A SENTENCE IN A LETTER TO THE EDITOR BY ACTOR HAL HOLBROOK WAS GARBLED IN SUNDAY'S ARTS SECTION. REFERRING TO SHAKESPEARE'S "MERCHANT OF VENICE," HOLBROOK WROTE THAT THE CHARACTER SHYLOCK "TAKES THE KNIFE AND COMMITS HIMSELF TO THE SIN OF SHEDDING BLOOD BY CUTTING AWAY HIS POUND OF FLESH" FROM ANTONIO. BECAUSE OF A TRANSCRIPTION ERROR, THE SENTENCE INCORRECTLY SUGGESTED THAT SHYLOCK WAS CUTTING AWAY HIS OWN FLESH. (PUBLISHED 06/23/99)
To the Editor:
I want to apologize for my remark that "in the Jewish religion there is no forgiveness," quoted at the end of an interview with me in The Washington Post Sunday Arts section on May 30 ("The Shylock Within"). I was wrong and it blows a hole through my attempt to stand up for the Jews eight times a week in the role of Shylock at the Shakespeare Theatre.
In that interview I got wound up in the heat of trying to make my point about Shylock's fury in the trial scene of "The Merchant of Venice," when he takes the knife and commits himself to the sin of shedding blood by cutting away a pound of his own flesh. I said: "He is sinning and he will never be forgiven! Because in the Jewish religion there is no forgiveness!" I must have been thinking of my furtive Calvinist background. I don't forgive myself for that.
I went on to say, referring to Portia's famous "mercy" plea: "So this sweet little speech about 'the quality of mercy' is pure hypocrisy as far as he's concerned! There is no mercy! There is only retribution!" I was in grievous error to imply that there is no mercy in the Jewish religion. It has been pointed out to me that in the Encyclopedia Judaica, 1972 edition, printed in Jerusalem, forgiveness is clearly placed at the heart of the Jewish faith. "The theme of God's forgiveness for man's sins is recurrent in Talmudic and Midrashic literature and reappears in later rabbinic writings and the synagogue liturgy."
The encyclopedia also states that "Forgiveness is granted solely by God." What I meant beneath the running tide of my passion when making this thoughtless remark is that Shylock knows that he is sinning against his God and does not expect to be forgiven for it. And when I said, "There is no mercy! There is only retribution!" I should have said, "There is no mercy to be expected." Shylock does not expect mercy to be given to him any more than he is going to give it to the Christians who have defiled and humiliated him, stolen his daughter and his wealth, plagued his people for centuries, and who now instruct him to be merciful to them. For Shylock, that is pure hypocrisy.
The encyclopedia's definition of forgiveness continues: "God's forgiveness, however extensive, only encompasses those sins which man commits directly against Him, 'Bien adam la-Makom'; those in which an injury is caused to one's fellow man, 'Bien adam le-hevaro,' are not forgiven until the injured party has himself forgiven the perpetrator." Shylock does not intend to forgive his perpetrators. ("Tell me not of mercy! My deeds upon my head! I crave the law.") On that point, at least, my mind is clear.
Once again, I apologize to Nancy Roth, whose letter appeared in your Sunday, June 13, edition, and all those who have been offended by my ignorant remarks. By taking one step forward I seem to have taken two steps back.
Letters should be sent to: Arts Editor, Style Section, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Please include daytime and nighttime phone numbers and an address. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.