Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Arlecchino Meets Shylock

About two years ago, right about the time that I was improvising on the lazzo of la Fame dello Zanni ("The Starving Zanni"), a process that eventually resulted in Arlecchino Am Ravenous, I was also reading Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. As a consequence of this chance juxtaposition, the two have become bound up in my imagination.

The Merchant of Venice's reputation as an anti-Semitic text that relies on anti-Semitic stereotypes and has often been used to deliberately stir up anti-Semitic passions is well known. There are also numerous efforts to acknowledge this history and even find means to create a more complex reading that redeems the play in the eyes of our more modern, liberal sensibilities on ethnic and religious pluralism. After all, it's Shakespeare whom many argue to be the single greatest contributor to English language literature and drama.

Some cite the following passage from Act III, Scene 1 as evidence that Shakespeare was actually philo-Semitic:

Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die?
Often it is quoted in isolation, where it can serve as a powerful statement against antisemitism; that the Jew and the Christian are equally human. Yet the speech continues:
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! The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
The point of the passage was simply to state Shylock's motivation for vengeance after the heroes have lured him away from his house on business, robbed his home, and absconded with and converted his daughter and only heir (thus cutting off all connections with family and tribe) on top of all the indignities of bigotry that he and his community had suffered. Furthermore, Shylock is not treated as fully human until after he has been forcibly converted at the conclusion of the trial in Act IV. Though many commentators have noted that the Christian characters are portrayed as having many of the same vices as Shylock, he cannot receive mercy either before the court or in the divine sense, until he has left Judaism behind and become a Christian. While Shylock is a far more humanized portrayal of a Jewish character than his predecessors in English theatre (Marlowe's The Jew of Malta is so absurdly over-the-top that it was hard for me to be pained by Barabas' villainy) the anti-Semitic logic of the The Merchant of Venice remains: Only the Christian characters are blessed with the grace to be forgiven their vices; only they are fully human. The indignities they visit upon Shylock does not damn them, and in fact, they are oft times portrayed in a positive light because they are Christians. Indeed, the revenge speech indicts Shylock as engaging in hubris simply because he is not made fully human to Shakespeare's contemporary audiences until the end of Act IV when he submits to conversion under threat of death. (Yes, there is a complex set of ironies and contradictions contained within the play, but the anti-Jewish logic remains intact.)

What does this have to do with my portrayal of Arlecchino, the stock character of the commedia dell'arte?

In the full-length version of Arlecchino Am Ravenous (not the abridged ten minute version performed at the PuppetSlam this past weekend) Arlecchino visits both Heaven and Hell in his quest for food. I make no excuses, Arlecchino Am Ravenous is a work of comedic blasphemy and violence. Arlecchino is, unlike Dante Alighieri, an illiterate vulgarian incapable of grasping his journeys into Paradiso and Inferno except in terms of his hungers, lusts, frustrations, and the barely understood parables he's learned from his encounters with clergymen.

As I read The Merchant of Venice two connections struck me. The first was that the Gobbos, father and son, are of the same zanni archetype as Arlecchino. The second was that one epithet slung at Shylock with great frequency is "devil": Sometimes Shylock is said to be like a devil, and sometimes he is explicitly said to be the Devil (and young Launcelot Gobbo has a rather notable comic monologue in which he does just this.) It seemed quite reasonable to me to assume that once Arlecchino, being like the Gobbos, finally meets "Signor Diavolo Lucifero dell'Inferno" that he would say:
Who the diavolo you think you are?

[Smiles in recognition, and bows.]

Oh! Buon Giorno! Signor Diavolo Lucifero dell’Inferno! Everyone say you look like Shylock, but no…

[To audience:]

…Shylock more handsome…

[Back to Lucifer. Mimes putting arm over Lucifer’s shoulder.]

…Signor Diavolo no look like Jew! More like goat.
Once before, at a performance at the Gulu-Gulu Café in Salem, Massachusetts, I self-censored this brief passage. While at Blood for a Turnip, I engaged in no such act of censorship. (The entire journey to Heaven and Hell were left out when I performed at the PuppetSlam the following night, but those cuts were more because of time more than content.)

Obviously, though some of Arlecchino's blasphemy may have shocked some in the audience, it was this brief passage that clearly made some in the audience uncomfortable (as well they should.) My own intent was to portray Arlecchino as being a product of the prejudices of his milieu: 16th century Italy while at the same time giving him the insight that despite what the Venetians of his era say: The Devil doesn't look Jewish, thus the Devil is not a Jew.

But is this what my audience gets from my performance of my play? Is this too much to ask the audience to ponder my meaning in the middle of a half-hour of physical comedy in a monologue conveyed largely in a made-up dialect?

Of course, there is also the question: can I be more clear with my intentions without breaking character?

I do not get a free pass on criticism because I am a Jewish theatre artist, nor do I get a free pass on this because I have taken other theatre artists to task when I have perceived anti-Semitic content (such as Peter Schumann's trivialization of the Holocaust, or Stephen Adly Guirgis' invocation of the deicide charge in Last Days of Judas Iscariot.) I don't get a free pass because Total War is about the historical legacy of antisemitism: While a full accounting would include these; I would still be accountable.

Likewise, to those who might find Arlecchino Am Ravenous' blasphemy disturbing, does my more serious treatment of religion in Total War absolve me? (Probably not.)

Or then again, am I just writing an essay in response to having told a joke in poor taste?

facsimile of the title page of the First Quarto edition of The Merchant of Venice courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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