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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: April ::
Re: "tribe"
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0380  Wednesday, 22 April 1998.

[1]     From:   Gil Harris <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 21 Apr 1998 09:23:00 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   RE: SHK 9.0378 Q: "tribe"

[2]     From:   Ed Pechter <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 21 Apr 1998 07:50:15 -0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0378  Q: "tribe"

[3]     From:   Thomas Bishop <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 21 Apr 1998 11:32:11 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0378  Q: "tribe"


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Gil Harris <
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Date:           Tuesday, 21 Apr 1998 09:23:00 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: 9.0378 Q: "tribe"
Comment:        RE: SHK 9.0378 Q: "tribe"

Regarding Frank Whigham's question about the symbolic freight that
attached to Elizabethan uses of the word "tribe," I have long wondered
about the remark Iago makes to Roderigo in Othello, 1.3.357-60:

"If sanctimony and a frail vow betwixt an erring barbarian and a
supersubtle Venetian be not too hard for my wits and all the tribe of
hell, thou shalt enjoy her."

The ready Elizabethan association of "Jew" with "devil" made terms such
as "tribe" or "synagogue" bywords for diabolical communities. But Frank
Whigham's speculations about the money-grabbing resonances of "tribe"
seem particularly pertinent here. Iago's next words are, of course,
"Therefore make money"; and once Roderigo has left the stage, he
observes: "For I mine own gained knowledge should profane/ If I would
time expend with such a snipe/ But for my sport and profit." The idea
that exchange should lead to one person's profit and another's loss, a
donne of capitalist production, was often regarded at the time as
informing the "Jewish" sin of usury. Does Shakespeare implicitly
Judaicize Iago in order to make him a spokesperson for the ideal of
"profit"?

Gil Harris

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ed Pechter <
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 >
Date:           Tuesday, 21 Apr 1998 07:50:15 -0800
Subject: 9.0378  Q: "tribe"
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0378  Q: "tribe"

Empson in "Honest in Othello" notes a connection between "Tubal a
wealthy Hebrew of my tribe" and Iago's "all the tribes of hell" &
speculates a bit.  I guess though it should be checked out in OED &
Concordances and the computer data bases (Chadwick Healy, LION?).

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Thomas Bishop <
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Date:           Tuesday, 21 Apr 1998 11:32:11 -0400
Subject: 9.0378  Q: "tribe"
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0378  Q: "tribe"

Frank Whigham's question about "tribe" in early modern English is a good
one.

From what I can judge based on a quick check, the word was undergoing
some complex changes in this period, and, as one might expect,
Shakespeare was involved in them.  Its medieval usage seems always to
have been in association with the description of Israelite social
structure, through the medieval Latin use of "tribus" to translate the
Greek "phule" which was applied to the twelve "kinship units" of
Israel.  This use continues throughout the period, both directly and
figuratively (e.g. "sealed of the tribe of Ben").

In fact, of course, the word derives from Roman social structure, and
was probably borrowed from Etruscan models, according to Calvert
Watkins, during the Etruscan domination of Rome.  In Rome it designated
one of the administrative divisions of the Roman people, represented
politically by the "tribunus".  There were later understood to have been
three of these (tri-), but this is probably a false etymology.  Humanist
writers in the sixteenth century were therefore beginning once more to
revive the Latin sense of the word as "an administrative and social
division of the city people" in which the specific kinship sense of the
term seems somewhat weakened.

At the same time, however, perhaps under renewed pressure to deploy
kinship terms to describe American and even Irish arrangements, the word
is beginning to expand to mean something more like "nation", that is to
encompass a whole people rather than its internal divisions.  Thus when
Shylock says "Cursed be my tribe/ If I forgive him" and, even more
clearly, "For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe" he would seem to
be referring to Jews as a whole rather than to his particular kinship
group.  (Later in the seventeenth century, the word was also adapted
into zoological classifications, where it retained its group-kinship
valence but altogether lost its social one.)

One should compare also the instance in Sonnet 107:  "While he [sc.
Death] insults o'er dull and speechless tribes" which seems to mean
something like "peoples", but since they are "mortal secular peoples"
might be supposed to be vestigially Jewish in the sense of "peoples not
subject to any kind of redemption"-in this case through the poet's
salvific verse.

Even more interestingly, the word is deployed with an especial charge in
"Othello", and in especially interesting ways. First by Iago as "Good
God, the souls of all my tribe defend/ From jealousy."  Is Iago
figuratively Jewish here? In or through what trait? Or, I think more
interestingly, is it (also) the proximity of Othello that summons this
term for him? Othello, like Shylock, has a tendency to evoke the Old
Testament as a reservoir of meaning-it way be that Shakespeare thought
of Othello as a convert in the same way he thought of Shylock-as one on
the edge of the culture, who could still "renounce his baptism" and
return to "tribalism".) And finally by Othello describing himself as
"one whose hand  /(like the base Judean/Indian) threw away a pearl, /
Richer than all his tribe."  The textual crux about the ethnicity of the
figure here maps exactly the way the word was swinging both in
Shakespeare's usage and, it would appear, at this moment of its
development:  Judeans and Indians, both being "foreign" social
structures, both have "tribes".

Insofar as the Puritan movement often evoked the language of the Old
Testament of itself, it would not be surprising to find "tribe" used of
them, though I have no instance to hand. It is, of course, a  complex
matter that Shakespeare associates the newer forms of fiscal capital and
moneylending in Venice with Judaism and the Old Law, but a
traditionalist mentality might easily tend to do this: the same thing
happens in "Measure for Measure", where Angelo's Puritan precision is
associated with a reintroduction of the old severity of the "lex
talionis".

As regards the instance in Massinger that prompted Frank Whigham's
question, it looks to me as if, again, a complex play between meanings
of the term "tribe" is being made.  Figuratively, one might speak of
lawyers as "a division of the people of the city", a professional class,
esp. in a dramatic genre that had developed a complex taxonomy of the
city.  Humanist learning would gloss "tribe" here that way. Yet this
linguistic gentility barely covers the co-present sense of the Israelite
"tribes" and hence picks up an association of lawyers with commerce,
urban contamination, and money-grubbing that feeds directly on
anti-semitism. (I note also a possible sense of "peasant, dirty person"
in "term-driver" by association with "cattle-driver".) "Definitely Not
Our Class, dear."

Hope this helps,
Tom
 

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