February 2023: A comment on the October poem: “Portia”

Dear readers of my blog,

as promised in the postscript of my January post, I want to go and show you at greater length what was triggered by quite a cryptic remark in an otherwise practically-minded e-mail on this year’s calendar. While October is as yet far away, I want to move on and present you the results of my research as soon as possible after having stated in January the case of neglected anti-Semitism as exemplified by “Portia”. For, clearly, once this is done I also need to go one step further and publish my findings on the stereotypically anti-Semitic passages in some chapters of The Picture of Dorian Gray as well as what various translators in different languages, mostly German, and some French and Italian, have done about them in their different versions over the last century or so.

So here is one of Wilde’s occasional sonnets, dedicated to the actress Ellen Terry and first published in the World on 14 January 1880, later collected in his Poems in 1881 and anthologized ever since and also twice chosen by myself for an Oscar Wilde Calendar, the first for 2015 and this year’s edition for 2023.

In English, it did not strike me as particularly unconventional in the way the lyrical I addressed the actress impersonating the part of Portia. You might not know the plot of the play. Here it is in brief:

The young heiress named Portia, who has just lost her father who made sure she marries the right and proper person by establishing a game in which the happy winner chooses the right casket, is engaged to be married to Bassanio, the Venetian, who in order to be able to marry her asks his friend Antonio, the Merchant of the title of the play, for help.

Antonio, however, is in a tight corner financially speaking and binds himself to Shylock, the Jewish moneylender. When Antonio fails to pay, Shylock challenges him in court for the pound of flesh stipulated in the contract. This is when Portia appears in court, clad in men’s clothes, to take up Antonio’s apparently lost cause.

Like the plot of the play, the sonnet has two parts. In the octave, as in the Belmont part of the play, love and a beautiful woman reign supreme. In the sestet, as in the Venice part of the play, Shylock and Antonio, who for different reasons are excluded from the happiness of the beautiful mount, which is what Belmont means in plain English, and their bond take over.

I liked the idea of including such occasional poems in a calendar since they seem to provide a glimpse of  the literary life as led by the young Oscar Wilde. Now, read for yourselves:



I marvel not Bassanio was so bold

To peril all he had upon the lead,

Or that proud Aragon bent low his head,

Or that Morocco’s fiery heart grew cold:

For in that gorgeous dress of beaten gold

Which is more golden than the golden sun,

No woman Veronesé looked upon

Was half so fair as Thou whom I behold.

Yet fairer when with wisdom as your shield

The sober-suited lawyer’s gown you donned

And would not let the laws of Venice yield

Antonio’s heart to that accursèd Jew –

O Portia! take my heart: it is thy due:

I think I will not quarrel with the Bond.



With hindsight, Wilde the poet, like Wilde the novelist, is so much part of the anti-Semitic literary tradition he grew up with in England and Ireland that the phrase “that accurséd Jew” (l. 12 of “Portia”) does not strike him as a slip of the pen.

His formal education is more English than Irish, while informally it is his parents who provide him with his Irish cultural background. I would need to cover more ground than I could in this note to link this kind of anti-Semitism to either Irish or English sources.

Later, Wilde does not revise this passage, nor do the editors of the critical edition provide an explanatory note.

Clearly, everyone has taken this adjective for granted, not doubting for a moment that Wilde, I assume, like so many of his predecessors, only spoke of Shylock, not named in this sonnet, as an individual who happened to be Jewish.

In fact, like so many others before and after him, Wilde made sure that Shylock’s Jewishness was the only thing one remembers after reading this poem. To make matters worse, he literally chose a condemning epithet.

Having selected this poem for the calendar for 2023 in the first place, I ought to have spotted the passage. I did not, for it was only after the calendar had been printed that I realized how Wilde the novelist had similarly dealt with the theatre director in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Following a hint in a German scholar’s book on century-old anti-Semitic stereotypes, I had spent a hot August week-end in 2022 studying all my English and German editions of the novel with respect to that issue (Schwarz-Friesel, Toxische Sprache und geistige Gewalt, 2022, p. 67; p. 206). So I knew what I was in for when a friend expressed his misgivings about “Portia” in an e-mail in December after receiving the calendar. I would have to right the wrong, and the only thing I could do was to compose this note for the record.

I did, though, look at another translation I found on my shelves where “that accurséd Jew” is rendered by “Dem tück’schen Juden”, meaning that he is full of ruses and other negative qualities that mark the person thus termed with evil or, worse still, evil intentions. (Der Deutsche Wortschatz von 1600 bis heute [DWDS], accessed: 6 January 2023) Neither my French Selected Works edition published in the Pléiade series nor a recent Swiss anthology of Wilde poems includes “Portia”. Usually, nobody comments in such cases on the works discarded before publication.

The other translation available is by Gisela Etzel (1880-1918; German National Library online catalogue; accessed 6 January 2023). It differs from the current one only by the fact that the adjective “tückisch” used there is considered to be part of the elaborate code. (DWDS)

So the translation in this year’s calendar produced by Günter Plessow (born in 1934) has “dem abgefeimten Juden” for “that accurséd Jew”, which, if possible, is even worse since the adjective connotes not only ruses but the fact that the person thus termed is a crook or a liar or a trickster in business. These are but some examples from a long list of potential denotations of the term, thus making sure that anybody who associates negative attitudes with the term “Jew” will find their prejudices confirmed. (DWDS)

The English word “accurséd”, however, according to the SOED clearly connotes a Christian meaning, so that Wilde’s anti-Semitic point is informed by the century-old Christian anti-Judaism educated people grew up with in Catholic and Protestant German parishes and families until very recently.

This is bad enough on the one hand since I had had no second thoughts about rendering “accurséd” by “verflucht”, which was only logical for me after having grown up in a mixed family of Catholic and Protestant branches. This might not be challenging these days, but it was in the 1970s. And it obliged me to undergo decades of thorough self-education in matters sacred and profane.

On the other hand, the two translations into German I have so far checked are, indeed, more harmful for the readership than the original could ever be. This is because they contain a generalization of the anti-Judaic point of the original. This means that their authors do not or no longer share the Christian anti-Judaism since they may not share the Christian language any more.

As the translators are, however, part of a German culture informed by wide-spread anti-Semitic terms following such outbursts in the 1870s and 1880s, they simply reproduce the toxic language(s) of their time and idiolect(s), unless they are willing to comment on their choice of words.

For Gisela Etzel, there was neither the need nor the chance to do so. In a German Gutenberg edition of the Poems (accessed 6 January 2023), she is unmentioned as a translator of Wilde poems, while, according to the index of that edition, “Portia” was not rendered by Otto Hauser (1876-1944). (German National Library online catalogue; accessed 6 January 2023; this is the result of a confusing bibliographic note at the end of the most recently published German edition of the poems.)

Born after the Shoah, however, I do not feel free only to ask the readers to think for themselves, as the translator of this year’s calendar does. We have agreed to disagree here. Also, I think that the balance of consensus and dissent needs to be redressed not only but particularly in what is called the majority of a society, learning from a minority such as the Jews (cf. Konsens. Dissens). At the same time, I also do not whitewash myself by blaming myself for not having seen the point earlier. In fact, I cannot do so, for I needed to be reminded of the problem as such, which is part of The Merchant of Venice, too.

It goes without saying that I also consulted Wilde biographies, looking in vain for the term “anti-Semitism” in their indices, while finding some references to dedicatee Ellen Terry (1847-1928). Important, though she is for Wilde’s social life, she is not covered anywhere as the actress who played Portia in the production seen by Wilde.

In the Complete Letters, though, there is a footnote saying that the production of The Merchant of Venice enjoyed a successful run, for Wilde “was a guest at the Lyceum banquet celebrating the hundredth performance on 14th February” 1880 (p. 85). So it would be worth one’s while to do some further research on this production: the distribution of parts, the reviews etc. in order to find out in which particular context Wilde wrote the sonnet (ibid.).

Since The Merchant of Venice is a problem play about Christian grace, which is also what Portia’s speech in court in Act Four deals with, it is only a conventional reading for the time when Wilde wrote to call Shylock “that accurséd Jew” who shall not enjoy God’s grace unless he converts.

Incidentally, in his essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1891), Wilde, as was his wont at other moments as well, only alluded to the play in a context couched in purely economic terms:

“An enormously wealthy merchant may be – often is – at every moment of his life at the mercy of things that are not under his control. If the wind blows an extra point or so, or the weather suddenly changes, or some trivial thing happens, his ship may go down, his speculations may go wrong, and he finds himself a poor man, with his social position quite gone.” (p. 26)

The situation described is very close to a summing-up of the case of Antonio minus the moral, religious, and anti-Semitic implications of the play’s plot. All these points, if mentioned, would have proved much more difficult for Wilde than either the phrase in his poem “Portia” or his anti-Semitic stereotypes from the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, the book version of which was out soon after the publication of the essay in its review version.

Interestingly, as a German scholar noted recently following Horst Meller, the very character who addresses Shylock in the court scene as “thou damned, inexecrable dog” (IV.1.128), using the same language later echoed by Wilde, bears a telling name: “Gratiano – gratia, grace, mercy” (Szczekalla, Shakespeare als skeptischer Europäer, 2021, p. 78).

Unlike Wilde and his translators, however, Gratiano talks to Shylock directly, not just about him. This is why his attack may be more violent for being personal on the one hand. On the other hand, it is less toxic, even though for a faithful Jew dogs are “impure” animals and as such should not be drawn or painted (oral communication by Georg Murra-Regner). In a stage-play, everybody will be able to identify the attacker.

Conversely, anyone who attacks someone for their Jewishness in the abstract, directly or even on the Internet, mostly anonymously on the aggressor’s part, that is, perpetuates the toxic effect of that language in people’s mindsets.

Consequently, it is for the record that I want both readings – the one chosen by the translator – and the one that faithfully renders Wilde’s word while being framed by this comment to be present in the readers’ minds. This procedure is required for the simple reason that translators often disappear behind their authors or are, more often still, forgotten or at least neglected, so that their language tends to be anonymized as well – entering the general discourse free for use and abuse by anybody who would like to do so.

Having published my first book dedicated to “James Joyce’s Own Image” in 1993 by studying Joyce’s use of terms like “image, imagination, imagine”, I have always kept in mind that it is not only in works of literature that it is worth one’s while to keep track of who says what in which terms and in which context. Indeed, it is helpful to apply this method to non-fictional and oral discourse as well and thus uncover, if possible, the sources of toxic language in any person’s way of speaking.

Personally, even after all these reflections and consultations of various works of reference and other sources, I would still translate “accurséd” word for word by “verflucht”, since this is by far the only German term that connotes the Christian animus that is behind Wilde’s choice of words.

I was no longer conscious of having translated the poem myself for the 2015 calendar. So I was somewhat surprised to see that I had done so in my own version:



I marvel not Bassanio was so bold

To peril all he had upon the lead,

Or that proud Aragon bent low his head,

Or that Morocco’s fiery heart grew cold:

For in that gorgeous dress of beaten gold

Which is more golden than the golden sun,

No woman Veronesé looked upon

Was half so fair as Thou whom I behold.

Yet fairer when with wisdom as your shield

The sober-suited lawyer’s gown you donned

And would not let the laws of Venice yield

Antonio’s heart to that accursèd Jew –

O Portia! take my heart: it is thy due:

I think I will not quarrel with the Bond.



Ich staune nicht, daß Bassanio so kühn war

All sein Hab und Gut auf Blei zu setzen

Oder ob des stolzen Aragons Furcht und Entsetzen

Oder daß Marokkos Feuerherz erkaltet war:

Denn in jenem fabulösen Blattgoldkleid

Mehr gülden denn die güldene Sonne

Hatte keine die Veronese je erblickt voll Wonne

Die Hälfte deiner mir sichtbaren Schönheit.

Doch schöner wenn hinter der Weisheit Schild als Kragen

Die nüchterne Anwaltsrobe du anlegtest

Und die Gesetze Venedigs so auslegtest

Daß sie Antonios Herz dem verfluchten Juden versagen –

Oh Portia! nimm mein Herz: es sei dein Lohn:

Wohl werde ich tragen der Bürgschaft Fron.

(1880; translation JWR, 2014, revised 2023)


As a result, it is important to note that undeniably there are anti-Semitic stereotypes in Wilde’s works both in verse and in prose. Nor can we avoid translating them if we want to keep the works intact. What we should do, however, is try and find – as in all other contexts – the proper word as well as register to render such stereotypes before they enter another language and another culture.

In the first place, this is what any scholar should do.

Secondly, it is here that scholarly work also assumes political importance.

Third, the politics of translation in a work of literature are as essential as the correct translation of the words used by politicians.

Certainly, this method of explaining difficult translation problems is easier on a website or in a book as a work in progress, where there is space to explain, than in a calendar printed and bound, which, by definition, is an aesthetic product where space is scarce. Yet it needs to be done since anti-Semitism is not a thing of the past but a virus infecting many societies, cultures, and languages today.

And, as announced at the beginning of this post, I shall continue to pursue this matter this year, both in a more contemporary and German context and with reference to Oscar Wilde.

All best wishes,

Jörg W. Rademacher



Ginzburg, Carlo and Davin, Anna: “Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method”. History Workshop No. 9 (Spring, 1980), pp. 5-36 (32 pages). Published by: Oxford University Press. (I did read the German translation of this article originally written in Italian for my own research in 1990 [see below] but failed to appreciate until very recently how to apply its thesis about looking for clues in medicine, in art history, the psyche, and crimes to works of music or literature or even the way actors act in a play or film. I am indebted to a very gifted student of mine for having alerted my attention again to Ginzburg’s ingenious article.)

Konsens. Dissens. Jüdischer Almanach der Leo Baeck Institute. Edited by Gisela Dachs for the Leo Baeck Institute Jerusalem. Berlin: Jüdischer Verlag, 2022.

Rademacher, Jörg W.: James Joyces Own Image. Über die allmähliche Verfertigung der Begriffe image und imagination beim Schreiben in A Portrait und Ulysses. Münster: Waxmann, 1993.

Schwarz-Friesel,  Monika: Toxische Sprache und geistige Gewalt. Wie judenfeindliche Denk- und Gefühlsmuster seit Jahrhunderten unsere Kommunikation prägen. Tübingen: Narr Francke Attempto, 2022.

Shakespeare, William: The Merchant of Venice. Edited by M. M. Mahood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993 (1987).

Sturgis, Matthew: Oscar. A Life. London: Apollo 2019 (2018).

Szczekalla, Michael: Shakespeare als skeptischer Europäer. Darmstadt: WBG academic, 2021. (Also available as an openaccess edition online)

Wilde, Oscar: Complete Letters. Edited by Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis. London: Fourth Estate, 2000.

Wilde, Oscar: Die Sphinx. Gedichte. Zweisprachige Ausgabe. New translation by Otto Höschle. Basel: IL-Verlag, 2015.

Wilde, Oscar: Gedichte. Edited by Norbert Kohl. Frankfurt am Main: Insel 1992 (1982) .

Wilde, Oscar: Œuvres. Edited by Jean Gattégno. Paris: Gallimard 2001 (1996).

Wilde, Oscar: Poems and Poems in Prose. Edited by Bobby Fong and Karl Beckson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Wilde, Oscar: The Soul of Man Under Socialism. Edited by Jörg W. Rademacher with a postface by Michael Szczekalla. Coesfeld: Elsinor, 2021. (Editorial matter based on the German edition, first published in 2019, second revised edition in 2021.)


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