Collateral damage in Hamlet and the Merchant of Venice

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This is how a lot of stories form: The writer wants one thing to happen, and slowly assembles the forces needed to make the characters do what they have to do for it to happen. And the writer sometimes twists the story nearly to the breaking point to do that.

Critics think that things that stick out oddly from stories are clues the author dropped as to what’s going on. That’s typically not the case. The one thing the writer wants to happen is gonna happen, and probably pretty smoothly. The weird stuff that sticks out is peripheral. It’s the collateral story damage from the big idea.

I spent the last few hours reading The Merchant of Venice. Shylock, a Jewish money-lender, loans 3000 ducats to Antonio, under the stipulation that if it is not repaid, Shylock may claim a pound of Antonio’s flesh.

Lots of critics have argued over whether Shylock is supposed to be sympathetic or despicable. Everyone in the play hates him, and always has, because he’s a Jew. He has been severely put upon all his life. The jokes the Christians make at his expense, unlike in the rest of Shakespeare, aren’t even supposed to be funny. So he’s sympathetic, and Shakespeare was a closet progressive.

But, wait. Shylock is cruel, and wants to kill Antonio, whom everybody else agrees is the best guy ever. Even when offered double his money back, he spurns the money and wants his pound of flesh. And nowhere in the text does anybody question the abuse that’s been heaped on Shylock. The word “Jew” is an insult to the end. So he’s despicable, and Shakespeare hated Jews.

I don’t think Shakespeare cared one way or the other. I think he had one cool idea: “Imagine there’s a guy who offers up a pound of his own flesh as surety for a loan, and then he can’t pay back the loan. Everybody expects the guy who loaned him the money to say, “Oh, well, I was just kidding; a pound of flesh isn’t going to do me any good.” And then the guy says he really, in fact, wants his pound of flesh. And then, the first guy’s friends get there just in the nick of time with twice the loan to pay it back. But then, whammo, the other guy says, No. He wants his pound of flesh.

How do you get a guy to do that?

Well, you want Shylock to really, really hate Antonio, right?

Not really. Then you’d have to show Antonio doing something horrible to Shylock. And Antonio is supposed to be the sympathetic character. And Antonio would know Shylock hated him, and wouldn’t sign the loan condition, probably. And the whole story would get hijacked by the conflict setting up the Antonio-Shylock drama.

What Shakespeare did was very clever: Show that Shylock’s life is intolerable–everyone hates him for what he is; he is forced into being a money-lender because the law allows him no “honest” profession, and yet the same people who force him into that role despise him for it. Never let the hatred up. And then, have his own daughter hate him, too, and steal his money and run away with a Christian.

See, Shylock doesn’t hate Antonio. Shylock hates everybody. But especially his daughter. He wants to lash out, and Antonio is right there.

Shylock isn’t a representative of an oppressed race, or of a sub-human race. He isn’t a nuanced handling of issues of prejudice and race. The fact that viewers feel sympathy for Shylock is, dramatically, a colossal fuck-up. It makes no sense, coming as it does not as the climax of a drama, but as the warm-up to the funniest (well, only funny) scene of a comedy.

Shylock is a plot device. Shakespeare needed somebody who could be put under enough pressure to want a pound of somebody’s flesh, somebody who hadn’t really done anything bad to him, so much that he wouldn’t take any amount of money instead.

That’s how stories get written. The critics focus on the strange things in a story, like Shylock, as if they were clues to hidden secrets. They aren’t. The strange things are the things you don’t notice you screwed up while you were paying attention to your one big thing.

Shakespeare wrote Shylock too well. He made him a real character we could sympathize with. That made the courtroom scene tragic instead of funny, and it doesn’t fit the story that it’s in.

On to Hamlet.

Lotsa theories about what Hamlet is about. It’s about death. It’s about disease. It’s about mortality. It’s meta-fiction. It’s about indecision. It’s about fate. It’s about the moral depravity of a man who has lost his faith. It’s about a woman who has no control over her life. It’s about the inability of language to tell a coherent story.

There’s this one part in Hamlet, it’s kinda memorable. Goes like this:

To be, or not to be–that is the question:Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them. To die- to sleep-

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to.

Shit.

That’s the one big idea. Hamlet is a question: Whether ’tis nobler to suffer insult and disgrace, or to end it with violence that will inevitably spin out of your control. It’s the kind of question that has no answer. (See: American middle east policy.) That’s what literature is for. Thinking about things that have no clear answer. The play is about revenge and its costs. It doesn’t wind up with a simple message: “Revenge is bad, kids.” Hamlet chooses to take arms against his troubles, and the viewer sees the result. The entire play can be explained as either (A) things showing how bad Hamlet’s troubles are, or (B) things showing the cost everyone will pay for Hamlet’s revenge. That’s why Ophelia has to kill herself, and that’s why Hamlet has to be cruel to her. That’s why the play ends with the very boring scene of Fortinbras taking over Denmark (the very thing Hamlet’s uncle opened the play worrying about): Without that scene, one might think Hamlet was noble because he saved his country from a usurper. No; in doing so he just gave it away to an invader. The weird stuff, like Hamlet killing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and being cruel to Ophelia, and the Fortinbras business, are just where Shakespeare was trying too hard to show those two things, instead of letting Hamlet be true to his character. They’re not themes; they’re the collateral damage.

At least, that’s my theory today.

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