Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Merchant of Venice - Food For Thought


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.)


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