Monday, March 03, 2008

Shylock and "Springtime for Hitler"


When Mel Brooks' "The Producers" was first staged, some people kept complaining that the play promoted the unfavourable stereotype of the greedy and dishonest Jew in the characters of Bialystok and Bloom. Yet most people probably miss the much greater perfidy, the acidic irony at the core of that play: That B&B's cunning plan was based upon their firm belief in the decency and historical awareness of their prospective audience, and the full

expectation that a play titled "Springtime for Hitler" would never stand a chance of succeeding. Who knew?

This is the only play that comes to my mind where the point is made about the way audiences are apt to go where they should not go.

Also, in the interests of full disclosure, I have to add that this insight is not mine. I never thought about this angle myself until someone I spoke to on the Internet, an American author with an interesting, multi-layered, identity, made that point to me.


Normblog opines today about an organized mini-boycott by Jewish students on Shakespeare's play, "The Merchant of Venice".

Norm says:

If you don't want to read, listen to or watch something because of its anti-Semitic content, then that's your right.


I'm not happy with Norm's formulation. It seems to concur with the students' view that MoV is indeed an antisemitic play.

I don't think so. Antisemitism is an attitude formed by people who respond favourably and eagerly to defamation and lies about Jews.

Shakespeare's play, to put it in the most simplistic way I can, does not promote defamation and lies about Shylock. It is the audience, which over the centuries insisted on responding hatefully to the figure of Shylock, that bears the main responsibility for taking from it this hatred of the Jew. Shakespeare's play is critical of both the Christians and the Jew, in ways that should not be hard to figure out. But its judgment does not come down on the side of the Christians, not by a long shot.

To designate Shakespeare’s play as antisemitic is to reduce it in a way that does violence not only to its literary merit but also to the universal message that is contained in its treatment of the relationship between a mainstream society and its minorities.

The main question to focus on is whether, in The Merchant of Venice , Shakespeare wrote a play about usury, about ethical economics or did he write something else altogether? True, the usurious bond in its rawest form is certainly at the epicenter of the plot in the play. The Merchant, for many generations of students and theatregoers, was a morality play about a European disease, “The Jewish question”. In European societies throughout the Middle Ages and the enlightenment era, the play defined the perpetual fusion between Judaism and economics in the uncompromising figure of Shylock. Shylock, with his evil bond, dominates the play in a way that burns itself into the minds of people.

My contention is, however, that the play is less about usury and immoral economics and more about the incompatibility, or rather, untranslatability, between competing systems of ethics, Jewish versus Christian, minority versus majority. Shylock’s famous speech, “Hath not a Jew eyes, etc.” serves both as an attempt to invoke the common bond of humanity and simultaneously as a forewarning to what ignoring it could bring forth. The speech contains the (never realized) potential for preempting the atrocities visited upon the Jews in later generations. At the same time, it augurs the subsequent insurrection of the persecuted. It is a Shakespearean attempt to describe a universal code of reference for acceptable behavior among human beings who pursue different cultural and religious roads.

The confrontation between Shylock and Antonio, who would have been great partners in our time, evolves against a religious backdrop. Antonio is an insider, Christian, friend of the aristocracy, secure in his social acceptance. Shylock is a Jew, an outsider in a hostile environment, who can only rely on the law and his money to protect him.

The clash between the two comes to a head in Act IV in the play.

In this trial scene, the standoff evolves from a transactional dispute to a struggle between competing systems of moralities. Portia’s speech on the “quality of mercy” expresses in very beautiful and moving words stereotypical Christian morality. Shylock, on the other hand, very curtly, dismisses these entreaties as opposed to the law of his Jewish Religion: that the bond is his oath, a promise made. Violating this oath is tantamount to perjury, a sin in the eyes of God.

There you have it, the apparent irreconcilability of the two systems.

That Portia’s Christian Mercy is rather deluded and ironic becomes evident in a matter of minutes when the tables are turned on the Jew, the maximum punishment exacted from him.

That Shylock overplayed his religious adherence to the letter of the law, thus defeating his own previous invocation of shared humanity is also evident when he accepts apostasy, the ultimate betrayal of his God.

Had Portia’s mercy extended to embrace the Jewish Alien, had Shylock’s legalism turned to the Jewish legal tradition of canceling vows and oaths or stopping short well before extracting the full measure of the Law, the tragedy of the two adversarial groups could have been averted, and harmony truly restored to the romantic comedy.

Shakespeare was unwilling or unable to stop his characters from spiraling downwards. It was also the only kind of justice that could have been expected in a Christian court under these circumstances, and Shakespeare recorded it in his play.


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