Friday, July 13, 2012

Bard of Bigotry of Merciful Muse: Comments on Shakespear's Portrayal of Shylock and Othello

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Clint Alexander

English 640

Dr. Boyd

livepaperhelp.com



11 December 000

Bard of Bigotry or Merciful Muse

Comments on Shakespeare’s Portrayal of Shylock and Othello

Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad and William Shakespeare have all been branded racist at one time or another. In all the above cases, the accuser has failed to read deeply into the text and discover the authors’ true intent. An author is affected by his society and invariably constructs stories which reflect the prevailing attitudes of his time so cannot be branded for a thing which he merely transcribes; authors are often simply mirrors to our world. Do we blame the mirror for reflecting a displeasing visage? Some do, and those people not only earn seven years of trouble, but reveal themselves to be mentally unreflective and possessors of hair-trigger sensibilities. Chinua Achebe and Spike Lee are two who misread their respective targets by instilling in them racist attitudes that, under closer scrutiny, disappear into the text and become something else- tolerance and understanding.

A brief mention of the program of racial cleansing which dominated this century will post stark evidence of the extremes with which Shakespeare’s work have been applied. The entire nation of Germany, prior to World War I, embarked on a literary crusade of deadly eugenics. Gerwin Strobl, in “The Bard of Eugenics Shakespeare and Racial Activism in the Third Reich,” shows us that the Nazis used Shakespeare’s plays to justify their program of racial euthanasia. Hans T.K. Gunther, an influential academic figure in 10s Germany and member of the German Shakespeare society, presented a paper to the annual meeting of the society in 17. Titled “Maidens and Matrons in Shakespeare A Practical Perspective,” the paper attempted to

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connect Shakespeare to eugenic attitudes “Gunther’s address was not merely distasteful, it was in insult to the Society’s intellectual tradition, and the individual scholarship of its members”(Strobl 7). We see in genocidal relief the ways in which Shakespeare can and has been interpreted over the years. It is important to note, however, that the German scholars vehemently disagreed with Gunther but were unable to effect any change once the Nazi machine began to roll. While this extreme example shows how Shakespeare can be interpreted by persons willing to forgo reason in an attempt to justify a belief already solidified in their minds, the attitudes in Renaissance England were equally strong, albeit without the accompanying slaughter. I will attempt to show in this essay that Shakespeare was merely representing the prevailing cultural attitudes of racism in England in order to popularize his plays, and that he inscribed within the texts clues with which a careful reader may discern benevolent attitudes towards the Other; we will begin our investigation by revealing the consequences and sources which grew out of and shaped the racial stereotypes of Elizabethan England.

The racist attitudes of Nazism were not a historically isolated event but one which was merely the culmination of a thousand years of anti-Semitism. In our nation today, there is more prejudice directed towards Blacks than there is towards Jews; Elizabethan England was just the opposite. Years of discrimination had preceded Shakespeare and continued long after he was gone. In 10 King Edward I officially expelled the Jewish population from England and were not allowed to reenter until 1656(Meyers ). The two bricks that form the foundation for the especially vehement attitude toward Jews seems to concern Jesus and the absence of a homeland. For Christians, Jews are the people who tortured and killed Jesus, the son of god. While this act may have been preordained, the Jews were responsible for his death. Reflect on this a moment; nowhere in recent history has a human or a group of humans been directly responsible for the death of what is essentially a god. With Jesus being the epitome of goodness, following logic, we

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conclude that his killers must be evil; this leap of logic was, in medieval times, not very strenuous Hyam Maccoby wrote, “Many Chrisitans came to believe Jews had cloven feet and a tail, and that they suffered from an innate bad smell and from diseases of the blood, for which they sought remedies in vampirism”(qtd. in Meyers ).

The fact that Jews had no permanent homeland in which to congregate also added to feelings of anxiety from their host nations. First, history has shown that what is weak often comes to be actively despised. The reason for this, in the case of the Jews, is that they had no military strength to shadow them in their travels to distant lands. Without at least the vague possibility of war with this hypothetical Jewish army, countries and individuals could treat Jews in any manner that they wished. Second, without their own country, Jews were constantly under the suspicion that they would actively seek to supplant the indigenous culture in favor of their own. That many of the Jews were wealthy gave these ideas of revolution at least a small portion of plausibility. Keep in mind also that if a people had the power and inclination to kill a god, the possibilities for mayhem were endless.

In 115 the Fourth Lateran Council of the Roman Catholic church, called by Pope Innocent III, proclaimed an official policy which ordered all Jews to wear distinctive badges. In cities throughout Europe they were forced to live in special areas, called ghettos, and were not permitted to move around freely. During the 1th and 14th centuries several European monarchs confiscated Jewish property and expelled the owners. The Black Death that swept Europe in the 14th century was, by many, blamed on the Jews; “massacres of Jews were common throughout Europe on the charge that Jews had caused the plague by poisoning Christian wells”(Encarta). King Charles VI of France followed Edward’s example in 14 and expelled the Jews from his country; Spain in 14 and Portugal in 147, completed the expulsion of the Jews from western Europe.

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By Elizabeth’s time England contained a small number of Jews who had ostensibly converted the Christianity. “In many cases, such conversions were merely outward; a class of converts called Marranos (Spanish for “swine”) arose, professing Roman Catholocism but adhering to Judaism in secret”(Encarta). It is doubtful that Shakespeare, or any of his contemporaries, had ever encountered a practicing Jew on English soil(Greenblat ), so the stereotypes were free to propagate in the absence of contradictory information. One event examined in detail by William Meyers in his article titled “Shakespeare, Shylock, and the Jews,” that solidified antisemitism was the case of Elizabeth’s doctor Roderigo Lopez. Lopez was one of the converted Jews and was accused of attempting to poison Elizabeth. The facts, Meyers, points out, are murky on whether or not the doctor was guilty of the crime for many political intrigues were at work at the time. Regardless of his actual guilt, he was hanged on June 7, 154 just in time for the triumphant return of Marlowes ‘s Jew of Malta.

The Merchant of Venice written two years later was Shakespeare’s attempt to cash in on the anti-Jewish sentiments raging throughout England. The question, however, is whether or not Shakespeare was sympathetic to Jews. Shylock is in only five scenes of the play and does nothing criminal; however, the demand for a pound of flesh from Antonio serves to erect the Jew as a monster. This was Shakespeare intent but, beneath the surface, I assert, the playwright was sympathetic to the plight of the Jews and this shows through in multiple ways. The oft-cited “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech is the most obvious example. Meyers, in his article, believes it to not be as favorable to Shylock as most assume. When “he makes that speech he is in fact talking to two of the least significant characters in the play, the instantly forgettable Salarino and Salanio that is, nobodies”(4). Meyers contends that if Shylock would have been speaking to one of the more prominent characters, the speech would have been more consequential. He also points to the use of prose rather than poetry as another indication of the possible comic use

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Shakespeare put the speech to. While the above may be true, I think on a deeper level Shakespeare was attempting to cast the Other in a more human light than that class was accustomed to. That he speaks in prose tips the reader off to the commonness with which Shakespeare was attempting to veil the Jew in order to, in an indirect way, make Shylock more like the masses and dispel some of the supernatural that had surrounded the race in general.

The basic conflict stems from the religious differences between Christians and Jews. Christians have long struggled with the fact that half of their religion, the Old Testament, descends directly from Jewish faith. The difference between the two, however, is immense. The Old Testament depicts a vengeful God who rights wrongs by visiting the same on the perpetrator that he delivered on his victim an eye for an eye. The New Testament, in contrast, is based around themes of forgiveness and love turn the other cheek. The irony in this play is that while the Christians may consciously abhor the Old Testament’s violence and adhere to Christ’s example, they actually engage continually in vengeful acts. Antonio is accused by Shylock-admittedly an unreliable witness yet none dispute his allegations of anti-Christian racist activities

He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies, and what’s his reason?- I am a Jew.

(.1.46-)

As depicted in all of the revenge plays, Christians are constantly revenging wrongs, fictitious or real. In The Merchant of Venice, the Jewish vengeful deed is not even carried out; what is, however, is the revenge enacted upon Shylock by the Christians. They take half his money, supposedly a Jew’s most prized possession, and force his conversion. So while Shakespeare was, for the sake of his public, reviling Jews in this play, he was, in effect, holding up the hypocrisy

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prevalent in his society in regards to non-Englanders Hamlet was right to revenge the supposed murder of his father but Shylock is hated for seeking the same.

Owing to the sentiments of the time, the common audience most likely only saw Shylock harboring and enacting racist thoughts; however, the other Venetians were guilty of the same. Antonio admits to Shylock that he has spit on him and spurned him(1..15-6). Salanio, after hearing Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech observes Tubal, another Jew, approaching and says derisively, “Here comes another of the tribe. A third cannot be matched unless the devil himself turn Jew”(.1.65-5). This comment suggests that not only are Jews evil, they are more evil than the devil in that the devil would have to sink lower to achieve Jewishness. Portia also demonstrates her prejudice when commenting on the failure of the tawny Morocco to win her hand “A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go./ Let all of his complexion choose me so”(.8.78-). Then again, she rejoins the Jew bashing when she arrives at court in the guise of Balthasar and says, “Which is the merchant here, and which is the Jew?”(4.1.16). Both Antonio and Shylock are merchants so her implication here is that while Antonio’s identity can be equated with his profession, Shylock cannot escape his heritage, for in the eyes of Christians, he is simply and forever a Jew.

This type of prejudice can be seen at work in today’s society when someone seeks to describe a someone else. If the person being described is black, they are first identified by color then other characteristics follow; if describing a Caucasian, that same person will list other characteristics(fat, blond hair, etc.) and then as an afterthought, if even then, mention skin color. Shylock’s revenge is less a matter of racism than it is personal; the revenge enacted by the Christians is most decidedly settled on in terms of his race. Shylock wishes to retaliate for abuses inflicted upon him because of his race, regardless of the lineage of Antonio. So, in effect, Shylock’s revenge is the purer of the two and actually has more merit. Antonio treated the Jew

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badly due to his religion; Portia, and the other Christians, punished Shylock for a crime he had not even consummated.

Shylock’s attitude towards his daughter has also allowed many the interpretive license to reinforce the image of monster. It is reported by Salanio, who we know dislikes Shylock, that following the disappearance of Jessica, Shylock shouts

‘My daughter! O, my ducats! O, my daughter!

Fled with a Christian! O, my Christian ducats!

Justice! The law! My ducats and my daughter!

A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats,

Of double ducats, stol’n from me by my daughter!

And jewels, two stones, two rich and precious stones,

Stol’n by my daughter! Justice! Find the girl!

She hath the stones upon her, and the ducats!’

(..15-)

Salerio reports that all the Venetian boys follow him and cry, “’His stones, his daughter, and his ducats!’”(..4). While the sources of this information is suspect, if true, really says nothing negative about Shylock. Any of the Christians would have been just as distraught at the theft of a portion of their fortune. In fact, one of the stolen items was the ring Shylock received from his dead wife before they were married; he says, “I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor./ I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys”(..101-). His sentimental attachment for the ring goes counter to what the other Christians portray him as and is further evidence for my contention that Shakespeare, while appealing to the general attitude of his centrist audience, instilled pockets of humanity in the Jew. An argument against this view may be raised by citing the comments Shylock makes shortly before about wishing his daughter dead before him with

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the stones in her ears. I would argue that his outburst is just a way to vent his anger and in no way points to his actually wishing it to come true. Look to the pound of flesh that he never exacted from Antonio and we see another dastardly deed promised but unfulfilled, not because he did not have the opportunity, but because he really did not wish to complete the act.

With Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock, today’s audience is afforded a glimpse of the cultural sentiments prevalent in his time. Like all good authors striving for success, he chose topics and depicted characters in a manner which suited the prevailing emotional tide. Shakespeare was a master at producing plays which would appeal to the masses; however, he was also cognizant of the true nature of things and attempted, in his plays, to show that truth to his wider audience. That most did not understand due to being blinded by appearances, is no ones fault but the playgoer and the reader. In Othello we see an even more subtle portrayal of the Other and with it, a more subtle commentary on Elizabethan life.

English colonialism in the 16th century brought an ever-expanding view of the world home. In 146 John Cabot, a Venetian living in Bristol, discovered Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the glove in 157 while a few years later, Thomas Cavendish did the same(Greenblatt ). “Sir Martin Frobisher explored bleak Baffin Island in search of a Northwest Passage to the Orient; Sir John Davis explored the west coast of Greenland and discovered the Falkland Islands off the coast of Argentina; Sir Walter Ralegh ventured up the Orinoco Delta, in what is now Venezuela, in search of the mythical land of El Dorado”(Greenblatt ). This explosion of exploration, coupled with subjugation of the people and land discovered, promoted a sense of superiority and even a little fear. The fear was that by expanding into these “barbarous” lands and returning with its goods and people, English culture was put into jeopardy.



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West Africans had been introduced to London in 156 and while their exact numbers are uncertain, their population had been growing(Aubrey ). So, even if the sight of a black person on the streets of London was no longer strange by Shakespeare’s time, the sight of one on stage was still enough to spark, if nothing else, curiosity. In fact, in 1601, Queen Elizabeth issued a royal proclamation authorizing the “transportation to Spain or Portugal of any ‘Negroes and blackamoors… within the realm of England’”(Aubrey 7). That the proclamation does not authorize the use of force to expel the blacks suggests that Elizabeth was merely responding to the unrest she discerned in her subjects regarding the burden their presence placed on a stagnant economy as well as their non-Christian nature. The last was probably the most important due to the religious anxieties the country had been suffering under since their break with the Catholic church and Elizabeth’s excommunication. England was a country fully aware of their newfound religious standing and strained to protect it at all cost.

Emily C. Bartels, in her essay “Making More of the Moor Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashioning of Race,” points out that “While blackness and Mohammedism were stereotyped as evil, Renaissance representation or the Moor were vague, varied, inconsistent, and contradictory”(44). The term “Moor” came to be assigned to a wide range of Africans and even applied indiscriminately to Indians and the whole Moslem community. The confusion grew out of the navigational tomes circulating in England at the time; the two most prominent being Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations(158) and John Leo Africanus’s A Geographical Historie of Aftica(translated into English in 1600 by John Pory). Hakluyt contributed to this ambiguity when he described “’cruel Moores” of one account, who detained Europeans ‘in miserable servitude,’ and the two ‘noble’ Moors of another account, one ‘of the Kings blood,’ who were themselves taken to England”(Bartels 44).

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John Leo Africanus was born in the Spanish colony of Grenada and raised a Moslem before being converted to Christianity in Rome-actually being baptized by pope Leo X himself(Bartels 47). He professed to portray Africans in a fine a way as possible; however, his account is as full of contradictions as is Hakluyt’s. “Africanus describes Barbary… as ‘the most noble an worthie region of all Africa’ and its inhabitants as a ‘most honest people’” but then goes on to describe the other African groups as barbarians and addicted to vice”(Bartels 47). Africanus’ text is further confused by Pory’s translation. Pory concentrated on Africanus’ accounts that magnified the Otherness of African people and in his introduction and conclusion, Pory makes it “clear his anti-Moslem bias and the use of the text as anti-Moslem propaganda”(Bartels 48). That these two works gained the popularity that they did testifies to the prevailing fears present in England concerning the undesirable influences the Other can bring.

Othello reflects this ambiguous rendering of the Moor in that it disrupts the “expected representations of race”(Smith 178). We have a black Moor in command of an army while we see a Christian inciting jealousy and murder. While it is Othello who actually commits the murder, it is Iago who orchestrates the deed. I believe that Shakespeare consciously chose this representation, as he did with The Merchant of Venice, to draw an audience while at the same time, and often without them realizing, expand their experience to include the Other as just different shades of themselves.

Othello is a character imbued with all the noble characteristics normally(for Elizabethans) associated with the noble Christian hero. Even so, racist comments circulate throughout the play, all directed to the Moor. Iago is the most prominent and malicious racist in the play, but they all show evidence that Othello’s color is his defining trait. When the Duke closes the dispute over the love between Othello and Desdemona he says, “If virtue no delighted

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beauty lack,/ Your son-in-law is far more fair than black”(1..88-). The Duke, dependent on the martial skills of Othello, cannot escape the blackness of his skin. While the Duke may respect Othello, we get a sense that he is simply using the Moor for the good of the state. This does not mean that the Duke is racist, for if he was he would not have a Moor as his general; what this does show, however, is the hypocrisy which often accompanies seemingly altruistic acts.

Hypocrisy is also seen in Desdemona’s father, Brabanzio. He had often invited Othello to his home to share stories of his adventures. However, this friendship ends when Iago informs him of his daughter’s secret actions. Whatever Brabanzio may cite to explain his anger, it seems that he is more concerned with the disobedience of his daughter than with her choice of mates

O heaven, how she got out? O, treason of the blood!

Fathers, from hence trust not your daughters’ minds

By what you see them act. Is there not charms

By which the property of youth and maidhood

May be abused? Have you not read, Roderigo,

Of some such thing?

(1..170-4)

Roderigo encourages Brabanzio’s idea that his daughter was ensorcelled and from here on his anger is transferred to Othello; so the hypocrisy is formed but not for the reason’s we would initially have expected. Brabanzio is not immediately angry at her choice, just that her choice was not his choice. Through the racist nature of Roderigo-fed by Iago- Brabanzio becomes just another tool in the racist machinery.

Iago functions as the foil to the nobleness of Othello. While he may use racism as the driving force behind his accusations and consistent with the multiple undercurrents Shakespeare instilled, Iago actually has other motives in mind. Ian Smith, in “Barbarian Errors Performing

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Race in Early Modern England,” suggest several possibilities “a)Is it the job promotion? b)Does he really believe that Othello has been sexually involved with his wife? c) Does he desire Desdemona for himself? d) Does he really suspect Cassio of being involved with Emilia, too? e) Or, is there just sheer hate of Othello?”(181). The textual proof is given by Smith in a footnote and follows in order “a) 1.1.8-; b) 1..68-7 and .1.76-80; c) .1.71-75; d) .1.86-88; and e) 1..50-5”(181). The exact motive is unimportant, what is is the fact that race is not.

Furthering this hypothesis is Peter R. Moore’s assertion, in “Shakespeare’s Iago and Santiago Matamoros,” that the name Iago is of a Spanish root which means Jacob or James(16). “In Hebrew it means the one who supplants or undermines”(16). Further, Iago is of indeterminate racial origins so, as another Other, would presumably not be prone to racism; a clue to this otherness is Iago’s statement of “I am not what I am”(1.1.65). Ironically, if true, Iago, generally looked upon as akin to the Elizabethan culture, would actually be one of the monstrous Others England was so afraid of. The racial stereotypes have been switched between Iago and Othello, further complicating the normally white versus everything else posture held by the Elizabethans.

Finally, we have Othello himself. It would be easy to do as the Nazis have done and interpret the Moor’s actions as indicative of racial inadequacy in non-European races(specifically, in Germany’s case, non-Aryan races). After all, Othello was unassisted when he murdered his innocent, white wife. However, the real villain of the play is, of course, Iago. Aubrey points out that the language of childbearing recurs in the play and portends ominous events or acts as a metaphor for the mind’s production of evil thoughts(). For Iago this “birthing” of evil deeds seems to come naturally to him “Let us be conjunctive in our revenge against him; if thou canst cuckold him, thou dost thyself a pleasure, me a sport. There are many events in the womb of time, which will be delivered”(1..56-). In Act Three, Iago transfers

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this birth metaphor to Othello’s mind; however, in contrast to Iago, the birthing process for Othello is painful “I have a pain upon my forehead here”(..88). The pain suggests horns growing out of the forehead of a cuckold; however, we can also imagine it to be the gestation of the evil “seed” Iago has planted in Othello’s mind. The pain grows in him as he contemplates the murder of Desdemona in Act Five

Therefore confess thee freely of thy sin,

For to deny each article with oath

Cannot remove nor choke the strong conception

That I do groan withal. Thou art to die.

(5..58-61)

“For Othello to contemplate murder,” says Aubrey, “is for his mental womb to labor painfully to give birth to its deformed ‘child’; his monstrous conception will issue forth as horrifying action”(5). So we see that, contrary to the racial stereotypes common in England, Othello, a barbarian, is unused to evil thoughts while Iago, supposedly a Christian, is wholly comfortable thinking and enacting those same thoughts.

In the final scene of the play, we see that not only is Othello aware of these stereotypes, but he buys into them. In his final long speech to the persons gathered in his room, he reminds them that he did the state some service and that he did the murderous deed not for want of love, but for the excess. Just before he strikes himself he recalls his earlier story of killing the Turk

And say besides that in Aleppo once,

Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk

Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,

I took by th’ throat the circumcised dog

And smote him thus. (5..61-5)

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The first telling was to reinforce his allegiance to his adopted country; the second was in recognition of his fall from honor and back to the stereotypical barbarianism and cruelty of the Other. The tragedy is not simply the mass of bodies strewn about, as many Englanders would suppose, but rests also in the tragic fall of an honorable man by the machinations of people who are stereotypically considered more noble than any “tawny Moor.”

What I hope was clear in this paper is the subtle use of theme and characterization which Shakespeare underscored these two plays. While there were many more points that could have been raised, these few should be enough to point out the playwright’s temperament in regards to the Other. Conversely, there may also be many points critics may draw out which would seem to disprove my argument by citing examples where Shylock and Othello act according to Renaissance stereotypes. Those critics, however, would only succeed in strengthening my initial argument that Shakespeare, with a close ear to the prevailing cultural winds, presented the public with subject matter and characters they would be drawn to; at the same time, he inserted periodic clues which lead a careful reader to a conclusion different from simply stating that Shakespeare was racist. What is clear is that while Shakespeare may have been completely conversant with racist language and sentiments, he himself felt sympathy for the Other and realized that they were not very different from his countrymen.





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Works Cited

Aubrey, James R. “Race and the spectacle of the monstrous in ‘Othello’.” CLIO (1) 1-

.

Bartels, Emily C. “Making More of the Moor Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashionings of

Race.” Shakespeare Quarterly 41 (Winter 10) 4-454.

Greenblatt, Stephen. General Introduction. The Norton Shakespeare. By William Shakespeare.

Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard and Katharine Eisaman Maus.

New York W.W. Norton & Company, 17. 1-74.

“Jews in the Western Hemisphere.” Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia. CD-ROM. 000 ed.

Microsoft Corporation 1-1.

Meyers, William. “Shakespeare, Shylock, and the Jews.” Commentary 101 (16) -8.

Moore, Peter R. “Shakespeare’s Iago and Santiago Matamoros.” Notes and Queries 4 (16)

16-4.

Smith, Ian. “Barbarian Errors Performing Race in Early Modern England.” Shakespeare

Quarterly 4 (18) 168-186.



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