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?


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 . . .”

Costumes for Sale

Interested in performing your plays when you are in front of the classroom? Here is your chance!

More than 10,000 costumes, hats, shoes and accessories, including a pair of David Tennant’s socks, from the RSC Costume Department, go on sale next month, at their rehearsal rooms, in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Get Juliet’s dress, or chain mail!

Harold Bloom on Shylock

Among a series of articles on “the Jewish Question” in the NYTimes Sunday Book Review for this week, this review by Harold Bloom of Anthony Julius’ Trials of the Diaspora reaches back to medieval and early modern europe. Along the way, Bloom makes this point about The Merchant of Venice:

a ‘perplexed unhappiness’ is the sensitive response of Julius, but I would urge him to go further. Shakespeare, still competing with the ghost of Christopher Marlowe, implicitly contrasts Shylock with Barabas, the Jew of Malta in Marlowe’s tragic farce. I enjoy telling my students: let us contaminate the two plays with one another. Imagine Shylock declaiming: ‘Sometimes I go about and poison wells’ while Barabas intones: ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’ It is Shakespeare’s continuing triumph over Marlowe that such an exchange will not work. Shylock is darker and deeper forever.
For Julius, The Merchant of Venice is both an anti-Semitic play and a representation of anti-Semitism. I dispute the latter: the humanizing of Shylock only increases his monstrosity. Who can doubt that he would have slaughtered Antonio if only he could?

This is interesting: the play is anti-Semitic, but one always wonders whether this moment on the street, just after finding out that his daughter Jessica has eloped with a Christian, lets us comprehend his murderous rage. I’ve always thought that this moment dovetails with a reading by (if I remember correctly?) Terry Eagleton, who wonders whether, at the point in the trial when Portia halts the impending extraction of the pound of flesh–“Tarry a little . . .”—Shylock should dart a knowing challenge at the audience that says “See? Christians will always find a way to persecute a Jew.” Shylock does want to murder, but his evil is at least matched by the Christians’.

Yet if I read Bloom’s point here correctly, his point here is that the moment signifies just the opposite. My reading becomes too sympathetic: Shylock remains more cunningly evil than Barabas–he would never be so blunt as to poison wells. He wants to tempt the Christian’s souls to evil by generating sympathy for his anger. His righteous fury becomes a rhetorical ploy: if “the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,” Shylock parodies Christian concern only as a ploy to justify his impending suit against Antonio. This is more than an Invention of the Human–it is evil that is underworldly.

I’m doubtful, however: what, for instance, of Shylock’s asides during the trial, about his daughter, back to whom his mind always seems to revolve? Is Shylock using his daughter “to play upon” the audience, as Hamlet would say, as he was playing upon Salerio and Solanio on the street? Am I being too generous of Shakespeare, or is there no possibility of reading a Jew as anything other than a figure for the devil in Europe before the Holocaust (or, as Bloom points out, at times after as well)?

A similar question appears in the next review in this section, of Emanuel Faye’s Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy. Faye apparently argues that Heidegger is so thoroughly polluted by his Nazism that his books should simply be avoided. Yet, “if this judgment were to become generally accepted, it would have serious consequences for the reputation of Hannah Arendt, whose name is so intimately linked with Heidegger’s.” And do we read Shakespeare as Faye implies we should Arendt? The Nazi delusion, culminating in the apex of a millennium of anti-semitic pogroms, was made possible by thoroughly imagining Jews as anything but human, as all that opposes what western culture has imagined as Human since Christ if not Socrates. This is true. Is a corollary of this that anti-Semitism a hermeneutic maelstrom which no European non-Jewish writer can escape?

I have an argumentative, but very honest, question: was Shakespeare’s imagination similarly so utterly deluded? Was his only feat to body forth the repulsive ingenuity of demonic evil, rather than to envision it as something astonishingly, horrifyingly, the product this world, in which we learn that the last act’s dreams of sweet moonlight and music, and the happiness of Portia, Bassanio, and Antonio, are only made possible by Portia’s ruin of Shylock–for how else but by such an awful (and, surely, illegal) authentication of her disguise could she have recovered her ring? Bloom makes an excellent argument that yes, bardolatry does delude us, and it took the Holocaust to tell us so.