Saturday, May 12, 2007

RE: Merchant of Venice - Menacing the Virgins

My very gentle good masters,

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:

Therefore, Jew,
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 placemerchants 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.

No comments: