I’ve just come in from Stratford having been over there this morning for a discussion on whether or not The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice, both of which are in this season’s RSC repertoire, are anti-semitic plays. This was the last of three such discussions, each relating to current productions, that we’ve had this summer, the previous two having asked, in the case of the first whether or not the Arts in the UK are pale, stale and male and in the second whether Othello is a racist play.
The panel this morning included Justin Audibert, who directed the current production of The Jew of Malta, Patsy Ferran, who is playing Portia and the novelist Howard Jacobson, who is writing a modern version of Shakespeare’s play as part of a project to reimagine the entire canon as novels for the 2016 celebrations. Given the outgoing nature of each of those participants it was a lively discussion and a number of ideas were raised that I shall want to consider in greater detail later in the year. This coming term I am teaching Love’s Labour’s Lost but after Christmas it will be The Merchant of Venice and then after Easter, Othello.
Today, I just want to think about the panel’s immediate response to the question posed in the title of the session as it applies to Shylock. The unanimous view of the panel was that Shakespeare’s play, at least, is not anti-semitic. Yes, it presents a man who has some of the attributes that an Elizabethan audience would probably have associated with a member of the Jewish race but Justin Audibert offered what sounds to me like a very good reason for Shakespeare having gone down that route. The Jew of Malta, Marlowe’s play, was first produced in 1592 and records tell us that it was a box office bonanza. He (and I) could just imagine Shakespeare storing that information away and thinking “one day, just you wait, one day….”. Come 1596, when we think The Merchant was first performed, he knew what his audience would expect and to some extent would have had to give it to them, especially if his company wanted their own financial gold mine.
But, when you look at Shylock and compare him with Barabas there are so many very apparent reasons as to why he might justly feel he was being persecuted that in the first half of the play at least you might well argue that this is Shakespeare’s anti-anti-semitic play. Patsy Ferran noted that the key concept behind the current production was ‘people behaving badly’ and in the early scenes it definitely isn’t Shylock whose actions should be called into question. And, we also have to ask whether he ever thought that there was even the remotest possibility that he would call in the bond. Antonio is expecting thrice the necessary funds in less than two thirds of the time allowed. No, to call this an anti-semitic play seems to me to take a far too simplistic approach.
However, what I did find myself thinking about was a comment made by Hugh Quarshie during the earlier discussion about Othello. It was widely reported that Quarshie was reluctant to take on the role of Othello because of the way in which he felt it portrayed men of colour and during the debate he wondered about why so many black actors were eager to play the part. He compared this to the way in which several great Jewish actors (although he didn’t name any) had turned down the role of Shylock because it was seen as anti-semitic. Well, he might be right, I’m not in a position to know, and I suppose, these days, it does depend to a large extent on the way in which the director decides s/he wants to shape their production, but I must have seen this play at least a dozen times and I can’t remember a Shylock I haven’t ended up sympathising with. Portia might speak loftily about the quality of mercy but neither she nor anyone else in that court scene offers Shylock so much as one solitary drop of the stuff and at the moment when he is told that he must forcibly convert to Christianity there is nearly always an audible intake of breath from the audience who recognise the sheer effrontery of such a demand.
I have a lot more thinking to do about this, although I will probably have to shelve it until after Love’s Labour’s Lost, but I would be really interested to know if any of you have seen The Merchant of Venice produced as an anti-semitic play and if so how successful an approach it was. One of the strands in my approach to a play is to look at the production history as it relates to the context in which those stagings took place and it would be helpful to collect any examples you might recall.