The Merchant, er, Mooch, of Venice

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

“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. 

Pericles, Freelance Writer of Tyre

Avaunt, clickbait!

Incest, riddles, walls of human heads, pirates, sexual slavery, undead wives, visions of goddesses? Why, Pericles sounds a lot like freelance writing.

Pericles opens with Antiochus and his daughter, “with whom the father liking took, / And her to incest did provoke” (1.25-26). Ignorant of this, many suitors sought her, famed as she was for her beauty, but Antiochus tested them with a riddle, on pain of death, decorating his palace with their many, failed heads.

(Pitches are riddles. Should my email be a few, catchy lines? Should I develop my idea in a few grafs? Do I follow up in a few days, a week? Do I follow up at all? As for incest, well, it’s all about who you know. Once you’re in…And editors most certainly line their cubicles with all their felled rejects.) 

Then our Pericles comes from Tyre to try his hand at the riddle:

I am no viper, yet I feed
On mother’s flesh which did breed me.
I sought a husband, in which labour
I found that kindness in a father.
He’s father, son, and husband mild;
I mother, wife, and yet his child.
How this may be and yet in two,
As you will live resolve it you. (1.107-14)

Pericles figures it out – the answer is: Oh my god, you’ve been having sex with your own daughter?! – but doesn’t want to divulge it for fear of backlash. “Great King, / Few love to hear the sins they love to act” he hedges (1.134-35).

Pericles wasn’t supposed to figure out. No one’s supposed to figure it out. So, Antiochus sends out a goon to kill Pericles. Pericles, meanwhile, senses the pending danger but can only manage to mope back at Tyre, unsure of what to do, unable to act.

(This part comes after you send out a pitch. You stare at your inbox, waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting for a response.)

You stare at your inbox, waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting for a response.

Finally, he opens up to his trusted advisor, Helicanus, who advises him to flee.

(“Hi Richard, My name is John Kelly. I am big fan of your writing and, as an aspiring writer myself, I was wondering if you had any tips…” “Dear John, Thanks for reaching out. Here’s the thing about freelancing: Run!”)

As he hops about the ancient Mediterranean (a pitch here, a pitch there), he gets shipwrecked in Pentapolis (“Thanks, John, so much for your email, but…”). But, but, but, after an elaborate courtship involving much fanfare and jousting, Pericles, who learns of it from some fisherman who rescue him, ends up marrying the king of Pentapolis’ daughter, Thaisa, in spite of his humble, rusty armor (“Dear John, I love this idea!” The slightest compliment from the editor “seems like diamond to glass,” as Thaisa remarks of her soon-to-be husband in Scene 7, line 35).

The two shack up, get pregnant. But Pericles is called back to Tyre. On their way, Pericles’ wife dies in labor (kind of like the ratio of how much time you put in researching and writing your piece to how much you actually get paid for it). Pericles leaves his daughter to grow up with the king and queen he befriended Tarsus – well, he saved them from famine, actually– and gives his wife her sea-burial. But her casket washes up in Ephesus, where a doctor discovers she isn’t dead and manages to revive her (you’ll get paid for your writing…eventually).

The king and queen of Tarsus vow to raise Pericles’ daughter with care and honor. Pericles vows, in return, not to cut his hair: “Till she be married… / By bright Diana, whom we honor all, / Unscissored shall this hair of mine remain, / Though I show ill in’t” (13.27-30).

(Grooming, and any sort of self-respecting presentability, is also one of the first things the freelancer sacrifices.)

Grooming is also one of the first things the freelancer sacrifices.

Marina grows up, besties with the princess there, but she gets all the attention, all the praise. The queen of Tarsus is not pleased: she “with envy rare / A present murder does prepare / For good Marina, that her daughter / Might stand peerless by this slaughter” (15.37-40). But just as Marina is about to be killed, some pirates kidnap her and sell her to a brothel.

(Do you sell out for the viral BuzzFeed listicle? Does Huffington Post’s massive traffic tempt you even they want it from you for free?)

But Mariana stays strong: “If fires be hot, knives sharp, or waters deep, / Untied I still my virgin knot will keep” (16.129-30). And she tells her pimp and his profession: “Empty / Old receptacles or common sew’rs of filth, / Serve by indenture to the public hangman – Any of these are better than this” (19.188-90).

(No! You are a Writer. You are serious. You traffic in big ideas. Avaunt, clickbait! But real quick, how much did you say that garbage gig pays?)

No! You are a Writer. But real quick, how much did you say that garbage gig pays?

For Pericles, deep melancholy sets in: “A man who for this three months hath not spoken / To anyone, nor taken sustenance / But to prorogue his grief,” as Helicanus reveals when they land at the island where Marina happens to be (21.18-20).

(The freelancer despairs. What am I doing? What is all this for? How does everyone else do it, seem to so easily get all those bylines and book deals? Who am I kidding? “Writer.” Pshaw. )

Pericles soon discovers this Marina is his daughter. Then, a vision (the inspired idea, the big break, the clutch retweet?) of the goddess Diana sends Pericles to the very temple where his wife has been serving as a vestal.  We learn the baddies are punished: Antioch and his daughter have died, the people of Tarsus revolt against their nefarious rulers.

(I’m still waiting on this one. Editors, literary agents, publishers. This is your cue.)

As a play, Pericles is an absolute mess. Editors have had to patch it together from manuscripts. The plot jumps around, the verse jumps around. This narrator, John Gower, relates the action in an English that would have sounded a bit archaic even to Elizabethan ears. Due to this pell-mell, scholars think Shakespeare actually co-authored this lesser work with one George Wilkins – a playwright, a freelance playwright.

(Oy.)