Share with Me a Woman’s Voice on Shakespeare, with Thoughts on The Merchant of Venice

Yes, I know, it is kind of a strange request: Share with Me a Woman’s Voice on Shakespeare. Moreover, it is one that I cannot necessarily follow up on fully. But let me explain.

The other day, I finished up The Merchant of Venice. I am trying to read a Shakespeare play a month in 2021, and I admittedly got a little caught up in the story. How is it that one of the most empathetic speeches in Western history–“If you prick us, do we not bleed?”–is spoken by one of the most of one of the most unsympathetic villains of Shakespeare’s plays? I must share the brilliant quotation:

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?

Of course, I left important bits out there. But still, to create Shylock such as he is and then have him speak these words….

And how did Shakespeare have the courage to put one of the most elegant courtroom drama solutions–“Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh; / But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed…”–in the voice of a person who by birth and education is the least qualified to speak. And listen to this speaking:

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

Beyond that, I have other questions, having only really read The Merchant of Venice before to think about the antisemitic content. But I want to go further. A spoiler here, is The Merchant of Venice like The Sixth Sence or The Game, where there is a twist, a joke, that once you see it you can never re-watch the film again for the first time? Does the audience know the identity of the Doctor-Judge even if the characters on the stage do not? Does the secret get out in town after the first night of the play being staged, thus changing the audience response? In pubs and up ladders and near cattle troughs, are people saying, “oh wait now for that bit in the end–this Shakespeare bloke has pulled a great joke there!” Or could people go fresh to the play, receive it and enjoy it in that moment?

And cultural speaking, in a different way: You have a man dressed as a woman playing a man. You have an outsider (woman) judging an outsider (Jew). The play is rife with antisemitism without elegance, and it is unclear to me if this racism is the result of Shylock’s villainy or the cause of it. In Elizabethan times, women have been ejected from the stage and Jews long-since exiled from England. Yet here Portia and Shylock play. Was that as profound to that generation as it is to ours? And the Doctor-Judge’s elegant solution: does it matter if it is clearly unjust, even though it might be legally correct and is a brilliant courtroom stunner? Or does the fact that it is an elegant solution and the Jewish bond-holder gets his desert enough?

Well, so, questions on and on. I am no strong Shakespeare reader, having largely grown up with a high-class Canadian education (thus, good teachers walking with us through a curriculum that aims at making us mediocre, well-behaved taxpayers; like the fabled Inuit and their words for snow, Canadians learn 52 ways to apologize). Thus I am stronger in stories about how to survive barren wastelands, lists of French verb paradigms, theories about crop rotation, and numerous certificates in sexual education than I am about useless things like Shakespeare or music, mathematics or physics. But I am a good reader, so 2021 is my chance to enjoy–or suffer through, if it doesn’t go well–some Shakespeare.

It could go either way. I’m sure I missed something in The Tempest and am loving Hamlet.  But as I think about The Merchant of Venice, and of Shylock and Portia in particular, I realize that I am a wee bit limited not just in my reading of the bard but in my conversations about his work and world. On Shakespeare, I’ve read Goethe, Coleridge, Shelley, T.S. Eliot (and whoever it was that Eliot wrote that preface for, whom I have forgotten), C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Peter Holland, Peter Ackroyd, Harold Bloom (who never stops talking about Shakespeare, even from the grave), Jorge Luis Borges (in roundabout ways), and Stephen Greenblatt–adding to the voice the mostly Canadian male teachers who brought me Shakespeare. Even the margin notes of my Shakespeare copies are by Dr. Eddie Edmonds, a student of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien who began the school of education here in Prince Edward Island. I am grateful for these books and these notes, these teachers and scholars. However, if you notice a theme, they are all men. Nothing against men–some of my best friends are men. But I am wondering if there are other wise and witty voices out there who can help me think about my questions.

Therefore, dear reader, can you share with me great, accessible women scholars who can give me a different voice on Shakespeare?

I want to hear your ideas, but I am admittedly a little limited in how I can respond. I already have all my paper/Kindle reading lined up for the year, and would like to read something next to the texts themselves. So although I want to hear of all kinds of women authors and critics, I am looking for something I can read by ear–a lecture series or audiobook (no abridged versions please). Please add a comment here or tweet me @BrentonDana to get me started on broadening my very limited understanding of Shakespeare’s work.

Besides the limitation of form, I should also add that I’m partly spurred on by Lauren and Hannah at the Bonnets at Dawn podcast. I had a session with them a couple of weeks ago and they recommended Helena Kelly’s Jane Austen, the Secret Radical, which I will read with interest. In one of their podcast, they mention How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ, which is also in my queue. I am also going for a 50:50 gender split on reading this year–a difficult task when 10% of my reading is Shakespeare, another 20% C.S. Lewis, and 10% Tolkien and the Inklings (not to mention the fact that I finished my Harry Potter readthrough already, and most of Octavia Butler, and that I’m itching for some good, long Stephen King books). We’ll see. I don’t need to die on this hill, but it is an interesting challenge and so far in 2021, I have succeeded.

In any case, I would appreciate your suggestions. Is there a good, critical, well-written lecture series or audiobook by a woman scholar of Shakespeare that I could bring with me as I walk and do dishes and garden this spring?

 

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
This entry was posted in Reflections and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Share with Me a Woman’s Voice on Shakespeare, with Thoughts on The Merchant of Venice

  1. apronsong says:

    I’m no expert on Shakespeare, but I do live near the Folger Shakespeare Library. They apparently have some online resources, and they even have an “ask a librarian link”. https://www.folger.edu/online-resources

    Like

  2. I recommend the University of Arizona’s February 16, 2016 lecture, “Shakespeare’s Women”, by Prof Meg Lota Brown. She teaches Renaissance literature at the U of Arizona. Her talk is on YouTube and is both informative and amusing , never dry or boring.

    Leland P Gamson

    Like

  3. lolalwilcox says:

    I’m offering our audiovisual tour of the Colorado Shakespeare Gardens – the majority of the gardeners are women, the tour writers are all women as is the web mistress. My husband, Chuck Wilcox, reads Shakespeare because he plays the Bard (since 1985), and the expert on trees is a male. Looking at the plays from the point of view of the multitude of plants’ references is a unique experience. It’s around three hours of listening time, but is served up in small sections. You could, for example, listen to the section on MSNDream just before reading it. https://www.csgtour.org/

    Here’s a woman, Germaine Greer, writing about Shakespeare’s Stratford wife, Anne Hathaway; it gives a well researched view of women’s lives at this time. https://books.google.co.cr/books/about/Shakespeare_s_Wife.html?id=gtJlAAAAMAAJ&redir_esc=y

    On Tue, Feb 9, 2021 at 10:27 AM A Pilgrim in Narnia wrote:

    > Brenton Dickieson posted: “Yes, I know, it is kind of a strange request: > Share with Me a Woman’s Voice on Shakespeare. Moreover, it is one that I > cannot necessarily follow up on fully. But let me explain. The other day, I > finished up The Merchant of Venice. I am trying to read a” >

    Like

  4. Cecilia Zeichner says:

    I couldn’t resist your clarion call as a red-headed Jewish woman–just like Portia! In high school and college, I had many teachers question The Merchant of Venice and Othello. We modern readers can read Shylock’s and Othello’s pleas for equality and equity as genuine, but it seems that some scholars believe that these great monologues were actually played for laughs.

    The Merchant of Venice may have been written as a response to Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Jew_of_Malta#The_Merchant_of_Venice) and there are some parallels between the “Do we not bleed” speech and a speech in Marlowe’s play. It is possible that Shakespeare wanted to upstage Marlowe by giving his Jewish villain a hint of humanity that Marlowe denied his own character.

    Portia also has some very disturbing, racist comments that she aims at a Black suitor. Perhaps this is meant to show how Portia has successfully assimilated into mainstream (Christian) Venetian society, to the point that she is willing to convert for the right suitor. Was Shakespeare trying to show how oppressive behavior rubs off on the upwardly mobile, or did he just want to make fun of Black people, a few of whom did live in London at the time? I wish I could give you the names of some prominent women Shakespeare scholars–I can ask my sister’s girlfriend if she knows of any.

    I also chuckled at this line, “like the fabled Inuit and their words for snow, Canadians learn 52 ways to apologize.” Don’t feel bad, Yiddish speakers probably have 52 ways to say, “idiot.” Schmucks, schmiels, schlimazels, schmendricks, the list goes on… https://forward.com/culture/127941/etiquette-for-schmucks-schlemiels-schlimazels-and/

    Like

  5. Francis Spufford says:

    Lisa Jardine’s STILL HARPING ON DAUGHTERS: WOMEN AND DRAMA IN THE AGE OF SHAKESPEARE and Helen Vendler’s book on the Sonnets might be along the lines you’re looking for?

    Like

  6. Francis Spufford says:

    Nice to hear, Brenton. But now I don’t know whether to wish that I’m keeping you awake or putting you to sleep…

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.