The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.2116  Wednesday, 15 December 2004

[Editor's Note: I would appreciate it if contributors to this thread
would make an effort to bring it to a conclusion soon.]

[1]     From:   Larry Weiss <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
        Date:   Tuesday, 14 Dec 2004 13:17:38 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.2108 Jewish Shakespeare

[2]     From:   David Basch <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
        Date:   Tuesday, 14 Dec 2004 14:38:47 -0500

[3]     From:   JD Markel <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
        Date:   Tuesday, 14 Dec 2004 15:52:09 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.2108 Jewish Shakespeare

[4]     From:   David Basch <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
        Date:   Tuesday, 14 Dec 2004 22:51:49 -0500

From:           Larry Weiss <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Tuesday, 14 Dec 2004 13:17:38 -0500
Subject: 15.2108 Jewish Shakespeare
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.2108 Jewish Shakespeare

To clarify: I am perfectly willing to discuss the terms of the judicial
composition.  That is a significant and not perfectly clear issue.  In
fact, I did address it further in my last post and I find that my
esteemed brother-in-law, Tony Burton, has reached pretty much the same

What I believe is a complete waste of time is to marshal the evidence to
refute Basch's balderdash, particularly that Shakespeare was a Jew.  No
one (not even Mr. Krause) has yet endorsed that view.  I repeat that if
any respected member of the list indicates that he or she feels that the
contention is plausible, I will be happy to respond at greater length.
Otherwise, I will spare you.

From:           David Basch <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Tuesday, 14 Dec 2004 14:38:47 -0500

by David Basch

What many critics and audiences see in The Merchant of Venice as a
demonic Shylock, a man with a capacity for savage murder and boundless
hate, is not in Shakespeare's play. A sober and objective view of the
text and story must conclude that there is a stark difference between
the Shylock character that Shakespeare actually created and what
audiences regularly see in their minds eye.

 From whence comes the demonic Shylock? It comes from no where else than
the imaginations of critics and audiences inflamed by highly prejudiced
opinions of Jews.

There is no doubt that we do in fact find an angry and bitter Shylock
emerging from Shakespeare's text. But the heartless, obsessed man
capable of an uncommon, extreme cruelty who will stop at nothing to
wreak bloody revenge on the man he hates- the Shylock that most think
they see-is something else. This latter Shylock is not actually in
Shakespeare's play and neither are the scenes often seen in some
productions, in which Shylock desecrates Christian symbols. These are
strictly the ideas of directors and their advisors.

To make clear what is happening in the play, consider a father playing
with his small child and adopting a tone of mock anger to teach the
child a lesson. Others observing this father at play would detect his
wink of the eye and the flatness of his mock anger. But the child would
take what he confronts seriously. It is this paradigm that must explain
Shakespeare's play, a Shylock indulging in a charade of monstrous anger
in order to humble the self-righteous merchant, Antonio, and get him to
plead for mercy from the Jew he despises.

Just as we expect the grimacing father to turn a kindly face to his
child after he has taught his lesson, so too may we expect that Shylock,
having ruffled up Antonio, will then turn a merciful face to him.

We have a right to expect that this is the underlying action of the play
since we confront in Shakespeare's lines a Shylock who, for all his
bluster, is the opposite of a monster. Jewish people have known for
years that a character sch as Shylock could not authentically be the
unbridled monster that everyone expects. It is simply out of character.

Consider for a moment who Shylock is. He is depicted in Shakespeare's
play as a financially prudent and even a generous man with a hatred of
hypocrisy and oppression. In fact, he resembles nothing more than what
we would recognize today as a respectable accountant or banker. And how
many persons do we know that have ever been mugged by an accountant or a

In Shakespeare's play, it is Shylock that speaks its most moving and
soulful lines. Shylock tells of his deep hurt at his daughter's
betrayal, his own "flesh and blood" having turned against him. He is
driven to such distraction that he knows not what he says, "My daughter,
my ducats, my daughter"-the two scramble in his mind. Shakespeare
artfully conceals the full measure of Shylock's hurt in his ranting by
having it reported through the eyes of unfeeling enemies that laugh at
it-the way audiences for hundreds of years have reacted to the sorrowful
calamity that befalls the despised Jew.

How is it possible that audiences believe that such a person who feels
so deeply about his own calamity and recognizes the oppression of slaves
would mortally cut a pound of flesh from the merchant? It is only
because he is a Jew. Had the story concerned an Englishman, Dutchman, or
Dane, the incongruity of Shylock's character to the proposed deed would
be starkly apparent and would call for explanation in the work of a
supreme dramatist.  The situation is only plausible in the play because
Shylock is a Jew and Shakespeare's audiences expect and are willing to
swallow what they think as the most vile behavior depictions of such a
person. What we have here are audiences that actively bring to bear
their own prejudices by interpreting every vague word or event
encountered in the play in an anti-Jewish way.

It is the genius of Shakespeare that, being fully aware of the thinking
of his audience, he is able with just the right words and situations to
deliberately bait their prejudices, using suggestive snipets of dialogue
and events that admit of a variety of interpretations. In this way,
Shakespeare allows his audiences to override the character of the man he
actually portrayed and to indulge their own prejudices. These audiences
blind themselves to the hypocracy, venality, and self-serving behavior
of Shylock's enemies and have only eyes for the evil they read into the
actions of the Jew they delight in seeing foiled.

Where then is the mercy and compassion audiences demand of the Jew and
which they regard as the essence of the Christian religion they espouse?
As A. D. Moody, a gentile critic observed of the uncharitable behavior
toward Shylock, "Christian values are represented in the play by their

The play, stripped of anti-Jewish prejudice, suddenly becomes
transparent as the contradictions between what the characters espouse
and actually do reveal themselves. At that time, telltale lines hit home
coming from speakers that reveal their true hearts and light up the
actual moral universe of the play.

For example, while Morocco, the black suitor for Portia's hand,
superficially, seems foolishly idealistic, he actually speaks a line
with a ringing, though overlooked, assertion of brotherhood.  Speaking
to Portia, he declares, "let us [he and a northern born suitor] make
incision for your love, / To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine."
In this brief line, Shakespeare calls the attention of his audience to
the fact that all men have a common human nature.

This to be contrasted with Portia's view. Thus, first Portia assures
Morocco that his suit for marriage is as welcome as the others. Then
after Morocco has failed in his selection, she says to Nerissa, "A
gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go. / Let all of his complexion
choose me so." Such a statement hardly appears in its true moral tone
against the supportive background against which Portia is lauded.

Another line, one of many such examples in the play, is the comment made
by Gratiano after Jessica has robbed her father:

"Now, by my hood, a Gentile and no Jew." In the excited merriment of the
scene and in the abhorence of Shylock, the moral tone of this revealed
act of robbery and ingratitude is lost on the audience.

Concerning Portia, early in the play, we learn from her own words that
she "can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of
the twenty to follow mine own teaching." This telltale line reveals how
we are to regard her stirring teaching on mercy, "falling like the
gentle rain," directed to an arrogant Shylock at the climax of the play.
But moments later, she then fails to practice this teaching when she has
turned the tables on Shylock.  She and the court strip Shylock of all
his wealth, as a careful reading of the penalty imposed on Shylock
reveals. (Antonio receives half Shylock's money outright and he gets to
use the second half of it so that, after Shylock's death, it can be
given to "the gentleman that lately stole his daughter," Lorenzo.

What then is Shakespeare's play? Is it the rendering of comeuppance to
an evil, hard hearted Jew by righteous, merciful Christians, as everyone
thinks he sees in the play? Or is it the exercise of brute, mercilous
power in undoing a distraught man who overreached in attempting to teach
a lesson to a haughty man that had despised him and who he thought had
contributed to his daughter's abscondment? Both stories are there

The demonic Shylock emerges in the first story, but only with the strong
aid of the prejudiced hearts of self-righteous audiences that can think
nothing good about Jews. Immersed in the heady atmosphere of knowing
that they are of the congregation of morality and compassion, audiences
suppress the signals Shakespeare gives that reveal that the champions of
this congregation in the story starkly contradict this portrait.

It is from the second story that a seldom seen portrait of a victimized
Shylock emerges, the respectable banker and widower, whose daughter has
left him bereft and as an object of mockery from uncharitable enemies
and who unwisely struck out at his persecutors. In this story, of
course, true measures can be taken of the characters in Shakespeare's
story. The result is a total reversal of the moral world assumed in the
play, as the compassion withheld from the play's victim can then unfold.


From:           JD Markel <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Tuesday, 14 Dec 2004 15:52:09 -0800 (PST)
Subject: 15.2108 Jewish Shakespeare
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.2108 Jewish Shakespeare

As for the Portia business, MOV at specifically references a comparison
to Brutus' Portia (Porcia)

.Her name is Portia, nothing undervalued
To Cato's daughter, Brutus' Portia:
Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth,
For the four winds blow in from every coast..

I've seen no alternative view that the Roman family name Porcius does
not have a porcine origin, and Shakespeare might have had a private
laugh about it but I think in performance the audience's association
that Portia is a pig would be remote, at least via representation by
name.  At performance I think the association most likely evident to an
Elizabethan's ear, and intended by Shakespeare,  would be the
conceptions of inheritance which were then familiar by words such as
"portion" and "porcion"and even perhaps the Latin "portio."   Portion
had alternative meanings such as "a part of an estate" and "dowry."
Something else to chew on - a Porcius appears in the Bible.  In Acts 24
and 25 Porcius Festus (Happy Pig?) is procurator of Judea and
adjudicates the trial of Saint Paul.

Very interesting ideas about the result of Shylock's trial by all! I'll
start with "mercy".  The Christian mercy would have been to forgive
Shylock and let him go unfettered.  But money gets in the way.  As
Portia later says "My mind was never yet more mercenary", rather than
"merciful" a revealing  bit of word play.  Whether all or half is seized
by operation of Portia's concocted law or Antonio's mercy, I think
neither is "merciful" compared to other outcomes Sh. could have selected.

As for the 1/2 vs. all debate, it's very interesting.  Both ways are
readily arguable and I am considering them.  But I can't think what
communicative and dramatic purpose Shakespeare would serve by being
purposefully ambiguous here, though maybe he just likes to do so
anywhere he can.  I think more probably it is a difficult passage
because Sh.'s primary poetic purpose was to express greater themes in
mere sentences and fit in the "in use" and "gift" jokes (later described
as "deed of gift").

I think "gift" is a joke but perhaps if someone could show a deed of
gift connoted a sense of irrevocability perhaps Sh. intended to express
that sense.  That is, of all the manners he could convey the inheritance
he chose "deed of gift" not out of humor but because of its
irrevocability - Shylock can't change his mind later.  A thesis I've
pondered but I found nothing that a deed of gift expressed a particular
sense of either revocability or irrevocability.  So I'll stick with the

As for the "in use" I think it's a humorous quip subverting Antonio's
perviously stated pretension.  Shakespeare could have used other
expressions if he intended Antonio merely to keep the money, and
increase, safe for Lorenzo's future use.  As for "dark irony" I don't
get the sense it's dark, but it is certainly irony.  And it's truly
funny.   Would the "Elizabethan audience" expect any merchant,
especially a Venetian merchant, not to practice usury?  Didn't almost
all Elizabethans practice usury?  And maybe that business transaction
performance between Antonio and Shylock where Antonio claims he doesn't
borrow or lend at advantage was a performed for the sake of Bassanio,
Shylock playing along to the degree of not spilling the beans on a
customer.   We know some things about Antonio's business practices.  For
one, he has creditors other than Shylock. Tubal tells us Antonio has
"creditors" traveling to Venice because Antonio cannot choose but to
break, they presumably wanting to get what they can salvage from his

I doubt those creditors lent to Antonio without any later interest,
increase and advantage in mind.  Then there's Bassanio's comment:

Portia: What sum owes he the Jew?
Bassanio:  For me three thousand ducats.

For me.  Antonio owes him more?  Maybe the qualification is not firm,
but it would accord with the idea the merchant of Venice is a
sanctimonious hypocrite but deals with folks like Shylock as a practice.
   I can't think of a funnier way to construct Antonio's business
affairs so why wouldn't Sh. think of it?  Plus the fact that Shakespeare
& Father were usury practitioners might have impelled Sh. to ironize an
anti-usury zealot - here in the entertainingly hypocritical guise of a
Venetian merchant.

The discussion about trusts and their equivalents are very interesting
and I'm going to consider them more.  I myself haven't found reference
to an "in use" title other than applying to real property.  But maybe
that's not a surprise, the records that would be historically available
wouldbe recorded land-related documents.

Mr. Weiss suggests "content" as in "I am content" would mean consent and
I agree.    Shylock is not happy with the matter and I thought "content"
might have a legal echo.  Yet I've seen an editorial comment or two
suggesting the meaning was "happy" or such.  We would not say "I am
happy" in a court, rather "I consent" or "I submit" whether we like the
result or not.   I found one usage of "content" in a swearing, a
marriage vow interestingly enough, and wonder if others can point out more.

From:           David Basch <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Tuesday, 14 Dec 2004 22:51:49 -0500


Philip Weller in his posting brings up an interesting quote in the
Merchant of Venice that I believe must shed light on the penalty imposed
on Shylock. In the lines, Portia describes how her wealth is then to be
given over to Bassanio. The parallel to the portions, the treatment of
halves, found in Shylock's penalty are striking. Here is what Portia says:

                         Beshrew your eyes, /
    They have o'erlook'd me and divided me: /
    One half of me is yours, the other half yours -- /
    Mine own, I would say; but if mine, then yours, /
    And so all yours.

Now put those same words into Shylock's mouth. Paraphrasing, Shylock
would be declaring that he too was divided; one half (his wealth) has
gone to Antonio and the second half too, his-

"Mine own, I would say; but if mine, then yours, / And so all
yours""-and so Shylock's wealth goes to Antonio.

I think in this Shakespeare gives a clarification to the division of
Shylock's entire estate since it is a formula of passing wealth to
another. It is a parallel worth serious

David Basch

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