Anti-semitism is so disgusting a disease that timid laypersons might prefer to leave its pathology to the experts, but it is pandemic and they cannot wash their hands of it. Sander Gilman’s book concerns the curious manner in which sufferers from anti-semitism explain away their condition by describing Jewishness as the disease. This is done so literally that the Jewish body (predominantly the male, because of circumcision) has, by a pseudo-scientific pathology, been characterised as diseased, quite literally from top to toe. Jews are therefore ‘different’; and from their difference, and of course they are in some obvious respects different, arise, to the astonishment of the right-thinking layperson, pogrom and Shoah.
Gilman is a psychiatrist, not a propagandist. He examines actual as well as imputed difference, the variations of anti-semitic stereotypes in their relation to ‘the reality of Jews’. Thus: there really is a ‘Jewish voice’, but it is not, as the Nazis (and Wagner) believed, a sort of Nibelungan affront to the language of the ‘Aryan’. Nor is it the phonic marker of a dissident and dangerous plague-carrying minority.
In what I thought his least convincing passage, Gilman traces this myth back to the Gospels, attaching dubious importance to the fact that Matthew and Mark record the last words of Jesus as spoken in Aramaic, while Luke and John offer a different version, in Greek. But although Mark, followed by Matthew, offers various sayings in Aramaic he immediately translates them into Greek. The evangelists were addressing not only Gentiles but the large number of Jews whose ordinary language (and even their Bible) was Greek. So it’s unlikely that Luke and John had it in mind to present a Jesus who didn’t ‘sound Jewish’. Moreover the argument that the book of Revelation shows an ‘absolute’ separation ‘between the divine discourse of the Church and the corrupt discourse of the Jew’ ignores the fact that the book of Revelation is notoriously full of ‘Semitisms’, is written, as Matthew Black puts it, in ‘Jews’ Greek’.
However, Gilman might well be excused for not bothering much about Christian origins. He is horribly persuasive on physiological detail – the ‘Jewish foot’, for instance, malformed like the devil’s. It was not only the foot but Jewish physique generally that made Jews unapt for military service. It was a compendium of the diseases of civilisation. ‘The pathognomic status of the Jew’s body’ was read ‘as a sign of the Jew’s inherent difference’. Some physical features Jews shared with blacks. The very way they walk indicates atavism, animality, disease. The spread of syphilis was routinely attributed to Jews, as Hitler remembered in Mein Kampf, and it was linked, implausibly, to the practice of circumcision. Other plagues were called Jewish in origin: gambling, prostitution, and now Aids. Jack the Ripper, despite his own disclaimers, must have been a Whitechapel Jew, a shochet or ritual butcher. English anti-semitism, which had a millennial history and an ample supply of stereotypes, now turned on the new immigrants from Eastern Europe.
In their turn, Western Jewish scientists, we learn, joined in the game and passed on these myths of degeneracy to the Jews of the East, almost as if subscribing to the old notion that you could get rid of a venereal disease by passing it on to somebody else. In one chapter Gilman offers a history of the nose-job, a means of ridding oneself of ‘specific physical attributes associated’ with a ‘particular ethnic group’, of becoming socially ‘invisible’; and probably there are more such operations performed in New York, that Jewish city, than anywhere else. Gilman is of course interested in the element of self-abasing Jewish behaviour caused by centuries of oppression; circumcision is still a Jewish problem in the USA, even though it seems all boy babies get circumcised unless the parents forbid it.
There are, says Gilman, ‘continuities of images of the Jews in the West throughout the modern era’. Absurdities about their smell, their colour (originally black), their sexuality persist. Even their creative abilities can be connected with their diseases.
I can’t claim to understand this violent and detestable history any better even after reading this book, except that it does emerge that the image of the diseased Jew is a projection of the diseased anti-semite. That is where we have to look for the tokens of the plague. But as to its aetiology, as to explanations of how this devastating ailment took hold and how it persists, one is hardly the wiser. Explanations that go back to the Crucifixion and myths affirming the practice of ritual murder of Christian childrenwill hardly suffice nowadays, when the anti-semites are not likely to be Christians and can even be Jewish. The notion of ‘difference’ as leading of itself to pogrom, forced emigration, holocaust, ethnic cleansing, will need development if it is to do all the explaining. Perhaps it is an updated notion of wickedness that is really called for.
Shylock is a representation of the Jew as he appeared in the historical context of the English 1590s, but he also became an important part of other and later representations – a household word, a synonym, in the language of many who might never have seen or read The Merchant of Venice, for the usurious Jew. John Gross writes plain, deliberate prose, less accusing than Gilman’s; he raises his voice only once, and that is to attack Marx for his hatred of his Jewish origins. On the Jewish Question is, he remarks, odious in itself, but worse than that, it prepared the groundwork for Marx’s later thought: now it is not only the Jews but the bourgeoisie who must be eliminated. We need not expect from Marx, for all his literary interests, much enlightenment on the Shylock question, or, by implication, on any other. In search of such enlightenment Gross trawls exhaustively through the text of the play, through its history on the stage and through its critical fortunes. The title page of the first edition mentions ‘the extreme cruelty of Shylock the Jew towards the said Merchant [Antonio]’.
Jews had been legally excluded from England since 1290, and the few to be met in London were likely to be exceptional in some way, like the unfortunate Lopez, Queen Elizabeth’s physician, who suffered the fate intended for Stalin’s doctors. Few members of Shakespeare’s audience can ever have met a Jew. In the popular imagination and on the stage, they were bloodyminded usurers with an inveterate hatred of Christians. The apotheosis of this type is Marlowe’s Barabas, a ‘prodigious caricature’ as Eliot remarked – superman, poisoner, murderer, Christian-hater. Shylock certainly hates Christians, demands the Law in the Old Testament manner and defies Mercy, supposed to be the property of the New, and though he wants to murder Antonio, he is very unlike the boisterous and extrovert Barabas, whom people can hardly refrain from admiring for his outrageousness.
Despite the folktale plotting – Pound of Flesh, Caskets, Rings – and the element of stereotype in Shylock, The Merchant is an up-to-date play. By the 1590s London was a major commercial and financial centre, dependent on credit, though this did not prevent pious repetition of all the old rules against usury. Within prescribed limits as to the level of interest, it had been legal since the time of Henry VIII, but it was a sin, and best left to the inhabitants of the ghetto, though they too were forbidden by their religion to practise it, except (Deuteronomy 23.20) on strangers.
That Shakespeare wants the audience to be thinking about these matters is proved by the unusual discussion between Shylock and Antonio, as they negotiate the loan. It concerns the interpretation of the passage in Genesis 31 about Jacob getting the better of Laban. This was a stock instance in arguments about two ways of making money: venture and usury. Venture was good because it involved risk: so, according to Antonio, Jacob was venturing – the outcome of his trick with the peeled rods was ‘a thing not in his power to bring to pass,/But sway’d and fashioned by the hand of God’. Antonio was not a usurer but a venturer; it was possible for all his ships to be lost, and later there is a false report that they have been. His profit is therefore clean, a venturer’s profit; he refuses to lend money at interest, and so, as Shylock complains, brings down ‘the rate of usance’ (interest) in Venice. Shylock, on the other hand, thinks that in lending money at interest it is he who is justified by Jacob. Sheep breed, money breeds, he can see no difference. It was a constant charge against usurers, that they engaged in ‘a breed of barren metal’, a practice condemned as unnatural, and even likened to sodomy. ‘Is your gold and silver ewes and rams?’ ‘I cannot tell, I make it breed as fast.’ Shylock is against ventures precisely because they are risky.
There is no doubt that this prominently placed bit of doctrine was meant to show that Antonio was right, though he seems to think Shylock’s argument very clever (‘The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose’). On the whole, though, the point seems simple: we are to think Antonio good because of his generosity and his love for his friend, his firm distinction between profit and humanity, and Shylock very bad because he cannot grieve for his daughter without lamenting his ducats.
So much for the scheme. But it is also true that we are discouraged from making Shylock simply a two-dimensional emblem of usury by being told things about him that seem superfluous to the scheme and to the stereotype. He keeps an orderly if rather gloomy household, and he is religious, observing dietary rules and going to the synagogue. Gross even maintains that he is given a way of speaking that is Jewish, that Shakespeare had somehow identified what Gilman calls ‘the Jewish voice’. And above all he says things that induce audiences to feel for him what, in a simple morality play, would be an irrelevant sympathy, even conceding that he has a right to his bond. Moreover there is an emphasis one mightn’t expect, if he were meant to be entirely hateful, on the disgusting way Christians, not only the ribald Gratiano but the virtuous Antonio, treat him. Antonio agrees that when their bargain is over he may well resume his practice of spitting on Shylock’s Jewish gaberdine.
The key passage here is ‘Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions, etc?’ If one were to take the play at the simplest, most schematic level, one could argue that this speech only makes matters worse for Shylock, for this point by point physical identity only emphasises the guilt of the Jews: endowed with the powers humans require to accept the truth of Christ, they still reject him. In other words, the resemblances only emphasise a gross dissimilarity, which is more important than they are. In the same way, those who demand justice and deny mercy must, on the Christian programme, lose everything, as Portia remarks: so we need not feel sorry for Shylock at the end of the trial scene.
But this simple formulation is contested by the experience of too many readers. Gross’s book patiently illustrates a point that may be true of many more plays than this. The words are manifestly saying something, promoting an attitude, but in the course of doing so they are also, less obviously, subverting the manifest message they are promoting. There are subtexts which may become clearer with time, and especially when powerful actors and directors dig for them. Much of this book consists of an account of such efforts, especially the gradual elevation of Shylock into a tragic hero. Irving, in a tradition going back to Hazlitt, called Shylock ‘the type of a persecuted race; almost the only gentleman in the play, and the most ill-used’. The critic George Sampson rather acutely recommended that we distinguish between the plot and the play. Others saw as clearly that the elevation of Shylock to a figure of moral authority or tragic grandeur was at odds with the stereotypical element in the character, and the usury theme. Yet others protested against the sentimental overvaluation of Shylock. ‘By the beginning of the 20th century it had become quite common to hold two views of Shylock simultaneously: bad and not-so-bad, black and grey.’ Yet the even more sympathetic Irving view was also familiar.
The complicated story is here told in continuously interesting detail. The Thirties gave a different colouring to the theme of the persecuted race. Psychoanalysis had to have its say. More recently, the New Historicists have studied the play in relation to conflicting discourses in Elizabethan culture, while others, taking Shylock as representing international finance, study the play as a prophecy of later capitalism. Shylock was played in dozens of different ways. For the Nazis he was given ‘cunning little eyes’ and a ‘splay-footed, shuffling walk’. But he was also played by Jews, and even in Yiddish. When John Barton in 1978 directed ‘a thoroughly unpleasant Shylock his production was regarded as a novelty’. The Jew had grown too sympathetic. The even-handed Gross himself will not exclude the Merchant from the history of anti-semitism: ‘The ground for the Holocaust was well prepared, and to that extent the play can never seem quite the same again.’ The ‘same again’ as what or when?
Even when there is no obvious theme as perennial as anti-semitism the plays of Shakespeare never quite seem the same again, and they can even seem very different to readers of the same generation. Gross has little time for the current wave of academic criticism, yet Deconstruction has explanations for the conflicting tides of sense that preoccupy him in The Merchant, and the criticism that announces cultural materialism as its philosophical matrix offers its own explanations of shifting interpretation. Alan Sinfield has a few typically breezy paragraphs on The Merchant. He agrees with Arnold Wesker that in the theatre ‘the image comes through inescapably’: Shylock is ‘mercenary, and revengeful, sadistic, without pity’. Olivier’s ‘defence of Shylock’ in 1973 is deplored as having been ‘so powerful that it dignified the anti-semitism. An audience could come away with its prejudices about the Jew confirmed, but held with an easy conscience because they thought they’d heard a noble plea for extenuating circumstances.’ The proper response of Shylock to expressions of humanist sympathy in response to ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ would be firm and dignified rejection. ‘It is a powerful insight,’ says Sinfield, ‘into how the invitation to join Man patronises subordinate groups.’ Shylock, given the choice, would have had no time for it.
It will be seen from this that Sinfield is engaged in a polemic against Man – that is, against an idol of conduct and taste which the humanists have set up in their own image. Broadly speaking, the error of the humanists is that they embrace a dominant discourse without reflecting on the subversion, or, in his preferred term, the dissidence, that all texts produce. The nature of this interplay between what is ostensibly proposed and the language of the proposal is determined by historical conditions; the cultural materialist will study texts within those contexts.
Sinfield is a more cautious critic than his sometimes forthright, offhand manner suggests. Thus he joins the argument against the ‘essentialist-humanist conception of character’ but differs from the extremists who deny that ‘character-criticism’ has any relevance, depending as it does on an anachronistic fallacy about the nature of the self as the source of meaning and truth. While it is true that Shakespeare’s women sometimes, as Pope said of most women, ‘have no character at all’, being merely the agents of patriarchal plots and interests, Shakespeare’s writing does produce ‘character effects’ – that is, his characters somehow can show a ‘developing interiority’ which we must learn to talk about without slipping back into Bradleyan ‘essentialist humanism’. His suggestions as to how this should be achieved are of a complexity and seriousness that sets his work at a level above that of many of his modern American counterparts, the New Historicists.
Unlike Gross, who on the whole dislikes intrusive production gimmicks, Sinfield is willing to rewrite the plays to bring out occult political senses. He maintains, for example, that in Macbeth there is very little difference between the situation of Macbeth at the beginning and that of Macduff at the end of the play. Macduff is a kingmaker; he made and could unmake the new king. Thus the original situation rather exactly recurs, and this symmetry could be brought out by arranging, at the end of the play, a meeting between Macduff and the Weird Sisters. The play would then more openly illustrate ‘the fundamental instability of power relations during the transition to absolutism’. Well, it would: but as the play stands it doesn’t, and the power of Sinfield’s kind of reading can only derive from an understanding of what is actually in the text, not what might have been there if Shakespeare had got the point, or dared to make it, as clearly as Sinfield.
‘The principal strategy of ideology is to legitimate inequality and exploitation by representing the social order that perpetuates these things as immutable.’ Yet ‘strategies of containment presuppose centrifugal tendencies,’ and every presentation of an ideology will contain dissident clues. A good deal of Sinfield’s book examines the ideological representations dominant in the times of Elizabeth and James with a view to making this point. This entails repeating what most people who have any interest in the period already know – for example, about the Calvinism of the Articles of the Church of England, here supposed to have persistently eluded the attention of ‘Christian humanists’. But the method does turn up new solutions to old problems, like the ideological faultlines in Henry V, long since identified though never before so described, and probably never accounted for in anything very like Sinfield’s way.
That way, we are told, was not available to the Christian essentialist-humanists who are said to have determined the canon. Lacking access to it, they bolstered their own ideological presumptions by offering false versions of history as well as of Shakespeare’s plays, maintaining, for instance, that ‘the Elizabethan settlement of 1559 was a typically wise English compromise,’ reflecting a harmonious universe ruled over by ‘a manifestly benign monarch’. It is at moments like this that one recognises a cultural-materialist tendency to go over the top. I have encountered few critics or historians who would unequivocally endorse this ‘genial gloss’ in the form Sinfield gives it. There have of course been plenty of critics who have wanted us to understand the ‘ideology’ and said less about centrifugal tendencies than they might, but there have been plenty of others who knew too much about the Settlement, and about Tudor oppression, and what Sinfield calls ‘puritan humanism’, to respond so naively. However, a certain excess may be necessary to the project of clearly mapping ideological ‘faultlines’.
In declaring that ‘substantial texts are in principle likely to be written across ideological faultlines because that is the most interesting form of writing; they may well not be susceptible to any decisive reading,’ Sinfield reproduces, in his own terms, the Deconstructive argument I mentioned earlier. It isn’t, however, quite consistent with the position that all texts are necessarily so written, which would imply that all texts are substantial, in which case that word, as a valuation, is of no value. We are told repeatedly that power cannot control contradiction, so that even the blandest endorsement of hegemonic propaganda must contain it; and such contradiction, we are assured, is what makes a text ‘substantial’. No text can be without substance; all or none are ‘canonical’. This is hardly a substantial contribution to the problem of canon.
In spite of this, Sinfield is always lively and worth reading – on Sidney and Marlowe as well as on Shakespeare. He is a historian yet very much a critic of the present moment, with strong gay and feminist interests, a spirited contempt for unexamined and conventional interpretations. What he says is for the most part controlled by considerable learning and, despite some excesses, by a residual caution.
It is worth noting how much the styles of Shakespeare criticism have changed in the last ten or fifteen years; the changes imply larger changes in cultural assumptions, and it follows that these will have their successors, so that we can be sure of one thing: that new waves in the fashions of Shakespeare criticism will follow. Presumably cultural materialism is embedded in the discourses of the present moment, and these will have their uncontrollable internal contradictions, which must in turn be exposed, so that it will eventually join essentialist-humanism in the critical junkyard. It is not yet dead, however, as one may see from this engagingly lively book.