Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

From Venice to Yale

leave a comment »

In a recent issue of The New Yorker, the scholar Stephen Greenblatt offers an insightful consideration of a Shakespearean comedy toward which he—like most of us—can hardly help having mixed feelings: “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.” After recalling his uncomfortable experience as a Jewish undergraduate at Yale in the sixties, Greenblatt provides a beautiful summation of the pragmatic solution at which he arrived:

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…I was eager to expand my horizons, not to retreat into a defensive crouch. Prowling the stacks of Yale’s vast library, I sometimes felt giddy with excitement. I had a right to all of it, or, at least, to as much of it as I could seize and chew upon. And the same was true of everyone else.

Greenblatt, of course, went on to become one of our most valuable literary critics, and his evaluation of The Merchant of Venice is among the best I’ve seen: “If Shylock had behaved himself and remained a mere comic foil…there would have been no disturbance. But Shakespeare conferred too much energy on his Jewish usurer for the boundaries of native and alien, us and them, to remain intact…He did so not by creating a lovable alien—his Jew is a villain who connives at legal murder—but by giving Shylock more theatrical vitality, quite simply more urgent, compelling life, than anyone else in his world has.”

I’ve spent more time thinking about The Merchant of Venice than all but a handful of Shakespeare’s plays, precisely because of the “excess of life” that Greenblatt sees in Shylock, which is at its most impressive in a context where it has no business existing at all. Elsewhere, I’ve argued that Shakespeare’s genius is most visible when you compare him to his sources, which he transforms so completely that it destroys the notion that he was an opportunist who simply borrowed most of his plots. The Merchant of Venice is unique because its models are somehow right there on stage, existing simultaneously with the text, since we can hardly watch it and be unaware of the contrast between the antisemitic caricature of the original and Shylock’s uncanny power. Harold Bloom captures this quality in an extraordinary passage from Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human:

I have never seen The Merchant of Venice staged with Shylock as comic villain, but that is certainly how the play should be performed…If I were a director, I would instruct my Shylock to act like a hallucinatory bogeyman, a walking nightmare flamboyant with a big false nose and a bright red wig, that is to say, to look like Marlowe’s Barabas. We can imagine the surrealistic effect of such a figure when he begins to speak with the nervous intensity, the realistic energy of Shylock, who is so much of a personality as to at least rival his handful of lively precursors in Shakespeare: Faulconbridge the Bastard in King John, Mercurio and the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, and Bottom the Weaver in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But these characters all fit their roles, even if we can conceive of them as personalities outside of their plays. Shylock simply does not fit his role; he is the wrong Jew in the right play.

On some level, Shylock is a darker miracle of characterization than even Hamlet or Lear, because so much of his impact seems involuntary, even counterproductive. Shakespeare had no particular reason to make him into anything more than a stock villain, and in fact, his vividness actively detracts from the logic of the story itself, as Greenblatt notes: “Shylock came perilously close to wrecking the comic structure of the play, a structure that Shakespeare only barely rescued by making the moneylender disappear for good at the end of the fourth act.” Bloom, in turn, speaks of “the gap between the human that Shakespeare invents and the role that as playmaker he condemns Shylock to act,” a cognitive divide that tells us more about his art than the plays in which every part has been revised to fit like magic. I often learn more about craft from works of art that I resist than ones with which I agree completely, which only makes sense. When we want to believe in a story’s message, we’re less likely to scrutinize its methods, and we may even forgive lapses of taste or skill because we want to give it the benefit of the doubt. (This is the real reason why aspiring authors should avoid making overt political statements in a story, which encourages friendly critics to read the result more generously than it deserves. It’s gratifying in the moment, but it also can lead to faults going unaddressed until it’s too late to fix them.) Its opposite number is a work of art that we’d love to dismiss on moral or intellectual grounds, but which refuses to let us go. Since we have no imaginable reason to grant it a free pass, its craft stands out all the more clearly. The Merchant of Venice is the ultimate example. It’s the first play that I’d use to illustrate Shakespeare’s gift at creating characters who can seem more real to us than ourselves—which doesn’t make it any easier to read, teach, or perform.

This brings us back to the figure of Greenblatt at Yale, who saw the works that pained him as an essential part of his education. He writes:

I’m now an English professor at Harvard, and in recent years some of my students have seemed acutely anxious when they are asked to confront the crueler strains of our cultural legacy. In my own life, that reflex would have meant closing many of the books I found most fascinating, or succumbing to the general melancholy of my parents. They could not look out at a broad meadow from the windows of our car without sighing and talking about the number of European Jews who could have been saved from annihilation and settled in that very space. (For my parents, meadows should have come with what we now call “trigger warnings.”) I was eager to expand my horizons, not to retreat into a defensive crouch.

The question of how students should confront the problematic works of the past is one that I don’t expect to resolve here, except by noting that The Merchant of Venice represents a crucial data point. Without it, our picture of Shakespeare—and even of his greatness as a writer—is necessarily incomplete. When it comes to matters of education, it helps to keep a few simple tests in mind, and the humanities have an obligation to enable the possibility of this kind of confrontation, while also providing the framework within which it can be processed. Instead of working forward from a set of abstract principles, perhaps we should work backward from the desired result, which is to have the tools that we need when we reach the end of the labyrinth and find Shylock waiting for us. Even if we aren’t ready for him, we may not have a choice. As Bloom observes: “It would have been better for the Jews, if not for most of The Merchant of Venice’s audiences, had Shylock been a character less conspicuously alive.”

Written by nevalalee

July 18, 2017 at 8:49 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: