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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: January ::
Re: *MV* and Anti-Semitism
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 013. Wednesday, 11 January, 1995.
 
(1)     From:   Thomas Ellis <
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        Date:   Friday, 06 Jan 1995 20:10:55 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0009  Re: *MV* and Anti-Semitism
 
(2)     From:   Shirley Kagan <
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        Date:   Friday, 6 Jan 1995 23:17:39 -1000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0009 Re: *MV* and Anti-Semitism
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Thomas Ellis <
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Date:           Friday, 06 Jan 1995 20:10:55 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 6.0009  Re: *MV* and Anti-Semitism
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0009  Re: *MV* and Anti-Semitism
 
Regarding M of V, I teach Shakespeare classes at Hampton University, an
entirely African American institution, so I consistently teach three of
Shakespeare's most problematic plays concerned with culture contact and
prejudice: M of V, Othello, and the Tempest. Needless to say, my students
instantly identify with the victimized "other" in all three plays: Shylock,
Othello, and Caliban. But few if any of them consider Shakespeare himself to be
the perpetrator of prejudice or bigotry. Rather, as we explore these plays
together, (despite their differences), Shakespeare's modus operandi becomes
reasonably clear--at least to us. Here is a general summary of our many
discussions on this topic, as regards M of V:
 
(1) There is no denying the historical fact that Shakespeare was capitalizing
on popular antisemitism--whether related to Roderigo Lopez or not--in
portraying a stereotyped Jewish miser as antagonist. To that extent,
Shakespeare is as "guilty" as his local culture of antisemitism (although I am
always wary of the self-satisfied political correctness which is willing to
pass judgment, by present standards, on past civilizations).
 
(2) However, given that complicity, coupled with the need, imposed by the comic
logic of the story, to present Shylock as the stereotyped miser who is duly
humiliated by the "good" Christians, Shakespeare spares no pains in rubbing his
audience's nose in their own antisemitism by humanizing the "stage Jew"
whenever possible--giving him a plausible motive for despising Antonio,
allowing him to comment at length on the moral hypocrisy of the Christians and
on the inhumanity of antisemitism ("Hath not a Jew hands...").
 
(3) The classic instance of Shakespeare's modus operandi is the exchange with
Tubal about Jessica's extravagance. On one hand, Shakespeare plays to the hilt
the low-comic potential in Shylock's raving about his daughter's wanton
spending (which we expect of the miser as an alazonic figure), with Tubal
acting as straight man-- but no sooner is the audience laughing at the miser's
rage than Tubal caps the exchange with the turquoise ring, whereupon Shylock,
hitherto a raving miser, elicits a poignant sympathy from the audience by
connecting the ring--not with lost wealth, but with his past relationship with
his wife Leah: "I would not have traded it for a wilderness of monkeys..."  At
that moment, the audience, which has been laughing at his misery, suddenly
finds itself sharing it--and probably feeling very awkward about having
laughed.
 
The point is, none of these features--Shylock's motives, his eloquent
condemnation of hypocrisy and prejudice, and his pathos--was necessary to the
fulfillment of his anticomic role in the play. The effect of their presence is
simply to complicate--to problematize--the comedy.
 
To this extent, M of V is not simply an antisemitic play (like Marlowe's Jew of
Malta) but *also* a play about antisemitism--a play that exposes the very
antisemitism that it relies upon in its conception.
 
Thomas Ellis
Hampton University
Hampton, VA 23668
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Shirley Kagan <
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Date:           Friday, 6 Jan 1995 23:17:39 -1000
Subject: 6.0009 Re: *MV* and Anti-Semitism
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0009 Re: *MV* and Anti-Semitism
 
In response to Mr. Tornberg's problematic question I have a couple of thoughts:
 First, surely the situation Shakespeare has set up, at least from one dramatic
point of view, villifies the Christians no less than it does Shylock.  Shylock
may be a rotten individual in many ways but his bloodthirsty desire for
"justice" does not compare to Portia's bloodcurdling version of "mercy".  It
doesn't matter that Shylock is not nice, he is human and the way in which he is
treated by the Christians is inhuman.  This is unfair and I think Shakespeare
goes to some length to show us this if we want to see it that way.
 
Secondly, I had the opportunity to play Jessica a while ago and found it a
difficult character to reconcile myself to.  One point that helped is the ring
sideplot.  Jessica steals the ring Shylock had given Leah (Jessica's mother)
and sells it on the Rialto for a trifle.  Shylock finds out about this and is
crushed.  Rather than a wicked and callous move I decided Jessica had to get
rid of the ring because of the guilt she carried with her.  Once I began to
interpret Jessica as guilt ridden and ill at ease because of her elopement, a
lot of her lines later in the play made a lot of sense.
 
Shirley Kagan
 

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