The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 24.0422 Thursday, 29 August 2013
Date: August 27, 2013 4:26:37 PM EDT
Subject: Re: SHAKSPER: Shylock
David Bishop’s post illustrates a crucial fact about the Shylock controversy and, indeed, about every similar issue in the Canon: Where we stand depends on where we sit. As Bishop points out, for example, our evaluation of Jessica’s morality depends in large measure on whether we believe she was aware that the turquoise was her mother’s premarital gift to her father, which he cherished, and whether the restraints Shylock imposed on her were in care of her or to abuse her. Seen one way, Jessica’s theft rankles worse than the bite of a serpent’s tooth; she is more ungrateful with less cause than Goneril and Regan. Viewed another way, Jessica was merely obtaining needed recompense for the life of abuse she had been subjected to. Shakespeare doesn’t tell us if Jessica knew the provenance of the ring, or how restricted her life was, or whether the restrictions were out of a sense of paternal care of her or for some less meritorious motive. (By the way, contrary to Bishop’s assumption, we don’t know that Shylock kept her “immured from . . . marriage”; it is a fair presumption that, like Jews through the ages to and including today, he would have regarded his daughter as dead if she married outside his religion, but that is not the same thing as saying he prevented her from entering into marriage with a Jewish man. Again, Shakespeare is silent on the matter, leaving it for us to decide.)
Was Portia a racist? When Morocco chooses the wrong casket, she expresses relief: “let all of his complexion choose me so.” Whether or not we regard that as racist depends not on what Portia said but, rather, on whether we think it is racist to prefer to marry within our own race. If you think that is obnoxious, do you also regard the Jewish taboo of marrying outside the religion with the same distaste? These issues depend on the hearers’ feelings, not on the words Shakespeare wrote for the actors to say. He was usually very careful not to take sides; not out of political cowardice, but because it made for better theatre.
We really don’t know, and can never know, whether Shylock acts out of malice or justifiable outrage. Shakespeare doesn’t tell us; or, more accurately put, he tells us contradictory things (thus reflecting the actual human condition) and we can choose for ourselves how to harmonize or synthesize them. Harry Berger is spot on in making a similar point, as is John Drakakis although he differs in nuance.
Tell me about the critic and I will tell you what he or she thinks of Shylock. David Basch, for example, insists that Shylock is a commendable hero, the only admirable person in the play, who intends all along to save Antonio and sacrifice himself in order to assure Jessica’s patrimony, and Basch revises the action of the play to fit this theme. Surprising as this view is, we could predict that Basch would hold some such opinion once we learn that he has elsewhere urged the Israeli government to adopt a final solution to the Arab problem by absorbing the entire territory of the Palestine Mandate and expelling every last Arab from it. (He does not tell us where they should go or what should be done with them if they don’t go; be we can guess.) He has also defended Baruch Goldstein for murdering 29 Palestinian men, women and children at prayer in a mosque in Hebron, because Goldstein might have thought some of them called him a “dirty Jew.” Can we be surprised that someone who canonizes Goldstein would have a favorable view of Shylock?
I suppose John Drakakis was unaware of Basch’s other writings when he said that “Basch is too humane to be a liberal neo-con.” (As a neo-con myself [if I understand the term aright], I object to including Basch in the club. I would blackball him, but he would undoubtedly accuse me of anti-Semitism.)