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. 

The art of artifice (and the artifice of art): The Life of Timon of Athens

In which Shakespeare beats a Painter and Poet with a stick.

The Life of Timon of Athens isn’t a particularly celebrated play in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. Many critics think its language and plot don’t quite stack up to the Bard’s usual standards. Some argue it was never finished. Others conclude the play was a collaboration. Whatever its status in the canon, the tragedy stands out for its focus on money – and still has some warnings worth heeding.

Athenians love Timon because he lavishes them with gifts and parties: “Methinks I could deal kingdoms to my friends,/ And ne’er be weary” (1.2.215-16). His friendships are bought, but Timon is blind to this: “You shall perceive how you/ Mistake my fortunes. I am wealthy in my friends,” he responds when his servant relays that his creditors are demanding payment (2.2.178-79). His generosity is borrowed. And none of his friends bail him out.

The Senate threatens to execute Timon for defaulting on his debts. Fleeing the polis, a forsaken Timon himself forsakes the world. “I am sick of this false world!” (4.3.368) as he cries, cursing man and gold, “thou sweet king-killer,” alike (4.3.374).

Timon becomes his foil, Apemantus, a gadfly philosopher whose cynicism he well sums up in grace he says at one of Timon’s banquets early in the play:

Immortal gods, I crave no pelf.
I pray for no man but myself.
Grant I may never prove so fond
To trust man on his oath or bond,
Or a harlot for her weeping,
Or a dog that seems a-sleeping
Or a keeper with my freedom,
Or my friends if I should need ‘em.
Amen. So fall to’t.
Rich men sin, and I eat root. (1.2.61-70)

In his own root-eating misanthropy Timon fails to see his servant, Flavius, stays by his side. He fails to see to his comrade, Alcibiades, leads an uprising against the city to defend him. The Senate relents their too-cruel punishment, but too late, as Timon dies out in the wilderness.

***

Timon of Athens isn’t exactly the most artful social commentary, but it does develop a  compelling theme of artifice. We see the artifice of men and money, yes. You can’t buy love. Who can you really trust? But we also see the artifice of law. “We are for laws; he dies” (3.6.85), as one senator summarily sentences Timon. It’s a stark reminder that even morality is man-made.

He is as self-absorbed in his exile as he is in buying his countrymen’s affections.

We also see the artifice of Timon’s own self-pity: “I never had/ Honest man about me; ay, all I kept were knaves,/ To serve in meat to villains” (4.3.469-71). No, faithful Flavius doesn’t count; he’s just his lowly servant, as if only the rich and powerful are capable of any depth, or at least any sentiment of value.

There is a touching scene when all of Timon’s servants gather together at Timon’s house to mourn their master’s fall. “Yet do our hearts wear Timon’s livery./ That I see by our faces. We are fellows still,/ Serving alike in sorrow” (4.2.17-19). The master-servant relationship itself is not a natural construction, but Timon’s servants transcend the artifice of social roles and achieve true fellow feeling. “There’s none/ Can truly say he gives if he receives,” Timon earlier comments on the cycle of debt that a gift ignites (1.2.9-10). Only his servants prove otherwise.

But Timon certainly learns no lessons about egocentrism in his hermitage. He is as self-absorbed in his exile as he is in buying his countrymen’s affections. Timon may reject gold, but he doesn’t have to reject man – or the golden mean.

***

We’re always looking for clues to Shakespeare’s creative process. What did he think? What was his process like? How did he come up with his ideas? Did he know he was great? Did ever imagine that, 400 years after he died, some American dude would be cooped up in a spare room qua office in Dublin, spending the Sunday of his bank holiday weekend trying to glean some deep wisdom from the words of one of his lesser plays? Well, Timon of Athens may gives us some small glimpse into the poet’s poetics, but it may not glitter like gold: Shakespeare exposes the artifice of, well, art itself.

Art, counterfeit and fiction, is a made thing, fashioned from human hands, not from some divine imagination we mortals are not permitted to.

Shakespeare (and his collaborator, presumably) stages a Painter and Poet. In the beginning, we see them flattering Timon with portraits and verses. For patronage, of course. For money. For all their highfalutin words of inspiration, not even the artists transcend base greed. We see the pair again at the end of the play. They feign loyalty to the indigent hermit, hearing report of gold Timon discovers in the forest. But Timon overhears their mercenary dissembling and calls them out on it. He cleverly undercuts the Painter: “Thou draw’st counterfeit/ Best in all Athens; thou’rt indeed the best;/ Thou counterfeit’s most lively” (5.1.77-79). And the poet he lambastes: “And for thy fiction,/ Why, thy verse swells with stuff so fine and smooth/ That thou art even natural in thine art” (5.1.80-82). Then he beats the two with his stick. And natural, we should also remember, could mean “foolish” in Elizabethan vernacular – which just takes a sledgehammer to the play’s natural-artificial axis. Thanks, Shakespeare: You knew the artifice of sign and signifier all too well, too.

For as much as we like to worship great art and artists, as if the creator and their works exist in some higher sphere unsullied by the affairs of lowly man, Shakespeare recognizes that art is manufactured. That art, too, is often motivated by practical needs, by self-interest, by profit. The Bard had to make a living, after all. It can be deflating, even cheapening, to peek behind the creative curtain, like a son recognizing his father’s fallibility for the first time. But it’s also comforting, too, especially for the aspiring artist: Art, counterfeit and fiction, is a made thing, fashioned from human hands, not from some divine imagination we mortals are not permitted to.

But not all counterfeits, shall we say, are equally convincing. Not all fictions are equally credible. Not all makers are equally skilled. Not all art is equally good. Timon of Athens is no Hamlet. Still, I could never write a Timon of Athens.