View Poll Results: Is the Merchant of Venice anti-Semitic?

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Thread: Is The Merchant of Venice anti-Semitic?

  1. #16
    Maybe YesNo's Avatar
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    If antisemitism is defined as "hatred toward Jews—individually and as a group—that can be attributed to the Jewish religion and/or ethnicity" as in http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/40258.htm, then I suspect it is antisemitic.

    Even though there might be individual sympathy toward Shylock, although I can't remember any at the moment, the fact that he was described as Jewish helps to bring out the bigotry in the audience. Why didn't Shakespeare make Shylock a Christian? Or not mention Shylock's religion entirely?

  2. #17
    Bibliophile Drkshadow03's Avatar
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    The portrayal of Shylock is definitely anti-Semitic. He is portrayed in extremely stereotypical terms (greedy, blood-thirsty) that are staples of anti-Semitism. His Christian tormentors (which are the main characters of the play) are depicted as sympathetic throughout and it's only a modern audience that is going to be uncomfortable with the ending in which Shylock loses everything and is forcefully converted on pains of death.

    Shakespeare might excel at portraying three-dimensional characters with complicated motivations, but in many of his plays it is pretty obvious who the villains of the piece are (Iago in Othello and Laertes in Hamlet for example). Shylock is definitely portrayed as the villain of the piece. Often people will point to Shylock's famous speech in Act 3 Scene 1, "Hath not a Jew eyes . . ." in which Shylock points out his common humanity and his reason for desire of revenge due to institutional persecution by Christians. Nevertheless, it's not a convincing argument that one single speech overturns what is otherwise a really stereotypical portrayal. Also, there seems to be other reasons for the speech. One, it is there more to give a motivation for Shylock's behavior than generate sympathy for him. Two, a reader can interpret his words in which he claims he learned revenge from Christian's getting revenge on Jews as a misreading of the Christian characters around him who ultimately show him what the audience most likely would've perceived as mercy in the end.

    In Act 4, during the trial, the Duke pardons Shylock, purposefully depicting the supposed difference between Jewish strict observance of the law to the letter (wanting his pound of flesh as promised and then having that backfire when the court demands he follow it to the letter) and Christian mercy and forgiveness. In the end Shylock is forcefully converted to Christianity on pains of death. And as Gratiano states this is a mercy as it will lead him to life (symbolized by the "fount") instead of the death he believes Shylock deserves.
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  3. #18
    the beloved: Gladys's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by YesNo View Post
    Why didn't Shakespeare make Shylock a Christian? Or not mention Shylock's religion entirely?
    Shakespeare deliberately created Shylock so as to write about racial and religious prejudice, among other things. Is that unacceptable?

    Quote Originally Posted by Drkshadow03 View Post
    He is portrayed in extremely stereotypical terms (greedy, blood-thirsty) that are staples of anti-Semitism. His Christian tormentors (which are the main characters of the play) are depicted as sympathetic throughout and it's only a modern audience that is going to be uncomfortable with the ending in which Shylock loses everything and is forcefully converted on pains of death.
    Shakespeare was a playwright, not a self-sacrificing radical reformer risking all for societal change. I doubt we can say that his surpassing genius was oblivious to how a modern audience, or someone of similar persuasion, would interpret the play in respect to Shylock. And is the arrogant Antonio really depicted as sympathetic throughout?
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  4. #19
    Bibliophile Drkshadow03's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gladys View Post
    Shakespeare deliberately created Shylock so as to write about racial and religious prejudice, among other things. Is that unacceptable?



    Shakespeare was a playwright, not a self-sacrificing radical reformer risking all for societal change. I doubt we can say that his surpassing genius was oblivious to how a modern audience, or someone of similar persuasion, would interpret the play in respect to Shylock. And is the arrogant Antonio really depicted as sympathetic throughout?
    And any writer almost always has their own contemporary audience first and foremost in mind, which would've been Christian and one that didn't have much interaction with Jews since they had all been expelled from England (with the exception of a small group that came after they had been expelled from Spain). Shakespeare never could have known a Post-Holocaust generation would've developed a different relationship to anti-Semitism and the Enlightenment weakened the predominance of Christianity as a part of European society. Genius that he was, I don't think he could've foreseen either of those two events.

    Shakespeare gives vices to his heroes (think Hamlet and Othello who make terrible and tragic mistakes), but that doesn't make them not the hero of those stories. Just as he gives complex and semi-justified reasons (at least in their own minds) to his villains as I already noted. This doesn't prevent them from being the villain, however.
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  5. #20
    Dance Magic Dance OrphanPip's Avatar
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    The simple problem with your viewpoint Jam is that it has no bearing in reality.

    There's a wonderful little breakdown of the research on pedophile's sexual orientation at UC Davis' website: http://psychology.ucdavis.edu/rainbo...lestation.html

    Most pedophiles are classified as fixated by psychologist, which is their term for a pedophile who can not have sexual relationships with adults and is only aroused by children. Some pedophiles are classed as regressive, which means they have sex with children sometimes but often they have sexual relations with adults. The thing is that there is no identified connection between the choice of gender of child they molest and the choice of adult partners.

    So:

    "Using the fixated-regressed distinction, Groth and Birnbaum (1978) studied 175 adult males who were convicted in Massachusetts of sexual assault against a child. None of the men had an exclusively homosexual adult sexual orientation. 83 (47%) were classified as "fixated;" 70 others (40%) were classified as regressed adult heterosexuals; the remaining 22 (13%) were classified as regressed adult bisexuals. Of the last group, Groth and Birnbaum observed that 'in their adult relationships they engaged in sex on occasion with men as well as with women. However, in no case did this attraction to men exceed their preference for women....There were no men who were primarily sexually attracted to other adult males...'"

    " Other researchers have taken different approaches, but have similarly failed to find a connection between homosexuality and child molestation. Dr. Carole Jenny and her colleagues reviewed 352 medical charts, representing all of the sexually abused children seen in the emergency room or child abuse clinic of a Denver children's hospital during a one-year period (from July 1, 1991 to June 30, 1992). The molester was a gay or lesbian adult in fewer than 1% in which an adult molester could be identified – only 2 of the 269 cases (Jenny et al., 1994)."

    The use of adult sexual orientation categories, like heterosexual or homosexual to identify pedophiles is often done by Conservative groups, but it doesn't reflect the scientific evidence we have about pedophiles. The simple fact of the matter is that the object choice of pedophiles does not imply anything about an adult sexual orientation.

    You yourself are trying to conflate pederastic relationships (which even in ancient Greece used to involve 14-16 year old boys) as pedophilia, but most psychologist would disagree that this involves any pathological sexual interest. It is morally wrong for an adult to engage sexually with a teenager for many reasons, but it's not the same thing as pedophilia.
    Last edited by OrphanPip; 04-12-2012 at 12:29 PM.
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  6. #21
    In the fog Charles Darnay's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gladys View Post
    Shakespeare deliberately created Shylock so as to write about racial and religious prejudice, among other things. Is that unacceptable?
    Actually, Merchant, like most plays, are based on an earlier text. Merchant is taken from Il Pecorone, which focuses on Bassanio's (can't remember the character's name in Pecorone) quest to obtain Portia.

    (Bassanio) has to borrow money from his benefactor, (Antonio) and in order to get the money, (Antonio) has to borrow money from a Jew.

    So Shylock as Jew was established before Shakespeare got to the play. What Shakespeare does is 1. give the Jew a name and 2. greatly expand on his character.
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  7. #22
    BadWoolf JuniperWoolf's Avatar
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    So I guess today I read a post from someone who was pro-rape but anti-homosexuality. The sad thing is, I'm not even surprised.
    Last edited by JuniperWoolf; 04-13-2012 at 02:31 AM.
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  8. #23
    the beloved: Gladys's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Charles Darnay View Post
    Actually, Merchant, like most plays, are based on an earlier text...So Shylock as Jew was established before Shakespeare got to the play. What Shakespeare does is 1. give the Jew a name and 2. greatly expand on his character.
    Notwithstanding, Shakespeare deliberately fashioned Shylock - as we see him in The Merchant of Venice - so as to write about racial and religious prejudice. The issue here is: what has Shakespeare to say?

    Quote Originally Posted by Drkshadow03 View Post
    And any writer almost always has their own contemporary audience first and foremost in mind, which would've been Christian and one that didn't have much interaction with Jews since they had all been expelled from England...
    I agree. Nevertheless, Shakespeare's audience is no more homogeneous than audiences today. An insightful few present at the Globe Theatre, and perhaps the playwright himself, may have held views on anti-Semitism even more enlightened than those of our post Holocaust generations. Atrocities against Jews goes back millennia.
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  9. #24
    Card-carrying Medievalist Lokasenna's Avatar
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    My two cents, for what they are worth...

    I think Shylock is a comedy Jew, of the type that a contemporary audience would have understood. I do, however, think that it is a testament to Shakespeare's craft, intended or otherwise, that he bestowed upon him such a deep and multi-faceted character that he can be viewed in a very sympathetic light (as opposed to, say, Barabas). The quandry is to decide whether, to borrow from another Shakespeare play, he is 'more sinned against than sinning.'

    Culturally, it is hard for Westerners living in a post-Holocaust world to view Merchant as anything other than the tragedy of Shylock. I do, however, remeber reading an article in my undergrad days concerning performances of the play in the far east, where Shylock was universally portrayed as a malicious clown whose fall was considered by audiences both funny and entirely deserved. I think that says quite a lot about how our cultural background shapes our perceptions - could you imagine such a staging of it done in Israel?

    For the record, I've seen versions that play up both the tragedy and comedy side of things, and I think both are relevant and acceptable interpretations.
    "I should only believe in a God that would know how to dance. And when I saw my devil, I found him serious, thorough, profound, solemn: he was the spirit of gravity- through him all things fall. Not by wrath, but by laughter, do we slay. Come, let us slay the spirit of gravity!" - Nietzsche

  10. #25
    Registered User kiki1982's Avatar
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    You can better hope that JC doesn't find this thread...

    I tend to agree with Lokasenna and someone else in that other thread who pointed out that Shylock's speech about also being human and bla-bla-bla is probably rather ironic and a bit pathetic than actually pity-inducing. It probably depends on how you deliver it and how his other speeches and comportment are interpreted. It is indeed difficult in post-Holocaust Europe to (be allowed to) view Shylock that way, but it is probably the most appropriate. I can imagine that the end of the play in the Duke of Venice's palace can produce such a pantomime-like moment where the audience could go 'boooo' and 'hear hear' and 'haha, you stupid Jew' as audiences did back then. Particularly the parterre where the common folk used to stand.

    Someone in the other thread also pointed out that Shylock only appears a handful of times and that his last speech of 'my daughter, my ducats' was reported through someone else. And Jews had been banned entirely from England for a few 100 years by then. The audience only had the church's word for it that they were gangsters who poisoned wells.

    The question is whether Shakespeare was not actually addressing the fact that, if the Jews were made the nasty villains because they wanted their money's worth, whether not Christians were to blame because of their greed. If you buy with what money you have, you do not need a Jew. If you want to buy more than what money you have, you do need one. And then you have to pay him back. If you agree to a deal that will essentially cut off a piece of you, then who is to blame? The Jew who proposes it or you yourself for agreeing to it? If Bassanio hadn't squandered his estate and wanted Portia for her money, and Antonio hadn't lent Bassanio money he didn't have and agreed to shedding a piece of himself if he could not pay, then nothing of the sort would have happened.

    They of course all blame the Jew and get their way because they are in the majority, but is that just? And the fact that Shylock actually wishes to cut out Antonio's heart, is that not a symbol for the community voluntary giving up everything that is right and proper for money? Does the heart not contain the soul?

    The question is whether Bassanio is not really after the gold rather than the lead, at the price of being dominated by his wife (or that is the impression I got) which is also quite shameful. The other two of Portia's suitors are maybe a bit foolish for assuming that the right caskets are the gold and the silver one and for wanting Portia as a wife because she is beautiful, but Bassanio leaves with the express purpose of getting Portia for her money as he has none left.

    All that glitters is not gold, indeed.

    So, yes, antisemitic, but I think that stamp is pretty irrelevant as people back then did not know any better (and what is 'better' anyway?).
    Last edited by kiki1982; 04-13-2012 at 07:32 AM.
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  11. #26
    Bibliophile Drkshadow03's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lokasenna View Post
    My two cents, for what they are worth...

    I think Shylock is a comedy Jew, of the type that a contemporary audience would have understood. I do, however, think that it is a testament to Shakespeare's craft, intended or otherwise, that he bestowed upon him such a deep and multi-faceted character that he can be viewed in a very sympathetic light (as opposed to, say, Barabas). The quandry is to decide whether, to borrow from another Shakespeare play, he is 'more sinned against than sinning.'

    Culturally, it is hard for Westerners living in a post-Holocaust world to view Merchant as anything other than the tragedy of Shylock. I do, however, remeber reading an article in my undergrad days concerning performances of the play in the far east, where Shylock was universally portrayed as a malicious clown whose fall was considered by audiences both funny and entirely deserved. I think that says quite a lot about how our cultural background shapes our perceptions - could you imagine such a staging of it done in Israel?

    For the record, I've seen versions that play up both the tragedy and comedy side of things, and I think both are relevant and acceptable interpretations.
    Exactly. There is nothing wrong with interpreting the play as being more of a tragedy for Shylock, but it seems doubtful that the original audience viewed it that way.

    Gladys seems to have much more confidence in Shakespeare's enlightened attitudes than I do.
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  12. #27
    Registered User My2cents's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by QueCubed View Post
    We are doing a project for my Shakespeare class, and the question is basically, "Does The Merchant of Venice's portrayal of Shylock constitute anti-semitism?"
    There's an element of scapegoating (Antonio vis-a-vis Shylock) which legitimizes the antisemitism claim, but that would be grossly simplifying Shakespeare's complex art. The pity Shakespeare is able to elicit on behalf of Shylock (the Jew) is possibly the first of its kind in Western literature.

  13. #28
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    The question of whether The Merchant of Venice is an anti-Semitic play is often raised and it is not unreasonable to question the depiction of Shylock as stereotypical in that he is a Jewish moneylender. This would certainly have had resonance with a late medieval audience, who in England at least, would have been highly unlikely to have knowingly interacted with any Jews, since King Edward 1st’s edict of expulsion in 1289. Openly being a Jew in England would have been seriously hazardous thereafter, at least until Oliver Cromwell actively encouraged a formal return of Jews to the country in 1655.

    That a long-standing tradition of anti-Semitism existed within the Christian world cannot be denied, however irrational it would seem, given the fact that Jesus was Jewish, as were most, if not all, of the original 12 disciples.

    At the time, the Christian community would have considered itself a part of the wider Jewish community, with most of the leaders of the Church being Jewish or Jewish proselytes.
    (Wikipedia)

    In fact it was Paul who eventually decreed that it should not be necessary to be circumcised to become a Christian.

    However, given the rise of Christianity to being the official adopted faith of the Roman Empire under Constantine, The might of Rome had to deflect the guilt of having executed Christ on the cross (after all, it was a Roman [Pilate] who condemned Jesus to crucifixion [a Roman method of execution], and Roman legionaries who performed the act) and so it became the position of the established church to condemn Jews as Christ killers and deniers of the coming of the Messiah.

    By the time of the medieval period all manner of depictions of Jews as demons and devils were commonplace. Just about any outlandish rumour of Jewish religious practice would be believed, even that they would kidnap Christian children to sacrifice at Passover in order to use their blood to make matzah. Popular anti-Jewish feeling could easily erupt into violence; in 1190 more than a hundred Jews were massacred during the Copper Gate riots in York.

    Legislation and Guild proscription effectively limited any gainful employment for Jews to moneylending, although there appears to be some disagreement between Bible, Talmud and subsequent rabbinical texts as to whether usury, the charging of interest on a loan, is permissible or not - either between Jews or by Jew to gentile.

    However, given that there was little else available to Jews, moneylending certainly became a common occupation which was subsequently exploited and taxed by the Crown, at least until Longshanks expelled them.

    In 1492, Jews were expelled from Spain and in 1497 from Portugal. A Substantial number of Sephardic Jews sought refuge in England, but, in order to remain, they had to be seen to be converts to Christianity, although in 1542 many were arrested on suspicion of being Jews.

    The 16th Century saw a number of persons named Lopez immigrating to England from Portugal, having been driven from the country by the inquisition, and they may well have been members of the same family. One of the most prominent of these was one Rodrigo Lopez, a physician, who having been raised as a Roman Catholic conversos in Portugal was nevertheless believed to be a Marrano or hidden Jew. On arriving in London in 1559 he’d have been in a kind of double jeopardy as Roman Catholics would have been no more popular than Jews in Protestant England. Publicly protestant, he rose to some prominence in his profession and became physician to Elizabeth the First.

    Bizarrely he became a victim of court politicking and was accused of being part of a Catholic conspiracy to assassinate the queen. Also accused of being a secret Jew he was eventually hanged in 1594, declaring on the scaffold that he loved the queen as he loved Jesus, at which the crowd laughed, taking it for a confession of guilt. Shakespeare may even have witnessed this.

    So this is the background of popular attitude towards Jews in Shakespeare’s time. Now let us address the opening question of whether The Merchant of Venice, is, in fact, an anti-Semitic play.

    Surely, if the play is overtly anti-Semitic, all Jews would be depicted as evil, mean, cruel and scheming, after all, Shylock is not the only Jewish character in the play. Is his daughter, Jessica depicted as anything other than a lovely young girl in love with a gentile? Well, she certainly complains of her father and she does convert willingly to Christianity in order to enjoy her union with Lorenzo, so perhaps she can’t be seen to be a very committed Jewess. There is another Jewish character, that of Tubal, a friend of Shylock’s against whom no complaint is made by any character.

    But what of Shylock himself? He is undoubtedly anti-Christian, when Antonio and Shylock first come face to face in the play, Shylock tells the audience directly:

    “How like a fawning publican he looks!
    I hate him for he is Christian;”

    But is Antonio hated just for being Christian? Shylock’s treatment at the hands of Antonio has been far from gentle. He has been given good reason to detest the man and it is entirely possible that Shylock’s view of Christians has been grievously coloured by his treatment by a man who is proclaimed a good Christian by all his friends and acquaintances. Bassanio’s glowing praise of his friend would be construed as borderline homosexual love in some quarters and by today’s standards. Although it is not Antonio who engages Shylock for the supplying of funds, but Bassanio, who needs money to pursue Portia, Antonio agrees to stand surety for the loan. Effectively he is going to someone whom he has publicly insulted and assaulted, whose business practices he has denounced and personally undermined, and effectively says, “You dog, give my friend some money, I’ll cover him, I’m good for it.” Antonio is no more loving of Jews than Shylock is of Christians.

    The arrogance (and stupidity) of the man is staggering! In the opening scene, Antonio is clearly depicted as a cautious man who doesn’t put all his eggs in one basket; he has ventured his fortune divided between several ships, yet now he agrees to put his life at hazard for a mere three thousand ducats because his friend has the hots for Portia. What a twit! One might argue that he deserves to come a cropper!

    Antonio isn’t even the principle character in the play; he’s a mere device, little more than a McGuffin who stews in the background as the action happens elsewhere.

    Shylock, however, has considerably more depth. His is not a character motivated by blind prejudice; he has good reason to hate Antonio. But, and it’s a big but, his character is over the top. He is necessarily the villain who drives the plot in this Shakespearian comedy, which is pretty much an adult pantomime. Shylock is not just a Jewish moneylender; he is a caricature of a Jewish moneylender. However, one must acknowledge that this caricature would likely have been very much to a prejudicial audience’s taste.

    It would be fair to say that Shylock is entitled to a little revenge upon his tormentor. Not only has he been publicly reviled by Antonio, but is subsequently robbed of his daughter (and a large amount of money) by one of Antonio’s friends. His revenge is taken to an extreme though. He actively conspires to kill his enemy with judicial sanction. Ruining him financially would seem to be a far more equitable recompense for the ills that he has suffered from Antonio’s behaviour.

    But does he do these things because he is Jewish, or does he do them because he is a wronged and vengeful man who happens to be Jewish? The plot revolves around a debt, surety and a personal animosity between two men. Is the fact that one of them is Jewish and the other Christian, more important? Certainly the device is used to spawn a few jokes with a Christian bias, and it does add spice to the plot. But what about the other plot, Portia’s test of suitors with the three chests of gold, silver and lead. This is about not judging by appearances or having an overweening arrogance or conceit of one’s own worth over the worth of another. Is Portia a racist because she doesn’t want to marry a moor? No, she has a hankering for someone else.

    For all Shylock’s machinations he does not benefit one jot. He is deprived of half his goods, he does not get repaid what he is justly owed and is forced to convert to Christianity or forfeit his life. On top of this his daughter has run off with a Christian and converted, taking a lot of his money with her. By any standards, I’d say he was pretty hard done by. True, he sought Antonio’s life, but he didn’t get to take it. His punishment, contextually, might be seen to be unjust. He certainly never received redress for the ills he suffered at Antonio’s hands. Would the Elizabethan audience have appreciated this, or would they have revelled in Shylock’s misfortune and said, “Serves him right,” because he was a Jew?

    It is difficult to judge the play with the appreciation of a 16th century audience. Contemporarily we are burdened with the ghastly history of the 20th century on top of those which have intervened between. Anti-Semitism has become a glib rebuttal of even the most timid criticism or politically incorrect sentiment expressed against Jews or Judaism, even by other Jews. (One only need read Finklestein to appreciate this.)

    One is minded to compare the nature and Character of Alf Garnet, a racist bigot in a comedy show, with the way Shylock is presented in the play. The Show was initially accused of being racist and bigoted, because of the ranting of its caricatured eponymous antihero, when it was, in fact, mocking racism and bigotry. Can the same not be said of The Merchant of Venice? Is the caricature of the Jewish moneylender not a vehicle which highlights attitudes towards Jews by supposedly good Christians, who spit upon them in public, revile them and expect them to mildly accept this treatment and then do them favours? Ultimately, one can only read the play and judge for one’s self, as when reading the play one is spared someone else’s interpretation, and how the play is performed might well colour one’s appreciation.
    Last edited by Hawkman; 04-13-2012 at 02:57 PM.

  14. #29
    Something's gotta give PrinceMyshkin's Avatar
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    I don't know anything of Hawkman's ethnicity or religious affiliaton (if he has one) but as a Jew myself, I'm heartened
    1) because if he is not a Jew, I am always deeply grateful when anon-Jew speaks dispassionately about Jews; and
    2) if he is a Jew, it is nonetheless thrilling to read such a scholarly, even-handed evaluation of this question.

    But surely a strong hint as to where Shakespeare stood on this issue is in

    I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands,
    organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same
    food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases,
    heal'd by the same means, warm'd and cool'd by the same winter
    and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If
    you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?
    And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the
    rest, we will resemble you in that

  15. #30
    I've not got the drive to enter into such a discussion at the moment (so, OK, maybe I shouldn't respond at all) but I have to say I am getting a little fed up with all the anti-Semitic, feminist, gay and lesbian, racial, ageist - prejudice slant/open up the topic for discussion sort of question, as is the flavour of age. I'm not knocking the OP, this particular discussion (which could very well be interesting) at all, it's just a personal rant and objection to this overwhelming, it seems, obsession, for treating art as solely a means to constantly pose such 'ethical' questions. Heaven forbid a university sets a question - XYZ, is it any good?

    I voted 'no' because I'm sick of art being lifted from its context and placed before a panel of 'X-factor judges' as to whether it makes the grade or gets dumped on the ever growing pile of banned and 'dangerous' books.

    Edit: I just want to keep asking 'by whose standards?' By whose standards is XYZ, XYZ, by ours or theirs and so what either way? So what? Is Shakespeare pro murder because of Hamlet? Why the constant obsession?
    Last edited by LitNetIsGreat; 04-13-2012 at 05:11 PM.

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