Last week a reader accused me of anti-Semitism for defending Merchant of Venice. While I’m always willing to learn new things about myself—personally, I think I have more trace elements in my system of sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, and ableism than of anti-Semitism—the response sent me back to early recollections of the play. For what it’s worth, as a child I identified most with Shylock.
I did so, I think, because of how he is bullied. As a quiet and sensitive middle schooler, I had a teacher who called me a sissy and I was the target of bullies. This influenced my reading of Shakespeare, whom I began reading when I was 12. (During a month in bed with mono, I listened to recordings that my father brought home from Sewanee’s English Department.)
I also identified with Malvolio when Sir Toby and company push him almost to madness. And with Viola when she too becomes a Toby target, pushed into a fight with Sir Andrew (whom I also found sympathetic). In what was clearly a wish fulfillment, I reveled in the subsequent duel scene where she is replaced by her twin brother, who beats up the tormenters.
Because he is a remarkably tolerant and open-hearted author, Shakespeare comes down hard on bullies. We even see characters standing up for the players in Midsummer Night’s Dream. While Pyramus and Thisbe has been booked strictly for laughs, Hippolyta feels embarrassed for what the local craftsmen are being put through while Theseus rather magnanimously observes that we are all of us in the same boat:
Hippolyta: This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard.
Theseus: The best of this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination mend them.
This from the playwright who wrote “the best of this kind.” I see Shakespeare here revealing the gap between what the playwright imagines and what shows up on the stage. Where others mock, the Bard identifies.
But back to Shylock. My heart went out to him because of how he is treated. The “if you prick me, do I not bleed” passage went straight to my core, and I couldn’t stand how everyone piles on him at the end. In Twelfth Night, at least, Feste intervenes when the joke against Malvolio goes too far. There’s no one to stop the torment that Shylock endures other than Shakespeare himself, who mercifully drops him out of the play. As Stephen Greetblatt notes, the play comes perilously close to tilting from the intended comedy into something much darker.
In using this line of reasoning to defend myself against anti-Semitism charges, I think of Wayne Booth recollecting his response to the final chapters of Huckleberry Finn. Was he racially insensitive for laughing at Tom Sawyer’s antics, he wonders. His answer is, “yes, but.”
The “yes” is at laughing too easily as Tom turns a grown man into a prop for his adventure fantasies. The “but” is because, even as a boy, Booth sensed that Tom was doing something deeply wrong:
In brief, long before [various African American colleagues] had ever led me to think ethically about the book, it had already done its true work in this respect. The vivid images of that great-hearted black man crouched patiently in that shed, waiting while the unconsciously cruel Huck and the consciously, irresponsibly cruel adventurer Tom planned an escape that almost destroys them all—those images haunted me even as I laughed, and they haunt me still.
Along with Shakespeare, I abandoned Shylock in Act V and enjoyed the play’s “happily-ever-after” ending. In other words, I did not dwell on the anti-Semitism and gave Portia a pass. Yet what haunts me to this day is Shylock’s agony. Whatever damage the play did by reinforcing cultural stereotypes was more than offset by Shylock’s humanity. Or so I believe.
Further thought: In arguing for the greatness of Merchant of Venice last week, I cited Shelley’s observation (in Defence of Poetry) that the greatest authors, while they must clothe their creation in the customs of their day, reach down to something deeper within the human spirit. Of course, if the local customs involve anti-Semitic or misogynist or racist practices, it’s understandable why people would be offended.
To say, for instance, that “other than reflecting the prejudices of its day by reducing Africans to a howling mob, Heart of Darkness is a great work,” requires a fairly significant set aside. It’s why writers, even those as great as Shakespeare, must be critiqued when they fail to honor the full humanity of characters. That’s why I’m not altogether dismissive of the reader who accused me of anti-Semitism. In defending the play, I may have too summarily set aside the problems with Merchant.
But readers from oppressed groups (including women) have long known that rejecting works for this or that “ism” will leave us with very little. It’s why Shelley’s distinction is useful. Appreciate the artistry and insight but also read historically and critically. Even with that caution, however, Shakespeare petty much passes every test, rendering three-dimensional pretty much everyone he portrays.