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 desiring 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 a dramatic illusion.

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 is 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 does, it’s as bleak a sentiment as one might express, since accepting it 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?


World War I and shell shock

Here is another new HEL Timeline entry.

New words that appear, words that entered common parlance, and words that gained new meanings during this war include: air raid, antiaircraft gun, ack-ack, aerobatic (used to describe pilots), ace (as in a pilot), tank, blimp, sector, bridgehead, dogfight, enlistee, fighter (as in an airplane), strafe, gadget (which existed earlier in naval slang but came into more general use now), machine-gun, mustard gas, barrage, storm-troops, dud, slacker, trench foot, Potemkin village, Soviet, u-boat, press officer, cootie (a body louse), shell shock, draftee, ROTC, war bride, and, interestingly, post-modern.

A series of films made in 1917, and preserved by the Wellcome library, show a variety of manifestations of what they meant by shell shock. You can find them here on YouTube or here on the Wellcome Library’s site with a list of what the clips include (follow either of these links to avoid stills from related videos about horrific physical injuries). The films don’t depict vivid physical injuries, though some depict physical manifestations such as spasms and frozen limbs.

Many didn’t believe the condition was real, or ascribed it to cowardice. The injury speaks to the particular and new kind of brutality that men endured in trench warfare. Several suffer from uncontrollable spasms while walking “following spinal concussion after burial”; another patient suffers from amnesia except for an uncontrollable response to the word “bombs” (see at 2:00 above). Here’s a further discussion of the injury from the BBC’s British History site.

According to the OED, the word first appears in a British medical journal in 1915. It’s in quotation marks, which would seem to indicate that while it existed verbally, no appropriate medical term was available. The book Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases, first published in 1925, preserves a lot of language that came out of the war; its entry on shell shock says that after the war the term “psycho-neurosis” was adopted by the medical community to define the condition. This is a good example of how different communities deploy different terms even if they define identical objects or concepts, because words only make sense when they are embedded within the semantic associations provided by a community’s web of existing discourse. Later terms for the injury include combat stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It undoubtedly afflicted soldiers from earlier wars; according to this PBS Frontline documentary about the term’s history, after the U.S. Civil war it was called “Soldier’s Heart.”

See: Baugh & Cable 300-01; Hughes, A History of English Words 376-82; Bryson, Made in America 296-297; Lerer ch. 18 (a chapter devoted to language and war, though mostly from WW2 and after); Cable, “British History Timeline,” and this page off of it.

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.

A More User-Friendly OED

The OED changed its look last November. Actually, it changed more than just its look, since it also incorporates connections to other databases such as the Historical Thesaurus and the Oxford DNB. Over the past few months the OED has also started to chart some paths into the subscription-only database that is the dictionary. There have been for a while an array of searches that one could perform on the database–by date, source, and so on. Now the editors are starting to develop some more legible ways of interpreting the database, and to make at least some of these more publicly accessible too.

As an example, here is an essay on the First Dictionaries of English. It seems that the specific words linked to in the article are publicly visible. There are also links to the Oxford DNB, however, that aren’t visible without logging on, and neither is the link to the OED database that would describe Thomas Elyot’s dictionary as a source for entries.

Bengali Words in the OED
The essay is one from a page of essays called Aspects of English. This seems to be (hopefully is) just a sketch of what’s planned. There are few, at the moment, and they’re not lengthy. Hopefully the OED envisions them as more than just a marketing tool–I’d love to see these develop into an on-line library of interpretations of the database to which I could send students.

Another new way in, though this one only works by subscription, is a Timelines feature that charts the advent into English of words about different subjects (heraldry, social sciences), from different geographical regions, or from different language groups. The chart, for instance, illustrates when the 45 words in the Dictionary that originate in the Indo-Aryan language Bengali entered into English. This would be interesting to use in concert with the new Google Ngram Viewer that plumbs its book collection for word frequencies.

Unlearning an Accent

The New York accent to me is quintessentially American; it sounds to me like pastrami on rye bread, bagels, taxicabs, city sidewalks, book stores, baseball parks, thin-crust pizza, lines at the theater, and sidewalk stalls selling cheap jewelry and not-Kate-Spade handbags. I love just to listen to it. But, apparently, “’A New York accent makes you sound ignorant,’ said Lynn Singer, a speech therapist who works with Miss LoGiudice. ‘People listen to the accent, but not to what you’re saying.’”

Ah. Well that’s a shame. It’s not the way that I objectify the dialect, but on the other hand I would also argue that any kind of objectification tries to dismiss any desire the object might have to shift or re-constitute its identity–even if the objectification is apparently flattering (“Oh, but your long blonde hair was so beautiful!”). I’m not sure I like the result of all this, that the signs of a unique geographical and social identity must be edited out to allow for social or cultural movement. But then again, perhaps that’s easy for me to say. With a (largely) vanilla northeast U.S. accent, my speech usually doesn’t stand out.

It’s not just a desire to move out of the neighborhoods that softens the accent, the article notes, but also physical and cultural movement in:

That type of stereotypical accent, which survives mostly in black-and-white movies and television reruns, has been diluted by the influx of what linguists describe as Standard American English speakers from across the country, along with a decline in the city’s white working-class population, whose members tended to have some of the thickest accents.

The article includes a link to a phrase book from a 1938 city almanac (“Wahgoozidoo? Cynical dejection”). Since then, neighborhoods have become more porous and jobs are neither local or plentiful, as blue collar jobs once were. Globalization likes our dialects homogenized, like our cheese.

However nostalgic this is, though, dialects must be differentiating themselves today in media-saturated First World countries; language always will attempt to. Perhaps professional and technological dialects will become more prominent than geographical identities?

Evolving English

There’ll be an exhibit at the British Library over the next few months entitled “Evolving English.” According to the exhibit’s website, “In this ground-breaking exhibition, the roots of Old English, slang dictionaries, medieval manuscripts, advertisements and newspapers from around the world come together – alongside everyday texts and dialect sound recordings. Follow the social, cultural and historical influences on the English language . . . and see how it’s still evolving today.” Thank you, Languagehat, for the notice.