For more than 400 years, since “The Merchant of Venice” was written, readers and audiences have been debating the question: Is this play anti-Semitic? This question was raised and discussed again, here, after the Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theater (PICT) matinee performance at Union Project in Highland Park on Sunday, Nov. 6.
The play deals with an unusual business transaction between an aristocratic Christian and a Jewish money lender. There are three Jews in the play: Shylock, his daughter and his business partner. By the end, one has chosen to convert, one was forced to convert and one remains Jewish.
Though the original setting of the play was 16th-century Venice, director Alan Stanford set his production in the United States, circa 1937, a time when the German-American Bund was parading through streets with swastikas on their armbands and cheering crowds gave the Nazi salute. Costuming and music gave subtle clues to the setting, but the sneering tone, facial expression and body language used whenever any of the aristocracy said the word “Jew” made crystal clear the Nazi-like revulsion they felt toward Shylock and by extension, the Jewish people.
Ironically, PICT’s production is staged in the sanctuary of a former church. The audience sat on both the right side and left side of the stage with the former altar covered by a curtain. The set was minimal, but worked well. The costumes and music represented the time period of the late 1930s and were appropriate and interesting. Shylock was dressed in a business suit, initially with no outward signs of his Judaism. All the male leads wore business suits, except for the only other male Jew, Tubal, who sported a yarmulke, beard, peyos, black hat and long coat.
Stanford’s stated goal was to draw a message from “The Merchant of Venice” and to universalize that message.
“This is a play for today,” said Stanford. “We have to choose how we behave to the rest of the world. We teach others to behave by the way we behave to others.”
After the play, the director and cast members came out in ordinary clothes and sat down for a discussion with the audience. Stanford opened the talkback by giving some historical background on the biblical prohibition against taking usury, the role of Jews in the Middle Ages in facilitating commerce, and the demonization of Jews. “They were the ones you blamed,” he explained.
Stanford polled the audience, asking, was Shylock a villain? Would he have gone through with his threat to take his pound of flesh? Would you have done it if you were him?
“I was very sympathetic to Shylock,” said one audience member. A number of others raised their hands in agreement.
Audience members expressed a variety of reactions to this performance. Some in the audience had never before seen or read the play. A non-Jew from Brazil felt it was “difficult to watch” and that the play “can foster religious intolerance.” A local Jewish doctor sadly opined, “We want to believe that people that were great geniuses were not purveyors of hatred. But Shakespeare came from a different time and culture and their conventions may have been shared by him.”
An elderly woman who identified herself as a Holocaust survivor shared, “I grew up in Nazi Germany. [The play] was hard to watch. Everybody was hitting on the Jew. He could have done anything and they still would have killed him.”
“The Merchant of Venice” was a favorite in Nazi Germany, where Shylock was regularly played in the most repulsive, repugnant and stereotypical fashion. Post-Holocaust, the general staging has been to portray Shylock in a sympathetic light, drawing out the compassion of the audience for him as a human being who has been discriminated against. How Shylock is portrayed is generally considered the touchstone for whether or not people view the play as anti-Semitic.
I have great respect for PICT and for Stanford. The actor playing Shylock was excellent as were a number of the other actors. Technically, they did an outstanding job. But as a Jew watching this play, it was painful to witness a man being broken and humiliated and forced to convert. It was repulsive to hear them say “Jew” over and over again with a sneer in their voices. I cringed to hear the stereotypical canards of greedy, money-hungry Jews.
Yes, Shakespeare wrote those words, and we will never know his real intent. There is ambiguity there, but I’ve seen this play before. The production of a play can change the tone and thus change audience reactions. I have no doubt that the intent of this production was to speak out against intolerance, but, ironically, as one audience member observed, this play can by its very nature encourage intolerance.
“The Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare runs through Nov. 19 at Union Project. Produced by PICT Classic Theatre. Tickets at picttheatre.org or 412-561-6000.
Simone Shapiro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.