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Peace and Other Stories

Fragments of a Formerly Active Sex Life

The English Renaissance Audience (Part 3)
by Julian X  /  non-fiction  /  4 Sep 2007

The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596-1597), with its eternally problematic depiction and fate of Shylock, also suggests Shakespearean accommodation to his audience.  Shakespeare’s contemporary audience found Shylock a villain, and he was portrayed in stereotypical Jewish garb, including a red beard like that of depictions of Judas.  But critics have long identified with him and found that Shakespeare grants him a sympathetic interiority.  Portia, disguised as a judge, seems the quintessence of New Testament compassion:  “The quality of mercy is not strained” (4.1.182), she says, adding that “mercy ... / ... / ... is an attribute of God himself” (4.1.191-193).  Seemingly contrasting New Testament mercy with strict Old Testament law, she adds, in good Christian terms, that “in the course of justice none of us / Should see salvation” (4.1.197-198).  But when Shylock insists upon his prescribed pound of flesh, Portia turns to punish him, taking half his wealth, bestowing the other half as the inheritance of the cavalier man who “lately stole his daughter” (4.1.383), and forcing his conversion.  Suddenly, the bombastic and vocally exuberant Shylock offers only an “I am content” (4.1.391) -- his last words in the play!  We can only be shocked at this, but we must remember that, despite the great diversity of Shakespeare’s audience, it almost certainly had no Jews.  However much Shakespeare instinctively paints Shylock at times humanely, he is at no risk in making Shylock suffer.  Despite critical attempts to redeem the play as something other than anti-Semitic.  No one cares about Shylock, who can be shuffled off-stage and made to uncharacteristically shut up while the rest of the plot (which we now find more boring) concludes:  his conversion is probably a good thing, as far as Shakespeare’s audience is concerned.  Notably, while Shakespeare carefully does not take political sides, not sides in the religious controversies of his time, he is not afraid to pander to his audience’s anti-Semitism.  It is telling, particularly given the probably rather deliberate almost utter inoffensiveness of Shakespeare’s work.

A similar comfortable racism, at least for Shakespeare’s contemporaries, may be seen in the unredeemably evil Aaron in Titus Andronicus (c. 1589-1592).  I do not take the play as a parody or satire of revenge plays, as many critics today seem to -- yet I adore the play and applaud the postmodern reclaiming of it as a great play, one certainly fit for our less subtle postmodern culture.  Indeed, all the evidence suggests that it was meant to be taken seriously:  in his induction to the 1614 edition of Batholomew Fair, Ben Jonson claims that audiences, which he calls ignorant, loved it precisely for its extremism.  This extremism may thus be seen as commercial:  what Shakespeare has done in Titus is to take the satisfyingly brutal elements of the revenge tragedy and heighten them.  The result, to the so-called sophisticated tastes of the time (as well as our own), may indeed seem absurd, but the pit audience that also enjoyed bear-baiting probably enjoyed it as much as Jonson reports.  But Shakespeare may well have taken the message:  the man from Stratford had to appeal to his higher audience as well, and he would do a better job of balancing the two in later plays.

Richard II (c. 1595-1596) demonstrates Shakespeare’s quietism.  Richard is an effete and poetic ruler, but the man of action Bolingbroke commits a wrong in rebelling.  The good John of Gaunt, Bolingbroke’s own father, argues for quietism:  he does not dispute Richard’s wrongness, but argues that “God’s is the quarrel” (1.2.37).  The Bishop of Carlisle even predicts that God will bring hardship to the nation for this ungodly usurping (4.1.126-150).  Kings, then, are anointed by God:  even under a tyrant, it is not our role to rebel.  Yet Shakespeare is even more conservative than this -- after all, a strong argument for quietism might also offend.  And so, despite Bolingbrooke’s invasion and homophobic terms for Richard, he seems statesmanlike in seizing the throne and tells us that he has only arrived to reclaim his dukedom (2.3.113-136).  We know him wrong, but Shakespeare gives us wiggle room.  The audience is thus given another entertaining story filled with intellectual and political possibilities -- one conservative but not even forcing us to confront that conservatism, should we wish to avoid it.

As the Henriad continues in the two-part Henry IV, we have perhaps the most memorable instance of Shakespeare’s perfection of the A-plot and B-plot.  Television would later rediscover the device as a way of satisfying a more diverse audience:  mix action with romance, and both men and women watch the show.  But, here at the greatest flowering of the device in Shakespeare, the two plots are distinctly high and low:  on the one hand, we have the king and court; on the other, we have Falstaff and the whores.  Nothing could duplicate more perfectly the dichotomy in Shakespeare’s own audience.  And Falstaff is distinctly a fine formulation in terms of pleasing Shakespeare’s lowly audience:  when we first meet him (in 1.2), he is waking up drunk after whoring and stealing.  But, as no one better than the Falstaff-worshipping Harold Bloom demonstrates (sometimes ad nauseum), he is seemingly infinitely charming:  he may lie at every opportunity, but there is an honesty in his lies that we cannot imagine convincing anyone, and there are those occasional moments of sympathy in which we see him as he is -- old, drunk, and pinning everything on his friendship with Prince Hal.  This strikes me as wonderfully attuned to Shakespeare’s pit audience, whose inferiority must have been altogether apparent to them as they stood through the performance accompanied by whores soliciting their services.  They may be uncivilized, but they have a raw charm -- even a sort of class -- that the wealthy playgoers above them cannot emulate.  Nonetheless, those same wealthy playgoers can laugh at the cutpurse who one knows from the start is destined for failure.  Moreover, Prince Hal’s easy ability to move between the two worlds recalls the gathering of the two audiences:  after all, the wealthy members of the audience ascended and descended through the lowlies.

The bard’s response to the success of 1 Henry IV also demonstrates Shakespeare’s accommodation to his audience in the most direct way:  2 Henry IV followed quickly as a means of capitalizing on the success of the first part.  In many ways, 2 Henry IV merely recapitulates the problems of 1 Henry IV:  it is not a paradigmatic shift like that between Richard II and 1 Henry IV, nor between 2 Henry IV and Henry V.  In fact, it’s not clear from the end of 1 Henry IV that a sequel was intended from the beginning at all:  the play ends with Prince Hal, redeemed as noble after all through the field of battle, ignoring Falstaff for Lancaster; for his part, Falstaff promises to reform with his last words.  Suddenly, in 2 Henry IV, everything seems revered to its earlier state.  But Shakespeare seems to preclude the possibility of a 3 Henry IV:  he has Hal not only become king but explicitly reject Falstaff, as we always knew he must.  As if we had any doubt about the pandering nature of the play, the epilogue makes it clear that, if we award this sequel with as much success as the first part, “out humble author will continue the story, with Sir John in it, and make you merry with fair Katharine of France” (Epilogue.25-27).  We have every reason to suspect that Falstaff remained a favorite, yet in Henry V his death occurs off-stage.  It is worth noting, in this regard, that Falstaff’s lowly name seems to have entered popular London culture almost immediately upon his appearance.  Perhaps he was tired of the amusing but villainous character, having further pandered by writing The Merry Wives of Windsor at the queen’s request to see Falstaff again -- though we can hardly blame Shakespeare for pandering to the queen herself.

The muted conservatism of Richard II may also be seen in Romeo and Juliet (c. 1594-1596), as can the sympathetic depiction of characters doing other than they should.  When we first encounter him, Romeo is moping over not Juliet but Rosaline, a character not so much as seen in the play; his sudden passionate love for Juliet demonstrates the fickleness, the mutability of his love.  Juliet, at fourteen, has a good life for herself, complete with a suitable arranged marriage; she wisely tests Romeo’s love, knowing well the male character, but her surrender to his passions and subsequent rebelling against her parents cannot be condoned.  It is telling that Romeo famously swears upon the moon; his uncontrolled speech reveals his true nature.  Juliet smartly calls him on it; she knows, better than modern women, how to deal with men -- though, of course, she stumbles and falls.  Their tragedy is their own fault:  to kill one’s self was a mortal sin and could not be condoned any more than Juliet’s disobedience.  The tale is a cautionary one, yet this doomed and ultimately stupid love is so elegantly written by Shakespeare that we often swoon with the lovers and forget the context.  Should we wish to interpret in this way, Shakespeare will not stop us:  he does not put up blocks against interpretation that might offend or distance his audience.  After all, whether stupid or not, these are just kids acting in a very understandable way:  it is, indeed, a tale of “woe” (5.3.309).  That both Capulet and Montague deserve a pox on their houses might help us sympathize with Romeo and Juliet, but -- like the quietism of Richard II -- this does not justify Romeo or Juliet disobeying.  Moreover, the mutual condemnation of both sides suggests quietism:  it is a condemnation of sectarian violence, one that holds the law above political gripes.  Here again, Shakespeare lets his audience interpret it however it wants and eschews taking a clear position that might alienate some aspect of that audience.

Othello (1604) strikes a similar note.  Shakespeare has learned a little since he depicted Aaron the Moor as unadulterated evil.  Here, Othello, the Moor of Venice, is remarkable in his humanization -- precisely the reason that I am not with those who think this a racist play in any simple sense.  Rather, it is the evil Iago -- almost as unadulterated as Aaron was in Titus Andronicus -- who is racist:  “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe” (1.1.90-91).  Yet race does matter here:  from the beginning, the interracial nature of Othello’s marriage to Desdemona is at issue.  Brabantio sees the pairing as unnatural “to all things of sense” (1.2.65).  Like Romeo and Juliet, the text implies that Othello and Desdemona may well be sympathetic but that their coupling is ultimately unwise.  While we revile Iago, it is Othello’s perception of the racial divide between himself and his manly confident wife that provides the gap into which Iago may masterfully wield male jealousy as a wedge.  Iago argues that Desdemona will “affect many proposèd matches / Of her own clime, complexion, and degree, / Whereto we see in all things nature tends” (3.3.245-247) -- and Othello begins to agree:  “And yet, how nature erring from itself --” (3.3.243).  Moreover, however sympathetic, Othello kills his wife -- and a pure white woman, no less.  We are inclined today to say that the deeper problem lies in the culture, just as we are to see the families at fault in Romeo and Juliet.  But Shakespeare’s audience did not believe in miscegenation, and just as we are made to sympathize with Romeo and Juliet even as they commit wrong, we here sympathize with Othello even as he commits wrong.  The Renaissance mind did not expect society to accommodate the individual as we do today.  Perhaps the marriage itself is not wrong per se, but Shakespeare certainly suggests miscegenation to be unwise.  Here again, we see Shakespeare the conservative pleaser of audiences.  He does not shut down interpretive possibilities, leaving different members of the diverse audience to take what they wish.  We may today praise Shakespeare for at least making Othello the sympathetic protagonist of a tragedy, but this too is a sign of Shakespeare’s accommodation to a diverse audience:  centuries later, his text can still please Klu Klux Klan member and campaigner for racial justice alike.

This interpretive largeness, this moral ambiguity, has preserved Shakespeare’s status at least as well as his play’s poetic qualities.  Even in a dramatically different world, his ambiguity still allows us to be pleased at his drama.  Shakespeare appealed so well to his diverse audience that he’s still doing so.  And, as it continues to work today, so it worked then:  from high to low, woman to man, everyone in Shakespeare’s audience could find something that appealed to them -- in fact, they could leave with utterly different interpretations, as if they had seen completely different plays.  This was a particularly smart strategy on Shakespeare’s part:  a masterful poet, he could turn a line better than anyone, but he was not a master of structure or intellectual argument.  Producing plays that offended no one, yet that invoked and played with complex moral and philosophical issues, was a particularly wise solution, allowing his diverse audience to appreciate that at which Shakespeare truly exceed:  his lines.

There is great truth to the popular notion that, were Shakespeare alive today, he’d be writing movies.  Moreover, he wouldn’t be writing art films.  Shakespeare worked in a popular medium, and he accommodated his work to his audience in particularly effective -- and lucrative -- ways.  He was, in modern parlance, a hack -- albeit a stunningly talented one.

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Essays on Literature by Julian Darius:
On "Renaissance" (Part 1)
On "Renaissance" (Part 2)
Implications of Dante’s Placing of Ulysses in Hell
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 1)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 2)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 3)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 4)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 5)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 6)
Pulling the Cheese from the Mousetrap:  Donne’s “The Bait” as (Anti-)Pornographic Narrative Fantasy
The Mistaken and Apologetic Chorus:  Shakespearean Faultlines in Henry V
The Old Conventional Metamorphosis:  Transvestitism in The Taming of the Shrew and Shakespeare
The "half-told and mangled tale" of Caleb Williams (Part 1)
The "half-told and mangled tale" of Caleb Williams (Part 2)
"W - a - l - d - e - n," a large number of words by "T - h - o - r - e - a - u"
And When We Long, We Long as Gatsby