Bright Lights Film Journal

The Complete A of Altruism: In Which the Selfish Gene Explains Everything

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:

In May 1593, at the age of twenty-nine, Marlowe (right) was himself murdered in a tavern brawl. Yet The Jew of Malta — which famously broke with the tired sin-no-more tags of medieval drama — continued breaking box office records for several years after his death. Historically, therefore, The Merchant of Venice, written around 1596 and known to audiences by 1598, is an unabashed commercially-motivated sequel. But now the mean Jewish banker everyone loved to hate will meet a less violent end, albeit as a dead man walking, disowned by his only daughter. And, yes, there’ll be a love plot or three, because this time it’s . . . Comedy.

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 it happens, Radford’s straight-to-film Merchant followed Trevor Nunn’s stage-to-film recording for Masterpiece Theatre, which appeared after 9/11. (This goes a long way toward explaining the overstretched solemnity of Nunn’s production — but, again, more later.) For now, an important illustration of the differences between the film treatments comes in Shylock’s speech in Act III, Sc I. This is where the avaricious money-lender starts by conflating all his immediate financial losses with the loss of Jessica, his recently absconded daughter who, in her flight, has indeed robbed him of part of his wealth. But after confiding to his friend Tubal the series of emotions stabbing at his heart, he ends mourning the loss of the ring given him by his late wife, Leah. It’s a mini-drama by itself, in which Shylock evolves in front of us from medieval miser into renaissance-man humanist. Rushing straight to the mention of Leah’s ring, Nunn purges these lines of their stock anti-Semitism and leaves poor Henry Goodman (above, left ) with hardly a speech at all.

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.)

On the face of it, the climactic pound-of-flesh scene in The Merchant is the ultimate gift to actors and directors alike. The trouble is that stage villains, no matter how original, can slip very easily from being part of a gripping adult entertainment into something best suited to children’s pantomime. This is also a problem for film villains, as is clear from Hitchcock’s dictum: the better the villain, the better the film. And here we have to add something about victims, especially when villain and victim are — as in Shylock’s case — the same character. Clearly, this is what makes the role so attractive to great actors. Yet — with Radford’s help — it’s obvious to me now that any seriously ambitious production of The Merchant stands or falls not on the quality of the Shylock alone, but on the face-off between Shylock and Antonio that forms the bedrock of the whole piece.

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.

Cool dramaturgical dudes might direct us from here to Frank Wedekind (1864-1918, right): “I believe that a play is more gripping the more harmless, sunny, laughing the performance.” Only slightly more tepid theatre fans might guess from the little quote how much influence the relatively obscure Wedekind had on Bertoldt Brecht. Meanwhile, students of early film know Wedekind via Pandora’s Box (1929) in which G. W. Pabst puts together the sexiest elements from the Lulu plays. And, for an update on the Brechtian cinematic legacy, how about You, the Living (2007) from Swedish director Roy Andersson? Dubbed “film flat” by David Thomson, who clearly loved this picture, its backers (for the British market anyway) want us to think “Monty Python.” But with its incongruously jolly musical soundtrack, the tradition I recognise is pure Wedekind/Brecht. Even so, after the first few minutes — which are moving and hilarious in equal proportions — for me it rarely lives up to its own high (low?) standards. Especially when the greying out of the universe is your theme, the risk is that everything — including your own film — will disappear without trace. I know the Swedes must be getting a bit fed up with the title “gloomiest people on earth,” but things aren’t going to improve while their best film talents give us endings where the sky becomes dark with — NATO/Russian? — bombers. On the other hand, before suing for copyright, Marlowe would have certainly got the joke.

Whether we end up discussing tonal structure or Hitchcock’s McGuffin, in Nunn’s studio-bound recording and Radford’s location shoot in Venice (right) it’s a huge compliment to the Bard that neither director has mucked around much with the layout of the piece. For example, in neither film are we deprived of Shakespeare’s simple but effective mood switch in Act III, Sc II, when the joy of Portia and Bassanio’s long-awaited nuptials is immediately shadowed by the news of Antonio’s financial failure. This is no mere technical point, because — in a story overflowing with inner chimings — this rings one of the clearest notes in establishing Antonio and Shylock as emotional siblings: alone together.

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.

This isn’t, though, where Darwin’s relevance is strongest: the important link, for me, comes to light the minute we start exploring, querying, and above all empathising with Antonio’s suicidal love for Bassanio. Let’s be clear right away that I see this as having less to do with sexual orientation, or even with cultural conventions per se, and much more to do with human empathy, especially that very elusive concept “altruism.” So it’s worth a quick detour to run through the basics here, starting in the 1840s with the coining of that word by “Father of Sociology” Auguste Comte. Far from coincidentally, this was just when Darwin was working up courage to publish his Origin of Species. And right from these tumultuous times, altruism seems to have been grabbed by two opposing camps: those seeing it as a sign that Nature Herself was backing up a plan for universal love and those more determined than ever that Nature was only in it — genetically speaking — for the ducats. This problem is also still with us; and despite ongoing attempts to bring the new science of mathematical biology to bear on the issue, the phenomenon of altruism — by whatever name — remains, at best, a fascinating mystery.

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.

What troubles me about this adamantine certainty is not the emphasis on evolutionary theory; far from it. When Antonio moves to help his friend, there’s a brief pause for reflection; but essentially he’s committing himself so quickly that it looks very much like “instinct.” Or has he been taught to risk his life for love: like Jesus, perhaps? I happen to be writing this at Easter time; and inevitably that courtroom drama, with Shylock’s knife at Antonio’s breast — played and directed with such power in Radford’s film — evokes, willy-nilly, the crucifixion. So again we seem to lurch into a racist scenario, with Jews as Christ killers. But — apart from the old rationalist riposte that Christ was himself a Jew — we can calmly state that Antonio is not living out some long-established divine destiny: in fact, he’s just an ordinary chap who — on the spur of the moment and somewhat to his own surprise and regret — has put his life on the line for someone else. Culturally speaking, there’s no obvious history to this act of self-sacrifice; and, genetically speaking, he’s taking a course of action that can be of no possible use to his future . . .

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.

The movie is categorised on the IMDB as Comedy/Drama/Romance — not a bad match for The Merchant — but there’s no health warning here about what is or isn’t “possible.” This time we fly straight into a blizzard with pilot Conway (Eddie Quillan, right) who — in an only slightly more reluctant display of altruism than Antonio — has agreed to try and get the serum from Utah to New York. Ward Bond plays Jim Hatton, the other pilot at the airbase who, as a married man, sensibly turns down this particularly lucrative but madly dangerous mercy-mission. (Bond opted for uncredited status, as though not “deserving” a mention. And while we shouldn’t be too literal about this, I’d love to know what was going on here.) The point is that Quillan’s scenes are among the best in the picture, not because they’re so well done, but because they represent something that most of us can truly empathise with knowing that, crazily enough, real people actually do this kind of thing. In a film that doesn’t even try to score marks for moral depth or psychological realism, it’s a strange and wonderful exception that leaves its own kind of mark on the memory.

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.