Can a maid’s fate be ruled by the wishes of her dead father? Can the same maid convincingly become a man, for a day, if she so wishes? Okay, so what about her low-born handmaiden – can she also dress as a man and fool everyone in a court of law, where people are meant to be paying very close attention? What does it mean to use people we scorn, and to whom we deny civil rights? Can a medieval Jew in Venice bear the punishment of conversion, if so decreed? Can the rich become poor, or the poor made rich, and how? Can a penniless noble don the markings of wealth to win a wealthy maid? Can a Jewish maid elope with a Christian saint? Can that high-born maid disguised as a lawyer win the day in her disguise? Is the Doge even paying attention?
Also, what does Shakespeare have to say about depression and mirth?
All this and more lurks in the misty layers of The Merchant of Venice (1596-1597). I continue to read Shakespeare as a writer to mine his work for insights and lessons. Shakespeare’s got so much to say and packs volumes in this slender play. This is another seminal work on the list that, prior to this week – this week – I had never read nor seen. Judge me now! Of course, as an English speaker, I was familiar with the allusions and the tropes – Shylock, and the Roth novel that bears the character’s name; Portia who plays an attorney in court to acquit Antonio, thereby saving him his pound of flesh, and very cleverly so, first by logic, then with law. But I did not know the whole story.
You could set any story in Venice and the audience would like it. This was as true in Elizabethan England as it is today. Who here will claim they are no fan of Venice? Set aside for a moment the madding tourist hoards; forget the humidity, and the mosquitoes, and the malarial memory. Dream, as I do, of red bricks and blind alleys, of serpentine columns and Moorish windows, of Byzantine gilt and silent gondolas. Consider the fog that blankets the lido in colder months, sliding toward the city to cover lower roofs. Venice, that citadel of culture, and Baroque excess, where nothing in as it seems, and every impression shimmers as a mirage in the mind. Nothing can be firmly grasped. Indeed, the purported Venetian penchant for dissimulation led to a costumed Carnival season that lasted for months, as the rule of law was suspended and heaven only knows what people got up to on divans under the frescoed ceilings of the piani nobili that line the Grand Canal, in those same blind alleys just before dawn. We might well imagine. Napoleon put an end to all that well-forgiven nonsense in 1796, when he exclaimed that the Piazza San Marco was nothing less than Europe’s drawing room. Now I’m thinking once more of The Passion by Jeanette Winterson, which I read in 2005 in Italy, and which I still recommend to people at least once a year. Lesson One: Set your story in a place that the average person loves and already dreams about.
That’s what Will did, and the lovely cinematic Merchant of Venice adaptation that I watched with the text this week, the 2004 production filmed on location and produced by Michael Radford, provides a sort of Downtown-Abbey-Meets-Shakespeare vibe. The cast of stars shines brightest with Al Pacino in a fantastic turn as Shylock. (YouTube stopped the video every five minutes to remind me how offensive its content is, and to ask me to consent to continue watching it. The warning seemed age-related, but I was perplexed, as the antisemitism for which the play is well-known is very clear, even if now it is viewed via a more subversive lens, as engendering outrage and sympathy for Shylock.) Jeremy Irons gives us a depressed, realistic Antonio, and Joseph Fiennes as Bassanio, still a-glitter, no doubt, from rolling around in another palazzo with Gwyneth in Shakespeare in Love, playing the titular playwright. Given the dynamic in the play between Antonio and Bassanio, the difference in their ages is perhaps too wide, but they’re both excellent actors who enunciate and look smashing in a slashed doublet so, SOLD! Lesson Two: Get good actors.
I am an enormous fan of a well-executed movie soundtrack, and I continue to listen to this Merchant of Venice soundtrack long after I finished watching. It’s haunting, period, minor-key pieces are just the thing for a rainy day in a medieval setting, such as Florence has offered all week long. With this music in my headphones the wet, uneven stones between the Arno and Santo Spirito felt ripe for a time slip, transporting me to a time when, as a graduate student in Spanish years ago, I really connected with Sephardic poetry, or even centuries further back, and I start to see normal passersby dressed in homespun and linen with pointed shoes, cape across the shoulder as they trot across an ancient bridge. Lesson Three: Music counts. Don’t skimp.
I continue to mull over the three thousand ducats, the lost ducats versus the lost daughter, the ring that Leah gave to Shylock when he was still a bachelor, taken by his daughter Jessica. (Did you know Shakespeare invented the name Jessica for the purpose of this play? I now like this name a whole lot more. I don’t care if it’s an old apocryphal chestnut.) The three precious caskets, the ruse by which Portia’s hand may be won. The engagement ring that Portia gives to Bassanio, and the engagement ring that Nerissa gives to Gratiano, which the unwitting men promptly give back to the two maids when disguised as a lawyer and his clerk, resulting in further cries of breach of contract. I will have my bond! Shylock cries. Lesson Four: Financial disputes are easily accessible plot points. Everyone gets mad about money fast and would like to expediently resolve money issues.
Shylock. Fast bind, fast bind. / A proverb never stale in a thrifty mind.
Portia. Confess and live!
Bassiano. Confess and love.
The play has given the English language the expression of a pound of flesh – a price too dear to pay, and exacted at great pain to the debtor. Portia lets Shylock and the public – feel that the day is his. The contract will be enforced. But then Portia, still dressed as the lawyer Balthasar, makes the excellent point – a pound of flesh does not also permit the drawing of blood, and who can extract a bloodless pound of flesh from a living person? The pound of flesh is therefore pointless. Thus ends the trial, the sentence commuted. She goes on to cite additional laws about threatening death, or actually murdering, a Venetian citizen, but by that time her logic is unimpeachable. Everyone agrees that it is impossible to extract a pound of flesh from a living man without shedding blood. Lesson Five: Construct a conundrum that can be somehow resolved.
What of Bassanio? He who put his dear friend (some have said lover) Antonio into this position by leveraging his business for the three thousand ducts so that he might respectably woo Portia in her sumptuous estate of Belmont, out on an island in the lagoon. He and Portia end up happily enough.
What of Gratiano? Bassanio scolds him for being too wild, too rude and bold of voice… something too liberal. Pray thee take pain / To allay with some cold drops of modesty / Thy skipping spirit. His slurs in the courtroom shock, but he too finishes in a sweet ending with Nerissa, discreetly courted while Bassanio was working on Portia.
And Anthony? He keeps his pound of flesh, ever the loyal friend, and remains single in the end of the play, having perhaps had his most intimate encounters with Shylock.
Ah, Shylock. Shamed in public, pardoned by the Doge after Portia/Balthasar’s pronouncement. His wife dead, his daughter eloped with a Christian, his business decimated, his faith hanging in the balance. At the end of a trial he utters, I am not well, and slinks home to sign the Doge’s contract of plea.
In Portia we finally find again a strong female character, whether dressed as a woman or as a man. But when is she at her strongest? As Portia, she controls the fate of her suitors, but remains under the thumb of her dead father’s will. As Balthasar, her intellect shines; she speaks well. She commands the courtroom, but would have never been permitted to do so had they known she was a maid. Her strength is always tempered by the social norms of the men in her milieu, whether living or dead. Even her penniless fiancé immediately asks her for a small fortune as soon as they are engaged, and she immediately offers to pay back twice the amount. Her money has power. It is her dead father’s money, for her to do as she will, in the same way that Jessica absconds in costume with a chest of ducats into Lorenzo’s boat. Her father’s money. Hers now.
Portia’s turn in the courtroom felt very familiar. How to thread the needle? The contract, versus mercy? How can we know when we’ve gone too far to enforce a bond? The natural law of mercy wins over the positive law of a signed contract, but then Portia twists the knife again to add insult to injury. Shylock escapes with no pride intact.
Central themes of The Merchant of Venice: why do we treat people as we do? How much of our personal opinion is borne aloft by received wisdom and social standards, however low they may be? Does a Jew not bleed? Why is a woman not free – who constrains her? Is a woman not as well-spoken and as strong in the courtroom, representing as both counsel and judge? Is a wealthy person not as quickly converted to poverty as a penniless bachelor, be he ever so well-connected, find credit for a significant sum? Who deserves love? Charity? Mercy? Lesson Six: Stick to some meaty questions.
I love The Merchant of Venice. I will be thinking about it for weeks to come. Thanks for joining me on my maiden amateur reading of this piece.
Next week: King John!