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« Egypt: Voices from Houston | Main | Applying Democratic Ideals Abroad is Important; See Egypt (Cyrus) »

February 04, 2011


Actually, it's the Duke who states after Shylock exits the stage " Sir, I entreat you home with me to dinner." to the lawyer(Portia). So, there you have your 'Let's eat', after the drama of disposing with the hated Shylock.

I remember while studying the play that my high school teacher chose to interpret it fairly literally, slightly brushing on the stereotypes that it portrayed and how it would have played out in Elizabethan England. We were left with the impression of Antonio being a not-so-edifying hero, and Shylock as a very human villain by the time we got done with the court scene. Portia gives multiple opportunities to Shylock to back away from his 'pound of flesh', and imposes the full range of penalties only when he shies away from every possible opportunity to show mercy. Thus, as my teacher explained, the judgement on Shylock, when it falls, is a terrible one, fitting in all respects.
The issue of the conversion was glossed over somewhat, since we were dealing with multiple religious sensitivities in the classroom (except that we had no Jewish students)- the class was a mix of majority Hindus, minority Christians and a couple of Muslims, the teacher was a Hindu, and the classroom in a Carmelite-convent run school.


My reading in Catholic high school was as a celebration of Portia's intelligence, coolness under pressure, and stinging rebuke. Of course, the Jew will bleed when pricked, just like the rest of us. Otherwise, my English teacher had not a clue as to what it was all about and what few people understand in Merchant: The greatest humiliation the Christians could deliver upon other human beings was to make them Christians. Becoming a Christian was a punishment.

Now I am going to have a late breakfast. Let's eat!

The funny part was for us that we had just made the switch from the tamer 'Verity' edition to the non-Bowdlerized board-mandated edition- Shakespeare in all his glory, including the more prurient stuff, all with scholarly explanations. The teacher had quite a time quelling all the hushed discussion that would ensue when reading some of the scenes.
We just had a cursory exposure to World History (maybe a semester's worth), and the full horror of anti-Semitism and the historical perception of Jews that led to the atrocities of the Holocaust, which could have been neatly tied in with our study of the Merchant of Venice, never crossed our teachers' minds. Each subject was studied in isolation, and we weren't mature enough to make the connections on our own.

Fascinating, Norman. Sujatha, I was taught in school to think of Portia as highly intelligent and poised, period -- took years to undo.

There is substantial recent scholarship to suggest that the family of Shakespeare was Catholic, but under wraps, because of the severe persecutions of the day. So that Shakespeare might have had better background than most to begin to understand what it was to be a Jew in that era. In Spain, many Jews were then living as Marranos -- apparent converts to Christianity. To be forced to convert, or else, was a widespread humiliation, and English Catholics at during the reign of Elizabeth would have known a bit about it. Not to say that a genius without limits had to write from his own experience, but if Shakespeare was a Catholic, in his mind and heart, then his religion was more troublesome to him than his being gay, in that the former was a deep secret and a constant threat, the latter something to wink at.

Thanks for bringing all this up in your essay, Norman. It's a troubling play to go back to many times, one that we can learn from when we think of forcing our way of life on unwilling others.

All sources I read point to the fact that there were very few Jews in Elizabethan England, and that it may have been projection of some of the issues faced by persecuted Catholics that were fitted into Shylock's characterization. He was a convenient villain, and an easy and obvious target for off-color jokes that would play well with the audiences of the day.

I am curious, Elatia, about how your opinion of Portia has changed? What do you think of her now?

Sujatha, I haven't read MOV in a decade or more, but I was...all grown up back then. I would say Portia is an aristocrat of the day -- educated, eloquent, both gracious and haughty, not at all self-questioning, and fantastically well served by the status quo, except of course by the brute fact of female birth. One of the ironies of the play is that a woman pretending to be a man is busily instructing an outcast as to pretenses -- or transformations -- he must make, when, as a woman, she was powerless to compel these changes. Powerful, like a Jew or some other outsider, only through trickery. So she knows all about living "as if" and yet will not relent -- I find that psychologically very truthful.

That is an insightful analysis, Elatia.
My exposure to the play was very similar to Sujatha's although I did not attend a convent school like she did. The main focus was on Portia's heroics in the courtroom. Anti Semitism was/is not much of an issue in India. Nobody thought of connecting the dots. Shylock was a villain, not so much a Jew.

Here is an ancient book review about the Crypto Jews - double layered pretense and trickery, in order to cope and survive in a hostile environment.

What a good book review, Ruchira! Thanks for the link! Stanley Hordes recently published a book on the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico, _To the End of the Earth_ (Columbia U press, 2008), following this very tradition to the New World.


I have to agree with Ruchira that you observations are very insightful - and this coming from a man. I always looked at Portia's disguise as a clever trick to play with the boys and show her stuff. It is another thing to ask, "What choice did she have?"

Standing back and looking at the close of Act V, you, I, and everyone else can take stock of the moral and human issues - even if it takes 30+ years after reading it in high school. The characters, however, close this chapter in their lives and no one learned a damned thing about the issues we have been discussing. In my view, this is one of the most powerful messages in the play.

Shylock asks, "Does not a Jew bleed...?" and pleads for his and his people's humanity. Yet, when he is asking for the enforcement of his contract, he behaves as if there is no spark of human in Antonio; in fact, he loathes Antonio.

Portia presents, in a kind way, the generous and free quality of mercy in a monologue that would melt the coldest heart. Yet, when she had the opportunity to display that for which she plead, we find that her cold heart was as immune from her entreaty as was the heart of Shylock.

Shylock is bitterly, and vengefully insistent on explicit terms of his contract. Portia does no less when she hauls out the City Charter and starts quoting chapter and verse.

You wonder if Antonio is happier about escaping death, or about the utter ruining of Shylock. I do not know about anyone else, but if I just escaped death by the narrowest of margins, I would be focused on my own relief and good luck, and be very thankful. It would take me a while to get up a head of steam to vent anger at those responsible for my near death experience.

There is an old German saying, "We get too soon old, and too late smart." This play is an exception. No one is any wiser for the experience.

Thank you, Norman -- it's good for AB to give everyone a chance to revisit the play.

It's true what you say, none of the characters in MOV is wiser in the end, unless you count learning that three of Antonio's ships are not after all lost as gathering crucially enlightening information. PhD thesis alert: Compare the final scenes of plays or operas with trouser roles or other kinds of gender identity masquerades that you can think of. How many resolve along the lines of a gender switch-out being completed? Or at least over-depend on that turn of plot? See? It's enough already -- culture has decided no one has to learn more than this. Certainly not how to deal with The Other, for the discharge attending on witnessing transformation has already occurred.

I think tragedy requires there to be insight on the part of some of the characters, but not comedy. Thus another play of the 1590s,_Romeo and Juliet_, ends with the Montagus and Capulets abandoning their blood feud, but MOV didn't end with a cessation of retribution schemes, once Antonio has no crushing debt. Oh, not even to mention that Antonio and Bassanio make a tighter-bound couple than either man could form with any woman. Perhaps, as with many comedies, even problematical ones, the available insight is supposed to overtake the theater-goers, not the characters on stage.

Does Shakespeare want us to consider the humanity of The Other? Well, he wrote those lines... I would say that's a fair tip-off. But, in 325 more years, little enough had changed for Forster to create understanding, perhaps, but not equality, between Fielding and Dr. Aziz in _A Passage to India_. As both men could finally see, when the power balance is crazily off, when one party is less-than and not free, there may be recognition, but not the fellow feeling that equality demands. Representing a big blind spot, whether he had it himself or simply knew to represent it because of the requirements of truth, is part of what separates Shakespeare from, oh, Gene Roddenberry. From the one you will get poetry that is a cry from the soul to consider the humanity of everyone, however the drama resolves; from the other you will get a little moral philosophy via Captain Kirk.

"One of the ironies of the play is that a woman pretending to be a man is busily instructing an outcast as to pretenses" - is actually, given those times and stagecraft, a delicious double-entendre for the audience.
The role of Portia would naturally be played by a young man, who switches dexterously between female and male costume, as a pretty boy playing a pretty woman who pretends to be a man who reverts to being a woman only after reinforcing the traditional narrative of the path of love- the imbroglio over Bassanio's turning over Portia's ring to the 'lawyer' and being 'suspected' of infidelity (of a different kind?) before all is revealed and all's well.
And we talk about 'edgy' themes being portrayed in the movies these days - well, they have nothing on Shakespeare, who outdid them all with centuries to spare.

i've found shylock's speech begining with "I am a Jew. hath not jews eyes? hath not a jew a hand? - - - ' the most poignant lines in the play. shakespeare was no fool. while exposing how the jew operated, he points out in no uncertain terms the role of chrstians in making a Jew a jew.

most prblems in the world are the fallout of the self righteous, judgemental, arrogant arbitrary actions of the christianised europe.

europe was not ready for xtianity. the contradictions in the christian culture of europe arising from the long tradition of brutality having to abruptly accommodate nonviolence. its suppressed violence found outlets in the crusades, colonies and by demonising the 'other'. it's the last that shakespeare exposes in the Shylock story.

Now, KPJ makes yet is another interesting observation. That Europeans in the middle ages were too savage to have internalized the peaceful, merciful message of Christianity and misused the faith to oppress and lord it over others in their midst as well as abroad. But I suppose that can be said of any religion which preaches one thing on paper and practices another in its actions. In fact, European Christianity's armed imperial and proselytizing zeal until quite recently, was hardly distinguishable from Islam's.

For those who don't know KPJ, she is from Kerala, India and although I have never asked her, I am guessing from her name that she is of Christian background. Kerala is one of the earliest places in the world, outside of the Levant, to be exposed to the Christian message - way before it reached most of Europe. Kerala is also one region in the Indian subcontinent where Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism co-existed through centuries, peacefully and unselfconsciously.

As to Elatia's allusion to the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio, could it be that given the position of women (not intellectual equals of men) in the contemporary social ladder of those times, male friendships were elevated to a higher level of commitment and fulfillment than the more "unequal," therefore, more trivial, male-female ones? Or was there a homosexual undertone to Antonio's devotion? Dr. Aziz gave one of the most poignant and convincing explanations of why two individuals from vastly unequal public positions of power could not become equals in friendship, however decent and respectful they were in their mutual empathies and easy camaraderie in private.

KPJ, who has ever lived up to the way of life that Christ taught? I believe that the values expressed by all religions are not values that celebrate a culture's innate tendencies, but that correct them. No one ever said the Greeks were moderate, yet, needing what they tended away from, they exalted moderation. There is an extremely funny skit from Ancient Greece -- sorry, can't source it! -- with one player and a chorus. The player is a model citizen who recounts his daily routine, and talks a bit about the kind of interaction he is likely to have with others in his town. What a buttoned-down fellow! And well-pleased he is with a life of moderation. The chorus leans into him: "Yes -- but are you popular?," it asks. "No, not very," he replies.

If properly understood, Christianity would lead away from war, would lead to a sense of brotherhood and common destiny among Christians, who would then have to extend their vision of the human dilemma beyond their coreligionists to an idea of the brotherhood of man that reached past conflicting interests and mutually exclusive beliefs. "If thine enemy hunger, feed him. If he thirst, give him to drink," it says in Romans -- the thinking being that the shame of remaining your enemy in these radically altered circumstances will alter the very nature of the hostilities. Will it? We bid fair never to know. We glimpse in art and poetry, and in the writings of mystics of all faiths, the vastly humane vision that is almost always too much.

thank you Ruchira for introducing me to your readers. yes, i am a christian from Kerala - to be precise, from the syrian catholic community of is perhaps among the most conservative, rigid communities.
yes ruchira and elatia, all religions 'preach one thing on paper and practice another in its actions.' but the way the christian europe pursued its power politics which involved brutality and inhuman practices while taking care to maintain its image as a "christian' people is unique. crusades, inquisition were done in the name of protecting christianity. colonisation too was to spread christianity, and christianise the pagans. the not so hidden agenda was economics. to justify the inhuman treatment of the natives, they were demonised - projected as subhumans. Christ, after all, asked to love you human neighbours, and not subhuman!
shakespeare was a smart guy. his Tempest shows how this was achieved by calibanising noneuropeon cultures.
i have addressed this issue in a post but the reaction to it was not what i expected, and so decided not to pursue the suject.i'll give the link below, but i warn you it is looong:-)

@ PJK: Nice to meet you. I will be taking a look at your article.


I read your link on Crypto-Jews, and the comments. I heard about the "Secret Jews" from my first boss at IBM, around 1970. He was also a psychologist. His heritage was Sephardic. His father 'jumped boat' after docking in the United States from Puerto Rico, in the 1920s or 1930s.

He told me of the shock and surprise when, during WWII, some prominent families of Jews in Spain opened their homes to refugees from Nazi persecution, and identified themselves as "secret Jews." I guess that Spain's official neutrality prevented them from turning over their own Jews for extermination as in neighboring France.

What I found fascinating was the validation of black Jewish clans in South Africa (or a neighboring country) several decades ago. Israel was, initially, reluctant to accept their Jewish lineage. However, DNA analysis showed them to be Cohens.

During the Ethiopian-Biafran war of the 1970s, there was a black Jewish clan that was airlifted to Israel for permanent resettlement. Some of the senior rabbis in Israel were not completely convinced of the certainty of Jewish lineage. They wanted them to go through a 'conversion' ceremony to make sure. As you can imagine, that went over like a lead balloon. As far as I know they have long since been assimilated into Israeli society.

@ PJK,

Being unfamiliar with India, I found some info on Kerala, India. Beautiful place. I found a picture of The Aranmula Boat Race, and it reminded me of the dragon boat races in Hong Kong harbor.

How did a Syrian Christian church wind up in Kerala? I also found a picture of the beautiful St. Thomas Church (Palayur), the oldest church in India.

Norman, the history of Christianity in Kerala is very old. The Syrian Church there is indeed Syrian. The liturgy is (at least, it was until recently) is recited in an old Syriac tongue which I believe is close to ancient Aramaic. I have seen some of old church documents in Kerala. The script is similar to Hebrew, written from right to left. See the Wikipedia entry for St. Thomas who is said to have landed on the shores of Kerala in 52AD. And indeed, Kerala is a beautiful place.

Here is a blog post about my own trip to Kerala and my futile and somewhat amusing experience of attempting to enter the oldest standing Indian synagogue.

thanks. do post your take after you go through my blog.

regarding Syrian church in kerala, oral tradition has it that st thomas the apostle converted namboodiris(kerala brahmins)into christians. both the facts are disputed, but ironically, casteism is/was strong among syrian 'christians", despite the fact that christianity believed in an egalitarian society;-). but it is a fact that when the portuguese came to Kerala, they found a highly institutionalised church in here. the romanisation of xtianity and the nestorian heresy had had no impact on it - hence it must have been older than the christianisation of europe and the heresy.

the eurpeon colonisers did not spare the syrian church of kerala. it was forcibly romanised/colonised:-) causing a lot of distress among the "native' christians. if you look up SYNOD AT DIAMPER, you'll get a fairly good idea of this history. these guys, they were incurable imperialists!:-)

ruchira, the liturgy was translated into malayalam in the late sixties.the malayalam liturgy maintains the singsong style of the original syrian.

ruchira, it was great to be linked to your post on kerala. i have read it four or five times, and want the movie! i sent the link to my friend juliet, a writer infort worth who has done research on jewish history in the new world, and sh could not believe how well you write. we will get her vote for you!

kpj, that was a fascinating essay. many thanks.

caryl churchill, a caribbean writer of wide repute, wrote a moving story about the falashas.

i have not exactly stopped spelling, spacing and capitalizing, but my ipad has.

Most disturbing is the manner in which society has latched onto what most would consider a satirical character in establishing his "presence" as such an offensive and mocking epithet.

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