Productions, adaptations and spinoffs of The Merchant of Venice since 1945 generally employ one of four strategies: continuing, historicizing, decentring and universalizing. Continuing means following nineteenth-century English productions in making Shylock a sympathetic outsider. Immigrant Shylocks still appear on English-speaking stages, but often seem sentimentalized and anachronistic. Historicizing means making the play reflect historical circumstances, such as the Holocaust, so that Shylock, however sharp-edged, automatically attracts sympathy. Decentring means making Jessica’s story at least as important as Shylock’s. Many recent productions and prose adaptations explore Jessica’s plight as immigrant’s daughter, belle juive, forlorn wife or remorseful child. Universalizing means mapping the play’s Jewish-Christian conflict onto other racial, religious or ethnic antagonisms, as in The Merchant ON Venice, about a Muslim ‘Shylock’ and his Hindu neighbours in Los Angeles.
Michael Shapiro was Professor of English and director of the Program in Jewish Culture and Society at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.