Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Medicine and the Poison: thoughts on Merhcant of Venice

Having never seen a production of it before, I took out a copy of  Merchant of Venice, directed by Michael Radford, and starring Al Pacino[1]. I didn’t like it. Despite Pacino giving as magnificent a performance as any I’ve seen anywhere in anything, I couldn’t get over the ugly anti-semitism and apparent injustice at the heart of it all.

that line feel so weird to write?), but I couldn’t help finding him more callous than evil, driven to lash out by a lifetime of prejudice – how lenient would you be with someone who spits on you regularly? – and, at least as portrayed by Pacino, finally over the edge by the abrupt departure of his daughter (she could have left a note). Whatever the case, there’s too much nuance here to take any pleasure in his downfall, which is far more thorough than justice would strictly demand. He is not just thwarted, but completely ruined, stamped into the ground and washed out completely. He doesn’t even get his initial loan back. And while this might feel like just desserts for a bastard like Richard III, who in this day and age can relish the spectacle of a Jewish financier being ruined by a Christian court?

Granted, Shylock isn’t the most sympathetic of characters (and why did
There are a couple things at play here. The first is hindsight: we in the twenty-first century know where the kind of attitudes that created Shylock will eventually lead, and not even the golden pen of William Shakespeare can make the archetype of the sleazy Jewish money-lender palpable ever again[2]. Let’s face it ladies and gentlemen, for all his wonderful “If you prick us” speeches, Shylock is still the bad guy, still the merciless would-be hewer of flesh, still the embodiment of all the worst prejudices of a viciously intolerant age. And at the end of the play these prejudices are vigorously upheld, all but laughing at the silliness of a Jew who thought Christian law could ever benefit him. Alas, we can’t get around that, no matter how wonderful the Pacinos of the world might play him. The more they humanize the villain, the more problematic his comeuppance becomes.

Yet, here I’m confronted with a paradox: suppose Shylock had not been humanized? If the text only allowed for shallow portrayals of a truly villainous sleazebag, would the conclusion be any more palatable? Of course not. Then it would have been only a vile piece of hate speech quite rightly forgotten by history. Shakespeare is no one’s propagandist, no cheer-leader for any social more. No motivation is allowed to be simple. No attitude goes unchallenged, even if only by the bad-guy’s speeches (and how many villainous monologues in all of literature and fictioin, I wonder, are just reflections of doubts and fears we dare not utter?). You will notice that the words condemning anti-Semitism, challenging slavery and calling out the hypocrisy of the age are the ones best remembered today, and hold up so much better than the ones upholding them.  To the extent Merchant of Venice is quoted at all, it is the “If you prick us, do we not bleed” speech, the moment attacking the dominant values of the day. If Shakespeare wanted his audience to walk away feeling complacent in their prejudices, he had a funny way of going about it.

Which is why, despite my discomfort with the play, I would never call for its censorship, and not have productions of it stopped. Unlike many PC Maoists out there, I believe there is still value in art which falls on the wrong side of history. Even in work we now find repellent, we can still find beauty and wisdom. Silencing The Merchant of Venice for its anti-semitism would also take from us the most powerful condemnations of anti-semitism ever written.

I sometimes harbour the fantasy that the ending of Merchant of Venice isn’t its real ending at all, but one foisted on him by the authorities, or even tacked on by unscrupulous editors later on. It wouldn’t be the first time – tampering with the work was incredibly easy to do, as documented by Bill Bryson in his nifty little book Shakespeare. It was so easy, it’s a miracle we have any of the original works at all. A hopeless little fantasy I know (though no worse than many of the dumb conspiracies surrounding the bard today, thoroughly demolished by Bryson), but I have a hard time believing the man who wrote “if you prick us, do we not bleed” could really have been such a bigot. We musn’t romanticize – people are the products of their time. Even Shakespeare. At the same time, artists must be conscious of the regimes they live under, and in a world where the wrong words can get you beheaded, they have to be sneaky. That so much more poetry goes into questioning prejudice than upholding it makes me wonder if the man who wrote those words must, on some level, have felt them. And maybe he believed some of his audience might feel it too. Maybe some of them did.


Thus are seeds planted, even in the weediest gardens.

[1] I really wish he’d release his version of Richard III. Despite making a documentary about making Richard III, so far as I can tell, he hasn’t released his Richard III
[2] Though who knows: people still read The Protocols of the Elders of Zion