OU’s Rabbi Weil in Panel Debating Shylock and if Shakespeare was an Anti-Semite

15 Apr 2011

By Stephen Steiner

From Left: Moderator Patrick Healy, Professor James Shapiro, Director Barry Edelstein, and OU Executive Vice President Rabbi Steven Weil debate Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” at The Museum of Jewish Heritage. Photo courtesy of Melanie Einzig.

For more than four hundred years, Shylock — with his demand for a pound of flesh from a debtor — has been the symbol of the greedy, selfish, repulsive, alien Jew. As the loathed character in Shakespeare’s “romantic comedy,” The Merchant of Venice, he is referred to over and over again not by his name, but as “Jew.” At the famous trial scene he is humbled, faces death, and must convert to Christianity, which he does with alacrity, in order to stay alive.

And yet, in some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines, Shylock says in Act 3, Scene 1, “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?”

To debate the issue of “Shylock, Shakespeare, and the Jews: Anti-Semitism in the Merchant of Venice,” OU Executive Vice President Rabbi Steven Weil participated in a roundtable discussion at The Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, just a short walk around The Battery from the OU ‘s lower Manhattan offices. The program was presented in conjunction with The Public Theater, which originally staged the Merchant of Venice in 1962 and did so again in 1995 and last summer – with the celebrated actor Al Pacino playing Shylock. The play then moved to Broadway for a limited run, ending in February of this year.

Rabbi Weil was joined on the panel by Barry Edelstein, who has directed Shakespeare, including The Merchant of Venice, at The Public Theater and around the country; James Shapiro, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and author of “Shakespeare and the Jews; and moderator Patrick Healy, theater reporter for The New York Times.

Mr. Edelstein noted that when Joseph Papp, the impresario of The Public Theater, famed for its “Shakespeare in the Park” presentations, first produced The Merchant of Venice in 1962 in Central Park, the reaction was “toxic,” because of the character of Shylock. The 1995 and 2010-2011 presentations drew no such reaction, and according to Rabbi Weil, the only reason the Jewish community took notice was that Pacino was playing the role.

Does the lack of reaction mean that Shakespeare’s anti-Semitism was overlooked by audiences and the Jewish community, or that perhaps Shakespeare wasn’t truly anti-Semitic after all?

To give an insight into this question, Rabbi Weil read the following statement: “The Jews, I find, are very, very selfish. When they have power, physical, financial or political, neither Hitler nor Stalin has anything on them for cruelty or mistreatment to the underdog.”

“Who said that?” Rabbi Weil asked.

The large audience gasped when he replied, “Harry Truman.” Harry Truman, of course, was the President of the United States who recognized Israel in 1948, despite the opposition of his Cabinet and the State Department. Truman also maintained a lifelong friendship with Eddie Jacobson, their close relationship surviving the failure of their haberdashery business.

“Truman was a product of his world, an anti-Semitic culture,” Rabbi Weil said. Retreating back three centuries, to apply the Truman insight to Shakespeare, he declared, “I have no reason to delve into Shakespeare’s mind, but in terms of the time in which he lived and the world he lived in, Shylock was not that far-fetched.”

He added that Shakespeare gave the world a Shylock who is nuanced, which according to critics was made clear in Pacino’s interpretation. The “hath not a Jew eyes,” speech was “Shakespeare at his best, conveying a sense of ambiguity,” Rabbi Weil said.

In answer to a question from the audience, Rabbi Weil replied, to laughter, “No one in their right mind would nominate Shakespeare as a ‘righteous gentile.’ To paint him as an anti-Semite would be incorrect as well. He didn’t have the moral character to present a Jew in a positive light, but he did present a Jew in a nuanced light.”

Barry Edelstein, the director, noted that Shakespeare presented Antonio, the merchant for whom the play is named, as “not a nice guy,” who constantly tormented Shylock over his Jewishness. As Shylock tells him (Act 1 Scene 3), “You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, and spit upon my Jewish gabardine…You did void your rheum upon my beard…Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last — you spurned me such a day. You called me a dog; and for these courtesies I’ll lend you thus much moneys?” To which Antonio replies, “I am as like to call thee so again, to spit on thee again, to spurn thee too!”

No, not a nice guy.

Professor Shapiro added that it is no surprise that Shakespeare “was interested in the Jewish question. Every major writer of the period was interested in the Jewish question.” Which still leaves the question, “Was Shakespeare an anti-Semite?”

As Rabbi Weil responded about this enigmatic play and the enigmatic genius who wrote it, “We don’t know what was in Shakespeare’s mind.”

OU | World’s Largest Jewish Resource