THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (Shakespeare) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

by Joseph Suglia

Was Shakespeare a hater of Jews?

It is impossible to reconstruct the thought processes of dead author, as it is impossible to reconstruct our own thoughts.  All we have are the plays.  The question, then, ought to be revised:

Is The Merchant of Venice an Anti-Judaic play?  There are certainly disobliging and unflattering references to Jews in the text.  There are disobliging and unflattering references to Jews in other Shakespeare plays, as well.  Confer Much Ado about Nothing and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, for instance.

The frequent charges of Anti-Judaism that have been leveled against The Merchant of Venice perhaps derive from the play’s presentation of a relationship between Jewishness and the calculation of interest, or usury.  But more specifically, the play stages a relationship between the making of an oath and the accrual of a debt.

The debt that is owed to Shylock–a “pound of flesh”–is guaranteed by an oath.  The pound of flesh is not, according to The Merchant of Venice, a metaphor for money.  It refers literally to the flesh “nearest the merchant’s heart”:

And lawfully by this the Jew may claim
A pound of flesh, to be by him cut off
Nearest the merchant’s heart [IV:i].

The oath prevents Shylock from translating the debt into figurative terms, despite Portia’s urgent offer to give him three times the sum (“Shylock, there’s thrice thy money offered thee” [Ibid.]).  The debt of the “pound of flesh” must remain literal, not figurative–the phrase must refer to the excised human flesh, not to money.

If Antonio is compelled to liquidate the sum of money owed to Shylock, “the Jew” is not similarly coerced.  Portia’s injunction to forgiveness–“Then must the Jew be merciful” [Ibid.]–is groundless according to contract law.  There is nothing, no contractual obligation, no force of law that compels Shylock to be merciful and to forgive the debt: “On what compulsion must I? tell me that” (Shylock) [Ibid.].  For the hateful Christian Anti-Judaist, “The Jew” is one who clings to the letter of the law and not the law of forgiveness.  Justice and mercy may not coexist.  To show mercy would be, according to Shylock, to disregard the letter of the contract.  Nothing, according to Shylock, obligates him to forgive the debt or to be merciful.  The contract, however, which Shylock follows to the letter, requires repayment of the debt within three months.  Such is a way in which Christian Anti-Judaism is staged in The Merchant of Venice.

The law is transcendent and submission to it is mandatory, both for the Christian judge and the Jewish creditor:

It must not be, there is no power in Venice
Can alter a degree established:
’Twill be recorded for a precedent,
And many an error by the same example
Will rush into the state. It cannot be [Ibid.].

If the oath is binding, it is because it is based upon a transcendent law.  But what is the source of the transcendent law?  What gives it its force?  And what compels one to follow it?  The law, according to Shylock, has a divine origin:

An oath, an oath, I have an oath in heaven.
Shall I lay perjury on my soul?
No, not for Venice [Ibid.].

And later:

I charge you by the law,
Whereof you are a well-deserving pillar,
Proceed to judgment; by my soul I swear,
There is no power in the tongue of man
To alter me.  I stay here on my board [Ibid.].

The law is beyond all human power and representation and demands absolute submission from humanity; it must be followed.  Human language, “the tongue of man,” is powerless against it, even though the word of the divine is written in the form of a contract, another instance of “the tongue of man.”  Divine law demands absolute fidelity and inscribes itself in the contract which is written in the tongue of man.  The contract–again, written in human language–is binding because of its divine provenance.  Here we encounter a Shakespearean version of the natural-law argument.  The naturalism of the moral law is evident in the contract itself, which “the Jew” knows inside and out, inwendig and auswendig.  Both Christian AND Jew are obligated to follow the law of Venice, which is theological in origin.

Portia’s response to all of this theological nonsense is a reductio ad absurdum argument. Dressed in the garb of a man, Portia will take Shylock’s desire for a “pound of flesh” to the limit:

Tarry a little: there is something else.
This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood–
The words expressly are “a pound of flesh”;
Take then thy bond, taken then thy pound of flesh,
But in the cutting it, if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are by the laws of Venice confiscate
Unto the state of Venice [Ibid.].

“The Jew,” according to the stupidity of conventional Anti-Judaism (and is there any Anti-Judaism other than the conventional version?), ignores the spirit of the law in favor of the letter.  “The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh’”: By literalizing his statement, Portia is able to undermine Shylock’s project to exact (and extract) from Antonio what these words denote.  There is an absolutely unified relationship between words and what they mean.  The codicil to the contract will state that “the Jew’s” property and land will be confiscated if the penalty is not carried out to the letter.

Shylock, of course, refuses to carry out the penalty; he refuses to punish the debtor, Antonio.  Soon thereafter, the stage direction is given: “Exit Shylock.” Shylock disappears rather early in the play (Act Four: Scene One).  The earliness of this disappearance is particularly strange for a Shakespeare play, given that the Shakespearean villain usually remains until the final act.  Shylock’s fate will be a forcible conversion to Christianity, thus firming the play’s staging of a vehemently Anti-Judaic stance.

The question still remains unanswered: Is The Merchant of Venice an Anti-Judaic play?  My impression is that it is.  The Merchant of Venice shows a rabid hatred of Jews, as it stupidly identifies Judaism with literalism and the literalization of metaphors.  The Merchant of Venice is about the literalization of the metaphor and the becoming-metaphor of the letter.

Joseph Suglia




An Analysis of TWELFTH NIGHT, OR, WHAT YOU WILL (Shakespeare) by Joseph Suglia / TWELFTH NIGHT, OR, WHAT YOU WILL by Shakespeare: An Interpretation / Summary / Analysis

An Analysis of TWELFTH NIGHT, OR, WHAT YOU WILL (Shakespeare)

by Joseph Suglia

Bedre godt haengt end slet gift.

Better well-hanged than ill-wed.

—Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Crumbs

Better well-hanged than ill-read.

—Joseph Suglia

The wildness of this frantically antic and antically frantic play extends to its title: Twelfth Night, Or, What You Will.  The Twelfth Night is the Feast of the Epiphany, which, in various forms of Christianity, commemorates the visitation of the Magi to the Baby Jesus.  It commonly takes place on the sixth of January, twelve nights after Christmas.  The Feast of the Epiphany has its roots in the Ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, the Feast of Saturn, which celebrated the Winter Solstice.  Twelfth Night, Or, What You Will is a yuletide play, but it is also a saturnalian play.  In Roman Antiquity, on Saturnalia, hierarchy was inverted.  The King was deposed, and the mob took over the city.  And yet this rising ochlocracy was purely theatrical; it was nothing more than a sham, nothing more than a show.  The inversion of ordinary relations was temporary and staged.

Disorder is likewise invoked in the subtitle of the comedy: What You Will.  The subtitle is evoked in the text, twice.  “[T]ake it how you will” is said by Andrew Aguecheek in the third scene of the second act.  “Take it how you will”: Interpret my words in any sense you please, for words very quickly become “rascals” and easily grow “wanton,” as the Clown puts it later in the text [III:i].  The intended meaning of a word speedily slips into its opposite or into a meaning other than what the speaker or writer intended.  Take my words how you will, Augecheek seems to be implying, for it won’t matter, one way or the other.  Language slides; it flows where it pleases.  In the first scene of the third act, the Clown compares a sentence to a chev’ril glove that may be turned inside out—the wrong side is easily turned outward, and the intended wittiness of a sentence easily devolves into witlessness.  Witticisms swiftly become witlessisms.  Though he is praised by Uncle Toby for his linguistic skills, Augecheek is hardly a wordsmith.  He lacks facility in basic English (he doesn’t know the word accost), in basic French (he doesn’t know the word pourquoi), and in Latin (he is ignorant of the phrase diluculo surgere).

“What you will” is spoken by Olivia in the fifth scene of the first act.  “What you will” could be translated as: “Anything you say.”  Or: “Anything you want.”  Or even: “Who cares?”  Or (and this is not too much of a stretch): “Whatever.”  Quodlibet.  All hail disorder!  Let chaos reign!

And chaos does indeed reign.  The customary order of things is turned upside down—hence, the chaos of the play.  It might be worth pausing over a few of the characters and their lunacy, their fettered reason.  As Olivia says to Cesario-Viola, “[R]eason thus with reason fetter” [III:i].

Count Orsino is a proto-Romantic personage and anticipates the Knight-in-arms of Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” as well as Goethe’s Werther.  A dandified dreamer, he is neither young nor old, both unyoung and unold.  As Malvolio phrases it, he is

[n]ot yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for
a boy; as a squash is before ’tis a peascod, or a
cooling when ’tis almost an apple: ’tis with him
in standing water, between boy and man [I:v].

As Romantic protagonists will do, Orsino is forever sighing over a love that he doesn’t even want reciprocated—the love of Olivia, which, if we take his advice to Cesario-Viola seriously, he appears to think will be short-lived:

[B]oy, however we do praise ourselves,
Our fancies are more giddy and unfirm,
More longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn,
Than women’s are [II:iv].

Orsino’s mind displays various colors; it is “a very opal,” as the Clown poeticizes it [II:iv].  He changes his mind in the first lines of the play—first, he wants music to play; then, suddenly, he wants it to stop.  It is not merely Orsino’s mind that is Protean—the entire play is a play of shifting surfaces.

The crepuscular Uncle Toby seems to do most of his socializing after sundown.  He is a fanatical nyctophiliac: Instead of preferring to be active during the day, he prefers to be active at night—and justifies his noctambulations by saying that by staying up late, he goes to bed early: “To be up after midnight and to go to bed then, is early: so that to go to bed after midnight is to go to bed betimes” [II:iii].  The customary order of things is again reversed.

Sebastian and Viola, twin brother and sister, board a ship together, and both end up separately in Illyria.  For reasons that escape me, Sebastian disguises himself as a character named Roderigo; he befriends a fellow traveler named Antonio during the voyage.  The ship capsizes and wrecks.  Sebastian loses his twin sister in the storm.  The homoerotic passion that Antonio has for Sebastian is plangent: Antonio declares himself servant to Sebastian after Antonio saves Sebastian’s life.  In the fourth scene of the third act, Antonio mistakes Cesario-Viola for her twin brother and is baffled when s/he does not recognize him.  It is as if we were reading or watching an immeasurably more sophisticated version of The Comedy of Errors.

Viola’s gender is shifted: She becomes Cesario, the myrmidon of Orsino; Olivia falls in love with Viola while the latter is dressed as Cesario.  The play does not hint at lesbianism as much as it hints at andromimetophilia, and andromimetophilia—the fetishization of women who dress as men—is one of Shakespeare’s most insistent fetishes.  Viola becomes other-than-what-she-is, and Olivia wishes that Cesario were the same as what he appears to be:

OLIVIA:  Stay.  I prithee tell me what thou think’st of me.

VIOLA:  That you do think you are not what you are.

OLIVIA:  If I think so, I think the same of you.

VIOLA:  Then think you right.  I am not what I am.

OLIVIA:  I would you were as I would have you be [III:i].

Viola transmutes herself into Cesario and is then beloved by Olivia.  Sebastian transmutes himself into Cesario and is then beloved by Olivia.  The Clown transmutes himself into Sir Topas and torments Malvolio.  One character after the other metamorphoses into another.

Amid the maelstrom of all of these transformations and inversions, there is one Aspergeroid character who is boringly moralistic and selfsame, until he, too, is drawn into the maelstrom: Malvolio.

Malvolio is a natural-born killjoy.  Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to name him the one anti-saturnalian character of the play.  He refuses to let anyone have any fun.  He is an enemy of drunkenness, and drunkenness, as everyone over the age of twelve knows, is transformative.  He looks down upon the poor, even though he is poor himself.  Rightly is he called a “Puritan” [II:iii] by Maria—to paraphrase something that Mencken once wrote, a Puritan is someone who suspects that someone, somewhere, is having a good time.  The imaginary betrothal of Olivia and Malvolio will result in an interdiction against Uncle Toby’s dipsomania.

Maria writes a counterfeit love letter in handwriting that resembles that of her mistress, Olivia.  Malvolio, who is such a narcissist that he believes that every word of praise must be directed at him and that every word of praise that is said about him must be genuine, is taken in by the forged letter.  Malvolio must be the scapegoat of the play, since he is the only character who is anti-fun and anti-revelry.  He is the sacrificial victim, for he refuses to dance to its swinging and swaying motions, all of its manic undulations.  He is catfished, and as any conscious victim of catfishing would do, swears his revenge and does so in the unforgettable line “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” [V:i], thus opening the portal for a sequel to the play that might be entitled Thirteenth Night, Or, The Revenge of Malvolio.

Even more humiliatingly, he is gulled into wearing ridiculous yellow stockings—yellow is a color that Olivia detests, since it reminds her of melancholy, something from which she has been suffering since the death of her brother—and smiling inanely in Olivia’s presence.  His smiling will be seen as inappropriate by Olivia, who, again, is still undergoing the work of mourning.

Though this might be a superficial remark about a play that is only superficially superficial, let me set down that Twelfth Night, Or, What You Will has the virtue of being the most theatrical of Shakespeare’s comedies and problematical plays.  Most of the utterances are short; one character speaks after the other in machine-gun succession.  There are few lengthy and lapidary soliloquies.  This kind of staginess is unusual for Shakespeare.  The fact that Shakespeare was ever a dramatist is one of life’s greatest mysteries.

The value of this insane play resides in its bouleversement of all relations.  Bouleversement: This was one of Georges Bataille’s favorite words and indicates the woozy overthrow of propriety, decency, and stability.  The world is turned on its head.  Never has topsy-turviness been presented with such elegance.

Dr. Joseph Suglia