Wednesday, July 7, 2010

'a gentile and no jew"--jessica in Merchant of Venice

The question of antisemitism in 'merchant of venice' has always seemed pretty silly to me. then again, so has the question of sexism in 'taming of shrew.' [more of that in a later post]. shylock is a stereotypical bad jew, as any audience would expect him to be. no professed jew had lived in england since the jews were expelled in 1290. there were conversos; one famous in queen elizabeth's court, her personal physicin dr. lopez. elizabeth herself had no interest in discovering whether conversos secretly held jewish beliefs or not: early in her reign she had declared that she refused to look for 'windows into men's souls.' if you said you were christian, if you went to church, fasted on official fast days, fine, you were a christian. that others in power disagreed with her was clear, as witnessed by trumped up charges of treason that eventually got dr.lopez executed. conversos lived in constant fear of their enemies, and few would 'act like jews,' whatever their beleifs. neither shakespeare nor his audiences had ever seen an actual jew. this didn't challenge antisemitism; if anything it probably intensified it. there was no normal human being to confront the image of the eternal christ killer.

in 'merchant' shakespeare is much kinder to both proclaimed jews and conversos than most of his contemporaries would have been. much of his greatness i think, lies in his near-inability to ignore human complexity, and there are relatively few absolute monsters in his plays [iago in 'othello' being one of them]. shylock gets one of the greatest and most famous lines in any of the plays, a classic cry against antisemitism: "hath not a jew eyes?...if you prick us do we not bleed? if you poison us, do we not die?" further, when he learns that his daughter jessica has not only stolen all his money and precious jewels, she has traded the ring shylock had long ago given to his long dead wife, he cries out in piercing grief, for once thinking not of his money but of a relic from a beloved wife.

they are wonderful lines; i like to think they moved some of the play's viewers to reconsider their own bigotry. but i doubt it. overall shylock gives the audience pretty much what they wanted---a greedy, evil jew who gets his comeuppance in the end.

but for me, the most appalling antisemitic portrayal in the play is not shylock. it is the jew we're not asked to hate, Shylock's daughter, jessica.

jessica is a good girl--we are expected to admire her, even as we are expected to admire the play's heroine, Portia. indeed by the play's end she and her new husband, are actually living in portia's house. a comparision between her and portia will in fact tell us much about the play. jessica is much milder than the strong-minded portia. even jessica's decision to dress like a man is controlled by lorenzo, though in both cases, the choice is made to help her man. but look at the actions that show their virtue. when we first meet portia, various men are courting her. she herself knows which man she wants, but she is constrained by her late father's command that any suitor must first choose the 'right' one of three closed caskets. portia doesn't like this, and is terrified that she'll have to marry one of the ones she dislikes. she prays that bassanio will be the one to pick correctly. he does--father apparently knows best, and daughter is wise enough to obey his will, even when his death has released her from it. for this, she is shown an admirable character, and perhaps this is why the audience is able to accept her brilliant, lawyerly trick at the play's climax.

but if obedience to a father is wise, why are we not supposed to be angry, when the blushing, modest jessica not only countermands her father's orders [and his implicit will, since we must assume his hatred of christians would include lorenzo], she steals all his money and valuable possessions? these include the ring shylock had given her dead mother. but she not only steals it; we are later told that she has traded it for a pet monkey. that she would leave her father, with whom she has had a difficult life, is one thing; but the trade of the ring shows a fairly ugly contempt for her mother as well. in betraying her father, she also betrays her religion. this point is emphasized in several lines. her father's servant decides she's really not jewish, even before her flight withh lorenzo :"Most beautiful pagan, most sweet jew: if a christian did not play the knave and get thee, i am much deceived." Specifically because she steals her father's money, one of lorenzo's friends exultantly cries, 'now by my hood, a gentile and no jew!' it is clear that her flight with a christian makes her a de facto converso, her act of daughterly betrayal as praiseworthy as portia's act of daughterly obedience. she is the play's 'good jew' precisely because she is such a bad jew, and finally, no jew at all.

'merchant' is the only play about jews in shakespeare's works, but his willingness to express antisemitism is reflected in casual dialogue elsewhere. in one of the most gloriously comic scenes in the canon, Much Ado's benedick, tricked into thinking beatrice loves him, realizes his own love for her.'if i do not take pity on her, i am a villain, he reasons; 'if i do not love her, i am a jew.' no other mention of jews is made in the play; it is simply a gratuitous allusion to something we all know is bad, as a villain is bad. in henryIV part 1, falstaff, cheerfully lying about his courage, swears that he fought off 16 armed attackers, and that if that isn't true, 'i am a jew else, an 'ebrew jew.' in Macbeth, one of the things the evil witches are throwing into their disgusting brew is 'liver of blaspheming jew.'

the point of all this is not that we should deprive ourselves of the greatest literature in the english language, nor is it to condemn shakespeare as an anti-semite. True, the lines and the whole Merchant play show us that he was complicit with anti-semitism, whatever he himself might have felt. my own guess is that if asked, he would have shrugged and said 'sure, they're bad; they killed christ.' it certainly would have made it easier for him to write such lines. but he was a human being, living in a specific culture in a specific era. to dislike him for his use of antisemitism seems to me as pointless as thinking he was stupid because he rode a horse into london instead of taking the train. his genius doesnt consist in undermining the assumptions he grew up with.

we ourselves, in our culture, seem to have some difficulty with the difference between noting bigotry and condemning the person who expresses it, without looking at the surrounding culture. it is important to recognized aspects of anything we study or enjoy, but also to understand why those aspects exist. context matters in moral judgement. a shakespeare living today would indeed be worthy of anger, because today he would be making a choice to embrace his own bigotry, or to cynically sell bigotry to pander to an audience. as it is, we can regret the prejudices he reflected, and be grateful for all the wonders of his writing and his deep understanding of the human soul. those are not contradictory feelings.

1 comment:

Ken G. said...

I love your line about Shakespeare's "near-inability to ignore human complexity." That so wonderfully expresses how he could write that most eloquent "hath not a Jew eyes?" speech in the midst of a play of unquestioned anti-Semitism.

We are all products of our times, for better of for worse. Somebody recently took me to task for a video I made on Jack London, for his racism. While far more recent than Shakespeare, he was still a product of his time, but that doesn't diminish his place in American literature any more than does Mark Twain's racism, or the importance of D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" on the history of film.

We study these works, and we appreciate the beauty and perfection of their words, even as we recognize how far we, as a people, have come on certain issues since these works were created.

Human complexity... where would we be without it?