Archive for Sunday, February 25, 2001

Merchant of Venice’ explores moral issues

February 25, 2001


"One would have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to recognize that Shakespeare's grand, equivocal comedy 'The Merchant of Venice' is nevertheless a profoundly anti-Semitic work, " wrote Harold Bloom in "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human."

Bloom's pronouncement justifies misgivings about the play, but his "grand" rating argues against removing it from the curriculum of Lawrence high schools, as one local citizen has recently urged.

Actually, such controversies do the community a service. For once, literature is in the news. We have an excuse to rediscover a classic, the kind that's often forgotten in the blizzard of garish, noisy ephemerata that passes for culture in our times. And it lets us beat our chests and vent some about the virtues of free speech and the evils of censorship.

It's unlikely that Shakespeare himself was anti-Semitic, writes Bloom. Jews had been expelled from England three centuries before the Bard's time and the few Jews in England weren't living like persecuted pariahs.

But Shakespeare's portrayal of Shylock played to prevailing attitudes of Christians towards Jews. His audiences expected "the Jew" to embody wickedness and greed. Christopher Marlowe's Barabas in "The Jew of Malta" exemplifies this cartoon type: "As for myself, I walk abroad a-nights / And kill sick people groaning under walls; / Sometimes I go about and poison wells."

The "problem" with Shylock, writes Bloom, is that his powerful personality, his energy and intelligence transcend the stereotype. In a sense, he doesn't belong in the play. He's too big and complex for the "comic villain" mold and too malign and murderous to be a sympathetic character, as he's often played.

Shylock "is no monster but an overwhelming persuasion of a possible human being" writes Bloom. That's what makes him worth studying. Shylock a forerunner of such great characters as Falstaff, (Hamlet), Iago and Hamlet represents Shakespeare's growing power as a playwright.

The idea of protecting high school students from such stuff seems almost quaint when Eminem is a teen-age role model and TV fornicators and drug dealers baby-sit kindergarten kids. If young people need protection from anything it's our vulgar, bloated, celebrity-fixated entertainment. More damage is inflicted on the mind and spirit from an hour watching "Temptation Island" or professional wrestling than in reading anything. Where is censorship when it's needed?

Unfortunately, the one place where censorship is alive and well is the academic world, precisely where free speech ought to be the highest ideal. Condemning great works of literature for not measuring up to what's deemed politically correct is a favorite sport in academia today.

Novelist Jane Smiley argued that the insipid "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was a better book that "Huckleberry Finn" because its portrayal of slaves was more compassionate. She scolded Huck for being insensitive towards the runaway slave Jim, missing both Twain's critiques of white prejudices and the irony of Huck's fears that he was risking perdition by helping Jim.

Likewise, Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" a searing indictment of Colonialism and white hubris has been derided for failure to consider the African point of view and for focusing on the breakdown of one "petty white European male."

I can't think of two others works which speak more powerfully to the evils of racism that "Huckleberry Finn" and "Heart of Darkness." They can be read over and over without exhausting their riches and insights. The idea that people who call themselves educators would suppress or ignore them is a form of barbarism.

"The Merchant of Venice" belongs to this league. It sheds light on the psychology of racism; it probes the nature of love and issues of mercy and justice. It's safe to say that no one's going to become anti-Semitic from reading it. It's more likely that they'll be inspired to question Christian piety.

Shylock, like Melville's Captain Ahab, is an unforgettable representation of intelligence and passion in the service of a self-destructive obsession, "a lodg'd hate, and a certain loathing." His soul is torn between mourning the loss of his child and the loss of his money. Shakespeare's genius shines in the pithy way he captures the struggle: "O my ducats! O my daughter!"

Shylock may have been based on a stereotype, but as my friend, a Shakespeare enthusiast put it, "Only Shakespeare could make one of these stock characters real.... He had to make Otello a military hero to give a black person credence on stage.... We have to know that people we mock and scorn bleed the same way we do."

A play like "The Merchant of Venice" full of wit and wisdom, probes the moral quandaries we face and according to Bloom's thrilling thesis, actually enlarges and deepens what it means to be a human being.

George Gurley is a Lawrence resident who writes a regular column for the Journal-World.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.