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Home :: Archive :: 2006 :: July ::
The Big Question
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.0614  Monday, 2 July 2006

[1] 	From: 	Carol Barton <
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	Date: 	Friday, 30 Jun 2006 13:49:50 -0400
	Subj: 	Re: SHK 17.0610 The Big Question (long)

[2] 	From: 	John Crowley <
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	Date: 	Friday, 30 Jun 2006 16:50:22 -0400
	Subj: 	Big Question

[3] 	From: 	David Basch <
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	Date: 	Sunday, 02 Jul 2006 20:57:30 -0400
	Subj: 	Re: SHK 17.0610 The Big Question

[4] 	From: 	Donald Bloom <
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	Date: 	Monday, 3 Jul 2006 10:05:13 -0500
	Subj: 	RE: SHK 17.0611 The Big Question


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Carol Barton <
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Date: 		Friday, 30 Jun 2006 13:49:50 -0400
Subject: 17.0610 The Big Question (long)
Comment: 	Re: SHK 17.0610 The Big Question (long)

I would like to reply to David Evert's comment that Portia's racist 
comment is intended "to show that Portia is a young girl naturally 
swayed by conventional standards of beauty: that she's not wise enough 
to completely discount them.  But if even a black man chose the right 
casket he would have proved his essential rightness-his fairness-and 
following the wise command of her father, she would have to marry him."

I think there's more to it than this, David. Portia is not wise-not 
impartial-but "swayed by conventional standards" (of more than beauty) 
like any young girl-a naive subjectivity unbecoming in a judge. If in 
"resolving" the debate between Shylock and Antonio she asserts "mercy," 
where is her mercy after the fact-or his before-toward a man who is 
abused and vilified by his debtors for an act of apparent 
generosity-caritas-in the form of lending money at no interest, and 
foregoing his customary profit? who has been deprived even of repayment 
of the principal by the loss of Antonio's ships? and who has demanded 
the letter of the law only after the borrower has made it clear to him 
that there is no gratitude, but rather open contempt, involved in the 
transaction? Were Shylock not a Jew (regardless of his likeableness as a 
person, or his treatment of his daughter-which are immaterial to the 
circumstances of the freely enacted bargain), but a Christian in similar 
circumstances, would he be demeaned and mistreated and deprived of far 
more than he originally risked, the way he is in the play?  Were Portia 
the same kind of fair, wise, and impartial judge who would accept 
whoever passed the casket test if he were a Polyphemus look-alike with 
three heads and purple polka dots, *because the ground rules to which 
she (de facto) agreed said that the winner would become her husband*--a 
Christian father's letter-of-the-law pronouncement of his Christian 
daughter's fate, regardless of her personal preferences in the 
matter-then perhaps she would be able to rule with fairness AND mercy in 
Shylock's case. A wise judge might recognize that the injury (realized 
for Antonio only if the agreement were to be enforced-otherwise, he has 
gained all and risked nothing) was on *both* sides-and that Antonio 
added insult to tangible legal injury by provoking Shylock even beyond 
default of the loan. Equity is not based on the attractiveness of the 
plaintiff-or his lifestyle-but on what is fair, and just-and mercy is 
only license, if it isn't tempered by justice.

An example: a young inner-city man who was sexually and physically 
abused throughout his childhood rapes a mean and ugly old woman, and 
kills her. We might show clemency in not invoking the death penalty-but 
we would never make him a present of the old woman's estate, and let him 
go free into the bargain, claiming she "deserved it" because she was 
old, mean, and ugly. He would be punished for the crime at a lesser 
degree than someone with a more normal upbringing if we allowed his 
background to mitigate in his favor-but he would be punished, 
nonetheless-and we would do what we could to make amends to the old 
woman's family. What does Antonio suffer for his default, or for his 
unprovoked abuse of the source of his loan? How is the behavior of any 
of the "Christians" in this play Christ-like? "Love thy neighbor as 
thyself?" Not hardly. They covet Shylock's ducats and his daughter . . . 
  they take from him that which he rightfully owns (regardless of their 
disapproval of the means by which he acquired it) and they punish him 
for showing mercy to a fellow human being down on his luck-as 
uncharacteristic a gesture as that may be, and regardless of his 
motives. They even turn his daughter against him.

Would they have done that to one of God's (Christian) children?

Given the way the play turns out, it's interesting to speculate on what 
would have happened if the ships had come in after all? Would Antonio 
have returned the money, and thanked Shylock for the loan?

Nothing in his subsequent behavior suggests so.

Best to all,
Carol Barton

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		John Crowley <
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Date: 		Friday, 30 Jun 2006 16:50:22 -0400
Subject: 	Big Question

 >By the time Shakespeare wrote MOV banking had
 >existed in Italy for upwards of 400 years and many a famous family
 >(including the Medici) had gotten their start in that business. It
 >strikes me as odd-and highly unlikely-that Antonio would accuse Shylock
 >of a sin that was widely practiced by the most important people
 >throughout Northern Italy, including (presumably) many of his Christian
 >business associates.

It's a tribute to how real we take Shylock's person and circumstances to 
be that this remark can be made.  The question of course isn't what the 
relations of Christians and Jews in Venice in 1590 was, or how the 
Medici banking system worked, or what a real Venetian merchant would 
think of his banker, but what Shakespeare knew or made up about these 
things.  Unless you support the Lost Years hypothesis of Shakespeare 
spending time in Italy (unlikely), then all he knew was what he read and 
heard about.  His concern was getting enough local color and 
realistic-seeming details into his romance to make it acceptably 
realistic -- he didn't mind tossing in an old fairy tale in the middle, 
and he certainly didn't mind using antique Christian strictures against 
usury if it helped his story work.  These are characters in a romance, a 
romance has rules and modes of its own; they aren't real Venetians or 
real Jews or real merchants at all.

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		David Basch <
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Date: 		Sunday, 02 Jul 2006 20:57:30 -0400
Subject: 17.0610 The Big Question
Comment: 	Re: SHK 17.0610 The Big Question

David Bishop's analysis of the Merchant of Venice repeats all the errors 
in misconstruing this play that have been made over the centuries. This 
happens because most analysts assume many things about the play and 
Shakespeare that are unwarranted.

Most believe that the great poet shared the usual Christian perspective 
of his time and its negative view of Jews and that he had as one of his 
goals in writing this play, aside from entertaining, an offhanded 
affirmation of Christianity and the denigration of Judaism, pitting one 
religion against the other with the Christian view made to triumph. As a 
result of these assumptions, these commentators fail to notice or ignore 
the many details of the play that challenge these assumptions.

For example, David Bishop sees Jessica, Shylock's daughter, as coming 
off well in her conversion to Christianity, when, in fact, the play 
shows the opposite. Here is David Bishop:

 >Jessica simply converts to Christianity and marries the man
 >she truly loves, and who loves her. We root for her because
 >of her father's meanness and miserliness. Her conversion, as
 >far as we can see, seems to oppose generosity--even a hint of
 >profligacy--to the miserly father from whom she escapes.
 >Where Hitler would have sent her to the camps anyway, in this
 >society she's welcomed with open arms. Her regret, her guilt
 >at betraying her father, the hints that she and Lorenzo will
 >break up, as far as I can tell, do not exist in the play.

But if the scene is recalled where Jessica elopes with Lorenzo, we find 
Jessica robbing her father, an act which Gratiano's welcoming arms and 
praises approve. Gratiano says, "By my hood, a gentle [that is, gentile] 
and no Jew." Can anyone believe that the playwright, Shakespeare, by 
this juxtaposition is applauding her immoral action in the scene?

If David would also consider that the enmity between Antonio and Shylock 
becomes intensely bitter when Shylock comes to believe that Antonio 
helped Jessica in her elopement, he might see her far differently. For 
can we take at face value Jessica's charge that she heard her father 
plotting against Antonio with another Jew? Shakespeare tips us off to 
Jessica's tendency to slander and to do worse when Lorenzo in Act V in 
jest answers Jessica's playful slanderous remark against him, actually 
calling her remark "slander." What is more, also in Act V, we learn from 
Jessica herself that she is "never merry" when she hears music, a 
disposition which Lorenzo calls a hallmark of a person given to schemes 
and plots. Shakespeare is belatedly telling us things about Jessica that 
in the excitement of victory over Shylock audiences fail to take account 
of. If her character is questionable then it is only a matter of time 
until her character brings her to ruin.

Similarly, while the Christians in the play pride themselves on their 
merciful natures, if critics and audiences would pay attention to the 
action of the play they would find that the Christians don't actually 
practice their values. For example, the Duke readily announces that, 
unlike unmerciful Jews, he will immediately spare Shylock's life. But 
most commentators and audiences fail to notice that moments later the 
Duke withdraws this clemency by demanding on pain of death that Shylock 
accept Antonio's terms to give up his wealth and convert to Christianity.

Portia turns out to be the greatest deceiver on mercy. Portia, early in 
the play, warns us that she "can sooner teach twenty how to be good" 
than to be one to follow her own teaching. She makes good on this 
warning when, after making a world famous appeal to Shylock to show 
mercy to Antonio, she herself does not show mercy to Shylock. ALL of 
Shylock's wealth is taken from him. One half is immediately taken and a 
second half is to be used by Antonio to be given to Shylock's heirs 
after Shylock's death. Since David Bishop expects mercy from Portia, he 
fails to note that she will have none of it for Shylock. Admittedly, the 
lines telling of Shylock's punishment are a bit murky, but Shakespeare 
helps us by giving us a dry run of it in Portia's statement of her 
giving over her own wealth to Bassanio: "One half is yours and the 
second half yours too." (I am paraphrasing.)

The character in the MoV with the deepest expressions of emotion, not 
bluster, is Shylock. He is shown as a grieving father after having been 
shown as a glib and witty communicant with Antonio, to whom he gives a 
free loan. (By the by, lending money on interest was legal in England in 
the 1590's, though not in Italy. The ban on such lending by Christians 
was the result of following the Bible's forbidding of lending on 
interest to "brothers," that is, fellow religionists. This is why Jews 
could lend to Christians. That Shylock gives a free loan to Antonio is 
one of the numerous reasons that some commentators have judged that 
Antonio was conceived by Shakespeare as a converted Jew.)

Anyway, can the soulful, suffering father, Shylock, actually be 
visualized as capable of carving flesh from a living man? Because 
Shakespeare's audiences expected (erroneously) such behavior from Jews, 
it becomes believable to them despite its inconsistency with Shylock's 
character as presented. Jews readily see this inconsistency and the 
false note in painting a religious Jew with such demonic 
characteristics. As a result, many Jews have not been overwhelmed by 
Shakespeare's greatness in creating his characters. But if those Jews 
would follow the play carefully, they would see that something other 
than this is unfolding.

For example, consider that when Shylock gets the news of Antonio's 
default on his bond, he exclaims, "I'll plague him. I'll torture him." 
He does not say he will kill him. All that Shylock demands is the right 
to his bond. He is clearly wanting to pressure Antonio into pleading for 
mercy in public to the Jew he despised, after which, it is most 
plausible that Shylock would magnanimously renounce his bond. It doesn't 
happen because Portia pulls the rug out from under him and leaves him in 
the pose of a slasher.

Finally, it must be noted that Shakespeare as a dramatist does not 
explicitly give his own views. He has his characters present their own 
views and act out their individual moralities through their action in 
the play. It is then up to audiences to judge the words spoken and the 
actions taken. However, this does not easily happen with clarity when 
audiences bring with them assumptions and prejudices that prevent them 
from reacting to the play Shakespeare wrote. If the action and words of 
the play are read correctly, the comedy lies in the hypocrisy of 
characters that boast of their high mindedness, kindness, and capacity 
for mercy but who fail to practice these when a Jew is concerned. They 
are hardly Nazis but they leave a lot of room for improvement as decent 
human beings. I think it is these things that are the themes of this one 
of Shakespeare's play, as can be noted by Portia's slur against Morocco.

Commentators need to step back from their assumptions and personal 
conceptions of who the good guys and bad guys are and carefully examine 
the play that Shakespeare actually wrote.

David Basch

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Donald Bloom <
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Date: 		Monday, 3 Jul 2006 10:05:13 -0500
Subject: 17.0611 The Big Question
Comment: 	RE: SHK 17.0611 The Big Question

William Godshalk makes a very sensible response, citing both the text of 
the play and a (more or less) contemporary definition of usury which 
would seem to support what I called (somewhat flippantly) a Dark Ages 
attitude toward lending at interest

The problem is the implication that Shakespeare doesn't know what he's 
talking about, or else doesn't care.

If the citation from Rastell represents general Elizabethan opinion on 
the subject (that all lending at interest is usury, forbidden by God's 
word, and thus a sin), then Shakespeare, in attributing such a 
provincial attitude to an educated and erstwhile prosperous Venetian 
merchant, leaves us in somewhat of a quandary.

Did he not know that such an attitude in 16th Century Italy was unlikely 
to the point of impossibility? Would Antonio have ripped into one of the 
Medici or other of the wealthy, powerful and profoundly Christian 
businessmen of that time and place who participated cheerfully in 
lending (or borrowing) at interest?

Or is Shakespeare playing a game wherein he shifts from ostensible 
realism to folk tale or fantasy? Obviously, he does just that in both 
the casket-choosing plot and the pound-of flesh bargain, but the 
conflict of Antonio and Shylock is generally thought to be quite realistic.

If it is not, where does that leave us?

To recapitulate: If Shakespeare is representing by Antonio a generally 
accepted and approved Elizabethan attitude toward any lending at 
interest, doesn't that make this Venice into something closely allied to 
Belmont and the Woods outside Athens?

Should the whole work be played in that kind of hazy world where fantasy 
overlaps with reality?

Cheers,
don

PS. Jack Heller complains about all moral discussions ending up with 
MOV. That is my responsibility. I cited the instance of people 
overlooking the moral implications of a truly horrible act because the 
perpetrator could be associated with a victimized group. That was, to 
me, the most obvious example, and the subsequent discussion, I think, 
confirmed it. There is, however, nothing to stop him from shifting the 
discussion to other moral questions (I, for one, would welcome it). Pick 
one.

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