When life imitates Shakespeare (Nationa Post March 30, 2007)
When life imitates Shakespeare
Barbara Kay, National Post
Published: Friday, March 30, 2007
The Merchant of Venice began a short run at Mc- Gill University this week. As usual, in today's politically correct West, the performance will be accompanied by earnest hand-wringing about whether Shakespeare's play promotes anti-Semitism. Last night, a McGill symposium on "Shakespeare and the Jews" addressed the issue directly.
Rivers of ink have been spilled over the fascinating character of Shylock, but we would do well to remember that the money-lending Jew is but one of many mythic avatars of the Jew in English literature. In every age, including our own, the Jew has rarely been treated by Gentile writers with accuracy, or as anything other than a broad type, calibrated toward evil or good according to the era's prevailing ideology.
Before the Renaissance -- as in Chaucer's The Prioress's Tale, which expands on gory blood libels -- the Jew was treated in literature as almost purely evil, the theological Antichrist. By Shakespeare's day, the aestheticized Jew was still wicked, but less demonic, more learned and nuanced. His mercantile avarice, reflecting the era's soaring commercialism, fused with the craftiness of the political schemer Machiavelli (an English fascination of the time), combined to produce the Shylock prototype.The type's next important manifestation was -- in keeping with the characteristics of the Romantic era -- the Wandering Jew: exotic, melancholy, disinherited, repentant, far less menacing than Shylock, deeply race-conscious in a striving rather than a self-hating way. Isaac of York, from Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, is a good example.
By the later 19th century, Jews had joined the social stream of English society, active in business, politics and university life. Visible, they were no longer mysterious and threatening. Like Du Maurier's Svengali, Trollope's Melmotte and Dickens's Fagin, they were now merely degenerate, socially repulsive or comic foils to "gentlemen," a status that, by definition, Jews could never, qua Jews, aspire to.
What never changed throughout the type's negative history (still active in certain quarters): The Jew was, as the literary critic Lionel Trilling noted, "the foreigner, the repository and embodiment of all that was outside the established order of good."
Post-Holocaust, and given the draconian anti-racism of our times, the Jew is no longer negatively stereotyped by gentiles (in the
West, at least -- much of the Islamic world is mired in the early demonic phase). In films, however, one is all too frequently subjected to the stereotypical "good" Jew: Sensitive Jewish Marine, Anguished Jewish Son, Compassionate Jewish Gay, Benevolent Jewish Doctor, Ethical Hebrew Warrior, etc.
But even though "bad" Jews have been banished from our cultural industries, real life cannot be so carefully controlled for offensive content. How awkward it is when a contemporary character in a real-life 2007 Chicago performance finds himself channelling a superannuated myth from the 1596 Elizabethan stage.
The Conrad Black and David Radler saga is indeed a postmodern Shakespearean-style drama. Whether the Chicago trial ends as a comedy or a tragedy remains to be seen. If Black is vindicated, his accusers humiliated and he himself restored to something like his former high estate amidst the general approval of his true friends -- a comedy; if he loses his battle--a tragedy.But whatever happens to Conrad Black, who had the vision and the will to achieve great things (you're holding one), and who is facing his accusers with impressive stoicism and dignity, the tale's coward, David Radler, will never come out of this story with honour.
Radler is, alas, a Jew straight out of Ye Olde Types-R-Us Central Casting. The wiliness, the hunched frame and furtive mien, the obsession with the getting (but not the spending) of money, the social marginality, the control-needy hyperactivity, the selfinterest and seeming indifference to the gentile's fate: It's all so?Shylock.
Do they always come after the Jew first, as Radler was quoted as saying when the investigation into Hollinger/Ravelston began? No. It's merely Radler's peculiar misfortune in this case. What would have been merely schlocky behaviour in a Gentile is viewed as Shylocky in a Jew. In one of those bemusing ironies -- a stopped clock is after all right twice a day -- Radler is life imitating anti- Semitic art.The yet-to-be-written play that will hold us spellbound, in which an aristocratic Gentile protagonist, married to one Jewish type -- Raven-haired Jewish Temptress -- is betrayed by another Jewish type -- Shylock -- and fiercely defended (Hath not a Press Baron ?affections, passions?) by yet a third -- the Brilliant Jewish Lawyer -- deserves a latter-day Bard to render it into art. Until our neo-Shakespeare comes along to immortalize the story for the ages, "Let it serve for table talk" (Merchant, Act III, Scene v). And so it doth.
Bkay@videotron.ca© National Post 2007