Proving Shylock Right—Or Wrong

ShylockThe first thing that usually pops into anybody’s mind when Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice comes up is the cardboard stereotyped Jew Shylock. After Auschwitz, we cannot slip into enjoying this caricature the way earlier audiences might have if so inclined. On the contrary, we are apt to dismiss the play now that we realize how lethal such stereotyping can be. The second thing about the play that usually comes to mind is Portia’s set of three boxes where it is not the gold or silver covers that lead to her riches, but the unattractive lead cover. Appearances can be misleading and so perhaps it will be worth looking for what is beneath the ugly stereotyping.

It’s hard to find any gold under the ugly exterior of Shylock’s behavior, but it is equally hard to find any gold under the apparently more attractive exterior of Antonio’s behavior. Antonio is noble in that he is willing to give surety to a loan for his friend Bassanio, thus accepting the risk, but the way he treats Shylock is shameful. In one respect, Shylock is offering to do good to an enemy, but in another, he is hoping that the interest-free loan will lead to Antonio’s downfall by the extraction of a pound of flesh. It is important to realize that both men are mimetic doubles, rivals in the quest for increasing wealth for the sake of wealth.

In Shylock’s famous speech, when he is taken to task for his vengeful terms, he insists he is exactly the same kind of man as any of his Gentile rivals:  “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” Which is what would happen to Antonio if a pound of flesh is cut out of him. “If you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.” Shylock’s detractors are trying to distinguish themselves from Shylock because they are merciful, but mercy is conspicuously lacking in their treatment of Shylock.

Meanwhile, Bassanio is often thought to have proven himself wise by choosing the lead casket, which wins him the hand of Portia in marriage. The speech he makes before making the choice, however, shows that he is not wise by cunning and calculating in his own desire for wealth. “Thus ornament is but the guiled shore/To a most dangerous sea.” Bassanio is so used to disseminating that dissemination is what he expects of Portia. And he is right.

The famous trial scene features Portia’s famous praise of mercy: “The quality of mercy is not strain’d,/It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.” This is as golden a speech as any in Shakespeare. But—mercy is—again!—lacking in dealing with Shylock. By the end of the trial, he has lost his wealth, his livelihood and his religion. Portia’s words seem to echo Ecclesiasticus 35:20: “Mercy is seasonable in the time of affliction as clouds of rain in the time of drought.”  But her actions belie the beautiful words, thus proving Shylock right when he says that when wronged, Christians revenge—just like Shylock. Unfortunately, we have a golden casket with nothing rich inside. The words, however, really are golden and invite any of us who rejoice in Shylock’s downfall to open our hearts to accept this gift from heaven.

Mimetic Laughter

outsideSupper1Laughter is one of the more pleasant things in life, but is it just a frill? In his book The Phantom of the Ego,” Nidesh Lawtoo discusses the importance Georges Bataille attached to laughter for the emerging consciousness of a newborn child. Laughter is one of the first things a baby learns in imitation of a mother, father, or other caregiver. So it is that laughter comprises the first bond a newborn child makes. Interactions with babies may seem silly, something to be transcended with intellectual maturity and so we don’t value laughing with babies.

At its best, laughter is spontaneous and infectious. How many times do we laugh without knowing why, just because other people are laughing? When children are laughing helplessly as part of playing, happiness spreads to everyone around them. We don’t want to be left out of the joke, even if we don’t know what it is. Just think of some of our best times when we laughed with family and friends with no other reason than we were together and we got caught up in laughter.

There is a darker side to laughter, however. Actually it is a darker side of us and our mimetic desires, rather than a darker side of laughter. Often laughter is used to wound others, to score points against others, to put others down to lift ourselves up. Almost as soon as they learn how to speak, small children use laughter in this way. School playgrounds are filled with this sort of thing. Children learn all this from their elders, of course. Just as they imitated the spontaneous laughter of those around them as infants, they imitate the cruel humor that surrounds them as they grow older. Unfortunately, children usually learn this mode of laughter through being shamed by adults who think ridicule is a good way to train children for the hard knocks of life. Laughter continues to be a bond between people, but it is a bonding at the expense of someone, a butt of jokes, a victim.

When he discourages laughter as a sign of pride, St. Benedict certainly had this darker side of laughter in mind, although it is possible that he had a blind spot for the value of spontaneous, bonding laughter. Certainly, when laughter is a put-on act to gain attention, it is the opposite of spontaneous and it is a prideful act, an act seeking to dominate by drawing attention to oneself at the expense of others. I discuss this at length in my book Tools for Peace.

We get so habituated to using laughter as a weapon instead of a bond of love that we hardly know what the latter is. One way back is to use the wit we acquire to learn to laugh at ourselves and help others laugh at themselves. At its best, a comedy does just that. In Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” discussed in an earlier post, laughter is used as a means to overcome mimetic triangles and tensions and bring reconciliation. Shakespeare does this sort of thing masterly in comedies such as “Twelfth Night” and “As You like It.” In “The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare sets a trap for the unwary, leading us into joining the persecution of Shylock before unmasking this derisory laughter for what it is.

Life is too serious and awesome a thing to be left to sourpusses who always want to be on top of somebody else. We all need heavy doses of spontaneous, selfless laughter shared with others.

 

The Need for New Hearts: an Advent Meditation

wreckedTrees1The traditional apocalyptic Advent themes of Death/Judgment/Heaven/Hell fuse in the recent mass shootings, especially the one at Sandy Hook School in Connecticut. A traumatic event like this at this time of year gives us occasion to wonder about the end of the world.

In a memorable poem, Robert Frost mused over whether the world will end in fire or ice. His first thought is that from what he has “tasted of desire,” he holds with “those who favor fire.” The violence of shooting deaths and terrorist attacks is filled with gunfire, suggesting that we should favor fire. René Girard has warned us that with the breakdown of the scapegoating mechanism as a way to hold a violent society together, we run the risk of apocalyptic violence spinning out of control. (See Violence and the Kingdom of God and Human See, Human Want.)

But Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar questions how fiery this violence really is. The opening rebuke of the people: “You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things” applies to all of the characters in the play. The ominous oracle of the beast without a heart provides the play’s central image. The heartless violence that drives the plot from civil war to assassination to civil war is all as cold as blocks and stones as well as senseless.

The violence of mass killings and terrorist attacks is frigid.  Frost says he thinks he knows enough of hate to know “that for destruction ice/Is also great/And would suffice.” The powerful understatement is all the more chilling.

There is another way the world could end in ice than cold, heartless violence. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, warns us that our modern economy creates victims through indifference. We literally do not know what we are doing. The final story in my book From Beyond to Here, “Buyer of Hearts,” explores an apocalyptic of ice and indifference. Danny Melton, a boy already bummed out because his father has left the family, suddenly begins to see ghosts floating around the school. He becomes all the more creeped out when he discovers that the people are still alive in the flesh, although “living and partly living,” in the words of T.S. Eliot, is more like Danny discovers that many of his classmates and teachers have sold their hearts for large sums of money. The selling and buying of heart gains more and more momentum as more and more people become hopelessly depressed over what is happening to their families and friends. My story, Dupuy’s warning, and Frost’s poem show us that God gives us humans the responsibility let God create new hearts within us to keep the world from ending “not with a bang, but a whimper.”