The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 22.0182  Monday, 1 August 2011

From:         Robert Projansky <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:         August 1, 2011 2:39:38 AM EDT
Subject:     Re: Merchant of Venice in a Las Vegas Setting

Donald Bloom says,

"The simple truth is that Shylock is a horrible villain whether he gets insulted and spat upon or not, and he is much more akin to the Nazis than to their victims.”


"I think it's a sad loss that so many people, caught up in modern anger at the anti-Semitism, are unable to enjoy the romantic comedy that Shakespeare wrote. But that is a battle lost, I fear."

David Bishop says,

"Evidently what Antonio hates about Shylock is the way he acts . . . He is not spurning and spitting on Shylock in the way we imagine a Nazi might have in Berlin in 1938. Shylock says Antonio mistreats him because he is a Jew, but what we see in the play is an anger, even hatred, based on the way Shylock behaves. The religious 'differences' take a different form than we're used to, and we have to learn to see the difference, to see what Shakespeare was trying to do, even if conveying that on the stage today is hard, almost impossible.”

I don’t understand all that straining to deny the patent anti-Semitism in the play. Antonio’s anger, David Bishop explains, is based on Shylock’s behavior, “what we see in the play”, and his spurning and spitting, he tells us, is not like Nazi spurning and spitting. But Shylock disagrees with David Bishop: he says Antonio is an anti-Semite, “He hates our sacred nation.” Who is right, David Bishop or Shylock? David takes his evidence from "what we see in the play” (emphasis his). Well, the play shows us only the last three chapters of the Antonio and Shylock story: Making the Bond, Antonio Goes Broke, and Saved by a Fraud. We don’t get to see the spitting and kicking or hear the nasty things Antonio has to say about him on the Rialto (although both give brief versions of that backstory). And Judge Bishop accepts what Antonio says on its face, a courtesy he does not extend to Shylock.

Shakespeare’s choice of Venice is not happenstance. A republic made rich via commerce, it was a crossroads of international trade, full of people from all over, including Jews (unlike Shakespeare’s England), a city where merchants, well outside the landed nobility, could nevertheless rise by their own efforts to the social heights. Commerce needs credit, so money-lending was legal in Venice, despite Antonio’s expressed contempt for it. And foreign traders need to believe they will get a fair shake in the local courts or they will do business elsewhere, and the Venetians, despite their well-earned reputation for intrigue and treachery, made serious efforts in that direction. Venice’s ghetto contained her Jews in a small ward in Cannaregio where they were locked in at night. Venice required them to wear a yellow badge and then a yellow hat. Venice forbade them to own land and limited them to occupations like tailoring, practicing medicine, and money-lending. The shrewd Venetian magnificos could see the value in having Jews doing business there, even if they loathed them, so they hedged them round with restrictions but let them stay and do business.  David Bishop, though, sees no hint of this cultural and official anti-Semitism in Antonio. No, Shylock’s own behavior is the cause of Antonio’s misbehavior. Shylock brings Antonio’s “anger” on himself. Really? How can David Bishop possibly know who provoked whom? Which came first, spitting and spurning or forfeitures upon defaulted debts? If Antonio admits to spitting in Shylock’s face and kicking him on a city street when Shylock has done nothing unlawful, it takes a lot more in the Venetian context than David's apologia to clear Antonio of the charge he is an anti-Semite. Why believe Antonio re his reasons for his disgusting behavior? Did Venetian lenders forgive their defaulting debtors?

Why these attempts to excuse Antonio? Of course he’s an anti-Semite. (And lest I be mistaken, I am absolutely not accusing David Bishop of anything untoward; I can’t know his motives as he says he knows Antonio’s, and I’m not being cute about this. I mean it, I’m only accusing him of being wrongheaded about the play.

And this play is a very peculiar one indeed. A comedy assembled with a lot of familiar dramatic features: trial by guesswork, winning the princess (well, a rich lady, anyway), stealing the bad guy’s riches, a great big wager with life at stake, a clever trick that wins all, girl-disguised-as-boy, an elopement, tables turned, a villain outwitted and defeated and a lavish display of mercy instead of an execution. But these things are all oddly skewed: the villain is defeated at a trial -- but not a fair one, and the good guy wins, but he isn’t such a good guy, and he and the rest of the gentiles somehow come off as rather shabby and unappealing. There’s no real hero or heroine. Although there are three happy couples left standing at the end, they are all somewhat tarnished and despite all those right kinds of dramatic elements, devices, and gimmicks, it doesn’t feel quite right. It doesn’t yield that feel-good feeling we get at the end of As You Like It or Much Ado. In that, MOV is very different from Shakespeare's other comedies. What is he up to?

For me, the crux of it comes when Tubal reports on his search for Jessica. We have just seen and heard a mocking comically-played report on how Shylock carried on about his stolen treasure as much as for his missing daughter. Now Shylock wails some more about his money and jewels, thus corroborating that greed-obsessed portrait of him. And then, without warning -- Shakespeare very cleverly herds us into this without our noticing -- When Tubal tells him he heard Jessica has traded a ring for a monkey, Shylock moans that that was his turquoise, "I had it of Leah when I was a Batcheler: I / would not haue giuen it for a wildernesse of Monkies."

There is no doubt that Shylock is the villain of the piece, but Jessica’s treachery has ripped from him an expression of feeling, of love and loss and heartache unmatched by anything else in the play. Jessica has traded away forever this remembrance of her dead mother, her father’s beloved, for a toy that however humanlike it may appear, is a dirty beast. How did Shakespeare's Elizabethan audience take that? Suddenly, Shylock is a different person, a real human, with feelings like their own. Did they feel his loss and heartache? Did they think, Is this thoughtless treachery what it means for Jessica to become a Christian? Shylock’s previous plea to be treated decently, as eloquent as it was, fell on deaf ears onstage, and doubtless in the audience as well. But it was really only prologue and setup for these two lines. Here is this stock character, the villainous Jew, suddenly made as sympathetic as -- as anyone. Never mind which is the merchant, which is the Jew, how about, now, who is the human, who is the beast? The unnatural child, new-baptized, has torn her father’s heart out by desecrating her mother’s gift and memory.

From this point on, it seems to me, Shakespeare invites the audience to see there are two ways of seeing everything that happens in the play. Jessica embraces Christianity, but she’s a vile child nonetheless. Antonio’s life is saved, but only by corrupting the court. Portia asks that Shylock be merciful, but the mercy shown to Shylock is itself an assault. Portia’s clever trick in the interest of justice is an outrageous fraud. (A trial is supposed to be a fair determination by an unbiased judge, not your adversary's best friend’s bride, who has insinuated herself onto the bench via some malfeasance unreported to make sure Shylock doesn’t win. As soon as we realize that is Portia and that the fix is in, the suspense in the play winds down from Can Anthony be saved to How is she gonna do it?)

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.

When the trial is over with Shylock thwarted and crushed, we have the payoff scene set up by Bassanio and Gratiano having given away their rings, despite their oaths, to a little whining, but that weakness is not quite so cute when it reminds us of Shylock’s ring, and we cannot help but compare their loyalty against Shylock’s, to their considerable disadvantage.

In short, contra Donald Bloom, the truth is that there is no simple truth about MOV (and wicked Shylock is nothing like a Nazi). MOV is no jolly romantic comedy that gets spoiled by us imposing latter-day sensitivities on it. Far from it. The romantic comedy is itself a disguise and a mask. By making Shylock an awful villain but one who has himself been wronged and who has a heart that can be savaged and by making us feel that man’s pain, Shakespeare aimed straight at former-day sensitivities he must have expected to find in some part of his audience. The behavior of the Christians in the play, set against the villainous Shylock, raises disturbing questions, questions that Shakespeare ingeniously wraps in this familiar and harmless (fairy-tale caskets!) comic form. Those questions he raises go far beyond that form to hugely important fundamental issues of right and wrong, and they are questions to which he suggests that something in the culture gets the answers very wrong. It’s a very complex morality play, MOV, and in some ways, I think, Shakespeare’s most profound.

If you’ve read this far, thanks for your patience.

Bob Projansky

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