Monday, April 9, 2012

Beauty Is in the Eye – and the Context – of the Beholder

A mention of The Merchant of Venice makes everyone think immediately of Shylock and the pound of flesh. I like that part of the story as well as the next geek, but I enjoy other aspects even more.

For instance, I love the story told in the first half of the play about the three casks. The set-up is as contrived as it could possibly be. Portia’s father has died and left it in his will that she must marry the man who chooses correctly between three metal chests: one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. Those who try must swear never to woo any woman again if they fail nor to reveal which box they chose, and Portia has sworn herself never to reveal the solution and to abide by the outcome of the challenge. Of course the lead cask is the correct one, and of course the only suitor that Portia cares for chooses the right one. But I still like the story. It’s memorable, it reveals a lot about how the different suitors see Portia, and it demonstrates the mind of the father who could raise a sixteenth-century girl capable of entering a courtroom in disguise and winning a case without having gone to law school.

This play also contains what might be Shakepeare’s longest discourse on music. The character Lorenzo begins the passage by showing his beloved Jessica the stars and explaining to her that the spheres all contribute to a celestial harmony. Some medieval music theorists who discuss this music of the worlds explain that humans don’t hear it because we are inured to its constant sound. But Lorenzo offers a better theory when he says that we cannot hear heavenly music while our immortal souls are enclosed in “this muddy vesture of decay.” He goes on to note the power of music over wild animals and claims that
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils.
Portia, too, has several things to say about music. Where Lorenzo concentrates on music of the spheres and of the soul, however, Portia wants to talk about the music we hear every day. She is definitely not fit for treasons, and sure enough, she is greatly moved by the concord of sweet sounds. Portia notices, though, that music sounds even sweeter during the night. Her maid Nerissa theorizes that the nighttime silence that surrounds the music is the cause. What a beautiful and subtle thought, not only that the same person hears the same music differently depending on context, but also that the silence of the dark hours, which technically disappears when music fills the air, still has a presence in our minds as the frame for the musical picture.

Finally, this time through the play, I found special joy in its mention of the Rialto, since I was just in Venice two weeks ago and spent a lot of time around the Rialto bridge.

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