Tuesday, March 20, 2018

My views on Merchant of Venice

Curious what I've been doing? Here's a glimpse. Let me know what you think! (It's rather lengthy, but I still wanted to share.)

Designing the Perfect Villain through Allusion

    When one approaches a piece of literature, there are a few expectations. Where does the story takes place? Who are the main characters and what are their roles? Heroes in this corner. Villains in that. These elements form the framework of most literature. They give the reader a sense of security as they stumble into a world of the unknown. William Shakespeare, however, throws all prescribed literary attributes to the wind and writes in a manner that leaves readers guessing. It takes a special kind of reader, or viewer as it is drama after all, to step into a world designed by Shakespeare. Within mere words, readers feel the dizzying effects of Shakespeare’s topsy turvy writing style.

Richard Papp, in his forward to Bantam Classic’s The Merchant of Venice, speaks of how he has taken much of his life to understand Shakespeare’s writings (xvii). It speaks volumes when a man of such intellect, and decades of experience producing Shakespearean plays, vocalizes his battle to conquer the genre by which he is most known. Shakespeare’s twenty first century audience is often forced to delve into the smallest of facts to truly understand characters in the way they were meant to be portrayed. One who simply reads the surface story and neglects to truly dissect the underlying issues, often misses the true meanings of the work. With particular reference to Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare's crafty  and often indirect characterization is the key to unlocking the secrets hidden within two of the play's main characters, Portia and Shylock.

Shakespeare introduces Portia through a conversation between Bassanio and Antonio at the end of scene one, however, only a well versed literary would capture Shakespeare’s obscure and dubious development of her character. In this conversation, Bassanio attaches the epithet “Cato’s daughter, Brutus’ Portia” (Shakespeare 1.1.168). Looking to the historical context, the true Roman Porcia was in fact the daughter of Cato and wife of Brutus.That being said, Shakespeare’s use of this information is not to place his heroine in history, but to create a indistinct paradox within the character of Portia. In order to fully understand this concept, each man must be placed in their separate context.

Cato is known as a role model for Stoic Philosophy, a way of thinking that places happiness as the fulfillment of full virtue within oneself. Stoicism says that it is the view people hold of the world around them as well as their interaction with this world that determines happiness (Stoic Philosphy). The connection of Portia to Cato builds the expectation of a female character that practices wisdom, temperance, justice and courage, the cornerstones of stoicism (Pigliucci). Therefore, from the outset of the play, viewers should expect a virtuous female character. However, Shakespeare complicates this with the second portion of this epithet. Brutus remains infamous for the downfall of Julius Caesar, a major event of Ancient Rome. As Caesar’s apprehensions about the day’s proceedings settled in, Brutus was at his side to convince him all was well and ensure he attended the Senate (Plutarch 163). This clear example of manipulation casts its shadow upon Portia’s golden exterior. The juxtaposition of allusions to both Cato and Brutus creates a paradox within Portia’s personality. She is to be viewed as both virtuous and manipulative, contradicting binaries.

Shylock, the supposed villain of the play, is introduced in scene three of act one through a conversation between himself and Bassanio, and later Antonio. The bulk of the allusions developed in this passage are biblical in nature. At first glance, this appears to be a means to characterize Shylock as Jewish, though Shakespeare could have facilitated this understanding in any of a million different ways. By choosing to allude to a particular bible verse in which Jesus frees a man from demon possession by sending the legion into group of pigs nearby (1.3.26), Shakespeare paints yet another contradictory character. Shylock says, “to eat of the habitation which your prophet the Nazarite conjured the devil into. I will buy with you , sell with you, talk with you, walk with you … I will not eat with you” (1.3.26-30). While it is common Jewish practice to shun pork, Shylock does not appear to disregard the meat itself, but the devil that has been conjured into it. In sum, he shows that he does not consort with the devil. This reading should move readers to expect an innocent character in Shylock. Of course, this isn’t the case due to the societal ostracism toward the Jewish population of Elizabethan England, a fact Shakespeare exploits for satirical purposes.

Sixteenth century England was a time of religious chaos as the population watched the pendulum swing between the Church of England under Henry VIII back to Catholic Church of Mary and on to the implementation of Protestantism under Elizabeth I. And let’s not forget the brutal, and often sadistic, punishments that went along with the practicing of a religion outside that practiced by the current ruling power. According to Jeffrey Forgeng, all Jews were “evicted from England in 1290” showing that in 1596 when The Merchant of Venice was written it was a crime to be openly Jewish (30). Furthering this societal reference, Shakespeare frames Shylock to embody each of the stereotypical Jewish traits of the time period. For example, he is written to be a loan shark for merely taking interest. In response to a challenge upon this fact by Antonio, Shylock tells the biblical story of Jacob who bred his own herd of sheep from his uncle’s existing herd after an agreement between the two men (1.3.69-84). He was trying to show how Jacob was merely living off the interest of working his uncle’s sheep. What he seemed to misunderstand in telling this story was that Jacob did not morally breed the ewes in question. This speaks volumes of Shylock’s character. He desperately tries to be a good man but his wavering morality sets him up for failure, a point Shakespeare develops well throughout.

All this character building begs the question, who is the true villain? Is it the man designed to be such or will the ambiguous allusions embedded within the heroines epithets prove to be her downfall? It is easy to see that both characters struggle with the cliche battle of good versus evil. Portia openly acknowledges her own battle between virtue and manipulation when she says, “I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching” (1.2.13-15).  With Shylock’s binary rooted in his religion, his search for vengeance develops from the need to support the Jewish community. He says, “Cursed be my tribe, If I forgive him!” displaying how he is tempted by his need to revenge his religious brethren (1.3.42-3).

The paradox of a hero and a villain within a single character rears itself in numerous situations as the play progresses; primarily when related to love. Shylock, upon being abandoned by his daughter Jessica, transforms from hostile and conniving to downright sadistic. Readers can easily sympathize as they watched the Christian crew implement the very plan that helped Jessica stow away with Lorenzo taking a casket of ducats and gems along with her. When Shylock hears of Jessica leaving him for the one thing he hates, a Christian, he lashes out. He speaks of taking a pound of flesh from Antonio, the only Christian he can harm, to “feed [his] revenge” (3.1.41). Shakespeare designs the situation in a way that modern readers see the antagonistic ways of the Christians. It is important to mention, however, that an Elizabethan audience would justify the actions of the Christians and immediately condemn Shylock due to their prejudice against the Jewish community.

Portia, on the other hand, would be vindicated by that same audience when she manipulates the men who choose from the caskets in the name of love. When Bassanio comes forward to choose, Portia says, “pause a day or two before you hazard” and launches into a speech in which she gives everything she has to him (3.2.2). Upon first reading, Portia sounds sincere. She sounds as if she fears him choosing wrong for then he will be removed from the castle and thus her company. A reminder that the casket Bassanio must choose reads, “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath” readily reminds the audience of the heroine’s manipulative power, a characteristic she gains in the opening of the play with the connection to Brutus (2.7.9). With this speech she guides Bassanio toward the correct casket.

These two examples chosen from a plethora of poor choices simply show that both Portia and Shylock have a corrupted moral compass, though Shylock’s appears to gravitate more toward the cardinal sin of murder while Portia’s loose morals just make her look bad. Shakespeare develops both characters to highlight their human nature and show that love makes people do mysterious things. Repeatedly, he utilizes very human responses to external stimuli to show how people flounder as they work through that cliche theme of good over evil.

Moving into the climax, the infamous courtroom scene, an Elizabethan audience would still place Shylock on the side of evil and Portia on the side of good, as Shakespeare fully intended. Remember, all those allusion and  biblical references from the opening are meant to be ambiguous undertones. The action of the play has been designed to play into the prejudices of Elizabethan audience. The full satirical effect comes to light here in the courtroom.

Shakespeare is a master playwright. Alongside the rising action of the play, he wove in various themes that would appeal to the audiences subconscious so when the climax reveals itself, the subtle undertones would come flooding into the forefront. That is if the audience was able to move past their prejudice and allow them to. At this point of the play, a second more prominent theme, that which is presented outwardly is not always representative of what lies beneath, becomes apparent. This riddle of  “all that glisters is not gold” (2.8.66) and “a goodly apple rotten at the heart” (1.3.97) is finally answered in the courtroom. Shakespeare peels away the outward appearance of both Shylock and Portia to reveal the raw character hidden beneath. Once Shylock’s plans are foiled and his plan for vengeance is voided, he can be seen as the religious man he is. In the process of destroying Shylock, Portia is finally seen for the person she truly is.

Shylock reaffirms his station as a practicer of the Jewish religion with references to “our holy Sabbath” and a metaphor which uses an offensive  “gaping pig” as the vehicle to explain how taking Antonio’s money will not solve the problems of Christian treatment of Jews (4.1.37/48). In search of vengeance, he indirectly threatens Antonio’s life offering “a lodged hate and a certain loathing” as justification (4.1.61). As the audience understands it, he has broken two laws, he is Jewish and a murderer. This makes him the obvious villain. However, it is not Shakespeare’s style to allow for the obvious.

Portia enters the courtroom disguised as the male lawyer, Balthasar. This immediately strips away any of her inherently female characteristics such as kindness, gentleness and timidity. Up until now, viewers would have sympathized with her manipulative ways as they would have seen her as a woman in search of a man to care for her. By having Portia don the garb of a man in the final motion to unsex her, it allows her to be cruel while also giving the audience the freedom to place both Portia and Shylock on the same plain for comparison purposes.

Again, as stated above, Portia is manipulative. She guides Bassanio to choose the right casket and she convinces her cousin Bellario to risk his career by allowing her to take his place, but she has never tried to kill a man. By the standards that go along with murder, she cannot be a worse villain than Shylock. Furthermore, she preaches of mercy in one of the most famous Shakespearean speeches and manages to save both men from punishment, or does she?

Portia’s first spoken line of the play reveals her intentions toward corruption. “By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world” (1.2.1). According to the third definition of great from Shakespeare’s Words by David and Ben Crystal, great can mean “valiant, noble [and] honorable” (205). With this in mind, it must be inferred that Portia’s intent through the entirety of the play is to corrupt the world. Her actions in the courtroom are the final step toward removing the shroud that hid her true character. In the textually dense climax scene, Portia indirectly strips Shylock of identity. She could have easily stepped into the courtroom, read the information in her files and stepped out saving Antonio. Instead, she makes a mockery of the proceedings and the two men involved in the case, ruining one’s life forever.

As it is presented, the antagonist and protagonist pairing of The Merchant of Venice are Portia and Shylock respectively. On the surface level of this story, Portia sets out to better the lives of her friends while Shylock’s hostile nature openly seeks to harm these same people. By that model, Shylock is the villain and Portia, the heroine. However, readers and viewers must remember that Shakespeare does not like things so cut and dry. William Shakespeare weaves an intricate web of characterization but once the reader finds that loose strand, the whole of the story unravels leaving Portia standing before them in all her villainous glory.

William Shakespeare is a pivotal inclusion in the high school canon. Through his iconic works of literary art, teachers across the globe give students a glimpse into the human psyche. It has been said by literary critics and everyday men the world over that Shakespeare understood human intellect on a level few other authors have been able to put to text. The Merchant of Venice, a satire of Jewish persecution in Elizabethan England is no acception. Through his craft, Shakespeare is able to create two villainous characters, one outwardly and one indirectly. He never spells out his intent. Instead, he leaves the purpose of specific allusions and less than virtuous actions to be interpreted by the audience. Such pieces of the text are meant to urge society to reflect upon their singular prejudices and seek change.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Poe is Over Taught

Anyone who knows me (or my writing) I crave Gothic literature. It is my bread and butter and the air I breath.

For the last month, I've been teaching English at the local high school. As of this week, I am officially a teacher for the remainder of the school year.
Dance with me?!

Today, I get to teach my number one all time favorite subject! Gothic Literature. However, I am a little cranky because I have to do it through Edgar Allen Poe. Let me rephrase, I have to do it through "The Raven" and "The Fall of the House of Usher."

How boring can that be. I say Poe and everyone in the classroom groans. You know why?! Because he is over taught. Why can't we use some of my favorite short stories like "Wake not the Dead" or "The Mysterious Stranger" or even John Polodori's Vampyre? I know, I know. It's because they are not American. Honestly, the students are going to read them and be more interested because they are new!

Please, don't misinterpret what I'm saying. The school I work for is absolutely amazing. I'm sure the principal would be fine with me teaching it however I wanted as long as they get the material and understand the concepts. I am blaming our American education system (and now you are rolling your eyes) for being written by people who don't always take the time to understand the subject matter or the audience. Or that there may be more than one way to teach something.

Let me explain it another way. Our goal as educators is to build well rounded people who can walk out our school doors and be wonderful functioning adults that continue to grow into the best people society has to offer. It is exciting to see that we are teaching all ends of the language spectrum, but why hasn't the creator of this educational system noticed the blatant redundancies? If a student does not like a subject, a topic matter, an author... they are not going to get the  most from it. Let's shake it up a bit and include some other writers from this genre!

I guess I may just be a little more upset than necessary because I'm not teaching Gothic Lit from a vampire view... On that note, I think I am going to order 60 copies of "Dracula's Guest."

Friday, November 11, 2016

Gilmore Girls Planner!!

With the Gilmore Girls Revival just a few weeks away, I thought I would completely neglect my children, my husband and basically the whole world around me and make a fantastic coffee/Gilmore Girls centered planner pack! Well, it's fantabulous! I love it! Check it out!

I have just released it to Etsy as a digital download. Sadly, I am still unable to print these stickers myself as my printer absolutely hates me. I finally bought ink and sticker paper, but the paper just feeds in the top and shoots back out the bottom. Yes, Murphy's Law is truly biting me in the ass this week.

Anyway, hop over and check it out! don't forget to use the blogger coupon code for 25% off!


Monday, November 7, 2016

Muggle Force Coupon!

As is typical in the life of Tori, I have found a new distraction in what I am loosely terming graphic design. Yes, I am creating designs on my computer but I feel that I am shaming the world of true designers by labeling myself as one.

Makenzie says OH YEAH. mean kid!

I know. I know. Point please? So with this new Etsy store and my obsession, I have been tied to my computer in a way that makes readers sad. To make it up to you, I'd like to offer a coupon! 

No catch, I just want you to love my designs as much as I've loved making them! Though I would not be upset if you shared your use of them with me on Instagram!!! 


Coupon Code!!



I have set the code to expire next Monday night! Head over and see what's what or wait a few days for new things to appear! Happy Shopping Nerds!