Thursday, August 10, 2017
Wrestling with Shylock: Jewish Responses to The Merchant of Venice by Edna Nahshon (Editor), Michael Shapiro (Editor) (Cambridge University Press)
Shakespeare’s Cure for Xenophobia
What “The Merchant of Venice” taught me about ethnic hatred and the literary imagination.
Shakespeare imagined his way into the humanity even of his villains.Illustration by Greg Clarke
I attended university in a very different world from the one in which I now teach and live. For a start, Yale College, which I entered in 1961, was all male. Women were not matriculated until five years after I had received my B.A. degree. Among the undergraduates, there were only a handful of students from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and very few African-Americans, Asian-Americans, or Hispanics, unless one counted a couple of prep-school-educated heirs to grand South American fortunes.
The Yale that I attended was overwhelmingly North American and white, as well as largely Protestant. It was difficult for the admissions office to identify Catholics, but applicants with conspicuously Irish, Italian, or Polish names were at a disadvantage. For Jews, there was a numerus clausus, not even disguised by the convenient excuse of “geographical distribution.” And the whole system was upheld by a significant number of legacies, along with a pervasive air of privilege and clubbiness. To display too much interest in one’s studies or a concern for grades was distinctly uncool. This was still the era of what was called the “gentleman’s C.”
I picked all this up within days of arriving in New Haven, but Yale was for me an unfamiliar country whose customs I knew that I could never master. Neither of my parents had gone to college. My mother, along with the other girls in her family, was expected to begin work as a secretary directly after high school. Though my father practiced law, he had attended law school just after serving in the First World War, when a liberal-arts degree was not yet a prerequisite. A good thing, too, since my grandfather, a ragpicker, would have had difficulty mustering the will or the means to pay even the modest tuition fees then required. My grandparents were not indifferent to learning, but they were poor, and for them any learning that was not vocational was necessarily religious. The highest status in their cultural world came not from wealth or power but from the possession of Talmudic knowledge. Theirs was an insular community in which sexual selection—for Darwin, a central motor of mammalian evolution—had for centuries favored slender, nearsighted, stoop-shouldered young men rocking back and forth as they pondered the complex, heavily annotated, often esoteric tractates of Jewish law.
None of this was part of my upbringing: most of it had been abandoned when my grandparents fled tsarist Lithuania, in the late eighteen-eighties, and settled in Boston. But the heavy Talmudic volumes left a residue, an inherited respect for textual interpretation that—reshaped into secularized form—led people like me to embrace the humanities, an arena in which the English Department held pride of place. When I began to take classes at Yale, I could not understand, let alone emulate, the amused indifference of many of my classmates. I felt within me what in 1904 Henry James, observing immigrants in New York, reproved as “the waiting spring of intelligence,” signalling the “immensity of the alien presence climbing higher and higher.” I did not feel alien—I was born in this country, as my parents had been, and I donned my Yale sweatshirt without a sense of imposture—but I seized upon the opportunity I’d been granted to learn with an energy that seemed slightly foreign.
I had a particularly intense engagement with my freshman English-literature course. Midway through the year, the professor asked me if I would be interested in being his research assistant, helping him prepare the index for a book he had just completed. Ecstatic, I immediately agreed. In those days, research assistants were required to apply for their jobs through the financial-aid office, where I dutifully made an appointment. I was in for a surprise.
“Greenblatt is a Jewish name, isn’t it?” the financial-aid officer said. I agreed that it was. “Frankly,” he went on, “we are sick and tired of the number of Jews who come into this office after they’re admitted and try to wheedle money out of Yale University.” I stammered, “How can you make such a generalization?”
“Well, Mr. Greenblatt,” he replied, “what do you think of Sicilians?” I answered that I didn’t think I knew any Sicilians. “J. Edgar Hoover,” he continued, citing the director of the F.B.I., “has statistics that prove that Sicilians have criminal tendencies.” So, too, he explained, Yale had statistics that proved that a disproportionate number of Jewish students were trying to get money from the university by becoming research assistants. Then he added, “We could people this whole school with graduates of the Bronx High School of Science, but we choose not to do so.” Pointing out lamely that I had gone to high school in Newton, Massachusetts, I slunk away without a job.
The conversation left me shaken. Decades later, I recall it with a blend of outrage and wonder inflected by my recognition of the fact that African-American students have had it much worse, and that other ethnic groups and religions have now replaced Jews as the focus of the anxiety that afflicted my interlocutor. What was particularly upsetting to me at the time was that the experience appeared to confirm my parents’ worst fears—fears that had struck me, when I was growing up, as absurdly outdated and provincial. For my parents, the world was rigidly divided between “us” and “them,” and they lived their lives, it seemed to me, as if they were forever hemmed into an ethnic ghetto.
Shortly after my encounter with the financial-aid officer, T. S. Eliot, the greatest living poet in the English language and a winner of the Nobel Prize, came to Yale. Catching the excitement of the impending visit, I began to read him with an avidity that has continued into the present. But that meant that I quickly encountered the strain of anti-Semitism in Eliot’s early poetry and prose, a strain no less ugly for being typical of his conservative milieu. “The population should be homogeneous,” Eliot told an audience at the University of Virginia in 1933, the year that Hitler came to power and the prospect arose of a mass outpouring of refugees seeking protection from the growing menace. “Where two or more cultures exist in the same place they are likely either to be fiercely self-conscious or both to become adulterate.” Perhaps it occurred to him that it was already far too late to prevent two or more cultures from existing in the United States. “What is still more important is unity of religious background,” he added, and then made his point more explicitly: “Reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.’’
Eliot’s powerful early poetry had already made this undesirability clear. In “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar,” he conjured up the primal ooze from which he saw those creatures emerging:
A lustreless protrusive eye
Stares from the protozoic slime
At a perspective of Canaletto.
The smoky candle end of time
Declines. On the Rialto once.
The rats are underneath the piles.
The jew is underneath the lot.
“On the Rialto once”: Eliot did not finish the thought, but I did. In the course of that freshman year, I read Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” with its echoing question, “What news on the Rialto?” Encountering the play at the moment I did, together with T. S. Eliot, seemed only to reinforce my parents’ grimmest account of the way things were.
There is something very strange about experiencing “The Merchant of Venice” when you are somehow imaginatively implicated in the character and actions of its villain. You laugh when Shylock’s servant, the clown Gobbo, contemplates running away from his penny-pinching master. You smile when Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, having escaped from her father’s dark house into the arms of her beloved, declares, “I shall be saved by my husband. He hath made me a Christian.” You shudder when the implacable Shylock sharpens his knife on the sole of his boot. You applaud the resolution of the dilemma, when clever Portia comes up with the legal technicality that confounds Shylock’s murderous plan. The Jew who had insisted upon the letter of the law is undone by the letter of the law; it is what is called poetic justice. But, all the same, you feel uneasy.
What, exactly, are you applauding and smiling at? How are you supposed to view the Jewish daughter who robs her father and bestows the money on her fortune-hunting Christian suitor? Do you join in the raucous laughter of the Christians who mock and spit on the Jew? Or do you secretly condone Shylock’s vindictive, malignant rage? Where are you, at the end of the harrowing scene in the courtroom, when Portia asks the man she has outmaneuvered and ruined whether he agrees to the terms she has dictated, terms that include the provision that he immediately become a Christian? “Art thou contented, Jew?” she prods. “What dost thou say?” And what do you think the Jew actually feels when he answers, “I am content”?
Back in my undergraduate days, when I began to ask these questions, I came to a decision. I wasn’t going to allow myself to be crushed by the bigoted financial-aid officer, but I wasn’t going to adopt my parents’ defensive posture, either. I wouldn’t attempt to hide my otherness and pass for what I was not. I wouldn’t turn away from works that caused me pain as well as pleasure. Instead, insofar as I could, I would pore over the whole vast, messy enterprise of culture as if it were my birthright.
I was determined to understand this birthright, including what was toxic in it, as completely as possible. I’m now an English professor at Harvard, and in recent years some of my students have seemed acutely anxious when they are asked to confront the crueller strains of our cultural legacy. In my own life, that reflex would have meant closing many of the books I found most fascinating, or succumbing to the general melancholy of my parents. They could not look out at a broad meadow from the windows of our car without sighing and talking about the number of European Jews who could have been saved from annihilation and settled in that very space. (For my parents, meadows should have come with what we now call “trigger warnings.”) I was eager to expand my horizons, not to retreat into a defensive crouch. Prowling the stacks of Yale’s vast library, I sometimes felt giddy with excitement. I had a right to all of it, or, at least, to as much of it as I could seize and chew upon. And the same was true of everyone else.
I already had an inkling of what I now more fully grasp. My experience of mingled perplexity, pleasure, and discomfort was only a version—informed by the accidents of a particular religion, family, identity, and era—of an experience shared by every thinking person in the course of a lifetime. What you inherit, what you receive from a world that you did not fashion but that will do its best to fashion you, is at once beautiful and repellent. You somehow have to come to terms with what is ugly as well as what is precious.
The task derives from the kind of creatures that we are. We arrive in the world only partially formed; a culture that has been in the making for hundreds of thousands of years will form the rest. And that culture will inevitably contain much that is noxious as well as beneficent. No one is exempt—not the Jew or the Muslim, of course, but also not the Cockney or the earl or the person whose ancestors came to America on the Mayflower or, for that matter, the person whose ancestors were Algonquins or Laplanders. Our species’ cultural birthright is a mixed blessing. It is what makes us fully human, but being fully human is a difficult work in progress. Though xenophobia is part of our complex inheritance—quickened, no doubt, by the same instinct that causes chimpanzees to try to destroy members of groups not their own—this inheritance is not our ineluctable fate. Even in the brief span of our recorded history, some five thousand years, we can watch societies and individuals ceaselessly playing with, reshuffling, and on occasion tossing out the cards that both nature and culture have dealt, and introducing new ones.
In seventeenth-century Venice, a Greek poem was published that celebrated the elopement of a Jewish heiress with a handsome Greek Orthodox baker who comes to her house to sell bread. The poem ends, after the girl’s conversion and wedding, with a raucous anti-Semitic chorus that mocks her distraught mother. The seventeenth-century poet Eremya Chelebi Kömürjian, an erudite Christian who spent his career in the Ottoman Empire, took up the same plot, which he recast in Armeno-Turkish (that is, Turkish written in Armenian characters) and set in Istanbul. In his version, “The Jewish Bride,” the Jewish girl, Mrkada, having fallen in love with Dimo, wishes to escape from the confines of her Jewish world: “The bed smells like poison, my homeland is as a prison.” The resourceful Dimo arranges for a boat to transport them, and the girl, slipping away under the cover of darkness, disguises herself as a man, with her curly golden hair hidden beneath a sable cap. Eluding the Jewish search parties, the lovers manage to reach the Christian principality of Walachia, where, in a solemn procession, Mrkada enters the cathedral and formally converts:
They gave her the name Sophia the Pure.
She renounced the Jewish abracadabra.
In this version, as in the Greek source, the wailing Jewish mother is mocked by a chorus of Christian girls who invite her to imagine her little grandson:
Your daughter has already become pregnant.
She is already nourishing a grandson for you.
. . . The little half-bred Albanian,
His face is rather on the Jewish side.
Yet his eyes are ocean-blue.
Croak, you jealous witch!
But then something strange happens. The focus shifts to the mother’s grief, which is given remarkably intense expression:
They have torn away from my bosom my only one,
My only daughter, my blossomlike delicate one, my soul.
I have become a childless mother, I, this poor woman.
. . . My life is destroyed, not only my home.
The skies oppress me, heaven, the world are a jail, and likewise my day.
To others my tears are an amusing sight.
And it is with this threnody of despair and the mother’s death—conveying, with full force, the profound misery of the person and the community sustaining the loss—that the poem ends.
It is difficult to know how Eremya’s transformation of the story came about. Some scholars have suggested that he released, in the concluding section of his poem, the grief that he and his fellow-Christians knew they would feel if one of their own converted to Islam. What I suspect is that Eremya was a gifted poet who spent his life in an ethnically complex world and that he did what gifted poets do.
Last year was the five-hundredth anniversary of the creation of the Venetian ghetto. The Venetians had some uncertainty and disagreement about how to mark this anniversary, and one could see why. Starting in 1516, Jews, who had previously lived in the city wherever they chose, were required by law to reside and to worship in a small, poor area, the site of a former copper foundry. (The Venetian word for such a foundry was geto.) There they were permitted to run pawnshops that lent money at interest. They could emerge during the day to engage in a limited number of occupations—including buying and selling old clothes, laboring on Hebrew books in print workshops, teaching music and dance, and practicing medicine. But at night they were obliged to scuttle back to the ghetto, where they were shut in behind locked gates, guarded by men whose salaries the Jews themselves were required to pay. Jewish physicians were permitted to go out during the night to attend to their Christian patients; no one else could leave until morning.
This is hardly an arrangement to celebrate in the twenty-first century, but it was an early attempt in modern history at a form of modus vivendi that would permit Venetians to live in proximity to an intensely disliked but useful neighbor. The usefulness was not universally acknowledged. At the time, in Italy and elsewhere, itinerant preachers were stirring up mobs to demand the expulsion of the Jews, as had been done recently in Spain and Portugal and, centuries earlier, in England. A scant generation later, Martin Luther, in Germany, urged the Protestant faithful to raze the Jews’ synagogues, schools, and houses, to forbid their rabbis on pain of death to teach, and to burn all Jewish prayer books and Talmudic writings. At the time that the ghetto was created, there were people still living who could remember when three Venetian Jews, accused of the ritual killing of Christians for their blood, were convicted of this entirely fantastical crime and burned to death. In Venice, locking the Jews up at night may have given them a small measure of protection from the paranoid fears of those with whom they dealt during the day. The ghetto was a compromise formation, neither absorption nor expulsion. It was a topographical expression of extreme ambivalence.
Shakespeare could in principle have heard about it, when he sat down to write his comedy; the ghetto had been in existence for some eighty years and there had been many English travellers to Venice. Indeed, there is evidence that the playwright took pains to gather information. For example, he did not have his Jewish characters swear by Muhammad, as fifteenth-century English playwrights did. He clearly grasped not only that Jewish dietary laws prohibited the eating of pork but also that observant Jews often professed to find the very smell of pork disagreeable. He marvellously imagined the way that a Jewish moneylender might use the Bible to construct a witty Midrashic justification of his own profit margin. He had learned that the Rialto was the site for news and for trade, and that Shylock would conduct business there.
But Shakespeare seems not to have understood, or perhaps simply not to have been interested in, the fact that Venice had a ghetto. In whatever he read or heard about the city, he appears to have been struck far less by the separation of Jews and Christians than by the extent of their mutual intercourse. Though Shylock says that he will not pray with the Christians or eat their nonkosher food, he enumerates the many ways in which he routinely interacts with them. “I will buy with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following,” he declares. To audiences in England—a country that had expelled its entire Jewish population in the year 1290 and had allowed no Jews to return—those everyday interactions were the true novelty.
In “The History of Italy” (1549), the first English book on the subject, William Thomas went out of his way to remark on what he called a “liberty of strangers” particular to Venice:
No man there marketh another’s doings, or . . . meddleth with another man’s living. If thou be a papist, there shalt thou want no kind of superstition to feed upon. If thou be a gospeler, no man shall ask why thou comest not to [the Catholic] church. If thou be a Jew, a Turk, or believest in the devil (so thou spread not thine opinions abroad), thou art free from all controlment. . . . And generally of all other things, so thou offend no man privately, no man shall offend thee, which undoubtedly is one principal cause that draweth so many strangers thither.
By contrast, a Venetian observer in Renaissance London was struck by the xenophobia of the English. “Foreigners in London are little liked, not to say hated, so those who are wise take care to dress in the English style,” Orazio Busino wrote in his diary, “and make themselves understood by signs whenever they can avoid speaking, and so they avoid mishaps.”
For an Elizabethan, Venice signified an astonishing, even bizarre cosmopolitanism. Hence Shakespeare could not imagine Shylock’s house set apart in a locked ghetto; he emphasized, instead, that it was on a “public street.” If the Jew’s daughter should fail to lock the doors and close the casements, she would be able to watch the Christians parade by in carnival masks and listen to “the drum / And the vile squealing of the wry-necked fife.” And, when the play depicts Shylock reluctantly going out at night to dine with the Christians, it probably did not occur to the playwright that in real life the Jewish usurer would need a special permit to do so. Such permits were not part of the English imagination of Venice; they were part of the Venetians’ attempt to negotiate with their xenophobic inheritance.
Although he may not have learned about the ghetto, Shakespeare, too, participated in the attempt to negotiate with a xenophobic inheritance. At the level of plot, he pursued the idea of equality before the law. Venice, as a commercial entrepôt with wide-ranging trading partners, depended upon “the liberty of strangers.” In order to protect property rights and preserve confidence, its legal system had to treat contracts as equally binding upon Christians and others, citizens and aliens. The Jew, as we see in the dispute over the lapsed bond, has to be formally regarded as someone who possesses full legal standing in the eyes of the court. When Portia, disguised as the learned judge, enters the courtroom to adjudicate the case between Antonio and Shylock, she begins by asking, “Which is the merchant here? And which the Jew?” Though the line often elicits laughter, from a legal perspective it insists upon the court’s impartiality.
Shylock drives the point home. “You have among you many a purchased slave,” he argues in the trial scene, which you treat like animals simply because you bought them. This sounds like the beginning of an abolitionist manifesto, and for a brief moment it seems to teeter at the edge of one:
Shall I say to you
“Let them be free, marry them to your heirs.
Why sweat they under burdens? Let their beds
Be made as soft as yours.”
Why, yes, modern audiences might want to shout—let it be so. But the point here is not liberation from bondage:
You will answer
“The slaves are ours.” So do I answer you.
The pound of flesh which I demand of him
Is dearly bought. ’Tis mine, and I will have it.
The legal principle upon which Shylock insists has nothing to do with tolerance or human rights. It is strictly a defense of property ownership.
The narrowness is important. Outside this carefully demarcated sphere, there is no underlying trust, no assumption of shared values, and no presumed equality. As soon as the formal legal issue shifts unexpectedly from a civil to a criminal matter—that is, to a Jew’s attempt to take the life of a Venetian Christian—Shylock is no longer regarded in the eyes of the court as Antonio’s equivalent. Instead, he is, as the play’s dominant society has always viewed him, irreducibly alien.
“The Merchant of Venice” seems to offer a pessimistic vision, then, of the prospect of mutual tolerance. On the city streets and in the rule-bound arena of the criminal court, the two faiths are mortal enemies. Shylock tries to destroy his Christian enemy legally by enforcing the letter of the bond; Portia succeeds in destroying her Jewish enemy by outwitting him at his own hairsplitting game. True, she doesn’t stick a knife into him, and that is important, both for the imagined world of the play and for the preservation of its theatrical genre. The comedy’s hope is that money, sexual desire, and intense legal pressure, rather than outright violence, will eventually suffice to absorb the strangers, or at least significant numbers of them, into the surrounding Christian community. Only conversion—in the case of Shylock’s daughter, her marriage to a fortune-hunting Christian; in the case of Shylock himself, conversion under the threat of execution—can dissipate hatred and save the play from bloodshed. “The Merchant of Venice” resists attempts to bring it into the Enlightenment, let alone to make it recognize the full tragic weight of centuries of racial and religious hatred. In its formal design, it steadfastly remains a comedy.
Yet that formal resolution has not defined the play’s actual impact—not now, not when I first read it as a college freshman, and probably not even in Shakespeare’s time. As I grasp more fully after a lifetime of immersion in Shakespeare, the uncomfortable experience I had when I was seventeen—the troubled identification with the play’s villain, even in the midst of my pleasurable absorption in its comic plot—did not finally depend on my particular identity or history. The cunning magic of the play was the disturbance it arouses in everyone. If Shylock had behaved himself and remained a mere comic foil—like Don John the Bastard, in “Much Ado About Nothing”—there would have been no disturbance. But Shakespeare conferred too much energy on his Jewish usurer for the boundaries of native and alien, us and them, to remain intact.
Shakespeare managed to register Shylock’s mordant sense of humor, the pain that shadowed his malevolence, his pride in his intelligence, his little household economies, his loneliness. We come to know these qualities for ourselves, not as mere concepts but as elements of our own experience. There’s good reason that most people think the Venetian merchant in the play’s title is the Jew.
At once aggressive and defensive, punitive and protective, the Venetian ghetto proved to be a remarkably durable arrangement—it was abolished, under Napoleon, only with the fall of the Serenissima in 1797. What’s more, it served as a powerful model throughout Italy, the rest of Europe, and the world, both in bricks and mortar and, when these were formally pulled down, in the minds and hearts of those on either side of the towering imaginary walls. My parents lived much of their lives behind such walls; I have to concede that they were never happier than when they were safely ensconced there. But the same Shakespeare who did not grasp that a ghetto existed in Venice had no patience with walls, real or imaginary, and, even in a play consumed with religious and ethnic animosity, he tore them down.
He did so not by creating a lovable alien—his Jew is a villain who connives at legal murder—but by giving Shylock more theatrical vitality, quite simply more urgent, compelling life, than anyone else in his world has. The lines reverberate across the centuries: “You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog, / And spit upon my Jewish gabardine, / And all for use of that which is mine own”; “This patch is kind enough, but a huge feeder, / Snail-slow in profit, and he sleeps by day / More than the wildcat”; “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?”; “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?”; “I would my daughter were dead at my foot and the jewels in her ear!”; “Why there, there, there, there! A diamond gone cost me two thousand ducats in Frankfort! The curse never fell upon our nation till now; I never felt it till now”; “Some men there are love not a gaping pig, / Some that are mad if they behold a cat, / And others when the bagpipe sings i’th’nose / Cannot contain their urine.”
The life that sweeps across the stage here includes, as well, sudden glimpses into parts of an existence that the plot by itself did not demand. When Shylock learns that his daughter exchanged a turquoise ring for a monkey—a turquoise ring that she stole from him, and that had been a gift from his dead wife, Leah, his anguish is unmistakable. “Thou torturest me,” he tells the friend who brought him the news. “It was my turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.” Are such glimpses enough to do away with hatred of the other? Not at all. But they begin an unsettling from within. Even now, more than four centuries later, the unsettling that the play provokes remains a beautiful and disturbing experience.
Shakespeare himself may have found it disturbing. He set out, it seems, to write a straightforward comedy, borrowed from Giovanni Fiorentino’s novella “Il Pecorone” (“The Big Sheep”), only to find himself increasingly drawn into the soul of the despised other. Shylock came perilously close to wrecking the comic structure of the play, a structure that Shakespeare only barely rescued by making the moneylender disappear for good at the end of the fourth act.
It wasn’t the only time in his work that this excess of life had occurred. The playwright is said to have remarked that in “Romeo and Juliet” he had to kill Mercutio before Mercutio killed the play, and he ran a similar risk with characters like Jack Cade, Aaron the Moor, Malvolio, and Caliban. Indeed, the ability to enter deeply—too deeply, for the purposes of the plot—into almost every character he deployed was a signature. It accounts for the startling vividness of Adriana, the neglected wife in “The Comedy of Errors”; Bottom the Weaver, in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in “Hamlet”; Cornwall’s brave servant, in “King Lear”; and many others. It helps explain the strange illusion that certain of his characters have lives independent of the play in which they appear. And it contributes to the moral and aesthetic complexity that characterizes so many of his plays. Consider, for example, the fact that for centuries critics have debated whether Brutus is the hero or the villain of “Julius Caesar.” In Oskar Eustis’s controversial production of the play last month, in Central Park, audiences chortled at a Trump-like despot—but were then brought up short by the horror of what befalls him, the carnage born of self-steeling righteousness. What leads to disaster is Brutus’s ideological decision to think of Caesar not as a human being at all but, rather, as “a serpent’s egg,” and therefore to “kill him in the shell.”
Even after a lifetime of studying Shakespeare, I cannot always tell you precisely how he achieved this extraordinary life-making. I sometimes picture him attaching his characters like leeches to his arms and allowing them to suck his lifeblood. In the case of Shylock, it is wildly unlikely that Shakespeare had ever encountered a Jewish usurer, but he may have been drawing on his father’s moneylending and, for that matter, on his own. It is also possible that in his family there had been a recent, painful, unresolved experience of conversion, from Catholicism to Protestantism, an experience that would have deepened his engagement with his character’s plight: “Art thou contented, Jew? What dost thou say?” “I am content.”
The conferral of life is one of the essential qualities of the human imagination. Since very few of us are endowed with great genius, it is important to understand that the quality of which I am speaking is to some degree democratically shared. Ideologies of various kinds contrive to limit our ability to enter into the experience of another, and there are works of art that are complicit in these ideologies. More generous works of art serve to arouse, organize, and enhance that ability. Shakespeare’s works are a living model not because they offer practical solutions to the dilemmas they so brilliantly explore but because they awaken our awareness of the human lives that are at stake.
What Shakespeare bequeathed to us offers the possibility of an escape from the mental ghettos most of us inhabit. Even in his own world, his imagination seems to have led him in surprising directions. At a time when alehouses and inns were full of spies trolling for subversive comments, this is a playwright who could depict on the public stage a twisted sociopath lying his way to supreme authority. This is a playwright who could have a character stand up and declare to the spectators that “a dog’s obeyed in office.” This is a playwright who could approvingly depict a servant mortally wounding the realm’s ruler in order to stop him from torturing a prisoner in the name of national security. And, finally, this is a playwright who almost certainly penned the critical lines we find preserved in the British Library’s manuscript of an Elizabethan play about Sir Thomas More. (The play was probably banned from performance by the censor.) The lines speak movingly to one of our most pressing contemporary dilemmas. Shakespeare depicts Thomas More confronting an angry mob that demands the expulsion of the “strangers”—the foreigners—from England. “Grant them removed,” More tells the mob:
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires . . .
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.
Such language isn’t a substitute for a coherent, secure, and humane international refugee policy; for that, we need constitutional lawyers and adroit diplomats and wise, decent leaders. Yet these words do what they can to keep before our eyes the sight of “the wretched strangers, / Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage, / Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation.” For a long moment in dramatic time, the distance between natives and strangers collapses; walls wobble and fall; a ghetto is razed. ♦