Thursday, February 18, 2010

Bond of Blood

 I've been reading this fascinating book, which would seem to have nothing to do with Shakespeare or The Merchant, yet I found myself really struck by the ways the two works are intersecting in my mind. So as a preamble to my reading of Act 3, I thought I'd share some of those thoughts with you, my few but faithful readers.  The book is called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It's nonfiction--despite its title, which makes it sound like one of those dreary Contemporary Fiction Things that's all full of interpersonal angst, magical realism and heavy doses of irony. There's a lot of irony in the story, but it's the real-life kind. You can read a review of the book here.

Essentially, the book is about how the cancer cells of a poor black woman who died in 1951 refused to die themselves, becoming the first cells successfully grown in culture, and the basis for many of the medical advances we now take for granted, like the polio vaccine. The book is so compelling because it interweaves the story of Henrietta Lacks's family, who remained poor and uneducated, with the history of science---her cells revolutionized microbiology, histology, and lots of other ologies. In reading it I confronted my own history a little, too--my father was a high-powered microbiologist in the 1960's, and I'm sure he worked a lot with these cells, called HeLa, after Henrietta Lacks.  

Hela, it turns out, is also a goddess of death in Norse mythology. Irony number one.

Since I've been re-reading The Merchant while I read this book, I couldn't help but see a lot of similarities. Not in the plot, of course, but in what I'd call the "ethical subtext" of the stories. One of the things you notice right away in the story of HeLa and Henrietta is that these "magical" cells that have saved so many lives were taken from a woman who was deemed to be so different, so inferior by virtue of her race, that she had to be treated in the "colored ward" of the hospital. And yet her "immortal" cells are the undying testament to a common humanity. Another irony.

A lot of things occurred to me here. Literature, and Shakespeare in particular, is often called "immortal." One of the reasons these plays are still read in high schools and colleges all over the world is because they supposedly speak to and of something "universally human" that transcends time and cultural difference. Like HeLa, they live on long after the being that created them has passed into dust.

I also thought of Shylock, his insistence on similarity in the face of a culture that persists in seeing him as different and inferior. "I will have my bond," he cries, when Antonio proves unable to pay the debt. He means, "I will make you pay me what you promised," but the word "bond" can be taken in another way, too.

I will have my bond. I will, no matter what you say, prove that we share a common humanity, even if I have to cut into your flesh to do it. I will find your heart, even if I have to use a knife.

Henrietta's cells seemed to say that, too. I will have my bond. We are all the same, if you look deep enough under the skin. One of the most touching things about the story is the way Henrietta's children deal with her "immortality."  They don't find out about HeLa for many years, but when they do, they fear all kinds of things--she's being cloned, she's being tortured, she's still alive in cellular form, she's been made into a half-human monster. When you read this, you might think--oh, those poor ignorant people, who don't know what a cell is, or what DNA really means.

But then, you might look at your bookshelf, which is full of science fiction, and think again. The freaky things the Lacks family worries about are the speculative fantasies sci fi trades on--cloning, genetic immortality, mutants. And when you realize this, you might feel the tug of that bond again.

Another thing that occurred to me was the way money played into the HeLa drama. Several biotech concerns have made billions on HeLa cells, and yet her family is too poor to afford health insurance. When they found out about HeLa, they made a halfhearted attempt to sue the hospital, or the researcher who took the cell sample, to try and get even a small part of the wealth their mother's cells had generated. The way they saw it, the scientific community had stolen part of their mother, and thus part of themselves, so they were owed something.

Of course this raised all kinds of other legal concerns about science, progress, and who owns genetic material once it leaves a body. I won't go into that here--read the book, it's really interesting--but I was reminded of The Merchant yet again. One of the things the Christians accuse Shylock of is trafficking in human life, because of his refusal to accept Portia's money (more on this next time) in lieu of Antonio's flesh. But Shylock points out that the Venetians are slave owners, who use human beings "in abject and in slavish parts." This charge remains unanswered by the Venetian contingent, but Will wants to make sure we hear it. Along these same lines, Bassanio and Graziano make a substantial wager (presumably also with Portia's money) on which new marriage will produce a son first--a reminder that an heir has an obvious monetary value for any aristocratic family.  In a sense, Shylock's "bond" is a failed attempt to force the Venetians to confront their own mercenary attitude toward human life, love, and flesh.

Both texts, it seems to me, ask us to consider what it means to be human. Is a cell human? Is one's genetic material human in and of itself? If so, is it unethical to trade it for money? The Merchant poses similar questions, with similar urgency. Is a Jew as human as a Christian? Are slaves less human than their owners? Can one be human and still inhumane, or does an inhumane act diminish one's humanity? Is it possible to lose one's humanity if one is consistently treated as an animal?

I want to keep those questions open in thinking about the rest of the play.

In the first scene of Act 3, Shylock encounters Salerio and Solanio. Is it an accident that these two have such similar names, and seem interchangeable? Because they are both hateful, cruel men. As the scene opens, they're discussing the rumor that Antonio's ships have been lost, when Shylock enters and accuses them of taking part in his daughter's defection. For all he is portrayed as an unfeeling miser, the loss of his only child has affected him deeply:

Shylock: You knew, none so well, none so well as you, of my daughter's flight.
Salerio: That's certain. I for my part knew the tailor that made the wings she flew withal.
Solanio: And Shylock for his own part knew the bird was fledge, and then it is the complexion of them all to leave the dam.
Shylock: She is damned for it.
Salerio: That's certain, if the devil may be her judge.
Shylock: My own flesh and blood to rebel!
Solanio: Out upon it, old carrion, rebels it at these years?
Shylock: I say my daughter is my flesh and blood.
Salerio: And yet there is more difference between thy flesh and hers than between jet and ivory; more between your bloods than there is between red wine and Rhenish.

Sal and Sol play around with words here, in a way that offends Shylock. Sal takes the notion of Jessica's "flight" literally, and talks about wings (in the current fashion, a tailor makes "wings" on gowns) and fledgling birds. Shylock picks up on their bantering, but his retort is angry and bitter. The fledgling may leave her dam (parent), but she will be "damned" for it.

Shylock must be suffering indeed to let these enemies see his pain. But he does--when he calls Jessica his "flesh and blood," I always imagine his words as a wail of betrayal and loss. Here's where Sal and Sol get really mean. The idea of the flesh "rebelling" refers to one's carnal appetites, too--he's an old piece of dead meat, Sol suggests, who still wants to get laid. It's a cruel, crude, and disgusting thing to say at such a time. Shylock is too angry to play the game anymore, and simply repeats what he literally meant--that Jessica is his offspring. Sal snarls back that Jessica is white to his black--his moral opposite.

This is a kind of interesting moment in terms of the Elizabethan view of Jewishness. Jessica later says that she will be "saved" because of her husband, which suggests--as does Sal's derisive comment--that conversion erased the "Jewish taint." In other words, being Jewish, at least to Renaissance Christians, was a religious and cultural choice, not a racial destiny. When the play was performed in Austria under the auspices of the Nazi propaganda machine, Jessica was recast as an adopted daughter. Because to to the Nazis, Jewishness was something in the blood, and no amount of renunciation could erase that racial stain. In the Nazi fantasy, there was no bond of blood between Jew and Christian; had the Nazis won the war, no one would have dared use a black woman's cells for anything.

Something to think about, for you virtual history buffs.

Well, that's all I've got for today. Oh, and the book on Henrietta Lacks is by Rebecca Skloot. Check it out--it's really thought-provoking.


  1. Rebecca Skloot was on "Bob Edward's Weekend" which is a Sirius Radio production that gets rebroadcast on the local NPR station, here. I've been hearing the HeLa-story for a couple of weeks and seeing glowing reviews. Thank you for drawing it into the discussion of Merchant. I can think of no greater metaphor for our common humanity--no, that's not right at all--HeLa cells are not a metaphor, they are the real representation of our common humanity.

    I was born in Valdosta, Georgia in 1954. The only reason there were black babies in the maternity ward beside me, was that I was born on an Air Force base. I often think about the strangeness of my place of birth and the long march from that place in our civilization. Perhaps the greatest story of our lifespan has been the civil rights progress if not achievements. The legacy of Henrietta Lacks is such an overarching image for that same timeframe.

  2. This book isn't the sort of thing I usually read, but it was really thought-provoking. Even when I was growing up in the 1960's in California, there was a kind of apartheid between races--I don't think I saw more than a few dark faces anywhere until I was in junior high. I just found the book to be such an interesting synthesis of history, science, and ethics.

    One of the wonderful things about reading Shakespeare is that you can actually see these connections to everyday life, to contemporary culture all over the place--because his primary focus is ethical. Sometimes I wish that someone would do what I'm trying to do here, only a lot better. I would definitely read that book.

  3. You are definitely doing book-worthy work, here, GM. Looking at the world through Bard-goggles is not a fascinating endeavor.