The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 28.212 Tuesday, 25 July 2017
Date: July 18, 2017 at 7:54:32 PM EDT
Subject: Stephen Greenblatt: Shakespeare’s Cure for Xenophobia
Shakespeare’s Cure for Xenophobia
What “The Merchant of Venice” taught me about ethnic hatred and the literary imagination.
By Stephen Greenblatt
I attended university in a very different world from the one in which I now teach and live. For a start, Yale College, which I entered in 1961, was all male. Women were not matriculated until five years after I had received my B.A. degree. Among the undergraduates, there were only a handful of students from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and very few African-Americans, Asian-Americans, or Hispanics, unless one counted a couple of prep-school-educated heirs to grand South American fortunes.
The Yale that I attended was overwhelmingly North American and white, as well as largely Protestant. It was difficult for the admissions office to identify Catholics, but applicants with conspicuously Irish, Italian, or Polish names were at a disadvantage. For Jews, there was a numerus clausus, not even disguised by the convenient excuse of “geographical distribution.” And the whole system was upheld by a significant number of legacies, along with a pervasive air of privilege and clubbiness. To display too much interest in one’s studies or a concern for grades was distinctly uncool. This was still the era of what was called the “gentleman’s C.”
I picked all this up within days of arriving in New Haven, but Yale was for me an unfamiliar country whose customs I knew that I could never master. Neither of my parents had gone to college. My mother, along with the other girls in her family, was expected to begin work as a secretary directly after high school. Though my father practiced law, he had attended law school just after serving in the First World War, when a liberal-arts degree was not yet a prerequisite. A good thing, too, since my grandfather, a ragpicker, would have had difficulty mustering the will or the means to pay even the modest tuition fees then required. My grandparents were not indifferent to learning, but they were poor, and for them any learning that was not vocational was necessarily religious. The highest status in their cultural world came not from wealth or power but from the possession of Talmudic knowledge. Theirs was an insular community in which sexual selection—for Darwin, a central motor of mammalian evolution—had for centuries favored slender, nearsighted, stoop-shouldered young men rocking back and forth as they pondered the complex, heavily annotated, often esoteric tractates of Jewish law.
None of this was part of my upbringing: most of it had been abandoned when my grandparents fled tsarist Lithuania, in the late eighteen-eighties, and settled in Boston. But the heavy Talmudic volumes left a residue, an inherited respect for textual interpretation that—reshaped into secularized form—led people like me to embrace the humanities, an arena in which the English Department held pride of place. When I began to take classes at Yale, I could not understand, let alone emulate, the amused indifference of many of my classmates. I felt within me what in 1904 Henry James, observing immigrants in New York, reproved as “the waiting spring of intelligence,” signalling the “immensity of the alien presence climbing higher and higher.” I did not feel alien—I was born in this country, as my parents had been, and I donned my Yale sweatshirt without a sense of imposture—but I seized upon the opportunity I’d been granted to learn with an energy that seemed slightly foreign.
I had a particularly intense engagement with my freshman English-literature course. Midway through the year, the professor asked me if I would be interested in being his research assistant, helping him prepare the index for a book he had just completed. Ecstatic, I immediately agreed. In those days, research assistants were required to apply for their jobs through the financial-aid office, where I dutifully made an appointment. I was in for a surprise.
“Greenblatt is a Jewish name, isn’t it?” the financial-aid officer said. I agreed that it was. “Frankly,” he went on, “we are sick and tired of the number of Jews who come into this office after they’re admitted and try to wheedle money out of Yale University.” I stammered, “How can you make such a generalization?”
“Well, Mr. Greenblatt,” he replied, “what do you think of Sicilians?” I answered that I didn’t think I knew any Sicilians. “J. Edgar Hoover,” he continued, citing the director of the F.B.I., “has statistics that prove that Sicilians have criminal tendencies.” So, too, he explained, Yale had statistics that proved that a disproportionate number of Jewish students were trying to get money from the university by becoming research assistants. Then he added, “We could people this whole school with graduates of the Bronx High School of Science, but we choose not to do so.” Pointing out lamely that I had gone to high school in Newton, Massachusetts, I slunk away without a job.
The conversation left me shaken. Decades later, I recall it with a blend of outrage and wonder inflected by my recognition of the fact that African-American students have had it much worse, and that other ethnic groups and religions have now replaced Jews as the focus of the anxiety that afflicted my interlocutor. What was particularly upsetting to me at the time was that the experience appeared to confirm my parents’ worst fears—fears that had struck me, when I was growing up, as absurdly outdated and provincial. For my parents, the world was rigidly divided between “us” and “them,” and they lived their lives, it seemed to me, as if they were forever hemmed into an ethnic ghetto.
Shortly after my encounter with the financial-aid officer, T. S. Eliot, the greatest living poet in the English language and a winner of the Nobel Prize, came to Yale. Catching the excitement of the impending visit, I began to read him with an avidity that has continued into the present. But that meant that I quickly encountered the strain of anti-Semitism in Eliot’s early poetry and prose, a strain no less ugly for being typical of his conservative milieu. “The population should be homogeneous,” Eliot told an audience at the University of Virginia in 1933, the year that Hitler came to power and the prospect arose of a mass outpouring of refugees seeking protection from the growing menace. “Where two or more cultures exist in the same place they are likely either to be fiercely self-conscious or both to become adulterate.” Perhaps it occurred to him that it was already far too late to prevent two or more cultures from existing in the United States. “What is still more important is unity of religious background,” he added, and then made his point more explicitly: “Reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.’’
Eliot’s powerful early poetry had already made this undesirability clear. In “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar,” he conjured up the primal ooze from which he saw those creatures emerging:
A lustreless protrusive eye
Stares from the protozoic slime
At a perspective of Canaletto.
The smoky candle end of time
Declines. On the Rialto once.
The rats are underneath the piles.
The jew is underneath the lot.
“On the Rialto once”: Eliot did not finish the thought, but I did. In the course of that freshman year, I read Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” with its echoing question, “What news on the Rialto?” Encountering the play at the moment I did, together with T. S. Eliot, seemed only to reinforce my parents’ grimmest account of the way things were.
There is something very strange about experiencing “The Merchant of Venice” when you are somehow imaginatively implicated in the character and actions of its villain. You laugh when Shylock’s servant, the clown Gobbo, contemplates running away from his penny-pinching master. You smile when Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, having escaped from her father’s dark house into the arms of her beloved, declares, “I shall be saved by my husband. He hath made me a Christian.” You shudder when the implacable Shylock sharpens his knife on the sole of his boot. You applaud the resolution of the dilemma, when clever Portia comes up with the legal technicality that confounds Shylock’s murderous plan. The Jew who had insisted upon the letter of the law is undone by the letter of the law; it is what is called poetic justice. But, all the same, you feel uneasy.
What, exactly, are you applauding and smiling at? How are you supposed to view the Jewish daughter who robs her father and bestows the money on her fortune-hunting Christian suitor? Do you join in the raucous laughter of the Christians who mock and spit on the Jew? Or do you secretly condone Shylock’s vindictive, malignant rage? Where are you, at the end of the harrowing scene in the courtroom, when Portia asks the man she has outmaneuvered and ruined whether he agrees to the terms she has dictated, terms that include the provision that he immediately become a Christian? “Art thou contented, Jew?” she prods. “What dost thou say?” And what do you think the Jew actually feels when he answers, “I am content”?
Back in my undergraduate days, when I began to ask these questions, I came to a decision. I wasn’t going to allow myself to be crushed by the bigoted financial-aid officer, but I wasn’t going to adopt my parents’ defensive posture, either. I wouldn’t attempt to hide my otherness and pass for what I was not. I wouldn’t turn away from works that caused me pain as well as pleasure. Instead, insofar as I could, I would pore over the whole vast, messy enterprise of culture as if it were my birthright.
[ . . . ]