Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 141. Saturday, 6 March 1993.
(1) From: Piers Lewis <
Date: Saturday, 6 Mar 1993 12:59 CST
Subj: Re: SHK 4.0139 *MV*: Is Shakespeare Anti-Christian?
(2) From: Luc Borot <ELI16@FRMOP22.BitNet>
Date: Saturday, 06 Mar 93 20:42
Subj: Anti-Christian Bard?????
From: Piers Lewis <
Date: Saturday, 6 Mar 1993 12:59 CST
Subject: 4.0139 *MV*: Is Shakespeare Anti-Christian?
Comment: Re: SHK 4.0139 *MV*: Is Shakespeare Anti-Christian?
C.L Barber remarks (*Shakespeare's Festive Comedy*) that the beautiful
people of Venice and Belmont are let off too easily. That, it seems
to me, goes to the heart of the various problems *The Merchant of Venice*
presents for a modern audience. Juxtaposed against the intensity of
Shylock's concentration on the uncompromising demands of his one
true god, money--and his hatred of Antonio--these gilded butterflies
do seem unreal; especially Bassanio to whom everything comes too
easily--both money and love. Surely it should not be so easy to have
it both ways? To live high, wide and handsome on borrowed money
and go on to become the hero of romance who wins the heart of the
princess in the tower? To live an idle, unproductive life of pleasure
and self-indulgence, and find true love and riches beyond the dreams
of avarice by solving a stupid riddle? Our bourgeois minds find this
hard to take. Money and love should be earned, we think. "Who
chooses me must give and hazard all he hath," says the lead box, but it
is not clear that Bassanio has anything to give or hazard--except the
life of his friend, Antonio. Portia throws herself into his arms, giving
herself utterly and without reserve, and what does he say? "Madame,
you have bereft me of all words . . ."
By demonizing Shylock, the play demonizes money. Portia, good fairy
princess, waves her wand and both disappear. It shouldn't be that
easy, we think-- and we're right: money is too powerful, too
mysterious and too important to be treated in this way. Shakespeare
knew that too, deep down, which is why in all honesty he makes
Shylock so intensely alive that the other characters seem unreal by
comparison--to us at any rate for whom the aristocratic ideal, largely
taken for granted in this play, has faded away.
Morocco and Aragon, egoists and rationalists both, tie themselves
in knots over the riddle, wallowing in confusion; Mr. Right comes
along and just knows without having to puzzle it out that gold and
silver are without intrinsic value ("hard food for midas," the one; the
other, a "common drudge") and pounces on the correct solution. Why?
As a true aristocrat, he's contemptous of money--filthy luchre-- so of
course he just knows the right answer, without having to be told--and
that's another problem: why open up the slightest possibility that
Portia might have tipped him off? Shakespeare was not thinking
clearly, perhaps, when he has Portia sooth Bassanio's spirits with the
beautiful song, 'Tell me, where is fancy bred . . .?' I don't think Portia
is supposed to be a hypocrite but our cynicism is so intense we snatch
at any pretext. But then Shakespeare was not writing for an audience
From: Luc Borot <ELI16@FRMOP22.BitNet>
Date: Saturday, 06 Mar 93 20:42
Subject: Anti-Christian Bard?????
Dear Fellow SHAKSPEReans,
Our colleague Schneider has just raised a very important issue when
he raised the question whether *MV* could be seen as an Anti-Christian
play. As one of the dominant interpretations of Marlowe's *Jew of Malta*
with which I fully agree reads that play as more critical of the Christ-
ians than of the Jew(s?) or Moslems, and as a previous contributor to
our often biased and anti-historical discussion on this issue has al-
ready opened a parallel with Marlowe's *JM*, let me stop on it a trice
(expect an hour when a Mediteranean tells you so), but though I live 10
miles or so from the aforesaid Mare Nostrum, I was born and bred in Pa-
ris, which is almost polar to my "native" secretary and you may expect
me to keep my word on this problem of duration.
Marlowe and Shakespeare express views which come to us from the
same time, and address our sensibilities, which can be assimilated in
spite of our differences just as we underrate almost too naturally the
differences between Marlowe and Shakespeare, which may have sounded
atrouciously unbearable to Elizabethan 'initiates' (though I don't think
I could physically and intellectually sign one word Prof. Sinfield or
Prof. Drakakis ever wrote, and expect the same from them towards me,
though they are likely to ignore the writings (in French) of a 17th-cen-
tury scholar mostly dealing in Hobbesiana).
If we are ready, from Marlowe's own words, to consider that the
Maltese knights are rivalling with Barabbas only for the title of the
best --or worst-- machiavelist in the tiny island of Malta, lost in the
Mediterranean, cannot we also look on Shakespeare's characters in *MV*
with less passionate eyes and more critical hearts?
"When you prick us, do we not bleed?" is not something you are
likely to hear from Barabbas, or from the Maltese knights. Portia is the
only Christian who can over-mercy the mercy-begging Shylock. I was shock
ed by two things when I saw Antony Sher's rendering of Shylock in '87 in
Stratford: he borrowed some extra-textual acts from Jewish rituals of
Pessah, for which the company claimed the authority of a consultant
rabbi. Nonetheless, he looked the more cruel and the production looked
the more anti-semitic for that bit of misplaced 'authenticity'.
Introducing a genuine part from one of the most sacred rituals of
Judaism at the moment when Shylock rejoices in the expectation of cut-
ting one pound of flesh from a Christian contradicted one of the most
interesting dimensions of that stimulating (but morally debatable) prod-
uction: toleration professed by the director. Many of us French Jews and
Christians (I'm of the latter) were shocked. The production seemed to
assimilate the most sacred rituals of Judaism with the most infamous
(now rejected, I hope...) insults Christianity has ever dumped on Jews:
deicide and infanticide.
The second thing I didn't like in that production, but not very re-
levant here, is the way Portia was acted as a Restoration libertine: she
certainly cuts far deeper than the libido-driven Restoration heroine she
was played like. Besides, the appearance of crosses and beads on the
garments and in the hands of the Venetian characters (including Rebecca)
in the second half of the play seemed to turn the play into a ridiculing
of Roman Catholicism as the only form of anti-semitical Christianity.
On top of this, the end was confusing to Jews and Christians together:
what did that mean? The director had Rebecca and Antonio almost fighting
for a jewel-cross Rebecca had just let drop, as if to obtain the cross,
the Jewish woman had to beg the Christian merchant for it, whereas she
had been shown deliberately and freely leaving her father's house.
The merchant, as merchant i.e. for whom entering the kingdom of
the father will be as difficult as for a camel to thread a needle, is
Antonio almost as tragically as Shylock. These theological echoes must
have been present to Shakespeare's audience almost as strongly as the
anti-semitical connotations which so justifiably bring our hearts to
To justify myself (if on need to), I will add this element of
biography: in 1942, when my father was an apprentice of 15, a Roman
Catholic socialist by education, he joined the Paris Resistance move-
ment when he realised that most of the Jewish children with whom he had
been to school in our district of Le Marais, and Rue des Rosiers, who
had been one half of his classmates when he left school at the age of
13, had been taken away to Drancy and the Death Camps. Of 20, born
between 1925 and 1928, 4 returned, dead to the world for the rest of
their lives; 1 survives to this day and won't tell... I'm as scared
with the rising anti-semitism of integrist Moslems on both sides of
the Mare Nostrum aforesaid as with the condemnation of Shakespeare for
the evils of the 20th century, as if we were trying to escape our resp-
onsibility by rejecting it on our elders.
So I really was long, I'm afraid, but we have been very blind
of late, haven't we, as we wanted to be more clever than our elders...
Tres amicalement yours,