Saturday, June 18, 2011

Shakespeare doesn't like to say one thing at a time or go where expected.

"If music be the food of love, play on" are the first words in "Twelfth Night."

We find out soon that the speaker is deeply in love with himself, after the manner of a rock star, movie star, old-fashioned theatre star. He is basically always looking in the mirror and being pleased with what he sees.

He thinks he is in love with someone else, and he's pleased about that. It gives him a new way to talk about himself.

"Oh, for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention" are the first words of King Henry V. What the Chorus, a single speaker introducing the play to the audience, is asking for is help in the problem of showing how horrible war is on a small stage with relatively few people. We're going to ask you to take one person for a thousand, the chorus says.

The English win a famous victory, at Agincourt against the French, but Shakespeare takes time now and then throughout the play to describe how brutal war is. The muse helps, but Shakespeare is right. It's hard to show how bad war is if you are not right there, which is one reason we keep doing it.

Sooth means truth. "In sooth, I know not why I am so sad" are the first words of "The Merchant of Venice." Someone dealing with the play now would say, "Well, you are closeted and in love with a greedy male bimbo" but that is never dealt with in the play directly.

Does Antonio, the merchant of Venice, who says the words, think of himself as being in love Bassanio? Unknown. Antonio says fewer words in this play that any other Shakespeare title character, by a lot. He is often on stage, but silent.

He has loaned Bassanio, who should be very good looking to the play to make sense, lots of money. Now Bassanio wants lots more money to use to go courting a well-known rich woman, Portia.

"I know not why I am so sad," indeed. Loaning a loved one even more money so they can court another--that would be a good reason. Maybe Antonio doesn't speak much because he doesn't want to say true things much.

And this whole tangle gets transferred to a pre-set emotion--Jews are greedy. Jews are much greedier than Christians, and therefore are bad.

The transfer happens like this. The merchant of Venice, Antonio, has five ships out. And he's loaned Bassanio lots of money. The merchant of Venice doesn't have much cash right now, not enough to finance Bassanio's expensive idea of a courtship. Bassanio is all about making a good impression.

So the merchant of Venice goes to the investment banker of Venice, Shylock, to borrow money.

Shylock doesn't like him much. He tells about how Antonio sometimes passes away his time spitting on Shylock and others unliked. Nowhere in the play to Antonio show that much energy, but I'm inclined to think it's true. Someone frustrated like Antonio has to let the energy and rage out somewhere, and where safer than on a member of a generally disliked group.

Shylock says he will loan Antonio the money that Antonio will "loan" to Bassanio to use in courting Portia if Antonio will promise him a pound of flesh as collateral.

This might be a good moment for Bassanio to say, "Don't do that" but he doesn't. He takes the money and goes off to court, and all five of Antonio's ships don't come in.