Friday, November 20, 2015

"Henry V," "Merchant of Venice," Caste and Class — and Respect and Black Lives Matter

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother. Be he n'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition […].
— King Henry to his troops before the Battle of Agincourt
Henry V 4.3.61-64

Now by my hood, a gentle and no Jew!
Gratiano, more or less to Lorenzo, on the Jewess Jessica
The Merchant of Venice 2.6.50

            The lines of King Henry V that I quote above need to be glossed nowadays — have the terms defined — and really should be modernized in performance. Henry is offering (figurative) brotherhood to everyone who fights alongside him in what looks like a hopeless battle, and he's making that offer even to the most vile in his army. That is — Henry kind of promises — even the most low-born will become a figurative brother to a king — himself, Henry — and, Henry implies, will rise to, or at least toward, the status of gentleman ("This day shall gentle his condition"). It is significant, and not just for understanding Shakespeare, that a word for "low-born" was negative in Shakespeare's day and has become far worse since then: vile is not a compliment. Neither is "varlet," "churl," "boor," or even "peasant," the last two or three of which once just meant "farm laborer" or "farmer." There were those who were gentle in their birth, and above them, and by Shakespeare's time included in the term, there were and are those who are noble and (above them) royal. And then there were the rest.
            Got it?
            Now Gratiano is a wiseass young man in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice (1596/97), the side-kick to the second-banana hero in the subplot: Lorenzo, the lover of Jessica, a Jewess (sic) with whom he, Lorenzo, is eloping and who (Jessica) has just gone off to steal more money from her father: the villain of the piece, Shylock. In the line I quote as a headnote, "by my hood" really doesn't mean anything, and "a gentle and no Jew" is complicated. "Gentle" puns on "gentile" and means "gentle" in our sense, plus something similar to "genteel": being a gentlewoman or having the qualities associated with a lady or gentleman — as opposed to us non-gentle (lowborn, vile) others, and, clearly, as opposed to Jews.
            "Jewish gentlewoman" or "Jewish lady" would be a contradiction in terms.
            Insofar as The Merchant of Venice is a romantic comedy in a romantic-comic world, Jessica can convert to Christianity (precisely what variety of Christianity Shakespeare won't get into) — Jessica can convert, marry a gentleman like Lorenzo, and become a lady. And the followers of a victorious king or duke or other warlord really might accumulate enough in loot and/or ransoms to move up the social ladder, or at least start their families up the scale.
            Not so with any non-converted Jews, and, in the real world of Shakespeare's day and long after, not so with Jews generally. In many mouths, "Jewish gentleman" was a kind of sick joke or condescending slight. It was like the folk etymology of "wog" as an acronym for "Worthy Oriental Gentleman": a put-down.
            Shylock in Merchant and far more so the earlier Jewish villain Barabas in Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta (1592) could buy and sell, fairly literally, almost all the Christians in the play, and for the most part were smarter and better educated. No matter. There had been a long-running argument De vera nobilitate, "concerning true nobility," and one could argue that "true nobility" came from cultural "breeding," virtue, and leading a virtuous life, not from biological breeding, one's birth.  By Shakespeare's time, the boundary for respectability had moved down enough that the argument was on gentility, not nobility, and one could argue, "Gentle is as gentle does." Still, there are limits!
            In the late 19th and much of the 20th centuries, those limits were expressed in racial or racialist or downright racist terms: modern anti-Semitism is part of racism — as an ideology, an Early Modern invention — as well as traditional anti-Jewish prejudice and doctrine. And that's how I encountered it at Cornell University in 1965 when I asked what people were talking about when they mentioned "the White houses" on the Ithaca, NY, campus. The African-American fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha was founded at Cornell (1906), and the fraternity chapter I advised had two or three Black pledges that year, but from my rather out-of-it, new-graduate-student view, the Cornell fraternity system looked pretty much incandescent, albino-lily White. So what would the meaning be for "White houses"?
            Well, as you've probably inferred, "the White houses" didn't admit Jews, and had been open about it (and may've been leery of Catholics): "White" pretty much meant WASP or at least the generalized "the white man" as used by an old Jew in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz" (set ca. 1950, novel published: 1959, film: 1974).
            Which gets me to the time I write, moving into the latter part of November 2015, a time of the Black Lives Matter movement the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders, and campus protests against insults and threats to Blacks and debates on "microaggressions."
            Ordinarily, I press the point that "Guilt isn't inherited, but the loot is" and say that discussions of race in America should start with the issue of reparations and move on from there. And I am grateful to Bernie Sanders (and Elizabeth Warren and the persistent old New Left) for reintroducing issues of class into upper-end American political debate. And, indeed, I used to say, and will say again, that the crucial color in American conflicts on race is green: acceptance into bourgeois society will come when many more Blacks have wealth enough to make them bourgeois or richer.
            But —
            But one of the things I know I want money for is for status and respect, and for good and for ill — and it's the "for ill" aspects I'm concerned about here — even in militantly capitalist America not even old money can inevitably or maybe even reliably outweigh issues of caste and a pretty inflexible de facto hierarchy.
            In an earlier blog (31 Oct. 2015), I passed along a 1960s racist/anti-racist joke about a prominent American with an earned doctorate and a résumé that included serving as a university department chair, service in the OSS (the precursor of the CIA — although that could only be rumor until 2008), and the winning of a Nobel prize for work done with the status in protocol of a senior ambassador. The punch line was on correct forms of address for someone with so much high status and how was referred to in a recent visit to Mississippi or other deep-South state. The answer is that in Mississippi (or whatever) he was called "Nigger," which to a devout racist is simply a statement of who the man — Ralph Bunchessentially is or was (Bunch died in 1971), and to a non-racist bitterly funny as a reduction to the absurd of racist "essentialism."
            We have such racial and racialist, and often racist essentialism as part of the cultural DNA of the United States, intimately combined with highly persistent Old World ideas of hierarchy and castes other than race: gender as a higher or lower caste for one thing, plus more amorphous and interconnected quasi-castes involving religions, ethnicities, sexuality, and even geographical culture. (How much anti-Semitism remains with us [and what happens when American bigots remember that Arabs are Semites], how much tolerance Christian America has for secularism: such matter will become clearer the longer Bernie Sanders runs for President.)
            It was a cliché when I was in college that the two great systems for political analysis of the 19th and much of the 20th centuries were class and race, and the Left mostly went with race — which is why part of split on the American Left after the 1960s had much to do with race, and still more to do with gender and sex.  As a man of the Left, I'll again offer the unsolicited (and therefore necessarily arrogant) advice that Blacks and other marginalized groups should keep their eyes on the prize of economic equality and ensure that calls for reparations in some sense help start the conversation on race.
            "Justice, justice you shall pursue!" (Deuteronomy 16:20), and economic justice is a central issue. But there are the standard "But's" that made "Class, Race, and Gender" a kind of mantra of the last part of the 20th century, and to which we need additions, including in the US age and generation.
            Like the Jews and Catholics before them, Black Americans on mostly-White college campuses are both privileged — Hey, you're in college! — and still subject to the snubs and disrespect that do not make life significantly unsafe but can make one's life-experience unpleasant and bit-by-bit can wear a person out. And there are real threats. A noose on a tree on campus isn't a lynching even as the march of neo-Nazis through a heavily Jewish suburb isn't a pogrom; but a swastika made of feces on a dorm wall adds injury to insult, and needs serious investigation and prosecution.
            I had my life threatened once by some laughable fascists while a graduate student peace activist and risked a couple times getting clubbed by cops; and I tried to respond by sucking it up and following the mock-Latin motto, "Illegitimi non carborundum": Don't let the bastards grind you down. Still, the threats to me stemmed from what I did, not who I was or what I am.
            That may change for me if substantial human groups move into another period of full-scale religious warfare, but probably not. For American Blacks — centrally Blacks still, although Latinos and American Muslims are catching up — for American Blacks the challenges will include dealing with a declining but still important caste system in the tradition that had "Colored lady" and "Colored gentleman" ironic denials of status, and where one was color-coded into a caste that was in varying degrees, but constantly, in danger.

            During the English Peasants' Revolt of 1381, the radical English Lollard priest John Ball incited a group more "vile" than Henry V's common soldiers with the subversive rhetorical question, "When Adam delved and Eve span / Who was then the gentleman?" If we can't "get ourselves back to the garden" of Eden, we can at least get ourselves back — figuratively — to the "beginning" of human culture when Adam farmed and Eve worked at her spinning, and "all men by nature were created alike, and" only later "our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men," where "naughty" means evil. Ultimately, the goal for an enlightened and redeemed humanity would be the destruction of systems of caste and hierarchy root and branch, and on the way destruction of systems of inherited caste and hierarchy. Moving toward those goals we do indeed need to do more to equalize wealth and income and opportunity, and simultaneously we need to pursue justice and decency in more everyday things so that "Black Lives Matter," as well as Black deaths, as do the oppression, deaths, and quality of everyday life of all those dismissed as innately incapable of being a "gentle," all of us seen as innately "vile."

No comments:

Post a Comment