In a recent blog post I mentioned that liberals, no less than conservatives, ought to be very wary of expanding government power under the commerce clause. It turns out that Walter Lippmann (no conservative, he) made the same point eloquently at the very time that the Supreme Court was expanding that power:
The so-called liberals who today think that Federalism was invented by the Liberty League and is defended only by hirelings of the DuPonts did not have the same appetite for centralized government when they ran afoul of it in wartime and during the reign of the Anti-Saloon League. Nor will they have the same enthusiasm for it the next time they see a Congress which does not think as they do, a Congress, perhaps, which decides to regulate labor by imposing compulsory service in labor camps as a means of preparedness for war and a way of teaching men to take orders promptly. The current enthusiasms of the liberals for a centralized government of unlimited powers arise from the happy idea that only liberals will run that government.... [I]f they think there will never be a reaction again, their optimism is far greater than their good sense. They will make the greatest mistake of their lives if, while they are in power, they destroy the defenses they will desperately need when in the course of human events the people turn once more the other way.
The Merchant of Venice is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, and I got to see it in Ashland this weekend (Anthony Heald was excellent as Shylock). It’s a unique play, in that people generally have a hard time categorizing it as either a comedy or a tragedy. In fact, it’s a comedy made from tragic materials, just as Othello is a tragedy made out of comic materials. Perhaps Shakespeare was challenged as a lark to see if he could reverse the typical order of things.
But the reason Merchant ends up being a comedy is an interesting one, and I thought of this while reading Alan Bloom’s brief, thoughtful book, Shakespeare’s Politics, the first chapter of which focuses on Merchant of Venice. While Bloom’s interpretations are generally very interesting and thought provoking, his interpretation of Portia is completely misguided, in my opinion. “Portia,” he writes, “goes off to Venice to save Antonio, not out of any principle of universal humanity, but because is her husband’s friend….” But that isn’t right.
The theme of Merchant is the misleading nature of superficial appearances. The real climax of the play is Bassanio’s deliberation over the caskets, when he says
So may the outward shows be least themselves: The world is still deceived with ornament.
At the beginning of the play, the characters are deluded by appearances. Antonio hates Shylock for being a Jew, as the latter makes clear in his famous tirade, but Shylock is equally guilty—his protectiveness of Jessica is motivated by a suspicion of Christians, which is pretty easily turned into a genuine thirst for revenge. And even Portia is deceived with ornament. She says of the prince of Morocco, “if he have the condition of a saint and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me than wive me,” and although Morocco urges her not to discriminate based on appearance (“Mislike me not for my complexion… / Bring me the fairest creature northward born… / And let us make incision for your love, / To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine”) she watches him go with a relieved comment: “Let all of his complexion choose me so.”
Portia lives in a mythical kingdom—“literally nowhere,” writes Bloom; “I take it to be the elaboration of men’s prayers; that best place which indicates the perfection which is unattainable in ordinary life.” In fact, it’s heaven, where each man faces a test of judgment. And that test of judgment is not arbitrary—each man chooses his own ultimate fate, and the consequences of that choice (like St. Peters’ judgment at the pearly gates) are permanent. Each suitor promises never to wed if he fails the test.
But Portia is actually unworthy to reign here until she learns to look past ornament. Her maid has to recall her to honor her father, at one point (“you should refuse to perform your father’s will, if you should refuse to accept him,” she says. (Here Portia, like Jessica, confronts the Fifth Commandment, but unlike Jessica, obeys it.). But then Portia overhears Bassanio’s deliberation over the caskets:
There is no vice so simple but assumes Some mark of virtue on his outward parts…. Look on beauty, And you shall see ‘tis purchased by the weight; Which therein works a miracle in nature, Making them lightest that wear most of it....
She says, after hearing this, that he has taught her an important lesson, describing herself as an “unlesson’d girl, unschool’d, unpractised,” but promising that she is
not yet so old But she may learn; happier than this, She is not bred so dull but she can learn….
It is after she’s learned this lesson that she offers to pay Antonio’s debt, sight unseen. “Of love,” she says “There must be needs a like proportion / Of lineaments, of manners and of spirit”—not a proportion of looks or appearance. And she decides that if Antonio is inwardly like Bassanio, she will help Antonio without a thought for his appearance or of any other particular detail. It is then that she dresses up, goes off to rescue Antonio in disguise, and, in one of the cleverest lines of the play, begins by asking,
Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?
This is otherwise a completely absurd question, but Portia has so given up reliance on mere appearances, that this silly line is a perfect symbol of her change. Alan Bloom has it backwards when he writes that Portia “goes off to Venice to save Antonio, not out of any principle of universal humanity, but because he is her husband’s friend…” No; it’s because Portia has learned to look behind the surface of things that she’s suited to help Antonio. But Bloom never mentions Bassanio’s deliberation, or the fact that Portia overhears it.
And in the trial scene, Portia works as a literal angel—a messenger from a mythical land of love, sent to render a kind of justice that is higher than Shylock’s mere reliance on the law. Shylock craves the law, but Portia knows that the letter killeth and the spirit giveth life. In this sense, the play is a marvelous critique of law. Shakespeare’s profound understanding of the law has often been pointed out, and one can see this play as an argument for equity over law. But that argument rests, in turn, on the fact that law can only see the act—the “ornament” as it were—while equity looks into the circumstances and motivations; into the “human” side of things. And, in Shakespeare’s Christian perspective, this also reflects a religious distinction. He views law not as wrong, but as inadequate. (“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.”) The trial scene, as Bloom notes, is a second crucifixion—almost. Antonio is actually eager for martyrdom; he admits openly that he’s in violation of the law, and he’s prepared like Jesus to give up his life to redeem the debt of his friend. Yet he is not truly Christlike. Christ blessed His persecutors, but Antonio prepares for the knife while cursing his.
This second crucifixion is averted, and the only reason that the play ends as a comedy instead of a tragedy is because of Portia’s gospel. That gospel is mercy—the quality that distinguishes equity from law, sees under the surface things, and redeems the law from being a killing letter. That is a doctrine of universal humanity, at least, in Shakespeare’s view. Antonio is not the hero of the play; Bassanio and Portia are. Bassanio has no history of being cruel to Shylock, and it is he who rejects ornament, giving Portia what she needs to become the rescuing messenger.