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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: February ::
Re: Anti-Semitism
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0145  Monday, 16 February 1998.

[1]     From:   Mason West <
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        Date:   Sunday, 15 Feb 1998 11:36:26 -0600
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0139  Re: Anti-Semitism

[2]     From:   Robert Appelbaum <
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        Date:   Sunday, 15 Feb 1998 13:57:10 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0139 Re: Anti-Semitism

[3]     From:   Larry Weiss <
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        Date:   Sunday, 15 Feb 1998 16:46:07 -0500
        Subj:   Shylock and Anti-Semitism

[4]     From:   Stevie Simkin <
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        Date:   Sunday, 15 Feb 1998 23:46:44 -0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0133  Re: Anti-Semitism

[5]     From:   Tim Richards <
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        Date:   Mondayy, 16 Feb 1998 13:05:03 +1000
        Subj:   Anti-Semitism


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Mason West <
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Date:           Sunday, 15 Feb 1998 11:36:26 -0600
Subject: 9.0139  Re: Anti-Semitism
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0139  Re: Anti-Semitism

Robert Dennis wrote:

> 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.

Your point makes Hitler and his National Socialists seem as though they
invented anti-Semitism, when in actuality they shrewdly employed an
ancient history of European anti-Semitism to their advantage. The
Holocaust was the culmination of many centuries of Christian Europeans
hating Jews, and it is an object lesson in the dangers of hatred at any
time. The anti-Semitism may have evolved over the centuries, but to
argue that Elizabethan and modern anti-Semitism are different animals is
like forgiving the wolf because he wore wool yesterday. Under the
circumstances your argument is dangerously absurd. Dissociating the
results of hatred from its causes minimizes its horrific consequences.

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Robert Appelbaum <
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Date:           Sunday, 15 Feb 1998 13:57:10 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 9.0139 Re: Anti-Semitism
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0139 Re: Anti-Semitism

Again, MV inspires the most interesting exchanges on the list.  But I'm
surprised that unlike last year no one seems to be paying attention to
Shapiro's _Shakespeare and the Jews._  To my mind Shapiro has
definitively answered-or at least answered as definitively as
possible-many of the questions being debated on the list, questions
which I myself somewhat ignorantly commented on prior to having read
Shapiro's book.  Or has anyone come across serious qualifications or
repudiations of Shapiro's position?  (In short, yes there were Jews in
Shakespeare's England.)

And by the way, in the case of MV we have two wonderful performances in
which Jonathan Miller was involved readily available.  If Olivier plays
Shylock as a man of almost Prussian dignity-blond and tall and stooped
it seems by the weight of his own superiority to the gentiles around him
--, in the BBC production that Miller produced Warren Mitchell plays
Shylock as a Middle European immigrant with a thick Yiddish accent and
mannerisms that constantly threaten to degenerate into parodic,
stereotypical gestures, but never quite do so.  I was almost offended
the first time I saw this Yiddishkeit Shylock, but on repeated viewings
I was struck by its strength, a strength that Mitchell shows coming
_through_ the layers of accent and ethnicity with which he is compelled
but with which he also _desires_ to express himself to others.  In this
performance Shylock wants to be who he is; he is attracted to himself.

My misgivings were laid aside for good when I showed the trial scene to
a class this fall.  The class-a class composed entirely of gentiles, so
far as I know-was stunned by the agony Shylock experiences when he is
finally defeated and forced to convert.  If I recall correctly in this
production his defeat is answered by a prolonged silence, and a close-up
on Shylock as he all but collapses under the weight of his humiliation.

Of course, I prepared the class for the experience.  I'm not sure that
the meaning Mitchell seems to have put into his Shylock is really there
unless you already know that you're supposed to be looking for it.

Robert Appelbaum

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Larry Weiss <
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Date:           Sunday, 15 Feb 1998 16:46:07 -0500
Subject:        Shylock and Anti-Semitism

I finally give in to the temptation to chime in on this thread, but only
to test an idea I have been toying with.

For many years I was troubled by the "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech in
III.i, as its strikes me as much too modern sounding.  It has probably
been performed in countless high school assemblies during Brotherhood
Week.  Was WS 400 years ahead of his time, or is the speech ironic in
some fashion?  Yes, I know that WS was well able to present persuasively
beliefs he did not share, or were foreign to Elizabethan notions.  In a
similar vein, consider Edmund's very modern sounding pooh-poohing of
astrology in KL,I.ii.  But, in the context of the play, Edmund was wrong
and the audience knew it, and doubtless were expected to regard Edmund
as particularly villainous for his rejection of what wiser men
understood of omens.  But there doesn't seem much irony in "Hath not
...," at least on the surface.

To make my point, permit me to reproduce (inexactly) something like my
chain of reasoning:  There was a stock scene in many 1940s, and even
more recent, W.W.II movies in which a Wehrmacht officer would appeal for
understanding or at least express bewilderment at being regarded as less
than admirable.  The officer's argument would proceed from the
unassailable facts that he enjoyed good food, fine wine, beautiful
women, music and high culture..  Why, then, should he be feared or held
in low regard?  It makes no sense to him.  There is a classic example of
this type of scene in Ernst Lubitsch's original "To Be Or Not To Be"
with Jack Benny.   (In the same film the "Hath not ..." speech is
presented in whole or in part three different times, albeit with "Jew"
amended to "we.")  The joke is, of course, that the Nazi officer does
not understand that we condemn his group for their pernicious beliefs
and practices, which have nothing to do with good taste in music, art,
food or women.

Is Shylock's plea similar?  To test the point, I went through the speech
substituting "Nazi" for "Jew" and, by George, it works.  Shylock argues
that Jews are human.  Solanio and Salerio (and the audience) never
denied that.  Their point was that Shylock and other Jews in Venice
(and, by extension, all Jews) were inhumane, not non-human.  (Shylock,
of course, confirms that point, at least to the satisfaction of the
original audience.)  Viewed in this fashion, the speech was intended to
be funny and was probably received as such.

Does this mean that WS was anti-Semitic?  Sadly, I'm afraid that the
answer is that it adds to the evidence.  At least it explains why some
of the evidence offered to dispute the point does not succeed in doing
so.  At the risk of incurring the understandable wrath of many members
of the list, I must also add that this does not diminish his genius or
make him less a valid subject for study.  Indeed, the fact that someone
steeped in a culture which regarded anti-Semitism as normal and its
opposite as aberrant could portray a character like Shylock as
sympathetically as he does at many points (for example the Turquoise
ring) makes him even more fascinating.

Larry Weiss

[4]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stevie Simkin <
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Date:           Sunday, 15 Feb 1998 23:46:44 -0000
Subject: 9.0133  Re: Anti-Semitism
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0133  Re: Anti-Semitism

M OF V - MOMENTS IN PERFORMANCE

David Richman asks about the staging of certain key moments in recent
productions of The Merchant of Venice.

> 1. Shylock's speaks of being kicked and spat upon.  Ought the audience
> to see Antonio or others kicking, spitting upon, or otherwise physically
> abusing Shylock?  Is there such staging in some productions?  Is there
> no such staging in others?

I remember little if any of this in the current RSC production.  By
contrast, I remember a touring production by a company called Compass
Theatre perhaps 5-6 years ago where Salanio and Salerio spat repeatedly
from the dark upstage edges of the stage at a spotlit Shylock - this may
well have been duing the "hath not a Jew eyes?" speech, though it was a
long time ago and I wouldn't swear to it.  I believe they listened in
patronizing fashion in the current RSC version, with distaste and mild
amusement.  but again I could be wrong.

For Jessica's running away - this was accomplished during  wild revels -
the young men were mostly equipped with pig's heads.  Others were on
sprung stilts (I presume built for the elephant cavalry in Hands/Sher's
Tamburlaine 5-6 years ago, and the expense is being justified by using
them whenever possible in productions ever since.  I think the RSC have
a similar monopoly on leather trousers).  In the midst of the dancing,
Shylock returns, gets spun around a bit by revelers, and ends up face to
face with Jessica in boy's garb.  Cartoon-like facial reactions from
both and Jessica is whisked away.

>
> 4. How is Shylock's last exit staged.  "I am not well."  Is he on- or
> offstage, or leacing slowly, or hurrying off, or pushed off, or walking
> off with dignity, as Gratiano makes his speech about the "gallows not
> the font?"

This was one of the most distasteful moments in the current RSC
production.  Earlier, a huge bag of coins had been spilled across the
stage (when Shylock is offered his money several times over).   As
Shylock tried to leave, he stumbles...  One reviewer spoke of this
moment in these terms: "His defeat in the courtroom sets him slithering
among a pile of gold coins, three times trying and failing to raise
himself up from the swamp of his greed and misery."  This reviewer chose
to interpret it, then,  as a moment epitomizing Shylock's "greed and
misery" (rather than his inevitable defeat and humiliation in the face
of a State that always protects its own), and it is hard to read it in
another way.  I'd be interested to hear others' reactions.  Perhaps
someone has seen it more than once and can speak more authoritatively.

Finally, that Compass production I referred to dealt very imaginatively
with the figure of Jessica.  The love duet was played with bitter irony
by a couple clearly mismatched and deeply unhappy.  It seemed clear that
Lorenzo was only interested in Jessica's money.  As the play ended, the
couples and Antonio gathered upstage as if at a party.  A huge gate in a
set of tall metal railings slammed shut in Jessica's face, and she was
left alone outside.  It was a devastating ending, perhaps taking the
Olivier/Miller production's final moment, described by Dave Evett, one
stage further.

ANTI-SEMITISM THEN AND NOW

On Anti-Semitism, I agree with Bob Dennis that anti-Semitism means
something different to us now than it did to the Elizabethans.  But I
would disagree if this is taken to imply that we should not refer to
attitudes and behaviour towards Jews in the 1600s as anti-Semitic, since
they clearly were.

Point taken about anti-Semitism pre-dating Christianity.  I was
particularly concerned with Christian anti-Semitism since this is what
is at stake when dealing with M of V.  As Bob says,  "The problem is not
exclusive to Christians".  But I'm not sure that it, quote, "likely
occurs in no greater a percentage of Christians than other religious
groups" since Christian anti-Semitism was fuelled by the belief that the
Jews were responsible for the death of Christ.  Incredibly, it was not
until Vatican II (1962-5) that the Catholic Church formally repudiated
this charge.

Lopez of course is significant, but he was a marrano Jew - Jewish by
descent, he practised (at least openly) the Christian faith.  Paranoid
Elizabethans tended to assume they practised their own so-called
heresies in private.  Hence the scornful laughter from the crowd when at
his execution Lopez professed that he loved the Queen (whom he was
accused of plotting to murder)  as much as he loved Jesus Christ.

FURTHER READING

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

I'd be interested to hear this too.  James Shapiro's excellent book
*Shakespeare and the Jews* (1996) makes a thorough attempt at weighing
up all the conflicting evidence about the presence and absence of Jews
in England after 1290.  Incidentally,  Shapiro  points out that as late
as 1948,  a popular history book, John Hooper Harvey's *The
Plantagenets*, was still recycling the myths of "most sinister crimes
committed against Christian children, including murder (allegedly
ritual) and forcible circumcision...."  Not so very far from Elizabethan
anti-Semitism after all, perhaps....

[5]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Tim Richards <
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Date:           Mondayy, 16 Feb 1998 13:05:03 +1000
Subject:        Anti-Semitism

Robert Dennis wrote:

>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.

I don't entirely agree with this.  In my experience, societies with
little experience of other races are likely to be the most prejudiced,
through lack of encounter.  I lived in Poland recently for a year - a
very homogeneous country both ethnically and religiously since the end
of World War 2 - and found the Poles far more biased against outsiders
than the nearby natives of Berlin, which was much more ethnically
diverse.  As far as I could see, this prejudice was formed mostly
through ignorance of what exotic 'outsiders' (Asians, Africans etc) were
really like.  I assume that in an Elizabethan England without Jews,
sensational tales of their 'depravity' could spread quite unhindered by
any real-life counter-examples.

Tim Richards
 

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