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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: December ::
Jewish Shakespeare
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.2063  Tuesday, 7 December 2004

[1]     From:   Marvin Bennet Krims  <
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        Date:   Friday, 3 Dec 2004 09:13:48 -0500
        Subj:   RE: SHK 15.2051 Jewish Shakespeare

[2]     From:   Larry Weiss <
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        Date:   Friday, 03 Dec 2004 14:32:50 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.2051 Jewish Shakespeare

[3]     From:   Peter Bridgman <
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        Date:   Friday, 3 Dec 2004 19:49:20 -0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.2051 Jewish Shakespeare

[4]     From:   SL Kasten <
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        Date:   Friday, 3 Dec 2004 15:18:47 +0200
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.2043 Jewish Shakespeare

[5]     From:   Ruth Ross <
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        Date:   Sunday, 5 Dec 2004 08:29:20 -0500
        Subj:   The Merchant of Venice and anti-Semitism

[6]     From:   D Bloom <
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        Date:   Monday, 6 Dec 2004 15:32:09 -0600
        Subj:   RE: SHK 15.2051 Jewish Shakespeare

[7]     From:   John Reed <
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        Date:   Monday, 6 Dec 2004 22:17:23 -0800
        Subj:   Re: Jewish Shakespeare


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Marvin Bennet Krims  <
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Date:           Friday, 3 Dec 2004 09:13:48 -0500
Subject: 15.2051 Jewish Shakespeare
Comment:        RE: SHK 15.2051 Jewish Shakespeare

A word of caution about possible anti-Semitism in the Merchant. Is not
the debate about whether it is anti-Semitic anachronistic for in
Shakespeare's England Jews were in fact regarded as a breed apart from
others, a "fact" undermined by WS himself in the words of Shylock to the
effect that Jews suffer and bleed like everyone else?

Marvin Krims

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Larry Weiss <
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Date:           Friday, 03 Dec 2004 14:32:50 -0500
Subject: 15.2051 Jewish Shakespeare
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.2051 Jewish Shakespeare

 >a man, driven to distraction by his young daughter
 >who has robbed him and has run away with someone from another religion,

Which is the greater sin?  Is a Christian woman who marries a Jew and
converts just as culpable?

 >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.

"I hate him for he is a Christian"  "If once I can catch him on the hip
I would feed fat the grudge I bear him."  Benign, engaging and peaceful, no?

 >Shylock was ... seeking an understandable but extreme, bloody
 >vengeance

As understandable, perhaps, as the behaviour of the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade.

 >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.

Supported, for example, by Shylock's withdrawal of his demand for
"justice" just before Portia pointed out the lapsus in the bond.  Wait a
minute, I can't find that passage in my text.

 >However, no such mercy pierces the merchant's heart or that of his
 >friends in the play.

His life and all his property was forfeit; yet he was allowed to live
and enjoy half his estate for life (conditioned only on the totally
unreasonable condition that he make his daughter [via her husband] his
heir).  In the minds of the audience, he was also granted the mercy of
salvation

 >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?

Not if the benign one is farfetched and contradicted by the evidence.  I
suppose the police could have planted the blood in OJ's van.  The world
is either flat or round; so, since the Bible refers to the "four
corners" of the earth we should conclude that it is flat.

 >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 some reason, my copy omits this passage.  I do believe that the song
preceding Bassanio's choice provides a clue (perhaps subliminally), but
this interpretation is far from universal or inevitable.  What happened
to the presumption in favor of benign interpretations?

Fess up Mr. Basch, you are Florence Amit pseudonymously.

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Peter Bridgman <
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Date:           Friday, 3 Dec 2004 19:49:20 -0000
Subject: 15.2051 Jewish Shakespeare
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.2051 Jewish Shakespeare

Joachim Martillo writes ...

 >The term anti-Semitic is anachronistic and really does not apply until
 >the 2nd half of the 19th century.

Well, the term may be recent, but there were plenty of medieval ballads
like this one ...

http://www.worldwideschool.org/library/books/lit/poetry/ACollectionofBallads/chap6.html


Peter Bridgman

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           SL Kasten <
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Date:           Friday, 3 Dec 2004 15:18:47 +0200
Subject: 15.2043 Jewish Shakespeare
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.2043 Jewish Shakespeare

If Ruth Ross feels The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic she should
read Marlowe's Jew of Malta.  She must then find Shylock a depiction of
a real man, business wise, tribally proud and motivated in his behaviour
in ways one can understand and perhaps even empathize with.  The
holocaust in York and the expulsion of the Jews from England took place
a few centuries before the play was written; if our own attitudes to the
olden days be taken as an example, enough time had gone by in
Shakespeare's span for the audience to see the times of Ethlered the
Unready, Edward the Confessor (or whoever it was) as having been
primitive and even shameful.  This episode might even be perceived by
them as the "ancient grudge".  Whether you can accept this or not, it is
a fact that a mere half century was to enter into history and the Jews
would be welcomed into England in order to spur and share in expansion
of the economy.

As for the Talmud it is possible that the playgoing populace had at
least some sophistication.  I believe it was Will & Ariel Durant who
described the wide consultation with Talmudic scholars all over Europe
regarding levirate marriage aimed at obliging Henry VIII to marry the
first Catherine, and further consultations obliging him to annul the
marriage.  I can't see this having preoccupied the educated, business or
landed English any less than Watergate or the McCarthy hearings did us
thirty or fifty years ago.

As to the Talmud, an entire section is devoted to the relationship
between the Jew and the Gentiles among whom he lived.  To this day
Orthodox Jews on the basis of this section do not eat "Gentile" cheese
or drink "Gentile" wine or "Gentile" bread.  Thus, Shylock in Act I
"will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you"  but
"will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you."

The Talmud goes even farther and says that the Jew should refrain from
celebrating Gentile festive days or even offering season's greetings
ontheir occasion. So by the middle of Act II we have Shylock going to
dine with his business associates on what seems, from all the costuming,
to be Canival!

Many of The Tribe believe the food proscriptions mentioned above belong
to the dietary laws of which pork, referred to several times in the
play, is a well-known example.  This not the case.  These proscriptions
are in fact social restrictions, tending to limit fraternization with
the Gentile and thus reduce specifically the possibility of
intermarriage.  To anyone sensitive to these issues the elopement of
Jessica on this of all nights has surely to be more than a supremely
ironic coincidence.  This, of course, doesn't mean that Shakespeare was
Jewish.  Perhaps he spent part of his lost years in  disguise at a
Talmudic seminary out of a desire to partake of all that is human.
After all, another English all time great devoted many years to a study
of the Scriptures:  the "Unitarian" Yitzchak Neistat..

Best wishes,
Syd Kasten

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ruth Ross <
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Date:           Sunday, 5 Dec 2004 08:29:20 -0500
Subject:        The Merchant of Venice and anti-Semitism

Wow! I am surprised at the vehemence of some of the responses to my
contention that The Merchant of Venice is an anti-Semitic play. I guess
I shouldn't use the term "anti-Semitic" for, as one respondent told me,
it wasn't "invented" until the 19th century! Then let's call it an
anti-Jewish play.

I base my contention on my re-reading of the play after hearing Ron
Rosenbaum present a paper at the Fairleigh Dickinson University
Shakespeare Colloquium in October. His remarks can be found in his
front-page article in the New York Observer (he's a regular
contributor/columnist in that publication) on December 4, 2004, in which
he wrote about the upcoming film version of the play starring Dustin
Hoffman as Shylock. In his speech, he also mentioned Stephen Berkoff's
portrayal of a few years back in a piece he put together called
Shakespeare's Villains, which I saw at the Public Theater in Manhattan.
You can read his article at :
http://www.observer.com/pages/story.asp?ID=9952.

Anyway, for years I tried to put a more human face on Shylock whenever I
read the play; I just couldn't believe that my beloved Shakespeare would
create such an obnoxious, odious fellow. But to do that is to view
Shakespeare through the politically correct lens of the last quarter of
the 20th century and the first moments of the 21st. Shakespeare wrote
for the late 16th century, when there were no Jews in England (or many
who would come out of the closet if they were Jews) and the Church
taught that Jews were Christ-killers who committed Blood Libel to make
their matzohs at Passover and who loaned Christians money at exorbitant
interest rates. The bulk of the people who came to see these plays
believed these lies, so Shylock's first words, "three thousand ducats"
would merely reinforce the reasons why they hated Jews. Ditto his
wringing his hands over the loss of his ducats (and belatedly, his
daughter) at the end of the play. He speaks of money first and last.
These words remind me of Macbeth's first speech, "So fair and foul a day
I have not seen," which is an exact repetition of the witches' words in
I:1. Why is it all right to see Macbeth as a tool of the witches even
before he's met them, but not see Shylock as a money-grubbing Jew at the
very outset? Shakespeare is too much a conscious artist to have written
such speeches accidentally.

Too, I have always been confounded over the appellation of this play as
a comedy. It surely doesn't measure up to Much Ado or Twelfth Night.
While the Christians are as distasteful as Shylock, at least they were
the Elizabethans' Christians. Perhaps the more educated theatergoers
would have understood the distinction, but  the people in the pit might
not have. After all, the play needs a villain, and what better than a
thieving Jew? Don John of Much Ado, while reprehensible, is allowed to
run off scot-free without the loss of anything, and he committed
villainy against a fellow Christian.

To the Argentinian professor who took me to task over teaching this play
in a Literature of Holocaust & Genocide course: I try to show my
students that anti-Semitism is not a recent (1933) phenomenon, but that
its origins go far back in time. While we don't study the writings of
St. Paul, we do read Chaucer's Prioress's Tale and we talk about Hugh of
Lincoln. Reading Merchant could be another example of this terrible
hatred. By the way, the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, writes
anti-Semitism without the hyphen; their position is that there is no
such thing as Semitism, so there is nothing to really be against (anti).

I am not a learned scholar like David Basch, who really rolled me over
the coals, or the professor from Argentina. I am just a high school
English teacher (32 years) who is still trying to understand
Shakespeare's plays and genius. I don't know if Shakespeare shared his
countrymen's prejudices against Jews, but I believe that, above all, he
was a businessman who wanted his theater company to be successful and
profitable, so he gave his audiences what they wanted. If that sounds
crass, look at the witches in Macbeth and the ghost in Hamlet, which
grabbed the audience's attention immediately (no one wanted their money
back or threw garbage at the stage after those rousing openers) just as
Shylock's "three thousand ducats" did.

Let's not permit our Bardolotry to get in the way of our appreciation of
Shakespeare. Besides, The Merchant of Venice is not a very good play.
The dramatic holes re gigantic. Who would permit a young girl who has
led a sheltered life to appear in court and argue a case? And that's
just one of the dramatic inconsistencies.

I think I'll pass on The Merchant of Venice for my classroom.

Ruth Ross
Teacher of English
Chatham High School

[6]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           D Bloom <
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Date:           Monday, 6 Dec 2004 15:32:09 -0600
Subject: 15.2051 Jewish Shakespeare
Comment:        RE: SHK 15.2051 Jewish Shakespeare

I have expressed myself on this in general terms before, but I will go
through it again. Interpretation of Shakespeare's plays, especially from
a performance perspective, requires an awareness of gains and losses.
When you decide on a given interpretation, you gain whatever impact it
can provide when well-performed, but lose something else, which may be
far more powerful. The key is to know what it is you're doing, know what
you're losing by making your interpretive choice, and have some idea of
what the author, a man of a very foreign, albeit ancestral, culture was
likely to be getting at.

For example, *The Merchant of Venice* comes out of a culture openly
anti-semitic, so that we can hardly be surprised to find elements of
anti-Semitism in a play partly about a Jew. We can, and people do, argue
about just how anti-Semitic the play actually is, but we need to
remember that such an argument is itself a modern phenomenon. It is
founded on the extension of liberal humanism to include Jews as full
members of society (rather than as aliens), coupled with a sense of
guilt over past injustices and cruelties. When we keep this in mind, we
realize that the play not about anti-Semitism, nor its injustices or
cruelties, but rather about other matters.

So, then, what is it about and how is it best interpreted? Let me
outline a basic interpretation with its gains (realizing that there will
be losses).

*Merchant* celebrates four great individual and cultural goods:
friendship, romantic love, justice and the right society. Whether these
are all universally considered good I leave open, but they have
traditionally been so in European culture.

Friendship (Antonio / Bassanio, and secondarily Portia / Nerissa, and
Bassanio / Gratiano) is illustrated most strikingly by the willingness
of Antonio to sacrifice everything for his friend's chance to win the
love of his life. The idea of brotherhood which this depicts is one of
the most powerful of human existence. Strangely, it is now rather
suppressed in our culture, at least among adult males, especially as
compared to the equivalent idea of sisterhood among adult females. If
you think it is childishness (or, heaven help you, latent
homosexuality), you need to do a good bit more reading, especially in
Medieval and Renaissance literature. Understanding and emphasizing the
quality of true and selfless friendship makes that part of the story
extremely powerful, and I, for one, can't but believe that the author
intended it to be so.

Romantic Love (Bassanio / Portia, and secondarily Gratiano / Nerissa and
Lorenzo / Jessica) hardly needs defense or explanation (unlike
friendship). It can be played (a) "straight" as if it were a good thing
that gives people joy and fulfillment, or (b) ironically as if it were
not a good thing, or not a possible thing, or else an irrelevant thing
since the play's love relationships do not reflect the ideal. "A"
accords well with the ending, wherein everyone is happy except Shylock.
  "B" is modern and cynical with the result that you have to disregard
the cheerful quality of the ending (and thus make it "ironic"). While I
don't like "B," I grant that you are perfectly entitled to it, provided
you understand what you have lost as well as gained.

Justice (Shylock / Antonio / Portia) is by some people strangely
misunderstood: they seem to think that because Antonio spits on him,
Shylock is justified in having Antonio killed. I confess that I have
nothing to say to such a value system. For the rest of us, the "quality
of mercy" speech celebrates the high ideal of justice, or should do so:

Portia encourages, almost begs, Shylock to be humane. If Shakespeare had
wanted a good Jew - sympathetic and more "Christian" than the Christians
- he would have had Shylock end the whole business right there, perhaps
even forgive the debt, perhaps with a reminder that Jews are human, too.
  But Shylock has no heart (irony deliberate), rejects the offer, and
thus puts himself in peril of an equally severe justice - which is
changed from death to a heavy fine and the reversion of his inheritance
to Jessica. Of course, you can, by emphasis, play it the other way
around, but that requires a strange justification of murderous revenge
for trivial offenses. Such logic always makes me slightly sick inside,
but as long as you see what you are doing, you are entitled to it.

The Right Society (all of them, but especially Jessica) and the
restoration of it are, as Northrop Frye pointed out years ago, the
subjects of comedy. This restoration commonly occurs with the
identification of a "scapegoat" and its punishment or sacrifice. In its
more romantic forms, it concludes with the reorientation of the society
around the happy couple. The scapegoat embodies all manner of social
ills, but primarily offenses or sins of the people and foreign elements
that could change or degrade the society. Aside from his greed and
vindictiveness, Shylock is a foreign element in what is (of course,
unhistorically) a happy and homogeneous community; he is not even a
guest but an alien interloper. We can see how Jessica, by escaping from
her father, is able to join the community, while from the example of his
friend Tubal we can surmise that others of his kind are tolerated, or
even welcomed, without their joining. Shylock is not welcomed, and for
reasons that become evident during the play. When he is defeated (though
not killed, nor even driven out), the Right Society is re-established.

Now you can make this a "Poor Shylock" play, but only at the cost of
destroying this part of the comic resolution (the other being the
Victorious Wives - but this post is already too long). Of course, if you
have already destroyed or undercut the triumphs of the Friendship, Love
and Justice ideals, you might as well destroy this one as well. Granted
WS as author, you can do all kinds of things like this and have a very
moving drama. But the cost is heavy. Instead of leaving the audience
with a sense of joy and fulfillment, you will leave them with one of
ugliness, bitterness and futility, not to mention one of incoherence in
the text.

As I have said before, you define yourself by what you find important in
a text.

Please accept my apologies for the length of this post.

Cheers,
don

[7]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John Reed <
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Date:           Monday, 6 Dec 2004 22:17:23 -0800
Subject:        Re: Jewish Shakespeare

The term Anti-Semitic is one where the meaning is hard to pin-down,
seemingly varying by context, and appearing in a multitude of them.  I
think I'm going to leave it alone here.

Somewhere or other I seem to recall reading the idea that it is
preferable to die rather than to submit to being forced to worship false
gods (I think it was in The History and Destiny of the Jews, by Joseph
Kastein, but I can't find it).  I think everyone can agree this is a
correct principle.  But how Jesus factors into this equation creates a
division: on the Jewish side he is not considered to be a good man,
perhaps even thought of as a blasphemer, and certainly not someone to be
worshiped.  I have heard of more than one modern rendition of The
Merchant of Venice that concludes with Shylock hanging himself,
apparently to avoid a future where he would be forced to idolize a false
god.  This is understandable, as it correctly, it would seem, applies
the rules.

However from the Christian side the view is different: Jesus is not only
a good man, but, of course, accepting him as lord and savior is not only
beneficial but essential in order to be right with God.  The Pauline
view is that this is essential for Jews, also, and I think it is in
Romans 9 where he expresses the wish that were it possible he would give
up his own election for the sake of his Jewish brethren.  It would
nevertheless seem harsh to force anyone to change their attitude on so
fundamental a point as their religious belief and practice, but I wonder
if in the context of the play it is forced.  I keep thinking of The
Bridge on the River Kwai, where Col. Nicholson, amid the commando
attack, finally has a moment of insight, and says, "What have I done?"
I think that has a technical term in drama: anagnoresis, or some Greek
word or other.  The obstacle for many people in even beginning to accept
Christianity is their unwillingness to see themselves as being in need
of an external force to bring them salvation, and if there is a force,
just how big it really needs to be.  I can't help wondering whether
Shylock has a moment of insight where he accepts this radical thought:
becoming for a moment like that guy over there in the corner who can't
bring himself even to raise his eyes to heaven, so in anguish over his
sinfulness is he.  So, if this were the case, he partakes of the happy
ending as well: he is forced, but he also accepts willingly.  It could
be thought of as justice and mercy simultaneously.  This way he gains
more than anyone: he is saved.   Like certain other scenes here and
there in Shakespeare, the effect (on me at any rate) is that it is
beautiful and peculiarly moving.

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