The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.1337  Sunday, 3 June 2001

From:           Thomas Larque <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Friday, 1 Jun 2001 21:15:32 +0100 (BST)
Subject:        Re: Tragic Hero

Thank you to Hardy for his explanation of the problems with my previous
post, and I am sorry if I am now causing him the same problems with this

Since my last posting I have managed to put a few spare minutes, during
my library research, to looking into Ms. Amit's arguments.  Ms. Amit's
suggestion that "Merchant of Venice" "was banned" looks even more
dubious after a little research.  It turns out that a break of a century
between documented productions is not unique to "Merchant".  A Quarto
edition of "Love's Labours Lost" apparently states that it was performed
at the Blackfriars, which would mean sometime after 1609 when the
Blackfriars began to be used by the King's Men.  The next documented
production of "Love's Labours Lost" was in 1800.  Nobody, to my
knowledge, has ever suggested that the play must have been banned in
order to explain such a gap.

Moreover, when the performance rights to Shakespeare's plays were
divided between the two authorised Shakespearean theatres after the
Restoration, "Merchant of Venice" was allocated to the Theatre Royal.
Although the Theatre Royal does not seem to have performed the play, it
is obvious that no performance rights would have been granted if the
play had been banned.  This means that the play was legal in 1605, when
it was performed twice in front of King James, and was still legal in
the 1660s, when it was allocated to the Theatre Royal.  This leaves only
40 years in which the play could have been banned before the performance
of an adaptation of the play in 1701.  If the ban had been so recent
then it seems unlikely that it would have existed without being recorded
or that it would have been lifted without comment.

On my way back from the Shakespeare Centre Library, I dropped into the
Shakespeare Bookshop and picked up a copy of James Shapiro's
"Shakespeare and the Jews".  This interesting book, which I have only
had time to dip into, contains a number of comments that are relevant to
our discussion.

Ms. Amit seems unable to accept that a Renaissance play might contain a
Jew acting villainously and inhumanly.  She tells us that these are
"absurdities that should have given the audience pause", and then seems
to demand that Shakespeare depict his Jewish characters (of which there
are only two, Shylock and Tubal) with psychological and historical
realism .  She says "It is absurd for a man to want a pound of any man's
flesh, quite as absurd as had been the libel of blood that it parodies.
It is likewise absurd that a Jew in dispersion, willy nilly, without a
very good motive, would call attention to himself and to his brotherhood
so dangerously by a proposal so demonstrably evil. It is absurd that
because a bigot perfunctorily spits upon his clothing during a time of
expulsions, of trials and even death for Marranos, of book burning and
the confiscation of property by the inquisition, that a Jew would choose
such a relatively innocuous deed as Antonio's, to 'revenge' himself
upon. While his interest would be to survive the persecution. It is
absurd for an observant Jew who would be under the daily jurisdiction of
Rabbinical law, to confuse monetary matters with criminal penalties or
that such a savage forfeiture would be countenanced by the rabbis and
therefore by himself.  It is absurd that a Jewish father who had lost
his only child would cry out in a 16th century Venetian square,  'my
daughter, my ducats'."  Ms. Amit seems to me to be demanding that a
Renaissance author write for a 21st Century, post-holocaust, liberal
audience.  Many Renaissance writers and audiences would not have
accepted Ms. Amit's suggestions.  Not only would people accept a
fictional villain demanding his pound of flesh and crying for his money
(something that was expected of all fictional villains, whatever their
religion), but people were happy to accept supposedly factual accounts
which painted Jews as equally inhuman and bloodthirsty in real life.

Shapiro cites a sermon by John Donne in which the poet and preacher
claimed that "a barbarous and inhumane custom of the Jews" was to
"always keep in readiness the blood of some Christian, with which they
anoint the body of any that dies amongst them, with these words, 'If
Jesus Christ were the Messiah, then may the blood of this Christian
avail thee to salvation' " (p.2).  Shapiro adds that other factually
stated beliefs included that "Jews stank and Jewish men menstruated; how
Jews abducted Christian children; how Jews sought to emasculate
Christian men".  This latter belief is illustrated in the text by an
amusing illustration from "Coryat's Crudities" titled "fly from the
Jews, lest thy circumcise thee" and showing a traditionally dressed Jew
pursuing a running Englishman while brandishing a knife.  Given this
background of hostility and credulousness, Ms. Amit's confidence that
neither Shakespeare nor his audience could have taken seriously a
fictional Jew demanding a pound of flesh seems exceedingly na 

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