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Home :: Archive :: 2010 :: November ::
Shylock the unChristian
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 21.0433  Thursday, 11 November 2010

From:         John Drakakis <
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Date:         November 11, 2010 12:17:15 PM EST
Subject: 21.0429  Shylock the unChristian
Comment:      RE: SHK 21.0429  Shylock the unChristian

On one issue I agree entirely with David Basch:

that the 'issue' of 'Shylock' is complex. 

I think the problem lies with those who seek to argue that Shakespeare is offering a 
mimetically accurate picture of an ethnic Jew in _The Merchant of Venice_. It would 
not have been difficult for Shakespeare to have picked up some of the details 
(including the 'Abram /Abraham' question raised recently by the late Janet Adelman) 
from a range of materials available to him. It is not unreasonable for modern 
interpreters, so inclined, to seek to identify, no matter how complex that 
identification might be, with the figure of Shylock. The position is rendered 
problematical when we recall that in 1885, and much more recently in Stephen Orgel's 
excellent account of the play, the name 'Shylock' is not Jewish at all but English. 
Nor can we rely on whatever we might think about 'bankers' to illuminate facets of 
Shylock's behaviour, much of which has its origins in the many usury tracts that 
were published from the late 1570s onwards. In all mythologies, there are elements 
of what we might call 'fact' but that does not really alter the picture very much. 
Elizabethan culture was interested in particular facets of Judaism, and I doubt very 
much that Shakespeare's motive was to depict a 'real' Jew any more than I think his 
motive was to depict a 'real' Moor both in _The Merchant_ and _Othello_. I think we 
should really direct our attention to the process of myth-making that these figures 
represent as a means of understanding late Elizabethan and early Jacobean 
prejudices. The value of these texts lies not in their alleged attempts to depict 
'real' Jews or 'real' Moors but in the structures of prejudice that their 
representations allow us to glimpse in these plays. An awareness of these structures 
do not help us in the least in dealing with modern 'bankers'. In fact, I'm pretty 
sure that the engineers of the sub-prime mortgage scandal and the economic crisis 
that it provoked would have been tortured in unspeakable ways in 1597 or 1604. Or 
perhaps we should be encouraged to think of them as aspirants to Calvinistic 
'election', who, unlike Chapman's D'Amville, have managed to displace the punishment 
that they should have received onto an unsuspecting and unwitting public. What, you 
may ask has this to do with _The Merchant of Venice_? Not a lot, or, at least, not a 
lot if we continue in this naive register.

Cheers,
John Drakakis 


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