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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: December ::
Jewish Shakespeare
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.2051  Friday, 3 December 2004

[1]     From:   David Richman <
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        Date:   Thursday, 2 Dec 2004 10:23:43 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.2043 Jewish Shakespeare

[2]     From:   Joachim Martillo <
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        Date:   Thursday, 02 Dec 2004 10:46:20 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.2043 Jewish Shakespeare

[3]     From:   John W. Kennedy <
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        Date:   Thursday, 02 Dec 2004 11:36:38 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.2043 Jewish Shakespeare

[4]     From:   Bob Rosen <
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        Date:   Thursday, 2 Dec 2004 10:05:17 EST
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.2043  Jewish Shakespeare

[5]     From:   David Basch <
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        Date:   Thursday, 02 Dec 2004 20:20:17 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.2043 Jewish Shakespeare


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Richman <
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Date:           Thursday, 2 Dec 2004 10:23:43 -0500
Subject: 15.2043 Jewish Shakespeare
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.2043 Jewish Shakespeare

Merchant of Venice may or may not be an anti-Semitic play--the arguments
go on both sides.

But two points about the play ought, perhaps, to be considered.

1.  Whatever Shylock is doing in his first moments:  "Three thousand
ducats, well."  he cannot accurately be said to snivel.

2.  Bassanio's treatment of Shylock is at all points distinguished from
Antonio's.  Antonio spits, Bassanio does not.  Bassanio does not use the
word "Jew" as an epithet at trial; the others do.

For this play of all plays, it is important to be accurate about
details. In my production of the play, I let the audience see Antonio
spit in Shylock's face, and kick him.  The moment was quite properly
shocking.

David Richman

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Joachim Martillo <
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Date:           Thursday, 02 Dec 2004 10:46:20 -0500
Subject: 15.2043 Jewish Shakespeare
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.2043 Jewish Shakespeare

Claiming The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic is simply wrong.

The term anti-Semitic is anachronistic and really does not apply until
the 2nd half of the 19th century.  One might legitimately claim that The
Merchange of Venice is Judeophobic, but that understanding would be a
misreading.

Shakespeare is both more perceptive and more ironic.

Shakespeare is quite aware that many villainous people can use all sorts
of histories of victimization to justify their actions at a later date.
    Such justifications do not make villainous actions any less villainous.

Shakespeare is also making a comment on the social cultural and economic
developments of his time period when a contract becomes as effective a
weapon as a sword.

And Shakespeare is showing some scathing irony in the portrayal of the
money grubbing and materialism of supposedly ethically superior
Christians.  A lot of the classical allusions in the superficially happy
ending are sarcastic to say the least.

Joachim Martillo

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John W. Kennedy <
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Date:           Thursday, 02 Dec 2004 11:36:38 -0500
Subject: 15.2043 Jewish Shakespeare
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.2043 Jewish Shakespeare

Ruth Ross <
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 >While I am finding this thread about Shakespeare and the Talmud
 >fascinating, I can't help but comment that "The Merchant of Venice" is,
 >above all, an anti-Semitic play.

No, "above all", it is a romantic comedy. Unfortunately, it has a nasty
Jew for a comic villain.

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bob Rosen <
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Date:           Thursday, 2 Dec 2004 10:05:17 EST
Subject: 15.2043  Jewish Shakespeare
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.2043  Jewish Shakespeare

 >I was going to use this play with my Literature of Holocaust & Genocide
 >class, but I'm a bit leery of giving them any ammo to hate Jews...if the
 >great god Shakespeare hated them then it must be all right. I think I'll
 >pass. It's not that great a play and I'd hate to open a can of worms.
 >What if they hate it (and him) and then never want to read/see a
 >Shakespearean play ever after. Oy, what a predicament!
 >
 >Ruth Ross

The Merchant isn't really about Shylock. It's about a group of greedy
young gentiles. Shylock is a prop Shakespeare used to reveal their
attitudes and amours. The laws Shakespeare invokes are bogus. They
remind me of those Gilbert and Sullivan concocted for The Mikado.

The Merchant isn't one of Shakespeare's best efforts. Shakespeare is
ignorant of orthodox Judaism.
He paid a cheap price for inventing a villain. And he got what he paid
for. Shylock isn't the real goods.
Portia isn't the real goods either. Shakespeare was writing a fantasy
and a comedy at the same time and it didn't pan out. Professor Ross, I
don't blame you for not including The Merchant in your class. Not
because it's antisemitic, but because it's a bad play. It has no
foundation as a work of art.

Bob Rosen

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Basch <
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Date:           Thursday, 02 Dec 2004 20:20:17 -0500
Subject: 15.2043 Jewish Shakespeare
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.2043 Jewish Shakespeare

Ruth Ross in a recent comment to the "Jewish Shakespeare" discussion on
our list assumes that The Merchant of Venice is an antisemitic play
about a villainous, heartless money lender. As evidence of Shylock's
villainy, she writes:

    The first time we see him [Shylock] he's sniveling and then,
    when his daughter runs off, he's more interested in his ducats
    (he mentions them first) than his child.

So is "sniveling"-whatever that is-a badge of a villainous man? And what
does it prove about a man, driven to distraction by his young daughter
who has robbed him and has run away with someone from another religion,
who rants "my ducats, my daughter"? There may even be fathers that would
show sympathy for such a man were they to contemplate what had occurred
to this now lonely and bereft man.  But somehow Ruth Ross (and many,
many others) consistently fail to recognize the obvious in these events
in the play as laughingly (and unfeelingly) reported by friends of
Antonio, Shylock's enemy.  All these persons-in the play and out of the
play-fail to recognize the human dimension of what has happened to
Shylock.  But can you really think that Shakespeare was blind to the
emotional implications of the human situation he had crafted?

Ruth Ross's comment illustrates what has been wrong about perceptions of
this play for lo these 400 years. There is in fact a deeper way to look
at what this play means and to find Shakespeare's message of brotherhood
hidden in its lines that transcend the poet's time.

A brief account of this is presented in the enclosed article, "SHYLOCK
ON APPEAL."

David Basch

===============================

PREFACE TO "SHYLOCK ON APPEAL"

One of the most serious blots on the reputation of William Shakespeare
has been the allegation that his play, The Merchant of Venice, is an
expression of anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, too many persons without
knowledge have taken this allegation as a truth when ample evidence to
the contrary is available.

Shakespeare was one of the deepest students of human nature and was a
universal moral leader. That he would stoop to a primitive anti-Semitism
runs opposite to his observed inclusiveness and to the depth of his
commitment to justice, as expressed in all his other works. While the
charge is made so often that it has taken on the semblance of truth,
unless it can actually be proved conclusively, which it cannot, the
charge remains a grievous slander of the poet of the ages.

That there is another side to the story is revealed in the article that
follows, which has been modified and adapted from its original version.
It informs that, whatever, may be true of William Shakespeare, the idea
that he wrote an anti-Semitic play must be forever laid to rest. When
carefully studied, the evidence reveals that even with regard to the
avoidance of this pitfall of bias, to which bias others may have
succumbed, in this the great poet did not fail.

==========================================================

                         SHYLOCK ON APPEAL
                          by David Basch
                       10/15/93; rev 12/2/04

The trial of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, one of the more famous
trials, of course, never happened. It comprised a portion of Act IV of
William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, written sometime around 1594.

Shylock was alleged to have plotted against the life of a Christian
merchant and was ruled guilty. As punishment, his wealth was confiscated
and he was forced to convert. The irony is that, had his trial been held
today, Shylock would have been found "not guilty."

Consider the evidence. Those who witnessed the trial in its thousands of
reenactments saw what seemed like an angry and obsessed Jew sharpening
his knife. Was it for the purpose of cutting a "pound of flesh" from the
merchant, who Shylock had believed cut from him his own "flesh and
blood" by helping his daughter rob him and flee with a Christian? But
what other purpose could Shylock have had in mind?

TO SORT THIS OUT, consider Shylock's character. He is a thrifty
businessman, for that is what a moneylender is-the equivalent of today's
banker. (Incidentally, how many persons do you know that have ever been
mugged by a banker?) Moreover, in the earlier scenes of the play he was
seen as a benign and engaging man who gave a FREE LOAN to the Christian
merchant as a gesture of peace.  The famous "bond of flesh" clause in
the loan was originally presented AS A JEST. The amity only turns sour
later when Shylock felt himself grievously wronged by the merchant and
wanted to strike back at him. It is at that point that, through an
unlikely run of bad luck, the merchant is forced to default on his loan,
only then giving a vindictive Shylock a chance to invoke his grisly
penalty. So much for the Jew's alleged premeditation to harm the
merchant, hypothesized unreasonably by some commentators, for that could
only be true if Shylock anticipated that he would become bereft of his
daughter and could, as well, control the raging winds and seas that
brought the merchant to ruin and into his clutches-all most improbable.

But if Shylock was not seeking an understandable but extreme, bloody
vengeance, what otherwise was he about in the courtroom?  An answer to
this riddle and Shakespeare's intention was given more than sixty years
ago. At that time, Yiddish actor Abraham Morevski had recognized that
the great poet could not have consistently envisioned Shylock as both a
seeker of peace and a vicious killer. Apropos, Morevski played the
courtroom scene as a "serious jest" in which Shylock meant only to throw
a scare into the merchant, to humble him, so that the merchant would beg
for forgiveness in public from the Jew he had wronged-an interpretation
amply supported by Shakespeare's text.

For example, an angered Shylock tells Tubal, his Jewish friend
concerning his plans for the merchant, "I'll plague him, I'll torture
him...." Notably, he did not say, "I'll kill him." Later, during the
trial, when a friend of the merchant rants at Shylock, "Can no prayers
pierce thy heart?", Shylock retorts, "None that thou hast wit enough to
make." Actor Morevski found this line to be key in revealing what was in
Shylock's mind, since it implies that, while Shylock would not accept an
appeal from the merchant's friend, a crass ruffian in the story, Shylock
was indeed open to an appeal for mercy from the merchant himself.

However, no such mercy pierces the merchant's heart or that of his
friends in the play. Instead, the judge, who was clearly not
impartial-she was Portia in disguise, the wife of the merchant's best
friend-suddenly pulls the curtain on the trial, convicting Shylock
before Shylock could follow through on such a plan, administering
instead a harsh sentence ecstatically agreeable to all Shylock's foes.

THIS is a scenario that fits all the facts presented in Shakespeare's
play and could remove the onus placed on Shylock.  For if a man is on
trial and two divergent interpretations can be equally placed on his
actions, should not simple justice demand that the more benign of the
two be accepted?

NO REVERSAL OF FORTUNE

While in real life an opposite scenario from the same facts used to
convict a defendant would and has been sufficient to exculpate him and
bring about a reversal of fortune, many commentator's have refused to
accept the interpretation of a hapless Shylock involved in an ill
considered, self-defeating charade. They do so since it would too
starkly conflict with the accepted story line of a morally exemplary
Portia pitted against the alien Shylock, who challenged the justice of
Venice. Otherwise, what on earth could Shakespeare have had in mind if
suddenly two VIRTUOUS leading characters faced off-a jesting, benign
Shylock and a just Portia? It is an impossible dramatic situation. It is
dramatically impossible for Shylock to be seen in a good light, unless,
just as Shylock was misjudged, also misjudged was the character of
Portia, as is hinted at in the story. We find a clue for this reading
when Bassanio, who later marries Portia, declares, "Portia's counterfeit."

To be sure, Bassanio declares this of her portrait and seems to mean
that the painting doesn't do her justice. But, interestingly, the very
same line could also be read as stating "Portia IS counterfeit." The
line turns out to be highly significant, since there is confirmation in
the action of the play that Portia is, in fact, a counterfeit of the
virtues she preaches. First, while she makes an impassioned plea to
Shylock to render mercy to the merchant, she herself demonstrates A LACK
OF MERCY and JUSTICE to the Jew. She had masqueraded as an impartial
judge and rendered to Shylock, not mercy, but harsh punishment.

Second, while Portia poses as a dutiful daughter, she does break her vow
to her father not to reveal the secret of the "caskets." She had been
"forsworn" to marry whichever suitor selected from among three chests-a
gold, a silver, and a lead-the one which contained her likeness. This
capacity for selection was to be the sign of a suitor's worthiness and
virtuous ability to see through artifice. Suitor Bassanio superficially
appears to be such a worthy.
But, just as Bassanio later breaks his sacred vow to Portia concerning
her ring, Portia reveals her duplicity by also betraying her vow to her
father. She does so by having her maid, Nerissa, convey the secret to
Bassanio-for which deed Nerissa gets a husband as a "fee." Bassanio
directly hints at this deed when he declares to Portia, "O happy
torment, when my torturer Doth teach me answers for deliverance!"
Moreover, Shakespeare further signals his audience to expect this scam
through numerous lines, such as one in which Portia declares her
likeness in spirit to the vow-breaking Bassanio. (See The Hidden
Shakespeare for full details.)

The hidden scheme turns out to be surprisingly simple when the many
signposts to it are pointed out. It had gone unnoticed because no one
thought it worthwhile to look beyond the surface glitter of a vivacious
Portia to find the many hints of what the poet of the ages had actually
crafted-a play in which Shylock's hypocritical opponents, one and all,
while seeming to affirm the most high sounding ideals, fail the test of
their virtue in action.

IN FACT, such telltale details have not gone unnoticed by some earlier
Shakespearean commentators: British scholar, John Lyon, takes note of
Shakespeare's caustic portrayal of Jessica, Shylock's disloyal daughter,
pointing out her plundering of her father and the strong insinuation
that she bore false witness against him. A. D. Moody sees this play as
one which "does not celebrate Christian virtues so much as expose their
absence." And Harold Goddard sees in Shylock "a grain of spiritual gold."

CONCLUSIONS

SO WHY WOULD Shakespeare create a play within a play that brings to
light the opposite of what seems to be a conventional Jew-baiting story?
One undoubted reason is that Shakespeare is always found to be the
champion of the underdog and the enemy of hypocrisy and injustice. What
his society during his lifetime was not ready to acknowledge and would
have punished in recalcitrants to its narrow vision was fully recognized
by the inclusiveness of the poet's embrace in a subtle criticism of his
milieu, awaiting a more enlightened age to recognize it.

Another reason is the strong implication that the poet had a sympathetic
connection to the Jewish people, some of whom, hidden in cosmopolitan
London, he may have even known. One can infer this from the abundant
presence of allusions to Judaic lore easily seen by those familiar with
this material. For example, when Shylock is portrayed as swearing by the
"holy Sabbath," the poet seems to be fully aware that in Jewish lore the
Sabbath is colloquially regarded as "the witness"-the witness that G-d
created heaven and earth. This is one of many such Judaic allusions that
dot Shakespeare's plays, with which he seems to be very much familiar.
It has even led to the suggestion that the poet himself may have been a
descendent of Jews.

Taken cumulatively, the series of such observations becomes telltale
indeed and instructs that a conventional anti-Shylock interpretation of
the play will no longer suffice. It is time for a rereading of
Shakespeare's play and a new exploration of the influences on its
playwright. It is to this new exploration that the modern reader is invited.


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