All of his complexion…

Andrew Klavan has a thoughtful essay out called A Nation of Iagos. In it, he comments on William Shakespeare’s depiction of Jews in a way I think is generally insightful, but includes what I think is one serious mistake about the scene from The Merchant of Venice in which the (black) Prince of Morocco woos Portia.

He chooses poorly, fails her father’s test, and as he leaves Portia mutters “May all of his complexion choose me so.”, which Klavan reads as a racist dismissal. I winced.

I tried to leave a comment on the essay only to find when clicking “Post” that it required a login on the accurséd Facebook, with which I will have no truck.

Here it is:

Others mentioned it before I got here, but I want to reinforce the point that Klavan’s reading of Portia’s muttered remark is unsubtle – and, I think, wrong.

I read that and I think “Bill, you magnificent bastard!” The Bard of Avon has constructed that whole scene to make it clear that the Prince’s plea not to be judged by his race is not falling on an unwilling ear. Portia is a good person. When she finds him wanting, we are ready to hear Portia reject him not for the color of his skin but for the content of his swaggering, overbearing character. It’s both the logical and dramatically correct conclusion of the scene.

Instead she…drops a racist clanger? No. No. Shakespeare is subtler than that. He uses “complexion” in a way that holds the audience in tension between what one might call its physical and psychological meanings [ed: in Elizabethan English “complexion” could mean a person’s character or psychological presentation]. Burton Dow is quite right to point out that both meanings were live in Shakespeare’s English. This ambiguity cannot be an accidental choice, not from a wordsmith with the Bard’s sensitivity to nuances of vocabulary.

Yes, Shakespeare is prodding his audience. He’s challenging their language and their prejudices, not in the angry evangelistic way of a modern SJW but in the way a man of what fifty years later would begin to be called a liberal inclination would hold up a wry mirror to the tragedy and comedy of human life.

12 thoughts on “All of his complexion…

  1. He’s challenging their language and their prejudices, not in the angry evangelistic way of a modern SJW but in the way a man of what fifty years later would begin to be called a liberal inclination would hold up a wry mirror to the tragedy and comedy of human life.

    Theodore Dalrymple’s article on Measure for Measure, in the same magazine, shows that Shakespeare could portray sexual tensions as thoughtfully as racial ones.

  2. You should explain, then, what you think is meant by Portia’s earlier remark: “if he have the condition of a saint and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me than wive me”. Isn’t that a clear contrast between character and appearance, and a statement that she cares more for the second than the first?

    • @rgove
      It might be worth looking into the contemporary definitions of “condition,” which like complexion has two potential readings in this context. One would be your reading of “character,” but an older meaning might be “social rank or standing.” Bill is playing the same game here as in the line in the OP (but maybe not _in_ OP?), being deliberate with the use of dual-meanings, pulling a kind of Rorschach on the audience.

      You COULD interpret the line as “behavior of saint, appearance of devil” but contemporarily it could ALSO read as “social regard of saint, actual behavior of devil.” Any confusion on the audience’s part is a deliberate effect.

      Never underestimate the Bard.

    • Look at the scene where she actually meets him. He starts out raising the issue of his looks:

      Mislike me not for my complexion
      The shadow’d livery of the burnish’d sun,
      To whom I am a neighbor and near bred…

      To which she then replies:

      In terms of choice I am not solely led
      By nice direction of a maiden’s eyes…
      But if my father had not scanted me
      And hedged me by his wit, to yield myself
      His wife who wins me by that means I told you,
      Yourself, renowned prince, then stood as fair
      As any comer I have look’d on yet
      For my affection.

      (Although, she’s shown so much indifference to all her European suitors, it’s really not much of a compliment.) And don’t forget the song she plays for Bassanio, to hint the right way:

      Tell me where is fancy bred,
      Or in the heart, or in the head?…
      It is engender’d in the eyes,
      With gazing fed; and fancy dies
      In the cradle where it lies.
      Let us all ring fancy’s knell
      I’ll begin it,–Ding, dong, bell.

      ….her philosophy doesn’t put looks in first place. She wants a love match, nothing more or less, and bends the rules to get it.

  3. btw, from the OP: He chooses poorly, fails Shylock’s test….…the test is not Shylock’s, but Portia’s late father’s. (Feel free to delete this post.)

    • >btw, from the OP: He chooses poorly, fails Shylock’s test….…the test is not Shylock’s, but Portia’s late father’s. (Feel free to delete this post.)

      No. I’ll do that for typos, but when I goof on a matter of fact, honesty requires that I leave the correction on the record.

  4. Could it be that you meant to type “physiological” instead of “psychological” here:
    [ed: in Elizabethan English “complexion” could mean a person’s character or psychological presentation]

  5. I never read ‘racism’ into Portia’s parting comment. That wouldn’t really make much sense, as ‘racism’ as an intellectual concept didn’t exist until the late 1880’s. Retrospectively, we could judge certain attitudes/mores to be ‘racist’, but that’s not how the people of the time thought of it. Mens rea, and all that.

    He talks about his ‘complexion’ relative to the sun, and how it darkens his skin. Portia may be partly expressing a preference for lighter skin, but I think there’s more being said than simply this. Shakey is devilishly sly about such things.

    • Indeed, the whole point of her father’s test is to get rid of suitors who judge by appearances, and possibly to prevent Portia herself from doing the same. As shown in the congratulatory poem Bassanio finds in the [Spoiler Alert!] lead casket:

      “You that choose not by the view,
      Chance as fair and choose as true!”

      (His long speech before he opens the casket is all on the same theme; her reply to Morocco indicates she thinks the same. “Yourself, renowned prince, then stood as fair…” may be another double-meaning.)

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