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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Of Shakespeare and Radical Agendas

My Shakespeare book club met yesterday to discuss The Merchant of Venice. After talking about the play and its topical allusions to events of the day, i.e., executions of the Jesuit martyr Robert Southwell for being a Catholic priest and Elizabeth's Jewish physician for allegedly plotting her murder, etc. we watched the film version of the play with Al Pacino as Shylock and Jeremy Irons as Antonio (2004).

Appalling is too tame a word to describe what the director, Michael Radford, did to Shakespeare's script although many modern critics celebrated the film which made Shylock the hero and the Christians the villains. It as an anti-Christian, pro-homosexual rant that twisted Shakespeare in every which way to meet Radford's own perverse, modern agenda which was apparently to turn Shylock into a tragic hero and cast the Christians as the devilish demons and Jew persecutors.

The movie began with a scrolling montage about the ill treatment of Jews in Venice who were "imprisoned" in the ghetto at night with locked bars and guards. How true was this? There certainly was a ghetto area in Venice and many Jews from around the continent came to live there. Here's what an article in Smithsonian Magazine says about it:
The Jews had been working in the city for centuries, but it was the first time that they were allowed to have their own quarter. By that time’s standards it was a strong concession and was negotiated by the Jews themselves. After a heated debate, on March 29, the Senate proclaimed this area as the site of the Ghetto. The decision had nothing to do with modern notions of tolerance. Up until then, individual [Jewish] merchants were allowed to operate in the city, but they could not have their permanent residence there. But by ghettoizing them, Venice simultaneously included and excluded the Jews.
Another article described (from a document of the time) how the local Christians warned the Jews about burglars. The Christian guards at the gates were actually paid by the Jews. So, while discrimination was certainly a reality, not only in Venice, but everywhere at that time, the situation was a little more complicated than presented by Radford. And the ghetto was certainly not a prison devised by the Christians as he presented it.

What is less complicated was Radford's dishonesty. He changed scene locations, made Shylock the center of the play even closing it with a scene where he was locked out of the ghetto for becoming a Christian, and added so much bare-breasted nudity and homosexual allusions that they became a serious distraction. I'll just give a few examples.

Almost every scene in the streets of Venice had a balcony filled with prostitutes with their breasts fully exposed. In one scene with a close up of a conversation between two characters in the foreground, two bare-breasted women stood in the background in full view -- a totally extraneous distraction. This is certainly not a film you'd want your children to see!

The Christians were continually presented as debauched gluttons. In one, Shylock, who has made it clear he will not eat and drink with Christians is present at the table with a glass of wine eyeing the Christians around him (clearly he is the moral one present) as they drink and glut while simultaneously fondling the breasts of their prostitutes. In view of Bassanio's testimony to Antonio that he had repented of his previous profligate life and was turning over a new leaf, this scene was a complete repudiation. And as a side note, the Jews throughout were all dressed neatly, while many of the Christians were slovenly and unkempt.

I think Shakespeare would describe
Michael Radford's interpretation of The
Merchant of Venice
with Lorenzo's line,
"How every fool can play upon a word!"

Act III, scene v
It just went on and on. There is one scene in the play where Lorenzo comes to take away and marry Jessica, Shylock's daughter, who has determined to become a Christian. The characters are all wearing masks and Jessica is dressed like a boy and ready to be Lorenzo's torch bearer. No problem. But Radford apparently thought grotesque masks a commentary on the grotesqueness of Christians since they kept popping up in other scenes as well.

As for Antonio, a figure Shakespeare linked to the recently executed Robert Southwell, a Jesuit priest and canonized saint (who may have been a distant relation of Shakespeare's), he was a pathetic woeful figure pining for Bassanio's love. The initial scene where Bassanio asks Antonio to loan him the money to finance his pilgrimage to Belmont to win "fair Portia" takes place in the street according to Shakespeare. Radford moves it into Antonio's home where two of his fat Christian friends are eating and drinking. Antonio looks out the window at Bassanio arriving by gondola and you already get the sense that the relationship is more than two male friends. Ah that wistful, pining look. But Radford wants to make sure you aren't too dumb to miss his homosexual message so he rubs your face in it. After the friends leave, Antonio takes Bassanio into his bedroom where Bassanio immediately reclines on the bed  to make his appeal. (Has he been in that bed before?) The friends seal the agreement with a kiss on the mouth.

This is certainly not Shakespeare!

I absolutely hated the movie although I watched to the end fascinated (like a moth around a flame) by the dishonesty and hypocrisy of Radford's portrayal. It's no surprise, of course. Hollywood tends to corrupt everything decent it touches.

Let me tell you my interpretation of The Merchant of Venice and what I think Shakespeare was saying and who Antonio and Shylock were.

St. Robert Southwell, English martyr
In Elizabethan England many Catholic priests were entering the country disguised as "merchants" and being executed for treason when they were discovered. Robert Southwell's recent torture and execution could not have been far from Shakespeare's mind.  In the first lines of the play, Antonio tells of his sadness. He dismisses his friends' suggestions that he is sad because of worries over his ships and other material pursuits.

For my part, I see his sadness echoed in the prayers at the foot of the altar in the Latin Mass, a Mass that had been outlawed in England. Was Shakespeare ever an altar boy? Did he know the prayers of the Mass by heart? We know his father was a recusant and there is strong evidence that Shakespeare retained the faith. So he would have been more than familiar with the priest's prayer, "...why hast thou cast me off? and why go I sorrowful whilst the enemy afflicteth me?...why art thou sad, O my soul? and why dost thou disquiet me?" Antonio's sadness is a spiritual one. How could a Catholic not be sad over the state of the country, polluted by the debauchery of Henry VIII and his raping of the Church. (Perhaps that's why it was set in Venice, one of the richest and most debauched cities in Europe.) Shakespeare further associates Antonio with Robert Southwell when he tells Bassanio to "Try what my credit can in Venice do. That shall be racked even to the uttermost." Southwell's "credit" of sanctity showed forth in brilliant relief as he was tortured and racked by Elizabeth's notorious henchman, Richard Topcliffe.

Which brings me to Shylock. The Puritans at that time were sworn enemies of the Catholics and were more Jewish in their beliefs than Protestant. In fact, the Puritans also practiced usury and were, according to Shakespeare scholar Joseph Pearce, called "Christian Jews."  Topcliffe, Elizabeth's spy and Catholic hunter, was a Puritan and determined to eradicate the Catholic faith from England.  Antonio's disgust for Shylock is not primarily because Shylock is a Jew, but because he is a usurer. That is also the primary issues with Shylock who makes it clear describing his hatred for the merchant because he "brings down the rate of interest" by loaning money gratis. Of course, he also hates him because he is a Christian and is determined to see him dead. Topcliffe personified!

The Merchant of Venice is no vehicle for attacking the Jewish race. Rather it presents one Jewish "devil" (If I'm correct, the dramatic representation of the satanic Topcliffe) whose hatred knows no bounds and who is determined to kill his Christian opponent by taking flesh closest to the heart, an allusion, perhaps, to the practice of disembowling and removing the hearts of the condemned Catholic priests.

The Merchant of Venice is a wonderful play and one of Shakespeare's most Catholic. The entire Act V can only be properly understood in light of the Catholic celebration of the Easter Vigil The Easter Exsultet  which opens the ceremony is clearly represented in the opening exchange between Jessica and Lorenzo with the repetition of "In such a night as this...."

The season of Lent is a good time to read The Merchant of Venice and reflect on our call to leave the materialism of the world (Venice) and pilgrimage to the city on a hill (Belmont). Shakespeare is no useless dead white poet with nothing to teach us. He illustrates the importance of remaining faithful despite the ravening wolves like modern Topcliffes, "roaming about the world seeking the destruction of souls" and determined to wipe Christianity from the face of the earth.


landshark said...

"Hollywood tends to corrupt everything decent it touches."

Michael Radford is a Jew, so no surprise here. Wasn't the MOV was about Jewish usury?

Mary Ann Kreitzer said...

Yes. In fact G.K. Chesterton wrote an essay on the character of Shylock explaining that most critics misunderstand the play and compares it to trying to talk about Macbeth without mentioning the word murder. He also describes Shakespeare's sympathy for Shylock. He portrays him not as a monster but as a man who perfectly accepts usury as normal. We have lost the sense of the evils of usury in our own times. I think of it every time I see one of those "payday loan" shops that will gladly take a person's car title for collateral and later his car. Usury in our culture is so normal that no one even mentions it any more. People like George Soros have made a fortune on usury as have many of the modern banking magnates. I don't totally understand it, but found an article that I want to study. Chesterton wrote an entire book about it and it's the only book I've ever read by him where he sounds angry from start to finish. Here's a link to the article.