Friday, June 8, 2012

The Shylock Problem

(Even though I disagree with her conclusion, this article by Paula Marantz Cohen gave me the idea for this post.)

So spake the Fiend, and with necessitie, The Tyrants plea, excus'd his devilish deeds. (Paradise Lost, IV.393–4)

I'm going to talk this week about the humanized villain, which is a troubling trope if we take it seriously enough. Here are a couple examples (1):

1. As he prepares to rape the maiden Pamina, the demonic Monostatos of Mozart's Magic Flute makes this plea to the audience:

Ist mir denn kein Herz gegeben? bin ich nicht von Fleisch und Blut? 
Am I not endowed with a heart? am I not made of flesh and blood?

2. More famously, Shylock makes this defense at his trial in the Merchant of Venice:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal'd by the same means, warm'd and cool'd by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? (MV III.i)

There are two mistakes that we can make when we're faced with an appeal like this. I'll use the Merchant of Venice as a test case for both.

First, we can treat it as a merely rhetorical device. Even if villains are utterly inhuman, they still stand to benefit from coming off otherwise. Caliban, for instance, who's clearly a subhuman creature, attempts to justify himself at the beginning of the Tempest by proclaiming his human faculties.
This reading is a neat solution to the Shylock problem, but it has an obvious pitfall: in many cases (the Tempest aside) the villains actually do have human characteristics, and humanity is not just an artifice that they employ to vindicate themselves. Shylock is telling the truth: his humanity is real, and it is a real problem for us.
Luckily, this breed of misinterpretation isn't so common. I wonder why!

A more severe mistake, but more common in proportion, is to succumb to these characters' arguments: by this kind of reading, Shylock, by virtue of his humanity, should elicit at least a little sympathy and understanding. For an example, read this article by James O'Rourke, or—if you have an adamantine stomach—this essay by Kenneth Gross. Or just mention the word Shylock in mixed company and see what happens.
My eleventh-grade Shakespeare class seemed intent on getting one form of this interpretation across: Shylock is Shakespeare's vehicle for launching an attack against the Christian establishment that attempts to make him an "other" and deny his humanity. Even if it wasn't Shakespeare's intent, my teacher insinuated, this is still the most useful way of understanding the play.
This absolute position is only the strongest form of this reading; its more pervasive forms are weaker and more insidious. "Shylock, even though he's the villain, is a human being who deserves to be understood, if not justified." "The trial scene says more about the Christians than it does about Shylock." "Shylock tests the limits of Venetian society's tolerance (2)." Taking Shylock's humanity to be evidence of his justifiability is now so common that anyone who says anything to the contrary is not met with refutation but with a knowing smile.

Come on. We're dealing with a character who would willingly torture his enemy to death on comically legalistic grounds, who hates his own daughter, and who seemingly lives his life on the principle of avarice.  Of course, Shylock embodies an anti-Semitic stereotype that we despise, but that shouldn't force us to interpret the play in a way that perverts its moral structure. (I have a feeling that if Iago had been Jewish or African, critics would race to make excuses for him.) If we don't like Shakespeare's anti-Semitic stereotyping, we should take issue with the suggestion that Jews are like Shylock, not claim that it's okay to do what Shylock does. Shylock is an "other," but he's also a despicable character who understandably makes the play's heroes sick.

In short, we can't accept either that Shylock's humanity makes him less evil or that his evil makes him less human. Where does this leave us? We have a glimpse of what actually makes him such a disturbing character: he's both human and vicious. In the moral world of The Merchant of Venice and The Magic Flute, there's nothing about being human that prevents us from being perverse and wicked to the core.

And this doesn't just go for art; in fact, it's a lesson that applies all the more to our own lives. In the real world, there are no monsters, but that doesn't mean there's no evil.


(1). Both of the examples I've discussed are examples of vicious stereotyping—Shylock, for obvious reasons, and Monostatos, because he used to be played in blackface. 
In the case of the Merchant of Venice, I think that our response to this should not be to attempt understand the Merchant of Venice according to our modern worldview. That's a denial of art's capacity to communicate ideas across centuries relatively intact. Still less, though, should we indulge in the stereotype in a show of sophistication. Rather, we should either change the play and efface the elements that we find objectionable or—if we take the play more seriously—not show the Merchant of Venice at all.
In the case of the Magic Flute, our job is easier. The story of the opera is incidental enough to the music that there's not much damage done when we make the kind of modification that might be unwarranted with Shakespeare. A production of the Magic Flute that I saw in January made Monostatos into a green, lovable gremlin. Poof!

(2). This last argument has never made any sense to me. Why in the world would we expect any society to tolerate a potential murderer? I suppose that Timothy McVeigh tested the limits of our tolerance, too.

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