Athena as Founder and Statesman in the “Eumenides” of Aeschylus

Posted Posted in Liberal Arts, Rhetoric

by John Alvis

University of Dallas

The Oresteia develops upon three levels: the theological, the political, and the ethical. The theological development moves from divisiveness among the gods to the consolidation of the rule of Zeus; the political development moves from Troy to Argos to Athens; and the ethical development moves from will without restraint, to will subject to responsibility, to self-rule fully responsible to religious, familial, and political obligations. 

The agency driving this threefold development is human effort in partnership with divine purpose. The Athena of the third play provides the executive, personal agent who, in founding a polity, gives over divine to human providence. The great question provoked by the trilogy is the question of assigning ultimate causality, since from beginning to end throughout the course of the trilogy we view human, divine, and physical agents all contributing something to the momentum and direction of plot in the three plays. Then, within the realm of human agency, we observe human beings acting in four modes, i.e. as individual characters, as characters strongly marked by male or female predisposition, as members of families with a familial history, and as citizens participating in particular polities with their particular constitutions and having, as well, distinct histories. 

To which of these agencies does Aeschylus seem to attribute the most decisive weight? To restate in philosophical terms, which of these intermingled agents emerges as the dominant efficient cause? Further, can we identify a final and a formal cause, a telos or purpose, and what of the formal means to achieving that purpose? My thesis: the efficient cause Aeschylus has conceived is human intelligence acting in the political mode, the final cause is the good life conceived as individual self-government, and the formal cause is the best political constitution combining legal and religious provisions supervised and maintained by a deliberative assembly. Finally, the idea of tempering or the analogy of weaving affords the key to imagining this coordination of causes. 

I propose to attempt an explanation of the foregoing synopsis by focusing upon the end of the trilogy examining the various actions of Athena in the final trial scene while from time to time reflecting back upon passages in the preceding action in The Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and the earlier portions of The Eumenides.

Public Trial by Jury as Political Refounding

In her conduct of the proceedings with which The Eumenides concludes, we perceive Athena simultaneously presiding over a trial and a founding, adjudicating a particular contention over justice while exemplifying principles of justice, of statecraft, and of constitution making. To do so requires that she attend throughout to the three dimensions of justice as these come to be recognized by a philosophical tradition most explicitly set forth by Aristotle. Athena must attend to justice in its retributive form. The question before her court is what retribution for matricide should befall Orestes. In addressing this issue Athena must also manage an issue of commutative justice. Can there be discovered a punishment for the matricide that in some respect equates with the punishment the plaintiffs demand yet substitutes for the capital punishment a retribution more in keeping with extenuating circumstances as well as accomplishing some positive good?     

These are considerations familiar in judicial litigation. Yet Athena also seeks equity in its third dimension, of distributive justice. Distributive justice pertains to allotting limited goods with respect to desert, goods identified with economic property, with honors, or with political offices. We see her intent upon exhibiting principles bearing upon distribution and actually inventing institutions—jury trial, as well as the Areopagus—to embody and secure the principles she has employed. We may even incline to say that Athena indicates more interest in the distributive than the retributive outcome, or to say that she uses the occasion for deciding retribution for the sake of the benefits she means to extend by her scheme of distribution, that is to say, by modeling a new constitution for the city named for her, thereby securing justice not just for the occasion but in perpetuity. (572) 

Both activities are novel in the context established by the preceding action of the trilogy. In this case the obvious is significant. Of the numerous conflicts between divinities, individual human beings, families, and cities not one has sought resolution in a trial at law. A legal contest requires a law subject to violation, a judge, and a proceeding by presentations of evidence and argumentation from both prosecution and defense. The first offense to which Aeschylus alludes—that of the first murderer Ixion—finds its issue in a summary judgment delivered by Zeus. But evidently this establishes no precedent for human beings in their dealings with crimes. Victims or the kinsmen of victims take retribution against the perpetrators of the crimes attributed to members of the family of Atreus. Atreus famously punishes Thyestes with the terrible banquet whereby the father is made to feed on the flesh of his sons. The surviving son assists Clytaemestra in the killing of Atreus’ son Agamemnon. Agamemnon’s son Orestes thereupon slays in private (i.e. within the royal domus) both Aegisthus and Clytaemestra. 

Between cities retribution is exacted in the same manner, namely, summarily and by force exerted by the victim or his kinsman (by both victim and brother with Menelaus and Agamemnon destroying Troy for the crime committed by Paris and abetted by Priam and his family). Among the gods as well there seem to be no trials. We infer Zeus deals with crimes committed by divinities in the same manner he had dealt with the human criminal, Ixion. (441) Nor are there trials when the offense is charged to a city and the offended parties are divinities— Troy the case in point, and perhaps Argos if we are to understand that the victors have offended the gods in the course of sacking Troy. 

Presumably, summary judgment by kings had also been the practice under Theseus and his successors in Athens. Since Athena mentions Theseus twice by name (402, 686) and records his battle with the Amazons in the second mention, Aeschylus adheres to the traditional accounts which credit Theseus with founding Athens by assembling tribes under his kingship. We must then consider Athena presently to be engaged in a refounding. What has happened to Athenian kingship we are not told. It appears that something on the order of the polis is to replace a government that had not differed from the unlimited kingship of Troy and Argos. But if Aeschylus understands polis more in the sense of a constitutional government, then this second founding he may deem more decisive than Theseus’s gathering of originally scattered tribes. It is more decisive in distinguishing this city from other sites of human habitation. For that we have Athena’s express declaration when she says of the judicial body she establishes: “If… you righteously fear an august body like this, you will have a bulwark to keep your land and city safe such as no one in the world has.” (700-702)

Jury Trial as Political Tempering

In any event, jury trials are consistent with the principle the classical polis serves in tempering the passions of the chief constituent elements of the urban population. The institution of public trials contributes to tempering the passions that drive private retribution for two reasons. First, deciding issues by trial entails elevating speech over inarticulate spasms of violence, and, second, action by trial introduces a wider perspective upon matters of contention. Not merely the loves and enmities within or between families, but the concerns of the city at large, enter into the decision. Even, as here, concerns extending to external relations with other nations may enter in. 

By contrast, although the welfare of all inhabitants of Troy and Argos had been affected by deeds committed within ruling families, the people at large had no voice in addressing these deeds. In the first two plays of the trilogy we see cities subjected to catastrophe emanating from the ruling family. But since the inhabitants of Troy and Argos are subjects, not citizens, they can only witness and await an outcome determined by others who neither consult them nor act with a view to the public welfare. The chorus of elders of The Agamemnon doubt that the war to regain Helen has a benefit to the public at all proportionate to the losses in lives suffered by the public. At moments the elders are disposed to act against Aegisthus and Clytaemestra, but they divide in their counsels because they cannot deliberate or take action through an institution designed for just such a purpose. Argos evidently has no public institutions that can oblige its royal family to consult those it governs. Agamemnon speaks of canvassing certain of the populace for information regarding the condition of his kingdom (Ag. 845-846), but his gesture does not proceed from a sense of constitutional obligation. Although in hesitating to tread on the costly fabrics Clytaemestra has spread before him he contrasts himself with a Priam he considers a barbarian despot, Agamemnon shows himself attentive to no more formal limits upon his unilateral authority than Priam had observed. 

Consequently, in addition to introducing judicial arbitration, Athena’s establishment of the Areopagus provides what has been lacking in the previously depicted regimes as well as what cities other than Athens continue to lack, a permanent institution to insure trials but also a permanent forum for public deliberation on all matters for which provision can be made by legislation. She conceives of this body of select elders as a sort of combination of Supreme Court and Senate, a guardian of the Athenian constitution, which she emphasizes by stating explicitly that it should sustain the old laws against innovations. Her imagery for this conservative function bears noting. “Do not,” she warns, “mix the clear water with mud.”(693) Not every mixing produces a tempering. A mixing that is a proper tempering combines opposites in such a way as to create a compound that adds strength to strength while diminishing the characteristic weaknesses of the constitutive elements. 

It seems Aeschylus through his Athena has advised a further tempering that addresses the fundamental problem besetting Athens during Aeschylus’s life, and the one most prominent in Aristotle’s analysis of constitutional tensions a century and a half later, namely, the problem of apportioning power arising from the competing claims of democrats and oligarchs. Aeschylus’s Athena, by instituting the Areopagus, delivers her city from subjugation to a ruling family and thereby elevates the public over the private. Nevertheless, she does not identify the public with the democratic, with the rule of the majority of freemen possessed of equal votes. She makes it clear that membership in her favored institution must be selective. But on what principles selective? If we go by the only criterion Athena mentions when she chooses the eleven jurors who will share with her judgment upon Orestes’s case, she says simply “men without fault” (475) and “the best from among my citizens.” (487) 

The division between the many and the few ordinarily gets expressed in the terms most visible to every eye: the many are the relatively poor, the few the relatively wealthy. Athena, however, in designating the “best” employs the alternative identification of the few, that which designates the aristocrats. She does not insist upon property qualifications as the oligarchs would, or upon equality as democratic partisans typically do. Moral and intellectual virtue without further prerequisites evidently suffice to qualify a citizen for membership in this select council. The implication may be that tempering the perennial opposition, pitting rich against poor, will either produce the best men as the only mediating element acceptable to both of the partisan interests, or will enable the better among the citizenry to side with one or the other party as justice may dictate. If this is a proper inference we can see that efficient and final cause of the best regime coalesce, that moral and intellectual virtue in those who make law and judge by law promotes in the citizenry such moral and intellectual strength as individual citizens are capable of attaining. 

Athena as Personified Political Prudence 

Besides these institutional provisions, Athena also says she intends her words and actions in presiding over the trial to illustrate justice in a complete form. Aeschylus thus puts the goddess on display as his chief exhibit of a mind at work in achieving a just resolution of contending interests. How does his Athena proceed? She proceeds first by an exhibition of self- control that distinguishes her from her fellow Olympian, Apollo. From Apollo’s reaction to his first sight of the Erinyes at the outset of the play we appreciate the good effect of Athena’s composure. Apollo had recoiled in disgust at first sight of the band of Furies, as had the priestess of his temple. Athena’s spontaneous reaction on their first appearance would have been the same had she not immediately checked her first aversion, (410-412) deciding on second thought to consider beyond appearances and greet them respectfully. 

The Furies will complain several times of what appears to be inveterate disdain expressed toward them by the younger gods who, the Furies protest, accompany loathing of their ugliness with disregard, if not ignorance, of the benefit the Furies provide. These vestiges of the oldest strata of divinity claim they function as a sort of cosmic sanitary service exercising a distasteful but indispensable function in punishing human crimes against blood kin. Though they spare the Olympians from having to take on this task they are unappreciated, indeed reviled, as they just experienced when Apollo wanted to eject their band from his temple precincts. Athena’s deference to them they receive as a novelty portending better prospects. They must regard Athena’s welcome as something momentous because apparently upon no other grounds do they assent to her assuming jurisdiction over the matter of arbitrating their dispute with Apollo over Orestes’s fate, this the second most astounding of their speeches. 

Athena’s discretion has made possible a revolution in the relations among gods and between gods and men. In the first place, divinities of both generations of gods—the ancient descendants of Night and the most recent Olympian generation—now become participants in a legal process to the outcome of which they submit themselves. Second, the more extraordinary of the revolutionary aspects, the divine litigants will in effect be subject to the judgment of human beings. That is the consequence of Athena’s unnecessarily associating herself with this first human jury to judge a homicide. 

We must add that her arrangement includes submitting herself to human judgment since (unless she counts on some unannounced management of the ballots) she cannot depend upon the tie vote that does eventuate. When one thinks through the implications one realizes Athena has contrived a reapportionment of power between men and gods in its magnitude of consequence comparable to that following upon the technological revolution Aeschylus ascribes to Prometheus’s gift to mankind of Zeus’s fire. Neither the Furies nor Apollo give their consent from motives of philanthropy. Both parties think they serve their respective self-interest and are quite disposed to ensure the desired outcome by threats and bribes. Not until the conclusion of the trial, if even then, will they be aware of the consequences they will have assisted in producing by conferring their prior consent. 

But such is the nature of statesmanship. The wise statesman makes use of partisan interests and partisan short-sightedness in order, by tempering partisan views, to arrive at non-partisan justice. Whether Athena herself works from partisan self-interest—she obviously benefits from Athenian alliance with Argos— depends upon how Aeschylus estimates Athenian contributions to mankind as distinct from her favor to Athens. 

Here I must interrupt this account of Athena’s statesmanship and founding in order to note a problem familiar to everyone who attempts to grasp how the Greek poets regard their portrayal of gods. The poets insist upon the personal character of the divinities they represent in speeches and deeds. These same poets insist equally upon the modalities embodied in the various divine persons they depict, their association, or indeed identification, with features of nature—earth, sky, sea—or of human nature, sexual desire, warfare, technology, prudence, music, and so forth. From our attempts to understand poetic theology problems arise for discerning just how to adjust instance by instance this bifocal presentation. 

In the matter of the trial scene of The Eumenides one baulks at accepting as credible the idea of divine persons acquiescing to a proposal that human persons similarly situated would be likely to reject, or, having once unthinkingly accepted would be unlikely to honor once the consequences of assenting had become clear. Much easier to accept is a generalized proposition looking only to modalities: kinship bonds are strong, beneficial for the weak young and the weak old (the Furies’ strong suit), yet they are beneficial only as part of a whole and thus subject to regulation with a view to the whole. Obligations incurred in contractual marriages are beneficial to man and ought to be respected, in some circumstances should be honored even at expense of obligations incident to kinship, Apollo’s brief. But these more voluntarily assumed bonds also ought to give way to adjustment by reference to an entire field of obligations. 

Perhaps the resolution to this problem consists in observing that the Aeschylean gods need not conform to probabilities attached to human persons because they are images of persons only in quite a restricted sense. Excepting Athena the Aeschylean gods are images of minds and wills so reduced in complexity that should we encounter human beings of such character we would consider them inhumanly simple, one-track consciousnesses, even specimens of what another era will term neurotics. An actual human being displays a variety of dispositions, affinities, projects, and obligations. You could say an individual human being resembles an arena in which various “gods” contend for a prize consisting in seizing that temporary priority of allegiance which from case to case, moment to moment, determines the human being to choice and action. 

The gods are to be conceived as more monolithic. Nothing puts them at variance with themselves. Hence they behave in the manner of partisans who must be governed by intelligences that can recognize the partisan, the one-track-minded, as such. In Homer and Hesiod that co-ordinating intelligence is Zeus. The intelligence capable of such understanding of the partial by reference to the whole can experience dilemma. Among gods given stage presence, only Athena is shown to reflect upon the sort of dilemma that human beings experience all the time, and which previously in the trilogy Agamemnon, then Orestes experiences in the acute form we recognize as tragic. The chorus of The Agamemnon as well as the chorus of slave women in The Libation Bearers confront dilemma in a form distressing enough though not so acute as that of the King and his son, both divided as they are between obligations of blood and what they suppose to be political obligations. 

Apart from Athena, we see the gods provoke dilemmas they do not themselves experience as such. Artemis cherishes the young and reacts to the rending of the pregnant hare signifying the destruction of Trojan children by becalming the fleet. But it is left to Agamemnon to agonize over the conflicting emotions occasioned by Artemis’ requiring Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his own young daughter if he would get his ships underway to exact retribution upon Troy. Artemis will not agonize over requiring destruction of the young in her resentment of destruction of the young. Orestes must debate with himself over slaying one parent to avenge the other, but Apollo so depreciates the female “on principle” that he will not admit that claims of motherhood usually better grounded than in the case of Orestes’ mother should weigh upon deciding Orestes’ case. Then of course the Furies can boast, truthfully, of providing for family cohesion yet are unaware that by depreciating marriage unions, the Furies themselves would actually undermine the integrity of the family. Again like their opponent Apollo, on their own insufficient notion of “principle,” the Furies, if they prevail, will strike against the very institution that enables awareness of blood relation. Athena must perceive what they do not, that blood relations depend upon the political institution of wedlock between a man and woman of different blood. 

To this point I have neglected to treat the particular issue that must be adjudicated in the trial: what to do with the confessed homicide, Orestes. That is because Aeschylus has so designed his trilogy that we can see the case does not allow of the sort of determination one expects in a proper trial. A proper trial would have to determine whether the killing was a justifiable homicide. This trial does not address the issue. It can’t address the issue because the necessary evidence is unavailable. There are no witnesses to the deed. Aeschylus’s audience has witnessed a deed that no participant in the trial except Orestes has observed. If Athena had observed the confrontation between matricide and mother she declines to make the fact known. If the prompt appearance of the Furies to Orestes upon his committing the deed implies their presence at the moment of Clytaemestra’s death, the Furies do not now perceive the importance of bringing forward the circumstances. 

So, as members of an audience we find ourselves in the interesting position of knowing more than anyone on stage knows as well as of apprehending the pertinence of that knowledge. Itemizing what we know of the circumstances may lead us to conclude that a verdict in favor of Orestes is at best problematic. We know that Orestes slays his mother only after he has destroyed Aegisthus who commanded the palace guards. From the message delivered by a servant that informed her of the killing of Aesgisthus, Clytaemestra had called for “an axe to kill a man” (889), the audience knows the mother means to kill her son. Yet Orestes does not hear that report, and Clytemaestra confronts her son alone, without the axe she had called for. In any event, Orestes had felt himself compelled to pause before striking and ask Pylades whether he should strike. (900-901) Need he kill his mother? 

I am supposing that even knowing as much as we have been given of circumstance, we as audience do not know enough to judge. Aware of this persisting uncertainty we are disposed to accept Athena’s casting vote for acquittal and give Orestes the benefit of the doubt because Orestes has demonstrated a compunction superior to the narrow perspectives of both his opponents and his partisan Apollo, then attested compunction in a practical manner by undergoing numerous purification rituals. Just as important, or more so, Argos needs a ruler. In acquitting, Athena consults a more comprehensive distributive justice recognizing that uncertainty prevents a more exacting retributive settlement. But she also arranges thereby to demonstrate another benefit Athenians will enjoy from the institution of trials. At least within her city, future trials of crimes can have better prospects of determining circumstances pertinent to arriving at fair retributive judgments. Trials within the vicinage of the indicted will have the advantage of better discovery and information.

Athena as Reconciler of Law and Piety, State and Family

To complete this examination of Athena’s statecraft, we can consider its second installment whereby she seeks to appease the Furies. As she had in the first installment Athena accompanies her ostensible effort to appease with a further project of constitution making. This time she directs her founding activity to concerns combining the political and the religious. 

Once the acquitted Orestes departs in company with his advocate Apollo, the Furies vent their outrage and threaten reprisals. Notable in respect of their repeated threats is that they envision consequences for the most part “natural” to the course of human affairs, not sensational, as would certify divine agency. That is to say, the reprisals would occur without any positive action on the part of these supernatural agents. The bad prospects the Furies foretell for Athens will follow as a matter of course from the bad precedent set by the acquittal. Partisan zeal for kinship pieties now gives way to partisan despair over the likelihood of preserving the kind of piety that favors the old. Parents can expect no reverence from their children. The children will abuse the weakened fathers and mothers to the general ruin of everyone. 

Athena responds in such a way as to indicate that she neither expects the result the Furies anticipate nor intends to go beyond a certain point toward appeasement. She reminds them, or at any rate claims, that in having at her disposal the thunderbolts of Zeus she can suppress by force if need be. (826-82) Political life differs from such other modes of human interaction as commerce or friendship in that it necessarily acts by means of the sovereign’s monopoly upon coercion. That reminder is salutary for citizens whether the Furies credit Athena’s declaration or not. 

On the other hand, Athena’s persistence in seeking to pacify the Furies indicates she tempers reliance on force with an intent to placate founded on appreciation of the partial wisdom underlying the partisan exaggeration. She seems to credit the losers with an imperfect sense of moral probabilities she can adjust to more reasonable dimensions. Athena looks to a perennial necessity in order to make from her present act of diplomacy an enduring institution devised to accomplish an enduring alliance between the city and parents. The best constitution requires parental authority to accomplish what the laws cannot, chiefly to transmit to children who will become citizens the habituation in law- abidingness which the parents acquire by living under laws applicable directly only to adults. 

Athena co-opts the Furies by giving them a cave and a cult. Their new habitation is well considered. Daughters of ancient Night, they like the dark. Pacified or not, they will retain their fearsomely uncouth appearance, so to assign them precincts underground will spare citizen sensibilities while keeping the Furies close enough to instill wholesome dread. Yet they will exert their influence from a distance sufficient to prevent gerontocracy. The older generations will receive due respect but not to the extent Kronos thought he could assume when he devoured his offspring. The principle: children are to be reared with a view to their being citizens in the making, not with a view to their functioning as property at the disposal of parents. 

As contrivance, the subterranean temple is clever enough, but it might prove inert without the cult Athena also takes care to establish. With Athena’s introduction of a cult in reverence for the Furies, the trilogy moves from theology (study in the nature of the gods) to religion, (public observances in honor of gods). Religious practice promises, however, profoundly to affect Athenians’ conception of their gods and even to effect changes in the conduct of gods toward human beings. Like Prometheus’s innovations in sacrifices and like Athena’s previous judicial and legislative provisions the cult will produce a revolution in divine-human relations. I suggest that a consideration of the features specified for the cult will support this contention.     

This time although Athena repeats the courteous mode of address effective earlier, so intense is the Furies’ outrage that they can only voice it in two identical strophes combining half articulate protests with spluttering noises. When at last they subside sufficiently to take note of what Athena has twice offered them they respond favorably, first, to its novelty. Belatedly the sisterhood realizes Athena has promised them a local and honorable habitation. And she has assured a publicly accessible place situated near the public site for Athena’s own worship. The Furies realize one of the chief of the younger gods has finally appreciated their previously despised prerogatives. Their gratitude for this honor appears warm enough to cause them to overlook the consequence that being housed they are thereby confined. 

In addition to enjoying the new deference accorded them by an Olympian, perhaps the Furies can afford to accept confinement because the cult ensures them of wider, more dependable, and more enduring honors to be had from the Athenian citizenry. Hitherto such honors as have come their way have had their source in individuals like Clytemaestra or Electra who for their momentary need dispense their sacrifices out of the relatively restricted means of households. The Furies can anticipate more ample and more punctual rites of deference. For the first time the sorority has cause to perceive its self-interest is bound up with the safety and prosperity of a city. 

Athena’s appreciation of the benefits to be had from this new alliance presumably accounts for her extravagant expectations for Athens’ future. She anticipates the Furies will not merely secure parental piety but will operate to inspire patriotism. She prays the sisters will act upon the citizenry to make them spirited, yet public-spirited, not clannish. Athena would have her citizens resemble game-cocks, reputedly so aggressive that the sons would fight sires. She wants her people not to fight their fathers, of course, but to direct that game-cock temper against the city’s enemies. Athena wants a warlike people. She wants frequent wars and indicates no concern to restrict war to just defense. Yet she does not commission Athenians to assemble an empire. One can imagine that as she had shown herself aware of one stern fact of politics when she had earlier alluded to the city’s resource of coercion she now recognizes another. 

Whatever other provisions for citizen solidarity may assist, nothing so effectively consolidates citizens as their putting aside competition with one another to mount campaigns against a common enemy. Athena trusts she can make her revised cult serve this practical political purpose. Yet on the basis of their argument during the trial one had supposed the Furies were concerned exclusively with vengeance upon crimes against blood kin. Now, in other respects as well, the Furies appear to expand their field of operation. Once won over to Athena they begin to speak of their intent to contribute to the territory’s agriculture, to good weather, to the fertility of Athenian wombs. (956-960) This seems to be too much of a good thing. Does Athena expect the Furies to alter, redirect, or somehow adapt to political needs their very modality? This after Aeschylus has accustomed us to think of a difference between human beings and gods as the inflexible adherence of the particular gods to their particular ordained spheres of action? 

Consider the following solution. First, we are not to suppose the Furies now reveal an expanded range of modalities previously concealed. They do not suddenly disclose they have direct management of agricultural and human fertility. Rather we should understand their assurances of bounty as hyperbolically asserted predictions of the effects of human effort once Athenians respond to Athena’s new constitution of which the Furies are now a part. The new cult will engage the Furies in their old modality of fostering well-knit families through their ministry of fear. The benefits accrue in successful cultivation of the land and in procreating many children and raising them well. Athenians then make better use of whatever good weather befalls them and can better mitigate the losses inflicted by bad weather. Second, the Furies doubtlessly consider such benefits owed to themselves, whereas Aeschylus instructs us they follow from an intelligent statesmanship that makes use of the Furies and of the family affections with which the Furies are associated. Athena makes use in the sense of allying with the Furies while also subordinating and limiting their authority. That means she also subordinates and limits the authority of the family and the affections and disaffections the family generates. She means to mix family affections with civic attachments and thus temper and redirect the former for the sake of the latter. 

If this is how we should understand what occurs in the second installment of Athena’s constitution making, are we not led to the conclusion that what Athena has accomplished with respect to the Furies could be duplicated with respect to the entire panoply of divinities presented in the trilogy? From the outset the various gods and goddesses have been at odds among themselves whether in regard to oppositions connected with Troy or with respect to conflict in Argos, and in the trial at Athens. These oppositions pitting divinity against divinity mirror the oppositions between human beings. In every opposition we here observe there is something to be said for each of the contesting parties and something against each. That is because, whether they be human or divine, all the contestants act from a conception of justice but from a partial conception thereof, and the partiality of their conceptions owes in the human contestants to their very characters, while in the divinities to the very modalities which are the divine equivalents of characters. 

A complete political constitution would incorporate a religion which looks to honoring the various gods in proportion to their place within the whole. This would accord with laws and constitutional provisions that aim to distribute honors to citizens in proportion to their contribution to the well-being of the city. Zeus, never appearing though constantly mentioned, seems to stand for attainment of a justice not partial. But the Zeus of Aeschylus never deals directly with human beings. Zeus may be Aeschylus’ conception of a standard of justice never attained, or it may be we are supposed to believe Athena’s claim to act as her Father’s plenary representative. The final words of The Eumenides do seem to endorse her claim since they declare that “Zeus and Moira are at last reconciled.” Moira can be translated as “Fate” or “the Fates,” a divinity also, like the Furies, the offspring of the Mother Night. But, alternatively, Moira can be translated as “Portion,” as the word is employed when one means to indicate distributive justice, all receiving their proper portion or treated in proportion to their deserts.

Athena, Mistress of Political Weaving

I save for last what strikes me as the most extraordinary feature of Aeschylus’ presentation of the Furies. The Furies urge upon the citizens of Athens the principle they state as a warning: “Refuse the life of anarchy; /refuse the life devoted/ to one master.” (525-527) One hears their prescription with astonishment, not for what it says but because it is they who say it. Not for what it enjoins because soon thereafter Athena herself abjures her citizens with almost identical words: “No anarchy, no rule of a single master.”(696) Indeed the prescription expresses succinctly all that Athena has done as judge and founding statesman. For that matter it expresses the perennially sound political sense one recognizes, for instance, in Madison’s reduction of government to the twofold purpose of giving to government sufficient authority to protect the rights of citizens from one another while seeking to enable those who govern so to rule themselves such that they do not themselves violate those rights. 

Yet for the Furies to command such wisdom must surprise us, and for two reasons. First, neither from what anyone previously in the trilogy has said nor from what the Furies say of themselves in this play would one suppose they concern themselves with politics. They have previously manifested themselves only as agents of retribution for crimes perpetrated against blood kindred, and, in reply to Orestes they say they had not tormented Clytaemestra because the murderess had not been bound by blood to the husband she killed. (605) Does it suffice to say that Athena has induced the Furies to reconceive themselves simply as result of her arranging a change in setting and forum: they find themselves in a public place rather than in a house, and must address a forum composed of men not kinsmen? 

Second, Athena has maintained throughout the trial scene and thereafter in her diplomatic effort to placate the Furies that she obeys Zeus in all she does. Yet there has been hitherto no indication that Zeus employs the Furies in executing his justice. From Hesiod’s account in the Theogony, we would incline to think Zeus would not approve Athena’s overture since Hesiod keeps strictly separate the line of gods descended from Earth and Sky from the line descended from Mother Night. Hesiod’s Zeus makes two marriages from alliance with goddesses beyond his generation as well as sexual connections other than marriage. But his miscegenation never extends to Nyx or her progeny. In the Eumenides Apollo bespeaks the resolute antipathy we expect from Olympians and from Zeus. 

If Aeschylus otherwise operates from the same assumption we must conclude he imagines Athena so far departs from it that, for the sake of the constitution she is fashioning, she will break ranks and perhaps break with her father. Perhaps she does so because she identifies the beautiful with the useful more than does Zeus who in his alliances with females requires beauty in its erotic aspect whereas virgin Athena, as she says, does not. (737) Or perhaps we are to infer that Athena would deny she departs from the precedent set by Zeus, that in fact she has merely extended the scope of Zeus’s strategy of alliance and co-optation. To found Olympus Zeus had required no mingling with the aesthetically obnoxious branch of the gods. But human beings are in their corruptible natures closer to the children of night as well as more distant from Olympians subject to Zeus’s management on Olympus exercised near at hand and without intermediaries. Thus Athena would act in accord with her father’s example, only accommodating his art to the less receptive human material it must work upon. 

The principle Zeus observes in Hesiod’s account of his statesmanship is the principle guiding Athena in her work upon Athens. It is the principle of weaving. In addition to her connections with prudence and intelligent conduct of war Athena is patroness of the craft which creates strength in fabric by crossing the strands of the warp with the strands of the woof. One application of this principle in the field of human management produces strong families from the intersection of the human male and human female in the political institution of marriage. Another application produces political economy by intersecting the many laboring citizens who are relatively poor with the relatively rich who provide material to be labored upon and tools with which to multiply the effect of labor. Another application appears in dispersing the powers of government such that officers of the polis rule yet are also subject to rule, each having authority sufficient to defend his rights yet insufficient to encroach upon rights of others. Yet another application causes inhabitants of a polis to view themselves as members of families bound by blood, but also, simultaneously, as bound by the mutual interests of common citizenship and by laws applicable to all. And a final application introduces a civil religion in accord with which the several gods receive public worship on analogy with the dispensation of public honors to citizens. All gods are honored; no god is honored exclusively; a religion as cult is publicly observed and regulated if not indeed confined to obligatory and public observances.     

That is to say, why not consider the cult designed for the Furies as a model for the city’s practice of religion in every respect and with regard to all the gods? Prudent reverence, if not indeed religion reduced to prudent recognition of timeless necessities, is personified in images of personal gods. 

With the aforementioned amendment introduced by Athena, the entire ensemble resembles Zeus’s government of Olympus in its main outlines. The question arises whether such an arrangement supplants the gods altogether, though in the name of properly worshiping them. However that may be, there remains one signal difference between what Athena contrives and what Zeus has exemplified. Zeus’s statesmanship extends universally whereas Athens must survive among contending regimes. Hence, as earlier observed, Athena expects, indeed hopes for, frequent wars. What can be hoped for in the way of weaving diverse interests within a nation is much easier to say than achieve. But that aside, such a prospect seems fantastic even to hope for, once one looks beyond national boundaries. The best Athena can hope for is that wars, predictably frequent, whether wished for or not, may help Athenians patch the abrasions that must always prevent citizens from becoming friends in the fullest sense. 

What is the significance of all of these observations and speculations? Suppose we try to imagine how Aristotle would view them. I think he would say something like the following: Aeschylus has portrayed a political development in which the uninhibited rule of the pambasilea gives way to rule of law. In consequence political power is rationalized and decentralized. Kings must share their authority with other institutions. Then religious observances supplant private dictates of kings and fathers alike as the chief means to formation of pious citizens. The aim of politics becomes the benefit of the governed, to be effected by securing not just the conditions of subsistence, national independence, and prosperity, but a fostering of the good life understood as individual self-government. It remains to be asked of Aeschylus as one asks with respect to Aristotle, whether a city so dedicated exists for the sake of proper worship of gods or whether it exists for proper cultivation of what Aristotle terms “that which is most divine in us.”     

Portia’s Powerful Tongue: The Ethics of Lady Rhetoric in The Merchant of Venice

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Liberal Arts, Rhetoric
by Scott F. Crider

When early modern Europeans searched for a myth of human nature, familial bond, and civil association, they found one in an early Ciceronian treatise on oratory, de Inventione, in which he offers an etiological myth of rhetoric, “the origin of this thing we call eloquence”:

For there was a time when men wandered at large in the fields like animals and lived on wild fare; they did nothing by the guidance of reason, but relied chiefly on physical strength; there was yet no ordered system of religious worship or of social duties; no one had seen legitimate marriage nor had anyone looked upon children whom he knew to be his own; nor had they learned the advantages of any equitable code of law.  And so through their ignorance and error[,] blind and unreasoning passion satisfied itself by misuse of bodily strength, which is a very dangerous servant.  At this juncture a man—great and wise I am sure—became aware of the power latent in man and the wide field offered by his mind for great achievement if one could develop this power by instruction.  Men were scattered in the fields and hidden in sylvan retreats when he assembled and gathered them in accordance with a plan; he introduced them to every useful and honorable occupation, though they cried out against it at first because of its novelty, and then when through reason and eloquence they had listened with greater attention, he transformed them from wild savages into a kind and gentle folk.[1]

For Cicero and his early modern heirs, the first orator established human being, familial bonds, and civil association by means of eloquence, and this founding is re-enacted during important moments of eloquence.  The gathering of humanity through eloquence establishes us as human, and that gatherer is an especially important human, imagined by Cicero and most of his humanist sons as a special man.

Throughout his career, Shakespeare is fascinated by the art of oratory.  Both trained in the English grammar school tradition of Latinate oratory and well-read in classical, continental and English rhetorics, he continually represents the action of artful speech in his plays, not only because dramatists cannot do otherwise, given that they have their characters speak, but also because this dramatist isolates and examines a number of the most important questions within the rhetorical tradition, exploring its nature, especially the ethical character of its power to move audiences to belief and action. [2]

The Merchant of Venice represents two societies which require renewed foundations: the multicultural commercial republic of Venice, whose economic and legal bonds are failing to bind its citizens, and the idyllic estate of Belmont, whose deceased patriarch is both thwarting and enabling his daughter’s marital bond.  When Shylock tries to explain in 4.1 of the play to a disguised Portia that he will not be persuaded to forsake the bond Antonio now owes him—“By my soul, I swear / There is no power in the tongue of man / To alter me” (4.1.237-39)[3]—the figure of speech provides me with the focus of my essay: Generally, the power of human speech, or the “tongue,” to “alter” audiences; specifically, the ethics of Portia’s “power” as Lady Rhetoric, both in Venice and in Belmont.[4]  That Portia is an effective rhetor in both lands is obvious, yet success is not the exclusive measure of the art of rhetoric.[5]  The question is this:  Is Portia’s “powerful tongue” ethically good?  The answer: In Belmont, yes; in Venice, yes and no.  Because of her ignorance of Venetian circumstances—especially the cultural tension between Christian and Jew in the city—she makes a mistake and sacrifices Shylock in order to save her husband’s friend, a sacrifice which qualifies, without ruining, the romance of the play, a romance achieved through her ethical rhetoric in Belmont.  Portia’s suasiveness is composed of two rhetorical actions, then, one tragic and one comic, and the relationship of the two establishes the play’s unity, a unity which confirms Samuel Johnson’s observation that Shakespeare’s plays are not, strictly speaking, either tragedies or comedies:

Shakespeare’s plays are not in the rigorous and critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind; exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination; and expressing the course of the world, in which the loss of one is the gain of another; in which at the same time, the reveler is hasting to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend; in which the malignity of the one is sometimes defeated by the frolick of another; and many mischiefs and many benefits are done and hindered without design.[6]

Shakespeare exhibits the real nature of a generally good, but flawed rhetor who restores two decaying worlds, but only by accidentally destroying a man.  In Venice and in Belmont, as in any city, the destruction of the other often establishes a new order, an order that romance, though, cannot purify.  Our ethical persuasions do not efface our unethical ones; they simply define them as such, and the play’s mode of combination provides the definition.  Let me discuss the Renaissance figure of Lady Rhetoric, the principles of ethical rhetoric, and our particular rhetorical lady in both cities.

I. Powerful Lady Rhetoric, Over-Powered

In the European Renaissance, the art of rhetoric was, as always, a suspect study.  Let me isolate one feature of that anti-rhetorical tradition: the accusation that rhetoric is effeminate, and that its powers of transformation subvert good reason and stable order.  “Womanly” rhetoric was thought dangerous because, when practiced by men, it undermines their own masculinity; and because, when practiced by women over men, it emasculates the male audience and masculates the female orator.   Even so, though the art of rhetoric in the Renaissance was usually practiced by men, there were exceptional women orators—Elizabeth I, for example—and there is even a habit in the iconographical tradition of imagining persuasion itself as female.  Lady Rhetoric—or Persuasion—is a figure for the art of rhetoric, as we see in Figure 1.[7]  Here we see a woman in flowing gown holding a three-headed beast on a leash, a leash that also binds her.  Wayne Rebhorn offers two interpretations of the emblem.  First, the rhetor’s power here is both power over and over-powering; that is, she rules the audience, yet is herself constrained by that very power.  Second, the beast is of indeterminate character since, although it resembles Cerberus, it may be a version of Hydra, the many-headed beast that represents the mass audience of the art of rhetoric.  The indeterminate beast may figure the audience to which the orator must attend; then again, it may figure the three appeals of rhetoric—logos, ethos, and pathos—which correspond to the audience’s three faculties of reason, moral sense and emotion, or it might figure the three kinds of rhetoric: political deliberative, epideictic, and judicial.[8]  In either case, Lady Rhetoric’s command of the beast is a sign that she has the art of rhetoric, defined by Aristotle in the Rhetoric as “an ability, in each case, to see the available means of persuasion” (1.2.1).  This definition indicates that, with respect to an audience and an issue, the rhetor selects means to achieve the end of persuasion, that proximate end itself achieving more remote ends.  That selection of means and ends is a power.  However, she is persuaded as she persuades, and the rhetor’s power over an audience often obscures the audience’s power over the rhetor.  Lady Rhetoric is altered even as she alters.  The bond binding the beast is also binding her.

Her gender and her moderated power help illuminate my topic: a powerful female orator who is not always fully in command of her own oratory.  Many of Shakespeare’s heroines in the comedies are distinct instances of Lady Rhetoric, the allegorical figure transformed into a number of related, but highly individual fictional characters—Rosalind in As You Like It and Viola in Twelfth Night, for example, and certainly Portia.  These women are disguised as men, and, as a consequence of such disguises—Rosalind’s Ganymede, Viola’s Cesario, and Portia’s Balthasar—they are able to exercise their rhetorical powers in ways hardly imaginable for most actual women in the period: as a teacher, a counselor, and a lawyer, respectively.  Of course, husbands were conventionally supposed to govern wives to maintain proper domestic harmony, as we see in Portia’s own submission to Bassanio in Belmont in 3.2, the new husband now “lord / Of the fair mansion” she has been governing (166-7).  One begins to see just how adventurous Shakespearean heroines are, at least during courtship.  Be that as it may, since Shakespeare’s Lady Rhetoric is not only persuasive but also vulnerable, she offers an opportunity for our poet-player to examine an ethical situation—accidentally unethical rhetoric, rhetoric whose intention is not malice, yet whose effect is.[9]  Between the very different masteries of an Iago and a Prospero is a Portia, who allows Shakespeare to develop his ethics of rhetoric because, first, she makes a mistake in being mastered by unknown, Venetian circumstances, and, second, that error both darkens, yet reveals her Belmontian triumph when she courts and educates her husband.

II. An Ethics of Rhetoric

Shakespeare read Cicero in school, but only read about Aristotle in one of his favorite books—Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier—where one of the interlocutors, Ottaviano, provides an Aristotelian ethical test for a courtier’s counsel on behalf of his prince:

And because the praise of well-doing consisteth chiefly in two points— whereof the one is, in choosing out an end that our purpose is directed unto, that is good indeed; the other, the knowledge to find out apt and meet means to bring it to the appointed good end—sure it is that the mind of him which thinketh to work so, that his Prince shall not be deceived, nor led with flatterers, railers and liars, but shall know both the good and the bad and bear love to the one and hatred to the other, is directed to a very good end.[10]

For Aristotle and Castiglione, any instance of influence or counsel must employ meet means and a good end.  The Ciceronian formulation in de Inventione is in accord: the study of oratory must be accompanied by that of “philosophy and moral conduct,” he argues there, or the orator’s “civic life is nurtured into something useless to himself and harmful to his country” (1.1).  Let me add one requirement and refine the above two—three conditions suggested by Aristotle’s rhetorical understanding, conditions any instance of rhetoric must meet to be ethical.  First, the audience must be free to agree or disagree; that is, there can be no force involved which would compel assent.[11]  Second, the rhetor’s end must both be good and be freely agreed to be good by the rhetor and her audience.  And, third, the rhetor’s means to that end must be thought to be both good and true by the rhetor, and they must actually be so.  An audience freely persuaded to a good end through good and true means: this is the character of any ethical suasion.  What distinguishes the sophist from the rhetor for Aristotle is an ethical differential: “The sophist is such,” he argues, “not through ability, but through deliberate choice” (1355b18, emphasis added).  The ethical rhetor must have the power of discovering the available means of persuasion in the particular case, but she must also properly exercise ethical choice in the discovery and deployment of means toward end.  Portia’s legal rhetoric is unethical because it finally fails to meet the above conditions,[12] but her romantic rhetoric is so because it does.  Let me make good on that claim.

III. The Accident of Rhetorical Ignorance in Venice

Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric includes the demand that the rhetor know what “the particular case” is.  That is an ethical demand.  Remember that, in the Nicomachean Ethics, the first requirement of an act is that one discern the particulars of one’s situation: discernment precedes deliberation, choice, and action.  This is what he means when he argues that the ethical decision requires perception.[13]  To the degree one is ignorant of such particulars, to that degree one is not acting freely.  Ignorance is one of the causes of involuntary action, including involuntarily unethical action.  Granted, Portia’s Venetian rhetoric is not unethical throughout.  Her first appeal to Shylock’s mercy (4.1.181-201) is completely legitimate:

The quality of mercy is not strained.

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

’Tis mightiest in the mightiest.  It becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown.

His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty,

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

But mercy is above this sceptred sway.

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;

It is an attribute to God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,

Though justice be thy plea, consider this:

That in the course of justice none of us

Should see salvation.  We do pray for mercy,

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy.  (4.1.181-199)

Her appeal here is logical, ethical, and emotional.  The logical appeal is supported by the topic of invention of definition.  The “quality” of mercy is its essence, which explains why, syntactically, Portia’s periods indicate either what “mercy” does—“It droppeth as the gentle rain,” “blesseth him that gives and him that takes,” and “becomes / The throned monarch better than his crown”—or what it is—“’Tis mightiest in the mighty,” “is enthroned in the hearts of kings,” and “is an attribute to God himself.”  As well, she marshals the topic of comparison by contrasting force and mercy, the king’s scepter with his heart.  By contrasting justice and mercy, she appeals to emotion, specifically the emotion of fear: “in the course of justice none of us / Should see salvation.  We do pray for mercy.”  Her definitions and comparisons also establish her own ethos since, after all, those who appeal to ethical principle—here that of mercy—are thought to embody them.  Her moving appeal to mercy is supplemented by one to self-interest—“Shylock, there’s thrice thy money offered thee” (224)—indicating that she has his interest in mind, as well.  The rhetor’s ethos, according to Aristotle in the Rhetoric, must be characterized by “practical wisdom, virtue and good will” (2.1.5), the last indicated by the rhetor’s concern for the audience’s good.  Her conclusion appeals to the emotion of fear, here the fear of judgment.  Aristotle argues that, while the emotional appeal is often abused (1.1.3-6), it is a legitimate appeal nonetheless, provided the emotion is in accord with the circumstances at hand (2.1-11).  All three appeals in her speech are ethically legitimate.

However, once Shylock refuses those appeals—“My deeds upon my head” (203)—Portia changes.  What distorts Portia’s rhetoric in 4.1 is ignorance: though she has certainly studied the law with Doctor Bellario with some, if not perfect, care, she does not understand “the particular case” of Antonio and Shylock, not seeing that Shylock’s desire to destroy Antonio is animated by a mistaken, but certainly understandable desire for revenge for past injustices.  The play convinces us that his revenge upon Antonio is occasioned by Jessica’s betrayal by juxtaposing in 3.1 Solanio and Salarino’s taunting of Shylock for having lost his daughter with Shylock’s encomium to Christian revenge.  When Portia enters the courtroom, claiming that she is “informed thoroughly of the cause” (4.1.170), her very next question indicates that her general knowledge has its limitations: “Which is the merchant here?” (171).  Throughout her exchange with Shylock, she appears not to realize that Antonio is Shylock’s professed enemy and cannot imagine Shylock has been the victim of Antonio’s hate crimes.  Shylock earlier narrated those crimes to Antonio himself:

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 suff’rance is the badge of all our tribe.

You call me misbeliever, cut-throat, dog,

And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,

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 whisp’ring humbleness,

Say this:  ‘Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last;

You spurned me such a day; another time

You called me dog; and for these courtesies

I’ll lend you thus much moneys’?  (1.3.103-125)

Antonio’s response indicates that this narration is true:  “I am like to call thee so again, / To spit on thee again, to spurn thee, too” (126-7).  Antonio and Shylock are, as Antonio reminded him when he took the loan, enemies (1.3.128-33).  If an audience has forgotten 1.3 by 4.1, Shakespeare reminds it in the later scene with Shylock’s question to Bassanio right before Portia enters:  “What wouldst thou have the serpent sting thee twice”? (4.1.68).  Portia, of course, has seen and heard none of this, which is the point.  What Shakespeare understands is that majorities have an ethical habit, having abused minorities, to desire not only justice, but even mercy from them, once minorities are in a position to respond to the abuse.  Because Portia is ignorant of the injustice, she cannot comprehend his desire for revenge, so she instrumentalizes Shylock to achieve her end of freeing Antonio and accidentally turns Shylock over to those who would revenge themselves upon him.  Shylock may fail to show mercy—“’tis not in the bond” (259)—but Portia shows neither justice before the law, since Jews in Venice are given legal rights but denied the means to effect them; nor equity, since full knowledge of Shylock’s situation would dictate, not that he be allowed to revenge himself upon Antonio, but that he and Antonio both be freed from their bond; nor mercy, since, had she known, she might very well have believed that Shylock should be shown more than equity.[14]  By the time Portia grows excited by her rhetorical victory—“The Jew shall have all justice” (4.1.317)—she is neither just nor equitable, arguably even denying the principles of her own earlier speech on mercy (181-202).  The latter end of her discourse forgets the beginning.

Portia fails all three conditions of ethical rhetoric.  First, Shylock is subject to a high degree of force; after all, he is compelled to convert to Christianity upon pain of death.  The Duke is very clear that if Shylock refuses Antonio’s “mercy” of theft and conversion, he will “recant / The pardon” of his (387-8).  Second, Portia’s end of saving Antonio is too limited, given the situation, since her goal ought to include human flourishing for all parties concerned.  Even Bassanio realizes, once Shylock is willing to accept the money, that there is no need to go any further:  “Here is the money,” he says, just before Portia says that “[h]e shall have nothing but the penalty” (4.1.316-317).  Third, her means in achieving this narrow end are sophistical.  She will allow Shylock to claim his pound of flesh, but not if it means shedding Christian blood (302-309), yet it is legally irrational to allow a right that cannot be exercised.  When she revenges herself upon Shylock on behalf of her adopted city, she accuses Shylock as a resident alien of having sought the life of a citizen (344-53), but that would necessarily imply that there is no equality before the law and that no resident alien could accuse any citizen of a capital crime without committing a crime, implications which would be, of course, sophistical nonsense if, as Antonio has earlier explained, Venice’s legal code is established by “the course of justice” offered to all of Venice’s inhabitants (3.3.26-31).  Portia is ignorant of the life of persecution Shylock has led at the hands of Antonio, seeing only the revenge, not the persecution being revenged.  She then turns Shylock over to the will of his enemies to confiscate his wealth and force his conversion, traces of both acts of injustice remaining throughout the play.

IV.  The Power of Courting and Altering Husbands in Belmont

Her legal rhetoric is not her only rhetoric, though, and her romantic rhetoric—as exhibited in the tests of the three caskets in Acts 1-3 and the ring in Acts 4-5—is ethical, both tests achieving and educating her husband-to-be, and meeting the standard of ethical rhetoric: 1) Bassanio is free; 2) her end of a good marriage to him is a good and agreed to be by both; and 3) her means to that end—here, the question becomes controversial—are certainly good, but are only arguably true.  Goodness concerns moral virtue; truth concerns intellectual.

You will remember that Portia’s choice in marriage is constrained by her father’s test of the caskets, and she does assist Bassanio in his choice of the lead casket.  We do not know for sure who sings “A Song the whilst Bassanio comments on the Caskets to himself,” as the First Folio directs in 3.2.  It is either Portia or one singing on her command.  Everyone notes the way the song pointedly rhymes with “lead”—“bred,” “head,” “nourishéd,” “fed.”  We ought to notice, as well, that the song has a moral about erotic desire, which is “engendered in the eyes, / With gazing fed; and fancy dies / In the cradle where it lies” (3.2.67-70), a moral Bassanio learns in his meditations upon the “shows” of gold and silver:  “The world is still deceived with ornament” (74).  He will not be: “But thou, thou meager lead / Which rather threaten’st than dost promise aught, / Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence” (104-6).  Is Portia’s education of Bassanio cheating?  I do not believe so.  Her father—“ever virtuous,” according to Nerissa (1.2.27)—would not imagine that the suitors would be deliberating alone; instead, he would foresee that his daughter, moved by preference, would deliberate with them.  He is a kind of absent Prospero, ensuring that his daughter’s future suitors would speak with his daughter—or at least listen to her sing—before marrying her.  No wise parent expects to be obeyed entirely when it comes to a child’s love life, knowing that marriage necessitates separation.  Portia’s father is no Capulet.  When Portia assists him, the persuasion involved is less the sophistry of deceiving a parent and more the rhetoric of deliberation with a spouse.  A beautiful woman is usually going to have to teach her chosen suitor to restrain his fancy when activated by her beauty.  Portia and her father know as much.

Her second test is more debatable; after all, she disguises herself to her husband and arguably “entraps” him into giving up the ring.  Let me defend both the disguise and the entrapment.  First, the disguise is not primarily intended to deceive Bassanio.  After all, she cannot practice her influence in the court without disguise, given the constraints upon women practicing law.  Ultimately, disguise in Shakespeare is a dramatic figure for the appeal of ethos or persona that is unavoidable in human speech.   Second, once disguised, she discovers that Antonio and Bassanio are closer than they should be, given that Bassanio has just married her.  While disguised, Portia hears her husband say to his close friend, “But life itself, my wife, and all the world / Are not with me esteemed above thy life.  I would . . . sacrifice them all / . . . to deliver you” (4.1.281-2).  Bassanio has a disordered understanding of the respective values of friendship and marriage, and his wife needs to persuade him toward an ordered understanding of it.  She may even suspect, as others in the play do, that Antonio’s love for Bassanio is more than friendship.  (The term of “love” between men in early modern England did not need to refer to homosexual desire; even so, it is worth noting that Antonio remains unmarried at the play’s close, a rarity for major characters at the end of comedies.) Bassanio has not been compelled to marry, but, once in its order, he must value its vows properly.  We must allow that Bassanio does not give over the ring at first, doing so only after being pressed by Antonio:  “Let . . . my love withal / Be valued ‘gainst your wife’s commandment” (446-7).  What the ring now figures is Bassanio’s broken vow.   He may not be a slave to erotic fancy, but he is not yet wise to the nature of marital vows.  In Shakespeare’s world, those vows supersede parental claims and male friendships, and young husbands had better lose their finger than their wedding ring.  Portia’s rhetorical end is good: to educate her husband to understand that the oath of marriage is a supreme speech act, one which, to use Portia’s metaphor, rivets the ring to his flesh with faith.  The ring is a sign of “faith.”  By refuting Bassanio’s excuse for the lapse of faith, she ensures that there will probably not be a future one.  Her end, then, is a good marriage for them, and that is certainly a human good shared by both.  The question then becomes whether her means to achieve that end are ethical since the test and the refutation withhold the truth from him.  One must distinguish between two forms of withholding the truth: In the first, the rhetor denies the audience the truth; in the second, she delays it.  The art of rhetoric demands good timing.  As Proverbs 15 would have it—the Hebrew text in accord with the Greek or Roman understanding of rhetorical kairos or decorum—“[A] word spoken in due season, how good it is!” (15.23).  Or, as Portia puts it, “How many things by season seasoned are / To their right praise and true perfection” (5.1.107-8).[15]  By season seasoning the truth is the essence of rhetorical power.  The ethical demand is that an audience must learn the truth; the rhetorical demand is that he learn it when it will be most persuasive.  My claim is quite strong, then: not that Portia uses unethical means to an ethical end, but that she uses ethical means to an ethical end.  Rhetorical prudence only resembles sophistry.  This becomes clear when we contrast Portia’s rhetoric in Venice with that in Belmont:  Shylock is forced, but Bassanio is not; Shylock is not included in the good of Portia’s end, but Bassanio is; and Shylock is the victim of legal sophistry, Bassanio the beneficiary of marital discretion.

One cannot extricate the two rhetorical actions in the play fully, of course, and the romance of 5.1 is made more sober, not only by the presence of Antonio—Shylock’s triumphant enemy, who re-establishes the bond between Portia and Bassanio— but also by that of Jessica and Lorenzo, now financial beneficiaries of her father’s degradation and the impending death of the “rich Jew” Nerissa mentions a mere fifteen lines before the play ends.  And, perhaps more importantly, the emphasis on the ring—Portia’s “first gift” to Bassanio (5.1.167)—reminds us of another ring, Leah’s first gift to Shylock, the parental ring Jessica and Lorenzo sold for a monkey once they escaped from Venice with her father’s treasure (3.1.111-116).[16]  The ring of romance resembles the ring of tragedy.  Bassanio’s venture in Belmont, we are reminded, was paid for by Shylock.  From this, one might deny the romance of the play, undermining it altogether with historical injustice.  That would be a mistake, not because the play effaces that injustice—it does not, instead vividly representing the personal and political cost for some of the happiness of others—but because “Shakespeare play’s,” as Johnson reminds us, “are not in the rigorous and critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind.”  In our ethics of rhetoric, we want a rhetor who is both good and always fully in command.  We want a Lady Rhetoric who binds, but is not bound, someone who does not makes mistakes.  But the rhetorical bond that binds all the marital, economic, and legal bonds of the play binds the very rhetor who holds it in her hands, wrapping itself around her gown.  The sweet doctor is herself poisoned, even as she delivers sweetness, not to all, but to so many in this highly distinct composition.

What Shakespeare finally understands is that ethical rhetoric is a difficult achievement.  In the ethical moment of disposing means to end, the rhetor is only imperfectly in command of a fallen world, and if this limitation can lead a woman of Portia’s moral and intellectual virtue to error in her sacrificing a tragic usurer to secure comic marriages, we ought not be overly confident in either the virtue of our own rhetoric or the exactitude of our own generic terms.  As Johnson would have it, a Shakespearean play “exhibits the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety or proportion and innumerable modes of combination.” Shylock’s sorrow underwrites, yet does not erase, Belmont’s joy, and the powerful tongue of this rhetorical lady is greatly responsible for both.[17]

[1] 1.2.  Trans. H.M. Hubbell, Loeb ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1949).  Cicero repeats the myth in his more mature de Oratore, trans. Sutton and Rackham, Loeb ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1942): “To come, however, at length to the highest achievements of eloquence, what other power could have been strong enough either to gather scattered humanity into one place, or to lead it out of its brutish existence in the wilderness up to our present condition of civilization as men and as citizens or, after the establishment of social communities, to give shape to laws, tribunals, and civic rights?  And not to pursue any further instances—well-nigh countless as they are—I will conclude the whole matter in a few words, for my assertion is this: that the wise control of the complete orator is which chiefly upholds not only his own dignity, but the safety of countless individuals and of the entire State” (1.8.30-34). De Inventione was the better known of the two works in early modern England.  The scholarship on rhetoric in the early modern period is large.  The best introductions are now Peter Mack’s Elizabethan Rhetoric: Theory and Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002), Heinrich F. Plett’s Rhetoric and Renaissance Culture (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2004), and the first half of Quentin Skinner’s Rhetoric and Reason in the Philosophy of Hobbes (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996), 1-211.  On rhetoric more generally, see Brian Vickers’ In Defense of Rhetoric (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1989).  On the myth of the rhetor-founder, see Wayne Rebhorn’s The Emperor of Men’s Minds: Literature and the Renaissance Discourse of Rhetoric (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995).

[2] For Shakespeare’s own rhetorical character, the standard texts remain T. W. Baldwin’s William Shakspere’s Small Latine & Lesse Greeke, 2 volumes, (Urbana, 1944), esp. Vol. 2, 1-238, and Sister Miriam Joseph’s Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language (New York: Columbia UP, 1947).  See, as well, the following: Russ McDonald’s Shakespeare and the Arts of Language (New York: Oxford UP, 2001); Marion Trousdale’s Shakespeare and the Rhetoricians (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1982); and Brian Vickers’ “Shakespeare’s Use of Rhetoric” in A New Companion to Shakespeare Studies, ed. Muir and Schoenbaum (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1971), 83-98.  The following examine Shakespeare’s ethics of rhetoric specifically: McDonald, esp. “Words Effectual, Speech Unable,” 164-192; Peter G. Platt’s “Shakespeare and Rhetorical Culture” in A Companion to Shakespeare, ed. David Scott Kastan (Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 277-296; Plett, 415-433; Trousdale, 114-159; and Brian Vickers’ “‘The Power of Persuasion’: Images of the Orator, Elyot to Shakespeare,” Renaissance Eloquence: Studies in the Theory and Practice of Renaissance Rhetoric, ed. James J. Murphy (Berkeley: U of California P, 1983), 411-435.  On Shakespeare and “moral philosophy” generally, see Baldwin, Vol. 2, 578-616.  See David N. Beauregard’s Virtue’s Own Feature: Shakespeare and the Virtue Ethics Tradition (Newark: U of Delaware P, 1995) for an argument that Shakespeare was familiar with a tradition of “Aristotelian-Thomistic moral thought” (9).  On Shakespeare’s ethics of rhetoric, see my With What Persuasion: An Essay on Shakespeare and the Ethics of Rhetoric (New York: Peter Lang, 2009).

[3] The Oxford World Classics, ed. Jay L. Halio (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993), 4.1.237-239.  Hereafter, cited internally.

[4] The secondary literature on The Merchant of Venice is vast, and I have read only a small portion of it.  I am indebted to the following readings of the play: C.L. Barber’s Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1959), 163-191; Beauregard, 87-103; Allan Bloom’s Shakespeare’s Politics, with Harry V. Jaffa (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1964), 13-34; Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York: Penguin, 1998), 171-191; William C. Carroll’s The Metamorphoses of Shakespearean Comedy (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1985), 117-126; Lawrence Danson’s The Harmonies of The Merchant of Venice (New Haven: Yale UP, 1978); Jane Freeman’s “‘Fair Terms and a Villain’s Mind’: Rhetorical Patterns in The Merchant of Venice,” Rhetorica 20.2 (May 2002): 149-172; Harold C. Goddard’s The Meaning of Shakespeare, Vol. 1 (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1951), 81-116; David Lowenthal’s Shakespeare and the Good Life: Ethics and Politics in Dramatic Form (Lanham: Rowen and Littlefield, 1997), esp. 147-172; Platt, esp. 291-293; Norman Rabkin’s Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981), 1-32; James Shapiro’s Shakespeare and the Jews (New York: Columbia UP, 1996); Barbara Tovey’s “The Golden Casket: An Interpretation of The Merchant of Venice” in Shakespeare as Political Thinker, ed. John Alvis and Thomas G. West (Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic P, 1981), 215-237; and esp. Martin D. Yaffe’s Shylock and the Jewish Question (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1997).  Freeman, Platt, and Yaffe discuss Portia specifically as a rhetor.

[5] In Aristotelian terms, success is its external, not its internal end because, having discovered all of the available means of persuasion, the rhetor may still fail.  The best rhetor is not always successful; the worst rhetor sometimes is.  See Eugene Garver’s Aristotle’s Rhetoric: An Art of Character (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994), esp. 18-51, for a fine discussion of the distinction.

[6] “Preface to Shakespeare” in Samuel Johnson: Rasselas, Poems, and Selected Prose, ed. Bertrand H. Bronson (New York, 1971), 261-307. 266-267.  Johnson’s Preface is the best single piece of literary criticism on Shakespeare there is, and his notes are full of treasures.

[7] The figure comes from Rebhorn.  For his discussion of the gendered understanding of rhetoric, see 133-196; for his analysis of the figure, see 75-76.  One of the most famous representations of Lady Rhetoric comes from Martianus Capella’s De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii, a mythological treatment of the trivium and quadrivium, trans. William Harris Stahl and Richard Johnson with E.L. Burge (New York: Columbia UP, 1977): “What countenance and voice she had as she spoke, what excellence of and exaltation of speech!” (156).  Plett discusses the iconographical history of representations of rhetoric (501-552), including Figure 1.

[8] On the three appeals and three rhetorical genres, see Aristotle’s Rhetoric, trans. George A. Kennedy, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford UP, 2007), 2.1-26 and 1.3-15, respectively.

[9] Shakespeareans usually classify a persuasion as either “good” or “bad,” without defining or complicating either.  Plett, for example, offers what he calls “a fourfold typology of the orator”: a good orator with either a good or bad character; and a bad orator with either a good or bad character (418).  This is helpful, and it distinguishes the art of oratory from the character of the orator; even so, it hardly does justice to Portia’s complex speech acts.

[10] Trans. Thomas Hoby, ed. Virginia Cox (London: Everyman Library, 1994), 296, spelling and punctuation modernized.  I am not as convinced that Shakespeare knows Aristotle as Beauregard; it seems more likely that he discovers “Aristotelian” thought in Cicero and Castiglione.  Even so, we can use Aristotle to increase our understanding of Shakespeare and the actions he represents.

[11] On rhetoric and force, see my With What Persuasion, 79-99.

[12] Yaffe makes the case that Portia is an ethical “statesman” throughout the play.  See esp. 46-87.  Though he and I disagree, I highly recommend his fine study.  On the difficulties and possibilities of being an ethical rhetor, see my With What Persuasion (145-178), where I examine Paulina in The Winter’s Tale.

[13] See the Nichomachean Ethics, 1109b23.  On the topic of such perception, see Martha Nussbaum’s “The Discernment of Perception” in Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (New York: Oxford UP, 1990), 54-105, and Nancy Sherman’s The Fabric of Character: Aristotle’s Theory of Virtue (New York: Oxford UP, 1989), esp. 13-55.

[14] Reflecting on the relationships between and among justice, equity, and mercy, one might say that justice requires strict symmetry without reference to particularities; equity, imperfect symmetry with reference to them; and mercy, asymmetry toward the object of mercy either with or without reference to them.  On the relationship between equity and mercy in Aristotle, see Martha Nussbaum’s Sex and Social Justice (New York: Oxford UP, 1999), esp. “Equity and Mercy,” 154-183; on that relation in both Aristotle and Shakespeare, see Beauregard.

[15] That the comment is occasioned by music indicates the musical nature of what is thought of as an Orphic art of rhetoric.  Interestingly, the play has one of the few mentions of Orpheus in his canon in  Lorenzo’s speech to Jessica (5.1.54-88) on “the sweet power of music” (79).  On the relation between music and rhetoric, see Plett, 366-412.

[16] Even the high romance of Bassanio and Portia’s casket scene (3.2) is qualified by the fact that it is framed with the scene in which Shylock learns from Tubal that his daughter stole and sold Leah’s gift to him (3.1) and the one in which he taunts Antonio (3.3).

[17] This essay was given as lectures in the University of Dallas’ Shakespeare in Italy program in Rome, lectures informed by discussions with Wayne Ambler and Dustin Gish; as a presentation at a forum on the play at the University of Dallas, refined by conversation with Joshua Parens and Martin Yaffe; and as a speech at the Athena Foundation, by invitation of Herschel and Dona Gower (now deceased), in conversation with Eileen Gregory.  I am grateful for all the three opportunities.  This essay is dedicated to the memory of my mother, Diane J. Crider, an eloquent lady from whom I learned to love the English language, a love that led me to Shakespeare.