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Home :: Archive :: 1993 :: February ::
Re:Shakespeare and Anti-Semitism
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 84.  Tuesday, 16 February 1993.
 
(1)     From:   Germaine Warkentin <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 16 Feb 1993 08:46:19 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 4.0083  Shakespeare and Anti-Semitism
 
(2)     From:   Nikki Parker <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 16 Feb 1993 09:04:47 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 4.0083  Shakespeare and Anti-Semitism
 
(3)     From:   John Massa <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 16 Feb 93 09:22 CST
        Subj:   Shakespeare as Racist, Bigot, Anti-Semite etc.
 
(4)     From:   Jay L Halio <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 16 Feb 1993 14:16:00 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 4.0083 Shakespeare and Anti-Semitism
 
(5)     From:   David Knauer <TB0DJK9@NIU.BITNET>
        Date:   Tuesday, 16 Feb 93 17:50 CST
        Subj:   bigot will?
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Germaine Warkentin <
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Date:           Tuesday, 16 Feb 1993 08:46:19 -0500
Subject: 4.0083  Shakespeare and Anti-Semitism
Comment:        Re: SHK 4.0083  Shakespeare and Anti-Semitism
 
I wonder if it wouldn't be more helpful to begin with the repudiation
of the Jew in Shakspeare's own society -- a social norm in
Shakespeare's day, though working relationships as usual must have
been somewhat different -- and then discuss the way in which
Shakespeare, without, I suspect, much of an ideological position,
simply moves away from the norm and sees what its limitations are, who
supports it and why, and what it does to people.  He does not seem to
carry this interrogation much farther than the portrayal of Shylock,
and that's a problem.  Certainly, having accepted the Shylock
Shakespeare gives us, I find it very difficult to deal with Portia's
famous speech.  I rarely teach Renaissance drama, so my contact with
Shakespeare is through the poems, but there are several examples of this kind
of lateral thinking there.  I could write a book on the Petrarchism of
the sonnets (Petrarch as re-written by a Martian), but I'll confine
myself to the example of _The Rape of Lucrece_, which I have recently
been teaching.  Shakespeare gives us a Lucrece who involuntarily
responds to Tarquin (a modification of the source) but then kills
herself (in submission to the source), a knotty problem with students,
who would like to see Shakespeare change the ending along lines they
would approve.  Is an exploration of the same kind going on in MofV?
Perhaps my friends on the drama side will tell me this has all been
said before!
 
*******************************************************************************
Germaine Warkentin                                     
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English, Victoria College, University of Toronto
*******************************************************************************
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Nikki Parker <
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Date:           Tuesday, 16 Feb 1993 09:04:47 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 4.0083  Shakespeare and Anti-Semitism
Comment:        Re: SHK 4.0083  Shakespeare and Anti-Semitism
 
When my Shakespeare class read the Merchant of Venice, the question of whether
or not it was anti-semitic was also brought up.  A class presentation did
another version of Shylock's trial, where they presented evidence that Shylock
was suffering discrimination.  The rest of the class was the jury, and voted,
based on the "new" evidence, whether or not he was still guilty.  Over half the
class (if I remember correctly) still found him guilty.
 
The interesting fact of the play that I discovered, was Shylock's
sentancing.  Making him convert to Christianity seems to me a far worse
punishment than jail, or death.  Not that I have anything against Christianity
personally, but making a person be something that they do not believe in seems
cruel and heartless.  I think "Bill" used this ending because his audience
was mostly Christian, and Shylock's conversion to Christianity is the correct
punishment.  Yes, MofV is racist, but the question is...should we care?  Is
Taming of the Shrew misogynist? Lots of questions...
 
 
Nikki Parker
St. Michael's College
 
(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John Massa <
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Date:           Tuesday, 16 Feb 93 09:22 CST
Subject:        Shakespeare as Racist, Bigot, Anti-Semite etc.
 
An interesting point was raised concerning class discussion of how Shakespeare
would defend himself against charges of racism, anti-semitism (and lets add
sexism, warmongering, general bigotry, elitism, pornography, murder, rape,
deceit, adultery, mutilation and any other bad thing in his plays.)
 
Although student discussion of Shakespeare is a good thing, I think it's sad to
see what the ravages of "Politically Correct" thinking have wrought: students
picking through Shakespeare (and let's not forget Mark Twain) looking for "bad
words" and "bad ideas" and reaching momentous conclusions like "Hey everybody!
These guys were RACISTS!" If I were in the class discussion I would suggest the
following:
 
          (1) We are all racists, sexists, bigots etc.  Take a look
              around.  That's what the world is like.  Shakespeare
              would probably "defend himself" by saying "Defend
              yourself first."
 
          (2) Writing about a bad thing, ESPECIALLY IN FICTION, does
              not mean that the author thinks the bad thing is good.
              (Is it really necessary to point this out?)
 
          (3) Shakespeare held up a mirror to nature, and I happen to
              think he did a pretty good job of it.  Rather than
              making his characters potically correct straw men, his
              bad guys are believable because they usually have some
              rationalization for what they do.  We see them from
              their own point of view.
 
          (4) We know nothing about Shakespeare, really.  He taunts us
              from across the centuries, leaving us wondering "Was
              that Shakespeare talking, or was it just one of his
              characters?"  Frankly, I prefer it that way.  Let his
              work, via all its interpretations, speak for itself.
 
          (5) Whether Shakespeare was a racist or not, within the
              context of his own times, is irrelevant. What's one
              more dead racist, more or less?  What we should be
              looking at are these politically correct witch hunts
              which resulted in students at one institution rejecting
              "Mark Twain" as the name of their school because he was
              a racist and a writer of CHILDREN'S FICTION!  Yikes!
              Racism is deplorable, but so is ignorance, and narrow
              tests of ideological purity.
 
          John Massa
          
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(4)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Jay L Halio <
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Date:           Tuesday, 16 Feb 1993 14:16:00 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 4.0083 Shakespeare and Anti-Semitism
Comment:        Re: SHK 4.0083 Shakespeare and Anti-Semitism
 
On Tue, 16 Feb 1993, Kelly Caldwell wrote:
 
> Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 83.  Tuesday, 16 February 1993.
>
> From:           Kelly Caldwell <
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> Date:           Tuesday, 16 Feb 93 00:01:02 EST
> Subject:        Shakespeare & Anti-semitism
>
> Somebody raised an interesting point re: anti-semitic Shakespeare in MofV.
> It reminded me of an experience I had as an undergrad. Certain unlucky members
> of a class I was taking were asked to take sides in a debate re: Shylock in
> MofV -- as soon as my prof saw me hiding behind my notebook, he enlisted me in
> the "Poor Shylock" side.  Needless to say, consensus was that "our side" won.
>
> There is a VERY strong case supporting the thesis that Shakespeare depicted
> Shylock as the tragic hero/victim of the play.  Aside from the fact that I
> "shy" away from making personal statements about authors (ie: the play is
> racist; therefore, Bill was too!), IMHO Shylock's mistreatment by other
> characters in the play whose racism is indisputable, is not praised or given
> merit to any extent.  Let's face it, Shylock isn't the *only* unlikable
> character in the work.  Rather a long way of saying that I think the "MofV is
> an anti-semitic play, and Shakespeare was a racist" statements are the results
> of over-simplification.
>
>                 I wonder what Bill would say?
 
For a useful discussion of Shakespeare's view and the backgrounds lying behind
it, see my forthcoming edition of MV (Oxford UP). The Introduction begins with
an essay, "Shakespeare and Semitism," which has many references to the
literature on the subject. Meanwhile, interested persons should consult M.M.
Mahood's Cambridge UP edition, which also includes an invaluable discussion and
references.
 
Jay L. Halio
 
(5)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Knauer <TB0DJK9@NIU.BITNET>
Date:           Tuesday, 16 Feb 93 17:50 CST
Subject:        bigot will?
 
I'd agree that the reactions of Ronald Dwelle's students to *Merchant of
Venice*--namely, that both the play and Shakespeare are
anti-Semitic/racist--are very reductive. I had a similar experience teaching
Wm. Faulkner's "Dry September" (I know, wrong era, wrong continent) in an
undergrad class. The story is about a brutal lynching and "nigger" and other
such epithets get tossed around a lot. The students made a similar
determination that both Faulkner and the story were necessarily racist.
Although I didn't say they were wrong (biting my tongue helped), I tried to
make clear the potentially wide gulf between what an author might purposefully
represent and what he might personally endorse. This led, thankfully, to a lot
more fruitful discussion of the problems of authorial intention and figurative
language. I give Will the benefit of the figurative language. I give Will
(both of them) the benefit of the doubt.
 
Good luck,
 
David Knauer
Northern Illinois University
 

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