It could easily have been a more miserable week but I had an escape from the news, spending three days on and off at UCL’s international conference on Shakespeare and the Jews. The scholars presenting were from various academic disciplines as well as different countries: Renaissance history, theatre studies, translation studies, modern literature, 20th century history, but not so much of Shakespeare studies. Here’s a flavour of the keynote lecture by Professor Oz whose main fields are Shakespeare, theatre studies and political theatre. I thought his gist was that Shakespeare was dealing with ideas about nationhood becoming based on something other than religion or tribalism and developing into a political construct that fitted the new age of commerce and trade. Will Venice, a trading and commercial centre that has recently allowed Jews to settle there, especially those expelled from Spain and Portugal, let them become equals as citizens and professionals? Oz and other presenters suggested Shakespeare might have had London in mind.
The conference presenters’ consensus seemed to be that as an unquestionably antisemitic play it’s no longer possible to put on The Merchant of Venice any more, but they also noted from a more global perspective that while that’s true of other countries it applies less to the UK. Malkin and Voights, who have been asking the views of current theatre practitioners for their project on hyphenated cultures, quoted Nicholas Hytner as saying he couldn’t stomach ‘being in the world of the play’ as everyone seems to be antisemitic, in contrast to the treatment of Othello. In that other play Venice uses ‘Moor’ as a simple descriptor, not a term of abuse. The conference summed up 20th century re-versionings as apologetics, and what came across very strongly was that Shylock’s famous speech, supposedly pivotal, far from redeeming the play actually worsens the antisemitic effect by humanising the character and making him appear more plausible rather than a crude stereotype. That reminded me of an incident years ago when my son’s class – 10 year olds, probably – took part in a staging of the play at the Globe Theatre, along with other Southwark primary schools. He was the only Jewish child in his class. The borough’s drama adviser no doubt thought it was a good choice. I vaguely remember we challenged it but the adviser’s case was that pupils would be ‘workshopping’ scenes and discussing the problematic aspects. It is and was a rubbish argument given that the entire play is irrefutably and structurally racist.
Interestingly the presenters who described much more radical new versions with playwrights ‘writing back’ at the play agreed that they tended not to work either dramatically or in terms of getting the audience response they wanted. That was even true of an Israeli-German production in Buchenwald where the audience were local Germans and the idea was to bring home the links between Nazi ideology and Shylock imagery. The director thought it was a failure. There’s a new book out, Wrestling with Shylock, on Jewish responses to the play. The cover uses Jacob Kramer’s haunting painting. Here’s a tiny glimpse.
I wondered about the attachment to Shakespeare in the English theatre and English literature studies and whether it’s more difficult in the UK to accept that Merchant of Venice is unplayable. Is Shakespeare such a heroic figure that people want to believe in his virtues too much? (Katherine Duncan-Jones once wrote a very funny piece about the contortions some writers have tied themselves in to try and make Shakespeare out as a robust heterosexual.) I saw the 2008 Royal Shakespeare Company production which Michael Billington described as morally evasive. It was worse than evasive. The most shocking moment was the curtain call at the end. The audience booed Shylock. Producers and directors need to wake up to their responsibilities. No point in blaming Shakespeare. Here he is in a wonky mural seen yesterday in Clink Street, not far from the contemporary Globe.