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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: December ::
Jewish Shakespeare
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.2076  Thursday, 9 December 2004

From:           Larry Weiss <
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Date:           Wednesday, 08 Dec 2004 14:07:58 -0500
Subject: 15.2068 Jewish Shakespeare
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.2068 Jewish Shakespeare

Mr. Basch's interpretation is a classic case of "seek and ye shall
find."  He starts out with an overwhelming psychological need to prove
that Shakespeare was philosemitic or even (God save the mark) an actual
Jew, and then looks as closely as he could to find what he calls
"evidence."   His speculations are not evidence.  They aren't even
suggestive or suspicious.  Basch would have us believe that WS
deliberately hid the true theme of his play in layers of code running
counter to what the text says and buried it so deep that no one over a
400+ year history even noticed it until Mr. Basch came along.   For example:

 >Antonio, the Merchant, is himself an apostate Jew.

This is at once risible and touchingly pathetic.  If there is anyone on
the List (save Florence Amit) who finds merit in this suggestion, I
would be happy to address it.  Otherwise, I shan't waste the bandwidth.

 >Weiss protests too much since he reads things into the action just
 >as I do. I read the situation that Shylock is trying to really throw a
 >scare into the merchant, wanting to see him crack.

I read the words of the play and imagine action and motivations
consistent with them.  Basch finds that they mean the opposite of what
they say.  Of course, there is such a thing as irony; but not here.
Basch cannot quote a passage that suggests Shylock's benignity, even
ironically.  "None that you have wit to make" just doesn't do it.

 >>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
 >
 >Here Weiss misunderstands the terms. Shylock loses all his wealth.  Half
 >goes to Antonio and half to the state. Antonio is allowed to keep his
 >half and to treat the state's half as a fine. On this, Antonio's "mercy"
 >leads him to take his half outright and the other half, the state's
 >half, to also use and then deed that over after Shylock's death to "the
 >gentleman that lately stole his daughter." Shylock was stripped of all
 >his money.

I agree that the passage is unclear to any but an Elizabethan common
lawyer.  A "fine" was not a monetary penalty, but a settlement to "end"
(hence "fine") a dispute.  See Black's Law Dictionary.  Shylock's
penalty was "quit"; i.e., remitted.  So, Shylock kept half his estate
for life, albeit in use for Antonio.  Whether the use was to yield
Antonio the income or just give him a say over its inter vivos
disposition (to prevent spoliation) is not clear.  But what is clear is
that the property remained with Shylock for life, otherwise it makes no
sense for Shylock's death to the the determining condition of a trust
held by Antonio.

 >I have noted in my book the Talmud's advice in Pirke Avoth "not to say
 >things that should not be said because you think that it will eventually
 >become understood properly"-  advice which Shylock ignored.

In other words, the Talmud advises speaking in riddles so as to conceal
one's real meaning?  According to Basch, Shylock followed that advice to
a tee.

 >If you believe that a banker would cut up a person to be paid a debt,
 >then you believe in the outlandish.

Actually, there is older authority than the Talmud for this.  In the
Twelve Tables -- which I believe were better known to educated
Elizabethans than the Talmud -- a procedure called "legis actio per
manes iniectionem" provided that a debtor who, after notice and
adjudication, failed to pay his debts may be torn to shreds in the
marketplace by his creditors.  Interestingly, the legislators avoided
the kind of pettifogging Portia used (would Basch call it a "pilpil"?)
by explicitly providing that if any creditor took  more or less than his
aliquot share it would not be a wrong.
Modern instances also show that Shylock's techniques are not
"outlandish."  His modern descendants, illegal usurers who call
themselves "shylocks," do not stick at violence to collect their debts.

 >in the Hebrew, PRT (PoRTia) is contained in the Hebrew word for
 >lead, OPRT (OPheReT) -- the Hebrew P is the same letter as the F-which
 >means that when Portia tells Bassanio, "I am locked in one of these" she
 >is telling him the secret of the caskets, that it is the lead one since
 >PRT is contained in OPRT. Naturally this is a hidden message not meant
 >for the ordinary audience to grasp.

Evidently it was meant for an audience of one or two twenty-first
century crackpots.

 >those who want to know the mind of the great poet-not their own
 >minds, which are light years beneath the poet's level-they will seek the
 >richness conveyed by the play

I agree, of course; but parochial arcana that can be seen by no one
other than Hebraists who are looking for it detracts from the richness
of the play.  It is a drama, not a cryptogram.

Mr. Basch may be superb at explaining the mysterious ways of Jahveh.
But when it comes to a real person like Shakespeare, he would do well to
leave the comments to those with the wit to make them.

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