Monday, December 1, 2014

Shakespeare, Genius and Anachronism

When in high school, I wrote a little paper on The Merchant of Venice, something we were required to read (the quality of what we were required to read was uneven, but Shakespeare is generally worth reading).  The question addressed was whether Shakespeare was anti-Semitic.  Motivated, perhaps, by a continuing tendency to provoke, and a certain cynicism, I argued he was indeed an anti-Semite.  My teacher, a kind man, told me I made some good points and gently said he thought I was wrong.

One of my arguments as I recall (it may have been my only argument) was that it was absurd to think that Shakespeare had overcome the overwhelming prejudice of his time and was, in effect, writing a satire about anti-Semitism, because he was Shakespeare.  To me, that was the only basis on which he was--or could be--defended from the charge.  It was to many unthinkable that a genius of his magnitude would succumb to vulgar prejudice.  How could someone who wrote so well of human nature, with such empathy, be in this respect so like the people of his time?

Well, easily enough, I think.  Anti-Semitism seems to be a most peculiar and ubiquitous affectation; an ancient and abiding prejudice.  Genius provides no immunity to it.  We've seen that to be the case by now.  I no longer claim that this play in itself establishes his anti-Semitism, however.  I merely think that he was not necessarily extraordinary in all respects, and that he shared the prejudices of his time, as there is no reason to believe otherwise.  The Merchant of Venice is evidence of that fact but is not conclusive.

Shylock may give the "Hath not a Jew" speech, but in all other respects is a loathsome character, demanding his absurd pound of flesh, hateful of Christians.  He is in many respects a caricature, a stereotype, along the lines of Marlowe's Barabbas (nice naming, Chris).  Shakespeare was a professional playwright; he should be expected to have wanted to please his audience, to sell tickets, at the least.  Granted, the trial portrayed in the play is ludicrous, but his audience would want to see the Jew bested and would have enjoyed him being bested in this fashion.  Shylock loses all, in the end, including his daughter.  He is utterly humiliated.

Shakespeare's defenders do something we lawyers are taught not to do to the law.  That is, to read words into the law that are not in the law, or to treat the language of the law as superfluous.  [Was I a lawyer even in high school, to write such a paper? A sad thought.]  But Shakespeare's defenders are not just indulging in an instance of wildly inappropriate interpretation.  They purport to disregard the text, and the times.  It is an example of the stubborn, unreasoning imposition of a desired attribute onto an admired figure.

We tend to do this sort of thing when it comes to birds of paradise; to heroes.  We makes excuses for them, we make assumptions, regardless of the facts, even in spite of the facts.  This is one of the dangers of having heroes (and we say we have so many among us, now).  We stop thinking when we think of them.  We are so invested in their courage, wisdom, genius, that to find fault in them renders us indignant.

Revisionists are rightly viewed with skepticism.  Particularly these days, we're infested with those who delight in finding flaws in those public figures of the present and the past.  We should beware of taking literature literally, certainly, and should avoid making grand inferences from few statements.  But we should also beware of disregarding entire works.  Shakespeare's Merchant contains statements that are not made casually or en passant.  Shakespeare wrote the play to be performed before the people of his time and in the hope it would be popular and make money.  He was not out to teach everybody a lesson in the ill-effects and unreasonableness of a vicious prejudice.

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