Monthly Archives: December 2009

Another blow to Iranian reform, but not revolution

Yesterday, Grand Ayatollah Hosein Ali Montazeri passed away at his home in the Iranian holy city of Qom, without question delivering another serious blow to hopes for internal reform to the Iranian political system. Montazeri leaves behind him a decidedly mixed legacy, and a very interesting set of questions about the immediate and long-term consequences of his absence from the Iranian political scene.

Montazeri was one of the most senior clerical figures in all of Shiite Islam, and also one of the original architects of the concept of villayat e-faqih (rule by jurisprudential scholars) most powerfully advanced by Ayatollah Khomeini. As such, he was a leading figure in the “Islamic revolution” that overthrew the shah in the late 1970s. Montazeri was one of the central figures behind the creation of the Revolutionary Guards organization that has now effectively taken over the Iranian government, and also the most enthusiastic of the senior “Islamic” revolutionaries in pushing for the exportation of the Iranian model and the establishment of sympathetic organizations among Arab Shiites such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and several of the Iraqi political parties that now dominate the government in Baghdad. His stature can be measured from the fact that he was at one point formally appointed to be Khomeini’s successor as supreme leader.

During the course of the 1980s, Montazeri became disillusioned with the path the “Islamic Republic” was taking earlier than most internal dissidents. Although he was in line to take over the leadership, he quarreled with Khomeini on several key points, including how aggressive Iran should be in trying to export its revolutionary ideals (Montazeri wanted to be more aggressive), the leaking of embarrassing information regarding the Iran-Contra scandal, and his increasing calls for the liberalization of the governing system. Montazeri, unlike Khomeini and certainly unlike Khamenei, apparently believed that the jurisprudential supreme guides should be more removed from power and act essentially in an advisory capacity rather than as direct rulers. It’s also clear that he was very uncomfortable with the mass executions of opposition members in the late 1980s. Beginning with his call in 1987 for the legalization of political parties, he increasingly became the most credible, and often lonely, voice for internal reform of the system. Following the election fraud and subsequent unrest this summer, most hopes for internal reform of the system centered around the idea that senior clerics led by Montazeri could make common cause with political reformers like Mousavi and Karroubi and create conditions for a nonviolent, peaceful “velvet revolution” in Iran.

There is a sharp disagreement over whether Montazeri’s death constitutes a significant blow to the opposition in Iran or not. On the other hand, there is almost universal agreement that the Khamenei-Amhadinejad clique will be utterly delighted to be rid of this turbulent priest. It was not just his reformist tendencies and liberal views that were a thorn in their side, but his scholarly eminence stood in marked contrast to Khamenei’s own dearth of academic credentials. His mere presence on the scene was an embarrassment, simply in terms of a contrast of academic CVs, to the current supreme leader. This alone suggests, but does not necessarily mean, that his death is by definition a blow to the Iranian opposition, whether reformist or more ambitious in its intentions.

Some argue that Montazeri’s death is not a blow to an opposition movement because it is largely spontaneous, barely organized, nascent, fledgling and essentially without coherent political leadership. Others say that Montazeri was an important source of inspiration and religious legitimation for the opposition, just as he was a powerful source of delegitimation for the regime. It strikes me that there is no way in which his death is not a blow to reformists, by which I mean specifically those who wish to transform the nature and behavior of the regime from within, without a total overhaul of the system and doing away with the whole bizarre concept of villayat e-faqih. Such forces would necessarily require not only religious legitimation and the validation of one of the foremost leaders of the “Islamic revolution,” but also someone who is ready, willing and able to say that the present system is not that intended by the originators of the villayat e-faqih system including not only himself, but also Ayatollah Khomeini.

This point, that Montazeri stressed time and again, that Khomeini himself would disapprove of the extreme illiberalism and repressive nature of the present regime is exceptionally dubious but also exceptionally powerful as a means of rhetorically undermining the current leadership. And, if Montazeri says so, few would be in a position to credibly disagree without invoking the idea that Khomeini too approved of repression and illiberal policies. Given their own belief systems and political rhetoric, this constitutes a trap from which the ruling elite had no easy way out other than ignoring it or arresting anyone who repeated these claims too loudly or vociferously. So the fact is that the Iranian reformist movement as such has lost its most authoritative and credible champion, and probably the only figure in its circles who was, essentially, untouchable (insofar as one can be effectively immune to the power of the state in a country like Iran).

On the other hand, as I have been stressing for many months now, I do not think there is any reason to believe that the movement for internal reform and civil rights in Iran has any serious hope of succeeding in the foreseeable future. Therefore, the centrality of people who essentially believe in but want to change the system, as Montazeri almost certainly did, it seems to me is becoming increasingly diminished as time goes on. I have written many times that I think the Iranian ruling elite has given the public a simple choice: stick with us on our terms or enter into a dangerous revolutionary spiral which will have unpredictable consequences and involve terrible risks and enormous pain. It seems clear that the reform movement, including Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, has found no effective answer to this. The regime is beyond scolding and shaming, and has answered calls for reform with brute force. Mousavi, Karroubi and Montazeri, it seems to me, although they serve as powerful voices of delegitimation of the regime from a position that is essentially within the system, have been rendered increasingly irrelevant by the tactics of the government. I suspect that the reformist movement has found itself in a lose-lose situation: if the government prevails, they remain marginal and things don’t change; but if change is actually to come, it will require much more far-reaching measures than they have been willing to countenance or would probably be enthusiastic about, again leaving them marginal.

Reformists including Montazeri have staked out an honorable middle ground that is sensible, reasonable and constructive. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s any space in which it can operate effectively in the current Iranian scene, which the government has decided to force into a rather stark binary of acceptance of the present situation versus revolutionary change. Therefore, while Montazeri’s death is certainly a blow to the reformist movement, I doubt it’s a major blow to the prospects for significant change in Iran because I think these are only really possible, under the present circumstances, through much more far-reaching restructuring than reform proposes. Insofar as there are nascent revolutionary movements developing to correspond to the government-created revolutionary situation in Iran, the passing away of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri probably won’t be much of a blow to them, and could even serve as an inspiration and source of religious legitimation for measures, agendas and organizations that he might have recoiled from if he were still alive.

The “Jew” and the “Merchant” at the JCC of Manhattan

After my recent posting about anti-Semitism in the Merchant of Venice and the Jew of Malta, I received a very kind invitation from Seth Duerr founder and director of the York Shakespeare Company which, I was surprised to learn, was staging rotating productions of the two plays at the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan. I couldn’t resist. Last weekend I went to New York, saw both productions and had an extremely enjoyable and interesting dinner with Mr. Duerr. He strikes me as a most remarkable young man, and one of those rare individuals whose capacity seems to match their ambition; it’s much more typical to meet those with capacity but limited ambition, or those with huge ambitions but limited capacity. Mr. Duerr directed but, due to complicated New York City union regulations, was unable to perform in these plays.

I’m used to discussing Shakespeare and other Renaissance literature with academics rather than performers and directors, and I have to say I found Mr. Duerr’s command of and insights into the Shakespeare canon to be impressive and interestingly different from the understandings achieved by those who tend to mainly read the texts on paper or electronically. One of the more interesting things he told me is that he doesn’t derive any pleasure from reading Shakespeare, which I find remarkable, but needs to locate these texts in terms of a staged performance in order to engage with them properly. One of the reasons, I think, that I found his approach to the works unusual is that he is looking at them not as a reader/critic, or even so much as an actor, but rather as a director, concentrating on staging and theatrical storytelling that can communicate meanings from a stage to seats in the stalls. This is, of course, a restoration of the closest proximity to the conditions of the original production and initial reception and use of the texts themselves, since they were written by a manager/director of a theater, and were initially read by those involved in theatrical productions as scripts for performances rather than poems on paper. Engaging with Shakespeare as a director, or even an actor, places one in the oldest and most unbroken chain of conversation with the works themselves, far older and in many ways richer than anything academic and literary criticism can offer. And it necessitates knowing the plays literally inside out.

Regarding the productions of the Merchant of Venice and the Jew of Malta at the Manhattan JCC, the most straightforward evaluation would be to say that driving from Washington to New York early in the morning, watching one play, having dinner, watching the second play, and then driving back to Washington arriving in the middle of the night was well worth the trip. Rightly or wrongly, I’m not a fan of New York City and it takes a great deal to get me up there, and even more to make me consider that the visit was worthwhile. In this case, there’s no question. Allowing for the fact that the productions enjoyed virtually no budget and because of the aforesaid regulations could only be cast with nonunion performers, they were remarkably engaging, entertaining and stimulating.

The obvious argument at the heart of staging both plays in a rotating fashion at the JCC of Manhattan is that neither play is meaningfully, or simply and simplistically, anti-Semitic. The Jew of Malta, which has, as I explained the other day, an overwhelming and, I think, undeserved reputation as viciously anti-Semitic, especially in contrast to the Merchant of Venice, was staged in a very straightforward manner. There was no effort to recuperate the character of Barabas, because, as I wrote, a sympathetic portrayal of this character is quite impossible. However, the key is getting the audience to go past the dreadful and apparently anti-Semitic character of Barabas with which they are assaulted from the outset to patiently see how the equal or worse villainy of all the other characters (except, perhaps, his daughter) changes the context and therefore the meaning of what would otherwise be simply a racist caricature against Jews.

The Jew of Malta is something like a two part sentence in which Marlowe’s first clause says, “isn’t it amazing how horribly bad the Jews are,” only to be followed after the comma with a second clause saying, “except, of course, that everyone else is worse.” The second part of the sentence, or in this case what unfolds in the action of the play about the other characters, completely changes the context and the meaning of what is initially apparent. My imaginary analogy sentence functions a little bit like the famous dictum quoted by Winston Churchill about democracy being the worst possible system of government, except for all the others. What begins as an apparent denunciation in its full context proves to be something of a recuperation (not to suggest that Marlowe was trying to praise Jews as Churchill was trying to praise democracy, but rather that Marlowe effectively kills the notion that his stereotypically “bad” Jew is any worse — or better — than the Christians or Muslims surrounding him). On this basis I argued that the Jew of Malta should not be seen as an anti-Semitic text, and Duerr?s straightforward and uncut production — though it unfortunately albeit understandably skips the famous Machiavel prologue — bears out this case quite clearly.

The parallel production of the Merchant of Venice is also uncut, and it’s clear which play Duerr engages with more thoroughly. Duerr and I don’t agree, I think, ultimately about the question of whether or not the Merchant of Venice can be legitimately seen as containing genuinely anti-Semitic elements or not. My argument, as I explained last week, is based on the broader cultural context of the time, in which I think the Merchant, especially the trial scene, constituted a theatrical staging of an assertion of superiority of what are supposedly Christian ethics and culture versus what are allegedly Jewish ones. I think Duerr and many others take issue with this by seeing Shylock more in the context of the drama of the play itself, as a wronged man belonging to a wronged people who came by his vengeful rage honestly, so to speak, and as a survivor who is always prepared to move on to the next bitter phase of a bitter life. His staging and direction certainly reflects this reading powerfully, but I don’t think it does anything to compel me to reevaluate my own historicized assessment.

As with Barabas, Duerr presents Shylock straight, so to speak, directly as suggested by the full, uncut text of the Merchant. He doesn’t try to reframe or reconstruct the Merchant in order to attenuate Shylock’s rage, or in any other way exculpate him more than is already present in Shakespeare’s script. He also emphasizes the ?outsider? status of the Jews and others in both of his productions. In both plays most of the Jews have extravagant Yiddish accents (except for Barabas and his daughter Abigail) and the men wear skullcaps but, unlike the Christians, not ties. As for the other others, so to speak, like the Turkish slave Ithamore or the Prince of Aragon, Duerr ?others? them to the hilt with the most extravagant accents and preposterous costumes. His production ultimately, I think, supports both of our readings of the Merchant, since both are eminently justifiable from the unvarnished text.

What is more interesting and significant about this production of the Merchant is that Duerr bucks the prevailing trend of seeing the fifth act of the play as a disappointing and unworthy dénouement to the climactic and shattering trial scene, and therefore cutting it up and largely out. It has long been argued that the fifth act is an artless tack-on to an otherwise brilliant and breakthrough achievement by Shakespeare, clumsily resolving the outstanding issues and achieving an unsatisfactory set of couplings; that he was bound by the conventions of comedy to provide a ?happy ending? to what is, at its core, the Tragedy of Shylock. It has also long been generally agreed that the two stories in the Merchant — the tale of the bond and the tale of the three casks — are not equally important to either the narrative framework or the dramatic and emotional economy of the play. What Duerr understands is that, as so often happens, conventional wisdom has it backwards: the story of Shylock and the pound of flesh is ultimately of secondary importance in the overall schema of the Merchant when compared with the story of Portia?s marriage. By presenting the Merchant uncut and staging the fifth act in a manner that clearly demonstrates the unresolved tension between males and females in all three of the major couplings and the ongoing presence of Antonio as a destabilizing factor between Portia and Bassanio, he effectively demonstrates that the much-maligned “clumsy” happy ending is in fact deliberately structured to undermine itself, and promise as much unhappiness as happiness, as much faithlessness as faithfulness.

The play ends with a distinctly unconvincing and sexually charged promise on behalf of the males in the three couples to, ?fear no other thing, So sore as keeping safe [their wife?s] ring.? However, as this production clearly asks, to what extent can we credit the notion that the men have learned their lesson and will now suddenly keep true to promises in spite of the fact that the play is a litany of broken vows and commitments, and that, in spite of its profoundly homoerotic atmosphere, they will now focus their emotional as well as sexual affections on their wives and not their friends?

I don’t think anyone can seriously question the homoerotic text and subtext in the Merchant, but it certainly can be staged in a manner that foregrounds, contains or ignores this factor. Duerr, I think rightly, confronts the character of Antonio’s love straightforwardly — his affections for Bassanio go far beyond the idealized version of Renaissance male friendship they are usually understood to represent, but his overblown sense of and attachment to received versions of ethics, honor and especially religious devotion bar him from either acting on or probably even fully recognizing their nature. In Duerr?s spare production, Antonio’s crucifixes grow ever larger, culminating in a giant, ostentatious silver necklace worn at the end of the trial scene, a kind of religious erection. Both poles of this impossible binary combine to inform Antonio’s vicious, and seen in this context hysterical, anti-Semitic abuse of Shylock (which, when confronted with, he promises to repeat indefinitely): his defensive religious sentiments give him a ready-made target for his unmanageable frustrations. The link throughout the play between sexual frustration and racism, also clearly expressed in Portia?s court in early scenes, comes through masterfully in this production.

A word or two about Duerr?s semi-professional cast are warranted. Though there are plainly moments that fall short, and the entire cast of the Merchant seemed to let the dialogue get away from them a little bit after the intermission, overall the performances are impressively engaging and very sound. Paul Rubin provides an entertaining, comic Barabas who revels in his own malfeasance and rages against everyone else’s. Stephen Olender as Launcelot Gobbo and Graciany Miranda as the Prince of Aragon (in a shirt that might have been donated by an aging Carmen Miranda impersonator) ham it up marvelously, although Jed Charles? Prince of Morocco seems more Caribbean than North, or even sub-Saharan, African in a somewhat jarring way. But for me, the standout was Luis de Amechazurra, who was an extremely convincing, effective and consistent Shylock. He was also directly involved in two moments that demonstrate his own, and Duerr?s, sensitive interaction with the details of the texts.

Amechazurra has the small role of 1st Jew in Marlowe’s play, and when, as Barabas is a raging against the injustices that have befallen him, he asks him to consider the plight of Job, he is greeted by a long and perfectly hilarious silence and stare from Rubin. On a more serious note, Amechazurra?s Shylock, raging against his daughter’s theft and betrayal exclaims, ?The curse never fell upon our nation till now,? and then suddenly halts in midsentence and stutteringly backtracks, “I? I never felt it till now.? The artfulness here is that Shylock realizes in midsentence but he is about to commit an atrocious blasphemy, catches himself in the act, and corrects it in a manner that is religiously defensible. It’s more typical to see the passage “The curse never fell upon our nation till now; I never felt it till now,” as a complete thought consistent in itself, the second point following logically upon and illustrating the first. The way Duerr has directed and Amechazurra performs the passage is sensitive to a much richer interpretation in which the second passage following the semi-colon is a quick and decisive correction to the rash and dangerous first passage. It suggests that Shylock is not only religiously sensitive to his faith (though it doesn’t make him fanatical), but also reinforces his sensitivity to precision in language (which could be overtly staged as part of the Christian condemnation of Jewish “literalism” and “dogmatism,” but in this case is not) and his status as a careful survivor surrounded by dangers of all kinds from which he has no choice but to protect himself. This small, easily overlooked, moment for me summed up what Duerr was, I think, trying to communicate about Shylock and anti-Semitism in the Merchant.

Seth Duerr writes the following to clarify his views on anti-Semitism in the Merchant of Venice:

“I would say that it could be legitimately seen as containing genuinely anti-Semitic elements. I believe it contains a pile of them. However, I feel that they are lines that come out of the Christian mouths. I’m not so convinced about the actions (pound of flesh, etc.) or the assertion of superiority of Christian ethics and culture. Quite frankly, I that were so,
you’d side with Antonio, Gratiano, Bassanio, Portia, etc. in the trial, and while saving Antonio’s life is necessary, that is all that need occur. The degradation they continue to impose upon Shylock is sickening and I don’t believe we’re meant to side with it or to find Christian ethics/culture as superior. They do, but we need not. Shakespeare leaves this option possible (mistakenly equating Antonio with Christ, etc.) for those who cannot be convinced of the hypocrisy of the Christians in the court and want to see themselves as holy, merciful, et al. but of course leaves the loophole of sympathizing with Shylock. If anyone feels the slightest sympathy for Shylock after the Christians have asserted their ‘superiority,’ then that moral high-ground can’t mean much. After all, Christ supposedly laid down his life for our sins, Antonio lays down his life to impress a spendthrift boy to whom he is powerfully attracted.”

I don’t disagree with any of that.

Are revolutionary groups beginning to develop in Iran’s revolutionary situation?

Iranian internal politics appear to have arrived at a crucial turning point that has been inevitable since the election fraud and protests this summer. At the time, I wrote that the regime had given the population a straightforward choice: accept our repression or enter into a revolutionary movement with uncertain consequences. It’s a high-stakes gamble, but thus far it seems to have worked. The problem, as I wrote at the time, is that the regime forced a revolutionary situation in what was otherwise essentially a rights movement (it’s likely that most of the protesters were outraged not so much at the system in theory but at the fact that the system was duplicitous: they were supposed to have the right to choose between approved candidates but in reality did not; they were supposed to have the right to freely assemble and speak but in reality did not; etc.). What the regime did was to double down on its authority and refuse any compromise with the protesters and both the internal and external opposition, ruling out a recount or a new election or any reasonable means of addressing the fraud or recognizing the fairly limited rights Iranians are supposed to enjoy under the odd vilayat e-faqih system that supposedly blends theocracy with constitutional republicanism. The "Islamic" part of the "Islamic Republic" is intact through ongoing clerical rule, but the republican, and implicitly constitutionalist, part is in absolute tatters.

It’s been pretty clear for some time that the Iranian government is not capable of reforming itself internally and that the reform movement must either fail or turn into a revolutionary movement seeking regime change. It’s very natural that Iranians do not relish such a choice. It’s unlikely that there much of an inclination to go through another tumultuous revolt a few decades after the seismic events of the "Islamic revolution." And, after all, that’s how they got into this situation in the first place. Were serious, far-reaching reform possible, I’m sure most Iranians would prefer to take that route. But it’s not. Since that became clear very early on after the election, the question has therefore been when would new centers of political gravity outside of the "official," semi-approved opposition led by people within or associated with the system begin to form themselves and articulate an agenda that looks past reform to a more radical solution that can really change things.

It would appear that this, one hesitates to say finally because these things were always going to take a good deal of time and probably still will, is beginning to happen. Iranians seeking to restore or reclaim their rights, whether they view the government as betraying its principles or living up to them all too well, will simply have to look beyond the likes of Moussavi, Karroubi and Rafsanjani if their movement is going to get anywhere. There is no indication that any of these men are interested in a revolution or revolt against the system as such, but that is what will be required. Their campaign of internal reform, met with complete rejection and brute force by the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad clique, was never going to succeed, and there is no reason to think that it could in the future either. The government itself chose, deliberately and strategically, to create a revolutionary situation where there were no revolutionaries to act upon it. The question has been if and when revolutionary groups with any significant following and momentum would begin to form themselves and press the issue in a very different way and with very different goals than the official opposition has thus far been willing to.

It would appear this is happening, and it was almost bound to. Some groups were going to decide that they were not going to take this lying down, or be satisfied with a reformist agenda that is and almost certainly will be going nowhere fast. Apparently, this sentiment, and the split between internal opposition and those openly opposed to the system as such, is beginning to develop. The question now, therefore, is whether or not these groups will build a coherent political agenda capable of eventually challenging the power of the regime. It’s still totally unclear whether Iranians are ready for another uprising, but the government has given them a stark choice: it’s us, or the abyss.

Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and their allies in the Revolutionary Guards, are obviously counting on fear of the unknown, their own authority and the fact that they have genuine constituencies, and brute force, to dissuade the public from choosing confrontation over submission. Thus far, unfortunately their strategy has worked quite well. There is no way of knowing whether or not in the foreseeable future the Iranian opposition will form revolutionary groups and agendas that can take advantage of what is inherently a revolutionary situation and begin to build a mass constituency for regime change from within Iranian society. But if it’s ever going to happen, the decisive split that appears to be developing between the internal, reformist opposition to the regime and the external, revolutionary opposition will be one of the crucial turning points. This seems to be happening now.

Anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice and The Jew of Malta

Elizabethan England produced two great plays involving Jewish protagonists, and for most of the past hundred years or so it has been generally believed that one of these plays is essentially defensible although highly problematic while the other is simply and crudely anti-Semitic. The Merchant of Venice remains controversial, and with good reason, but it is generally defended and is and can be performed in the English-speaking world without much protest. The Jew of Malta, Marlowe’s earlier masterpiece, on the other hand is, in fact, not controversial: it is generally regarded as crudely anti-Semitic and therefore almost unperformable. There are occasional public readings of the play, and there have been one or two productions in London and New York, but its reputation as an anti-Semitic rant has rendered it pretty well outside the scope of general theatrical performance and even undergraduate university courses.

I think the general opinion has it precisely backwards: the Merchant of Venice is, in fact, an anti-Semitic text, albeit attenuated in many important ways and indeed defensible, whereas the Jew of Malta is, I think, not an anti-Semitic text at all. This is going to require some explaining, but it’s an important point especially to someone like me who spends a good deal of time thinking about the problems of defamation such as Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

To begin with the Merchant of Venice, for most of the history of the reception of the play, Shylock has been seen as fundamentally an unsympathetic character if not a villain. He is also often seen as a caricature of a grasping, vicious and resentful Jew. The debate is not about whether or not Shylock is bad, but really is about whether Shylock is bad because he is a bad Jew or bad because he is simply a Jew. The play establishes quite clearly that he and his community are badly treated in Venice and subject to vicious discrimination, so it could be argued that he came by his rage honestly. It is also argued that at least two other Jewish characters in the play, Tubal and Shylock’s own daughter Jessica, are not cast in a bad light, suggesting that Shylock’s malice is personal and particular rather than communal or sectarian. However, Tubal’s role is exceedingly small and Jessica converts to Christianity and renounces Judaism while stealing Shylock’s money, so this case is rather weak.

A stronger argument lies in Shylock’s famous defenses of his positions. One of Shakespeare’s greatest qualities is that all his characters have their turn to speak and almost everyone explains themselves (except, of course, Iago, who offers multiple unconvincing explanations and ultimately becomes an impossible cipher — more on this in the near future). Shylock therefore has every opportunity to express his undoubtedly well-founded grievances, give his famous speech about the equal humanity of Jews with Christians, and justify his quest for vengeance on the grounds that Christian revenge is typical and that therefore Jewish revenge cannot be faulted.

This means, of course, that the play can be performed in a way that emphasizes Shylock’s humanity, justified grievances and the rationale for his behavior. And, nowadays, it is almost always performed that way. However, I think there are some fundamental qualities to the play that make it inescapably anti-Semitic as a text, which is not to say it shouldn’t be performed, read or enjoyed, but that we should not deify Shakespeare to the point that we fail to see the incorporation of genuine negative stereotypes and religious, ethnic and cultural bigotry in one of his most famous plays.

First of all, the underlying logic of the play, and especially the question of the bond and the pound of flesh, appears to be rooted in the contrast between what are supposedly rigid, inflexible, dogmatic and draconian Jewish ethics versus Christian mercy and forgiveness. The citizenry of Venice and its political leadership all repeatedly implore Shylock to show forgiveness and be merciful, implicitly as a Christian would, even though the law would appear to allow him to extract a bloody and fatal repayment of his loan. Shylock’s insistence on the letter of the law, on inflexible and legalistic justice, and on violent revenge as a form of justice are rooted in medieval and Renaissance Christian concepts of Judaism as a legalistic religion that emphasizes unjust forms of “justice” according to an outmoded and indefensible Talmudic law in contrast to the supposed Christian emphasis on mercy and forgiveness. For the Jew in the Merchant of Venice to be depicted as unmerciful, inflexible and literalistic in his legalism is, in fact, deeply rooted in Christian religious polemics against Jewish beliefs and practices. It is the old, flawed covenant that Christ repealed continuing to unjustifiably insist on its continued relevance even though it has been superseded by a superior religious and moral sensibility that supposedly replaces an emphasis on justice with an emphasis on mercy.

Of course, the Christians of Venice are so superior to Shylock that in the end his effort to exploit legal literalism is his comeuppance since his bond called for a pound of flesh but not a drop of blood. In other words, when their efforts to appeal to Christian mercy fall on deaf Jewish ears, their own legal literalism and dexterity can outmatch the Jewish one. The horrifying ritual humiliation of Shylock in the trial scene is not simply the debasement of a bad individual, it is a theatrical performance of Christian religious antagonism against not only Jews but Judaism as it was stereotypically perceived during most of the past millennium. The message is: the Jews, who wrongly seek to live by the letter of the old law ignoring the new covenant of mercy instituted by Christ, will have their comeuppance through the very letter of the law; that even their own most cherished values will undo them in the face of Christian virtue and determination.

Of course, many performances have demonstrated that it is possible to downplay this aspect of the Merchant to the point that many people fail to see it or that it is not reflected in a given production. Indeed, Shylock has been sympathetically performed since Edmund Kean’s legendary performance in the early 19th century. However, in the text as it exists I fear it is unmistakable. Shakespeare accords Shylock his full humanity and makes his personal distaste for racism quite apparent. But, he also participates enthusiastically in the assertion and representation of the superiority of Christian values and culture over Jewish ones, and I think it is impossible to fail to recognize this clearly in the Merchant. Therefore, while it is certainly a great work of art and an important humanist document that includes a great deal of antiracist sentiment, it seems impossible to me not to conclude that the Merchant of Venice does in fact also reflect anti-Semitism based on religious bigotry.

The Jew of Malta has acquired a perfectly dreadful reputation for anti-Semitism during the same period of time in which enormous efforts have been expended to recuperate the Merchant of Venice from the same charge. But I think the general opinion has it exactly backwards: Marlowe’s play is fundamentally not anti-Semitic, whereas Shakespeare’s unfortunately is. The Jew of Malta is generally seen as anti-Semitic because even more than Shylock, Barabas is a stereotype of the wealthy, grasping, unscrupulous, avaricious Jew. He also despises Christians and is introduced as a follower of Machiavelli, the synonym of amoral ruthlessness in Elizabethan England. He is also responsible for and enthusiastic about numerous murders, especially when committed against Christians. It has been argued that the abuses by various authorities against Barabas turn him into the anti-Semitic stereotype as the play unfolds, but I find this unconvincing. From the outset, Barabas is a thoroughly villainous character with no redeeming features at all. Because of this, he is often contrasted with Shylock who has many redeeming features and whose rage is much more carefully explored with typical Shakespearean subtlety and depth.

I think the reputation of the Jew of Malta as an anti-Semitic play rests on the absolutely immoral and stereotypically evil character of Barabas and the contrast with the Merchant of Venice and its more nuanced portrayal of Shylock who can be and now usually is portrayed sympathetically. No such sympathetic performance of Barabas is conceivable. However, the key to the Jew of Malta is that none of the other characters are any better — indeed, all of them prove at least as bad if not worse than Barabas himself. Ithamore, a Turkish Muslim slave purchased by Barabas, proves more vicious, murderous and immoral than his master, although also much less intelligent. The continuously invading Turks have a master plan to turn the entire Maltese population into galley slaves. As for the Christians in the play, I would argue that at every stage they outdo both the Jews and the Muslims in avarice, hypocrisy, violence and sheer unmitigated badness. Monks and nuns are depicted as engaging in unrelenting orgies of sexual depravity. Two friars behave in the most outrageous manner in order to try to entice Barabas into joining their orders, thereby gaining his wealth. The behavior of Malta’s Christian governor is certainly the most unprincipled of any of the characters, sparing no opportunity for the exercise of theft, murder and self-aggrandizement, especially at the expense of the Jews and Turks. When Barabas requires Christian mercy, though he has been continuously upbraided throughout the play for not showing any himself, he receives none, from either the Christians or the Turks.

In truth, none of the ethnic and religious groups depicted in Marlowe’s play behave any better than the others. All profess superior moral and religious values yet all display the same debased hypocrisy, violence, rage and greed. Marlowe appears at first to be launching into a familiar and despicable anti-Semitic screed, but by the end of the poem there is no doubt that what he is expressing is not so much anti-Semitism as cynicism and indeed misanthropy. Shakespeare’s play amounts to a defense of Christian values and culture against Jewish ones and, as I’ve argued, in fact has a distinctly anti-Semitic element although it is also a humanist and antiracist text. Marlowe’s play is simply cynical, misanthropic and deeply antireligious. He holds all cultures, civilizations and religious traditions in equal contempt and in that sense, I think it is perfectly impossible to describe the Jew of Malta as anti-Semitic. It’s anti-everything.

As I have been arguing with regard to Islamophobia, a generalized attack on religions and cultures — if not even on humanity itself — whether in the form of an analysis or a satire in my view should not be regarded as an instance of bigotry. Shakespeare’s play does, in fact, contain an assertion of Christian superiority at least in terms of ethics and values over those of the Jews. The best argument that can be made on behalf of Shylock is that he is a bad Jew rather than that he is bad because he is Jewish. But I think ultimately this case fails because the indictment of Shylock is such a perfect replication of the traditional Christian indictment of Judaism. Interestingly, the religion now indicted most frequently in the Christian world for excessive legalism, literalism, dogmatism, intolerance, lack of mercy and forgiveness, and irrational inflexibility is not Judaism but Islam. The most common Christian complaint about both Judaism and Islam is that they are religions of law that emphasize justice whereas Christianity is supposedly a religion of higher moral ethics that emphasizes mercy and forgiveness. It would be an understatement to say that history does not bear out any such claim as a practical consequence of these theological distinctions as Marlowe appears to have understood all too well.

One final observation on the contrapuntal reading of the two plays is that it absolutely crushes any notion that Marlowe actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays. This ridiculous idea, which actually has some currency (as does the equally ludicrous candidacy of the Earl of Oxford), amazingly enough has some supporters, and not all of them are fringe idiots. However, it strikes me as perfectly impossible that the person who wrote the Merchant is the same individual capable of writing the Jew. No question styles change over time, and early Shakespeare bears scant resemblance to mid and later Shakespeare in some ways, but personalities don’t change. Fundamental worldviews don’t change. The author of the Merchant, and all of Shakespeare’s plays, is plainly an idealist. He was an early humanist, a man in love with love, taken to task by those who thought only God should be truly loved in the medieval fashion. There is almost no aspect of human baseness, corruption and foulness that is not reflected in Shakespeare’s characters, so he’s no Pollyanna, but he is still an idealist at heart, and I don’t think this fails to come through in any of his plays, including the Merchant. This author loves humanity, for all its myriad faults, like his greatest tragic hero Othello, “not wisely but too well.”

Marlowe, on the other hand, is an arch-cynic, one of the great cynics of all time. He doesn’t seem to have believed in much of anything except the value of art, his own extraordinary talents (had Shakespeare died on the same day Marlowe did we would remember Marlowe as far greater an artist), having a good time, and the fundamental corruption of human existence. This sensibility — that everyone is worse than the next person — defines entirely the ethos and dramatic economy of the Jew of Malta. In the Merchant, at least some of Shakespeare’s characters are trying to be good, and the contrast I outlined above between his vision of superior Christian ethics versus supposedly inflexible and draconian Jewish ethics again points to some hope in virtue and “the quality of mercy.” In Marlowe’s play, the concept of mercy, the concept of human goodness, is a joke. Bottom line: these are two completely different authors with completely different sensibilities, completely different worldviews and completely different personalities. If it isn’t obvious from all the more direct and clear-cut facts that Shakespeare wrote his own plays, at least a comparison between these two masterpieces demonstrates there is no possibility they were penned by the same hand.

Shortly after this posting went live, I was contacted by Seth Duerr who informs me that he is currently directing rotating repertory performances of both of these plays at the JCC of Manhattan, a perfect location. For more information see:

This is a brilliant idea, and I shall be bitterly disappointed if I’m not able to make it before these performances close.

Obama and Afghanistan: the only possibility for “success”

Pres. Obama probably had no choice at this stage of his presidency and under the present circumstances but to accede to the demands of his military commanders and commit tens of thousands of additional American troops to the Afghan war. It took him months longer to make the decision than it probably should have, and that’s because I think it is both strategically and politically almost impossible to decide what the wisest course of action would be. In the end, therefore, he decided to both maintain the logic of his presidential campaign in which he distinguished between stupid, unnecessary wars (Iraq) and unavoidable, essential wars (Afghanistan), and to avoid a public fight with the military. Moreover, the decision not to increase troop levels would have amounted to a decision to begin to withdraw from the country under the present circumstances, which, with a resurgent Taliban not only threatening Kabul but also rising in Pakistan as well, would have been strategically difficult to justify. But by putting an 18 month limit on the surge and implicitly promising to begin a generalized withdrawal in approximately 2 years, he has also tried to reassure those who feel the war is pointless, lost or fundamentally unwinnable.

As with the healthcare debate, neither the left nor the right could be satisfied by anything that is politically plausible, so Obama has again decided to split both sides against the middle. In the immediate term, it probably avoids the most significant political damage he would have suffered in yet another brutal battle with an increasingly incensed Republican minority and significant and powerful segments of his own cabinet and some leading Democrats. Whether it proves politically or strategically wise in the long run, seems almost impossible to accurately predict at this stage.

One thing is certain: “nation-building” and attempting to rule in Afghanistan is a fool’s errand. It is one of the greatest clichés involving international relations that Afghanistan is virtually ungovernable from within (this actually is probably not true, and there is quite a bit of historical precedent against such an assertion) and completely ungovernable from without (this, on the other hand, would certainly seem to be the case). At the very least, it can be said that Afghans have a habit of making it prohibitively costly for any outside power that tries to impose its direct rule on the country in general, and even local authorities seen as exerting too much heavy-handed control over regions that are disparate and fiercely independent. Therefore, insofar as Obama’s vision of the Afghan war involves nation-building on a grand scale, or long-term direct or proxy American rule of Afghanistan, it’s almost certainly bound to fail, and probably at considerable financial, human and strategic cost.

However, although his critics would accuse him of envisaging precisely such a scenario, the president has in fact left open the possibility of a very different path that is not inconsistent with this troop surge and the conditions he laid down in his speech last night. The president and his supporters can credibly argue that it is simply too dangerous for the United States under the present circumstances to leave the Afghan (or rather as it has become the Afghan/Pakistan) theater completely and that therefore a new level of intensification of efforts involving not only troops but additional efforts is required. He placed the emphasis on training the Afghan military, but there are very real questions as to the extent that a military based out of Kabul could rule all of that country directly and effectively after what it has gone through over the past three decades, especially if ethnic tensions persist. A great deal of what the President said probably can be dismissed as window dressing (complaints about corruption, etc.) on what is to all appearances a very dismal Afghan government. But his warnings about the dangers of the resurgence of Al Qaeda linked to the Taliban are extremely well-founded, and on that basis alone trying to do more in Afghanistan before leaving probably makes sense as opposed to simply drawing down and walking away (as we did twice in the recent past, both times to disastrous consequences).

Immediately after 9/11 most Americans agreed on the necessity of removing the Taliban government from power in Afghanistan and doing everything possible to make sure that Al Qaeda would no longer find safe haven there. To say that the mission has been bungled would be an understatement I think. The most dramatic miscalculation, obviously (and it was obvious at the time as well) was turning attention away from Afghanistan and, inexplicably, towards Iraq, which not only allowed the situation in Afghanistan (and ultimately Pakistan) to deteriorate disastrously, but also breathed new life into what was a moribund Al Qaeda movement. The fact that the Iraqis themselves in the end decided collectively and virtually unanimously that Al Qaeda had to go was more a product of the extremists’ own lunacy and barbarity than any strategic success on the American part (of course, paying the former insurgents of the so-called “awakening” certainly helped accomplish this goal, although it also helps set the stage for a much more dramatic potential Iraqi civil war in the future – but that is another matter.)

The Afghan war has also been bungled not only by relative neglect, and the embracing of an incredibly corrupt and incompetent Kabul government, but also a failure to appreciate both what is possible and impossible in that country. The fact that the conflict is driven at least as much by ethnic tensions and parochial political interests than it is by ideology seems to have escaped American planning until now. The same problem applies in Pakistan. What you’re looking at is the convergence of ethnic civil conflict and tensions and parochial power interests with ideological fanaticism and transnational terrorism. It’s a combustible mix, and I can understand why Obama wouldn’t want to leave things the way they unacceptably are.

The problem is, historical experience and practical logic suggest that there is only one effective solution to this combustible mixture, and it’s not the creation of a well functioning, harmonious, integrated and reliably pro-western Afghan state. Even if such a goal were achievable by outsiders under the present circumstances, which I highly doubt, it would almost certainly not be worth the cost, and the American public would undoubtedly decline to pay it in blood and treasure. Even more limited long-term counterinsurgency is incredibly costly, bloody and time-consuming, and I doubt the American public has the will or the wallet to countenance the decades of counterinsurgency designed to suppress the Taliban.

What could possibly work, however, is to decouple the two sides of this equation that make it intolerable to the outside world. In other words, accept that the ethnic divisions and even conflicts in Afghanistan (and possibly even northern Pakistan) are simply not a vital strategic interest to the United States, and that local parochial and regional proxy interests are best left to their own devices as long as they genuinely remain local and not the tools of those wishing to overthrow national governments or engage in transnational terrorism.

The traditional arrangement by both central governments and colonial powers in places like southern Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan has been simple: you over there, doing what you want, us over here with you leaving us alone. This kind of understanding is, conceivably, recuperable in both of those places in the foreseeable future. For the moment, the problem is that there are too many ideological fanatics interwoven into the various movements, especially both the Afghan and Pakistan versions of the Taliban, who are unwilling to accept the idea that they may do as they wish in their own areas as long as they do not try to destabilize the central governments, expand the territory under their control in an unreasonable manner, or, most importantly, collude with transnational terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. If there is to be a “success” for the United States in Afghanistan and for Islamabad in its northern provinces, it’s going to have to be based on distinguishing between those willing to accept the old arrangement of radical autonomy in their own areas, possibly enhanced with financial incentives and other goodies, versus those whose designs extend towards the Afghan and Pakistani states generally and worse towards the broader world.

This decoupling, difficult though it might be, is not impossible by any means in my view and is going to have to be at the heart of American, Afghan government and Pakistani strategies in the next couple of years if they are to have any hope of success. The worst case scenario has been playing itself out in recent years: ideological fanaticism of an unacceptable variety, that can and must be contained if not obliterated, has managed to fuse itself with ethnic and parochial grievances that can be neither contained nor obliterated but which traditionally have been and can again be accommodated. Whatever Obama was telling the American public last night, whatever his generals are telling him, and whatever Richard Holbrook is telling everybody who will listen to him, in the back of their minds they had better understand this is the only realistic way forward.

I believe it is entirely possible to read this strategy into Obama’s speech last night, which emphasized denying Al Qaeda safe haven and thwarting Taliban ability to overthrow the Afghan and Pakistani governments. But I would hasten to add this can only be achieved by the decoupling I described, as the ethnic, local and parochial elements defining the Afghan civil war (and the incipient civil war in Pakistan as well) are not, in fact, going to go away. Neither will the persistent efforts of all regional powers to use proxies to project their own interests into Afghanistan (it is this imperative that prompted Pakistan to counterintuitively continue to support the Taliban in Afghanistan as its proxy there, while feeling deeply threatened by any Taliban activity inside Pakistan itself, ending up producing a nascent civil conflict threatening Islamabad).

All of this ethnic, parochial, local and regional infighting in Afghanistan is going to go forward, no matter what, and trying to stop it is pointless. But it could go forward without the extreme ideology and transnational terrorism that are the source of genuine, serious international concern. Any efforts at troop surge, counterinsurgency, nation-building, winning hearts and minds or whatever else you want to call it that are not ultimately aimed at affecting this decoupling and making a deal with those who are willing to accept the old formula of you over there and us over here, against those who are not willing to accept this arrangement, will be worse than a waste of time.

I believe there is a potential for a measure of what one might call “success,” as I have defined it, if everybody is clear about what is necessary and achievable, as opposed to what is unnecessary, unachievable, prohibitively costly, counterproductive and possibly even disastrous. The elements of it were reflected in the President’s speech last night, but so were many other less worthy ideas that I can only hope are window dressing for a sober, limited and focused campaign to restore the old arrangement of you over there and us over here. That, and only that, could actually work.