Friday, June 25, 2010

Say it ain't so: Shakespeare is racist

I didn’t read The Merchant of Venice very carefully at all when I was in high school. Otherwise I probably would have been horrified by how racist it is.

Here’s Shylock:


Signior Antonio, many a time and oft

In the Rialto you have rated me

About my moneys and my usances:

Still have I borne it with a  patient shrug,

(For suff-rance is the badge of all our tribe)

You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,

And spet upon my Jewish gaberdine,

And all for use of that which is mine own. (1:3)


            Shylock is just a businessman trying to make a ducat in the uncircumcised man’s world. The Christians think it’s wrong to loan people money at interest, but Jews aren’t allowed to own property, so what else can they do? And now Antonio and Bassanio come to him to borrow cash, and this is what Antonio responds to Shylock’s accusations:


I am as like to call thee so again,

To spet on thee again, to spurn thee too. (1:3)


            Shakespeare lived in an England where Jewish people were expelled from the country unless they converted to Christianity. A converted Jew was drawn and quartered after being convicted in a plot to poison the queen. Shylock is a comic villain, like Don John and Malvolio. He was probably played in a red wig with a false nose and was meant to be laughed at and ridiculed.

            Now, it’s possible that we should read The Merchant of Venice the way we read Huckleberry Finn, with an understanding that the author lived in a racist time and used words that we find offensive today. But there’s a difference. Huck Finn is a character better than the world that he lives in, we can see that Mark Twain’s intention was to criticize his America by telling the story of someone who sees the hypocrisies around him and decides for himself what is right.

            Here we are confronted with a play where the wise heroine dispenses justice and waxes eloquent on the nature of mercy, and then refuses to demonstrate any in her judgment. Not to mention that she’s racist herself. When Portia talks about her suitors, she dismisses each one with a racial stereotype.

             The Frenchman:


If a throstle sing, he falls straight a-cap’ring, he will fence with his own shadow. (1:2)


            The Scotsman:


He hath a neighborly charity in him, for he borrowed a box of the ear of the Englishman, and swore he would pay him again when he was able. (1:2)


How does she like the German?


Very vividly in the morning when he is sober, and most vividly in the afternoon when he is drunk. (1:2)


            Okay, so the Arden and Riverside footnotes say these are all racial stereotypes of the era, but other than the drunk German one, they’re over my head.

Portia’s suitors have to choose between the three caskets if they want to marry her. One casket is gold, one silver, and one lead. If a suitor chooses the one with her picture inside then she has to marry them. So, the Prince of Morocco arrives. He is described as a “tawny Moor all in white.” Here’s what he says:


Mislike me not for my complexion,

The shadowed livery of the burnish’d sun,

To whom I am a neighbor, and near bred. (2:1)


            Mislike him not? Um, are you a white Venetian frat boy who wants to marry Portia for her cash money? No? Then I think you’re out of luck. Of course, the Moor chooses the gold casket, which is wrong, and this is Portia’s response:


A gentle riddance, -- draw the curtains, go, --

Let all of his complexion choose me so. (2:7)


            Blacks, Jews, Scottish dudes, Frenchies, Sheakespeare’s characters are racist against everyone. But here’s the thing: I think that’s okay.

            People are racist. It sucks. I think like alcoholism or drug addiction, the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. 

I live in a city where there are tons of Armenian people. I was at the grocery store waiting patiently in line to pay, when an Armenian employee opened up a second register. I was the next person in line, but she didn’t wave to me. She waved to the Armenian guy behind me to come over to her register. My first thought was “That’s cool. They’re both Armenian. Gotta look out for your own.” Then I was like, “hold on, that’s exactly why it’s not cool!”

            That’s pretty tame racism, but I’m biracial and usually people look at me and aren’t sure what I am. That’s the benefit of a non-descript ethnicity, people don’t hate on me out of the fear of hating in the incorrect way.

            I know Shylock goes on this anti-racism diatribe:


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? (3:1)


            This is a great speech for equality, but in the context of the scene Shylock is using it as a justification for revenge. It continues:


And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. (3:1)


We all want to believe Shakespeare was the best guy ever. But this play is not a tragedy about Shylock’s loss of his daughter and religion that Pacino’s Shylock transforms it into. It’s a comedy and the audience was meant to cheer when Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity. I find it fascinating and heartbreaking that the only way to stomach this play in performance today is to contradict the original intention.

How troubling are our flawed heroes.

Every genius in the world wants a grain of salt, and every victory beckons a blind eye. If you dig too deep, you’ll find drugs and hate and infidelitous text messages. How many Shoeless Joe Jacksons and Bill Clintons pepper the annals of human greatness?

Our heroes are human. Shakespeare painted complex portraits of humanity. In order to do that he had to be a complex portrait of a human. He was flawed. I mean, didn’t he have Syphilis?

But then again maybe I’m wrong (maybe = probably).

Maybe Shakespeare’s genius was so advanced that he wrote a subversive comedy that could be played only one way in his time, all the while knowing that its subtext would survive to an era of improved tolerance. A day when at least we make a show of respecting everyone. Where performance is inverted so that conspiracies of spiteful xenophobia are locked in our lead caskets and the mask of compassion struts across the public stage to clamorous praise. Virtuous ornament is the false nose and curly red wig of the day.

Which era is more dangerous?

I’ll take the silent hate myself. If the problem is out there for everyone to see, it’s so much harder to ignore.

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