The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.0417 Friday, 4 March 2005
 From: David Basch <
Date: Friday, 25 Feb 2005 15:14:24 -0500
Subj: Re: SHK 16.0383 Noble Shylock
 From: Harvey Roy Greenberg <
Date: Friday, 25 Feb 2005 19:44:19 EST
Subj: Noble Shylock: Letze Emes
From: David Basch <
Date: Friday, 25 Feb 2005 15:14:24 -0500
Subject: 16.0383 Noble Shylock
Comment: Re: SHK 16.0383 Noble Shylock
Re: SHK 16.0383 Noble Shylock
John-Paul Spiro raises numerous questions about my comments to the list.
These are questions that perhaps have troubled other list readers too. I
will discuss his questions one by one:
How many people in Shakespeare's audience were supposed to
pick up on this? Is Antonio's secret history just
something that the well-informed (i.e., those familiar
with Talmudic law) can identify? Was Shakespeare writing a
play that sort-of satisfied his own audience's general
anti-Semitism while also winking at the lucky few who have
the right background to piece together the "real" meaning
of the play? Contemporary Shakespeare scholars aren't the
only ones "wedded" to a bad-Jew/good-but-cruel-Christian
reading of the play.
John Paul's questions could apply to any esoteric reading of a literary
work. Esoteric works have a surface meaning with a deeper meaning
underlying it open only to initiates. Such works are not original to
Shakespeare. The most famous example of this in ancient literature is
Solomon's Song, The Song of Songs. Ostensibly its lines celebrate the
love between a young woman and a King. But Orthodox Jews read it as an
allegory of God's love for Israel. On the other hand, many Christians
understand it as depicting God's love for the Church. In either case,
the underlying meaning is different from that at the surface.
The Merchant of Venice is such a work. It has an ostensible meaning that
its audiences react to on the basis of their capacity for empathy and
their reactions to Jews. Those with built it negative attitudes to Jews
will find what they expect even if the text doesn't actually say so.
When Shylock says of Antonio, "If I could but once catch him on the
hip," they will read in to it a great plot to bring Antonio to suffering
and death. They will see everything else as signs of Shylock's plot and
will not see that Shylock means nothing more than that he wants to best
Antonio in an argument, which he does when he shows that, like Jacob who
makes great wealth from breeding his cattle, Shylock makes wealth as
fast from breeding his money.
On the other hand, those with great capacity for empathy will react to
Shylock's charm as he indulges in banter with Antonio and his suffering
as he learns of his daughter's betrayal. But this is usually not
sufficient to plunge them into great puzzlement by the contradictions
they see in the play and they will go along with what they think is the
general thrust of the play. Of course, such audiences will be
handicapped in not being able to understand the careful codes that
Shakespeare put into the work in order to communicate a broader message
to future generations and to the Jewish community that he has faith will
survive to get it.
Some of this coded material is of the universal variety, as when Jessica
is praised when she robs her father with the words, "By my hood, a
Gentile and no Jew," and as when Lancelot tells that he sees Shylock and
Tubal as devils just before the audience hears what it is that such
"devils" think about when they are alone, nothing more devilish than the
words of a grieving father and his consoler for a daughter that has
robbed the father and left him bereft. Other portions of these codes
require some Judaic background, as the fact that the phrase "from his
flesh," (mi'gu'fo in Hebrew) is the formula for half payment to the
owner of an ox that got gored. (Since the ox that suddenly gored could
not have been anticipated, the owner of the victim ox must share the
loss of this misfortune with the owner of the goring ox, hence a half
payment is given him to be taken from the flesh of the dead ox when sold.)
The point of that is to underwrite the fact that the penalty to be taken
from flesh is just a joke between two Jews, Shylock and Antonio. But
since this dimension usually remains hidden, the confusion of Shylock's
motives is maximized for the uninitiated, although even without this
knowledge (which, incidentally, when pointed out does become abundantly
clear), some commentators have been able to successfully probe the plot
to see that Shylock was indulging in a charade to throw a scare into
Antonio to get him to humble himself before the Jew he had demeaned and
Needless to say, when the coded materials are revealed, the play is
transformed with opposite meaning, as the surface artifice collapses to
learn that things are not what they seem ("All that glisters is not
gold"). The supposedly high minded paragons of virtue in the story are
frauds, nor is Shylock the beast that expectations of a demonic Jew have
made him. To be sure, the parochial Jewish codes, like Nerissa's name
meaning "it was seen" in Hebrew, help to unravel the story, but the same
thing is there in other forms for those with a mind to settling all
John-Paul goes on:
Is there a reason why Shylock never actually calls Antonio
a "converted Jew" and in fact criticizes him as a
Christian among Christians? Can you point me to a line in
the play where Shylock implies that Antonio used to be
"one of us," or is it just in the hints of Talmudic wisdom
that creep out of Antonio's mouth despite his best efforts
to pass as Christian?
Concerning this issue, could Shakespeare at the time have openly written
a pro-Jewish play? It would have been a shocker and dangerous to him. As
for the revelation that Antonio is a apostate Jew, I have written about
this on our list, showing the use of the inclusive "our" in addressing
Antonio and in other forms. I will add still another that Neil Hirschson
mentioned. Shylock refers to both Jessica, the known apostate Jew, and
to Antonio, as "a bad match." With the other hints, we see this refers
to their pairing in apostasy.
As far as Antonio being not a very good guy, the story readily reveals
this. He openly admits his ant-Jewish sentiments, something that only in
our time can be seen for what it is. And in the end, Antonio shows his
unmerciful side when he proposes Shylock's forced conversion and
stripping of all his wealth. The court had announced the possible
penalty of Antonio receiving half and the rest going to the court, but
with the Duke's proviso that "humbleness may drive [this] unto a fine."
I read this as stating that were Shylock to be humble all this would be
forgiven by his payment of a fine. This would indeed have been mercy.
But Antonio will accept none of this clemency and the only concession he
offers is that the second half of Shylock's wealth would go to Shylock's
heirs after Shylock's death. This is hardly mercy to Shylock in any
John-Paul also wrote:
If Shylock never intended to actually cut Antonio's flesh
but rather just wanted a piece of his ox (did Antonio own
oxen?) then how can Portia penalize Shylock for wanting to
shed Antonio's blood? Why does Shylock refer to "your fair
flesh, to be cut off and taken/In what part of your body
pleaseth me" (1.3.134-35)?
If you notice that the Duke at the opening of the court sees into
Shylock's charade and mentions it, forcing Shylock to disavow it if he
is to preserve his game. The fact is that bank presidents don't cut bad
clients up, but Shylock thinks the court will support him long enough to
pull off his charade on Antonio.
Concerning the flesh to be taken from the part closest to the heart,
notice that originally it is "whatever part of the body that Shylock
desires." It is Portia that first enunciates the implication of the bond
that it be taken from the part nearest the heart. Only when it becomes
clear that "bond" (HoZeH in Hebrew) has the same spelling as "HaZeH"
("breast"), since vowels don't appear in Hebrew writing, that the link
becomes apparent, but only to Hebrew speakers, though not to others. And
no one, including ordinary Hebrew speakers realize this except when it
is pointed out to them, as Florence Amit did for this list earlier in
relaying the work of S. J. Schoenfeld. It is not an important point but
it is just another example of the coded material in the play designed to
one day wake up a Jewish audience that has retained its Hebrew religious
John-Paul also wrote:
If Antonio was once Jewish, then how come he seems
unfamiliar with the story of Jacob and Laban (1.3.56: "Did
he take interest?")?
This is John-Paul's misconception. Antonio knows the story full well but
does not recognize that Jacob's making wealth through breeding cattle is
just another example of how wealth (money or whatever) can be used to
create further wealth. Shylock asserts that he makes his money breed as
fast as Jacob did his cattle, thus catching Antonio "on the hip" with
this conceptual riposte.
At this point John Paul should be caught up with what is involved in the
play, a work with an esoteric content that must be explained by deep
analysis. By the way, the analyses presented so far reveal just a
portion of this esoteric content. If you really want to know, the
Merchant of Venice is a type of play known in Jewish as a Purimshpiel, a
Purim play, plays written in Medieval Jewish Ghettoes to honor the
holiday of Purim in which things are shown backward, with the despised
Jews shown as victorious against their persecutors. As Shakespeare wrote
it, the play is a parody of the Book of Esther and contains numerous
parallels. For one example, in Esther, the tiny Jewish community of
Shushan is menaced by the mighty Persian Empire, while in the MoV, it is
tiny Shylock that menaces all of Venice. The farce is apparent when
The underlying revelation in all of this is, I believe, that Shakespeare
was a hidden Jew with a strong touch to the religious culture of his
people. He reveals this many times and in many forms. While he is a
universalist man, his universalism is arrived at through the lens of his
Talmudic religious culture, which itself contains mega-sized doses of
universalism masked by the garb of its Hebrew and Aramaic languages. In
the tradition of the ancient Hebrews, Shakespeare was truly and
consciously a one man light unto the nations and he also wanted his
people to learn of it.
From: Harvey Roy Greenberg <
Date: Friday, 25 Feb 2005 19:44:19 EST
Subject: Noble Shylock: Letze Emes
Having researched the issues raised vis a vis a Jewish Shylock --
sources include Hollingshead, Bradley, Bloom, Barney Greengrass, S.J.
Perelman und so weiter, and the Domesday Book, I have found that William
Shakespeare was actually Wally Saperstein.
Father: Jacob Saperstein.
Married to Annie Habermas.
Voyaged from Stratford on Avon to Venice in 1542, where in addition to
an American Express office with good rates on the ducat, they also ran a
Motto: "A Knish for the Venish".
Descendants come to America shortly after the White Sox scandal, prosper
in Lower East Side with both a dairy restaurant featuring "Hamlet with
Lox", and a Meat Restaurant: "O Solid Fleisch".
The children become active in film distribution in New York City, and in
honor of illustrious ancestors and their borse activities in Venice,
open the famous Rialto Theatre in Brookly, the one with the stars on the
ceiling, now long gone to make way for an assistant living complex
called "The Seventh and Last Stage".
I hope this clarifies all matters related to various posting as to
Shakespeare, the mensch of London.
Best to all.
Harvey Roy Greenberg, MD schoen genig New York Endit
S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
Hardy M. Cook,
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