Sunday, January 10, 2010

Debt in Venice

We're all prejudiced. It's impossible not to be, really--every thinking person judges. Judgment fuels the faculty of reason. We judge, and occasionally, to save time or because we're morally lazy, we pre-judge. Now if we're educated--and I don't mean just formally, one can be educated by upbringing, or simply by experience--we learn to judge our judgments, too. By the time you reach mid-adulthood, your prejudices have probably been proven wrong so many times that you know to second-guess them. Business majors aren't uniformly unimaginative. Pretty blondes aren't all dumb. African-Americans are sometimes lousy dancers. Asians can be poets, not just math geniuses. Italians aren't all emotionally volatile. Wait, that one's true. Okay, moving on--many Jews could care less about money, most Muslims aren't terrorists. Gay men aren't all fashion-obsessed. Etcetera. Some of those made you nervous, didn't they? Me too. Racial and cultural stereotypes creep us all out. Because we know they're damaging, iniquitous and really uncool. So if and when our minds move in that retrograde direction, we censor them.  And so we should. As Freud said, repression is the basis of civilization.

Anti-Semitism, which is the particular kind of bigotry I'll be discussing here, was more an issue for my parents' generation than mine.  Because I went to Catholic schools for much of my childhood, Judaism was pretty much just a theological abstraction for me. Jews didn't believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the nuns told us. As far as I was concerned, they were entitled to their opinion.

As a child, I only encountered anti-Semitism once, and it was a traumatic encounter. Really traumatic. I was twelve, and an omnivorous reader (yeah, I know you're surprised). My parents had lots of books. One of them was The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Do you know this book? It's history, but rather sensationalized. Anyway, I was reading around in it, and, quite by accident, discovered what we now call The Holocaust. Because it happened at around puberty, I think this revelation got all bound up with psychic anxieties about adolescence and adulthood. For most kids, sex is the scary thing that confronts them at twelve or thirteen. For me, it was history. There's a wealth of detail in that book, and when I read it I was angry, sickened, horrified. Some of the anger was reserved for my parents, who--I felt--had hidden this unspeakable historical truth from me. This was my first terrifying look into the real, material violence of history, and it confirmed what I'd suspected all along. Fiction was infinitely preferable to real life, and fictional people were nobler, wiser, and more civilized than real ones.

For better or worse, there's a twelve-year-old in my head who still believes that.

There are some texts, however, that challenge that assumption. One of them is The Merchant of Venice. If Romeo and Juliet is Will's most culturally pervasive play, The Merchant of Venice is, by far, his most disturbing. Scholars have argued and worried about it for centuries, although the anxiety made a jump to lightspeed after the Second World War, for obvious reasons. The trouble, of course, centers on the figure of Shylock--as stereotypical Jew, as scapegoat, as Semitic Machiavel. Was Shakespeare, the greatest poet and playwright in English, an anti-Semite? Is that a question we should even be asking, given that he wrote over four hundred years ago, in an England that hadn't even seen a practicing Jew since 1290?  If we do ask it, and we decide that yes, he was a bigot, does that fact taint all his work?

The Merchant of Venice offers no clear answer to these questions--in fact, it's a play about questions, about ambivalence, and irreconcilable differences. Which is weird in itself, since comedy usually demands reconciliation. In my reading of (the interminable) Romeo and Juliet, I argued that the play begins as a comedy and turns tragic. The Merchant, by contrast, teeters on the edge of tragedy throughout--and the end, at least from our modern perspective, is decidedly disturbing and un-comedic.

The play's ambivalence begins with its title. Who, exactly, is the Merchant of Venice? My Norton Shakespeare (based on the Oxford edition) prints the title as The Comical History of the Merchant of Venice, or Otherwise Called the Jew of Venice. The "otherwise" refers not to the Merchant, but to the play. In other words, the play was known as The Merchant of Venice, but also as The Jew of Venice. The latter title obviously hoped to capitalize on the popularity of Christopher Marlowe's earlier play, The Jew of Malta. Marlowe's play is completely unambivalent about Jews--Barabas, the antagonist of the play, is a nasty piece of work--a monstrous, homicidal freak:

...I walk abroad a'nights,
And kill sick people groaning under walls,
Sometimes I go about and poison wells.

Well-poisoning, along with infanticide, were considered particularly Jewish crimes during the English Middle Ages and Renaissance.When the Black Plague broke out in Europe, Jewish well-poisoning was blamed. Jews were also accused of drinking the blood of Christian children, desecrating the Eucharist, and generally being Tools of the Devil. They killed Jesus, remember.

They were also pretty useful, or had been, before Edward I got greedy and decided that banishing Jews and taking possession of all the debt owed them was a good way to fill the royal coffers. There's more to the story than that, but I'll save that for a later post. The point is that Jews and Judaism were completely alien to Elizabethan people--no one had actually seen one in the country since the Fall of 1290.  The Jews that remained in England pretended, under pain of expulsion (or worse) to be converts. So unless he traveled more widely than we assume, Will probably hadn't ever met a practicing Jew when he wrote The Merchant.

Shylock can't be the title character in any case, because Jews, even in Venice, weren't allowed to own property. So they couldn't buy or sell anything. They had to make money Christians considered usury--lending money at interest--to be a sin. Jews became moneylenders because that was the only form of commerce open to them. And it was a profitable one, since aristocrats like the Christian Venetians in the play inevitably lived beyond their means, racking up considerable debt. One of the most interesting things about this play is the way Will links money, debt, and interest to love, justice, and religion. It's brilliant, and, I think, more relevant than ever to our times. I'll have a lot to say about that, as well, in the coming weeks.

The actual Merchant of Venice is Antonio, the guy who almost has to give up a pound of flesh at the end. Despite being the title character, however, Antonio isn't much of a presence in the play--he exists, I think, as a Christian foil to Shylock. Generous where the Jew is stingy, loyal, congenial, and commercially adventurous where Shylock is suspicious, mean-spirited, and miserly. He's also a bigot, and Shylock has no reason to like or trust him.

Antonio is a moneylender in the play as well, but of course he lends money to his friend Bassanio as an act of love, not commerce. Interest-free. Or is it? Because it could be argued--has been argued--that Antonio is actually trying to buy Bassanio's love. When someone collects interest on a loan, the payments are always going to be a known quantity. When someone loans money for reasons of love, the payments can be infinite. Just ask anyone who's ever borrowed money from family.

Love and commerce are all mixed up in this play--as in The Taming of the Shrew, all the male wooers are obviously interested in "wiving wealthily." Bassanio loves Portia for her beauty, intelligence, and virtue, but he's wooing her for her money; he makes it clear that he's got none of his own. Money also bears a metaphoric relation to religion and to law. Loaning money at interest, Shylock doesn't extend "credit" in the etymological sense. He doesn't have faith--he's not a believer. He lives according to the Old Covenant, not the New. The letter, not the spirit. Justice, not mercy.

Reading this play, one can see why the marriage of Christianity and capitalism has been such an enduring one. Both are about deferral, in some sense. Christians have traditionally (here I exclude recent materialist manifestations of Christianity) privileged the next life over this one. The last shall be first, blessed are the meek--miserable on earth, you'll be happier in heaven. Be charitable today and you'll get credit for it in the afterlife. Capitalism, as The Merchant dramatizes so well, runs on promises, hopes, wagers. Invest today for a big return tomorrow. Enjoy today and pay tomorrow. The word "credit" is from the Latin "credo."  I believe.

This is indisputably Shylock's play. Like Richard III, Shylock is one of those bad-guy roles that draws the great Shakespearean actors. There's a whole cultural history in the evolution of Shylock on stage. In the early years he was a comic character--the Jew as buffoon. In the eighteenth century he became a stage villain, in the Romantic period he was pathetic, and in the Victorian era a tragic figure. Later productions have seen him as a foil for the hypocrisy of the Christian characters; in the wake of the Holocaust, he's come to represent the violent fantasies that enable genocide.

Interestingly, two of the modern era's most important thinkers wrote about The Merchant of Venice. Karl Marx, a Jew himself, saw Shylock as an allegorical figure representing the cruel rapacity of capitalism. In Capital, protests against the inhumanity of child labor go unheeded because the literal interpretation of the law allows practice to continue:

Workmen and factory inspectors protested on hygienic and moral grounds, but Capital answered:
 "My deeds upon my head! I crave the law,
The penalty and forfeit of my bond."

Capitalism, like Shylock, will have its pound of flesh. Freud--also Jewish--wrote an essay called "The Theme of the Three Caskets," but it's most interesting  in that it begins with the three caskets scene from The Merchant, but ends up talking about King Lear instead. Repression, anyone? As everyone knows, Freud had a problematic relationship to Judaism--it's no wonder he would sidestep the shadow of literature's most famous fictional Jew.

When I decided to write about this play, I started thinking about the concept of debt. We Americans are a nation of debtors--in fact, our nation has a lot in common with Will's Venice these days. Christianity has a lot to say about debt, too. When I was a Catholic schoolgirl, I recited The Lord's Prayer daily, with the rest of my class. Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. I was surprised to learn, later in life, that some Protestant sects use the version in Matthew 6:12--And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. To me, this sounded crass. Like it was just about money, not ethics. And yet, now that I'm older, I think I like that version better. "Trespasses" sounds like a violation of boundaries. "Debts" is much more encompassing. Quit thinking about what you're owed. Get rid of the balance sheet in your head.

After I turned that around in my mind a few times, I decided to keep writing the blog. Without keeping a balance sheet. Just because I like doing it.

Next:  Money and melancholy.


  1. I feel really guilty now about writing a biblical satire in my blogg, amongst other compositions. But it is signposted as such and the reader has a choice not to proceed. I feel guilty about feeling guilty, as should we not keep the 'good' things in life, and while religion is good for a vast amount of adherents, is not humour good too for a lot of people.

    Democracy encourages opinion - obviously expressed within sensitivity boundaries, and while I am not anti-semetic, and I respect Jews as fellow human beings, would - or could 'I' be labelled as such for lightheartedness. Now this would be the case if I shoved the said piece under the nose of any pracitising religious Jew, but it was not my intent to be derogatory and as such they were not part and parcel of my demographic audience.

    When people go to a standup comedy show, they usually know what to expect - more often than not humour at the expense of others, and know it is going to be as such by the signposted billboard (not sure if this is the right word to use)outside the venue. Now does this make every spec taking person there derogatory for laughing
    at such a manner of humour!

    I think religion should lighten up with many of us in society, and it should learn to laugh more, as humour is so enlightening to the spirit of peace. It should also embrace modern culture more, and not be so archaic - in my opinion!

    But this is not just 'my' opinion, as progress demands change, and there are changes afoot within the Jewish community, especially concerned with the female role within this society. The Jewish Reform tradition has been open to lots of constuctive changes to better the lives of its devotees, and there are some slow changes of pursuit within the Orthodox and Conservative Orthodox traditions.

    An excellant post by the way, and I can't help but feel the cause of it, which I'm sorry for. Please don't take me as a bad person, as I'm really very nice. I too was brought up religiously, first as a Catholic and then as a Morman. I must pick up some Shakespeare books soon! Thank you. Take care. Bye.

  2. The Merchant of Venice is really a play about differences--and it's a comedy, too. Personally, I don't think all this politically correct stuff helps anyone become more tolerant--and, as you can see from my joke about Italians (which is really about my family of Italian-Americans), I do think it's important to laugh at oneself, too! People are easily offended these days--I think that's unfortunate. We should be looking for ways to connect, not reasons not to. Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful comment.

  3. I love Merchant of Venice! And I'm so celebrating your blogging-continuation into this play. I've seen three film versions--and I saw a performance a long, long time ago. Shylock is a great character! BTW, GM did you read the review of Ackroyd's new "prose" Canterbury Tales in the New Yorker a few weeks ago? There was an interesting comment by Joan Acocella about both Chaucer's and Shakespeare's lack of interaction with Jews or Jewish culture prior to their creative depiction of Jews.

    I'm looking forward to the courtroom drama. Oh my! When we get to the law, I may have to cross-blog.


  4. Do you recommend any of the films? I'm afraid of the Al Pacino one--I remember that awful Richard 3 thing he did. Also, he looks like my dad.

  5. What do you make of Marlowe also creating a Jewish villain in the Jew of Malta? It would be interesting to do a a thematic comparison.

    What does it do for the theory that Marlowe was indeed the hidden hand, behind a theatre impresario of little learning called Shakespeare? Mike

  6. Michael--you raise some provocative questions/issues. It would be interesting to do a thematic comparison between Marlowe's Jew of Malta and Will's Merchant of Venice. They're really very different. Sort of like the difference between a Merchant/Ivory film and a Tarantino one. Marlowe's play is much more sensationalist, much more violent--there are poisonings, stranglings, explosions, and death by boiling oil. Nuns and monks engage in salacious acts. A whole different deal. There are some similarities, too--I may look at the play in more detail later. Now, as a for the authorship question--there's no way the guy who wrote Marlowe's plays could have written Will's. Although M certainly is a good playwright, capable of some lovely turns of phrase ("is this the face that launched a thousand ships/And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?"), Will's plays have such an embarrassment of rhetorical riches that they're not even in the same league. It's true that many of the arguments against Shakespeare's authorship have focused on the question of learning--but most scholars think--and I agree--that the author of his plays displays the kind of knowledge available to any intelligent literate person of the age. Just as I can appear to know a lot about science or politics, for example, just by reading a lot of newspapers and magazines. I haven't much formal education in either area. Now it's certainly possible that the man we call Shakespeare didn't write the plays he signed off on--but whoever did, it was the work of a singular mind and, yes, a poetic genius. That guy wasn't the same one who wrote The Jew of Malta, for sure.
    Sorry, that was long-winded. But thanks for the provocative comment.

  7. GM--

    I have seen the Pacino (the performance was essentially the same as his Angels In America--Roy Cohn), Pacino's was not dreadful as I recall I liked the atomospherics, and I saw BBC circa 2000?, but there's another version--I have it, and I combed through my video library. Unfortunately, it's not jumping out to me, it's my favorite version--theatrical.