Shakespeare’s Jewish problem (and mine)♦
I love The Merchant of Venice. I wish it had never been written. You can draw a line from it right to Mein Kampf, then fill in the other literary underpinnings of the Holocaust.
But what are you going to do, as they say on “The Sopranos.” It’s one of the most frequently produced of Shakespeare’s plays, and I go to see every production I can get to.
While the current university production at Temple’s Tomlinson Theater is unexceptional, all the ingredients that never fail to fascinate me are still there: the tension of the pound-of-flesh drama, the glorious poetry, the story of the three caskets. And the anti-Semitism.
That the question, “Is Merchant an anti-Semitic play, or is it a play about anti-Semitism” is still batted about, sadly amuses me. Proponents of the latter position argue that though the villain is a Jew, the Christians aren’t such terrific people either.
The only good Jew….
I have no dispositive problem that Shakespeare would pick a Jew to be the villain. I wish he hadn’t. It’s not like Hitler (who had the play staged and broadcast practically non-stop during the Reich) and every other anti-Semite in the last 400 years needed the greatest writer to have lived to be their spokesperson.
But here, all Jews are bad. The message is the only good Jew is a dead Jew or converted-to-Christianity-Jew– which is how both Jewess Jessica and her dad Shylock end up.
In the final scene, the lovers are united, Antonio’s ships have magically come to port. The world is Juden-free and all the Christians are happily and richly ensconced in the fairy-tale land of Belmont.
And what of “hath not a Jew eyes?”— one of literature’s greatest egalitarian pronouncements? I’ve been to productions of Merchant where high school kids made up the bulk of the audience. It’s the rare youngster or groundling that will sift through the dozens of “dog Jew,” “cur Jew,” “devil Jew,” and come away with the message in that speech.
Were it not for those eight lines, people of good faith would never stage this play.
Some odd decisions
Temple’s production, while competent, is filled with some odd decisions by director Dan Kern. Portia delivering her opening dialogue while prone and nude worked for me. But most of Kern’s choices were misguided. Having Shylock’s homey Tubal and two young children in the courtroom, forming a cheering section, robbed the scene of some of the isolation and devastation that Shylock endures.
Setting the play in Mussolini-era Italy may have had more to do with Temple’s costume budget than with creating an ominous ambience. The jack-booted brownshirts stomping both the stage and unidentified victims lent little to the text. (Oddly enough, the People’s Light production a few years back also was set in fascist Italy with Tubal in the courtroom.)
Productions have been dropping and adding lines, scenes and characters for centuries, all within the bounds of artistic license. Kern cuts (and bizarrely adds) plenty. But to spike Gratiano’s final lines of bawdy poetry, with its promise to better keep the ring? Kern thinks he knows how to end the play better than Shakespeare? For this he gets his artistic license revoked.
The acting was uniformly competent– only Joe Guzman (who bears an uncanny resemblance to John Hillerman, who played Higgins on “Magnum P.I.”) as Antonio flubbed a few lines. Mark Sherlock’s exaggerated enunciations as the Prince of Aragon got the only real laughs of the night.
A boring Shylock
But a Merchant stands or falls on its Shylock. If David Blatt has an engaging Shylock in him, he wasn’t allowed out of the temple in this production. Be a villain, sympathetic or preferably both, but make Shylock cunning, powerful, vulnerable. Blatt was boring. No blood. No guts. He had a quiet dignity, but that’s not what’s needed here. “Thou torturest me, Tubal!” So sound tortured.
Only Krista Apple as a multi-dimensional Portia stood out– spoiled, intelligent, assertive, funny, manipulative, vengeful. They should have let her play Shylock.
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