Shakespeare and the Politics of Culture in Late Victorian England, by Linda Rozmovits
The title of this compact and elegant study is misleadingly broad. The first chapter does indeed attest that Shakespeare's moral authority had attained a quasi-religious stature by mid-nineteenth century, but the remaining chapters of the book focus on a single work, The Merchant of Venice. With a sure grasp of cultural history, Rozmovits shows how this play, frequently produced on stage and regularly taught in classrooms, helped Victorian England reflect on the roles of women and Jews in a modern liberal society between 1870 and 1920.
Rozmovits's second chapter, "Portia: The White Woman's Burden," situates the play's heroine in the debate over the changing status of women. Whereas some viewed the Lady of Belmont as a model of the New Woman, most Victorians considered her a rejoinder to that movement, an emblem of female submissiveness. For them, her most significant action was not her donning male disguise to defeat Shylock in the trial scene of Act 4, nor her clever disclosure of that triumph in Act 5, but her betrothal speech, where she surrenders "myself and what is mine" to her husband, i.e., "her lord, her governor, her king." Whether submissive or assertive, Portia evoked more conversation about the appropriate degree of independence for unmarried women than Shylock did about the appropriate treatment of Jewish aliens in a Christian society. Today, despite our own feminist movement, the emphasis is on the Jewish question, and even Rozmovits takes half of her book to explain how Victorians used Shylock to think about England's growing Jewish population.
Rozmovits describes the critical and commercial success of Henry Irving's landmark productions of the play over a twenty-five-year period and summarizes the artistic choices he made to render Shylock sympathetic and the play tragic. Were interested readers to consult standard stage histories of the play by Toby Lelyveld and James Bulman, they might conclude that she gives insufficient credit to Edmund Kean for being the first to break with the deeply ingrained stage tradition of the villainous Jew in his production of 1814. They might also challenge Rozmovits's belief that Irving cut the play's fifth act only during the opening run, and they might also discover that one of Irving's most memorable bits of stage business, "Shylock silently walking in the moonlight across the bridge and deserted streets to his home" (p. 74), from which Jessica has eloped, was borrowed from Verdi's Rigoletto. Rozmovits claims that Irving reduced Shylock's references to his daughter in order to marginalize Jessica, first for her disobedience in eloping with a Christian and second for entering an "interracial" marriage. Unfortunately, the passages in question also contain bawdy puns ("stones"= testicles, "flesh"=penis), and so invited excision on grounds of taste and propriety, which (she agrees) was common practice at the time. Rozmovits's case for the marginalizing of Jessica seems surer for Victorian school texts, whose editors pruned her lines and contrasted her disloyalty with Portia's obedience. …