The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1582  Thursday, 24 August 2000.

From:           Clifford Stetner <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Thursday, 24 Aug 2000 01:32:39 -0400
Subject: 11.1563 Re: Shylock
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1563 Re: Shylock

Florence Amit says:

>Mr. Stetner's claim that " Shylock and Angelo involves a
>rejection of the principle of the "purity" of written text" is quite
>true. He only need now to accept that these deceptions are the norm in
>satire, which is the genre for the play.

I accept this, but, please correct me if I'm wrong, there was not much
of a genre in England before the Tudor drama.  There's Chaucer and the
Second Shepherd's Play, and there's Terence and Plautus whom the
Elizabethans used as source material.  I'd be interested in other
examples, but if satire did emerge at this point as a full-fledged genre
(more to the credit of Ben Jonson, I think), it may imply a "new"
awareness of textual impurity.

I think Shakespeare worked to stay within the broad limits of dramatic
conventions, but never without seeking new and counter conventional uses
for them.  As to the impurity of textual representation: I don't think
it is limited to his satires, but emerges in every single dramatic and
poetic work and constitutes, for him, an ideology (please don't hit me

As to the anti-Semitism of the Merchant: I agree that it contains a
critique of anti-Semitism (rather severe I think, but somewhat concealed
from the casual contemporary audience, as is the critique of Henry V as
ideal Christian monarch).  Marlowe shows the malignancy of Barabas to be
the product of historically accurate methods of persecution (when Malta
needs money to fight a war, it confiscates the property of the Jews).
Shylock's motivation is a dramatization of the spirit rather than the
letter of historical persecution.  Barabas' daughter pretends at the
behest of her father to be what Jessica is, but her loyalty to her
father, as long as it lasts, is presented (I think) as noble and
virtuous, even when it involves deceiving Christians.  I can't help
thinking, then, that even the most anti-Semitic audience was not aghast
at Jessica's betrayal (many were fathers who had left daughters (and
strongboxes) at home in the care of untrustworthy servants) .

While few people could identify with Antonio's motivation for throwing
money around the young roues of Venice, many would identify with a
father betrayed by an ungrateful daughter pursuing an undesired match.
Shakespeare takes great pains to tell us that Shylock, the greedy Jew,
was hurt, not by the loss of all his pretty ducats, but primarily by the
loss of his dead wife's ring.  In an era when accumulation of capital
wealth was becoming desirable, this statement that even the Jew's money
was not valuable for its own sake addressed moral conflicts with which
Christian capitalists must have been struggling themselves.  Moreover,
Bassanio's motivation, and that of all the Christians in the play, is
never clearly unmercenary, except for Antonio, whose motives, whatever
they are, are suspect.

Depending on how it is played, it seems possible to me that Shylock had
no intention of holding Antonio to his bond until the final decimating
blow of Jessica running off with the Christian.  This is put into
question by her statement that she often heard him say that he would
rather, etc., but this is not necessarily a statement of actual intent.
Shakespeare also goes to the trouble of sending them to Belmont on a
separate ship from Bassanio and the others, but Shylock's accusation
that the Christians conspired to make the elopement possible is
accurate, and since Antonio is the only one of them over whom he has any
power, it is on him he is forced to emulate the vengeful Christians.
Given the motivation, is Shylock's revenge plot any less noble than
Hamlet's?  If not, it is the contradictions in the anti-Semitic reading
to which the play is pointing.

Presenting what to any father would seem an atrocity to himself as the
virtuous and noble deeds of a community of Christians is another example
of Shakespeare's use of conventions against themselves.  But this
particular twist is not new.  It can be read in Chaucer's Prioress and
Marlowe's Barabas which similarly (it seems to me) critique the
conventions of popular representations of anti-Semitism.  It is
important, then, whether Shylock makes the interest free bond in good
faith, just as he said, to try to heal the rift between them (although
it seems to have been all of Antonio's making), or whether the elopement
of Jessica only confirms him in his original malignant intentions (let
me know if I missed anything in the play that would clear up this

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the much debated issue of who
is the hero of the play.  Nineteenth century criticism developed a
consensus that Antonio is the hero, as Shakespeare always named his name
plays after his hero.  It's interesting to note, however, that this play
was entered in the stationer's register under two titles: "The Merchant
of Venice or the Jew of Venice," so it doesn't seem possible to
determine Shakespeare's intention regarding title.  The double title may
even be his intention.  If so, this is the final critique of
anti-Semitism pointing to the permanent exclusion of the other from the
role even of tragic hero.

Clifford Stetner

English Dep't                    English Dep't
Graduate Center               Humanities 217K
GSUC CUNY                    CW Post College
365 Fifth Ave                    720 Northern Blvd
New York, NY 10016       Brookville, NY 11548

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