Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Merchant of Venice - Portia and Power

Patient, I hope, fellow posters,

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,
Exceed account…
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.

Or not.

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