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
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 <
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.
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Hardy M. Cook,
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