Monday, May 14, 2007

Merchant of Venice - Portia and the Caskets

Patient Shakespeareans,

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.”


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