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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: March ::
Re: Anti-Semitism
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0289  Tuesday, 31 March 1998.

[1]     From:   Frank Whigham <
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        Date:   Monday, 30 Mar 1998 08:01:12 -0600
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0280  Re: Anti-Semitism

[2]     From:   Larry Weiss <
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        Date:   Monday, 30 Mar 1998 12:38:04 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0280  Re: Anti-Semitism

[3]     From:   Ben Schneider <
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        Date:   Monday, 30 Mar 1998 10:56:24 +0000
        Subj:   anti-semitism

From:           Frank Whigham <
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Date:           Monday, 30 Mar 1998 08:01:12 -0600
Subject: 9.0280  Re: Anti-Semitism
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0280  Re: Anti-Semitism

Well, let's see: my urge is to ask what the details are there for.

(point 1) But we are not at all sure

>that the jewel is so important to the female line of the family. Since
>we do not know who Leah is in Shylock's life, she may well be the woman
>he did NOT marry.  Maybe he married Rachel instead.  Or perhaps he did
>marry Leah, but really wished to marry Rachel.  You can make up any
>scenario (no Martians, please) since we have no (not the slightest bit
>of) evidence.

1. Leah: whoever she is, she seems to be adjectival in function, marking
the loss of the turquoise as an especially painful loss to bear. Okay,
maybe she's someone (there are lots of them) who Shylock did not marry.
But she is someone he speaks of, in obvious pain, when the thing that is
a relic of his relation with her (whatever that was), is reported lost
forever. "Leah" thus to me seems Shakespeare's way of making Shylock's
pain more than a simple financial loss, of adding some kind of memorial
and/or relational capital to it. "We don't know (have no evidence about)
exactly who Leah was"? Well, we do have the Fact of Shylock's use of her
name; if he names her for other intelligible reasons than to mark the
pain of the loss of the turquoise, what are they? (I repeat: maybe there
are such. I'm less confident than Bill.) In any case, does Bill think
Shylock's pain is "made up"?

Also, what Ren monkey lore is relevant, exactly? I'm not sure I have
much at my own fingertips. Does anyone else? (Dale Lyles's suggestion
that pets are impermanent seems to fit with the idea of opposition to
the turquoise as time-honored.)

(point 2) >Now why would monetary or financial liberality be
anti-Semitic?  Next

>big party I give, I should feel anti-Semitic?  No, no, no!  Some people
>think that Shakespeare was rather shrewd with a shilling.  He certainly
>invested wisely, and <<italic>Timon<</italic> shows us what happens to the
>big, liberal spender.  I'm sure you all can tell me why I should see
>Shylock's parsimony as "bad" and Bassanio's unthoughtful spending (of
>Antonio's money, almost gets the guy killed) as "good."  But I'm pretty

2. On liberality/prodigality and anti-semitism. If the
Leah/turquoise/monkey cluster is doing some work, it's this, in my
present view: the monkey seems (at least to Shylock) a triviality, a
degradation, of some kind, at least in specific contrast (i.e., in the
nominal equality of hateful, inappropriate exchange) to the turquoise.
(So I think, pending monkey-lore correction.) I take it that Shylock
regards Jessica's action as prodigal, not liberal. (Could he recognize
the latter category?) I tend to figure that she's playing the game in
the same spirit as she did when she said "I'll gild myself with some mo
ducats and be with you straight": that she is partly buying her way into
Xn affections and status-group membership. It seems to me that she
thinks that the expenditure is worthwhile.

Whether we think that her new compatriots are
<underline>aware</underline> that the turquoise is some kind of heirloom
or something (that it has the symbolic capital of "Leah" attached to it,
anyway) is not clear. If they knew what it was (as we don't, exactly)
her act would seem more of a claim-staking than if she was just
(apparently) being "generous" or "liberal" or "free." She is at least
going to be visible as these, no? And maybe more. But
<underline>to</underline> <underline>herself</underline>, at least, both
views will be known: she knows who Leah is, surely? And if so, then she
is at least internally making some kind of gesture of dissociation, as
she did with "gilding herself"-and the opposite with "making fast the
doors," for that matter: these are confused gestures of
self-transformation, it seems to me. (Cf. her shame at the
cross-dressing.) (Further, Jim Shapiro must make us wonder (as is more
and more common) if her self-transformation really "takes" in Belmont.
I.e., can Jews "really" convert?)

The implicit anti-semitism (Jessica's, not necessarily Shakespeare's; I
think; it's confusing) comes in, to my mind, in what I see as her
explicit and willed and at least partly public gestural repudiation of
seeming to operate along the lines of stereotypical "fast find, fast
find" Jewishness. It is these "manners" (as she calls them to Launcelot
Gobbo) that she is rejecting, no?

I presume that none of Bill's big parties is thrown to show he isn't
(any longer, or "really") Jewish. Liberality and prodigality are
specific to questions of stereotypical Jewishness <underline>in
Merchant</underline>, so far as what I'm saying here goes, anyway. They
can mean many different things in other contexts, though to my mind such
acts are always likely to be involved in self-depiction (addressed to
the self as well as to others), as with Jessica. (In any case, I'm not
sure I follow Bill's final paragraph completely.)

A general issue: does all of the above slide improperly toward Bradley,
in trying to exhume (or fantasize) the lineaments of an unstaged (but
reported) scene? Maybe so, though it's hard to figure out how we can
take in the Leah/turquoise/monkey stuff as rich without some such
hypothetical or inferential or presumptive efforts.

Frank Whigham

From:           Larry Weiss <
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Date:           Monday, 30 Mar 1998 12:38:04 -0500
Subject: 9.0280  Re: Anti-Semitism
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0280  Re: Anti-Semitism

Jacob Goldberg  wrote:

> Shylock made a legal contract, legal under the justice system of
> Christian Venice, under which he was an alien.  Christian Venice
> permitted a debtor to bargain away his flesh and his life in
> satisfaction of an unpaid money debt. The expressions of moral horror
> that the Jew would so outrage Christian Venice's sensitivity by
> demanding enforcement of such law have the smell of hypocrisy.
> Can we suppose that Shylock was the first, and only, Venetian to
> invoke that law?

What authority does Mr. Goldberg have for the notion that the contract
is legal?  Portia is hardly a relaible source.  And it does appear that
Shylock was the first Venetian to seek to enforce a deadly bond.
Otherwise, Portia would not have to argue as she does when she appears
to sustain Shylock's case.

Portia argues from first principles, not a statute or governing
precedent.  Thus, she makes the point that "hard cases make bad law"
("many an error by the same example will rush into the state"); in other
words, the law must be very circumspect about altering stable rules in
the interests of compassion, lest the particular exception swallow up
the fundamentally wise rule.  The point, also made by Shylock, that the
commerce of Venice (its life blood) would be at risk if Venetian courts
refused to honor commercial contracts is also heard today.

The contract was not illegal because one of the contracting parties was
an alien.  It was unenforceable because poorly drafted, leading to a
pettifogging argument (which can rule the day in cases of this sort)
that enforcement of the contract would result in an illegal act, since
it would inevitably cause Antonio to bleed (not permitted by the bond)
and consequently to die.

Shylock was not punished under a statute that voided contracts by aliens
(that would be ridiculous in Venice, which depended on such contracts),
or which even voided contracts by aliens to harm Venetians..  He was
punished for compassing the death of a citizen; and there is an
unresolved question of whether that statute could have been invoked if
the bond were enforceable.

To be sure, it appears that the statute applicable to aliens is more
rigorous than the law governing citizens, but this is because Shylock
did a horrible thing for which the general law might have carried no
penalty.  Even today, there would be an interesting question of whether
Shylock's conduct amounted to an "attempt" to murder Antonio.  And,
since Shylock had no confederates, he could not be prosecuted for
conspiracy.  The alien statute Portia invoked prohibited "direct and
indirect attempts to seek the life of any citizen"; not a particularly
Draconian prohibition.  Presumably, there were laws against Venetians
trying to kill other Venetians (and maybe even aliens), but perhaps
requiring more immediate conduct to constitute the attempt.

From:           Ben Schneider <
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Date:           Monday, 30 Mar 1998 10:56:24 +0000
Subject:        anti-semitism

I agree with those who have said that there's more to this play than the
question of anti-semitism. How do we interpret the debate between
Antonio and Shylock about whether Jacob had a right to Laban's sheep.
Jacob asked if he could have all the parti-colored sheep in Laban's
flock, and then he managed to breed nothing but parti-colored sheep.

 <Shylock> This was a way to thrive, and he was blest;
 And thrift is blessing, if men steal it not.

 <Antonio> This was a venture, sir, that Jacob serv'd for,
 A thing not in his power to bring to pass,
 But sway'd and fashion'd by the hand of heaven.

How does Laban's behavior relate to money-lending?

What is the essential difference between the Antonio's and Shylock's
view of the episode?

Why did Shakespeare put insert this tedious discussion?

The debaters don't seem to be talking about the same thing,  but here's
what I think:

Jacob's contract with Laban is what he has in common with a
money-lender.  You sign a loan agreement and you take the consequences.
That's why Shylock is incensed when the court questions his contract
with Antonio (also based on a trick).

The essential difference between Antonio's view of the matter and
Shylock's is that Shylock thinks Jacob has a right to the spotted sheep
from the moment Laban agrees to the contract.  Antonio thinks that no
one has a right to anything and that whatever comes is thanks to God.
Less religious people might thank luck. Shakepearean people usually
thank fortune.  Later on Arragon loses the casket contest because he
"assumes desert," as Shylock does in the trial, also losing.

I think Shakespeare put in the Jacob-Laban debate because it is
essential to understanding the play. It's about whether amything can be
owned.  For example, does Portia own Bassanio?

Yours ever,

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