Aristotelian wealth and the sea of love: Shakespeare's synthesis of Greek phil osophy and Roman poetry in 'The Merchant of Venice.'
The sea of love: that Shakespeare was looking for ways in which the idea of the sea could be given importance is suggested by the accretion of so many sea stories from classical mythology. But these sea stories also turn out to have a great deal to do with bonds: with (broken) promises, bonds of obligation, and literal chains. That most obviously lying behind The Merchant of Venice is of Jason and the Golden Fleece which Ovid tells in Metamorphoses VII. Thus, having taken Brutus's Porcia out of Plutarch, Shakespeare introduces at least two sets of parallel lives, Jason and Bassanio and Portia and Medea. The literary and moral questions thus raised relate to how far these are real parallels. After all, Jason the adventurer became a byword for perfidy, as Medea did for revenge. Is, for example, Bassanio more interested in Portia's wealth than her character? Since, as we shall see, the relation between Bassanio and Portia is that of |phi~|iota~|lambda~|iota~|alpha~, we may ask whether Bassanio's affection is based on utility, pleasure, or virtue (or some combination of these).(25) And this is bound up with the question whether Bassanio's relation with Anthonio is based on virtue, since if Bassanio is virtuous it will show in all his friendships. An important clue is the permanence of Bassanio's friendship with Anthonio. For one of Aristotle's central arguments is that friendship based on virtue takes time to develop, and is therefore permanent as long as virtue lasts (Nic. Eth. VIII. iii. 6-9), but that friendships based on pleasure or utility are quickly formed and short-lived (VIII. iii. 3-5). As soon as Shakespeare makes Bassanio equate himself with one of the 'many Jasons' in quest of Portia he takes pains to stress Bassanio's virtue, here in his relation to Anthonio. Bassanio's basic virtue is sometimes lost sight of in critics' concern with his prodigality, so it is worth saying that when Shakespeare wanted to represent full-blown prodigality he did so unmistakably in Timon of Athens. Comparison with Timon clarifies the nature of Bassanio's friendships and the nature and extent of his prodigality. The relation of both plays to Aristotle can be summed up by saying that in The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare was concerned, for the most part, with lasting friendship based on virtue, and friendship on a small scale, whereas in Timon of Athens with transient friendship based on utility, and friendship on the larger scale (to do with political associations and the State).
Aristotle devoted a whole chapter (Nic. Eth. IX. vii) to discussing the psychology of creditor and debtor, parent and child, artist and benefactor in an attempt to explain why 'benefactors seem to love those whom they benefit more than those who have received benefits love those who have conferred them'; and at least part of the answer seems to be that we prefer to be in the 'nobler' or superior position of dispensing benefits than in the humbler position of receiving them and consequently being bound by obligation (cf. Nic. Eth. IX. vii. 5). Christian tradition encourages this loathness to receive (Acts 20: 35; Luke 6: 34-5). In Timon of Athens Shakespeare will suggest that Timon's lordly attempts to bind people who are not true friends by unsolicited gifts, almost as an insurance against future need, are grotesque and cause hypocritical gratitude and secret resentment. Putting people under unsolicited obligation, Shakespeare argues, does not lead to gratitude. Does voluntary obligation lead to gratitude--or, as in Jason's case, ingratitude? If even a proper sense of obligation is not quite the same as gratitude, the difference seems to be the felt constraint about obligation, the pressure of the ligature; whereas gratitude seems to be something spontaneous and given freely. In The Merchant of Venice Bassanio has to ask Anthonio for help, and this constitutes a loan, not a gift. Bassanio goes to Belmont to ask for Portia's hand in marriage; once this is settled in accordance with her father's wishes, and Anthonio's claims have to be urgently addressed, Portia responds to Bassanio's evident need. No one is just heaped with unsolicited gifts. Similarly, whereas Timon dishes out indiscriminate hospitality, Bassanio feasts his 'best esteemd acquaintance' (II. ii. 181). These are extremely significant differences: in The Merchant of Venice friendships are conducted according to justice. The real intimacy between Anthonio and Bassanio is swiftly indicated by the fact that Bassanio has promised to tell Anthonio about a 'secrete pilgrimage' that he has sworn to Portia (I. i. 120-1). Here are two promises, and we witness the intention to keep the second in the keeping of the first. Bassanio's word can be trusted. His request for a loan of money from his friend is preceded by a free acknowledgement that he has lived at 'a noble rate' beyond his 'faint meanes'. He is indebted already to Anthonio 'in money and in love'--the two are not the same, yet are closely associated, showing how the former could become a token for the latter--yet his 'cheefe care' is with justice: how 'to come fairely of from the great debts / wherein my time something too prodigally / Hath left me gagd . . . / How to get cleere of all the debts I owe' (I. i. 128-34, my emphases). This is not a man to whom debts, in addition to promises, are a matter of indifference. Anthonio acknowledges this:
I pray you good Bassanio let me know it, And if it stand as you your selfe still doe, within the eye of honour, be assurd My purse, my person, my extreamest meanes Lie all unlockt to your occasions.
(I. i. 135-9)
Renaissance views of friendship were influenced by Aristotle's question 'whether a friendship should or should not be broken off when the friends do not remain the same' (Nic. Eth. IX. iii. 1-4), and Anthonio's conditional reflects both this and the associated idea that friends whose friendship is based on virtue actually help each other to remain virtuous (Nic. Eth. IX. ix. 5-7, xii. 3). 'My extreamest meanes', with its daring pun on the notion of the mean lying between two extremes, is the earliest obvious indication of the play's indebtedness to Aristotle, and foreshadows its concern with extremity and moderation. Bassanio's request utilizes an extended analogy with archery, and this was Aristotle's favourite image for achieving (or missing) virtue on any specific occasion ('like archers having a target to aim at' (Nic. Eth. I. ii. 2; II. vi. 9, 13-14; VI. i. 1)):
In my schoole dayes, when I had lost one shaft, I shot his fellow of the selfe same flight The selfe same way, with more advised watch To finde the other forth, and by adventuring both, I oft found both.
I owe you much, and like a wilfull youth That which I owe is lost, but if you please To shoote another arrow that selfe way which you did shoote the first, I doe not doubt, As I will watch the ayme or to find both, or bring your latter hazzard bake againe, And thankfully rest debter for the first.
(I. i. 140-52)
Like Giannetto, Bassanio is asking for a second chance. But if this is 'adventuring', Bassanio's apologetic language is imbued with Christian and Aristotelian ideas of virtue: fairely, debts (with suggestions of 'sins'), and prodigall. Further, within the image of archery is the idea of losing and finding, or rather, of finding through losing ('by adventuring both, / I oft found both'), which expresses a paradox central to Christian doctrine. The same Christian paradoxes about the last being first and the base being exalted are also unobtrusively exemplified in Bassanio. This Jason is in quest of 'a Lady richly left'; but 'she is faire, and fairer then that word, / Of wondrous vertues' (I. i. 161-3), and faire resonates with the earlier use of fairely. In Ovid, Jason and the Argonauts are primarily interested in winning the Golden Fleece: 'Then . . . the heroic son of Aeson gained possession of the gold; proud of his booty, and carrying with him as a further spoil the author of his success, the champion reached the port of Iolcos with his wife' (Met. VII. 155-8). Whereas for Jason Medea is an unlooked-for further prize, Bassanio identifies the Golden Fleece with Portia herself (I. i. 169-70). This is a crucial moral difference. And since Shakespeare would have read Ovid in Latin, even if he also read Golding's translation, it is worth noticing Ovid's word-order and the untranslatable collocation of wife with port: 'victor . . . tetigit cum coniuge portus'.
The story of Jason and Medea explains why Bassanio addresses Portia as 'thrice faire Lady' when he comes through the casket-test (III. ii. 147). Jason had a threefold trial, and Medea is closely associated with Hecate, 'the threefold goddess' (Met. VII. 94-5). I argued earlier that Bassanio's image of the contest and prize was probably connected with Aristotle's image for those who 'act rightly'. But as so often with Shakespeare the image, and indeed the whole speech, are probably over-determined: there may be several reasons, and sources, for them. One of these is surely the fact that Jason wins 'shouts' of encouragement ('clamoribus', VII. 120) after the first part of his trial. But I want to argue that another sea-myth lies behind The Merchant of Venice, accounting for a further detail of Bassanio's 'prize speech'. Hecate, so Ovid tells us in the story of Jason and Medea, is 'Perseidos' (VII. 74), the daughter of Perse (or Perseis, in Greek |pi~|epsilon~|rho~|sigma~|eta~|iota~|sigma~;(26) whether or not in connection with this, the story of Perseus and Andromeda (the subject of a famous painting by Veronese) makes its way into the play in a strange and oblique but unmistakable manner: in the word snaky of Bassanio's 'those crisped snaky golden locks' (III. ii. 92). When Ovid tells the story of Perseus and Andromeda in Metamorphoses IV, Perseus has just succeeded in conquering the snaky-haired Gorgon, Medusa. He catches sight of Andromeda, bound by chains to a rock in the sea, and, falling in love with her, cries "'You are not worthy of such chains as these, but of those with which fond lovers are bound to each other'" (678-9). Like Portia, she stands for sacrifice. Her distraught parents promise Perseus their daughter in marriage if he can save her. When he is successful in rescuing her from the sea monster, 'a shout, with applause |cum plausu clamor~, fills the shores of the sea and the heavenly dwellings of the gods' (735-6, my emphasis). Perseus is greeted by Andromeda's parents as their son-in-law, and 'freed from her chains, the maiden comes forward, she who was both the prize and the cause |pretiumque et causa~ of his labour' (738-9). Perseus loses no time in claiming Andromeda, but takes her without a dowry (758). When Bassanio rejects the gold casket he is not behaving like Jason; he is much more like Perseus, for whom Andromeda was not a 'further spoil' but 'pretiumque et causa' of his action. And the 'shout, with applause' filling shores and heaven that greets Perseus is a far closer parallel than the shout that encourages Jason to Bassanio's image of himself 'Hearing applause and universall shoute' (III. ii. 144).
I said that 'those crisped snaky golden locks' alerts us to the fact that the Medusa-Perseus-Andromeda story must have been in Shakespeare's mind. Let us give Bassanio's words a little more context:
So may the outward showes be least themselves, The world is still deceav'd with ornament.
So are those crisped snaky golden locks which maketh such wanton gambols with the wind Upon supposed fairenes, often knowne To be the dowry of a second head, The scull that bred them in the Sepulcher. Thus ornament is but the guiled shore To a most dangerous sea: the beautious scarfe vailing an Indian beauty; In a word, The seeming truth which cunning times put on To intrap the wisest. Therefore then thou gaudy gold, Hard food for Midas, I will none of thee.
(III. ii. 73-102)
Just before Ovid tells the story of Perseus and Atlas he describes Juno's visit to the underworld to effect her plan of revenge on Ino; Juno summons the Sisters, daughters of Night, who 'were sitting before the locked adamantine gates of their prison |carceris~, and were combing black snakes from their hair' (IV. 453-4). Snaky locks, the chief distinguishing feature of the Furies, are associated with hell; and Ovid's word for hell here is 'prison', the gates of which are locked. There is therefore, in English, a double connection between locks and hell. Golding's translation always has haires or heare at this point. Shakespeare usually much prefers hair to the more artificial locks, but here he chooses locks--principally, I shall argue, so that Bassanio will reject the hellish (snaky) golden locks of the locked golden casket, unwittingly associating locks of hair with locks on caskets. Juno prevails on Tisiphone to drive Ino and Athamas mad, and Ino throws herself and her child over a cliff-top into the sea. There follows this locus classicus for the idea of the sea of love (along with Horace's Pyrrha Ode (I. 5)), with which compare Morocho's words:
But Venus, pitying the distress of her guiltless grand-daughter, thus coaxed her uncle: 'O god of the seas, whose allotted power is second only to heaven, great things indeed do I ask, O Neptune: take pity on my loved ones, whom you see being tossed in the Ionian deep, and add them to your gods! Some favour is due to me from the sea, at least if I was once fashioned in its divine depth from spray and my Greek name remains from that.' (Met. IV. 531-8)
The waterie Kingdome, whose ambitious head Spets in the face of heaven, is no barre To stop the forraine spirits, but they come as ore a brooke to see faire Portia.
(II. xii. 44-7, my emphasis)
Aphrodite, goddess of love, was said to have been born from the sea-foam (|alpha~|phi~|rho~|omicron~|sigma~), a myth which forms the subject of Botticelli's The Birth of Venus. When Bassanio rejects 'those crisped snaky golden locks', he rejects the deadly, hellish associations of false hair with 'The scull that bred them in the Sepulcher'. Scull has as its principal meaning 'skeleton of the head', and the idea of death combined with beauty is fused in Sepulcher with Shakespeare's pun on the Latin pulcher for 'beautiful', a cunning felicity buried by editors' printing of sepulchre. But the other meaning of scull, 'a boat propelled with a scull' (a kind of oar), is also activated by preceding images and by Bassanio's conclusion. For ornament has been discussed in relation to female beauty--false hair; but we have had 'cowards whose harts are all as false / As stayers of sand', 'wanton gambols with the wind', 'supposed fairenes', and, now, 'scull' (my emphases): the deception of appearances is at last summed up in the image of 'the guiled shore / To a most dangerous sea'.(27) But this is exactly how Horace describes the sea of love in the Pyrrha Ode (I. 5), glittering so fairly and favourably (and treacherously) in a gentle breeze, until the fickle wind (of Pyrrha's fancy) changes, and black gales and tempestuous seas cause misery and shipwreck. 'Supposed fairenes', because of its generality and the syntax of the lines (there is no comma in Q1 after wind (line 93)), can refer in Shakespeare, as in Horace, both to a woman and to the surface beauty and allure of the sea. Pyrrha's worth is supposedly 'golden', as is her hair ('flavam'). All Bassanio's ruminations lead him to dwell on the treacherous nature of false appearances, the unstaying and deadly nature of 'stayers of sand' (in connection with false hearts) and 'supposed fairenes' (in connection with false female beauty), leading up to the deceptive appearance of 'a most dangerous sea', just at the very moment of his choosing his wife, his port. But we know, by expectations aroused sequentially in the preceding scenes, that it is Anthonio who will be shipwrecked, not Bassanio, though it was Anthonio who earlier warned him 'O what a goodly out-side falshood hath' (I. iii. 103). The choice of casket is constantly described as a 'hazard' so that the sense of risk is never forgotten, not only the penalty attached to 'losing' but the risk of shipwreck (falseness, infidelity, broken bonds) on the sea of love.
The story Portia overtly alludes to at III. ii. 53-62, that of Hercules' rescue of Hesione from the sea-monster, has the strongest affinities with the story of Perseus's rescue of Andromeda, and both are impregnated with the idea of the sea of love. For the sea is dangerous for several reasons, literal, metaphorical and, now, mythical. There is Neptune. Ovid tells the story of Hercules and Hesione (Met. XI. 211-15) in much less detail than that of Perseus and Andromeda (no doubt a reason why Shakespeare turned also to the latter), because the point and interest of the story really lie elsewhere--not with Hesione but with Laomedon and Neptune. Nevertheless we learn that Hesione is chained to rocks as a sacrifice to a sea-monster, to punish the treachery of her father, Laomedon. Laomedon had bought the help of Apollo and Neptune in building the walls of Troy with a promise of a sum of gold, a promise he then broke ('seeming truth . . . / To intrap the wisest'). Enraged, Neptune took his revenge by flooding 'miserly Troy' (XI. 208) and demanding Hesione's sacrifice. Laomedon compounds his treachery by refusing Hercules his agreed reward of horses for rescuing Hesione. Like the story of Jason and Medea, then, it is one of broken promises. But Neptune is dangerous for a further reason. In our text 'snaky . . . locks' leads straight on to 'a most dangerous sea': at the end of Metamorphoses IV Perseus tells the story of Medusa (790-803), how (like Portia) she was once renowned for her beauty and had many suitors; and of all her features the most striking was her lovely hair. But Neptune robbed her of her virginity in the temple of Minerva, who punished her by changing her hair into snakes. If it is possible that Medusa and Medea were associated in Shakespeare's aural imagination, then we must argue that in rejecting the 'snaky golden locks' Bassanio not only rejects gold but also the underworld associations of both Medusa and Medea, and thus rescues 'thrice faire' Portia from a total identification with Medea. Bassanio would seem to be making a very fine distinction when he rejects 'crisped snaky golden locks' but confesses himself the lover of Portia, a Botticellian Venus whose 'sunny locks' Hang on her temples like a golden fleece' (I. i. 169-70). But, as the contrast between snaky and sunny betrays, the distinction is not simply that Portia's golden hair is her own and so a sign of genuineness: it is in fact a major distinction between the cold and dark underworld and the sun-warmed earth, between death and life. Given the use of temple for 'church' (II. i. 44), it is even possible that temples resonates of 'heaven'. But the price of Bassanio's reaching his safe port, his earthly 'heaven', or place of supreme happiness, is that Anthonio is plunged into shipwreck and debtors' prison ('hell'), there to be racked by 'griefes and losses' (III. iii. 32) until probable death.
I have argued that Bassanio is more like Perseus than Jason. But what about Portia and Medea? They have in common being bound by a father who imposes on men conditions which each daughter considers too harsh (Met. VII. 12-14; MV I. ii. 21-9). Portia, conversing with the sensible Nerrissa, seems more rational and self-restrained ('curbd', |epsilon~|gamma~|kappa~|rho~|alpha~|tau~|eta~|sigma~) than Medea, who, conversing with herself, seems at once more calculating and irrational, self-aware but unrestrained:
Medea: against my will, a new power weighs heavily upon me, and desire persuades me one way, reason another. I see the better, and I approve it; but I follow the worse. (VII. 19-21)
Medea's 'vision of righteousness, filial affection and modesty' (VII. 72) is overcome. She calculates that she can bind Jason to her with gratitude (VII. 46-8), and it is true that she does not give him unsolicited help. She will secure his fidelity by making him promise beforehand to marry her, and by his being indebted to her for his life. Jason is thus obliged to marry her since he does not break this promise. But Medea's mistrustful attitude brings about what she most fears. Like Shylocke, she refuses to risk loss; and just as everyone flees the bonds of Shylocke, so Jason flees Medea. Jason and Medea are not a good advertisement for marriages of obligation. By contrast, Portia does not help Bassanio; his own virtuous disposition (strengthened by virtuous friendships) is enough. But Bassanio's virtue can perhaps not be taken for granted until we have examined Portia's virtue and the nature of his choice.
Portia is first described in mythical as well as Plutarchian terms, suggesting that she is not a totally naturalistic creation. How then will her 'wondrous vertues' be presented? The opening of I. ii presents the clearest articulation of the whole Aristotelian nexus--happiness, virtue, the mean, choice, affection, and friendship--in all Shakespeare's works. Nerrissa's identifications of sickness with the extremes of 'too much' ('surfeite') and 'nothing' ('starve'), and of health, happiness, and long life with 'competencie' or 'the meane', can be traced throughout the Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle often draws a general analogy between the arts of medicine and ethics in that their variable subject-matter makes it necessary for individual judgement to operate in the particular circumstances of each case,(28) and a specific analogy between a healthy soul and healthy body (II. ii. 6). Portia's replies recall Medea's 'I see the better, and I approve it; but I follow the worse' but, in keeping with Porcia's reputation for philosophical learning, have in their stress on the importance of good action a much closer resemblance to a passage in the Nicomachean Ethics:
It is correct therefore to say that a man becomes just by doing just actions and temperate by doing temperate actions. . . . But the mass of mankind, instead of doing virtuous acts, have recourse to discussing virtue, and fancy that they are pursuing philosophy and that this will make them good men. In so doing they act like invalids who listen carefully to what the doctor says, but entirely neglect to carry out his prescriptions. That sort of philosophy will no more lead to a healthy state of soul than will the mode of treatment produce health of body. (II. iv. 5-6)
Portia admits to being one of those who find it easier to discuss virtue, and to know what the virtuous course of action is, than to put such knowledge into practice. Hence the difficulty of achieving the 'no meane happines'. There is, as I have already argued, a direct logical connection between Nerrissa's words about happiness and Portia's on virtuous action. Their conversation rests entirely on an understanding of the Nicomachean Ethics.(29) Aristotle is as much a ghostly authority and deviser of 'lawes for the blood' as Portia's father, and the play's connections between choice, affection, friendship, and justice will now be our chief concern.
'O mee the word choose': this word, in all parts of speech, is used fifty times in our play. The apparent 'lottrie', which Portia chooses to respect, has been 'devised' by Portia's father and will require deliberate choice in a suitor. In her belief that the suitor who makes the right choice will be the sort of person Portia can love, Nerrissa, in Q1 and F, does not combine choice and affection in the same person. It is the suitor who will choose, and it is Portia who will love (I. ii. 30-5). It goes without saving for Nerrissa that the man who makes the right choice will do so because he loves properly. The casket test will select the right man. Her faith is solidly founded in Aristotle, who introduces his examination with the statement that choice (|pi~|rho~|omicron~|alpha~|iota~|rho~|epsilon~|sigma~|iota~|sig ma~) 'appears to be intimately connected with virtue, and to afford a surer test of character ||tau~|alpha~|eta~|theta~|eta~~ than do our actions' (Nic. Eth. III. ii. 1, my emphasis). Aristotle defines choice thus: 'Perhaps we may define it as voluntary action preceded by deliberation, since choice involves reasoning and some process of thought. Indeed previous deliberation seems to be implied by the very term proaireton, which denotes something chosen before other things' (III. ii. 17). The most central change Shakespeare made to his source was of course the substitution of the casket test for Giannetto's three attempts to make love to the lady of Belmonte. In Il Pecorone it is not Giannetto's own nature but the advice of the maid which is finally responsible for his joyful marriage. By contrast, Shakespeare's three suitors and their deliberations provide substantial serious and comic commentaries on the nature of choice and its power to reveal moral character.
The choice of casket is repeatedly referred to as a 'lottrie'. This collocation of choice with chance seems puzzling until we recall the role of luck in moral virtue. From Portia's point of view the area of luck has been virtually eliminated; from that of the suitors, however, the choice has some connection with chance, because the outcome has been fixed in advance by Portia's father, and that much lies out of their control. The test further resembles a lottery in that there is a cost attached to entering it. Nevertheless, in a standard lottery a person has no control over the turning of the wheel and the picking of the ticket; here the chooser has much still within his control. The 'tickets' are not all blanks; the caskets 'speak' and therefore have a certain 'character'. There is left, in other words, in Shakespeare's 'lottrie' an area for trying, for individual effort. (Shakespeare chooses a spelling which the OED confines to the seventeenth century.)(30) Shakespeare uses the 'lottrie' as a way of revealing character, which is exactly what Aristotle defines choice to be. Those who are unsuccessful can claim that it was all pure chance--a game of dice, 'blind Fortune'--as Morocho does (II. i. passim). But, as Nussbaum points out, quoting Aristotle's Eudemian Ethics: "'Where there is most insight (nous) and reason (logos), there is the least luck; and where there is the most luck there is the least insight" (EE 1207a4-6).'(31) Bassanio is rewarded with the scroll, 'You that choose not by the view / Chaunce as faire, and choose as true.' The connection between chance and choice here appears to be that the right choice entails the willingness to assent to the pale commandment 'give and hazard' (II. vii. 16). To love is to hazard all.
Something has already been said about Bassanio's choice. His deliberation, as we have seen, is infused with the sea myths of Perseus and Medusa, and Hesione and Hercules, and the idea of the sea of love. Ovid recounted the story of Hesione and Hercules straight after that of Midas. The heroic allusions surrounding the act of choice suggest Shakespeare's intention to evoke its extreme difficulty, and the cost of failure; and for this reason the context implicitly activates the most famous story of Hercules: his choice between Virtue and Luxury.(32) Bassanio is the only suitor shown to be actively struggling to see and choose what is true and virtuous. Having associated 'snaky golden locks' with death, falseness, and folly ('Making them lightest that weare most of it'), he rejects 'thou gaudy gold, / Hard food for Midas'. Golden locks contains the tenuous logical hinge from hair to casket. And in addition to the fine distinction between 'snaky golden locks' and Portia's 'sunny locks', there is that between 'gaudy gold' (Latin gaudere 'to rejoice') and the 'joy' that Bassanio looks for as the 'consequence', and object, of his choice. Bassanio, the touchstone for pure gold, spends most of his speech rejecting gaudy appearances; silver is quickly dismissed along with gold as money, so that lead assumes the positive attributes of being dull and heavy. But Bassanio is thinking more of men and women than of metals. His entire speech is about threats and warnings: beware of traps, cunning, 'supposed fairenes', 'seeming truth'. Unsurprisingly, he feels an affinity with the threatening tone of lead. What is most striking is that he relies on a far stranger, more associative method of reasoning than Morocho or Arragon; its connections are far more deeply hidden beneath the verbal surface, and this suggests that they are made by way of feelings. His choice is the only one privileged by the accompaniment of music.
The concept of choice is obviously intimately tied up with friendship and love (|phi~|iota~|lambda~|iota~|alpha~) and happiness. The major choices depicted in the play are of husbands and wives, and those friendships which already obtain at the play's opening presuppose choice. Aristotle points out: 'Liking ||phi~|iota~|lambda~|eta~|sigma~|iota~|sigma~~ seems to be an emotion, friendship a fixed disposition, for liking can be felt even for inanimate things, but reciprocal liking involves deliberate choice, and this springs from a fixed disposition' (Nic. Eth. VIII. v. 5). Bassanio makes the right choice because he is motivated by love; he wins Portia only by being successful in a test of character. I have already suggested that his 'prize speech' is probably related to Aristotle's discussion of virtuous action. Aristotle's account of the relation between goodwill and friendship may also be helpful in capturing the dramatic flavour of this moment, its effect on the audience, and the combination of friendship and erotic love in the relations between Portia and Bassanio. Aristotle's |phi~|iota~|lambda~|iota~|alpha~ is quite a strong term, meaning an affection (|phi~|iota~|lambda~|eta~|sigma~|iota~|sigma~) that includes intensity and desire (|omicron~|rho~|epsilon~|xi~|iota~|sigma~) (IX. v. 1). Goodwill (|epsilon~|upsilon~|nu~|omicron~|iota~|alpha~) lacks intensity and desire; it does not require intimate acquaintance and
may spring up all of a sudden, as happens for instance in regard to the competitors in a contest; the spectators conceive goodwill and sympathy for them, though they would not actively assist them. . . .
Goodwill seems therefore to be the beginning of friendship, just as the pleasure of the eye is the beginning of love ||epsilon~|rho~|alpha~|nu~~. No one falls in love without first being charmed by beauty. . . . Similarly men cannot be friends without having conceived mutual goodwill. . . . Speaking generally, true goodwill is aroused by some kind of excellence or moral goodness: it springs up when one person thinks another beautiful or brave or the like, as in the case we mentioned of competitors in a contest. (Nic. Eth. IX. v. 2-4)
The stage and theatre audiences may be expected to entertain at the very least a feeling of goodwill towards Bassanio. There may be a great deal more than goodwill in the mutual feelings of Portia and Bassanio, but goodwill is the basis of their virtuous friendship. (Goodwill cannot be the basis of the sort of friendship whose motive is utility or pleasure (Nic. Eth. IX. v. 3).) In III. iv Lorenzo wilt praise Portia's understanding of the 'god-like amitie' between Bassanio and Anthonio, referring to Anthonio as 'a lover of my Lord your husband' (III. iv. 7). Portia's reply is a classic description of |phi~|iota~|lambda~|iota~|alpha~, under which she subsumes her relationship with Bassanio:
I never did repent for dooing good, nor shall not now: for in companions that doe converse and wast the time together, whose soules doe beare an egall yoke of love, there must be needes a like proportion of lyniaments, of manners, and of spirit; which makes me thinke that this Anthonio beeing the bosome lover of my Lord, must needes be like my Lord. If it be so, How little is the cost I have bestowed in purchasing the semblance of my soule; From out the state of hellish cruelty, This comes too neere the praising of my selfe, Therefore no more of it.
(III. iv. 10-23)
The emphasis on similarity, equality, and spending time together is thoroughly Aristotelian.(33) Lines 11-15 above are sufficiently general to refer either to herself and Bassanio, or to Bassanio and Anthonio. In any case the equation she makes between herself and Anthonio ('the semblance of my soule') relies on the unstated equation between herself and Bassanio. Lorenzo has been praising Anthonio; Portia implies a praise of Bassanio; she stops with 'This comes too neere the praising of my selfe'--not before illustrating Aristotle's observation that 'very intense friendship resembles self-regard' (IX. iv. 6). Unlike love (|epsilon~|rho~|omega~|sigma~), which is ex hypothesi felt for one person at a time, Aristotle's |phi~|iota~|lambda~|iota~|alpha~ is not excessive and can, if you are very lucky, be felt for more than one person at a time, though not, in its highest form, for many:
It is not possible to have many friends in the full meaning of the word friendship, any more than it is to be in love with many people at once (love indeed seems to be an excessive state of emotion, such as is naturally felt towards one person only); and it is not easy for the same person to like a number of people at once, nor indeed perhaps can good men be found in large numbers. (VIII. vi. 2)
Although Aristotle makes the relationship between a husband and wife the very foundation of human society he has very little to say about this type of |phi~|iota~|lambda~|iota~|alpha~.(34) Shakespeare uses no other word than 'love' for the relationship between Portia and Bassanio--
O love be moderate, allay thy extasie, In measure raine thy joy, scant this excesse, I feele too much thy blessing, make it lesse for feare I surfeit
(III. ii. 111-14)
--although the terms amity, friendship, and love are all used for the relationship between Bassanio and Anthonio. Portia's 'excesse' points to |epsilon~|rho~|omega~|sigma~, with these qualifications:
Portia. In termes of choyse I am not soly led By nice direction of a maydens eyes:
(II. i. 13-14)
You that choose not by the view Chaunce as faire, and choose as true.
(III. ii. 132-3)
The 'pleasure of the eye' may be the beginning of love; but as early as A Midsummer Night's Dream Shakespeare had wanted to say 'Love lookes not with the eyes, but with the minde' (I. i. 248). His view of the distinction between love and friendship is best clarified by means of contrastive imagery: friendship is pictured as 'the narrow Seas; the Goodwins . . . a very dangerous flat' whereas love is often pictured as a deep ocean:
Ros. O coz, coz, coz: my pretty little coz, that thou didst know how many fathome deepe I am in love: but it cannot bee sounded: my affection hath an unknowne bottome, like the Bay of Portugall. (AYL IV. i. 2111-14)
In the love celebrated between Portia and Bassanio at the moment of his choice there lies no danger of shipwreck. Portia speaks of 'love', 'extasie', 'joy', 'excesse', and 'blessing'; and she answers Bassanio's 'prize speech' with a wish that 'onely to stand high in your account, / I might in vertues, beauties, livings, friends / exceede account' (III. ii. 156-8). 'Vertues, beauties, livings, friends' lists virtually all the indispensable conditions of happiness which, as we have seen, Aristotle argued for in the Nicomachean Ethics, I. viii. 15-17; and at I. xii. 4 he noted that 'no one praises happiness as one praises justice, but we call it "a blessing", deeming it something higher and more divine than things we praise'. Portia counts her blessings:
happy in this, she is not yet so old but she may learne: happier then this, shee is not bred so dull but she can learne; happiest of all, is that her gentle spirit commits it selfe to yours to be directed, as from her Lord, her governour, her King.
(III. ii. 162-7, my emphases)
Strictly speaking, we do not witness the marriage of Portia and Bassanio--only this mutual, public and ceremonious declaration of love. Bassanio has won his prize to universal acclaim. Portia accordingly gives him her ring, and Bassanio replies with an image of public happiness:
Maddam, you have bereft me of all words, onely my blood speakes to you in my vaines, and there is such confusion in my powers, as after some oration fairely spoke by a beloved Prince, there doth appeare among the buzzing pleased multitude.
(III. ii. 177-82)
'Onely my blood speakes to you in my vaines': the concept of choice has led us directly to friendship, love, and happiness. We must now be concerned with the further connection between friendship and justice:
The objects and the personal relationships with which friendship is concerned appear . . . to be the same as those which are the sphere of justice. . . . wrong is increasingly serious in proportion as it is done to a nearer friend. . . . Similarly it is natural that the claims of justice also should increase with the nearness of the friendship, since friendship and justice exist between the same persons and are co-extensive in range. (Nic. Eth. VIII. ix. 1-3)
The claims of Bassanio's friendship with Anthonio follow hard upon his choice of Portia as his wife. With news of Anthonio's calamitous losses all Bassanio's 'wealth' turns to bankruptcy and debt:
Gentle Lady when I did first impart my love to you, I freely told you all the wealth I had ranne in my vaines, I was a gentleman, and then I told you true: and yet deere Lady rating my selfe at nothing, you shall see how much I was a Braggart.
. . . for indeede I have ingag'd my selfe to a deere friend, ingag'd my friend to his meere enemie to feede my meanes. Heere is a letter Lady, the paper as the body of my friend, and every word in it a gaping wound issuing life blood.
(III. ii. 255-69)
'I freely told you all the wealth I had / ranne in my vaines': Bassanio is free (|epsilon~|lambda~|epsilon~|upsilon~|theta~|epsilon~|rho~|iota~ |omicron~|sigma~), that is, 'a gentleman' (not a slave), liberal and without guile. Yet he is bound to Anthonio in emotional and financial indebtedness. As well as the obvious sense that Bassanio has no wealth except his life-blood ('birth' or inheritance) there is the suggestion that the wealth Anthonio lent Bassanio to enable him to woo Portia was given in the form of blood. Retrospectively, then, we can understand 'Onely my blood speakes to you in my vaines' in a different sense (emphasizing my) that makes it not strictly true. Anthonio, also once free, is now bound to Shylocke. Just as the Venetians own slaves, so Shylocke owns Anthonio's pound of flesh. It 'is deerely bought' (IV. i. 100): Shylocke has paid three thousand ducats for the pleasure of seing Anthonio 'bound' (I. iii. 9-10).
Anthonio's bondage can also be brought into the pattern of friendship in the play. At the outset the bond is said by Shylocke to be undertaken in a spirit of friendship: 'I would be friends with you, and have your love' (I. iii. 139); 'To buy his favour, I extend this friendship' (I. iii. 169). But this 'merry bond' is sealed with a notary and therefore becomes a legal agreement. The fascinating point here is that Aristotle stretches the term 'friendship' to cover just such a legal agreement:
It appears that, as justice is of two kinds, one unwritten and the other defined by law, so the friendship based on utility may be either moral or legal. . . . Such a connexion when on stated terms is one of the legal type, whether it be a purely business matter of exchange on the spot, or a more liberal accommodation for future repayment, though still with an agreement as to the quid pro quo; and in the latter case the obligation is clear and cannot cause dispute, though there is an element of friendliness in the delay allowed. . . . The moral type on the other hand is not based on stated terms, but the gift or other service is given as to a friend, although the giver expects to receive an equivalent or greater return, as though it had not been a free gift but a loan; and as he ends the relationship in a different spirit from that in which he began it, he will complain. (Nic. Eth. VIII. xiii. 5-6)
Shylocke's friendly bond combines the moral and legal types of friendship based on utility. Aristotle is very clear-sighted about the fact that 'a friendship whose motive is utility is liable to give rise to complaints' (VIII. xiii. 4), and is likely to be transient: 'A friendship based on utility dissolves as soon as its profit ceases; for the friends did not love each other, but what they got out of each other' (VIII. iv. 2). Even if Shylocke's 'friendship' did not appear from the start as a parody, there would appear to be an easy passage from friendship based on utility to hatred. His argument that Anthonio's flesh 'is deerely bought' is also a grotesque, unconscious parody of Portia's words to Bassanio as she promises him fairy-tale wealth with which to redeem Anthonio: 'since you are deere bought, I will love you deere' (III. ii. 315)--a formulation probably helped by Aristotle's comment on why benefactors love so much those they benefit: 'everybody loves a thing more if it has cost him trouble' (Nic. Eth. IX. vii. 7).
We have now outlined the discrete connections Aristotle made between friendship and affection, friendship and equality, friendship and reciprocity, reciprocity and justice, friendship and choice, and friendship and justice. It remains to observe those between justice (|delta~|iota~|kappa~|alpha~|iota~|omicron~|sigma~|upsilon~|nu~ |eta~) and equality (Nic. Eth. V. i. 6-11); and to note that Aristotle's discussion of justice is heavily indebted to the idea that the equal and the just are a mean (V. ii. 12-iii. 6), and that the judge is a middle term or mediator (V. iv. 7). But the question of justice, relating to a Christian and a Jew in the Rialto and a Venetian court, cannot be discussed in Aristotelian terms alone, although there is something in Aristotelian justice to please both parties.
Portia argues that justice alone is not enough, that mercy should 'season' justice (IV. i. 197). The quality of mercy is not often associated with Aristotle, but he does have |sigma~|upsilon~|gamma~|gamma~|nu~|omega~|mu~|eta~ (sympathy, lenience, forgiveness) and |pi~|rho~|alpha~|omicron~|tau~|eta~|sigma~ (gentleness); and his understanding of |phi~|iota~|lambda~|iota~|alpha~ would allow him to agree with Portia:
Even when travelling abroad one can observe that a natural affinity and friendship exist between man and man universally. . . . And if men are friends, there is no need of justice between them; whereas merely to be just is not enough--a feeling of friendship also is necessary. Indeed the highest form of justice seems to have an element of friendly feeling in it. (Nic. Eth. VIII. i. 3-4, my emphasis)
Portia argues that the quality of mercy 'is twise blest, / it blesseth him that gives, and him that takes' (IV. i. 186-7); here, too, Aristotle would agree: 'All excellence has a twofold effect on the thing to which it belongs: it not only renders the thing itself good, but it also causes it to perform its function well' (Nic. Eth. II. vi. 1). On the matter of usury, furthermore, Aristotle assuredly speaks on behalf of the Christians. Consider the celebrated argument from the Politics, I. iii. 23:
usury is most reasonably hated, because its gain comes from money itself and not from that for the sake of which money was invented. For money was brought into existence for the purpose of exchange, but interest increases the amount of the money itself (and this is the actual origin of the Greek word ||tau~|omicron~|kappa~|omicron~|sigma~~: offspring resembles parent, and interest is money born of money); consequently this form of the business of getting wealth is of all forms the most contrary to nature.
Shakespeare gives Anthonio an eloquent argument for friendship and against usury:
Yf thou wilt lend this money, lend it not As to thy friends, for when did friendship take A breede for barraine mettaile of his friend?
(I. iii. 133-5)
Breede strongly suggests that Shakespeare knew that the Greek word for interest was |tau~|omicron~|kappa~|omicron~|sigma~ ('offspring'), and the argument against usury, deployed by Aristotle, that it was unnatural to breed money from money. This knowledge would explain Shylocke's identification of his daughter with his ducats; and, because trade is not usury, the frequent use of miscarriage/miscarried for the loss of Anthonio's 'richly fraught' ships (II. viii. 15-30). Usury is instituted precisely to offset loss, and Shylocke justifies it with the story of Jacob's breeding sheep: 'This was a way to thrive, and he was blest: And thrift is blessing if men steale it not' (I. iii. 90-1). But Anthonio's questions, 'Was this inserted to make interrest good? / Or is your gold and silver ewes and rammes?' (I. iii. 95-6), pointedly raise Aristotle's objection. Shylocke's thrift and blessing show that he is using thrift in its double sense (like wealth) of material prosperity and spiritual happiness, as had Bassanio (I. i. 175-6). The spiritual meaning of thrift is well attested from Coverdale to Bunyan. Thrift could certainly also mean 'economical management . . .; frugality, saving', as in Hamlet's 'Thrift, thrift Horatio . . .' (Hamlet, I. ii. 368);(35) from this sense it could be used euphemistically for 'parsimony, niggardliness' (OED). Since Bassanio is liberal to a fault, we do not hear these overtones in his use of the word; but it is a different matter with Shylocke, who refers to Launcelet Gobbo as an 'unthriftie knave' (I. iii. 177) and whose illiberality in following the occupation of a money-lender would naturally be described by himself as thrift (as at I. iii. 51 and II. v. 55) and make him accuse those more liberal than himself of prodigality (as at II. v. 15 and III. i. 46).(36)
Shylocke's desire for revenge puts him for once in the company of Aristotle, who brought this desire under the banner of justice in the form of reciprocity: 'for men demand that they shall be able to requite evil with evil--if they cannot, they feel they are in the position of slaves,--and to repay good with good' (Nic. Eth. V. v. 6). So it is ironical that his outburst--he who has nothing but contempt for prodigality--
Nay, take my life and all, pardon not that, you take my house, when you doe take the prop that doth sustaine may house: you take my life when you doe take the meanes whereby I live
(IV. i. 374-7)
seems to spring directly from Aristotle's etymological definition of the prodigal (|alpha~|sigma~|omega~|tau~|omicron~|sigma~, 'not saved'): 'he who is ruined by his own agency is a hopeless case indeed, and to waste one's substance seems to be in a way to ruin oneself, inasmuch as wealth is the means of life' (Nic. Eth. IV. i. 5). In contriving against Anthonio's life, Shylocke incurs a very serious 'debt' and thus, in a way, ruins himself. Characteristically, he tries to turn the Duke's action of punishment into a mirror image of his own action of 'taking life'. But there is no symmetry here. Shylocke has used his wealth to trap others, Anthonio and Portia to enable them. The Christians in no way seek his life:
Duke. I pardon thee thy life before thou aske it: for halfe thy wealth, it is Anthonios, the other halfe comes to the generall state, which humblenes may drive unto a fine.
(IV. i. 369-72)
It is more than probable that this emphasis on half and halves goes back to Aristotle's discussion of justice and his derivation of |delta~|iota~|kappa~|alpha~|iota~|omicron~|nu~: 'Now the judge restores equality. . . . This is indeed the origin of the word dikaion (just): it means dicha (in half), as if one were to pronounce it dichaion; and a dikast (judge) is a dichast (halver)' (Nic. Eth. V. iv. 8-9). Shylocke is spared the fine, and his estate is divided equally between himself and Anthonio. He receives both Aristotelian justice and Christian mercy.
Happiness, pleasure, virtue, the mean, choice, equality, justice, and friendship: the last Act of The Merchant of Venice celebrates all these values. I have discussed how throughout the play the motifs of shipwreck and the sea of love stress the precariousness of emotional wealth or happiness. Anthonio's losses had threatened the happiness of all. Act IV saw Portia rescue Anthonio by unloosing his legal and emotional bond with Shylocke: Act V shows how far he is from being shipwrecked. When Portia restores Anthonio's 'wealth', she simultaneously releases Bassanio from a heavy burden of debt and symbolically assures Anthonio of the happiness of not being separated from his friend. Anthonio's response ('I am dumb?') echoes the emotional wealth implied in Bassanio's earlier 'Maddam, you have bereft me of all words' (III. ii. 177). All things have been added unto him. Delivering Anthonio from Shylocke and penury, she does not bind him, she requites him for his bounty to Bassanio, and thus delivers Bassanio into the bonds of marriage. ('I delivering you, am satisfied' (IV. i. 416) was spoken to both men.) Henceforth, the debts have been cancelled: '(Sweet Lady) you have given me life and lyving' (V. i. 286), a sentiment that might have been echoed by Shylocke. At the opening of the play Anthonio's friendship for Bassanio was neither unconditional nor unrequited, but it was unequal, for Bassanio owed Anthonio both money and love. Since Bassanio wanted to love Portia as well, the only way of equalizing Anthonio's love (and money) was to put Portia's love (and money) into the equation on Bassanio's side. This is why the ending of a play so concerned with balances, equality, and justice is so satisfactory, in that at last Anthonio's great gifts are properly weighted. Shylocke is not forgotten. Nerrissa addresses Lorenzo:
There doe I give to you and Jessica from the rich Jewe, a speciall deede of gift after his death, of all he dies possest of.
(V. i. 291-3)
The immediate context, and the argument of the whole play, secure the meaning of rich as 'blessed' or 'happy': most 'rich' in his 'deede of gift', most 'wealthy' in 'doing well'.
A play imbued with Aristotle, Ovid, and Horace, The Merchant of Venice differs from the later, 'classical' plays in dwelling, romantically, more on virtues than vices. It differs also in that Christian and classical moral ideas lie for the most part in harmonious combination, reinforcing not opposing each other. There is of course, furthermore, no disturbing anachronism in the presence of Aristotelian ethics in a Christian context, as there is when Christian ideas are invoked in plays with classical settings. The cultural and argumentative clash (between different conceptions of wealth, friendship, and justice) obtains in this play between Jew and Christian, not Christian and pagan. Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics are totally, one might even be tempted to say uncritically, absorbed, furnishing Shakespeare with his central moral concepts. What appears to be Shakespeare's uncritical absorption of Aristotle--as if he could take him for granted--may be just that, the reflection of a young man's enthusiastic imbibing of Aristotle in one long, deep draught; but Shakespeare was not so very young when he wrote The Merchant of Venice, and the appearances may be open to a different interpretation: namely, that there is a large overlap between Aristotelian and Christian ethics, and that Shakespeare was interested in exploring this overlap. If, then, in contrast to some later plays, The Merchant of Venice appears unproblematic, it has an intellectual and artistic refinement that has yet to be appreciated. Emrys Jones has rightly concluded that 'the Christian and the classical, the academic and the popular, are perpetually blended in Shakespeare'.(37) With The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare achieved a further synthesis of the philosophical and the poetic, a synthesis so dazzling that its component parts are with difficulty unpicked: a conceptual framework indebted to Aristotle, whom Shakespeare may have read in Greek; a story embodying Christian parables and Italian and English ideas of courtesy; and depths of poetry enriched by Ovidian myth and Horatian lyric to support the play's governing image of the sea of love.
25 |phi~|iota~|lambda~|iota~|alpha~: see Part I, n. 5. At certain points Aristotle draws |phi~|iota~|lambda~|iota~|alpha~ quite close to |epsilon~|rho~|omega~|sigma~: Nic. Eth. VIII. vi. 2; cf. IX. x. 5. Aristotle's description of the |phi~|iota~|lambda~|iota~|alpha~ between husband and wife gives full allowance to the sexual nature and purpose of the bond without using the word |epsilon~|rho~|omega~|sigma~ (sexual love, sexual desire) and taking care to say that the sexual purpose is not the only purpose of the bond (VIII. xii. 7). Presumably he thought that the best friendship (that based on virtue) could (but need not) include |epsilon~|rho~|omega~|sigma~ where it obtained between a man and a woman.
26 |eta~ |pi~|epsilon~|rho~|sigma~|eta~|iota~|sigma~, |pi~|epsilon~|rho~|sigma~|eta~|iota~|delta~|omicron~|sigma~ is also a name for a woman 'sprung from Perseus'. Golding (Ovid's Metamorphoses: The Arthur Golding Translation 1567, ed. John F. Nims (New York, 1965)) has Perseys (VII. 105) which Shakespeare may have identified with Perseus. Perse was the daughter of Oceanus.
27 Skull, 'the . . . skeleton of the head', could be written scul or scull at this time (OED, s.v. skull, 1|beta~). Scull, s|b.sup.1~ (also skull) 2, 'a sculling boat': the earliest witness OED gives for this sense of scull is 1611, Cotgrave's 'Napelette, a small skiffe, scull, or cocke-boate'. This proves that scull was in common use by 1611, and MV was composed about 14 years earlier. The probability that Shakespeare was glancing at scull as 'sculling boat' as early as MV is strengthened by the occurrence of 'scaling sculls' (V. v. 22, Q) and 'scaled sculs' (V. v. 3395, F) in Troilus and Cressida in a way that also, I believe, in the same context of sea and death, embraces both boats and skeletons.
28 Nic. Eth. I. vi. 16; II. ii. 3-6, iv. 6; III. v. 13-14, 22; V. ix. 15.
29 Happiness: Nic. Eth. I passim. Happiness and pleasure: VII. xiii. 2-3. Happiness and virtue: I. vii. 15, viii. 8-9, xiii. 1. Virtue: II. i. 4, ii. 1. Virtue and pleasure: I. viii. 10-13; II. iii. 1-6. Pleasure and choice: II. iii. 7. Choice and virtue: II. iv. 3, v. 3-4. Virtue as a mean: II. vi. 9-15.
30 On the status of MV Q1, see M. M. Mahood's edition (Cambridge, 1987), pp. 168-73.
31 Nussbaum, Fragility of Goodness, 318.
32 I owe this last point to Miss M. E. Hubbard. The story is told in Xenophon's Memorabilia, II. i. 21-34.
33 Similarity: Nic. Eth. VIII. i. 6, iii. 6. Equality: VIII. v. 5, vii. 2. Equality and similarity: VIII. viii. 5. Spending time together: VIII. v. 2; IX. ix. 10. Friend a second self: IX. iv. 5, ix. 10.
34 See Nic. Eth. VIII. x. 5, xi. 4, xii. 7-8; Politics, I. ii. 1. See n. 25 above.
35 Pace Mahood (n. 30 above) who states that 'the meaning "economy" is not found at the period' (I. i. 174 n.).
36 For usurers see Nic. Eth. IV. i. 40-4. For Aristotle's arguments on the disposition of each extreme type to push the mean nearer to the other see Nic. Eth. II. viii. 3.
37 Emrys Jones, The Origins of Shakespeare (Oxford, 1977), 266.
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|Author:||Wheater, Isabel la|
|Publication:||The Review of English Studies|
|Date:||Feb 1, 1993|
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