Monday, May 14, 2007

RE2: The Tragedy of Shylock, Merchant of Venice

Tragic hero follow-up:

It occurred to me that the Aristotelian purists among us (are there any?) might heave a heavy sigh at my casual use of "tragic hero." One of my students, in a recent paper, tried to argue that Portia (!) is a tragic hero. Yes but, I scribbled in her margin, in what way is she brought low? By what misjudgment? Doesn't definition matter? Aristotle tells us that the tragic hero shouldn't be entirely good or bad, should be a person of prosperity and of high degree, and should suffer an error in judgment resulting in a fall.

Shylock fits many of these although he is neither a king, general, nor demi-god. But I was born in the year 13 A.A.M (Anno Arthur Miller), a period I share with Mike, John, and Cindy, while the rest of you are BCME (Before the 'Common Man' Era). So I get to adjust my definition of tragic hero a bit. Arthur Miller tells us, in his "Tragedy and the Common Man" (1949), that the tragic flaw is "a failing that is not peculiar to grand or elevated characters." And he builds his tragic tale around an everyday guy, a salesman, or merchant if you will.

Does Death of a Salesman offer us any further insight into The Merchant of Venice? Miller writes that "the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing – his sense of personal dignity. From Orestes to Hamlet, Medea to Macbeth, the underlying struggle is that of the individual attempting to gain his 'rightful' position in his society."

I couldn't think of a better definition of what Al Pacino's Shylock is doing in the Michael Radford film. The bond is Shylock's attempt at personal dignity. My students ask why doesn't he accept the offer of thrice the principal – 9000 ducats?!? Well, that wasn't the deal; that would be letting them buy him off and get out of the penalty for forfeiture. Antonio could go around with Salarino, laughing about greedy old Shylock who gave up his legal bond when a little money was dangled in front of him. Accepting the offer would mean validating everything the Christians have said about him throughout the play.

Finally, having the law upheld in his favor (even at the expense of Antonio's life) seems like a way of establishing his "rightful position," equal and justly treated. I've already argued that his misjudgment takes the form of a confusion of his desire for justice with a desire for vengeance, but the result of this, while not death, is his "life." He loses his house, to which he responds: "you take my life / When you do take the means whereby I live" (4.1.392-393). Money, house, means, and faith; he has lost them all. What is left of his "life"? Perhaps if Act 5 had featured Shylock, he might have suffered the same fate as Willy Loman. We don't know.

And that seems to me to be the final indignity.

Radford and Nunn (and Ernst suggests John Sichel's production with Laurence Olivier as well) attempt to overcome this forgetting by constructing a final scene that recalls Shylock. It almost seems as if modern directors are embarrassed to close the play without some acknowledgement of Shylock's denouement.


No comments: