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

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Thread: Is The Merchant of Venice anti-Semitic?

  1. #76
    Registered User Delta40's Avatar
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    I'm reading the play now and I can see the point about it being anti-semitic. When it comes to art, it would not occur to me to question such things, given the time when they were written. Considering how the education system has deteriorated so much, I rather doubt Shakespeare even gets a look in at secondary schools these days and if he does, this play would not be on the list probably for all the reasons being discussed. Romeo and Juliet is more well known. As for writing papers on whether the play is anti-semitic, at a university level I don't see why the question shouldn't be explored since it gives a rich insight to historical context and why shouldn't a student take that journey?
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  2. #77
    In the fog Charles Darnay's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Delta40 View Post
    I'm reading the play now and I can see the point about it being anti-semitic. When it comes to art, it would not occur to me to question such things, given the time when they were written. Considering how the education system has deteriorated so much, I rather doubt Shakespeare even gets a look in at secondary schools these days and if he does, this play would not be on the list probably for all the reasons being discussed. Romeo and Juliet is more well known. As for writing papers on whether the play is anti-semitic, at a university level I don't see why the question shouldn't be explored since it gives a rich insight to historical context and why shouldn't a student take that journey?
    Shakespeare is still taught in high schools (in Canada at least) and I've known Merchant to be taught as well.

    It is a very good idea to engage with the question, just not to do so at the expense of everything else in the play. The problem with many though is that they do not seek the "rich insight to historical context" but rather say:

    a) Shylock's speech in III.i shows him to be sympathetic therefore the play is not anti-Semitic

    or b) Shylock will not give up Antonio's flesh and therefore the play is anti-Semitic.

    Such simple answers - as I suspect the OP was looking for considering he put a poll to the matter - are absolutely useless and do nothing for the study of the play, or for education in general.
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  3. #78
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    An element which has, so far, not yet been considered is the subjection of any theatrical presentation to censorship by the Master of the Revels, Edmund Tilney.

    Sir Edmund Tilney* or Tylney (1536–1610) was a courtier best known now as*Master of the Revels*to Queen Elizabeth*and*King James. He was responsible for the censorship of drama in England. He was also instrumental in the development of English drama of the Elizabethan period. Tilney made the office of Master of the Revels into an institution.
    (Wikipedia)

    It would have been Tilney's role to ensure that plays conformed to an acceptable standard, complying with contemporary politics. The last thing he would have allowed would be anything likely to cause dissent or riot amongst the populace, which openly defending Jews (or Catholics for that matter) in the face of existing prejudice or law, would almost certainly have provoked.

    A commission issued on 24 December 1581 (...) was to prohibit the discussion of any controversial issues in theatre. A play would be permitted only if the manuscript had the signature of the Master. Any offender could be imprisoned by Tilney's orders. He was given complete authority in matters concerning drama. This responsibility had been previously shared by Revels officers.
    (Wikipedia)

    Given this hurdle, Shakespeare might be seen to have been sailing very close to the wind with his depiction of Shylock in any kind of sympathetic light. Really it would be unthinkable for him to have been seen to be "morally superior" to Antonio or not to have been punished for his attempt to claim Antonio's life. He would have to be seen to be subject to "forgiving" Christian "justice".
    Last edited by Hawkman; 04-15-2012 at 08:16 PM.

  4. #79
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    My daughter recently finished reading the play for high school so this play is required reading at least in some school districts of Illinois. I asked her what she thought of it and she said she didn't like "the plot line". We aren't Jewish, but we do live in a community with a large Jewish population and some of her friends are Jewish.

    I just watched the version with Al Pacino in it to refresh myself of the contents: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0379889/

    When I listened to the dialog before the duke and noticed how the Jew (why is he so often called just "the Jew"?) was portrayed as demanding the "law" compared with the "mercy" of the Christians, I became convinced this was nothing more than antisemitic propaganda. Shylock's speech in III.i that Charles Darnay mentioned sets him up as someone who can be hurt. Usually bad guys get presented with enough humanity so that the audience can gloat over their eventual downfall. It is after all a "comedy" because the Shylock is completely defeated.

    The point Hawkman is making about there being a censor, that Master of Revels, doesn't condone Shakespeare. He could have picked a different topic if he wasn't as antisemitic as his contemporaries. He can't blame the censor for what he wrote.

    There is a difference between 21st century ethics and 16th century ethics as some have mentioned in this thread. The main difference, however, is that the overall ethical problem today is for the Christians. This play should put them to shame.
    Last edited by YesNo; 04-15-2012 at 09:30 PM.

  5. #80
    In the fog Charles Darnay's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by YesNo View Post
    I just watched the version with Al Pacino in it to refresh myself of the contents: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0379889/

    When I listened to the dialog before the duke and noticed how the Jew (why is he so often called just "the Jew"?) was portrayed as demanding the "law" compared with the "mercy" of the Christians, I became convinced this was nothing more than antisemitic propaganda. Shylock's speech in III.i that Charles Darnay mentioned sets him up as someone who can be hurt. Usually bad guys get presented with enough humanity so that the audience can gloat over their eventual downfall. It is after all a "comedy" because the Shylock is completely defeated.
    Al Pacino's Shylock is very noticeably a sympathetic portrayal, as most post-WWII are. Actually, although I liked that film adaptation, it really did take the PC route, trying not to offend anyone at one - Jew, Christian - all come out as sympathetic characters.

    The point Hawkman is making about there being a censor, that Master of Revels, doesn't condone Shakespeare. He could have picked a different topic if he wasn't as antisemitic as his contemporaries. He can't blame the censor for what he wrote.
    I think Hawkman was just (accurately) pointing out that because the Master of Revels didn't censor the work, it was not deemed unacceptable in society at the time. Is this because there was a general dislike of Jews that villainizing them for the purpose of comedy was acceptable? Probably. Or, perhaps Shylock is not as villainous as we think. It is hard to tell because history has stripped away our ability to see the clown in what is mean to be a comic-villain.

    There is a difference between 21st century ethics and 16th century ethics as some have mentioned in this thread. The main difference, however, is that the overall ethical problem today is for the Christians. This play should put them to shame.
    I have seen this before. There was a famous performance of this play put on by the Third Reich during WWII in which - as you can imagine - Shylock was made to be so overly villainous and heinous and well, Nazi propaganda is as what it is. The point is that more recently there have been productions that took this one and turned it on its head, showing that the attitude towards Jew in the 16th century (and leading up) and how Jew were portrayed in art (such as in Merchant) helped lead to Hitler's success, because it was such a culturally accepted thing in the Christian world. Of course, this is just one particular adaptation.
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  6. #81
    Maybe YesNo's Avatar
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    After a quick search here is a reference to the Nazi use of the play: http://www.nytimes.com/1993/04/04/th...ted=all&src=pm

    What struck me in a bad way were the arguments and actions presented during the trial regarding the distinction between the Jewish "law" and Christian "mercy". I remember hearing these things as a youth and seeing them repeated here made me very uncomfortable watching the play. No doubt there is art in the presentation of the scenes and Shakespeare succeeded in keeping an audience interested.

    Another thing I don't understand is Shylock's daughter's behavior.

  7. #82
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    Quote Originally Posted by Charles Darnay View Post
    I think Hawkman was just (accurately) pointing out that because the Master of Revels didn't censor the work, it was not deemed unacceptable in society at the time. Is this because there was a general dislike of Jews that villainizing them for the purpose of comedy was acceptable? Probably. Or, perhaps Shylock is not as villainous as we think. It is hard to tell because history has stripped away our ability to see the clown in what is mean to be a comic-villain.
    he must have been indeed close to the line, but it all depends on how you deliver and interpret the text. Indeed, unfortunately there are no director's remarks left to tel us how he should be dressed, walk and talk, etc. as they were not written back then...

    Quote Originally Posted by Charles Darnay View Post
    I have seen this before. There was a famous performance of this play put on by the Third Reich during WWII in which - as you can imagine - Shylock was made to be so overly villainous and heinous and well, Nazi propaganda is as what it is. The point is that more recently there have been productions that took this one and turned it on its head, showing that the attitude towards Jew in the 16th century (and leading up) and how Jew were portrayed in art (such as in Merchant) helped lead to Hitler's success, because it was such a culturally accepted thing in the Christian world. Of course, this is just one particular adaptation.
    I knew there had to be one. After the total flop of their documentary Der Ewige Jude (the eternal Jew) because people were not interested, they switched to subliminal anti-Jewish and anti-anything entertainment. Mostly one group ganing up on another.

    You cannot blame anyone for protraying Jews like this from a modern perspective.

    Hawkman, those were very interesting points.
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  8. #83
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    Quote Originally Posted by YesNo View Post
    What struck me in a bad way were the arguments and actions presented during the trial regarding the distinction between the Jewish "law" and Christian "mercy". I remember hearing these things as a youth and seeing them repeated here made me very uncomfortable watching the play. No doubt there is art in the presentation of the scenes and Shakespeare succeeded in keeping an audience interested.

    Another thing I don't understand is Shylock's daughter's behavior.
    What makes you think the Law is Jewish? Shylock lives in a Christian State, subject to Christian Law. Well, actually, given the context of an English play written by an English playwright for an English Audience, the law would actually be Secular, although admisnistered by Christians. Shylock is merely claiming his rights, according to the contract, or Bond, which is clearly designed to be the death of Antonio. Why does Shylock want to kill Antonio? For the reasons I have enumerated at some length in previous posts in this thread, and which can be boiled down to 'personal emnity'. The perception of "Jewish" Law, for the 16th Century Christian would be "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," because that's what it says in the Bible, despite the fact that the law of a Christian state would have been derrived from the same source.

    As I keep pointing out, Shylock is over the top. He seeks Antonio's Life which is far in excess of an eye for an eye. He's not just a Stock Evil Jew, he's an individual man with his own agenda. No other Jew in the play is so villified as Shylock, especially by Antonio. Were the play to be truly Anti-Jewish in general, all Jews would be depicted as Evil, trecherous and foul. They are not.

    What I would say is that the play displays some measure of ignorance as to what being Jewish actually means. This is not surprising, given the fact, as previously outlined by myself and several other posters, that few Englishmen would ever have knowingly interacted with any Jews. As I indicated by my citation of the case of Rodrigo Lopez, Jewishness might have be seen to be something easily cast off for the pragmatism of exisiting within a Christian State. Perhaps there is a parellel here with Catholicsim in a Protestant State, particularly that of Elizabethan England. The issues informing the text from a historical perspective are complex.

    As for Jessica, Shylock's daughter, she doesn't seem to like her father very much, but is she any more than a flighty teenage girl who elopes with her lover? Well, there been plenty of those before and since. What isn't made clear is how she got acquainted with Lorenzo in the first place, given the reluctance of both religious groups to mingle or socialise. But the beautiful daughter of a villain who runs off to spite her father is another stock character from the dramatist's box.

    That the play's characters conform to popular, contemporary 16th Century sterotypes has never been disputed. What is under discussion is the spin Shakespeare has placed on them and the skill with which he has done it. The play contains Anti-Jewish characters, but it also clearly, unequivocally and repeatedly within the text, calls those Anti-Jewish attitudes into question.

    Quote Originally Posted by kiki1982 View Post
    he must have been indeed close to the line, but it all depends on how you deliver and interpret the text. Indeed, unfortunately there are no director's remarks left to tel us how he should be dressed, walk and talk, etc. as they were not written back then...



    I knew there had to be one. After the total flop of their documentary Der Ewige Jude (the eternal Jew) because people were not interested, they switched to subliminal anti-Jewish and anti-anything entertainment. Mostly one group ganing up on another.

    You cannot blame anyone for protraying Jews like this from a modern perspective.

    Hawkman, those were very interesting points.
    Thanks for that.

    With reference to Fritz Hippler's Der Ewige Jude I'm afraid I'm going to have to point out that as a propoganda film it can't actually be classed as a flop. It wasn't intended to make money. The film was not made until 1939 and released in 1940, by which time Hitler had been in power 7 years and the Third Reich only had five years to run.

    Anti-Jewish propoganda had been rammed down Germany's throat by Goebels, almost from the off. That the film probably made little difference to the overall perceptions of Jews in Nazi Germany may well be true. However, its relentless diatribe, accompanying images of rats intercut with sterotypical charicaturistic portraits of hook-nosed, dirty, unshaven Polish Jews living in the appalling conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto, is calculated to revolt an audience. The film is utterly loathsome, both in intent and execution.

    Returning to TMoV, The issue of the manner of presentation of the play is entirely valid. It is why I recommended that people read the text. Look at the words Shakespeare wrote. Here they may be seen without intervening nuance, although it is helpful to have a good understanding of the contemporary historical scene and context.

    I also clearly stated that it is difficult to interpret the text without being influenced by the baggage of history. It's difficult, but not impossible. I also pointed out that post WW11 there is a tendency to bandy the term "Anti-Semitic" to anything which appears even remotely critical or detremental to Jews. This is unfortunate because it blinds us to in-depth analysis of a text like The Merchant of Venice, which is a significant piece of dramatic literature.

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  9. #84
    Bibliophile Drkshadow03's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Hawkman View Post
    What makes you think the Law is Jewish? Shylock lives in a Christian State, subject to Christian Law. Well, actually, given the context of an English play written by an English playwright for an English Audience, the law would actually be Secular, although admisnistered by Christians. Shylock is merely claiming his rights, according to the contract, or Bond, which is clearly designed to be the death of Antonio.
    Nah, this misses a crucial point in what one means by the law. YesNo doesn't mean the law is Jewish; obviously the literal law is that of a Christian state. YesNo is speaking about the symbolism inherent in the actions of the characters during that scene. Many Christians perceive Judaism as being obsessed with the law and rules (followers of the Commandments to the letter), while Christianity is about mercy, sacrifice, and forgiveness (Christ's example). Essentially YesNo's comments go back to my earliest post where I mentioned that you can actually read the play, especially this particular scene as a highly symbolic scene illustrating the nature of Christianity (the religion of mercy) versus Judaism (the religion of the law). This is actually how my professor taught us to read the trial scene. Even the famous speech in which he claims he wants revenge on Antonio for treating him poorly itself relies on eye for an eye justice (an Old Testament value) rather than taking the abuse and turning the other cheek (a New Testament value).
    Last edited by Drkshadow03; 04-16-2012 at 07:36 AM.
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    Well that's a point of view, certainly, but I'm not at all certain that I can agree with it. If in the middle ages Jews were believed to consort with witches and were depicted as demons, I rather think that they would have been considered completely outside the law, whether religious or secular. I do, of course, conceed that this was an attitude from the early medieval period, but certainly this legacy of prejudice and ignorance would have still had echoes in Elizabethan times.

    Your tutor's opinion is not one which I've heard before. Can you cite his source for this interpretation of what was believed? I'd be interested to look it up.

    PS: This aside, You seem to be raising questions which I have already addressed and countered, repeatedly and at length. There is no way Shylock can be considered as demanding, 'an eye for an eye' because he is seeking the death of Antonio for what amounts to being kicked and spat upon and reviled. An eye for an eye would require nothing more than the humiliation and abuse of Antonio. I have also already pointed out that biblical law was the foundation of Christian law, although Christian religious law and secular law might be seen to have diverged somewhat. The letter of secular law does not necessarily automatically imply "Justice," which is, and always has been, subjective. The court which judges the parties in the play is not a religious court, it is a secular one. The notary who sets up the bond is not a Rabbi or a monk.

    Incidentally, There are a considerable number of rules to strict, Christian observance, which although we may be less familiar with them today, would have been very well known to an Elizabethan Christian congregation. eg, what to eat on certain days, the number of times to pray during the day etc. etc. There had been 500 years of monastic tradition in England until the dissolution, but there would still have been some memory of religious communities extant in the country, one of which had actually harboured and protected converted Jews (the Domus Conversorum) and which continued until shortly before Shakespeare's time. ("...1551 and later," according to Wikipedia)
    Last edited by Hawkman; 04-16-2012 at 08:39 AM. Reason: correction of misremembered facts.

  11. #86
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    Quote Originally Posted by Drkshadow03 View Post
    Nah, this misses a crucial point in what one means by the law. YesNo doesn't mean the law is Jewish; obviously the literal law is that of a Christian state. YesNo is speaking about the symbolism inherent in the actions of the characters during that scene. Many Christians perceive Judaism as being obsessed with the law and rules (followers of the Commandments to the letter), while Christianity is about mercy, sacrifice, and forgiveness (Christ's example). Essentially YesNo's comments go back to my earliest post where I mentioned that you can actually read the play, especially this particular scene as a highly symbolic scene illustrating the nature of Christianity (the religion of mercy) versus Judaism (the religion of the law). This is actually how my professor taught us to read the trial scene. Even the famous speech in which he claims he wants revenge on Antonio for treating him poorly itself relies on eye for an eye justice (an Old Testament value) rather than taking the abuse and turning the other cheek (a New Testament value).
    This is exactly what I am referring to when I mention the Law. It reminds me of Paul's epistles, perhaps Romans or Galatians.

    What I didn't realize until after reading the article about Nazi propaganda and Shylock is that Antonio is also a Christ-figure. He takes on the debt of his friend and is willing to die to pay off that debt. Shylock represents the Christian gospel view that the Jews killed Jesus and Shylock is willing to re-enact that on Antonio's body. Antonio is portrayed as merciful to Shylock. Shylock is portrayed as without mercy.

    Quote Originally Posted by Hawkman View Post
    What makes you think the Law is Jewish? Shylock lives in a Christian State, subject to Christian Law. Well, actually, given the context of an English play written by an English playwright for an English Audience, the law would actually be Secular, although admisnistered by Christians. Shylock is merely claiming his rights, according to the contract, or Bond, which is clearly designed to be the death of Antonio. Why does Shylock want to kill Antonio? For the reasons I have enumerated at some length in previous posts in this thread, and which can be boiled down to 'personal emnity'. The perception of "Jewish" Law, for the 16th Century Christian would be "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," because that's what it says in the Bible, despite the fact that the law of a Christian state would have been derrived from the same source.

    As I keep pointing out, Shylock is over the top. He seeks Antonio's Life which is far in excess of an eye for an eye. He's not just a Stock Evil Jew, he's an individual man with his own agenda. No other Jew in the play is so villified as Shylock, especially by Antonio. Were the play to be truly Anti-Jewish in general, all Jews would be depicted as Evil, trecherous and foul. They are not.

    What I would say is that the play displays some measure of ignorance as to what being Jewish actually means. This is not surprising, given the fact, as previously outlined by myself and several other posters, that few Englishmen would ever have knowingly interacted with any Jews. As I indicated by my citation of the case of Rodrigo Lopez, Jewishness might have be seen to be something easily cast off for the pragmatism of exisiting within a Christian State. Perhaps there is a parellel here with Catholicsim in a Protestant State, particularly that of Elizabethan England. The issues informing the text from a historical perspective are complex.

    As for Jessica, Shylock's daughter, she doesn't seem to like her father very much, but is she any more than a flighty teenage girl who elopes with her lover? Well, there been plenty of those before and since. What isn't made clear is how she got acquainted with Lorenzo in the first place, given the reluctance of both religious groups to mingle or socialise. But the beautiful daughter of a villain who runs off to spite her father is another stock character from the dramatist's box.

    That the play's characters conform to popular, contemporary 16th Century sterotypes has never been disputed. What is under discussion is the spin Shakespeare has placed on them and the skill with which he has done it. The play contains Anti-Jewish characters, but it also clearly, unequivocally and repeatedly within the text, calls those Anti-Jewish attitudes into question.
    I agree with you about Jessica. I also don't understand how she became acquainted with Lorenzo, but that's irrelevant I suppose. Although the parallel isn't exact, her behavior and Portia and Nerissa's pretending to have cuckolded their husbands with the missing ring stunt can probably by lumped into the "girls just wanna have fun" category.

    Perhaps I am more culturally Christian than I realized, but don't you see the parallel between Antonio and Jesus? Initially, I didn't either, but now it is obvious to me. In fact I don't see how Shakespeare could have missed it which means I don't see how this wasn't deliberate.

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    Quote Originally Posted by YesNo View Post

    Perhaps I am more culturally Christian than I realized, but don't you see the parallel between Antonio and Jesus? Initially, I didn't either, but now it is obvious to me. In fact I don't see how Shakespeare could have missed it which means I don't see how this wasn't deliberate.
    I guess it depends on what Christian agenda you adhere to.

    Quite frankly I find this an exraordinary interpretation and one which is borderline blasphemous! Antonio Certainly doesn't love his enemies, and it is easier for a rich man to pass through the eye of a needle than for him to enter the kingdom of heaven! Antonio isn't crucified or even scourged. He is delivered from an unjust punishment for the crime of arrogant stupidity by the letter of the bond and a quick witted Portia. Antonio would rather die than be poor.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Hawkman View Post
    I guess it depends on what Christian agenda you adhere to.

    Quite frankly I find this an exraordinary interpretation and one which is borderline blasphemous! Antonio Certainly doesn't love his enemies, and it is easier for a rich man to pass through the eye of a needle than for him to enter the kingdom of heaven! Antonio isn't crucified or even scourged. He is delivered from an unjust punishment for the crime of arrogant stupidity by the letter of the bond and a quick witted Portia. Antonio would rather die than be poor.
    To my understanding there is no specific Christian agenda here nor is this an extraordinary interpretation. In all this, I am not saying that Antonio has all the Christ-like features that a 21st century Christian ethics would require, but I do think he has all the Christ-like features that a 16th or even a 20th century Christian ethics would require, at least enough to make a member of the audience associate him with Jesus.

    I'll try to come up with some associations between the play and the KJV that I suspect Shakespeare was familiar with.

    Something occurred to me about those rings that Portia and Nerrisa used to trick their husbands into thinking they were unfaithful to them: Didn't Jessica also have a ring that was used to symbolize her unfaithfulness to her father? Maybe the parallel is stronger than I originally thought.

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    The point about the ring is interesting, although it has little relevence to faithfulness. Rather it illustrates his daughter's wanton profilgacy in the company of a Christian. This occurs in Act III Scene 1, where Shylock is alternately apprised of Antonio's supposed misfortune, at which he delights and Jessica's extravigance which he bemoans. Certainly this is intended as a comic scene and it both reads and plays as one.

    Jessica took both jewells and money from her father. The ring is not specifically described as having been given to Jessica, but as having been given to Shylock by Leah, (Shylocks's wife perhaps?) "When he was a bachellor", it must be a man's ring and is obviously of great personal sentimental value to him. Jessica stole it and gave it away for a monkey. She also squanders Shylock's gold, presumably for the benefit of her new husband, Lorenzo. Superficially it is funny in the context of the comparitive fortunes of Shylock and Antonio, but Jessica has stolen, and steeling is a sin to Christians as well as Jews. Lorenzo, a Christian, seems more than happy to break a few commandments. Well, he can always go to confession, say a few our fathers and be washed whiter than white, so that's all right then.

    The point I'm making is that the Christians are as morally flawed as Shylock, as was pointed out much earlier by another poster.

    I rather suspect that 16th Century Christians would have had a far more rigorous interpretation of what constitutes Christ-like qualities than anyone living in the last 100 years. Such symbolism would not have been observed in the secular before the likes of Roland Barthes and the rise of Semiology. The description of Christian Symbolism was the preserve of the Established Church, which rather frowned on the Theatre as being godless frippery.
    Last edited by Hawkman; 04-16-2012 at 11:51 AM.

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    In the fog Charles Darnay's Avatar
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    I became fixated on the symbol of Leah's ring, and am even writing a story with that as the title (which draws heavily from Merchant).

    To me, Leah's ring is the last thing Jessica gave away that she took from her father - is the last piece of her parentage - her Jewish parentage - that she parted with, thus completely renouncing her past. That she gave it away for a money shows just how little she cares about her past.

    I love Jessica as a subject - while I don't think she was meant to be a great focus in the play, and is often not, she is an interesting character. The "on such a night as this" scene between Lorenzo and Jessica in Act V remains one of the most confusing things in this play.
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