The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.0937 Wednesday, 18 May 2005
From: Michael B. Luskin <
Date: Wednesday, 18 May 2005 10:11:11 EDT
Subject: Basch Threads
I recently read Caroline Spurgeon's book on Shakespeare's imagery. She
points out that Francis Bacon used far more Biblical imagery than did
Shakespeare, and that Shakespeare's rather meager use of Biblical
allusion was confined to the most well known stories and people. I
can't remember for certain, but I think she said that he draws equally
on the old and new testaments. But she goes nowhere with those
assertions, they didn't interest her.
Clearly, the Bible was not on his mind, at least not as much as birds or
colors or movement...
What is a Biblical reference? If someone quotes at length, or uses a
Biblical Incident as Dostoyevsky uses Balsam's ass, we can be sure that
it is in fact a Biblical reference. But if someone says, "Honor your
father and mother," that could as well be said by someone from another
planet as someone alluding to the Bible. Or, especially, someone from
an oriental culture. We have to be careful in what we consider a
genuine Biblical quote or reference or only a parallel idea. The
tendency will likely be to ascribe slightly more importance to the Bible
than is due in Shakespeare's works. I once came across a group of
aphorisms from the code of the samurai that could have come from the
Book of Proverbs. Please, nobody say that the samurai got their ideas
from the Bible...
I'm still very interested in, fascinated by, the Basch threads. At
first, his notions seemed wrong to me, and he, much more than anyone
else, has convinced me that he is COMPLETELY wrong. I never thought
that Shakespeare was Jewish, nor did I ever think that Shakespeare's
works were riddled with Biblical allusions, or hidden Hebrew words, and
Basch has convinced me, not that I needed convincing, that I was correct
Basch seems like a nice person, writes well, and wants to believe what
he writes. In fact, far too much. He does not answer vitriol with
vitriol. Most of his detractors are far less pleasant than he.
To settle the argument for certain, we would need to find a letter from
Shakespeare, referring to the fact that he is Jewish or IS NOT Jewish.
A bar mitzvah invitation or temple membership bill would do as well. I
am fairly certain that such proof will never turn up, though of course
it might, hidden between pages of something in the Bodleian, but don't
hold your breath...
Would a letter DENYING that he is Jewish, or that his Mother was Jewish,
etc., satisfy Basch? I think not. Basch's using the lack of evidence
that his Mother was Jewish to demonstrate that she might have been
Jewish, is difficult to swallow, if not just plain funny. He is
literally saying that contrary evidence, or even total lack of evidence
of something is itself evidence of it. Basch ought to know better.
The facts that my father was a Lincoln Brigader, a synagogue choir
director, and active in anti-right wing activities, should lead NOBODY
on this list, especially Basch, to suspect even slightly that my father
was really a nazi in secret.
In a recent posting, Basch talked about the fact that Shakespeare's
father signed a document "Johanem Shakere," and Basch built an edifice
on the fact that the more or less Hebrew word means "false." He pointed
out that Hebrew uses the same written letter for the letters sin and
shin, with sounds "s" and "sh" and that written Hebrew does not have
points, or vowels. Written Hebrew has another letter, sameh, with the
"s" sound, but forget that... Written Hebrew does not distinguish
between the letters kopf and kaph, nor for that matter between the
letters chopf and chapf. The chet is related, at least by sound. And
written Hebrew does not usually give the vowels, or "points." According
to McCrum, Cran, and MacNeil, we don't know for certain how English
vowels were pronounced in Shakespeare's day, in Warwickshire, or
Warwickshire had a distinct accent, and speakers there did not sound
like Londoners. So, depending on what letters one wants to use in
transliterating an English word to a Hebrew word, one can have words
with various meanings. For instance, t he English "word" "shakere"
could be transliterated into Hebrew words that mean "false," or
"falsehood" or "in vain," or "to drink wine," or "to be intoxicated," or
"to be black," or "to desire," or "to strive after," or "wages," or "to
hire." And, if we start to take a little latitude with the vowels and
grammar, we can do more. Basch chose a transliteration that suits his
As far as the "m" is concerned, what if Shakespeare's father had money
on his mind, and so signed his name with a final m? Or mongooses? Why
Moses? And what about the times he did not sign as shakere? What about
all the signatures that do not contain Hebrew allusions? Do they only
prove how careful the father was being? That is arguing, again, that
lack of evidence is evidence.
In passing, why might he have signed a letter "shakere?" Perhaps it is
simply a contraction or abbreviation, such as in "yr hmble srvnt, Jno
Basch says that Shakespeare's works have many Hebrew allusions. How
many is "many?" And how big is the substrate? There are statistical
techniques that find AND demonstrate the frequency of items in a
substrate, and I believe that, if we were to look for Hebrew, or Arabic,
or Urdu, allusions in the works, we would find about as many, or a few,
choose your word.
I suspect that I should not have written the last sentence, since I
don't know one way or the other. I realize that English simply owes
more to Hebrew than to Arabic or Urdu, through proximity and
transmission, though much less than to Germanic and Latin. By
mentioning instances here and there, if they in fact exist, Basch does
nothing more than demonstrate the paucity of allusions and therefore the
silliness of the assertion that Shakespeare knew Hebrew, and used it in
Statistics can only demonstrate correlation, and the likelihood that
something is so, statistics does not demonstrate that something is so.
So a statistical analysis of Shakespeare's works for Hebrew content or
allusion would only demonstrate the vanishingly small probability that
Shakespeare filled his works with Biblical allusions or Hebrew words.
Or Talmudic thought. It would not demonstrate that they are not there,
or that they are there only coincidentally - or on purpose.
In addition, statistics has the notion of significance. There might be
500 Hebrew "references" in Shakespeare, and it might be insignificant.
Or there might be twenty, and it IS significant, I don't know.
How small a collection of Hebrew words would suffice to convince us that
Shakespeare was not in fact using allusions to Hebrew on purpose? I
Consider the names of characters in the plays. If anything, they
demonstrate that Shakespeare was an Italian. Or a Greek, or a pagan.
In many plays, Italian names are used for no particular reason.
Only a few names of Hebrew origin appear, Adam, Sampson (NOT spelled as
it is in translations of the Bible), Jessica (which is ultimately
derived from Jesse although maybe it could come from Issachar, one of
the twelve sons), and Ariel, and I can't think of any others. And
perhaps the name Jessica came down to Shakespeare through completely
un-Jewish sources. I suddenly realize I am using Basch's "perhaps."
There are few references to Israel in his works, fewer than there are to
Bohemia. And only one or two to the Holy Land, such as in Henry IV, and
in a distinctly un-Jewish context.
Consider gematria. Every Hebrew letter has a numerical equivalent. So
every word has a numerical value. Many people like to calculate the
value of a word, and see what words it is equivalent to. Often there is
an equation, such as love+marriage=chidren, or something like that. To
me these are interesting, but in fact one should realize how LITTLE
correlation there is. Nobody keeps track of the overwhelming number of
instances in which bread+knife=carpeting.
Basch seems to revel in highly unlikely explanations of things which
have far more likely counterparts, but do not support his hypothesis.
When you multiply small probabilities by small probabilities by small
probabilities, you get a vanishingly small probability.
But, to change the subject, I am just as fascinated by the amount of
venom directed at Basch, not just at what he writes. Many writers on
this list are provocative, but don't generate the response that he has
gotten. Some refuse to use the delete message command available to
them. But this is a free country, everybody has the right to be an
anti-Semite or a trekkie, so they can do what they like.
I was fascinated by the person who, among other things, wrote that the
Song of Songs demonstrates the love between God and his church. He's
nuttier than Basch, if he was serious.
I am disappointed by the tone of one writer in particular, from whom I
have always seen better.
And I wonder about self-hating Jews... At least Basch isn't that.
By the way, in Talmud Torahs, or yeshivas, there is a word, "pilpul,"
that describes what friend Basch is doing. In brief, it once meant a
rigorous way of studying Talmud to extract the maximum amount of meaning
from a text, or to show the hidden connections between texts or ideas.
At one time, and in some spheres, pilpul was (and probably still is)
But pilpul devolved into silly, hollow sophistry, logic and chop-logic
gone mad. It is now generally regarded as a way of showing brilliance
that means nothing. Lots of sizzle, no steak.
Come to think of it, it is deconstruction, or deconstruction gone mad.
There are two forms of pilpul, deductive and inductive. In the one, the
phrase "the river is green" might be dissected to point out that the
color green runs from almost blue to almost yellow. Therefore fish
should be blue and yellow, because ... you figure it out, it is absurd,
and doesn't matter, but be logical.
The other mode of pilpul uses very careful hairsplitting to make logical
leaps that are not quite true, one after another, to finally derive an
idea that is nonsensical. Bertrand Russell would have loved to sink his
teeth into pilpul of that sort. In almost any Talmud Torah, calling
something "pilpul" is sort of equivalent to calling it mental
masturbation, using a lot of brains and ingenuity in the process.
Basch is doing pilpul. But he is smarter than I am, a better writer
than most of us, and a more decent, tolerant, and patient person than
almost all of us. Like Gunga Din, he is a better man than I, and most
of his critics. But dead, foolishly, wrong.
Michael B. Luskin
S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
Hardy M. Cook,
The S H A K S P E R Web Site <http://www.shaksper.net>
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