Friday, 10 June 2016

If you prick us, do we not bleed?

Shakespeare’s humanity
We are all the same under the sun. Britons, Europeans, Asians, Americans, Africans. We have all arrived by meandering means in the countries of our birth through migration, intermarriage and emigration. The descendants of “true Brits” are now largely in Cornwall, Wales, Cumbria, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The rest of us in England are the mixed-race children of Celts, Romans, Frisians, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Vikings, Normans, Flemings, Africans, Jews, Huguenots, Poles and Indians – all in significant groups of invaders or immigrants before 1960. Barabas in Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, Donald Trump-like, rejects compassion, love and hope. Shylock in The Merchant of Venice reminds us, Eddie Izzard-like, that we are all “healed by the same means.” I’ll be Voting Remain because that’s what Shakespeare would have voted and because I’m persuaded by History, Culture and my Hope for the Future of Mankind, never mind Europe.
The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe

Be moved at nothing

Christopher Marlowe’s main character in The Jew of Malta is Barabas. What actions does Barabas take during the play, that make him such a villain?:
  • he murders his own daughter, Abigail, along with a whole convent of nuns
  • he engineers the deaths of two young friends in a duel
  • he murders two friars, two prostitutes and his own servant
  • he burns alive a Turkish troop of soldiers and galley-slaves
  • and he delights in his evil plots and is unambiguously hateful.
The only thing you can say in Barabas’s defence is that everyone around him is equally corrupt. (Maybe not the poisoned nuns or the incinerated galley-slaves….) His overall message is pitiless:
First, be thou void of these affections,
Compassion, love, vain hope, and heartless fear;
Be moved at nothing, see thou pity none,
But to thyself smile when the Christians moan.
Shylock, the sympathetic villain in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice

If you tickle us, do we not laugh?

Comparing Shakespeare’s dramatic treatment of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice with Marlowe’s treatment of Barabas in The Jew of Malta seems to me one of best illustrations of why Shakespeare has risen so far beyond his contemporary writers. Marlowe has created a character whose villainy would directly feed into the prejudices of the Elizabethan audience against Jewish people. Shylock, though villainous in some of his behaviours, elicits genuine sympathy both from the story, the structure and the language of The Merchant of Venice. On the one hand he pursues a bloody revenge course by insisting on cutting away a pound of a man’s flesh and he treats his daughter like a possession equating her to his gold; but on the other hand he provokes audience sympathy because he is spat upon, is insulted openly and, in the famous “merciful” trial scene he is brutally forced to renounce his faith and lose all his possessions in a verdict far more punitive than he deserves. Shakespeare gives him the most powerful speech about how all humans are the same under the sun:
I am a Jew. 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? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.
Probably the brainiest man in Europe Votes Remain! - good enough for me!
Vote Remain!