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Home :: Archive :: 2011 :: August ::
Merchant of Venice in a Las Vegas Setting

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 22.0188  Wednesday, 3 August 2011

[1] From:         David Bishop < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
     Date:         August 1, 2011 4:03:54 PM EDT
     Subject:     Re: MV

[2] From:         Stuart Manger < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
     Date:         August 1, 2011 4:14:36 PM EDT
     Subject:     Re: Merchant of Venice in a Las Vegas Setting

[3] From:         Nicole Coonradt < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
     Date:         August 1, 2011 5:52:20 PM EDT
     Subject:     Re: MV

[4] From:         Donald Bloom < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
     Date:         August 2, 2011 9:26:16 AM EDT
     Subject:     Re: MV


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:         David Bishop < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
Date:         August 1, 2011 4:03:54 PM EDT
Subject:     Re: MV

Bob Projansky's evident and justified pain at contemplating anti-Semitism as it has operated in the real world informs his reading of the Merchant, as it does that of many critics. To understand what's wrong with this view is not easy. It requires both a knowledge of the context in which Shakespeare wrote and a certain detachment from our own context, especially our awareness of the real anti-Semitism of cruelty, pogroms, expulsions, and ultimately the Holocaust.

You can call the Merchant an anti-Semitic play, in that it uses the figure of the Jew, a stereotyped literary and cultural villain, to appeal to the audience's ready-made attitudes. But then this villainous Jew tells the audience that Jews and Christians are identical in taking revenge. There may be a slight difference, in that Shylock says he will better the instruction, but this instruction comes from Christians--which makes them, unlike Shylock, hypocrites: another difference. But the main emphasis is on sameness. This is ironic, since Christians are supposed to know that God opposes revenge. Shylock, who does not believe in the Christian God, does not--in this play (let me say that again: in this play)--believe in a God who prohibits revenge. What judgment should he fear, in showing no mercy, when he's doing no wrong? This is a character who is not a real Jew so much as a man who is an anti- or, as I would say, an un-Christian.

The whole argument is long, and I'll only mention a few points. When Antonio thinks Shylock is lending money interest-free, he says, "Hie thee, gentle Jew. The Hebrew will turn Christian, he grows kind." This is one important piece of evidence that it is Shylock's behavior, not his Jewishness in the religious sense (as opposed to the sense, for example, "usurer") that Antonio hates.

The line about Leah's ring carries a lot of weight in modern criticism, I think more than it can bear. If we must think further about Jessica's relation to the ring, I take it that her trading it away for a monkey shows that Shylock did not tell her it was her mother's. A monkey, by the way, I think represents, here, liveliness and fun. Jessica's behavior is extravagant, but that shows that she is reacting against a lifetime of subjection to her father's stinginess. More likely, I think, Shakespeare meant this reference to show that Shylock knows his jewels individually, and cares more about them than he does about his daughter. This overvalued ring is counterpoised with the later story of Portia's ring, which can be given away in extreme circumstances and then later re-consecrated, to show that the material object is only a symbol of the immaterial love. The object itself should not be fetishized.

Finally, without the forced conversion we would hardly feel Shylock had been punished at all for his attempted murder. He keeps half his goods, while the other half will go to his heirs on his death. From a Christian point of view--Elizabethan Christian, that is--the conversion is not entirely a punishment; it's more like his only chance of salvation. But it also means that Gratiano, who has not learned the lesson of justice and mercy taught by Portia and Antonio, can't lead a lynch mob, outside the court, to string Shylock up. Shylock is removed as a potential object of hate, leaving the audience with nothing left to hate but un-Christian behavior, of the kind shown by Gratiano, though not by the other characters. Antonio's spitting and spurning is not as bad as we take it to be, since it's inspired by Shylock's cruelty. It's also less disgusting than we might think, judging by Adriana's saying, in CoE, that if she were to commit adultery, as her husband does, he would "spit at me and spurn at me" (2.2.138). It's an expression of anger, an anger that in Antonio's case I believe we are supposed to take as justified.

These are only a few suggestions, which I don't expect will do a lot of immediate good.

Best wishes,
David Bishop

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:         Stuart Manger < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
Date:         August 1, 2011 4:14:36 PM EDT
Subject:     Re: Merchant of Venice in a Las Vegas Setting
 
I like Bob Projansky's weighty balancing act.

Like him, but as a director of the play, I kept finding myself faced with ambivalence, in which the sheer intensity of Shakespeare's language at almost every turn forces the director / actors / audience into hasty re-thinks of whatever position they may have taken up mere minutes before. Very disconcerting.

I came to truly loathe the bully-boy Christians, all street snigger and gang swagger, filthy jokes, chauvinism, loud demagoguery, interrupting a legal process, and then having the nerve to claim virtue.

But then, just when you begin to sense more than a smidgeon of sorrow for Shylock, he steps up the relentless, disingenuous and self-deceiving pursuit of Antonio out of a very complex, but blind hatred and revenge masked in public as a mere business deal - nay, a jokey business deal - only to let the mask slip to reveal a warped obsession. Jessica drives that, I fully accept, and she behaves appallingly, and knows she is. Shylock's fear of what her defection reveals about HIM and his behaviour towards her as father, for all his self-pitying bluster - truly scares him. The fear of abandonment and loneliness sweeps him,  his shortcomings as a father revealed in front of the rest of the Jewish community [ importance of family?], and OUR ringside view of the dreadful way he virtually imprisons Jessica - all that gets to him.and Antonio is the nearest thing to kick and maim. Such that when he has his enemy down, he goes for it. Yes, I can see all that

But here's the hassle for the director: you simply cannot retain all those ambivalences in a production. You have to take some kind of line, you rule things in, you rule things out, and the play suffers. At least the modern director does because the modern director feels he should take a line. Shakespeare's company had no such megalomaniac figure directing, informing, shaping, constructing an image of the play and getting the puppets to act it out.

Stand back from MoV for a bit, and it is the most bewilderingly puzzling 'comedy', closer in so many ways to 'the Problem Plays' corrosive mysogyny. It owes much to a whole concatenation  of conventions as Bob Projansky indicates, but in the end disappears into the under brush leaving you with a salamander tail in your hand and a bit short on explanations.

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:         Nicole Coonradt < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
Date:         August 1, 2011 5:52:20 PM EDT
Subject:     Re: MV

RE:  Bob Projansky's post:

First, kudos, Projansky-- and I was happy to read the post in full!

MV is a play that plays with inversions throughout: a "comedy" that really isn't--resolutions and marriages aside, "all that glisters is not gold," as Projansky notes, the caskets, etc., etc.--so many lines that alert us to this, that tell us pretty unambiguously to read "between" the lines because things are not what they seem.  Because of censorship and the laws, nothing can be said opening to question the establishment, so it must be cryptic.  That’s why the theater has long been seen as a dangerous media—even in the twentieth century and probably this minute, someplace, if not many places, in the world.

To support this idea I would cite playwright John Freedman (see bio here: http://johnfreedman.webs.com/bios.htm), who just won a prize for his latest play, Dancing Not Dead, quoted in The Claremont Courier (local paper of Claremont, CA, his hometown):

"Theatre should encourage us to make discoveries. It should disturb us. Rouse us. Irritate us. Make us realize what sort of world we live in.”

Of the prize-winning play he says:  "It's a very large play about the world we live in, where news has become entertainment and politics is synonymous with lies."

Anyway, I don’t know that much has changed re the usefulness or place of theater since Shakespeare’s day.   Shakespeare was trying to deal with and expose all that was disturbing and irritating in his world, to rouse people to action (the point of rhetoric), even as he also celebrated what was beautiful and praiseworthy.  This is the dual role of the poet, rhetorically, and he saw it as his duty (as did contemporaries the likes of Sidney, Puttenham, et al.), handed down through the centuries, to censure bad princes—even when they were sometimes women. I find this passage in Projansky’s post especially useful: "Then, when Shylock has been taken down, his life is spared at the cost of his religion. Can this putative saving of his soul really be for the greater glory of anyone’s god if it forces him into a kind of ultimate treason against himself? If it demands that he profess what he doesn’t believe? Can it really be religious to inflict all that misery upon him just to ring up one more soul on the Christian tally board? If he will only go through the motions and outward displays? If it will breed that much more hatred in him? Doesn’t the painful knockdown over this one man’s religion hint at the foolishness and criminality of ordering anyone’s religiosity by law, or, even worse, making war and hanging and burning people for religion? Shakespeare came from a Catholic family, so these were not abstract questions for him in an England only two generations into the Reformation."



I also wanted to reply belatedly to what Joe Egert said last week (I was out-of-state traveling and only had limited internet access to follow this; never found the prior posts to which he is responding/citing so I apologize for that).  I figure while I'm here, especially since these issue are related, I’ll respond:

“JD Markel notes, ‘Nicole Coonradt correctly points out that Christianity does not promote forced conversions’

JE: Nicole, do involuntary baptisms of non-Christian minors and their subsequent kidnapping count as forced conversions?”

I’m unsure how Markel presented what I said, not having seen the prior posts, but the point of Christianity is love and forgiveness.  My point always is that Shakespeare is writing in a time of religious persecution—heinous and unrelenting—and that his play shows us hypocrisy.  I don’t know if Egert is referring to then or now, that isn’t specified.  In terms of the play, however—the message of which is relevant to us NOW because we do not live in a time of absolute tolerance, religious or otherwise regardless of what anyone wants to think or say—the questions, as Projansky points out, are not abstractions and in Shakespeare’s day those who were in charge, as a result of the power shift in Reformed England, were anything but tolerant or merciful.  They were not practicing love for their neighbors, turning the other cheek, etc.

Anyway, I think this is threatening to eclipse Projansky’s post in length, so I’ll sign off now.

Best regards,
Nicole Coonradt
University of Denver

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:         Donald Bloom < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
Date:         August 2, 2011 9:26:16 AM EDT
Subject:     Re: MV

Since Bob Projansky takes me to task by name, I find myself constrained to offer another set of brief comments:

1 -- The play is commonly being read as if it had been written at the end of the 20th century, rather than at the end of the 16th.

2 -- The number of people who are embarrassed by anti-Semitism has grown hugely in the past hundred years or so. (Many of us are, indeed, sickened by it.) But prior to that time it was taken for granted, so much so that people were hardly aware of it.

3 -- Faced with the embarrassment of the manifestly anti-Semitic undercurrent of MOV, people naturally want to assume that Shakespeare was aware of anti-Semitism and criticizing it.

4 -- Pursuant to that end, they demonize Antonio, exonerate Shylock and thus relieve the playwright from the charge of bigotry.

I consider this a mistake. While they are right, in my mind, to be embarrassed, or, better yet, sickened by anti-Semitism, they are wrong to exculpate Shakespeare. Some time ago I faced what I consider to be the facts about the play and got over it. He lived when he did, Europeans believed what they believed, and he wrote within that context.

Cheers,
don

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