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Home :: Archive :: 2005 :: February ::
Greenblatt Discussion Forum
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.0284  Friday, 11 February 2005

From:           David Basch <
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Date:           Thursday, 10 Feb 2005 22:25:11 -0500
Subject: 16.0271 Greenblatt Discussion Forum
Comment:        Re: SHK 16.0271 Greenblatt Discussion Forum

John-Paul Spiro asks:

   When and where did Shakespeare learn Hebrew? Do we
   have any evidence -- apart from secret codes -- that
   demonstrate his knowledge of Hebrew?

John-Paul might also ask where Richard Field of Stratford learned
Hebrew, a man five years older than Shakespeare, who preceded
Shakespeare to London to go into the printing business and who, we are
told by Marchette Chute (SHAKESPEARE OF LONDON), "published scholarly
books in English and Hebrew." Richard Field also published Shakespeare's
narrative poems and the poet lived near Richard in London.

As for evidence of the poet's use of Hebrew, Florence Amit has already
educated this list as to the Hebrew content of The Merchant of Venice,
noting the many jokes and word play that could only be recognized in
Hebrew. This Hebrew content had been reported by S. J. Schoenfeld and
was written up in SHAKESPEARE SURVEY by Yehudah Radday. For one example
of a great many, the Hebrew word for "breast" (KhaZeH) resembles the
Hebrew word for "bond" "KhoZeH" so that there is a natural link in the
Hebrew to Portia's conclusion, when she learns of the "bond," that
Shylock is entitled to take a pound of flesh from Antonio's "breast,"
though nowhere is this link made explicit in the play.

Florence Amit began believing with Schoenfeld that this Hebrew emerged
from the unwitting incorporation of a translatation of a missing Italian
Renaissance Hebrew source play, some of which plays survive, but, as I
see in reading her site, she, a Hebrew speaker, has now come to conclude
that Shakespeare must have known Hebrew and she has given many examples
of this.

For example, she shows how the name "Yorick" in Hamlet fulfills many of
the meanings of this name as a word, depending on how you vowel its
basic letters YRK (YaRaK, YaReeK, YaRoK). Here is Florence Amit in her
own words discussing the permutations of this word:

     1. Yarak, 'spat out' or 'thrown out': Yorick is
     thrown out of his grave and his nature during his
     lifetime was to blurt out harsh words.

     2. Yareek, 'to be made empty': By his removal, the
     grave is made empty as well as the enclosure of his
     skull. "That skull had a tongue in it, and could
     sing once."

     3. Yarok, 'green': The worldly remains of Yorick is
     moldy. His nature was jealous, for he is carefully
     depicted to have Robert GREENE's fiery nature, the
     king's own jester indeed, who had contended with
     the burgeoning playwrite, William Shakespeare: "he
     has borne me on his back a thousand times"

There are also numerous sayings from the Talmud's tractate known as
Pirke Avoth appearing in the poet's plays. For one example, Richard III
says "sin will pluck on sin," a direct translation from the Hebrew,
"a've'rah go're'reth a've'ra." What is more, beyond this tractate, King
Priam in Troilus and Cressida, citing the terms offered by the Greeks to
the Trojans to end their war, lists the Talmud's five categories of
damages to be paid for the injuring of another, noting that these
damages were to be waived for the sake of peace. (In the play, the offer
was declined.)

I have already noted to this list that the Hebrew word "ho'RAH'ti,"
which means "I was shown," (pronounced "ho'RAH'si" by the Ashkenaz
Jewish community), was referred to in this meaning in Hamlet's beautiful
praise of HORATIo. (Hamlet tells that Horatio showed him an ideal of
manhood, a man picked from ten thousand, who is not "passion's slave."
But note the appearance of the same root word (RAH) in the name of
Nerissa (ni'RAH'sah), which literally means, "it was seen."

So what was it that lady-in-waiting Nerissa saw? She saw the solution to
the caskets test, which she undoubtedly passed on.  (No! Bassanio did
not figure out the riddle all by himself. He was prompted by his friend
Gratiano through Nerissa.) Note also that in IL PECORONE, one of the
stories from which the Merchant of Venice story was derived, the
solution to the riddle in that Italian story was given away by the maid
to the successful suitor Giannetto.

As an another example of Hebrew content, consider the word "chursht" in
the second line of Sonnet 63:

   [1] A   Gainst my loue shall be as I am now
   [2]     With times iniurious hand chrusht and ore-worne,
   [3] When houres haue dreind his blood and fild his brow
   [4] With lines and wrincles, ...

The second line is supposedly "corrected" to read:

   [2]     With times iniurious hand CRUSHED and ore-worne,

In fact, the word, "CHaRUSH," in Hebrew means "plowed," a meaning picked
up in the words "fild his brow / With lines and wrincles," that is,
"plowed" with lines and wrinkles. One such presence is accident but many
similar "mistakes" and renderings reveal a deliberately, contrived pattern.

My thesis is that Shakespeare learned Hebrew and Talmud in Stratford,
the site of a hidden, devout Jewish community that survived the
expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290. (Other such communities,
known today, were Bristol and London.) The Hebrew content, including the
encyclopedic Talmudic from which, I am convinced, the poet gained a
vital part of the intellectual scope he displays in his work, is so
frequent and often central in the poet's work that only the ignorance of
Hebrew and Jewish Talmudic culture will prevent this presence from being
more widely known among scholars.

David Basch

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