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According to the evidence we have, it seems Shakespeare wrote his plays exclusively to be performed. We are repeatedly reminded of this fact; there are throughout many of his plays moments of self-conscious performance, performance that reflects the nature of the very spectacle that occurred on stage for an audience. Though this dramatic principle is perhaps most explicit in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the guild play put on by Bottom and his buddies exhibiting a thematic correspondence with the performance actually framing that play, we can see it too in The Merchant of Venice, where a less overt, though more momentous, example of performance occurs. I mean of course Portia’s impersonation of a lawyer, and the scene of her trial of Shylock, a true courtroom drama.
In the atmosphere of masquerade that forms an undercurrent to the actions of the play, Portia’s decision to disguise both her aspect and her profession serves to question the larger societal structures that seem to require these ruses. Why must it be Portia, a woman, and in disguise, that reverses the edicts of Venetian law? Why must a masquerade exist in order to correct law towards mercy? This masquerade is what averts the course of a potential tragedy, and turns it to a comedy. In establishing a false, though parallel, order, the strict literality of Venetian law can be put aside, or modified, in order to correspond more wholly with Christian values. Defying the authority of the law would set Venice topsy-turvy; it is by setting the court topsy-turvy, by turning it into a masquerade, that this consequence can be circumvented.
The sphere of The Merchant of Venice is structured around the mercantile economy of Venice, a cosmopolitan society. Confusion, or the disputation of justice, is almost inevitable in a situation where different value systems function side by side. Value as a negotiable variable allows for the existence of mercantile economy, but once terms are set, they cannot be contradicted or rescinded. Thus, a fundamental assumption for the orderly working of the play’s world is the indisputability of contractual obligation. Terms, and bonds, are incontrovertible; these are the rules of the game. Legal bond as absolute obligation buttresses other aspects of the Venetian world that are not nearly so secure, namely, the underlying risk which accompanies all commercial ventures.
The play banks on the liquidity and slipperiness of meaning in other respects, and in particular, in the divide between aspect and reality, container and content. This is most apparent in the casket-game Portia’s suitors must play in order to win her hand. In order to make the correct choice between gold, silver, and lead, the suitors must lay aside the value-system of the Venetian world, which assigns a definite, indisputable hierarchy of worth to these materials. In choosing lead, Bassanio is, in essence, acknowledging the existence of an opposing order than the one the marketplace is accountable to. It is significant, however, that this acknowledgement can only be made allegorically, ensconced within a game with its own set of rules, however grave the consequences of the game might be.
It is important to note that Portia’s other suitors are confounded as much by the interpretation they give to the legends written on the lids as the substance of the casket itself. This problem, the possibility of incorrect interpretation, is further explored in the actions of Lancelot. In charging his conscience with determining the right course of action, the clown must decide between one fiend and another. Through his confabulations of language, he reduces his choice to no choice. If he makes ‘the fiend’ the master of his conscience, he shall desert his master Shylock. His conscience, meanwhile, requires that he obey authority, and stay with his master, who is a fiend. In either case, he reasons, a fiend shall be his master. So how does he decide? “The fiend gives the more friendly counsel. I will run, fiend” (2, ii, 24). He turns the law to his advantage.
Lorenzo later pronounces damning judgment on this sort of willful, deceptive word play. “How every fool can play upon the word! I think the/ best grace of wit will shortly turn into silence, and discourse/ grow commendable in none only but parrots” (3, v, 37-9). Here he is taunting Lancelot’s reluctance to make preparations for dinner, yet his speech carries greater resonance, as it occurs in the scene immediately preceding the trial of Antonio and Shylock. Just as Lancelot slips the noose of his conscience by verbal cleverness, in order to justify a choice that conventional interpretation opposes, Portia will “play upon the word” of the law to secure Antonio’s life. Lorenzo decries word play as the death of discourse because, by confounding understanding between parties, it reduces words to meaninglessness, or worse, a negative force for deception, to be bettered by silence. Speech, he warns, will become “commendable in none only but parrots”. The speech of parrots, of course, is sound without sense, to them but the literal repetition this sort of speech implies, with no possibility of ambiguity precisely because it conveys nothing, is what Portia will try to modify when she introduces alternate interpretations into her “parroting” of the law. What Lorenzo calls the death of discourse, the deliberate doubling of meaning, will be Antonio’s salvation.
Portia utilizes the presence of this necessary ambiguity in language, and in the law, to its utmost. Her final argument that Shylock, in asking for a pound of Antonio’s flesh, is in violation of the law that prohibits against conspiring to murder a citizen, is condemnation enough to stand on its own, and could be delivered right away. But she draws the court into it, sets up a false situation, compounded by her false guise. She first stages an alternate ending for the trial, one in which Shylock triumphs completely, and thus sets up the situation of tragedy. Bassanio pleads with her, “To do a great right, do a little wrong” (4, I, 211). In the law, of course, such an appeal to common-sense notions of scale, cannot be valid — there is no ‘great’ or ‘little’; there is only right, and wrong. This way of reckoning echoes Portia’s casket-game; there is one right answer, which is right absolutely, not by degrees.
Therefore, by using the same literal rigor of interpretation that the law is founded on, and that Shylock appeals to, to reverse her verdict, Portia avoids the ‘little wrong’ in securing Antonio’s freedom. In doing so, she leaves Shylock no recourse. “The words expressly are “a pound of flesh'” (4, I, 302). In declaring that his request before the law necessarily signifies his own damnation before the law, Portia makes it impossible for him to proceed. The rationale behind his condemnation, a distinction between a pound of flesh and the spilt blood it entails, is a nice echo of the Mosaic code and the Kosher laws, which stipulate that meat, before it is eaten, should be evacuated, as much as possible, of blood. It should be noted that Antonio’s life is not secured by an act of mercy, but rather an application of the law. Mercy is never, even by force, imputed to Shylock; only the Christians demonstrate mercy, when reducing his sentence.
Thus, there is clear dramatic irony in Shylock’s assertion: “There is no power in the tongue of man/ To alter me” (4, I, 235-6). He might as well have said, to alter the terms of the bond, as it amounts to the same thing. After all, “There is no power in Venice,” Portia affirms earlier, “can alter a decree established” (4, I, 213-4). By denying the power of the ‘tongue of man’, Shylock means, of course, that he is not to be made amenable to persuasion. He relies upon his bond upon Antonio’s flesh, which he considers unimpeachable and indisputable because it has been solidly confirmed legal. It is in falsely assuming that the meaning of this bond is stable, that he comes to his downfall. The ‘tongue of man’ (or in this case, woman) has powers, though, that circumvent the necessity for persuasion. Though the terms of the bond are stable, and need be, their interpretation is not.
The circumstances under which these variable interpretations are allowed to enter discussion bear examination. There would be no question of the law if there were not alternate value-systems already present in the court. Of course, there is Portia’s appeal to a Christian system of salvation, which directly contradicts the rules of law: “Consider this:/ That in the course of justice none of us/ Should see salvation” (4, I, 193-5).
But Shylock, who structures his plea, and bases his claim, on the strict parity of Venetian justice, is likewise responsive to another system of values. “An oath, an oath! I have an oath in heaven./ Shall I lay perjury on my soul?/ No, not for Venice.” (4, I, 222-4). Here Shylock places the values of his heaven above those that sustain the mercantile court of Venice. By describing his bond to heaven in legal terms (“perjury”) he is deceptively and unsuccessfully conflating the mechanics of the two systems, which are, in fact, in opposition.
The fundamental difference between the Christian ideal of mercy and the court’s justice is that mercy does not consider equivalence its ideal. The court at Venice exists to preserve property, and works on the principle of exchange that defines the rest of mercantile relations; something of the same value is substituted for a monetary loss. Mercy grants something undeserved, something greater, for something of lesser value. Shylock asks for something of lesser value, “a weight of carrion flesh” (4, I, 40), for something of greater value. Of course, for him, Antonio’s death is of greater value than any number of ducats. But alternate notions of valuation belie the trade-balance of justice the court tries to obtain. Thus, in falling back on an oath of revenge, Shylock deviates from the principles that underlie the mercantile court. If he were following the precepts of the legal system to which he appeals, he would take the threefold profit offered him (which is, indeed, more than he deserves). By rejecting the offers of increase, Shylock is not just defying mercy, but his own allegiance to an economic system where reward is profit, and profit the greatest end.
Portia, of course, is in disguise when she enters. She is not only in disguise as a man, but as a lawyer. Encoded within this disguise is another transvaluation: she is disguised as a young man, and thus her youth must be valued above the elders she is judging, that her verdict holds sway over. These reversals, these impersonations, are necessary to create the circumstances that allow for such overt defiance to occur. Portia’s performance and transvestism is just the most significant in a series of such occurrences in the play. Portia’s performance is presaged by a scene of similar circumstances: Jessica’s escape from her father’s house, when as though receiving inspiration from the cloaked city around her, she dresses up as a boy. Appearing in disguise, assuming another, opposite, persona, allows for a sort of insubordination that life outside the masquerade does not admit. This reflected, parallel, and upside-down world has clear roots in the sort of reverse order that Christianity entails, where weakness trumps strength. The marginal reality of the stage, its essential unreality, can be said, therefore, to engender the possibility of mercy by creating a realm displaced from accepted values. What is the quality of mercy, after all, if not a way of indicating a departure from the literal?
The stage invites us to similar departures, and allows us similar liberties.
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