Merchant of Venice — of chains and triangles

This flm , or rather, this play, continues to reveal its structures….

This time around I’m interested in the contrast of chains and triangles — in human relations, that is. The events that drive Shakespeare’s narrative are acts and transactions. While Antonio does in fact lose his shirt on shipwrecked ventures, by and large the rest of the play’s events involve proclamations, promises, commitments, and various other speech acts and transactions. To wit:

–Portia is bound by her father’s will to marry he who chooses the right casket
–Antonio is bound to Shylock to repay 3,000 Ducats, or give up a pound of flesh
–Basanio is bound to Portia with a ring, that he has sworn never to lose, sell, or give away
–Basanio is bound to Antonio by his love, and by the debt to Shylock that Antonio has incurred on his behalf

There are more, but these are the key commitments that set up the structural fabric of the narrative. Now it’s a matter of what will occur when one of those commitments, Shylock’s demand for a pound of flesh as is his bond, is called in.

Here I think the substance of a verbal commitment, and the truth value (to borrow from Habermas), are at st(e)ak(e). Shylock “craves” the law for enforcement of his request. For certainly, he must invoke the State if he is to take a life, and do so rightfully and legally. His claim upon a pound of another man’s flesh, in other words, is a claim upon the authority, or right, to take it. And that can be validated only by the courts, where such rights as those involving credit and debt are regulated.

Other commitments, and note that the others are verbal (only Shylock received paper certifying his bond, and only Shylock goes before the courts) are validated differently. At stake there are the love commitments between Antonio/Basanio; Basanio/Portia; and less centrally, Shylock/his daughter Jessica and Basanio’s friend/Portia’s maid (names forgotten)…. Love commitments, while they find their way into courtrooms today, are a matter of the heart (but not of substance and flesh, rather beating and impassioned).

What guarantee is there for such a commitment? What is the substance of a proclamation of love, and what is its lodestone, or test?

We could head to Plato and talk qualities and values in terms of authenticity (is it pure love, as in pure gold, or a lesser, less authentic version (counterfeit))…. But I think what’s interesting here is that that is the metric used in the courts (where scales weigh the pound of flesh, the value having pecuniary equivalent).

In human relations it is not substance, but the third party, that provides the guarantee. It’s as if Shakespeare sees that if people are bound only to one another, we live only in pairs. And couplets alone cannot produce the harmonies that sing a society alive. We need triangles to ring the tone. A third party at the table, as witness or as participant.

This comes out in the play’s conclusion, in which Portia gives the ring to Antonio to give to Basanio as a guarantee of his (Basanio’s) love to her. As we’re all coupled, or involved in couples, triangulation builds webs and nets (as opposed to chains), and a society can be built on webs and nets. Triangles, when added to one another, weave a fabric, that fabric being a network based on the three, and not the two. It’s an additive, or conjunctive conjunction that adds bond upon bond, forcing commitments to travel and circulate, postponing endlessly their resolution… In cash economies, we resolve transactions in the exchange of commitments subject to the equivalence of money. In human “economies,” we defer resolution by displacement and involvement of a third. The bonds must be kept alive, for it is the binding, and not their value, that matters most.

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