Nothing Is Unmixed

Michael Wood

  • Shakespeare’s Binding Language by John Kerrigan
    Oxford, 622 pp, £35.00, March 2016, ISBN 978 0 19 875758 0

‘There is a touch of Shylock in this,’ John Kerrigan says of a moment in King Lear. There are touches of Shylock in many places outside The Merchant of Venice, and indeed outside Shakespeare altogether, but this one is of unusual interest. It is in Cordelia’s speech responding to her father’s question about which of his daughters loves him most – well, to be precise, which of his daughters he is to say loves him most. He is not asking for an answer, he is asking for a show.

The connection between Shylock and Cordelia rests on their common use of the single word ‘bond’. ‘I stay here on my bond,’ Shylock says, meaning he will not diverge in any way from his literal claim on what is due to him. Cordelia says: ‘I love your majesty/According to my bond, no more nor less.’ The power of the connection lies both in the word’s general meaning and its behaviour in the context in which these two use it – in their crazy literalism, their faith in language’s stability, as if it were immune to metaphor or displacement. Do moneylenders get their pound of flesh if we default on a debt? And how. They take our houses or put us in jail. Do daughters love their fathers exactly as much as they are supposed to, neither more nor less? With any luck a little more, but they are right to save some love for one or two other creatures. But then we are not talking about actual pounds of flesh or mathematical quantities of affection, and Shylock and Cordelia are.

‘Shylock and Shakespeare are nothing if not subtle,’ Kerrigan says. The character’s literalism is calculated, he wants to avenge himself for his debtor’s insults, while the author wants to explore what happens when apparent securities become loose. Cordelia is not subtle; she thinks subtlety is the family problem. She wants to rebuke her two sisters for their extravagant lying in their answers to their father’s question and to bring her father back to some sense of reality, but in effect, as Kerrigan says, she initiates the sequence of acts of ingratitude that structures the play. Her speech is ‘valid but peremptory’, and what it does takes her far from what she means.

Shylock fails to understand language use too, or fails to understand that his own subtlety, his anger masked as legality, is not going to enable him to get what he is after. ‘Shylock’s bond,’ Kerrigan shrewdly says, ‘is not rightly made to secure what Shylock wanted … because of the ambiguities of its wording, even its making use of language at all.’ He can’t have his pound of flesh, to summarise an argument from the play too crudely, because a pound is too exact a measure and flesh doesn’t include blood. He is defeated, that is, by a better literalist than he is, and the double (mock) literalism shows you can do almost anything with words except rely on them. ‘The ambiguities in Shylock’s bond are easily exploited by the tongue of man, or at least by a boy pretending to be a woman disguised as Dr Balthazar.’ ‘Easily’ is a finely chosen word for this set-up, and suggests something of the complicated interpretative skills we have when we are not pretending things are simpler than they are.

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