Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Merchant of Venice - Shylock part 2, Two Shylocks

Shylock. I will have the heart of him...(3.1.1358)

In my previous post about Shylock, I discussed the controversy surrounding the Jewishness of the evil Shylock and that a lot of readers and critics find the play troubling because of this. An idea that concerned me in some of my research about different viewpoints on the play was the sense that some actors and directors were afraid to touch the play - that the subject matter was too hot to handle. I was happily able to see a powerful performance of the play last year at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and was very moved by it - it makes me sad that some people could miss out on the play because of what I see as a distorted focus. I was therefore very happy to find, in the Playing Shakespeare TV series, a robust discussion about Shylock and The Merchant of Venice where the participants agreed with me - that Shylock's status as a very bad Jewish person does not make Shakespeare and the play hateful and unplayable.

Playing Shakespeare is a very, very cool British TV series from the 1980s where some of the actors and directors from the Royal Shakespeare Company got together and talked about ways to approach performing Shakespeare, with actors such as Ian McKellen, Ben Kingsley and Patrick Stewart giving short scenes and working on them with directors Trevor Nunn and John Barton. It's great fun for any Shakespeare fan - if the comments section from the Amazon link doesn't convince you, check out this panegyric review of the series. I myself love the show not only for its thoughtful examination of Shakespeare's text in performance, but also, as a child of the '80s, for its retro appeal as a return to a past world of earth tones, chain smokers, and actors who were young but now are old. Presiding benevolently over all is RSC co-founder John Barton, looking like a kindly, rumpled, absent-minded professor in baggy sweater and disheveled tweed tie. It's good stuff.
My favorite episode in the series is all about Shylock - David Suchet, the delightful actor known everywhere to watchers of PBS's Mystery! as Hercule Poirot, and Patrick Stewart, of Star Trek fame, discuss the part and both perform, with differing interpretation, several scenes from the play. I have to agree with Shakespeare Geek here that I prefer Suchet's interpretation of the role - he's truly scary! - but the insights that both men bring are fascinating, even when I don't completely agree with them. You can - and should - watch the whole episode online here on the Theatre in Video site - it's under an hour. However, here's a little taste of David Suchet's Shylock to get you going:

Though Stewart and Suchet dig deeply into the motivations, characterization and actions of Shylock, one piece that I see as missing from their discussion is a really clear view of how Shylock fits in with the rest of the play. But what is really going on? What is this play all about? I see the play, as I mentioned before, as about money, marriage and murder, all leading up to mercy. In my next post, I hope to get more deeply into the question of law vs. grace and the importance of promises and bonds in the play - and how Shylock fits into these questions.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Merchant of Venice - Shylock part 1

Shylock. He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my

bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies; and what's his reason? I am a Jew. 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, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled 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, shall we not

revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you

teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.


(Shylock by László Mednyánszky)

The Merchant of Venice, for all its wit and charm, is in this day and age a controversial play, because the murderous villain of the piece - Shylock - is a Jew. Not only does Shakespeare have a lot of his characters speak anti-Jewish insults, Shylock also defends his plot to kill the merchant, Antonio, in terms of justifiable revenge for Antonio's bad treatment of him because of his ethnicity and religion. In a way, Jewishness  - identity and defense - can be read as the root of the great evil that Shylock plans, and this emphasis on Shylock's Jewishness as such a major part of the story makes a lot of people uncomfortable - the play perceived by some as bigoted and ought not to be performed. Click here to read an examination of this kind of discomfort on "Blogging Shakespeare."
I strongly disagree with this view, for many reasons that I'll get into later. However, some productions, in an effort to overcome the what they see as the anti-Semitic implications of having a Jewish villain, focus on Shylock's speech that references Jews' shared humanity with Christians:

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, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?....

In a performance that interprets this passage in a sympathetic way, Shylock can come across almost like a noble freedom fighter, struggling for equality in a harsh, cruel world. And this speech is undoubtedly crucially important: Shakespeare puts nothing in by accident, and this speech - which receives no contradiction - refutes any sort of anti-Semetic idea that Jews are somehow a lesser/separate form of humanity, monsters by nature (a very offensive idea! If this were Shakespeare's Shylock, I would agree that the play is anti-Semitic - but as we shall see, that's not what is going on.) However, this speech cannot, in my opinion, be used to make Shylock NOT a villain. It in fact proves that he is one: being exactly equal with the Christians in all his humanity, passions and sensibility, he makes a deliberate choice to embrace violence and vengeance, turning himself INTO a monster:
If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you

teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Merchant of Venice

Portia. If to do were as easy as to know what were good to
do, chapels had been churches and poor men's
cottages princes' palaces. It is a good divine that
follows his own instructions: I can easier teach
twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the
twenty to follow mine own teaching. The brain may
devise laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps
o'er a cold decree....

Oh, how I love this play. Especially after what for me was a rather dreary slog through King John, The Merchant of Venice is a delight - the beautiful writing, lively plot and thoughtful examination of the complicated issues facing the characters felt to me like the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. Everyone loves a courtroom drama, and The Merchant of Venice, like any good story of that genre, inexorably moves toward a final showdown where the parties appear in court and the judge gives a verdict. But the play is more than that - the plot centers around money, marriage, and murder (for such is Shylock's plot against Antonio), and in each case there is only one real answer - mercy.

I chose the opening quotation - one of the very first things that we hear Portia, our wise heroine, say - as it seems to me in many ways to sum up a lot of what the play is about. Often we know what is right to do, but can we do it? This failure between thought and aspiration, hope and achievement, is seen in the contrast between Portia's beautiful Belmont and the savagery of the Rialto, the merchant's exchange in Venice: though Venetian law, we are told, is supposed to make everything just and fair, we see it instead being used to further revenge and violence, incited by racial hatred. Law - thought-through restraints that put up walls to protect people against the impulses of every passion - is in many ways the the highest example of aspiration for humanity: a teacher telling us what were good to
It can be twisted, though, and, as Portia points out, when the going gets rough, the hot temper leaps o'er a cold decree. When it doesn't feel right, people scramble to try to get away from the law. We see this tension again and again in this play: there are issues with trusting people to hold to their promises, pay their debts, keep their word - with money and with marriage.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

King John - Mothers

Phillip the Bastard. But who comes in such haste in riding-robes?
What woman-post is this? hath she no husband
That will take pains to blow a horn before her?
O me! it is my mother. How now, good lady!
What brings you here to court so hastily?

Lady Falconbridge. Where is that slave, thy brother? where is he,
That holds in chase mine honour up and down?


Constance. My bed was ever to thy son as true
As thine was to thy husband; and this boy
Liker in feature to his father Geoffrey
Than thou and John in manners; being as like
As rain to water, or devil to his dam.
My boy a bastard! By my soul, I think
His father never was so true begot:
It cannot be, an if thou wert his mother.


Um. Well, Happy Mother's Day to you too. Somehow it seems that my reading of Shakespeare is always a little off from whatever major holiday falls on that week. King John, for example, though very much a play about mothers and sons, is not a happy story about good mothers and sons - Queen Eleanor is the power behind John's throne; Constance, her daughter-in-law, fights for her son Arthur's right to that same throne with much more passion than he, poor little boy, ever felt; Phillip the Bastard identifies his mother, Lady Falconbridge, as the only parent he has known and thanks her for committing adultery with King Richard so that he had the good fortune to be born. Unfortunately, he besmirches her reputation by being acknowledged as Richard's son. Oh well, price to be paid! However, Lady Falconbridge is not the only mother to be accused of adultery - as we can see from the quotations above, Constance and Eleanor get some good insults going between them as well. Nice family, right?

Though these passionate, ambitious women seem to want only the best for their sons, tragedy is all that comes of their actions. Phillip the Bastard, seeking his birthright from his mother and true father, accepts the dazzling prospect of a title and a home with his royal relatives rather than the sure security of the estate of his mother's husband, an estate that the law would have given him; this choice leads him to nothing but incessant war and bloodshed. Poor Arthur faces imprisonment and death, and John - used to relying on the bold decisiveness of his indefatigable mother - is stunned and simply deflates when he hears of her death:

Withhold thy speed, dreadful occasion!
O, make a league with me, till I have pleased
My discontented peers! What! mother dead!


Ultimately, the unhealthy relationships demonstrated by these mothers, who pushed the sons into positions of power and didn't let go, lead to sorrow for other mothers and sons:

French Herald
.....the hand of France this day hath made
Much work for tears in many an English mother, 
Whose sons lie scattered on the bleeding ground.....

Monday, May 9, 2011

King John

Philip the Bastard. Ha, majesty! how high thy glory towers,
When the rich blood of kings is set on fire!
O, now doth Death line his dead chaps with steel;
The swords of soldiers are his teeth, his fangs;
And now he feasts, mousing the flesh of men,
In undetermined differences of kings.
Why stand these royal fronts amazed thus?
Cry, 'havoc!' kings; back to the stained field,
You equal potents, fiery kindled spirits!
Then let confusion of one part confirm
The other's peace: till then, blows, blood and death!


King John (1166-1216)

I find King John rather a curious play. John as a monarch has two major identifiers in the 20th/21st century imagination: as the signer of the Magna Carta, which would rein in the power of despotic rulers and lay the groundwork for truth, justice and the American way; and as the Bad King John of the Robin Hood legend, who skulks around with the Sheriff of Nottingham and spends his time conspiring against his brother, the noble Richard, when not plotting ways to grind the poor underfoot.

Neither of these themes appears at all in Shakespeare's play. Instead, we have a labyrinthine plot where John fights with the French; makes up with the French; fights with the Pope; fights with the French; fights with the nobles; makes up with the Pope; fights with the French even though the Pope tells them not to; makes up with the nobles; and then *spoiler alert* dies. Plus John's badness - his claim to the throne is not 100% solid, and he's willing to kill his little nephew to make it so -  seems kind of like a less exciting retread of Richard III. John has one nephew he wants to get rid of? Well, Richard has two!

Despite the (for me) less than compelling plot, there are some interesting themes and characters in the play, and some beautiful passages - though on the whole, the work is not as poetic as Richard II. One of the examples of interesting imagery is in the passage quoted above, where Philip the Bastard, John's nephew, paints a picture of the French and English armies somehow forming a corporeal expression of Death - their individual actions united allow Death to stalk the land, the swords of the soldiers serving as sharp teeth as he chews his way through his victims. The Bastard speaks of the Kings as amazed and potentially confused by all this bloodshed. In a way, this sense of a loss of control, of confusion, of wandering action leading to disaster yet disconnected from careful thought seems to pervade the whole play, leading to the abrupt and ambiguous ending.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

A Midsummer Night's Dream - A Fairy Song

FIRST FAIRY. You spotted snakes with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen;
Newts and blind-worms, do no wrong,
Come not near our fairy Queen.

Philomel with melody
Sing in our sweet lullaby.
Lulla, lulla, lullaby; lulla, lulla, lullaby.
Never harm
Nor spell nor charm
Come our lovely lady nigh.
So good night, with lullaby.

Weaving spiders, come not here;
Hence, you long-legg'd spinners, hence.
Beetles black, approach not near;
Worm nor snail do no offence.

Philomel with melody, etc.

Here's the fairy song that Titania asks her servants to sing to send her to sleep. Not only is it fun because there's so much in this play that makes it into a kind of multi-arts theater presentation - music! dancing! play-within-a-play! - the poem is also neat in that all its imagery is of little, small creatures: beetles, snails, newts, nightingales, spiders. These small animals - very minor threats to humans like us - become towering figures that must be threatened off by Shakespeare's little fairies.

I looked around for different versions of this song, but I didn't really find anything that I liked. Felix Mendelssohn wrote music for the play (this is where his famous Wedding March comes from), and his version of the song is pretty, but it sounds very ordered and polished - sort of a fairy-like Gilbert and Sullivany kind of sound. You can listen here. I always thought of this song as being wilder though - with a melody maybe something like this, an old Latin carol sung by the wonderful Maddy Prior. Shakespeare's words would fit to that tune, right?

I just can't resist posting another Arthur Rackham picture, this time illustrating this scene - I love the little guy with the double bass. The way this picture looks is the way I want the song to sound!
Come, now a roundel and a fairy song...(2.2.650)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Midsummer Night's Dream - Fairies and Flowers

Puck. How now, spirit! whither wander you?
Fairy. Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire,
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moon's sphere;
And I serve the fairy queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green.
The cowslips tall her pensioners be:
In their gold coats spots you see;
Those be rubies, fairy favours,
In those freckles live their savours:
I must go seek some dewdrops here
And hang a pearl in every cowslip's ear.
Farewell, thou lob of spirits; I'll be gone:
Our queen and all our elves come here anon.


With this play, I want to concentrate on some of the gorgeous poetry and nature imagery - like in this passage! The simple rhyme scheme and homely words - like "freckles" - help to establish the character of a servant fairy, setting about a task that is standard for the speaker, but magical to us. I love the image of the dew in flowers as pearls placed there to adorn the blossom. But what is a cowslip? Here it is!
Cowslip (Primula veris)

Look, you can see the freckles, the "rubies, fairy favours," the spots in their "gold coats"! Doesn't seeing the brightness, the liveliness of these flowers make the scene, the poetry, seem more alive?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A Midsummer Night's Dream - Art

The fantasy fairy landscape of A Midsummer Night's Dream has been inspiring visual artists for hundreds of years. My favorite Midsummer art that I want to share here is the 1908 collection of illustrations by Arthur Rackham: I was captivated by his delicately ethereal and beautiful, yet complex and dark, vision of Oberon and Titania's woodland fairy world. I'm going to post some of my favorite images here, but check out the whole work here, presented with the text: I especially like the artwork from Act Two.
...the moon, like to a silver bow
New-bent in heaven...(1.1.10-11)
Fairies, away. We shall chide downright if I longer stay. (2.1.515)

"O Bottom, thou art changed!" (3.1.931)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Midsummer Night's Dream - May

Lysander. If thou lovest me then,
Steal forth thy father's house to-morrow night;
And in the wood, a league without the town,
Where I did meet thee once with Helena,
To do observance to a morn of May,
There will I stay for thee.

Theseus. No doubt they rose up early to observe
The rite of May...


Fittingly, we're reading A Midsummer Night's Dream in the first week of May. The Norton Shakespeare notes that "observing the May" or "the rite of May," as both Lysander and Theseus mention, was a tradition where young people went out into the fields and woods to sing and dance in celebration of the coming of Spring - and this wonderfully magical and dazzling play is perfect to read or see on "a morn of May." It just overflows with the feeling of springtime: everyone finds themselves out in the woods, flowers are blooming, birds are singing, and everyone's getting married. In fact, there's a ROYAL WEDDING on! (Maybe Hippolyta and Theseus' wedding was sort of like this.)  I personally am delighted and feel like celebrating myself, because, after a very gray and rainy winter, (just like in the play:

Titania. Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck'd up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud

That they have overborne their continents...

-  it seems like the spring is finally here! The bulbs I planted last fall are all blooming, and the sun is actually shining!
(Spring tulips! Not actually a picture of my tulips, but they look a lot like this.)

Of course all is not sweetness and light in A Midsummer Night's Dream - the spring, the woodland, and its fairy inhabitants are not uniformly kind - but all works out well in the end. Of course it does, because it's May!