Monday, May 12, 2014

"Teaching Shylock" by Harry Golden (1961)

In light of the recent Supreme Court ruling concerning Sectarian Prayer in Public Forums, the Justices would do well to read the following, which first appeared in the Carolina Israelite in 1961. 

It was first introduced to me by Leonard Herman; the father of a friend; when I was about 15 years old.

The painting above is "Shylock After Trial" by John Gilbert.

"Teaching Shylock" by Harry Golden 

I know that if anyone suggested the censorship of the Merchant Of Venice either as a book or a play I would fight the attempt with everything I have. But having said that, I will also say that, if it were up to me, I wouldn’t teach The Merchant of Venice in secondary schools.

I would use Julius Caesar and Mid-Summer Nights Dream, Macbeth and As You Like It. When the student enters college, The Merchant of Venice, of course, must be read and studied. My view of the secondary schools comes from experience. On several occasions an English teacher in one of the local high schools has asked me to lecture her pupils on the historical background of the Merchant of Venice. This, of course, is wonderful. But the mere fact that a humanitarian schoolteacher felt the need for some background “explanation” is evidence enough that the play should be left to colleges. On each of these occasions I said to myself, how can I stand up before 50 or 60 boys and girls- Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists- and tell them that the Shylock play is a satire on the Gentile Middle Class of Venice? If I even attempted such a course there would be a danger that my words might be interpreted as a lack of respect for the Christian Faiths.

So all I could really do with the background was recite a bit of history of the Middle Ages, and explain the legal processes by which the Jews were forcibly urbanized and driven to dealing with money. I also traced the development of Shylock; how almost from the beginning the English actors recognized Shakespeare’s purpose and as early as the year 1741 Shylock was portrayed on the English stage as the sympathetic figure in the play. On one of these occasions a boy in the class asked me a question: “Mr. Golden, why the Jews? Why have the Jews been picked out for all these terrible things?”

It was a good question, a pertinent question. I looked at the clock and saw that I had two minutes to go. I told the boy I’d sit down and answer his question in my paper and send him a copy. And I’ll do it soon, of course.

Shylock and William Shakespeare

The presentation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice at Stratford, Ontario has resulted in a wave of comment in the English-Jewish press. There are Jews who dread to see the play produced and protest its presentation. Others feel that Shylock has been drawn with great imaginative penetration and have no objection to its production. Still others are not interested in either way but are against censorship of any kind under any circumstances. This is natural and during each of my lectures on Shakespeare I could always count on the controversy  when we came to the lecture on Shylock.

The German Nazis understood Shakespeare very well, and they did not use Shakespeare’s Shylock in all their gigantic propaganda campaigns. They spent plenty of money in distributing Bud Schulberg’s “What Makes Sammy Run?” but not a single copy  of the Merchant of Venice reached those shores as part of the defamation campaign. The Germans knew. They knew their Shakespeare. German was the first language into which Shakespeare was translated. Now let us go back a little.

You must remember that the Jews had been expelled from England in the year 1290 and they were not readmitted until Oliver Cromwell’s time in1655. Legally that is. Actually the authorities did not enforce the law too rigidly after the ascension of Elizabeth I, a century earlier. Elizabeth sensed that her reign would usher in the age of Gloriana. Trade was the thing. She wanted peace, exploration and trade and commerce. That meant, let up on the discrimination against the guys who knew all about peace, trade and commerce. But Elizabeth had a Jewish doctor, Roderigo Lopez, and this Dr. Lopez was arrested and convicted on the charge of attempting to poison Elizabeth. Let us not get into that at the moment. We have enough to worry about. Let us leave Lopez hanging outside the East gate of London in the winter of 1594. Very likely it was a plot to reactivate the laws against the Jews, which Elizabeth was trying to minimize at the moment. We are not sure. If it was plot, it worked. A wave of Anti-Semitism spread over England. The people who love to have their prejudices confirmed were again reminded of the stereotype of the Jew which had persisted in literature and folklore all through the Middle Ages. Now, to ride the crest of the wave, the balladeers, poets, playwrights and journalists jumped into the act to cash in on the revived Anti-Semitism. Even the two greatest dramatists of the day, already legends in their own time, could not resist this audience interest. Christopher Marlowe wrote The Jew of Malta and on July 22, 1598 , James Roberts entered into the Stationer’s Register “ The Merchant of Venice, or otherwise called The Jewe of Venyce”, by William Shakespeare.

Now, let us start all over again.

All through the Middle Ages thousands of Anti Jew plays were produced all over Europe. These plays are lost to us. They were really nothing. No art. No Value at all. In the main they were poorly improvised or poorly written. “Passion” Plays. They were the standard drama form of the Middle Ages. Their hostility to Jews was based on a simple formula: “this is evil because it is evil.” And no questions asked. All of these cut and dried Anti-Jew plays continued for four hundred years, culminating in the work of a literary giant-

Geoffrey Chaucer – in The Prioress’s Tale. Chaucer was a genius, and he was read and how! From the year 1385 right down to this day in every college you must know Chaucer. Well. Chaucer did us more harm with his few lines about Ritual Murder than all the four hundred years of junk “Passion” plays put together. The myth of the Wandering Jew also flourished through these centuries; a myth of hate, libel and murder. But Chaucer was not the only immortal to have accepted the stereotype of “evil because it is evil.” Christopher Marlowe, one of the giants, also played it straight without a single editorial comment, and Marlowe’s hostility could not have been “Wandering jew” stuff;

He was an outspoken Atheist. And let us not brood too much over the Middle Ages. Let us come right down to Modern Times, and we find Edward Gibbon, the greatest of all historians, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, speak of ritual murder like he was reporting an automobile accident, also without any editorial comment, and even Winwood Reade, in his Martyrdom of Man, who checked every detail of his writings (he even made a special trip to the African Coast just to double check his chapter on Negro slavery). Yet this wonderful man tells how the Jews stole all the Pharaoh’s silverware when they left Egypt . This, he knew. He had footnotes for everything, but for this he didn’t need any footnotes. He was sure. An outspoken Atheist, Mr. Reade held up to scorn and ridicule everything in the Bible except those passages which he could interpret as being unfavorable to the Jews. How can you figure it?

Now let us get started on William Shakespeare and The Merchant of Venice. Mr. Shakespeare was first and foremost Mr. Theatre. He was a craftsman interested in filling his theater; earning dividends for his colleagues and partner-producers and providing a livelihood for his fellow actors. He also wrote a “Jew” Play. But this was Shakespeare! This was not Marlowe, nor Chaucer, nor Gibbon, nor Reade. We are dealing here with the jewel of mankind, the greatest brain ever encased in a human skull.

Shakespeare gave his audience a play in which they could confirm their prejudices- but he did much more. Shakespeare was the first writer in seven hundred years who gave the Jew a “motive”. Why did he need to give the Jew a motive? Certainly his audience did not expect it. For centuries they had been brought up on the stereotype, “this is evil because it’s evil”, and here Shakespeare comes along and goes to so much “unnecessary”

Trouble giving   Shylock a motive.  At last- a motive!

Fair sir, you spit on me Wednesday last;

You spurned me such a day; another time

You called me dog.

Fighting words. Many a Southerner of Anti Bellum days did not bother about getting a “pound of flesh”. He finished his transducer on the spot. But Shakespeare gives us no rest. He is actually writing a satire on the Gentile Middle Class and the Psuedo-Christians, and he wastes no time. What does Antonio, this paragon of Christian virtue, say to this charge of Shylock’s? Does he turn the other cheek? Does he follow the teaching of Jesus to “love thine enemies?” Not by a long shot. This “noble” man replies to Shylock’s charge:

I am as like to call thee so again,

To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.

But Shakespeare has hardly begun. Mr. Poet Philosopher is playing a little game with Mr Theater. Shylock loans Antonio three thousand ducats for three months and demands a pound of flesh as security. This is good. This right up Middle Ages alley, according to the seven hundred year old pattern- “evil because it’s evil”, that’s all.  But Shakespeare does not let his audience off so easily.  He makes them reach for it. In the first place, Shylock loans the money to Antonio without interest. But that’s only the beginning. Since Anti-Semitism is the renunciation of all logic, Shakespeare says if that’s what you want to believe, I’ll not make it easy for you. You must renounce all logic. You must also believe that Shylock loaned the money to the richest man in Venice and that somehow he knew that this rich man would lose all his money in ninety days and couldn’t pay off a debt which was really peanuts to him. How could he possibly know that? A pound of flesh, yes, but how could Shylock  figure that within ninety days a storm in the Persian Gulf and in the Mediterranean , and in the Indian Ocean would suddenly destroy all of Antonio’s ships, all within the same ninety days.

And look here, why does this noble Antonio, the Christian merchant, want the three thousand ducats to begin with? Why did Shakespeare go out of his way to show that Antonio’s request for a loan was based on cheapness and chicanery? He did not have to do that. Certainly not for an Anti-Semetic audience of 1598. He could have contrived a million more noble causes. Patriotism. Antonio needed the money for widows and orphans. Or to defend Venice against an Invader. How the audience would have eaten that up. But Shakespeare refuses to make it that simple. Let us discuss the play from the viewpoint of the audience, like when your children go to the movies. The “good guys” and the “bad guys”.  Antonio and his friends are the “good guys”; Shylock, the Jew, is the “bad guy”. Now what do we have here? Antonio’s friend, Bassanio, one of the “good guys”, is in debt to Antonio. He wants to pay back and he has a scheme.  Portia just inherited a wad of money. If  he can get Portia and her dough all his troubles would be over. But Bassanio says the project needs some front money.  You need money to woo a rich girl like Portia. So he says to Antonio, lend me just a little. He says that when he was a youth and when he lost one arrow, he shot another in the same direction and often retrieved both. So now. Lend me some dough so I can make love to a rich lady who has just inherited a vast fortune, and with good luck I’ll not only pay you back what you advanced me but I’ll give you all back debts I owe you.

This is the dal the two “noble” guys in Shakespeare’s play made.  Antonio says, “It’s a deal, only all my ready cash is tied up in my ships, and I’ll not be able to lay my hands on ready cash for ninety days or so.”

And so they go to Shylock to borrow the money.

How could we help but sense that Shakespeare was writing an indictment of the hypocrites who vitiated every precept taught them by Christianity? Shylock is a widower. He has only one daughter, Jessica, who falls in love with Lorenzo, a Gentile. The “good” guys induce her not only to desert her widowed father but to rob him, and dressed in boy’s clothing ( a third crime in Jewish law).  Jessica steals away in the night to elope with Lorenzo.

I will make fast the doors, and gild myself

With some more ducats, and be with you straight.

Based on Western law Jessica has committed the crime of theft. She has also committed the moral crime of stealing out of her father’s house during the night and deserting him, and as the young thief comes away with her father’s money, what do the “good” guys say? Gratiano exclaims;

Now, by my hood, a Gentile and no Jew!

Can you imagine how the audience howled with glee as Jessica was leaving Shylock’s house with his caskets of money? Shakespeare probably figured that during this howling the audience would miss the follow up line. You have deserted your father, stolen out of his house  during the night dressed in boy’s clothing, and robbed him of his money, and NOW you are a Gentile, and , by my hood, no Jew. The playwright set his 1598 audience to howling. The poet-philosopher wrote for all future generations.

Later on, the “bad” guys, Shylock and his friend Tubal, are discussing Jessica’s theft and desertion. Tubal tells Shylock that Jessica had exchanged one of the rings she had stolen for a monkey.  Says Shylock, “I wish she hadn’t pawned that ring. That was Leah’s turquoise. That was my wife’s ring; she gave it to me before we were married. I wish she hadn’t pawned that ring for a monkey.” This from a Jew money lender in the Anti- Semetic atmosphere of the sixteenth century.  For the first time in seven hundred years of “Jew” literature in Europe, a writer had given a Jew a motive. Then he put the cloak of “human being” around him.  “I wouldn’t have taken a whole wilderness of monkeys for Leah’s ring,” says Shylock.

Bassanio invites Shylock to supper and the Jew replies;

Yes, to smell pork; to eat of the habitation which your prophet the Nazarite conjured the devil into.

The Italics are mine and I say that no Christian writer, before or since Shakespeare, has dared to put such “blasphemy” in the mouth of a “heretic.” Nor has a Christian writer shown such cynicism about the hypocritical  setup, as when Shakespeare has Launcelot, one of the “good” guys, say that we had better be careful about converting so many Jews to Christianity; all we’ll be doing is raising the price of pork.

But it is in one of the subplots of the play, with the three caskets and Portia’s suitors, that Shakespeare gives us the key to his purpose. One of the suitors is Morocco, a black man, and in the year 1598 Shakespeare has him speak these amazing lines;

Mislike me not for my complexion,

The shadowed livery of the burnished sun,

To whom I am neighbor and near bred.

 “Bring me the fairest blond from your northern forests, make the incisions and you’ll find my blood as red as his,” says Morocco .  Thus Morocco’s brief part in the play unlocks the door to the whole business.  Shylock asks, “When you prick us, do we not bleed?” Morocco, Shylock, Antonio- under the skin all men are brothers.

Shakespeare leads us up to the clincher. The audience and the players are now waiting for the big moment before the court where Shylock is bringing his suit against Antonio, the merchant, for his pound of flesh. Portia enters disguised as a lawyer and what does she say? What are her first words at this final showdown between the “good” guys and the “bad” guys?  Portia asks a most natural question:

Which is the Merchant here, and which the Jew?

Both the Plaintiff and the Defendant are standing before the court. Portia has never seen either one of them before, but as an educated gentlewoman she has behind her the culture of many centuries of the stereotyped Jew. If not actually with horns, you certainly can recognize the “devil” a mile away. And there he is ten feet away- she has a fifty fifty chance at making a guess between the “good” guy and the “bad” guy but she won’t risk it.

Which is the Merchant here, and which the Jew?

And when it all goes against Shylock, Shakespeare seems to go out of his way to give us a frightening picture of the “victors.”  He has them standing together pouring out a stream of vengeance. We’re not through with you yet Jew, and the money we have left you after you have paid all these fines, you must leave that to Jessica and your son in law who robbed you. Shakespeare keeps them hissing their hate.  Tarry yet a while, Jew, we’re still not through with you. You must also become a Christian. The final irony.  The gift offered in an atmosphere which is blue with hatred. And as all of this is going on, Shakespeare leaves only Shylock with a shred of dignity!

I pray you, give me leave to go from hence.


Written by Harry Golden in The Carolina Israelite- 1961
Also published in “Only In America ” by Harry Golden

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