I’m sure some of you had to read Merchant of Venice this year what did you guys write about?
Confucianism is an eastern school of philosophy detailed in the Analects by it’s creator Konfuzi. The philosophy deals with several concepts that propose efficient and righteous methods to live life, run society, and gain self fulfillment by.
PHD Peter King and his colleagues touch on one fundamental principle of confucianism called li in their book The Philosophy Book. They explain that li is a principle that concerns self identity being defined through human relationship and responsibility to others. A key component of li is propriety. Propriety is the quality of fitting into generally accepted social norms and values. Confucianism states one of these social norms is the way in which we treat other human beings in society. It also calls for positive and unwaveringly loyal relationships between five pairs; father and son, ruler and subject, brother and brother, wife and husband, and friend and friend. Although confucianism claims only five relationships apply to propriety I would contend that it exists between all individuals and institutions in a society. I would also say that the norms that are being conformed to differ from society to society.
In life it is important to realize that we are conditioned by the society that we are part of. Propriety naturally ingrains views, values, and folkways in our character throughout our life based on what society deems acceptable. This propriety not only influences our character it also drives our day to day actions and our feelings towards others. A prime example of how influenced we are by the need to achieve propriety exists in the play The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. In the play nearly all major events and conflicts that occur are caused by this societal conditioning.
The event that inspires the main plot of the play is when the protagonist Antonio agrees to take out a loan for his friend Bassanio, “My purse, my person, my extremest means lie all unlock’d to your occasions.” (1.1.138-139). When Bassanio asks Antonio to take a loan out for him Antonio does this despite it being a frowned upon activity and the loan having fatal consequences should he fail to pay it back. Antonio does this simply because he loves Bassanio as he is his dearest friend. This self risking and generous act is a result of propriety. Antonio has been conditioned to respond to Bassiano as such because his society says that it is important to be be generous and loyal to one’s friend. The antics that ensue as a result from this one action are really caused by society’s idea of how friends should treat each other.
Secondly the event that inspires the subplot of play is also a result of this relationship propriety. The character Portia agrees to adhere to her deceased father’s wishes pertaining to her courtship despite disagreeing with them, “I may choose neither who I would, nor refuse who I dislike, so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father.” (1.2.22-24). Portia’s father is deceased so her reason for obeying him is not to please him it is a conditioned response. She obeys him because she has propriety, she has conformed to societys idead that states a child is to always be loyal and obedient to their parent. This not only drives the subplot but it also influences the main plot as Bassanio is asking for a loan in order to participate in her father’s process.
Also all of the turmoil involved in the aftermath of Antonio’s loan is sparked by society’s conditioned and “normal” hate of the Jews in their society. The loan giver Shylock is a Jew and is scrutinized heavily by several characters in the play including Antonio. Shylock is even self critical of himself as Jew because he has been raised in a prejudice society, “The villany you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.” (3.1.63-65). If society had not raised him to be a villain he would not have been a villain. The actions he takes including making a callous stipulation for the loan are just attempts to have propriety and fit in with the villainous image that society projects.
Finally even the ending of the play is dictated by propriety. Antonio is taken to court by Shylock in order to claim a pound of flesh owed to him as a result of a failure to pay back his loan. The law system allows for this to happen because the loan conditions are law and the system is expected to uphold the law no matter what. Antonio legally owes Shylock his life and this is acceptable to the law because it was a fair bargain, however Antonio is also saved by the same propriety. A loophole is found in the law that negates the deal within the law and this condition is again accepted simply because it is also within the law “This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood.” (4.1.304). Everything in the play works out the way it does in the end because the law is bound by society’s idea of an unbending system.
In conclusion all of the major events and characters in The Merchant of Venice are all driven by propriety. The need to conform to society’s norms proves to be very powerful as a result of the the events in the play. Shakespeare really does an amazing of proving how much influence this principle has on the people in a given society. He shows that in order to understand an individual, an institution, or even a culture we simply need to understand their propriety.