shylock the extremist
Is it an anti-Semitic play? A Jewish friend of mine who once saw it with me thought it was. But I’m not so sure. There is a lot of anti-Semitism in the play of course, but is this the anti-Semitism of the play, or simply that of the characters within it? One thing the play is is a tragedy. Don’t let the fact that the tragic hero, Shylock, isn’t killed off at the end mislead you over that fact. He is so much the loser that he might as well have been killed off. What makes him a tragic hero is that he is a sacrificial victim, and what is being sacrificed is not simply Shylock the Jew, but the desire for revenge itself which has grown out of his own victim-status at the hands of the anti-Semitic Antonio - in other words, the consequences of the anti-Semitism so endemic in his society. What makes Shylock grand is that he is the only non-hypocrite in the whole of the play; and where hypocrisy is necessary to a society, its absence in a person represents something inimical which has to be sacrificed. The Merchant of Venice works itself out as a tragedy on a much more primitive level than a purely anti-Semitic - or indeed anti anti-Semitic - play would, namely that of the ritual expulsion of unacceptable impulses for the sake of restoring social harmony and group cohesion.
But the play is not simply about Shylock, and Shylock is not the only tragic figure within it. It is also about his adversary, Antonio, who is not only anti-Semitic, but also almost certainly homosexual, and this fact is his own tragedy, because he lives in a society which can no more accept homosexuality than it can accept Jews. At the end of the play, Antonio is left as deprived of what it might take for him to be happy - ie Bassanio - as Shylock is left deprived of his property and Rebecca. They are both major league losers, while the winners are those who can adapt themselves to the norm and ‘fit in’, that is to say the Christians and heterosexuals. The Jew and the Homosexual, are, I believe, the two characters this play is mainly about. It is as if Antonio, the homosexual, recognised a rejected and despised part of himself in Shylock, the Jew, who had become too much of a painful reminder of the outsider he could not accept in himself. Is the play anti-Semitic, therefore? Or does it simply revolve around these complex emotional axes? We need to discuss it in more depth to find out.
The play can be divided into two halves. The first half gives us the background to Shylock’s desire for revenge. He has every reason to hate Antonio, whose anti-Semitism is obvious right from the start. Shakespeare clearly empathises with Shylock here, and shows how the canker of bitterness, hatred and revenge might put down roots in a man not otherwise given to feeling them. “You that did void your rheum upon my beard / And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur / Over the threshold;” is how Shylock himself expresses his grievance against Antonio, when Antonio needs to borrow some money from him. Yes, Shylock may also hate Antonio because he’s a Christian and also “for that in low simplicity / He lends out money gratis, and brings down / the rate of usance...” but the real cause of his hatred is Antonio’s mistreatment of him as a Jew. He is offended right to the depth of himself as a Jew, as we can see from his famous speech beginning “Hath not a Jew eyes...”.
Antonio, if he had embraced rather than despised his own outsider status as a homosexual, would have recognised a brother in Shylock. But he doesn’t, and what he rejects in himself, he also rejects in Shylock. He is miserable because of his homosexuality. Of that I have little doubt. Shakespeare doesn’t draw direct attention to this fact. Nevertheless, from the very first words of the play, his problem announces itself. “In sooth I know not why I am so sad, / It wearies me: you say it wearies you; / But how I caught it, found it, or came by it, / What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born, / I am to learn: and such a want-wit sadness makes of me, / That I have so much ado to know myself.” He refutes the suggestion put forward by his interlocutors that he is sad because his merchandise is at sea, and therefore at risk, as he does the idea that he is sad because of love. He is sad, it seems, for no other reason than that the world is “a stage where every man must play a part / And mine a sad one.”
Must we take his word for it that he is just of a melancholy disposition? Or is something gnawing at him which he cannot give tongue to? Perhaps the short speech to Bassanio in Act 4, Scene 1, will give us a clue. “I am the tainted wether of the flock, / Meetest for death, the weakest kind of fruit / Drops earliest to the ground.” (N.B. A “wether” is a castrated ram.) To understand the full import of such a speech to Antonio’s state of mind, one could do little better than turn to Shakespeare’s earlier sonnets - which are roughly contemporaneous with The Merchant of Venice - in which the young man is encouraged to marry and beget sons who, after his own beauty has faded, will perpetuate that beauty. One might also turn to Sonnet 20 in which the Master-Mistress of Shakespeare’s passion is said to have one thing to Shakespeare’s purpose nothing, namely a penis. Shakespeare sees his love as sterile because it cannot beget children. What seems clear to me from the sonnets is that Shakespeare had the same kind of problem with his own homosexuality as Antonio has in the play, although with Shakespeare the problem was alleviated by the fact that he was also heterosexual and was the father of children.
Thus, when Antonio refers to himself as “the tainted wether of the flock”, I am sure it is because he knows that he will never beget children because he is exclusively attracted to men. Shakespeare must have been fully aware that there were people like Antonio, and that they were fairly common. Let’s scotch a rumour here that was, I believe, originally promulgated by Michel Foucault, and that is that before the end of the 19th. century, there were no homosexuals, only homosexual acts. (What about ‘Molly Clubs in the 18th Century?) Although the word “sodomite” was frequently used, and the authorities of certain cities believed that their cities would suffer the same fate as Sodom if no action was taken against them - a belief which was thought to justify the horrendous cruelties involved, particularly in Venice - the category of the homosexual was not recognised; but does that mean there were no homosexuals, no men or women with an exclusive attraction to people of their own sex? Put in that way, I think Foucault was spouting nonsense. The problem surely is not that there were no such people, but that there was no category to fit them into, therefore they did not officially exist. This was especially true in England, where sodomites were hardly ever burnt at the stake because the English authorities did not want to admit that sodomy existed in Protestant England. In such a state of affairs, there was no question of being glad to be gay. Being exclusively that way must have been regarded by those who were as extremely anomalous, a defect and an affliction. That’s how Shakespeare - in contradistinction to Marlowe - probably viewed it, and also Antonio. Many homosexuals would have hidden their orientation under the disguise of marriage and children. Others, like Antonio, would have simply kept it to themselves and been unable to talk about it. That wouldn’t have stopped it preying on their minds, of course. Many would have grown gloomy and melancholy as they constantly brooded upon their ‘affliction’. Shakespeare throws out definite clues as to what Antonio’s problem is, but, of course, living in the time and place that he lived in, he could not be open about it.
I would hazard that Antonio and Bassanio had been lovers, or if not physical lovers, they at least shared a love “which surpasseth that of a woman”, as Bassanio himself hints when he addresses Antonio in court. “Antonio, I am married to a wife / Which is as dear to me as life itself, / But life itself, my wife and all the world / Are not with me esteemed above thy life. / I would lose all, ay sacrifice them all / Here to this devil, to deliver you.” Two men can love one another, of course, without their love being sexual; and if Bassanio was heterosexual and Antonio homosexual, then that could have been another cause of Antonio’s melancholy. What is important is that Antonio was gay at a time when being gay was not publicly recognised and therefore, because he could no more openly discuss it than Shakespeare himself could, he was constantly given to brood on it. It must be remembered in this context how gloomy a disposition the bisexual Byron was often thrown into and perhaps for the self-same reason. To underline what was at stake for Byron, it is only necessary to add that sodomy was punishable by death in England in Byron’s time, and more homosexuals were executed between 1806 and 1835 than at any other period in English history.
It would be easy to forget who or what one is if others would let you. A person does not feel black until he or she is looked at in a certain way; a Jew does not feel Jewish until he or she hears an anti-Semitic remark; a Muslim cannot feel at home in a society which constantly obsesses about Islam and kills Muslims by the thousands abroad; likewise, a gay person doesn’t feel so different from others until he or she is made to feel different by others. But once that line has been crossed, there is no way of responding which can be contained within the rules of the dominant culture. A black person, Jew, Muslim or gay person must make his or her own rules in defiance of the dominant culture, and the implicit rules of behaviour which that culture frames to hedge them in. Antonio is not grand in the way Shylock is grand because he plays the game by the rules of the dominant culture, whereas Shylock doesn’t; he attempts to play the game by his own rules, not those of an anti-Semitic society. He will not be browbeaten and bamboozled out of his revenge. What if he were to show mercy to Antonio? He would be back to square one and defeated - as if he had never put up a fight in the first place. Once he’d set out on the path of revenge he couldn’t turn back. Thus, Portia’s speech about the quality of mercy was an irrelevance to him. To have heeded it, would be to submit to the Christian logic of his enemies. The fact that, in the end, very little mercy was shown to him after he had been outmanoeuvred demonstrates the hypocrisy of the speech in the first place. (What a lot of people miss in Shakespeare is the subversive irony implicit in the contrasts between what is said and done in his plays. So many people assume that what he says is what he means, but drama doesn’t work in that way.) Therefore, why should he have relented? Did Antonio relent when he was abusing him as a Jew, when he spat on his Jewish gabardine? Shylock was in this up to his ears. He could not relinquish his bond; for what was at stake was not just himself as an individual against Antonio as an individual, but himself as a Jew against an anti-Semitic culture represented by Antonio, and, in that struggle, the individual Antonio had to be sacrificed. Shylock’s obstinacy in insisting on his bond wasn’t just gratuitous cruelty, nor was it simply the desire for personal revenge; it has to be placed in this larger context.
Of course, it was inevitable that the Christians would close ranks against him for taking things to such extremes. Drawing moral conclusions in such situations is stupid, futile and hypocritical, and Shakespeare was not interested in drawing moral conclusions, but simply in presenting a situation rich with potential for drama. I have no doubt that Shakespeare was exploring his own ambivalences regarding homosexuals, Jews and anti-Semitism, and that these ambivalences unconsciously energise his dramatic portrayal. However, what I am also sure of is that these energies cancel one another out in the end, so that what you have as a result is the appearance of a Shakespeare who doesn’t take sides. (Samuel Johnson berated him for this ‘amorality’.) Shakespeare is the tragic dramatist who knows that right and wrong are not simple matters. His priority, therefore, is to work things out to their final dramatic conclusion and settle for nothing less.
Having said this, I think it is necessary to get the Keatsean concept of Negative Capability into its fullest perspective. Keats applies this concept in particular to Shakespeare without mentioning the political context in which Shakespeare was writing. Shakespeare was a master of the art of subterfuge. He had to be. Had he said openly what he secretly thought about certain things he would probably have been crucified. We have only to look at the fate of Marlowe to see what happened to playwrights who couldn’t keep their views to themselves. Admittedly, as Charles Nicholl has argued in The Reckoning, Marlowe may have been a pawn in the political struggle between the Essex and Raleigh factions in the Elizabethan Court; nevertheless, it was his outspoken views which made him vulnerable in the first place.*
Shakespeare seems to have allowed them to surface only as those of the characters he is presenting on stage. (Freud’s concept of The Return of The Repressed is highly applicable here.) The ambiguity which one finds in so much of Shakespeare’s work, therefore, was one forced upon him by circumstances. Shakespeare had to wear his inscrutable masks, for if he hadn’t done so, it is doubtful that there would be a Shakespeare for us to discuss today. This doesn’t mean that he didn’t have his own thoughts and feelings about what was happening around him, especially in the political sphere, only that he had to keep them to himself until he could provide an appropriate mask to express them in. The task for any critic of Shakespeare is to know how to read between the lines; what you see is not always what you get. To find the real Shakespeare requires a certain amount of historical imagination, a modicum of incredulity regarding the motives and methods of the political class of both his time and ours, a refusal to accept the Establishment’s image of him as unambiguously one of its own, along with the recognition that he was a complex and contradictory human being registering complex and contradictory feelings and thoughts at a time when it was extremely dangerous to do so.
*M. J. Trow, in Who Killed Kit Marlowe, is much more explicit about the likelihood of an actual political conspiracy behind Marlowe’s death - or assassination – than Nicholl. Marlowe, with his opinions about Christianity and his ‘in your face’ homosexuality, was clearly a thorn in the hide of the Elizabethan Establishment, and it is refreshing to see a finger being pointed at the very highest of government circles, with the taboo word “conspiracy” uttered, but of course, nothing can be proved one way or another. Although Nicholl is more cautious in attributing blame, Trow’s more penetrating historical and political imagination, and his willingness to see states and governments as the entrenched mafias they are, gives him the edge. He knows where the bodies are buried in general and has the courage to say so, even though, in this particular instance, his hypothesis may be even more full of conjecture and guesswork than the one Nicholl puts forward.
In her novel, The Slicing Edge of Death, Judith Cook puts forward an alternative view - namely, that Marlowe was murdered at the orders of Robert Cecil, the Acting Secretary to the Privy Council of Queen Elizabeth. Marlowe, according to Cook’s novel, was privy to information regarding a homosexual scandal which took place in Rheims at about the time Marlowe himself was there, a scandal involving Antony Bacon (Cecil’s cousin and Sir Francis Bacon’s brother), which had been hushed up by Cecil himself. According to Cook, Marlowe threatened to expose this cover-up in court if he were put on trial. Records exist in France about this scandal, but not in England, showing how effective Cecil’s cover-up had been. Of course, like Nicholl’s and Trow’s account, such a story, and especially Marlowe’s role in it, can never be anything more than conjecture.
Finally, Jeremy Reed, in his own dystopic novel, The Grid, has Shakespeare himself kill Marlowe at the prompting of Lord Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, whose lover, protégé and investment Shakespeare is in the novel. The only way it will ever be proved, of course, is if we could all go back to our previous incarnations at the time, like the characters in the novel, and take a peek; but then, in the case of a novel like The Grid, the question is not whether the thesis is literally true, but whether, it contains an imaginative truth - i.e., whether what happens in the novel has some kind of metaphorical force. And since the novel is in part about how politics has influenced literary reputations over the centuries - the same kind of politics which not only had the non-conformist Marlowe murdered, but has also preserved the reputation of the more outwardly conformist Shakespeare as the English poet par excellence – I believe that it does.