The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0228 Tuesday, 17 March 1998.
 From: Marilyn A. Bonomi <
Date: Saturday, 14 Mar 1998 11:14:52 -0500
Subj: SHK 9.0220 Re: Anti-Semitism
 From: Stevie Simkin <
Date: Saturday, 14 Mar 1998 17:52:50 -0000
Subj: Re: SHK 9.0222 Re: Houses; Anti-Semitism
 From: Chantal Schutz <
Date: Sunday, 15 Mar 1998 18:05:58 -0500
Subj: Merchant of Venice
From: Marilyn A. Bonomi <
Date: Saturday, 14 Mar 1998 11:14:52 -0500
Subject: Re: Anti-Semitism
Comment: SHK 9.0220 Re: Anti-Semitism
Ira Abrams writes:
<<Shylock is not a verisimilar portrait (to Elizabethan minds) of a Jew,
but rather his Jewishness is ancillary to his outlaw status.>>
Ira, you have it reversed here. It is the FACT of his Jewishness which
MAKES Shylock the outlaw. The rest simply follows from there.
This debate keeps getting too abstruse, too insistent on removing itself
from the text itself and the context in which it was written and
performed, too insistent on throwing about terms from critical theorists
rather than facts.
I will not rehearse all the factual evidence about Jews in Europe in the
Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It's very old news.
However, the Jew has been the archetypal outsider, and by extension the
archetypal outlaw, for... let me calculate... 3000 years? Good enough
number, I think. Except for a brief period in the last millenium before
the common era when there was an actual kingdom of Hebrew peoples, the
Jews have served the Western and Middle Eastern worlds as the perfect
target upon which to heap the scorn and contumely they otherwise would
have to heap only upon themselves.
Each culture, each era will bring a different reading to plays like MOV
and _Jew of Malta_ based on the specific place of Jew in that culture or
era. But there haven't been ANY cultures or eras where that place has
been positive, much less exalted.
And don't say that it's any different today. Listen to kids in any high
school in America talk. Give it a week, and you'll hear one of them
discussing a great bargain that he or she made, and the kid will say,
"Boy, I really jewed him down on that one!" I speak from experience: 32
years in a culturally advanced, politically moderate, East coast
southern New England suburban public high school where there are always
at least 5-10% Jewish students.
Why should Shakespeare's England be any different? Why should
Shakespeare's experience of the concepts of Jew and Jewishness, his
world view be any different? Why should a reading of Shakespeare's or
Marlowe's work EXCLUDE what we know both of history and of human nature?
I can't argue from a stance offered by ANY of the critical theories
current in literary analysis today; my exposure to them is too recent
and too much in the mode of awed student learning at the feet of
masters. But I certainly CAN argue from the stance of a literate human
being aware of history and of human nature.
Was Elizabethan anti-Semitism different from post-Holocaust
anti-Semitism? Certainly, as is just about any other early modern
sentiment going to differ from current millennial sentiment. Does that
difference negate the existence of one or the other variety of
Is MOV a play ABOUT anti-Semitism? No. It's about lots of other
things, some of which Ira Abrams lists. Does it take place within the
context of an anti-Semitism which shapes and indeed creates some of
these other things? Yes. I would argue the same way about _Jew of
I'm fascinated by the discussion of whether Shylock may be offering
subversive discourses of various sorts. I'm intrigued by the glimpses
into the Elizabethan mind we may be able to glean from a discussion of
these various discourses. But I'm rather offended by people who cannot
recognize simple and overt anti-Semitism when they see it.
Let's keep talking, though. It's much more fun than grading sophomore
essays on _Romeo and Juliet_ where students assert that Friar Lawrence
shouldn't have offered his potion because he couldn't know if it would
work, and proceed to write speculative fiction rather than literary
From: Stevie Simkin <
Date: Saturday, 14 Mar 1998 17:52:50 -0000
Subject: 9.0222 Re: Houses; Anti-Semitism
Comment: Re: SHK 9.0222 Re: Houses; Anti-Semitism
Glad that Larry Weiss and I are able to agree to disagree in amicable
fashion - but just to set the record straight, the statement that "A
blueprint must be followed as the draftsman intended; if it isn't, the
house falls down" may or may not be a dodgy simile, but it wasn't mine!
To respond to Ira Abrams on the issue of MV...
I don't think we can know to what extent Shylock and Barabas conform to
standard Elizabethan notions of the Jew, since of course all we have are
scraps of historical evidence to work from when trying to recover those
notions. There would be no coherent stereotype that all Elizabethans
subscribed to anyway, but I imagine that Shakespeare's creation and
Marlowe's creation may well have influenced the vast array of different
notions that would have been circulating at the time in a population
where actual Jewish presence was virtually invisible. These plays would
refract as well as reflect the ideology of the time. I would be the
first to agree that the mindset of an Elizabethan is something that is
ultimately irrecoverable, though that doesn't mean it isn't worthy
trying. Anyway, to pick up another of Ira Abrams' points, if we cannot
recover that mindset, how can we argue that it is actually much closer
to a modern one than your typical cultural materialist would claim?
No, Shylock does not drink the blood of Christians, though I am not the
first to note that his hankering after Christian flesh might echo the
myth, or else a similar one that claimed that Jews circumcised their
victims before killing them. James Shapiro's book, which I continue to
recommend, has a chapter entitled "The Pound of Flesh" which as an
epigram quotes a line spoken by the Jew in the English translation of
Alexander Silvayn's *The Orator* (1596).... "What a matter were it then
if I should cut of his privy members, supposing that the same would
altogether weigh a just pound?"
Coincidence? Possibly. Though many commentators acknowledge Silvayn's
text as a possible source for MV. I could also rehearse Shapiro's
argument about the close association of flesh and penis via Geneva
Bible, references in *Romeo and Juliet*, and so on, but will instead
recommend anyone interested follow it up in Shapiro's book (Shakespeare
and the Jews, Columbia UP, 1996). Yes, we are dealing with fragments,
but Shapiro pieces together one possible coherent(ish) picture.
Finally, to reinforce the point, I am not arguing that MV is a play
about anti-Semitism. I never said that I would wish to reduce the play
to "the persecution of Shylock", in Ben Schneider's words. I simply
drew attention to the fact that we have to recognise the difficulties
inherent in reviving a text that emerges from an anti-Semitic society
such as Elizabethan England. I agree that there is a lot more going on
in the play, but we have to acknowledge the sensitivity of the issue of
its anti-Semitism - many Jews do find the play offensive; an article in
the UK national newspaper today reveals results of a survey that
indicates teachers across the globe are dropping it from their curricula
because they believe it to be anti-Semitic. (The survey was done by the
Globe, and I imagine more formal results might find their way to this
list in due course - if not, I will glean what I can from the paper and
post it on next week, if people are interested).
When I staged The Jew of Malta last year, one of the panellists at the
colloquium, a vicar, talked about considering picketing the theatre on
the first night (he decided not to and instead kept an engagement to
attend an event at a local synagogue). I know that MV has stirred
similarly strong feelings. Ira Abrams makes the point that an Arabian
performance context might well provoke very different responses, and the
idea is an intriguing one. One thing no-one dared to raise at our
colloquium was the question of Israeli action in Palestine.
I'm not calling for a ban on these plays, simply an acknowledgement
(rather than knee-jerk denial) of their inherent difficulties. Too
often (and this is not aimed at those who have been responding so
thought-provokingly to the debate on the list), people refuse to
coutenance the notion that Shakespeare could possibly write anything
that we could deem today as anti-Semitic. Or misogynist. Or racist. Or
anything else that could possibly be deemed offensive.
And despite Ira Abrams' puzzled response at my approach to these and
other early modern plays, I remain convinced that one way of doing this
is by finding out as much as we can about their meaning in their
original performance context, and judging as lucidly as we can their
potential for making meaning in the present. Though as an academic I
perhaps have to lean closer to the former, and as a theatre practitioner
closer to the latter, the shuttling back and forth is what keeps me
From: Chantal Schutz <
Date: Sunday, 15 Mar 1998 18:05:58 -0500
Subject: Merchant of Venice
In response to the threads on Merchant and casting, I would like to
offer the following information. Sorry if the posting is quite long, and
some of you have already received it on another list.
In advance of this summer's production of 'The Merchant of Venice',
Globe Education has launched its 'Shakespeare and the Jews' season with
a sell-out lecture by James Shapiro on 'Imagining Jews in Shakespeare's
England'. It continues today with the first play of the series: 'The
Custom of the Country'. The theme and the act that the GLobe chose that
play are already proving controversial: one article in the Jewish
Chronicle maintained that, however it is staged, the play remains
offensive to many Jewish people. I, for one, always leave feeling very
unhappy and angry, except in the 1988 German modern-dress production by
Peter Zadek, where Shylock, played by the great actor Gert Voss, was so
like the other merchants that when Portia entered the court-room and
asked: "Is your name Shylock?", she spoke to Antonio - making the point
very neatly that the difference is in the eye of the beholder. I saw
this extraordinary production in Vienna in 1992, and I think it is still
revived at the Burgtheater every now and again.
Meantime, Globe Ed has also carried out an international survey of over
1000 teachers on 'The Merchant of Venice'. The teachers came from a
wide range of countries including: UK, USA, Italy, Finland, Canada,
Germany, Australia, Eire, New Zealand, Switzerland, France and Austria.
Many are members of Globelink, the GLobe's international network of
schools and colleges. The survey has already elicited at least two
articles: one in the Times on Friday 13 (excerpts below), one in the
The raw figures are as follows:
1.Have you ever read 'The Merchant of Venice'?
yes : 68%
no : 32%
2.Have you ever seen a production of 'The Merchant of Venice'?
yes : 67.3%
no : 32.7%
3.Have you ever taught 'The Merchant of Venice'?
yes : 29%
no : 71%
4.Do you think that 'The Merchant of Venice' should be taught?
yes : 89.86%
no : 5.4%
5.Do you think that 'The Merchant of Venice' should be played on stage?
yes : 97.3%
no : 1.3%
6.Do you think that 'The Merchant of Venice' is an anti-semitic play?
yes : 17.8%
no : 61.64%
Globe Education's conclusions are:
Well over half the teachers said that they had both read and seen 'The
Merchant of Venice', but only a little over a quarter said they had
taught it. This is quite interesting because almost 90 percent thought
it should be taught. Almost all of them thought it should also be done
on the stage. This raises questions as to why it is so rarely taught.
Only 17.8% of teachers believe that 'The Merchant of Venice' is
anti-semitic. Well over half did not. Of the 20.55 percent (almost a
quarter) who were unsure about the anti-semitic nature of the play, many
offered the belief that the anti-semitism was dependent on the
particular production and presentation of the work. Others who were
unsure said they personally did not believe it was anti-semitic, but
they could clearly see how others might feel that it is. Still there
were others who believed that only parts of the play were anti-semitic,
or that the issues surrounding this question were far too lengthy to
answer with a yes or no.
Teachers' comments on the question: Do you think that 'The Merchant of
Venice' is an anti-semitic play? include
- Yes, up to a point - also anti-Christian!
- No - or only in the sense that 'Othello' is anti-black or 'Macbeth'
- Yes, only by 20th century perceptions
- No - though it does have anti-semitic elements and it provides an
excellent opportunity to discuss anti-semitism and the Holocaust
- Yes, but not 100 percent
- No, it's anti all religions
- Yes, to a certain extent
- No - talk about the problems!
- Yes, + feminist
- No, because of its historical context and time + the audience for
which it was written
The Times article, by David Charter:
'One Teacher in 20 shuns 'Merchant of Venice''
David Charter on academic anger over minority who say that pupils should
not study 'anti-Semitic' play
The play about Shylock, the miserly Jewish moneylender who demands a
'weight of carrion flesh' from Antonio, the merchant, in settlement of a
debt, is on the current A-level syllabus. It has been the subject of
controversy since it was first performed in 1596.
...The reconstructed Globe commissioned a survey...Objectors said that
the drama could have a damaging influence on their pupils, or would
raise issues too complex to resolve for younger teenagers.
Those who shunned the play were criticised by Jean Aitchison, Rupert
Murdoch Professor of Language and Communication at Oxford University.
She said: "I would have thought that, if you start to worry about
historical plays that show prejudices, you are going to be left with
very little to see or read. There are a lot of folk songs which are
anti-Semitic because there was a quite extraordinary rumour that went
around that Jewish women ate small boys. I have only seem productions
which make Shylock into a money-grabbing criminal, but you need to put
it in its historical context."
Richard Olivier, director of the Globe's forthcoming performance and son
of the late Lord Olivier, told a conference at the Globe yesterday that
the play was "dangerous" and offered no simple answers. "I believe that
theatre should be dangerous withouth being offensive. The Merchant of
Venice is exciting for that reason."
He also criticised those teachers who shied away from the play: "I
believe acting and the theatre to be an important form of education. It
offers the most powerful form of empathy. After my father played
Othello, he was certainly as far from racist as can be imagined."
James Shapiro, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at
Columbia University, told the conference that there were 50 productions
of the play in Nazi Germany, which invariably left out the intermarriage
of a Jew and Christian.
He added: "No one is cleaning up this play today. Offensive thoughts and
feelings exist in our society. The play offers an opportunity to take
stock of them."
Those of you who saw 'Henry V' last season at the Globe and remember how
the English audiences booed and hissed the French, however tongue in
cheek the actors may have felt that reaction was, will surely be
interested to see how they react next summer, when another German actor,
Norbert Kentrup, comes on as the Jew. Another exciting challenge for the
All the best