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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: February ::
Re: Anti-Semitism
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0121  Wednesday, 11 February 1998.

[1]     From:   Stevie Simkin <
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        Date:   Sunday, 8 Feb 1998 23:32:26 -0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0104  Re: Postmodernism; Anti-Semitism

[2]     From:   Marilyn A. Bonomi <
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        Date:   Sunday, 08 Feb 1998 21:49:04 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0104  Re: Postmodernism; Anti-Semitism


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stevie Simkin <
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Date:           Sunday, 8 Feb 1998 23:32:26 -0000
Subject: 9.0104  Re: Postmodernism; Anti-Semitism
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0104  Re: Postmodernism; Anti-Semitism

I was glad to find that my thoughts on The RSC Merchant of Venice
provoked some reactions.  I've found the responses very interesting and
useful for my current research (which actually centres more around
Marlowe's *Jew of Malta*, but still....)

I hope people don't mind if I send a few responses to points raised (I
suppose the delete button is always there for anyone who does mind).

ONE - WESKER (Andrew Mathis)
Andrew Mathis recommended 'Shylock' by Arnold Wesker, a still-living
British/Jewish playwright who has made no bones about how offensive he
finds Shakespeare's play.  I believe he has recently published some kind
of diary of the writing and production of his riff on the original
('Shylock'), but its title escapes me - I'd be grateful if someone could
jog my memory.

TWO - IDEOLOGUE (Nick Oulton)
Nick Oulton suggests I expected productions of M of V  in which raving
Nazis (symbolising Margaret Thatcher) would persecute Shylock
(symbolising the proletariat) which is either an odd confusion of class
and race politics, or a heavy-handed attempt at satirizing me as a
Trotskyite ideologue.  (Guilty as charged, m'lud).  Unfortunately, the
productions I referred to did not begin to "shock" or "question our/my
preconceptions".  It was the same old anodyne safe Shakespeare that
assumes we'll gladly swallow the treatment doled out to Shylock (which
never fails to shock, in fact) and enjoy the romantic fluff  of act 5
regardless.  Oh, and I'm male not female, but that's just for the
record, and my non-gender-specific first name is to blame, no-one and
nothing else.

THREE - THEN & NOW (Bob Dennis)
Bob Dennis agrees with me, ruefully I suspect, when I say that I'm hung
up on the text's anti-Semitism but suggests 'isn't the hang-up itself an
effect derived from the viewer's own modern perspective?'  Which is of
course true.  I agree with Robert Dennis when he writes that 'we
consciously or unconsciously lay our own perspectives onto the  textual
material, and cannot avoid such effects in our interaction with the
text.' But equally I believe we can deduce something about a work's
ideological dimensions by understanding its *own* original context.  So
when Bob Dennis refers to Anti-Semitism as  '[a] set of "modern" ideas',
my response is that Anti-Semitism is not modern, it's as old as
Christianity.

Thus to know that the Elizabethan notion of a Jew was influenced by on
the one hand a lack of first hand knowledge of Jews (Jews having been
banished from English shores in 1290) and on the other hand a welter of
received 'knowledge' about Jews (everything from the idea that Jewish
men menstruated to the notion that their religious rituals included
crucifying Christian children and drinking their blood) might impact on
our understanding of the way Shylock is represented (his hankering after
Antonio's flesh, for instance?  Anthony Sher's take on the trial scene
in the 1987 [?] RSC production seemed to pick up on the reference,
consciously or unconsciously - in any case, it backfired hideously).
Equally, the understanding that the conversion of Jewish girls was a
common early modern European (Christian)  fantasy helps us understand
the Jessica-Lorenzo part of the plot.

I think it may be possible to perform Shakespeare's play to turn it into
an interrogation of or even an attack on anti-Semitism, but IMHO we do
that only by reading against the grain of the text. Similarly with
Othello and multiculturalism.  I'd love to think Shakespeare predated
his contemporaries by several hundred years and was battling valiantly
to propagate a more progressive racial politics, but I've found it
increasingly difficult to hold onto that idea(l), the more I've studied
the plays and their contexts.

I wouldn't dream of "blaming" Shakespeare for this any more than I'd
blame him for not understanding, I don't know, schizophrenia (though
there are probably many who would argue that he does), or boom and bust
cycles in late capitalist economies (ditto).   But I do believe we have
to confront the issues whenever Shakespeare's work is interpreted or
performed.  My disappointment with the productions I referred to was due
to the fact they seemed to want to pretend the anti-Semitism simply
wasn't an issue.

FOUR - WAYS OF READING (Bill Godshalk)
Bill Godshalk writes: 'We can describe what happens in the script of a
play, and verify by reference to the script.  ... But once we interpret
the script itself as anti-Semitic, we  have to argue for our
interpretation using facts from the script.'

I suppose what I wrote above is some sort of answer to this.  My own
approach would include an attempt to interpret the script with reference
to its own historical context.  That's a starting point.  What we then
decide to do with it is an open question.  When a director decides to
use Hamlet's "How all occasions do inform against me" soliloquy to refer
to the Falklands/Malvinas conflict, that may or may not be a valid
interpretation.  But by recognizing the fact that that war took place
some 400 years after the play was written, we can know that it wasn't
originally meant to be a reference to that historical event.

FINALLY...
If anyone is still interested enough in the thread to take it further,
I've found James Shapiro's *Shakespeare and the Jews* (1996) immensely
valuable, and for a text of M of V that takes on board these issues in
detail, including references to the play's stage history in Israel, Jay
L.  Halio's edition for Oxford University Press is recommended.

Stevie Simkin

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[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Marilyn A. Bonomi <
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Date:           Sunday, 08 Feb 1998 21:49:04 -0500
Subject: 9.0104  Re: Postmodernism; Anti-Semitism
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0104  Re: Postmodernism; Anti-Semitism

Now let's just take a deep breath, drop all our particular critical
interpretive stances, and look at historical FACT.  Not interpretations
of fact from one bias or another, but FACT.

FACT: Being a Jew was ILLEGAL in Elizabethan England.  You can't get
much more anti-Semitic than that.

FACT: Being a Jew has been ILLEGAL or at the very least despicable in
all of Western Europe during much of the time that there has been a
"Western Europe," certainly during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
1492 isn't just the year Columbus sailed; it's also the year that Ferdie
and Izzie finally rid Spain of the Moors.  Meaning, of course also the
year that all Jews were driven out of Spain.  One of the many places
that would NOT take them in was England.

Conclusion from those facts:  Anti-Semitism is absolutely a cultural
subtext in much writing of the Elizabethan period, including the writing
of Marlowe and Shakespeare.

Comment:  My personal belief is that for Shakespeare the figure of the
Jew is not simply a Jew, any more than Othello is simply a man of
color.  Both represent the Other, the Alien, that which is NOT
ourselves.  And both offer glimpses of how WE interact w/ the Other.

That Shylock's daughter marries a Christian is considered wise of her;
that Shylock is not only NOT punished more severely but ALSO made to
convert is, from the cultural perspective out of which Shakespeare
writes, a gift, a blessing.  IT is not cruel, but sincerely kind.

Stevie Simkin may want to see some acknowledgement of the anti-Semitism
in the play; I just want to see a production that allows Shylock his
humanity, that does not reduce him to what some critics continue to
identify him as: a clown figure.  For all its flaws, that's what I liked
about the NYC Dustin Hoffman MOV-when Hoffman's Shylock learned of his
daughter's defection, it was HER loss, not the loss of his ducats, that
mattered.

Sincerely,
Marilyn Bonomi
 

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