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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: January ::
Re: Shylock Redux
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.082  Friday, 17 January 2003

[1]     From:   Bob Rosen <
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        Date:   Thursday, 16 Jan 2003 13:06:28 EST
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.079 Shylock Redux

[2]     From:   John W. Kennedy <
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        Date:   Thursday, 16 Jan 2003 13:12:30 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.080 Re: Anyone Know Yiddish?

[3]     From:   Michael Shurgot <
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        Date:   Thursday, 16 Jan 2003 10:37:30 -0800
        Subj:   RE: SHK 14.080 Re: Anyone Know Yiddish?

[4]     From:   John W. Kennedy <
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        Date:   Thursday, 16 Jan 2003 12:39:28 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.079 Shylock Redux

[5]     From:   John-Paul Spiro <
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        Date:   Thursday, 16 Jan 2003 15:12:35 -0500
        Subj:   Re: Shylock

[6]     From:   Bob Rosen <
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        Date:   Thursday, 16 Jan 2003 15:54:50 EST
        Subj:   A First Rate Legal Review of The Merchant by C.A. Colmo

[7]     From:   Sean Lawrence <
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        Date:   Thursday, 16 Jan 2003 19:38:16 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.079 Shylock Redux


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bob Rosen <
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Date:           Thursday, 16 Jan 2003 13:06:28 EST
Subject: 14.079 Shylock Redux
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.079 Shylock Redux

Don Bloom writes,

>Or Shylock. Ignoring his early actions, what do we see Shylock doing in
>the trial? Demanding the judicial murder of Antonio. His motivation is
>pure spite, since the money he lent can easily be repaid now. His
>motivation is simple hatred, malice, cruelty. (As I think someone noted
>a while back, if you were looking for the Nazi in this play, it's "the
>Jew.")

The following is a dialog about The Merchant I had with Max. I hope it
helps clear the air.

This is one of Shakespeare's most contrived plays and one of his worst.
His Elizabethan audience might have swallowed it, but we can't. And the
future of this play will not wash. It isn't Shakespeare at this best but
at his worst.  Even in the history plays the likes of Richard and
Macbeth die in battle defending their destinies. While Shylock, who is
defending a tradition far deeper than Shakespearean culture is reduced
to eternal sorrow. Shades of the inquisition. So much for a second rate
-- if not iniquitous -- play.

Bob
------------------------------------------------------------------------------

This is a post I wrote to Max:

I can't think of any S play that didn't have a resolution. There are a
number of modern plays that have no resolution, chief among them,
Waiting for Godot.  I suppose the analogy would be between tonal and
atonal music. In the texture of Philip Glass there is not true
resolution. In Gershwin there is.

The Merchant was about a social, economic and political situation that
dictated its own resolution. S had no alternative. He couldn't take
Shylock's part even if he wanted to. What he could do is choose not to
write it. Even to S, who wrote for the commercial benefit of himself and
his company, he had to produce, so an idea on which he could hang some
dramatic, comic and topical business couldn't be ignored. I was amazed
at the number of plays George S. Kaufman wrote or co-wrote over a
lifetime. S probably was in Kaufman's boat. Anti-Semitism was in the air
at the time S wrote the play.  Marlowe wrote the Jew of Malta in the
same generation. So S concocted the Merchant out of a number of elements
that were knocking around in his mind.  That's how he put together most
of his plays. That was part of his genius.
That was also Chaplin's modus operandi.

The symbols of the ring and the concepts of law and commodity pervade
the action even when Shylock isn't the protagonist on stage. And if you
study Shylock's motives closely you will see that materialism isn't the
center of his life as it is of Antonio's. Lorenzo could live without
Jessica and the other clones could live without their women. But they
couldn't live without money and its trappings. The opening scene of the
play shows that. But Shylock could not live without his religion and the
loss of Jessica, whose betrayal ends the passing on of his tradition. He
can only exist. He really died. I think S sensed that, which is why the
play turns into a tragedy in the audience's mind. An insightful actor
and director realize that fact as well. That is the real pathos of the
play. It's the very 'heart' of the play.  Shylock has the high poetry,
despite S's intention. The trappings (music, etc.) and the lawyer-Portia
recognition byplay are for audience titillation and entertainment. The
moralizing is revolting.

Point of law: I know of no Western legal code that permits a contract to
be written that includes the breaking of a law. For example, you can't
make a contract to murder somebody. There are four elements to a
contract: one of them is legality of subject matter. All four
qualifications must be present in a contract if it is to be legal. In
reality, Shylock could not have made such a contract with Antonio. It
would not have the sanction of law.

This play is not about sex or Shylock's hatred generated by the insult
to his faith. It's about who will practice immortality in life and what
are the values related to that immortality. How shallow then becomes
Portia's playacting. Shylock is real. Portia is a fake. And in S's heart
of hearts he knew that. -- Bob Rosen

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John W. Kennedy <
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Date:           Thursday, 16 Jan 2003 13:12:30 -0500
Subject: 14.080 Re: Anyone Know Yiddish?
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.080 Re: Anyone Know Yiddish?

H. R. Greenberg <
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 > writes,

>I have never cared for the Shylock as helpless victim
>approach, but the alternative excess -- the -- I repeat -- egregious
>anti-Semitism of the New Globe version in a post-Holocaust climate was
>particularly unfortunate.

But exactly what do you mean by that "in a post-Holocaust climate"?  On
the one hand, after nearly 60 years, the Holocaust hardly counts as
"current events", such as could be invoked in a question of mere good
taste.  But if you mean more, what has "a post-Holocaust climate" to do
with the issue?  If anti-Semitism was wrong in 1998, then it was wrong
in 1948, and wrong in 1598, without any assistance from Mr.
Schickelgruber and his kind.

William Shakespeare wrote a very nice romantic comedy, with a suspense
aspect, called "The Merchant of Venice".  Unfortunately, he chose, as
was fashionable in his time, to identify the villain as a Jew.
Notwithstanding, he took the time to flesh out that villainous Jew as a
human being with feelings, and even provided him with what seemed like a
happy ending.  We may wish to decide that his choice of villain puts
that play beyond the pale.  So; that is one way to deal with it.  We may
wish to decide that the play is nevertheless worth dealing with.  So;
that is another option.  But to exist in denial, to falsify what the
play is, one way or the other -- that is dishonesty.

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Michael Shurgot <
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Date:           Thursday, 16 Jan 2003 10:37:30 -0800
Subject: 14.080 Re: Anyone Know Yiddish?
Comment:        RE: SHK 14.080 Re: Anyone Know Yiddish?

Dear Colleagues:

Although I did not see the Globe production, I should like to add a
short note to Prof. Greenberg's post.

One of the most disturbing elements of MV for me is that during the
courtroom scene in 4.1, no one even attempts to restrain Gratiano; he
vilifies Shylock even as Shylock is being systematically destroyed,
especially when told that he must convert to Christianity. I remember a
production I saw at Tygres Heart in Portland, OR., just a few years ago
that had Shylock kissing a crucifix as he knelt, a staging choice I have
seen a few times before in other productions. (Doesn't that happen in
Olivier's film version? Not sure). What is most significant here, I
believe, is that Shakespeare deliberately did NOT have any of the
"Christians" in this scene control Gratiano, so that one can argue that
Shakespeare's design of the scene emphasizes anti-Semitism deliberately.
The "why" of that proposition is of course open to interpretation by
teachers, scholars, directors, actors, etc., but certainly one possible
argument is that Shakespeare "intended" (I know, a dangerous word here)
to stress the virulence of Christian hatred and thus hypocrisy. "Do unto
others as you would have them do unto you"; unless, by chance, they
happen to be different from you. Etc.  So Gratiano becomes thus an early
image of (actually for contemporary audiences, a look back at the roots
of) the savage European anti-Semitism that would (i.e., did) explode in
our time.

I will also say that the most powerful productions of MV that I have
seen, both in UK and US, have maximized, rather than minimized,
Gratiano's violent hatred. (Ropes for the gallows, not the font.)
Perhaps directors assume that by maximizing Gratiano's hatred the
emotional turbulence at the heart of this enormously complex play is
stressed, and that this stage choice then deliberately complicates going
to act 5 and the comic resolution with its traditional love tokens,
rings, talk of bedding and children, etc., thus creating the "problem
play" that many modern directors see in MV. Might one risk the argument
that only when Gratiano's bigotry is stressed in MV productions do
modern spectators grasp what it means to say that we must never forget
what we have known in our time?

Regards to all, with the hope that my last point is not misunderstood,
Michael Shurgot

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John W. Kennedy <
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Date:           Thursday, 16 Jan 2003 12:39:28 -0500
Subject: 14.079 Shylock Redux
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.079 Shylock Redux

Don Bloom <
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 > writes,

>Forgive me for being so long-winded, but I keep sensing that there are a
>lot of quite brilliant people out there who are missing this, and in
>turn missing many of the most important things about the plays.

I have seen an intelligent -- indeed, brilliant -- man attempt to
maintain, _simultaneously_, that Shylock is a vicious ethnic caricature
and that he is the noblest character in the play.

I suppose it's all a part of bardolatry.  Somehow it is impossible to
some to believe that the demigod Shakespeare accepted anti-Semitism,
just as it is for them to believe that he accepted monarchy, or the
headship of the husband in marriage.  And so the real Shakespeare the
playwright is sacrificed before the altar of Shakespeare the
"philosopher".

Mere fashion in bigotry is another factor, of course.  Many people today
would see no problem if "Merchant" were set in London, and Shylock were
a puritan....  (Heck, _I_ wouldn't....)  Or if it were set in
contemporary America, with Shylock the leader of some wackadoodle cult.
Not so long ago, he could have been a fundamentalist Moslem, too, but,
ironically, the events of September 11, 2001, have made Islam something
of a protected species at the moment.

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John-Paul Spiro <
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Date:           Thursday, 16 Jan 2003 15:12:35 -0500
Subject:        Re: Shylock

Don Bloom (among so many others) would have us see "The Merchant of
Venice" as a simple play about good and evil.  In one sense, yes,
Antonio doesn't do anything particularly bad, and is even charitable
towards his friend, while Shylock is out for blood.  But is that the
whole play?  If Antonio hates Jews, then he shouldn't have borrowed from
Shylock.  If Antonio thinks Shylock is evil, then he really shouldn't
have given Shylock legal permission to kill him.  I see no textual
indications that Antonio knew he would escape the bond in the first
place and therefore was tricking Shylock; indeed, Antonio is all too
willing to die, to sacrifice himself for Bassanio.  Shylock's
"murderousness" derives directly from his attention to the letter of the
law, with some residual resentment from his daughter's abandoning him.
Shylock is not Aaron, who just enjoys doing evil things for the sake of
doing evil things.  Shylock wants to use the laws of the Christians
against them, and he learns the hard way that they can twist the laws
right back at him.  Does this make him "evil"?  Maybe.  Is saying
"Antonio good, Shylock bad" the most satisfactory and fruitful way of
reading the play?  I think not.

Audiences responses are another matter.  With the prominence of the
"tragic Shylock" as typified by Olivier's television performance, I
think some audiences are happy to just see what they think of as a "good
old-fashioned 'Merchant of Venice,'" where Shylock is a bad guy who
enjoys being bad--Richard III with a yarmulke instead of a hump.
Likewise some audiences might enjoy a straightforward patriotic "Henry
V," without too much complexity getting in the way of the dramatic
equivalent of a soccer match.  However, and I hate to have to tell you
this, Shakespeare didn't write simple plays.  If I saw a production of
"Merchant" where the audience booed Shylock, I'd be more offended at the
simplism than the apparent anti-Semitism.  But I'd also wait to see if
the audience cheered for Antonio and Bassanio, two of the least
sympathetic male "heroes" of any Shakespeare play.

John-Paul Spiro

[6]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bob Rosen <
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Date:           Thursday, 16 Jan 2003 15:54:50 EST
Subject:        A First Rate Legal Review of The Merchant by C.A. Colmo

Dear Colleagues,

For a fine grain legal-ethical interpretation of The Merchant, please
see:
Oklahoma City University Law Review
Volume 26, Number 1, 2001
Reprinted by permission of the Law Review
LAW AND LOVE IN SHAKESPEARE'STHE MERCHANT OF VENICE CHRISTOPHER A. COLMO
at:  http://www.law.utexas.edu/lpop/etext/okla/colmo26.htm

Best,
Bob Rosen

[7]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sean Lawrence <
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Date:           Thursday, 16 Jan 2003 19:38:16 -0400
Subject: 14.079 Shylock Redux
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.079 Shylock Redux

Don Bloom asks whether,

>... we see the difference in degree between Antonio and Shylock, between
>tasteless insult and murderous hate? Good. Now, as this scene, the
>near-victory of evil and the peripety that conquers it after all, is the
>climax of the play, can we assume that this is the point Shakespeare was
>making? I hope so. As a show, it's very exciting even when we know how
>it turns out. As a work of moral thought, it provides reassurance: evil
>is evil and good is good, and when the latter wins out society is much
>the better, and we feel joyful about it.

In part I agree with you.  In fact, I think it was I who suggested that
Shylock is the closest metaphor to a Nazi that the play presents.  I
don't think many people would disagree with what you've presented as a
reading of the play, or as a reading which the play seems designed to
move us towards.  What more people would object to, I would think, is
the manner in which, as your reading shows, literature can serve to
align our own sympathies so effortlessly with moral absolutes.
Self-righteousness is in some ways the opposite of righteousness, and
the play can certainly be seen to be encouraging it.

This is not to say that I don't think there are moral absolutes.  Some
people claim this, but they nevertheless admit to belief in human
rights.  Another possible reading of the play, and one which avoids
either self-justification by identification with the 'Christian'
characters, or an effort to justify Shylock as the downtrodden, is to
view all of the characters as equally in need of the sort of absolute
forgiveness which Portia alludes to, and which none of them put into
practice.  I don't think this abolishes moral distinctions, but it does
suggest that (at least in the sublunary world) they're relative.  Such a
reading might ask us to question the manner in which the moral
distinctions that we make seem almost inevitably to offer us
self-justification.

Cheers,
Sean.

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