Shylock Meets Morgana
Stephen Greenblatt is always inspiring. The Harvard Shakespearean has stimulated much of my work on Shakespeare Calling.
But I never expected him to explain Merlin to me.
Merlin. That is to say Merlin, the enormously popular BBC TV series starring Colin Morgan (also Ariel in the Globe’s The Tempest) as the appealing, funny, powerful young warlock in Camelot where witchcraft is forbidden upon pain of death. I came to the series late. We started watching it after all five seasons had been broadcast. Hal and I are now in our second time through, watching two or three episodes four evenings a week. We’re addicted.
What does this have to do with Shakespeare?
That’s where Stephen Greenblatt comes in.
I was calmly, with interest as always, reading the professor’s Shakespeare’s Freedom (fascinating, read it!) and started Chapter Three, “The Limits of Hatred”. On the first three pages a nameless voice tells us about the aliens in our midst who hate us because they are weaker while “we embody the dominant value, embrace the dominant beliefs, control the dominant institutions” (page 49). The reader soon realizes that this is the voice of an Antonio type person explaining the dangers of the presence of the Jews in Venice. It’s a chilling picture and Greenblatt goes on to explain why The Merchant of Venice is more relevant today than ever. Just exchange “Jew” for “Muslim” and you have today’s Western fear for The Other.
And exchange Antonio for Uther Pendragon and Shylock for Morgana and…
“Oh come on,” you might well say.
Yes, you’ll find a lot of holes in my argument but there was a flash of recognition when I read Greenblatt. Uther Pendragon is the king of Camelot. He’s the one with the dominant values, beliefs and institutions and he hates witches and sorcery. He has forbidden all magic, he hunts and kills anyone even slightly suspected of sorcery, but he demands the use of magic for his own purposes when necessary.
Antonio hates, fears and mistreats Jews. His religion condemns usury. But he exploits both when necessary.
Shylock embraces hatred and revenge because of the oppression. Morgana embraces hatred and revenge because of the oppression.
The Merchant of Venice is a comedy that disturbs us deeply. Merlin is a TV adventure series that delights us. There is darkness and tragedy in both. We see why the villains have become villains. We wish they hadn’t become villains. We wish for a happy ending but that’s impossible. It doesn’t happen.
Shakespeare is Shakespeare. Merlin is a popular contemporary TV series. They both grab onto us because we are all close to becoming the hater and the hated. We need to tell these stories and be told these stories. We all need to confront and avert this danger and our fears. In comedies. And in adventure stories.
We are all Uther and Antonio, Shylock and Morgana.
And hopefully a little Merlin too.