Offensive, yes, but worth it

By John Nathan, May 18, 2011

Another season, another Shylock. This month the Royal Shakespeare Company once again revives Shakespeare's Jew play. Theatre companies tend not to do a great deal of soul searching about the offence that is guaranteed to be caused to Jews by staging The Merchant of Venice.

Unless a director happens to be Jewish, he or she might be unaware of what it is like to be a Jew, sitting among gentiles, watching a Jewish character created by a gentile sharpen his knife on the sole of his shoe before approaching the flesh of a Christian.

They presumably conclude that any offence, while regrettable, is a price worth paying.

And long may they do so. Because the only way to make the price too heavy would be to campaign for the play to be banned as some Christians did with Jerry Springer, The Opera, which they considered to be blasphemous; or riot as some Sikhs did with the play Bezhti, which they considered to be sacrilegious. And if you are for freedom of expression, banning plays is not a good look.

During my interview with Sir Patrick Stewart in this week's JC, the actor told me that while he was living in America playing Star Trek's Captain Picard, he was invited to give a reading at Boston's largely Jewish Brandeis University. When he chose one of Shylock's speeches his hosts vetoed the choice.

I'm a little surprised to find myself looking forward

Not that I would blame anyone for avoiding the play. David Nathan, my father and predecessor as JC theatre critic, put the case well when he protested about play that begins with the merchant Antonio's line, "In sooth, I know not why I am so sad; it wearies me..."

"In sooth", wrote Nathan, "I know what saddens and wearies me: it is the sight of Shylock distributing his grief evenly between the loss of his daughter and his ducats; of the Jew turning into a mirror image of his oppressors...I am weary of the smugness of the slave-owning, Jew-bating Christians with their "mercy" of forced conversion."

I generally try not to quote my father. It feels rather like a compliment and when he was alive we had a mutually respectful policy of not complimenting each other too much. But in his description of The Merchant of Venice, I've yet to come across a more eloquent summary of the Jewish objection to the play.

Still, the play need not be an unremittingly hostile evening. If it were, Jewish actors such as Antony Sher and Henry Goodman would not take on the role of Shylock - and they have, sometimes with brilliant results.

Old school productions of The Merchant of Venice - with a hooked nosed, rasping Shylock - are these days pretty rare in this country, not only because it would be a virulently antisemitic interpretation but because it would be a damningly unimaginative one.

Stewart persuasively argues that Shylock's "hath a Jew not eyes" speech reveals the play to be at heart more anti-Christian than antisemitic. The speech climaxes with the Jew declaring that "If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that". There it is. Shylock offering himself as that mirror image of his oppressor. So Merchant is, says Stewart, a play populated by antisemites, but that does not make it antisemitic.

Personally, I don't buy the argument. For me, the play's heart is revealed in its shift in tone from the seriousness of Shylock's forced conversion to the sense of celebration that follows it.

Yet still, although I have spent most of my theatre-going life dreading each revival of The Merchant of Venice, these days I'm a little surprised to find myself looking forward to them. What makes the play so interesting is the creative conundrum it poses to its directors. How to negotiate the play's prejudice without diminishing the Jew's barbarity. In Trevor Nunn's landmark 1999 production starring Goodman, the director squared the circle by placing Shylock's fellow Jew Tubal in the court scene. Tubal leaves in disgust when he realises Shylock is intent on having his pound of flesh.

No, these days, I'm no longer weary of the play. So wicked are the traps a director and actor set themselves by choosing to revive The Merchant of Venice, I can't help but mischievously look forward to them either becoming ensnared, or marvelling at the skill with which they avoid them. A world without The Merchant of Venice would be much less offensive to be sure, but a lot less interesting too.

Last updated: 10:04am, May 18 2011