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Home :: Archive :: 1996 :: December ::
Re: Merchant of Venice and Anti-Semitism
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, SHK 7.0961.  Thursday, 19 December 1996.

(1)     From:   Phyllis Rackin <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 17 Dec 1996 14:20:09 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0955  Re: Merchant of Venice

(2)     From:   Daniel Lowenstein <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 18 Dec 1996 12:10:52 PST
        Subj:   SHK 7.0955  Re: Politics and Ossified Art


(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Phyllis Rackin <
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Date:           Tuesday, 17 Dec 1996 14:20:09 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 7.0955  Re: Merchant of Venice
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0955  Re: Merchant of Venice

Two responses to the argument that *Merchant of Venice* expresses Shakespeare's
opposition to anti-semitism:

1. How do we explain the popularity of the play in Nazi Germany?

2. With friends like this, who needs enemies?

(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Daniel Lowenstein <
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Date:           Wednesday, 18 Dec 1996 12:10:52 PST
Subject: Re: Politics and Ossified Art
Comment:        SHK 7.0955  Re: Politics and Ossified Art

ANDY WHITE writes:

"As for Merchant, there is the distinct possibility that he wished to raise the
issue of anti-semitism in England (hence he puts it in Venice -- 'in the most
choice Italian' as Hamlet might say) or in general.  When the Stratford
festival staged it this year, they placed it in the modern equivalent of
Renaissance Venice, videlicit Fascist Italy of the 1930's. The hatred of Jews
was universal, even among those whom one would normally identify as romantic
heroes and heroines.  If you refuse to edit out certain sequences, include all
the ugliness of the trial and then go straight to Act 5, there is an almost
Brechtian effect on the audience. You want to be happy for the young couples,
but the knowledge of their inner ugliness makes it almost impossible.

"Not that you sympathise entirely with Shylock either.  He's an extremely
bitter man from the start, and at least initially a part of you can't blame
Jessica for running away.  If this is a comedy in the ha-ha sense, I don't get
it.  If it's a comedy in the 'at least they get married' sense, then I buy it."

White has been a voice of common (and good) sense in the debate on politics,
but not here, in my opinion.

Whatever may be the merits of a contemporary production of Merchant set in
Fascist Italy, it is preposterous to draw conclusions about Shakespeare's
intent from one's reactions to such a production. There is a good deal of
anti-semitism in Merchant, some of which Shakespeare and at least some members
of his audience may have understood to be excessive.  But on no reasonable view
can anti- Semitism be understood as having anything like the resonance and
associations that it has to a twentieth century audience, especially when that
resonance and those associations are heightened by setting the play in Fascist
Italy.

The primary ugliness in the trial is that of Shylock.  What is wrong with
Shylock is not that he is "extremely bitter," but that as Portia demonstrates,
he is guilty of attempted murder.  The dilemma underlying the trial is the
tension between the urgency for Venice of maintaining the principle of freedom
of contract within the commercial law, and of preventing the abuse of that
principle by Shylock.  Portia happily and justly resolves that tension by
applying the commercial and criminal laws to their own spheres.  The
celebration in Act V is an appropriate sequel to this happy resolution.  In
addition, the incident of the rings in Act V drives home Portia's point,
demonstrated also in the trial, of the need to take legal obligations
seriously.

                                Best,
                                Dan Lowenstein
                                UCLA Law School
 

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