By R S Perinbanayagam –
“Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best” ~ Otto von Bismarck
I had written this short essay some time ago and was not quite sure where to publish. After reading Prof.Laksiri Fernando’s recent essay “An Appeal To Tamil Political Leaders On The ‘New Constitution’” I have concluded it should appear in Colombo Telegraph.
Drama is founded on conflicts of one kind or another. It typically begins with the presentation of various characters who soon find themselves in a situation of conflict and as the drama precedes this conflict is developed and leads either to a resolution or to a tragedy. Insofar as drama is based in conflict, it is possible for others to learn something about conflict from various dramas.
One of the most sociologically interesting plays in the world of theater is Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Its focus is on the ethno religious conflict of western civilization: Jews versus Christians. In addition, it presents a crisis in European thought and culture about money and usury: the Catholic Church prohibited the lending of money at interest while the emerging trading circles among the Catholics needed credit for the conduct of their businesses. The coming of Protestantism eventually solved this problem – but the conflict between Jews and Christians endured.
In addition to these features about the play, there is another one that is of particular interest: the style and manner with which Shylock conducted his conflict with Bassanio and the cost he had to ultimately bear. If one considers the structure of the play as it develops, it will be seen that Shylock, from a position of moral strength from the very first movement of the play, to legal and political power and strength in the middle, ends up losing all.
In the opening movement, Shylock makes his famous speech declaiming the humiliations that he received from Antonio
Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances:
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,
For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gabardine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help:
Go to, then; you come to me, and you say
‘Shylock, we would have moneys:’ you say so;
You, that did void your rheum upon my beard
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Over your threshold: moneys is your suit
What should I say to you? Should I not say
‘Hath a dog money? is it possible
A cur can lend three thousand ducats?’ Or
Shall I bend low and in a bondman’s key,
With bated breath and whispering humbleness, Say this;
‘Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last;
You spurn’d me such a day; another time
You call’d me dog; and for these courtesies
I’ll lend you thus much moneys’?
Even at this juncture, Antonio the Christian is unrepentant: He says:
I am as like to call thee so again
To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.
Even in the midst of a monetary exchange — a transaction — Antonio’s attitudes remain true to type. He does not want the money transaction as one between friends, but as between enemies. Insofar as the transaction between enemies – tribal and personal –it was morally worthy of Shylock to ask for the extraordinary bond: no interest will be charged but if there is a default, a pound of flesh will be taken instead. The mythic associations of this are clear enough: allusion to human sacrifice, no doubt practiced in Judaic society at one time – vide the story of Abraham and Isaac and God’s command, etc. There is a nice symmetry between the overbearing arrogance, incivility and bigotry of Antonio’s attitude and Shylock’s exorbitant demand.
In what I will call the second movement of the play, Shylock is still on good ground: the bond has been forfeited and the sanctity of the law demands that it be fulfilled:
Shylock: An oath, an oath: I have an oath in heaven: Shall I lay perjury upon my soul? No, not for Venice.
The central episode here is the trial and it begins in an ironic note. The judge says to Antonio:
I am sorry for thee. Thou art come to face a strong adversary, an inhuman wretch; incapable of pity, void and empty of any dram of mercy.
Words that apply well, indeed better, to Antonio and his ilk for their treatment “The Jew”. It is here that the play reaches a fulcrum. Portia enters the courtroom as a lawyer and both she and Bassanio offer to pay double the money owed. What should Shylock do? What could he have done? He is after revenge for untold humiliations, not only against him, but against his tribe as well. He could demand the forfeit of the penalty and execute Antonio or he could relent now that his point has been made and take the money. The demands of tragic drama, the exigencies of character and situation created within the paly as well as the humiliations his people had suffered ensures that he rejects the money and opts for blood. In the end the Christians in turn do not show any mercy to the Jew: they deprive him of ducats, daughter and religion too by forcing him to become a Christian.
Where did Shylock go wrong? In summary, Shylock’s error was in demanding too much, so much more than the adversary can give. By asking for the pound of flesh, he was, in fact, seeking the death of his adversary for not so much as unpaid monetary debit but for a delayed payment. The issue at stake here is the want of proportionality the absence of a sense of necessary restraint and balance. In situations of conflicts of interest, as in political conflicts, players can ask for too much – too much recompense, too many rights, too much territory and too much contrition that either in the short run or long run, it can lead to problems down the line or even immediate disaster. The case of Shylock is a good example of these issues the conduct of the England, Germany and France after World War I is a good example too: It pauperized Germany, humiliated its citizens, undermined its social and monetary institutions etc eventually leading to the emergence of Hitler with his list of more exorbitant demands
Do these considerations apply to Sri Lanka? Are the Sinhala nationalists committing Shylock’s error or are the Tamil nationalists doing it? Or both segments committing this mutually destructive error? I will leave this question unanswered here and leave the matter to be pondered by the readers – at least the more intelligent, thoughtful and rational ones, of which there are some in this forum.