Shakespeare and Anti-Semitism


Shakespeare and Anti-Semitism


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What the Yiddish Actors Saw

By David Basch

    for there is not a man that has not his hour,
    and there is not a thing that has not its place.

    - Ben Azzai, Pirke Avoth 4:3

Among the circles of scholars and intellectual authorities, William Shakespeare enjoys highest praise as the Western world's ultimate poet and moral compass. What is ironic about this high status is that it yet allows for the taint of an unseemly anti-Semitism alleged to be found in his play, The Merchant of Venice. This intrudes as so disturbing and inconsistent a blot on his reputation that it has encouraged attempts to soften its impact if not to entirely explain it away. The most common strategy used for this has been to suggest that it would have been virtually impossible for even the best of men to altogether escape the Elizabethan period's unsavory attitudes toward Jews. Hence, a balanced view would be contented by the fact that the poet's genius occasionally overrode this hateful bias by his strong expressions of sympathy for the Jew in his play.

In fact, there is no shortage of episodes that tell that this play does not neatly fit into the category of anti-Semitic literature. Episodes, such as Shylock's famous speech, "Hath not a Jew eyes …?" do add a motive for Shylock's outlandish behavior and give this Jew an understandable human dimension that had not been seen before. Especially interesting are scenes in the play that seem critical of Shylock's enemies. For example, there is one in which Jessica, Shylock's apostate daughter, is eloping with a Christian and has just finished robbing her father. At that very moment, one of her companions praises her deed, declaring, "Now, by my hood, a Gentile and no Jew." Surely this is not Shakespeare's ringing endorsement of her new life. Can anyone believe that the great poet did not know the implication of this line? Hardly so, since, after all, he is known to have taken infinite care in choosing his words. This would be puzzling in this play if the intent were to express a raw anti-Semitism.

But the problem with this charitable view of Shakespeare is that, again and again, it runs up against Shylock the money lender's infamous "bond of flesh" penalty clause. This is a clause that he suddenly introduces into his loan agreement with Antonio, the Christian merchant. It stipulated that, in case the merchant defaulted on his loan, Shylock had the right to take a pound "from his … flesh." How to explain in a non anti-Semitic way this grisly proposal made by a Jew?

On the surface, this bizarre clause suggests some secret, diabolical intent on the Jew's part, something evil coming from a cruel heart. As scholar James Shapiro observed (Shakespeare and The Jews, 1996) this kind of thinking about Jews as demonic, scheming, and cruel had a long history in England, though Jews had been banished from the country for almost 400 years. What is more, at the time of Shakespeare's play, hysteria concerning Jews was reaching new heights as a result of a trumped up plot against Dr. Ruy Lopez, Queen Elizabeth's physician of Jewish descent, alleging that he tried to murder her.

Given this background, it would not seem unlikely that Shakespeare either had succumbed to such attitudes about Jews or would have put it in his play as something of timely interest for his audience. While this lapse may diminish the moral stature of the poet, it at least seems to have afforded his genius an opportunity for some redemption by spurring him to add the countervailing human touches that have been observed. Nevertheless, to this very day, the play carries a lingering anti-Semitic flavor. The fact is that few persons seem to be aware of the play's humanizing features yet all know about its sinister Jewish plot to take a pound of flesh from a Christian.

It is therefore interesting that, what comes as a surprise to many who are exposed to the play for the first time, is how pleasantly engaging is the talkative Shylock in his meeting with merchant Antonio and his friend Bassanio as they discuss a loan. It is after much spirited discussion that ends up in a conciliatory, friendly mood between them that Shylock, in finalizing his surprising offer to give Antonio a free loan, introduces the bond of flesh penalty. He refers to it as a "merry sport" something not to be taken seriously. So impressed is Antonio with Shylock's kindness in giving him a free loan that he dismisses Bassanio's concern about its ominous nature, telling him that he will soon be able to repay it.

However, the implications of this strange agreement are only later revealed with the unfolding of unforeseen events. In an unanticipated run of bad luck, all of Antonio's ships are lost and he is forced to default on his loan. Also, Shylock's young daughter has fled with a Christian and Shylock blames Antonio for helping this elopement that took away Shylock's "own flesh and blood." As a result, we find a raging Shylock announcing his determination to take the defaulted Antonio to court in vengeance to literally collect his due of flesh as spelled out in the agreement. In doing so, irrespective of the provocation, Shylock places himself well beyond the pale of human decency.

Of course, Shylock's extreme vengeful reaction appears to audiences as nothing less than what would be expected of a Jew in applying a harsh biblical, "eye for an eye" standard the symmetry of Antonio's flesh in place of his daughter's. This surely appears as meat thrown to feed the raging anti-Semitic imagination of the audience, done through the courtesy of no less a dramatist than William Shakespeare.

Enter now Abraham Morevski, Yiddish actor and theorist. In 1937 in his book written in Yiddish, SHAKESPEARE AND SHYLOCK, Morevski offered a radical view of the play. His thinking could well have emerged from a still older tradition in Yiddish theater, in which another actor, Jacob Adler (1855-1926), had played Shylock in a Yiddish version of the play on New York's lower East Side. In Adler's staging, Shylock was played as not intending to collect on his bond, however much he made the merchant squirm.

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