Friday, January 7, 2011

Merchant of Venice & Some Continued Thoughts on the Mark Twain Debate

“The Holocaust made and makes ‘The Merchant of Venice’ unplayable, at least in what appear to be its own terms.” Pretty much every major staging of “Merchant” during the past 60 years has been ruled by “the Shylock problem,” forcing the romantic comedy around him to seem both secondary and sour.-Harold Bloom

 My boyfriend and I went to the Daniel Sullivan production of The Merchant Of Venice last night. We enjoyed every minute of it. Al Pacino as Shylock was perfection. But as we left the theater, the Mark Twain/NewSouth publishing debacle was on both of our minds.

The Merchant of Venice arguably contains the most famously provocative Jewish personage in the whole of the literary canon. Shakespeare's portrayal of Shylock is an inherently uncomfortable one. Throughout the play, Shylock, the money lender and narrative cog, is bombarded with anti-semitic remarks.

That said, what seems base and one dimensional to us now, would have been revelatory in 1596 when the play was written. In the Elizabethan age, the depiction of the archetypal 'Jewish villain' was an established meme. The Jewish were the characters that audiences 'loved to hate'. So that when Shakespeare wrote the part of Shylock, he was aiming to create not a stereotype but a nuanced portrayal of a character.

"While he perpetuated received notions of Jews, Shakespeare also did an extraordinary thing for an Elizabethan playwright: He created a Jewish character who was flawed, and human, and oppressed by the Christians surrounding him."- Masterpiece Theatre

The production we saw staged last night definitely does not shy away from the anti-semitic, incendiary content of the original text. As audience, we were forced to consider the context of the writing--  although we squirmed in the court room scene for Portia and for Shylock.

My boyfriend worries that if NewSouth begins to simply take out troubling material from an author's original text, it opens the proverbial floodgates. Who's to decide what is too controversial and where do you lay down the line. For sure, the religious persecution of Shylock at the hands of Antonio made his character complex and added texture to the viewing of the production.

That said, I'm not sure my experience reading Huckleberry Finn would be altered by merely taking out one word and trading it for a less derogatory one. It's impossible to read Huckleberry Finn without talking about racial persecution at the time of Twain's writing.

"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is No. 4 on the list of most banned books in schools, according to Banned in the USA by Herbert Foerstal. Surely, it's better to read the book, and have those issues raised, than to go without the book and simply ignore them.

No one's suggesting that every edition be altered. But, Twain originally meant for Tom Sawyer and Hucklberry Finn to be read as one work. Surely, denying readers the opportunity to read the works in tandem is just as much of a creative affront.

Tom Sawyer without Huckleberry Finn is simply a kid-hero. Huckleberry Finn brings nuance to Tom's character, I would argue, just as Shakespeare brought to his Shylock. Think about it peoples.

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