Except whether to laugh or cry
In Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (c. 1590), there is one blink-and-you’ve-missed- it nod to the possibilities of mutual human sympathy, or empathy at least: “Come Katharina our losses equal are/then of true grief let us take equal share.”
This is Ferneze, governor of the island, moved to discover that in the general violence he and Lady Katharine — though not otherwise related — have each lost a grown-up son. Here Marlowe exploits the fact that, for most parents, deeper pain attaches to losing a child than to losing one’s own life; and in a play where shocked laughter is often the desired response, it’s a moment of unambiguous tragedy when even to smile would be unthinkable.
In the plot, these deaths lead back to Barabas, the rich Jewish banker who incited the young men to mutual destruction. We’ve already seen that Barabbas was so fond of his wealth that, when the state asks for half of it in a crisis, he refuses to part with a farthing and, for this defiance, is stripped of all his possessions. From then on he exacts a positively gleeful vengeance, adding to the mayhem in which he, too, is killed. But before the gruesome finale to a gruesome play, among the growing heap of corpses lies his only daughter, Abigail — poisoned by her own father. Despite the potential for another moment of pure tragedy, Marlowe sticks with the dominant mode of the piece and goes for the laugh:
A recent showing on British digital TV of Michael Radford’s 2004 Merchant must take the blame for this foray into the late renaissance hinterland. On the film’s release, A. O. Scott did an excellent capsule review for the New York Times, but I’m not sure anyone has had time to expand much from that. No doubt there are basic economic reasons for this, though I smell a bit of snobbery, too. In fact, Scott himself confesses a fear that Al Pacino’s Shylock would be all vengeance and no grief — a horror thankfully not realised. All the same, in response to a film that offers word-sensitive stagecraft along with ravishing cinematic technique — not to mention an entire ensemble that is perfectly cast — even vestigial anti-Hollywooditis seems particularly sad. Alright, actors have to be available, which means that “perfect” casting needs a bit of luck. And while I’m feeling magnanimous, it costs not a ducat to remember those who see all renaissance drama — however “relevant” or well realised — as murder by boredom. (Darwin never evolved past this view; but more of that later.)
Meanwhile, a question Scott leaves open is whether we should be paying attention to any play founded on Christian anti-Semitism. Judging by Eng Lit courses in the UK, there’s already some mission creep (admonition creep?) toward an answer in the negative.
But Merchant has other nourishments to offer. For example, there’s at least a soupçon of homophobia in the gossip of Antonio’s drinking pals, who don’t buy the self-sacrificing nature of his love for Bassanio; and in Portia’s approach to her non-Venetian suitors we find slices of racial stereotyping spread across the compass of the known world. If that’s not enough, Shakespeare drops in a couple of chunks of very chewy parallelism: (1) daughters (Portia and Jessica) subject to tyrannical fathers; and (2) a view of Human Bondage in Law and Love that leaves no one out — especially not tyrannical fathers.
As we shouldn’t need reminding, Shakespeare the Humanist comes to us by courtesy of Shakespeare the Dramatist — someone whose job it is to grip our attention in spite of a protagonist’s unsympathetic traits. For me, then, Shylock’s ring speech, given whole, “rescues” the humanity of both Shylock and Shakespeare better than any well-meaning expurgation; and Radford’s contrasting trust in the text at this point would be enough to explain my own revived interest and pleasure in the play.
On the other hand, both Nunn and Radford trim Portia’s early lines of their casual racism vis-a-vis her suitors. As decreed by her father, one of these will be able to claim her hand in marriage by choosing correctly between caskets of gold, silver, and lead. And though the dramatic significance of her politically incorrect lines might not be so vital, again I see more lost than gained. Portia, after all, has reason to resent the whole process of being “selected” as well as the people selecting her. What’s more, another deliberate echo on arbitrary manoeuvres in the field of romance, where this time Portia has the upper hand, will occupy the entire last act. And now we’re evoking again the extraordinary density of thematic allusions in a “comedy” that has been seen not just as “dark” and over-complicated, but as one of Shakespeare’s weaker plays.
As for this darkness, Radford’s efforts to rewire essential bits of circuitry are actually boosted by Scott’s disarming concession that the play isn’t so much dark or weak as “impossible.” But, of course, Nunn, Radford, and Scott aren’t the only electricians on the block. In December 2006, F. Murray Abraham’s Jew and Merchant were staged side-by-side in New York. And — for those who see the connections — we’ve just had Will Smith’s Seven Pounds (Gabriele Mucciono, 2008).
Suddenly, it seems, a little old xenophobic morality tale is a mirror of our times! However, we’re less likely to be carried away by all this if we consider, for example, the role global politics was already playing in Marlowe’s Jew of Malta. In the trailer: mercilessly self-aggrandizing Spanish and Ottoman Empires fight for world dominance; meanwhile both these great powers lie at the mercy of an equally unscrupulous Italian/Jewish banking system. (In this twilight zone, Nunn’s decision to set the National Theatre’s Merchant in the 1930s looks less unheimlich than ever.)
Sadly, I didn’t see the New York shows; but one write-up suggested that the Marlowe was too camp. We’ve just seen that, in terms of genre, The Jew of Malta is very intricately poised; so an upping of the comic ante might just smother its underlying, chilling vision of man preying like a wolf on man. (As a brilliant Cambridge scholar, Marlowe was ahead of the pack in his studies of Plautus, especially the tag: lupus est homo homini.) To get the porridge just right for today’s audiences, the New York version might have benefited from Janette Dillon’s hint in the Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Comedy (2002) that this startling late renaissance scenario works rather like Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. (I realise this suggestion of mine is another futile example of 20/20 hindsight, but that doesn’t deny Dillon her place in my own ongoing visual corrections.)
As a double act, they might not seem as starkly isolated as Pozzo and Vladimir; and the odd relevance here is that, in Waiting for Godot, we’re moving perhaps as deeply as possible into the laughter-or-tears business. In fact, when I first saw Godot on TV in the early ’60s, the original West End cast persuaded me that free-flowing empathetic tears were definitely part of a “correct” appraisal — a sign that one was, indeed, watching the greatest play of the 20th century. If this sounds over-the-top, remember that Godot, in the original French, first appeared in 1948, when humanity had only just stopped making a tearful sense of absurdity the only “appropriate” response to Art and Life.
This only makes me more sympathetic to the problems faced by directors and actors confronted by that super-dense entity: Shylock/Antonio/Victim/Villain. All the same, when this core stuff is mishandled, it’s then we might start to think that The Merchant of Venice really is one of Shakespeare’s duds. And if we want to prove otherwise, in the scene where Antonio looks set to become a victim of legitimised murder, of all possible responses the last thing we need is embarrassed laughter. This, I’m afraid, is a danger not averted by Trevor Nunn. And it’s not just that Shylock is too rabbinically pious or Antonio (David Bamber) too clinically neurotic; but as part of a production that, complete with keening hymns, insists on being a statement for the post-holocaust world, we suddenly see why renaissance drama is so infrequently tackled by cinema — also why, when new productions do emerge, they seem to be all teen movie makeover.
What joins them, of course, is the theme of personal loss, which — like every other theme here — is presented in terms of its material and spiritual significance. Yet, for all its highbrow Neoplatonism, at first this looks essentially like a racist analysis: (Christian) Antonio feels the pain of losing young Bassanio to Portia more than the loss of his wealth, more even than the threat of losing his own life. Contrariwise, (Jewish) Shylock’s loss of his only daughter Jessica is felt less keenly than the loss of his gold.
But, as things progress, Antonio’s self-endangering love of Bassanio starts to take on the darker hues of Shylock’s equally helpless, equally self-subverting behaviour. In fact, as Shakespeare gives it, this human propensity for blind self-sacrifice looks to me more McGuffin than racially motivated moral contrast. So — are we actually in on the birth of Suspense? Despite the homoeroticism, Antonio is often seen as a prototype for Twelfth Night’s Duke Orsino. Yet he’s also a dead ringer for Hitchcock’s Ordinary Guy — someone whose off-the-cuff decisions will soon trap him in a protracted life-or-death struggle. Setting up mortal fears from which there seems no escape is, of course, the Hitchcock trademark. Or so it became with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934); and on Hitchcock’s own evidence, the reason this modus operandi fascinated him so much was its potential for getting audiences to emote and empathise. In fact, among his sixty or so feature films, the early talkie Murder (1930) is the only example of a whodunit in which the appeal is to those who, rather than becoming emotionally involved with anyone onscreen, wonder about the story in a vague and distant sort of way.
The last point brings Frank Wedekind in again, with his stated wish to rouse primal emotions — in his terms, to oppose the vague and distant conventions of Symbolism. In Wedekind, then, we discover aesthetic impulses that helped launch German Expressionism; and from there we suddenly get a view of young Alfred Hitchcock at the start of his career with The Pleasure Garden (1925) — a silent set in London but made, mostly, in the Munich studios of UFA. Such links are weird enough; but I think they get us nearer Shakespeare — not as the conjoined twin of Wedekind or Hitchcock but as another artist who, while keeping tight control of his material, loved going for the emotional and moral jugular, whatever the hints that “it’s only a play.”
In this respect, unlike the more diffident Wedekind, both Shakespeare and Hitchcock know where the money is. In fact, one review of the New York Merchant vilified not Abraham’s production, but Shakespeare’s scenario — specifically for its commercially motivated, Jew-baiting medievalism. It seems this “crime” stands out more starkly when compared with Marlowe’s sociopolitical awareness. For at least one reader, then, Shakespeare’s views on personal morality haven’t struck home. But what of the heightened moral awareness that, for Nunn and Radford, is there — to be felt as well as wondered about? For me, this is where Radford, with help from Jeremy Irons, is at his most interesting. And now’s the moment to bring back Darwin — the reader who rejected all of Shakespeare as not worth pondering. The reasons for this are quickly explained as a reaction to hopelessly overdone worship of the Bard — a critical style that had set in hard by the early 19th century. In fact, despite strong attacks on individual plays like the one just mentioned, the idea that Shakespeare and the meaning of life are somehow synonymous is still at the back of a lot of reception problems.
The trouble with mysteries is that they attract the sort of authoritarian posturing that largely obstructs honest enquiry; and this again relates to Darwin’s problems. Much more than any of his scientific findings, having to watch his favourite daughter, Annie, die at the age of ten made Darwin finally reject anything that smacked of religious wisdom. It’s not unreasonable to suppose, then, that when God died, so did a few of his over-touted earthly representatives — like the Swan of Avon.
But when I look at Antonio’s self-sacrificing gesture in The Merchant of Venice, my own thoughts don’t necessarily turn to God — either to praise or accuse. On the contrary, what I find is a very human sort of mystery — the sort that, directly or indirectly, almost everyone has experienced for themselves. Not that this stops the Selfish Gene establishment from insisting that, actually, this altruism stuff is just a misnomer for some evolutionary calculation of gain.
Whether as something dark or light or any shade in between, Made for Each Other (John Cromwell, 1939) is no one’s idea of a great movie. James Stewart and Carole Lombard are the not particularly persuasive love-match; and the tear-jerking plot about their sick infant is, for the most part, also deeply unconvincing. (An entire hospital stops everything to focus on acquiring a life-saving serum for one child.) But this is a David O. Selznick production, and so I was expecting something to lift it above the common run. What I didn’t expect and what did greatly impress me were scenes in which the subject is, once again, that mysterious human aptitude for senselessly risking one’s life on behalf of others.
At this point I think again of A. O. Scott’s capsule review and the idea that The Merchant of Venice is indeed an “impossible” play. By now the problem of whether we’re supposed to laugh or cry seems a million miles away; and issues about altruism and empathy don’t necessarily seem any clearer. Meanwhile, I’m quite sure that this little trek didn’t get started in order to reclassify The Merchant of Venice or even to restate its claim in the Shakespeare cannon. (Remembering Charles Darwin, I tried especially hard not to come on like a recruitment brochure.) Even so, I won’t feel too unhappy with the result if I’ve shown that “impossible” plays can be turned into marvellously stimulating and entirely possible films.