William Shakespeare was born four hundred and forty two years ago this week, on April 23rd, to John and Mary Arden in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in England. He died on the same day fifty-two years and countless inkwells later, in 1616. Many herald him as the greatest writer the English language has ever known.
From words “aerial[i]” to “zany[ii]” – and everything in between – Shakespeare did not so much write plays or poetry as he wrote a language.
From tragic Comedies to comedic Tragedies – some Poetry and Histories thrown in for good measure – Shakespeare did not so much write his way into our culture as he wrote his way into our beings – as is evident in Harold Bloom, who many consider to be a leading Shakespeare scholar, titling his book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.
As with any major figure, much controversy and many conspiracy theories surround Shakespeare’s identity. Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Henry James, and Sigmund Freund are a few who have expressed disbelief that the man from Stratford-upon-Avon actually produced these writings[iii]. Edward de Vere, Christopher Marlowe, and Sir Francis Bacon are some of the proposed alternate authors of the Shakespearean works.
Shakespeare’s influence reaches far passed the literary world, unto the theaters stage, through the world of Economics[iv] and into worlds beyond.
Even into the Talmudic world of Jewish law. Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin in his book, l’Ohr HaHalacha[v], uses the Merchant of Venice to clarify a Halachic[vi] point, namely, whether or not the Shylock-Antonio contract would be valid according to Jewish law[vii].
Though Rabbi Zevin uses the Merchant of Venice in a Halachic context, many have used it to debate whether or not Shakespeare himself was anti-Semitic. Various Shakespearean students contest that Shakespeare fashioned his “Jew” after Marlowe’s “Jew from Malta.” Marlowe’s “Jew” is looked upon in a very unfavorable light, and some speculate Shakespeare tried to “make-up” for Marlowe by portraying his “Jew,” Shylock, in an unbiased fashion; while others are of the opinion that Shakespeare, reflecting the popular sentiment of his age, painted a Jew as evil.
Was Shakespeare’s writing influenced by his time[viii], or his time influenced by his writing? Apparently, both statements are true[ix]. But to prove Shakespeare’s anti-Semitism, his neutrality, or even his pro-Semitism, is as impossible as asking him directly.
Nonetheless, scholars and novices have tried to reach conclusions.
The strongest proofs – proofs by no means “beyond any reasonable doubt” – of the Bards anti-Semitism are found in his own words and portrayal of characters. By depicting Shylock as miserly, by illustrating Bassanio as noble, by forcing Shylock to convert to Christianity[x], by the “happy ending” of “Jews conversion (or death) and gentiles getting rich”[xi], one can definitely glean a hint of anti-Jewish persuasion.
But, of course, these proofs are refutable: Merchant of Venice is a comedy and, therefore, to be taken as such[xii]: Though one cannot deny Shylock’s villainous character, one can nevertheless deny Shakespeare’s anti-Semitic intent.
The most outstanding proof of Shakespeare’s belief in the equality of all men, Jew and Gentile alike, would be the famous ‘Hath not a Jew?[xiii]’ litany in Act 3, Scene I[xiv]. Though it really proves nothing more than Shakespeare’s exemplary ability to word the sentiments of a persecuted man.
Some have gone as far as claiming Shakespeare himself to be Jewish[xv]. Their proofs at large[xvi] – from Shakespeare’s knowledge of Judaic literature, all unavailable in the English language at that time, his coat of arms, and father’s alleged surname – seem poor, yet one cannot ignore the Bard’s familiarity with Jewish script and scripture.
Take for example, “What’s mine is yours and what is yours is mine,”[xvii] and "Sin will pluck on sin”[xviii] coupled with, “rewards his deeds with doing them”[xix], and you have three ethics[xx] almost verbatim from the Ethics of our Fathers. Does this make Shakespeare Jewish, or even pro-Jewish? Of course not; but it does get one thinking.
And thinking and speculating is all we will be doing.
And although William Shakespeare was a master of language, I don’t think it was “misery [that] acquaints a man with strange bedfellows,”[xxi] but rather controversy.
[i] Othello: II, i.
[ii] Love's Labour's Lost: V, ii
[iv] Shakespeare’s Economics, Farnam (1931)
[v] The Case of Shylock According to Jewish Law, p. 310.
[vi] Halacha – Jewish Law.
[vii] After much discussion, Rabbi Zevin cites the liturgy, “The soul is Yours and the body Your handiwork; the soul is Yours and the body Yours” (Selichos Prayer) – Yours as in G-d’s. Therefore, Rabbi Zevin writes, a contract clearly in contradiction to Torah law, taking a “pound of flesh” not belonging to you but to G-d, is null and void from the outset.
[viii] Thanks to their expulsion and annihilation, it was a time that saw very few (if any) of the Jewish people living in England. And, as all other job opportunities were not available to the descendants of Abraham, those that did live there were forced to become moneylenders, and therefore spewed upon for charging interest. http://www.spamula.net/col/archives/2005/08/the_jews_of_york.html; http://www.jewishgates.com/file.asp?File_ID=61;
[ix] Though he was not considered to be the supreme poet of his age: both Edmund Spenser and Philip Sidney held better stature.
[x] “In christening shalt thou have two god-fathers:
Had I been judge, thou shouldst have had ten more,
To bring thee to the gallows, not the font”. (Act 4, Scene I.)
[xi] “Ay, and I'll give them him without a fee.
There do I give to you and Jessica,
From the rich Jew, a special deed of gift,
After his death, of all he dies possess'd of.” (Act 5, Scene I.)
[xii] “I have never seen The Merchant Of Venice staged with Shylock as comic villain, but that is certainly how the play should be performed. Shylock would be very bad news indeed if he were not funny; since he doesn't provoke us to laughter, we play him for pathos, as he has been played since the early nineteenth century, except in Germany and Austria under the Nazis, and in Japan. I am afraid that we tend to make The Merchant Of Venice incoherent by portraying Shylock as being largely sympathetic.” (Harold Bloom in his book, Shakespeare: The Invention Of The Human, Chapter 12.)
[xiii] “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge.”
[xiv]Bloom writes, however: “I myself find little pathos in Shylock, and am not moved by his 'Hath not a Jew' litany, since what he is saying there is now of possible interest only to wavering skinheads and similar sociopaths. Perhaps it was a revelation for Shakespeare's audience, but it had better not be such for any audience now.” An implied argument: though Shakespeare himself may not have been anti-Semitic per se, because regarding his time, his ‘Hath not a Jew?’ piece was perhaps ballsy, today however his writing may very well be regarded as anti-Semitic.
[xv] In a discourse (farbrengen) on Purim 5722 (1962), the Lubavitcher Rebbe lamented the fact that American Jewish parents were infatuated with their children memorizing Shakespeare rather than memorizing the Talmud and the Torah.
[xvii] Measure for Measure.
[xviii] Richard III.
[xx] “Sheli shelach, shelach sheli” (Pirkei Avos, Perek 5, Mishnah X.) “Aveirah gorreres aveirah”, “Schar mitzvah, mitzvah” (Ibid, 4, II.)
[xxi] The Tempest (Act 2 Scene II.)