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Home :: Archive :: 1996 :: December ::
Re: Merchant of Venice and Anti-Semitism
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, SHK 7.0968.  Monday, 23 December 1996.

(1)     From:   Robert Dennis <
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        Date:   Thursday, 19 Dec 96 14:46:36 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0961  Re: Merchant of Venice and Anti-Semitism

(2)     From:   W. L. Godshalk <
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        Date:   Thursday, 19 Dec 1996 15:53:05 -0500
        Subj:   'Incorrect' Bard is barred from euro banknotes

(3)     From:   Andrew Walker White <
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        Date:   Thursday, 19 Dec 1996 15:30:09 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: Merchant of Venice and Anti-Semitism

(4)     From:   Thomas Bishop <
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        Date:   Thursday, 19 Dec 1996 18:16:35 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0961  Re: Merchant of Venice and Anti-Semitism

(5)     From:   Jacob Goldberg <
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        Date:   Friday, 20 Dec 1996 00:53:15 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0961 Re: Merchant of Venice and Anti-Semitism

(6)     From:   W. L. Godshalk <
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        Date:   Saturday, 21 Dec 1996 18:45:12 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0961  Re: Merchant of Venice and Anti-Semitism


(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Robert Dennis <
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Date:           Thursday, 19 Dec 96 14:46:36 -0500
Subject: 7.0961  Re: Merchant of Venice and Anti-Semitism
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0961  Re: Merchant of Venice and Anti-Semitism

Phyllis Rackin wrote:

   >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?


Well, the Nazis liked beer, pretzels, and girls, too.  Does this make beer,
pretzels, and girls anti-semite?

I think the portrayal of Shylock is very sensitive to the question of
anti-anything, not simply anti-semitism.  The play could be a model of
anti-prejudice.  In my reading the play condemns both the anti-semitism of the
father AND the sharp-trading reverse-prejudice of Shylock.  Contemporary social
and political dialogue would be much more productive if everyone today
understood the nature of their own reverse-prejudice attitudes.

I really liked the Shylock treatment by Mr. Shakespeare.  It seems to me we
should consider whether Shylock is Jewish only insofar as he is "other" to the
Elizabethans.  I mean, really, Shakespeare couldn't very well portray the
_Tudors_, the Queen's own relatives and ancestors, as getting their pound of
flesh from those who were indebted to them.  He had to make it an "other" who
did such sharp trading.

We see the same indirect portrayals against stereotype in fictional material of
many countries and many ages.  Writers are always endangered when criticizing
the status quo or the establishment.  Although the U.S. is especially open in
allowing selected aspects of self-criticism, consider the difficulties with
stereotypes of the last 50 years: to portray a professional woman; a gay
person; a black person; and yes, even in America, a Jew, without stereotypical
flaws and characteristics.  Consider contemporarily the difficulty in
portraying a white straight male without stereotyping either to either meanness
or vapidity.

Sincerely,
Bob Dennis

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(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           W. L. Godshalk <
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Date:           Thursday, 19 Dec 1996 15:53:05 -0500
Subject:        'Incorrect' Bard is barred from euro banknotes

[Editor's Note: The following was submitted by Bill Godshalk.]

By Bruce Johnston in Rome: "Shakespeare and the Jews"

SHAKESPEARE was dropped from a starring role on the new euro banknotes because
of his alleged anti-Semitism, it is claimed.

His portrayal of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice was adduced as evidence,
said Dr Guido Crapanzano, a member of the committee which decided on the notes
published at last weekend's Dublin summit. Dr Crapanzano, an Italian banker,
said that Mozart and Leonardo da Vinci also failed the European test of
political correctness.

"I would never have thought that the divine Amadeus could have found any
opposition," he said in an interview in the Milan newspaper Corriera della
Sera. "He was a universal artist. Yet someone jumped up and said, 'What if
there was to be an objection to his Masonic music?'"  In Leonardo's case "it
was feared that the old tale about his homosexuality might be dragged up."

"In the end we did a calculation: the banknotes were seven, while the countries
were 15. By choosing a personality for each one, we would have put the nose out
of joint of the remaining eight countries."

Dr Crapanzano said that several architects were among the adjudicators. So it
came as no surprise that the specimen banknotes featured a variety of
architectural drawings, as well as maps of Europe.

But even anonymous devices are not without their dangers, Dr Crapanzano pointed
out. "If you look carefully, the notes are full of mistakes," he said. "Russia
and Switzerland appear in the outline of Europe - and they have nothing to do
with the European Union."

At the Royal Mint at Llantrisant yesterday officials had not given up hope of
eventually thrusting Shakespeare into the limelight. "We are submitting three
banknote designs and a final decision isn't expected until the spring," a
spokesman said.

(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Andrew Walker White <
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Date:           Thursday, 19 Dec 1996 15:30:09 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        Re: Merchant of Venice and Anti-Semitism

Many thanks to the lawyer among us who corrected me.  I agree that Merchant
should probably not be put down simply as a play dealing with anti-semitism,
and that the use of Shylock qua Jew may not have been the main point of the
plot.  What I should have said is that, naturally enough, the figure of Shylock
has taken on rather grand porportions because of our own personal concerns
about anti-semitism, and the self-consciousness that results does make us
define the play in narrower terms than may have been intended.

One aspect of his performance that won praise, when Gielgud closed his famous
season at the Queen's in 1938, was that the character of Shylock became more a
member of the ensemble, and he allowed Portia, Bassanio and company to take
their probably rightful place in the spotlight.  This, severl years after he
experimented with a bellowing Michael Keen at the Old Vic (when he directed it
the first time, I think it was 1932), and found it unsatisfactory.

Thanks for the corrections,
Andy White
Urbana, IL

(4)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Thomas Bishop <
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Date:           Thursday, 19 Dec 1996 18:16:35 -0500
Subject: 7.0961  Re: Merchant of Venice and Anti-Semitism
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0961  Re: Merchant of Venice and Anti-Semitism

Andy White discusses the "the Stratford festival" production of the play in
which "they placed it in the modern equivalent of Renaissance Venice, videlicit
Fascist Italy of the 1930's."  This is an interesting transposition, on at
least two counts.

The primary  equation doesnt quite work, since Fascist Italy wasnt really such
an "equivalent": a struggling, economically stagnant, would-be-colonialist
backwater full of tinpot costumed nostalgia does not a major international
mercantile and imperial center make. The better equivalent for "the modern era"
would surely be New York City, where for so many years Jews ran a substantial
percentage of the business without ever being admitted to the country clubs,
elite colleges and boardrooms inhabited by Bassanio and Co., even if Bassanio
and Co. did business with them.

The other significant difference is that Italian Fascists were in fact not
especially antisemitic, and most regarded Nazi obsessiveness on this question
as an eccentric piece of northern barbarism. In fact Italy consistently refused
to deport any Jews, even from Italian-occupied France, until after the collapse
of the Fascist government and the German takeover, resulting, paradoxically, in
a high survival rate for Italian Jews from the Second World War.

Phyllis Rackin's question on the popularity of the play in Nazi Germany is a
good one, but another one needs in addition to be asked: "How do we explain the
high popularity of the play with Yiddish theater groups in the earlier part of
the century if we take it as a whole as an anti-semitic work?" Isnt its
antisemitism very intimately bound up with its interest in Shylock's spiritual
condition -- a legitimate interest in what can happen to people who suffer too
long? (How long is "too long"?)

Alas for Shylock, and alas for the playwright that made him, willy nilly, a
study in a degradation of suffering he failed to prevent from being in effect
identified with an entire religion.  Alas for motley, brawling, unregenerate
Venice, and for Shakespeare's inability to see through his own contamination by
it.  But compare it to Torquemada, or Topcliffe, or Essex's treatment of Lopez
and one sees important differences, I think. Does our ability to see more
clearly (as we think we do on this issue) entitle us to paint what we see with
such a broad brush? How proud are we entitled to be of our indignation?

Happy holidays,
Tom

(5)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Jacob Goldberg <
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Date:           Friday, 20 Dec 1996 00:53:15 -0500
Subject: 7.0961 Re: Merchant of Venice and Anti-Semitism
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0961 Re: Merchant of Venice and Anti-Semitism

Dan Lowenstein writes: 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.

At the risk of being guilty of joining the lawyer-bashing brigade, I beg to
differ.  Shylock is not guilty of attempted murder and Portia nowhere
demonstrates that he is guilty of attempted murder.  She says that he is
guilty, but only in the Christian court of Venice does that make him guilty.
And that only because he is an alien in Venice!  What if he were not an alien,
as was the case in the original pound of flesh myth?  Would he still be guilty
of attempted murder?  What if Christian Antonio were the creditor and the Jew
Shylock were the debtor and Antonio demanded compliance with the contract under
the laws of the Christian court of Venice?  Would Antonio have been guilty of
attempted murder?  Would he even have been accused of it?

Portia has already, and repeatedly, said that the contract for the pound of
flesh is legal under the laws of Christian Venice even though its enforcement
will mean the certain death of Antonio.  She has insisted that the Christian
court of Venice is bound by the laws of Christian Venice and if Shylock refuses
to show mercy, why then Antonio must die.  Not once does she suggest that
Shylock is abusing the principle of freedom of contract.  And he is not abusing
this principle in the eyes of the Christian court of the Christian state.

Portia knew all the time that the Christian court of Venice was not bound to
enforce this contract, not because killing an insolvent debtor offended
Christian Venice's laws or morals, but because the creditor was an alien, a
Jewish alien.  This is the primary ugliness of the trial, a lawyer trick to
resolve a profound moral issue.

Let us now escape to the fifth act fairyland of Belmont, where there is no
ugliness, but only beauty and light.

Jacob Goldberg

(6)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           W. L. Godshalk <
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Date:           Saturday, 21 Dec 1996 18:45:12 -0500
Subject: 7.0961  Re: Merchant of Venice and Anti-Semitism
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0961  Re: Merchant of Venice and Anti-Semitism

Phyllis Rackin asks regarding <italic>Merchant of Venice</italic>:

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

Alfred Harbage told his graduate students in the early 60s that the Nazi
Germans never allowed the performance of the full script.  Shylock's "Hath not
a Jew eyes?" speech was always cut. (I have no idea where Harbage got this
information; I've always wondered, but not enough to spend my time in Germany
going through playscripts from the 30s and early 40s.)  Harbage went on, of
course, to point out that Shylock uses this plea for a common humanity to
justify revenge.

But we might also notice that Shylock's recurrent criticism of Christian
society (e.g., it's use of revenge and slavery) is never directly answered by
the Christians.  No Christian says, "Hey, we're Christians; we turn the other
cheek," or "Slaves? We don't practice that kind of barbarism." His comments on
Christian husbands is equally on target, and if Portia were fairer, she'd tell
him that she concurs.

I'd say that <italic>Merchant</italic> is just as anti-semitic as Vonnegut's
novel <italic>Mother Night</italic> is. The movie is another story. For
Shakespeare and Vonnegut, the true villain is our inhumanity, which has no
ethnic or gender boundaries.

Yours, Bill Godshalk
 

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