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Merchant of Venice—Recent Essay & Question

 

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 24.0434  Wednesday, 4 September 2013

 

[Editor’s Note: As Syd Kasten rightly notes below, I should not have published some of the remarks I did that arose in this thread. Having done so, I find it only fair to let responses through. However, if this thread is to continue, submission must be limited to matters Shakespearean and not extra-textual. –Hardy]

 

[1] From:        David Basch < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         August 30, 2013 10:35:01 AM EDT

     Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Shylock 

 

[2] From:        S. L Kasten  < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         September 2, 2013 6:13:34 PM EDT

     Subject:     SHK 24.0422  Thursday, 29 August 2013 

 

[3] From:        Joseph Egert < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         September 3, 2013 3:27:24 PM EDT

     Subject:     RE: Merchant of Venice--Recent Essay & Question 

 

[4] From:        Larry Weiss < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         September 3, 2013 4:46:45 PM EDT

     Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Shylock 

 

 

[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------

From:        David Basch < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         August 30, 2013 10:35:01 AM EDT

Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Shylock 

 

Jessica’s character is revealed by far more than her callous treatment of her mother’s turquoise cherished by her father. Alone, the incident is subject to the varying interpretations Weiss presents. But there is much more in the play that the Bard gives us.

 

For example, there is also Jessica’s betrayal and robbery of her father. In fact, Shakespeare does in this incident reveal his opinion, for he has Gratiano says to her after she does that sorry deed, “By my hood, a Gentile and no Jew.” Can anyone think the Bard did not know the significance of the juxtaposition of Jessica’s robbery with Gratiano’s religious praise? There is pure irony here.

 

Larry Weiss spares readers of the list by not telling more: There are many commentators who see Jessica as having borne false witness against her father when she tells she overheard her father planning to harm Antonio. The play shows that the bad blood between the newly patched up relationship between Shylock and Antonio comes after Jessica has left home and was generated by Shylock thinking that Antonio abetted her runaway. She could not have heard such a plot and it reveals her character.

 

What is more, on this matter of Jessica’s false witness, in Act V, an act in which there are many belated revelations, we catch Jessica at it. Consider this interchange between her and her beau Lorenzo:

 

   JESSICA                   In such a night

           Did young Lorenzo swear he loved her well,

           Stealing her soul with many vows of faith

           And ne'er a true one.

 

   LORENZO In such a night

           Did pretty Jessica, like a little shrew,

           Slander her love, and he forgave it her.

 

Apparently, “slander” comes easily to Jessica. Also, later on, when Jessica tells Lorenzo that she “is never merry when she hears sweet music,” Lorenzo gives an excuse for her comment, pronouncing on the value of music as soothing savage beasts and he observes that:

 

       The man that hath no music in himself,

       Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,

       Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;

       The motions of his spirit are dull as night

       And his affections dark as Erebus:

       Let no such man be trusted.

 

The character Lorenzo obviously doesn’t realize it but he has characterized the Jessica who is unable to be merry when she hears sweet music. While audiences may miss the implications of these revelations, can any serious person think that the great Shakespeare did not realize the obvious implication of what he penned and thereby reveals his own characterization of this vicious, self-justifying, and know-nothing young lady and his attitude toward her in his design of the play’s events? Notwithstanding Weiss’s viewpoint, we do in fact have a sound basis for judging Jessica’s morality as written into the play by the playwright himself.

 

Going on to Portia’s character as brought up by Weiss. Weiss writes,

 

     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 . . . .

 

Here Weiss shows the narrowness of his own view. As one commentator long ago described this incident in the play, unlike the directors who play Morocco as comic, he saw Morocco as a true lover, speaking words of love not unlike that in the Bible’s Song of Songs. Morocco is a sincere, ardent warrior-lover who asks to be judged on the content of his character (now where have we heard that?). But having lost his choice, he faces a lonely unwed life as he vowed to do as a condition of failing in his trial to select the true casket. Yet Portia takes no cognizance of his plight. There is not a drop of empathy to be seen toward him, which could have been demonstrated by the character Portia even if she did not want to marry him. We will see a similar heartlessness later as she confronts and overcomes Shylock. Here again, Shakespeare was revealing her character to the audience if they could see through their own expectations.

 

Concerning Shylock, Weiss writes:

 

    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.

 

Here again, Weiss fails to acknowledge what the poet tells us about him in the play and Weiss sees the playwright as failing to provide anything but contradictory clues. But playgoers have seen Shylock attempt to befriend Antonio with a free loan. (There is a benign background for the strange penalty, which is related to the Bible’s penalty to the owner of the ox that gored, who must sell his offending ox and share the proceeds with the victim ox’s owner, thereby taking the proceeds for the penalty “from his [the ox’s] flesh,” but this allusion is too complex to be discussed in this brief presentation.)

 

As I noted in an earlier piece, Shylock also makes a plea for Venetian slaves and as many observers have noted Shylock speaks the most deeply moving lines in the play:

 

        ... no in luck stirring but what lights on my

       shoulders; no sighs but of my breathing; no tears

       but of my shedding.

 

What is more, he is the equivalent of today’s banker, not some wild ruffian. Does any reader know of anyone who was mugged by a banker? It is unlikely that such a sober, dignified man would cut up a defenseless victim. It is only believable because audiences are prepared to accept the worst things about a Jew.

 

As I pointed out (as again I learned from a wiser observer than myself), Shylock rejects Gratiano’s plea (“Can no prayers pierce thee?”) and answers, “No, none that thou hast wit enough to make.” In these words, “none that THOU,” Shylock is actually giving an overture to a plea to be made by a better man than the hoodlum Gratiano, that is, from Antonio. This would have been generously accepted by the sober, caring, banker that Shakespeare characterized in his play. But this is missed by those who can only see a “Jew” with all the expectations this sets up. There is much more like this in the play which, carefully considered, strongly supports this kind of noble Shylock. But we can never get to these nuances if knee-jerk readers, like Weiss, react to their prejudiced expectations of Shakespeare and not to the action and words in the play that the playwright gave us.

 

Thanks to the help of numerous sage, perceptive commentators, I have been made sensitive and alert to read the implications of what Shakespeare puts before his audience. I attempt to call the attention of readers on the list to this, citing chapter and verse as I can. In fact, this is the way I deal with many things in life and is the reason why I take the sides that I do. Again, this is what I have tried to share with my fellow appreciators of Shakespeare.

 

Larry Weiss, obviously, is not happy with views I bring to our list. Instead of arguing the points at issue, he seeks to poison the well, alleging that I take the views I do reflexively, not on the basis of facts and reasoned logic, but because of my prior ideological commitments. I would rejoinder to Weiss that it is rather he who projects his own prejudiced tendencies on to me. I take the sides that I do because I find supporting facts and justice and truth on those sides.

 

I am surprised that Weiss had the nerve to present his biased, ignorant and slanderous political views on list in order to discredit me. Interestingly, the same bias I find operating in the judgments against the Jew in the Merchant of Venice often show up with respect to the Jewish State, Israel. Thus, the latter small country experiences the onslaught of horrific terrorist acts by its foes, who to this day teach their children hate and the glories of martyrdom in killing Jews. Yet, it is Israel that is all too often considered the malefactor in events when it seeks to defend itself from these brutalities and to support its own national rights to its historic homeland. These are rights that in recent history were acknowledged by the nations of the world through the League of Nations in its Mandate of Palestine, carried on in force by the successor United Nations. The Palestine Mandate had set aside the lands it administered as a homeland for the Jews, a ruling which Israel’s enemies refuse to accept.

 

Weiss also imputes to me awfully sounding views and my support for a serial killer. Clearly, I have facts about the events and the situations that Weiss brings up that make me see things differently from him. These are facts he shows he is ignorant of in his hasty, wise-over-much arrogance. However, unlike him, don't feel this list is the proper place to deal with them.

 

I would urge others to deal with the issues I bring up in connection with Shakespeare on the basis of the evidence I raise. This, at least, should give readers the understanding that there is another side to this controversy. It has the advantage of preserving the high mindedness of Shakespeare and the coherence of his play in which this material is to be found.

 

David Basch

 

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------

From:        S. L Kasten  < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         September 2, 2013 6:13:34 PM EDT

Subject:     SHK 24.0422  Thursday, 29 August 2013

 

“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?”

 

Wow! What a way to end an academic discussion! Watch out for Larry Weiss. Who knows what skeletons he will find in your closet. Before I go any farther, allow me to disclose that I live in a so-called settlement called French Hill. Up until June of 1967 this bare hilltop was a fortified artillery emplacement of the Jordanian Army commanding most of Jerusalem. The trenches and barbed wire are long gone but the commanding view of the city remains. I will be glad to share it with you if you get in touch with me when you visit Israel. No Arab homes were commandered or destroyed in the building of the neighbourhood and the Arabs who live in the area have benefitted from the improved infrastructure brought in by their new neighbours.

 

With regard to Baruch Goldsteins, basing his motivation on the suspicion of being called a “dirty Jew”!! Come on Larry, we laugh that off. Even being referred to as descendants of Monkeys and Pigs is merely reflection on the vituperator. Names will never hurt us, but sticks and stones still break bones.

 

To call the massacre Goldstein committed “grievous” would be an understatement, but grievously did he answer for it. He was beaten to death on the spot, an eventuality that he doubtless expected. He was a doctor trained in the US and worked out Kiryat Arba near Hebron. Some say that regularly treating victims of Arab terror got to him. Being depressed can do things to a person. It got Antonio to close a potentially lethal bargain (he could have said “forget the pound of flesh, I’ll pay the usual monetary penalties if I default” but the deal was a reflection of his mood). As a psychiatrist I (along with many others) suspect that certain anti-depressants can mobilize anger into murderous levels expressed onto others or onto oneself. I think most, if not all jurisdictions reject this as a defense. Israel does not have the death penalty but I believe that had he somehow survived Goldstein would have been tried, convicted and sentenced, rightly, to as many life sentences as the lives he took.

 

I was going to write a quite different comment on this thread, not about any relative goodness Shylock might or might not have but about fleeting nuances that Shakespeare dressed him in. “Neo-con” Larry Weiss got me side-tracked. (Quite appropriately styling himself “neo-con” he left out John Drakakis’ “liberal” - in his rhetoric here and in other postings he sometimes sounds anything but liberal).

 

Actually, I was surprised that the ad hominem attack that I am answering made it through Hardy’s political filter.

 

May you all be inscribed for a year of health and happiness.

 

Syd Kasten

 

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------

From:        Joseph Egert < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         September 3, 2013 3:27:24 PM EDT

Subject:     RE: Merchant of Venice--Recent Essay & Question

 

Donald Bloom asks how one “can read IV.I without hating a man [Shylock] of such vindictive cruelty”.

 

How?

 

By reading  I.3, II.5, III.1, III.3, and once more IV.1.

 

Don then designates “the meaning and value of friendship [or love]” as the “main thematic point of the play.” But shouldn’t we add the consequences when that friendship or love is denied or unfairly apportioned to the class, tribal, or family Other, be he Shylock (“I am not bid for love”, Jessica), Edmund (“Yet Edmund was beloved!”), or even Luciferian Iago, perversely devoted to displacing both his rivals (the Adam figure Cassio and the Jesus figure Desdemona) as Othello’s favorite (“I am your own forever”). Love’s neglect and the repercussions thereof ring throughout Shakespeare’s works. Don’t Shylock and Iago protest their hatred too much? Is the bond that Shylock demands merely monetary? Indeed, it is dearly bought!

 

David Bishop wonders whether we should “read sentimental value into Shylock’s lament about the [torquoise] ring” he had from Leah. How else would he read it? Shylock’s attachment to said ring demonstrates to David “how an object can outweigh a person.” Come again? For its thief Jessica (that gilded casket chosen by Lorenzo), I agree the ring did not outweigh a monkey. But where does it outweigh a wilderness of monkeys for Shylock?

 

Larry Weiss advises us: “Where we stand depends on where we sit.” From this he concludes that “Whether or not we regard [Portia’s ‘complexion’ remark] 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.[...] These issues depend on the hearers’ feelings, not on the words Shakespeare wrote for the actors to say.” One cannot entirely separate those feelings from the words themselves. And, of course, Portia’s remark is racist by definition, though such racism may come naturally to our species on first encounter with the atypical.

 

Also, Larry, where does Basch “revise[] the action of the play to fit his theme”? And can you provide links (off-list, if you prefer) to Basch’s “final solution to the Arab problem” and to his “defen[se] and “canoniz[ing]” of murderer Goldstein. Let’s have his actual words in context before us, not merely heresay from where you sit and stand. Then we who stand for judgment can judge for ourselves.

 

Joe Egert

 

 

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------

From:        Larry Weiss < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         September 3, 2013 4:46:45 PM EDT

Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Shylock

 

[Editor’s Note: I suggest that the answers to these questions, “where we stand depends on where we sit,” notwithstanding, be addressed privately and that other interested persons make their interest known to Larry Weiss, who I am sure will be willing to copy them any responses. –Hardy]

 

I see no reason to raise anyone’s ire by continuing a frustrating attempt to convince Mr. Basch that his interpretation of Merchant of Venice and Shylock’s character is supported by nothing more than his fertile imagination.  Therefore, instead of attempting a point-by-point refutation of arguments that carry their own refutation, I will confine myself to asking a few pointed questions:

 

(1) Please, Mr. Basch, let us have a list of Shakespeare scholars who have endorsed your interpretation of M/V or your view of Shylock.  Citations to their writings and their affiliations or CVs would be helpful.

 

(2) Please cite us to the documentation supporting your contention that the entire Mandate of Palestine was “set aside” for the Jews.  That’s not what Balfour said—a Jewish homeland “in” Palestine—and certainly it is not reflected in any decision taken by the League of Nations or the U.N.

 

(3) In any case, we are in a different world now and the realities have moved well in advance of original Zionist ambitions.  Given the current situation, which of these ultimate solutions is the one you prefer?:  (a) Recognize a fully sovereign Arab state in territories now occupied by Israel (West Bank and Gaza); (b) Combine all the land in the former Mandate into a single nonsectarian secular state in which all occupants will be equal citizens, with equal votes, governed by a mixed cabinet which employs a mixed police force and mixed bureaucracy and where disputes are resolved by courts in which Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Druse and Atheist judges who all serve without any religious test; (c) Absorb the remaining portions of the Mandate into the existing Jewish State of Israel, expelling the Arabs and excluding non-Jews from citizenship. While we are on that, as a supplement to the last question, what would you do with territories now occupied by Israel which were never in the mandate?  Are you willing to return the Golan Heights to Syria, Gaza to Egypt and slivers of land north of the Israeli frontier to Lebanon?  Please don’t be shy; you expressed your opinion elsewhere, where you might have been preaching to the choir.  You should be willing to say the same thing in mixed company?

 

(4) As for Baruch Goldstein, what are the “facts about the events and the situations that [I] brings up that make [you] see things differently from [me].”  If these secret facts made it justifiable for Goldstein to have massacred 29 men, women and children praying in a mosque, you surely will want the whole world to know so as to clear Goldstein’s reputation.

 

I apologize to Hardy and the List for straining their patience with non-Shakespearean points, but I do feel that “where we stand depends on where we sit,” so knowing a critic’s attitudes and social views helps us understand his literary opinions.  I am not arguing with Basch; I am asking for a fuller explication of his position.

 

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