Letter from a Late Playbill: A Jewish Hand Behind Shylock?

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Letter from a Late Playbill: A Jewish Hand Behind Shylock?

Andrée Aelion Brooks


English actor Charles Macklin as Shylock, at
Covent Garden, London, 1767-68.
Photo from WikiCommons.

Was the original purpose of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice something other than what has been traditionally depicted over the centuries? Was the background to its creation other than what has been handed down to us? These questions are coming to the fore as scholars continue to probe the Bard’s broad canon and take a fresh look at the historical environment in which the plays were created.

The fictional character Shylock has always been particularly troubling to Jews—a caricature whose repeated presence on stage confirms the worst in the minds of the gentile world. He is an evil, repulsive and avaricious moneylender who shuffles around in dirty, unkempt clothes carrying bloody-mindedness in his heart—in short, the personification of an anti-Semitic lie at its most damaging.

Yet the very opposite may have originally been intended. One clue may lie in the role of a potential coauthor. Collaborative playwriting “was both the practical and theoretical norm in English theaters” for most of the 16th century, notes Jeffrey Knapp, professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. Knapp is a specialist in Shakespeare and Renaissance studies. His comments appeared in a 2008 article titled “Shakespeare as Co-author,” in the scholarly journal Shakespeare Studies.

And the possible identity of a coauthor for this particular play could well have been significant in shaping its original message and intent—a woman of Italian Jewish descent named Amelia Bassano (Lanier). Some 30 years ago, A.L. Rowse, one of Britain’s most noted Shakespearean scholars, first identified Bassano as the most likely candidate for the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and thus the Bard’s passion and lover.

Bassano was an outspoken, highly educated woman whose own book of poetry—the first for a woman in the English language, according to historians—was published in 1611, the same era as the plays. And those poems imply that she was eager to publicly promote her strong opinions, especially about the way people treat each other.

Further, when it came to writing, Bassano had “a natural facility,” noted Rowse, in an introduction to his book The Poems of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady. Moreover, two lines in one of her poems, titled “To the Countess of Dorset,” bear an eerie resemblance to Shakespeare’s famous lines from As You Like It.

In Bassano’s book, those lines read: “For well you knowe [sic], this world is but a stage/ Where all doe play their parts and must be gone.”

Regardless of who did the borrowing, it raises a possible literary connection between Amelia Bassano and the Bard.

In recent years, the likely Jewish background of the Bassano family has been explored in depth by David Lasocki, a music historian and professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, along with Roger Prior, professor of English at the Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. They conclude that the family originally came from the northern Italian village of Bassano, known for its many Jews, before they were thrown out or converted early in the 16th century. Bassano’s father and four uncles, who converted but, according to these scholars, were apparently still close to their Jewish roots, went on to become highly respected musicians in Venice. Around midcentury, they came to England to play at the court of Henry VIII. Family members were still court musicians in Shakespeare’s day, some 40 years later.

Though Rowse never raised the possibility of Bassano’s role as a collaborator as well as lover, a later scholar, John Hudson, has now done so. Hudson is a graduate of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham in England. He has written a lengthy account of her life that is currently being considered for possible print publication and a television documentary. His articles on the Bassano-Shakespeare connection have appeared in myriad journals.

When it comes to the The Merchant of Venice, Hudson, who now lives in New York, sees Bassano’s hand in almost every aspect of the play. “I’m sure she had an agenda,” he says. And that agenda might well have been to highlight the disgraceful treatment of Jews in Italy (there were no openly practicing Jews allowed to live in England at that time, only converted ones).

“People do not understand that Shylock was angry because he was not getting a fair shake,” argues Hudson. In modern terms, Shylock can therefore be viewed not so much as a man obsessed only with money but also as a political activist, sticking his neck out publicly, at his own peril, for the rights and equal justice for his fellow Jews.

Seen in this light, Shylock’s forced conversion at the end takes on new meaning. During the decades prior to the writing of the plays, forced conversions had swept through the Jewish communities of Spain, Portugal and Italy and even the Catholic countries of the New World (Central and South America). Hundreds of these converts had become victims of the Inquisition—the regulatory arm of the Catholic Church whose goal was to arrest, torture and even execute anyone who was not considered a sincere Catholic. Converted Jews were prime suspects.

Thus, the horrors of what was going on may have needed greater exposure, at least in the mind of someone like Bassano, as the repercussions for Shylock would have gone way beyond a change of faith. “Shylock would have probably had to leave his home in the ghetto,” said Professor Stanislao Pugliese, a professor of Italian studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, who focuses on Italian Jewish history. “He would have been ostracized by both communities. The Christian community would not have accepted someone like this, and the Jewish community would have turned their backs.” As a result, Shylock would have lost his business, his faith and his friends. His very life would have been at stake. For Bassano, these ramifications could well have been a very personal part of her own family lore.

Among others who have also reconsidered the dreadful impact of the sentence of conversion in recent years is the team that created the 2004 film adaptation starring Al Pacino: It opens with a montage of how the Jewish community was being abused and ends with Shylock being cast out by his ghetto community. Similar ideas also accompanied the 2010 stage production, also with Pacino, in Central Park in New York.

What about the way he has been physically portrayed through the centuries? There is scant evidence, if any, to suggest that the quintessential Shylock dressed any differently from other Venetians—something that was corrected by Pacino in his movie, although his stage version has Shylock dressed as an Orthodox Jew of apparent Ashkenazic background. The assimilated dress is further borne out by historical evidence. Jews in Venice had to wear a hat or a badge of a distinguishing color to identify themselves as Jews—the color differing depending on their circumstances in life. It would not have been needed if their ordinary day clothes and their appearance were so different.

Even this idea is open to question. The Jews of Italy were largely Sefardic and assimilated. This makes the thick Yiddish accent that typically tinges Shylock’s speech in later productions equally suspect, underscored by a careful reading of the original text. Peering searchingly around the courtroom in Act IV, Scene I, Portia has to inquire, “Which is the merchant here and which the Jew?”

Further, “When Shakespeare absolutely wanted one of his characters to look different from the surrounding characters—hunchback Richard, for example, or obese Falstaff—he was careful to incorporate the difference directly into his text,” wrote Stephen Greenblatt, one of today’s leading American authorities on Shakespeare. His remarks came in an exchange of views that took place on the Web site of the New York Review of Books in the fall of 2010, adding, “In The Merchant of Venice, he did not do so.”

Even the source of the plot feeds into the need for a reevaluation. The scholarly world decided years ago that the story line was most likely based on Il Pecorone, an Italian novella printed in Milan in 1558, about 40 years before the play was written. But, they noted, there was no English translation at the time. Who would have known about the existence of this little Italian work of fiction other than someone who knew Italian, had close Italian ties and whose family was constantly traveling back and forth?

If, indeed, Bassano’s original aim was to bring public attention to the plight of the Jew, collaborating with the already respected Shakespeare “brand” to help her work along, then surely the great irony is that it backfired—possibly because the public was still too deeply mired in the medieval idea of the villainous Jew. How sad it would therefore be if her efforts ended up perpetuating, and even enhancing, the very image that she had been trying to change.

Andrée Aelion Brooks can be reached at andreebrooks@hotmail.com.


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