EXTRA! EXTRA! Bard no longer Villian to Jews!

Machlokes / Controversy

Jewish World Review / June 1, 1999 /17 Sivan, 5759

EXTRA! EXTRA! Bard no longer Villain to Jews!

By Eric Fingerhut
Washington Jewish Week

(JWR) ---- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com) IN A 7-5 DECISION, a 12-person jury, with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg presiding, has ruled that while there may be anti-Semitic elements in The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare’s intent was not to cause harm, ridicule or injury to Jews.

The ruling came at a mock trial sponsored by the Lawyers Committee for The Shakespeare Theatre in preparation for the theatre’s performance of the play, which began last week.

The event used real Washington, D.C. area lawyers, two scholars as expert witnesses and Ginsburg to control the proceedings and make sure everyone knew the issues and followed the rules.

Econophone The mock trial took the form of a contract dispute: The mythical Real Life Drama Society was forbidden to rehearse Merchant of Venice at the mythical Idyllic University due to the school’s anti-harassment policy. The university ruled that a performance of the play would violate the agreement of the drama group to abide by school standards while using university facilities. The drama society’s position is that the play is not anti-Semitic, and is therefore acceptable for performance at the school. The theater then took the school to court.

Arguing for the plaintiff, Colin Alberts, an associate at Blumenfeld & Cohen-Technology Law Group, opened the trial by stating that while anti-Semitism was undoubtedly expressed in the play, that does not mean Shakespeare endorsed those sentiments, noting that Shakespeare’s characters are neither “black or white ... but ambiguous.” While Shakespeare may have wanted to portray Shylock as a “bad Jew and bad human,” Alberts said, his intent was not to incite harm to Jews in England.

Don Bliss countered for the defense by noting that Shakespeare was “commercially competitive” and would have logically appealed to the anti-Jewish feelings of the audience, since other playwrights were doing the same. Bliss, a partner in the D.C. office of O’Melveny & Myers LLP, also cited preeminent Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom, who has written that one would have to be “blind, deaf and dumb” to not see the anti-Semitism of the play.

Bliss also said that the continuous addressing of Shylock as “Jew or dog or infidel” by the other characters, as well as Shylock’s own words and actions, are clear evidence that Shakespeare wanted The Merchant of Venice to demonize Jews.

Each side was then given the opportunity to question — and cross-examine — one expert witness apiece. Appearing for the plaintiff, Martin Yaffe, professor of philosophy and religion studies at the University of North Texas and author of Shylock and the Jewish Question, said just because The Merchant of Venice contains anti-Semitism, that does not mean the play endorses such ideas, just as “Macbeth is not endorsing murder.”

Yaffe believes that one of the issues Shakespeare is exploring with the play is “whether a cosmopolitan trading nation can afford Jew hatred,” and Shakespeare’s answer is negative. But that message comes across subtly, said Yaffe. For example, while Shylock is a miserable person, the Christian characters in the play are “dysfunctional” in some way, too. And both Shylock and his main antagonist, Antonio, are taught similar lessons about their religions, said Yaffe. Shylock learns that the traditional Jewish principle of justice must be tempered with mercy, while Antonio finds out the opposite — that other values, such as family and justice, also are of paramount importance.

But Miranda Johnson-Haddad, educational consultant at The Shakespeare Theatre and scholar in residence at the Folger Shakespeare Library, disagreed. Under questioning by Lynn E. Parseghian, special counsel at O’Melveny & Myers, Johnson-Haddad said the numerous anti-Semitic characterizations and sentiments in the play — especially the “casual, gratuitous” insults of Shylock — were powerful evidence of the play’s intent.

For example, the fact that Shylock demands a “pound of flesh” from Antonio when he cannot pay back his loan “speaks to the centuries-old legacy of the anti-Semitic blood libel” and Jews drinking the blood of Christians.

“It is profoundly painful to think [Shakespeare] adopted the anti-Semitic stereotypes of his time ... but we have to be a bit braver, look at the text and acknowledge what’s there,” Johnson-Haddad said.

In closing arguments, Freddi Lipstein said that it would be a “leap of faith” to say that those undeniably anti-Semitic elements are intended to celebrate such attitudes. Lipstein, senior appellate counsel in the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil division, said that similar reasoning would lead to the banning of Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List, for instance. “Where would it end?” she asked.

“We should try to understand what Shakespeare is saying in [this play],” she said. “Its ambiguity is its brilliance. ... It makes it alive to us.”

Bliss, on the other hand, questioned whether those viewing the play 400 years ago had the capability or the desire to examine the play that closely. Bliss asked, “Do we really think the Elizabethan audience was sufficiently versed in Jewish theology to appreciate the subtle speculation” that the plaintiffs pointed out?

In addition, Bliss pointed out that while expert witness Yaffe had said that Shylock is portrayed as a “bad Jew” (he is willing to eat traif — although it is never actually shown in the play — which Yaffe interprets as Shakespeare acknowledging that Shylock should not be taken as a paradigmatic representative of the religion), there are no “good Jews” depicted — except for Shylock’s daughter Jessica, who converts to Christianity.

After the jury handed down its narrow decision in favor of the plaintiffs, Justice Ginsburg closed by pointing out that in contrast to the Venice of the late 1500s, where “Shylock cannot be a citizen because he is a Jew,” the United States has traditionally had a different view of citizenship. An early statement of that idea, Ginsburg said, was expressed in a letter from George Washington to the members of the Jewish Synagogue at Newport, R.I., in 1790. Washington, borrowing from the prophet Micah, wrote: “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the Father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here.”

Eric Fingerhut is a staff reporter for Washington Jewish Week. Let him know what you think by clicking here.


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