Lit Frees Us from Our Mental Ghettos

Maurycy Gottlieb, “Shylock and Jessica” (1887)


Stephen Greenblatt, the world’s preeminent Shakespeare scholar, has a fascinating article in the recent New Yorker exploring what Shakespeare taught him when he was growing up Jewish in America in the 1940s and 50s. Believe it or not, he has positive things to say about The Merchant of Venice.

Greenblatt encountered blatant anti-Semitism as a freshman at Yale in 1961 and, when he began to take literature courses, was further shocked to discover anti-immigrant sentiments in Henry James and anti-Semitic sentiments in the revered T. S. Eliot. For instance, in “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar,” Eliot “conjured up the primal ooze” from which he saw Jews emerging:

A lustreless protrusive eye
Stares from the protozoic slime
At a perspective of Canaletto.
The smoky candle end of time

Declines. On the Rialto once.
The rats are underneath the piles.
The jew is underneath the lot.

From Eliot’s mention of Venice’s Rialto, Greenblatt segues to Merchant of Venice, the most problematic of Shakespeare’s problem plays, which is set there. Greenblatt notes the confusion we feel as we watch the play:

What, exactly, are you applauding and smiling at? How are you supposed to view the Jewish daughter who robs her father and bestows the money on her fortune-hunting Christian suitor? Do you join in the raucous laughter of the Christians who mock and spit on the Jew? Or do you secretly condone Shylock’s vindictive, malignant rage? Where are you, at the end of the harrowing scene in the courtroom, when Portia asks the man she has outmaneuvered and ruined whether he agrees to the terms she has dictated, terms that include the provision that he immediately become a Christian? “Art thou contented, Jew?” she prods. “What dost thou say?” And what do you think the Jew actually feels when he answers, “I am content”?

Greenblatt says that, when he was a college student, he decided he would grapple with “the whole vast, messy enterprise of culture as if it were my birthright.” Doing so meant that, while he wouldn’t allowed himself to be crushed by anti-Semitism, he also wouldn’t adopt the defensive posture of his parents. He was determined to confront what was toxic in the culture as well as what was nurturing. As a teacher, he tries to get his students to do the same:

I’m now an English professor at Harvard, and in recent years some of my students have seemed acutely anxious when they are asked to confront the crueller strains of our cultural legacy. In my own life, that reflex would have meant closing many of the books I found most fascinating, or succumbing to the general melancholy of my parents….I was eager to expand my horizons, not to retreat into a defensive crouch. Prowling the stacks of Yale’s vast library, I sometimes felt giddy with excitement. I had a right to all of it, or, at least, to as much of it as I could seize and chew upon. And the same was true of everyone else.

What he learned is that this culture is a mixed bag. It must be studied, the bad as well as the good, because it shapes who we are:

What you inherit, what you receive from a world that you did not fashion but that will do its best to fashion you, is at once beautiful and repellent. You somehow have to come to terms with what is ugly as well as what is precious.

The task derives from the kind of creatures that we are. We arrive in the world only partially formed; a culture that has been in the making for hundreds of thousands of years will form the rest. And that culture will inevitably contain much that is noxious as well as beneficent. No one is exempt—not the Jew or the Muslim, of course, but also not the Cockney or the earl or the person whose ancestors came to America on the Mayflower or, for that matter, the person whose ancestors were Algonquins or Laplanders. Our species’ cultural birthright is a mixed blessing. It is what makes us fully human, but being fully human is a difficult work in progress. 

Greenblatt admits that Shakespeare absorbed some of the anti-Semitism of his day, which accounts for the problematic aspects to Merchant of Venice. Where Shakespeare surprises, however, is giving unexpected touches of humanity to even his villains. Greenblatt says that, although making Shylock three-dimensional threatens to disrupt the plot, Shakespeare couldn’t help himself:

The life that sweeps across the stage here includes, as well, sudden glimpses into parts of an existence that the plot by itself did not demand. When Shylock learns that his daughter exchanged a turquoise ring for a monkey—a turquoise ring that she stole from him, and that had been a gift from his dead wife, Leah, his anguish is unmistakable. “Thou torturest me,” he tells the friend who brought him the news. “It was my turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.”

Greenblatt acknowledges that, while such touches don’t offset the play’s anti-Semitism, they do unsettle it:

Are such glimpses enough to do away with hatred of the other? Not at all. But they begin an unsettling from within. Even now, more than four centuries later, the unsettling that the play provokes remains a beautiful and disturbing experience.

Shakespeare himself may have found it disturbing. He set out, it seems, to write a straightforward comedy, borrowed from Giovanni Fiorentino’s novella “Il Pecorone” (“The Big Sheep”), only to find himself increasingly drawn into the soul of the despised other. Shylock came perilously close to wrecking the comic structure of the play, a structure that Shakespeare only barely rescued by making the moneylender disappear for good at the end of the fourth act.

Greenblatt observes that this occurs in other plays as well:

It wasn’t the only time in his work that this excess of life had occurred. The playwright is said to have remarked that in “Romeo and Juliet” he had to kill Mercutio before Mercutio killed the play, and he ran a similar risk with characters like Jack Cade, Aaron the Moor, Malvolio, and Caliban. Indeed, the ability to enter deeply—too deeply, for the purposes of the plot—into almost every character he deployed was a signature. It accounts for the startling vividness of Adriana, the neglected wife in “The Comedy of Errors”; Bottom the Weaver, in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in “Hamlet”; Cornwall’s brave servant, in “King Lear”; and many others. It helps explain the strange illusion that certain of his characters have lives independent of the play in which they appear. And it contributes to the moral and aesthetic complexity that characterizes so many of his plays. Consider, for example, the fact that for centuries critics have debated whether Brutus is the hero or the villain of “Julius Caesar.” In Oskar Eustis’s controversial production of the play last month, in Central Park, audiences chortled at a Trump-like despot—but were then brought up short by the horror of what befalls him, the carnage born of self-steeling righteousness. What leads to disaster is Brutus’s ideological decision to think of Caesar not as a human being at all but, rather, as “a serpent’s egg,” and therefore to “kill him in the shell.”

How did Shakespeare achieve such three-dimensionality? Greenblatt says that the Bard was constitutionally incapable of settling for anything less. Like Martin Luther, he could do no other:

Even after a lifetime of studying Shakespeare, I cannot always tell you precisely how he achieved this extraordinary life-making. I sometimes picture him attaching his characters like leeches to his arms and allowing them to suck his lifeblood.

Percy Shelley, in his brilliant Defense of Poetry, sees great literature as ultimately liberating because it captures the complexity of individuals in a way that political systems cannot. Greenblatt says something along those lines when he discusses how Shakespeare releases the imagination to see the humanity in even those we would demonize and marginalize:

The conferral of life is one of the essential qualities of the human imagination. Since very few of us are endowed with great genius, it is important to understand that the quality of which I am speaking is to some degree democratically shared. Ideologies of various kinds contrive to limit our ability to enter into the experience of another, and there are works of art that are complicit in these ideologies. More generous works of art serve to arouse, organize, and enhance that ability. Shakespeare’s works are a living model not because they offer practical solutions to the dilemmas they so brilliantly explore but because they awaken our awareness of the human lives that are at stake.

This is why literature generally and Shakespeare specifically should be required reading for all of us. As Greenblatt eloquently puts it,

What Shakespeare bequeathed to us offers the possibility of an escape from the mental ghettos most of us inhabit.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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