Category Archives: Early Modern

On The Merchant of Venice, again

I’ve posted about this before, pondering how to react to the play’s anti-Semitism. I’ve just re-read it again this week, and enjoyed a week of classes discussing it with a class of smart students who’ve been asking some very good questions that have helped to sharpen this.

When I wrote that earlier post, I was on the fence. I could still watch the play and wonder. I have to admit, though, having revisited the play several times since, that its repulsiveness has only increased. The problem is not that it doesn’t contain moments of beauty, or well-constructed drama, or subtlety. It is one of the plays in Shakespeare that contains no characters to like, but that’s not the problem either–this is also largely true of, for instance, Coriolanus, one of my favorites in the canon. The reason for my revulsion, I think, is that Shakespeare doesn’t just depict anti-Semitism or its results: he asks me to collude with him in it.

Shylock is cruel: “Who can doubt,” Harold Bloom asks, “that he would have slaughtered Antonio if only he could?” The famous passage in 3.1 when Shylock argues for his fundamental humanity against Antonio’s prejudice—”and what is his reason?—I am a Jew. Hath not at Jew eyes? . . . If you prick us, do we not bleed?”—provides a glimpse of his pain that might lead to sympathy. But Shakespeare brackets this with his ugliness: Shylock’s speech starts and ends with his desire for nothing but revenge, to cause pain, to “bait fish” with flesh. “The humanizing of Shylock,” as Bloom says, “only increases his monstrosity.” Shylock is using empathy, not embodying it. The nuances of Shylock’s vengeful fury that play out in the courtroom after a lifetime of abuse and the grief of losing his daughter are much more subtle than the demonic, miracle-play caricatures after whom early modern Jews were modeled, but the arc of his character remains thoroughly demonic: early in the play he gains an Old Testament legal power over the Christian’s life that he loses when he rejects an explicitly New Testamentary plea for mercy. Shakespeare’s Shylock is a demon, this argues, not just in the eyes of the Christians, but in the arc of the plot, of the world, itself.

And what of the Christians? They are cruel to Shylock because they are solipsistic racists who manipulate sacred institutions and values to satisfy their desires for money and sex. Really, what else are they? Terry Eagleton showed long ago that Portia farcically overturns Venice’s laws to satisfy her husband’s love for his friend–and, I’d add, her attraction to her new husband. And what court in the world would allow an imposter as a judge? When Bassanio learns of this, the fact only seems to inflame his lust: “Sweet doctor, you shall be my bedfellow.” After the agony this farce has caused, is this comedy? Only if Shylock is not human, and therefore only if Shakespeare considered his brief fantasy of Jew-as-human in 3.1 to be mere fantasy.

What’s more, Act 5—with its flirtations in the lovely green world of Belmont, where “soft stillness and the night / Become the touches of sweet harmony”—pretty clearly shows that tragedy wasn’t where Shakespeare was going. I see that at the start of Act 5 Lorenzo and Jessica tease each other with allusions to tragic lovers, but that’s over quickly, and would be a thin thread upon which to hang an argument that Shakespeare intends the outcome of their elopement to be anything but good. They are flirting, and any prospective tragedy has been exiled to their allusions. Jessica is as disobedient an early-modern daughter as Juliet, but unlike Capulet, Shylock can, apparently, lay no valid claim to fatherly respect.

Perhaps the only avenue we might use to appreciate the play’s hatred of self and other is to argue that hate breeds hate, and that the ugly crime of prejudice evacuates the world of all beauty. I’m not sure this works (if Shylock is a devil, any measures must be warranted, and still—what of the 5th act?), but even if it’s accepted, it’s as bleak a sentiment as one might express, since it simultaneously evacuates the world of hope, and nothing like it appears in the rest of the canon, not even in Lear.

It’s not just that the play becomes, as my students say of bigots and bigoted remarks, “ignorant,” but that Shakespeare asks me to walk out of the theater happy for the lovers and a world set right after witnessing their agonizing cruelty. Who could do this today, unless seduced by the fiction of “timeless” Shakespeare?

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Wilson’s Arte of Rhetorique

I will be teaching the History of the English Language this spring (o frabjous day!), and have been updating the timelines (one for Indo-European and archaic languages, a second for English) that I’ve written to use in the classroom. Here, and in the next post, are two new entries.

Thomas Wilson’s 1553 text has become a classic argument against the 16th-century trend of amplifying the English lexicon with Englished versions of Latin and Greek words–so called “inkhorn terms.” The relevant section of his book begins here. As with the slightly later trend to regularize English spelling (see the entries under Mulcaster and Bullokar), the key reason for this is anxiety about the influence of the ancient, elite models of Greek and Latin. Writers wanted to transform English–now, after the reformation, the official language of the state and church–into a language worthy enough to rival the literacy that they represented.

Scholars who argued for borrowing (including Thomas Elyot and George Pettie) and those who argued against it (also including John Cheke) all desired to elevate the literary status of English. The differences lie in method. Those who argued for borrowing saw Latin and Greek as models that might help English to advance. Those against inkhorn terms argued that “our tung should be written clene and pure, vnmixt and vnmangeled with borowing of other tunges,” as Cheke said (qtd. on Crystal 61). One side venerated the classics; the other the “purity” of their own vernacular. Both arguments beg for modern analyses of their respective educational ideologies.

Shakespeare used many inkhorn terms unselfconsciously, including many that don’t survive: note “exsufflicate” (Othello 3.3.186), or two words in the line this my hand will rather / the multitudinous seas incarnadine (Macbeth 2.2.59-60). He also mocked pretension in characters such as Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing who try and fail to speak in elevated terms: “Marry, sir, I would have some confidence [conference] with you that decerns [concerns] you nearly” (3.5.2-3); “Comparisons are odorous” (3.5.14); “Is our whole dissembly appeared?” (4.2.1). Other examples of this mockery include his Holofernes in Love’s Labours Lost, Ben Jonson’s character Crispinus in his 1601 Poetaster (in 5.3, he vomits up a number of words into a basin), and the famous Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals.

While many of these coinages are easy to laugh at (splendidious? adnichilate? temulent?–look up that one), many of these terms survive, indicating that they filled some kind of lexical void. Crystal gives good list on CEEL 60 that includes adapt, immaturity, and transcribe, all from Latin roots. The word vernacular itself, that first appears around 1600, is an inkhorn term. Taken from the Latin verna, meaning a “home-born” (as opposed to an imported) slave, its first use refers to the dialect of a specific place. A contemporary word that did not survive is vernile, similar to servile, that did endure. The word crystallizes well the elitism of trans-European Latin learning as opposed to local mother tongues.

On inkhorn terms and borrowing in general, as well as Wilson, see: Bailey 59, 271-74; Barber, Beal, & Shaw 187-90; Baugh & Cable 214-22 (including long selections from texts); Paula Blank, “The Babel of Renaissance English,” esp. 222-30, in Mugglestone; Millward & Hayes 225-27; Crystal, CEEL 60-61 (with brief quotations); Dieter Katovsky, “Vocabulary,” esp. 256-65, in Hogg & Denison; Lerer ch. 10; Susan Doran and Jonathan Woolfson, “Wilson, Thomas (1523/4–1581),” DNB.

For a full edition of the key part of Wilson’s text–including his full quotation from an exemplarily exsufflicate letter–see David Burnley, A History of the English Language: A Sourcebook, 2nd ed. (London: Pearson Longman, 2000): 216-21 (text 25). Text 31 (252-59) presents an edition of Love’s Labours Lost 5.1, featuring Holofernes.

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Exhibition and Museum Sites

I’ve been collecting sites for teaching, and one developing genre includes websites for museum and library exhibitions. Many museums do a great job of publicizing collections and current exhibitions: some who have decent collections in medieval studies include the Walters in Baltimore, the Art Institute in Chicago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Met (not that I get to see them as much as I’d like to!). While they have great galleries, though, most of their exhibition home pages are just on-line posters. Now, however, some are developing sites to be fully-fledged complements to a visit (or, a substitution, if you didn’t get to see it).

video about printing the KJV

This links to a video about printing the KJV.

An exhibition commemorating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, co-sponsored by the Folger, the Bodleian, and the Harry Ransom Center, has generated this wonderful site: Manifold Greatness. For academics, it’ll be a great teaching tool. There are short films about everything from its history to bookmaking (including class projects that could be adapted to university classrooms), timelines of the history of the Bible before and after the KJV, and a great set of references to later authors who’ve used it.

This winter there will be a new exhibition at the British Library entitled “Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination.” Here is a preliminary page about it, and here is a discussion on Medievalists.net. I have high hopes for the site (since I won’t be able to get over there to see it!). Here is coverage from The Guardian. A site as relatively large as Manifold Greatness might not be likely, but the BL has developed a lot of really great information for teaching and even for scholarship on its site: its English Language and Literature timeline, for instance, is dense with images and links to information elsewhere on its site; it’s one among several projects the BL has on line.

A third, perhaps unlikely, place to go is the BBC, whose history pages contain fairly deep sets of links, often connected to shows that will have video. Complementing the BL’s timeline, the BBC has a nice British History timeline that becomes a great way to access other information on the site through links on the entries.

John 1:1

John 1:1, from the Corbie Gospels

Exhibitions at the Met can be very generous in posting on-line images and discussion: here, for instance, is the home page for its exhibit Pen and Parchment: Drawing in the MIddle Ages, from a few years ago; it includes a large set of exhibition images.

Aside from museums, Special Collections departments at libraries have some wonderful sites as well: here is an exhibit from the University of Chicago library on “Book Use, Book Theory: 1500-1700,” for instance, which provides a more focused companion to some of the discussion on Manifold Greatness, as well as this recent New York Times article.

If you know of other on-line exhibitions I might have missed, please note them in comments! Remember when professors used to have to cart around sets of slides and film strips?

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A Poem for Today

Eke Lullaby my loving boy,
My little Robin take thy rest,
Since age is cold, and nothing coy,
Keep close thy coin, for so is best:
With Lullaby be thou content,
With Lullaby thy lusts relent,
Let others pay which hath mo pence,
Thou art too poor for such expense.

This is a bit of verse from George Gascoigne’s “The Lullaby of a Lover”; Robert Pinsky writes about it here for Slate (where’s he’s written several short pieces about Early Modern poems, if you search down this list). It turns out to be pretty deviously funny, and a bit lewd, in part addressing “my will, my ware,” and I think I might just have to teach it. It’d be a great parallel to Shakespeare’s sonnets about “Will.”

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The Witch of Edmonton on stage

The Witch of Edmonton, the 1621 play by Dekker, Ford, and Rowley, is on stage (off-Broadway) in New York City; it’s run has been extended through February 20th. Here’s a review today from The New York Times:

The play follows two main stories, which are only tangentially linked: that of Frank Thorney (Justin Blanchard), an irresolute young man who finds himself inconveniently married to two women, and that of Elizabeth Sawyer (Charlayne Woodard), the title character, a ragged and desolate woman who is scorned as a witch by the people of Edmonton well before she becomes one. . . . Mr. Berger elucidates the play’s suggestion that hearts are often divided, and that a devil’s easiest mark is an ambivalent soul.

Unfortunately, term will keep me out of the viewing area. But, if you’ve seen it, how was it?

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The Multilingual Globe

During the summer of 2012, the summer of the London Olympics, the Globe in London will produce performances all of Shakespeare’s 38 plays.

Here’s a bit of coverage about it. Each will be in a different language, and will be performed by a different theatre company.

Who gets Hamlet? “Sein oder nicht sein . . .”

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‘arry Potter and Renaissance Science

This exhibit is coming to my neighborhood soon: Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine. It’ll be at the UMPC HSLS, with some accompanying talks.

It looks like there are some interesting resources attached to the exhibit homepage. And it’ll be right around the time I teach Doctor Faustus this term, so maybe I’ll attempt to draw it in. If anyone has any suggestions how to connect this in to a Brit Lit 1 survey, I’d love to hear them!

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