This article gives due and extended attention to the performance in 1943 of The Merchant of Venice in Vienna, examining the ways in which Shylock was portrayed and potentially misused for propagandistic purposes by the regime. The approach will be both primarily analytical and comparative. Archival material sourced from the theatre museum in Vienna (Theatermuseum) and the Burgtheater will form the base of this research. The question ‘How was Shylock performed under the Nazis?’ will be accompanied by ‘To what extent was the play modified?’ and ‘How does the infamous Vienna production differ from previous, celebrated productions?’ Considering that Merchant is a play which, up until today, often upsets audiences, analysing a Nazi performance might seem too crude an endeavour. This article, however, aims to demonstrate that no matter how painful or uncomfortable a topic may be, ‘Erinnern macht frei’ – remembrance can set you free (Marko Watt).
Continuation or Reinvention?
Biblical Forms in the Translations of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice to Hebrew
Dror Abend-David’s Scorned My Nation in its comparative literary analysis of the German, Yiddish and Hebrew translations of The Merchant of Venice concludes that cultural context and political intentions changed dramatically between the two Hebrew translations in 1921 and 1972, limiting his textual analysis to the closing line of Shylock’s famous speech: ‘it shall go hard’. I examine two key words in that speech in the two translations to detect which biblical texts the translator called on, consciously or unconsciously, and gauge what the literary resources of the Hebrew language can make of Shylock and his complaint and whether the language portraying Shylock and his complaint did actually change over those fifty years.
Hanan Snir’s Israeli-German Production (Weimar 1995)
Can The Merchant of Venice be performed in Germany after the Holocaust, and if so, how? Is the claim that the play is a touchstone for German-Jewish relations, with a philosemitic tradition – and therefore eligible to be performed today – verifiable? The article begins by briefly surveying this tradition from the Jewish emancipation in the mid-eighteenth century, which, with a few relapses, continued – especially in productions directed by Jews and/or with Jewish actors in the role of Shylock – until the rise of the Nazi regime, to be resumed after the Second World War. The main part analyses a test case, staged by the Israeli director Hanan Snir at the Weimar National Theatre (1995), and intended rhetorically to avenge the Holocaust on the German audience: Merchant as a viciously antisemitic play-within-a-play, directed by SS personnel in the nearby Buchenwald concentration camp with eventually murdered Jewish inmates compelled to play the Jewish parts.
The article explores Shakespeare’s secularized retelling of the Christian theological narrative of deceiving the Devil, with Antonio playing the role of Christ and Shylock as the Devil. The article argues that recasting the contest between Christ and the Devil in the world of Venice sets the stage for Shakespeare’s larger exploration of the pervasive nature of deceit in human affairs. Although it seems that Shakespeare’s characters are resigned to live in a fallen world where truth is obscured, Portia’s invocation of mercy may be Shakespeare’s attempt to offer some hope of an earthly salvation. The article argues that this portrait of a world filled with deception resonated with Shakespeare’s audience. Men and women in early modern England lived in a world where they often had to hide their religious identities and loyalties. This interpretation challenges more recent attempts to see the play as primarily concerned with race and tolerance.
Contemporary British Jewish Theatre and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice
Jeanette R. Malkin and Eckart Voigts
How does Shakespeare’s ambivalent character Shylock affect British theatre artists of Jewish heritage today? Since the 1970s, stage adaptations of The Merchant by British Jewish directors and actors have struggled to glean an interpretation that would make The Merchant relevant or palatable for a post-Shoah generation. This article has a double focus: we discuss the difference between the adaptations of the older generation – Arnold Wesker’s character rewriting in The Merchant (1976) and Charles Marowitz’s deconstruction in Variations on the Merchant of Venice (1977) – and the contemporary revision in Julia Pascal’s 2008 The Shylock Play. Secondly, we focus on the reaction of contemporary Jewish theatre artists in Britain to the centrality of Shylock as the canonical figure of the Jew in Britain. We asked a number of contemporary British Jewish theatre artists – from Tom Stoppard to Samantha Ellis – about their personal relationship to Shylock and we present a digest of their responses.
Universalizing Shakespeare’s Play after the Holocaust
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.
Text, and Pretexts for Changing Subtext
The Merchant of Venice remains a ‘problem play’ for contemporary production. Whether the play is inherently antisemitic or not, it remains one of the most popular of the canon. I will consider how actors and their directors can, with the wisdom imparted by twentieth-century psychology and Stanislavskian-derived ideas of objectives, circumstances and subtext, seek to circumvent the challenges and infuse problematic text with more acceptable interpretations. Possible reinterpretations of Shylock are centrally considered, but the characters and motives of Jessica, Portia, Antonio and Bassanio are also scrutinized. Such re-evaluation of the underlying motivations seems a reasonable resolution for keeping the text intact while undermining any inherent negative stereotyping. However, once we admit of this subversion of a writer’s intentions, what might the consequences be if there are those who wish to use the same tools to create anti-humanitarian theatre?
Shylock ’47 at the Pargod Theatre (1947)
Shylock ’47 was a Hebrew-language stage production presented by the Pargod Theatre in New York in 1947. Conceived and directed by Peter Frye, it was a metatheatrical play-within-a-play that interrogated the idea of producing The Merchant of Venice in the aftermath of the Holocaust. It combined original scenes culled from Shimon Halkin’s Hebrew translation of Merchant with present-based transitional scenes, created mostly through improvisation and discussion between director and cast. What eventually emerged was a script based on Shakespeare’s text with added dramatized discussions about the play’s meaning and relevance to Jews at that particular moment in history.
Rewriting Shakespeare has become a global genre. Arnold Wesker was one of the trailblazers of the genre with his The Merchant (1976). This article argues that Arnold Wesker’s The Merchant, with both its subversion and extension of Shakespeare’s play, in theme, plot and characterization, engages with Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice by means of a counter-discourse. Wesker rewrote Shylock by focusing on two episodes in Shakespeare’s play: Jessica’s conversion to Christianity and Shylock’s self-defence. Wesker’s rewriting disrupts the binary as well as Christian conceptions to bestow upon the Jew the ‘protean quality’ of representing just about any sort of ‘Other’ but themselves. Wesker’s Shylock has a rounded humanity and is a cultured, humorous and book-loving Renaissance man. Wesker puts Shakespeare’s work under scrutiny as a culturally constructed world where life can be repositioned, and margins moved to the centre to be in a new light.
Michael Radford’s The Merchant of Venice
Maria-Clara Versiani Galery
This article discusses different responses to Michael Radford’s 2004 screen rendition of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. It examines selected newspaper reviews, as well as academic papers that critique the filmic adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, taking into account its representation of Shakespeare’s Jew. The article interrogates to what extent the medium – theatre or cinema – affects the way the audience experiences the work, especially when dealing with an issue as complex as antisemitism. In this manner, Radford’s attempt to historicize the events in Merchant is viewed as a form of attenuating the antisemitic elements in the play.