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Home :: Archive :: 2011 :: January ::
SBReviews_12: Janet Adelman's Blood Relations
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 22.0004   Friday, 7 January 2011

From:         Hardy M. Cook <
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Date:         Friday, January 7, 2011       
Subject:      SBReviews_12: Janet Adelman's Blood Relations

SBReviews_12:  

Janet Adelman. _Blood Relations: Christian and Jew in The Merchant of Venice_.  Chicago and London: 
University of Chicago Press, 2008.  ISBN-13: 978-0-226-00681-9; xi + 226pp. US$35.00.

Reviewed by Murray M. Schwartz, Department of Writing, Literature and Publishing, Emerson College

This bold and brilliant book was the last scholarly work of Janet Adelman's exemplary career as a teacher 
and interpreter of Shakespeare.  Aptly entitled "Strangers within Christianity," the opening chapter of 
_Blood Relations_ begins by confronting the perception of Jewish intrusion into "Christian" Renaissance 
studies when she and many other Jews, myself included, began academic careers in the 1960s.  Her book is 
in part a response to that fear of inordinate Jewish presence among Shakespeareans, which she immediately 
links to her central theme, the troubling status of Jews within Renaissance Christian history, theology, 
and _The Merchant of Venice_ itself. 
      
_Merchant_ is a play of interiors and exteriors, insiders and outsiders.  In this intricately, sometimes 
obsessively argued book, Adelman shows how Shakespeare's overdetermined text encodes -- both concealing 
and revealing -- fantasies and theological arguments about the presence and place of Jews and Jewishness 
in allusion, metaphor and dramatic structure. _Merchant_ is replete with instances of literal and 
metaphorical outsides and insides, purses and persons, disguises and revelations.  In Adelman's reading, 
virtually every aspect of the play is shown to be embedded in theological and cultural discourses about 
purity of blood, discourses that have yet to outlive their currency.  As "a figure for the disowned other 
within the self" (12), the sifting signifier of "the Jew" retains much of its problematic tenacity to 
this day in the contentious commonalities and rivalries of Abrahamic societies, making this book both an 
indispensible contribution to Shakespeare studies and a commentary on some of the most persistent 
conundrums and conflicts in Western history.
      
In _Blood Relations_ Adelman foregrounds the dream-like strategies of dramatic and linguistic structure 
that encode the "day residue" of the culture surrounding the play -- the biblical texts and shared 
imaginings that thread through sermons, plays, and historical narratives.  Her readings owe much to her 
psychoanalytic insights into the ways dramatic form -- especially Shakespeare's displacements into poetry 
of telling fantasies -- enacts in its "subterranean logic" (87) the tensions that are hidden in the 
play's overt features.  For example, she reads Graziano's passage about the "prodigal" barque that 
returns "Lean, rent, and beggared by the strumpet wind" at 2.6.14-19 as an oblique representation of "the 
bodily danger inherent in lovemaking" (102).  Similarly, the reported rupture in Antonio's ships points 
to the split in Antonio himself.  "For the innards concealed in the prologue in effect spill out 
dreamlike into the action of the play, into a plot that threatens to open him up and a set of literalized 
metaphors that express what he does not want to know that he has within" (115).  In every chapter, 
Adelman illuminates the ways apparently gratuitous elements (e.g. Jessica's disguise as a boy) become 
meaningful aspects of the play's design.
      
One of Adelman's achievements is to show how the play and its cultural moment paradoxically both 
reinforce and resist secure oppositions at every turn.  For her, the text of _Merchant_ is haunted by 
ambiguities, ambivalences, and anxieties in both proto-capitalist Venice and the Belmont of fairy-tale 
exchanges.  Opposites interpenetrate more troublingly than in any other Shakespearean comedy, threatening 
the tone of the play at crucial junctures in the action, and casting the stability of individual and 
group identities into doubt.  As Portia says, "Which is the merchant here?  And which the Jew?" 
(4.1.176).  Nowhere is Shakespeare's preoccupation with doubles and foils more problematically present. 
      
It should be said, however, that Adelman's arguments are often so complex in their interweaving of 
biblical, historical, and textual elements that they must be read (and re-read) carefully to grasp both 
their logic and their import in the play's meanings.  They defy easy summation but repay concentrated 
study.  One of the book's strengths is its powerful expose of the logic of cultural exclusion and racism 
in general.  A whole series of binaries are shown to be both fixed and fluid: Venice/Belmont, 
white/black, Christian/Jew, Moor/Jew, Christian/ Moor, spirit/blood.  "Two distincts, division none," in 
the paradox of "The Phoenix and the Turtle."
      
Adelman's introductory chapter frames and summarizes the book's purposes.  Each of the three chapters 
that follow is like an overlapping spotlight highlighting aspects of her central themes and intensifying 
aspects of the overall arguments about conversion, blood and the dilemmas of identity, and each centers 
on one character: Lancelot Gobbo, Jessica, and Antonio.  
      
The introductory chapter explores way in which _Merchant_ is haunted by anxieties that disrupt the 
"secure distinctions" between Christians and Jews in Elizabethan England.  At the center of her argument 
is the Christian preoccupation with the Jew as "the original stranger" within Christianity, and the 
converso as the hidden Sephardic Jew within the imaginary of Shakespeare's world.  As both origin and 
other, the Jew calls into question religious, national, and gender boundaries.  Adelman's careful and 
lucid interpretations of  "Sir Thomas More," the significance of London's converso community, Robert 
Wilson's "The Three Ladies of London," and John Foxe's "A Sermon Preached at the Christening of a Certain 
Jew" in 1577 converge on the problematics of "blood relations" and both the uncertainty and the necessity 
of conversion in relation to Christian triumphalism. 
      
In her second chapter, Adelman considers the "throwaway scene" of Lancelot's departure from Shylock's 
house (2.2) as a comic displacement that encodes anxieties about conversion before we encounter them in 
close proximity to Jessica's flight from her Jewish father and her theft of his ducats and jewels.  The 
story of Isaac and Jacob, a "pretext" for Christ's bodily ancestry and Christian Jewish origins, informs 
the language of Lancelot's dilemma about leaving the Jewish house.  As it both mirrors and parodies its 
biblical precursor, 2.2 reinscribes anxieties about fathers and sons even as it displaces them.  
      
Jessica's conversion is central to the third chapter.  In leaving her Jewish father, Jessica's betrayal 
encodes anxieties about the Jewish body and the Jewish womb.  Jessica may steal from her father's house 
and sell her mother's ring, but she cannot escape Christian uneasiness about her potential maternity.  
"The more Jessica appears to be 'a gentle, and no Jew,' the more vigorously her problematic lineage needs 
to be asserted" (75).  The threat of merger provokes insistence on differentiation; cultural assimilation 
reinforces racial alterity.  Adelman recognizes a convergence of religious and proto-racist elements in 
Jessica's role as she comes to occupy an ambiguous place in Belmont, at once insider and outsider, 
convert and stranger.  Jessica's body also presents a potential threat to the integrity of Christian 
blood in the proto-national Christian state, a threat Portia counters in her injunction against violating 
the integrity of Antonio's body. "Conversion, danger to the commonwealth, race, and miscegenation come 
together in Jessica's body . . . " (97).
      
Adelman's final chapter moves from Jessica's "ambiguously gendered" (101) body to the fraught issue of 
circumcision, claiming convincingly that the biblical story of Dinah "haunt[s] the edges of _Merchant_" 
(105), as "a kind of conversion story gone terribly wrong, with both parties to blame" (103).  It is 
Portia as Balthazar who must counter the threat of bondage to the old Law embodied in the trope of 
circumcision and literalized as Shylock's pound of flesh.  Antonio's unseen interior has a double 
valence: it hides the Jew within even as, in the idea of "circumcision of the heart," it identifies the 
true Christian.  The trial scene finds its scapegoat as it illustrates Shakespeare's diagnostic 
imagination.  "Though it creates a monstrous Jew as it reproduces the threat of circumcision and 
crucifixion in 4.1, it also allows us to see what needs that creation fulfills, for its characters as 
well as its audience" (112).

The meanings of Antonio's interior, however, are not limited to the symbolism of circumcision.  As many 
have recognized, his opening confession, "In sooth I know not why I am so sad," (1.1.1), masks erotic 
desire.  "Shylock both literalizes and gives an alibi for Antonio's initial desire to be unlocked purse 
and person for Bassanio, to be known inside out by him . . . As though only torture could extract the 
confession that Antonio wants both to conceal and to make . . . [in his] ambivalent desire for self-
disclosure" (120).  In one of Adelman's most eloquent insights, she states a deeper meaning as well:

>In its representation of Antonio's concealed inwardness and his ambivalent desire 
>for exposure, _Merchant_ seems to me to anticipate not only Hamlet's noisier 
>insistence that he has something inaccessible within but also his developing sense 
>of the self; and Antonio's ambivalent desire for self-exposure catches exactly this 
>dilemma of this private self in its most painful form.  (121)
      
Here Adelman draws on the psychoanalytic writing of D.W. Winnicott, who wrote of "the urgent need to 
communicate and the still more urgent need not to be found" (121).
      
Before the trial scene is over, Portia has reinforced the fantasy of the feminized Jew (for it was said 
that melancholy men bleed like women) and the masculinized Christian (in herself as Balthazar), 
transcending the gender division.  The play can then move to the Belmont of Act 5, which at once 
distances the anxieties of Venice and echoes them in its language of incision, inward searching, and 
prying into interiors.  Portia's triumph "seals off" the potential wound in Antonio's body as the play 
retreats to Belmont, "But the retreat is uneasy, for _Merchant_ seems to me everywhere haunted by what it 
cannot allow itself to know.  In its play of glib surfaces, _Merchant_ represents self-knowledge as a 
wound, and one that must be forestalled . . .  And once that knowledge has been foreclosed, the debt to 
the Jew -- the debt the play encodes as three thousand ducats for three months -- need never be repaid" 
(133).
      
In its textual focus, _Blood Relations_ is a fine complement to and extension of James Shapiro's 
Shakespeare and the Jews, and Kenneth Gross's Shakespeare is Shylock, to take only two examples of 
Adelman's recent precursors.  As in her previous books, Adelman's notes are models of erudition, 
professional critique, and magnanimous acknowledgement of the debts on which she builds.  Her mind 
absorbed and condensed an enormous range of commentary into eloquent prose that is at once summary and 
original.  
      
Adelman's final, brilliant success in _Blood Relations_ strengthens her legacy as a major figure in, 
psychoanalytic, feminist, and historical Shakespearean scholarship.  Not only does she answer the 
prejudices she encountered at the beginning her professional experience as a Jewish scholar, she has 
bettered the instruction.  _Blood Relations_ will be essential to all future interpretations of The 
Merchant of Venice.


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