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The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 21.0174 Wednesday, 14 April 2010
 From: David Basch <
 From: Joseph Egert <
 From: David Bishop <
Needless to say, I disagree with many of David Bishop's points in his recent Leah's Ring commentary. He reads into the Merchant of Venice play his own personal thinking about what the play is about and shows a gross ignorance of Judaism. Let's go over some of his comment.
While he is correct that Shakespeare exposes the seamy side of Christian behavior in the MoV - critic A. M. Moody, for example, agrees and sums up the play by his comment, "Christian values are represented in the play by their absence"-- Bishop falls short in seeing the extent of this shortfall. One glaring example is his making of the thief and slanderer, Jessica, what he calls a "good [meaning virtuous] character."
But, in fact, Jessica robs her father to the applause of her onlooking
Also, for Bishop's information, Jessica did slander her father when she
If we look at the play carefully, we learn that it was Antonio that had practiced hatred against Shylock, the money lender, that is, Shylock, who in today's terms was the equivalent of the load officer in a bank. What is more, it was Shylock that had wanted to patch things up by giving Antonio a free loan. The heat is only turned up later after Shylock believes Antonio aided his daughter's elopement and storms had ravaged Antonio's fleet bringing him to bankruptcy and default -- all advents that Shylock did not foresee nor had control over.
As far as the play reveals aspects of Jessica's character, none of it is good. Even her new husband Lorenzo has to quip on Jessica's "slander" of him, she having remarked on Lorenzo's "ne'er true" vows of faith. Quips Lorenzo, "In such a night / Did pretty Jessica, like a little shrew, / Slander her love."
What is more, Jessica, remarking soon after, "I am never merry when I hear sweet music," brings a long general remark from Lorenzo that concludes about such persons that
The man that hath no music in himself,
Here above is another character sketch of the treasonous Jessica that Bishop has not seen.
There is much more matter that Bishop overlooks about the play, but let us now proceed to his comments about Judaism, as a religion that supposedly teaches vengefulness and not the promotion of fellowship, love, and mercy. The fact is that Jews have a whole religious day of prayer set aside to ask for God's mercy for religious sins, a day that is preceded by teachings of giving forgiveness to others on the basis that we cannot hope for mercy if we ourselves are not practitioners of mercy. Ironically, what Bishop calls "Christian mercy" is none other than the very same teaching in Judaism, is Jewish conscience, and is the teaching that Portia uses in imploring Shylock to show mercy to Antonio:
That, in the course of justice, none of us
The point is that Shylock's demand for the bond of flesh penalty supposedly due him is not only a violation of this very Jewish precept on mercy but is directly against the commandment forbidding murder, which no vow to the contrary can overrule. This is the reason why Jews who see this play regard Shylock's behavior as most uncharacteristic of his Jewish calling.
That this bizarre behavior by a Jew is sketched from the pen of Shakespeare, the greatest analyzer of human behavior, has led some analysts of the play to conclude that, either Shakespeare is guilty of the warpage of anti-Semitic bias or that we watch the poet's crafting of a Shylock who is acting out a charade of hate in order to humble Antonio into asking mercy from the Jew he despised. Notice, this is a thesis that Shakespeare knew about since it was posed by the Venetian Duke at the beginning of the court scene, a view which Shylock immediately squelches. He does so since, if we interpret correctly, he is intent on throwing a scare into Antonio, thus disclaiming his doing of any wrong, sharpening his knife, offering no medical treatment for Antonio's impending wounds, and the such.
In my view, not enough exploration is given to this thesis of the play, which is another subject. But I would submit that David Bishop has becomes totally submerged by the ostensible behavior of Shylock in the play to the point that he reads this as the typical pattern of Jewish thought rather than, at worst, the portrait of the behavior of a warped individual that has gone beserk.
I think it is best for those who have made a hasty generalization on the particular character of Shylock and show that they have trouble recognizing the meaning of acts of plunder, dishonoring of a father, and the downright practice of false witness ought to step back and look anew at what the play reveals. It is simply not mere "filler," the mere exercise of pretty language, that we are given Portia's remarks on how we sometimes overlook good thinks, like the beautiful song of the nightingale overlooked by day against the welter of the sounds of other birds or the candle that glows so noticeably in the night but goes unnoticed in the daylight. Shakespeare is teaching by these that we ought to look more carefully at things: "How many things by season season'd are To their right praise and true perfection!" This is the praise critic Harold Goddard gave when he was able to remark that Shylock had "a grain of spiritual gold."
When such things are considered, we can find that Bishop makes some good points about proper behavior, but this is not only the behavior that Christians subscribe to.
I suggest that we will understand Shakespeare's play better and its episodes of a father distraught and disoriented at losing his daughter and a monkey traded for something priceless when we take to heart the lessons we are given in the play that come at us, all too often from a Portia that "can easier teach twenty what were good to be done than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching." These regularly tell of a play involved in a message of brotherhood, if only we take the effort to find it out.
David Bishop writes:
"The Merchant is a play, as I would say, based on a pun. It's a pun on the word unChristian. Shakespeare is responding not to Jews or Venetians but to the unChristian behavior of English Christians. He sets up a Jew, the original, literal unChristian, as a villain, and then--surprise--it turns out that this villain points out that Christians, who profess to believe revenge is a sin, routinely engage in it. The theme of the play could be expressed as: the Jew is you. Shakespeare is showing the Christian audience their own unChristian image in the mirror of Shylock."
Perhaps, Girard said it best:
"Those critics who idealize the Venetians write as if the many textual clues that contradict their view were not planted by the author himself, as if their presence in the play were a purely fortuitous matter, like the arrival of a bill in the morning mail when one really expects a love letter."
David Bishop is far from being the worst offender in sodichotomizing the play. Yet in his effort to paint Shylock the archetypal 'unChristian', he minimizes or seeks to explain away those 'human' touches with which Shakespeare 'furnishes' the vengeful alien, while excusing or justifying, for the most part, those who betray or humiliate him.
To illustrate, David claims, "Shylock's 'wilderness of monkeys' may show in its quantification his reduction of bodies to money. so his sentimental attachment, such as it is, may be more to the jewel than to Leah." To David it is yet "another sign of his miserly passion for money."
Are we to understand Shylock would have made no profit in exchanging a turquoise ring for a "wilderness of monkeys'? There are many such examples strewn throughout his most interesting essay. In reading closely, we are still confined to our own mind's eye. No?
Since much of what I could say in response to David Basch is already contained in the post he was supposedly responding to, I will only quote one line from it: "The Judaism in this play is not real but a false front, created by Shakespeare to make a point about Christians in his own vicinity."
David cites A.D. Moody, whose little book on the play is a locus classicus of this kind of misinterpretation. I have trouble imagining how anyone could get a play as wrong as Moody gets this one.
These responses arise from the fact that the play was written in the context of centuries of anti-Semitism. It is bound to be hurtful today, to Jews and to anyone sensitive to what they have suffered. But we should also remember that it was written in a society, and for an audience, virtually without Jews. The Jew was a standard villain, coming out of anti-Semitic lore, the passion plays, and perhaps most directly, Marlowe. The idea that Shakespeare wanted to make some serious comment on Jews and anti-Semitism seems fairly implausible -- though of course many critics have founded their views of the play on that rock. Many remain, as Joe Egert puts it, confined to their own mind's eye.
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