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Home :: Archive :: 2005 :: November ::
Translated, Improved, and Concluded
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.1931  Tuesday, 22 November 2005

[Editor's Note: Once again, we have reached an impasse.

The poster concludes, "It is one thing to impose extraneous views on 
Shakespeare's play and quite another to find out what the text is 
declaring. I have tried to do so and to show how such understanding 
leads to a greater understanding in the full play. I would think that 
serious people interested in Shakespeare's plays would want to know 
these things."

The assumption of such a position precludes any challenges to it. Either 
agree with me or you are not a serious person. There are no other options.

Further, the position stated here is based on the contention that 
underpins virtually every posting by David Basch to this list -- 
Shakespeare's having special hidden knowledge: "Hence the very question, 
"Is sheep (KSV) silver (KSF)?", is Shakespeare's buried jest left for 
readers of the traditional Hebrew Bible, which apparently Shakespeare 
has a command of."

This thread is over, and I think that it is rapidly approaching the time 
when the serious people interested in Shakespeare's play who want to 
know these things should go and form their own listserv.

Hardy M. Cook
Owner-Editor-Moderator of SHAKSPER]

From: 		David Basch <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
Date: 		Tuesday, 22 Nov 2005 09:55:48 -0500
Subject: 16.1919 "Translated and Improved"
Comment: 	Re: SHK 16.1919 "Translated and Improved"

Florence Amit has an interesting spin on what The Merchant of Venice is 
about. I had heard bits and pieces of such an interpretation. I would 
one day like to read a coherent account of it showing how it is grounded 
in the text of Shakespeare's play and how it fits into all the action. 
Florence Amit gives a bit more detail of it but not complete enough for 
my understanding. I have yet to get that coherent account.

It is no mystery that I have my own view of the play. I try to ground it 
upon the text of Shakespeare's play and not what I think the play should 
be about, which would be irrelevant. I did not originally find Antonio 
to be a Jewish convert. Neil Hirschson argued that point in an article 
in Midstream magazine in the mid 1980's. He gleaned it from Shylock's 
use of the word "our" in dealing with Antonio and similar signs. I 
checked this out and found it valid and even added to it.

It makes understandable Shylock's remark about hating Antonio "for he is 
a Christian." It turns out that this hate comes from the fact that 
Antonio abandoned the Jewish religion and not that he was Christian per se.

That Shylock repeatedly uses the term "our" in speaking with Antonio 
seems telltale. Shylock says, "OUR holy Abram," "sufferance is the badge 
of all OUR tribe," etc. Similarly, when Shylock speaks with the Jew, 
Tubal, he says, "The curse never fell upon OUR nation till now." On the 
other hand, when Shylock speaks with Salarino he says that Antonio 
"scorned MY nation." No "our" here. These are not things I am inventing. 
Other statements and actions are likewise confirming, like giving 
Antonio a free loan which is what the Talmud rules even for a converted Jew.

Neither do I invent in Shakespeare's play that Portia remarks on how 
alike to Antonio is her husband, Bassanio, and ultimately to herself 
since she regards Bassanio as alike unto her. That is why she says she 
feels that it is too much like praising herself when she praises 
Antonio. Through this dialogue, Shakespeare informs his audience that 
the three are alike. Why do we need to know this?

The answer is so that we can readily learn that all three are covenant 
breakers, though the poet does convey the same thing redundantly through 
other ways. We know for certain that Bassanio broke his covenant with 
Portia when he gave away her ring, the ring he vowed to keep forever. 
What covenant did Portia break? She broke her covenant with her father, 
her father's covenant on abiding by the outcome of the selection of the 
right casket as defining a fitting suitor for her hand. We have seen 
numerous other signs of her covenant breaking. So, now, what covenant 
did Antonio break? It is his Jewish covenant by becoming a Christian. 
This fact, as we have seen, is corroborated in the text in other ways 
too. This is the play telling this and not just David Basch.

Florence Amit rejects the idea that Antonio was a convert from Judaism 
since she can't believe that such a Jew would demand that Shylock also 
convert. But, clearly, Antonio is drawn as an anti-Semite, kicking and 
spitting on Jews. This behavior is hardly something impossible since it 
does happen occasionally, much too often for comfort.

Not only is Antonio a convert, he is also a vicious Jew hater. And he 
decides to take over and control all Shylock's wealth. In so doing, he 
forgets to be merciful, the very characteristic that is supposed to be a 
defining characteristic of his new religion. Shakespeare demonstrates 
how hate controls and makes hypocrites of those who hate.

As to Antonio and Shylock's banter about Jacob, I read it as Shylock 
wanting to get Antonio "on the hip," besting him in a verbal duel by 
showing him how the Bible's Jacob made money from money in the breeding 
of his sheep, nothing more than what Shylock was doing with his money.

Florence Amit mentions Antonio's rejection of the similarity between the 
two ways of creating wealth in his line, "Or is your gold and silver 
ewes and rams?" This line indicates that Antonio rejects Shylock's point 
that there is in essence nothing wrong with making money from money in 
any of its forms. The line is spoken in front of Bassanio, which is why 
Antonio needs to defend his position and say how falsehood often looks 
so good, like "A goodly apple rotten at the heart."

As an aside, Antonio's line does contain a hidden jest meant for Hebrew 
Bible readers. Since "ewes and rams" are sheep, Antonio, among other 
things, is asking whether "sheep is silver." This question is apt for 
some word usage that occurs in Leviticus. The Hebrew word for sheep is 
KVS (KeVeS). But occasionally in Leviticus it is spelled with its 
letters inverted as KSV (KeSeV). What is funny about this is that KSV in 
Hebrew sounds like KSF (KeSeF), the word for silver. Hence the very 
question, "Is sheep (KSV) silver (KSF)?", is Shakespeare's buried jest 
left for readers of the traditional Hebrew Bible, which apparently 
Shakespeare has a command of.

Florence Amit also argues that the "merry jest" that Shylock made with 
Antonio of the default penalty of taking "a pound from his fair flesh" 
is not meant as a jest at all. But here Shylock is asserting a Talmudic 
penalty imposed on the owner of an ox that gored, an ox like Antonio 
that had in a sense gored him, Shylock. The Talmud rules that the 
penalty is to be taken from "from his flesh," which means in the Talmud 
the sale of ox and thereby taking the money from the ox's flesh. It was 
a jestful reminder of Antonio's cruelty that Antonio, a former Jew, 
would have understood.  Apparently Antonio does understand since he is 
not threatened and immediately regards the deal as suggesting that 
Shylock has become decent.

It is one thing to impose extraneous views on Shakespeare's play and 
quite another to find out what the text is declaring. I have tried to do 
so and to show how such understanding leads to a greater understanding 
in the full play. I would think that serious people interested in 
Shakespeare's plays would want to know these things.

David Basch

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