The Merchant of Venice and the Sublime

STC 22296, title pageWe are delighted to publish our next article for Volume 2. The article is by Kathrin Bartha (Freie University Berlin) and is an attempt to apply the basic principles of the aesthetic discourse on the sublime, beautiful and grotesque to William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

In this guest blog post, Kathrin explains what happened when she introduced Shylock to the Sublime.

As an undergraduate student I was involved in a research project that looked at Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and its significance for post-War Germany. At the centre of attention was Shylock the Jewish moneylender as a cultural figure and stage character. The project examined the changes in the perception of Shylock since 1945, understanding them as “conflict-ridden attempts at coming to terms with the German past: the Shoah, guilt and remembrance and German anti-Semitism.”1 The Merchant of Venice was on my mind while being a student assistant in this project, and my attempts at understanding the play and its afterlife resulted in two essays. But it was not until I was introduced to the aesthetics of the sublime and grotesque in a seminar completely unrelated to the play, that I felt I had finally ‘got’ it. I felt I had found my own access to formerly mysterious scenes — like the last Act with its curious ideas on music as a conclusion to the play.

The seminar that had so infected my thinking focused on the discourse of the sublime from Romanticism to post-Modernism, tackling accompanying aesthetics on the way, such as the beautiful and the grotesque. We learned that the sublime is something between an emotion and an experience. One of the main issues this experience negotiates is the relationship between subject and object: it narrates an encounter with an object or an ‘other’ too vast to grasp, followed by an overpowering emotion of terror, pain and pleasure. Edmund Burke, one of the foundational thinkers of the sublime, describes a certain sequence of events in this experience: First, the excess of the encounter fills the perceiver so completely that the faculty of judgement is blocked, and language fails. This encounter is accompanied by a negative pleasure, a delightful horror which, through its forcefulness, threatens to annihilate the subject. As a consequence of this crisis, writers such as Immanuel Kant and William Wordsworth have described the subsequent transcendence of the human mind over ‘matter’. Other writers however, many of them post-modern, have criticised this form of transcendence and tried to rework a different, maybe more ethical, conclusion to the experience.

With its interesting dynamics between subject and object, or body and mind, the discourse on the sublime gave me tools to see potential aesthetics represented — and played up to — by characters in The Merchant of Venice. Shylock, for example, is constructed as theologically and aesthetically grotesque, but as a reaction to this objectification happening to him, he also plays up to this role with an increasingly ‘monstrous’ behavior. Studying the discourses on the sublime, beautiful and grotesque, along with reading precious critical discussions of the play, enabled me to perceive power relations and to read imagery I hadn’t seen before.

And so my essay is an attempt to apply the basic principles of the aesthetic discourse on the sublime, beautiful and grotesque to The Merchant of Venice. I argue that the structure of the play parallels the model of the traditional sublime, as it deals with a subject-object binary and meditates on the relationship between the material (body) and the transcendental (mind). However, the play is also rich in disruptive — or grotesque — forces that unsettle this binary structure and the attempts at sublime transcendence.

Learning about the history of emotions, such as the sublime or the melancholic, enhanced my understanding of scenes I had been subconsciously turning over in my mind. I learned that thinking with emotions, and through them, was worth it. I also learned something about the central role that emotion takes in thought and creativity, how experiencing art is often entangled in it, and how it can connect us to the past. Emotions are usually old. If I can “feel” a play from the 16th century, for example, it must be relevant to my context.

My essay was woven from two different threads. One came from grappling with a complex play, the other from being fascinated with the sublime as an emotional experience. I appreciate this Shakespeare play so much because it represents a history of applying aesthetic, theological and biological principles to society’s others (in this case the attributions of Christians on Jews), while simultaneously exploring the way these acts of objectification come back to haunt the objectifiers. The Merchant of Venice seems to show all this in a playful, embodied way.

1. Quoted from the project website “Shylock in Germany: The Reception of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice after 1945”:

You can read Kathrin’s full article, “Grotesque Encounters: Reading Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice along the Principles of the Sublime, Beautiful and Grotesque”, here.

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