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Home :: Archive :: 2005 :: July ::
Shylock as Suffering Servant
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.1186  Thursday, 7 July 2005

From:           Cliff Ronan <
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Date:           Thursday, 07 Jul 2005 00:29:53 -0500
Subject:        Shylock as Suffering Servant [Was New and Improved Lear - Lear
Thread now closed]

I am struck by how Joe Egert's eloquent and telling reading of Shylock
as Suffering Servant further energizes a central aspect of one of
Shakespeare's most problematic plays. A contributory detail, however
that Egert did not perhaps have room to develop is the beard reference:
"you . . . did void your rheum upon my beard" (MV1.3).

Societies use various gestural insults-the biting of thumbs, the
placement of thumbs between the first two fingers, and so forth. But
Shakespeare seems particularly drawn to dishonor through spit and facial
hair.  In Merchant of Venice, Egert rightly thinks this sort of dishonor
awakens an audience's memory of Christ as the Suffering Servant
discussed in Isaiah 50.6: He who (in the Coverdale, Bishops', and Geneva
versions) is inspired by God to obediently "offe[r] my back unto the
smiters, and my cheeks to the nippers; I turned not my face from shame
and spittings" (Isa.50.6).  To endure this treatment can be ironic and
not indicate a Christ-like nature: even Lear's martyred Earl of
Gloucester is not meek when his torturers "ignobly" "pluck .  . .[his]
beard." And though another Gloucester, Richard Plantagenet, wants to
seem humble when Princess Anne's spittle dribbles down his cheek, he is
only being villainously deceitful. Nor is the poor conflicted Hamlet a
genuine prototype of Jesus: the Prince feels he risks disgracing himself
with "coward[ly]" submission of his cheeks to the nippers: they would
easily "Pluc[k] off my beard and blo[w] it in my face" (2.2) unless he
cleaves to the familial traditions of royal manliness and the
"revenge[ful]" promptings of "heaven and hell.

Egert's main point seems to be that Shylock is presented with some
degree of sympathy. That surely is correct. And of course, Shakespeare
is often ready to exploit ironies of all sorts: in personality,
language, and doctrine of every species. But, surely, Egert might be on
uneasy ground if he believes that The Merchant of Venice is a radical
critique of the Christian notions of human sacrifice. Naturally, the
play disguises and codes many of its subjects, but English churchmen
opposed Catholics' notion of their Sacrifice of the Mass, as a
re-enactment of the Sacrifice of a Man-God, wherein a priest consecrates
and breaks the true Body of Christ and drinks the true Blood-all to the
potential benefit of sinners alive and dead.

   Shakespeare could decidedly highlight tensions between numerous views
and assessments without trying to extirpate or trivialize any of them.
In The Merchant of Venice, Antonio's self-pitying and probably
erotically tinged offer to go under the knife lacks as many Christian
elements as it affirms. So too, Shylock's pain becomes both like and
unlike Christ's: though Shylock is a Suffering Servant, he is also a
breaker of kosher laws, and plotter of murder while he attends synagogue
services. In this play two capitalists surrender themselves to
non-pecuniary desires, none of them particularly Christian in
motivation. This may be one reason why Portia mysteriously asks, "Which
is the merchant here? And which the Jew?"

Cliff Ronan
Texas State

 >The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.1184  Wednesday, 6 July 2005
 >
 >From:           Joseph Egert <
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 >
 >Date:           Wednesday, 06 Jul 2005 13:37:08 +0000
 >Subject:      Re: SHK 16.1180  New and Improved Lear/ Merchant
 >
 >Bill Arnold writes:
 >
 >"Christians...were not/are not into interpreting Old Testament law, all
 >of it, particularly blood sacrifice before the altar, and other OT law,
 >literally....The Holy Bible is the New Testament as it refers to God's
 >Old Testament and in particular how the law of the New transcended the
Old."
 >
 >Shylock, looming with knife outstretched over the "tainted wether"
 >Anthonio, recalls the impending slaughter of Isaac by Father Abraham,
 >his hand stayed by God's Portia-like angel of mercy. The Hebrew God of
 >Old forever bans the pagan Elder way of human sacrifice. That ram in the
 >thicket there will suffice. And so, Isaac, like Anthonio, is spared, but
 >at whose expense?
 >
 >Blood sacrifice of the untainted Son lies at the root of the New faith
 >in direct defiance of the Hebrew God of Old--a Fall back to the Elder
 >way of human slaughter. Who in the play incarnates that sacrificial ram?
 >Who is here the Suffering Servant ("for suffr'ance is the badge of all
 >our tribe")? Who alone is spat upon with disdain like Jesus en route to
 >the altar of the Cross?
 >Who but the warped soul "not bid for love," the Alien within, the
 >archetypal Other-- despoiled, de-stoned, Christianized by his Venetian
 >Saviours. The pale Galilean has conquered yet again.
 >A sad new wether will roam the streets of Venice tonight.
 >
 >Joe Egert

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