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Politeness Protocols in the Merchant of Venice

In: English and Literature

Submitted By Elizma2811
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Nobility and aristocracy have always been associated with etiquette and eloquence – they have perpetually been regarded as the epitome of politeness in their day-to-day dealings. It is thus not surprising that Shakespeare’s characters in The Merchant of Venice copiously demonstrate examples of modals and politeness maxims that are “…[C]losely connected to the speaker’s attitude…[and] play an important role in language interactions (Nakayasu, 2013: 6).” throughout the play. Politeness theory, therefore, refers to the choices that are made in language use – the linguistic expressions that acknowledge that we have awareness of the public self-image or sense of self of the people that we address, also known as “face (Cutting, 2008:43).” The focus of this essay falls on the use of modals, principles of politeness and politeness maxims in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice to establish the attitude of the characters by means of their linguistic communications.

Modality – the grammatical category that is characteristically represented by the use of modals and the status of the proposition which expresses the event (Nakayasu, 2013: 8) – can be more straightforwardly described as indicating the attitude of the speaker towards what has been proposed. Examples of epistemic modality (belief in the factual status of the proposition) include: “I should not see the sandy hourglass run but I should think of shallows and of flats (Act I.i.25-26),” “Shall I have thought to think on this, and shall I lack the thought that such a thing bechanced would make me sad? (Act I.i.36-38),” “…[Y]ou shall seek all day ere you find them, (Act I.i.116-117),” and “You shall look fairer ere I give or hazard (Act II.ix.21).” Deontic modality frequently features in the play: “I pray you have in mind where we must meet (Act I.i.71) (obligation),” “A stage, where every man must play a part, (Act I.i.78) (obligation),” “You must prepare your bosom for his knife (Act IV.i.244) (obligation). While less prominent, there are also examples of threats and promises by making use of the word “will”: “We’ll make our leisures to attend on yours (Act I.i.68) (promise),” “I will not fail you, (Act I.i.71) (promise),” “I will fed fat the ancient grudge I bear him. (Act I.iii.44) (threat)”. Finally, distal modalities include: “…Would blow me to an ague when I thought what harm a wind too great might do at sea (Act I.i.23-24) (hypothetical),” and “I should not see the sandy hourglass run but I should think of shallows and of flats (Act I.i.25-26) (metaphorical). It is therefore clear how epistemic, distal and deontic modality, with the sub-category of obligations, as well as the components of threats and promises illustrate the speakers’ responses to their spoken propositions.

According to Meyerhoff (2006: 84): “People associate politeness just with ways of speaking that avoids causing offence by showing deference to another person." The most popular and extensively used theory of politeness is that of Brown and Levinson (1987) that explores the components of off record or indirect politeness, which enables speakers to address particular people but being polite enough to hide behind the literal meaning of the word, on record – baldly politeness that entails making a direct offer, suggestion or invitation that can also be used to save the hearer’s face, on record – negative politeness that does NOT entail being impolite to the hearer but instead focuses on being “overly-polite” and thus giving the hearer ample opportunity to say no, and, finally, on record – positive politeness that demonstrates closeness and solidarity between interlocutors (in Cutting, 2008: 46). In The Merchant of Venice, an illustration of off record politeness is as follows: “…To you, Antonio, I owe the most money and in love, and from your love I have a warranty to unburthen all my plots and purposes how to get clear of all the debts I owe (Act I.i130-134).” As far as on record – baldly politeness is concerned, I draw on an example from Act I.ii.108-110 where Nerissa attempts to make Portia feel better about her fate and give her hope (thereby helping her “save face”): “Do you not remember, lady, in your father’s time, a Venetian, a scholar and a soldier that came hither in company of the Marquis of Montferrat?” Concerning negative politeness, there are two examples in one scene – Act I.i.68-71: Salerio, Solanio and Lorenzo make it clear that they are at the disposal of Bassanio and Antonio at a time and place that suits them. The first example of positive politeness can be found in Act V.i. where Lorenzo addresses Stephano as “Sweet soul (Act V.i.48)” and “My friend Stephano (Act V.i.50),” furthermore, Bassanio addresses Portia as “sweet lady (Act V.i.214)” and “good lady (Act V.i.18)”. In Act I.ii.3, Nerissa refers to Portia as “sweet madam,” which is indicative of a positive relationship or friendship between the two characters.

Leech’s politeness maxims (1983) – tact, “minimising cost to the other”, generosity, “minimising the benefit to self”, approbation, “minimising dispraise of other”, modesty, “minimising praise of self”, agreement, “minimising disagreement between self and other”, sympathy, “minimising antipathy between self and other”, and consideration, “minimise discomfort/displeasure of other” (in Cutting, 2008: 47-48) are extremely prominent right throughout The Merchant of Venice. The maxim of tact can be found in Act I.ii.26-33 where Nerissa focuses on Portia, the hearer, in an attempt to remind her why she will benefit from the lottery her father has created. Portia also illustrates this maxim in Act II.i.13-22 where she tactfully reassures Morocco that she will not dislike him based on his unappealing appearance. The maxim of generosity is by far most prominent in the composition with the first example found in Act I.i.62 where Antonio states that Salerio’s “…[W]orth is very dear in my regard.” Another example can be found in line 87 of the same Act where Gratiano says to Antonio: “I love thee, and ’tis my love that speaks—,” and, furthermore, in Act I.ii.3-5, Nerissa addresses Portia as “sweet madam” and reminds her of her good fortunes. Shylock also displays usage of the generosity maxim in Act IV.i.300-303 by exclaiming that Portia is a “Most rightful judge!” and a “Most learned judge!” The approbation maxim is demonstrated in Act II.i.13-22 by Portia, who rebukes Morocco for his criticism of his own appearance and assures him that she will love him and marry him because of her father’s wishes. Modesty takes place in Act II.ix.16 where Portia refers to herself as “worthless,” as well as in Act III.ii.152-156 where Portia expresses her wish to be a much better version of herself so as to please her new husband. The maxim of sympathy is found in Act III.ii.242-249 where Portia expresses her compassion and empathy towards Bassanio and his friend, Antonio (297-321), and immediately declares her desire to help. The agreement maxim is found in Act IV.i.251-255 as Portia and Shylock negotiate the extraction of Antonio’s flesh. Finally, an example of consideration is found in Act I.i.153-160 by Antonio, who wishes to diminish the embarrassing and uncomfortable situation that Bassanio finds himself in by reassuring him that he has Antonio’s full support.

In conclusion, it has been made clear how different characters in The Merchant of Venice make use of epistemic, deontic and distant modals with threats, promises, obligations and hypothetical and metaphorical components to divulge their attitudes towards articulated propositions. Furthermore, the principles of indirect, negative, bald, and positive politeness have been implemented to give life to the way the characters interact with each other and highlight their relationships with one another. Finally, I have demonstrated that there are, indeed, many ways of being polite – especially by using the generosity maxim that will, in essence, verbally exalt the speaker’s opinion of the “other”, while highlighting that the maxims of tact, approbation, modesty, agreement, consideration and sympathy are still integral parts of discourse analysis – a modern notion that can easily be applied to a beautiful piece of classical literature like The Merchant of Venice.

Brown, P. & Levinson, S.C. 1987. Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Cutting, J. 2008. Pragmatics and Discourse: A resource book for students. 2nd Edition. Cornwall: Routledge.
Leech, G. 1983. Principles of Pragmatics. Harlow: Longman.
Meyerhoff, M. 2006. Introducing Sociolinguistics. London: Taylor and Francis.
Nakayasu, M. 2013. Modals, speech acts and (im)politeness: Interactions in Shakespeare’s plays. Studia Anglica Posnaniensia 48(4): 5-33.

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