Lecture Explores Anti-Semitism In Shakespeare

On Oct. 7, guest lecturer Edna Nahshon presented “Jewish Responses to the Merchant of Venice,” outlining a cultural stereotype defined by Shakespeare within his character Shylock. Nahshon said that within Shylock’s name, we have created a word and image of a businessperson who is a scoundrel. “Shylock” has also come to label people who are alien, victim, greedy or vindictive, especially of Jewish heritage. Her lecture did not center on cultural advocacy for the Jewish; it approached historical events tied into the literary artwork and explored different time periods of the play’s popularity, often in sync with a rise and fall of cultural ignorance.

Jewish immigrants to America in the 1850’s were often rabbis and were well acquainted with the “Merchant of Venice”; as it was a required part of their study. Thus, rabbi intellectuals were sensitive to the image of the Jew in Gentile society. Similarly, Nahshon states, Shakespeare was “familiar with the Jewish custom: a sense of suffering. How much he knew, and where did he get it from, is hard to know.”

Nahshon went on to relate World War II effects upon the image of the Jewish population. During the 1940’s, many theater productions and renditions of “The Merchant of Venice” included allusions to the Holocaust. However, before WWII, a common issue American theaters faced was the prejudice the play reflected onto Jews; therefore, performances of the play were avoided.

In 1962, producer Joe Pap radically promised to open an ampitheater with a performance of the “Merchant of Venice”, with George C. Scott as Shylock. Nahshon said he “did not fear the role,” and “Pap did not consider the play anti-semitic.”

Though his action to counteract popular notion of anti-semitism in “The Merchant of Venice”, Nahshon said that “Shylock has returned to a major position of discussion,” and the label has made its way into the Israel/Palestine debate to victimize those in opposition.

At one point an audience member asked, “Is Shakespeare anti-semitic?”

“Every age rewrites the old masterpieces as an art of interpretation,” Noshin said. “What Shakespeare said is not as important as what his writing might mean to us.”

Gorard Sorin, audience member and director, stated that the perpetuation of the Jewish stereotype may have significance.

“I learned that it is possible to see this play as Shakespeare attempting to portray sympathetic Jews,” he said. “What an explosive idea, that the play is not anti-semitic, but it portrays sympathy to Jews.”

Nahshon’s intellectual take on harsh stereotypes further explains that Shakespeare may have believed the “Jew was the ultimate other … the play was a service to all kinds of tall tales. You don’t need Jews for anti-semitism.”

As Shakespeare states in Romeo and Juliet, “What is in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” perhaps the Jewish culture owns a stereotype that may well relate to individuals rather than groups. They are pinned with a name: Shylock, that does not serve the population justice.