Thursday, February 15, 2007

Reading "The Merchant of Venice"

Like some of the other Shakespeare plays I’ve read, the play has many more themes and characters other than the one that stands out in the popular mind: Shylock. The Merchant of the title is named Antonio, and in the first scene he worries obsessively about his financial position. He has the same concerns as a Wall Street trader would today. His investments are tanking -- in iambic pentameter. He tells all to his friend Bassanio, who promises to try to help him.

In the second scene, we meet Portia, in a different location entirely. She’s stuck with an odd sort of lottery to determine which of her suitors she’ll marry. She is also trying to figure out who is a really honest, steady, and decent sort of man. This quest eventually puts her in a court of law dressed up as a legal expert (“doctor”) where she has her famous face-to-face with Shylock. The other scenes presenting her elaborate subplot, marriage issues, and charater are all less memorable than the courtroom scene.

Finally, back in Venice, we meet Shylock. Bassanio is asking him to make a loan to his friend. Shylock discusses various credit risks. Bassanio invites Shylock to dine, and Shylock makes his first speech that marks him as an alien: “I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following; but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you.” When Antonio enters, Shylock remarks in an aside the “ancient grudge” he bears because Antonio loans money without interest and “hates our sacred nation.” By the end of this scene, the famous bargain is complete: Antonio has his loan, and Shylock has the famous bond: if the loan is not repaid by a certain date, a pound of Antonio’s “fair flesh” will be “cut off and taken/In what part of your body pleaseth me.” (I, iii, 36-49 and 150-152)

Shapiro’s Shakespeare and the Jews has convinced me that Shylock fits perfectly into the Elizabethan stereotype of a nasty, unsaved Jew. Further, this characterization continued to feed anti-Jewish fantasies for centuries. In fact, it probably still does. But what struck me in reading the play is the enormous individuality of Shylock.

Shylock has individual problems, individual resentments, a world view about what made him like he is, and a problem with his rebellious runaway daughter. Never mind if we think he’s fundamentally evil or if he is reacting to his life in a way we can understand: he’s a fully developed 3-d character. This must be one of the brilliant Shakespearean features that Shapiro alludes to. Every individualized feature somehow becomes a generalized trait.

Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, hates him and can’t wait to run away and marry a poor man. Children and others in the street make fun of him: the Ducats-Daughter refrain is not put in his mouth, but in the crowd’s mouth as they mock his fury at her disapperance. He doesn’t treat the servants well (another subplot). Portia asks him first for disinterested, idealistic mercy, and he says no. Then she points out that he could be a lot richer if he was paid off than if he insisted on the “bond” – the famous pound of flesh. He still says no, indulging his hatred which by now we know he neither fully understand nor fully controls himself.

Shylock’s personality is of course difficult. He wants to trap and torment others. Shylock describes his hatred and says he doesn’t need to explain it. Of course his description of the emotion of hatred is so on-target that it’s one of the many famous quotations from the play. It’s painful that this individualized portrait became a stereotype of Jewishness in England and elsewhere.

The Shylock plot is complete at the end of Act IV, and then we go back to the subplot about Portia and her tricks on men. Portia’s experiences would be memorable if Shylock didn’t dominate the play, and if the question of how to deal with the most remarkable individual portrait of a stereotype wasn’t so troubling.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Favorite Quote from "Shakespeare and the Jews"

In his "Conclusion," Shapiro summarizes his view of The Merchant of Venice: “I have tried to show that much of the play’s vitality can be attributed to the ways in which it scrapes against a bedrock of beliefs about the racial, national, sexual, and religious difference of others. I can think of no other literary work that does so as unrelentingly and as honestly. To avert our gaze from what the play reveals about the relationship between cultural myths and peoples’ identities will not make irrational and exclusionary attitudes disappear. Indeed, these darker impulses remain so elusive, so hard to identify … that only in instances like productions of this play do we get to glimpse these cultural faultlines. This is why censoring the play is always more dangerous than staging it.” (p.228)

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


Reading Shapiro's book made me curious about portrayals of Shylock, so I googled a bit. Of course it has to be the next play that I read, but that will be a few days. Here are two Shylocks that I found. The engraving is from the early 19th century, and the painting is from the early 20th century. Both are of famous actors of their era.

More on Shapiro’s Book

Continuing to range broadly in order to gain a perspective on The Merchant of Venice, Shapiro reviews the history of antisemitism. Stereotypes of Jews were numerous, involving both physical and personal characteristics – virtually all ugly! These stereotypes naturally played a role in the depiction of Jewish converts and Jews living as Christians in England in Elizabethan times. “Catalogues of Jewish villainy” appeared in plays in Elizabethan times, Shapiro points out. A Jew could often be depicted as a “murderer, poisoner, usurer, and political interloper.” (p. 92)

Shapiro describes the history of popular English attitudes towards conversion from Judaism to Chritianity. The faith of converted Jews was always in doubt: “When a mouse shall catch a cat, then a Jew converted to be a Christian will remain a firm Christian.” So said Thomas Calvert in 1648. (p. 131)

Jews in Elizabethan England were always aliens without citizenship, though there were ways for them to become more naturalized. Jewish immigrants had both economic and social incentives and disincentives for conversion – in many cases these were more important than religious motives. Women (like Shylock’s daughter Jessica) were often supposed in fiction or popular impressions to convert for love. Shapiro points out that the conventional view of a Jewish woman who converted was that she was young, and that marriage to a Christian movivated her, while male converts were usually depicted as old, unmarried, and undesireable.

“There is no way of knowing whether Elizabethans witnessing a performance of The Merchant of Venice left the theater doubting the sincerity of either Jessica’s or Shylock’s conversion,” says Shapiro. “For some, perhaps, instances of Jewish apostasy they had read or heard about or seen onstage left open the possibility that these ‘Christian Jews’ would turn once again; no doubt, for others, the conversion of Jessica and her father were irreversible and confirmed the rightness of the Christian faith.” (p. 165)

This book is full of interesting detail all adding up to the purpose of showing a cultural history and how Shakespeare’s play fits into it. The Merchant drew on existing ideas of what Jews were and how they fit into English society and self-concept. Then as time went on, The Merchant made a huge contribution to how the English saw the Jews and saw their relationship to society. I can only mention what Shapiro does, not reproduce it.

Monday, February 12, 2007

"Shakespeare and the Jews" by James Shapiro

The early chapters of Shapiro’s book Shakespeare and the Jews establish a method for understanding Shakespeare’s knowledge of, interaction with, and views of Jews. This is a much more technical history than the author’s book A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, which I read recently.

If you want to know the history of the Jews in England, Shapiro says, you first must evaluate the sources of information. This was news to me: all the Jewish history I had read seemed to rely on official records of events. Shapiro details the biases in the historical record, and the biases among scholars.

The author points out that often the historians’ views were not merely biased, but bigoted. Thus, they can’t be cited without careful analysis of what they wanted to prove. Writers were often trying to define what it meant to be English. The expulsion of the Jews in 1290 was an important moment in purifying the English Nation in the eyes of some writers, who also expressed partisan views about the readmission of Jews under Cromwell. He goes into the many extreme cases, as well as trying to separate later prejudices from those that were active in Shakespeare’s own time.

The most confusing myth about Shakespeare’s time is the claim that there were no Jewish people in England between 1290 and Cromwell half a century after him. Shapiro gives an overview of the various Portuguese Jews, Jews from Amsterdam, and visitors or would-be residents from Eastern Europe who were present in Shakespeare’s London. Though the total was only a few hundered people, their presence is significant.

The iconic status of Shakespeare from the eighteenth century onward makes it more difficult to separate later views of social and racial issues from Shakespeare’s own views, and Shapiro’s approach of looking at a broad cultural history addresses these challenges. So far, I have read only the chapters establishing these issues, and will continue with the more Shakespeare-intensive chapters now.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Shakespeare's Church

The Washington Post today described the situation of the church where Shakespeare's bones lie, underneath the famous curse on anyone who moves them (shown in their photo at right). The article described the large numbers of visitors to Stratford, who often know little about the man in the grave.

"Money is a big issue for the 800-year-old church these days because the roof leaks, the metal in the windows is corroding and a small invasion force of deathwatch beetles is boring into the ancient timbers," says the article. "It is a familiar story in England, where hundreds of centuries-old churches, left largely devoid of worshipers by a modern trend toward secularism, need hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of repairs."

The paragraph above doesn't mention that many little towns in England never (or only very recently) recovered the population density that they had before the Black Death in the fourteenth century. And it doesn't deal with later changes to the wool industry -- wealth from wool often enabled the medieval build-up of these churches. So the lack of human and material resources to maintain the churches is due to many more factors than secularism.

When we were in Cambridge for a long stay, and on other trips, I've seen many of these old and poorly maintained churches. Often the parishoners seem to be camping in the middle of a huge expanse of soaring interior space. A small number of pews with modern embroidered cushions and a few banners on the wall around a modern altar suggest a committed but miniscule group of faithful worshippers. In the entryway are often announcements of the activities of the congregation.

The architecture of these village churches is usually quite interesting. Placards point to details like carved seats, an antique pulpit, or a surviving stained-glass window. A volunteer is often present to offer information about the history of the village and the building. In most churches, a sign asks for contributions to such necessities as roof repair. The church at Stratford, with its constant stream of visitors, is comparatively lucky!

See: A Day at Shakespeare's Grave in today's Washington Post. For a photo of the church's exterior, see my earlier post: Stratford upon Avon.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Northwest does its worst

We had a great weekend at Alice's birthday celebration (as written up on the other blogs). But air travel is really trying these days. Our DC-bound flight last Thursday was delayed half an hour. After boarding, the pilot discovered a mechanical problem. The mechanic showed up quickly and fixed it. However, yesterday didn't go quite that well. Here's the sequence:
  • 2:00 -- we arrive at the gate for our 4:15 plane. We are early because there was no wait for security. WOW. We think we are so lucky.
  • 2:30 -- the inbound plane is late because of de-icing problems in Detroit. Flight time changes to 4:30, then to 5:00.
  • 5:00 -- we board. Mechanical difficulties discovered. Mechanic can't be found. Passengers speculate that he has gone home to watch the Superbowl. We wonder why so many flights have delays for mechanical problems. The adjacent Minneapolis flight is cancelled for the same reason. As we sit on the ground, passengers from that flight continue to board the plane.
  • 5:50 -- the mechanic has finally shown up and determined that the problem will take a long time to fix. Per instructions, we de-board with all our carry-ons. In the waiting area long lines form to rebook people with connections or no patience.
  • 6:45 -- we make a backup morning reservation as the agents announce that the new part has finally been found and installed, but that a half-hour test period is required. We warn Evelyn that her guests may be showing up to sleep in her guest room again.
  • 8:00 -- we reboard, thinking that we could just be beginning the whole thing over again. This time, though, we take off.
  • 10:00 -- we land in Detroit, 4 hours late.

What can we learn? Lenny's answer: "Have patience." Well, ok, this isn't Northwest's worst! We know they can make you much more miserable than this. After all, we're home.