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TOPIC: I know not why . . .

I know not why . . . 9 years 6 months ago #893

  • akfarrar
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So many of the anti-Semitic accusations against Shakespeare's play, 'The Merchant of Venice' rely on Antonio, the Merchant of the title, being seen as 'Innocent, Christian Victim' that I am surprised a lot more attention hasn't been focused on the validity of the assumption.

Actually, I am not surprised.

Antonio is such an anodyne wimp and Shylock such a dynamic powerhouse that any focus on the former at the expense of the later is bound to seem wasted: The same is true of Milton’s Satan – now there’s a scene stealer is ever there was one – poor old god left right out in the celestial cold.

And then there is the circular argument – Elizabethan England was anti-Semitic – we all know that – after all, Shylock’s portrayal is one of the main pieces of evidence isn’t it?

Strange then how many of the great Shylock performances of recent times crack the cliché and reveal not a ‘stereotype Jew’ but a very human, if flawed, character.

But there – you see – hoisted by my own petard - off the subject of Antonio and onto Shylock!

The play starts with Antonio walking on (as though through the streets of Venice) with some friends and he answers a question which must have been asked offstage – the conversation going something like,

Friend: Why are you so miserable? This sadness is very boring!

Antonio: In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.

Cue Romeo (Aye me . . .); Cue Hamlet. Oh the moans, the moans!

Any but the most drunken groundling jumps straight to the point – Melancholy: Quite a fashionable disease at the time – every self-respecting artist, musician or unemployed scholar (not to mention teenage lover) donned the black hat and sighed bad breath over his friends (sorry ladies, women had to go for the hysterics).

Antonio is striking a note of dissonance right from his first “oooooo th” – and there are more to come.

He continues:

It wearies me; you say it wearies you;

Get the feeling he couldn’t give a monkey’s?

But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff ‘tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;

And that’s a half line – cue for a big pause.

Plenty of time for the audience to answer his questions – black bile. Too much earthy heaviness – several potential causes: Several types – so, what’s unbalanced this guy: Unbalanced? Yep – he is suffering from an excess of bile, he is out of harmony with not only the world, but his maker.

And then he jumps in with,

And such a want-wit sadness makes of me
That I have much ado to know myself.

So Antonio has nailed his flag to the mast.

But hold on – Much Ado? Not about nothing surely? And, ‘want-wit’? And, not to know myself?

Either he is serious – as this bunch of friends think; or he is posing – as Gratiano suggests later in the scene.

An interrogation follows – following good Elizabethan medical theory.

As a melancholic, Antonio is under the influence of Saturn – he will exhibit sadness, contrariness and deliberation; earth is the dominant element with the attributes of cold, dry, black sourness. A quick look at Durer’s ‘Melancholia 1’ reveals the ‘gifts’ of Saturn – numbering, measuring counting (land and money) – all low, earthly occupations.

Salerio assumes this is where the source of the Antonio’s trouble lies – excessive worry over his material possessions. Solanio backs him up (both giving essential plot details). Salerio returns with more – jointly giving a total of over 30 lines on the worries of being a merchant. How many in that first London audience must have recognised their daily concerns. The recent discovery off the coast of Cornwall of a vast sunken treasure in silver and gold only adds weight to the assumptions of his friends.

Antonio denies the diagnosis – incidentally confirming his melancholic ‘strengths’ of counting, numbering and deliberation. But am I talking about the merchant or the moneylender? It certainly seems to me as though they are two sides of the same coin.

Solanio makes his second, wild guess – love!

Quickly, and contemptuously, dismissed (although many modern productions choose to ignore this dismissal and try to hang Antonio’s character on a secret homosexual love – I suppose it gives the modern method actor something to worry away at, even though it has nothing to do with what Shakespeare intended).

Solanio seems to give in at this point – you have inherited the sadness from nature – but he does bring up ‘two-headed Janus’ – which again suggests, to me, Shylock and Antonio as aspects of a single unity.

We have not got to a solution when Bassanio, Lorenzio and Gratiano enter – and instantly Solanio bids goodbye:

Fare ye well;
We leave you now with better company.

If Solanio has made the Melancholic diagnosis, then the cure includes companionship, unburdening of the heart, and peace of mind (and music and drama) – all designed to ‘lighten’ the humours and restore balance. He and Salerio are not doing too well – although they are trying – they have business to go to, and that is the last thing Antonio needs to be thinking about – so, a quick exit is called for.

Antonio, sourly, thanks them for their company and doesn’t fail to point out that they are ‘embracing the occasion’ to depart.

This is true – but what is the motive?

Well, that’s a very 20th Century question – Shakespeare, having set the scene of a Melancholic ‘Title’ character, now needs to move the plot on a bit – and introduce a second theme, friendship.

Bassanio is Antonio’s friend – Solanio and Salerio, like Romeo’s mother and father, withdraw to let friends talk and, hopefully, ‘unburden’.

But before that can happen, there is a last stab at the diagnosis – this time from a straight talking Gratiano.

He assumes ‘care’ about earthly things is the cause – and points out how greatly changed Antonio is.

This is one of those important indicators that slip through – how does Gratiano know? What is Antonio doing that is ‘changed’? Surely, like Hamlet, we have visual as well as reported indicators. Antonio must be in black – reduced in finery? Hence the constant assumption ‘material wealth’ is at the bottom of the Melancholy.

Antonio now comes out with the much quoted:

I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano –
A stage, where every man must play a part,
And mine a sad one.

This, of course, is the ‘All the World’s a Stage’ thought – it is, additionally, the ‘How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable; Seems to me all the uses of this world’ of Hamlet.

It is also a half line ending – and Gratiano, not taking this ‘feigned’ nonsense, leaps straight in, playing the fool.

Standard medical treatments are recommended – and an interesting accusation – some men wilfully take on the mantle of Melancholy in order to seem wise – and Antonio doesn’t actually deny this, but says he will talk more.

What are we to make of Antonio’s Melancholy?

Well, the first important point is that Antonio cannot be seen as an example of Christian virtue, in harmony with his maker.

Melancholy, whether feigned or real was an indication of dispair – one of the greater sins to your average Elizabethan – it represented a refusal to enter into a relationship with god.

Next there is the question of the type of Melancholy – and we have dismissed the major contenders – concern for business and love – which leaves us with two further possibilities, ‘The Intellectual’ (indicated by Gratiano) or one not mentioned – The Malcontent.

It was the Malcontent who, finding no place in the social system, joined the extreme religious sects – such as the Puritans or, in Elizabethan England, the Catholics.

And Angelo is most likely in black – just as Malvolio.

Antonio to the groundlings of The Globe, would be seen as a potential figure of fun – and a joke will be played on him which is as cruel as that played on Malvolio. Black humour certainly, arising from the black humor of bile.

But knowledge of this also prepares the audience to expect from Antonio statements of an extreme nature:

The perturbations of melancholy are for the most parte, sadde and fearful, and such as rise of them: as distrust, doubt, diffidence, or dispaire, sometimes furious and sometimes merry in apparaunce, through a kinde of Sardonian, and false laughter, as the humour is disposed that procureth these diversities. Those which are sad and pensive, rise of that melancholick humour, which is the grossest part of the blood, whether it be iuice or excrement, not passing the naturall temper in heat whereof it partaketh, and is called cold in comparison onely. This for the most part is setled in the spleane, and with his vapours anoyeth the harte and passing vp to the brayne, counterfetteth terrible obiectes to the fantasie, and polluting both the substance, and spirits of the brayne, causeth it without externall occasion, to forge monstrous fictions, and terrible to the conceite, which the iudgement taking as they are presented by the disordered instrument, deliuer ouer to the hart, which hath no iudgement of discretion in it self, but giuing credite to the mistaken report of the braine, breaketh out into that inordinate passion, against reason.

- Timothy Bright, A Treatise of Melancholie, (1586), Facsimile Text Society, New York, 1940. p.102.

Taken in this light, the strong anti-jewish sentiments expressed by Antonio cannot be seen as inherent anti-Semitism either in the play or in the playwright.
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I know not why . . . 9 years 6 months ago #926

  • Charles Pecadore
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This is a fascinating insight to Antonio, but just as he "cannot be seen as an example of Christian virtue, in harmony with his maker", neither can Shylock be applauded as an example of (Jewish) virtue, in harmony with his maker.

I understand that he is degraded and defiled by the Christian community and that he later largely blames Antonio in for his daughter's desertion, but nevertheless, when given the opportunity (several times) to show mercy and allow Antonio to live, Shylock unrighteously insists on his "bond". Imho, that is what condemns him and it would have done so regardless of his religion.
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I know not why . . . 9 years 6 months ago #933

  • Tue Sorensen
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I, too, tend to think that too much is being made of the alleged "anti-Semitism" of this play. Shylock is the play's villain, plain and simple. He should not be made out to be some poor victim. He's a terrible person; nigh inhuman! It seems to me that his villainy comes from his being a usurer and a nasty one, too. The whole Jewish question; is this not mainly something that Shylock himself invokes, trying to use the Christians' (as perceived by him) racism against Jews as a (useless and meritless) defense, once he stands accused of extreme mercilessness?
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I know not why . . . 9 years 6 months ago #1055

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Of course he's not a total villain, rather a very human one and WS uses him, I believe, to show that we are all children of God. His "Hath not a Jew . . ." speech is particularly compelling as is his demonstration of Venetian hypocrisy through his 'slaves, asses, dogs, and mules' speech. Had his daughter stayed true to him and his religion, isn't it likely that he would not have insisted on his bond?
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I know not why . . . 9 years 3 months ago #1309

  • Matthew Barbot
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If too much is made of the antisemitism in the play, it is because people misunderstand The Merchant of Venice to be a treatise on why antisemitism is bad, and why we should accept people who are different from ourselves. The Merchant of Venice is a comedy. Shylock is a bombastic, evil villain. He does not resemble a real Jew because the playwright was writing the play some three hundred or so years after all the Jews were expelled from England, leaving behind only the strereotypes and largely held beliefs. Shakespeare wrote a comic villain who the audience would love to hate. The intention is for us to be happy with the Christians when they win.

That being said, he was not written without his own justifications. This, of course, was Shakespeare's strength and one of his greatest innovations: characters have psychological motives!

It is silly to believe that there is not an antisemitic undercurrent to the play, that Shylock and even Tubal are not monstrous caricatures of Jews based on the beliefs of the time, that Shakespeare - a great poet - was not aware of the power of iteration, that is, of calling Shylock "Jew" and rarely by his own name, of focusing so much on creating a dichotomy between Christian and Jew. Antonio and all his buddies are antisemites, sure. Shakespeare most likely was as well, because, frankly, he didn't know any better!

Does this speak very ill of Shakespeare himself? Not really. Witness the difference between Aaron, from the early Titus Andronicus, likely written before Shakespeare had ever met a Moor, and Othello, another black man, but this one written after an influx of free blacks into English ports.
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I know not why . . . 9 years 3 months ago #1317

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What I applaud and find fascinating is that while it is no longer politically correct to depict Shylock as a "bombastic, evil villain", directors, actors, et.al., have without changing a single word of dialog make him the focus of the play and appear "more sinn'd against than sinning".
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I know not why . . . 9 years 3 months ago #1319

  • Matthew Barbot
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^ Certainly that only goes to show how intrinsic to the play itself the antisemitism is: if it weren't there so baldly, the transition wouldn't be so easy. The characters are antisemitic, but of course they are; in Elizabethan England, writing an antisemitic story was as obvious and acceptable as writing an anti-Nazi story these days.
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I know not why . . . 9 years 3 months ago #1323

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how intrinsic to the play itself the antisemitism is - The Merchant of Venice is a comedy. Shylock is a bombastic, evil villain.
all the Jews were expelled from England; likely written before Shakespeare had ever met a Moor

Sorry, you seem to have been reading some 'out of date' source material.

Henry VIII had a whole bunch of Venetian Jewish Musicians at his court - and they stayed on in England - so much for the 'no jews in England' theory (and unnecessary justification for a view of Shylock that isn't supportable from the text) - Jewish MERCHANTS were frequent visitors to London - as were turks and moors - the Protestant world engaged with the Muslim world rather extensively for trade and commerce.
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I know not why . . . 9 years 3 months ago #1325

  • Matthew Barbot
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A group of foreign musicians and traders visiting ports do not an English presence make. They were exotic, foreign visitors, curiosities. Jews were commonly villified in the culture of the time, were thought by some to be devil worshippers, were believed by some to engage in cannibalism, etc.; every conceivable evil was piled on their heads.

As for its being a comedy, I'm well aware, and fail to see how this takes away the fact that there's heavy antisemitism in it.
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I know not why . . . 9 years 3 months ago #1331

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A group of foreign musicians and traders visiting ports do not an English presence make.

You miss my point - the "musicians" came in the time of Henry the Eighth and stayed! They were not 'visitors'.

Shakespeare, as a working actor, was a regular performer at court - and Jewish musicians were a part of the world he lived in.

Elizabeth had a Jewish doctor (admittedly eventually executed for attempting to poison her).

When the 'port' is London, and the Globe sited by the side of the river next to the port - one could expect frequent and regular encounters with a whole set of cultures.

The charts being used by English sea captains to navigate the world were constructed from Muslim and Jewish cartographers and pilots were frequently not Christian.

Jews were commonly vilified in the culture of the time: Far less so than the Spanish, Italian or French. There were no anti-Jewish riots that I know of.

Hebrew was taught in school - the old testament an essential part of every church service, the Jewish patriarchs seen as fundamental to Christian belief.

The ambivalence of the authorities reflects a very different perception of Jews from the bald, 19th Century-like antisemitism you seem to portray.

The point about comedy is that it isn't funny ha ha- and the meaning of the word doesn't license a bombastic Shylock.
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