For contemporary Jewish readers, the problem text of the English literary tradition remains Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, a late 16th-century comedy about usury. What other text holds such uneasy relevance, alongside its potential to trouble its viewers and critics? Most of us are not Shakespeareans, so we watch from the sidelines as the drama critics, theorists and artistic directors agree to disagree about how to read and stage the play.
In this handsomely printed edition, Canada’s parliamentary poet laureate, George Elliott Clarke, enters the fray with his The Merchant of Venice (Retried). Clarke, whose reputation in scholarly and literary circles is closely tied to his writing about the lives of African-Canadians in the Atlantic provinces, brings unique skills to the project. A polymath – poet, dramatist, teacher and critic – Clarke is also a veteran player in efforts to make poetry a relevant part of our daily lives.
From 2012 until 2015, he was the poet laureate of Toronto. His two-year post as the country’s parliamentary poet laureate runs until the end of this year. In that role, he is expected to raise poetry’s profile in the capital, while writing poems at the request of parliamentarians, or out of his own sense of pressing national themes (Leonard Cohen’s death inspired one).
So what sort of poetic heavy lifting does Clarke bring to Shakespeare’s play? He leaves the bones of the play intact, including its initial mercenary deal between Shylock and the merchant, Antonio (it’s easy to mistakenly think the title refers to Shylock, but Antonio is in fact the merchant of Venice, while Shylock is simply “a Jew.”)
Clarke’s Merchant (Retried) highlights the romances among the younger characters and includes a truncated version of Shylock’s often quoted “Hath not a Jew” speech, the most familiar passage from a play, known more for its themes, than for its language.
Clarke places this scene, as does Shakespeare, at the play’s midpoint, when Shylock complains of being, “Disqualified by Jewish birth, unfit/ Because I’m a Jew, and mustn’t protest,/ But grin at wrongs as do blackamoor slaves./Hath not a Jew a heart and head, Passion/ And Reason? And hath not a Jew desires/ And graces, wants and gifts? You imagine/ Inhumane and inhuman. Untrue.”
The speech’s analogy to “blackamoor slaves” is Clarke’s own addition, though critics highlight Shylock’s courtroom provocation later in the play, regarding the Venetian trade in “purchas’d” slaves. “Let them be free,” Shylock asserts, “marry them to your heirs.”
Clarke highlights Shakespeare’s interest in colonial markets, the slave trade and the interactions between Moors and Europeans. This approach, along with sharp-witted, colloquial references to interracial relations, lends The Merchant of Venice (Retried) a timely feel.
But one of the resonant questions regarding The Merchant of Venice is what, if anything, the play has to tell us about the position of Jews in European history and daily life. Clarke’s manner of “retrying” the play dodges this problem. The Merchant of Venice (Retried) highlights comic possibilities – it is even game for a bit of burlesque humour. But the deeper, darker themes associated with Shakespeare’s presentation of “the Jew” fall by the wayside. (Jews themselves have wondered about these things, as can be seen from the translations of the play into Yiddish and its popularity on the Yiddish stage).
Clarke’s Shylock does not demand his “pound of flesh” from his merchant debtor, but asserts instead a “nick” to Antonio’s neck. “You are bound,” Shylock pronounces, “bonded – to the guillotine.”
Shylock’s insistence on an extreme form of revenge follows a pattern that Shakespeare borrowed from medieval literature, as well as from reports of blood libel trials, in which Jews were accused of making use of Christian blood for religious rituals. In a peculiar instance, which drew papal attention a decade before the completion of The Merchant of Venice, a court disagreement between a Jewish insurer and a Roman merchant involved a very public disagreement over a “pound of flesh.”
One might view Shakespeare’s play as an ingenious reworking of such material, or simply as an artist’s reliance on a popular narrative to create what the viewer, in an unconscious way, recognizes as part of popular culture.
This problem, for viewers and interpreters of The Merchant of Venice, will not go away. Clarke is careful not to reproduce any of the play’s analogies linking Jews to the devil. But this does not remove another fault line that’s woven into the play’s design, which is highlighted by American Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt. In Elizabethan England, he reminds us, one did not meet Jews, because they had been expelled from the country in the 13th century.
Greenblatt adds that although Shakespeare may well have heard of the Venetian Ghetto, which was established in 1516, he does not seem to have understood how the separation of Jews and other Venetians worked. Anachronism takes flight as Shylock’s house is said to be found on a “public street,” and his daughter calls down to her non-Jewish pals from her window, Romeo and Juliet-style.
The Jew in Shakespeare’s mind is largely imaginary – well-imagined, considering the artist at work – but not at all based on actual Jewish lives.
The Merchant of Venice (Retried), if put on the stage, would likely be an audience pleaser. Its asides are ripe with double entendres and Clarke calls for its court musicians to play in the style of John and Alice Coltrane. (Who hasn’t sat through a Shakespeare play a little confused at the language and plot complications and wished for a little jazz?) There are also many inside jokes for readers of American and English literature. And even Jack Kerouac gets a cameo.
Because the book is printed at the Gaspereau Press, it is a beautiful thing to hold in your hand, a jewel, like the thing Portia’s courtiers seek in the three caskets she sets out for them in a courtly version of The Price is Right.
But Shylock, in Clarke’s version, remains suspended in a vacuum – a made-up, would-be Jew whose only particularities are his gold and his pretty daughter. In our age of high anxiety over cultural appropriation, one wonders who will speak up for this Jew, lost as he is among Shakespeare’s witty Venetians and Clarke’s bebop courtiers.