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Home :: Archive :: 2006 :: June ::
The Big Question
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.0603  Tuesday, 27 June 2006

From: 		David Bishop <
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Date: 		Tuesday, 27 Jun 2006 03:08:13 -0400
Subject: 17.0599 The Big Question
Comment: 	Re: SHK 17.0599 The Big Question

I think Mari Bonomi is right about the two lenses through which we look 
at MoV and the confusions that result.

We talk about anti-Semitism, but seldom make a distinction that helps me 
understand the play, between two kinds of anti-Semitism. Racial 
anti-Semitism, as in Hitler's Germany, sought the death of "Jews" even 
when they had converted to Christianity, based on their family history. 
The anti-Semitism of MoV--and I think that's a loaded and somewhat 
anachronistic term--is ideological anti-Semitism. It means you hold 
beliefs that are wrong, and you could simply decide to change: to become 
a Christian.

Shylock's Jewishness is mostly tied to his being a usurer, and generally 
mean, though the play says nothing about usury being his only allowed 
occupation. Antonio spits on him because he's a usurer, and suggests 
that he could change if he wanted to. Not being a usurer is connected to 
being a kind, friendly person, part of a community of people who lend 
money out of good will. This is hardly realistic, of course, but when it 
looks like Shylock is lending money free, Antonio is willing to say 
there is much kindness in the Jew. Antonio's "anti-Semitism" is 
anti-usury and anti-unkindness. He may go a little overboard in cruelly 
promoting kindness, but Shylock is not a very sympathetic victim, no one 
is closing down his business, and Antonio is ready to change his 
attitude when Shylock changes his.

The anti-Semitism of the others is not given much more positive content 
than this, at least until the trial scene. Are they against him because 
he's Jewish or because he's a miser, a usurer, and mistreats his 
servants and his daughter? The rightness of Christianity and the 
wrongness of believing in another religion is assumed, and given 
positive content more subtly. The mercy Portia calls for is not 
specifically called Christian, but presented as human. The underlying 
feeling communicated is how frightening it is to encounter someone who 
does not believe that God has commanded him to be merciful. Whether this 
truly depicts actual Judaism is not the point. The audience is being 
instructed in true Christianity by being shown a horrible example of an 
unChristian. Religiously speaking, a Jew is simply an infidel: someone 
who does not believe in Christianity and is therefore not, in his view, 
obliged to be merciful. Gratiano's reveling in revenge shows he fails to 
get the message. He provides an instructive contrast to the restrained 
behavior of the others.

As for the "unmerciful" Portia, she could have cut to the chase at the 
outset. But she pointedly gives Shylock a chance to do the reasonable 
Christian (and, the play implies, human) thing. We must feel his 
conversion as hard in a way Elizabethans did not, though possibly a few 
of them could have felt a twinge of sympathy for the defeated Shylock--a 
twinge mitigated by his receiving, apparently, half his fortune, even if 
under Antonio's management. Looking through an Elizabethan lens, it's an 
odd punishment that saves a man's soul and brings him into the community 
from which he was formerly an alien.

Finally, 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.

Best wishes,
David Bishop

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