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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: December ::
Jewish Shakespeare
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.2151  Monday, 27 December 2004

[Editor's Note: This thread has reached its useful conclusion. I ask
that contributors to it make any concluding statements and then carry on
any further discussion privately.]

From:           David Basch <
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 >
Date:           Tuesday, 21 Dec 2004 21:15:58 -0500
Subject: 15.2141 Jewish Shakespeare
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.2141 Jewish Shakespeare

Peter Bridgman wrote the following:

 >>David Basch writes ...
 >>
 >>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 ...
 >
 >Surely, with the exception of Iago and Cornwall, the poet is sympathetic
 >to ALL his villains?
 >
 >Peter Bridgman

This is good point that Peter Bridgeman makes, but the poet is also
sympathetic to non villains so this is no test of Shylock's alleged
villainy.

Note that the poet was not sympathetic to Portia since he very
conspicuously has Bassanio declare, "Portia's counterfeit." True the
line can be taken as the assertion that the portrait of Portia does not
do her justice. On the other hand the line also declares that "Portia is
counterfeit," a counterfeit of the values she espouses.

I don't believe that Shakespeare could have been guilty of a colossally
incompetent unawareness of the double entendre here. What is more, we do
have evidence that the second understanding of the line is meaningful in
connection with the story. Portia does not follow her own teaching,
which we learn both from her words that tell us so-"I can sooner teach
twenty what to do than to be one of those who follows my own teaching"
[paraphrase] and from the evidence of her failure to dispense (to the
Jew) the mercy that she grandly tells the court is so important.

Meanwhile, no one else in the play comes close to Shylock in the depth
of human feeling expressed. It must be concluded that it was the poet's
intention to humanize Shylock. While the negative expectations of the
audience about Jews and that enunciated by the characters who oppose
Shylock obscure this, there can be no doubt that it is there and was
meant to be felt in order for the audience to break through to an
authentic recognition of the moral status of the characters, which is
opposite to that conventionally assumed. This anti-Jewish atmosphere
would have been especially true during the period in which the play was
originally shown and in hundreds of years since.

Today a new assessment is breaking forth as audiences begin to at least
see Shylock in a "dirty Harry" role, recognizing here his motive to get
even with the humiliation he suffers from his enemies which is ever more
clearly seen.

It further remains to see Shylock in his true light, the way Shakespeare
created and meant him in the story, as a decent man engaged in an
ill-considered charade to get the arrogant Antonio to humble himself to
appeal to him, a Jew, for his life.

In addition, audiences must come to see that Portia and company were
engaged in plundering Shylock's wealth. For as one commentator-attorney
has pointed out, a court which seeks compromise will not lead any of the
parties to believe that he will be permitted to gain his maximum
demands. Shylock, who grievously errs in trusting to the Venetian court
for justice, is set up by the court and brought to his ruin, a victim-a
not too good reflection on those who espouse high-minded ideals and
don't carry them out.

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