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Shylock

1911 Italian-French film

1911 Italian-French film (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shylock is a Jewish money-lender in William Shakespeare‘s play The Merchant of Venice.

Shylock ruthlessly insists on receiving a previously agreed on “pound of flesh” from the character Antonio, whose expected fortunes have vanished. This forced Antonio to default on the loan he received from Shylock.

Some critics suggest that Shakespeare paints a dangerous, anti-Semitic picture. Others defend Shakespeare, citing Shylock’s cutting speech as evidence that he presents not a one-dimensional but, rather, a complex human character:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?..If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die?

Later, Shylock is outwitted by Portia disguised as a lawyer. After unsuccessfully appealing to Shylock’s humanity, Portia insists that he be allowed to remove Antonio’s flesh on the condition that not one drop of blood is carved from his body. “This bond doth give thee here not a jot of blood” (Act 4 Scene 1).

Realizing he has been outsmarted, Shylock lightens up and the potentially grisly tale ends happily.

Portia and Shylock

Portia and Shylock (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The fact that Portia is a woman points to Shakespeare’s progressiveness in refuting sex-role stereotypes. But again, many do not see Shakespeare as a progressive when it comes to the Jewish situation in Elizabethan England.

Shakespeare’s play reflected the anti-semitic tradition. The title page of the Quarto indicates that the play was sometimes known as The Jew of Venice in its day, which suggests that it was seen as similar to Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. One interpretation of the play’s structure is that Shakespeare meant to contrast the mercy of the main Christian characters with the vengeful Shylock, who lacks the religious grace to comprehend mercy. Similarly, it is possible that Shakespeare meant Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity to be a “happy ending” for the character, as it ‘redeems’ Shylock both from his unbelief and his specific sin of wanting to kill Antonio. This reading of the play would certainly fit with the anti-semitic trends present in Elizabethan England.¹

Polski: Kopia zaginionego obrazu Maurycego Got...

Polski: Kopia zaginionego obrazu Maurycego Gottlieba “Shylock i Jessica” z 1887 roku. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Instead of branding Shakespeare as antisemitic, one could argue that, had he portrayed Jews as we see them today, the play would have failed and no positive message whatsoever would have gotten out (because nobody would have gone to see it).

This point brings to mind the whole idea of activism in context, as opposed to idealist activism. Activism in context is a bit by bit, progressive stance. It nudges things forward only as far as the activist believes the audience will be receptive to and, hopefully, act upon.

On the other hand, idealist activism would be more in line with the life of Jesus Christ—and we know what happened to him. Basically, Christ was killed for trying to help people get into heaven. However, idealist activism does have its place. It is necessary to point out long range goals. But contextual activism is also necessary, I would argue. Otherwise, not too much would change for the better.

At any rate, contemporary revisionists who harshly judge those who lived in past centuries seem oblivious to the debate between contextual and idealist activism. They take a hard line. Shakespeare is antisemitic. End of story (for them). Myself, I’m not convinced a true genius like Shakespeare was all that simple.²

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shylock

² See, for instance, http://www.jewishmag.com/143mag/jewish_william_shakespeare/jewish_william_shakespeare.htm Here we see a very different Shakespeare—one educated in, appreciative of and influenced by Jewish religious texts.

Related » Reincarnation


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Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) was a romantic poet, writer and man of letters best known for works such as Prometheus Unbound and Ozymandias.

Although Shelley bristled at the thought of organized religion, he nonetheless envisioned a transcendent reality implicit to nature. Oxford expelled him in 1811 for distributing his pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism.

His first wife drowned herself, after which time he married Mary Godwin, who went on to write the famous novel Frankenstein as Mary Shelley in 1818.

Friend to Lord Byron and John Keats, Percy was found dead, washed ashore after he and Edward Williams were caught in a storm while boating. Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt immolated the bodies at a solemn beach-side ceremony.

Most of us probably cannot recite Shelley as readily we might, say, Shakespeare – “To be or not to be.” But he leaves behind an important legacy. Not seeking fame for himself, his work nonetheless influenced many an important person. Recurring themes of social justice, concern for the poor, vegetarianism, and non-violence left their mark on figures like Mohandas Gandhi, C. S. Lewis, and Karl Marx.

He was admired by C. S. Lewis,[47] Karl Marx, Robert Browning, Henry Stephens Salt, Gregory Corso, George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, Isadora Duncan,[3] Upton Sinclair,[48] Gabriele d’Annunzio, Aleister Crowley and W. B. Yeats.[49] Samuel Barber, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Roger Quilter, Howard Skempton, John Vanderslice and Ralph Vaughan Williams composed music based on his poems.¹

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Percy_Bysshe_Shelley

See also » Atheism, Romanticism, Mary Shelley