Ponytail Shakespeare read-through: The Merchant of Venice, Act I
‘Bring your baggage to the texts‘, I always say …
By this I mean your life experiences, the nature, the nurture, the things that define you, good and bad. These are what make your responses to texts individual; they are what lets texts get under your skin as you measure yourself against the moral and ethical dilemmas they present; they, as experience changes you, are what make occasional re-reading such a thought-provoking and rewarding exercise.
So why am I feeling so uneasy about Antonio this time round?
Experience tells me that there doesn’t have to be anything ‘wrong‘, per se, to have depression: many adults who others would consider very fortunate still suffer from it. Yet, as I began my read-through I was suffused with impatience for Antonio’s melancholy posturing. Why was he irritating me, if not because I knew how he would treat Shylock later?
For anyone familiar with the works, you can’t fail to associate Antonio’s opening mood with Jacques in As You Like It;
I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano;
A stage where every man must play a part,
And mine a sad one. (I.i.77-79) [a]
But Antonio clearly possesses the wealth and leisure to make some serious changes to his life, if he feels that’s what’s necessary. Many reach depression because they feel positive change is beyond them. Certainly his friend Gratiano believes it to be posturing in his lovely ‘let me play the fool‘ monologue; he’s one of several who try to draw Antonio out of his brown study. Bassanio seems to have better luck snapping him out of his mood. To be fair, Antonio comes across as an excellent friend:
if it stand, as you yourself still do,
Within the eye of honour, be assured,
My purse, my person, my extremest means,
Lie all unlock’d to your occasions. (I.i.136-139)
Here’s a thing: compare Antonio to Brutus:
If it be aught toward the general good,
Set honour in one eye and death i’ the other,
And I will look on both indifferently,
For let the gods so speed me as I love
The name of honour more than I fear death. (Julius Caesar: I.ii)
Hmmmm, ‘honour’. I reckon I may have developed an allergy to anyone ‘honourable’ (not least our MPs) over the past few years. And honour isn’t like a pair of shoes, that you can shuck off at the end of the day (or at the sniff of Jew) – you can’t be half-honourable; diet-honour; honourable 9-5, Monday to Friday only. In fact, and no doubt I’m letting my sober, sombre idealism show, the test of honour is how you treat your enemies: we can all be brilliant to our friends and cronies.
And he IS brilliant to his crony, promising his all:
even to the uttermost (I.i.181)
(but not, obviously, quite his all), in Bassanio’s pursuit of Portia (notice the nice link to Brutus’ pesky wife: they share a name). A word on that pursuit: Bassanio says that:
sometimes from her eyes
I did receive fair speechless messages (I.i.163-164)
Portia … for whom life is oh, so dreary, too. On another day, with my old ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ teeshirt on, I’d bemoan her lack of choice in love, definitely. But today’s baggage listens to Nerissa’s comment:
they are as sick that surfeit
with too much as they that starve with nothing. (I.ii.5-6)
and I’m grinding my class warrior teeth, muttering ‘first world problems’ repeatedly. The 2019 version of Nerissa wouldn’t know anything about food banks, it seems, amid all the opulence that surrounds her.
Just in case I’m sounding too virtuous at the moment, that doesn’t stop me sniggering at the caricatured pen-pictures of her bevy of suitors. Six today, and one more dark, mysterious stranger arriving to join the throng. Dutiful daughter that she is, she’s reluctantly determined to follow her dead father’s wishes, despite keeping a flame lit for
Bassanio (with Nerissa’s approval). With my current baggage, perhaps infected by too much recent reading of Tennyson‘s life and poetry, I place a sinister slant on the potential double meaning of his earlier use of ‘fortunate‘ (I.i.176). Sure, he hopes to win the girl, but let’s not forget that should he succeed, there is a fortune on its way to our (relatively) impecunious Bassanio …
And what’s that young scamp up to, in scene iii? He’s gone to arrange a pay-day loan, to allow him the capital he needs to woo Portia, putting Antonio up as security. Literally, as we find out.
… and cue a conversation with She Who Must Be Obeyed (And Who Hates Shakespeare) about just how different our merchants and our moneylender really are. One, in my limited view, makes profit based on exploiting the scarcity and novelty of the goods his fleet brings in. The other makes profit on loans, exploiting the fact that he has ready cash and they don’t. Both balance risk against reward. Shylock may be a lender of last resort, but in the play, in the play, there’s no suggestion (at least now) that his rates are usurious in the modern sense. I was interested to read John Drakasis comparing the play to Marlowe:
‘One of the evident objectives of the Jew of Malta was to submerge the difference between Christian, Jew and Turk in machiavellian ethic that was universally applicable to them all. Marlowe also collapsed the difference between merchant adventurer and Jew that Shakespeare was concerned to emphasize.’ [c]
Note the use of language: mine and Drakasis’. I deliberately repeated ‘exploited‘. He used, quite correctly, the term ‘merchant adventurer’, which I think tells you plenty about how damned sexy the activities of men like Antonio were viewed. One man’s pirate, another man’s sailor of fortune, etc …
Here’s more from the introduction:
‘In The Death of Usury; or, The Disgrace of Userers (1594), […] usury is defined as ‘lending for Gaine’, which was permitted in accordance with the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy. It was thought to have been forbidden by the New Testament Gospel according to St Luke, although it was later allowed by Calvin and Martin Bucer.’
So, the difference, today, with my baggage for this reading, is that two different holy books say two different things. Big deal.
It’s taken me a few moments to realise that Venice is sitting on a credit bubble ripe for an unholy correction: Antonio, Bassanio and, as it turns out, Shylock, all have cashflow / liquidity problems, and we’ve a sight of this vast interwoven web that could all come crashing down …
In the meantime, of course the central issue is the relationship between our two antagonists. In this of all plays, you want to dig into what the text actually says, I’d suggest, to avoid prejudice. And the evidence is that Antonio has behaved far from honourably in the past, and is utterly unrepentant:
I am as like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too. (I.iii.116-7)
It’s sophistry to hold that frank admission up as in any way admirable.
I’m running out of word-count. By the end of Act I, this time round, with my current baggage, I’ve decided that Antonio and his crew are guilty of some real chutzpah, to coin a phrase, in approaching Shylock, and I’ve no time for the collective ennui of the merchant classes. Their hubris deserves a tragic ending. What does Shylock deserve?
[a] William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice (ed. John Drakasis), (Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare: London, 2013)
[b] references to other plays taken from http://www.opensourceshakespeare.org
[c] John Drakasis, ‘Introduction’, in William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice (ed. John Drakasis), (Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare: London, 2013)