The Merchant, er, Mooch, of Venice

The quality of mercy is not strained – but it shouldn’t be taken for granted.

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“I will do anything, Nerissa, ere I will be married to a sponge,” Portia tells her personal assistant early on in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (1.2.83). This sponge is one of her suitors, a heavy-drinking German. But she does end up marrying a sponge, Bassanio. He’s just a different sort of sponge. The mooch kind. The bum kind.

Consider this Bassanio. He asks his buddy Antonio for money to help him compete against her richer, princelier wooers. Antonio has to borrow it from Shylock three thousand ducats to be repaid in three months on forfeit of the famed pound of flesh – and thinks he’s good for it, what with all the merchandise he has out at sea.

Bassanio goes off for Portia. To win her hand in marriage, as Portia’s father so stipulated, he has to choose among a gold, silver, and lead chest, “whereof who chooses his meaning chooses you,” as Nerissa explains (1.2.26-27). He chooses lead, as the “world is still deceived with ornament” (3.2.74), and chooses correctly. Lovely. Let’s give you that one, Bassanio.

But just as they’re about to be married, they hear word that Antonio’s ships are wrecked and that Shylock (depicted, I must note, with a hotly debated antisemitism) is demanding his retribution. Yeah, Bassanio didn’t let Portia in on any of that before. Class act, man. And your best friend is about to die so you can get the girl you wanted.

Not that I’m one to talk.

***

A few leftover crusts littered our plates. Empty pints, wine glasses, and cocktail tumblers crowded the table. The wives left for the facilities before we headed to a pub across the street to continue the craic. The husbands – plus my father and brother, for whose visit I organized this gathering with our friends at a trendy pizza place in Dublin – split the bill, couples covering couples. I grabbed the AmEx. My wife’s. Out of her purse. Without asking. For a dinner I set up.

I bring in a little money freelancing, usually covering (most) groceries, dog food, pints when I’m on the town, and occasionally some nicer meals out every now again. Notice what’s not covered: rent, utilities, travel. Her job provides my health insurance. Savings. All the big stuff. She makes huge sacrifices so that I can give this whole privileged writing thing a go. And she makes these sacrifices – and she never complains about it.

I’m not quite what explains this urge, to do something nice, out of a genuine desire, and yet rust the gesture with mercenary grouses.

It’s just that meals like these wipe me out. It’s not that we can’t afford it per se. It’s that I can’t afford it. Which is precisely the problem. Not the money. The I. She picks up these sorts of tabs all the time. For us.

And whenever I do pay for bigger stuff, I can’t help but make some sort of comment about it. Like her 30th birthday present, back when I was working full-time. She had set a goal to visit all 50 states before she turned 30. Alaska was her last, so we organized some family together to do a cruise. “It’s not a gift when you tell me how much you had to spend,” I remember her explaining when I was booking.

I’m not quite sure what explains this urge, to do something nice, out of a genuine desire, and yet rust the gesture with mercenary grouses. Maybe that word privileged is the key. I’ve had a privileged life, so it’s not like parting with money represents some affront to hardscrabble frugality. Perhaps it’s some baked-in entitlement – my upper middle-classness, my maleness, my whiteness, my private education, making me a kind of reverse Invisible Man, invisible to himself, who gets to enjoy the taken-for-granted ease of never being forced to confront his identity, as his identity is enmeshed with the covert fabric of power and normativity, and yet who is outraged by the slightest jostling of his hegemonic comfort. Or maybe I’m just a selfish cheapskate.

***

How does Portia respond to Bassanio’s revelation? An all-out blitz – of unconditional generosity, big-heartedness, selflessness.

Pay him six thousand and deface the bond.
Double six thousand, and then treble that,
Before a friend of this description
Shall lose a hair thorough Bassanio’s fault.
First go with me to church and call me wife,
And then away to Venice to your friend;
For never shall you lie by Portia’s side
With an unquiet soul. You shall have gold
To pay the petty debt twenty times over. (3.2.298-306)

Then, unbeknownst to Bassanio, Portia disguises herself as a doctor of law and goes to Venice to badass a victory for Antonio in court: “This bond doth give thee no jot of blood. / The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh’.” (4.1.301-02). Generous, loving, and smart as hell.

“The quality of mercy is not strained,” Portia famously monologues as she tries to convince Shylock to back off from revenging Antonio (4.1.179). Same, too, for generosity. For doing things for other people because you support them, love them, believe in them.

This is what kills me about Portia: It’s how instantly she comes to the aid of her husband’s friend.

It’s not strained, it’s not forced. This is what kills me about Portia: It’s how instantly, how without question or qualification, without complaint or self-consideration, she comes to the aid of her husband’s friend, because she supports them, loves them, believes in them. And she doesn’t even need credit, praise, recognition for it. This is what kills me about my wife.

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes. (179-82)

Make that her that gives, and him that takes.

***

Of course, as a token of thanks, Bassanio gives Portia-cum-lawyer (who is cleverly testing him) the special ring Portia gave him – “when this ring / Parts from this finger, then parts life from hence” (3.2.183-84). His excuse? “I was beset with shame and courtesy. / My honour would not let ingratitude / So much besmear it” (5.1.216-18). And then the promises: “Pardon this fault, and by my soul I swear / I never more will break an oath with thee” (246-48). Classic. And here’s the kicker. “Were you the doctor and I knew you not?” Bassanio asks Portia (5.1.279). Bassanio, Bassanio, Bassanio. Even I know better.

***

As we left the restaurant, the rain started lashing. The group sprinted across the street in a gap in the traffic. My wife and I waited under the awning of the restaurant until the cars let up. She was silent, expressionless, which meant she was pissed.

“It’s that I didn’t ask,” I said, offering up no Bassanio-esque self-defenses, feeling a due, childlike embarrassment and shame. The quality of mercy, of generosity, is not strained, but it should never be taken for granted.

What do they see in us, these Portias?

An opening appeared. She ran through the rain across the street. And I ran after. 

Fighting stances: The Tragedy of Coriolanus

Stand up and be a man – or at least try not to trip.

The kid kicked at my shoes but I didn’t fall.

“That’s fine,” I answered without losing my brisk pace. But he – and three or four other friends, I didn’t really slow down to take count – kept up.

That’s fine,” he parroted in a mock American accent. “Take a look at this Yank,” he aped my determined gait.

I responded with something about how I had moved to Dublin months ago. I’m not quite sure what the intended effect of this was. Perhaps to ease some larger territoriality I perceived, to lend myself some street cred? I was a bit disoriented. This stretch of the busy road up from the stadium, which my brother and I had left a little early to beat the crowds before the football match let out, had taken a darker and quieter turn. I had noticed the teenaged boys, mostly track-suited and probably a bit drunk, swaggering their way ahead of me, but I was surprised when I had somehow walked right into their ruckusing.

I can’t help but wonder if I didn’t want her know I didn’t stand up for myself.

The kid continued his blustery taunts, which I was now ignoring, when my ear suddenly stung and rang. Swiftly and sharply, and with a cocky little jump completely superfluous to the delivery of his blow, he had boxed the side of my head just as the road bent back towards more traffic and light.

They took off down a side street. I looked back. My brother, who had been some steps behind when the boys swarmed around me, planted himself at the intersection and stared down their fleeing backs. 

“This is what they want, man. It’s not worth it. Let’s go,” I waved him along. “They’ll get what’s coming to when they find out where this kind of shit takes them in life.”

We headed towards a pub just ahead. “And don’t tell my wife,” I added.

At the moment, I had meant that I didn’t want her worrying she’d be unsafe walking Dublin’s streets, as she does regularly by herself. But since reading Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Coriolanus, in all of its complicated portrait of masculinity, I can’t help but wonder if I didn’t want her know I didn’t stand up for myself.

***

“You shames of Rome!” Caius Martius, later Coriolanus, curses his fellow soldiers as they retreat from their Volscian foes:

You herd of–boils and plagues
Plaster you o’er, that you may be abhorred
Farther than seen, and one infect another
Against the wind a mile! You souls of geese
That bear the shapes of men, how have you run
From slaves that apes would beat! (1.5.2-7)

Coriolanus beats back the Volsci as they pour out of the gates of their town, but he, and he alone, gets shut in. Coriolanus, valiant Coriolanus, takes them on and forces his rival, Aufidius, into retreat once more.

“Rome must know the value of her own,” the general Cominius publicly celebrates Coriolanus when returns to Rome, all the more heroic for his fresh battle wounds (1.10.20-21).

For the ancient Romans, Coriolanus – the courageous warrior, steadfast in his defense of home and country – was a proper man. And this made him virtuous, a word which literally derives from the Latin for “man.” As Cominius again boasts of his great solider: “It is held / That valour is the chiefest virtue, and / Most dignifies the haver. If it be, / The man I speak of cannot in the world / Be singly counterpoised” (2.2.79-83).

***

I am no Coriolanus.

As much as I like to imagine we – as men, as a society – have outgrown the self-measure of muscles and might, that dialogue overpowers deltoids, some primal, primate urge to flex and fight, to prove and prevail, is still strong in our sinews.

Or at least some of our sinews.

As much as I like to imagine we value, as I do, the modern model of a refined , enlightened, and reasoning masculinity, I’m not so sure we still don’t admire, even cheer on, a good-ol’-had-it-comin’-to-ya ass-kicking.

I’m not so sure we still don’t admire, even cheer on, a good-ol’-had-it-comin’-to-ya ass-kicking.

And what stings, I think, isn’t any blow. It isn’t being singled out or picked on. And it’s not even the fact that I didn’t tell the kids off or take them on in some Coriolanian charge. This doesn’t bruise my manhood.   

What stings, or maybe what confuses me as I think about the incident and Coriolanus, is that I didn’t even feel the urge to – to posture, to stand the corner, as did my brother, and watch the little hoodlums diminish in the distance.

Does this make me somehow weaker? Somehow less? Do I lack some fundamental, inner quality or character? Would I run in the face of some real assault? Would I not come to others’ protection – of my friends, of my family, of my wife?

The kid kicked my shoes and I didn’t fall. But, in causing me to question my sense of virtue or manliness – even just in those small moments when the image of my brother standing the corner under the jaundiced streetlights flashes in my mind or when I picture an undeterred Coriolanus locked in behind the enemy gates – it did trip up my ego.

Just a bit. Surely only just a bit.

***

Coriolanus doesn’t get tested on the battlefield, but does get tested in the forum.

For all his guts and glory, Coriolanus is also a patrician who utterly despises the plebeians, who think, as one puts it, Coriolanus has “grown too proud to be so valiant” (1.2.249-50). So proud, in fact, that after the Senate (themselves patricians) put him up for consul, Coriolanus refuses to ask, even in feigned humility, for the votes of the commoners. They had just earned political representation, in the form of tribunes, after rising up over concerns the nobility was cheating them out of grain.

“Better it is to die, better to starve, / Than crave the hire which first we do deserve,” Coriolanus digs in (2.3.103-4). He sheds his own blood for his country: Why should he have to deign for their votes?

Coriolanus is winning the support of the citizenry until the tribunes press him on his grain policy. Ever short-tempered, he loses his cool and lets them know how he really feels (though some see a kind of virtue in his unwillingness to play politics, to refuse to be untrue to himself, for all his pride):

For the mutable rank-scented meinie,
Let them regard me, as I do not flatter,
And therein behold themselves as I say again,
In soothing them we nourish ‘gainst the Senate
The cockle of rebellion, insolence, sedition,
Which we ourselves have ploughed for, sowed and scattered
By mingling them with us, the honoured number
Who lack not virtue, no, nor power, but that
Which they have given to beggars. (3.1.70-78)

Fearing the end of their influence, the tribunes conspire to stop Coriolanus by charging tyranny. Coriolanus barely escapes execution for exile, and in it, allies himself with his nemesis, Aufidius. They start a siege of Rome until Coriolanus’ mother changes her son’s hard heart: “That man was noble, / But with his last attempt he wiped it out,” she imagines posterity will say of him in her forceful plea (5.3.146-47). But just as he leads a charge to protect Rome, Aufidius, already planning to cross him, stabs him dead.     

***

I might have some Coriolanus in my chest – er, ego – after all.

“Yeah, you’re right,” I remember my brother had said over the pints. “They’ll go nowhere in life acting the way they do.”

Can I say that my justification for my virtue is actually noble?

This was validating. To me as a younger brother, as a man, as a person who prides himself as committed to the virtue of nonviolence. But when I really listened to my own words said back to me, I also wondered: Can I say, if I’m honest with myself, that my justification for my virtue is actually noble – or, should I say, isn’t entirely too noble?

Can I say I didn’t think, at least on some subconscious, self-defensive level, that the kids were probably lower class, poorly educated, lacked self-control and constructive outlets, impressed each other with displays of machismo prized in some more primitive value system, were angry at their prospects in life and took it out on others in small, petty, and random acts of violence, feeling as if this was the only power they could exert over their lives, their world?

These thoughts, too, are the posturing of a masculinity, a display of power.

And I can’t say I didn’t think it. Even if just a bit.

Unlike Coriolanus, I didn’t say it aloud. Unlike Coriolanus, I struggle even to fully admit it. There may yet be a cowardice in that, but it probably spared it me a good-ol’-had-it-comin’-to-ya ass-kicking.