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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: February ::
Re: Anti-Semitism
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0139  Sunday, 15 February 1998.

[1]     From:   Pervez Rizvi  <
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        Date:   Friday, 13 Feb 1998 13:48:34 -0000
        Subj:   RE: SHK 9.0133  Re: Anti-Semitism

[2]     From:   Robert Dennis <
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        Date:   Friday, 13 Feb 1998 12:52:25 -0500
        Subj:   Merchant of Venice / Anti-Semitism / Post Modern Perspective

[3]     From:   David Evett <
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        Date:   Friday, 13 Feb 1998 15:34:11 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0133  Re: Anti-Semitism


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Pervez Rizvi  <
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Date:           Friday, 13 Feb 1998 13:48:34 -0000
Subject: 9.0133  Re: Anti-Semitism
Comment:        RE: SHK 9.0133  Re: Anti-Semitism

Roger Gross quotes Wesker:

>"There is no evidence anywhere else that Shakespeare was distressed by
>anti-Jewish feeling.  The portrayal of Shylock offends for being a lie about
>the Jewish character...like Shylock, I'm unforgiving, unforgiving of the
>play's contribution to the world's astigmatic view and murderous hatred of
>the Jew."

Many years ago (perhaps 1981) I read an article by Wesker in The
Guardian newspaper in which he explained his feelings about MoV and what
he was trying to achieve in writing The Merchant. A day or two later,
someone wrote in to the letters page with the perfect reply: "The
difference between Shakespeare and Wesker is that Shakespeare holds a
mirror up to nature whereas Mr. Wesker holds a mirror up to himself."

Certainly, the man who put the words 'a Jew would have wept to have seen
our parting' in the mouth of the Clown in The Two Gentlemen of Verona
can hardly be supposed to be 'distressed by anti-Jewish feeling'. But
since anti-Semitism was the norm and taken for granted at the time, it's
pointless to blame Shakespeare for not being 400 years ahead of his
time.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Robert Dennis <
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Date:           Friday, 13 Feb 1998 12:52:25 -0500
Subject:        Merchant of Venice / Anti-Semitism / Post Modern Perspective

Stevie Simkin wrote:

   >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.

For Clarification:   The associations we make today with the term
"anti-Semitism" are _not_ the same as the prejudices and persecutions
found earlier against Jewish people.  Our contemporary concept of
anti-Semitism has evolved following the systematic killing of millions
of Jewish people in the Third Reich, and encompasses the idea, among
others, of carrying persecution to the ultimate: state-sponsored killing
of that group.  Today's term "anti-Semitism" is so emotionally loaded,
that applying that particular term to activities or writings four
hundred years ago very likely will lead us to erroneous interpretations.

Consider, as a parallel, the meanings of the word "war".  What "war"
connotes today can hardly be compared with the "war" of Alexander the
Great or the "War" of the Roses.  If we apply our contemporary imagery
and emotional loading associated with the word "war" to the "War" of the
Roses, we are almost certain to talk gibberish with respect to events
and interpretations of that time.

This is what I meant by saying that applying the "modern" concept of
anti-Semitism to Shakespeare's day and his work would lead to errors.

For Accuracy:   Whatever concept of "anti-Semitism" we agree occurred in
former times, it was not invented by Christianity; it is much older than
2000 years.  The texts of Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus show us that
these feelings and behavior far pre-date Christianity.  The problem is
not exclusive to Christians and likely occurs in no greater a percentage
of Christians than other religious groups.

Simkin also wrote:

   >... 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)

I have read the commentaries to the effect that there were no Jews in
England for Shakespeare or Marlowe to know.  These same commentators,
however, ignore the implications of the incongruent fact that Queen
Elizabeth's own physician was a Portuguese Jewish doctor.  Although this
doctor was tried for treason and executed, the very fact that the
Queen's physician was Jewish hints strongly to me that there were Jews
living, even thriving, in England at the time.

And Marilyn Bonomi wrote:

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

The Royal edict of 1290 was anti-Semitic; it does not immediately follow
that Elizabethan England was also anti-Semitic.  Assigning attributes to
works of Shakespeare in light of a law from 1290 is rather like
attributing values to works by Pinter in light of a law enacted by
Cromwell.  Over such a long period, even under a continuous system of
government, laws become fallow.  It is entirely possible that the edict
of 1290 had been _de_facto_ altered by the time of Shakespeare.

On the other hand, if there are no examples of 'X' in a populace, there
is usually no feeling one way or the other about 'X' in that populace.
Prejudice occurs when different populations are cheek-by-jowl in
competition for scarce resources like food, shelter, space, and mates.
Thus if there was anti-Semitism in Elizabethan England, then I suspect
there were frequent dealings with Jewish merchants, traders, and
lenders, even if nominally they were not officially "living" in
England.  MOV with its characters mouthing insults to Jews (even if it
is primarily the clown and Shylock himself who say these things),
suggests that there was prejudice, and that therefore there were Jews
living in England.  But the law of 1290 by itself proves nothing with
regard to MOV.

Does anyone on the LIST have citations available on that edict or on
Elizabethan population or ethnic groups?

Finally, Bonomi wrote:

   >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.

I agree.  On the other (no pun intended) hand, your use of capitalized
"Other" carries with it a very contemporary set of conditions and
thought (Is it Levinas?).  Can we put that much contemporary
significance into the play's text?

My apologies for the length.

Sincerely,
Bob Dennis

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[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Evett <
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Date:           Friday, 13 Feb 1998 15:34:11 -0500
Subject: 9.0133  Re: Anti-Semitism
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0133  Re: Anti-Semitism

I did not see the Miller/Olivier *Merchant* on stage, but have viewed
the TV film version many times, and I'd be interested to know whether
Arnold Wesker and/or Roger Gross have seen it, and if so what they have
to say about two moments in particular (these may also be of interest to
David Richman):

(1) The tail-end of the trial scene, in which Oliver as Shylock after
struggling perceptibly to get it out utters the line "I am content" as a
strangled cry, stumbles out of the scene, and then is heard from
somewhere down a corridor or staircase to emit a desolating howl; the
Christians in the courtroom are shocked into silence, although the
scene, slowly at first and then more rapidly, returns to comedy.

(2) The final shot, which shows Antonio and Jessica (visually and
tonally and otherwise excluded from the Belmont group from the moment of
her arrival there-Portia never does seem to figure out or remember who
she is) left standing alone on the steps of the house after all the
others have gone in, separated from each other, each looking off in a
different direction, while music that I have been told is the Kol Nidre
is heard.

I have always thought that in his treatment Miller sought to follow the
logic of the play's anti-Semitism through, as one source (capitalist
materialism and perhaps a very discreet homophobia being the others) of
a deep corruption in society that inhibits or warps or degrades all
forms of love.  The work's naturalistic style means that all these
gestures are subdued, which I suppose may allow the ordinary liberal
(that's me) his customary tsk-tsk bye-bye out.

Dave Evett
 

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