The Merchant of Venice
Act Four, Part Three
By Dennis Abrams
Before we move on to Belmont, Act Five, and the absence of Shylock, there’s a little more I’d like to talk about concerning Act Four and…Shylock. First I’d like to share this comment from one of our most ardent readers:
“In your last post, Harold Bloom’s line jumped right off the screen:
‘I end by repeating that it would have been better for the last four centuries of the Jewish people had Shakespeare never written this play’.
I would argue that two millennia of Christianity had a far more profoundly retarded effect on the treatment of Jewish people than Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. The books in the ‘New’ Testament are littered with anti-Jewish slurs (see Gospel of John, for example, and also Matthew). As Christianity was (for nearly 20 centuries) a very powerful tool of control, the language in those texts gave its followers carte blanche to do literally anything in its name – resulting in every kind of anti-Jewish atrocity, from the Blood Libel of the Middle Ages to the Inquisition, and reaching a stunning crescendo in the middle of the 20th century.
Given the anti-Jewish sentiment that’s been in the air for over 2000 years now, the play unavoidably becomes embroiled in this issue. Anti-Semitism is as old as the hills – Shakespeare I think, would not have been unaware of the various anti-Semitic atrocities that had occurred before, up to, and during his lifetime. If the play has contributed to anti-Semitic thinking/behaviour (as Bloom seems to imply), this is the fault of the reader/viewer (or more accurately, the human race who has never quite got to grips with its Jewish hang-up) not Shakespeare’s”
I have to say I agree with this, and would like to add this: If The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic, does that mean that Othello, about a black man whose veneer of civilization is wiped away by jealousy and ends up killing his beautiful young white wife is racist? Is a play that portrays a Jew who is not a saint, but whose most despicable behavior is at least in part caused by the despicable behavior of Christians anti-Semitic?
I’ve got two last takes on Act Four – the first from Marjorie Garber; the second a fascinating take from the great W.H. Auden.
“According to Shakespeare’s play, it is not birth or fate that alone makes Shylock who he is. He has moral and ethical choices. He could put off the old man and put on the new man, he could ‘return a gentle answer.’ That he does not do so is not ascribed – by the play – to his Jewish identity. There is a joylessness to Shylock that he shares with other excluded figures in Shakespearean comedy, like Malvolio in Twelfth Night [MY NOTE: This is a comparison that comes up a lot, it seems.], who scolds the revelers for gabbling like tinkers and making an alehouse of his lady’s house; or Jaques in As You Like It, who avers that he is ‘for other than for dancing measures;’ or the villainous Don John in Much Ado, who is so melancholy and ‘tart’ that it gives Beatrice heartburn to look at him. Shylock’s villainy (and it less customary than it use to be to acknowledge his shortcomings), derives from his preferring unpleasure to pleasure, the same joylessness that makes Lancelot so happy to leave him. Shylock hates music, he hates masques, he hates anything that has to do with the traditional comic elements of release and renewal. ‘What, are there masques?’ he says to Jessica. ‘Lock up my doors…/stop my house’s ears – I mean my casements./Let not the sound of shallow fopp’ry enter/My sober house.’ In one sense this is merely sound fatherly protectiveness. But Shylock prefers a house shut off against the world of comedy and love, a house of repression and the narrowest kind of law. And it is this anticomic repression, above all, that is both his downfall and his comeuppance in the great trial scene in act 4. (Again, it is useful to compare Shylock to Malvolio – roles often played by the same actor – in order to be able to transcend, for a moment at least, our visceral response to what seems to be Shakespeare’s harsh dramatic treatment of a Jew.)
The sequence of the trial scene is superbly structured for maximum theatrical effect. The Duke asks Shylock for mercy – ‘We all expect a gentle answer, Jew’ – and does not get it. Portia, dressed as the young lawyer Bellario, does the same. Her famous speech is part of a legal argument and is not the pretty, quotable, ‘philosophical’ set piece it is often thought to be. The supposed doctor of laws, expatiating on the ‘strange nature’ of the suit, which puts Antonio’s life in danger, observes, ‘Then must the Jew be merciful,’ and shylock, ever the literalist, seizes on the operative word ‘must’ and takes it for an order: ‘On what compulsion must I? Tell me that.’ Portia’s reply sets forth the terms of an old debate about the competing virtues of justice and mercy, one with roots as far back as Seneca. This is a humanist as well as a ‘Christian’ argument:
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s,
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy…
‘Strained’ is ‘constrained,’ or forced; ‘seasons,’ an important word for this play – and for Shakespeare generally – here means ‘tempers’ or ‘alleviates.’ But Shylock is unmoved by this eloquent plea, which strikes him, perhaps, as something of a long-winded lecture, wandering from the point. ‘I crave the law,/The penalty and forfeit of my bond,’ he says. The word ‘bond’ now begins to resonate, as it will throughout the rest of the scene; ‘Is it so nominated in the bond?’ ‘I cannot find it. ‘Tis not in the bond.’ Shylock will provide a scale to weigh the pound of flesh, but not a surgeon to stanch the wound. He will, that is, provide the emblem of justice, the balances, or scales, but not the emblem of mercy. If Saint Paul’s celebrated dictum, ‘the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life,’ is seen to underpin this tension between Shylock and Portia, justice and mercy, it is all the more pertinent when restored to its context in Corinthians, where Paul distinguishes between the New Testament and the Old Testament. God, he says, has made him and the other apostles ‘ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit; for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.’ By contrast, Moses ‘put a vail over his face, that the children of Israel could not steadfastly look to the end of that which is abolished,’ and ‘until this day remaineth the same vail untaken away in the reading of the old testament, which vail is done away with in Christ.’ Reading and writing, indeed, are a sign of the old way; Paul tells the Corinthians, ‘Ye are our epistle written in our hearts…written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart’ and Shylock’s ‘pound of flesh’ is both evident and oblique. The irony consists, in part, in Shylock’s insistence on literalizing what Paul, equally insistently, asserts to be a matter of figure.
Shylock by this estimate, is a bad reader; he reads the letter, not the spirit. And so Portia is moved to act. (In many modern productions, Antonio lies spread-eagled before them, his hands bound, his body in the traditional posture of the crucifixion.) She pronounces her sentence…
The rest of the scene is a constant series of defeats and humiliations for shylock, or, to look at it another way, an escalating series of victories for Portia. Shylock says he will accept Bassanio’s offer of thrice the bond, which he had earlier scorned. Portia: ‘Soft, no haste. He shall have nothing but the penalty.’ Then Shylock says he will take merely his principal, the amount he lent Antonio. Portia: ‘He hath refused it in the open court.’ And finally Portia, and even more literal reader than Shylock, tell him: ‘The law hath yet another hold on you’ – the confiscation of his goods, half to Antonio and half to the state, for the crime of intended homicide; the threat that he will die for this crime; and the forced conversion to Christianity. The scene is devastating, with Shylock first voluble and triumphant, then, with a decisive and dramatic turn, weaker and weaker. Again, some modern productions have tended to underscore the obvious: after the distraught Shylock exits the stage, his voice can be heard chanting the Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead. What does he mourn? The loss of his daughter, now converted and married to a Christian, thus ‘dead’ to him? Or his own reduced and humbled circumstances: ‘[Y]ou take my life/When you do take the means whereby I live.’
The contrast of this great and heartrending scene with the final act in Belmont is startling, and it is clearly meant to be. Shylock’s exclusion from the Elizabethan recovery of husbands and wives, ships and money is dictated in part by Elizabethan stereotypes and religious prejudice, in part by his own moral blindness, and in part by the engine of the comic plot. Shylock is what is purged from the play’s romantic core of generosity and risk. It is his resistance to release and comic freedom, to masque and music, as much as his claim of faith and cultural heritage that banishes him. And if we leave this play with a disquieting sense of a man cruelly and publicly broken, we also leave it with the image of a triumphant heroine, witty and clever, generous to her friends, eloquent and amusing by turns.” [MY NOTE: Or not…more on this in my next post.]
Bloom’s comment “I end by repeating that it would have been better for the last four centuries of the Jewish people had Shakespeare never written this play,” finds its opposite at the end of Auden’s lecture on The Merchant, given in November of 1946, one year after the end of WW II, one year after the liberation of the death camps:
“Legality is a problem in the play, as in Measure for Measure. A law is either a law of or a law for. The law of gravitation is a law of, a description of a pattern of regular behavior observed by disinterested observers. There must be no exception and no caprice. Conformity is necessary for the law to exist, for if an exception is found, the law has to be rewritten in such a way that the exception becomes part of the pattern, for it is a presupposition of science that events in nature conform to law – in other words, a physical event is always related to some law, even if it be one of which scientists are at present ignorant. Laws for, like human legislation, are patterns of behavior imposed on behavior that was previously lacking in pattern. In order for the laws to come into existence, there must be at least some people who don’t conform to them – there is no American law, for example, dealing with cannibalism. Unlike laws of, which must completely explain how events occur, laws for are only concerned with commanding or prohibiting the class of actions to which they refer, and a man is only related to the law when it is a question of doing or not doing one act of such a class. When his actions are not covered by law, when alone in a room reading a book, for example, he is related to no law at all. The Merchant of Venice shows that morals are not to be thought of as laws of, that laws for can’t account for all actions, and that ethics can’t be based on right, but must be based on duty.
( I will not mention the irony involved in seeing this scene now…)
How do we judge the means and ends of actions? Utilitarian theory doesn’t consider the choice of means, but argues that utility and right are identical. But why is a key ‘right’ in opening a door and a bent wire ‘wrong?’ Kant and Fichte ask, what is your ethical duty if you know where A is, and B, who intends to murder A, asks you where A is? If your assumption is that you must tell the truth, then what? Kant argues that you must tell. Or, if your assumption that human life is sacred, then you don’t tell. Duty is not what is conformable to right, but to what I owe. There is no refuge in generality, the choice is specific. There are no alternatives, the choice must be mine. And ought implies can. Antonio’s sense of infinite obligation links utility and duty, as utility and right cannot be linked. Right states that a man should help friends, but doesn’t explain why. Shylock thinks of duty upside down, and sees a one-to-one relation between action and intention. He tries to get Antonio. His mistake is that he tries to invoke the law and gets caught out. Laws are not adapted to particular ends, but deal with generalities. It’s amazing that the Doge and others didn’t realize that the bond involved bloodshed, but we have to accept that.
The question the play raises is, how shall I behave? I might assume that if I follow the rules, I’m okay, but Portia points out that obediences differ:
Though Justice be thy plea, consider this –
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea.
Portia, on the other hand, does trust to a legal generalization to free a man from an evil character:
But in the cutting it if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate
Unto the state of Venice.
A shyster lawyer uses the same kind of argument. A ‘Profile’ of the nineteenth century New York criminal law firm, Howe and Hummel, in the New Yorker, describes how William F. Howe got one of his clients off on a charge of arson. Howe arranged for a plea bargain on the charge of attempted arson, and when his client, Owen Reilly,
came up for sentence, Howe arose and pointed out that the law provided no penalty for attempted arson. The court begged enlightenment. The sentence for attempted arson, Howe explained, like the sentence for any crime attempted but not actually committed, was half the maximum imposed by law for the actual commission of the crime. The penalty for arson was life imprisonment. Hence, if the court were to determine a sentence for Reilly, it would have to determine what half a life came to. ‘Scripture tell us that we knoweth not the day nor the hour of our departure,’ Howe said. ‘Can this court sentence this prisoner to half of his natural life? Will it then sentence him to half a minute or to half the days of Methuselah?’ The court agreed that the problem was beyond its earthbound wisdom.
By a similar kind of argument, How argued in 1888 that a convicted cop-killer, Handsome Harry Carlton, could not be executed. The Electrical Death Penalty law of that year had suspended hanging as of 4 June 1888 and installed electrocution as of 1 January 1889. Howe was able to argue that between June 4th and January 1st, murder was legal, since through the careless syntax of the bill, the law appeared to read that during that period there was no legal penalty for murder. And without a penalty, Howe said, there would be no crime. A higher court disposed of the problem, and Handsome Harry didn’t get off, but for a while in New York murder seemed technically legal. Ergo, law is fundamentally frivolous, whereas a moral sense is serious. Hard cases make bad law. ‘Sell all thou hast and give to the poor’ is a particular command, but not a law.
Shylock is the outsider because he is the only serious person in the play. He may be serious about the wrong things, the acquisition of property, since property is itself a frivolous thing. In contrast, however, we have a society that is frivolous because certain gifts are necessary to belong to it – beauty, grace, wit, riches. Nothing that doesn’t apply to everyone can be serious, and a frivolous society makes life a game. But life is not a game because one cannot say: ‘I will live if I turn out to be good at living.’ No, gifted or not, I must life. Those who cannot play a game can always be spectators, but no one can be a spectator of life; he must either live himself or hang himself. The Greeks, being aesthetes, regarded life as a game, i.e., a test of inborn arête. The compensation for the chorus who could not play was to enjoy seeing the star players come one by one to a sticky end.
An aesthetically conceived society depends on the exploitation of the gifted. A society constructed to be like a beautiful poem – as was imagined by some aesthetically-minded Greek political theorists – would be a nightmare of horror, for given the historical reality of actual men, such a society could only come into being through selective breeding, extermination of the physically and mentally unfit, absolute obedience to its Director, and a large slave class kept out of sight in cellars. The people in The Merchant of Venice are saved by their excess of love, which destroys the pattern of exclusiveness generated by self-love.
Whenever a society is exclusive, it needs something excluded and unaesthetic to define it, like Shylock. The only serious possession of men is not their gifts but what they all possess equally, independent of fortune, namely their will, their love, and the only serious matter is what they love – themselves, or God and their neighbor. The people in The Merchant of Venice are generous, and they behave well out of a sense of social superiority. Outside of them is Shylock, but inside is melancholy and a lack of serious responsibilities – which they’d have as farmers or producers, but not as speculators. They are haunted by an anxiety that is not good sense for them to show.
The caskets are the key to the play. All the suitors are in the right social ‘set.’ Two of them do what the ‘set’ does. The first chooses the gold casket, ‘to gain what many men desire,’ and inside is a death’s head. Death is what the aesthete is most afraid of. The second suitor, seeking to ‘get as much as he deserves,’ chooses the silver casket, and inside is a portrait of a grinning idiot, the specter behind natural gifts. The third casket, which Bassanio must choose, is made of lead – common, universal, and unaesthetic – and it must be chosen with complete passion, for Bassanio must give and hazard all he has.
I am glad that Shakespeare made Shylock a Jew. What is the source of anti-Semitism? The Jew represents seriousness to the Gentile, which is resented, because we wish to be frivolous and do not want to be reminded that something serious exists. By their existence – and this is as it should be – Jews remind us of that seriousness, which is why we desire their annihilation.”
Our next read: The Merchant of Venice, Act Five
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning