Sunday, 15 March 2015

Why Anti-Semitic Language in The Merchant of Venice is Important

Should Shakespeare's 'problem'
plays be censored?
Earlier this month, David Schajer of Shakespeare Solved debated whether the very talented Mark Rylance is right in saying that, since the Holocaust, certain anti-Semitic phrases in The Merchant of Venice carry more resonance and should, therefore, be cut from performance. 

I disagree with Rylance for two reasons.

Before a dive headlong into them, though, I will just preface by saying I am not Jewish and accept that people who are may feel differently about this than me.

However, the crux of what I'm about to ramble on about is that, in my opinion, it is doing a disservice to Jews to remove the anti-Semitism from The Merchant of Venice.

The Past Cannot be Altered

My first reason for feeling that anti-Semitic remarks are important is that to censor them is, it seems to me at least, a troubling exercise in sanitising history. 

There's a danger in sanitising history
It is inarguably uncomfortable to come face to face with our racist, sexist, anti-Semitic and barbaric past. 

But does that mean we should gloss over it; pretend that it didn't exist? Are we doing Jews a favour by sweeping the hatred they faced in 16th century Europe under the rug? 

And if we do think that 16th century anti-Semitism is unpalatable, should we not also see anti-Semitism from all centuries (including the 20th) removed from literature, theatre and film?

George Santayana told us, "Those who cannot remember the past are destined to repeat it."

To my mind, it is essential that we acknowledge anti-Semitism as part of human history. To pretend it was not there, and to deny it's existence, is to deny the suffering of scores of people. 

Shakespeare wasn't an Anti-Semite

The second reason that I believe anti-Semitic language to be crucial in The Merchant of Venice is that, although several of Shakespeare's characters are unapologetic in their hatred of Shylock and his religion, Shakespeare himself is not.

That could not be made any clearer than in one of his most famous passages:

"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."

David Suchet as Shylock (Hath not a Jew eyes?)

We know that Shylock is the wronged party in the play. He is a victim rather than a villain, and that fact is obvious thanks to the abusive vitriol he receives from the Christians, in particular Gratiano, Antonio, and Salanio & Salarino. 

Keep in mind, at the beginning of the play, Shylock has done nothing to any of them. Still Antonio not only thinks it's okay to void his rheum on Shylock's beard, but freely admits he's like to do so again!

There is nothing Christian about the way the other men treat Shylock. Spitting on him, calling him a dog, their glee when he is forced to convert, Gratiano wishing him hanged - none of these things are Christian behaviours. These men are not 'nice' characters. 

Henry Goodman is Shylock
If we take away the proof of their unpleasantness, what are we left with? 

Well, Shylock's distress and anger don't make anywhere near as much sense. His speech above loses at least some, if not all, of its power. His desire for revenge doesn't ring true. And then we have a man who's bent on hurting Antonio good reason. 

Take away the anti-Semitism he's been victim of and you make him a villain. 

Now, don't get me wrong, Shylock isn't all sweetness and light, and perhaps his desire for revenge is wrong. But it's understandable in the context of the play.

However, take the context away, and we not only turn him into a baddie, but also make him a two-dimensional, pantomime villain. 

I'm not going to deny there are facets of the play that are uncomfortable; the upbeat end probably the most disturbing thing of all. I've seen productions that close on a rather more sombre note though, like Trevor Nunn's Royal National Theatre production. I tend to think, if you're going to edit the play at all, that's one of the places to do it. 

It is, unquestionably, a problem play, but I don't believe we make it unproblematic by removing lines that are offensive. I don't think taking vile things out of the Christians' mouths makes The Merchant of Venice a 'better' or more palatable play.

In fact, I feel the complete opposite is true. 

Ignoring the anti-Semitism of the era, and the horrific abuse that is so fundamental to why Shylock acts as he does, makes for a much poorer play; with far less complex characters and a Jewish character whose demand for a pound of flesh is seemingly motiveless.

But what do you think?

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice in a Nutshell

Because I don't post here nearly as often as I should, I'm making my rather belaboured way through putting all of Shakespeare's plays into nutshells; whittling the plot down to its most simple elements in order to explain what the play is about.

And on this occasion, it's the turn of The Merchant of Venice.

A wealthy merchant who's borrowed money on behalf of his friend, learns that his ships have been lost. Unable to repay the usurer he has abused in the past, he faces the prospect of paying the contract's specified penalty: a pound of his flesh.

Now that's the gist of the plot, but it's not really what The Merchant of Venice is about. And, in keeping the nutshell as concise as possible, I've left out two important strands of the plot - Portia's love trial (and her subsequent part in the Venetian trial), and the romance between Lorenzo and Jessica.

Ironically, though, I'd say what the play is actually about is much simpler than the logline I've given it above. It's about love; in various forms, including romantic, friendship, paternal and fillial. It's about prejudice, and the things hatred can engender. And it's about the law.

For more on The Merchant of Venice, take a look at:

A Quick Overview of The Merchant of Venice
The Casket Trial
Clever Portia and The Quality of Mercy
Is Shakespeare Anti-Semitic?

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Does Shakespeare Pass The Bechdel Test?

Lady Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's finest
female creations.
Shakespeare's women are some of the most memorable and feisty gals in literature/theatre. But do any of his plays pass the Bechdel test?

Perhaps it's unfair to apply a concept coined in the mid 1980s to four-hundred-year-old literature, but, given how many strong women exist in Shakespeare's work, I think it's a valid question.

What is The Bechdel Test?

In case you're not familiar with it, the Bechdel test is a very basic measure by which to gauge gender bias. Originally, in Alison Bechdel's comic, Dykes to Watch Out For, she was referring to films, but the test is now used in evaluating all kinds of fiction.

The Bechdel test sets a very low bar for female presence in a film/play/book by asking three simple questions.

1. Are there two named female characters?
2. Do these female characters talk to each other?
3. Is their conversation about something other than a man?

Gender Bias in Shakespeare

Shakespearean women, like Portia, have an
important function in the plays
I think there can be no doubt that there is gender bias in Shakespeare's work.

Not a single play features a female lead (I was tempted to consider Viola the lead in Twelfth Night, but that's actually very much an ensemble affair), and men outnumber women considerably in every play.

I'm not knocking Shakespeare for that.

He was a man, so it's natural that he would incline to tell men's stories. He also had an all-male cast, so writing a play with a large number of women would pose problems - not every one of his actors had the youthful face and unbroken voice to do drag.

Besides which, male-centric plays or not, his female characters have one thing in common: they're all strong. Not one is there for titillation or window dressing; they're not plot devices. Instead, they have agency.

But back to the question at hand...

Does Shakespeare Pass The Bechdel Test?

Do Shakespeare's women talk to each
other about something other than a man?
Now, let me first preface this by saying I haven't read/watched every play specifically with this question in mind - that would be quite a time-consuming effort.

So, if you can think of a play that does pass, which I've missed, feel free to let me know.

With the exception of The Tempest (some people consider Ariel female, but that's very much debatable. And if we have to resort to counting non-humans, then the answer is surely, 'no'), every other of Shakespeare's plays passes the first of Bechdel's requirements: they all have more than one named female character.

Do they talk to each other?

Of the 36 plays still in the running, we now have to dismiss a further three: Julius Caesar, Henry VI Part 1, and Henry VI Part 3. In all three of these plays, the women are kept separate and never utter a word to each other.

Do the women who do talk to each other talk about something other than a man?

So far, The Bard isn't doing too badly.

But here's where the Bechdel wheels start to fall off a little. The tragedies are male-centric, the comedies are predominantly romance-centric. And so, when the girls do get together, it's often to discuss men.

Shakespeare's responsible for some of the
most feisty girls in English literature
There are a several plays that are borderline; offering only a few very brief lines that are about something other than a man. For example, one of the fleeting conversations in Much Ado About Nothing concerns a wedding dress.

The women in Love's Labours Lost and All's Well That Ends Well also spend much of their time talking about men, but there are brief instances of other topics.

Helena and Hermia have their wonderful blazing row in A Midsummer Night's Dream, which is not about a man, but it is over men, so it's a woolly one.

Viola and Olivia have several conversations in Twelfth Night, but Olivia thinks Viola's a man and, much of the time, they're talking about Orsino.

In As You Like It, Rosalind and Celia discuss running away, but that's mixed with some drooling over Orlanda, agreeing to take Touchstone with them, the possibility of finding Rosalind's father, and the benefits of donning the disguise of a man - so it too is up for debate.

All right, so what about the plays that definitely pass muster? 

Do the witches in Macbeth count as women?
Despite talk about men dominating Portia and Nerissa's scenes, there is the wonderful, "How far that little candle throws his beams!" chat about the nature of goodness in a bleak world in The Merchant of Venice.

In Henry V, Katherine is being taught English by her lady's maid, Alice.

Mistress Quickly tells Doll Tearsheet that she's looking pretty chipper despite having over indulged, in Henry IV Part 2 - it's brief, but I guess it counts.

In Macbeth, the witches fill each other in on what they've been doing since they last met, although you could argue their status as 'women'. (ETA: As a reader kindly mentioned, the witches don't actually have names. So, even if we do count them as women, alas, they do not pass!)

What Does All This Prove?

Maybe what they talk about is much less important
than how complex their characters are
Well, first it demonstrates that Shakespeare doesn't do too badly - certainly better than you'd assume a four centuries' old playwright to fair when placed under modern feminist scrutiny.

In fact, with almost half of Hollywood movies failing the Bechdel test, it suggests Shakespeare was ahead of his time...but we knew that anyway.

However, the Bechdel test is limited (nobody's suggested otherwise), because even the Shakespeare plays that fail it have thoroughly corking females characters in them.

Just because the women of Othello or King Lear, for instance, talk about men doesn't mean they're not wonderful, strong and full characters in their own right.

It simply means most aspects of their lives are affected by men, which sort of goes without saying in Elizabethan and Jacobean times, doesn't it?

The far more important and impressive thing is that Shakespeare's women are all complex, interesting and unique.

For more on Shakespeare's women, take a look at: