Later this year at the Battle of Ideas in London I shall be chairing a discussion on ‘The Simpsons versus Shakespeare’, a topic inspired by a 2010 news item about a Mr Joseph Reynolds of Somerset who petitioned his daughter’s school demanding that it teach more Shakespeare and less Simpsons during his daughter’s English class. Mr Reynold’s action was in my view entirely reasonable, given that the English class had spent six weeks analysing the opening credits to The Simpsons, leaving no time for students to read A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
As I expected, other members of the public didn’t share my belief. They saw in Mr Reynolds only a fuddy-duddy stuck in a golden age when children’s television meant Muffin the Mule and public libraries meant silence. At the time, however, I noticed yet another kind of response, coming from those who wondered what all the fuss was about - why not have it both ways and have schools teach both the highbrow and the popular? Why not have your cake and eat it? The current RSC production of The Merchant of Venice - a Shakespearean tragi-comedy which in this instance opens with an Elvis impersonator performing ‘Viva Las Vegas’ - would seem, therefore, to be the play for them.
I myself have never fully grasped The Merchant of Venice. A romantic comedy that rests on the utter defeat of a Jew is a little bipolar to say the least. And a wealthy merchant who resents paying market interest rates on sums borrowed appears somewhat naive to the modern audience. And yet that is how it was written. Maybe it made sense four hundred years ago, but maybe even back then it sent out confused messages. The Jewish ‘problem’ no doubt loomed large circa 1600, and it would have been very easy for Shakespeare to write Shylock as a mere usurer who receives his just deserts, but he didn’t. Shylock is as worthy an adversary as anyone in Shakespeare has faced: quick witted, learned, and with a larger than life chip on his sholulder. His defeat (snatched from the jaws of victory) in court is not easy to accept, and seems grossly unfair. Equally unfair seem the post-victory celebrations of the wholly unprincipled Christians who have humiliated Shylock. They get the money, they get the girls, and the only lesson they appear to have been taught is to not give their wedding rings away too readily. And Shakespeare expects us to consider this a happy ending?
No sensitive person can leave the theatre without feeling that the Christian victory has been too easily won. This is a normal, healthy, moral reaction. But Rupert Goold’s current production seems to want to rub our noses in it and tips the balance too far in favour of Shylock. By giving the play an extremely cheesy American backdrop, complete with Southern drawls, blonde wigs and loud plaid jackets, Goold immediately sets the audience against the Christians, not one of whom is likeable. It even goes so far as to punish the Christians for their victory: instead of quietly abandoning them to their happy ending this particular production has the final lines spoken as if the characters are going mad at the thought of their own shallowness. Add to this the artificially injected irony - Portia’s suitors as game show contestants, for instance, or Portia herself delivering the good news that ‘Three of your [Antonio’s] argosies are richly come to harbour suddenly’ as if the words are a line in a poorly-written play - and we have not Shakespeare but a modern anti-American morality tale that borrows heavily from Shakespeare, not so far removed from those episodes of The Simpsons that re-enact Hamlet or Macbeth.
Needless to say, Patrick Stewart as Shylock is pushing at an open door. In being handed all our sympathies on a plate, he in effect evades having to convey a character both noble and vile, and therefore has perhaps too easy a time of it. Then again, is it possible for Shylock to be played any other way in a time when the Holocaust seems to be the defining motif of our morality? But for once it would be nice to see The Merchant of Venice performed as if the Nazis had never come to power.
So where does this leave those optimistic third-wayers who believe that there’s room for both Shakespeare and The Simpsons in the English curriculum? Of course, if time were limitless the curriculum would contain everything and everyone, from Chaucer to Grand Theft Auto IV via Biggles and the Teletubbies, giving children an experience of the best that has been written and an opportunity to understand the popular. But Mr Reynolds’s experience shows that time is not unlimited, that choices have to be made with the clock ticking and the school bell tolling, and that ‘every “yes” implies a thousand “no"s’ (to borrow from Sir Geoffrey Vickers’s classic study of decision-making The Art of Judgment). This finiteness ought to impress upon us an urgency to decide what it is we want from life, which in turn should point the way to works of literature that elaborate on the moral qualities required to achieve it. The Merchant of Venice - up to the point at which Shylock is condemned to recant his religion - reveals some of these qualities in animated equipoise, and deserves to be considered such a work of literature.
The current production at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, on the other hand, brutally quashes this equipoise, foisting all the moral weight onto Shylock and using him to play to popular prejudices. If there is a sense or urgency here then it is without direction, in the sense that a headless chicken may be said to run around the slaughterhouse ‘urgently’. And if there is a sense of morality then it is hectoring rather than revealed. The only thing revealed here is that you cannot successfully challenge and pander to an audience at the same time. In the battle between The Simpsons and Shakespeare there shall be no middle ground.