A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Shakespeare and Judaism


Shakespeare disdained Jews and Judaism. This is a painful thing for a Jewish lover of Shakespeare to acknowledge, but the evidence is pretty conclusive. Beyond the numerous dismissive caricatures of Jews – generally as money-grubbing – that are scattered throughout the plays, there is the glaring example of Shylock, the Merchant of Venice. In creating this character, Shakespeare was responding to Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, an even more anti-Semitic play. But aside from a few moments of humanity that he cannot resist giving Shylock, Shakespeare's attitude toward him is hostile. Shakespeare has Shylock's love of money compete even with his love of his own daughter Jessica, nor is Jessica herself a happy camper:

Jes: "I am sorry thou wilt leave my father so.
Our house is hell…".

Moreover, Jessica cannot wait not only to marry the non-Jewish Lorenzo but to annihilate her Jewish identity:

Jes: "Alack, what heinous sin is it in me
To be ashamed to be my father's child!
But though I am a daughter to his blood,
I am not to his manners. O Lorenzo,
If thou keep promise, I shall end this strife,
Become a Christian and thy loving wife."

I could go on, but there's little point. Shylock's bargain with Antonio, central to the play, requires Antonio to surrender a pound of his own flesh if he cannot repay Shylock's loan. The bargain can be read as an inversion of the Catholic invocation of Jesus' flesh as the incarnation of G-d's spirit. "Hoc est corpus meum," ("This is my body") says Jesus. Shakespeare has Shylock convert this sublime parallel to an equation between not flesh and spirit, but flesh and money. The degradation is complete.

So what's a Jewish Shakespeare lover to do? Well, after giving the matter a quarter century of thought, Bardseye would like to jot down a few preliminary observations that may someday lead to an opinion.

Shakespeare loved England. He saw it as the premier expression of Western civilization. Ten of his 37 plays are English history plays, including an eight-play series. Their overriding theme is legitimacy; taken together they read like an updated version of Genesis and Exodus, the working out of which king or claimant for the throne reflecting the handing down of the Blessing from one Patriarch to the next.

When Shakespeare turns his attention to other cultures, he does so to absorb into his beloved England the best of what he sees in them or to warn England about what is worst in them. He criticizes Calvinism in the Vienna-based Measure for Measure, applauds the openness of Venice to outside talent in Othello but then criticizes Venetian commercialism in Merchant of Venice, applauds Italian sensuality and romantic love, with reservations, in Romeo and Juliet and As You Like It and applauds the nobility of the ancient world in Julius Caesar.

But when Shakespeare turned his eye to Judaism, he suspended his Borg-like campaign. In Judaism he saw a set of ideas that he had no interest in incorporating. Quite the contrary.

Judaism uses the Torah itself as a legal code. Its divine origin thereby places a natural limit on royal and other governmental power. Shakespeare was a divine right of kings monarchist whose only quibble was over which monarch should govern.

In Judaism G-d makes a contract with us in the Torah; our moral progress is our side of the agreement; His favor is the other. Shakespeare prefers the Greco-Roman view of humans as surrounded by an arbitrary fate, with only our own virtues to draw on. Shakespeare's humanity is so great that we rarely notice his scant attention to religious – even Christian – motivation.

The central story of the Jewish liberation from Egyptian bondage, with its implications for human freedom and equality, and the central role of our relationship to G-d in that liberation, are not to Shakespeare's taste either. The common people, when they appear in the plays, are seen as unruly, unreliable and in need of governance from above. In the Torah commoners also require guidance from above. But "above" for Shakespeare means noble, not divine.

Shakespeare is thus no friend of progress in human affairs, either moral or material. It's true that he is happy to elevate women, but only their humanity; not their station. Beyond that it's nobles up here; commoners down there.

And a key concept that is corrosive of this static vision of Shakespeare's is commerce, which over time upends the relationships between the classes. Since Jews in the preceding Middle Ages had been exempted from usury laws, a small but significant number had been active in England (in that bygone time) as moneylenders. Their work assisted the commoners to achieve prosperity and gain leverage over Shakespeare's beloved nobility.

But Jews had been nominally banished from England by Edward I hundreds of years before, and while a few did live in London in Shakespeare's day, usury, today known as banking, had long since been taken over by Christians. Shakespeare was therefore retailing a continental European prejudice to an English audience in the face of contradictory facts. Why?

Because the progress and change-oriented vision of Jewish civilization was too large a bite for Shakespeare to swallow.

I prefer to take this as a back-handed compliment, which allows me to continue to insist on Shakespeare's central role. After all, Jewish values have been largely accepted by today's modern societies. You could even call advanced modern societies Judaocracies (the subject of a future post, I think). So we Jews can afford to be magnanimous and absorb Shakespeare in a way that he was unable to absorb us. And besides, even though he isn't interested in our progress, he is passionately devoted to our humanity.

You ask: How can you love someone who is so intrinsically flawed? I can only say that I have often asked my wife the same question - about myself.

She just shrugs.

Here's the fascinating post from hounds and halachah that inspired this bardseye post.

Here's a related link to the recommendable Israellycool.

And another from californiaconservative.

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