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Language must be raked, the secrets of slaughter-houses and infamous holes that cannot front the day, must be ransacked, to tell what negro-slavery has been.

from: Emerson, Ralph Waldo., Joel Myerson, and Len Gougeon. Emerson’s Antislavery Writings. New Haven: Yale UP, 2002.

Bruce Boehrer on The Merchant of Venice:

[I like him] very vildly in the morning, when he is sober and most vildly in the afternoon when he is drunk. When he is best, he is a little worse than a man, and when he is worse, he is a little better than a beast. And the worst fall that ever fell, I hope I shall make shift to go without him. (1.2.86-91)

The insult here is one that Shakespeare turns to again and again in his work, in ways that the present document seeks to document and explain. In effect, Portia’s words register a slippage of identity. As she seeks to understand the Duke of Saxony’s nephew in terms of the venerable and fundamental distinction between man and beast, the distinction sifts through her fingers, and she is left instead with an unresolvable ambiguity. On the one hand, the German suitor behaves in a way that Portia refuses to acknowledge as human; on the other hand his form and breeding and articulacy unquestionably exclude him from the animal world. The result is that he ends up in a sort of ontological indeterminacy–a linguistic in-between land whose existence is both denied and enabled by differential constructions of human and animal nature.

Work’s Cited

Boehrer, Bruce Thomas. “How To Do Things With Animals.” Shakespeare among the animals nature and society in the drama of early modern England. New York: Palgrave, 2002.