Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Modern conservatives, modern Shylock

20th century readings of Merchant of Venice (MOV) have highlighted the fear of difference and fear of the other as a major theme in this play. Not surprising considering the element of post - Holocaust sentiment. How about more recent events? The wave of conservatism and xenophobia that followed 9/11 eerily echoes sentiments in this play and perhaps an understanding of these fears might prove to be a key to starting to resolve this frightening wave of xenophobia

  • Cultural fear

In Act 2 Scene 5, Shylock, upon hearing of masques, instructs his daughter to ' stop my house's ears, I mean my casements/ Let not the sound of shallow foppery enter/ My sober house'

This might well be a summary of fears of less dominant cultures that a more dominant culture (perhaps, based on population size) would swamp, corrupt and cause the demise or degeneration of their culture. These aren't even the exclusive sentiments of fanatics or extremists, we can see shades of these sentiments in progressive societies which have protectionist policies with regards to language, the entertainment industry and the awe-inspiring but ill-defined term "tradition" . Whilst some actively export pop culture, they distinguish sharply between export culture and tradition much like the differences between export porcelain and porcelain meant for the domestic market of ages past. Others reject foreign cultural waves by emphasising their native cultures with varying levels of success. Extremists prefer to be isolated islands culturally, a feat quite impossible in this wired age, yet ironically and comically reminiscent of Shylock in this aspect

  • The religious divide

Conflict between those of different religions litter the pages of history and Shylock's pragmatic response is

Iwill buy with you, sell with you, talk with you,walk with you,

and so following, but I will not eatwith you, drink with you,

nor pray with you

Furthermore, he attributes his hatred of Antonio partly to religious differences (Act 1 Scene 3 ) .

The prejudices simmering throughout the play culminate in the trial scene with that pointed question "who the merchant and who the jew?" . Even in this modern age, misconceptions about different religions have merely fostered prejudices and animosity . It is good to be fervent about religion but when that becomes fanaticism and a willingness to condemn others with religion as justification - that's when it's scary.

  • Fear of the young

Shylock's instructions in Act2 Scene 5 to Jessica, his daughter , to guard his house and possessions and the eventual betrayal of those instructions culminates in the "dispossessing" of Shylock in the trial scene. This is a mirror of modern fundamentalists and conservatives who fear an eventual betrayal by the young, and the ignomious fate of being forgotten and fading away much like the shylock of the trial scene. After all, it's the young who will eventually control the direction of society . This would explain the redoubled efforts to spread extremist propaganda amongst the young and counter efforts to disseminate correct thought amongst/ re-educate them .

hodgepodge conclusion:

The solution?? Well, the author doesn't fancy winning the Nobel Peace Prize anytime soon but a first step would be to re-orientate social perceptions to recognize that difference is good, not a threat. Even though difference and the other will inevitably be disconcerting (those who expect more academically challenging discussions should just read the theorists) , but recognizing and accepting difference is a sign of maturity, not political correctness. The melting pot notion seeks notional integration but ignores the instinct to assert differences and this merely leaves tensions to simmer dangerously. Besides, homogeneity is overrated, who wants to be the same as every other being ?

If this sounds suspiciously familiar, it's a composite of sentiments expressed in the months and years after 9/11 in academia, magazines and editorials. Besides, this is the 4th/5th version of the original essays written in the mid 90s and late 90s when yours truly was a student and the 2nd version of the essay written 2001/2002 (which was never published) - enough of the past . Freaky how ideas from when Clinton was in office and liberalism was on a roll resonate till the present .