Thursday, April 22, 2010

Shylock's Ghost

My last post bugged me. At first I wasn't sure why--but then I realized it was because I had to write it, to finish up the play.  I resented leaving Act 4 behind, resented writing about the happy ending--even if, as I claimed, it wasn't happy at all--and felt that I'd been forced to leave the trial scene too soon.  My post--or rather my discomfort with it--echoed the whole discordant vibe of Act 5.

And besides that, it was way too long. I've been trying to keep them shorter, but I think I just wanted to deal with Act 5 in one go. Because you know, I've never really liked it as an ending. I hate that the Venetians get to retreat into romantic comedy-land after their unjust, hypocritical actions in Act 4. I'm always reminded, somehow, of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, that old high school warhorse. At the end, Nick describes Daisy and Tom Buchanan in terms that seem apt here, too:

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy--they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

Different story, obviously, but that "type" is pretty transhistorical.  The Venetians are like that--extravagant, expansive, attractive, bigoted.

And I just don't want to let them have the last word.

Shylock haunts Act 5, although he's never mentioned by name. Because he's more or less erased from the play, I want to give him a voice in the last act. I refuse to let the Venetians off so easily.

The whole discussion of music, for example, seems directed at Shylock the music-hater. Lorenzo's musings on the pacifying power of music make little sense otherwise.  Jessica, moreover, seems to have some ambivalence on the subject--a melancholic response that reminds us of her father:

Jessica:  I am never merry when I hear sweet music.

Lorenzo: The reason is your spirits are attentive,
For do but note a wild and wanton herd
Or race of youthful and unhandled colts,
Fetching mad bounds, bellowing and neighing loud,
Which is the hot condition of their blood,
If they but hear a trumpet sound,
Or any air of music touch their ears,
You shall perceive them make a mutual stand,
Their savage eyes turned to a modest gaze
By the sweet power of music. Therefore the poet
Did feign than Orpheus drew trees, stones, and floods,
Since naught so stockish, hard, and full of rage
But music for the time doth change his nature.

"Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak," in other words. That's not Will, by the way. It's William Congreve, a playwright of the late 17th century. But it's the same sentiment. And who but Shylock could be so "stockish, hard, and full of rage" that music can't "change his nature?"

The Venetians are big on nature-changing. As I discussed in previous posts, they're sort of proto-Americans that way. We're a country that's all about re-invention. Capitalism thrives on it, and Christianity promises it. Those two great ideologies of the modern era found fertile ground here, in this land where we wear history so lightly. History's full of moral ambiguities, and we're not big on those. We like change, and memory always seems to get in the way of that, doesn't it? Personally and politically.

The ghost of Shylock, the ghost of history in the modern world.  That kind of works for me as an analogy.

If Shylock is hard and immutable, Belmont is a protean place, like the fairy woods in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Portia's rather like Oberon--a stage director and music lover. She's not a real woman, after all--so she might as well be made of fairy dust. "If a woman live to be a man," anything is possible.

That phrase is repeated three times in Act 5, like a magical incantation. It means, "if a woman should grow up to be a man." It's funny, because all these boys who are playing women will grow up to be men. It's supposed to mean something like "when pigs fly," but in Will's theatrical world, pigs can fly. Men can be women and women can be men--sometimes men can be women who pretend to be men.  Theatrical Belmont is a place full of possibility.

And infidelity. The dark side of a protean nature. A chameleon never will be true. The last lines of the play--given to the virulent anti-Semite, Graziano--say it all:

...while I live I'll fear no other thing
So sore as keeping safe Nerissa's ring.

Good luck with that. Nerissa, like all the denizens of beautiful Belmont, likes change, so her "ring" may be difficult to keep. It's a creepy way for the play to end, in some ways.  It leads into Othello-land--jealous husbands, mythically unfaithful wives. Nothing is certain, no one can truly be trusted.

And Shylock?  He's a stony guy. Unmoved by music, unwilling to forgive. A steward of the past--he remembers every slight, every insult, every gob of Christian spit on his beard. But one senses there's loyalty in him--were one able to win it.

Yes, I finally have to admit it. I identify with this guy! Maybe it's because, at this stage of life, shape-shifting holds no appeal for me. Truth be told, it never did. I've kind of always been the same. If you look at pictures of me thirty years ago, I look...the same. Younger, yes. Prettier, certainly. More innocent, naturally. But it's still very recognizably me. I've worn my hair the same since the first grade. I'm like that inside, too. I can read something I wrote in high school, and still hear my own voice.  I don't like change.  Or surprises. I always read the end of a book first. If I don't like the ending, I won't read the book. I imagine Shylock like that, too.

I don't like this ending, but it's too late to un-read it. I guess I'll just complain about it, instead!

I know he's not a nice guy. He's a master grudge-holder. And guess what? That's one of my major failings, too! It comes with the Sicilian DNA, I guess. Although I don't think I would be capable of cutting a pound of flesh off my enemy's chest--not really into blood and gore. But could Shylock have done it? He stalks around the stage with a butcher knife in his hand, and we're supposed to believe him capable of any ferocity, any barbarism. But I wonder.

At the end of Act 4, Shylock's been--paradoxically--exiled from himself, and assimilated into the Christian community. But really, he's dead. He said it himself. "You do take my life." He's got no future, and he's cut off from his past, his cultural history. So, dead.

I have to say, I know how that feels. When you've been exiled from the tribe you ought to belong to--be it your birth tribe, or your professional one--it's like being dead, at least to the people who are still active tribe members. You might, say, drop them an occasional email--say, about something you've been writing that you're pleased with--and they will, inevitably, be polite, a bit cold, and very uneasy. Because you're supposed to be dead! Don't you know that? How dare you lurk around like some creepy revenant!

And so my sympathies will always be with Shylock, not with Portia. Yes, I see Portia as the enemy, not Antonio. Not because I'm one of those "blame the woman" fake feminists. No, because Portia is totally alienated from her own motives, yet smugly self-righteous about her ill-considered actions. And, unlike Antonio, she's smart enough to know better.

It's not fair she gets the best speech in the play, even if it's ironic. Because no one remembers the context, just the speech.  Interestingly, she knows how important context is. "Many things by season seasoned are/To their right praise and true perfection," she says in Act 5. I've never known exactly how to take that, but it seems important. I think it implies something like "things that seem ugly and reprehensible in one context can be really cool in others."  A true moral relativist, our Portia.

Shylock, of course, is one of the great Shakespearean roles--right up there with Richard III, Lear, Hamlet, and Othello. He's the one we come to see. He's the one we remember long afterward.  And all the pretty music in Belmont can't silence his voice, or erase him from our memory.  

Next:  Al Pacino, Shylock, and my dad! Yes, the Bard Blog goes to the movies.

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