IT’S A GRAY AREA (4) August 5, 2007
“SEARCHING FOR VILLAINS”
A while ago when I was in New York City, I happened to see a play entitled “Shylock.” This is a one-man play written and performed by the British actor Gareth Armstrong. The play deals with the thoughts and comments of a minor character in Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” named Tubal, who is the Jewish character Shylock’s friend and helper. I say minor character because Tubal has only eight spoken lines in Shakespeare’s great play.
But Armstrong did such a fine job of writing and acting in his play that it caused me to go back and re-read the “Merchant of Venice” just to see how Tubal fit in. Although the play was fully as brilliant as I remembered it, I had not recalled how heavily Shakespeare unloaded upon Jews. Using and even creating lots of stereotypes, he used Shylock as a foil in his plot, and he adopted Jews as the villains and scapegoats against whom his heroes acted and eventually prevailed.
Upon reflection, I know that this style has been employed by numbers of authors throughout history. For example, back in the 1930s Zane Grey used Mormons as the general villains in his book Riders of the Purple Sage. He set them up under numbers of stereotypes in effect as evil incarnate, and then had his heroes eventually prevail over them.
That started me thinking: was Shakespeare an anti-Semite? These were the only two Jewish characters to be found in any of his plays, so it is not enough for us to draw conclusions only from this. Was Zane Grey deeply prejudiced against Mormons? Or instead were Shakespeare and Zane Grey, and other authors like them throughout history, simply being lazy by taking a path of little resistance in using stereotypes as a crutch to set up and tell their story about villains against whom their “good guys” eventually triumphed?
In some ways, we are judging authors from the past by our current standards, similar to the ways that some people now excoriate Christopher Columbus for all of the evils that were subsequently perpetrated upon Native Americans, or Thomas Jefferson for his hypocrisy in having had sexual relations with one of his female slaves, all the while preaching about liberty and justice for all. But it is important to remember that in the times of Shakespeare, Columbus, Jefferson and Zane Grey, many of these ways of thinking and acting were simply and generally accepted without thought.
So are we any different today? Are we above the societal ignorance of yesteryear? Have we forgotten that more than half of the dialects of the languages of the world today still make no distinction between the word for “stranger” and the word for “enemy?” Are we now mindlessly thinking about some groups of people with today’s blinding stereotypes, and turning them into today’s villains as a foil for our “good guys?” Are we now thinking of Muslims in that way? Or the Chinese? Or drug addicts? The answer has to be yes, because we are human, with all of the frailties and failings that accompany that condition, and the blinders that find their way into every age, including our own.
So it doesn’t hurt to reflect now and then about how we accept our own common wisdom and/or stereotypes about other people. Turning people who are not like us into villains is the easy way, but how will subsequent generations look back at us and our actions? Maybe they too will shake their heads at our lack of sensitivity or even mistreatment of others, wondering how we could not have understood about our chosen foils that if you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
James P. Gray has been a trial judge in Orange County since 1983, has written books entitled Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It, and Wearing the Robe – The Art and Responsibility of Judging, and composed a musical for high school students entitled “Americans All.”