Fit To Be Tyee’d

The Tyee, based in British Columbia, is one of Canada’s more interesting small independent webzines—the only one, for all I know. It’s the sort of venue you’d think I should be writing for. But I’m probably going to blow my chances by commenting on this recent piece, which could almost have appeared in Slate. The piece is so negative and uncomprehending that I really feel I have to address it. The question “Why Is Shakespeare Still Selling?” isn’t a blasphemous one, but it is one worth taking seriously; I address it implicitly in my every post. What a pity, then, that the item under consideration treats it frivolously. South Park deals with Shakespeare more seriously.

Like a typical Slate piece, this one takes a contrarian view of an alleged paradox. How can Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach (or as I’ll call it, BOB) summer Shakespeare series possibly be so successful (“Concessions are bustling and, in satellite tents, dinner service is finishing up for corporate clients treating staff and guests to an evening of cultural entertainment”) with such unpromising material as Shakespeare? Given what follows, it’s hard to remember that the point of the piece is to praise BOB—for its success in attracting “corporate clients,” not in creating an “intensely moving experience.” Certainly none of the commenters seemed to notice; unanimously, they addressed the question why Shakespeare is or is not “boring.” (The writer, Steve Burgess, takes exception to a commenter who objected to the use of “sell” and “boring” in the headlines, saying that although he approved the headlines he didn’t write them. No comment necessary, except that he does use “sell,” twice, as well as its synonym “peddle,” which unlike “sell” is actually pejorative.)

BOB, then, is essentially selling Vancouverites a bill of goods. How do they do it? Burgess bases his diagnosis on the production of The Merchant of Venice he saw at BOB. “By rights Shakespeare ought to be a very tough sell in the 21st century. And The Merchant of Venice has always been the toughest bauble to peddle.” Here’s a problem right at the start. Is Burgess arguing that Shakespeare as a whole is “a very tough sell,” as his first sentence says, or that The Merchant of Venice specifically is a very tough sell? The next few paragraphs make the latter argument, but even if they succeed that says nothing about As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Richard III, Othello, or any of the other thirty plays.

Well? Is The Merchant of Venice one tough bauble? I’m afraid Burgess’s discussion is an unmitigated disaster. To give him the benefit of the doubt, it sounds as if he only knows the play from this performance and BOB’s program notes. If so, however, that’s the worst possible reflection on BOB. If the fault is in BOB, not in himself, then coming to praise BOB Burgess buries it. He begins:

In some ways The Merchant of Venice feels remarkably contemporary. With its blend of frothy romantic mix-up and life-or-death drama, it’s a template for the modern date movie. And if your date hates Jews, all the better.

Um, no. The real “template for the modern date movie,” as I’ll show, is Much Ado About Nothing. The “modern date movie” never contains “life-or-death drama”; its whole point is to deny death for ninety or so minutes. As I’ll discuss at length when we get to it, what is so unsettling about The Merchant of Venice, what takes it out of the realm of romantic comedy, is precisely the presence of Shylock, and its genius is precisely the way Shakespeare makes audiences uncomfortable. The “If your date hates Jews” remark is just throwaway snark meant to evade argument, as Burgess’s following paragraphs show:

Shakespeare’s plays are always lauded for their timeless quality, which is why Shylock makes so many Shakespeareans squirm. Any production of Merchant must tiptoe over the same eggshells, making sure that Shylock is sympathetically portrayed to balance his dramatic role as the unchristian villain.

I have trouble even making sense of these two sentences (“the same eggshells” as what?), but I think they mean something like: “Shakespeare is supposed to be ‘timeless,’ but the anti-Semitic characterization of Shylock is either bound to its time, or we are complicit in it.” So in order not to be anti-Semites, we must portray Shylock sympathetically. I have no truck with the idea that Shakespeare is “timeless,” whatever that even means, but put that to one side. There would be no “eggshells” at risk if Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock were sympathetic or, mirabile dictu, combined sympathetic and unsympathetic elements—that is, presented a three-dimensional human being. (And isn’t it just barely possible that such roundness of characterization is a selling point for Shakespeare?)

Amazingly, Burgess sees this: “There’s little doubt that Shakespeare was ahead of his time with his well-rounded and sometimes sympathetic portrayal of Shylock.” End of story, thank you very much, see you next column. Right? Wrong. he continues: “But there’s only so much we can expect of Shakespeare. The man never knew he would someday come to be the global face of the humanities. He just knew he had an audience to please.” So apparently for Burgess, the only way Shakespeare could have written a fully rounded character complete with contradictions would be if he had been looking to his twenty-first-century status as “the global face of the humanities.” His own dramaturgy as he sat at his desk and participated in rehearsals in the 1590s had nothing to do with it. After all, he had pandering to do, which meant Jews to mock:

And for me the proof of the play’s attitude comes at the end of the trial, with Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity. No late 16th-century crowd would have groaned aloud at the hateful injustice of it, as the Vanier Park audience did. The scene was surely intended as a crowd-pleaser—the long-anticipated payoff when the villain finally gets his deliciously just desserts (delivered, tellingly, by the wise, virtuous, utterly un-villainous Portia). It was only in the early 19th century that actor Edmund Keane is said to have played the first sympathetic version of Shylock—previously the role was frequently cast with clowns.

Where to begin, if you know anything at all about this play? If you know anything at all about The Merchant of Venice, you know that the trial scene is ambiguous all the way down; that although it has its “crowd-pleasing” (which here is code for “anti-Semitic Elizabethan crowd-pleasing”) aspects, it also has a level that completely upends the “crowd”’s expectations. Almost the first words out of Portia’s mouth in this scene are “Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?”—an innocent enough question on the face of it, but when you realize that in the original performance Shylock probably wore the red wig that marked a character as a Jew (not a clown wig), you see that Shakespeare is opening a whole other moral universe with that question. Burgess seems to think the only issue is whether Shylock is played sympathetically or not. In fact, Shakespeare is playing on a much bigger board, on which no square is wholly black or wholly white. On the moral level, the whole idea that there is any difference between the merchant and the Jew is called into question. Burgess’s reference to “the wise, virtuous, utterly un-villainous Portia” is a critical tell. Was he napping when Portia said of one of her suitors, the (black) Prince of Morocco, “If he have the condition of a saint and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me than wive me,” and, after he chooses the wrong casket and loses his chance to marry her, “A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go./Let all of his complexion choose me so”? To give him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps BOB cut those lines, but if so that reflects gravely on their judgment. Portia is a racist, far from being “utterly un-villainous,” and to omit that warps the character and Shakespeare’s intentions. The character who utters those lines does not walk into the courtroom “virtuous.” She walks into it a contradictory bundle of attitudes, some of them not so admirable—a human being. Is it too much to suggest that this is what we’re selling in Shakespeare, and that it’s really not that tough a sell –to a thinking person—once you see what it is? Or that the trial scene is indeed a crowd pleaser but that it does something almost nobody even tries to pull off even today—making you question what you are by making you question exactly who you’re identifying with and what you’re laughing at?

One last remark on the discussion of The Merchant of Venice. That last sentence about Shylock being played by clowns? I do know where that comes from. It comes from Wikipedia, which quotes the great Yiddish actor Jacob Adler as claiming that before Edmund Kean “the role had been played ‘by a comedian as a repulsive clown or, alternatively, as a monster of unrelieved evil.’” I can’t evaluate the accuracy of Adler’s theater history (it’s certainly wrong about performances by Shakespeare’s company, where Shylock was played by the superstar Richard Burbage—scroll down further in the Wikipedia article), but he does not say the role was “frequently cast with clowns.” (Note that “frequently,” by the way—it’s Burgess’s way of eliding “as a monster of unrelieved evil,” an entirely different view of the character that doesn’t fit his point.) Really, Adler’s point is not complex enough to require Talmudic exegesis. He’s saying that until Kean, Shylock was generally played as a buffoon or a villain. (Incidentally, Adler was one of the greatest stars of the Yiddish theatre, where he played Shylock and where The Merchant of Venice has been an important fixture. He also played Shylock on Broadway, the only Yiddish-speaking character in an otherwise English-language production. Would Burgess conclude that he was a self-hating Jew?)

As if Burgess senses he hasn’t made his case, he now switches to a mishmash of arguments against Shakespeare we’ve all heard before. First, there’s that oh-so-incomprehensible sixteenth-century language:

But unless your scholastic studies are fresh in your mind or you are a lifelong admirer of the Globe’s resident playwright, any Shakespeare play can be a grind. . . . These are plays written in a language only half understood by untutored 21st century audiences—and the necessary tutoring is nowhere near as common now as it was a half-century ago.

Oh, please. Can we give this one a rest, like, forever? After “Shakespeare is not Dr. Phil,” perhaps my second maxim should be “Shakespeare did not write in Finnish.” The “ language only half understood by untutored 21st century audiences” is English, the very language we still use—and if you don’t believe we use Shakespeare’s English, try Googling “phrases from Shakespeare.” Or, since I just did it for you, check out the first hit. Of course Shakespeare uses words and senses of words that have fallen out of use. But these uses are a hindrance to understanding much less frequently than you might think. Much more often, when you puzzle over a line in Shakespeare, it’s because of some novel use of language that we haven’t even necessarily caught up with. One example that always strikes me is Shakespeare’s free conversion of nouns to verbs—the process by which, in hammier hands, “impact” becomes “impacted upon.” (The moral: Don’t try this at home.) It’s Shakespeare’s freedom and flexibility that give us pause in the age of the bullet point. Is that such a bad thing?

If you really must char this chestnut, then for heaven’s sake give an example of a passage that puzzles you. There’s a very minor conservative pundit named John McWhorter who has snagged some eyeballs with the idea that Shakespeare needs to be translated—again, from the English we use every day. He’s a ninny and a troll, but at least he does quote passages he found incomprehensible in performance (and to give him his due, in his most recent piece he acknowledges that maybe he should have done a little preparation, such as reading the play before seeing it). Given actual examples, we might—gasp!—compare performances and ask whether acting choices make a difference to comprehension. Since, after all, these are plays written by an actor to be performed. McWhorter seems ready to have this conversation, which might actually get us somewhere. Burgess is so busy with snark he doesn’t seem to realize it’s necessary.

But as with so much else these days, for Burgess the problem is with Da Yoof:

Universities in North America have moved away from mandatory study of the Shakespearean canon . . . knowledge of Shakespeare is no longer a given for post-secondary graduates. I suspect there is a sizable minority of university students whose clearest knowledge of Shakespeare is that he slept with Gwyneth Paltrow. . . .

. . . 10 Things I Hate About You surely found a larger and younger audience than a film called Taming of the Shrew would have done.

Ah, those kidz! Those “university students” who watch movies, no doubt pirated from the Internets, instead of reading! Burgess isn’t coming out and saying it, but he’s dog-whistling into the “The Internet is making us stupid” meme.

From the evidence in this post, Burgess just turned 53. To reward you for having read this far, I shall reveal for the first and only time that I am a few years older than that. So he and I are both Boomers. And as a Boomer, may I take the occasion to beg everybody to declare a moratorium on claiming that Da Yoof are stupid, especially because they spend all their time on that wacky Facebook thingamajig ? First, the turn away from the canonical curriculum and Shakespeare started no later than the mid-70s, just about when Burgess was of college age. Shakespeare hasn’t been de rigeur in college for a very long time, though a castor oil feeding is still the norm in primary school. (And why should he be, if he’s as worthless as Burgess thinks? Really, why is he selling anywhere, to anybody?) To single out “university students,” to insinuate that the Internet has turned them into newts, is an argument against Chekhov, Arthur Miller, and Shakespeare in Love—yes, that movie is twelve years old (so is 10 Things I Hate About You), so Da Yoof have probably never even heard of it. This is to condescend to younger people the way Boomers have done since at least the 1980s, when the joke was Da Yoof’s amazement that Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings. The twentysomethings I know, howver, are very smart. I saw one at lunch recently reading Samuel Richardson’s Pamela—for pleasure. If anything, I daresay the Internet is making her smarter.

(To give you a hint about what I think on this subject, it may very well be that “we”—by which is always meant “Americans”—are getting stupider, but that’s not the Internet’s fault. It’s a much more complex development precipitated by the triumph of the business and financial spheres and the consequent triumph of their language. But much more of this later.)

Since “movies have arguably become the primary Shakespearean medium for mass audiences,” presumably BOB has to attach butts to seats by making the plays more like a movie. “Many productions underline the bawdy humour of the plays, this version included, with crotch-grabbing and leering inserted here and there.” Shakespeare was never averse to crotch-grabbing, but since, as Burgess notes, BOB cut Launcelot Gobbo, the character who was played by the clown in Shakespeare’s company, one wonders how appropriately it was worked in here. (In fact, judging from other reviews, the losing suitors were played as out-and-out buffoons, which doesn’t sound promising to me, but of course I did not see the show.) Burgess even seems to agree: “So the broad physical humour can seem forced — compensation for the audience’s incomprehension.”

Well then. A pandering production of a worthless play. Why did “the performance of The Merchant of Venice close[] with long and hearty applause”? Are Vancouverites just stupid? Or did they see an entirely different play, one that engaged their emotions and sense of humor, and presented the relationship between Shylock and the rest of the characters with the double edge Shakespeare put there? If this review, written by someone who actually seems to know what he’s talking about, is anything to go by, the latter. From Colin Thomas’s review it sounds as if the production overstressed the play’s gay aspects (I think it’s fine to show Antonio in love with Bassanio but not to have him reciprocate; I don’t believe Bassanio loves anybody, but we’ll get to that by and by) and made the other suitors rather too comical, but those are issues that could inspire a discussion worth having. I’m sold on the play Thomas saw.

To give Burgess his due, he gets one thing right in the comments. One “Geof” cuts loose with a rebarbative screed—you can read it yourself—about how “interpretation” sucks the “magic” out of art (if I were the Great Gasbag of New Haven I’d tell Geof to go back to Hogwarts; luckily, I am not). He concludes with an observation apparently so important he reposted it separately:

David Simon, creator of The Wire, once commented that Shakespeare is the model for most Western tragedy, which centers on individuals’ tragic flaws. The Wire, he said, follows instead the model of Greek tragedy. It is not the flaws of individuals that bring about their downfall, but the machinations of untouchable gods: and the gods in The Wire are human institutions and bureaucracies. I think Simon is right, that this is is a significant weakness in the dominance of Shakespeare as a model for the world today.

If Simon really said that, he ought to stick to writing scripts and lay off the literary cricitism. As Burgess responds: “the received opinion that I was fed as a youth proclaimed that Greek tragedy was about fatal flaws in individuals, rather than the implacable will of the gods.” That “received opinion,” of course, comes from a fella called Aristotle who was in the best possible position to know, having been around at the time, who in the Poetics, as we all know except David Simon, used Oedipus Tyrannos to explain his view that tragedy was all about the hamartia, or fatal flaw, of an individual. Greek tragedy is not about the gods pulling the wings off human flies. I only wish Burgess had followed through to make the converse point, that Shakespeare deals with the failings of human individuals in the context of the institutions that shape them. I don’t understand how you could watch The Merchant of Venice and not notice that it is the institutions of Venice, including Venetian law, that make Antonio’s and Shylock’s characteristics into flaws. Even more clearly, as I hope has emerged from my posts though I’ve never put it in so many words, Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy precisely because the institutions of Verona will never let them love. Finally, among the libraries of books about Shakespeare (rivaling Borges’s Library), there’s at least one full of books about Shakespeare and Justice—and if that isn’t institutional, I don’t know what is.

Enough negativity! To get us back on track, next or soon I’ll have a post about some truly inspiring Shakespeare activities. And the next post on Romeo and Juliet takes in what may be the most achingly beautiful love duet in our language. I guess it’s too antiquated for Burgess to understand, but try speaking it with your love and see what happens.

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