The Merchant of Venice–Acts IV & V

If you asked me why I didn’t post yesterday, I have no idea what I would say, because I really don’t know.

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So, the trial. I have to say, I physically did a fist-pump in the air when Portia made the case that Shylock could have Antonio’s flesh by law, but not his blood. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

The tension of this scene, if we look at it as two principles fighting each other, is between mercy and justice. And to a large extent, mercy and justice are diametrically opposed. Justice–for the sake of this argument, let’s define it as “getting ones due”–is on, I suppose, Shylock’s side, while every other character in this play with a shred of feeling is on the side of mercy, which goes beyond justice. I love that Portia points out the scale to weigh the :pound of flesh” (ugh, gross), because it’s a wonderful little symbol for justice. But mercy doesn’t have a scale, it doesn’t have a set guide of rules and guidelines. As Portia lovingly points out,

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:
‘Tis 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. (IV.i.182-200)

I think Portia says it better, so I’ll leave the mercy/justice tension to her.

Now, what do we make of the lie that Nerissa and Portia are at a convent praying? Don’t get me wrong, the disguising to save Antonio’s life thing is pretty awesome, but does anyone else feel a little bothered? I suppose I could go really really allegorical, and say that their testament to truth at Antonio’s trial is a kind of prayer, if prayer is said to align our will with the will of God and devote our lives to Truth. Ha. That’s going a little too far.

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Now. The rings. I am having a bit of difficulty on the meaning of Portia and Nerissa taking their lovers rings while in disguise, and then getting upset with them for it. Was this some kind of womanly test? I don’t like to chalk things up so easily, and while I can see it as a test to their devotion, I think it only scrapes the surface to leave it at that. The rings symbolize an oath, and they were asked to forfeit them as payment for Antonio’s life. Well, marriage is a giving of oneself, the giving of a life, and rings as payment for a man’s life…Here you see my interior dialogue tousling around this question. However, I must begin to get ready for work, so I cannot continue. Thoughts from the audience?

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The Merchant of Venice–Act III

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Alright, so we were all expecting Antonio’s ship to wreck. What I was not expecting was that Bassanio would get the girl so early on in the game. Aren’t weddings saved until the happily ever after? Shakespeare’s breaking out of his mold, or at least the mold I thought he had.

Before I get lovey-dovey on this post, I want to draw out something I mentioned earlier. About the whole pluralistic society, money being the only common good. Antonio makes a case (against himself) that he must forfeit himself to Shylock due to the very nature of laws that are the only thing binding men to justice in said pluralistic society. “The duke cannot deny the course of law:/For the commodity that strangers have/With us in Venice, if it be denied,/Will much impeach the justice of the state,/Since that the trade and profit of the city/Consisteth of all nations” (III.iii.26-31).

The common good of the polis=how you make laws regarding what is just. Since there cannot be a sheer common good for a pluralistic society (I don’t care what Shylock said about being the “same,” because the fact that we’re human does not mean we automatically share in the common good, precisely if everyone is pursuing self-interest) the law must dictate what justice is however it can.

Common good=money. You make a bond where someone can kill you for not giving them money, it’s totally within the law.

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One note on love: you marry a man or a woman, you marry their friends, you marry their family. Thus, the tension with Jessica and Launce, and the kindness of Portia.

The Merchant of Venice–Act II

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Now, of course, let’s talk about the caskets.

Gold- Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire. Death (or an image of death) lies within
Silver- Who chooseth me, shall get as much as he deserves. This being a fool.
Lead- Who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath. And this, by deductive reasoning, is the hand of Portia.

And what else is a marriage than a giving of all one has? Boom. Shakespeare teaches us one of the most important lessons–that marriage is a giving. We see this giving elsewhere in the play–Antonio his fortunes to Bassanio, Jessica gives herself to Lorenzo (at the risk of having the angry Shylock after her)–all this giving is done through love.

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Side note: there’s a lot of talk about feasting. Because this play takes place on Fat Tuesday–the day before Lent. To bring out a little theology, Lent is the fasting that brings us to Easter, the celebration of the death of Christ that in turn gives us eternal life. Wait, what was that inscription on the lead casket again? Who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath. And death doesn’t look like much of a gift on the outside.

Also, Jessica, denying herself a Jew through love?

(My apologies, I usually don’t look through all of Shakespeare’s work merely for theological workings. But today, this was screaming out at me. I couldn’t help it.)

Until tomorrow.

The Merchant of Venice–Act I

Word game time. Top five things that come to mind seeing the words, “The Merchant of Venice.” Exotic, ships, money, sea-side, misers. Create your own!

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Onto the first scene, Oh, glum Antonio, why art thou sad? Of course, it must be either money or women. Only it isn’t. Only, the resat of the play pivots around these two poles. Only, Antonio is sad that his own self is a mystery? I’m a little confused, but nevertheless, The play is set on a tone of mysterious sadness.

Moving on to Portia. I love the way she lists her suitors–and their failings–because when I read a list, I think of the expanse of things, if that makes sense. When I see a list, it is an attempt to categorize everything, and when you start, you begin to realize the “muchness” of things. And for Portia’s list of suitors, it’s the expanse of the known world that is vying for her hand. I figure her father’s strange will and the three chests ordeal will play a bigger picture later, so I shan’t bother with it now. My only other comment on Portia’s suitors is: are these depictions of stereo-typical men of these lands? Because we get pretty stereotypical in the third scene…

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Which brings me down to business. The interaction with Shylock is far more than merely making Jews look like money-grubbers (though Shylock never gives us an impression to trust). Let’s look back at what Venice is and what kind of man we’re talking about from the title. Venice, port town, every kind of man from every walk of life is here to trade, sell, bargain, etc. We have Antonio, who is quite a generous merchant, literally risking all that he has to give money to his best friend to help him win a pretty lady. When his entire fortune is at sea. At sea. Does anything about the image of the sea make you feel like investing into it? Like, a totally stable place to base an economic market. What’s that? Right. No. It isn’t.

We’re set up right at the beginning with a pluralistic society, which only can have a “common good” based upon money and wealth. The two things that this money is invested in are two of the least stable things you could put your money on (casino’s excluded from the realm of Shakespeare’s time), these of course being the ocean and the love of a woman.

It’s going to be a good ride. Until tomorrow.