Andrew Klavan has a thoughtful essay out called A Nation of Iagos. In it, he comments on William Shakespeare’s depiction of Jews in a way I think is generally insightful, but includes what I think is one serious mistake about the scene from The Merchant of Venice in which the (black) Prince of Morocco woos Portia.
He chooses poorly, fails her father’s test, and as he leaves Portia mutters “May all of his complexion choose me so.”, which Klavan reads as a racist dismissal. I winced.
I tried to leave a comment on the essay only to find when clicking “Post” that it required a login on the accurséd Facebook, with which I will have no truck.
Here it is:
Others mentioned it before I got here, but I want to reinforce the point that Klavan’s reading of Portia’s muttered remark is unsubtle – and, I think, wrong.
I read that and I think “Bill, you magnificent bastard!” The Bard of Avon has constructed that whole scene to make it clear that the Prince’s plea not to be judged by his race is not falling on an unwilling ear. Portia is a good person. When she finds him wanting, we are ready to hear Portia reject him not for the color of his skin but for the content of his swaggering, overbearing character. It’s both the logical and dramatically correct conclusion of the scene.
Instead she…drops a racist clanger? No. No. Shakespeare is subtler than that. He uses “complexion” in a way that holds the audience in tension between what one might call its physical and psychological meanings [ed: in Elizabethan English “complexion” could mean a person’s character or psychological presentation]. Burton Dow is quite right to point out that both meanings were live in Shakespeare’s English. This ambiguity cannot be an accidental choice, not from a wordsmith with the Bard’s sensitivity to nuances of vocabulary.
Yes, Shakespeare is prodding his audience. He’s challenging their language and their prejudices, not in the angry evangelistic way of a modern SJW but in the way a man of what fifty years later would begin to be called a liberal inclination would hold up a wry mirror to the tragedy and comedy of human life.