A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

M of V #3 - A Lady Richly Left


As we return to Bassanio's conversation with Antonio, the Merchant of Venice, Bassanio is seeking the next in a long line of loans from his friend Antonio, entices him with a charming image:

Bass: "In my schooldays, when I had lost one shaft,
I shot his fellow of the selfsame flight
The selfsame way with more advised watch
To find the other forth, and by adventuring both
I oft found both……
That which I owe is lost, but if you please
To shoot another arrow that self way
Which you did shoot the first, I do not doubt,
As I will watch the aim, or to find both
Or bring your latter hazard back again…”.

In other words, he plans to double down, to throw good money after bad, and with Antonio’s money. Antonio responds that he needs no convincing. Friendship is enough to secure a loan of any amount. And Bassanio then reveals his true purpose:

Bass: "In Belmont is a lady richly left;
And she is fair and, fairer than that word,
Of wondrous virtues, (blah blah blah)…”
And many … come in quest of her.
O my Antonio, had I but the means
To hold a rival place with one of them…”.

Now we approach the heart of the matter, The type of “Christian” commerce that Shakespeare regards as worthy and deserving turns out to be a sort of silent financial partnership in a male escort service (except that compared to Bassanio's plot, escort services are honest and above board; this in fact is a conspiracy to defraud). But because i is based on friendship and not economic considerations, Shakespeare applauds this conspiracy to defraud a lonely, rich woman out of her wealth. Even an amoral modern capitalist might ask of this vision – where is the growth that should emerge from this use of capital?

Apparently nowhere. We begin to see that Shakespeare, for all his humanity, favors a static class system. For centuries, in Europe and England both, wealth had been based on land. It was in fact only the emergence of the shipping in which Venice, and later Amsterdam and London excelled that redefined wealth and its sources as a sort of dynamic casino of the seas. The Bard looks balefully on this model of the future.

Shakespeare, it occurs to me, would have approved of the careful questions found in 18th century English novels, of how many thousands of annual pounds – all based on their parents’ landholdings - this bachelor or that maid were worth, as accompaniment to the question of who should marry whom, even if that later century’s literature became mired in manners in a way that rendered it far smaller than what Shakespeare produced.

OK, back to the play, where we immediately learn that Antonio’s much-heralded friendship does not actually extend all the way to the loaning of actual money:

Ant: “Thou knowest that all my fortunes are at sea;
Neither have I money nor commodity
To raise a present sum. Therefore go forth,
Try what my credit can in Venice do;
That shall be racked even to the uttermost
To furnish thee…”.

Oh! Antonio the wise, Antonio of the diversified investment portfolio, is in fact tapped out, waiting dockside for one of his ships to come in, if he's even telling the truth to his bosom buddy at all. Recall that at the very start, Antonio gives Solario two reasons for why he's not worried about his investments. One is that he's diversified among a number of ships ("My ventures are not in one bottom trusted.") and the other is that he's not over-extended ("...nor is my whole estate upon the fortune of this present year.")

In any event, what Antonio actually offers Bassanio is to underwrite a loan from someone else. But from whom? Well, from one of those low, filthy sorts of people who actually possess filthy lucre, as opposed to the aristocratic promise of money.

A Jew.

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