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A Nation of Iagos

from the magazine

A Nation of Iagos

A conversation on race, with William Shakespeare Winter 2018
Arts and Culture

CAN WE FINALLY HAVE A REAL CONVERSATION ABOUT RACE? a recent headline read. And I thought: I’m game. I’d be happy to talk about race. But with whom? No leftists, certainly. The Left’s idea of a conversation is shrieking, “You’re a racist!” at anyone who opposes their policies. And their policies are a racial disaster. Employment rates were rising and illegitimacy and murder rates were falling among American blacks until the Left seized the culture in the 1960s—then the numbers all went in the wrong direction. You want to visit a place where black lives don’t matter? Try Chicago, where Democrats have been in charge since 1931, or Baltimore, where there hasn’t been a Republican mayor since 1967. After heavy antipolice demonstrations, both cities saw a dramatic surge in their already-disastrous murder rates last year, according to FBI statistics. What can leftists have to say about race besides “We’re sorry”?

I have more sympathy with the bromides of the Right, but let’s face it, they are bromides. Yes, bourgeois behaviors like education, marriage, and hard work still forge the way out of poverty in America. But I’ve seen schools in poor black neighborhoods, and I’ve met children there, and I think if you’re eight years old and your dad is gone and your mom’s on drugs and all your role models are gangsters . . . well, maybe it’s not so easy to get your bourgeois game on.

But then, are we still having a conversation about race? Or are we just talking about poverty? Is race even an actual thing? Is it really a meaningful genetic category? Can it be isolated as a cultural fact? Does it exist anywhere but in the minds of bigots, Left and Right? Let’s start with that conversation.

When I was a child, my parents and teachers told me that race didn’t matter—not in America, at least. E pluribus unum and all that. I believed them, too. When I watched TV in my suburban home near New York City, when I saw the civil rights marchers down South greeted by segregationists with truncheon, fire hose, and hound, I knew who the bad guys were: the bigots. They were retrograde; un-American. It certainly never occurred to me that the civil rights crusaders would one day adopt the racist values of their oppressors, that they would come to condemn people simply because they were white, or beg special favors based on their own skin color, or—heaven help us—become segregationists themselves, demanding that colleges provide black dormitories and “safe spaces.” The theory, I guess, is that years of antiblack racism can be counterbalanced with antiwhite racism. But I was raised to believe that all bigotry goes on one side of the scales and all justice on the other, and that if you adopt the values of your oppressor, you can only achieve your oppressor’s aims.

But then, the people in my hometown had a personal stake in the fight against race-consciousness. We were Jews, a lot of us: second-generation Jews like myself, eager beyond our own understanding to become baseball-loving, astronaut-admiring, allegiance-pledging citizens of the country we loved. Sure, on TV sitcoms, in TV suburbs that looked like ours, the protagonists were all WASPs. But what difference did that make? We were Americans. Race didn’t matter.

And, in fact, it didn’t matter, not in my young life. The Holocaust was still a living memory then. The Gentiles still felt ashamed and were mindful of their prejudices. Mine was a generation of Holiday Jews, living in the lull between the mass murder of the 1940s and the anti-Israel hysteria of today. I never experienced any bigotry until I was well into adulthood.

Except in literature—literature, which I loved, which was my personal royal road into the heart of the culture that had made me who I was. When I read Hemingway, one of my favorites, there was the simpering Robert Cohn with his “Jewish superiority.” When I read Dickens, there was Fagin, the creepy thief often referred to only as “the Jew.”

And when I read Shakespeare, there was Shylock.

More than any other writer or philosopher or parent or friend or anyone, Shakespeare shaped my ideas about what it means to be a human being. For an assimilationist Jew, that made Shylock a challenge. Modern Shakespeare lovers have worked hard to acquit the Bard of the charge of anti-Semitism. Mostly they do this by reframing the villain of The Merchant of Venice in ways meant to mitigate his villainy. A recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by English professor Paula Marantz Cohen demonstrates the strategy: “ ‘The Merchant of Venice’ dramatizes the result of persistent, socially sanctioned mistreatment of one group of people. The . . . Jew Shylock has experienced a lifetime of abuse, and his resentment fuels his determination to exact the pound of flesh that he is legally owed.” Such a view takes Shylock at his word when he blames his own wickedness on Christian abuse: “Thou call’dst me dog before thou hadst a cause; But, since I am a dog, beware my fangs.”

Personally, I don’t think the play supports such a reading. Yes, Shakespeare lets Shylock make his case for himself, and yes, he admonishes Christians to live out the merciful meaning of their creed. But the man’s a monster, a greedy moneylender who seeks to torture a Christian merchant to death in payment for a forfeit loan. No excuse can quite transform him from an evildoer into a tragic victim.

In a recent New Yorker piece, Harvard Shakespeare maven Stephen Greenblatt makes a more plausible case. He accepts the reality of Shylock’s villainy and feels the justice of his comeuppance. But he speculates that while Shakespeare “set out . . . to write a straightforward comedy,” he was “drawn into the soul of the despised other” until he ended up “giving Shylock . . . more urgent, compelling life, than anyone else in his world has.” This is in keeping with the scope of Shakespeare’s genius and also in line with a Western artistic tradition that, from Iliad to Goodfellas, has lavished a full sense of humanity on its depictions of those who might have been viewed as mere criminals.

Still, I can’t help feeling that even this approach puts a soft focus on Shakespeare’s intentions. Like any good showman, the Bard would have been keenly alert to the sympathies of his audience. Merchant was apparently written shortly after the execution of the doctor Roderigo Lopez on the charge of attempting to poison Queen Elizabeth. Lopez professed to be a Christian but was of Jewish descent and had been accused of secretly practicing Judaism. His alleged plot seems to have ignited anti-Semitic feeling in an England that hadn’t included many Jews since their official expulsion in 1290. According to the contemporary writer William Camden, Lopez protested from the scaffold that “he loved the Queen as well as he loved Jesus Christ.” This, Camden wrote, “coming from a man of the Jewish profession, moved no small laughter in the standers-by.”

I suspect that Shakespeare’s audience would have likewise laughed—and jeered and hooted—at Shylock’s famous plea for understanding: “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?” and so on. Just another self-pitying criminal, acutely sensitive to his own grievances!

Shylock’s intended victim, the “good Antonio,” is, after all, clearly a Christ figure, a loving man of sorrows willing to offer up his life to pay off the debts of others. The entire trial sequence leading up to Shylock’s comeuppance is a relentlessly one-sided comparison of the “quality of mercy” at the heart of Christian dogma and what is portrayed as the brute and brutal legalism of Judaism.

Merchant is essentially a humanized, comic version of a Passion Play with an unusually well-drawn but nonetheless evil Jew plotting against a Jesus stand-in. I think that the audience was meant to cheer Shylock’s ultimate downfall and to leave the theater well pleased with their superior creed.

But Merchant is not a racist play, not in the literal sense. Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, is one of its more sympathetic characters. She’s a Jew, too, and yet her father is told, “There is more difference between thy flesh and hers than between jet and ivory; more between your bloods than there is between red wine and rhenish [white wine].” Jessica’s decency is realized in her marriage to a Christian and her willing conversion. That is, the play does not condemn Jews for their race but only for their religion. Merchant is very definitely anti-Judaism, but it is not anti-Semitic.

This is one of the things that makes a modern conversation about race virtually impossible, not to say useless: our muddle-headed conflation of inborn and presumably unchangeable genetics with potentially negotiable qualities like culture and belief. In light of centuries of vicious anti-Jewish expulsions, pogroms, massacres, and finally holocaust, a staged smackdown between Christianity and Judaism in which the J-team loses makes us understandably uneasy. Beyond that, the long history of religious violence has taught us that hands-off tolerance toward faith is a foundational pillar of a liberal society. But must we maintain that tolerance at the price of our honesty? In order to keep from killing one another, must we really pretend to believe the happy-talk notion that every creed is as good as every other, that “all religions are a path to God”?

A religion—including the religion of atheism—is a spiritual philosophy with tenets meant to describe the nature of reality and form a vision of the good life in the context of that reality. These—philosophies, tenets, concepts of reality—not only make claims to truth but are also powerful human formatives. They fashion individuals and societies in their own images. As evil as religious persecution is, it is perfectly moral—even sometimes necessary—to compare, criticize, and oppose religious beliefs and rituals, just as we would any other ideas. (See “There’s No Such Thing as Islamophobia,” Summer 2017.)

Shylock is a villain because his creed (in Shakespeare’s outdated caricature) gives him no pathway to forgiveness of either debts or grievances, no response to them but rage, revenge, and the law. Jessica, a better person, chooses a better creed.

But then, can we really separate racial nature from cultural nurture? Can a person wholly break free of his blood inheritance simply by changing his beliefs and behaviors? Is everything important about us intellectual, spiritual, internal, unseen?

I’ve wrestled with these questions myself. As I neared the age of 50 and began to abandon my agnosticism and become a Christian, I was forced to wonder: Was I betraying my kind? Was I trying to deceive my own genetics in order to serve the assimilationist values that had been sold to me in my youth? Or was my faith the truth of me? And how could I ever really know?

Maybe I impose my experience on the text, but I think it’s precisely through such questions that Shakespeare worked out his own complex understanding of the role of race in human affairs.

You can watch Shakespeare’s concept of race develop in his depictions of black characters. There are three of importance. Taken in order of the usual chronologies, they are Aaron in Titus Andronicus, the Prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice, and the title role in Othello.

Titus is an early tragedy, and possibly a collaboration. Its violence is grotesque to the point of comedy (it includes the morbidly hilarious stage direction: Enter a Messenger, with two heads and a hand), and its dialogue is often solemn and bombastic. But it does contain a few good mad scenes. And it gives us the wonderfully villainous character Aaron the evil Moor.

Aaron’s motives are mysterious. He seems to choose wickedness purely by nature—and he relates that wicked nature to the color of his skin. “Let fools do good, and fair men call for grace,” he says. “Aaron will have his soul black like his face.” Though it’s great fun to watch him onstage, Aaron is ultimately exactly what he seems: an oversexed and treacherous black stereotype of the time. The dynamics outlined in the later Merchant of Venice—dynamics of blood versus inner belief—render his character simplistic and obsolete. And so it makes sense that a Moor appears in Merchant as part of an internal fable exploring those dynamics.

In Merchant, in order to win Portia’s hand, a suitor must choose the right one of three caskets: gold, silver, or lead. The first suitor is the Prince of Morocco. Like Aaron, he’s a collection of black stereotypes, but more positive ones: he’s bold, swaggering, and warlike. He begs Portia not to judge him by the color of his skin—“Mislike me not for my complexion”—because he’s all red-blooded male inside. And Portia promises that she is not “solely led by nice direction of a maiden’s eyes.”

But Morocco then proceeds to fail the test, precisely because he relies on outer appearances himself. He chooses the gold casket, on the assumption that the most valuable exterior will contain the most valuable prize. He loses: “All that glisters is not gold.” But the scene ends with a startling little irony, when Portia mutters, “Let all of his complexion choose me so.” Which is to say: Let all black guys fail the test.

Not to make too much of one line, but the remark does seem to undermine the moral of the tale. It’s as if Shakespeare can’t quite let go of the idea of a connection between the color of a man’s skin and the content of his character. Many of his plays explore such inside-and-out connections. How much of gender is dress-up? How much of kingship is ceremony? How much of how we appear defines who we really are?

Which brings us to Othello.

Othello is not a play about race. It’s about being and seeming. But Othello’s blackness serves as a metaphor for that central theme.

Was Shakespeare thinking about Aaron when he created this far more complicated Moor? Maybe. Both characters enter their plays in the same way: by breaking up a sword fight. This might just be a coincidence, but it could indicate a connection between the two in Shakespeare’s mind, as if he were intentionally revisiting the stereotype from a wholly new direction.

In Othello, the blackest soul is in a white body. It’s Iago who dissembles, manipulates, and destroys with the ferocity of the evil Moor in Titus. As with Aaron, Iago’s motives are unclear. In the story on which the play is based, he seeks to destroy the Moor out of desire for his white wife, Desdemona. But Shakespeare changes that. His Iago offers several reasons for his malevolence: he says that Othello passed him over for promotion; he suggests that Othello may have slept with his wife; or he says, simply, “I hate the Moor.”

But what if Iago’s real motive is simple racism? What if he’s just furious that a black man should be a better, more noble, person than himself? It’s a fair read. His references to Othello are thick with race-based sexual resentment (“An old black ram is topping your white ewe,” he tells Desdemona’s father). And that repeated declaration, “I hate the Moor,” drips with pure bigotry. What’s more, racism makes sense of Iago’s destructive project: he wants to transform the seemingly exemplary general into what his bigotry says a Moor should be. He wants to make Othello into a stereotype like Aaron to confirm his prejudice. And he wants to bring Othello down to his level.

To do this, he works on a fault line in Othello’s character that weirdly mirrors a fault line in his own. Iago, a liar and a fraud, is not what he seems. “I am not what I am,” he says. But Othello is also more complex than he appears.

“Men should be what they seem,” Iago tells Othello. And Othello answers, “Certain, men should be what they seem.”

Coming from Othello, this line speaks to his aspirations. He was probably born a Muslim. He has converted to Christianity, married a white Christian woman, and is waging war for the Christians against the Muslim Turks. He is an assimilationist, and, despite his black skin, he wishes to be (again, in Shakespeare’s Elizabethan caricature) the white-souled Christian that he seems to be.

From Iago, the same line—men should be what they seem—is the demand of bigotry. He wants Othello to be what he looks like—to have, like Aaron, “a soul black like his face.” Iago’s every move is intended to turn Othello into the wicked Moor of his own imagination, an evildoer like himself.

This being a tragedy, Iago succeeds. Just before Othello murders Desdemona, she sings a song taught to her by a maid named Barbary. It’s as if, rather than marry upward into Desdemona’s Christian whiteness, Othello has reduced her to a tragic Moorish bride. His assimilationist project has utterly failed. Hence Othello’s final words before he plunges the knife into his own breast: “in Aleppo once,/Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk/Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,/I took by the throat the circumcised dog,/And smote him, thus.” He is executing the swarthy Muslim inside himself.

The Tragedy of Othello is not really a tragedy, though. Its ending doesn’t grow inevitably out of the Moor’s “Moorish” nature. The play is, rather, a crime story. After all, any man who adopts the ideas of a different culture will experience inner conflict. But Othello’s conflicts would not have ended in murder had Iago not worked so maliciously to impress the image of his own bigotry and self-hatred on the Moor’s divided soul.

There’s the conversation we should have about race, a conversation all but forbidden by our historical anxieties. Do we believe that race matters, or not? Do we believe that racial culture is nonnegotiable? Do we believe that religion is beyond comparative criticism? Or do we believe that it’s ideas that matter, and that each of us is free to remake himself into the image of his best conceptions—despite blood, despite history?

Having lived out the struggle between race and culture, on the one hand, and faith and self-determination, on the other, I can report that I have not encountered any mysterious racial quality in me inherently at odds with the transformative joy of my Christian conversion. If anything, I never felt truly connected to my “Jewish roots” until I was baptized. I have encountered people—Jew and non-Jew alike—who are angry that I did what I did, who feel I owe some debt to their idea of how a Jew ought to behave. I have always managed to ignore them. But then, I grew up at a time when my race, my Semitism, was said not to matter. Most people have been more than willing to allow my soul to make its own journey in its own way.

When I look at the lives of my fellow Americans who are black, however, when I look at the policies and ideas relentlessly pushed on them, I sometimes feel that they are living in a nation of Iagos, a nation of conniving bigots determined to shape their prey into the image of their own prejudices. The old forces of white supremacy are largely scattered for now. But a leftist cult of sinister pity still works to transform black men and women into perpetual victims, helpless and resentful, disguising personal passivity with political protest, depending on government charity while endlessly demanding justice for historical crimes that are past redress. Who would advise a friend to live in that sort of interminable bitterness? To blame others for his failures? To wait for social justice and reparations before setting out to make his own way in the world? Who, but a villain?

Is race real? Does it matter? We all come from somewhere. We are all shaped by some unknowable amalgam of genetic inheritance and culture and upbringing. We are all under pressure from the Iagos of the world to “be what we seem,” to live in the prison of our circumstances. There is always someone eager to draw us onto the stage of our inherent tragedy.

But there are other stages, other plays, some comedies, some divine.

Photo: In Othello, the blackest soul is inside a white body: Iago dissembles, manipulates, and destroys. (GRANGER — ALL RIGHTS RESERVED)

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