Thursday, May 17, 2007

Merchant of Venice - Portia and Prejudice

Merchants of Discussion,

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….

Home stretching,

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