Feminine Wisdom

Nerissa and Portia in
The Merchant of Venice (1596)
by William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Shakespeare is without peer as a playwright. For example, a critical analysis of The Merchant of Venice reveals his intellectual genius in that the play “[which] fuses a number of diverse, even contradictory dramatic styles, ranging from folktale to romantic comedy, to borderline tragedy, to create one of his most popular and moving plays.” And yet, maybe even this “glowing” review fails to appreciate the depth, not of his intellectual genius, but of his intuitive insights which transcend conventional definitions of creativity.

In the beginning of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice we hear a conversation between Portia (a rich Italian lady) and Nerissa (her “waiting woman”). Portia’s father has died leaving her a fortune and she is plagued with suitors:

Portia:  “By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world.”

Nerissa:  “You would be, sweet madam, if your miseries were in the same abundance as your good fortunes are: and yet, for aught I see, they are as sick that surfeit with too much as they that stare with nothing.”

Portia:  “Good sentences and well pronounced.”

Nerissa:  “They would be better if well followed.”

Portia:  “If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces. It is a good divine that follows his own instructions: I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching.”

Indeed, false-self reactions are automatic because they are deeply conditioned. Responses (“what were good to do”), on the other hand, need support from a more conscious True self or an adviser like Nerissa. But at least the Elizabethans, including the “groundlings,” we can only assume knew intuitively that reactions made no sense and that one should respond to avoid suffering. But they seem to have paid as little attention to their inner promptings (if history is any indication) as we do today. Nevertheless, Shakespeare was clearly advising his audience to ignore the false self and follow the guidance of the inner promptings of the True self in a language, as usual, that was all his own.

Today our understanding of how we cause ourselves suffering has become more sophisticated but our practice (“to follow mine own teaching”) is no better than it was 400 years ago. Walter Mischel, a professor of psychology at Columbia “explains that there are two warring parts of the brain: a part demanding immediate gratification (the limbic system) [the false self], and a cool, goal-oriented part (the prefrontal cortex). The secret of self-control [response], he says, is to train the prefrontal cortex to kick in first.”

Another helpful support of being able to respond to life, as Shakespeare seemed to appreciate, is objectivity, to be the “observer” of our experience. “Draw upon topical themes; look for the style of our age; mingle with the crowd; remain an observer; avoid political militancy; resist all propaganda pressures; restore morality to the rank it deserves; and serve only justice. This, if you like is Shakespeare’s message.”

In Venice Shakespeare melds together several stories, as he often does in his plays, thereby enriching the plot. For our entertainment, we have a comedy, a romance and a near-tragedy. First, the romance. Bassanio borrows money from his friend Antonio so he can woo the wealthy Portia.

The tragedy-in-the making is set up when Antonio, his money temporarily tied up in a shipping venture, borrows the money from Shylock, a wealthy Jew. Shylock hates Antonio because he often lends money to people without charging the interest that Shylock does. Shylock loans the money to Antonio but if anything happens to Antonio’s merchant fleet, Shylock wants to be repayed with a pound of Antonio’s flesh which he, Shylock can himself cut from any part of Antonio’s body that he chooses.

In the meantime, Portia who is plagued with suitors because she is wealthy and beautiful, must fulfill the condition of her father’s will and accept the suitor who chooses the correct among three caskets presented at a special occasion, one gold, one silver and one lead. Bassanio chooses the correct lead casket (the true virtue is in response not the reaction of seeking the wealth symbolized by gold and silver) and to seal their engagement, Portio gives Bassanio a ring warning him that if he ever parted with it, she would not marry him.

Comedy enters the stage when Bassanio conspires with his friend Lorenzo in planning a feast and a masque and invites Shylock to be his guest. During the party Lorenzo and Shylock’s daughter, Jessica flee with part of Shylock’s fortune to Genoa.

Bassanio hears the bad news that his ships have been lost at sea and thus Antonio will not have the money to repay Shylock. Portia’s plan is to use her dowry to repay Shylock and also that Gratiano would come to Belmont to marry Nerissa and celebrate with a double wedding. After the weddings Bassanio sets out for Venice with twice the money needed to repay Shylock.

After Gratiano and Antonio have left, Portia leaves Belmont in the care of Jessica and Lorenzo telling them that she and Nerissa would be secluded in a nunnery until their husbands return. Instead, Portia and Nerissa leave for Venice disguised as men to attend Antonio’s trial.

Antonio’s case was being tried before the Duke of Venice who tried to talk Shylock into accepting the money offered by Antonio. Shylock, however, was determined to extract his pound of flesh when Portia dressed as a lawyer and Nerissa disguised as her clerk appeared in court. Portia presented a letter from Doctor Bellario (Portia’s cousin who was in on the plot) explaining that he was ill and that Portia (disguised as Bellario’s assistant) would present his opinions in the dispute.

Portia said that Antonio’s contract was void since it failed to state that Shylock could have any blood with the pound of flesh and that he could not have the money that he had been previously offered. Since Shylock, an alien under Venetian law, had threatened the life of a Venetian citizen, Antonio could seize half of his property and the state the other half. Instead, it was agreed that half of Shylock’s fortune would go to Jessica and Lorenzo. Shylock could keep the remainder but it too was willed to the couple. In addition Shylock agreed to undergo conversion which can be seen as a punishment and also an act of compassion since he could have lost all of his money and property.

We can credit Shakespeare with trying to humanize Shylock thus at least partially avoiding the anti-semitic stereotype of Elizabethan England. Nevertheless, it is clear that as a Jew and therefore, the other, Shylock, did receive projections from the other characters. “Some have gone so far as to argue that even in villainy he is represented as a victim of the Christian society, the grotesque product of hatred and ostracism.”

It can be said of the worldview that drives most of the human behavior extant in today’s world was fundamentally the same in Shakespeare’s England in that all is not what it seems. Bassanio is as interested in Portia’s money as in her beauty and intelligence but is insightful enough to be suspicious when choosing among the caskets. “And when he chooses the leaden casket, he does so for precisely the right traditional reason—a distrust of appearances.”

Shakespeare repeats this same theme with Portia and her ingenious solution to Antonio’s dilemma in that she too is not what she seems to be in the trial scene where she impersonates a male lawyer. “More important, she has the opportunity to discourse on the nature of mercy as opposed to justice and to give an object lesson that he who lives by the letter of the law will perish by it.”

All’s well that ends well when Portia and Nerissa hurry back to Belmont to be there when their husbands arrived with the good news. Antonio later received word that some of his ships had arrived safely in port. “There is no more trouble in paradise among the people of grace.” If only we could transfer the wisdom of the stage at the Globe to the world’s stage.

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References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.

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