THE SAN DIEGO JEWISH JOURNAL
By Pat Launer
“The Merchant of Venice” often evokes a knee-jerk reaction in Jews: “Oh no,” they say, “ that’s Shakespeare’s anti-Semitic play.”
Well, it’s not that simple. It all depends on how you look at it.
The Old Globe’s new artistic director, Barry Edelstein, hailed by NPR as “one of the country’s leading Shakespeareans,” has a long history with “The Merchant.” (The title, by the way, refers to Antonio, the one who borrows the money from Shylock, not to the Jewish moneylender).
Edelstein first appeared in the play at Tufts University. Then, in 1995, he directed Ron Leibman as Shylock at the Public Theatre, and when he became director of the New York Shakespeare Festival and The Shakespeare Initiative at the Public, he produced the acclaimed 2010 “Merchant” headlined by a galvanic Al Pacino as Shylock.
By the time he arrived here in January, the 2013 Globe Summer Shakespeare Festival was already set by outgoing Festival artistic director Adrian Noble (formerly of the Royal Shakespeare Company), who helms the play this time.
It’s been a long time since the Globe’s last “Merchant” production (1991), but Edelstein hopes the next one will come sooner; he wants to take another crack at it.
“It’s a masterpiece,” says the author of two books on Shakespeare, “one of the greatest of his plays, written around 1598, when his talent was really exploding.”
Edelstein offers three reasons for his love of “Merchant.”
“1 – Shakespeare’s mastery. Before ‘Henry IV,’ Parts 1 and 2, there would be five or six people in a scene, all speaking with the same kind of voice. Then, Shakespeare really figured out how to distinguish individual personalities and voices.
“The Globe Theatre [the model for our Globe] opened in 1599, and you get the sense that he had developed a set of muscles just in time for this palace, the showplace of his career.
“2 – It’s one of the most controlled plays, from a tonal point of view. It shifts on a dime, from slapstick comedy to high lyricism to violent rage to political material. He was in complete control of his medium.
“And 3 – it’s one of a small handful of Shakespeare plays that are really interested in how humans live together in a city. Sixteenth century Venice, where he set the play, was a huge center of international trade, a home to cultures from all around the world. Shakespeare was demonstrating an understanding of commerce, business and the confrontations and compromises made among different types of people. It’s all about how human beings do – or don’t – get along.”
Shylock: Good Guy or Bad Guy?
Before we go further, let’s review the “Merchant” plot.
Melancholy Venetian merchant Antonio dotes on his youthful friend Bassanio . So when Bassanio asks for 3000 ducats, he readily agrees. But with all his capital tied up in merchant ships, Antonio is compelled to go to Shylock, the Jewish moneylender he reviles and has spat upon on the street. Shylock offers a three-month loan at no interest, but if that deadline is missed, Antonio will owe him a pound of flesh. Meanwhile, Shylock’s daughter elopes with a Christian. While Bassanio is away wooing the heiress Portia, Antonio’s ships are lost at sea, and Shylock demands his payback. Shrewd Portia comes to the trial dressed as a man, presenting a compelling defense of Antonio, friend to her fiancé, Bassanio . She says Shylock can have his pound of flesh, as long as no blood is drawn. Shylock not only loses his daughter, his money and his revenge, he’s forced to convert to Christianity. Weddings ensue at the end.
Over the centuries, Shylock has been played as both villain and victim. Jacob Adler, star of the Yiddish theater, contended that the tradition of portraying Shylock sympathetically began in the first half of the 19th century; previously, the role had been played “by a comedian as a repulsive clown or a monster of unrelieved evil.”
Edelstein has “seen him as a turbaned, crazy ham; an Israeli tough guy; a New York nebbish; a Holocaust survivor; a Rothschild. That’s one of the wonders of Shakespeare; the plays are incredibly flexible.
“The Big Question remains: Is there anything in this play dangerous to the Jewish community? And the answer is a resounding NO.
“The subject of the play isn’t anti-Semitism,” Edelstein continues. “Shylock only appears in five of 25 scenes. There’s maybe two hours about Portia, her life and her romantic relationship with Bassanio . It’s like saying ‘Schindler’s List’ is anti-Semitic. Yes, there are nasty things said about Jews in the play — and the film. But both are really about something else. Of course, the play can be hijacked for propagandistic purposes, as the Nazis did.
“But what’s really toxic about the play is the obsession with money and the influence of money in human affairs — issues that are still front and center in urban life in America today. The play has a lot to tell us about what happens when money is the focus of everything.
“As for the ‘stereotype’ of Jewish moneylenders, it was the only profession legally permitted to Jews at the time. I don’t mean to minimize the sensitivities; they’re the same as audiences today have with the F-word or the N-word. But all this nastiness is on the road to a larger consideration of something about humanity. Hatred, bigotry, racism are no less a part of the human condition than dancing at a wedding.”
Many scholars, including Edelstein, find the conversion of Shylock to be one of the most difficult aspects of the play, one that didn’t come from the Italian novella that was Shakespeare’s source material.
“That scene is the point of no return. That’s when you see that these people are really damaged goods. We can no longer ignore how twisted Christian society had become. That scene makes us watch the final scene, the union of the couples [marriage at the end is the definition of Shakespearean “comedy”], in a very different way. It blows a cold wind through the play. The heroine, Portia, is a racist and an anti-Semite. Shakespeare asks, Can we still root for her and be happy at the end?
“The opinions Portia expresses are not necessarily her own. That’s what everyone in the culture at that time believed. The Jews were expelled from England late in the 13th century. In the late 16th century, when Shakespeare was writing, there were only about 150 Jews in London, mostly Conversos , disguising their practices.
“The play is really really complex,” Edelstein continues. “You don’t know who to root for. Allegiances keep shifting. People you’re supposed to like do awful things. People you’re supposed to dislike do humane things. This is what makes Shakespeare Shakespeare . There is no black and white. Everything is shades of gray.”
Night of the Roundtable
In a 2010 round-table discussion called “Shylock, Shakespeare and the Jews: Anti-Semitism in ‘The Merchant of Venice,’” Edelstein shared the stage with Rabbi Steven Weil, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union (which hosted the event) and James Shapiro, professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, author of “Shakespeare and the Jews.”
Edelstein recalled how his former boss, the wildly influential producer/director Joseph Papp, opened the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, home to the beloved free Shakespeare in the Park, with “The Merchant of Venice,” starring George C. Scott.
“It was only 17 years after the end of World War II,” reported Edelstein. “It was extremely controversial. But Papp (born Josef Yossil Papirofsky ), exposing his own Jewishness for the first time, defended the play as a masterpiece. He felt that society had moved beyond race relations.”
By the time Edelstein directed Ron Leibman in “Merchant” in 1989, he says, “we thought Shylock as victim and nice guy was played out. It was time to make him the villain. It was a very dark interpretation. When Pacino came along, there wasn’t a peep. With the passage of time, the play loses its toxicity.”
Rabbi Weil agreed.
“Since the 1980s,” he said, “we haven’t heard much of a tumult from the community. As a Jew, I was initially defensive. As a kid, you see the Jew insisting on a pound of flesh, and the Christian talking of mercy and compassion. But it’s not so clear. At the end, there is no compassion.”
Added Edelstein, “In play after play, comedy is cruel and exclusionary. There’s always a ‘charmed circle,’ and someone who’s excluded from it. Comedy in Shakespeare is often crueler than tragedy.
“One comes to understand,” Edelstein went on, “that what Shakespeare was, above all else, was a dramatist. There’s no drama without a clash of equal forces. So, Shylock is this implacable guy with an Old Testament sense of ‘an eye for an eye.’ The Merchant Antonio pursues his agenda as vehemently as Shylock pursues his. Whatever Shakespeare thinks himself , the drama takes over and the characters become larger than that. A great actor gives Shylock the kind of size that trumps questions of Shakespeare the man and what he thought.”
As Rabbi Weil put it, “No one would ever nominate Shakespeare as ‘the Righteous Gentile of the Year.’ But if you do a fair reading of Shakespeare, to paint him as a rabid anti-Semite is unfair. He’s a reflection of the time he lived in. He presents the Jew not in a positive light, but in a nuanced, subtle light, which is probably better than the average Londoner of the time.”
As Edelstein sees it, there are two basic approaches: “Shylock can be seen as alien in every way: the way he looks, the way he sounds, the way he dresses and behaves. Or, he can be highly assimilated, and look like everyone else in the city.”
At the Old Globe, Adrian Noble is taking the second approach, but setting his production in the late 19th/early 20th century.
“Shakespeare set the play in Venice,” says Edelstein, “but it was really London of the time. Noble is doing the same. A century ago, the Jews in England were extremely prosperous and successful, yet the society won’t stop reminding them that they’re different. Adrian has found a wonderfully clever moment, after the courtroom scene and punishment, to show how the rest of the Jewish community reacts to Shylock. It kind of reflects the huge split in the Jewish community in Israel these days. Very smart and canny.”
The role of Shylock will be played by Miles Anderson, who wowed Globe audiences as Prospero in “ The Tempest ,” Salieri in “ Amadeus ,” Leonardo da Vinci in “ Divine Rivalry”
and King George in “ The Madness of George III ,” for which he received a San Diego Theatre Critics Circle Award.
“He’s not in the Pacino- Leibman mold of a scenery-chewing, storming kind of guy,” Edelstein asserts. “His Shylock is more low-key and reasonable. So it’s much more shocking when he breaks. This approach reflects the religious violence in the world today.”
And adding another layer of complexity, Portia is played by an African American, Krystel Lucas, who’s making her Old Globe debut.
“It’s bound to be a provocative and successful production,” says Edelstein. “Adrian is a master at work.”
Elsewhere in the Summer Shakespeare Festival
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the other Shakespeare play in the Globe’s Summer Festival, directed by Olivier Award-nominated Ian Talbot, is “a much easier night in the theater,” says Edelstein. “It’s light, funny, beautiful, sweet. ‘Merchant’ is a much darker cup of coffee.”
“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead ” is the only non-Shakespeare offering in the Festival (though it features characters from “Hamlet”).
“It’s the sleeper of the season,” claims Edelstein. “A landmark of absurdist theater of the ‘60s,” by another master, Tom Stoppard, a friend of Noble, who directs.
“ The theater,” Edelstein concludes, “has a job not only to present cotton candy. There has to be nourishment, too. Nourishment that’s entertaining and stylish. As this production of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ will certainly be.”
Entertaining and stylish — and thought-provoking.
The Old Globe production of “THE MERCHANT OF VENICE” runs outdoors on the Festival stage, through 9/28 , alternating with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.”
Free post-show forums on “Merchant” will take place on July 9, September 4 and September 10.
Free pre-show discussions (7pm) will be held on July 25, August 6, August 17 and September 4.
Tickets start at $29 . 619-23-GLOBE (234-5623), www.theoldglobe.org
©2013 PAT LAUNER