Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Shylock and Fagin

So much of what we think Shakespeare "means" is locked in 19th Century interpretations and culture, that we sometimes take it as truth.

Perhaps the biggest problem of The Merchant of Venice is the percieved anti-semitism of the play.

There are certainly anti-jewish feelings expressed by characters in the play, but does this make the play anti-semitic?

I think not - and it is something that has had me puzzled for a number of years - ever since I first read the play back in the 1970's. I read it as an attack on anti-semitism much more than an attack on Jewishness: I found Antonio a very unsympathetic character, and Jessica a dishonest and wasteful child.

Then I started reading about the play and watching performances which set up a tension with my initial view.

Recently I have become more convinced that my initial reaction is closer to that of Shakespeare's time (see the post below on Shylock and Shakespeare's Dad).

What if Shakespeare's England was a lot less anti-semitic than it is given credit for? How could this be and how could its reputation be tarnished? And what about the term itself: Anti-semitic?

We cannot (nor should we) forget events of the last century - this has stained our view of anti-semitism: But it is not the sort of anti-jewish feelings expressed or even felt in Elizabethan England. The Queen, Elizabeth, had a Portugese Jewish doctor (thinking about the idea of Hitler having a German Jewish doctor puts this into perspective).

The very concept of race has far less relevance too: Nationality and Religion were far more important. 'Semitic' is a race - it carries biological and time consequences -you cannot change your race. You can both choose and change your religion, and national alligences change too.

Hebrew was a respected language - the language of the Old Testament and taught in Oxford and Cambridge: The Church in England read, every Sunday, from the Old Testament. The Kings of the Jews were held up as examples of virtue and strength.

A world very far from the deep anti-semitism frequently credited to Elizabethan England.

If we turn to the Victorian period we find a very different situation. (Race has been faught over in parliament, Evolution is an issue - and Darwin is about to deliver On the Origin of Species.)

Fagin, as rabid an anti-semitic portrait as you will find in serious literature, exposes just how the world has changed.

It is the picture published of Fagin we think of when we turn to Shylock: And the writings and performances of the play of this time which have coloured our view of the play.

What are the consequences for the play's meaning if Elizabethan England were more as I picture it?

Most important for me is the character of Shylock. He is not a hero (is anybody in this play?). He has faults - but these faults lie not in what he is but what he does.

For me, Shylock's biggest fault is the thirst for revenge: Like Hamlet.

Friday, May 05, 2006

I have a Dream

Queen Mab
Over on "Such Shakespeare Stuff" Mr D. points out that he knows of a High School Teacher who misses out the Queen Mab speech from Romeo and Juliet.
After the resultant apoplectic fit, resource to alchol abuse was made and I am now 'Ready to Rant'.
Size is everything

She is the fairies' midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate stone

A couple of points here - she is small (and, consequently, one thinks insignificant). But she is a Midwife - a bringer-in of new life, an agent - and one frequently associated in Shakespeare's time with traditional healing and magic (Old Women are all witches).
Her effect is significant.
Why does Shakespeare introduce this idea just before Romeo and Juliet meet?
Well, how does Queen Mab work - and what does she work on? What is the nature of the things that she delivers into the world?
And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;
O’er courtiers’ knees, that dream on court’sies straight,
O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees,
O’er ladies ‘ lips, who straight on kisses dream,
Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues,
Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are:
Notice that she provokes people to produce dreams of things that they are already concerned with.
The first reference has to be directly aimed at Romeo - and the audience I am sure would pick this up quickly. he is the 'lover' (think of his behaviour earlier in the play).
Then Mercutio moves on to other 'types'.
It is as if Mab delivers into their dreams their wishes: The courtsies of the courtier are to do with power and influence; The lawyer with money; the ladies with kisses
(BOING! - what do R&J do soon after this?).
But they are all venial - very much of the Real World: With money, with fighting, with sex. And there is a great sense of corruption - the blisters on the lips of the beauties, and their bad breath.
Shakespeare is giving us a context in which to view what happens next. The ideals and dreams of Romeo and Juliet have been given an underpinning by this speech - what they do is 'unreal' and consequently doomed to fail. This failure is not induced by malevolent stars - it comes from their own desires. Mab, like the witches in Macbeth, can not harm the pure: She can only work on the already corrupt.
Her State
Her wagon-spokes made of long spiders’ legs,
The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,
The traces of the smallest spider’s web,
The collars of the moonshine’s watery beams,
Her whip of cricket’s bone, the lash of film,
Her wagoner a small grey-coated gnat,
Not so big as a round little worm
Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid;
Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.
And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers’ brains, . . .
(If for no other reason than the beauty of these lines, this speech should be taught.)
And now we enter the world of the fairies - spiders and grasshoppers, worms and grubs.
Notice the yuk factor? Spiders weaving webs, grasshoppers eating harvests, worms and grubs feasting on dead meat (including human bodies). There is the good old foreshadowing going on - but that is to belittle the power of this - much like the worm in Blake's 'Oh Rose'.
A momento mori if ever I saw one - and after death, you must face your maker - what shape will Romeo and Juliet be in I wonder?
It also links us to A Midsummer Night's Dream. There there are elements of equal power given equal illustration - I naturally go to Titania's Speech (see earlier entries of mine) - another one cut in modern productions.
And Hamlet's father's ghost - presaging disaster and possibly sent by dark powers to corrupt Hamlet.
Even the RSC http://www.rsc.org.uk/romeo/learning/mab.html fail to give appropriate weight to this much misunderstood, but essential part of the play.