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.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

M of V #2 - Too Much Respect Upon the World


As Merchant’s first scene proceeds, we see Shakespeare begin to peer more closely into its obvious theme of commerce. In response to Salero’s accusation that Antonio is sad because his fortunes are tied to the fate of his ships, Antonio responds:

Ant: “My ventures are not in one bottom trusted,
Nor to one place; nor is my whole estate
Upon the fortune of this present year.
Therefore my merchandise makes me not sad.”

Fair enough. Antonio presents Shakespeare’s idea of a wise merchant. He diversifies! And he keeps some of his wealth in cash (presumably gold or silver, of course, which the Bard will also look at in this play). As will become obvious in time, Shakespeare is seeking to draw a line between this virtuous form of commerce – commerce in goods – and Shylock’s venal, low-brow and of course Jewish trafficking in usury – commerce in money, which we today call banking.

Shakespeare would take one look at today’s modern world and say, “How Jewish!” before turning away in disgust at his lost caste system. I can only hope, however, that if he stayed to take a further look, and saw the explosion of humanism permitted by our modern freedoms, including our modern financial freedom, he would reconsider. For humanity is what Shakespeare was and is all about; it’s the reason I feel no choice but to absorb the anti-Semitic insult of Merchant and stick with him. The reason I’m blogging the play.

Ah, the play. Salero and Antonio are interrupted by Gratiano (not Rocky), who alike upbraids Antonio for being excessively somber:

Grat: “You look not well, Signior, Antonio,
You have too much respect upon the world.
They lose it that do buy it with much care.”

Ant: “I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano –
A stage where every man must play a part,
And mine a sad one.”

Gratiano invites Antonio to dinner, to cheer him up, and then leaves him with his friend Bassanio. And at last the plot thickens:

Bass: “”Tis not unknown to you, Antonio,
How much I have disabled mine estate
By something showing a more swelling port
Than my faint means would grant continuance.
………………………..To you, Antonio,
I owe the most, in money and in love…”

Antonio has been loaning his friend money, and the sole purpose of these loans was to allow Bassanio to show himself richer than he was. Bassanio then tells Antonio he has a plan for repayment, and Antonio, sight unseen, promises to bankroll it:

Ant: “My purse, my person, my extremest means
Lie all unlocked to your occasions.”

Can you spell e-n-a-b-l-e-r? (And please tune in tomorrow to see exactly what Bassanio is asking Antonio to enable).

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

M of V #1 - I Know not Why I am so Sad


The Merchant of Venice begins with a lament by Antonio, the play’s Merchant.
Antonio attempts to explain to his friend Salero an undiagnosable sadness from which he is suffering:

Ant: “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.
It wearies me, you say it wearies you
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff ‘tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn….”

Salero answers:

Sal: “Your mind is tossing on the ocean,
There where your argosies with portly sail,
Like signors and rich burghers on the flood,
Or as it were the pageants of the sea,
Do overpeer the petty traffickers
That curtsy to them…”

Sadness is in fact a theme in the play. According to Salero, Antonio is sad because his happiness, serenity and peace of mind are held hostage to the health of his investment portfolio, something many middle class, or “middle class” Moderns can relate to, except that Antonio’s investment is in shipping, and in his era months or years passed before word from the local port would inform the merchant that he was now rich, or continued silence would confirm to him and his creditors that he was ruined - hence the concept of one’s ship coming in. (Salero in fact is wrong both about the cause of Antonio’s sadness, and as to Antonio’s fortunes being hostage to his shipping interests).

In any case, the situation allows Shakespeare to allow Salero to imagine himself as a shipping merchant:

Sal: “My wind cooling my broth
Would blow me to an ague when I thought
What harm a wind too great might do at sea.
I should not see the sandy hourglass run
But I should think of shallows and of flats…
….Should I go to church
And see the holy edifice of stone
And not bethink me straight of dangerous rocks
Which, touching but my gentle vessel’s side,
Would scatter all her spices on the stream,
Enrobe the roaring waters with my silks.
And, in a word, but even now worth this,
And now worth nothing?...”

Such lovely passages as these, laced even more richly through this play than many of Shakespeare’s others, break the heart of a Jewish Shakespeare-lover like myself, since,as we shall soon see, glowering o’er the entire text is the Jew-hatred that is nestled at its core. It is not masochism, though, but a sheer desire to stare the Bard’s ugly error in the face, that drives me to blog the Merchant in its entirety, and welcome along for the ride.
Subscribe with Bloglines