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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: September ::
Ambiguous Words
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.1837  Tuesday, 23 September 2003

[1]     From:   Carol Barton <
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        Date:   Monday, 22 Sep 2003 09:14:08 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.1826 Ambiguous Words

[2]     From:   Anthony Burton <
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        Date:   Monday, 22 Sep 2003 09:27:01 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.1826 Ambiguous Words

[3]     From:   D Bloom <
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        Date:   Monday, 22 Sep 2003 09:36:46 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.1826 Ambiguous Words


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Carol Barton <
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Date:           Monday, 22 Sep 2003 09:14:08 -0400
Subject: 14.1826 Ambiguous Words
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1826 Ambiguous Words

Re Tony Burton, Sean Lawrence, and Melvyn Leventhal, on MofV:

Easiest first: Melvyn, a "petard" is not strictly speaking a "bomb" in
this context . . . unless you mean a "stink bomb." This is a bit of
scatological humor, and means to be raised up on your own . . . wind egg
. . . not to put too fine a point on it, fart.

Tony is of course correct about the nature of the contract between
Antonio and Shylock, and there is a modern analogue under the Uniform
Commercial Code: if a private citizen makes a contract with a merchant,
the merchant is construed to have superior knowledge, and the law will
in cases of dispute typically rule in the consumer's favor. Shylock
makes the pact "all in fun," initially---something akin to a dare or a
frivolous bet that neither party really expects the other to
enforce---it is ANTONIO who later insists on "letter of the law," and
who therefore gets what he asks for. I would argue that this is another
manifestation of his anti-Semitic prejudice: he sees the Jew as a
monster, and insists that Shylock fit his preconceived notion of what a
Jew should be---so in his ignorance, he can't see that Shylock is only
kidding, and executes his mission literally. Though, to quote my
favorite attorney,  "the nearest-to-the-heart provision, all absence of
requirements for a surgeon, or late payment at a penalty, etc., . . .
were presumably within Antonio's power to anticipate and avoid in his
directions to the notary," Antonio---a legally knowledgeable merchant---
therefore does not alter these terms---believing, perhaps, that Shylock
won't lend him the money unless the promissory note replicates the
verbal promise verbatim.

It is Antonio's un-Christian prejudice and stereotyping of Shylock that
proves the petard on which he is hoisted, and he (not Shylock) is the
first to strike---both to construe the pact as literal, and to attempt
to enforce it as such.

Sean, I'm afraid I would disagree with your "yes, but" to Todd Pettigrew
as a result. Shylock's insistence on enforcement occurs only AFTER his
"friend" Antonio has hauled him into court---it is anger and hurt and
humiliation that prompts his retaliatory insistence on the letter of the
law, provoked by Antonio's treachery, not by the "viciousness" with
which Todd (and Antonio) invest the Jew. I would suggest that by the end
of the play, things have come full circle: Shylock proves to be a better
man than Antonio thinks "Jews" are, and Antonio proves to be a worse man
than Shylock believes "Christians" to be. Each is a victim of his own
stereotyping of the other.

Best,
Carol Barton

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Anthony Burton <
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Date:           Monday, 22 Sep 2003 09:27:01 -0400
Subject: 14.1826 Ambiguous Words
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1826 Ambiguous Words

Nice to be part of this exchange.  Thanks, Carol for bringing us
together in thought.

But let me clarify my views in one key respect; I have no feeling that
Antonio "does not alter [Shylock's] terms."  The terms that come into
issue at the trial were never mentioned by Shylock, so we are free and
encouraged, but not compelled, to see Antonio as the source of them
all.  I could spend a happy afternoon ringing the changes on this basic
assumption/fact, from Antonio's initial cockiness about the success of
his many argosies, thus "laying on" in familiar Shakespearean fashion
some excess of his own that just as familiarly transmutes apparent but
simple-minded victimhood into the more justly poetic "he brought it on
himself;" then again on to his self-destructive (-hating?) demand for
rigid enforcement.  Borrowing a phrase from an old friend, "of th[is] I
have much to tell thee."

But, I won't.

Tony

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           D Bloom <
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Date:           Monday, 22 Sep 2003 09:36:46 -0500
Subject: 14.1826 Ambiguous Words
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1826 Ambiguous Words

Anthony Burton comments,

>There is a good deal more to be said about Shylock's supposed and
>equally misunderstood malice, but let me confine myself here to the
>thought that all he really demanded was enforcement of terms drafted at
>the request of Antonio himself, his long-time adversary.

The phrase "supposed and equally misunderstood malice" suggests that he
wasn't malicious in attempting to have his old enemy judicially
murdered. I am not sure what definition of malice could be offered that
Shylock's murderous intent did not qualify under. But perhaps I have
indeed misunderstood something.

Cheers,
 don

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