Archive for the ‘‘Culture’’ Category
If it weren’t for the ending, I would like this play a lot better. As it is, it has its moments of brilliance, particularly Portia’s ridiculing of her past suitors and Shylock’s famous speech. The romantic subplot is side-lined, generating little tension. The idea that no one thought to pick the lead casket strains credulity. And maybe it’s just me, but the sidekicks — who usually generate much of Shakespear’s humor — seem subdued. But, all in all, this is a typical entry into the cannon — quotable, fun and a fast read.
Until, that is, Act IV.
Maybe it’s because I’m Jewish but the ending of this play infuriates me. Shylock is deprived of a perfectly reasonable debt by a legal theory that wouldn’t water in a kangaroo court administered by someone who, technically speaking, has no legal authority. The logic used to defeat Shylock — that he could not get a pound of flesh without spilling blood — easily destroys Portia’s argument that he tried to kill a Venetian. A more typical twist of this would be to have Portia’s argument used to threaten the hero, then to have him rescued by a wiser ruling. But, of course, the entire court scene is a farce, degenerating quickly into an excuse to impoverish, humiliate and convert Shylock, a character I find unsympathetic and deserving of a comeuppance, but not one as arbitrary and total as the one he gets.
That, of course, brings me to the big question about this play: is The Merchant of Venice anti-semitic? Well, there’s a good case to be made that it is. Jews and Judaism are denounced repeatedly. The hero of the play admits to abusing and spitting on Shylock. The happy ending has both Shylock and Jessica converting to Christianity and there is zero irony or ambivalence about it. To the extent that there is sympathy for Shylock — his famous speech — it still regards his religion as more of a tragic flaw. Othello the Moor’s religion was treated with more respect than this.
Historically, the role was played was little sympathy until modern times. The fact that the role can be made sympathetic has less to do with any subconscious sympathy in the writer and more to do a key factor of Shakespeare’s enduring brilliance: the ability of the plays to resonate in any context or performance. The Taming of the Shrew still appeals when converted into a teen comedy; Macbeth is still compelling even, as my Twitter friends discussed, he’s a vet with PTSD; and Shylock can be made into a sympathetic character. This happens because Shakespeare spoke to deep needs, fears and emotions. This happens because all of his characters and plots are multi-layered. This happens because he was Shakespeare.
(Defenders claim Shylock is vilified and humiliated more for his greed and usury than his religion. Apart from ignoring the plain text, this misses the context. Banking was synonymous with European Jews in the last millenium because Christians tought charging interest was sinful. Since Jews were going to hell anyway and were barred from most other professions, they naturally became bankers. And it wasn’t long before the caricature of the greedy Jew arose. So vilifying Shylock for usury and greed, in the Elizabethan Era, isn’t that far from vilifying him for his faith.)
In the comments on one play, I noted arguments I had in college over Chaucer’s “Prioress’ Tale”. The Prioress’s Tale is clearly anti-semitic but my professor and my class bent over backward to pretend that it was really mocking anti-semitism. I countered that their desperation to prove Chaucer was free of or wasn’t exploiting any anti-semitic feeling was a form of modern chauvinism. Chaucer didn’t invent anti-semitism. He was a man of his time, born into a country that had expelled Jews and regarded them as intrinsically evil. Anti-semitism would be as natural for a man of 14th century England as racism was or a man of the 19th. His writing is just as brilliant if he were anti-semitic than if he weren’t. In fact, the Prioress’s tale is quite well-told, for being a blood libel story.
Shakespeare didn’t invent anti-semitism and, to my knowledge, it doesn’t appear in any other works. And it’s likely that, like Chaucer, his use of a Jew as the villain more to do with is culture that any particular feeling of his. But the disdain for Jews and Judaism by the heroes of Merchant is unmistakable. Why should we refuse to accept that he might have accepted the same things about Jews that everyone else did?
Frankly, the beliefs of artists don’t really bother me. There are many modern artists who embraced the murderous soul-crushing evil of communism. There are many who have embraced racism, anti-semitism, anti-Islamism, sexism and any other form of bigotry you care to nominate. We shouldn’t ignore the brilliant things they make when they are not irreparably tainted. Shakespeare is the greatest writer in history. Merchant of Venice is a great play. That Shakespeare might have bought into the common and official belief that Jews were evil does not change that.
Next Up: As You Like It
I’m sure wiser heads have commented on this, but I was struck by something while watching Tron: Legacy the other night: the growing influence of minimalism in American movie soundtracks.
Let me back up a bit. In the early 90′s, I saw an outstanding documentary called The Thin Blue Line. Errol Morris, who is the film-maker Michael Moore wishes he were, made a compelling case that an innocent man was on death row — such a compelling case that he was released a year later.
One of the great things about the film is the score, which was put together by minimalist composer Phillip Glass. At the time, I had no idea what minimalist music was. When I first heard the name, I assumed it was what it sounded like — an orchestra where the violin would play one note, the trumpet would play another and that would be it: a more upbeat version of Cage’s silence. But minimalism is more complex than that. And Glass’s score, with its emphasis on rhythm and harmony at the exclusion of melody, was perfect for the movie. It gave an unusual urgency to the narrative and the increasing complexity of the harmony emphasized the increasing complexity of the story you were required to believe to conclude that Randall Dale Adams was guilty.
Glass did another score for The Hours which was very similar — his music all begins to sound alike after a while. But it also elevated that movie, especially the scene where Julianne Moore hallucinates that the room is flooding.
So, back to Tron. Daft Punk’s score is very good and also very minimalist. It is built on a handful of leit motifs with lots of repetition, increasing complexity and changing emphasis. It gives the film almost all of its energy and drive. But Tron is not unique. Inception had a very minimalistic score. Doctor Who uses a fair amount of minimalism. Both Batman movies use a lot of minimalism. Hans Zimmer, in particular, has been driving the minimalist train for several years with dramatic success.
So why is minimalism so big now? I think because it is well-suited to the kind of entertainment we’re seeing — fast-paced, quickly-edited, quick moving films that have little time for symphonic scores. They need a score that moves the movie, rather than emphasizes it. This is especially true of science fiction and fantasy films where a minimalist score can match the “techie” look and feel.
That’s not to slam symphonic scores like those of John Williams, whose epic scores for the three Star Wars prequels were the best things about them. Howard Shore’s score for Lord of the Rings, with its strong Wagnerian influence, is wonderful. But the palette has now broadened to the point where a minimalist score can not only be acceptable, but one of the best scores of the year.
We’re in a golden age of movie scores. If only the scripts could keep up.
“And yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together now-a-days; the more the pity that some honest neighbors will not make them friends.” – Bottom
What can I say about A Midsummer Night’s Dream that has not already been said? It is (so far) the best of the comedies. Some of the lesser comedies drag on a bit (at least on the page) and I have to will myself to finish. Every time I read Dream, I fly through it, delighted with everything I’m reading — every plot twist, every beautiful turn of phrase, every word. Not a character or scene is wasted. By the time I reach the end, I feel like I’ve rushed through the story.
I did notice one thing this time around, something I’m noticing when I read plays that I read previously in high school or college: the characters with whom I identify the most has changed. The first time I read Dream, my favorite character was Puck. But this time, I found myself in far more sympathy with Bottom, the little man who so dreams of being big. The play at the end, which previously annoyed me, now seems almost poignant.
(As an aside, the 1999 film version of this play is quite serviceable. Kevin Klein, Stanley Tucci and Michelle Pfeiffer all show a wonderful ease with the material, eschewing the usual overdramatic intonation that tends to characterize bad Shakespeare productions. It’s not great, but it’s very watchable.)
Next Up: Merchant of Venice
I tried, but I just couldn’t get into this one. Maybe it’s because my reading was spread over many weeks; maybe it’s because I was reading it while tired. Or maybe it’s because it’s a very “in” play with contemporaneous references that aren’t as relevant today. I was frequently thanking the heavens for the Kindle’s ability to look up words with a click. Shakespeare’s other plays have aged well, but this one just hasn’t.
There was some stuff I enjoyed. Some wordplay was clever and the character of Berowne was good. But it was just missing something. Situations that should have been clever — Costard mixing up the letters, the overlapping overheard conversations, the attempts by the men to conceal their feelings — just washed over me. The games the women played at the end — games played so well in, say, Merry Wives of Windsor just seemed cruel and arbitrary. And then it end up in the air.
Humph. Maybe Love’s Labours Won would have redeemed it. In fact, the whole thing plays like a prelude to the possibly apocryphal second play. Unfortunately, we don’t have that play. So we’re stuck with one of the weaker comedies.
Up Next: A Midsummer Night’s
Sex Comedy Dream. One of his best.
I’m at a conference. It stimulates my curiosity. Expects lots of links:
For it so falls out That what we have we prize not to the worth whiles we enjoy it, but being lack’d and lost, why, then we rack the value, then we find the virtue that possession would not show us whiles it was ours.
Much Ado is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays and would fight it out with Midsummer Night’s Dream for the title of favorite comedy (Puck has a good right hook). Everything works. The drama is strong, the characters vivid. The dialogue between Benedick and Beatrice sizzles on the page and explodes in performance. They even made a good movie out of it, Keanu Reeves not withstanding.
One element that jumped out at me on a second reading was the critical scene after the failed wedding. Leonato immediately denounces his own daughter, then turns 180 degrees and promises to kill those who slandered her. He is so mortally obsessed with his honor, he almost single-handedly changes this comedy into a tragedy. One could easily see it careening off to having all the leads dead by their own or others’ hands. All because Leonato’s outrage sways with every wind that blows.
What saves the action is the Friar, a part not commented on very much. It is he who suggests delaying rash action until the truth is known. It is he who comes up with the plan to provoke Claudio’s remorse by faking Hero’s death. He literally saves everyone. It’s been pointed out that the only men who survive Hamlet are a student and a soldier. Interesting that the only man in Much Ado who retains hold of his senses is a man of God.
One much-commented upon aspect of the play is the War between the Sexes, as best embodied by Balthazar’s song about the nature of men (which Branagh notably selected as the first words of his marvelous film adaptation). I’ve been recently following the debate between Dan Savage and others about the feasibility of monogamy. Savage has been advocating that people unsuited to it would be better off if they tolerated relationships that are, in his words, “monogamish”: where the occasional infidelity is tolerated so long as the primary relationship is respected and maintained (this being common for much of history). Shakespeare, being an Elizabethan, embraces the idea that men should abandon the “masculine” temperament for sleeping around for the “feminine” temperate of settling down (I’ve described Hollywood versions of this as the Male Maturity Movie). He also embraces the madonna/whore duality and tight control of female sexuality that was so prevalent in his day and has been so damaging to Western thought.
I’m not game to impose modern attitudes on him and pretend that he’s mocking these attitudes: he clearly isn’t. The thread runs through all of his plays. But Much Ado is a great play built on this essential conflict in the natures of men and women and the incompatibility of those natures with societal strictures.
Somewhere, my old English teacher just had an orgasm.
Next Up: Love’s Labours Lost