The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 21.0429  Friday, 10 November 2010

From:         David Basch <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:         November 5, 2010 1:45:29 PM EDT
Subject: 21.0416  Shylock the unChristian
Comment:      Re: SHK 21.0416  Shylock the unChristian

David Bishop's article on the Merchant of Venice gives a view of this play through 
the lens of his own thoughts that often have nothing to do with Shakespeare's play.

Take for example bishop's statement that "Shylock is not a real Jew," which I take 
to be his opinion that the Shylock character is merely what Shakespeare imagined 
Jews to be and is not as they are. But as a Jew I would disagree with this judgment. 
In many aspects it is astounding how authentically Shakespeare drawn this Jewish 
portrait. Shylock speaks glibly and with the rationality that one associates with 
cultivated Jews. The authentic Jews shows up in even small details of the play.

For example, when Bassanio asks Shylock, who is lost in thought, as to whether he 
will give Antonio a loan, Shylock answers, "I am debating my store." Notice the word 
"debating." While Gentiles think, calculate, ratiocinate, etc', Shakespeare's Jew 
"debates," reflecting in that one word a characteristic Jew steeped in the debates 
of the Talmud.

Also notable are details like Shylock swearing on the "holy Sabbath." In fact, in 
Jewish homiletic thinking, the Sabbath is regarded as the "witness," the witness 
that God created heaven and earth. This suggests a Shakespeare familiar with aspects 
of particularistic Jewish culture, adding further semblances of authenticity. I 
would also note the hypothetical suggestion that Shylock gives to the Venetians that 
they give their own beds to their slaves. In fact, Talmudic law calls for a Jewish 
slave owner to give his slave his bed when there is only one bed in the house. This 
again shows a Shakespeare with uncommon knowledge of particularistic Jewish culture.

To be sure, where Shakespeare would seem to fail is when Shylock is turned into an 
unfeeling, maniacal creditor, ready to cut off flesh owed him by a creditor. No Jew 
regards this as authentically Jewish. They think that such behavior could only come 
from a madman, someone that is beyond the pale of normal human interaction and, of 
course, beyond Jewishness. In Jewish eyes and I think in the eyes of other 
thoughtful persons, it would reflect a playwright that has failed miserably in 
shaping Shylock. For, after all, if Shylock is insane, he can hardly be an exemplar 
of Judaic ways and serve as a fit protagonist to be countered by the moral high 
mindedness of the non-Jewish world. There is no contest here.

Can it be that the pious, thrifty, straight-laced, Jewish banker that Shakespeare 
convincingly portrayed would then mean to publicly murder Antonio for revenge? To 
begin with, murder is against Jewish law and a vow to murder is considered a non 
vow, with no force. (I would also note that on the Yom Kippur all vows to be made in 
the coming year are retroactively annulled, a protection needed for vows made to 
evade inquisitors.) In other words, a sane Shylock would not find his vow binding.

In any case, how many know of someone who was mugged by a banker? The only reason 
such a preposterous idea is countenanced by audiences is because it is thought that 
this is the way Elizabethans, including Shakespeare, thought of Jews were capable 
of. I think Bishop recognizes this when he mentions that he thinks Shylock is not a 
real person, let alone a Jew.

I would also challenge Bishop's assumptions about the cruelty of Shylock the usurer 
who is merciless to those who default on loans. What we have here is none other than 
the behavior of the lender, so recognizable today.  Sure, exercising penalties for 
defaulted loans is experienced by the defaulter as cruel and inhuman but it is part 
of the agreed arrangement to a lender who is not a relative. Being a lender is 
hardly the inhuman occupation that Bishop alleges.

In the play, Antonio has interceded in Shylock's business transactions and prevented 
Shylock from getting the due he bargained for, hardly any more cruel and inhuman 
than the loan officers of Bank of America. In fact, if you look for cruel and 
hateful in the play, it is Antonio that is characterized as such and is an anti-
Semite, reviling Shylock for the use of his own money in lending to clients that 
presumably find value in the transaction. But, then, this is another demonstration 
that Shylock is not some warped person. When you come to think of it, he is 
recognizable as today's banker and Antonio's anger and hatred is recognizable as 

Also, consider that Shakespeare puts into Shylock's mouth the most moving speeches 
in the play, lines such, "hath a Jew not eyes?" or not trading his wife's ring for 
"a wilderness of monkeys," and "no i[ll] luck stirring but what lights on my 
shoulders; no sighs but of my breathing; no tears but of my shedding." This is not 
the way of an unfeeling killer.

What is more, Shylock shows astonishment that Bassanio and Gratiano display a 
willingness to trade away the lives of their wives to allay what they think is 
Shylock's murderous intent. If the play is to be taken seriously, such aspects too 
must be recognized and weighed in evaluating Shylock's behavior in court.

Although Bishop claims that "Christianity, in this play, means kindness . . ." in 
contradistinction to an alleged Jewish way that is, by contrast, unmerciful, the 
point of the early biographic details of Shylock reveals quite another underlying 
message in the play than the besting of a bestial Jew, who as earlier revealed is 
not at all a beast.

To prove this point, after Portia's world famous pitch for mercy from the Jew, when 
she subsequently vanquishes Shylock, he, the Jew, is given none of that touted 
mercy. Although Bishop seems to think otherwise since he alleges that Shylock 
mercifully receives "half his goods," Bishop is in error on this as the text shows. 
Shylock is in fact impoverished of all his wealth. Let us see this in the text.

Thus, in the court scene, Portia spells out the terms of Shylock's punishment:

The party [Antonio] 'gainst the which he [Shylock] doth contrive 
Shall seize one half his goods; the other half 
Comes to the privy coffer of the state;

While the Duke offers to reduce this punishment to a fine, Portia rules this out for 
Antonio and accepts this only for the half belonging to the Venetian state. The Duke 
then calls on Antonio to suggest what mercy is to be rendered to Shylock with that 
remaining half of Shylock's goods.

Antonio says:

So please my lord the duke and all the court 
To quit the fine for one half of his goods, 
I am content; so he will let me have 
The other half in use, to render it, 
Upon his death, unto the gentleman 
That lately stole his daughter:

As I read these lines, Antonio tells that he is content that the fine be "quit" for 
one half of his goods. In other words, Shylock would be fined to the extent of one 
half of these goods, the part belonging to the state. As to the other half, Antonio 
would take it "in use" With this we account for 100% of Shylock's goods, which is 
hardly the touted mercy that Portia spoke of. And I don't even mention the barbarity 
of forcing such a man to convert to another religion. Shakespeare is making a point 
here about hypocrisy in a play that is altogether different from the one that Bishop 

How to make sense of a good Shylock in the earlier scenes and the monster that shows 
up? This assumes that Shylock has not gone insane and is no longer a worthy 
adversary in a theological debate.

I would offer an alternative interpretation of the play raised many decades ago by 
actor-director Abraham Morevski. He sees in the dialogue and action of the play a 
Shylock who is involved in a charade of ferocity, not real ferocity. An attitude 
taken in order to humble Antonio and get him to apologize in public for his un-
kindnesses to the Jew. The problem for Shylock in the play is that his charade is 
suddenly interrupted before he can fully enact it and show to the Venetian court his 
own brand of mercy, the mercy of a Jew.

The approach of director Morevski enables a synthesis between the two 
characterizations of Shylock and reveals Shakespeare centuries far ahead of his 
society in the treatment of the "stranger" and not at all grossly deficient as a 
playwright in the writing of this play that must otherwise be assumed.

The issue is complex and needs a far more detailed exposition to make sense and 
harmony between all of the parts of the play. I don't think that Bishop's approach 
gives this.

David Basch

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