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2005-01-17-Weisberg-Merchant of Venice

Harrison Weblog

2005 blog


Was Shakespeare forced to rewrite 
the Merchant of Venice
by King James I?
,  Jan. 17, 2005

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A founder of the Law and Humanities Institute—which examines interpretations of the law in literature and other art forms—has told a conference in San Diego there's a possibility that Shakespeare may have been forced to rewrite The Merchant of Venice to satisfy the religious prejudices of  King James I.

During a conference on the "Holocaust, Genocide and Other Human Rights Violations" sponsored by the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, Richard Weisberg took issue on Sunday, Jan. 16, with those who believe playwright William Shakespeare deliberately had written an anti-Semitic play. Weisberg also criticized productions—including, he said, the current movie starring Al Pacino—in which directors feel text-bound to interpret the play as anti-Semitic.

"Four hundred years ago next month, King James insisted as he had done with no other Shakespeare play that the play be performed twice," said Weisberg, a law professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University who also has a background as a professor of literature.

King James "liked Shakespeare and he had the plays put on. This was the only play of Shakespeare that he asked to see twice," Weisberg continued in a speech at Congregation Beth Israel to conference attendees including Judge Theodor Meron, president of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia; Daniel Goldhagen, author of Hitler's Willing Executioners; Thane Rosenbaum, author of The Golems of Gotham and Second Hand Smoke, and New York Times critic-at-large Ed Rothstein.

"There is some work coming out about that next year—what was it about King James' attitude?" said Weisberg. "But more importantly, what happened in the 48 hours between the first presentation and the second presentation two nights later? What happened to the play?"

"Our theory is that King James was deeply upset by a philo-Semitic, relatively sympathetic portrait of Shylock the first night and read the riot act to the bard, William Shakespeare, and said you better change certain things or emphasize things you didn't the first night to harmonize with my supersessional views about how Christianity superseded Judaism."

In a brief interview following his presentation, Weisberg said one of the most troubling aspects of the play as handed down through the ages was Shylock's forced conversion to Christianity at the end of the play.

Whether or not King James demanded this, there is,  according to Weisberg, enough of the original play surviving to suggest Shakespeare's own attitudes were philo-Semitic. 

 "Shylock speaks directly...tends to say things as they are," Weisberg said. "But he lives in a community that programatically declines to say honestly and directly the things that are going on. So we have breaches of promise—one of the major characters, the beautiful Portia, has to put up with the fact that (her successful suitor) Bassanio, who comes out to Belmont to woo her, is not what he seems in terms of the vows he makes to her and gives away his wedding ring in a day or two of their marriage. The characters easily break their oaths and promises." 

On the other hand, in Shylock, "we are shown an individual which most people recognize not only is given the dignity of suffering humanity, which is already remarkable—'Hath not a Jew eyes...,' the speech most associated with him, but is given by Shakespeare a whole fledged set of positive ethical qualities including the keeping of promises and an allegiance to one's family which is everywhere traduced by the Venetian people more generally."

In the current movie starring Pacino, lamented Weisberg, "we are not getting this at all; instead we get 'we wish you could but you just can't because this play is part and parcel clearly anti-Semitic.'"

Weisberg said the Law and Humanities Institute has itself produced a philo-Semitic version of the play which "is also a feminist play." 

"You have two outsiders—Shylock because he is a Jew on the Rialto and Portia because she is a woman. She comes into court disguised as a man, the only way she can use her voice in court, and in court during the trial (over whether the pound of flesh can be collected)  notes the various behavior patterns of her husband and Antonio ... and comes back to her own world empowered to demand of her husband the same value system of openness of honesty and directness that she first observed in Shylock.

"Watch for productions that show you, instead of Portia being opposed and angry and really hating Shylock...attend productions that utilize the text itself that indicates the bonding of the two outsiders in a value system very different from that (which is) predominant..."

As for Shylock demanding Antonio's "pound of flesh" in payment of a debt, Weisberg said one can interpret it not as the act of a man who was evil, but of a man who was driven over the edge: "There is a progression, and he is legitimately, one might say, embittered by the community stealing his daughter (Jessica)—it means a lot to him as a family man—and only at that point does he concoct in his fevered imagination ... the idea that he might enforce the bond. ...Obviously that bond is excessive and it has to be defeated, but the excesses that are brought on Shylock are imposed upon him by the behavior of the outside community."
                                                                                                 Donald H. Harrison