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Shylock suitable

Conrad Cohen asks if it is time to reclaim Shakespeare’s Jew-play and reviews The Globe’s new production of The Merchant of Venice

Adrian Shiller as Shylock
Adrian Shiller as Shylock

In its indoor, candle-lit Elizabethan-style theatre, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe tackles the Bard’s most troubling play, The Merchant of Venice. The play’s titular character, a Christian merchant called Antonio, borrows several thousand Venetian ducats from the Jewish moneylender, Shylock, who doesn’t charge the same interest as lenders of other faiths, which prompts Antonio to say:
“Hie thee, gentle Jew.
The Hebrew will turn Christian, he grows kind.”

Did you spot Shakespeare’s gift for wordplay? Gentle sounding like gentile? Well, that’s present throughout the play. And so is the overt antisemitism. Which begs two key questions: Why did Shakespeare write it? And why produce it now?

I’m currently researching the impact of The Merchant of Venice in Jewish theatre and anthropology, so I know we first need to look at Shakespeare’s influences and Elizabethan society’s attitudes to Jewish people. Famously unoriginal, Shakespeare tales are inspired, nay, ‘borrowed’ from a variety of sources and the origins of The Merchant of Venice is found in several earlier works, which include the same antisemitic stereotypes Shakespeare used. Look at the English play The Jew and the Italian novella Il Pecorone and you’ll understand. Another big influence was Christopher Marlowe and his explicitly antisemitic play, The Jew of Malta, which contains the same subplot: Jewish moneylender’s daughter falls for a Christian.

 

The trial scene in The Merchant of Venice

 

But why were Elizabethan playwrights so obsessed with Jews? It’s seriously odd at first, given that no Jews had been allowed to live in England since Edward I’s Edict of Expulsion in 1290, which was one of the first pogroms in European history. But perhaps that’s the point. Without any Jewish community, the figure of ‘the Jew’ in England became somewhat of a myth, a bogeyman with which to frighten naughty children. Fuelled by the blood libel, whereby the Jewish community of Norwich was falsely blamed for the death of a local Christian boy in 1144, like the trolled on Twitter, our reputation as slanderous bloodthirsty Jews followed us around England and Europe, before spreading to the Middle East, where it persists today, with malicious accusations of Israel stealing organs. You can’t miss it in The Merchant of Venice framed as Shylock and Antonio’s bond, which stipulates that should the merchant default on his loan, he must forfeit:
“A pound of flesh to be by him
cut off nearest the merchant’s heart.”

So despite the efforts of modern productions to frame Shylock as an empathetic character, nothing can shake the blood libel in Shakespeare’s text. Even reimagined versions of the play by Jewish playwrights Arnold Wesker (The Merchant) and Edward Einhorn (Shylock) struggle with this inextricable fact of the story. History is part of the problem, as despite the Edict of Expulsion, Jews did exist in Elizabethan England, mostly as Sephardic merchants enclaved in London or converted Italian Jews shipped over by Henry VIII in 1540 who obviously knew how much we love a cruise! But that’s not all. In 1594, we get The Conspiracy of Dr Lopez, which sounds like a Netflix series, but refers to Roderigo Lopez, a court physician of Jewish descent who was accused of attempting to poison Queen Elizabeth I, and subsequently brutally executed in front of a jeering crowd. This event prompted a resurgence of national anti-Jewish sentiment; in keeping with the zeitgeist, Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice.

So, with all that context, how is Shakespeare’s Globe tackling this play today? It’s no surprise that Jewish director Abigail Graham wrestles with Shakespeare’s text in a similar way to Jacob wrestling the angel in Vayishlach. Just as Jacob discovered wrestling with an angel is like wrestling with God, no matter how you cut and paste Shakespeare’s text, it remains antisemitic at its heart. Not content with dumping Shylock with the blood libel, Shakespeare’s play robs him of humanity when grieving for his daughter, Jessica, who runs away to marry the gentile Lorenzo and convert to Christianity. On the plus side, Adrian Schiller is the first Jewish actor to be cast as Shylock by the Globe and he does a brilliant job expressing his anguish in the scene where Jess take takes flight. But, alas, Schiller is stuck with Will’s words, which tell us Shylock is more concerned about his gold than his daughter. Eleanor Wyld as Jessica deftly conveys, with great nuance, the conflict felt by a daughter who mirrors so many by wanting to marry out, but there are other problems for a Jewish audience, most obviously the inclusion of the Kol Nidre prayer at the play’s conclusion.

For Shakespeare’s audience, Shylock being forced to convert to Christianity to get out of his bond was a happy ending. His baptism means his soul is saved and he gets to go to heaven! Dismantling the horrific act of forced conversion doesn’t quite translate in Graham’s production, as using of one of Judaism’s most beautiful prayers feels like a tokenistic trope rather than a genuine reclamation.

Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice as a comedy and not as a tragedy like his other major ‘racist’ play, Othello, so the production is full of laughs and joyful communion, but it feels distasteful when followed by a scene with antisemitic bullying. Perhaps that is Graham’s intention though: to indicate that antisemitism still exists, not just in obvious tragedy, such as the Holocaust or the recent attacks on Jewish communities around the world, but in more subtle and insidious ways that must be addressed too.

Has the time come to figure out what to do with The Merchant of Venice once and for all? I wish I knew, but the Globe’s latest attempt demonstrates that old adage of ‘two Jews and three opinions’, and the best way to ascertain yours is to see it.

The Merchant of Venice runs at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until
9 April.

Conrad Cohen is head of drama at St Margaret’s School in Bushey

 

Who is suitable for the role, asks Brigit Grant

When Shakespeare created Shylock, he may have intended to insult Jewish people. Or not. Regardless, the money-lender in The Merchant of Venice is the ‘rift’ that keeps on giving. Deliciously offensive, the play’s most controversial character is also the most interesting – barring Portia, the Venetian Judge Judy – and as such it’s a part lots of actors want to play, whether or not we want them to. Jewish opinion about who gets the gig is of little consequence, according to David Baddiel’s Jews Don’t Count, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have one. And out came the opinions when black American actor John Douglas Thompson took to the stage stateside as Shylock in a new production of The Merchant by the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Is there really a problem with Thompson portraying an Orthodox Jew who lends cash in the 15th century? Cue Sarah Silverman yelling “Jewface” rom the balcony as Thompson is not Jewish, but neither was the late John Gielgud or Laurence Olivier when they lent ducats or Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Pryce and Al Pacino some time later. US critics have analysed, but largely embraced, Thompson’s Shylock who “evokes slavery with greater resonance like no other”. For in Shakespeare’s predominantly Christian Venetian world, Shylock was tantamount to a slave as a second-class citizen forbidden to interact or practice most occupations. Bath-born Thompson may be the first black Shylock in New York in nearly 200 years, but Ira Aldridge was the first in Britain in 1831. Also American, he left the US because of racism and it speaks volumes for us that he got his pound of fleshy Shakespearian roles on the English stage. Ira could also be a Jewish name, but he wasn’t, but the anti semitism, racism, xenophobia and classism in 15th century Venice meant life was unpleasant if one was Jewish or black. Some think the play – which pitches merchant against stereotype – has run for too long, so casting Larry David as the lender won’t help. On the other hand, Eddie Redmayne as Shylock might bring them round. But imagine the ducat price for tickets.

John Douglas Thompson
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