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

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Thread: Is The Merchant of Venice anti-Semitic?

  1. #46
    So maybe time would be better spent in learning historical details as opposed to applying 21st century morality to a 16th century work? Or even, daringly, to consider the quality of the writing.

    None of which are mutually exclusive. Talking about the 16th century attitudes will inevitably bring about discussion of our own moral views.
    That's fine. But when that 21st morality clouds or directs judgment, which it does, then I have a problem.

    I haven't heard one person on this thread claim we should condemn the work, but rather this is an integral part of understanding it and appreciating it on its own terms.
    You know for a fact that my thoughts were not directed at any particular poster or comment, but to the wider question. Of which I will direct elsewhere.

  2. #47
    Registered User kiki1982's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Drkshadow03 View Post
    None of which are mutually exclusive. Talking about the 16th century attitudes will inevitably bring about discussion of our own moral views. I haven't heard one person on this thread claim we should condemn the work, but rather this is an integral part of understanding it and appreciating it on its own terms. Not to mention if we are unwilling to discuss ethical issues or apply our own ethical understandings to the past ever, we end up with the extreme moral relativism of Kiki.

    When we covered this play in my undergrad class back in the day amazingly the professor spent the 4 classes (2 weeks) and managed to cover the Shylock anti-Semitism issue and his own feelings on it, the scholarly debate around that issue, the historical context, the other plots of the play, the symbolism of various scenes, went in-depth on specific metaphors and helped us view the marvelous quality of Shakespeare's language (i. e. the quality of the writing).
    You might have been lucky to have had those four weeks, and good on your professor, but most people stop at the point where they realise Shakespeare is racist. In view of Charles Darnay's reply on the highjacked thread and now here (and below), I would say, that indeed, Shylock is a minor character and should have little to do with the debate. There is a lot more in that play than Shylock and that has nothing to do with extreme moral relativism. Has more to do with the fact that it is pretty pointless to brand a work of art racist or anyting really. Even 'nice' would be pointless, taking Oscar Wilde's view.

    Quote Originally Posted by Charles Darnay View Post
    I do contend this. I'm starting to wish I posted my initial response on this thread and not the hijacked one...

    Shylock appears in 5 scenes out of...one sec.....20 scenes. I initially said 4, but forgot about Act II, scene v. Anyway, a quarter of the play. He is the focus of maybe 1 1/2 scenes he is not in. The central focus, in Il Pecorone and in Merchant of Venice, is Bassanio's quest for Portia. The caskets, the ring trick, these classic elements of a COMEDY - this is the central focus.

    We do have to bring Shylock into it, and see how he fits into the story - just as Shakespeare brings Shylock further into the original source (where the Jew is such a minor character he doesn't have a name)....but to make him the pivotal issue of the play is distorting it a bit too much for my liking.

    If anyone is interested, here was my initial reaction to the initial question:
    Indeed, I found that a very interested take on it.
    Last edited by kiki1982; 04-14-2012 at 11:16 AM.
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  3. #48
    Bibliophile Drkshadow03's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Charles Darnay View Post
    I do contend this. I'm starting to wish I posted my initial response on this thread and not the hijacked one...

    Shylock appears in 5 scenes out of...one sec.....20 scenes. I initially said 4, but forgot about Act II, scene v. Anyway, a quarter of the play. He is the focus of maybe 1 1/2 scenes he is not in. The central focus, in Il Pecorone and in Merchant of Venice, is Bassanio's quest for Portia. The caskets, the ring trick, these classic elements of a COMEDY - this is the central focus.

    We do have to bring Shylock into it, and see how he fits into the story - just as Shakespeare brings Shylock further into the original source (where the Jew is such a minor character he doesn't have a name)....but to make him the pivotal issue of the play is distorting it a bit too much for my liking.

    If anyone is interested, here was my initial reaction to the initial question:
    Now THAT is a good rebuttal!
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  4. #49
    In the fog Charles Darnay's Avatar
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    If anyone is interested, here is the story for Il Pecorone that most of Merchant is based off of: http://merchantofvenice.weebly.com/u...l_pecorone.pdf


    There is a certain danger in looking at Shakespeare's sources - the danger of ignoring how distinct Shakespeare is from his his sources. But at the same time it is a great way to ground Shakespeare's works - which so often transcend their historic context - in history.

    There is also an interesting essay by Mary Janell Metzger entitled "'Now by my hood, a Gentile and no Jew': Jessica, The Merchant of Venice, and the Discourse of Early Modern English Identity."

    Unfortunately it is not free online, but if you are attending a university that has subscriptions to online databases, you may be able to access it.
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  5. #50
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    Quote Originally Posted by Drkshadow03 View Post
    Now THAT is a good rebuttal!
    I would dispute this. To count 25% of the play as insignificant is not only erroneous but just counting the number of appearances of a particular character as an indicator of their relative importance in the play is incredibly simplistic. It's not about the number of times they appear on stage, it's about the quality of the part. Shylock's relationship and interraction with Antonio constitutes the drama in the piece. It's what drives the plot forward. It's certainly more interesting than the fluff of the love story. The play is called The Merchant of Venice, with Antonio as the eponymous merchant. However, after his initial confrontation with Shylock his role is entirely passive. He just sits brooding over his losses, resigns himself to Shylock's vengeance and has to be bailed out by Portia.

    What are the most memorable moments in the Play? Certainly the most quoted are Shylock's Eyes speech, And Portia's Quality of Mercy speech.

    Actually, having read the play through yesterday I was struck by the eveness in the distribution of appearances with regard to the principle characters, to the extent, in fact, that I was hard pressed to identify a "hero" unless it is Portia, who delivers Antonio.

    However, these points are secondary when taken in the context of the OP's question regarding the applicability of describing the play as anti-Semitic. In truth, labelling a play or it's Author anti-Semitic, just because the work contains anti-Semitic characters, is also simplistic. By that argument Schindler's List and Steven Spielberg would be anti-Semitic because the film has Nazis in it.

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    Last edited by Hawkman; 04-14-2012 at 12:28 PM. Reason: typos

  6. #51
    In the fog Charles Darnay's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Hawkman View Post
    I would dispute this. To count 25% of the play as insignificant is not only erroneous but just counting the number of appearances of a particular character as an indicator of their relative importance in the play is incredibly siimplistic. It's not about the number of times they appear on stage, it's about the quality of the part. Shylock's relationship and interraction with Antonio constitutes the drama in the piece. It's what drives the plot forward. It's certainly more interesting than the fluff of the love story.
    I agree with your last point, but only when we take it from a modern perspective. The love story is the driving point of the play, the trial of Antonio is the consequence of the love story, and the deliverance by Portia is the resolution. Yes, Antonio does get the title, and Shylock often gets the subtitle of the play: "The Merchant of Venice, or The Jew of Venice." And Antonio gets the opening - he starts of in a state of sadness and we have no idea why. But this is quickly taken over by Bassanio's problem: a problem whic consumes the play until it is resolved in III.ii. Bassanio and Portia (and to a lesser extent the other two pairs of lovers) get the last scene, the happy reconciliation. Shylock is the obstacle to the comedy, not the villain of his own story. Counting the number of scenes he appears in/is the focus of may be simplistic, but it demonstrates where the focus of the story lies, and in that I do not think it is erroneous. The reason I brought the figure up in relation to the original question is to demonstrate that Shylock would not have sparked the same interest in 1595 that he does now, or has over the past century. The "fluff" as you call it is what people were expecting when they came to see Shakespeare's newest comedy.

    I also do accept the fact that my interpretations are just interpretations, and I am not refuting because I believe you are wrong, but rather I am willing to support my interpretations.
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  7. #52
    In the fog Charles Darnay's Avatar
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    It's not about the number of times they appear on stage, it's about the quality of the part.
    I disagree with this point. There are cases - in an out of Shakespeare - where a secondary or minor character is far more interesting, or better developed than the central character - but this does not necessarily mean that he/she is the focus. You see this a lot in Dickens. Or in Pride and Prejudice: there are better characters than Elizabeth and Darcy.
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  8. #53
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    Then I guess we'll have to amicably agree to disagree For me the most memorable characters in the play have always been Shylock, Portia and Antonio - and in that order. I don't dispute the play is a Shakespearian comedy and contains those devices so commonly employed, like cross-dressing and ladies playing tricks on their lovers - all staples of his repertoir - but notwithstanding, I maintain my position as stated in my original post in this thread, vis-a-vis Shakespeare's possible motivations in drafting the character of Shylock, given his own personal history and the contemporary climate of suspicion and hate regarding "otherness" - whether Catholic or Jewish.

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  9. #54
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    Shakespeare was a writer , a humanist. He did not mean to be prejudiced against Jews. He was just potraying the cultural ethos to evoke a sense of sympathy for those who are socially unacceptable because of racial differences. His plight as a father and as a person wronged are equally balanced by his passion for revenge.

  10. #55
    BadWoolf JuniperWoolf's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by kiki1982 View Post
    Of course. Not mentioning it woud be a bit odd, but focussing on that alone (and you do have to contend that much of it revolves around it) is a bit narrow.
    Yeah, that's true actually. It's okay to talk about how attitudes towards other cultures and women would by modern standards be considered narrow minded occasionally in class (if only to get a better feel for the work's zeitgeist), but most profs that I've had do spend way too much time on it. Using the example of Heart of Darkness from earlier, we spent three whole classes on the question of whether Conrad was racist and we read two essays on the question which, when put together, were longer than Heart of Darkness, then we had an assignment in which we gave our own opinion. For me, the much more interesting aspect of the novella was considering it from the viewpoint that it's a journey into the human mind, but we only spent half of one class discussing that. Repeating the PC theme over and over and over seems a lot like brainwashing. That is starting to have the opposite to the intended effect, people don't like being manipulated.
    Last edited by JuniperWoolf; 04-15-2012 at 04:00 AM.
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  11. #56
    Registered User prendrelemick's Avatar
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    Apology for coming late to the arguement.

    A comedy it may be, but a large part of the play is about giving The Jew a good kicking, and he deserves it, not because he is a Jew, but because Shylock is a man with an evil agenda.

    That all sounds fine and nicely wrapped up, but the trouble is, in Shylock the man and The Jew are indivisible. Notice at the end of the trial when his Jewishnes is torn from him there is not much man left either. Shakespeare has written him in that way, and goes further, to say he is acting the way he does because he is a Jew. So the play is anti-semitic.

    However I don't count Shakespeare as anti-Semitic at all. Shakespeare did not create Shylock the Jew, the society he lived and worked in did that. Shakespeare took the standard Jew caricature and wrote him a part, and I have to say handled him very sympathetically compared to previous and contemporary authors.
    Last edited by prendrelemick; 04-15-2012 at 04:09 AM.
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  12. #57
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    Quote Originally Posted by prendrelemick View Post
    That all sounds fine and nicely wrapped up, but the trouble is, in Shylock the man and The Jew are indivisible. Notice at the end of the trial when his Jewishnes is torn from him there is not much man left either. Shakespeare has written him in that way, and goes further, to say he is acting the way he does because he is a Jew. So the play is anti-semitic.
    That the play reflects anti-Semitic attitudes towards Jews by the Christians in it is not disputed, but this does not automatically make the play or it's author anti-Semitic. You say Shylock the man and Shylock the Jew are "indivisable" and that when Stripped of his Jewishness there is not much man left in Shylock.

    Well to be honest, there's not much man left in Antonio when he's stripped of his wealth. Believing himself to be bankrupt he just wants to pay his debt and be done. He'd rather die than be poor.

    Jewishness, according to the play, would seem to be seen as something as easily set aside as an item of clothing. Shylock himself says, "...you spit upon my Jewish gabardine..." and Jessica happily foresweares her heritage just so she can have Lorenzo.

    In my original post I cited the instance of Rodrigo Lopez, an emigre conversos, who, though ostensibly Catholic in Portugal, was still regarded as a Jew, and when in England, was ostensibly Protestant but executed for being part of a Catholic plot against the queen and for being a Jew!

    However, the Jewish gaberdine is also just an external covering for the man beneath. The themes of the play are clearly geared to not judging by appearances, as I previously indicated by citing Portia's testing of her suitors.

    But what does stripping Shylock of his Judaism actually mean for Shylock? As a Jew he is already an outsider in a Christian world. But if he is no longer a Jew he will be shunned by the Jewish community and he'll never be accepted by the Christians, at least, not by any that have known him as a Jew.

    Shylock is a wronged and vengeful man, and he'll still be a wronged and vengeful man, whether he's a Christian or a Jew.

    That the play reflects contemporary anti-Jewish attitudes does not necessarily mean that it condones them.
    Last edited by Hawkman; 04-15-2012 at 06:02 AM.

  13. #58
    Bibliophile Drkshadow03's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Hawkman View Post
    That the play reflects anti-Semitic attitudes towards Jews by the Christians in it is not disputed, but this does not automatically make the play or it's author anti-Semitic. You say Shylock the man and Shylock the Jew are "indivisable" and that when Stripped of his Jewishness there is not much man left in Shylock.

    [ . . .]

    That the play reflects contemporary anti-Jewish attitudes does not necessarily mean that it condones them.
    No, but what is under dispute is whether the play and author does in fact condone those attitudes or whether it is critical of them. I think your idea about Catholics and religious intolerance is interesting, but it is highly speculative. Ultimately, I suspect there is no definitive or correct answer to those questions, hence why there is so much criticism written about the Shylock issue.
    Last edited by Drkshadow03; 04-15-2012 at 08:16 AM.
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  14. #59
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    If Shakespeare was Catholic and Catholics were being persecuted by the Protestants at the time could it be that Shakespeare was using this play to try to convince the Protestants to focus their anger on the Jews and leave the Catholics alone?

    I don't know much about the history of this time except what I've read in this thread so I might be completely missing the point here, but I'm now curious about this idea and wonder if someone can either knock it down or confirm it.

  15. #60
    Registered User kiki1982's Avatar
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    Firstly, what is condone? It means finding something that is reprehensible good. Was anti-semitism in those days bad? No. It was normal.

    Secondly, I do not believe Shakespeare was at all anti-semitic like the stone-throwing and murdering Jew-hater of the day. Of course, we cannot really judge, because we do not have his express personal views as contained in letters or diaries or anything of the kind. The only thing we have is a play (and maybe a few others), and one he based on a source at that, which already treated the Jew in a somewhat bad, but realistic contemporary light.

    If I would have to take a guess, and that is what it is, I would say, as Charles Darnay, that Shylock is only minor character who is a plot device and a clown who is going to produce a 'boo, hiss' moment at the end. Although in that irony of 'hath not a Jew eyes' the more discerning amongst the audience could well have felt something more than 'wahahaha' and particularly the parterre shouting 'boo' and 'you stupid Jew' could maybe have produced a more biting critique for those who were a bit more free-thinking. Particularly because no-one in England (apart from those who went abroad) could have actually seen a Jew. For a puritanical protestant who knows Matthew 5 and the speck of sawdust...
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