Friday, October 19, 2012

An Enigmatic Verse on Fancy

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Poet and playwright of some note; English.

Tell me where is fancie bred,
Or in the heart, or in the head:
How begot, how nourished.
Replie, replie.

It is engendred in the eyes,
With gazing fed, and Fancie dies
In the cradle where it lies

From the Merchant of Venice.


I am very fond of the tests of characters which literary figures undergo in imaginary works like fairy tales, since they each have their own ingenious rationality. Sometimes it is a virtue to assist an elderly lady and other times an error, because one is transformed into stone by the lady (i.e. witch!) and must await the rescue of another and probably truer hero. Sometimes it is accounted a virtue to do their best to attempt an impossible endeavour — in one tale a maiden in a paper frock rather sillily goes out into the wilds of winter because her stepmother wanted her to do it — and in others the heroine can look at a pile of straw which is to be spun into gold, sit down and howl, and her fairy godmother or another benevolent entity will arrive shortly. Often the stories are divided upon whether people should deserve things — by means of virtuous positive effort or self-denial — or simply receive things if they have the gumption.


Illustration: Portrait of a lady by an unknown Italian painter (Florentine), dated 1475
in the National Gallery of Victoria, via Wikimedia Commons
The sitter is probably nobody's idea of Portia, but I find hers a very zeitgeisty portrait and her optimistic nose and strong chin seem to indicate some apportioned strength of will — and her attire seems to position her in the nobility.


There is one fairy tale which is the reverse of Shakespeare's casket problem: a lady wishes to attract her true beloved. She paves the thoroughfare to her palace with gold. The wicked brothers of the hero, like everyone else, think that it is a pity to besmirch this street by riding along it; so they turn aside. One would expect arrogant people not to be so considerate, so this part of the story is not entirely convincing — except perhaps in showing that these brothers' evil does not surmount a rather plebeian level. The hero, however, is deeply sunken in gloom; he does not notice the odd paving and so he rides straightway into a happy ending — marriage.

In Shakespeare's grand set-up, it is clear that the father of the Venetian lady Portia wishes her to have a suitor who neither sees people by, nor defines himself by, appearances only. Fancy, rather than love, is very much fed by appearances, and as ephemeral as these very same appearances. So he has given her three caskets — one gold, one silver, and one leaden — which are to be shown to her suitors. Shakespeare lets us (the audience) see Bassanio, the True Wuv, picking the leaden casket and thereby being permitted to marry Portia.

But before Bassanio opens the casket — and as he turns aside Portia's anxious plea to take more time to reflect before he takes the plunge and possibly puts himself out of contention — he muses about the choice, too; and the lines above are what he says. (As you may already know.)

I don't know why, but the little verse really sticks with me.


Source: The Merchant of Venice, in Shakespeare's First Folio from Project Gutenberg

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