Saturday, August 06, 2016

Harry Golden on Shylock and Shakespeare




Harry Golden, born Herschel Goldhirsch in the Ukraine, became an extraordinary journalist and publisher in the United States during the mid-20th century. Based in Charlotte, North Carolina, he was a fearless reporter and commentator on civil rights issues and eventually founded The Carolina Israelite, a weekly journal offering Jewish perspectives and reminiscences. In one of his columns, later reprinted in a best-selling collection, Only in America, Golden argues that The Merchant of Venice succeeds in being both anti-Semitic and anti-anti-Semitic. Here are some excerpts --



From Harry Golden, “Shylock and William Shakespeare”



Now let us get started on William Shakespeare and The Merchant of Venice. Mr. Shakespeare was first and foremost Mr. Theatre. He was a craftsman interested in filling his theater; earning dividends for his colleagues and partner-producers and providing a livelihood for his fellow actors. He also wrote a “Jew play” [as Christopher Marlowe had done with The Jew of Malta] . . . Shakespeare gave his audience a play in which they could confirm their prejudices – but he did much more. Shakespeare was the first writer in seven hundred years who gave the Jew a “motive.” Why did he need to give the Jew a motive? Certainly his audience did not expect it. For centuries they had been brought up on the stereotype, “this is evil because it’s evil,” and here Shakespeare comes along and goes to so much “unnecessary” trouble giving Shylock a motive. At last – a motive!



Fair sir, you spit on me Wednesday last;

You spurned me such a day; another time

You called me dog.



Fighting words. Many a Southerner of ante-bellum days did not bother about getting a “pound of flesh.” He finished his traducer on the spot. But Shakespeare gives us no rest. He is actually writing a satire on the Gentile middle class and the pseudo-Christians, and he wastes no time. What does Antonio, this paragon of Christian virtue, say to this charge of Shylock’s? Does he turn the other cheek? Does he follow the teaching of Jesus to “love thine enemies?” Not by a long shot. This “noble” man replies to Shylock’s charge:



I am as like to call thee so again,

To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.



But Shakespeare has hardly begun . . . why does this noble Antonio, the Christian merchant, want the three thousand ducats to begin with? Why did Shakespeare go out of his way to show that Antonio’s request for a loan was based on cheapness and chicanery? He did not have to do that. Certainly not for an anti-Semitic audience of 1598. He could have contrived a million more noble causes. Patriotism. Antonio needed the money for widows and orphans. Or to defend Venice against an Invader. How the audience would have eaten that up. But Shakespeare refuses to make it that simple. Let us discuss the play from the viewpoint of the audience, like when your children go to the movies. The “good guys” and the “bad guys.” Antonio and his friends are the “good guys”; Shylock, the Jew, is the “bad guy”. Now what do we have here? Antonio’s friend, Bassanio, one of the “good guys,” is in debt to Antonio. He wants to pay back and he has a scheme. Portia just inherited a wad of money. If he can get Portia and her dough all his troubles would be over. But Bassanio says the project needs some front money. You need money to woo a rich girl like Portia. So he says to Antonio, lend me just a little. He says that when he was a youth and when he lost one arrow, he shot another in the same direction and often retrieved both. So now, lend me some dough so I can make love to a rich lady who has just inherited a vast fortune, and with good luck I’ll not only pay you back what you advanced me but I’ll give you all back debts I owe you.



This is the deal the two “noble” guys in Shakespeare’s play made. Antonio says, “It’s a deal, only all my ready cash is tied up in my ships, and I’ll not be able to lay my hands on ready cash for ninety days or so.” And so they go to Shylock to borrow the money.



How could we help but sense that Shakespeare was writing an indictment of the hypocrites who vitiated every precept taught them by Christianity? Shylock is a widower. He has only one daughter, Jessica, who falls in love with Lorenzo, a Gentile. The “good” guys induce her not only to desert her widowed father but to rob him, and dressed in boy’s clothing (a third crime in Jewish law). Jessica steals away in the night to elope with Lorenzo.



I will make fast the doors, and gild myself

With some more ducats, and be with you straight.



Based on Western law Jessica has committed the crime of theft. She has also committed the moral crime of stealing out of her father’s house during the night and deserting him, and as the young thief comes away with her father’s money, what do the “good” guys say? Gratiano exclaims:



Now, by my hood, a Gentile and no Jew!



Can you imagine how the audience howled with glee as Jessica was leaving Shylock’s house with his caskets of money? Shakespeare probably figured that during this howling the audience would miss the follow-up line. You have deserted your father, stolen out of his house during the night dressed in boy’s clothing, and robbed him of his money, and now you are a Gentile, and, by my hood, no Jew. The playwright set his 1598 audience to howling. The poet-philosopher wrote for all future generations.



. . . Shakespeare leads us up to the clincher. The audience and the players are now waiting for the big moment before the court where Shylock is bringing his suit against Antonio, the merchant, for his pound of flesh. Portia enters disguised as a lawyer and what does she say? What are her first words at this final showdown between the “good” guys and the “bad” guys? Portia asks a most natural question:



Which is the Merchant here, and which the Jew?



Both the Plaintiff and the Defendant are standing before the court. Portia has never seen either one of them before, but as an educated gentlewoman she has behind her the culture of many centuries of the stereotype Jew. If not actually with horns, you certainly can recognize the “devil” a mile away. And there he is ten feet away – she has a fifty fifty chance at making a guess between the “good” guy and the “bad” guy but she won’t risk it.



Which is the Merchant here, and which the Jew?



And when it all goes against Shylock, Shakespeare seems to go out of his way to give us a frightening picture of the “victors.” He has them standing together pouring out a stream of vengeance. We’re not through with you yet Jew, and the money we have left you after you have paid all these fines, you must leave that to Jessica and your son-in-law who robbed you. Shakespeare keeps them hissing their hate. Tarry yet a while, Jew, we’re still not through with you. You must also become a Christian. The final irony. The gift of love offered in an atmosphere which is blue with hatred. And as all of this is going on, Shakespeare leaves only Shylock with a shred of dignity!



I pray you, give me leave to go from hence.

__________________________________________________



Written for The Carolina Israelite, reprinted in Golden's Only In America, World Publishing, 1958.

Photo: Henry Irving as Shylock, one of the first sympathetic stage portrayals, c. 1879.


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