I’ll share the opening and closing paragraph out of my talk at EMU last week, which is the early stirrings of a project on Shakespeare and the Pacific that’s rumbling beneath the other things I’m working on now. After claiming that this play has Shakespeare’s “perhaps unique” reference to the Pacific via Mexico, I remembered Rosalind’s invocation of the “South Sea of discovery” in AYLI 3.2 — but that’s as a place infinitely far away and unreachable. Which may be part of what the Pacific means to the Elizabethans.
In any case, here’s the opening of the talk —
I’ll start by noting that The Merchant of Venice is Shakespeare’s only play to mention “Mexico,” a word that came into English in the mid-sixteenth century via Spanish, probably from a Native American language (Nahuatl, OED). The play twice explains that Antonio has ships bound for this New World territory. The first time, Shylock includes Mexico among several destinations, including Tripoli, the Indies, and England. Later Bassanio elaborates an even wider network, repeating Shylock’s three and adding Lisbon, Barbary, and India. Spanish Mexico, with its gold mines and brutal history of conquest, spans the early modern Atlantic and Pacific worlds, so these references comprise not only one of Shakespeare’s rare mentions of the Americas but also perhaps his unique gesture to the Pacific.[i] Using worlds and oceans conjured by Mexico, I want to re-examine economic readings of this play. Merchant has long been the favorite play of economic critics, New and old, Marxist or not.[ii] I suggest that among the many binaries that distinguish the play – usurer and merchant, Christian and Jew, male and female, gift and market economies in Karen Newman’s essay – we should add the contrast between two different models of maritime trade. The first system, associated with Shylock’s Rialto, the economic history of Venice, and Mediterranean sea-lanes, establishes a local network of connectivity and inter-dependence. The second system, associated with Antonio’s dispersed fleet, Mexico, and the European encounter with the Americas and Asia, creates a deterratorialized, planet-sized oceanic world of immense potential wealth but little certainty. The play’s critique of economic exchange needs to consider the differences, as well as connections, between these two versions of maritime expansion.
[i] The only use of the term “America” comes metaphorically in Errors (3.2). “Indies,” a term that could indicate both East and West, appears in Merchant, Errors, Henry 8, Merry Wives, and Twelfth Night. “Bermuda,” an ambiguously American island, famously appears in The Tempest only. Other New World names such as Virginia and Peru do not appear at all.
[ii] For a collection that surveys the field, see Linda Woodbridge, ed., Money and the Age of Shakespeare: Essays in New Economic Criticism (London: Palgrave, 2003).
And here’s the truncated but eventually will become rousing conclusion, via Charles Olson —
I’ll conclude my talk with a very brief suggestion about what a “Pacific Shakespeare” might look like, taking Merchant’s gestures toward Mexico as points of departure. In asking for a reading of Shakespeare that embraces our planet’s largest ocean, by far the biggest single thing on our watery globe, I’ll employ the poet Charles Olson’s visionary reading of “Pacific Man.” This figure represents “the NEW HISTORY,” a radical expansion of space, reconfiguration of the past, and “confirmation” of a new future.[i] Olson celebrates Magellan’s discovery of the Pacific as exceeding Columbus’s of America, because in that new ocean “3000 years went overboard” (116). Against ancient worlds that were “locked tight in River Ocean which encircled it” – here Olson draws on classical geography – the Pacific represents the last opening, “the end of the Unknown” (119). This expansive vision inverts the anxiety and disorientation that both Shylock and Bassanio figure through Mexico. The global expanse that Shakespeare invokes only obliquely becomes, for Olson, an ecstatically globalized trajectory. Antonio’s ships, after sailing Pacific waters, come to road mysteriously, bringing nothing we hear of to Belmont. But the play also gestures toward a Pacific future, a world joining Mexico to Venice to England, and all of these waters to the English merchant ships that float, then and today, on all the world’s oceans. The imaginative presence of these alien waters suggests that hidden paradises cannot remain forever in isolation. I wonder what the merchant’s ships brought back from Mexico.
[i] Charles Olson, Call Me Ishmael: A Study of Melville (San Francisco: City Lights, 1947) 116.