If and It and the Human Condition: Considerations Arising from a Reading of the Merchant of Venice1*

By Leimberg, Inge | Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

If and It and the Human Condition: Considerations Arising from a Reading of the Merchant of Venice1*


Leimberg, Inge, Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate


In the Myth of Er at the end of Plato's Republic we are told how the spindle of necessity, turned in the womb of eternity, produces the turning of the spheres2; the cosmic implications make it quite clear that in this case "necessity" does not mean compulsion but lawfulness.3 The daughters of necessity are the fates, and in the womb of Lachesis (the fate of the past) there are lots from which the unborn souls are told to make their choice; they are admonished to choose the middle way and avoid excess.

It would not be far wrong to say that The Merchant of Venice is a variation on this theme, since having to choose one's law is the paradigmatic conditio humana set forth in this play.4 Conditio derives from condo, meaning 7 do or put together (e.g., the parts of a contract).5 In Cooper's large selection of English denotations of Conditio we find, coupled together as if the terms were offered to Shakespeare on a plate: "Election or choice. A covenant, law/' The last word is left, as nearly always in Cooper, to Cicero: "Conditio humana. Cic. The state or condition of."6

In The Merchant of Venice "choice," "covenant" (or bond), and "law" are as closely related thematically as the words lego and lex are related etymologically (they really are, it is not a wishful etymology of Cicero's own making).7 Playing his part on the stage of life and destined to have much ado with learning to know himself, man enters into bonds of friendship or love or commerce, and doing so he cannot but choose8 his law and make all his further choices according to it.

Trying to approach the problem of an existential condition involving law and choice, the reader most readily takes hold of the fact that condition has a linguistic meaning. The word looms large in the indexes of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Since Shakespeare expressed his ideas in the language of poetry (not music or painting), perhaps the linguistic denotation of condition might be considered to be the "literal" one. The conditional clause is what would very probably have sprung first to the mind of someone educated in an Elizabethan grammar school, who would be conscious of the syntactical intricacies entailed but very probably unaware of the formidable mass of learning that "condition" incorporates. Boethius's booklength study De hypotheticis syllogismis is an outstanding example.9 In a more episodic manner the term occurs in a source I feel increasingly sure to have been a favourite of Shakespeare's: in Plutarch's The E at Delphi one of the manifestations of the oracular "E" is the "e?" (if), the conditional conjunction of logical syntax. And this is Plutarch's commentary:

Certainly in logic this copulative conjunction has the greatest force, inasmuch as it clearly gives us our most logical form, [...] the hypothetical syllogism [which] no creature other than man apprehends. (386f-387a)10

Plutarch's attribution of "the greatest force" to the e? foreshadows Touchstone's dictum "much virtue in If" (AYL 5.4.90-101). And Shakespeare and Plutarch also think very much alike with regard to the specific meaning of the powerful if In Plutarch's philosophical reasoning it summarizes the hypothetical syllogism, which is reserved exclusively for man's intellectual activity. In Shakespeare's poetry it occurs in phrases like Portia's "If you do love me, you will find me out" (MV 3.2.41), and Rosalind's "I'll have no father, if you be not he" (AYL 5.4.120). In both cases the conditional conjunction marks a human being's existential choice, that is to say, a choice that implies choosing a law. When Portia encourages Bassanio to make his choice, she repeats her initial choice, filial piety, because, as I will show later on, the assurance she gives Bassanio is based on her father's benevolent will. Rosalind, choosing her father, chooses her heritage, to which she is bound by the laws of nature as well as by the religious law of filial piety. In these two instances (characteristic ones for Shakespeare, it seems to me) choice and law are made to agree as perfectly as in Cooper's series of English equivalents of Latin conditio: condition, choice, and law. …

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