Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Which Is the Merchant Here? and Which the Jew?": Friends and Enemies in Walter Scott's Crusader Novels

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Which Is the Merchant Here? and Which the Jew?": Friends and Enemies in Walter Scott's Crusader Novels

Article excerpt

THROUGHOUT MOST OF THE PERFORMANCE HISTORY OF THE MERCHANT OF Venice there would have been little or no motive to attend to the line I take here as my title. If the stage is crowded, with Shylock skulking somewhere in the background and Antonio indistinguishable from the other well-dressed gentiles, then the question is merely instrumental: where are the litigants? Perhaps it works also to establish the legal propriety of what is about to happen: plaintiff and defendant are bidden to stand forth before their judge, rendering the assembly both formal and performative. But there would probably be only one Jew, so the incident might be played as a joke; for how is it possible that Portia could possibly not see the difference between the engaging albeit anxious young man on one side of the stage and the bearded, spooky old figure in the black cape and yarmulke on the other?

In recent times we have had a more serious curiosity about Portia's predicament, and more and more occasions to reflect on the similarity in difference that marks Shakespeare's apparent attempt to preserve intact a binary distinction between the Christian and the Jew, the friend and the enemy, the self and the other. In particular, the relation of posited difference that recent and contemporary global-political alliances in the west have sought to maintain between the Jew and the Arab, with the Christian interpellating itself as the author and arbitrator of that difference (between democratic and terrorist/absolutist, friend and enemy, modern and primitive, civilized and barbaric) have been brilliantly investigated by Derrida and (in the spirit of Derrida) by Gil Anidjar, whose work underpins much of what I shall have to say here, and who has resolutely insisted on the west's formative role in creating and exploiting notions of the Arab and the Jew as interchangeable instances of the enemy and therefore structurally identical and interchangeable in the imagination of the west. (1)

Walter Scott knew something of this syndrome. He might also have known something about the interdependence and arguable identity of Shylock and Antonio. In his 1790 edition of Shakespeare, Edmund Malone had noted an English translation of the seventeenth-century Italian historian Gregorio Leti's anecdote of the life of Pope Sixtus v, in which the Pope himself played Portia's role as the judge, and where the threatened debtor was a Jew and the cruel creditor determined on full payment was a Christian. (2) In this version of the story Antonio was the Shylock figure, implacable in his desire for the pound of flesh. There is no evidence that Shakespeare knew of this variant (whose first known publication came well after his death), or that it was true, but it appealed to Maria Edgeworth, who used it in her fascinating philosemitic novel Harrington published in 1817--in other words before Ivanhoe (1819) and Scott's later Crusader tales, The Betrothed and The Talisman (published together in 1825). The debate about the so-called Jew Bill of 1753 and the very public conversion of Lord George Gordon to Judaism, along with a few notorious criminal trials involving Jews, kept the issue of Jewishness very much alive in public and political circles before the French Revolution; thereafter they were inevitably implicated in the "loyalty test" mentality that was directed at all persons who could be associated with the foreign. (3) For the most part they passed it, and somewhat sympathetic literary portraits of Jews were put abroad by Thomas Dibdin and Richard Cumberland, as well as by Byron in his Hebrew Melodies, the product of his cooperation with Isaac Nathan, who had first offered the job to Scott, who declined. (4) Scott was indeed no avowed philosemite, but the popular success of Ivanhoe was significantly owing to its portrait of a complex romantic heroine in the Jewess Rebecca. Michael Ragussis has argued persuasively that both Harrington and Ivanhoe were careful and conscious responses to and rewrites of the plot of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, which had previously functioned in the literary tradition as the embodiment of conventional antisemitism. …

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