The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.271 Monday, 15 August 2016
Date: August 13, 2016 at 8:44:09 AM EDT
Subject: Re: SHAKSPER: MV Dialog
It is difficult to know how to respond to Bill Blanton’s email, that is both very defensive and assertive at the same time. The objective of the discussion is not to personalise it, but Bill makes it very difficult not to when he says things like: “I have often wondered whether what I think I see is really there, or whether I am projecting onto the play my own personal concerns and prejudices” and teen follows it immediately with: “I would not be asking for and participating in this dialog had I not concluded that my own observations were real, and that they would be useful to real Shakespeare scholars.”
One of the protocols that I hoped Bill would explain concerns the principle of the falsifiability of empirical evidence. This has nothing to do with matters of enthusiasm and curiosity. If what is being asked for is a serious debate with other readers of this play then we should simply evaluate the evidence critically. To do that in the detail that Bill Blanton requires would, I think, be beyond the scope of the SHAKSPER network, so let me confine myself to the issue of the name ‘Shylock’ that Bill raises.
The knowledge that the name ‘Shylock’ is an English name was first suggested in H.H. Furness’s nineteenth-century variorum edition of the play. Furness doesn’t speculate further on what that might mean. Bill Blanton, however, offers us the following: “I do not know quite what to make of it. However, it does comport with John Drakakis’s observation that Shylock was an English name (Arden 3, pp 164-65). This, in turn, comports with my belief that MV had little or nothing to do with Venice except as necessary camouflage.”
The conceptual gap between the second and third sentences here points directly to what raises questions over Bill’s ‘method’, and the latter part of sentence 3 does not in any way “comport” with Bill’s suggestion - in fact I argue the exact opposite. Leaving aside the obvious point that the play is called “the Merchant of Venice” the speculative question arises concerning why Shakespeare should give a usurer and a ‘Jew’ an English name, and set the play in Venice. Officially the Jews had been expelled from England in the late 13th century, but in 16th century England ‘Christians’ practised usury. This point is made abundantly clear in one of the usury tracts that I document in my edition. In the play, it is the practice of ‘usury’ that is displaced onto the ‘outsider’ Shylock. Venice was well-known as a place that welcomed ‘strangers’ and it was also a focus for mercantile trade and money-lending. These are the issues that the play negotiates, in the critical view it takes of Venice - a critical view for which there is also documentary evidence. Shakespeare was not offering his audience a descriptive guide to Venice. Indeed, he was offering a critical perspective on a ‘republic’ whose practices differed in many ways from those with which he and his audiences were familiar. We should pay attention here to the ‘representation’ of Venice and not try to substitute it for something else.
As to Bill’s suggestion that Shylock is the devil disguised as a Jew, his claim that this excuses the play’s alleged anti-semitism is nonsense. In fact it makes it worse. May I suggest that he has a look at Joshua Trachtenberg’s book on The Devil and the Jews, and if that doesn’t convince him then Deborah Strickland’s Saracens, Demons and Jews. If, once he has thought through this rather complex set of popular displacements, he then tries to impose upon the play his original thesis, then we will be able to see more clearly how valid it is, or how it will succeed in meeting the test of empirical falsifiability,