
It is so too. And have not we affections,
Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?
Then let them use us well. Else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.
(Othello, Folger edition, 4.3.97-115)
Wow. Setting aside for a moment the transposition of husbands for Christians and wives for Jews, how are these not the same speech?
Friday, May 18, 2007
Ernst sent the following conclusion to our conversation about Michael Radford's depiction of Jessica's ring, after my insistence that the movie's final scene had meaning:
"Well, that, of course, is the director's choice. As for the original dramatist--one doesn't show a knife on a kitchen sink early on in a filmand then turn it into a hot pad in the last scene."
I reproduce it because Ernst brings up something that's been nagging me since I started in on both the Radford and Nunn film versions of the play, and I thought I'd share it with the entire group. Once one sees a production, it is difficult to talk about just the text. And that has happened to me. My posts have largely focused on one interpretation of the text rather than just the text. So Ernst is right in pointing out the difference between the director's choice and the dramatist's work. Shakespeare clearly gives us a scene in which Tubal tells Shylock that Jessica traded the ring from Leah for a monkey. Period.
Radford adds a concluding silent moment that forces us to reflect on that scene, and which may or may not change our impression of the text. Ernst feels that the final scene deviates from the implication of the earlier one. I feel it shifts our understanding of the earlier one. But it is Ernst's analogy that I find interesting because I think film-makers, who deal so explicitly in a visual medium, do make hot pads out of kitchen knives. And that we love them for doing so. Let's call it a moment of misdirection.
[Spoiler alert! Skip the next two paragraphs if you haven't seen this movie.] In George Roy Hill's The Sting (1973), Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) and Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) concoct an elaborate con to fleece a Chicago mobster named Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) without his knowing he's been conned. In a minor scene Hill's narrative jumps back and forth between Gondorff and Hooker who are preparing for the big day in their separate ways. Hooker puts on his tuxedo, opens a dresser drawer, removes a handkerchief, and – oddly – puts his fingers in his mouth. He seems to be checking his teeth. My even bringing it up makes it more of a moment than it actually is, the kind of thing you see but don't see because it has no significance or context.
Later, they pull the con, but things go awry. The best laid plans, etc. Gondorff realizes that Hooker is in cahoots with Lonnegan and has betrayed him. The cops bust in. Hooker is shot, and falls dead, blood spilling from his mouth. Lonnegan is hurried from the scene so that he is neither involved nor caught, but he has to leave his money. When the coast is clear, lo and behold, Hooker gets up and spits out two false blood packs, the items he inserted in his mouth in the earlier scene. Gondorff laughs and they escape with Lonnegan's money.
What happens here is typical of modern heist, con, and caper films in general. The general plot follows a pattern: thieves make an elaborate plan and set plan in motion; something goes wrong (a woman is often involved) and thieves must improvise; the improvisation works but with twists. In the end it turns out the twists were anticipated and prepared for, and what's more the director shows you the preparation but because you don't know what you are seeing you tend to overlook it. In the end, the viewer gets a double pleasure. First, the pleasure of the satisfactory resolution of the plot. Second, the realization that the plot involved a clever sleight of hand, in full view but not recognized until the closure. This sleight of hand is a film version of the magician's use of misdirection, and George Roy Hill does it magnificently in The Sting, converting the insignificant to the critically meaningful. Looking back, one's impression of the critical moment changes – what originally looked like a mere kitchen knife turns out to be the hot pad.
Or take Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974). A surveillance expert named Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is hired to record a conversation between a young man and woman (Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams) who are walking through a crowded public square. Caul gets his recording – it involves multiple mikes and a lot of careful editing – and hears the man utter the following whispered sentence: "He'd kill us if he got the chance." Despite his vow not to get personally involved in his assignments, Caul doesn't want to turn the tape over, worried about what might happen to the couple, but the tape is stolen (a woman is involved). Hoping to prevent a crime, Caul remembers a hotel room mentioned and checks into the one next door. He hears a murder committed.
In the end, the victim is not who Caul thought it was, and what's more the couple turn out not to be victims but something very different. When Caul gets to hear his tape again, we find out why. Coppola applies a kind of aural misdirection, changing the inflection of the words the second time we hear it. What was "He'd KILL us if he got the chance" becomes "He'd kill US if he got the chance." What was a kitchen knife has become a hot pad.
Perhaps the most explicit recent examples of the use of misdirection are Christopher Nolan's Memento (2000) and David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. (2001). When the studio released a DVD of Mulholland Dr., it included a list of ten clues to look for as you watch the movie. These clues are supposed to make your drive home happier because they'll give you a better chance of sorting out what you just saw – a narrative populated by images that don't mean what they appear to the first time you see them. Nolan's Memento, famously, is a story about a man named Leonard (Guy Pearce) with severe short-term memory damage – cannot remember what just happened a few minutes after it happens – who is trying to find the man who killed his wife. The narrative is structured in reverse, so that you see the final scene first, etc. The brilliance of this is that it unites, to a certain extent, the experience of the main character with the experience of the audience. Watching the opening moments of the movie, the culmination of the movie's plot, we don't have a clue what happened before. But mixed into this is that even as we gain information, conclusions we have recently drawn must be revised as new information is delivered. Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix) has a scene in which we find her bleeding, claiming she's been attacked, and demanding that Leonard help her. In the next scene (which precedes the previous one in time), it turns out that she has staged the injuries, then sits back waiting for Leonard to forget what has happened so she can blame her boyfriend.
(Although the visual element of film intensifies the use of misdirection, it is not exclusive to film. Ian McEwan's Atonement has a spectacular moment not unlike what I'm describing here.)
What I like about this is the transformation of the film-goer's experience. First it's one thing, then another. But my appreciation of it requires a certain willingness to grant the director the license to shift reality on the fly. I expect it to be done craftily and, in retrospect, coherently. With Radford, I wonder if my interpretation of the "false report" ring-for-monkey trade scene grants the director too much license. Could he have more clearly established the speculative nature of the intercut scene? Probably.
With Shakespeare, directors are often piecing together the narrative visually as much as with the text, especially because they are so liberally cutting the text. Branagh's inserted sex scene between Ophelia and Hamlet shapes the tone of their "are you honest" scene (interesting because he doesn't do any text cutting at all). Taymor's Titus (1999) begins with a really kooky framing device in which modern troops rush into a kitchen, terrorizing a boy having breakfast. The film seems to be viewed through the eyes of this boy, and he even moves from his 20th-century medium to assume a role with in the story. While her technique is not misdirection it does ask the viewer to see the story from two perspectives, one as a straight narrative, one as an outsider looking in and trying synthesize the context of Titus with the events of our own world (Bosnia?).
Baz Luhrmann uses frequent flash-forwards in William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, a technique that amplifies the play's concern with Fate because he's showing you pieces of the story's outcome in advance. The uninitiated viewer – if there is one – will see these scenes (Romeo walking toward Juliet's bier, for example) as mysterious, only later realizing both their significance within the linear narrative and their significance as intercut non-linear scenes (why did we see that when Romeo agreed to marry Juliet?).
I am young enough in my experience of Shakespeare that I approach aggressive interpretation with a rather callow appreciation. I like the cleverness of making Shakespeare's play do this or that. Loncraine's Richard III with Ian McKellan sets the play in an imagined 20th-century fascist England. Luhrmann transplants Romeo and Juliet to "Verona Beach," a modern heavily Hispanic Miami-like place, and infuses the play with a lot of Catholic imagery. Branagh turns Love's Labor's Lost into a 1930s Busby Berkeley/Cole Porter musical. These are fun, but even though they retain Shakespeare's language they border on the adaptative. And as such, they heavily rely on directorial license both with Shakespeare and our expectations. As a result, when I watch one of these films, I find myself reading the film's "text" as much as Shakespeare's. And the two are very different.
Perhaps as an interlude, at some future date, we could all toss out our vote for favorite filmed Shakespeare. I would be curious what each of us is drawn to. Welles? Branagh? Olivier? Zeffirelli? Lloyd Kaufman?
Thursday, May 17, 2007
The Merchant of Venice is classed as a “problem comedy,” but what problem? Recently, the focus has been on anti-Semitism, including the argument that Shakespeare himself was a bigot. I’m glad our discussion did not dwell on this. In Trevor Griffith’s play, The Comedians, which centers on night-school classes for stand-up comics in Lancashire, the central challenge is “Is Comedy possible after Auschwitz?” and certainly the Holocaust has changed the way we must perceive any production of Merchant.
When I was an undergraduate, my most disappointing class was upper-division Shakespeare, in which the prof used all the class time to play Marlow Society records. If there was a little time left on Fridays he would ask rhetorical questions and be irritated if anyone answered them or if no one bothered. After Merchant of Venice, there was the usual heads-down silence, when a non-trad (40 years ago, this meant over 40) raised her hand and said “As a Jew, can I make a statement?” Well, I guess so, said the prof. So she stood up and denounced Shakespeare for providing Hitler with material for hate crimes. More silence. Then a kid (at my age this means 19), handsome, black hair, seldom asleep during the records, stood and said, “As a Jew, may I answer that?” and let us all have it, something like: literature, Shakespeare more than any other, displays the human condition at its most complex, and bigotry is deeply ingrained in human society. If Hitler (or Goebbels) exploited narrow parts of this, it gives us a clearer understanding of Hitler, so reading Merchant leads to a perspective on Jews in culture and in history.” “Well, that’s all we have time for today,” said the prof.
To me, the real problem in this problem play is not anti-Semitism but prejudice. Prejudice is universal, from Solerio, Solanio, and Gratiano to the Venitian state to Launcelot Gobbo, though the center is dominated by Antonio and Shylock.
In my musing on "Portia and the Caskets," I tried to draw a case within the generic parameters of fairy tale, and cast Portia as its fabulous damsel. All such fairy tale princesses are perfect: Rose Red, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White (well, she may have some flaw or the dwarfs would not greet her every morning with ‘hi, ho’). But I can’t ignore Randall’s May 12 observation that “Portia could be, if you want, the most prejudiced character in the play—racist [Morocco] and anti-Semitic [the “Jew” on trial] both.” Ernst earlier (April 17) noted “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.”
Portia and Nerissa catalogue her suitors. Portia says, “I pray you overname them.” If you thus “name” someone, you are implicitly tucking them into absolute categories, as naming is a process of categorizing. In The Taming of the Shrew if you “name” a woman a shrew, as the Paduans call Kate in the very first scene, you don’t have to worry about her individuality. Name someone a communist or a hippie or a tree-hugger or a feminazi and you are no longer obligated to listen to any arguments they may espouse. If you call Shylock a “Jew”—which is all Portia ever calls him—then you get him categorized and you don’t have to relate to him as a person, nor will any of your listeners need to worry about the nuances, a person who grieves for his lost wife and whose daughter has been stolen and who has been humiliated in the streets over this loss.
Nerissa begins, first there is the Neapolitan prince. No personal name and if you avoid giving a guy his name, all the stereotypical associations are ready at hand. Ah, he’s the one who only talks about his horse. Named, categorized, dismissed. “The County Palatine?” He does nothing but frown. Named, categorized, dismissed. Soon, with Nerissa as straight man, Portia demolishes the Italian, French, German, English, and Scottish suitors (is someone who desires to marry you, even if you are rich, automatically a subject for contempt?), each described satirically as a caricature of the national ‘type’.” Though this is a familiar type of humor, it can’t be dismissed because the casket choice approaches, and the counterpoint of the stereotypical prejudice against Jews (and Christians) has already been established. If you are a bigot, then presumably you have some sort of emotional investment in the condition of hating someone else. If you simply buy into a stereotype that is created by people who have fashioned bigotry, then you are guilty of ignorance, not necessarily bigotry. Prejudice is an unfavorable attitude toward someone, prior to or not based on actual experience, an unreasoning predilection. Pre(before)-judgment. Bigotry is unreasoned devotion to a system or party and intolerant toward others.
Randall’s class has noted with alarm that Portia is two-faced about Morocco, complementing him to his face, but scorning “all of his complexion” after he has been defeated. During discussion before the casket lottery, Portia remembers she has met Bassanio, a Venetian, a scholar, and a soldier, in her father’s time, and prefers him, showing she would choose to marry someone more like herself than different, and thus will have an unreasoning predilection against every outsider.
More troubling is the trial. The quality of mercy argument is wonderful, beautiful, moral, indelible. But it is also horse pucky [oh, oh, my spell program rejects this critical term] because it urges on Shylock, whom Portia/Balthazar has distanced into category: “then must the Jew be merciful” (IV.i.82), a generosity of behavior that is not in the fabric of his Old Testament culture, and most important, which Portia herself does not intend to show to Shylock. Randall, in “RE: Merchant of Venice - Menacing the Virgins” (May 12), asked “is Mercy more apparent when offered to the undeserving?", but mercy is by definition independent of desert, it is never compelled, but freely given. Portia is not merciful, so she categorizes the merchants’ (Antonio, the Duke, Bassanio, even Lorenzo) alien adversary, then plays on his faith in the (Christian) law, baits him to reject mercy, compromise, and financial resolution, then uses his own declarations to destroy him.
She knows before she ever says “the quality of mercy is not strained” that the Venetian law will protect one of its citizens against threat by an alien. Listen: “Tarry, Jew,/ The law hath yet another hold on you./ It is enacted in the laws of Venice,/ If it be proved against an alien…/ He seek the life of any citizen…” he’s screwed. The law, the code of economic power of the majority, is institutionalized bigotry.
Is Portia thus a bad person? No, she still wears that beautiful face and carries the Swiss bank account number we saw in Belmont. And she, in a version of mercy, she has joyously ceded all this power to the fortune hunter Bassanio who won her in the lottery, assured only by a little contingency contract that he may have it all as long as he never gives up the silly little ring….
There are two such moments of perceived truth that we can question in Merchant of Venice – Salarino and Solanio's report of Shylock's equal agony over the loss of daughter and ducats as unbiased account and Tubal's suggestion that the ring he saw traded for the monkey was in fact the one Shylock assumes it to be.
One of them showed me a ring that he had of your daughter for a monkey.
… It was my turquoise! (3.1.117-120)
Really? What a singluarly perceptive conclusion. Based on what? We cannot conclude that it was, for example, the only ring in the casket. Shylock mentions "other precious, precious jewels" taken by Jessica. So Radford's take on all this depicts a man turned toward vengeance by slights amplified by assumptions and hearsay. A lot like Othello, I might add. (And a further example of Radford's Merchant of Venice working in tragic mode.)
It may be the romantic in me, but I was moved by the image of Jessica with the ring. Perhaps I read too much into it, but I saw it as her last connection to her family, an image of loneliness and tragedy given what has happened. After Shylock's line about not giving it "for a wilderness of monkeys," Jessica's having the ring conveys, for me, some of that emotional weight.
So, do you mean to imply that Doctor Bellario provides the letter that tells Antonio some of his ships are safe? How does he come by it? I'm confused. And if the notes are not related to Antonio's ships, what "strange accident" is Portia referring to? I love a mystery.
And wow, I hadn't thought about Portia's question "Which is the merchant here? And which the Jew?" in this way. I have a book, Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy by John Gross, which includes a set of pictures of various actors playing Shylock. In each, it's really, really clear that Shylock looks different from others: hat, gabardine, tallis, beard, etc. Additionally, Gil has alluded to early characterizations of Shylock as even more outrageous than we see today – red fright wigs and such. So, for what reason does Portia fail to distinquish Shylock from Antonio? Is it just a point of legal order, like saying "Will the defendant please rise"?
Portia has returned to Belmont and says:
"Antonio, you are welcome,
And I have better news in store for you
Than you expect. Unseal this letter soon;
There you shall find three of your argosies
Are richly come to harbor suddenly.
You shall not know by what strange accident
I chanced upon this letter" (V.i.273-279).
Shakespeare seldom just throws away a line, so what do you make of this "you shall not know by what strange accident I chanced upon this letter"? I hope to come back to this in the promised "Portia and Power," but if I can't let me refer you to the moment before she follows Bassanio to Venice, when she sends her servant Balthazar to Padua:
"Take this same letter,
And use thou all th'endeavor of a man
To speed to Padua. See thou render this
Into my cousin's hands, Doctor Bellario,
And look what notes and garments he doth give thee,
Bring them, I pray thee, with imagin'd speed
Unto the traject, to the common ferry
Which trades to Venice" (III.iv 47-54).
What notes??? Did I mention Shakespeare seldom throws away a line? Meanwhile, Randall's exegesis of Lorenzo's manna is challenging, but I'm thinking in another direction, recalling conversations with my wonderful colleague, Dick Henze. At the trial, Portia/"Balthazar" first asks "Which is the merchant here? And which the Jew?" Lorenzo's characterization of himself – manna to starving people – Randall notes is in terms of classic Jewish culture. Jessica said that she was converted through her husband to Christianity, but Lorenzo is the one who has been converted, and this is in keeping with Randall's description of the last scene in the Radford film, of Jessica wearing Leah's ring.
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
This is pretty far afield and something of a mess, but …
It's all over. Shylock is gone. Bassanio and Portia and Gratiano and Nerissa are reconciled. As the play draws to a close, Portia turns to Lorenzo and says "My clerk hath some good comforts too for you." It is the deed, which turns over all of Shylock's money to Lorenzo and Jessica upon his death.
Lorenzo's response: "Fair ladies, you drop manna in the way / Of starved people" (5.1.315-316).
Manna is, of course, the miraculously supplied food delivered by God to the Israelites in "Exodus" which sustained them during their journey through the desert. For Lorenzo to use it here is cruelly ironic. If I were Jessica, I'd slap him. For here again, that which belongs to the Jew has been delivered to the Christian. What does it mean that when Lorenzo receives Shylock's money, this cultural metaphor comes so easily to his lips?
In another way this is in keeping with Lorenzo's relationship with Shylock. He has also received Jessica. In "Genesis," God makes a number of covenants with the Israelites, like Abraham, promising him that his people will populate the earth. But Abraham and Sarah do not conceive until Abraham is 100, and then he gets one son with his wife – Isaac. Reading "Genesis" it is obvious how important children, lineage, and divine convenants are. Shylock's faith and familiarity with the Torah is evident from his quoting of the anecdote about how Jacob tricked Laban out of a number of sheep (Gen. 30:31-43). It seems evident that Shylock and Leah have only had the one child, and so she's more than just his daughter; she is the reward of his own faith.
Shylock's wife was Leah, and shares a name with the mother of six of the 12 tribes of Israel. (More interesting, Leah is the daughter that Laban tricked Jacob into marrying when he really wanted Rachel.) Shylock's Leah gives him Jessica, and again by analogy Jessica is his gift from God. So Lorenzo's theft of her is a blow not only to his family, but to his faith. And Shylock refers to it not just as an attack on himself but on all Jews: "The curse never fell on our nation till now, I never felt it till now" (3.1.85-86), he says, comparing his personal experience to that of all Jews. And now he is left childless, a bit like being abandonned by God.
OK. Even if we trim this back as too much of a stretch, what accounts for Shakespeare's using that word – manna – in this situation? (It is the ONLY occurrence of the word in all of Shakespeare's plays.)
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
My feeling is not a hell of a lot happier – even though, conventionally, melancholy is the stuff of the scholars and aristocrats who have time for such indulgences – all of which adds to Gilbert's notion that there are comedic aspects to the business-world part of the play's plotting. A businessman suffering from melancholy?!?
Aw, come on now.
Monday, May 14, 2007
It occurred to me that the Aristotelian purists among us (are there any?) might heave a heavy sigh at my casual use of "tragic hero." One of my students, in a recent paper, tried to argue that Portia (!) is a tragic hero. Yes but, I scribbled in her margin, in what way is she brought low? By what misjudgment? Doesn't definition matter? Aristotle tells us that the tragic hero shouldn't be entirely good or bad, should be a person of prosperity and of high degree, and should suffer an error in judgment resulting in a fall.
Shylock fits many of these although he is neither a king, general, nor demi-god. But I was born in the year 13 A.A.M (Anno Arthur Miller), a period I share with Mike, John, and Cindy, while the rest of you are BCME (Before the 'Common Man' Era). So I get to adjust my definition of tragic hero a bit. Arthur Miller tells us, in his "Tragedy and the Common Man" (1949), that the tragic flaw is "a failing that is not peculiar to grand or elevated characters." And he builds his tragic tale around an everyday guy, a salesman, or merchant if you will.
Does Death of a Salesman offer us any further insight into The Merchant of Venice? Miller writes that "the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing – his sense of personal dignity. From Orestes to Hamlet, Medea to Macbeth, the underlying struggle is that of the individual attempting to gain his 'rightful' position in his society."
I couldn't think of a better definition of what Al Pacino's Shylock is doing in the Michael Radford film. The bond is Shylock's attempt at personal dignity. My students ask why doesn't he accept the offer of thrice the principal – 9000 ducats?!? Well, that wasn't the deal; that would be letting them buy him off and get out of the penalty for forfeiture. Antonio could go around with Salarino, laughing about greedy old Shylock who gave up his legal bond when a little money was dangled in front of him. Accepting the offer would mean validating everything the Christians have said about him throughout the play.
Finally, having the law upheld in his favor (even at the expense of Antonio's life) seems like a way of establishing his "rightful position," equal and justly treated. I've already argued that his misjudgment takes the form of a confusion of his desire for justice with a desire for vengeance, but the result of this, while not death, is his "life." He loses his house, to which he responds: "you take my life / When you do take the means whereby I live" (4.1.392-393). Money, house, means, and faith; he has lost them all. What is left of his "life"? Perhaps if Act 5 had featured Shylock, he might have suffered the same fate as Willy Loman. We don't know.
And that seems to me to be the final indignity.
Radford and Nunn (and Ernst suggests John Sichel's production with Laurence Olivier as well) attempt to overcome this forgetting by constructing a final scene that recalls Shylock. It almost seems as if modern directors are embarrassed to close the play without some acknowledgement of Shylock's denouement.
In The Merchant of Venice, Belmont stands in contrast to Venice. Venice is male, dominated by commerce, law, religious conflict, threats of ruin and death. Though the Christians may live in luxury with masques and torches in the streets (and productions dress them in silks to contrast with Shylock’s plain gabardine), their culture is sustained by commerce. This is the capitalism of Elizabethan England. Bassiano must obtain venture capital because he has been profligate with his own wealth (Margery Garber notes Sir Philip Sidney, the Earl of Essex, the Earl of Leicester, the Earl of Southampton, and even Shakespeare’s theatre-building company were thousands of pounds in debt).
Though the poetry is thrilling, the tone is often scornful, cynical, bitter. There may be storms out there, rocks and winds which threaten ships. I’ll call it realistic, and comic, not because it provokes laughter, but because its fabric is the clash of people with foibles, follies and, especially, vices. Belmont is not far from geographically and historically real Venice, but it is a mythic distance removed. Belmont is a place of women (though Portia claims she is in thrall to her late father’s will), liberal, light, harmonious (music prevails). There are stars in the sky. The beautiful heiress is fabulously wealthy, “a lady richly left,/ And she is fair and, fairer that that word,/ Of wondrous virtues (I.1.161-63). Royal suitors come from far away to win her hand, but they face the lottery of the three caskets.
Ah, three. There is rejection and “death” (quotation marks); if a suitor ventures and fails he is condemned to celibacy forever (as A Midsummer Night’s Dream's Hermia, if she refuses her father’s choice of husband, must die or, equally against life, be sent to a nunnery to live unloved and sterile all of her days). The handsome commoner arrives, is sensitive to the pea under his mattress…no…he kisses the frog…no…anyway, it is a fairy tale, opposite to the real world of Venice, so its resolutions depend on three wishes or three caskets. Let’s call it romance, where conflicts dissolve into ideal resolutions.
In the center of the Belmont plot (leaving Portia’s catabasis – ah, ha, you thought you had seen the last of this word – into the hell of the Venetian world of law and bonds, and the wonderful ring trick aside for a while) are the caskets. Casket choice is, I think, typical in the pattern of folktales and fairytales. Mike, long ago, asked if we are to read the riddle of the caskets as anything more than a charade? In Shakespeare’s probable source, Ser Giovanni Fioentino’s Il Pecorone, the suitor who succeeds in having sex with the heiress gets to marry her, but the Bassiano figure fails the first two times because he is drugged. Then, her maid reveals the trick, and he wins her hand by bedding her. Shakespeare substitutes riddles for the Italian sex, so “philosophical” interpretation is invited.
But, yes, it does seem to be a charade because, in the tradition of the genre, we know that the portrait of Portia will be in the third casket (we’ve already seen it is not in the first two, and only in Monte Python would multiple suitors keep choosing the same wrong box). Mike ingeniously assigns “atomic weights” to the three metals, 100 for gold, 83 for silver, and 0 for lead, but Bassanio soldiers on.
The Prince of Morocco (a Moor and a Muslim) has struck out on gold: “who chooses me shall gain what many men desire,” only to find the proverb “all that glisters is not gold”; The Prince of Arragon (a Catholic and I’ve seen him cast as old) tries silver: “who chooses me shall get as much as he deserves” and he does not even deserve a cliché in his dismissal. So Bassanio provides the interpretation for their failures: of gold, “The world is still deceiv’d with ornament…/ Thus ornament is but the guiled shore/ To a most dangerous sea” and of silver, “Thou pale and common drudge/ ‘Tween man and man.” Well, okay, except both Venice and Belmont are on the gold standard, though in different ways, and all the commerce that has enriched Bassiano’s quest and endangered Antonio’s life is the exchange of silver ‘tween man and man.
With the casket lottery, the Lord of Belmont has imposed yet another unreasonable law of the sort with which Shakespeare opens comedy (the death sentence on Egeon at the beginning of Comedy of Errors, the death sentence of Hermia at the beginning of Midsummer Night’s Dream; seven years of studious celibacy in Love’s Labors Lost; Olivia’s seven years of mourning in Twelfth Night). However, when we first are given the exposition of the lottery, “the will of a living daughter curb’d by the will of a dead father” whom Nerissa notes “hath devis’d in these three chests of gold, silver, and lead, whereof who chooses his meaning chooses you, will no doubt never be chosen by any rightly but one who you shall rightly love.” (I.2. 24-25; 29-33), the girls also recall that “in your father’s time, before Portia was an heiress, a Venetian, a scholar and a soldier—Bassanio, as I think he was called—was he, of all the men that ever my foolish eyes look’d upon, was the best deserving a fair lady" (I.ii). If this pre-choice is based on eyes alone, methinks we should relook at the anti-ornament argument.
Anyway, after the rejection of Morocco and Arragon (and Monsieur LeBon and the County Palentine and Falconbridge and the penurious Scotsman and the drunken German), who should arrive, ornamented with three thousand ducats worth of trappings, but that self-same Bassanio. Bassiano has informed himself of the competition, and he has borrowed the money to put on sufficient show to reinforce the earlier impression made on Portia’s eyes. Bassanio really is the invader from Venice, and Portia is his new commodity, a richer venture than all of Antonio’s five argosies together. But he is also an insider, more like, less different than Portia compared to all the other rejected suitors. The original suitor in Il Pecorone gets secret help from a maid, but Portia claims too much integrity to cheat her father’s will: “I could teach you/ How to choose right, but then I am forsworn./ So I will never be, so may you miss me,/ But if you do, you’ll make me wish a sin,/ That I had been forsworn” (III.2.10-14).
Upholding the will links the casket lottery to the values of Venetian commerce, wherein Shylock’s bond may not be abrogated lest the foundation of Venetian commerce would be eroded. But the audience knows. Portia and Nerissa know. Mike's ninth graders know. Genre necessity knows which casket holds Portia’s likeness. Yet Portia tells Bassiano “I stand for sacrifice,” while the lead casket says “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.” And, as Bassiano contemplates his choice, there is music, and I have always been bemused to note that in the lyrics “bred,” head,” and “nourished” all rhyme with “lead.” However, if we accept these clues, or a production in which Nerissa winks, it violates the fairytale conventions. Bassanio must himself break the spell, the story of sleeping beauty and the prince (no matter how powerful we will discover Portia actually is). So, Eureka!!!, he chooses aright. But danger, it seems to me, is the temptation to over-interpret the riddles, and sure enough, Sigmund Freud, in “the Theme of the Three Caskets,” says to choose lead is to choose death (Marjorie Garber embellishes this to “choose to risk”), but clearly Freud read a shorter version of Merchant of Venice than I did.
Thus, Mike, my first response is that the caskets are generic necessity, and only Freud would fall into such a trap. But the fairy tale—the caskets—provide a counterpoint, romantic comedy, that makes the trial scene more pathetic. Shylock emerges as a tragic figure, growing beyond the play that Shakespeare wrote if we take into account the comic Shylock, false nose and red fright wig, that apparently dominated productions for the first 150 years before Charles Macklin reinterpreted the character in 1841. In Venice, the parallel Portia/Bellario test is not among gold, silver or lead, but to select precisely one pound with nary a milligram of blood. But notice, that is “my first” response. I will have another, two postings later, in some thoughts called “Portia and Power.”
Saturday, May 12, 2007
I feel I've been remiss in not responding to some of the very intriguing comments Ernst made almost a month ago. The following is brief, but not, I hope, banal:
On Prejudice: From what does general prejudice arise? Fear? Insecurity? A strong sense of community (from which others are defined as outsiders and "lesser")? Divine superiority? Perhaps there is nothing singular about the characters of Merchant of Venice that makes them more prone to prejudice than the populace of other Shakespeare plays, but looking back over the ten plays we've read prejudice hasn't appeared much. Here, Shakespeare is using it as a force, a divider between protagonists and antagonists – Christian v. Jew, white v. black, and, I would argue, aristocratic v. merchant class. To us, it is thematic. We can say prejudice is an anti-social force. Or, because Merchant of Venice is a comedy, prejudice makes fools of us all.
My students take most of this in stride; Ernst's "sickeningly prejudiced world" is, unfortunately, one they recognize clearly (another reason I think this is a fabulous play for high school). However, they are appalled by Portia's final comment concerning Morocco: "A gentle riddance! Draw the curtains, go. Let all of his complexion choose me so" (2.7.86-87). I think what annoys them is her two-facedness. She told him earlier, "Yourself, renowned prince, then stood as fair / As any comer I have looked on yet" (2.1.20-21). We know she's just been mocking the other suitors, so her statement may be accurate, but it is not honest. And my students don't like that.
When you watch productions of this play, note how frequently directors remove Portia's racist line, yet retain the anti-semitism and anti-Christianism of other characters. The play can be about the conflict between the merchants, but no one seems to want the romantic plot sullied. I believe there is, in the lines, a pretty ugly Portia. If she is capable of dismissing Morocco so disingenuously – yeah, yeah, it's supposed to be funny – could we not see the trial scene in a new light? She goes to help Bassanio's friend, against the Jew. She declaims about the Christian quality of mercy. And in her famous speech she says:
Though justice be thy plea, consider this:
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. (4.1.203-206)
She means we're all sinners, in need of God's mercy. But salvation is a Christian reward, and not part of the Jewish faith. How is Portia's reminding him that an offer of mercy will lead him to salvation any different from Antonio's demand, later, that he "become a Christian"?
Finally, she throws the book at him not once but twice. We usually see this staged as the benevolent Portia offering Shylock every opportunity to forgo his cruel bond, but it would be easy to stage it as if she were malevolently stringing him along, setting him up, then whammo! "Tarry a little." Portia could be, if you want, the most prejudiced character in the play – racist and anti-semitic both.
But that would be ugly indeed. So I'm with Ernst. Wherefore the persistent prejudice? Is it a comment on those crazy Italians? (Romeo and Juliet had a feud, but it wasn't peopled with bigots.) Is Shakespeare tired of using love as his battlefield? Is prejudice the foil for the play's argument for mercy? Is Mercy more apparent when offered to the undeserving? Or perhaps modern readers can no longer see the Shakespearean world order (where would Jews be on the Great Chain of Being?), and what we perceive as prejudice is to Shakespeare merely comment on things being out of place – merchants should not have power over aristocrats, Jews should not have power over Christians, and Moors should not marry wealthy white women from Venice.
Hmmm. I think maybe when we read Othello it'll be the time to revisit this.
P.S. My wife and I had dinner out the other night, leaving our children with friends. After dinner we went to pick them up and found they were just starting the recent Disney/Pixar computer-animated film Cars. In it, a self-absorbed race car named Lightning McQueen is on his way to a race in California when he gets lost, ends up in a small place on Route 66 called Radiator Springs, and does a great deal of damage to the town, and consequently ends up in "traffic" court. His lawyer? A car named Sally Carrera. Her make? Porsche.
As an allusion to Merchant of Venice, maybe that's a stretch.
Friday, May 11, 2007
From New Orleans,
Ernst credits me with e-mails I haven't written yet. Either he's got a time machine, or he wishes I were writing about Shylock instead of Antonio. So do I. So …
One last foray into the world of Merchant of Venice productions. I've mentioned the Michael Radford film, which stars Jeremy Irons (Antonio), Joseph Fiennes (Bassanio), Al Pacino (Shylock), and Lynn Collins (Portia). I saw it on the big screen when it first ran in 2004, and didn't like it. At the time I thought Radford fell into the common trap of putting Shakespeare on a pedestal – too much reverence and solemnity – putting together the kind of thing that might be made if Merchant-Ivory decided to do Shakespeare. Coming out of the theater I remember complaining that Radford had removed anything from the text that might have been considered remotely funny. In the opening scene, for example, Gratiano's lines are drastically reduced, and emphasis is placed on Antonio's melancholy throughout. Later Lancelet Gobbo is reduced to a transient character. And Morocco and Arragon are but brief amuses bouches to the heavy meal to follow between Portia and Shylock.
Albeit beautifully shot and acted, the movie felt, as I remember it, leaden and slow and self-consciously portentous. Isn't Merchant of Venice supposed to be a "comedy"?
Seeing it again this month (we showed it at my school as a Film Club screening to benefit the ninth graders who were reading it – seven showed up), I came away with an entirely different impression. Radford opens the film with the hurlyburly of the Rialto – large crowd, red-hatted Jews mixed with jeering Christians, bare-breasted prostitutes, religious zealots declaiming from a boat below the bridge. An altercation. A Jewish man is thrown off the bridge. Shylock acknowledges Antonio. Antonio spits on him. So from the get-go we have Shylock the mistreated, caught in an anti-semitic, unjust community. Later, when Bassanio comes to ask for money, you can see Pacino's Shylock almost amused at the irony. His little spate of forgetfulness about the terms of the bond – "I had forgot … three months … you told me so" – is his way of forcing Antonio to consider his ironic/hypocritical request, but not much more than that. Gone is the brief aside: "I hate him for he is a Christian." The anger, when it comes, is personal, not cultural. Pacino's Shylock is a man of great pride and self-assurance. His choices, like the "merry bond," are his assertion of that pride, but one does not get the sense that either man takes it seriously on a legal level.
So how do we get to that awful moment in the court scene where Shylock is going to hack off a chunk of Antonio? For Radford it comes, as I'm sure it does for many directors, with the loss of Jessica. Radford creates a scene, somewhere between Act 2, scene 6 and Act 3, scene 1, where Shylock returns home to an empty house. He realizes she's gone, moans "Jessica" and slumps into a corner, weeping. When next we see him, it's the "What news from the Rialto" scene, in an establishment of public dalliance which features Salarino with his face buried between some prostitute's ample breasts. It's not like Sal and Sol happened to cross paths with Shylock. Pacino's Shylock has clearly sought them out, and his first words to them, as they are in the text, are:
"You knew, none so well, none so well as you, of my daughter's flight."
I learned something about the play at this point. It doesn't take an enlightened director, cutting and pasting, to create a complex, heart-rending Shylock with whom the audience can sympathize and side. It's in the lines. If Shakespeare was an anti-semite, then he couldn't help himself when it came to writing real characters. Biases evaporate. Ernst suggests that he's taking a cue from Marlowe. I don't see it. I reread The Jew of Malta when we did Titus Andronicus, and Barabas, even at the beginning, pales in comparison to Shylock. Barabas is eloquent in defense of his Jewishness, but it's still a stereotype. Compare:
What more may Heaven do for earthly man
Than thus to pour out plenty in their laps,
Ripping the bowels of the earth for them,
Making the seas their servants, and the winds
To drive their substance with successful blasts?
Who hateth me but for my happiness?
Or who is honoured now but for his wealth?
Rather had I a Jew be hated thus,
Than pitied in a Christian poverty:
For I can see no fruits in all their faith,
But malice, falsehood, and excessive pride,
Which methinks fits not their profession.
Haply some hapless man hath conscience,
And for his conscience lives in beggary.
They say we are a scattered nation:
I cannot tell, but we have scrambled up
More wealth by far than those that brag of faith. (Act 1, sc. 1)
I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affectations, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. (Act 3, scene 1)
Marlowe's Jew is defending Jewishness by separating himself and holding himself above the "malice, falsehood, and excessive pride" of Christians. Shylock, on the other hand, establishes his argument on common human ground, not what makes him different but what makes him the same. I will commit a sin of assumption here, and wonder what effect the two speeches might have had on a Renaissance play-goer. Eloquence in the mouth of one who says he's better than you may elicit animosity, perhaps boos commensurate with the joy of rejecting the proud villain. But how to react, if you live in a country that has expelled Jews, if maybe you attended Marlowe's play a few years ago, if you're a groundling and likely to believe the worst (don't they use human blood in their strange sacrifices?) of the Jews? Even then, Shakespeare's lines must give one pause. One may not, in the end, sympathize with the Jew, but one must acknowledge that if he is treated badly, he may respond in kind. Thus, even without sympathy, Shakespeare establishes the interconnectedness and responsibility one group has for another, even disrespected group, and he establishes it by appealing to each character's common humanity.
I had thought of Shylock in more stereotypical terms, and I worried about having to defend Shakespeare, to explain away anti-semitism. You know, the "my daughter, my ducats" kind of thing. Ah, that Shylock. Can't tell his money from his daughter. But here again, Shakespeare has us fooled. The "my daughter, my ducats" line does not come from Shylock. It's Solanio, not the most trustworthy reporter, mocking Shylock. Notice how many times he uses "ducats" in the speech (2.8.12-23). Six! This is caricature. And when Shylock catches up with Solanio and Salarino in Radford's vision, it's all about Jessica. That's his real pain.
Yes, when Tubal shows up they talk money, specifically Jessica's expenditures. Shylock talks of wishing Jessica dead. Pacino does it with a weariness, so that the coffin is less about revenge than burying the pain. The key moment is Tubal's account of Jessica's unloading the cherished ring for a monkey. Radford cuts away, depicting the moment. Cute monkey. (But he's setting you up for a later moment.)
This gets us to the court scene. Pacino's Shylock here is not mad, not histrionic, just determined that in this world where he is spit upon, where Christians steal the only family he has left, where he is mocked in the streets by hypocrites, he will have a moment of justice -- his bond. He has taken refuge in the letter of the law, the only effective weapon against a double-dealing community. I like the moment when Portia asks him if he has brought a physician to attend to Antonio. Pacino just shrugs and says quietly "is it so nominated in the bond?" For Pacino the bond is not his revenge, it is merely a weapon with which he can hold Christians accountable for their own actions.
And it is his downfall. Live by the letter of the law, die by the letter of the law. Pacino's Shylock is a smart man and knows immediately that he has overstepped when Portia notes "there is something else." And then it is all crumbling, backpedaling, retreat through "I am content" to "I am not well." In the Radford this is a powerful scene, played to its tragic fullness by Pacino. What we are asked to realize is that Shylock's struggle against injustice and hypocrisy is heroic, but that he succumbs to the flaw of not knowing when to quit, of mistaking the value of the ends for the value of the means. Antonio dead is vengeance, not justice. And thus, Radford and Pacino's Shylock is a tragic hero. The Merchant of Venice, in their hands, is not comedy but tragedy, which explains the absence of the play's more persistent levity, and the relative flatness of Act 5's return to Belmont.
Maybe this is how, after WWII, you have to play it, but I very much liked the impact the play had on me when I saw it in this light. What's more, it's far more amazing to me how easy it is to find this tragedy beneath the surface of the comedy. It's in the lines, and more specifically, it's in Shylock's lines.
Radford gives us one more sign that we are watching tragedy. The modern viewer seems most aware of tragedy when it is accompanied by irony. I would argue that his explains some of the ongoing popularity of Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet with high school students, as well as Luhrmann's version with its ironic volume turned further up by having Romeo actually still alive, but fatally poisoned, when Juliet wakes up. Radford's ironic touch is far more lyrical. After the last line of the play, the director closes with a gorgeous shot of robed men standing in boats with bows and arrows, shooting fish in the glassy waters around Belmont. The camera pulls back to reveal Jessica, watching them, then tilts down to her hands. On her finger is the ring that Radford showed us traded for the monkey. That scene, then, becomes an imagined event, a figment of Shylock's tortured imagination. Jessica never gave up the ring, never traded it for an animal (another report that's unreliable). What's more, her caress of it suggests that she cherishes it, and the parents that it stands for. The ring, then, becomes a symbol of Shylock's overstepping, of the flaw in his search for justice. Jessica's love, which drove him to attempt to punish Antonio, was and is still available to him, but now, like Oedipus, he is cast out.
Tuesday, May 8, 2007
I appreciate Randall's extended discussions of Shylock, whose character, as I say above, may really be the most noteworthy creation in this play. Portia is sweet. magical, racist, and able to deliver an extremely well-wrought set-piece on Mercy, but she lacks flesh and blood – ultimately. Most of the others as well.
But in Shylock, Shakespeare takes a hint from Marlowe, who begins his play by humanizing Barabas. (After this beginning, however, Barabas falls apart as a human and becomes a monster "overreacher"-in-bloody deeds. I have occasionally wondered whether or not either a deadline or his premature death got to Marlowe and the play was either hurried through to get to a crowd-pleasing production or finished by someone else.) But Shakespeare would seem to have poured considerable thought into the making and the psychology of Shylock.
I think we are waiting for Gilbert's weighty shoe to drop, and then, unless he sends us off in other directions, move on. I will conclude, however, by quoting a section from Manohla Dargis's review of Black Book, a film about a Dutch Jew who has an affair with a Nazi officer during the War AND a film, which, despite its apparent cynicism, many writers have praised:
"Despite the non-Hollywood genesis of the project, Black Book relies on the same formula that has fueled Mr. Verhoeven’s big-studio career, namely frenzied sex and violence, bodies thrashing with the ecstasy of coitus and thrashing into paroxysms of death, sometimes at the same time. The thrashing rarely lets up in Black Book, a film in which a Jewish woman’s body is saved from the off-camera death camps, gas chambers and ovens to become a site of negotiation, a means of survival and an erotic spectacle. Abused and misused, stripped and stripped again, Rachel — named, it’s worth noting, for the mother of Israel — survives by masking that body with a putatively Aryan disguise. She also falls for a Nazi.
"Not any old Nazi, but the head of the Gestapo in The Hague, where Rachel has landed after fleeing an ambush that claims her brother and parents. Now working for the resistance, Rachel signs up for the ultimate Mata Hari assignment and agrees to bed Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch) so she can uncover Gestapo secrets. She does that and more. After dyeing her hair a brassy blond, Rachel insinuates herself into the superdashing Nazi’s confidences and, soon enough, his bedroom. It takes just one glance at the top of her head with its creeping dark roots for Müntze to guess the truth. Grasping her naked breasts in her hands, Rachel pleads her case with Shakespearean gravitas, 'Hath not a Jew, er, eyes?'
"Yowza! In truth, Rachel — now called Ellis — asks of her breasts and then her hips, 'Are these Jewish?' Seduced by the pertness of her argument or perhaps that of her physicality, attractively framed by black garters and stockings, Müntze answers her question silently but firmly."
Wednesday, May 2, 2007
Mike has also asked who we might want to cast as Shylock if we were in charge. I'm thinking film. A perverse part of me wonders what would happen if we were to put the role in the hands of someone with a deft sense of the comic, say Alan Arkin or Judd Hirsch. My question is: is there humor to be found in Shylock's character? Clearly modern directors have found the tragic in him, but is there also a comic? I think perhaps so. In the first act he refers to the bond as a "merry sport." Depending on how you decide to handle his earlier aside that he hates Antonio "for he is a Christian," we might see his forgoing of the usual interest in favor of a pound of flesh as a dark prank, a bit of black humor to get back at Antonio for his disrespectful actions. I think Laurence Olivier does it this way in his 1970s made-for-TV film.
In addition there's his little pun during his contemplation of Antonio's current venture: "But ships are but boards, sailors but men; there be land rats and water rats, water thieves and land thieves – I mean pirates – and then there is the peril of waters, winds, and rocks." Each Shylock I've looked at this month – Olivier, Pacino, Goodman, Dorfman – has pronounced that word "pie-rats." Ha ha ha … ha … ehhh. Lame puns aside, I think we find Shylock in a merry mood in Act I. I wonder if a talented comic actor could build that into a dimension of his character, even though there is precious little to follow that one could milk for laughs.
Would audiences today find a Shylock who makes us laugh inappropriate? Perhaps, but I would be as compelled by a charming Shylock as I am by the tragic one.
For a tour-de-force Shylock, I'd love to see Daniel Day-Lewis take it on. He's got the pedigree – his mother's family is Jewish, his father was a poet. He's British, former RSC and National Theatre, and can handle the Shakespeare. He himself has become an Irish citizen and has already made movies about the troubles (In the Name of the Father), so he knows bigotry and tense communities. Finally, here's a guy who is obsessive about his preparations for roles. On a number of his films, he has refused to break character during filming.
I will never forget Day-Lewis's pair of roles in 1985, a young streetwise gay Londoner in Stephen Frears' My Beautiful Laundrette and the intensely stiff mama's boy Cecil in the Merchant-Ivory A Room With a View. It blew me away when I realized I was watching the same actor. (I have had the same reaction to Chris Cooper more recently.) Much of Day-Lewis's minimal film output, in fact, has made use of his chameleon-like talents, and he does seem to like films based on literary sources (Age of Innocence, Last of the Mohicans).
Finally, for a theatrical production, Mark Rylance. I saw the former artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe as Olivia in Twelfth Night and as Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure. To each role he brought a quality I would never have imagined possible. Olivia became hilariously comic. I remember one scene where she abruptly heaves her Bible across the stage to retain Cesario's attention, then tries to regain her composure and make it seem like she just dropped the book. This Olivia set the tone for the entire show, and drove any thought of the usual melancholy from the stage. To this day, it is my favorite production of any Shakespeare play.
Similarly, Rylance mitigated much of Measure for Measure's darkness and moral heaviness by giving us a somewhat bumbling Vincentio. In the New York Times Christopher Isherwood wrote of the role: "in Mr. Rylance's interpretation, the duke remains an amusingly clueless and uncertain manipulator, stammering his way through the maze of his own machinations like a master of ceremonies who hasn't been given the right script. Soft-spoken and self-doubting, he's a figure of fun, but of pathos, too - a ruler made to learn the difficulty of doing good." I remember it being really fun to watch him.
In both cases, Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure, Rylance didn't just find a new angle for a character. He shook off all conventional expectations of both character and play. It made me want to see more, and it seems to me that a Rylance Shylock would be just the right sort of role.
Having argued that Antonio's depression is exclusively economic, I now offer a counter-point.
I recently showed my students scenes from both Trevor Nunn and Michael Radford's screen productions of The Merchant of Venice. The Nunn is set in 1930s Germany, smack in the crease between the Weimar Republic and the rise to power of Hitler's fascist Nazi Party. Now, neither of those provide any overt imagery in the video (there are no Nazis tromping around Belmont or the ghetto, not even a uniform), but the essense of each is implied by the setting. Nunn opens the play in a cabaret, where a drunken Gratiano does his opening lines ("Let me play the fool") from the stage like a bad stand-up comedian. Antonio (David Bamber) plays piano, and when his friends scamper off, leaving Bassanio, he lights up, runs his fingers gently through Bassanio's hair, and smiles. Until Bassanio makes it clear that he wants money to woo Portia. Now Antonio is depressed, slightly petulant.
So Nunn not only makes Antonio a homosexual, he grounds it in Weimar decadence symbolized by the cabaret. And he uses the same vibe from the setting to put extra bite in the anti-semitic comments by the Venetian Christians (although I assume this isn't really Venice). Nunn does not, however, close the production on a lonely, un-partnered Antonio. (In fact, he gives the last scene to Jesscia, who falls to her knees after hearing of her father's enforced will and sings a Hebrew song that she has sung before with her father.) Instead, Antonio's real final moment comes when he is faced with death at the point of Shylock's knife. He clasps Bassanio in a markedly unmannly hug. I was kind of surprised that all the stiff fascist types in the courtroom didn't cringe.
Radford also implies Antonio's homosexuality. It comes first when the sad Antonio (Jeremy Irons) gazes out the window of his Venetian loft apartment. Down in the canal he sees Bassanio. He looks longingly wistful. Irons' Antonio may not know why he is sad, but he is nothing but. I don't think he cracks a smile at any point in the film. He is morose and alone. But it is his gaze, directed frequently toward Bassanio, that points to the subtext. Perhaps, one thinks wishing Irons would lighten up, he's gay.
Talking with friends who've seen other productions of Merchant of Venice recently, I find the gay Antonio seems to be both an accessible and typical interpretation. That doesn't surprise me because that subtext fits neatly into each of Antonio's scenes that pertain to the romantic plot and doesn't get in the way at all of the economic plot. Yet I think this raises an interesting question: where does a gay Antonio get us, other than to explain his initial "sadness" and final aloneness? (Maybe that's enough.) Can it provide greater insight into his reasons for turning fatalistic and giving up on any expectation of mercy from Shylock? Can it inform some aspect of his intense dislike of Shylock? Does it explain, and this makes an assumption of Bassanio as well, Bassanio's quick demotion of Portia ("esteemed not above" Antonio's life) in the courtroom?
I'm not sure, but one area I think such a characterization is compelling is in establishing Christian hypocrisy. Both movies I mentioned above seek to avoid the anti-semitism of the play by balancing the nasty stuff folks like Gratiano, Salarino, and Solanio say about Shylock with frequent glimpses of their own villainous natures. Radford specifically makes it overt, depicting the Christians frequently cavorting with prostitutes (bare-breasted babes who turn up throughout the film). Nunn gives us a raven-haired Portia who might easily have been cast as Jessica, a rather delightful ambiguity that underscores the insanity of most racial prejudice. A gay Antonio enhances this "let he who is without sin…" approach to the play. Especially in the Nunn, where we know that Jews were not the only group to go into Hitler's concentration camps.
I went last week to see the Guthrie Theatre's production of Merchant of Venice, where Antonio was played by longtime Guthrie actor Richard Iglewski. I kept my eye on him throughout and didn't feel that he attempted to make homosexuality a part of his portrayal. Certainly, I thought, he offered nothing overt. After the play however a colleague, himself gay, complained that Iglewski had turned Antonio into a "tired old gay," an opinion shared by a friend of his in theater who had also seen the production. Perhaps that is where the role is now, in 2007. We no longer think of Antonio as the merchant of Venice. Now, that's Shylock. Instead, we assume Antonio's gayness even without clear indicators because it makes cultural sense for us, and fits neatly into Shakespeare's play, providing answers to those questions every ninth-grader offers: Why is Antonio sad? And why is Antonio alone at the end of the play?