This weekend I saw a terrific acting company (“Actors from the London Stage”) perform my least favorite of Shakespeare’s plays (The Merchant of Venice). This company is so terrific because they create every production using a simple, yet profound principle: cast a small group of actors who really know how to speak Shakespeare’s lines and let them interpret, edit, and stage a production unburdened by a set or a director with some tedious concept. I was hoping that this terrific group might make me rethink Merchant. But no. Their superb handling of the text just illuminated how irredeemable the piece is, which is, at its core, anti-Semitic. Even more, it really seems to celebrate bigotry—or at least the human tendency to use fear of the Other as a means to feel empowered and united during trying times.
The confusing thing is that the play’s most moving speech is Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes” monologue in which Shylock explains his desire for revenge against Antonio (the merchant of the play’s title). Antonio, whom everybody else seems to think is the world’s greatest guy, has made a public habit of scorning and deriding Shylock, his profession, and his tribe. In light of this tendency, Shylock wonders why people expect him to do anything but follow the example set for him by Christians since Jews too are human beings with all the same sensibilities:
. . . . He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my
bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies; and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.
It is tempting to see this speech as an internal deconstruction of the play’s larger message, which rewards those who scapegoat Shylock and whose final victorious act is to subject him to a forced conversion or else risk banishment or death. But I think that is really wistful thinking. At best, the deconstruction happens now in spite of Shakespeare’s intent. Even so, the deconstruction has to be imposed from the outside by a contemporary interpreter of the text.
Which reminds me of my problem with originalism and its kissing cousin textualism. These modes of interpreting legal texts pose problems because texts, including those memorialized in legal documents (like Constitutions, statutes, even contracts and patents), do not stand still. Nor does human culture. Nor human values. Time marches onward, often leaving all manner of ambiguities in its wake. Sometimes those ambiguities do not even exist until later; sometimes they were simply overlooked when the text was drafted. Or with some texts, like Merchant or that bit in the US Constitution that counted African-American slaves as only 3/5s of a person for purposes of calculating how many representatives to which a state would be entitled, the problem is not a true ambiguity but only that contemporary readers do not like the actual words they read because the text reflects values that now seem repugnant; so seeing ambiguities that do not really exist is a means to avoid the harder problem of recognizing that heroes (like a nation’s founding fathers) had some really creepy ideas. Textualists would say, “Well, if people come to see things that way, they can just amend the text. Problem solved.” The problem is, even if a majority has moved on and recognized that a certain text now reflects bad values, bad policy, or a bad deal, that does not mean that changing the text can be readily effected. Change is hard. Changing some of the more egregious portions of the Constitution, for instance, took a really bloody war. And every time I see someone driving a big pick-up truck with a “SECEDE” bumper sticker on it or lauding “state’s rights,” I wonder if we aren’t still fighting that war.
The title of this post is a recurrent line in Merchant. In the play, each time someone asks the question, the implicit answer is that the news is bad: Bassanio is in debt again and needs to borrow money, Antonio’s ships have been wrecked at sea. My news from the Rialto is that I shall henceforth forswear trying to find ways to redeem The Merchant of Venice. Sure, it has some great stuff in it. But it is fundamentally flawed because it does not just reflect upon an ugly side of human nature; it glorifies it. And that proves Shakespeare was human. All too human. Sigh.