Monday, March 26, 2012

Monday, March 26 2012

The text on The Merchant of Venice is finally done and I can let the play go for this time.

From the Shakespeare Almanac:
  • On March 20, 1414, King Henry IV died. Of course he died at the end of Part Two and we haven't got there yet, but it was kind of interesting to read about it in the Almanac while in the process of reading Part One.
  • On March 24, 1603, Queen Elizabeth I died, at the age of seventy, having reigned more than forty-four years.  

Shakespeare sightings:
  • Several more in Dickens' Great Expectations, in which Coriolanus, Timon of Athens and Macbeth are all mentioned.
  • An article in DN about the Globe being the host of theater groups from around the world putting on all thirty-seven of the plays in connection with the Olympics this summer. The most moving example: the director of the new theater in the new capital city Juba of the new country South Sudan. This gentleman, during the civil war, fantasized about playing Shakespeare. He and his colleagues will now be playing Cymbeline.
  • An article in DN about lawyers in which Shakespeare's famous lawyer quote, “The first thing we do, let's kill all the Lawyers” is cited. OK – contest! Which play and who says it? Lovely prize to the first to comment on the blog with the correct answers.
  • In Denise Mina's Garnet Hill, the main character Maureen fins temporary comfort in a bubble bath but compares herself to Ophelia, which isn't very comforting.
  • In the movie “Factory Girl”, about Edie Sedgwick as part of Andy Warhol's gang, one of the background songs was the Reflections' “Just Like Romeo and Juliet”. I suppose that's a sighting once removed...remote anyway. But still.

Further, this week:
  • Received: In the Bleak Midwinter.
  • Started read aloud with Hal: Henry IV Part One.
  • Read: my first issue of the magazine from Shakespearesällskapet. Much of it is about Coriolanus, including an article about a production of this play at Pistolteatern in the '60's. The whole magazine is interesting and I recommend membership for those of you who read Swedish.
  • Still reading: Shakespearean Negotiations by Stephen Greenblatt. Still very interesting, even more so now since the first plays Greenblatt analyses, in the chapter “Invisible Bullets”, are the Henry IV plays.
  • Posted: Us and Them in The Merchant of Venice.

Merchant of Venice Us and Then

  Us and Them
The Merchant of Venice

Beside me here I have a whole stack of books with analyses of The Merchant of Venice and unsurprisingly most of them deal with the questions: is it anti-Semitic? Is Shakespeare?

It's not a question that can be ignored and I'll get to it in a minute. But to get there I have to deal with the question of what the play is about.

Well, obviously it's about money. Everybody in the play loves it. Some more than others. The Christians profess to love people but generally it's money they're after. Bassanio, for example, is after Portia's money. When Antonio asks him to tell about the lady, Bassianio speaks first, for quite a long time, about his debts, and then the first thing he says about Portia herself is not to praise her virtue or her beauty. They come after “In Belmont is a lady richly left” (Act 1.1), and he's well aware that he is a rival to the other wooers he calls “Jasons”, who as we know sought the Golden Fleece. Graziano knows, too, which side his bread is buttered on and quickly attaches himself to rich Portia's gentlewoman Nerissa. Once married, Portia doesn't hesitate to flaunt her money, claiming that Bassanio's debt of three thousand ducats is “petty” - “What? No more?” (Act 3.2) and carelessly offers to double and triple and quadruple it and whatever. She has bought Bassanios' love, or at least his presence as her husband, and with the ring episode she reminds him who's in power. Antonio, in his turn, is a merchant whose whole point in sending out ships is to make a profit just like all the rest of the wannabe capitalists of his time. He is perhaps the only character in the whole play who truly loves (except for Shylock, who loves Jessica - doesn't he? - and loved his wife). He shows this by trying to buy Bassanio's love, and while Bassanio maybe loves him back, it all causes an awful lot of trouble and Antonio ends up alone, watching the three purchasers and purchasees – oops, I mean the three loving couples – scamper off to bed. Even the most romantic young couple, Jessica and Lorenzo, are as concerned with money as with love when they elope. Jessica steals money and jewels from her father and is reported to start her married life on an extravagant spending spree.

In this gang, Shylock doesn't seem to be in such sharp contrast as his reputation would imply. But more of that later.

The play is also about hatred and contempt. The Christian Venetians are a tight little group and woe betide anyone who is Other. And woe does indeed betide them, especially Shylock, but I'll get to him in a minute too.

First let's look at the Prince of Morocco. Not a bad guy. A bit pompous, a bit of a braggart maybe, but on the whole he's OK. But he knows from the start that he's an Other. His first lines are to Portia and he says, “Mislike me not for my complexion” (Act 2.1) but poor Morocco, she already does. Before she even sees him she declares: “If he have the condition of a saint and the complexion of a devil” (meaning black, Act 1.3) she wouldn't want to marry him. When he for rather good reasons, then, chooses the wrong box, thereby losing his chance to wed Portia, she says, “A gentle riddance. Draw the curtain, go. Let all of his complexion choose one so” (Act 2.7). Katharine Eisaman Maus, in her introduction to the Norton edition, shows how the complex reasoning of both Morocco and Aragon give “plausible reasons for choosing any one of the three caskets” (p.1116) but that the whole casket trick is like “those 'objective' intelligence tests that in subtle, or not-so-subtle ways, reward the belief systems of dominant groups while stigmatizing outsiders” (p.1117). Of course it's Bassanio who chooses correctly. Of course he knows that according to aristocratic Christian values one must profess to value lead more than silver or gold. Bassanio knows the rules. Morocco and Aragon don't.

Nor does Shylock, the most Other of the play. He knows his rules. He knows the legal rules of Venice. But he doesn't know the Christian rules of mercy. Or if he does, he doesn't see the point of them. Or if he does, he hasn't ever seen a lot of concrete evidence of mercy from the Christians. On the contrary, Antonio's famous kindness, or mercy, in lending money to friends without interest undercuts Shylock's means of support, the practice of lending money for profit, a practice happily used by budding capitalists (and a practice soon to be taken over by the capitalists who then conveniently forget that the Christian bible forbids it). Reason enough for Shylock to resent Antonio but of course his deepest hatred is because Antonio, kind Antonio, has insulted him. Repeatedly:

Signor Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances.
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,
For suff'rance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat, dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own (Act 1.3)

Far from denying it or even feeling embarrassed for his unkind behavior, Antonio retorts:

I am as like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too (Act 1.3).

This exchange firmly establishes the relationship between the Jew Shylock and the Christian Antonio. The clarity here of Shylock's much better reason for hating Antonio than Antonio's for hating Shylock is, I find, a strong argument against those who see the play itself as anti-Semitic.

Shylock further expresses his awareness of the Christians' lack of mercy just before the famous “Hath not a Jew” monolog: 

He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; 
laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, 
thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; 
and what's his reason? I am a Jew (Act 3.1)

The recipients of his speech, Salerio and Saliano, like Antonio, are far from repentant or embarrassed. They simply ignore him and turn to other matters. As Frank Kermode points out in Shakespeare's Language the only thing that could interest them would be if he says, “Is not a Jew a Christian?” and since he obviously can't say that, none of the rest “matters in the least” (p. 73).

It is, then, clearly established that Shylock has reason not to like Antonio and the others, even though he's willing enough to have financial dealings with them. The fact that instead of demanding “normal” interest in the form of money, he demands the pound of flesh for which the play is so infamous, is hard to interpret. He proposes it as a “merry sport” (Act 1.3). Is he joking when he says it? Antonio doesn't seem to take him seriously. In any case he quickly agrees, whether it's because he's so confident that he will be able to repay him as he says to Bassanio, or because he simply can't believe Shylock will claim his bond.

He does. Even if he was joking when he said it, Shylock has become further embittered by the loss of Jessica to one of Antonio's cohorts and the bond, for him, becomes the only thing that matters. And for him the bond represents law and justice while for the Christians it suddenly represents loathsome and incomprehensible cruelty.

The court scene is one of the most complex scenes in all of Shakespeare. It can be seen as the confrontation between the hardhearted money-lender and the puzzled, unhappy, debt-ridden gentleman. Which it is. It can be seen as the conflict between an old-fashioned rigid representative of the dying feudal economic system (Shylock), doomed to lose against the dynamic expansive proto-capitalist of the future (Antonio). Which it is. Sort of.

But what it also is, is the conflict between the compact dictatorship of Christianity over the individual Other. In dealing with the variety of conflicts in the play Alan Sinfield writes that “trying to move very far out of your place is severely punished, as Shylock finds. It is so obvious that this framework of ideology and coercion is operating to the advantage of the very rich over the poor, the established over the impotent, men over women, and insiders over outsiders” (p. 122). This quote raises perhaps more questions than it answers and in another essay I would take issue with it – Shylock is as rich as the merchants, he's well-established in his field, he is defeated by a woman (though everyone thinks she is a man) – but what is relevant and indisputable is that though Shylock is as much a Venetian as any of the others, he in an outsider and the insiders defeat him. And it is for that simple fact that Shylock is fated to lose. Even before the hearing starts, the judge in the person of the insider Duke clearly states whose side he's on. He calls Antonio by name and never refers to him as “the Christian” but he speaks of Shylock often as “the Jew”. He tells Antonio “I am sorry for thee” - n.b. not even the formal “you” - and with not a dram of impartiality he describes Antonio's opponent as:

A stony adversary, an inhuman wretch
Uncapable of pity; void and empty
From any dram of mercy (Act 4.1).

Shylock enters the courtroom into a compact wall of hostility, most of which is composed of individuals caring not a whit for the law or justice, expressing only hatred for this person who is not one of them.

The Duke and Portia try to reason with Shylock. They repeatedly concede that he's completely within his legal rights in demanding that his bond be fulfilled, but they repeatedly ask that he be merciful. Maus explains that the Christian religion is based on the tenet that while Christians expect salvation even though they don't deserve it, the Jewish religion i.e. the “ Mosaic code places a high value upon justice and emphasizes the importance of adhering to the letter of the law” (p. 1115). Shylock is very eloquent in expressing this. He is also eloquent in exposing the hypocrisy of the Christians by reminding them of their relationship to their slaves:

You have among you many a purchased slave,
Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules,
You use in abject and in slavish parts
Because you bought them. Shall I say to you
'Let them be free, marry them to your heirs.
Why sweat they under burdens? Let their beds
Be made as soft as yours, and let their palates
Be seasoned with such viands.' You will answer
'The slaves are ours.' (Act 4.1).

Portia, in the guise of Balthasar, seems to be on the very brink of granting Shylock his legal justice when she coolly twists the law into a contortion that transforms it into Shylock's enemy instead of his friend. And she is right, no drop of blood, no ounce of flesh more or less than a pound, is allowed by the legal document signed by Shylock and Antonio. Shylock sees this immediately but now Portia forces him to accept his bond instead of withdrawing it, on penalty of death if he spills blood or fails to be completely accurate in taking his pound. Where is the Christian mercy now? The court could have proven it's own mercy by saying, “OK, we've made our point, now get out of here.” Instead he is threatened with the death penalty through another law that apparently only Portia knows about:

If it be proved against an alien
That by direct or indirect attempts
He seek the life of any citizen,
The party 'gainst the which he doth contrive
Shall seize one half his goods; the other half
Comes to the privy coffer of the state;
And the offender's life lies in the mercy
Of the duke only, 'gainst all other voice - (Act 4.1)

And there we have it. Alien. Alien? Shylock is a Venetian, just as much as they are? Of course not. Nobody questions the assumption that as a Jew he is an alien. Again, where is the Christian mercy now? The Duke grants him his life but immediately rules that it is only on the condition that he fulfills Antonio's – merciless – demand that Shylock covert to Christianity.

Shylock is, in every conceivable way, defeated, because he was playing by the wrong rules and because the law he “trusted because it seemed to provide a refuge from prejudice, turns out...” like the casket test. “ have prejudice inscribed within it from the start” (Maus, p. 1117).

So does it serve him right? Should he have gone against everything in his history and his principles and simply been merciful as they...we...normal people...well, that's the problem here. It comes down to Us and Them. How certain are we, the readers and audience, of who the “Us” are and who the “Them” are?

There is a lot more to this play than that but it is so pervasive that it's impossible to pretend it's not there. The enmity between Christians and Jews is emphasized throughout the play. The fact that the enmity is not absolutely inevitable is evidenced in Jessica's marriage to Lorenzo but of course that marriage does not prove to be an example of an equal marriage in which the peaceful co-existence of two religions is a possibility. Jessica must convert to Christianity and delete her own ethnic identity. It occurs to no one that Lorenzo might do the converting – this is a society in which Christianity is unquestioned and the unquestionable power.

In a way The Merchant of Venice is like any other Shakespearean play. The good guys (the Christians) are far too mean and hypocritical for us to like them while the villain Shylock is far too reasonable, truthful and just plain right at times for us to completely hate him.

So, is the play anti-Semitic? Harold Bloom declares categorically that it is (p.171). And then oddly enough proceeds in his analysis to prove himself wrong (without seeming to be aware of it). And he is wrong. The Christians in the play are anti-Semitic. The city-state of Venice is anti-Semitic. Readers and audiences throughout the centuries (including those in Shakespeare's time) have been anti-Semitic, and have made good use of Shylock to prove that Jews are really money-hungry nasty types. But the play itself is not. What Shakespeare has shown us is a view into a society in which the Christians are hypocritical and as merciless as the Jewish man they accuse of being merciless. Could it be that which has caused so much discomfort and unease in readers and audiences in modern times? And does, still?

Works cited:
  • The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition, 2008.
  • Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human. 1998.
  • Kermode, Frank. Shakespeare's Language. 2000.
  • Maus, Katharine Eisaman, in The Norton Shakespeare (see above).
  • Sinfield, Alan. “How to Read The Merchant of Venice Without Being Heterosexist” in Shakespeare, Feminism and Gender, ed. Kate Chedgzoy. 2001.    
Films seen:

  • BBC, 1980. Director: Jack Gold. Cast: Shylock – Warren Mitchell; Portia – Gemma Jones; Antonio – John-Franklyn Robbins; Bassanio – John Nettles; Nerissa – Susan Jameson; Jessica – Leslee Udwin; Lorenzo – Richard Morant; Gratiano – Kenneth Cranham; Prince of Morocco – Marc Zuber. The first time we saw this I was disturbed by Mitchell's portrayal of a jolly Tevye-like Shylock but this time I saw it differently. In the face of such discrimination as Shylock's is forced to deal with, humor is a way to survive and Mitchel plays that roll with power and subtlety which make the hatred, fury and grief that he expresses now and then all the more gripping. The entire cast is good. Gemma Jones, who plays Portia, is Madame Pomfrey, the nurse, in the Harry Potter movies. John Nettles is the cop in “Murder in Midsommar”.
  • The ultimate version, 2004. Director: Michael Radford. Cast: Shylock – Al Pacino; Portia – Lynn Collins; Antonio – Jeremy Irons; Bassanio – Joseph Fiennes; Nerissa – Heather Goldenhersch; Jessica – Zuleikha Robinson; Lorenzo – Charlie Cox; Gratiano – Kris Marshall; Prince of Morocco – David Harewood. Once you've seen this version it's hard not to see it as exactly the way the play should be done. Al Pacino is absolutely perfect. The whole cast is. However, having now seen it several times, in this viewing I felt that it was just a bit too lush, a bit too beautiful. And there was a bit of unnecessary overkill in giving the historical background of antisemitism in the 16th century. As if the play itself wasn't clear enough. But that's just me being picky.
  • On-stage-filmed, 2001. Director – Trevor Nunn. Cast: Shylock – Henry Goodman; Portia – Derbhle Crotty; Antonio – David Bamber; Bassanio – Alexander Hanson; Nerissa – Alex Kelly; Jessica – Gabrielle Jourdon; Lorenzo – Jack James; Gratiano – Richard Henders; Prince of Morocco – Chu Omambala. One expects a lot of Trevor Nunn, and rightly so. He has done some brilliant productions. That's why I was a bit disappointed by this one, and I don't quite know why. I liked the minimalist stage settings (totally different from the Pacino version). I liked the concept of setting it in some kind of 1930's Germany. I liked the choice of making it nowhere near a comedy and the final scene in which Jessica sings a tragic song in Hebrew while the others, standing motionless on an empty stage staring off into nothingness, will not fade in my memory for a long time. The cast was good, Henry Goodman was a convincing Shylock, and yet. Something didn't mesh. It could simply be the fact that the sound was very poorly recorded, so that either it was impossible to hear what they said, or we had to scramble for the remote control to turn down the blast. Clearly they didn't have their microphones well placed and it was extremely distracting.
Seen on stage: Yes, in 2004 or 2005 at The Swedish Royal Theater, Dramaten in Stockholm. This was before my Shakespeare days but what I remember is the power of the scene where Shylock (played brilliantly by Malin Ek, daughter of the internationally known choreographer Birgit Cullberg) is forced to convert to Christianity. A stark cruel scene that remains clear in my mind.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Monday, March 19 2012

This has been a Merchant-of-Venice-week, with just a few other things.

From the Shakespeare Almanac:

  • On March 13, 1609, Richard Burbage died. A superstar of the day, he was mourned by thousands. He was considered the greatest actor in England. Shakespeare wrote the rolls of Richard III, Hamlet, Othello and King Lear for him.

Shakespeare sightings (again, almost none):

  • A review in DN of a play called “Pre-study for Hamlet” which is about, if I have interpreted it correctly, tearing apart the play Hamlet which is worthless, to built it up again in a relevant version. The critic didn't like it. I probably wouldn't either.
  • In Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Shakespeare sneaks in once in a while but very discretely. For example, one of the characters quotes Richard III but Dickens doesn't tell us what he said.

Further, this week:

  • Watched: the Al Pacino and the Trevor Nunn versions of Merchant of Venice.
  • Finished writing: the rough draft of my text on it.
  • Read aloud with Hal: some the many analyses of it, including Bloom's.
  • Still waiting from Amazon for : In the Bleak Midwinter.
  • Received: Shakespeare Wallah.
  • Received: email from James Harriman-Smith with the information that the introduction to The Comedy of Errors has been posted on Open Shakespeare 
  • Received: my first issue of the magazine from Shakespearesällskapet, which for you non-Swedes means the Shakespeare Society. This issue deals with Coriolanus, the DVD of which is to be released on May 2. It seems there's no modern translation of this play into Swedish.
  • Started reading: Shakespearean Negotiations by Stephen Greenblatt. It's not a thick book but it's going to take me awhile to read it because it's so interesting that I have to keep stopping to think about what I've just read and digest it.

Posted: only this.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Monday, March 12 2012

This week has been an eventful Shakespeare week so I'll get right to it:

From the Shakespeare Almanac:
  • On March 10, 1613, Shakespeare bought an apartment in Blackfriars; his first London property.
  • On March 11, 1574, Shakespeare's second brother, Richard, was christened. Shakespeare was nearly ten.

Shakespeare sightings (back to a more normal number):
  • In John O'Farrell's An Utterly Impartial History of Britain, or 2000 years of Upper Class Idiots in Charge the author agrees with me that Richard II is “excellent and underrated” (and I don't think he's joking – sometimes it's hard to tell) and he later points out that much of what Shakespeare wrote about in his history plays is, in fact, history.
  • In DN it emerges in a long interview that Ben Kingsley was with the Royal Shakespeare Company for many years. Well, of course he was. An actor of his stature? What did you expect?
  • In the grim but fascinating based-on-fact movie Exonerated, one of the falsely accused prisoners got through some rough prison time by reading Shakespeare.
  • In a cultural manifestation of an entirely different kind, the novel Second Coming by John Niven, God thinks things are going pretty well on Earth, what with King Lear having premiered on the London stage, so he figures he can afford to take a vacation for a few hundred Earth years. Well, you've heard the expression all hell breaking loose...You don't have to read this book just because it mentions Shakespeare though. It's macho and childish and not nearly as funny as it should be.
  • With Kalle's help (thanks, Kalle!) our first ever Shakespeare-and-electromagnetism sighting on a really interesting website on which Professor Walter Lewin explains that the name 'displacement current' isn't as important as the phenomenon itself. He goes on to add: “...after all Shakespeare said it himself in Romeo and Juliet: what's in a name?... a rose by any other name would smell as sweet...”

Further, this week:
  • Finished reading aloud with Hal: The Merchant of Venice.
  • Watched: the BBC version.
  • Started writing: my text on it.
  • Now reading aloud with Hal: the many analyses of it, including Bloom's.
  • Still waiting for from Amazon: In the Bleak Midwinter and Shakespeare Wallah.
  • Written and sent, after a series of emails with website co-creator James Harriman-Smith: An introduction to The Comedy of Errors to be posted on the very interesting Open Shakespeare There is a wealth of Shakespeare material on this site. Check it out!
  • Posted: only this.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Monday, March 5 2012

On Friday I showed my history students The Merchant of Venice (the Pacino version), which I do every term when we get to the Renaissance. They were, as previous groups have been, subdued, a little upset, very impressed and somewhat eager to discuss it. I await the analysis I assigned them.

Otherwise it has been another amazingly quiet Shakespeare week.

From the Shakespeare Almanac:

  • On March 3, 1591, Philip Henslowe wrote in his diary about a performance of Henry VI (it doesn't say which part) at the Rose Theater and it is noted in the Almanac that this could possibly be the first performance of a Shakespeare play ever recorded.

Shakespeare sightings (almost none! What's happening out there?):

  • In John O'Farrell's An Utterly Impartial History of Britain, or 2000 years of Upper Class Idiots in Charge – or actually so far only in the blurbs because in the book itself I've only gotten to the father of the future King John – it explains that in the 1590's “A Midsummer Night's Dream is written in order to confuse primary school children whose parents want them to do Shakespeare”.
  • In The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud, a few obscure references are made to Shakespeare, but really I can't be bothered to find them because even they weren't interesting in this so far sadly uninteresting novel, which I bought because it's supposed to be one of the best about 9/11. Maybe it will get interesting but I'm on page 418 and we haven't even come to September.

Further, this week:

  • Still reading aloud with Hal: The Merchant of Venice. Every time Shylock speaks, I hear Al Pacino.
  • Ordered from Amazon (my first time ever and it's not nearly as easy as everyone says!): In the Bleak Midwinter and Shakespeare Wallah.
  • Posted: A review of Will in the World – How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt.

Greenblatt Will in the World

Will in the World – How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt. 2004. Read in December, 2009.

The book represents my first meeting with Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt. It has proven to be a fruitful acquaintance and I often use Greenblatt's analyses in my texts these days.
There are three (at least) strengths in Greenblatt's approach to this book: he is a materialist historian with a profound knowledge of the period, he is a profound Shakespearean and he is a very good writer.

It's fun to read this book, which is jam-packed with historical details. He opens the book with one of them, the first two lines of a nursery rhyme Shakespeare's mother might well have sung to him, “Pillycock, pillycock, sate on a hill/If he's not gone – he sits there still.” This emerges some thirty or so years later, Greenblatt tells us, in King Lear when Poor Tom sings “Pillicock sat on Pillicock-hill” (p.23).

Shakespeare is placed squarely in his time in this book, a time of violence, hierarchy, disease and poverty but also a time of great change and excitement. One of the paradoxes of this society “ - art as the source both of settled calm and of deep disturbance – was central to Shakespeare's entire career...” and “he was simultaneously the agent of civility and the agent of subversion” (page 48).

The book seems to cover everything. On the speculations on Shakespeare's religious beliefs the conclusion is: “If his father was both Catholic and Protestant, William Shakespeare was on his way to becoming neither” (page 113). On the question of love, Shakespeare's view on “intense courting and pleading and longing” is shown to be “one of his abiding preoccupations, [and] one of the things he understood and expressed more profoundly than almost anyone in the world” (page 119). In relating the very complex and generally negative view of marriage in the plays to Shakespeare's own marriage to Anne Hathaway, Greenblatt lands on a very unhappy interpretation which was later refuted by Germaine Greer in her Shakespeare's Wife and I will reserve comment until I get to that book.

But we're still only halfway through the book. Another example. On the anti-antisemitism of Shakespeare's day and the difficulty some modern readers have in reading The Merchant of Venice, for example, Greenblatt writes that “”something enabled him to discover in his stock villain a certain music – the sounds of a tense psychological inwardness, a soul under siege” (page 272) and “he wanted at the same time to call laughter into question, to make the amusement excruciatingly uncomfortable” (page 278). Even though Shylock is indeed a nasty character, “the play gives us too much insight into his inner life, too much of a stake in his identity and fate, to enable us to laugh freely and without pain” (page 286). Maybe I'm emphasizing this because Hal and I are in the middle of reading The Merchant of Venice right now, but these words I find applicable to almost all of Shakespeare.

I really must stop writing or I'll end up making this review as long as the book itself but Greenblatt's ending chapter, “The Triumph of the Everyday” must be mentioned. Shakespeare chose to live out his life far from the glamor and excitement of the London theater world and retired to Stratford for his last years. We don't know why but Greenblatt gives us a reasonable explanation, found in the plays themselves. Yes, Shakespeare loved the exotic, the dramatic, the fantastical and imaginative. But what makes him still read and loved is what he shows us of the everyday, “the ordinariness in the midst of the extraordinary.” Interspersed amongst his kings, queens, nobles, arch-villains and superheros we find the “small talk, trivial pursuits, and foolish games of ordinary people”. He returned home to his wife, his remaining children, his grandchild, his neighbors, as he so often had throughout the years, for the “strange, slightly melancholy dimension, a joy intimately braided together with renunciation...[the] strangeness that hides within the boundaries of the everyday” that characterizes all of his plays, and “that is where he was determined to end his days” (pages 388-390).

This book is vital for anyone interested in Shakespeare and his world.