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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: September ::
Review of Shylock's Daughter
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1674  Friday, 1 September 2000.

From:           Sophie Masson <
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Date:           Friday, 1 Sep 2000 10:39:30 +1000
Subject:        Review of Shylock's Daughter

I thought people on the list might like to see the review I've done for
ACHUKA of  'Shylock's Daughter' by Mirjam Pressler. I welcome all
comments.

Sophie Masson
.....
Review by Sophie Masson
Shylock's Daughter, by Mirjam Pressler, Macmillan Children's Books

The Merchant of Venice was the first Shakespeare play I, as a
schoolchild of non-English-speaking background in Australia, studied. It
was to have a permanent effect on me, for it was thus that I became
aware of Shakespeare's extraordinary abilities to evoke character and
past histories in a few words, to portray life and human nature in all
its strange complexities and ambiguities. And it was Shylock who I found
most interesting, most troubled, most pitiful, yet grand and repellent
too, in his thirst for revenge on the representatives of the religion
which had persecuted his people.  Shakespeare's alternative title for
his play, let us not forget, was The Jew of Venice; Shylock was always
every bit as important as Antonio, and in fact even more so. Antonio,
Bassanio, Lorenzo and even Portia did not emerge too well out of this
complex play. Shallow, sneering, preaching about mercy but showing
precious little, they are hardly great advertisements for Christianity.
Yet Shylock himself is certainly not seen only as the righteous avenger
of insult and persecution--his terrible bargain with Antonio is witness
to that. Hatred has, perhaps understandably but hardly admirably,
consumed him so that he can see nothing else. We do not know all the
things that have led up to it--but his impassioned, famous speech, 'I am
a Jew..', delivered ironically enough to Bassanio's uncomprehending
friend Salarino, explains it all clearly enough.  His tragedy,
compounded by his daughter Jessica's betrayal, is the tragedy of a man
at the end of his tether--a righteous but unbending man, passionate but
obliged to be chillingly cold, desperately driven by revenge and
hatred.  But what of his daughter Jessica? We scarcely see her, though
we see that her love for Lorenzo has caused her to betray her father in
the most shameful way. What led her to do it? Why does she do it? These
are some of the questions Mirjam Pressler seeks to answer in this new
novel, these and the necessity to sketch in the background of Jessica
and her family. She does this not only through Shakespeare's characters,
but also some of her own, the most important being Shylock's other
daughter, the orphan Dalilah, who tries hard to be a bridge between
estranged father and daughter.  The other characters, such as Lorenzo,
Bassanio, Antonio and Portia, are seen through the Jewish characters'
eyes, showing clearly what shallow and unpleasant people they are, and
what a mistake Jessica is making in turning her back on her culture and
her family. In any case, Pressler suggests that Jesica will never be
allowed to forget who she is--that even though she seeks to be
assimilated, to reject the stifling, puritanical laws of the Ghetto for
the seemingly freeer world of Italian nobility, she will always be 'that
Jewish girl.' And the betrayal of her father will not be forgotten
either--she has lost out all round. For the first time, Jessica emerges
as a rounded character, desperately riven by an understandable teenage
need for glamour and love and flattery, seeking to escape her father's
authority, and making a terrible mistake in the process. Though Dalilah
says hers is a very Jewish story, and indeed it is, it is also very much
the story of any minority-culture adolescent, trapped between her
parents' culture and the dominant culture of the place where she was
raised.  As the child of proud, religious, authoritarian and passionate
parents living in a culture not their own and desperately trying to
maintain us within their own traditions, I identified closely with
Jessica. How many of us migrant children have not betrayed our parents
in thought and deed, wanting to blend in with the dominant culture and
with our peers within it?  How many of us have not, later, bitterly
regretted the suffering we inflicted on them in the process--and the
damage we did to our own cultural identity? And yet, how many of us
could argue that we should therefore have stayed obedient and never
moved out of the culture? It is a timeless and placeless tragedy,
indeed. Mirjam Pressler's great achievement is that she has managed to
convey Jessica's cruel dilemma in a most moving and human way, both
through the girl herself and through the love and clarity of her
foster-sister. She makes the Venetian Ghetto live and breathe, and
manages to make Lorenzo into quite a reasonable, though weak, character.
However, the Venetians are more or less ciphers, which I suppose is fair
enough but at times irritating.

More importantly, her portrayal of Shylock did not satisfy me: in
seeking to explain him, to make him less terrifying in his driven need
for revenge, she sometimes dilutes the force of his actions and
personality. She changes certain things about Shakespeare's portrayal,
no doubt in order to make him less contradictory, but I think that in
most cases it simply glosses over his human faults. For instance, in the
novel he says he asked for a pound of flesh not because he wants
revenge, but because this is a customary --Christian--way of making an
extreme promise; he makes his famous speech to his friend Tubal
Benevisti and not to the contemptuous Salarino, both of which things
tend, in my opinion, to take away from the power of what he has done.
Shylock, in Shakespeare's play, is a man who has taken an extreme risk;
he has a great courage, for he sees himself totally as the moral equal
and indeed the superior of the people with whom he is dealing: despite
the insults and persecution, he has not allowed himself to be beaten.
Yet all circumstances, including his own temperament, conspire against
him. In Shylock's Daughter, Shylock is just a wronged man, whose revenge
seems strangely hazy, who escapes forced baptism, and whose tragedy is
less affecting than it is in The Merchant of Venice. Perhaps too that is
the problem with adding the character of Dalilah; it is as if Pressler
cannot bear to let her characters suffer as much as they did in the
play, which is surely understandable but which also is the flaw in what
is otherwise a most interesting, well-written and thoughtful novel.
However, she has honoured many of Shakespeare's insights and perceptions
whilst exploring her own knowledge and understanding of Jewish culture,
and in this, Shylock's Daughter would be an invaluable addition to
discussion of The Merchant of Venice.

Sophie Masson is the author of many novels, and ACHUKA's Australian
correspondent.

Author site: http://members.xoom.com/sophiecastel/default.htm
 

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