Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Weight of Contractsˡ in The Merchant of Venice

 Something of a teaser before Friday night's Merchant of Venice reading...

In William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the bounds of the law are airtight—or so they seem. Portia’s dead father has stipulated the conditions for Portia’s marriage in his will. Antonio agrees to Shylock’s terms of a loan for Bassanio, agreeing to a pound of his own flesh as collateral. Portia and Nerissa make their husbands promise to keep their rings at all costs. The overarching concept of weight in The Merchant of Venice balances these precarious contracts on the scales of law.

It is unclear what binds Portia to her father’s will. Presumably, without fulfilling the stipulations of the will, Portia will not receive her inheritance. However, who is enforcing the will? Even Portia suggests a lack of enforcement when she states, “[S]o is the will of a living daughter curb’d by the will of a dead father” (1.2.24-25). The very person who wills Portia to adhere to specific terms under which she may marry is incapable of seeing his will carried out. Perhaps it is due to love and honor for her father that Portia will not abandon the will’s conditions as Nerissa seems to say: “Your father was ever virtuous, and holy men at their death have good inspirations; therefore the lott’ry that he hath devis’d in these three chests of gold, silver, and lead, whereof who chooses his meaning chooses you, will no doubt never be chosen by any rightly but on who you shall rightly love” (1.2.27-33). Nerissa also implies the soundness of Portia’s father’s reasoning and character. Even so, the weight of the will on Portia’s “little body” makes her “a-weary of this great world” (1.2.1-2). Contrastingly, Portia’s adherence to her father’s will still pushes the limits of that will. If Bassanio would only stay with her a while, Portia “could teach [him] / How to choose right” (3.2.10-11). However, she still falls back within the will’s bounds, recognizing that she is “forsworn” not to give away any clues (3.2.11).

Antonio, unable to pay Shylock’s loan, believes he must give up his life in order to pay the specified weight of a pound of his flesh when the promise of triple the sum owed to Shylock fails to appease him. Shylock in multiple instances demands revenge through “flesh and blood” even while arguing for the humanness of Jews (3.1.37).2 This repetition of the concepts of both “flesh” and “blood” throughout the play is reversed in the court scene when Portia, in disguise, resorts to the exact wording of the bond to decree that precisely one pound of flesh is granted Shylock, but he must find a way to take it without one “jot of blood” (4.1.306). This loophole threatens the scales of law, but they are able to remain balanced since it does not overreach law's bounds.

 Portia’s and Nerissa’s tests of their husbands creates a strange test of binding contracts. For some reason the women feel the need to deceive their husbands in order to see how faithful they are in their oaths to their wives, even accusing them of cheating and pretending to have cheated on them. Gratiano exclaims, “Why, this is like the mending of highways / In summer, where the ways are fair enough. / What, are we cuckolds ere we have deserv’d it?” (5.1.263-265). And, truly, it does not seem that the men have deserved this treatment. Indeed, because Bassanio and Gratiano actually did give the rings to Portia and Nerissa respectively, they did remain within the bounds of their promises. The “heavy husband” of each woman is made light of (5.1.130).

Measurements, scales, and weights define the law and contracts with utmost precision. However, the very weight of these contracts are made lighter by the ways in which the characters push against boundaries to find room for love and mercy. 
ˡ My thanks to Dr. Allen for raising the question of binding contracts at Dr. Farabee’s Sept. 29, 2011 playreading.
2 These words concern Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, but in the same scene Shylock goes on to apply similar images of blood and flesh directed at Antonio and those who would wrong Jews.

Works Cited
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. 288-317. Print.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The (Humanities) Adjunct Conundrum: It's My Career

The Perks of Adjuncting

That's right. I am doomed to have no job security whatsoever while my job is to teach just like any other college faculty member. But, not as like any other faculty member in other ways--this job I must do only "part-time" or, as I would state more accurately, even less so. And, then I must work this less-than-part-time job at multiple campuses simultaneously, which actually adds up to an average full-time teaching schedule without the pay or benefits at any one of them. I can't and won't pretend I am alone in this. I am only describing what I know so many other humanities graduate degrees are also experiencing because, most likely, they are not yet taken seriously in the professional world (despite other positions or part-time work experience along the way) and have been passed up for someone with equal qualifications but more years and experience in the position or its equal that would have provided a much more stable and secure full-time position (or, not to mention, part-time).

So, that leaves these degrees with the experience they do have--and, consequently, leads them to the one type of job they can get. All that slave-labor as TAs in grad school pays off in one way on CVs where it fails on business resumes since it proves to college department chairs or deans that the grad behind the teaching experience section can survive the 101 classroom gig and help to fill their colleges' ever growing number of sections for a small fee--one that will undoubtedly be accepted as one of their only options because if they don't take it, someone else will (not much to negotiate, there...). And why do they do it? Perhaps there truly are no other options available (or granted to them) for financial income of any sort. Perhaps they hope if they gain more teaching experience it will eventually lead to something full-time, or, more likely, hope that if they teach long enough somewhere, it will have to become permanent sooner or later--even if it's later. Perhaps it's simply pride: if they don't keep up with positions at a level more prestigious professionally than working retail, food service, or nannying, they will never achieve the kinds of jobs they worked and hoped so hard for in grad school, and their degrees will be for naught. But then again, perhaps that slave labor in grad school simply convinced them that the classroom was where they best belonged, and to pass up the opportunity to be there, no matter in what form or for what pay, became unthinkable.

While I may have arrived at this last conclusion myself (though not without a mix of several of the others), I also can't and won't pretend I wasn't grasping at any other professional- (or even para-) level full-time (or continued part-time) position I could get just to add any kind of stability to my material life possible. In some ways, I still hope that I will come to a point where one of these positions is available to me--or at least that adjuncts will gain some semblance of the slightly longer stability (or simply a smoother hiring process and better foresight for future appointments) that at least two campuses I teach at are in continued negotiations and speculations over. Yet, for all of the uncertainty, I have come to several more realizations.

For one thing, I love teaching, and I love what I teach. Teaching is the only kind of job I've had that I can't say I dread going to do every day. Even on bad days, once I get into the classroom, I'm "on" and don't have room or time for anything else because my students never deserve it--no matter how much some classes try to push irritable buttons. I have a habit of teaching Yolanda O'Bannon's short essay "Living What You Do Every Day" in my developmental writing courses because it reminds me that "you have to live what you do every day of your life, so better to do what you love." Beyond that, I probably love it because I find it rewarding. It is one of the more directly rewarding and fulfilling types of jobs, and I guess that keeps me reminded of why I like doing it. I also enjoy the fact (yes, I believe it is a fact) that teaching is the best teacher, and find that it improves so many of my own skills each time I get to try it.

Now, I've basically convinced myself that those reasons mentioned are the only ones I really need to be happy and satisfied with my probable life as a career-adjunct, but the common downsides have still attempted to thwart complacency in my status without wanting to reach for more. I have to admit, I often attempted to convince not only myself, but also others to whom I felt the need to justify my precarious position, by glibly listing all of the "perks" I actually experience as an adjunct that I couldn't in a higher status. Among these are included the seeming lack of authority over me; the random, but scheduled hours, which actually allow me to be home in between most classes and let me get other household tasks done bit by bit--not to forget the relatively few hours I am not able to schedule my own time unlike full-time 8-5s; and all of the meetings and committees I am not expected to be a part of, so I can simply come to campus, teach, and leave!

Of course, what I don't mention are the opposite sides of each of these. With no real attachment anywhere, I fall into the "adjunct void" in which I truly don't seem to belong anywhere or get to know any colleagues. Nor do I feel I have any real opportunities to try to make a difference in any of the institutions I work at as I might if there were a higher level of commitment to me as an employee of that institution or from me to it. The actual hours I teach classes may be far less than the standard eight-hour day, but every moment in between (even if I'm juggling laundry and dishes at the same time just because I may be at home) must be dedicated to grading and lesson-planning if I am to keep up or have any evenings or weekends free. On a larger scale, if I don't manage to get about seven classes a year, I won't make enough for my budget, and I never have the certainty that I'll be able to get them. Moreover, with only continuing "teaching" for my CV/resume experience list, it seems unlikely I could move into any more stable administrative or other professional type of full-time position that I might enjoy if teaching full-time (in title) never becomes possible.

Yet, despite everything, my biggest realization of all is how humbling this adjunct conundrum has been for me in teaching me reliance and trust not on myself, but on God. I have always been one to make things happen one way or another, and I've generally learned I can't rely on anyone else to make them happen. I like things stable and predictable. I have always felt that if something didn't work out the way I thought it should, I wasn't doing something well enough or that I went wrong somewhere. I would forget who was really in control. Having come into this direction in life working from semester to semester as an adjunct has obliterated all of my naive notions about my life. I have now begun to rethink everything it means for me.

In such an unstable, unreliable position with no worldly job security, after submitting my CV, or my name pleading for any opportunities, I can only pray and rely on God to provide. If He chooses that it would be best if I only get two classes to teach one semester instead of three, I trust (although sometimes that's still a work in progress) that he will see me through somehow, by either providing another opportunity or by making up for it in another semester. If nothing else, my lack of control and uncertainty keeps His prayer line on my speed-dial--at work, getting ready, on walks, driving between classes... I know I've been self-reliant for far too long (or so I believed it was I making everything happen as it should), and God made sure to show me that mistake. But, at the same time, he has graciously blessed me with an (unreliable, yet fairly continued) job I enjoy so much, and I praise him for such a rare opportunity. I also believe he has used this situation to show me that worldly wealth is truly only earthly and temporal. Through adjuncting, I've been earning, semester by semester, just enough to feel perfectly content. Due to these things, I remember much more often what is truly important, and I try more and more to direct my thoughts heavenward. I guess adjuncting has been a lesson in being satisfied with what I have and humble about where I am at, without having to constantly strive for more--which would still only be earthly "perks" anyway.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Lancelot of the Lake: The Burdens of Knighthood

Another close reading, this time examining the purpose of the knight...

There seems to be a problem with the definitions of Christian worth and nobility along with the definitions of knighthood and duty in Lancelot of the Lake. Lancelot has some very selfish ends to be in compliance with these ideals. But, it can also be seen how these ideals do not fit together quite harmoniously, either. Lancelot starts out with a pureness, an innocence, in which he spouts “noble advice” and simply feels it feels right address Lionel as his cousin (44). Lancelot also has a profound definition of what it means to be noble realizing that “all men are descended from one man and one woman” so a “great heart” is all that is necessary to make a nobleman (44). Lancelot is definitely a more spiritually connected being here than he seems to show evidence of later on. This rather inherent spirituality does not contradict what is said to be the original purpose of the knight as a protector of the church.

As a protector of the Holy Church, the knight is almost more of a symbolic figure as a soldier against evil, sin, and unbelief in the abstract sense. Literally, in Lancelot of the Lake, the whole of the knight and his purpose is a multifaceted metaphor for the Christian believer in general. The knight is the son to his mother the church, standing between her and evil (just as the knight’s shield is between him and the blows), to “protect” and “avenge” her (53). The knight should vigilantly defend the church as his hauberk defends the knight against attack (53). His double-edged sword serves both God and His people and the point signifies obedience to the knight—or perhaps this could be read, too, as obedience to the will of the Holy Church as the knight is a servant of the church? And the people the knight aids should aid him materially where the church should keep him spiritually through prayer and alms (55). This metaphor and the “two hearts” the knight is meant to possess are reminiscent of the Christian putting on the armor of God from Ephesians 6 and the idea of being in the world but not of the world from John (55). Where this separation and balance starts to become hazy is when loyalties, oaths, and the quest for renown and prowess become conflated.

Lancelot appears to become much more self-serving once he reaches knighthood. Even this he obtains through his own way. After this, we never quite see the same sort of spiritual connection so prominent early in the text. Certainly, Lancelot still seems to be serving the Lady of the Lake above all as he is carrying out her will for him by gaining immediate knighthood and carrying out all types of tests and adventures to gain his fame. However, Lancelot’s knighthood in practice (mainly meaning his carrying out of the Lady of the Lake’s predicted future for him) does not closely follow his expected role as defined in the beginning for knights. Even though part of that role is serving God’s people, which Lancelot would seem to be doing by serving King Arthur, it still looks like he is really serving himself. First, he breaks his promise to Yvain to return and goes off to aid Lady Nohaut first, taking leave of Arthur’s court a bit prematurely. In this, he serves his own desire for Guinevere to be the one to knight him, and the Lady of the Lake’s desire for his future—which in essence is also Lancelot’s wish. His love for Guinevere is then his new driving force, but also a selfish one (not to mention an adulterous, un-Christian one), on top of these others. Most peculiarly of all is Lancelot’s mostly unexplained need “to travel in complete secrecy, so that no one should recognize him, as he wished to win honour and renown (98). This perhaps makes his deeds appear to have a less selfish intent, but the result is truly greater renown as he becomes the mysterious knight—who is, of course, always recognized from his description by the queen, serving his more selfish end.

When Lancelot’s selfishness seems to have consequences, or at least when this friction between the loyalties, oaths, and quest for renown start to take effect, is in Lancelot’s conquering of the Dolorous Guard. There are some rather disturbing scenes of brutality that are described, and it is hard to distinguish just how Lancelot feels about all of it. The knights of the Dolorous Guard are problematic because they sincerely want Lancelot to succeed and lift the enchantments, yet they serve their lord, King Brandin, and do his bidding. On the other hand, they do his bidding because it seems they must in order for someone to be able to break the enchantments. But, where this is unsettling is in that these knights tell Lancelot this, making it clearly known to Lancelot. And, although Lancelot must understand this, he much more appears to ignore it in order to succeed. Lancelot continues to attack those knights who are being replaced even after their replacements arrive. Although this may be necessary to lift the enchantments, it conflicts with the moral and knightly code of mercy and nobleness. Moreover, the means by which Lancelot goes about defeating some of these knights is excessively brutal:
He went over to him, and struck him with his horse’s chest, so that he knocked him back down to the ground, then rode over him until he was quite battered, and unable to get up. Then he looked, and saw the knight lying in the stream, who was already getting up again. He went towards him, sword in hand, and struck him without slowing down, so that he completely stunned him and knocked him down again in a daze, and rode his horse over him also, as much as he had the other, so that he badly injured him and he passed out from the pain. (108)
Lancelot is also “forced” to kill those knights that were unconscious and unable to answer his command for them to become his prisoners calling on God to “never be his witness if he went on feeling sorry about killing them” (115). Necessity or not, these instances feel uncomfortable in terms of serving “God’s people.” What is worse is that there is no immediate gratification or relief for the people of the Dolorous Guard when Lancelot does not complete the lifting of the enchantments right away.
In the end, with Lancelot’s adulterous love for Guinevere, I am not sure we ever see his original innocence returned. As great a knight as Lancelot becomes, the sometimes questionable (or at least very hazy) things he has to do to get there make him much less admirable. Even when Lancelot weeps for some of the things he has done, it does not last long or hold much weight over him. But, at least these moments might show a troubled conscience—but then if they do, how is what Lancelot does as a knight following the protective order of the Holy Church?

Works Cited

Lancelot of the Lake. Trans. Corin Corley. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989. Print.