Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

Shakespeare Aftershocks: Shylock

Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

Shakespeare Aftershocks: Shylock

Article excerpt

My argument is simple and oft-rehearsed: that Shakespeare is, in Harold Bloom's words, so "perpetually pervasive" (1998, 4) that his stories, characters, and ideas continue to circulate and reverberate, in performed and other types of representation, throughout contemporary western culture. As an especial measure of this pervasiveness I am interested, in this article, in those reverberations--what I am calling "aftershocks"--which make no conscious connection to, or acknowledgement of, the source which helps to register their impact (Gather xviii). The idea behind the aftershocks is that Shakespeare's plays, and especially controversial ones most visibly and differently marked by their culture, provide an earthquake-like impact, the vibrations of which continue to echo throughout history. The aftershocks that I will describe are faint enough to sound no explicit connection to their centre and yet they reverberate in specifically similar patterns. Man Sinfield's Faultlines, of course, speaks directly to this theme. The faultlines Sinfield describes are ideological formations which, pressured by unfolding historical--social, cultural, material--forces, crack under the weight that is required to maintain them. He writes, appositely for my project, of how stories work within culture:

   When part of our worldview threatens disruption by manifestly
   failing to cohere with the rest, then we reorganize and retell its
   story, trying to get it into shape--back into the old shape if we
   are conservative-minded, or into a new shape if we are more
   adventurous (46).

I am interested here in reorganizations and retellings of the ideologically incoherent story of The Merchant of Venice, both old and new shapes, "conservative-minded" and "more adventurous." Eric Mallin's daring reading of the backwards-playing revenge film Memento typifies this more adventurous mode of retelling and might be characterized as an exploration of aftershocks. He announces that "Christopher Nolan's Memento (Sony Pictures, 2000) is Hamlet" with the qualification that "Lacking any reference to the language or, narrowly construed, the plot of Shakespeare's tragedy, Memento manages a thrilling dissection and near-reassembly of several of Hamlet's crucial features" (2009, Abstract). Here, I will be dissecting the "near-reassembly" of Shakespeare's infamous Jewish usurer Shylock in three contemporary films: Star Wars: Episode 1--The Phantom Menace (1999); to a lesser extent Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006); and Tropic Thunder (2008).

I should perhaps offer a brief explanation of my choice of films. Borat, of course, screams anti-Semitic controversy not less vehemently than Laurence Olivier's vanquished and exiting Shylock in Jonathan Miller's Victoria-era production of 1970 (see Edelman 241). The other two films, The Phantom Menace and Tropic Thunder, likewise attracted such, if less demonstrable, critical attention for their stereotypical representation, whether knowingly ironic or unwittingly distasteful, of Jewish identities. I confess, however, that on first viewing these films in the cinema I failed to observe the inglorious subtexts that so angered more attuned and perceptive critics. Intrigued by these responses, my initial investigation into contemporary expressions of anti-Semitic stereotypes was sharpened by their, at times, uncannily specific replication of Shakespeare's entry within this exhaustive canon: for both of these films replay, in Mallin's phrase, the "crucial features" of Shylock, here a flesh-bond narrative, within which is structured a trial scene and comic humiliation. In what follows I am attempting three things. First, I propose a model for understanding aftershocks, how, in other words, Shylock figures might appear in contemporary films, films that are in no way the 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) or O (2001) versions of The Merchant of Venice; how does Shakespeare seemingly ghost-write Hollywood screenplays without their author's or authors' knowledge or consent? …

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