Joe Biden: Shakespearean Wordsmith

Vice President Joe Biden addresses the Roosevelt Institute Honors after receiving the groups Freedom Medal, the institutes hi
Vice President Joe Biden addresses the Roosevelt Institute Honors after receiving the groups Freedom Medal, the institutes highest honor, during a dinner in Washington, Thursday, July 10, 2014. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Who knew that Joe Biden had ever studied Shakespeare?

When the vice president spoke at the Legal Services Corp. in Washington on Tuesday, he criticized "Shylocks who took advantage" of servicemen and women by giving them bad loans and foreclosing on their properties. By invoking Shylock, the villain of The Merchant of Venice, Biden trafficked in one of the most insidious stereotypes about Jews, that the people of the book are unethical money lenders.

An absent-minded bumbler, who happens to be a proverbial heart beat from the presidency, Biden is a decent and amiable fellow, who to his credit immediately apologized for his gaffe. He is an Irish-American mensch, who has supported Israel for years, who is loyal to his president and his country, and who has survived many tragedies and challenges, including surgery on his brain.

That he is not a brain surgeon is well-known.

It is not simply that Biden, hailed as a foreign policy expert, got it wrong on both Gulf Wars, voting against the first one and for the second, it is also that Biden has historically had somewhat of a problem with borrowing passages without attribution from others.

In 1988, during his first run for the presidency, Biden dropped out of the race after charges that his campaign had pilfered from the speeches of Neil Kinnock, then a Labor Party leader in Britain. Around that time, allegations also surfaced that a young Joe Biden plagiarized from someone else when he was a law student at Syracuse University.

Is it possible that Biden, in citing Shylock all these years later, was simply atoning for his past by acknowledging the Bard, the greatest writer who ever lived?

Shylock is best remembered for his hideous proclamation, "I want my pound of flesh."

Yet, to be fair to Biden, who has struggled to come up with original material, he may admire the rare eloquence accorded Shylock by Shakespeare.

In one of the most luminous speeches in The Merchant of Venice, Shylock says, "Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? ... If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?"

No one is seeking revenge against Joe Biden, the White House's equivalent of Mr. Magoo. And no one should accuse the vice president, who may run for president again in 2016, of being anti-Semitic.

Uncle Joe almost assuredly did not think before he uttered that phrase about Shylock and bad loans to our troops.

Similarly, no one should accuse Shakespeare of being anti-Semitic. Not only did the Bard grant Shylock a rare eloquence. The Bard also depicted the other Jews in the play, Tubal, Shylock's friend, and Jessica, Shylock's daughter, as reasonably positive characters.

While many laud Portia for her legal gifts in condemning Shylock, she exhibits a cruelty toward him that makes her far from the most sublime heroine in Shakespeare. One need only remember what Shakespeare famously said about members of her profession: "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."

Just as Portia does not approach the magnificence of Rosalind or Cleopatra, Shylock is far from Shakespeare's most sinister villain.

It is Iago, not Shylock, who asserts, "I am not what I am." In so doing, Iago attempts to subvert a pillar of Western civilization, the life-affirming credo of Yahweh, who states, "I am that I am."

Unlike Iago, who embodies pure evil and is an existential threat to all we hold dear, Shylock, for all his despicable behavior, is, in many respects, a victim not only of stereotyping but also a victim of his time.

And the greatest indictment of Shylock may be not that he is obsessed with money, as many merchants of all denominations are, but rather that Shylock has no ear for music, a point I have made before.

As Shakespeare wrote,

The man that hath no music in himself, nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils; the motions of his spirit are dull as night and his affections dark as Erebus. Let no such man be trusted.

I would love to know what music Joe Biden plays on his iPod. While he lacks the eloquence of Shylock, it is quite possible that our vice president has good taste in tunes. Whether he does or does not, he might consider listening to a little Cole Porter.

"Brush Up Your Shakespeare" comes to mind.