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Re-reading Shylock’s Myth

calimaniBy Dario Calimani*

Is it possible for an eminent Jewish Shakespearean scholar to feel he is to account personally for Shylock’s stubborn wickedness? Someone may think it impossible, but it is not. This is the dismal sensation passed on by Professor James Shapiro (Columbia University) during a lecture on ‘Shakespeare and the Jews’, on which topic, about twenty years ago, he wrote a precious, seminal book for all the scholars in the field.

As a matter of fact, after considering the situation and conditions of the small number of Jews – conversos and marranos – living in sixteenth-century England and the various stereotypes producing the discrimination and the persecutions that marked Jewish history for centuries, Professor Shapiro concludes his lecture by re-reading Shylock’s figure on the basis of present history and confesses, with something of an embarrassed emotion, that, today, he would make some addition to his book, because he now knows that Shylock, too, the victimized Jew, can turn into a vicious evil-doer, and can harm both Gentiles and Jews. And he provides, as an example, the case of the orthodox extremist Baruch Kopel Goldstein who killed 25 Palestinians and wounded another 125 of them, in Hevron in 1994.

Goldstein was his fellow countryman, American and Jewish, almost his same age, like him from Brooklyn, same course of studies, although, finally, to Professor Shapiro’s great fortune, Goldstein chose to turn to massacre whereas Professor Shapiro chose to do research. The audience appreciate the Jew atoning for his savage Jewish brother’s crimes and applaud the enlightened conclusion of his lecture. A conclusion that sounds like a mortifying self-humiliation. The effect is terrific. For me, too, in a way, because I really liked Professor’s Shapiro book when it came out, although my enthusiasm dwindled a bit after his following efforts trying to defend Shakespeare’s identity.

Now, however, thanks to the conclusion of his lecture, I understand that when a Jew, a Professor, speaks about a topic dating back four hundred years, he is expected to reinterpret it and re-actualize it on the basis of the present: make it new! A Jew is expected, therefore, to come to terms with today’s evil and formally declare his/her difference, in opinion and action, from Goldstein and from Ygal Amir (Itzchak Rabin’s murderer), so as to avoid any misunderstanding. And I have also understood that Goldstein and Amir risk making up for (and retrospectively justifying?) all vexations dished out to Shylock and, perhaps, to his contemporary fellow-Jews.

Professor Shapiro was certainly badly misinterpreted. He certainly did not mean to say that. Nevertheless, this is what he said. And the audience applauded, gratified by this weird ‘mea culpa’ from a well-known, esteemed scholar. There are Jews who do not live a condition of self-hatred, although they are ashamed of some of their ‘brothers’, as happens to all men and women all over the world. A Jew, however, is expected to justify himself/herself, even when nobody is asking for that, even when the topic at issue dates back four hundred years. It seems clear that, when dealing with anti-Semitism, even literary anti-Semitism, one feels one has to admit that, “you know, we are well aware that in Israel, too, nowadays…” It is politically correct, and it should be done. The audience are happy, and applaud with pleasure.

If you are a Jew, you leave with a nasty taste in your mouth, mortified by the humiliation your most esteemed fellow man and renowned colleague has needlessly inflicted upon himself. Shylock’s myth has claimed its umpteenth victim.

*Dario Calimani is a full professor of English Literature at the Università Ca’ Foscari of Venice.