Shakespeare and the 500th anniversary of the Venice Ghetto: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

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He did a little bleeding himself. (Photo: Bachrach)

Harvard Prof. Stephen Greenblatt‘s grandparentsparents were Lithuanian Jews from tsarist Russia, who settled in Boston. “But the heavy Talmudic volumes left a residue, an inherited respect for textual interpretation that—reshaped into secularized form—led people like me to embrace the humanities, an arena in which the English Department held pride of place,” he writes. But sometimes what we embrace doesn’t embrace us back, and he remembers the poignant shock of discrimination at the all-male Yale College when he was a freshman:

I had a particularly intense engagement with my freshman English-literature course. Midway through the year, the professor asked me if I would be interested in being his research assistant, helping him prepare the index for a book he had just completed. Ecstatic, I immediately agreed. In those days, research assistants were required to apply for their jobs through the financial-aid office, where I dutifully made an appointment. I was in for a surprise.

“Greenblatt is a Jewish name, isn’t it?” the financial-aid officer said. I agreed that it was. “Frankly,” he went on, “we are sick and tired of the number of Jews who come into this office after they’re admitted and try to wheedle money out of Yale University.” I stammered, “How can you make such a generalization?”

“Well, Mr. Greenblatt,” he replied, “what do you think of Sicilians?” I answered that I didn’t think I knew any Sicilians. “J. Edgar Hoover,” he continued, citing the director of the F.B.I., “has statistics that prove that Sicilians have criminal tendencies.” So, too, he explained, Yale had statistics that proved that a disproportionate number of Jewish students were trying to get money from the university by becoming research assistants. Then he added, “We could people this whole school with graduates of the Bronx High School of Science, but we choose not to do so.” Pointing out lamely that I had gone to high school in Newton, Massachusetts, I slunk away without a job.

Thus begins Greenblatt’s brilliant, moving essay, “Shakespeare’s Cure for Xenophobia,” his exploration of identity, the 500th anniversary of the Venice ghetto (it was last year), and … inevitably, William Shakespeare, for Greenblatt is one of the foremost Shakespeare scholars of our era.

Al Pacino as Shylock in 2004 film.

From The New Yorker: “We arrive in the world only partially formed; a culture that has been in the making for hundreds of thousands of years will form the rest. And that culture will inevitably contain much that is noxious as well as beneficent. No one is exempt—not the Jew or the Muslim, of course, but also not the Cockney or the earl or the person whose ancestors came to America on the Mayflower or, for that matter, the person whose ancestors were Algonquins or Laplanders. Our species’ cultural birthright is a mixed blessing. It is what makes us fully human, but being fully human is a difficult work in progress. Though xenophobia is part of our complex inheritance—quickened, no doubt, by the same instinct that causes chimpanzees to try to destroy members of groups not their own—this inheritance is not our ineluctable fate. Even in the brief span of our recorded history, some five thousand years, we can watch societies and individuals ceaselessly playing with, reshuffling, and on occasion tossing out the cards that both nature and culture have dealt, and introducing new ones.”

That brings him to an exploration of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, and the queasy, ambivalent feeling of watching it as a Jew. Surprise! Greenblatt writes: everyone feels that way. The play is designed to make you feel that way. The Bard regularly gets carried away by one or another of his characters who “steal the show,” so to speak. Think of Falstaff, Caliban, or Lady Macbeth. Who is, after all, the title character of the play? Antonio? … or Shylock?

Ideologies of various kinds contrive to limit our ability to enter into the experience of another, and there are works of art that are complicit in these ideologies. More generous works of art serve to arouse, organize, and enhance that ability. Shakespeare’s works are a living model not because they offer practical solutions to the dilemmas they so brilliantly explore but because they awaken our awareness of the human lives that are at stake.

What Shakespeare bequeathed to us offers the possibility of an escape from the mental ghettos most of us inhabit.

He never met a wall he liked.

Shakespeare apparently went out of his way to learn about Jews in Venice – England had expelled its Jews in 1290 – yet he couldn’t quite grasp the notion of the ghetto, which is curiously AWOL from his play. The more multicultural, cosmopolitan atmosphere in Venice intrigued him, however. The contemporary English audiences of his plays would have been shocked not by the restrictions on the Jews in Venice, but the openness with which they participated in Venetian society.

But the same Shakespeare who did not grasp that a ghetto existed in Venice had no patience with walls, real or imaginary, and, even in a play consumed with religious and ethnic animosity, he tore them down.

He did so not by creating a lovable alien—his Jew is a villain who connives at legal murder—but by giving Shylock more theatrical vitality, quite simply more urgent, compelling life, than anyone else in his world has.

Read the whole thing here. And watch Shakespeare’s greatest statement on immigration and xenophobia below (we wrote about it here).


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