Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Shylock, the Arab

In Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, Portia, Bassanio's newlywed wife, pretends to be a judge and hears the case of Antonio and Shylock.

In case anyone here doesn't know the story, in essence, Antonio borrows money from Shylock, with the condition that if he cannot pay, he must let Shylock cut a pound of flesh from his chest (which will obviously kill him). When he can't pay, Shylock takes him to court to collect the penalty. (Shylock is a Jewish moneylender and he hates Antoino because of suffering prejudice from Christians all his life (as well as from the fact that Antonio undercut his lending business).

In any case, an interesting exchange occurs in the fourth act that shows one of themes of the play, which is (according to Shakespeare) the difference between the Christian and the Jewish outlook on life; between the (supposedly) overly legalistic outlook of the Jews and the merciful forgiveness of hte Christians.

Por. Of a strange nature is the suit you follow;
Yet in such rule that the Venetian law
Cannot impugn you as you do proceed.
[To ANTONIO.] You stand within his danger, do you not?
Ant. Ay, so he says.
Por. Do you confess the bond?
Ant. I do.
Por. Then must the Jew be merciful.
Shy. On what compulsion must I? tell me that.

Act IV. Scene 1 ll. 171-179

Forgetting the specifics of the play, and of the specific comparison used here (Jews v. Christians), we get a clear picture of a person trying to operate under the assumption of universalism, that all people share the same values.

Portia finds it so absurd that someone would kill someone as punishment for an unpaid debt that her response to the deal is "Then must [Shylock] be merciful," as no other reasonable option occurs to her.

Shylock, however, doesn't see it that way. He doesn't see why be merciful unless he is forced to by an outside power. "On what compulsion must I [be merciful]?"

After this, Portia goes into her "the quality of mercy is not strained" speech, where she in essence admits that Shylock doesn't have to be merciful, but really, no one could possibly not be merciful in such a situation.

Shylock responds (ll. 202-203) "My deeds upon my head! I crave the law,
The penalty and forfeit of my bond."

In other words, "I don't have to be merciuful, I ain't gonna be merciful!"

In a nutshell, this shows why it is unwise to approach people from other cultures as if they share your values, and why it is foolhardy to try and project your worldview onto them.

For our next exercise, students, let's pretend that the Israelis are Antonio (so the Jew [or the Jewish state, at least] is now the hero), the Americans Portia, and the Palestinians are Shylock. Omar al-Shylock.

In his recent state of the union, Bush said:

The Palestinian people have voted in elections. And now the leaders of Hamas must recognize Israel, disarm, reject terrorism, and work for lasting peace.

I can just hear Omar al-Shylock's reply:

Under what compulsion must I?

That is all.

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