The Mercy of Venice

Van Niekerk, Marinus
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The Southern African Society for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (SASMARS)
We will begin with the impossible. We will begin with the ‘“experience'? (which means to travel or go through)’ of ‘paralysis (the inability to move)’ in the face of an impossibility (Caputo in Derrida & Caputo 111). We will begin by reading an experience of undecidability that Lancelot Gobbo explains he is enduring at the start of Act II Scene ii of The Merchant of Venice: Certainly, my conscience will serve me to run from this Jew my master. The fiend is at my elbow and tempts me, saying to me ‘Gobbo, Lancelot Gobbo’, or ‘Good Gobbo’, or ‘Good Lancelot Gobbo, use your legs, take the start, run away.’ My conscience says ‘No: take heed, honest Lancelot, take heed, honest Gobbo ... do not run, scorn running with thy heels.’ Well, the most courageous fiend bids me pack. ‘Fia!’ says the fiend, ‘Away!’ says the fiend. ‘’Fore the heavens rouse up a brave mind,’ says the fiend, ‘and run.’ Well ... my conscience says ‘Lancelot, budge not!’ ‘Budge!’ says the fiend. ‘Budge not!’ says my conscience. ‘Conscience’, say I, ‘you counsel well.’ ‘Fiend’, say I, ‘you counsel well.’ To be ruled by my conscience, I should stay with the Jew my master who ... is a kind of devil; and to run away from the Jew, I should be ruled by the fiend who—saving your reverence—is the devil himself. Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnation, and, in my conscience, my conscience is but a kind of hard conscience to offer to counsel me to stay with the Jew. (lines 1–22) This parody of the struggle of a conscience, reminiscent of Faust, with the good angel at the one shoulder and devil at the other, shows Gobbo experiencing an impossible situation. We may follow Mahood (82) in noting that 1 Peter 2: 18 demands that servants be ‘subject to [their] masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward’, and this is what Gobbo’s conscience—which perhaps reflects or is supposed to reflect a kind of Christian morality––suggests he does; but Gobbo sees his master as being ‘the very devil incarnation’, and it is uncertain whether the Christian teaching of meek, humble subservience to any master does not clash with an arguably equally important Christian precept—that of not serving the devil—in this particular situation. Gobbo is here faced with the same type of interpretative dilemma that led Biblical scholars to develop hermeneutics, the type of dilemma that Kant was trying to avoid, always and regardless of context, when he proposed rational—and thus, he believed, unquestionable, eternal, transcendental and absolute—grounds for morality: he is in a situation in which the moral law (here represented by Christian doctrine) according to which he lives (or tries to), contradicts itself, demonstrating its own contingency to ‘historical, social, and linguistic’ contexts (Caputo in Derrida & Caputo 52). Biblical law and Kant’s transcendental moral criteria alike, as much as they try to provide an unquestionable, supreme guideline according to which all moral decisions must in all situations be made, as much as they try to build an undeconstructible foundation that encapsulates the essentials of morality, cannot escape the ‘irreducible alterity of the world’ (52, my italics). This alterity arises from what Derrida’s deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence and of logocentrism has already shown, that there is no God or Law transcendentally present in each situation or context, waiting, like a deus ex machina, for its cue to descend from the heavens, presenting itself to resolve each dilemma; there are simply an infinite number of different contexts within which different individuals will interpret the differing and deferring signs which make up the language within which moral laws are communicated differently.
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