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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: January ::
Re: Shylock Redux
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.086  Monday, 20 January 2003

[1]     From:   Thomas Larque <
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 >
        Date:   Friday, 17 Jan 2003 14:21:50 -0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.082 Re: Shylock Redux

[2]     From:   H. R. Greenberg 
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        Date:   Friday, 17 Jan 2003 10:22:45 EST
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.082 Re: Shylock Redux

[3]     From:   Max Gutmann <
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        Date:   Saturday, 18 Jan 2003 03:33:19 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.082 Re: Shylock Redux

[4]     From:   Carol Barton <
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 >
        Date:   Saturday, 18 Jan 2003 08:43:46 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.079 Shylock Redux

[5]     From:   Martin Steward
        Date:   Saturday, 18 Jan 2003 12:43:41 -0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.082 Re: Shylock Redux


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Thomas Larque <
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Date:           Friday, 17 Jan 2003 14:21:50 -0000
Subject: 14.082 Re: Shylock Redux
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.082 Re: Shylock Redux

>While Shylock, who is
>defending a tradition far deeper than Shakespearean culture is reduced
>to eternal sorrow.

Would "Merchant of Venice", then, have been completely acceptable if
Shylock were a Christian usurer rather than a Jewish one, and nothing
except his religion had been changed?  I suspect that most of those who
find the play repugnant would have found it less so with such a change.
Most of us accept the idea of wicked individuals (Iago's villainy does
not seem to cause critical offence to most modern readers), it is only
when a particular race or culture is characterised as naturally wicked
en masse for no better reason than their difference that our modern
sensibilities are most often offended.

"Eastward Ho", which I saw a few months ago in Stratford, has a usurer
known as "Security" whose religion does not seem to have been mentioned
in the text (although the RSC equipped him with a stereotypically
villainous and pantomimic prosthetic "Jewish nose" of the "Fagin"
variety, so the modern production apparently supplied the religion even
though the Renaissance text did not seem to).  He was a much courser and
less rounded figure than Shylock (without Shakespeare's humanising
touches - there is no "Hath not a [usurer] eyes" speech for Security,
and no reasoned motivation for his hatred to match the insults directed
at Shylock or the theft of his daughter), and subsequently perhaps even
less realistic, but does Bob Rosen find Security more acceptable simply
because he is a stereotype of an illegal profession (usury) rather than
a race?  I share this instinctual reaction - accepting personal
judgements but opposing collective prejudices against entire races and
cultures - but I wonder if it is entirely logical?  Should we not be
equally offended or unconcerned by stereotyping of all kinds, whether
directed against individuals, professions, or races?

I have to say that I am also slightly troubled by the apparent
nationalistic tone of Bob Rosen's comments.  Whatever we may think of
Jewish culture compared to Shakespearean (English Renaissance) culture -
and I personally do not consider one to be deeper or more valuable than
the other - an individual does not gain some sort of godlike authority
and inability to do wrong from his cultural background.  I am an
atheist, and therefore belong to a much more fragmented cultural
grouping with a much shorter and less organised history than either
Judaism or Christianity.  Does that mean that an atheistic villain would
be acceptable, perhaps even an English Renaissance Christian one, but a
Jewish villain is not?  Such a conclusion would risk being as racist and
offensive as the worst readings of "Merchant of Venice".  Bob Rosen
would presumably not go so far in his thinking, but an excessively
nationalistic (or culturalistic? since Renaissance Jews had no nation)
pro-Semitism is surely just as bad as its opposite, in the same way that
excessive pro-British or pro-American or pro-German nationalism is bad.

"Merchant of Venice", like "Taming of the Shrew", could never be played
in modern theatres without raising questions about the difference
between what was acceptable in Shakespeare's day and what is acceptable
in ours, but this seems no reason to claim that either play has "no
future".  Far from it, these are two of the best known, most studied,
and most influential of Shakespeare's plays, which apparently capture
the attention of audiences and critics exactly because they present
ideologies that have been challenged or rejected by modern liberal
cultures.  Productions or readings of these plays must deal with this
problem in some way, by interrogating or rereading (even modifying) and
casting a new light upon the original text.

These plays should not be lightly cast aside, and are certainly not
poorly written just because they were not written for us (with our 21st
Century liberal viewpoints).  If the ideologies of the plays are
offensive then we should respond, counter, and interrogate them in
detail, but our culture remains far richer if we can find a way of
keeping these plays within our cultural consciousness, even if it is by
performing them against the grain, writing sequels and responses to
them, and watching them with an awareness of the negative viewpoints
that they surely contain (although with enough flexibility in
Shakespeare's writing that some still continue to believe that
pro-Semitic and proto-Feminist sympathies have always been present or
even predominant within the plays).

Thomas Larque.
"Shakespeare and His Critics"
http://shakespearean.org.uk

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           H. R. Greenberg 
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Date:           Friday, 17 Jan 2003 10:22:45 EST
Subject: 14.082 Re: Shylock Redux
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.082 Re: Shylock Redux

This will be my final word vis a vis an issue which I hope will become
acrimonious. In referring to MoV, I thought I made it clear that I was
not addressing the play, whose subtleties continue to be debated --
including a not too distant post about Talmudic possibilities within the
play -- but was rather addressing the specific New Globe performance I
saw several years ago. I'll side step the 'post -- Holocaust' issue,
because I fear it will lead one into territory outside the scope of this
group. HR Greenberg MD ENDIT

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Max Gutmann <
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Date:           Saturday, 18 Jan 2003 03:33:19 +0100
Subject: 14.082 Re: Shylock Redux
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.082 Re: Shylock Redux

John W. Kennedy <
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 > writes,

>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.

A villain's ending is always happy to the hero. In what way, other than
that, does Shylock's ending seem happy?

Sean Lawrence <
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 > writes,

>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.

Modern readers and directors can put whatever spin they choose onto the
play, and original readings can result in MoV productions that we find a
lot more interesting than the comedy Shakespeare wrote, but Shakespeare
did write a comedy. Portia defeats Shylock and throws complete victory
into the hands of the Venetians, who then forget about Shylock and have
fun with rings.  Today we have trouble forgetting Shylock with them, and
this makes MoV a "problem play" for us. Is there any evidence in the
play that it was a problem for Shakespeare or his audience, that
Shakespeare saw any obstacle to our enjoying Act V?

(Parenthetically, posted by Hardy above, in this same "Shylock Redux"
message, Bob's quotations from our correspondence on this topic could be
read as a message from me followed by his response. Both of those
passages, though, are Bob's.)

Max Gutmann

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Carol Barton <
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 >
Date:           Saturday, 18 Jan 2003 08:43:46 -0500
Subject: 14.079 Shylock Redux
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.079 Shylock Redux

I come late to this thread, but being one of the (apparent) minority who
see Shylock's portrayal as sympathetic (if only covertly so), I would
like to weigh in with an observation: just as, technically, there *were*
no Jews in England (they had been outlawed), but the Church allowed them
to remain "in secret" because they were good for business (Christians
were prohibited from money-lending, but borrowed prodigiously from the
"clandestine" Jews in their midst---else the merchant class would not
have survived), so MofV is a tale of hypocrisy. When the "evil" Shylock
attempts to enforce what amounts to "an eye for an eye" (the Old
Testament law of talion, via the Code of Hammurabi), the "Christians"
among him recoil in horror: but do they show the "qualities of justice
and mercy," or turn the other cheek, or leave vengeance (and judgment)
to the Lord where the Jew is concerned? They are Christians to and among
themselves only---and worse than Shylock, because they pretend to be
better, just as Portia plays at making judicial pronouncements in favor
of her friends that she has neither the authority nor the understanding
of the law to make. Shylock's motive is no more--and no less---"pure
spite" [to quote Don Bloom] than Antonio's or Portia's is, his
"motivation [no more] simple hatred, malice, cruelty" than theirs,
either: they have pretended to come in friendship, and they have "used"
him as he has "usured" them----again, still, yet. He is not initially
vindictive, but having gotten from him what they wanted, these
"Christians" have spat upon and villified him again (just as, one might
observe, their Roman ancestors spat upon and villified another Jew for
rousing rabble).

Might Shakespeare be saying "Judge not, lest ye be judged" . . . or "let
him who is without sin cast the first stone"? via the [non]-resolution
of this play? This is not bardolatry: show me a single sympathetic
character in this play. To my mind, the least UN-sympathetic figure is
Shylock . . . and perhaps that's the point.

Best to all,
Carol Barton

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Martin Steward
Date:           Saturday, 18 Jan 2003 12:43:41 -0000
Subject: 14.082 Re: Shylock Redux
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.082 Re: Shylock Redux

MOV is a play about law, really. The reason a Jew is chosen to be the
main character is that a mechanical view of law and morality was though
of as "Judaicizing" - missing the point about the letter killing and the
spirit giving life, the point about Christ's new law and new (positive)
commandments.

Puritans called High Church ceremonialists "Judaicizers".

High Church ceremonialists called Puritans "Judaicizers".

It is perhaps more profitable to regard Shylock as a personfication of
this
concept of "Judaicizing" law and morality, rather than as a Jew per se.
When
we do so, we can see his similarities with the puritan Angelo, for
example -
and compare the comedic denouement of Measure for Measure with that of
Merchant.

martin

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