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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: January ::
Shylock Redux
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.079  Thursday, 16 January 2003

From:           Don Bloom <
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Date:           Wednesday, 15 Jan 2003 13:59:55 -0600
Subject:        Shylock Redux

Forgive me for bringing up an old issue, but it continues to amaze me
how un-thoughtful people still tend to be about questions of morality in
Shakespeare -- and with regard to MOV in particular. Because directors
(if they have first-rate actors) can make gripping theatre out of the
play while making utter hash of its basic values, then that must somehow
be what Shakespeare "meant." Everything is relative, and if something is
flat-out contradictory then it's a deliberate irony, with perhaps one
meaning addressed to the knowing sophisticates and another thrown as a
sop to the ignorant groundlings.

But if you look closely at what these people do, you find that the
issues are really quite simple. Take Antonio, for instance. He does
three things in the play: he insults Shylock, he swallows his pride to
float a loan from Shylock at the peril of his life, and he gives the
loaned money to his friend Bassanio to help the latter court the woman
he loves. Excuse me, but I don't see anything in that list that deserves
death. Even the insults are directed at Shylock because he's a usurer, a
loan-shark, not because he's a Jew. The insults are in bad taste, of
course, but that is a fairly recent definition of taste, and scarcely a
capital offense.

Or Shylock. Ignoring his early actions, what do we see Shylock doing in
the trial? Demanding the judicial murder of Antonio. His motivation is
pure spite, since the money he lent can easily be repaid now. His
motivation is simple hatred, malice, cruelty. (As I think someone noted
a while back, if you were looking for the Nazi in this play, it's "the
Jew.")

Do we see the difference in degree between Antonio and Shylock, between
tasteless insult and murderous hate? Good. Now, as this scene, the
near-victory of evil and the peripety that conquers it after all, is the
climax of the play, can we assume that this is the point Shakespeare was
making? I hope so. As a show, it's very exciting even when we know how
it turns out. As a work of moral thought, it provides reassurance: evil
is evil and good is good, and when the latter wins out society is much
the better, and we feel joyful about it.

There are (thank heaven) no thought police to tell us that when we
direct or write criticism about MOV, we have to follow this rather
obvious moral interpretation. But we need to count the losses from
undermining it. I think this is what too many directors fail to do.
Unable to face either the obvious (above) or the counter-obvious,
wherein Shylock is a pitiable victim of ethnic bigotry, they produce
versions in which everyone is equally despicable, that is, in which
there is neither good nor evil.

There seems to be a failure of a moral imagination in this. People don't
seem to be able to imagine themselves as the characters involved -- as a
man unjustly condemned to death and facing summary execution, as his
friend who is prevented from undoing the sentence by his enemy, or even
as the enemy, who takes great pleasure in the thought of having the man
who insulted him killed by the state (and in watching it happen).

Forgive me for being so long-winded, but I keep sensing that there are a
lot of quite brilliant people out there who are missing this, and in
turn missing many of the most important things about the plays.

Cheers,
don

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