Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Shylock and Fagin

So much of what we think Shakespeare "means" is locked in 19th Century interpretations and culture, that we sometimes take it as truth.

Perhaps the biggest problem of The Merchant of Venice is the percieved anti-semitism of the play.

There are certainly anti-jewish feelings expressed by characters in the play, but does this make the play anti-semitic?

I think not - and it is something that has had me puzzled for a number of years - ever since I first read the play back in the 1970's. I read it as an attack on anti-semitism much more than an attack on Jewishness: I found Antonio a very unsympathetic character, and Jessica a dishonest and wasteful child.

Then I started reading about the play and watching performances which set up a tension with my initial view.

Recently I have become more convinced that my initial reaction is closer to that of Shakespeare's time (see the post below on Shylock and Shakespeare's Dad).

What if Shakespeare's England was a lot less anti-semitic than it is given credit for? How could this be and how could its reputation be tarnished? And what about the term itself: Anti-semitic?

We cannot (nor should we) forget events of the last century - this has stained our view of anti-semitism: But it is not the sort of anti-jewish feelings expressed or even felt in Elizabethan England. The Queen, Elizabeth, had a Portugese Jewish doctor (thinking about the idea of Hitler having a German Jewish doctor puts this into perspective).

The very concept of race has far less relevance too: Nationality and Religion were far more important. 'Semitic' is a race - it carries biological and time consequences -you cannot change your race. You can both choose and change your religion, and national alligences change too.

Hebrew was a respected language - the language of the Old Testament and taught in Oxford and Cambridge: The Church in England read, every Sunday, from the Old Testament. The Kings of the Jews were held up as examples of virtue and strength.

A world very far from the deep anti-semitism frequently credited to Elizabethan England.

If we turn to the Victorian period we find a very different situation. (Race has been faught over in parliament, Evolution is an issue - and Darwin is about to deliver On the Origin of Species.)

Fagin, as rabid an anti-semitic portrait as you will find in serious literature, exposes just how the world has changed.

It is the picture published of Fagin we think of when we turn to Shylock: And the writings and performances of the play of this time which have coloured our view of the play.

What are the consequences for the play's meaning if Elizabethan England were more as I picture it?

Most important for me is the character of Shylock. He is not a hero (is anybody in this play?). He has faults - but these faults lie not in what he is but what he does.

For me, Shylock's biggest fault is the thirst for revenge: Like Hamlet.


Mastiff said...

While there is a distinction between racial anti-semitism and religious anti-semitism, most Jews treat the general term "anti-semitism" as a misnomer and don't get hung up on the racial angle. It is used to encompass any situation in which Jews are hated for being, or having been, Jewish.

I consider the term a bit of a cop-out. It sounds too erudite and is imprecise, as it does not inherently exclude other "semites" such as Arabs. I much prefer "Jew-hatred," it's far clearer.

But back to Shakespeare…

I agree that Shylock is not the typical portrait of the hated Jew. The play's main jeopardy is only introduced when Shylock decides to forego his money in favor of vengeance, not an action that one would expect from the Jewish caricature of the time.

But that caricature still informs Shylock's character. His stubbornness, his grotesque use of the law, his contempt for the Christians around him — while each of these make sense on their own, they also tie in well with traditional Christian polemics against Judaism.

Whether Shakespeare himself was a Jew-hater or simply used a convenient trope in his writing, you should remember that Jews had been banished from England entirely between the years 1290 and 1655, when Cromwell let us back in. The Jews was thus a conveniently absent bogeyman.

Alan K.Farrar said...

"Jews had been banished from England entirely between the years 1290 and 1655, when Cromwell let us back in"

Not actually true in the sense there were no Jews in England (although officially banned)- as with so much official history, it doesn't tell the whole story: There is a considerable body of evidence that there were Jews in England - Queen Elizabeth actually had a Portugese Jewish Doctor at one point, and a number of musicians in Shakespeare's London were Jewish.
There was also a thrieving Black community.
One reason I think Shakespeare doesn't fall into the trap of racial stereotypes is the variety of people he had contact with in London - including Jews.

Ian Thal said...

Given the most recent controversy over the perceived antisemitism of Shylock's portrayal, I have just finished reading MoV in an edition edited by M. Lindsay Kaplan. She includes lots of comtemporary materials that would have been available in Shakespeare's time that would be evidence as to English attitudes not just of Jews, but of Italians, and Moors-- so it also has relevence for discussing Othello.

Ian Thal said...


As to the term "antisemitism"-- it is a term of recent coinage, dating only to the 19th century as a self-description by the new "anti-Semites" who wanted to make it clear that their Jew-hatred was not theologically based but rooted in their [pseudo]scientific concepts of race, that is, it is a response to the secularization of the Enlightenment era and the liberation of the Jews from their previously segregated existence.

It was never meant to refer to Arabs and other non-Jewish speakers of Semitic languages, indeed Western antisemitism as an ideological movement has often sought out allies in the Arab world.