Shakespeare, Shylock and anti-Semitism: Courage and clarity in the academy


There is no viler force in human history than anti-Semitism. One might argue for a while about the competing records of other mass annihilation of humans, including state socialism, which under Stalin and Mao alone blithely butchered millions more innocents. But for its unyielding inhumanity over two millennia, not only for the Holocaust, anti-Semitism cannot be surpassed.

Thus there is extraordinary virtue evident when scholars confront one of the great intellectual shibboleths of anti-Semitism in something like mortal combat and come out above the current fads.

Was William Shakespeare anti-Semitic? Is "The Merchant of Venice," in the character of Shylock, an anti-Semitic tract?

Why make a fuss? Well, try this on: In Germany's Nazi period, between 1933 and 1944, about 50 different productions of "The Merchant of Venice" were successfully produced.

Two books now take on this controversy with brilliant forthrightness and courage. They are "Shakespeare and the Jews," by James Shapiro (Columbia University. 317 pages. $17.50 paperback, $29.50 hardcover), published last year but just coming out in soft cover, and a new work, "Shylock and the Jewish Question," by Martin D. Yaffe (Johns Hopkins University. 200 pages. $32.50).

Shapiro is a professor of comparative literature and English at Columbia University. Yaffe is associate professor in religious studies in the University of North Texas, Denton.

Defining the task

Yaffe sets his main task: "The question remains today of Shakespeare's apparent moral obtuseness, his lack of sensitivity bTC (as we say) about Jews and Judaism, where we ultimately ascribe to him a reformer's intention or not."

And he draws out the classic question: "How could anybody who writes such stuff, we tend to ask, have been very nice to Jews? The play undeniably draws from an appalling legacy of Jew hatred in England from, say, 1290, when Jews were officially expelled, till at least 1753."

He quotes Harold Bloom, arguably the most brilliant literary critic writing in English today, as concluding that the play is "both a superb romantic comedy, and a marvelously adequate version of a perfectly Christian, altogether murderous anti-Semitism."

Yaffe's work sweeps beyond Shakespeare (and Bloom) to examine anti-Semitism in Marlowe's "The Jew of Malta" andFrancis Bacon's "New Atlantis." He then moves into Spinoza's counter-arguments in his "Theologico-Political Treatise."

With persuasive logic, Yaffe concludes: "I find no evidence to indicate that Shakespeare himself endorses the prejudices articulated by his characters who are unfriendly to Jews and much to indicate that he understands those prejudices fully for what they are, namely, as dubious and damaging opinions, and so encourages his reader to do likewise. ... Not Shakespeare, but scholars themselves seem vulnerable to the charge of having imposed their own dubious prejudices on the events that Shakespeare dramatizes."

This is tough stuff - glove-in-the-face dueling language in the academy, whether you find it convincing or not.

Shapiro is on a significantly different mission. He insists that today's standards cannot be logically applied to long-past lives and attitudes. He argues powerfully that the play is "not a diary or a polygraph test; since no one knows what Shakespeare personally thought about Jews, readers will continue to make up their own minds about this question."

Then he moves into a fascinating pursuit. He traces various strains of anti-Semitism through the ages, with a particularly bright spotlight on England in its Elizabethan period.

Much of what he has dug out is, in today's lights, hideously ugly - widespread acceptance, for example, of the historic "blood libels" that Jews kidnapped and ritually murdered Christians, using their blood for several purposes including the making of matzoh. It will startle many readers - it astonished me - to discover that John Donne, otherwise one of history's great voices of humanitarian sanity, endorsed the "blood libel" in a widely noted sermon.

None of his best friends

Because of the almost completely effective expulsion of Jews from England from long before till long after Shakespeare's life, it is probable but not certain that he never met a Jew. And it's fascinating to find that Shakespeare's father was formally accused twice of violating anti-usury laws.

One of the more elegant arguments in both books is that Shakespeare presented Shylock not as a characteristic Jew, but rather as a "bad Jew" whose very badness strongly implies the virtues of not only "good Jews" but all Jews except bad ones. This contention rests on the fact that at the time in which the play was set, Venice had a thriving Jewish community, and its established values would have condemned, among other offenses, Shylock's infamous contracting for a pound of flesh.

Shapiro's and Yaffe's books fly in the face of many of the insistent imperatives of the "political correctness" clique and the more absurd extremities of "multiculturalism" - fads that have infected so many academic precincts in the last generation. Those movements' core is an unwillingness to acknowledge the complexity or importance of such issues, rejecting the classic canon in favor of current - mainly evanescent - ephemera.

These books shout out with the immediacy, the vitality and the moral consequence of the work of one of the Dead White Males most vilified by the multiculturalists' Political Korrectness Kops. If you doubt that genuine scholarship can be courageous, forthright and exciting, read them both.

Pub Date: 11/09/97

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