(Also for ABC Wednesday and Magpie 94)
"U" is for "Unforgettable"
This week’s prompt illustrates beautifully how the custom of communal dining, which ideally should be a chance for people to come together to enjoy delicious food, good company and conversation, is so often merely the process known as eating.
A meal with others can be a communal event, a sharing of both time and space, something as old as the discovery of fire when presumably prehistoric types sat around the cave near the single heat source that was used to cook their food.
In other words, a shared meal can have meaning; a chance to strengthen bonds or perhaps get to know someone better. In this week’s prompt, possibly a hurried lunch, that meaning is lacking.
I suddenly remembered how important a meal was to one of William Shakespeare’s most unforgettable characters, Shylock.
You see, when it came to communal dining, Shylock was against it.
This was not just because the food the Christians of his city ate was different from his Jewish fare; it was because he would go only so far in his relations with them.
He is blunt about it. “I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, but I will not eat with you.”
I think it’s quite possible that Will Shakespeare never met a Jew, which is a bit odd when you realize that he created possibly the most famous Jew in all of English literature. For centuries, Jewish characters had appeared in various types of productions as villains, existing in Elizabethan England only as stereotypes and evil, mythical figures. These stereotypes were the playwright’s source for his play.
So the general understanding of that time was that Jews, first and foremost, hated all Christians, and might go to great lengths, if given the opportunity, to do harm to them.
So Shylock, though seemingly a passive man, was actually a cruel and miserly figure, and this would have fitted the usual, sereotypical view of a Jew of that era. But Shakespeare created a character who was also a devoted family man, a person of intelligence, someone even with a sense of humor – and someone who was not afraid to raise his flag against perceived enemies. Shylock was, in short, a human being whose behavior was the result of decades of cruelty by Venetian citizens. Above, Shylock with his daughter, Jessica.
As you undoubtedly know, in the play, during the famous trial sequence, Shylock is stymied when he tries to cut his pound of flesh from Antonio. The beautiful Portia, the play’s heroine, transmogrified into a lawyer, plays her ace: the contract didn't say anything about blood and it's against the law for a Christian's blood to be spilt.
As a result, because he had attempted murder, Shylock is stripped of all his wealth.
Then something interesting happens. The court, showing great magnanimity, will allow him to convert to Christianity.
No one of that time – and perhaps this was true of Shakespeare, too – seems to have realized that this great gift couldn’t have been regarded as such by Shylock.
He had lost his case, lost his fortune, even lost his daughter – who had married, to his disgrace, a Christian – and now he had nothing. He just wanted to get out of there.
“I pray you give me leave to go from hence,” he says. “I am not well.”
(By the way, I posted about Al Pacino’s “Merchant of Venice” a couple of months ago, but I thought I could refer to the play again because the character Shylock is one of Shakespeare’s most interesting, most complex and most challenging.)
1 year ago