Thursday, October 12, 2017
An Exchange On The Merchant Of Venice
More on the discussion of Bloom’s Anxiety Of Influence, but which veers off into some continued back and forth on the consternating The Merchant Of Venice.
....I am not an expert on The M of V as I have a letter in the New Yorker (along with a friend) on Stephen Greenblatt's essay on The M of V in said magazine which argues that Shakespeare's humanity breaks through the anti-semitism:
Shakespeare’s Cure for Xenophobia
The New Yorker Digital Edition : Jul 31, 2017
Here is our response:
....Stephen Greenblatt says ("If You Prick Us" July-10 & 17) that "what Shakespeare bequeathed to us offers the possibility of an escape from the mental ghettos most of us inhabit." One mental ghetto we inhabit is the belief that great literature must be morally good for us. It seems to me that "The Merchant of Venice" may well take the point of view toward Shylock that people do today who find that Israeli claims to being historical victims are hypocritical given their treatment of the Palestinians. Might it not have been ludicrous to an Elizabethan audience that a man willing to kill a man by holding him to a financial contract portrays himself as a victim of inhumanity? The greatness here would consist in portraying a bad person making himself a victim to court our sympathies, and we, today, get it wrong for obvious reasons. This seems more plausible than that a great playwright got carried away by his humanity and thus making his work incoherent (Greenblatt's word is "uncomfortable") rather than it sharing the routine prejudice against Jews in all ages....(end of letter)
No-one worried about being anti-semitic in Sh's time and place (maybe in Holland), indeed, the idea did not exist. So think of Shylock as the way that venture capitalists have been portrayed in movies about the 2008 stock market drop. It is taken for granted they are selfish, inhumane minor league monsters, to be laughed at for any pretensions to humanity. But Shakespeare can get a laugh by making his greedy Jew appeal to our better natures, just as a venture capitalist might, and get a laugh. Philip Roth carries this kind of thing further in, I think, Operation Shylock, when he writes a brilliant rant by a settler defending his views. Roth takes for granted that the settler is a mad fanatic but one gets sucked in. Sh. did the same for Falstaff, failed a bit with Iago, whose defenses are pathetic (but maybe that works too). (We don't laugh at the settler because he is a real threat and can't really enjoy his nuttiness and maybe some of the audience responded that way.
So, once that is out of the way one judges the play as one normally would, and if one can at least imagine laughing at Shylock's defense, it's a pretty good play, but I don;'t think that your concern was about the play once we get over our our perspective. Of course if one can't or shouldn't it's a bad play as it enhances the murderous stereotype and was popular in Nazi Germany. The true humanist view (mine) thinks it can get a little outside being a Nazi or a pro-semite, but that may be a fantasy...
....Good letter. In fact it offers me a perspective on the play I never really sufficiently confronted, the portrayed evil in Shylock wanting to take a man’s life over a debt.
Of course it’s not necessarily hypocritical to complain with justice about an unjust past even while treating others unjustly. It’s anomalous to be sure, situationally ironic in a bitterly bad way, but hypocritical doesn’t seem the right disparaging word.
I can see more possible thematic coherence in the play, now facing concretely Shylock’s murderous desire, however lawful. And it mitigates my knock on the play. Yet it just still seems to me, or maybe your good point, which I just now read, hasn’t yet settled in enough, that the play is flawed in being emotionally and thematically discordant.
Just reading the play and not trying to put myself into the being of an Elizabethan audience, I still feel the end flawed by the treatment and reducing of Shylock, as I first noted. Maybe a better ending would have been to accommodate what was magnetically and compellingly righteous in Shylock in dealing with him at the end whilst according mercy to Antonio.
Mercy perhaps ought to have been shown Shylock while still visiting on him some consequence for his murderous desire. So I’d still argue his character got away from Shakespeare and that the form he chose, romantic comedy, marked by the merciless extirpation of a villain and the vindication of the young lovers, Jessica and the other guy, doesn’t work.
I once tried out on myself the view that Shakespeare was subverting that form, showing Jessica as heedless and callow, but the ending celebration and its poetry are too elaborate for me to see the subversion working there.
When I first read your letter, my first response was to move off my own view and take a more middling position, Greenblatt’s “uncomfortable.” But as I think it through to the extent I have in writing this note, I revert back to my original argument about the play as flawed, but with a more rounded and qualified view that takes seriously into account the good point you make.
Just like Mill says, opposing arguments met and considered (hopefully here) improve one’s own...