In the Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare,the Christians of the play universally assume that they’re a nobler species than Jews, but Shylock insists that they’re no more pure than Jews and Jews no less human than Christians.Purity and humanity being conditions in themselves that are synthetic constructions that float above the ground like clouds, vaporizing and dispersing and without any fixed address. There’s no little pathos in Shylock’s speeches, even though his main purpose in the play is to be villainous. Both Shylock and the Christians have lessons to learn, before this play is over, about humaneness and humility.
” Endowed with the same truth of nature, the same feminine and earnest love, which you have always known in me…Have I deceived you? Then cast me off! Have I wronged you personally? Then forgive me if you can. But have I sinned against God and man, and deeply sinned? Then be more my friend than ever, for I need you more. ”
Miriam in The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It was inspired by his stay in Rome and was at once both a mysterious and penetrating look inside a different world, the world of the stranger, the outsider; perhaps and ambiguous morality where crime is grey zone, perhaps the end justifying the means. It is secretive people, leading secretive, desperate lives impelled to courses of action whose sources are deeply rooted, and perhaps misunderstood, or at least, defy judgment in the conventional sense.
Soon after the murder of a Capuchin, Miriam comes for help to Hilda, only to be rebuked sharply and turned away as a sinner. ” I am a woman” she cries in response to her friends lack of compassion. It was the rejection that most hurt Miriam, going to the heart of her sorrows, though not unexpectedly opening wounds that somehow the heart of ”the other” is somehow different, working on different level. Beyond the general terms of Miriam’s supplication, the sway and rhythm of her words seem to specifically echo the context and tone of Shylock’s famous self defense:
”I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same
food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter
and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?
And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”
Miriam’s plea for friendship is of course different from the moneylender, but it shares much of the same spirit and challenges, and is possible to be seen as Hawthorne’s inversion of Shylock into a feminine context mythologized as Biblicial heroine which was a brilliant juxtaposition of Shakespeare’s original literary form that pushed the issue deeper into the forest, beyond the limited dimensionality of Shylock by using the feminine spirit to androgynize a patriarchal issue through the introduction of the female gender into the equation. Who is Miriam? She, like all the characters in The Marble Faun are suffused with a quietly bilious sense of aging, fittingly projected onto Rome’s oppressive fragmentation and decay. Old archetypes destined to eternally recur and participate willingly in Hawthorne’s allegories of fall from grace. They all want to please the audience and radiate in the synthetic sun of the spot light.
I took a midnight walk in the ruins /Guess I was looking for your face I felt a chill in the air I knew then I was in the right place/ Turned over a blue stone just to see what it was hiding/ Out crawled a black snake And it laughed as the moon when gliding/ Walked through a burned-out doorway into a room whith a melted chandelier/ Thought I heard your voice and I called out, “Is anybody here?”/ But all I got was silence until the wind whipped up again outside I knew then that only something mortal could be brave enough to die ( Peter Himmelman, Midnight Walk in the Ruins )
Both Miriam and Shylock make an assertion of common humanity that is both uncomfortable to hear and asks a deeper question of how things got so far; that it would be necessary to degrade oneself by such pronouncements. At once a foolish egoism and and complete lack of dignity, but sourced in such deep suffering that any crime committed is mitigated and absolved by being in the rapture, or overwhelmed by forces beyond their control. The accuser and he accused are equally responsible for this denoument that prolongs a common destiny that neither has much desire to see; like Moses, they are wandering around the desert filled with vague desires and an overwhelming sense they will never enter the Promised Land. The powerful need the powerless, the people who control destiny and fate need those willing to to be strung along in a game of rigid morality in which both are seething with fear and rage. Both Shylock and Miriam would deny their rigid moral categories; they are immoral and also immortal. Eternal and without youth, Miriam’s request for friendship is simply the feminine counterpart of Shylock’s embittered gesture against isolation and discrimination.
The four principal characters are two, young Anglo-America artists, the pragmatist Kenyon and his love-interest, the angelically naïve Hilda; the young, passionate, “dark lady” Miriam, an artist of mysterious origins whose nature is cut from the same cloth as Hester Prynne’s; and the young naïf-primitive Donatello, an Italian count who serves at times as a tour guide to the three, seeks and wins the affections of Miriam, and defends her honor even to the point of murder. The central conflict is precipitated by Donatello’s murdering a malevolent Capuchin monk who stalks Miriam with a secret of her past, and the novel investigates the
felix culpa theme as a crime and punishment psychological drama in which the naïve come to know evil.
In one sense, a retelling of the Genesis story, with all the baggage of the moral sense of sin and suffering and the reaction of Christian guilt in defending what is perceived as a spotless impunity on the matter, and denial of any responsibility in the matter. Miriam, in fact, at one point treats Hilda’s loftiness with sarcasm. ”As an angel, you are not amiss; but as a human creature, and a woman among earthly men and women, you need a sin to soften you.”
The parallel Hawthorne evokes is hardly surprising. First he dwells on Miriam’s Jewish background, gives her a Jewish synonym, stresses the fact of her Jewish blood and details the hebraic subject matter of her paintings. Hilda, it seems, holds herself somewhat above other, more lowly humans in her quest to be perfect; this involves giving up what she considers to be the dangerously unfeminine dreams that impel Miriam and settles on being a copyist of art dedicated to religiously reproducing the Old Masters in the sense of a Shylock reproducing money through earning interest. It is Miriam who is given the difficult task of reinventing Genesis and challenging all the suppositions and pretexts that drive the other characters rather listless submission; She gains a considerable degree of narrative empathy before she is finally scapegoated, called a hysteric and imprisoned for murder.
The model whom she had her lover murder is allegedly the man whom her father had chosen as her husband and whom she has fled from this prospect of being pimped to. The father is a shadowy figure who places Miriam in the position of Kafka’s protagonists in The Trial and The Castle. Miriam’s passionate subjectivity exceeds the bounds of moral critique and this is far more dangerous a crime than the actual murder.
”It was just before leaving Rome that Hawthorne conceived the idea of a romance in which the “Faun” of Praxiteles should come to life, and play a characteristic part in the modern world; the catastrophe naturally resulting from his coming into conflict with a social organization for which he was unfitted.”