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From Shylock and Jessica, by Maurycy Gottlieb.
John Bruce Leonard

Tribe and City: The Merchant of Venice and the Ethnic Question – Part 2

Series: Tribe and City: The Merchant of Venice and the Ethnic Question

What does The Merchant of Venice have to teach us about the liberal societies of our modern times?

We began this essay with a consideration of the supposed ‘anti-Semitism’ of The Merchant of Venice. The simplest response to the charge of ‘anti-Semitism’ against Shakespeare himself is that, whatever light Shakespeare might have cast on Shylock (and we have seen good reason to suspect it was not so ruddy a light as we are sometimes led to believe), he seems to have cast nothing but rose hues on Jessica, the daughter of Shylock.

This already from the name itself. Three names are given to male Jews in this play (Shylock, Tubal and Chus), and one to a female (Jessica), all of which are taken or derived from the Old Testament.1 Three of these names (Tubal, Chus and Jessica) were perhaps even inexistent in England in Shakespeare’s day. Shylock, on the other hand, was an English name of some dispersion in England at the time of the play. It is a name, that is to say, which is shared in common between the Hebrew and the Christian traditions. For some reason it fell into desuetude in England, but its contemporary commonality in Shakespeare’s society brings one to wonder what it might suggest to us regarding the problem we will be confronting in this second part of our essay – namely, the problem of how Shylock’s strife-riven position with respect to the city, which we have considered in the first part of this essay, is to be resolved. The name Shylock appears to offer a kind of bridge between the Hebrew Old Testament and the Christian society current to Shakespeare’s day; there is a suggestion that, despite his apparent intractability and refractory character, he might, through his persona or through his fate, form a point of meeting between these two disparate worlds. Be this as it may, Shylock likely is derived from the Old Testament Shalah (Shelach in the Hebrew),2 but not without considerable alteration of the original to render it easier on the English tongue and ear.

The strife which the liberal society would eliminate, has rather been sown by it into the flesh itself.

The names Tubal and Chus are adopted without intervention and indeed, to an English ear and eye, have something decidedly alien about them; they ring strangely, and perhaps might even be considered ugly names. The name Jessica, on the other hand, is like ‘Shylock’ altered considerably from its original Iscah or Jiska. Shakespeare rendered this name beautiful – singular proof of which is the fact that we have no earlier reference to the name Jessica anywhere in the English language, which suggests that its continuing use to this day might be owed to nothing else than Shakespeare’s introduction of the name itself. But if we have really found the origin of this name, then its subsequent popularity would have been impossible if it were not comely and the character to whom it was attached not sympathetic. There have been multiple cases throughout history of a popular work of art altering the use of names in its day,3 and in each case this is owed to the power or persuasiveness of the character that bears it. Shakespeare drew his Jessica very sympathetically indeed; but any good anti-Semite (by the absurd caricature of this fantastical creature which is proposed to the consumption of thoughtless men) would surely have painted her in somewhat more garish colours. More, she is evidently regarded well by the very men who loath her father. Jessica is the daughter of the detested Shylock, and the tribe to which he belongs, but Jessica marries a Christian; and as if to indicate the importance of this for the play, the name Jessica itself is a Westernized version of the Jewish original.

True, there is doubt as to whether her father is indeed Shylock. Shylock insists several times that she is ‘my own flesh and blood’ (III.i 33 and 37) but his very fervency suggests that there might be a doubt in his mind, or even that he is attempting to conceal the truth. The clown Launcelot is the pin round which these doubts spin, for he is constantly playing on this theme: ‘[I]t is a wise father that knows his own child’, he says to his own father (II.ii 76–77); subsequently, ‘murder cannot be hid long; a man’s son may, but in the end truth will out’ (79–80, emphasis mine). He also most suggestively (given his tendency to blunder with the language) says to Jessica, ‘if a Christian do not play the knave and get thee, I am much deceiv’d’ (II.iii 11–12), in obvious reference of course to Lorenzo, and in jest no doubt that Lorenzo might have got her with child; but perchance also with a suggestion that some other Christian played the knave and beget her.4 Lorenzo himself makes a somewhat ambiguous statement about Jessica, ‘That she is issue of a faithless Jew’ (III.iv 37), which again is most obviously reference to Shylock, to his simultaneous faithlessness in the sense of his being a ‘pagan’, and in the sense of his being cut-throat; but might it in fact not refer to Jessica’s mother, a Jew who was faithless to her husband?

Launcelot once again states the matter openly, in what he refers to most poignantly as a ‘bastard hope’: ‘[Y]ou may partly hope that your father got you not, that you are not the Jew’s daughter’ (III.v 10-12), and Salerio makes a striking comment on the difference between Jessica’s flesh and blood and Shylock’s. Shylock in the immediate sequel to this comment, though responding to a different issue (regarding Antonio), states, ‘There I have had another bad match’ (III.i 38–44). The question naturally arises: what was the first? Was it between him and his daughter, or between him and his wife? Or was the ‘match’ referred to in fact another match altogether, not Shylock’s match with such and such a person, but rather the ‘match’ of his wife with another man? Thereafter follows a return to the question of why Shylock should take the ‘flesh’ of Antonio, rather than something that would really profit him; might his vengeance against the Christian, his seeking of a pound of Christian flesh, be in some way the bond he himself must pay on his own daughter, who is not his own? Might that be the weight of the flesh that was owed him at the birth of his daughter, by the Christian who cuckolded him?

Supposing for a moment that all this is so, one must ask why it should be upon Antonio’s head that his rage should fall. And the question naturally emerges: might Antonio be the father of Jessica?

We are emboldened to this rather extraordinary suggestion by a number of evidences, albeit mostly circumstantial (nonetheless, ‘Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk’)5. To wit: the fact that the speeches of Shylock regarding his daughter’s flight inevitably intertwine with news on Antonio and his escalating expressions of desire to be revenged (consider, for instance, the entirety of III.i in Shylock’s dialogues with Solanio and Salerio on the one hand, and Tubal on the other); or the fact that Jessica trades the ring that her mother had given to her father for a monkey, symbolizing perhaps the dignity of that marriage, at least in the mind of its offspring; or the fact that Antonio, at the culmination of the play, shows mercy on Shylock by taking half his money, but promising it all to Jessica’s husband, and thus to Jessica herself: to ‘the gentleman/That lately stole his daughter’ (IV.i 385–386, with the ‘lately’ suggesting, moreover, that perhaps another had ‘stolen’ Shylock’s daughter previously).

There is moreover a curious play of numbers. The initial bond proposed to Shylock was three thousand ducats for three months; three for three is nine, the number of months of pregnancy. As if to insist upon this, Shakespeare mentions the three months three times (Shylock even forgets, or pretends to forget, that number so as to force the second and third mention). Antonio makes reference to ‘thrice three times the value of this bond’, again pressing emphatically upon the nine. Toward the end of the trial, Shylock requests the court give him thrice the bond (IV.i 318), namely, nine thousand ducats, a thousand ducats, as it were, for each month of the pregnancy – price which was mentioned, nor by Antonio nor Bassanio, but by Portia under guise of the ‘learned judge’ whose justice is praised by all present. Just before that, to Bassanio’s offer of six thousand ducats, Shylock said he would not accept even six times as many – thirty-six thousand, or a thousand for each week of the pregnancy.6

This interpretation would explain the depth of the conflict between Antonio and Shylock, a conflict which stands already between them on account of their ethnicities, and is exacerbated, one is tempted to surmise, by some more personal fact. We recall as well Shylock’s continual appeals to justice. He appears to have a made a kind of wager with his loan to Antonio; it appears he was hoping that Antonio should be unable to pay it, but as a shrewd businessman he of course would have recognized that the chances of Antonio’s default, given the number and distribution of the merchant’s vessels, would be nigh to naught. Has Shylock given this issue up to his God, to let Him show out the truth of the matter? Does his wager amount to this – that if Antonio was guilty of cuckholding him, on which matter he very well might have only suspicions, God would show Antonio’s guilt in the issue of his argosies?

Be all this as it may, it seems evident that Antonio is expected to pay for Shylock’s daughter; and whether he must do so because he had ‘disgrac’d’ the Jew (III.i 54), or simply because he is the scapegoat to his own ‘tribe’, to the Christians, is beside the material point, which is simply that Shylock feels he has been intolerably offended by this Christian, and seeks restitution from him for the offense. Jessica at any rate does not seem to doubt her heritage, but says most intriguingly that though she is ‘daughter to his blood, / I am not to his manners’. One is tempted then to see in this but another statement of Shakespeare’s prejudice; Shakespeare, it might be claimed, almost seems to want to salvage the Jewess Jessica by removing her from the Jewish stain. But he would of course have known that Judaism, by its own tradition, passes via the mother’s and not the father’s line, so that one way or another Jessica must be a Jewess.

Let us return from this apparent digression. The problem of the Jew is the problem of a stranger in a foreign land, who however has no homeland of his own to which he might return. His condition is identical to that of the exile of old. We, who have abandoned the laws of exile, forget its meaning – the horror and the shame of being banned from one’s fatherland, and made to wander amidst peoples alien to one for the remainder of one’s earthly existence, amidst tongues one does not comprehend or does not comprehend to natural perfection, amidst customs which are strange and in many cases repellant – forced to speak and walk with men, but forbidden from eating, drinking, or praying with them. Exiling was once even taken as a substitute for capital punishment, in some cases as an even stronger penalty than capital punishment. The Jew in Shakespeare’s day found himself permanently and irremediably in this bitter state. His single recourse against his enemies (all those in whose company he finds himself are, in a certain sense, bound to be or to tend to be his enemies) was to the law – fact to which Shylock makes recourse in his attempt to force Antonio to pay his pound of flesh. ‘I stand here for law’, Shylock proclaims during the trial (IV.i 142).7 But the law is not neutral and ecumenical; the law is made for the protection of its citizens, and its citizens are always a certain people of a certain stock or faith, a certain kind of human being – not the Jew. Shylock’s forceful interpretation of the law, his attempt to bend it to serve him, is in vain; the law is built to protect Venetians, not Jews, and it snaps back in his hand and cuts him.

Skylock, the Jew, by Shakespeare’s own portraiture, by the hand of this Elizabethan ‘anti-Semite’, thus finds himself in an unbearable position, in which he is damned to suffer the outrages of his worst enemies without any way of defending himself against them, and certainly with no way of striking back (cf. III.i 70–73). The Jew thus becomes, inevitably and almost through no fault of his own, a dangerous element in society, a man who must seek to protect himself as he can, through extra-legal means if necessary, by altering the face of his society to make room for his special case. This is the nub of what was called the Jewish Question in elder times.

There were in those times, before two modern developments which we will have occasion shortly to consider, but two solutions to this problem from the point of view of any sovereign people that might host Jews.8 The first was that undertaken by no other state than England in the thirteen century – expulsion – which state of affairs held as well in Shakespeare’s day. The Jews were driven out of England for a variety of reasons we shall not dwell on here; they remained banished until well into the seventeenth century, being officially allowed reentry some fifty years after the penning of the present play. Yet Shakespeare chose to write a tale of a Jew for an English audience that had no or little immediate knowledge of Jews; and despite all the ways in which Shylock must be regarded as a spiteful and subversive character, he is shown mercy at the end, and is not driven from the city, nor even hanged (as Gratiano insists he should be). As for Jessica, she is married directly to a Christian. Shakespeare tacitly rejects expulsion as a solution to the Jewish problem.

The other solution, the solution to which Shakespeare’s resolution points us, was known as assimilation. Through conversion (which was, to be sure, in many cases foisted upon unwilling Jews) and intermarriage, the Jewish way of life was to gradually be melded with that of its host people, until such a point as it was no longer visible or had vanished altogether. As is indicated at any number of points in the dialogue, any Jew who becomes a Christian, and especially a Jew born to the marriage of a Christian and a convert, might cease to be a Jew. Now, Antonio suggests that the Jewish nature itself is intractable and inalterable, which would imply that it should be passed down generation to generation:

I pray you think you question with the Jew:
You may as well go stand upon the beach
And bid the main flood bate his usual height;
You may as well use question with the wolf
Why he hath made the ewe bleak for the lamb;
You may as well forbid te mountain pines
To wag their high tops, and to make no noise
When they are fretten with the gusts of heaven;
You may as well do any thing most hard
As seek to soften that – than which what’s harder?–
His Jewish heart!

Yet this would seem to be belied by Jessica herself, who by her own proclamation, as well as that of other characters, has inherited her father’s blood but not his manners; the blood passes on necessarily generation to generation, but does not necessarily carry the manners.

It is interesting to note that the possibility of assimilation is not open, or not open to the same extent, to the other non-Venetian or non-Italian character considered by the play: namely, the Moor. The Moor, we are reminded, is of a certain hue (Portia states that she does not want any man ‘of his complexion’, II. vii 79); we are invited to imagine what the product of a Christian and Moorish match would be. The Moor bears his blood on his skin, as it were, and so can never be perfectly assimilated.9 Shakespeare however suggests that this is not only a problem from the point of view of the observer of the dark-skinned man, but from the very perspective of the dark-skinned man himself: the Moor, who introduces himself with the plea, ‘Mislike me not for my complexion’ (II.i 1), demonstrates through his act that he is – perhaps on account of his very ‘complexion’ – overly concerned with ‘likenesses’; he is the man who chooses the golden casket, saying that ‘never so rich a gem [Portia’s portrait] / was set in worse than gold’ (II.vii 54–55). The heritage of Moorish blood cannot be erased or concealed by a simple change in manners; and almost as if to insist upon this fact, Shakespeare, in the scene following the very introduction of the Moor, has Launcelot in a dialogue with his father: Launcelot’s ‘surname’, as it were, is ‘Gobbo’, Italian for hunchback; there is evidently some physical deformity in this man which he has inherited from the Old Gobbo, his father; his heritage cannot be doubted. ‘Jewishness’, on the other hand, can theoretically be shed, while Jewish blood remains.

To be sure, one wonders to what extent this might occur with an old Jew like Shylock: Shylock is hard. Many in our day will recall with horror his proclamation, which we are wont to view as being clear product of Shakespeare’s ‘anti-Semitism’: ‘I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear! Would she were hears’d at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin!’ (III.i 87–90); and to be sure, those are heinous utterances. But let us not forget that they are the cries of a man enraged beyond reason, who has not only lost his daughter, but has been betrayed by her in the way that most touches him. One must not forget that Jessica in fleeing her father has at once broken the solemn filial trust, and has moreover robbed a good sum from him in ducats and jewels, and even in a ring gifted to Shylock by his deceased wife (III.i 118–119). Indeed, she returns a second time to ‘gild myself/with some moe ducats’ (II.vi 49–50), suggesting that she has more of her father’s manners than everyone believes. Wretched words are Shylock’s – but they are perhaps less detestable than Bassanio the Christian stating he wishes his own wife were dead so as to save the life of Antonio (the disguised Portia indeed utters here ‘Your wife would give you little thanks for that’), or Gratiano’s yet more gratuitous proclamation that he would have his wife dead in heaven, in order to pray God to change the nature of the Jew.

Secularism is not, despite all its pretences to the contrary, a merely legal condition, by which men are permitted to worship as they see fit; it exists indeed to train and discipline that worship.

Gratiano, indeed, strikes us as a real and authentic ‘anti-Semite’, if ever any such elusive beast makes appearance within this play. This is the same Gratiano who does whatever he can to see Shylock hanged; who, with comic regularity, cries out the word ‘Jew’ as if it were some intercalary during the trial. Here we have a vengeful man (recall that Shylock states that he learned revenge from the Christians – III.i 69–71; note as well that Shylock and Gratiano use the same phrase in referring to their respective vengeances: they have their enemies ‘on the hip’, see I.iii 46 and IV.i 334), who owns a deathless mistrust of an entire people, who really has a grudge against them for being Jews, as Shylock accuses Antonio of doing, and wishes to see his his passion meted out in law and punishment. But the just Portia ignores his pleas; Portia grants mercy to Shylock, indeed restores him a half of his goods at Antonio’s request, and forces him to convert, the same fate which awaits Jessica, and by which, as she herself states it, ‘I shall end this strife/Become a Christian and [Lorenzo’s] loving wife’ (II.iii 20–21). Shakespeare thus suggests that the only right solution to the Jewish problem is assimilation – the viability of which solution, from the point of view of the city, is noted in the single comical protestation made to it by the clown Launcelot, that it shall raise the cost of pork (III.v 21–25).10 As for the Jewish view of this solution – let it be recalled that, for right or wrong, the Jew is a stranger in Venice.

Yet this last observation leads us naturally at last to one of the modern solutions to the ethnic problem: the liberal solution. One way of resolving the problem of the nationless people, is to make their host nations become their own. The laws are altered by altering the idea of justice itself, and of the state in consequence; no longer do the laws protect the interests of the citizens of this or that special nation, but rather the rights of humankind as such; Venice becomes a city not only for the benefit of the Venetians, but for all men everywhere, the Jews included. One replaces the local and localized justice of the city with ecumenical or universal justice, to which all men, and not only blood citizens, might have recourse.

Liberalism, however, in its solution to the problem we have been considering, resolves but its legal aspect; no longer does a Shylock risk having the law turned against him for his lack of the proper blood (it is no accident that it is precisely to Venetian blood that the key law refers, which resolves this drama). Yet as Shakespeare reminds us, the law qua law is not sufficient to any end. The law is transcended and completed by what might be called Christian mercy, and without which the assimilation of Shylock and Jessica would be impossible: justice, as Portia states it in her justly famous speech, should be ‘seasoned’ by mercy (IV.i 197), that man reveals himself the image of God. By Venetian law alone, Shylock should indeed have been hanged, as Gratiano desired; there is wanted something more.

Christian mercy, as the play demonstrates, is the prerogative of Christians (cf. II.ii 24–31; III.iii 1 and IV.i 240–242). But the Christian and the Jew, as the play reminds us on more than one occasion (there are countless references to dining, constant allusions to dinners in which various things must be discussed or decided), cannot break bread together, cannot share in worship. The tension between the Jews and the Christians – or more generally between persons of vastly different customs and beliefs – is not resolved by any merely legalistic manipulation.11 On the contrary, it is even aggravated by the same; for what should have become of Antonio, had the Venetian law not intervened to preserve him? He would have been brought under the knife: but how should such an outcome have conduced to any ecumenical idea of justice? The liberal society, as much as the non-liberal society, is wont to degenerate into ethnic factions; except that in the liberal society, for its very ‘impartiality’, the law, the humanitarian, egalitarian, ecumenical law, transforms into a weapon in the hands of the craftiest or most influential of these factions or ethnic groups, to be wielded against their enemies. We are seeing the emergence of this difficulty with crystalline clarity in our day, in which ‘lawfare’ has become a real and potent weapon brought against some groups by others.

The liberal legal order, then, if it is to completely address the ethnic question, must be supplemented by a liberal ethical or religious order: enter here the secular solution. Secularism is not, despite all its pretences to the contrary, a merely legal condition, by which men are permitted to worship as they see fit; it exists indeed to train and discipline that worship. Beneath the secular order, men themselves are to become secular; the ethnic conflict, in its religious aspect (which the Enlightenment thinkers took to be the fiercest and most recalcitrant aspect of ethnic conflict), is to be eroded and finally effaced: all men are to live in a secular fashion, by secular principles – no longer as Christians or Jews or Muslims, but rather as ‘human beings’ whose primary interactions are the economic.

But the secular order cannot persist without supplementing the theistic urge. If private men disagree fundamentally on the meaning, say, of the story of Jacob and the rams and ewes, they will divide against one another; this not to speak of disputes deeper yet. Rousseau saw this very clearly, when he suggested ‘brotherhood’ as the third fundamental principle of Enlightenment revolutionary thought, alongside equality and freedom.12 Brotherhood, the humanistic religion of mankind itself, was to replace the belief in this or that godhead, this or that limited, superstitious, and essentially provincial faith. The assimilation of certain ethnicities into certain other ethnicities is replaced then by a general assimilation of all ethnicities into ‘humanity’ itself; all ethnicities must disappear, must wane and finally vanish, until all that remains is the naked human being in its unitary individuality, all equal to all and all equally subject to an identical set of political and economic laws.

Yet there is an evident difficulty here: we of today do not speak of brotherhood with the same frequency and emphasis with which we speak of equality and freedom; equality and freedom have kept their conceptual centrality to our regimes, while ‘brotherhood’ has slipped from the discourse and lexicon of late modernity. Ethnic particularities have had an enormous recrudescence in our day in the form of identity politics. Many have lamented the rise of identity politics, as if in its absence the liberal order would somehow work smoothly, or at any rate better than it presently does – as if this ‘identity politics’ were but a rash upon the face of that order, which might have been obviated as well as not.

Liberalism protects the rights of all men to their beliefs and their diverse ways, even while living in a kind of pious hope that they will accede one day or other to becoming themselves liberal; but this pious hope is belied by reality itself.

To keep within the purposes of this essay, it suffices here to observe that anyone who so thinks neglects the lessons of Shakespeare. The problem of the Jewish community, of a Shylock or a Jessica, might be resolved by assimilation; the ‘strife’ thereby can be ended; but does this suffice for all ethnicities? A Jew may convert and have children with a non-Jew; in the arc of several generations, the Jewish heritage of that family line will be all but forgotten. A Venetian Christian might forego his faith and turn to his merchandise, and in the arc of several generations might reveal himself no longer as a Venetian so much as a member of that much broader and barer species Homo oeconomicus. But a black Muslim, for instance, who converts, resolves only the question of consuetude, and not that of race; his race passes on to his offspring in a visible sign.

Shakespeare points us to this difficulty again and again: consider in this light once more Salerio’s comments to Shylock at III.i 38, particularly given the suggestions that have been made of Jessica’s being a natural child; there is no way of knowing whether her father was a Christian or a Jew. Had her father been black, however, this difference in the flesh would be evident and indisputable. A black line requires sufficient generations and intermixing before it might appreciably vanish. In the meanwhile, the intermixed son of black and white parents, no longer being of an unambiguous ethnicity, must come to terms with what we have learned to call his ‘identity’, and is wont to lean toward that ‘identity’ which is most visible and obvious. The Liberal solution then must be turned on its head; it is not the black minority which must be assimilated to the white majority, since this is difficult if not impossible: then let the white majority be assimilated to the black minority. For, from this reversed perspective, in the arc of but a single generation, the offspring of a white and a black parent indeed bears visible sign of that mix. Then the entire world must become, not indeed ‘black’, but ‘brown’; that is the single way of keeping the global Liberal order solid on its fundaments. Yet the Liberal order itself is the original invention of societies which were ethnically European; thus the mixed children of white and black marriages, who will tend for reasons we have outlined to cleave to that part of their ethnic heritage which traces to their black ancestors, confront eternally the question of whether they are not acquiescing to a society which is in the last analysis a foreign imposition on them. The strife which the liberal society would eliminate, has rather been sown by it into the flesh itself.

Moreover, the solution of brotherhood itself requires, as one of its most fundamental and unstated axioms, the will of whites, Jews, blacks, Muslims, Chinese, Arabs, etc. etc., to assimilate into ‘humanity’, to shed their local and limited customs and to become ‘human brothers’. Yet many groups are unwilling to forget their origins. Liberalism protects their rights to their beliefs and their diverse ways, even while living in a kind of pious hope that they will accede one day or other to becoming themselves liberal; but this pious hope is belied by reality itself – that cruel, devious reality of human relations, whereby the conflict of ethnic factions does not merely vanish, simply because one sees in its vanishment the easiest resolution of the very problems to which it gives rise. Wishing it out of existence shall not annihilate it.

It is only to be expected that those who cannot be ‘assimilated’ into the ‘sea of humanity’ will group together and look out for the interests of their special minorities. The Jews, for whom ‘suff’rance is the badge of our race’, as Shylock has it, have perhaps found no other nation so open to their assimilation than the United States (in Israel, of course, they are not required to assimilate at all); and in that country more than elsewhere many of them seem to have regrouped around their ethnicity and sought by all the powers at their disposal to insist upon the ‘multicultural’ qualities of the United States, in a clear and comprehensible urge to protect their own customs and continuance. They have concentrated upon the greatest ‘suff’rance’ of their history, the Holocaust, which they have used to constantly remind, not to say mortify, all gentiles of the precariousness of their position. A Shylock born in New York rather than in Venice, we might say, would perhaps be less needfully greedy; but what of the other primary trait Shakespeare gives to his spirit? His pitiful cry, toward the end of his own trial, ‘Shall I not have barely my principal?’ is an evident play on words for a work which is meant to be recited and not only read. Today, the principle is given, and given not ‘barely’ but in full, to all the descendents of Shylock; but have the tensions to which Shakespeare pointed us for that reason abated?

The very fact that we are so wont to hurl the charge of ‘anti-Semitism’ against the living and the dead would suggest decidedly otherwise.

Nerissa, the lady-in-waiting of Portia, has a peculiar name, one which might indicate, via the Latin, ‘black-haired’. The question of this particular feature, given the considerations to which Shakespeare leads us above, and its connection in particular with the colour black which is associated in the play with all non-Venetians, cannot help but raise in our minds a string of questions. Might she be a Jewess, well assimilated? Might it be that Gratiano, the ‘anti-Semite’ par excellence, has married unawares into the very race he so mislikes? Might it be that Nerissa is the product of successful assimilation, so that she to Shakespeare has resolved in her very flesh the fundamental difficulty, and answered the ethnic question (she and Portia dine together, drink together, pray together)? And might that proclamation of Gratiano’s, with which the entire play closes, that he shall mind nothing so much as ‘keeping safe Nerissa’s ring’, in a work which has used rings again and again to signify betrothal and secrecy and friendship and blood all bound together – might this proclamation indicate that he himself shall, by fathering the children of this woman’s womb, unwittingly keep the secret of her blood, even as the chests of Portia contained their truths beneath their skins?

We emerge from Shakespeare’s play, as is only fitting, with a broader perspective and a host of novel and prickling questions. Far from detesting the Jewish race, as the censurers and censors of this play somehow believe it teaches us to do, we find ourselves rather asking due and inevitable questions about the nature of the city and its law with regard to men of vastly different tribe – different origins, beliefs, customs, etc. These questions demand redress, not ignorance, and they demand it today more than ever on account of the advent of the multicultural or multi-tribal city in which these questions take flesh and produce, out of prickly theoretical difficulties, rending practical problems. They require, not the facile use of our obscurantist terminology, but rather the most careful consideration and the most delicate reflection. Not the paltry and tendentious question of Shakespeare’s ‘anti-Semitism’, but the ubiquitous and fractious ethnic question itself demands our investigation. But we have made ourselves blind, mute and dumb to that question, have smothered our senses in newfound words and diaphanous concepts, and cut ourselves off from the right understanding of our situation, and our very roots thereby.

So, in a turn of plot worthy of the Bard himself, we find that this Shakespeare, whom we have sought to set before the bar of our justice, has rather all the while had us before his own. Our perspective of haughty, historicist and moralytic superiority has been adjudicated for the farce and costume that it is; the tragedy has become a comedy, as we clownlike stumble about the stage, maundering on ceaselessly about unlikely matters, our eyes blindfolded and our ears plugged even as our mouths vomit up their proclamations. Shakespeare’s justice would have us open the first two and halve the third, if not stop it up altogether. Thus we open our ears and eyes boldly to what the Bard has to teach us, risking albeit that we might be converted by him before all is said and done. But likely ’tis true that any man among us who cannot produce a work of the calibre of The Merchant of Venice should be its pupil before he will be its judge.

References

1For Tubal, see Genesis 10:2, for Chus Genesis 10:6 and for Jessica Genesis 11:29. We will have cause to turn to the last of these further on; as for the first two, As for Shylock, see the following footnote.

2Shylock, as opposed to the other names, is etymologically ambiguous, which reinforces the point made above about Shylock’s being in some way a point of meeting between two worlds. His name might as easily derive from Old English roots, originally meaning ‘bright or silver lock of hair’ (for which it would share its origin with the name Sherlock) as from Hebrew roots. In the latter case it is thought to derive from Genesis 10:24, from the original Shelach. Yet it appears to me (matter about which, incidentally I would be happy to receive refutation or confirmation from men better versed in this field) that another possible source for this name might be Shelah, son of Judah, who makes appearance in Genesis 38:5, 11, 14 and 26, and 46:12. The which would be of interest to the question of Shakespeare’s Shylock, insofar as the Biblical Shelah is denied marriage with a widow and so apparently dies childless, which would have noteworthy ramifications for the interpretation offered of Shylock’s cuckholdry in the present essay.

3These continue up to the present; an amusing case, though one relatively unknown in the Anglophone world, is the name Furio in Italian, which promptly fell into disuse after the appearance of a homonymous character in the film Bianco, Rosso e Verdone by Carlo Verdone. The Furio of that film takes Italian men roundly and hilariously to task for a number of their more salient vices in a way which would have been unforgivable in any other context – in a way, that is to say, that only a comic artist is ever able to do, and then often enough only with respect to his own people. The classic paragon of this is Aristophanes.

4The Second Folio is even more suggestive on this score: it substitutes did for do.

5Thoreau, Henry. Journal, November 11, 1850.

6This of course by the ‘naïve’ calculation of four weeks per nine months, and not by the scientific average, which is rather about 40 weeks.

7The question of a stern kind of justice and its relation to Judaism could certainly be broached here. This relation is recognized even by Westerners who have little knowledge of the Jewish faith in the commonplace sentiment that while the God of the New Testament is the God of love, the God of the Old Testament is God the Father – the God of justice. It is worth recalling here that Shylock is reported as having cried ‘Justice! the law! my ducats, and my daughter!’ (II.vii 17) when Jessica fled him, which at once indicates his preoccupation with law and also might be taken as an interesting commentary on his priorities.

8We leave aside, of course, the commoner ‘solution’ of simply isolating the Jewish community in this or that ghetto, which in the end was not a solution to the problem so much as its precondition. We also deliberately omit the pogrom, which with but few exceptions has been primarily the result of a temporary reduction of the social order to mob rule and a loss of control on the part of the ruling classes, rather than a conscious scheme of the same.

9 De Tocqueville, too, noted this problem. See Democracy in America, Volume One, Part Two, Chapter Ten ‘On the Three Races that Inhabit the United States’ (Chicago. The University of Chicago Press: 2000). The entire Chapter is worth reading for its relevance to many modern events; but the present question is addressed in particular toward its center, on pages 342–343.

10However, it is not at all superfluous to recall here the etymological root of Portia’s name (as we are invited to do by the constant reminder in everything having to do with Portia of the difference between appearance and reality, by the reminder not to rest at a beautiful exterior): no Jewish man will seek a gentile bride. To assimilate the Jew might mean to soften the vice of greed which is attached to his station. What would a less avaricious Shylock, who yet preserves Shylock’s wit, have done before the three caskets?

11Cf. Aristotle, Politics, Book III, Chapter 16.

12See Rousseau, On the Social Contract, Book IV, Chapter VIII ‘Civil Religion’.

This Post Has 2 Comments
  1. Great essay on one of Shakespeare’s most important plays. For those who want to watch an authentic and non-revisionist performance of this play, I recommend hunting down the excellent 1970s BBC version with Maggie Smith as Portia.

    Your conclusions on the subject matter aren’t terribly dissimilar from E. Michael Jones’ (& the traditional Roman Catholic) position on this issue more generally. The assimilability of Jews is an interesting and still somewhat open question — Evola’s (recently brilliantly translated by Arktos) Myth of the Blood is a good overview of the more serious thought that’s been heretofore put into ethnic and racial questions of this kind.

    (Speaking of which, I can’t resist encouraging you to undertake a translation of Evola’s Sintesi di Dottrina Della Razza, which is an advancement further in the right direction that can give even better orientations on this subject.)

    1. Thank you for your comments, Atreides. I agree that the traditional Roman Catholic position has a lot to teach us in this matter.

      As for Evola’s Sintesi, I can assure you that we have it in our sights.

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