Shylock and the Genius of Shakespeare


Shylock and the Genius of Shakespeare

Okay, so it may not be breaking news that Shakespeare was a genius. But I was reminded  of what a fabulous study his character Shylock in the Merchant of Venice is by watching Shakespeare Uncovered, a PBS TV series with F. Murray Abrahams discussing the role of Shylock.

I know I don’t need to but it’ll make me feel better if I remind you of the plot. Bassanio wants to marry the rich Portia but needs the money to woo her. He asks his friend Antonio (the Merchant of Venice) for it and although Antonio is willing, his money is tied up in some ships soon to dock. Antonio borrows from Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, even though they despise each other. Shylock agrees but if Antonio defaults, he demands to be allowed to recoup his losses by taking a pound of Antonio’s flesh. And things go downhill from there.

How did Shakespeare feel about Shylock?

There is a hot debate among scholars whether Shakespeare was anti-Semitic.

I think there is plenty to suggest he might have been. For one thing, Jews were forbidden to live in the England of Shakespeare’s time so he would have little direct experience but only the prevailing view across Europe which was profoundly anti-Semitic. Where the play is set, Venice, Jews were forced to live in a ghetto and were not allowed to practice most professions.

But the strongest evidence, to my mind, is that The Merchant of Venice is supposed to be a comedy and Shylock seems to be set up as the comic villain. We first see him as funny but defensive and full of hate. The pound of flesh idea is introduced early on, to add to our perception of Shylock as vindictive scoundrel. Antonio’s friends ridicule him (“my daughter, my ducats”). Worthy of contempt.

This is where the genius bit comes in

Shakespeare gives us the comic villain needed in a comedy but he also—and this is the genius bit—makes Shylock is a complete person. So much so that the five hundred years later, when attitudes have changed, he has morphed from a figure of ridicule for Elizabethans to a tragic one to a modern audience. For example, in Shylock’s most famous speech—If you prick us, do we not bleed—Elizabethans would probably have heard it as a justification for the violence Shylock hopes to wreak on Antonio. But modern audiences interpret the same passage as a plea for tolerance.

It’s not the words that have changed; we have. And Shylock is still a compelling character.

What can we learn from this?

Even if we can’t all be Shakespeares, we can try to emulate him in his ability to make fully human every character in our writing. The heroes are not all light but have dark shadows they must contend with to remain a worthwhile figure. The villains are nuanced—both evil and good, worthy of contempt and empathy.  Human, in fact.

The closer we can get to this ideal, the more memorable our work will be. Although five hundred years may be a stretch.

Using Your History can Hurt Your Writing


Using Your History can Hurt Your Writing

This post is proof that I can argue from both sides of my mouth. Or, more kindly, I can see both sides of the argument. In the last post, I discussed how to use your own life history to enrich a fictional piece. And generally, I think it’s a good idea.  But sometimes it can backfire. Especially if the scene morphs into more auto-biography than originally intended. Then it can cause problems.

You avoid crucial scenes

One way to avoid the dangerous bits of personal history is to skim over or leave them out.

One writer was telling the story of a foster child whose foster parents wanted to adopt her. However, at the time, and in that locale, the birth mother had to give her permission. The ‘I’ character had to talk to her mother for the first time in years. This is my re-creation of how she handled the scene.

I stood at the door, knowing my mother was already inside. I couldn’t bring myself to grab the handle. What if she says no? What if she wants me back? My stomach churned. But I took a deep breath and pulled the door open.

When I came out of the room, I closed the door gently behind me. The tears I had been able to hold in now flooded my eyes so I could barely see. Thank god! Thank god!

So, here, the writer has avoided the uncomfortable bits by almost literally closing the door on us. Something happens in that room which turns out well but we are just told about it, rather than shown the scene between the mother and the ‘I’ character.

In this way, you protect yourself against having to possibly relive painful feelings but rob the reader of what is compelling in your story.

Your writing goes flat

Another way writers sometimes try to avoid raw feelings is to write the scene, say the one between the birth mother and the ‘I’ character, but make quite clinical or fact based. I’ll give a try at showing this.

My mother didn’t look that different from what I remembered. Smaller but that was probably me.

She kissed me lightly on the cheek. “My, how you’ve grown.”

We sat down at the table. I began. “I want to be adopted by the Warnsleys. But I have to get your permission.”

My mother paused for a moment and then said, “Well, I guess that would be for the best.”

“Well, thanks.”

Honestly, do you buy this? I don’t. We know the ‘I’ character was afraid the mother will say no, so how come no reaction from her when she says yes? In addition, this is presumably a big thing for the mother—how come she acquiesces so easily? Wouldn’t she try to justify why she had to put the ‘I’ character into foster care or regret  losing whatever tenuous relationship she has now with her daughter?

In short, I think the writer is primarily concerned with protecting herself from old feelings but in the process, has produced flat writing.

I know it’s hard, but to truly write well, you have to risk appearing naked on the page. If you cover yourself up carefully, even in fiction, the reader won’t see a real person or a compelling story. And isn’t that what you are aiming for?



From Auto-biography to Fiction: Norman Mailer Approach


From Auto-biography to Fiction: Norman Mailer Approach

I know I have mentioned Norman Mailer before, but I can’t find where and in any case, I’d like to go into more detail on his approach than I did originally (I’m pretty sure). Specifically, his realization that you can use an emotion you understand to inform a character in a situation you’re unfamiliar with. He said that although he’d never been a soldier, he knew what it was like to be in fear for his life. He used that emotional appreciation in his debut novel, The Naked and Dead.

Applying the Mailer approach

This is a great way to use events which have happened in your own life to inform your writing without necessarily recreating the original scene. Let’s work through the process.

  1. Consider a character you’re having trouble with. You can’t seem to get the feel of the persona. Say you’ve created an alien on an alien spaceship. Needless to say, you’ve never experienced this situation.
  2. List what you think isn’t working with the character. I don’t care about him. He seems stilted and unreactive.
  3. Pick the biggest problem. Let’s take stilted and unreactive. On the one hand, the stereotype of an alien might to exhibit just such qualities. On the other, readers being alienated from your alien doesn’t foretell gripping involvement in your novel. They need to identify or at least empathize.   What do you want the character to be? Spontaneous and curious.
  4. Look into your own life. Take a moment to think about a time—a specific time—when you were spontaneous and curious. On a camping trip when you were ten? The first time you went to a museum? When you turned the car around and went in the opposite direction than planned? Whatever it is, drop into the scene again. Take in all the sensuous details—sounds, smells, images. And tap into how you felt. Excited? Calm? Floating?
  5. Apply to the problem. Take that compendium of feelings and sensations and write from that space, but about your character. How does he feel (show, please)? What does he do? How does his alien nature change, warp, or enhance the feelings you had? Let it flow.

It’s not foolproof

I’m not saying this always works but it can kick you out of a stuck place into something more productive. You’ll know if it’s working if your writing feels emotionally true, even given the alien setting.

In addition, this approach is somewhat mechanical just to illustrate the point. If you can conjure the feelings in your own life and apply them to the character rather than going through these steps, by all means do it. The more organic you can make the process, the more likely it will live on the page.

But sometimes, using auto-biographical bits in your fiction can cause trouble. Next post.

Combining Beauty of Language with Plot


Combining Beauty of Language with Plot

Last post, I was writing about The Nutshell, a novel by Ian McEwan to point out how a master craftsman can break all kinds of literary rules on the way to a compelling story. In this post, I want to particularly highlight a feat which McEwan accomplishes in this novel: his ability to combine beauty of language with a plot which has momentum.

The language

When the language is arresting and gorgeous, you want to stop and savor it. Roll it around in your mind to touch all its points of sweetness and sharpness. And there are plenty in the novel. Almost at random, I have chosen a few examples.

..the unweeded garden of their marriage (p. 13)

In my mother’s usage, space, her need for it, is a misshapen metaphor, if not synonym. For being selfish, devious, cruel. (p.15)

Usefully, each successive effort of memory removes her further from the actual events. She’s memorising her memories. The transcript errors will be in her favour. They’ll be a helpful cushion at first, on their way to becoming the truth. (p.169)

But all this savoring does in fact slow the reader down and might even almost kick him out of the continuous dream to admire. To minimize the problem, I often find that authors do one of two things. They either write flowingly and evocatively with only minimal plot or they do the flowery bit up front and then drop mostly into plot for the rest of the novel. McEwan is able to sustain both insight and plot.

The plot

Here is a plot that works in all the ways a plot should. It has forward action, suspense, and even an ending which is a clever surprise. It’s a mystery, for heaven’s sake and we keep wanting to know how it turns out.

Some of the success comes from the right pacing of the novel. McEwan knows how long he can tarry on an image or an insight and when he needs to introduce the next step in the murder plan and commission.

Writing to aspire to

I used to say that I didn’t like to read other writers’ work when I was writing because it had a deleterious effect. If the novel wasn’t very good, I’d get all puffed up and superior, sure I could do better. If the novel was wonderful, it would depress me so much that I felt it was encouraging me to give up the pursuit and get a good job.

Having realized that this was a kind of shoot-yourself-in-the-foot stance, I have toned it down to admiration. Something to aspire to—beauty and plot together. Right now, I’m mostly all plot. But I aspire, I aspire.

As to poorly written novels, I’m still working on my outlook. I’m trying for pity but isn’t just the flip side of superior? Still a work in progress.

The Nutshell


The Nutshell

The Nutshell is a highly acclaimed novel by Ian McEwan. It is a brilliant story which is both a fantastic flight of fancy and a sharply observed, gritty tale of murder. With the overlay of compelling comments on the state of humanity.

The plot in a nutshell

An unborn baby is the protagonist (no, that’s not a typo). By listening through the womb, he discovers that his mother-to-be plans to kill his father, John, to continue her affair with John’s brother, Claude.

The baby is outraged but helpless. He ‘witnesses’ John’s poisoning and the subsequent police sympathy for the pregnant widow (Trudy), on the assumption that John was a suicide. But the police become suspicious. Trudy and Claude decide to flee. The baby is desperate to stop them.

You can read a fuller summary by clicking the link.

The literary rules he breaks

I’ve already written how amateur writers break writing rules at their peril but here is an example of where, in the hands of an experienced writer, they can be trampled upon to great effect.

I want to concentrate on the cracked literary rules, but there are also many more exciting features. I encourage you to read a review  to get more on these aspects.

Inherently unlikely premise

Really, the story of an unborn baby—ridiculous. You’re supposed to write characters with whom the reader can identify. We’ve all been fetuses of course, but I think I may say with confidence that none of us told stories from the womb.

Impossible, and yet by the end of the first page, I’ve bought it. And the erudition of the baby who pronounces insightfully on the world he has yet to enter.  Some of this acceptance can be attributed to the authority of the author. McEwan’s mastery of the language and confidence makes it easy to fall into his world, no matter how unusual.

Both omniscient narrator and first person

The unborn baby is the first person narrator. Typically, writers should stick with one point of view. It encourages identification with the protagonist and focuses the story. But McEwan doesn’t allow the strait jacket he has chosen hold him back. He enters into every character’s mind to further the story and is a fly on the wall for events the baby could not have been present for. Again, we move seamlessly from one perspective to another, hardly noticing.

The protagonist doesn’t act

I’ve already written a post on avoiding passive observers as main characters. A protagonist needs to act to achieve his goals. He can’t just stand around wringing his hands.  Otherwise, the reader loses interest or gains impatience.

A baby in a womb. Is there a better definition of an inactive witness? Okay, he tries unsuccessfully to strangle himself with the umbilical cord, but for the most part, he can do nothing but observe. And I am right there, watching with him.

So, that’s just three rules trampled over. There are more, one of which I will go into more detail in the next post.

The Nutshell reinforces what I have said before—there are general rules for writing which master craftspeople can use with ease but also know when to break in the service of the story. You can do it also if (and only if) you have the same facility.

This primarily mechanical breakdown of the novel is not, I hope, how you experience it if you have read it or will (sorry, the tense agreements got a bit tangled up there). Because there’s a lot of fairy dust in the novel, too.