Shakespeare, Marlowe, and their Jews: John Kleiner at TEDxWilliamsCollege

Shakespeare, Marlowe, and their Jews: John Kleiner at TEDxWilliamsCollege

August 30, 2019 0 By Stanley Isaacs


Translator: Raissa Mendes
Reviewer: Leonardo Silva Marlowe and Shakespeare walk into a bar… (Laughter) So runs the beginning of the joke that Tom Stoppard concocted in 1997 about playwriting. Stoppard was at that point working on the screenplay
for “Shakespeare in Love,” a film that, to a remarkable degree, concerns itself with the kind of questions
usually left to literary critics. Why did Shakespeare become
a tragic dramatist? Where did he find his voice? Where did the idea
for “Romeo and Juliet” come from? In the end, “Shakespeare in Love”
answers these questions along fairly conventional Hollywood lines. Love, it turns out, is the answer. Love, it turns out, explains
Shakespeare’s genius. But, before the movie gets there, Marlowe and Shakespeare walk into a bar… (Video) Shakespeare:
And the chinks to show for it. I insist — and a beaker for Mr. Marlowe. I hear you have
a new play for the Curtain. Marlowe: Not new… my “Doctor Faustus.” S: I love your early work. “Was this the face
that launch’d a thousand ships, and burnt the topless towers of ilium?” M: I have a new one
nearly finished and better: “The Massacre at Paris.” S: Good title. M: Hum… yours? S: “Romeo and Ethel:
the Pirate’s Daughter.” Yes, I know, I know… M: What’s the story? S: Well, there’s this pirate… In truth, I have not written a word. M: Romeo… Romeo is Italian, always in and out of love… S: Yes, that’s good… until he meets… M: Ethel… S: Do you think? M: The daughter of his enemy. S: The daughter of his enemy. M: His best friend is killed
in a duel by Ethel’s brother or something. His name is Mercutio. S: Mercutio… Good name. A man: Will, they’re waiting for you. S: Yes, I’m coming. Good luck with yours, Kit. John Kleiner: This fall I ran a tutorial,
that was in my own mind at least, a restaging of Stoppard’s joke. Every week Marlowe and Shakespeare
walked into my office. Every week we brought
the two playwrights into contact. Over the term we read
four Shakespeare’s plays, four Marlowe’s and their
too long narrative love poems: “Venus and Adonis,” “Hero and Leander.” The point of the tutorial was not to prove anything particular
about Marlowe or Shakespeare, but to run an experiment: what happens when these two playwrights, who lived side by side and who may or may not ever
have met each other, are read side by side? What happens when Marlowe
and Shakespeare walk into a bar? Today I’m going to restage Stoppard’s joke
in a slightly different form. I’m going to put into
conversation two passages: one representing Marlowe,
one representing Shakespeare, and see what they have
to say to each other. The passage on your left
comes from Marlowe. It is from his 1589 play,
“The Jew of Malta.” And it features the play’s eponymous hero, a Jewish merchant named Barabas. Barabas is, when the play begins,
fantastically wealthy, far and away the richest man
in all of Malta. So great is Barabas’ accumulated wealth that, in the play’s opening speech, he says he finds
the counting of it tedious. Then, barely a hundred lines
into the play, Barabas loses everything. His ships, his goods, his wealth, they’re all stripped from him. He is turned out of his house,
which is converted into a nunnery. This happens because
the Christians of Malta need money to pay off the Turks and because Barabas,
as a Jew, is an easy target. This is the entire explanation
for Barabas’ dispossession. Marlowe makes no effort to disguise
or ameliorate the Christians motives. In the passage on your left, Barabas gives voice to his loss. Even as the other Jews urge patience, Barabas insists on being heard, insists on expressing himself. He wants his audience
to know what he is feeling, to share imaginatively in his disgrace. And so he compares himself
to a captain in a field of battle whose weapons have been
stripped from him and whose soldiers lie dead at his feet. Shouldn’t such a man
be allowed to grieve? What Barabas asks
may seem to us unremarkable, but was hardly so in 1589. The action that takes place
fictively at Malta echoes the actual dispossession
of the English Jews. Much as Barabas is stripped of his wealth
and turned out of his home, so were the Jews of England dispossessed and exiled by Edward I, turned out of their country,
as so many strangers and aliens. In the crowd that Barabas addressed
in the Rose Theatre in 1589, there was not a single Jew to hear him, not a single Jew to weep, as the Jews weep in Marlowe’s play. When Marlowe allows those Jews
to express their sympathy for Barabas, as if it were a basic human impulse, “’tis a misery to see
a man in such affliction,” Marlowe is doing something surprising
by the standards of his time, something bordering on the illegal. The second passage, the passage on your
right, is from “The Merchant of Venice.” Many of you will recognize it
as Shylock’s famous Rialto speech. Shylock’s idiom is different
of course from Barabas’. Still the influence of Marlowe’s play, which precedes Shakespeare’s by some
seven or eight years, is hard to miss. Again, a Jew steps forward
to describe his mistreatment. Again a Jew speaks
his pain aloud to an audience that is asked imaginatively
to enter into it. And again this invitation to empathize
exposes a contradiction. Antonio, the nominal hero
of “The Merchant of Venice,” has with his Christian friends
scorned Shylock. They have laughed
at his daughter’s Jessica’s desertion, they have spit upon him in the street, and they have done so without compunction. Shylock’s degradation does not touch them, as they understand it, because, as they understand it, he is different from them, he is merely a Jew, an alien, a stranger. “Dog Jew” is one of their favorite
epithets for Shylock. And yet, when Shylock’s pain
is made visible on the stage, made alive in his language,
this justification fails. To suffer is not to be
a Jew or a Christian, but to be human. In his vulnerability, Shylock is no different
from his persecutors: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” “If you poison us, do we not die?” That Marlowe and Shakespeare both
allow their Jews to make this point suggests, I think, a shared understanding, on their part, about the peculiar enterprise
they are engaged in. Both playwrights recognize in theater singular capacity
to make a motion accessible, a means of dissolving
or overcoming difference. When a character speaks his pain, when he performs it, an audience feels it,
and in the process becomes like him, if only momentarily. Put even a Jew on stage, and so long as he speaks movingly, we can recognize ourselves in him. This is what Marlowe and Shakespeare
are telling each other. This is what Shakespeare
takes from Marlowe, or at least this is part
of their conversation about Jews in the theater. The easiest and most palatable part of it. As I noted earlier, the Jews in Marlowe’s play
exit with tears in their eyes. Barabas bids them farewell and then alone takes
possession of the stage. Once alone, Barabas steps out further,
close to the very edge of the theater, or at least this is how I picture it. He moves close to the edge of the stage, right up to the crowd of theatergoers gathered at his feet, and, once there, he taunts them: “See the simplicity of these base slaves, who, for the villains
have no wit themselves, think me to be a senseless lump of clay, that will with every water wash to dirt!” This is a violent speech, violent in its contempt. Baraba’s contempt for the Jews
who have felt for him, who have wept for him. Marlowe’s contempt
for the members of his audience who, like the Jews, have been
reached by Barabas’ words and moved by his suffering. All at once, that suffering
is revealed to be a sham, and empty spectacle. Barabas has not lost everything. As he subsequently reveals, he still has a fortune hidden away. He is not broken or wretched, he has merely played misery
like an actor on the stage. What he is after is not empathy, but power, the power to manipulate an audience and so in the process
degrade it and debase it. The Jews who pity Barabas become to Barabas “so many base slaves, so many witless villains,” because they misunderstand him and the nature of human suffering. That we suffer in common
is nothing to be proud of, just the contrary, says Barabas. To suffer is a sign of our common dust, or to use his nastier phrase,
“our common dirt.” To suffer is to be dirt. To empathize with suffering
is to be a villain and a slave. Barabas’ treachery and contempt are ugly. Indeed, much of
“The Jew of Malta” is ugly. Much of Marlowe’s art is ugly. At another moment in the play, Barabas will wipe out
an entire convent of nuns, including his own daughter,
with a gift of poisoned porridge. He will strangle a friar in his bed and then gleefully sit up the corpse
in the street as if it were alive. That we bridle at such
ugliness is the point. We come to the theater
expecting to be flattered, expecting to be confirmed in the happiest,
most hopeful account of who we are. After all, we bought a ticket. And, instead, we are
betrayed and attacked. And what of Shakespeare,
what of his Jew, what of Shylock? How does he follow up his eloquent
plea for understanding, for fellow feeling? “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest,
we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be
by Christian example? Why, revenge.” If Barabas opens his heart
as a prelude to violence, the same can be said of Shylock. We may cite his stirring
lines out of context to teach lessons about
the importance of empathy and the value of art
as a means of combating prejudice, but that’s not their function, or at least not their entire function
in Shakespeare’s play. In “The Merchant of Venice,” Shylock delivers his moving speech
and seems moved as he delivers it. As he speaks, he appears present in his words in a way
that few of us ever are in real life. And yet, what in the end
does he speak up for? Not empathy, not sympathy, but revenge. This is a surprising turn, a disorienting turn, perhaps a disappointing turn. When it comes, we don’t expect it, just as we don’t expect
Barabas to voice his misery, and then all of a sudden jeer at us. And yet, the turn
in Shylock speech is logical. Empathy and revenge may,
in a superficial sense, seem opposites. Empathy may even seem
to preclude revenge, but really, underneath it all, they are two sides of the same coin, two expressions of the same
underlying pattern. In empathizing, I make myself like you, by feeling what you feel, by knowing what you know, by suffering what you suffer. In revenge, I make you like me. I force you to know what I know, I force you to feel what I feel, I force you to suffer what I suffer. Shylock does not want empathy. He wants revenge. He wants the power
to compel identification. He wants the ability to force another
to see the world on his terms. And, more than that, he claims this desire of his
to be the same as ours. According to Shylock, what links us as humans
is not suffering or the capacity to empathize
with another’s suffering, but the common human compulsion
to answer suffering with revenge. He wants and we want
the power to make others feel as we do. And this is, I think, his point
of contact with Shakespeare and any other serious writer, any artist who doesn’t merely want
to please his audience, but to reach it, to move it, whether that audience
wants to be moved or not. And by serious artists,
let me be clear here, I don’t mean respectable
high-culture artist. If anything just the opposite. The ambition I’m talking about is the ambition to find
some sharp or blunt instrument that will allow you to compel
an emotion in someone else, to force an understanding, by whatever means is available. This is, I think, what Marlowe
and Shakespeare’s Jews are talking about, the search for power
that often masquerades as empathy. This is, I believe, what Marlowe
teaches Shakespeare. Or at least it is the substance
of this particular barroom lesson. It is in this particular small room, what they hear each other saying about theater and about us. Thanks. (Applause)