Merch of V actors in Q and A

The Propeller company cast doing Q & A after the show

Last Thursday some of the Propeller company’s all-male cast sat down with the audience to discuss their production of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

The last time I saw the Propeller company was two years ago when they did Midsummer Night’s Dream and Taming of the Shrew in repertory at BAM. The Taming production highlighted the text’s sexual violence by by playing on LGBT domestic violence issues. Petruchio as an abusive boyfriend just seems scarier when it’s a big, butch, swaggering cowpoke beating up on a skinny, emo boy. Or maybe they were reading too much into a cute, human story of a man teaching his new wife to be respectful. Either way, it was powerful — that is to say good theater — and good theater is always interesting.

In this production of The Merchant of Venice, Venice is a prison where the inmates “yammer” and make hideous confusion on the bars of their cells with tin cups and home-made shivs. (Film Forum is doing a two week retrospective on prison movies, if you want to brush up on your prison lingo.) It is a dehumanizing environment set on purpose to strip the interactions between the characters to their most basic, existential elements. Richard Clothier, who plays Shylock, pointed out that these days if you don’t like someone or you have a permanent beef with them you can move away, but in the sixteenth century people were born, lived their entire lives, and died, never traveling more than a few miles from their home. Similarly in prison you are forced to see the people you love and hate every single day with no chance of escape.

The fact that people did move around in the sixteenth century, and often times today you can’t get away from someone you hate, shouldn’t distract us from the core truth of this idea and what it means to a contemporary understanding of The Merchant of Venice. Charles Isherwood’s review of the show in the New York Times is another statement that needs to be read to understand what is at stake for the Propeller company’s production. Isherwood warns us: “Do not expect tears to fill your eyes with the usual anguished feeling during Shylock’s most famous speech, the quiet argument for Jewish humanity in which he asks, ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’ and other rhetorical questions.” Indeed, Isherwood confesses “this is the first production of ‘Merchant’ I’ve seen that dares to present a wholly unsympathetic Shylock.” Isherwood claims this is because “the play’s religious overtones are almost entirely obliterated.” But I don’t believe him. The prison setting does not “obliterate” the plays religious overtones. Religion is very much the source of all the characters’ identities, but in the Propeller company’s Venice religion is not merely a set of beliefs you can move away from if they displease you.

A couple of years ago F. Murray Abraham was in a repertory production of The Merchant of Venice and Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. At the time of the run CUNY hosted a panel with James Shapiro of Columbia and Richard McCoy of the CUNY Grad Center and the director of the productions David Herskovitz to talk about the issues surrounding these two famous icons of English anti-Semtitism, Shylock and Barabas. The audience accepted Barabas as a painted devil, an anti-Semitic caricature of the ignorant Early Modern English. But when it came to Shakespeare, the audience couldn’t bring itself to condemn the Bard of Avon. They asked Mr. Shapiro, whose book Shakespeare and the Jews is a classic in Shakespeare studies, if Shakespeare could possibly have been an anti-Semite? Shapiro’s answer was: that’s not a good (or fair) question.

It’s not a good question because “anti-Semitism” is a fraught term that has a long, complex history. The racist anti-Semitism of the 19th and 20th centuries (the kind that led to the Holocaust) is not the same as Medieval or Renaissance anti-Semitism. (The former was “scientific,” the latter metaphysical.) And it’s not a fair question because its subtext is a different question: can we like Shakespeare if he hated Jews?

Asking Shakespeare “are you an anti-Semite?” is like asking a husband “have you stopped beating your wife — yes or no?” The Jews had been officially expelled from England in 1290 by Edward I and were not officially readmitted until 1655. (Shakespeare died in 1616.) Though there might have been a community of Jews living in secret in London in the late sixteenth century, “the Jew” was a fictional character very much like “the Jihadist” is a fictional character to much of present-day America, showing himself only in Republican attack ads and reruns of “24.” Very few people if any have ever actually seen one. (Compare Shylock to Sayid on Lost: both are complex characters, but the cruelty of both is explained by their non-European otherness.) If the concept “husband” contains the idea that he is master over his wife, it doesn’t matter if he used to beat her, or if he quit, or if he never beat her: their relationship is one of dominance and obedience. And if the concept “English” in London in the 1590s implies “not Jew” Shakespeare’s attitude to Venetian Jewery is necessarily one of difference and strangeness — not sympathy.

The question of whether Shakespeare was an anti-Semite or not is also loaded because it assumes that there are only two types of people in the world: the good ones who are defined by tolerance, empathy and liberality, and the bad ones defined by intolerance, cruelty, and — well what’s the opposite of liberality? The opposite of liberality is what became fashionable in the last forty years to call “conservative.” That is, people who believe in social hierarchy, racial difference, patriarchy, and religious absolutes. These people also believe there are only two types of people in the world — themselves, those on the right who are right — and everyone else.

Isherwood, the liberal critic, agrees with the panel audience from two years ago who can’t accept that a deep thinker like Shakespeare could really hate anyone. Shakespeare is not like those conservatives who were running our country until just a few months ago. Though he admits that Shakespeare the man was probably as anti-Semitic as any other Englishman of his day, he saves the Bard from our condemnation saying “today most would agree that, whatever the playwright’s conscious plan, his artistry and his boundless humanity outfoxed him.” Shakespeare was just too smart to be a bigot. Never mind what some minor scholars say (like Shapiro and Harold Bloom), The Merchant of Venice is a tribute to humanity. “The portrait of Shylock in the play moves us with his eloquence, humanity and fierce love for his daughter” says Isherwood — though he throws in the following caveat: “confused as it is with his love for ducats.”

Here Isherwood’s reading of Merchant shows its age. The triumphant liberalism born after the Second World War has grown old and morphed into what it feared: conservative dogma. It divides the world in twos: those who are liberal and accepting and those who are intolerant. Ironically, this is exactly the theme of the trial at the end of the play. The Duke (who is the also the supreme judge of Venice) comiserates with Antonio that the Jew is “an inhuman wretch / Uncapable of pity, void and empty / From any dram of mercy” (6-8). Portia (disguised as the lawyer Balthazar) tells Shylock that mercy “is enthroned in the hearts of kings, / It is an attribute of God himself” (190-191). She concludes: “Therefore, Jew, / Though justice be thy plea, consider this, / That in the course of justice none of us / Should see salvation” (193-196). The Duke asks Shylock “How shalt thou hope for mercy, rendering none?” (92), and he admonishes Shylock “We all expect a gentle answer, Jew” (38). For the Christians of Venice, Christianity is tolerant, merciful, and forgiving. (After all, Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek rather than seek revenge.) The core of Christianity is the belief that we are born in sin and that only God’s grace — as opposed to observation of His law — can save us. The opposition that Portia elaborates between justice and mercy is thoroughly Christian. Judaism from this perspective is intolerant, cruel, and — well — conservative. But this is not a condemnation of Judaism, it is a critique of Venice’s liberalism. Shakespeare builds into the play the irony that the Christians, when they seek to force Shylock to convert to Christianity at the end of the trial, become conservative in their liberality, intolerant in their tolerance. Hence the Duke’s pun: “We all expect a gentle/gentile answer, Jew.”

The idea that Jews are flinty adherents to Law and Christians the beneficiaries of God’s large grace goes back all the way to the Apostle Paul, who preached that it was not necessary to adhere to Jewish law to worship Jesus. The fact that the Law of Abraham is literalized in the prepuce of the Jew contrasts with the Christian’s circumcision of the heart. Christianity in its infancy sought to distinguish itself from Judaism by creating two sets of ideas to define both religions. Jews are carnal, literal, tribal, and historical. Christians are spiritual, metaphorical, and most importantly anyone can be a Christian. Christianity is the transcendence of local, ethnic, and historical boundaries. It is, in a word, liberal. And yet we have seen the limits of liberal toleration when the tolerant, liberal Christian state (Venice where Jews are allowed — not England where they have been expelled) is forced to crush a resident alient who refuses to conform. It crushes him by taking away his ability to thrive. It crushes him by taking away his religious identity, and it crushes him by awarding his estate after death to a daughter who betrayed his flesh and the flesh of his people by marrying outside the tribe.

The actions of Venice are a palpable injustice and stink of hypocrisy. But does that mean Shylock is not a villain? Does it mean he does not wantonly and willfully seek to harm another human being, just because he feels like it? Of course not. Shylock is a bad man. He subordinates cooperation to vengance, and he would twist the letter of the law (his bond for a pound of human flesh) to commit a legalized crime. (Ahem, John Yoo.) Since the Second World War actors and directors have emphasized the appeal to sympathy in Shylock’s famous speech: “Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh?” But the end of the speech shows Shylock is looking for an analogy to justify his cruelty, not pity from his Christian overlords: “If you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.” Shylock is a dissembler and villian of necessity. Being powerless in the Venetian state, he must pretend to get along. But given the opportunity to invoke the law to justify his revenge he is cruel and merciless.

So is it anti-Semitic to portray Shylock as an evil murderer and a villain? During the Q & A the actors addressed this issue, and it was an issue, they said, because we live in a post-Holocaust world. Particularly in New York audiences (like Isherwood) are extremely sensitive to the anti-Semitism of the play. But they chose to emphasize Shylock’s cruelty rather than his persecution. Why? Though we must never forget the Holocaust (as the Pope reminded us recently) it is no longer the defining experience of a generation of Jews (and gentiles). Though we are still in a post-Holocaust world, we are also in a post-1967 world, a world where state sanctioned, legal anti-Semitism is not the only reality a Jew can know, a world in which Jews can create their own liberal, democratic state, and still govern over a population of disenfranchied “others.”

The key to understanding Shylock’s essential humanity is not to pity him as one of the poor, persecuted oppressed. That is not the lesson that Shakespeare would have intended. What a piece of work is man? asks Shakespeare’s most famous character. “How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god!” But the Bard is not merely a cheerleader for men’s achievements, their liberal toleration or their self-satisfied, hypocritical generosity. We are the paragon of animals and a quintessence of dust. Every human is capable of angelic transcendence, but we are all also capable of murder, atrocity, genocidal selfishness, and Sadistic pleasure in the pain of our enemies. This duality is what makes us human. It is a disservice to Shylock’s tragic power to make him a wilting flower, depending on the kindness of strangers to get along. And that is why the Propeller production is good theater and (pace Isherwood) very interesting.