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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: April ::
Re: Tragic Hero
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.0775  Thursday, 5 April 2001

[1]     From:   W. L. Godshalk <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 04 Apr 2001 11:10:33 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.0755 Re: Tragic Hero

[2]     From:   Mike Jensen <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 04 Apr 2001 09:02:27 -0700
        Subj:   SHK 12.0755 Re: Tragic Hero

[3]     From:   Larry Weiss <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 04 Apr 2001 16:16:06 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.0755 Re: Tragic Hero

[4]     From:   Don Bloom <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 04 Apr 2001 16:26:56 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.0755 Re: Tragic Hero


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           W. L. Godshalk <
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Date:           Wednesday, 04 Apr 2001 11:10:33 -0400
Subject: 12.0755 Re: Tragic Hero
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.0755 Re: Tragic Hero

One of Shylock's functions is as a critic of the Christian society.  He
reminds Antonio: "You . . . did void your rheum upon my beard,/And foot
me as you spur a stranger cur" (Riverside 1.3.117-18), an allegation
that Antonio confirms (130-31).  Shylock points out to Solanio and
Salerio that Christians teach bloody instructions, i.e., the uses of
revenge (3.1.53-73).  He notes that Christians purchase slaves (4.1.90)
whom they "use in abject and in slavish parts" (92). A charge that
remains unrefuted.  When Bassanio and Gratiano say that they would
sacrifice their wives to save Antonio, Shylock bitterly comments: "These
be the Christian husbands" (295), and he laments that his daughter is
married to one.  I'm not arguing that Shylock is without fault, but he
does serve to underline Christian failings.

I assume that the Christians are Italians, and, for them, anyone not an
Italian is a barbarian.  As Portia says of Morocco, "Let all of his
complexion choose me so" (2.7.79).  And see her description of the
non-Italian suitors in the play's second scene.  As we've suggested,
this is a very complex play, and two of the things it's about are
ethnocentrism and bigotry.  And Shylock stands as the most visible
outlander, the Jew, who must be humiliated, put in his place, and --
ironically -- brought into the Christian fold.  Now, possibly, Antonio
will no longer spit on him and kick him on the Rialto.  Who knows, now
that Antonio has promised Portia that Bassanio is off limits, maybe
he'll make a play for Shylock?  Ya never know.

Yours, Bill Godshalk

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Mike Jensen <
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Date:           Wednesday, 04 Apr 2001 09:02:27 -0700
Subject: Re: Tragic Hero
Comment:        SHK 12.0755 Re: Tragic Hero

Carol Barton asks,

> What heinous crime has Shylock committed
> against these "Christians"

It is worth remembering that the first expression of racial hatred in
the play is Shylock's, and he makes several additional bigoted comments
as well.  He is hardly innocent.

Barton says,

> The man ALSO has a right at this time in history to approve or
> disapprove of his daughter's marriage choices: and Shylock
> clearly does not approve of Beatrice's

I think she means Jessica.

Of Shylock, Stetner writes,

> The immorality of the victim of the theft has not yet
> been established, only his oppressiveness as a father
> and master and even these do not rise to the level of
> Cinderella's stepmother, and of course, his race.

You don't have to be a Hitler or a Stalin to be a mass murderer, nor
Cinderella's stepmother to be a horrible father, or a horrible person.
This fails to redeem Shylock's actions towards Jessica.  It is clear
that he loves his duckets more than his daughter.  Count the number of
times he bemoans the loss of each.

Mike Jensen

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Larry Weiss <
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Date:           Wednesday, 04 Apr 2001 16:16:06 -0400
Subject: 12.0755 Re: Tragic Hero
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.0755 Re: Tragic Hero

Clifford Stetner argues that

>  it is the theft of the jewel box that makes this elopement different.  This
> casket seems to hold a great portion of Shylock's wealth and its theft
> is a devastating blow.

That it is a devastating blow is made clear by Shylock's reaction; but
it is far from likely that the jewel box contained "a great portion of
Shylock's wealth."  What evidence is there for that?  Isn't Shylock
likely to have had the bulk of his wealth in receivables, just as most
of Antonio's wealth was in merchandise at sea?  Is Shylock the sort of
character to bear even a small loss with "sufferance"?

> The immorality of the victim of the theft has not yet been established, only
> his oppressiveness as a father
> and master and even these do not rise to the level of Cinderella's
> stepmother, and of course, his race.

Shylock made very clear long before the elopement that he harbored
deadly malice toward Antonio, both because he is a Christian and, even
more, because he made interest-free loans which impacted adversely on
the rates Shylock and his confreres could charge:  Not the hallmark of
complete good faith.

>  Jessica tells us later that
> Shylock said this and that which implies that he never meant to honor
> the bond with Antonio, but is this hearsay testimony ...?

No.  It is an admission.  But, actually, Shylock did intend to honor the
bond -- it is Antonio who evaded it.  At worst, Shylock misrepresented
his intention not to enforce the bond.  Defenses of this sort are made
today and they almost always lose.  If someone offers you a contract
containing harsh penalties and tells you "don't worry, I won't enforce
it,"  worry!

> Do we really know that Shylock did not make his
> original bargain with Antonio for an interest free loan in a completely
> good faith attempt to improve his relations with the Christians despite
> their daily spitting on him, and never intending to go for Antonio's
> flesh until he is driven to revenge by the theft of daughter and
> ducats?

There is something to this; but "complete ... good faith" goes too far.
We tend to forget that at the time Shylock made his bargain he had no
reason to believe that Antonio would default.  If, as seemed likely,
Antonio paid the debt promptly, Shylock would have lost nothing except
three months' interest on 3000 ducats and he would have earned good will
probably worth a lot more than that.  If, on the other hand, Antonio
defaulted, Shylock believed he would have been able to remove an
expensive competitor.  Good deal either way; but "complete good faith"?
-- Nah.

> Why is malicious vengefulness evil in Shylock and not in Hamlet?

Perhaps because it is self-interested.  Perhaps because it is
disproportionate to the offense.

> Is Shylock greedier than Lorenzo? Antonio? Bassanio?

Maybe not; but that is an entirely different question from whether
Shylock's conduct is justifiable.  There may be a thief or two among the
sworn twelve, but that does not mitigate the accused's crime.

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Don Bloom <
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 >
Date:           Wednesday, 04 Apr 2001 16:26:56 -0500
Subject: 12.0755 Re: Tragic Hero
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.0755 Re: Tragic Hero

Every so often I get an urge to take a whack at the hornets' nest, and
do it, so I can hardly complain about getting stung. As is often the
case, though, I can't possibly answer, or deal with, every charge
without multiplying the length of the argument beyond all measure. But a
few points require some response.

Cliffolrd Stetner writes, "You have inadvertently opened the question of
authorial intention in interpreting a literary text." Not at all. I have
done so deliberately, shamelessly and unrepentantly. After many years of
struggling with the matter, I have long since concluded that you cannot
possibly write worthwhile criticism without a strong sense of what the
author was trying to accomplish with a given text. All good criticism in
fact is heavily informed by such a sense whether or not the critic
admits it (or is even aware of it).

In general, an author's intentions are usually emotive rather than
intellectual, and thus they resist easy statements in declarative
prose.  The reasons are (to me) obvious: if they could have been set
down in a few declarative sentences, they would have been written that
way, rather than as a sonnet, a novel, a tragedy or whatever. Since
emotions tend to be complex and even contradictory, the greater an
author's insight into them, the more complex the rendering. Even so, it
is generally possible to figure out the overarching intention by
starting with the ending and working backwards.

You cannot, of course, work backwards literally, since the language
reads only one way, but you can look at the very last scene and consider
what the author is trying to do with the audience through it. You must
use as much good judgment, objectivity and humility as you can muster,
but the process can and has been done successfully by hundreds or
thousands of scholars throughout the years.

Now it seems pretty obvious to me that the ending to Merchant is happy
-- that is, it is meant produce feelings of pleasure and fulfillment in
the audience. Portia and Bassanio, Nerissa and Gratiano, are joyfully
united; Antonio is saved not only from a cruel death but from poverty
(through notice being brought of the safe return of three argosies
thought lost); the villain is defeated and punished. What is there to
mitigate the unrestrained happiness that such a conclusion brings?

Various details are variously offered, but they all seem to come down to
sympathy for the villain, Shylock. Yet why should we sympathize with a
man that we have just observed trying to have another man legally
murdered out of malicious spite? Two reasons spring immediately to mind:
the shadow of Auschwitz and all the long, bitter history of bigotry and
injustice that led up to it; and the fact that Shakespeare gives some
sympathetic lines to Shylock.

Of the first, little needs to be said. I have been accused of naivet

 

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