Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Merchant of Venice and Conversion


Originally, I was advised to insert Shakespeare into my dissertation. I thought perhaps I could approach it through how characters were Othered or demonized, or associated with the devil. The Merchant of Venice and Othello seemed like natural places to start. However, after research The Merchant of Venice for my presentation for my Global Renaissance class, I can cross Merchant off the list.
On a happy side note, I'm very interested in the idea of conversion as a tool of globalization.

The class particularly liked my close reading of the title.

Response 2
            In “Heterogenizing Imagination: Globalization, “The Merchant of Venice,” and the Work of Literary Criticism”, Stevens states that globalization functions as a form of cultural memory, in that it is often misunderstood, misread, and glossed into a simplified form of itself. He also argues that “modern Western capitalism was global from its inception” (428). He moves on to a summary Bhagwati’s reading of The Merchant of Venice. In Bhagwati’s reading, “Shakespeare recognized that integration into the world economy via trade could constrain the freedom of domestic action” (Stevens quoting Bhagwati 429), that the play is not anti-Semitic in the modern sense, that Shylock is satirized for not being enough of a capitalist and not his Jewishness.
            The key issue I want to focus on is Stevens’ argument that The Merchant of Venice is “disquieting” (431) because Shylock is “not enfranchised so much as assimilated” (431) through his forced conversion. As Stevens asserts, “Globalization, as seen even by its most thoughtful advocates, such as Giddens, means a decline in individual agency and subjection to a process of homogenization” (431). He goes on to illustrate his point by connecting Shylock and Chakrabary’s work through their alien nature. Stevens focuses on the fact that Shylock’s cultural identity is slowly eroded.  He is robbed, of material goods, as well as his place in the world, and his daughter. Despite clinging to his family, his culture, and his community, he is shut out of all of these things. He is robbed of his reputation and religion in the face of Antonio and the legal system of Venice. He is robbed of his family when his daughter deserts and betrays him, most keenly by her conversion. His forced conversion strips his identity, and reaffirms Stevens argument that Shylock is “assimilated” (431). Stevens points to Chakrabarty’s writing, and the sense of loss (435) inherent in it as echoing the feelings of Shylock. Specifically quoting Chakrabarty’s literary book, “Concepts such as citizenship, the state, civil society, public sphere, human rights, equality before the law, the individual, distinctions between public and private, the idea of the subject, democracy, popular sovereignty, social justice…all bear the burden of European thought and history” (433).
            I viewed Stevens’ argument through the lens of conversion as a tool of globalization. To me, there is an inherent tension in The Merchant of Venice about the nature of conversion. Shapiro argues during this time that there was an emerging sense of English identity, but also a need to distinguish between Christians and Jews as part of forming that identity and “England came to see their country defined in part by the fact that Jews had been banished from it” (42) There were also fears and anxieties about the growing alien population, to which conversion seems to be the solution. If aliens who were valuable to the mercantile sector of the nation-state could have their alien nature nullified by conversion, then they would present less of a threat to the nation-state. Shylock is assimilated into the capitalist culture of Venice in much the same way. He can continue to operate in the city-state, contributing to the good of the nation-state, while the source of anxiety, his Jewishness, is negated by his forced conversion. If Shylock had not converted, then the punishment had to be death, as he would represent too much of a threat.
In addition to the losses of family, culture, and community Shylock is also denied the potential benefits of citizenship, “ civil society, public sphere, human rights, equality before the law” (Chakrabarty 433). As the Duke’s decision confirms, the “distinctions between public and private” and “social justice” (Chakrabarty 433) are erased in order for capitalism, and globalization to be successful. Shylock cannot remain a Jew if the nation-state of Venice is to be successful. Antonio, as the merchant, must be awarded, and Shylock’s identity must be erased. Legally speaking, the Duke could have just found in favor of Antonio. The forced conversion is troubling because it is unnecessary. Rather than view it as anti-Semitic, I believe it has to viewed as a tool of capitalism, and hence globalization. As Stevens quoted Bhagwati’s reading, “Shakespeare recognized that integration into the world economy via trade could constrain the freedom of domestic action” (429). In order for Venice to integrate into the world economy (globalization) then Shylock’s freedom, of religion, and culture, must be constrained, and negated. The forced, and problematic, conversion can then be read as a tool for globalization.

Works Cited
Shapiro, James. Shakespeare and the Jews. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. Print.
----- “Which is The Merchant here, and which The Jew?”: Shakespeare and the Economics of Influence.” Shakespeare Studies 20 (1988): 269-491.
Stevens, Paul. ““Heterogenizing Imagination: Globalization, “The Merchant of Venice,” and the Work of Literary Criticism”. New Literary History 36:3 (2005): 425-437.

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