My Name is Shylock

quill_n_paperI’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.

9 thoughts on “My Name is Shylock

  1. What a remarkable program, and how I envy you the chance to attend these discussions at Stratford! Shylock has long been controversial, but one wonders how far must we go with “political correctness” in portrayals in Renaissance literature? The productions I’ve seen never struck me as anti-Semitic, but i am not Jewish. George Eliot tries to rectify the attitudes in Daniel Deronda, but did anyone before her? (I’m sure some writers did: I’m strongest on the 19th cnetury). Othello, whom I have seen played by an African-American, seems to me one of Shakespeare’s tormented men, not defined by color. And yet all points of view are interesting. Productions and context: I want to take your class.

    1. One of the things that I value about the RSC led discussions, Kat, is that for the most part the people involved are open minded enough to allow for a reasoned consideration of all points of view. Occasionally you get someone in the audience who is clearly there with a personal agenda they want to thrust on the rest of us but such comments tend to be greeted with a silence that says more than words. You would be so welcome to the class. I am big on context, both where the original production would have been concerned and in respect of the production in the intervening 400 years. I find the way in which we read Shakespeare in the light of our own situation endlessly fascinating.
      Incidentally, the thrust of the argument from the academics on the panel was that ‘Othello’ is about being the ‘other’ and the fact that Othello’s otherness is defined by colour is not that relevant. One of the people was a man called Onyeka who has published a book, ‘Blackamoores: Africans in Tudor England, Their Presence, Status and Origins’. He was fascinating on the topic and I must get hold of a copy before I teach the play next year.

  2. Very interesting and I too envy you so much for being able to go to these things. I’ve seen quite a few productions of the Merchant and cannot imagine any production ever being anti-semitic. And surely Shakespeare didn’t intend it that way — as when of course Shylock says ‘Hath not a Jew eyes’ (or whatever it is — doing this from memory).

    1. I agree, Harriet. We are asked to sympathise with Shylock and then to watch him being driven over the edge by his enemies and circumstances to the point where he simply isn’t thinking straight. In the current production they don’t simply speak about spitting on him, they actually do. The horror that goes round the audience is palpable.

  3. The only production of Merchant that I’ve seen was at DC’s Shakespeare Theatre a few years ago, and we were most definitely meant to sympathize with Shylock. It was set in 1920s New York, close enough, I think, to the 1930s to make the expressions of anti-Semitism in the play especially potent as harbingers of what was ahead, plus it got at some of the tensions between various immigrant communities in New York. (It was directed by Ethan McSweeney.) I loathed Portia in that production, despite her “quality of mercy” speech, which seemed more manipulative than sincere–I’d loved that speech until I saw it in context. I wondered when I saw it if the earliest productions made him more of a figure of scorn and if it were possible for his “Hath not a Jew” speech to be presented as comical and ridiculous. I don’t know–those words are so powerful, I have to wonder if they can’t help but subvert even the most ridiculous presentations of the character.

    The Folger Theatre in DC is doing a modernization of the play next year called District Merchants. I’m curious about what that will be like.

    1. Back in the 70s I saw a really interesting rewrite by Arnold Wesker, called ‘The Merchant’. It was a modern re-write but rather one in which he reimagined the relationship between Antonio and Shylock as that of great friends. When Antonio needed to borrow money Shylock wanted to just give it to him but the laws wouldn’t allow it and so they struck up the sort of bond that was intended to show how stupid the laws were. It was an interesting experiment especially given that Wesker is, of course, Jewish himself.

  4. I saw this RSC production broadcast into cinema a few weeks ago. I agree that the production is not anti-semitic, but I’d argue that the play itself is. Any modern production would have to play down the anti-semitic elements, and the current RSC production has Shylock as both honourable and deeply wronged. But there are enough elements, such as Shylock’s reaction after Jessica’s elopement (“My daughter! My ducats!”) and especially Shylock’s enforced conversion as “punishment”, celebrated by the victors, to suggest that the play is inherently anti-semitic, but that productions strive valiantly to overcome this. I suspect that Theresa has it right in her earlier post – a lot of Shylock’s speeches could be played for ridicule in an anti-semitic production, and the climate in Elizabethan England would surely have been conducive to such an illiberal approach.

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