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Home :: Archive :: 2006 :: July ::
The Big Question
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.0628  Thursday, 6 July 2006

[1] 	From: 	Edmund Taft <
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	Date: 	Tuesday, 04 Jul 2006 11:04:48 -0400
	Subj: 	The Big Question

[2] 	From: 	Bob Rosen <
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	Date: 	Tuesday, 4 Jul 2006 12:39:47 EDT
	Subj: 	Re: SHK 17.0621  The Big Question

[3] 	From: 	William Godshalk <
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	Date: 	Tuesday, 04 Jul 2006 13:20:57 -0400
	Subj: 	Re: SHK 17.0614 The Big Question

[4] 	From: 	Larry Weiss <
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	Date: 	Wednesday, 5 Jul 2006 07:38:01 -0400 (EDT)
	Subj: 	Re: SHK 17.0621 The Big Question

[5] 	From: 	Joseph Egert <
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	Date: 	Wednesday, 05 Jul 2006 15:13:09 +0000
	Subj: 	RE: SHK 17.0603 The Big Question


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Edmund Taft <
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Date: 		Tuesday, 04 Jul 2006 11:04:48 -0400
Subject: 	The Big Question

Maureen Jansen observes of Shylock that "he is not plunged into 
self-doubt in the same way as [others]. However, he does grapple with 
his sense of his own identity. He fiercely defends his ethnicity and 
religion from the contempt in which Antonio and his ilk hold him."

Absolutely right: and this is one of many examples that show how 
Shakespeare constructed the character of this antagonist/protagonist. 
You can see him as noble in his refusal to buckle under to the 
Christians, and you can admire his strong sense of self and his firm 
resolve to stay true to his beliefs and his religion. On the other hand, 
you can also see him as egregious in his stranglehold on error, 
stubbornly clinging to false beliefs that do him no good, and evil 
because bereft of enlightenment and God's grace.

The parallels today would be Ireland (until recently) and Iraq: who are 
the terrorists and who are the freedom fighters? The good guys and the 
bad guys? For Don Bloom, the analysis of Shylock is, finally, simple, 
straightforward, and clear: he is a terrible man who needs to be 
punished. That's true - but only half the story. Why does Shylock want 
revenge against Antonio and why has he become so enraged? Those are the 
central questions to be confronted, and they too can be answered in two 
ways: (1) Shylock is simply evil and bad, and in large part because of 
his race and religion; (2) Shylock just won't take abuse any more, 
either towards him or towards his people. He's had enough and he's going 
to try to get some satisfaction.

Neither interpretation absolves Shylock, but the second one is more 
intellectual, more discerning, and, without doubt, much more likely to 
have been Shakespeare's own. Why else would Shakespeare have included 
references to Antonio's past treatment of Shylock? Why else have Shylock 
recall the abuse his people have suffered?

As for David Bishop: he struggles mightily to find ways to exculpate the 
Christians (especially Portia) while, at the same time, he attempts to 
water down the kind of anti-Semitism that many in Shakespeare's audience 
felt to a greater or lesser degree. But this approach can never succeed 
because it too ignores or tries to explain away inconvenient parts of 
the play. Jessica is a party girl whose fidelity is NOT to the truth. 
She wants to be one of the "in crowd." Antonio is a miserable excuse for 
a man who discerns nothing, and who lacks self-knowledge; Bassanio is a 
playboy who is more than willing to gamble with other people's money in 
order to get some for himself; and Portia, the most interesting of all, 
is a conventional Shakespearean heroine from one of Shakespeare's "happy 
comedies" thrust into a potential tragedy about revenge, justice, and 
mercy. She's smart - she outwits Shylock - but her great strength in a 
romantic comedy becomes compromised in M of V. She stands for upholding 
social values -- except, in this play, the points at issue are not the 
virtue of chastity or the need to test a male lover before marriage, but 
the clash of cultures: Christian vs. Jewish. She is shrewd and clever 
but not deep. For all her zeal to teach Shylock a lesson, she, even more 
than Shylock, thinks in terms of money and protecting her investments. 
She does not see this similarity, but we can if we open our eyes. In 
this respect, Shylock is superior to Portia because at least he openly 
recognizes what his values really are, while Portia disguises hers, as 
do, to a greater or lesser degree, all of the Christians in this play.

M of V ends with a dirty joke: how much clearer could Shakespeare be 
about his view of Belmont? It's a beautiful place, but the people there 
are shallow, self-serving, narrow, and insufferable. Some rich people 
are like that: both then and today.

Ed Taft

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Bob Rosen <
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Date: 		Tuesday, 4 Jul 2006 12:39:47 EDT
Subject: 17.0621  The Big Question
Comment: 	Re: SHK 17.0621  The Big Question

 >Even today, when it seems politically
 >incorrect for a Caucasian to express a preference not to marry a Negro,
 >it is still considered respectable for a Jew to insist on marrying only
 >another Jew.  Indeed, many Jews will go so far as to excommunicate one
 >of their number who marries outside her faith and mourn for her as if
 >she were dead.  When you condemn this insularity as racism then I will
 >listen patiently while you explain why Portia's preference for a husband
 >of her own race is reprehensible.

In orthodox Judaism there is some justification for staying within the 
tribe through marriage. It isn't about two people conjoining. It's about 
passing on a religious tradition through family. The individuals in 
their personal wills aren't that important. They owe their significance 
to the tradition of a particular form of monotheism.

This fact Shakespeare completely overlooked because he knew nothing 
about Shylock's spiritual motivation. S created a conflict, gave the 
characters names and motives and cared not a whit for the deep structure 
one of them symbolizes. S followed his usual MO. It seems one of those 
characters freed himself from characterization and bit him on the nose.

That's what happens when you bend down to pet someone else's strange pet.

Bob Rosen

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		William Godshalk <
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Date: 		Tuesday, 04 Jul 2006 13:20:57 -0400
Subject: 17.0614 The Big Question
Comment: 	Re: SHK 17.0614 The Big Question

John Crowley writes:

 >"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."

I think John is on the right track here. Antonio and Shylock are not 
real in the same sense that we are real, and to demand that Shylock be a 
real sixteenth century Venetian Jewish banker, and Antonio a real 
Renaissance merchant prince is surely misguided. Mea culpa. Fiction may 
very well be embedded in history, but fictional works and characters 
also seem to exist outside the historical moment. They are embedded in a 
fictional world that may or may not directly reflect the history of the 
time in which they were written. I do not pretend to know Shakespeare's 
intentions beyond what I can surmise from the extant scripts. Perhaps we 
need to mix a little New Criticism into our historicism.

Bill

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Larry Weiss <
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 >
Date: 		Wednesday, 5 Jul 2006 07:38:01 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: 17.0621 The Big Question
Comment: 	Re: SHK 17.0621 The Big Question

 >to quote the very charge that England's first
 >Jewish Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who once accused Gladstone and
 >the Whigs when a fellow Jew, who was duly elected to the House of
 >Commons, of organized hypocrisy, if the candidate is forced to resign
 >his seat because he chose to take his oath in the Old Testament. This is
 >an example of religious intolerance and ethnic prejudice.

Religious intolerance, perhaps; ethnic prejudice, probably not; 
political expediency, most certainly.  This little bit of history 
actually has some resonance with aspects of M/V:

Disraeli was not Britain's "first Jewish Prime Minister."  Although an 
ethnic Jew, he (or his father) had long since joined the Church of 
England, and he was a practicing Anglican all his life (albeit he might 
not have practiced very hard).  His ethnicity seemed to have absolutely 
no affect on his success, either as a novelist or a politician, He was 
particularly well regarded by the more conservative and aristocratic 
elements in the Tory party.

On several successive occasion, the electors for the City of London 
constituency-essentially a pocket borough controlled by the financial 
community-returned Lionel Rothschild (the principal English member of 
the international banking family) as its MP.  Rothschild presented 
himself at the Bar of the House and proposed to take the required oath 
with his hand on his own version of the Bible.  At the instance of 
Gladstone, a Liberal member raised the point of order that the Rules of 
the House required the oath to be taken on the KJV, and Rothschild was 
excluded.  This was almost certainly not an example of religious 
intolerance, as Rothschild never made an issue of his faith.  As for 
ethnic prejudice, Rothschild was as assimilated and upper crust as any 
member of the House; he actually spoke better English than Gladstone. 
And, of course, Disraeli's ethnicity was no encumbrance for him.  What 
was obviously at work was Gladstone's shrewdness in using the House Rule 
to keep a potentially powerful voice off the opposite benches.

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Joseph Egert <
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Date: 		Wednesday, 05 Jul 2006 15:13:09 +0000
Subject: 17.0603 The Big Question
Comment: 	RE: SHK 17.0603 The Big Question

Quiz time, class.

Does Arragon's "O that estates...were not derived corruptly" refer to:

a.   Just another commonplace of the period,

b.  Shylock's wealth from usury (or Jacob's from ewesury),

c.  Portia's Daddy's patrimony of undetermined origin,

d.  Antonio's mercantile profits from imperial ventures abroad,

e.  Bassanio's newfound wealth upon passing a rigged casket test 
(patrimony through matrimony?),

f.  Lorenzo's newfound ducats and jewels after stealing the thief (manna 
from sugar daddy?),

g.  Antonio's newfound confiscatory wealth  after trial (more manna from 
Shylock?),

h.  Lorenzo's newfound wealth after trial--a deed of "gift" indeed,

i.  Tudor spoliation of "monastery" wealth, or

j.  ALL OF THE ABOVE?

Winner to get Shylock's gold teeth upon the Jew's death (though they may 
already be included in Portia's special deed of gift and therefore 
unavailable).

Didn't Balzac write: "Behind every great fortune lies a great crime"? In 
Portia's name, I again ask David Bishop (or Tom Evert) and others of his 
tribe:

"Which is the wolf here, and which the ewe?"

Joe Egert

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