Monday, June 27, 2005

Maybe We're the Problem

Spoilers are Shakespeare plays--several of them, particularly The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew.

The other night Lucas and I were talking about racism and sexism in literature, our ability to really like certain works in spite of their clear racism (Hemingway, in his case) or misogynism (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, in my case), and it led us to the Shakespeare plays we have the most difficulty with, The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew. I have more difficulty with the former, Lucas with the latter, but both have puzzled both of us. Many people classify these pieces as "problem plays"--in Shakespearean parlance, a "problem play" is basically a play you have a hard time fitting into the established Shakespearean genres; Measure for Measure and All's Well that Ends Well are almost always on the list, and sometimes the plays Lucas and I have difficulty with are on it as well. Harold Bloom, in his behemoth Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, has a section for problem plays, but includes neither of our problem pieces in it; he even goes so far as to say that if you consider Taming to be a problem play, "then perhaps you yourself are the problem." With Merchant he's a lot more casual, saying, simply, that you can like the play, particularly in light of Portia's importance, but you can't overlook or reshape its anti-Semitism. The play is anti-Semitic, period; now what?

Now, I have as many problems with Bloom as the next theatrical scholar does. The thesis of the book is that Shakespeare invented the modern character, as exemplified by Hamlet, in Bloom's view the most intelligent and complex character in literary history (for an interesting counterpoint to that, see Peter D. Kramer's Against Depression, which I just finished--he talks about how literature has caused us to see melancholia and depression as romantic, rather than debilitating, and that while Hamlet is a genius his paralysis is caused by depression, the illness). In addition to Hamlet, Bloom admires Falstaff as almost equally complex, and has several other characters he worships (the only ones I can remember off the top of my head are Rosalind and Cleopatra, the only women he mentions). However, the book is not focused around those characters, but has a chapter on each play, which in my view obligates you to show how each play contributes to your thesis. And many don't--the chapter on Richard III for example, says (yes, I am paraphrasing, but he comes pretty dadgummed close to saying this), "This play doesn't contribute to my thesis, because I don't like it." Maybe when you're the most famous literary scholar in the country you're allowed to do some shoddy scholarly writing, but I would really prefer that you didn't. In addition, he approaches Shakespeare with little or no eye to the theatrical aspects of it, which is just this side of the entire problem with the way Shakespeare is taught--these are *plays*, they were created to be performed, created with the knowledge that what is on the page is not all there is to what they are. So, Harold Bloom frustrates me as an intellectual, Naomi Wolf harrassment aside. But that said, I've lately started to think he's right about Merchant of Venice.

Now, I've only seen it performed twice, and once was the recent movie, which Cassie and I saw together. The movie in particular, knowing what the public outcry (minor about a Shakespeare film, but still present) would be, made a lot of very deliberate efforts not to be anti-Semitic. It opened with a long written, scrolling piece about the plight of Jews in sixteenth-century Venice; it opened with an almost non-verbal scene in which Antonio spits on Shylock in a crowd. And it had Shylock played by Al Pacino, who is capable of making the most unpleasant, abrasive characters (*ROY COHN* in Angels in America for fuck's sake) sympathetic without compromising their abrasiveness. And still it did not work. Michael Radford could not make Shakespeare's words express anything other than absolute contempt for Shylock. Which is fair; Shylock is a horrible, sadistic person in the script. He is cruel, he's ruthless, he's driven by a certain lack of reason--while Radford tried to make clear that that lack of reason, the crazed desire for revenge, was the result of years of ruthless oppression, the one nonverbal scene alone couldn't counteract the voluminous text. And since Shylock is the only Jew in the play, indeed one of the only Jews in all of Shakespeare's work (if not *the* only--I have neither read nor seen a lot of the histories, so I can't tell you for sure), and the contempt for him on the part of many of the characters we trust is expressed in terms of his Judaism, it follows that the reason he's so horrible is because he's a Jew. (And one sign of a Jew's insanity is his not being driven solely by the profit margin, interestingly--had Shylock accepted Bassiano's offer of six thousand ducats to pay back Antonio's three, rather than insisting upon the contracted pound of Antonio's flesh, he would have displayed reason. Insisting on the terms of the contract, upon getting either the money from Antonio or the flesh from Antonio, is one of the things that shows Shylock as insane. And while I'm not saying I don't agree, it's pretty interesting with regards to both modern capitalism and the general presentation of Jews as money-grubbers.) Taken in context, the legendary "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech barely even appears sincere. Shylock is driven by greed and bloodlust. While not every Jewish character is the representation of all Judaism (certainly not today), any more than every African-American character is the ultimate representation of blackness or every female character the ultimate representation of femininity, within the context of this particular script everything about Shylock is presented to us in terms of his Judaism. And since just about everything about Shylock is bad, we have no choice but to see Judaism as bad. Or at the very least, to see Jews as bad. It may be that their religion's okay, but how would we know?

Interestingly, though, Merchant is pretty progressive on the woman front, at least with regards to Portia. For someone whose father stuck her with little marital choice, her only emancipation to be derived from little boxes, she does an amazing job using her intelligence to benefit herself in the world. Note my very smooth segue into Taming of the Shrew, eternal source of puzzlement to those who believe Shakespeare was a feminist (among whom I count myself). I should add here that I have seen several more productions of Taming than I have of Merchant--I've seen at least three, including one where the genders were reversed (didn't work, sadly) and one where Allison Janney played Kate in Central Park, and I was also in a production during my senior year of high school. And while that production experience calls up very conflicted memories for me, I most certainly learned a lot about the play. An almost classical premise, it has. Little sister Bianca, sweet, innocent and (if you get an interesting actor playing her) conniving, is the belle of the town, while Katherina, angry, voracious, mean, intelligent and probably just as attractive as her sister, is an object of desire for no one. And then Petruchio arrives on the scene.

It's a sad thing to say about a play whose feminist motives are questionable in the first place, but whether you can make the play non-misogynistic or not depends upon the actor playing Petruchio, not Katherina. You need a strong Kate, of course, to handle the character transformation and the final speech; I don't mean to negate that. (If you haven't read Taming of the Shrew, Kate's final speech includes such gems as:

"I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace,
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey?
Why are our bodies soft, and weak, and smooth,
Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions and our hearts
Should well agree with our external parts? . . .
Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband's foot."
-V.ii.160-8 & 175-6

Booya.) But the real question, the one that changes how we receive the play, is whether Kate and Petruchio are in it together. And Kate doesn't have much control over that; the script forces her into certain positions. He says it is the sun, and goddamnit she knows it is the sun. But why it's the sun is Petruchio's choice. (And the director's, of course; this is why I'd rather be a director than a Shakespearean scholar, because I feel no need to quibble over what Shakespeare intended, or more specifically, I feel no need to limit myself to saying that he only intended one thing. The question is, what can the play do and still be itself?)

So, dude comes to wive it wealthily in Padua; if wealthily, then happily in Padua. (I.ii.74-5) His old friends in Padua lead him to the despised older sister that the younger sister might be free for their courting. Petruchio finds this woman a worthy opponent in wordplay and, at least in my high school production, physical combat; still he deceives her, her father and her sister's suitors in order to marry her. (It ain't a play where no means no, this is for sure.) He conducts himself horribly at their wedding, and here's the rub. Kate's been rejected by society; Petruchio conducts himself so badly at the wedding as to be rejected by society as well. At the time, this does not make Kate happy; it's just someone else rejecting her and treating her badly, only this time it doesn't seem precisely to be based upon her behavior. He's relentlessly cruel in the first days of their marriage, but in an almost absurd, parodic way. And then we get to the I say it is the moon scene. When I saw the scene work was in the production with Allison Janney--suddenly she and Petruchio looked at each other and got it, and laughed hysterically, and basically continued that for the rest of the play. The continuation was a boring directorial choice, but the laughter itself made sense. And then at a dinner party Kate, coming fastest when called, presents the speech, a speech so misogynistic it seems outrageous--absurd, parodic. And the play, therefore, is more interesting if it *is* them against the world, if we see Petruchio on a real journey--if the speech is a joke between her and Petruchio, if the two of them, social wild cards, decide to be with one another against the world. *Conformable* as other household Kates, rather than *conformed* thereas.

It sounds like a stretch. And in many ways it is one, I won't argue. I guess no matter what it's not a *feminist* play, per se. It's not a play that advocates the emancipation or equality of all women. But I think the title is ironic--and there's precedent for Shakespeare using ironic titles, All's Well that Ends Well certainly being up there--and that it is a play, or at the very least can be a play, about two very unconventional people who find outlets for their unconventionality in one another, and have pretty incredible secrets.

Why am I so much more forgiving of Taming than of Merchant of Venice, though? I identify as both a Jew and a woman, so there's equal room for me to be offended. There are other women in Taming of the Shrew, where there are not other Jews in any other Shakespearean work, but the other women in Taming also kind of suck. (Although in high school I played the Widow, and it was awfully gratifying to be that bitchy.) I really, simply do believe there is more to Taming, that it's a lot more possible to find an interpretation one feels safe with and satisfied by with that play. But Lucas doesn't agree with me, and *maybe you don't either*. Tell me why! Tell me why!


At 10:41 PM, Anonymous Lucas said...

Dang, feel like some sorta gauntlet's been thrown down.

I don't read Shylock's famous spiel as disengenous. Before I get any further into this, I have to confess that I only end up reading this spiel, as I've never seen it, and as per your point about them being necessarily theatrical works, this may be a big part of our difference of opinion.
It seems that you think that Shylock's plea for humane treatment and his desire to be inhumane are mutually exclusive. I think that one of the redeeming parts of the play is the way in which, if we allow ourselves to sympathise with the downtrodden Merchant at all, we can feel a genuine tension between those two impulses, something that I can't say even in the most optimistic of circumstances for Kate.
Allowed a range of moral sentiment, Shylock is a moral actor who makes the wrong decision. I think it's very easy to universalize his bloodlust (his antisemitic greed charicature is another matter). Given that Kate merely hopes to drift to the least bad of all situations, she offers very little in the way of moral guidance. We can just hope that it turns out alright for her in the end. With Shylock, we can hope that it didn't have to have turned out that way, and we can only hope that if we give him some agency and accept that if you tickle him, he does laugh. If you don't accept the moral agency of Shylock, ie, if he's just essentially bad, then Merchant of Venice is a terrible, and frankly pretty boring play, but I think if there were a way to really tease out the glaring contradiction between his victimhood and his inhumanity, he has more than just eyes, he has a soul.

To me, the play is about why bloodlust is bad. About how, even if someone attacks you on the streets of your home, you don't have the right to torture people in resposne. A relevant message burried in a heap of lies and distortions. I find nothing similar to dig for and take home in Taming of the Shrew.


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