There is no way to read William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” as being anything short of antisemitic. A significant part of the play is people expressing their disdain for Shylock not for any character flaw — of which he has many — but solely for being a Jew. As an Ashkenazic man who was raised Jewish, I found myself curious as to what is so great about this play that it is worth disparaging an entire people just to stage it so I went to the Shakespeare Tavern to see Atlanta Shakespeare Company’s performance directed by Laura Cole.
Just to explain a little about the degree to which I am sensitive to antisemitism, I have no problem listening to Karajan’s recordings and even have some Richard Wetz pieces in one of the playlists that I listen to while at work. Although I’m not a fan of his music, I am in the middle of watching Wagner’s Ring Cycle and am really enjoying “Siegfried” so far. I studied Gottlob Frege and Martin Heidegger in college without any complaint as to their political activities. I’m pretty comfortable with the fact that Shakespeare was living in a time and place that was antisemitic and that this play is merely a reflection of that.
All of that said, I walked out at the intermission. I cringed a lot at what was said in the play, to be sure, but I also laughed a lot. And there are some truly great lines in it. What really got to me, though — the reason that I could not bring myself to stay to see how the play is resolved — was not what was on stage but what was in the audience: children laughing as the actors played antisemitism for laughs. In short, I just watched as Atlanta Shakespeare Company taught children to find bigotry entertaining.
I’m not terribly fond of censorship, but I honestly don’t think that this play should be staged anymore. That it has funny moments or some great speeches does not outweigh the fact that it is undeniably and explicitly bigoted. We, as a culture, have walked away from an impressive volume of bigoted art. We don’t care how hilarious and poignant some of it was, we don’t do black-face minstrel shows anymore. Even the current revival of the historically important “Shuffle Along” isn’t really a revival at all because the real dialog of the original play is considered completely unacceptable by today’s standards.
Should I really compare Shakespeare to these kinds of things? Yes. I love his writing and spend quite a bit of time at the Shakespeare Tavern but, if we’re completely honest, Shakespeare’s comedies are a collection of sex jokes and other vulgarities applied to stories that he didn’t even develop himself. And the more noble aspects of the play, such as the “Hath not a Jew Eyes” speech or Portias comments on mercy? Should they be sacrificed? Yes. Those are a rare part of the script compared to the antisemitism and vulgar jokes.
Here’s the thing: theater has power. Humor has power. The arts have power. These are all things that Watkins and all other artists are quick to tell us when they want us to support them. There is no shortage of research that suggests that bigoted jokes make people feel that bigotry is more acceptable (e.g. the research of Thomas Ford). Simply put, artists need to accept responsibility for what they produce and recognize that their work does have an impact on their audiences. You can’t send out fundraising letters talking about how your work touches people’s lives and then say that it’s just a play or just a joke and everyone is being overly sensitive when you are called out for producing hurtful work.
If the idea of not staging this work is so abhorrent, then defang it. See what happens when you replace the word “Jew” with the word “Shylock.” Change every reference to Shylock’s being a Jew to refer to something about his character. Shakespeare is almost never performed as written; even the RSC doesn’t do that. Words are almost always changed to make it more comprehensible and scenes are cut, merged, or even, at times, interpolated. Even when this isn’t done then the performances are not pure and accurate to what the bard staged: all we really have are reconstructions of his works since he refused to publish them.
Just last month I saw Atlanta Shakespeare change the ending of “Two Gentleman of Verona” to have the two ladies ditch the eponymous gentlemen after the latter made amends as though Proteus attempting to rape Silvia and treating Julia like trash was easily forgivable. If you can change the end of a play to avoid such blatant sexism then you can change a few words here and there to avoid antisemitism. If you cannot even do this then, at the very least, you can present it with some context so that audiences don’t come away with the idea that antisemitism is acceptable. If you cannot do any of this — if you cannot do anything to make amends for the fact that you are producing a very hurtful, bigoted work that can actually cause harm to people — then how can we believe that you are anything else but a bigot yourself? Just because you have a Jewish actor playing Shylock and a handful of Jewish people have said that they are ok with this play doesn’t make it any less damaging. Art is powerful. Take responsibility for that.