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A Fury in the Words:

Love and Embarrassment in Shakespeare's Venice

Harry Berger, Jr.

Publication Year: 2012

Shakespeare's two Venetian plays are dominated by the discourse of embarrassment. The Merchant of Venice is a comedy of embarrassment, and Othello is a tragedy of embarrassment. This nomenclature is admittedly anachronistic, because the term "embarrassment" didn't enter the language until the late seventeenth century. To embarrass is to make someone feel awkward or uncomfortable, humiliated or ashamed. Such feelings may respond to specific acts of criticism, blame, or accusation. "To embarrass" is literally to "embar": to put up a barrier or deny access. The bar of embarrassment may be raised by unpleasant experiences. It may also be raised when people are denied access to things, persons, and states of being they desire or to which they feel entitled. The Venetian plays represent embarrassment not merely as a condition but as a weapon and as the wound the weapon inflicts. Characters in The Merchant of Venice and Othello devote their energies to embarrassing one another. But even when the weapon is sheathed, it makes its presence felt, as when Desdemona means to praise Othello and express her love for him: "I saw Othello's visage in his mind" (1.3.253). This suggests, among other things, that she didn't see it in his face.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 1-6


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

This study has been brewing for a long time. I began to warm it up in the late 1960s, turned it off for a decade or two, and then decided to reheat it. But it wasn’t until the last two years that I actually put it back on the burner and let it finish percolating, partly in response to the encouragement of...

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Prologue: Language as Gesture

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pp. 1-16

“i understand a fury in your words, / But not the words.” So a perplexed Desdemona stubbornly resists acknowledging the obvious cause of her husband’s sarcasm in Act 4 Scene 2 of Othello. One of the criticheroes of my youth, Richard P. Blackmur, borrows her words in the titular essay of his 1952 collection...

Part One. Mercifixion in The Merchant of Venice: The Riches of Embarrassment

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pp. 16

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pp. 19-21

In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare spotlights shiny displays of self-sacrifice and gift giving. At the same time he lets the shadows of darker motives encroach on the glitter of those displays. The merchant Antonio borrows money from Shylock so that his young friend Bassanio can use it to...

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1. Negotiating the Bond

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pp. 21-22

No discussion of the play can proceed without taking into account the darker implications of Shylock’s bond discussed and impressively documented by James Shapiro in Shakespeare and the Jews. He shows that it was more than possible for Elizabethan audiences, who “were entertained with catalogues..

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2. Antonio’s Blues

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pp. 23-26

Let’s approach this problem by homing in on the play’s first speech, in which Antonio responds to the busybodies Salerio and Solanio. They have obviously just commented on his dejection...

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3 . Curiositas : the Two Sallies

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pp. 26-27

Solanio and Salerio are “the small fry of the Rialto,” as Lars Engle engagingly calls them.1 They appear together in four scenes (1.1, 2.4, 2.8, and 3.1).2 In Lawrence Danson’s fine characterization, “they may...

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4. Negative Usury and Thearts of Embarrassment

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pp. 28-29

Since Shylock is the play’s only usurer and moneylender, usury is marked as a Jewish practice. The Christians in the play “do never use it.” Antonio showily flouts the standard practice of usury: he gives more than he takes by taking...

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5. Negative Usury: Portia’sring Trick

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pp. 30-31

Poised with studied if anxious irony between the donor’s power and the victim’s plight, Portia mines the donor’s discourse of the gift more effectively than, say, Lear does in the self-pitying variations on “I gave you all” he aims at his thankless daughter Regan. Regan easily parries the blow: you took...

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6. Portia the Embarrasser

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pp. 32-36

Among the resources of embarrassment is the one we call, metaphorically and colloquially, castration. The play directly alludes to it three times, and commentaries tend to focus more on the ritual of circumcision than on the metaphorics...

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7. The archery of Embarrassment

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pp. 36-41

When Gratiano first addresses Antonio after the Sallies leave, his reaction echoes theirs: “You look unwell. You must worry too much about your business.” “No, no,” Antonio replies, “it’s just that my role on the world’s stage is to be sad” (1.1.73–79). Gratiano doesn’t buy that. He performs his own role...

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8. The First Jason

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pp. 41-44

The trouble with Bassanio has been soft-pedaled by calling him “a soldier of fortune”1 and “a kind of merchant-adventurer.”2 Part of what...

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9. A Note on Verse and Prose in act 1

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pp. 44-49

Portia’s opening complaint in 1.2 (“my little body is aweary of this great world”) threatens to echo Antonio’s blues but is immediately cut off by Nerissa’s “don’t complain, you’re doing fine.” Nerissa voices this in eloquent prose, but when...

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10. Another Jason

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pp. 50

Portia and Bassanio had seen and appraised each other before the play began. In 1.2, when Nerissa recalls the visit by “a Venetian, a scholar and soldier,” Portia excitedly responds, “Yes, yes, it was Bassanio,” but then catches herself, “—as I think, so was he called.” Nerissa encourages her: “He, of all...

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11. Portia Cheating

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pp. 51-54

By the time Bassanio makes his first visit to Belmont, Portia knows which casket is the money casket because the other two have been chosen and thereby identified. In earlier scenes, however, she made statements that suggest she may...

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12. Portia’s Hair

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pp. 55-56

When Bassanio first mentions Portia to Antonio, he mythologizes her “sunny locks” (1.1.169–72). But during the commonplace arguments that lead him to reject the gold casket, he says harsh things about...

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13. The Siege of Belmont

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pp. 56-58

Janet Adelman devotes a chapter of her remarkable study of Merchant to the representation in 2.2 of Shylock’s truant servant, Launcelot Gobbo. She asks why his “decision to leave Shylock” should be “so much more diffi cult, and so much more fraught with guilt, than Jessica’s.” Her answer is that..

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14. Covinous Casketeers

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pp. 59-61

In the 2004 film by Michael Radford, the homosexual bond between Bassanio and Antonio gets expeditiously sealed with a kiss well before the plot begins to heat up. That crude giveaway shows exactly what the play refuses to do. It reminds...

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15. Moonlit Maundering

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pp. 62-66

Jessica and Lorenzo first appear alone together near the end of 3.5. Given the problems inherent in her “would-be escape from her father’s Jewishness,” the tone of their conversation is surprisingly upbeat. 1 Nothing in 3.5 suggests that there is, has been, or will be any trouble between them. They exchange opinions and banter in playful intimacy. But the tone of their...

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16. Coigns of Vantage

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pp. 67-69

Portia’s gift to Bassanio is an act of self-protection “in a naughty world” (5.1.91). The ring is a something for nothing that she can transform into a weapon, or into a debt, whenever she finds it useful to disadvantage the donee. This lays the...

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17. Standing for Judgment

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pp. 69-73

Against any assertion or enactment of the stand for sacrifice, Shylock pits his Old Testament imperative. The Duke asks Shylock how he can “hope for mercy, rendering none,” and Shylock brushes that hope aside: “What judgment shall I dread . . .? . . . I stand for judgment” (4.1.89, 103). Jewishness would triumph...

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18. Standing for Sacrifice

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pp. 73-75

Antonio spends most of Act 4 Scene 1 preparing to stand for sacrifice: the Jew is hard-hearted and will not relent; make no more offers. “Let me have judgment and the Jew his will” (4.1.80–83). Shylock’s “I stand for judgment” oddly echoes Portia’s “I stand for sacrifice,” even as it pillories in advance...

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19. “Here is the Money”: Bassanio in the Bond Market

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pp. 76

During the courtroom scene, Bassanio offers five times to repay Antonio’s debt. Before Portia enters he threatens to give Shylock twice whatAntonio owes (4.1.84). He then restates and sweetens his offer four times in her presence, and each time she overrules him (4.1.206–19, 279–86, 316–19, 334–36). After his libertine generosity leads him to tender from two to ten times the sum and...

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20. Twilight in Belmont: Portia’s Ring Cycle

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pp. 77-79

None of this seems to matter in the glow of happy ending. But the glow is garish. Its forced brightness is the flush of embarrassment, which makes the Belmont night seem “but the daylight sick.” How else could the situation appear to Portia, who has to tolerate confessional treacle not only from Bassanio but also...

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21. Death in Venice

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pp. 79-84

The “stand for judgment” is a stand Shylock can’t sustain, a battle he can’t win, not because he is a villain or a clown but because he is caught in the deeper, more intense conflict between Portia and Antonio over the final disposition of Bassanio. He has let himself become the means by which, the target at which...

Part Two Three’s Company: Contaminated Intimacy in Othello

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pp. 85

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22. Prehistory in Othello

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pp. 87-100

The Tragedie of Othello the Moore of Venice targets the embarrassment of the middle-aged Moorish commander of the Venetian army who elopes with a young white woman just before the play begins. Desdemona is the daughter of a Venetian aristocrat, Brabantio. The elopement follows a period of courtship...

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23. Othello’s Embarrassment in 1.2 and 1.3

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pp. 100-109

Othello’s apparently impetuous act of elopement places him in a familiar contradiction. It is manly to overcome a virtuous woman’s resistance to your sexual advances. It is effeminate to succumb to your lust and hers. Both sides of the problem are implicit in the accusations Brabantio levels against Othello...

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24. Desdemona on Cyprus: Act 2 scene 1

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pp. 109-119

As the venue shifts from Venice to the tempest-tossed isle of Cyprus in 2.1, we learn that the storm has destroyed the Turkish fleet and separated the Venetian ships. One of those ships carries Cassio, another Othello, and a third Desdemona, Emilia, Iago, and Roderigo. Cassio enters first, followed by the...

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25. The Proclamation Scenes: Act 2 Scenes 2 and 3

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pp. 119-128

“Are you fast married?” Iago had asked Othello in their first conversation, and he still wonders in Act 2 whether Othello and Desdemona remain eligible for a prothalamion. The question is kept alive in 2.2 when Othello formalizes the shift from Mars to Venus by inviting everyone to celebrate not only the...

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26. Dark Triangles in 3.3

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pp. 129-141

The idea that Cassio should appeal for help to Desdemona (2.3.309–20) was first suggested by Iago. It was he who planned to make Emilia “move for Cassio to her mistress” and to arrange for Othello to find Cassio “Soliciting” Desdemona (2.3.378, 382–83).1 Act 3 opens with Cassio asking Othello’s Clown...

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27. Desdemona’s Greedy Ear

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pp. 141-149

If, as Cavell argues, Othello has a use for Iago in 3.3, we learn from the disclosure in the same scene that he has had a use for Cassio since before the beginning of the play. He seems to have used Cassio both to stir up Desdemona’s desire and to keep his own distance from it. He desires her desire but is troubled...

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28. Impertinent Trifling: Desdemona’s Handkerchief

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pp. 149-169

Too much attention has been paid to the symbolic meanings of the famous handkerchief and too little to such considerations as its putative size and the odd circumstances of its appearance and removal. Just when Othello’s rage has reached a first climax, Desdemona enters to tell him he is keeping his dinner and dinner guests waiting (3.3.283). “I am to blame,” he replies, and...

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29. On the Emilian Trail

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pp. 169-183

Othello and Desdemona are not alone in promoting the loss of the handkerchief. Someone else is complicit with them and makes it possible for them to capitalize on its loss later. In 3.3, after Iago has, as he...

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30. Iago’s Soliloquies

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pp. 183-200

In every act of utterance dramatic speakers give themselves to be heard or seen This implies that they represent themselves to themselves as well as to others and that they monitor these performances of themselves. They mark how their performances...

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31. Othello’s Infidelity

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pp. 201-212

In his powerful study of seventeenth-century attitudes toward adultery and adulteration, Michael Neill mentions: a widely circulated explanation for the existence of black peoples (available in both Leo Africanus and Hakluyt), blackness was originally visited upon the...

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32. The Fury in Their Words

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pp. 212

At the beginning of this study I referred to The Merchant of Venice and Othello as, respectively, a comedy and a tragedy of embarrassment. In associating our word embarrassment with the French verb embarrasser (“to obstruct or...

E-ISBN-13: 9780823246205
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823241941
Print-ISBN-10: 0823241947

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2012