Shakespeare aftershocks: Shylock.
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? Second, I consider how each of the three, admittedly somewhat random, films replay aspects of The Merchant of Venice in general and of Shylock in particular; this analysis, as I have mentioned above, focuses on aftershock re-imaginings of a pound of flesh bargain, a trial at which judgement of the bargain can be delivered, and the comic punishment of the avaricious and bloodthirsty Shylock substitute. Third, I conclude by speculating on why these kinds of aftershock effects should (re)surface within the last decade; I briefly map a trajectory beginning with 1960s identity politics through to its more widely circulated, if bastardized, expression as political correctness, and then to more recent backlashes provided by anti-PC agendas, and most usefully for this project, to anti-PC comedy. This cultural moment of the (often self-indulgent) comedy of offensiveness is the "perfect" time to aftershock the offensive (Shakespearean) comedy of the past.
Literary and theatrical historians of The Merchant of Venice have often pointed to its insidious influence. Charles Edelman, more generally an apologist for the play in his richly documented production history, cites a letter from Edwin Booth, who played Shylock for most of the second half of the nineteenth century in the United States. Writing to fellow actor Richard Mansfield, Booth perhaps somewhat guiltily ruminates that "it is not easy to estimate how much the antipathies to the Jewish race have been sharpened by those portrayals of the wolf-like ferocity of the one great figure that typifies the spirit of usury" (26). Booth, notes Edelman, sought not to overturn nor deviate from that tradition, but rather, perhaps uncomfortably, to maintain it (26). John Gross observes of these types of traditions that "when it comes to the question of influence, there can be no serious dispute: Shylock has a prominent place in anti-Semitic mythology" (312). And most forcefully, in suggesting that "it would have been better for the last four centuries of the Jewish people had Shakespeare never written this play," Bloom seems to posit the most horrific Shylock aftershock of all, that oft he Holocaust itself (1998, 190). Notwithstanding the inevitable disputation that Gross's phrase "no serious dispute" invites, these protestations offer a serious challenge to those who seek to champion the capaciously wise and human Shakespeare, the author who exposes and critiques, rather than exploits, even revels in, anti-Semitism.
In order to further theorize aftershock effects, to isolate the specific elements of the retold stories Sinfield invokes, I am turning, unsurprisingly, to the critical apparatus of performativity. Indeed, another of Edelman's sources anticipates Judith Butler's seminal dismantling of gender. This time Edelman quotes Desmond McCarthy's review of Maurice Moscovitch's 1919 New York performance, whom McCarthy thought a "realistic Shylock, and being himself a Jew, instinct prompts him to all those gestures and movements which an actor of another race can only acquire by painstaking mimicry" (42). In this example of what might be called "race trouble," it is not "instinct," Jewish or otherwise, which produces the "gestures and movements," but rather the reverse: "painstaking mimicry" creates the impression of a core racial identity, the construction of which is occluded by its own gradual, performative process (Butler 173-77). Shannon Jackson makes explicit this application of the incrementally learned performance of identity to race by explaining that "Performativity names the iterative processes that do the 'institutionalizing' in institutional racism and that do the 'internalizing' in internalized oppression. Racism is thus the ultimate performative" (183; see also, in relation to Merchant, Schulting 67). To apply these difficult notions to my project, I aim to establish connections between the "iterative processes" that have constituted the representation of Shylock, and how they continue iteratively to aftershock. And mindful of W. B. Worthen's observation that "accounts of the 'performative' tend to maintain a literary sense of theatrical performance" these connections will consist not only of textual, narrative, or structural reverberations, but also of repeated enactments--gestures and movements--from the history of Shylock on stage (2003, 4).
It is regularly observed of Shakespeare's Venice that its dramatic urgency is impelled by a symbiosis of thriving mercantilism and cosmopolitanism. The introductions to both the New Cambridge and Oxford editions of Merchant include short sections on the 'myth of Venice,' one aspect of which, notes Jay Hallo, "was the city's reputation for far-flung trade" (25) and another, writes M. M. Mahood, was the "toleration of foreigners" (13). First I will consider the context of cosmopolitan diversity within my three aftershock film texts. Thus, in the same way that Peter Sellars's interventionist production of Merchant sought to capitalize on Shakespeare's fracturing of the ideal of tolerance by updating the setting, in the words of reviewer Richard Zoglin, from "the teeming, multicultural world of 15th century Venice, Italy, to the teeming, multicultural world of 1994 Venice Beach, California" (quoted in Edelman 76; see also Worthen 1997, 76-94), each of my aftershock Shylocks are likewise contextualized by such teeming diversity. A key representative of this racial heterogeneity is a Prince of Morocco-like figure, the unsuccessful and often buffoonish suitor whom Portia dismisses because of his "complexion" (1) (2.7.79). Borat, for instance, informs his viewers that "Next morning I interview a politician who is a genuine chocolate face ... no make-up." The most insistent criticism of racial stereotyping in The Phantom Menace was not, at least initially, directed at the subject of this article, the slave trader Watto, but at Jar jar Binks, "the childlike sidekick with the unmistakably West Indian accent and enormous buttocks" (Gottlieb par. 5). Will Brooker charts twenty of the online reviews of this film and finds that "fourteen identified Jar Jar Binks as a potentially offensive stereotype of black culture" (17). Brooker himself is more offended by the "infantile humour" (17) Jar Jar brings to a favourite film franchise, a charge perhaps also leviable (if you will excuse the metaphor) to the two main "black" characters featured in Tropic Thunder. at least they are, in my opinion, very funny.
Tropic Thunder is a film about making an epic, but shambolic Vietnam War film. One of the (inner) film's fictional stars is a young black rap singer called Alpa Chino, whose public image of rampantly hyperhetero-sexualized stud belies his closeted homosexuality, but helps to sell his brand products, the sports drink "Booty Sweat" and the energy bar "Bust a Nut." He is in the background, however, to Kirk Lazarus, an ultra-committed method and a multi-award winning actor who declares at one stage that "I don't read the script, the script reads me." Lazarus is a white Australian--an upstart Crowe, if you will--who as an entertainment bulletin reveals "underwent a controversial pigmentation alteration procedure in order to play the African American platoon sergeant Lincoln Osiris." Lazarus's performance is one of painstaking mimicry, much to the annoyance of his inexperienced, if at least actually black, co-star. When another soldier on the tour of duty begins a complaint with the generic phrase "you people," Lazarus stops him, insulted and ready to retaliate: "what do you mean, 'you people?'" he challenges. Alpa is unable to remain silent. Of Lazarus he asks, "what do you mean, you people?" The two of them continue to bicker throughout the adventure, Alpa's insult of "koala-huggin' nigga" eliciting from Lazarus a meditation on the rise from slavery, the liberating insights of which are taken, as Alpa points out, from the opening to the 80s TV show Diff'rent Strokes.
If Jar Jar and Kirk Lazarus are descendants of the often preposterous and exoticized Morocco--and, of course, the original Morocco would also have undergone "pigmentation alteration"--the Asian stereotypes in these films have less identifiable antecedents. In both of my main film texts, The Phantom Menace and Tropic Thunder, the "Asian" characters represent the worst excesses of "far-flung trade," prepared for the sake of wealth and power to steal, murder, invade and conquer. Bruce Gottlieb sarcastically observes of the Neimoidians from the Phantom Menace that they are "evil mercantilists whose technologically advanced robots enslave a peace-loving nation and all at the bidding of a man known as 'Emperor,'" and that "Oh, right, the mercantilists also have slanty eyes, wear long robes, and talk just like Charlie Chan" (par. 2). Flaming Dragon, or Fwaming Dwagon as each of its coterie refer to themselves, is the heroin factory gang stumbled upon by the actors in Tropic Thunder. They capture one of the leads and force him to re-enact his most bathetic role, as it is the film they have watched over and over and love, the Oscar-hunting, but obviously execrable Simple Jack. Thus, rapacious and ruthless greed is not the only connection between Flaming Dragon and the Neimoidians; they are also comically inept. When the galactic take-over seems not to be going to plan the Neimoidian lords mumble about wishing they'd never gotten involved in all this tricky empire-building, whilst the Dragons are bested by a handful of unarmed prima donnas. In this, the Asian stereotypes from the films, murderously focused on financial gain and yet fumblingly unable to fulfil their evil ambitions, forecast and contextualize Shylock aftershocks.
Of the three films I am discussing, Borat, made by Four by Two productions, offers the least concentrated of Shylock aftershocks, but their effects are definitely located within this triangulation of money-obsession, murderous intent and comic ineptitude. There are several references to Shylock-like figures in the film, a key strategy of which is to set up such figures in order to expose the Gratianos who hatefully mock them. The most famous and oft-clicked YouTube example of this is Borat's invitation to a red-neck crowd to join him in joyously singing "Throw the Jew down the well." This is akin to Antony Sher's strategy of playing Shylock whereby, according to James C. Bulman, "he goaded audiences with stereotypes only to probe the nature of their own prejudices." However, during the enforced conversion, Sher "noted with dismay that," in a way similar to the whole-hearted singers just mentioned, "audiences spontaneously applauded this moment" (117, 119). The first such incident in the film occurs very early when Borat documents the "Running of the Jew" festival in his rural home town. A man wearing an oversized mask, the features of which are ringlets, fangs, a long hooked nose and horns, runs down the street chased by children. Borat comments, "Whoa, he nearly got the money there." He is followed by Mrs Jew, who squats and lays basketball-sized eggs: then, at Borat's exhortation, the eggs are zestfully crushed by the children lest their demonic offspring hatch. The production history of Merchant is replete with this kind of imagery, a carnivalesque comedy of abjection (see Bristol [on Othello] 142-58), most often deployed as the interpolated action of Shylock's return from dining with Antonio or his response to Jessica's elopement. Edelman cites the long history of this staging of the dark side of the carnival, including "Hall's masquers [who] presented an ominous aspect with death's-head costumes, wielding bloody scythes" in 1989, and Doran's 1997 production which "pointed to Jessica's rejection of her faith by having his masquers wear pig's heads and carry (presumably pork) sausages on poles" (153). From the theatrical diary of Gordon Crosse, Edelman records a 1935 production in which Shylocks tormentors were "in evening dress and comic noses" and "coming home drunk from the Carnival" and which reminded him of Andrei Serban's 1998 production, in which the Salads were in masquerade and drag outfits (162). The "Running of the Jew" festival reminds me most forcefully of the 2007 new Globe production, in which John McEnery's wiry Shylock was buffeted in his attempts to return home from dining with Antonio by twelve-foot high carnival effigies of Jewish devilry.
Borat's travels across America must be conducted in a van because he is afraid to fly in case the Jews repeat the atrocities of 9/11. En route, he and his producer check in for the night at a very hospitable Bed and Breakfast. This is until he notices and enquires about a painting on the wall of a very majestic figure, who, in the context of this article, resembles paintings of Henry Irving's Victorian Shylock. The figure, it turns out, is a Yemenite Jew and a jeweller by trade. Aghast, and within the relative safety of their shared bedroom, Borat informs his producer that "They're Jews; they'll kill us" and that "One of them is in the shape of a little old woman; you can barely see the horns." The gentle old couple bring a simple supper up to the room which Borat pretends to eat, obviously haunted by medieval and Marlovian notions of well-poisoning. In a clever homage to The Blair Witch Project (1999), which should have made film-maker Baron Cohen's satirical intentions clear, Borat cowers before two bugs who crawl under his door and which he supposes are the Jews transmogrified. "How much should I give them?" he asks of the producer as he throws dollar bills at them. This aspect of the Shylock mythology--of dreaming of money-bags (2.5.18)--informs my last example, one which has not, as far as I can tell, been commented on within debates about the film and anti-Semitism. After their infamous naked hotel bedroom brawl, in which Borat's pound of flesh is tastefully hidden and the producer's manifold many folds of flesh are on full view, the enraged combatants unwittingly gate-crash a respectable seminar in the hotel, still both naked and hot-headed. After a moment of initial stunned incredulity, they are ejected from the Mortgage Brokers' Annual Banquet.
Borat creates Shylock aftershocks indirectly by association and implication; in The Phantom Menace and Tropic Thunder there are specific, and specifically comic, figures--respectively, Watto, the slave trader, and Les Grossman, film producer--who dream of money-bags and will traffic in human flesh to accumulate them. Watto is the owner of Anakin Skywalker (who will become Darth Vader) and his mother, and he trades not just in human life, but in anything that will fetch a price. He is a Toydarian, a flying reptilian species with, like the carnival-effigy Jew, a large hooked nose and pronounced fangs. Just prior to the release of the film, Jonathan Tobin wrote of the "obsessive need" of some critics to identify "patently ridiculous" evidence of anti-Semitism in science fiction films, particularly, Star Wars and Star Trek. Perhaps, though, with the representation of Watto, he may have wished to revise his forecast that "Those paranoids who want to find anti-Semitism or positive Jewish influences in 'The Phantom Menace' will probably be able to find something if they look hard enough" (pars. 6, 16). This statement, it seems to me, parallels Edelman's inopportune prediction, made two years before the release of Michael Radford's film starring Al Pacino as Shylock, that "There has never been a major feature film of The Merchant of Venice, and given the sensitivity of the play's subject matter, it is very unlikely that one will ever be made" (86). In any case, several critics, paranoid or not, were unequivocal in their assessment of the character's pernicious foundations. Tom Crippen argues that "Watto the Jew Slave Trader is a note-by-note recreation and his source would be anti-Semitic propaganda" (par. 1), and Jane Prettyman is even more definitive:
Watoo's [sic] characterization goes way beyond the amusing allusion we occasionally see, picking up nearly every negative trait associated with Jews accumulated over centuries in cartoons and caricatures. He's supposed to elicit a humorous response and initially he does, until we begin to sense his seriousness, his total lack of morality, his deep badness which becomes obvious when he is poised opposite the deep goodness of the Christ-like figure of Jedi master, Qui-Gon Jinn, played by Liam Neeson. (par. 4)
Watto's chief "negative trait" is, of course, a money-bags personality. The first view of him in his shop is with a calculator, obviously working out profits. This recalls several first viewings of Shylock, as revealed by Edelman's accumulation of reviews: Antony Sher (1987) wrote Michael Coveney, "was discovered in a day bed, flicking at an abacus, surrounded by scales and books"; Ron Liebman (1995) observed M. L. Ranald was "in his counting house, with beam and balance scale"; and, David Calder (1993) writes Edelman himself "did calculations on his computer" (110, 115). The Jedi Qui-Gon visits Watto's shop because he needs parts for his damaged spacecraft. As they discuss the situation, Watto advises that "You might as well buy a new ship; it would be cheaper, I think." When Qui-Gon discovers that his currency has no value for Watto he attempts to persuade him with the trademark magic of the force but to no avail. Watto is adamant that "Mind tricks don't work on me, only money ... No money, no part, no deal." Moreover, he appeals to his race as the reason for his immunity to such manipulation, protected as he is by an all-consuming Toydarian commitment to wealth. As Qui-Gon is forced by this intractability into bargains of escalating risk Watto chuckles to his slave Anakin, "Better stop your friend's betting or I'll end up owning him too," a follow up to his earlier cod-Shakespearean comment that "Your friend is a foolish one, methinks." And this is not the end of Watto's linguistic echoes of his early modern epicentre. Each of his comments about financial transactions are followed by "uh" sounds, eerily reminiscent of Shylocks "well" as he considers the loan and its terms (1.3.1, 3, 5). Also in this vein is his response to losing all of his wealth, more of which below. He waves an accusing finger at the Jedi and bemoans, "You swindled me. You knew the boy would win ... I've lost everything." These words, in the context of this article, are an aftershock of Shylock's pain at losing his daughter and wealth: "You knew, none so well, none so well as you, of my daughter's flight ... loss upon loss ... I shall never see my gold again" (3.1.20-21, 72, 87).
Les Grossman, the producer of the film within the film Tropic Thunder, is not one to lose money. He is introduced courtesy of a quick close-up on Forbes magazine--famous for its rich-lists and motto of "The Capitalist Tool"--its front cover featuring Grossman's smiling face and the caption of:
The Man who RULES Tinsel Town
* He doesn't like agents
* He doesn't like actors
* He does like money
* And power ... and
Has plenty of both.
As a demonstration of this attitude Grossman's first scene is a teleconference with the Vietnam film set, the chaos and ensuing waste of investment at which has resulted in his aggressive intervention. When he identifies the novice and profligate director, hired presumably because he was cheap, he demands that the key grip "smash him in the face really, really fucking hard," an action instantly executed. He continues in this vicious mode, with the vast majority of his vitriol emphasized by corporal, if not anatomical, violence. His advice on reining in a self-indulgent actor is to "spank his ass," but his threat to the director if he fails to achieve this is a much more graphic rectal violation. Where money is concerned Grossman is completely without scruple.
In the same way that Watto escaped censure relative to the critical mauling of Jar Jar Binks, attention on Grossman was deflected by the controversy generated by Tropic Thunder's "full retard" speech, which had many disability advocacy groups enraged. Thus, writes Patrick Goldstein,
Only one critic ... got around to criticizing the film for insulting Jews, describing Tom Cruise's portrayal of a noxious studio executive as a 'grotesque stereotype, heavily and heavy-handedly coded as Jewish' from 'his swollen fingers to the heavy gold dollar-sign nestled on his yeti-furred chest.' (par. 6)
"Coded" is perhaps not quite the correct word here, at least outside of cinema studies discourse: it is arguable that Watto is coded Jewish; it is undeniable that Grossman--there are all sorts of clues in the name--is Jewish and there is no code to decipher. Perhaps this, and the fact that he succeeds where Watto fails, accounts for less localized Shylock aftershocks, specific linguistic and narrative echoes which I have described above. Grossman does, however, share the crucial aftershock effect, that of a pound-of-flesh-driven trial scene.
None of the reviewers who identify anti-Semitism in the films discussed here refer to Shylock by name, which is perhaps surprising given, but also, to some extent, explained by, Marjorie Garber's assertion that "Shylocks dictionary entry is so politically incorrect, and yet so pervasive. Although the word is not often heard today, Shylock himself is never wholly out of sight, or out of mind" (145). Florida politicians have recently acted to remove one such legal "dictionary entry." Josh Hafenbrack reports that "Citing Florida's rich diversity, Gov. Charlie Crist signed a bill Monday removing the terms 'shylock' and 'shylocking' from state law," and that "State lawmakers inserted the term, synonymous with loan shark, into Florida's usury laws in 1969," but were convinced by the Anti-Defamation League that the language "reinforced negative stereotypes about Jews as 'money hungry'" (pars. 1, 3). Volumes of Gratiano-like responses to this legislative revision can be viewed at websites such as the Vanguard News Network or the Orlando Sentinel. The neat irony of "Shylock" being associated with usury legislation, of course, is his continuing presence at trial scenes.
In The Phantom Menace the trial is figured thus: Shylock = Watto; Antonio = Qui Gon; Bassanio = Anakin; elements of Portia are spread between Qui Gon, Anakin and the disguised Queen Amidala. The trial itself is a pod-race, a Star Wars version of the Indianapolis 500 and a smash 'em up derby. I will recount the set up of the trial:
* Qui Gon (QG) needs parts for his damaged spaceship.
* Watto has the parts but QG has insufficient credit to purchase them.
* To gain the credit, QG proposes that Anakin, who is the property of Watto, enter and try to win the cash prize of the pod-race (which is the subject of feverish gambling despite the fact that the nefarious Sebulba always wins).
Qui Gon enters, or draws Watto into, three bonds of escalating significance:
* Bond 1: QG offers his ship as collateral for the race entry fee and the pod-racer itself, which he deceives Watto into thinking is his, when it actually belongs to Anakin. Watto's half of the bargain is to provide the boy Anakin as pod-racing driver and they will split the winnings if successful.
* Bond 2: Watto pays the entry fee with cash. If Anakin wins the race Watto keeps all of the proceeds, except for the money needed to buy the parts. If the boy loses--and he has never actually finished a race--QG will forfeit his spaceship--an aftershock pound of flesh--to Watto.
* Bond 3: QG bets the pod-racer, which is not his, against the boy's life. If he wins Anakin is no longer a slave, a second pound of flesh.
The dramatic structure of the trial is inevitable: the Toydarian / Jew seems in complete control--Anakin appears unlikely to improve on his record of never having finished a race--until at the very end he prevails and Watto is left with nothing, having wagered all on Sebulba as well as his contracts with the Jedi. Broken, he complains to Qui Gon that "You can't have him. It wasn't a fair bet," a reverberation of the dramaturgical odds stacked against Shylock (see Palfrey and Stern, 192-212). When Gratiano gloats in court that "Now, infidel, I have you on the hip" (4.1.330) his words are an aftershock of Shylocks own hateful soliloquising, "If I can catch him once upon the hip, / I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him" (1.3.38-39). Gratiano's taunt works as a reply to Shylock, especially as he has relentlessly mocked him with his own words once the courtroom balance of power irrevocably shifts. The problem with this is that Gratiano has not heard Shylock mouth these words about the "hip": they are in soliloquy and he is not on stage. Apologists for the play will argue perhaps that it is a common phrase--one that is performatively passed on, perhaps--but this is not how such a device works in the theatre: the audience hears Gratiano ramming Shylocks words down his throat because the play is on his side and he is privy to its dramatic ironies. Similarly, though there is tension equivalent to the possibility of Antonio losing his life, the structure of the film, the demands of the fairy-tale, assure the audience that Watto will get his comeuppance. Qui Gon responds to Watto's last act of defiance in not honouring the bond and keeping the boy by appealing to the indisputable law of the Hutts, who will indubitably offer a Doge of Venice-like justice. "Take him," says the bowed Watto and you can almost hear the echo of "I am content."
Grossman's is an altogether different story, but the trial figures still feature prominently: Shylock = Grossman; Antonio = Tugg Speedman, the lead actor captured by heroin manufacturers, Flaming Dragon; Bassanio (and Portia) = Rick Peck, Speedman's agent. This time the trial is a ransom demand situation. Of specific interest here is an online earlier draft of the film, in which the role of studio head is taken by Voice of Todd. No actor appears and there is no ransom/trial scene. Thus, in a manner akin to consideration of the sources of Shakespeare's plays as clues to his intentions, dramaturgical choices and skill in re-structuring such material, this draft version of Tropic Thunder demonstrates that the trial scene is only incorporated/made possible via the creation of the monstrous Jewish producer. The set-up of the scene is quite simple: Speedman separates from the rest of the actors in the jungle and is captured by Flaming Dragon (he thinks this is part of the cinema verite approach of the, unbeknownst to him, already-dead, film director).
The actual trial scene begins with Peck, the agent, entering uninvited into Grossman's office. He is upset that Speedman has not been furnished with a TiVo digital video recorder whilst on the set of Tropic Thunder. Grossman is on the phone threatening another client with a pound of flesh discourse: "I'm gunna rip your fucking tits off, you wanna talk about trouble, that's trouble." Interrupted in full flow by Peck's protestations, Grossman holds the phone and responds, "Listen fuckstick, I'm incredibly busy so why don't you get the hell out of here before I snap your dick off and jam it in your ass." His caller thinks that he is still talking to him/ her and so he continues into the phone, "No, not you, but I will rip your tits off." All of this remarkably hostile language aftershocks the desire to claim a pound of flesh and in both of these examples, it is sexualized flesh. Grossman's phone continues to run hot when Flaming Dragon calls demanding $100 million to avert Speedman's execution. Peck thinks that Flaming Dragon is a rival agency attempting to poach Speedman, but Grossman's assistant, Rob Slolom, explains that they are in fact a "heroin manufacturer responsible for an eighth of the drug trade in Asia--huge profit margins." Peck begs Grossman to intercede for Speedman--a member, of course, of his own tribe--but his response to the Dragons' demands maintains the flesh-tearing imagery:
Great. Ah, let me get this down. One hundred million dollars. Oh wait, I got a better idea. Instead of a hundred million dollars how about I send you a hobo's dick cheese, then you kill him, do your thing, skin the fuckin' bastard, go to town. Go to town! In the mean time, and as usual, go luck yourself.
Peck is aghast, but Grossman calmly proclaims, "We don't negotiate with terrorists." Peck appeals to some kind of "quality of mercy" by insisting, "They're gunna kill him," but given that the film (within the film) is in complete disarray and bound to lose Grossman considerable money, he responds, "And ... we will weep for him in the press, set up a scholarship in his name. Eventually, and I'm talking way, way down the road we file an insurance claim." Slolom chips in with "Probably before the end of the fiscal year. Actually, that claim alone would net us more than the movie would lose." At this prospect Grossman begins a grotesque ass-spanking dance, perhaps a bizarre and perverse, if very faint, echo of Shylock's sometimes (predominantly nineteenth century) zealous in-court sharpening of his knife. And trying to win Peck over to this course of non-action, and the sacrificing of Speedman's pound of flesh, Grossman offers him a personal airplane for his silence. "Ask and you shall receive," teases Grossman, proving Antonio's claim that "The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose" (1.3.90). In the end Peck performs Portia-like heroics, flies to Vietnam, and assists the actors in their escape from the Flaming Dragon stronghold. This, however, turns into an even bigger story, the eventual film of the film of the film, Tropic Thunder, which nets eight Oscars, including one for Speedman and $400 million in profits for Grossman. As the final credits roll Grossman reprises his dance, a large gold dollar sign necklace glistening as he thrusts and gyrates.
I began with three wise critics--Bloom, Sinfield, Mallin--to whom I now return in order to structure some concluding remarks on why the kinds of Shylock aftershocks I have discussed should appear over the course of the past decade. I began this article by outlining a lineage from 1960s identity politics to political correctness to the anti-PC backlash, particularly in American universities and media in the 1990s, and finally to anti-PC comedy. I cannot do justice to this complex genealogy, but I would like to trace some of its features via its various expressions within Shakespeare studies and production. Responsible for co-editing Political Shakespeare." Essays in cultural materialism (1st edition, 1985), Alan Sinfield metonymically represents (for me) Shakespeare + identity politics, especially as encapsulated in the oft-quoted ideal of cultural materialism, the "commitment to the transformation of a social order which exploits people on the grounds of race, gender and class" (Dollimore and Sinfield viii). This book was obviously a catalyst for a series of similarly-themed publications (see Taylor 183-92) and the subsequent pedagogies based on, and inspired by, them. By contrast, the anti-PC agenda is here represented, especially via a re-investment in a traditional canon, by Harold Bloom. Five years before the publication of the much-read work with which I began this article, Bloom published The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (1995), which, unsurprisingly, places Shakespeare at the centre of twenty-six "great writers." Other scholars who might be enlisted in this cause are Brian Vickers, whose Appropriating Shakespeare: Contemporary Critical Quarrels (1994) contests the alleged omissions and misrepresentations of the post-structuralist (or identity politics / PC) Shakespeareans, or Jonathan Bate, whose The Genius of Shakespeare (1997) essays perhaps a more measured and qualified re-assertion of Shakespeare's pre-eminence. Finally, there is Eric Mallin, here representative of the transmutation from anti-PC to anti-PC comedy, an altogether different beast. Mallin is the author of the delightfially iconoclastic Godless Shakespeare (2007), which professes "atheist leanings and the fiction of divinity" (10), and he is the convenor of the upcoming SAA seminar on "Shakespeare and the Perverse": if any Shakespeare scholar parallels anti-PC comedy, perhaps rivalled by Richard Burt, and I mean this as a considerable compliment, it is Mallin.
I suggest that a faultline very similar to that beneath the ground of The Merchant of Venice has lately been disturbed, a disturbance which perhaps originates with identity politics and culminates in anti-PC comedy. Identity politics, especially within a Shakespeare studies context, might be figured as an explosive lowered into the early modern period, some leagues beneath the cultural accretions of the last four centuries. Its detonation produces much ground-breaking and landscape-changing work, especially on texts such as The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew and Othello. Part of the landscape shift, and not solely attributable to this movement or period, is of genre-change: thus Merchant and Shrew have often been read or played as tragedies or at least as foregrounding their tragic elements, and Othello has even been read and played for its underlying comic potential (see Bristol, Kiernander). The movement from identity politics to political correctness might be charted by the ideological implications of theatrical casting: this period witnesses the decline of blacked up Othellos (despite Hugh Quarshie's protestations; see Quarshie 18), a practice often echoed by the casting of Shylock with Jewish actors; it also evidences all-female productions of Shrew, such as at the new Globe in 2003 (see Shand) or in the 2009 Bell Shakespeare Company touring production. These various practices, either inspired by, or made as concessions to, political correctness have inevitably elicited a critical response, the tenor of which has been either "neo-con" or "neo-com."
The most obvious neo-conservative response to the perceived or real threat that PC Shakespeare poses is to recuperate the plays via a re-endorsement of Shakespeare's transcendence, a strategy which, wittingly or not, tends to efface the historical contingencies which PC Shakespeare has sought both to underline and problematize. Though a complex example, Michael Radford's film of Merchant (2004) represents just such a response for even as it seeks to historicize the anti-Semitism which Pacino's Shylock suffers, its, to my mind, shameful sanitization of other unpleasant features of the play displaces these prejudices away from the text-that is, from Shakespeare--and onto the background of the filmic text. Thus, non-Shakespearean characters (with occasional exceptions) can spit on the Venetian Jews or throw them into the canals, but Portia's unsavouriness is deleted, Gratiano is a comic buffoon without any real threat or malice, and Antonio becomes a Christ-like, Qui-Gon-like messianic figure: this is what I think Arnold Wesker would call a "dishonest" production of the play (see Jones 124) and one which mitigates Shakespeare's participation in its ugliness. The neo-comic or anti-PC comedy response, by marked contrast, deploys irreverent and grotesque exaggeration, the exploitation of social taboos and the shouting of the un-sayable. Such a production was Malachi Bogdanov's (2001) which opened with Bassanio performing oral sex on Antonio and a Portia who was clearly pregnant and desperately in need of a husband; obviously not for all tastes. Morocco was a Rastafarian puppet with a foot-long spliff and Shylock himself was played in a similarly confronting manner, utilizing comic stereotyping in order to assert an aggressive agency. Nevertheless, at the end of the trial scene he was crucified on the upstage wall and remained there until the play's conclusion.
My argument has been that in arriving at anti-PC comedy, via PC and its discontents, a postmodern equivalent to early modern and un reconstructed comedy has unearthed the perfect context for Shylock, in all of his anti-PC excess, to aftershock. Here and now, like there and then, a perceived threat of cross-racial mobility and prosperity is resisted, endorsed, exorcized by a comedy of offensiveness. Thus, the worldview, common but different, which informs The Merchant of Venice, Borat, The Phantom Menace, Tropic Thunder, drunken Mel Gibson, and Oxford University Rugby Club "Come as an Orthodox Jew" (with money-bags) parties--that Jewish identity is compromised or marked by an essentialized, sometimes blood-thirsty avarice--is manifested by performative retellings of that story within these aftershock contexts. The Star Wars world is, to recall Sinfield, "conservative-minded" and repackages the story in its "old shape," unintentionally, it would seem, conjuring comic and anti-politically correct representations of Jewish, Asian and black identities. But this is not anti-PC comedy on the scale of Borat or Tropic Thunder, in these films the representations are extreme, offensive and, for the most part, intended. In this case, Tropic Thunder perhaps offers what Sin field calls a "dissident perspective" (46), facilitated, in Jackson's summary of Butler, via "a type of hyperbolic gesture, a spectacle that might expose habituated citational scripts" (190). Of course, given that one side of the faultline is caricature and the other character, in both early modern and postmodern representations, the dividing line is fine and invites a spectrum of readings, some appalled, some approved, some aggrieved, some agreed.
A last word from my three synecdochal critics: Sinfield's statement that "the social order cannot but produce faultlines through which its own criteria of plausibility fall into contest and disarray" (45; emphasis original) is conclusively instructive for this article. This observation shifts a burden-of-proof discourse--do these examples really originate from Shakespeare?--to one of narrative or performative inevitability: whilst the plausibility of the anti-Semitic story retains its momentum, a momentum at least partially driven by Shakespeare, equally it must either reproduce or deconstruct itself. Thus, Bloom might also have written on Shakespeare and the invention of the non/sub/in-human, Shylock and Grossman included. Finally, Mallin characterizes his reading of Memento as Hamlet as an example of "ontological overlap" (2009, Abstract). Here, that phrase resonates, even aftershocks, doubly: for just as Star Wars--Episode 1 provides just such an overlap with Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, so too does it perpetuate, or overlap, an ontology aptly described as a menacing phantom.
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La Trobe University
(1) All quotations are from Charles Edelman's Shakespeare in Production edition of the play.
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|Title Annotation:||Shakespeare ON SCREEN; William Shakespeare|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2009|
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