MV Dialog

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.404  Wednesday, 30 November 2016


From:        William Blanton <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         November 29, 2016 at 4:56:02 PM EST

Subject:    MV Dialog


Shylock as the Devil [cont.2]


References to Shylock as not a Jew:



Shakespeare has Shylock swear by Jacob’s staff.





Shylocke: ……………………..By Jacobs staffe I sweare






A Jacob’s staff is also called a cross-staff. It was an instrument used in surveying and navigation and had a single pole with an adjustable cross piece. John Dee introduced the Jacob’s staff in England in the 1550s.'s_staff1.htm's_staff


Image for Jacob’s Staff:





In Act 2 Scene 5, Shylock, Jessica, and Launcelet were alone in Shylock’s house — which, as we learned from Jessica, is hell. Shylock swore by an object that is shaped like a cross, something a devout Jew would not be expected to do. (Of course, one would not expect the Devil to do so either.)



References to Shylock as the Devil


Some Preliminary Guidelines


These are some of the guidelines I try to follow: 


As most of you may know, I am a retired attorney. Over the centuries the common law has developed a number of rules to guide courts and lawyers when they need to construe contracts. These rules apply even when the contract is decades old and even when the original parties who negotiated and signed the contract have died. 


I have modified some of these rules in order to fit the construction of a play instead of a contract. Shakespeare is the primary negotiator/party and his audiences are the secondary parties.


My primary focus is on the words that Shakespeare used in the play. Pay careful attention to the words!


If Shakespeare wrote it that way, he intended it that way. We cannot rewrite the play to suit our ideas or to “correct” what we think Shakespeare “must have meant”.


The goal is to ascertain the intent of the playwright as well as to ascertain how late sixteenth century London audiences would have understood the play.


Always consider the play as a whole. 


Give the words used in the play their plain, ordinary meaning circa 1596, unless it appears that Shakespeare had some specialized meaning in mind. This element can be a bit tricky given that Shakespeare often used particular words in multiple ways. For example, double entendres: a particular word can have an ordinary meaning and also have a sexual meaning. A word can have an ordinary meaning on one dimension of meaning, and have a different meaning on another dimension.


Make every effort to resolve ambiguities and apparent contradictions. Sometimes Shylock is a Jew. Sometimes he’s the Devil. We will discuss how Shakespeare resolved this apparent contradiction a little later.




Antonio refered to Shylock as the Devil.




Antonio:    Marke you this Bassanio,

                  The divell can cite Scripture for his purpose,

                  An evill soule producing holy witnesse,                                             
                  Is like a villaine with a smiling cheeke,

                  A goodly apple rotten at the heart.

                  O what a goodly outside falsehood hath!





Shylock had just concluded his Jacob and Laban story from the Book of Genesis.





“Mark you this Bassanio” also means “Pay attention audience.” Shakespeare used several techniques to alert his audiences to pay particular attention to what was being said or what was about to be said. Mark you is a particularly obvious flag, which alerted his audiences to pay attention to what Antonio was about to say. And the words thereafter refer to: Shylock as the Devil citing Scripture; Shylock as an evil soule; and Shylock as a “villaine with a smiling cheeke”. 


Shakespeare used several other techniques to achieve a similar result. I have already mentioned how he would use the same word or phrase several times within a short space of time.


Give these words their plain ordinary meaning. I realize that one can dodge the plain ordinary meaning by dismissing these words as mere hyperbole. However, there is no textual evidence to indicate that Shakespeare did not mean exactly what he had Antonio say. 


Put this quotation aside for the moment until we consider the rest of the play. If this were the only instance in which Shakespeare referred to Shylock as the Devil, we might well dismiss it as mere hyperbole.


O what a goodly outside falsehood hath! is yet another instance of the theme of appearances being deceiving. Bassanio later said, So may the outward shows be least themselves.


Tony Burton called my attention to a chapter he wrote for Who Hears in Shakespeare? edited by Laury Magnus and Walter W. Cannon. Tony’s chapter is Asides and Multiple Audiences in The Merchant of Venice. A superb chapter and an excellent book. Tony was recently named the first Life Fellow at the Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies at U. Mass, Amherst.


Another helpful chapter is by James Hirsh, entitled Guarded, Unguarded, and Unguardable Speech in Late Renaissance Drama. 


These chapters have caused me to wonder. To whom was Antonio speaking? Could Shylock hear him? Did Antonio believe what he had just said literally? The First Folio does not provide any stage directions that might answer these questions.


Antonio appeared to be speaking to Bassanio while Shylock gathered his thoughts. I believe that Antonio momentarily turned his back on Shylock to address both Bassanio and the audience. Antonio did not intend for Shylock to hear this comment, and Shylock’s next words make no reference to it.


I also believe that Antonio spoke more than he knew. He probably intended his reference to Shylock as “the divell” to be just an insult, which he did not want Shylock to overhear. As of this point, Antonio was still hoping that Shylock would loan him the money. He and Shylock had not yet begun their exchange of insults. 


Had Antonio really believed Shylock to be the Devil, he certainly would not have gone through with the loan on such barbarous terms. He had not heard Shylock’s earlier aside (I say aside; the First Folio does not identify it as such):


Jew:     I hate him for he is a Christian:

            But more, for that in low simplicity

            He lends out money gratis, and brings downe

            The rate of usance here with us in Venice.


            If I can catch him once upon the hip

            I will feede fat the ancient grudge I beare him….



Hating Antonio because he was a Christian, not just because he lent out money gratis. Intending to feede fat the ancient grudge. These words did not make much of an impression when I first read them. But after I realized that Shakespeare had written Shylock as the Devil disguised as a Jew, these words took on new significance. I could now hear the Devil in Shylock speaking them.


This is an example of Shakespeare’s brilliant artistry. He was subtly preparing his audiences to understand Shylock as the Devil while at the same time using words at the outset that they (and The Powers That Be) could understand as coming from a Jewish moneylender. Plays that too obviously dealt with serious religious or political themes might not have been approved for performance.



Bill Blanton




Romeo and Juliet: Two Questions

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.403  Wednesday, 30 November 2016


From:        Hannibal Hamlin <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         November 29, 2016 at 12:25:32 PM EST

Subject:    Re: SHAKSPER: Q_Rom


On Brian Bixley’s Romeo and Juliet questions, 


1) I think Evans is wrong in his gloss, “by the book” in this context meaning not “like an expert” but “like someone with only book learning, not experience.” See this passage from North’s Plutarch:


VVhich thing vvas ment likevvise by the Philosopher that sayd, that the hand is the instrument of skill. By reason vvhereof it comes to passe (say they) that such as speake of matters of gouernment and state, but specially of matters of vvarre by the booke, speake but as booke knights, as the Frenche prouerbe termeth them, after the manner of the Graecians, vvho call him a booke Pilot, vvhich hath not the sure and certaine knovvledge of the things that he speakes of: meaning thereby, that it is not for a man to trust to the vnderstanding vvhich he hath gotten by reading, in things that consist in the deede doing, vvhere the hand is to be set to the vvorke.


I’d add to this, though, my own feeling which is that at least Shakespeare, if not Juliet, has a very specific book in mind, namely Petrarch’s Rime sparse. They kiss, after all, while speaking a sonnet, which is about a bookish a bit of love-making as one might imagine.


2) The Zeffirelli film does seem to take the view that Tybalt kills Mercutio accidentally, since Michael York (Tybalt) seems quite shocked by what he has done. I think this is quite plausible, though there isn’t much in the text to go on, apart from Mercutio’s remark. I think it’s possible, though, that the accident was not that Tybalt was trying to run through Romeo, but Mercutio got in the way. Rather, the young toughs were up for a brawl but had no particular desire to actually kill anyone. Tybalt makes a pass that Mercutio might well have caught, but Romeo messes things up and Tybalt’s thrust hits home.


Hannibal Hamlin

Professor of English

The Ohio State University

Columbus, OH 43210-1340

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Henry 5 and Curtain

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.401  Monday, 28 November 2016


From:        Mark Alcamo <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         November 26, 2016 at 1:54:44 PM EST

Subject:    Re: SHAKSPER: Curtain


With regard to the use of “cock” in the bawdy sense, John Briggs wrote:

Unfortunately, the OED (at least in its current state of revision) does not allow a phallic interpretation of the word “cock” as early as Henry V (whatever the date of its Prologue.)


I have the utmost regard for the OED and what lexicographers (and enthusiasts) accomplished in publishing it should still be labeled “stupefying.” That said, they were still human and may not have gotten everything perfectly correct, or we may not always appreciate their rules of engagement with the language.


That said, this is the earliest OED recognition of “cock” in the bawdy sense:


1618  N. Field Amends for Ladies  i. i. sig. B4,   Oh man what art thou? when thy cock is vp? (“cock”, n.1, 20)


Looks like John could be correct by a nose given Shakespeare died in 1616. Yet, the very expression they cite was used by Shakespeare himself in this play in 2.1: “and Pistol’s flashing fiery cock is up!” (Quarto, 1600), “and Pistol’s cock is up, / And flashing fire will follow” (Folio, 1623). I only checked three editions of HV, (Taylor, Gurr, and Craig), and they all recognize the bawdy sense . . . (and, of course, performers can’t pass it up). (The word “cockpit” in the Prologue didn’t appear in print until the Folio.)


That said, I think John’s concern is one with which we should not put up (i.e.) not an obstacle to my observation. And the root cause for my comment all along was that, not only is the play ironic, but Shakespeare makes it a lot of fun when we recognize it as such and engage it as such.


While any number of objections might be raised to dismiss the subversive and ironic understanding of HV, my experience in closely studying the play endorses the Wayne Booth’s observation about ironic works, “I spend a good deal of my professional life deploring ‘polar’ thinking, reductive dichotomies, either-or disjunctions. And here I find myself saying that only in strict polar decisions can one kind of reading [ironic] be properly performed.” (A Rhetoric of Irony, 128)


But returning to my original post, let’s pretend he never used the word “cockpit” to describe the venue where they would be staging this great celebratory war play, are there objections to noting he has Fluellen and Williams with gloves in their hats (not mimicking roosters), but Queen Elizabeth’s champion, the third Earl of Cumberland? (Knowing how the nobility felt about the players representing their betters on stage.)


Best regards,

Mark Alcamo




Amherst College: NEH Summer Seminar for School Teachers K-12

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.402  Wednesday, 30 November 2016


From:        Megan Estes <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         November 28, 2016 at 2:33:59 PM EST

Subject:    Amherst College: NEH Summer Seminar for School Teachers K-12


Dear Educators,


You are invited to apply to Amherst College’s National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar named Punishment, Politics and Culture for K-12 teachers and current full-time graduate students who intend to pursue a career in K-12 teaching.


The Seminar will be held July 2-July 28, 2017. A stipend will be provided to each Seminar Scholar.


This seminar will be directed by Amherst College Professor Austin Sarat of the Departments of Political Science and Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought.  It will examine three questions:  What is punishment and why do we punish as we do?   What can we learn about politics, law, and culture in the United States from an examination of our practices of punishment?  What are the appropriate limits of punishment?  


The application deadline is March 1, 2017.  Information is available at  If you have any questions regarding the seminar or the application process, contact Megan Estes at (413)542-2380 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


On facebook at


*Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.*


Megan L. Estes Ryan

Academic Coordinator

Law, Jurisprudence & Social Thought

Amherst College

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 





Romeo and Juliet: Two Questions

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.400  Monday, 28 November 2016


From:        Brian Bixley <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         November 28, 2016 at 12:06:53 PM EST

Subject:    Romeo and Juliet: Two Questions


One, somewhat trivial, a second, perhaps less so.


1. At the end of the sonnet sequence in 1.5., Juliet says to Romeo, ‘You kiss by th’book.


In the NCS edition, the editor (G. Blakemore Evans) provides a footnote: like an expert (as if following the rules of gallantry). So is Juliet complimenting Romeo (‘like an expert’) or teasingly reproaching him (‘following the rules’)?


When we say of someone - an administrator, say - that ‘she does it by the book,’ we are typically being complimentary. To say of someone - now, in 2016 - that ‘he kisses by the book’ might be said wryly, perhaps lovingly, but it would not be an out-and-out compliment. Was this second sense in use in the 1590’s?


2. In the late Michael Flachmann’s Shakespeare in Performance there is ‘an actor discussion’ about a performance of R & J at the 2005 Utah Shakespeare Festival. In the course of that discussion, the actor who played Mercutio says, ‘Imagine if there were no Mercutio in the script and therefore no one for Tybalt to kill accidentally,’ and, ‘When Romeo steps in to part the fighters, Tybalt accidentally kills Mercutio.’


Perhaps the actor was simply careless in his language, though the second sentence in particular has a definiteness about it that is perhaps absent from the first. ‘Accidentally’ has the appearance of ‘not intentionally.’ Is it possible to imagine that Tybalt does in fact kill Mercutio accidentally, that e.g., in trying to avoid hitting Romeo who has stepped between them, Tybalt hits and kills Mercutio instead?


Can a case be made for such a reading? One argument in its favour is the character of Tybalt. He is, no doubt, a fiesty killer but he is also a man of honour who seems most unlikely to kill Mercutio sneakily. Were he dishonourable, he could easily have killed Romeo, his true enemy, when Romeo intervened. And when Tybalt returns, after the killing, his only words to Romeo, ‘Thou wretched boy, that didst consort him here, shalt with him hence,’ might well be seen as blaming Romeo for Mercutio’s death. 


If Tybalt’s killing of Mercutio is ‘accidental’, then Romeo’s response, his need for vengeance, becomes less a question of honour, of indebtedness to a beloved friend, but more a compensation for the guilt he might feel at being the cause of Mercutio’s death. Doubtless both motives play a part in Romeo’s actions, but his actions fit less easily into ‘the rules of gallantry.’


Brian Bixley

Lilactree Farm,





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