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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: December ::
Jewish Shakespeare
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.2134  Monday, 20 December 2004

[Editor's Note: I would appreciate it if contributors to this thread
would make an effort to bring it to a conclusion soon.]

From:           David Basch <
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Date:           Friday, 17 Dec 2004 12:57:06 -0500
Subject: 15.2123 Jewish Shakespeare
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.2123 Jewish Shakespeare

I thank Abigail Quart for her support of my interpretation of The
Merchant of Venice. She wrote:

      David Basch's interpretation is the one I see when I read
      the script. The Christians in the play mouth virtue but
      practice none. And Portia is, indeed, a pig.

Ed Taft wrote:

"What is the evidence from the play that indicates that Shylock sees or
treats Antonio like a son? At the most generic level, Shylock seems to
feel that because his is the older religion, he has something to teach
the Christians in general and Antonio in particular, as he tries to do
(rather unsuccessfully) by referring to the story in Genesis about
Jacob's sheep. But except for that, it's clear to me that Shylock is
more than a bit like Dirty Harry: he's had enough, by God! He won't take
it any more, and he grabs the chance for revenge against Antonio."

In contrast, Edmund Taft is a hard sell. He takes literally what I only
presented as a paradigm in the father and child example. The situation
of a father putting on an antic of anger to teach his child a lesson is
not meant to be applicable to Shylock's antic in all aspects, but only
in communicating the nature of the charade that is convincing to the
other party, which kind of charade I regard as the situation of Shylock
about to slice another man. Antonio thinks its real. But note, all
Antonio's friends assure him that not a hair on his head would be
harmed. They obviously sense that Shylock will not go through with it or
he would be a dead man leaving the court. Those bruisers would see to that.

If Shylock is a madman, a "Dirty Harry" as Ed Taft proposes, then there
is no real conflict in the play. The play is then not a test of the
virtues of Jew and Gentile since all flesh may go crazy and do
irresponsible things. Even in this we can be critical of Shylock's
enemies who are not more charitable to the madman, restraining him from
harming others and harming himself and using his weakness to take away
his wealth. But this would neglect a deeper conflict of religious
ideologies, in which the side with power neglects its own values of
truth, justice, and compassion and imputes that neglect on to the ways
of the other.

Shakespeare obviously had a deeper message to his play and is
questioning Christian morality that is not being practiced, projecting
Christian lapses of morality on to Jewish Shylock but blind to their
own. In his charade, Shylock is doing an imitation of how he sees
Christian villainy and mistakenly presumes that the court will allow him
to play out his charade since he has a legal bond that it is the
practice of Venice to enforce.  He obviously hoped to show before the
court that there was such a thing as Jewish mercy. Portia's intervention
stopped that cold and left him hanging in an embarrassing position.
Shylock's grave mistake is in having violated one of the precepts of
Proverbs, Proverbs 25:8 - "Go not forth hastily to strive [in the
court], lest thou know not what to do in the end thereof, when thy
neighbour hath put thee to shame."

Also contrary to Ed Taft, Shylock does have something to teach Antonio
about nothing being wrong with making money from money, which is what
lending is. Shylock tells how the Bible's Jacob gained wealth as a
result of his industry in promoting the increase of his sheep.  Antonio
refuses to recognize the capitalist principle involved in using wealth
to create wealth, rejecting the analogy between sheep and money, asking
whether "ewes and lambs are silver and gold." Shylock admits he does not
know but that he makes his money breed as fast as the sheep.  Mercantile
England would have recognized Shylock's point-and by the way lending was
legal in England at the time of the play and the audience would have
grasped Shylock's lesson if Antonio doesn't. (And by the way, here is
the Hebrew pun in this dialogue since the Bible uses two Hebrew words
for sheep, one of which sounds like the Hebrew word for silver so this
is a joke that readers of the Bible in Hebrew would get-Is sheep (KeVeS)
silver (KeSeV which sounds like KeSeF).

Ed Taft questions the word "generous" to describe Shylock. But what do
you call a lender who gives you a free loan as Shylock gives to Antonio?
  Shylock also warns Lancelot that in service to Bassanio, Landclot will
not be able to "gormandize" as he did with Shylock-who obviously fed him
generously well.

Ed also asks about Shakespeare's view of Shylock. The poet is obviously
sympathetic to the Jew because he humanizes him greatly in his speeches
and sprinkles the dialogue of the play with the contradictions in the
morality espoused and practiced by the Christians-"By my hood, a Gentile
and no Jew," spoken by Gratiano as the moment after Jessica robs her
father.  That line and many like it is Shakespeare in action.

David Basch

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