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‘Compared to what?’
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‘Compared to what?’

Ruth Bader Ginsburg talks ‘Merchant of Venice’ at Montclair State

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg participated in a roundtable discussion with Shakespearean scholars David Scott Kastan of Yale University, at right, and James Shapiro of Columbia University. Photos by Mike Peters
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg participated in a roundtable discussion with Shakespearean scholars David Scott Kastan of Yale University, at right, and James Shapiro of Columbia University. Photos by Mike Peters

Even distinguished Shakespearean scholars sitting on a roundtable panel with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — and not just attorneys presenting a case before her — can be rendered speechless by her intellect. 

To wit, her performance at Montclair State University (MSU) on Sept. 23, where she joined a roundtable discussion about “The Merchant of Venice” with David Scott Kastan, the George M. Bodman Professor of English at Yale University, and James Shapiro, the Larry Miller Professor of English at Columbia University. It was sponsored by MSU’s Office of Arts and Cultural Programming. 

The otherwise articulate Kastan was left somewhat tongue-tied at Ginsburg’s response to his question, “Do you find the play anti-Semitic?” She looked at him and answered, slowly, “Compared to what? ‘The Jew of Malta?’” He could only mumble, awe apparent, “Excellent answer…. That’s an excellent line.”

(For the uninitiated, “The Jew of Malta” is a play by Christopher Marlowe, one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, that offers a title character who is the Devil incarnate and has no redeeming qualities; whereas Shylock, the Jewish usurer, who insists on taking a pound of flesh when a borrower cannot repay a loan, nonetheless has some humanizing and redeeming qualities.)

And while both leading Shakespeare scholars consulted their notes when quoting from “Merchant,” Ginsburg recited it by rote, leading Shapiro to quip, “My memory is not as strong as yours so I’ll read the lines. It’s not that I don’t teach this every year; I’m just not Supreme Court justice material.”

Her characteristic one-liners were on full display, and her analysis of the play did not disappoint, either. She deemed Portia, the play’s sought-after bachelorette, not only “unlikeable” but “the least likeable” — even less than the detestable Shylock. 

Shortly after Portia states “the quality of mercy is not strained,” Ginsburg noted, “She’s beating up on poor old Shylock, showing him no mercy.” And Ginsburg points to the matter of Portia’s disdain for the suitor Morocco because of his “burnished” complexion as further evidence. “So, you know she’s bigoted.” 

Moreover, Ginsburg criticized Portia’s lack of sympathy for Shylock’s alien status. “Portia is a woman, pretending to be a man, pretending to be a lawyer/judge at a time when she could not be a lawyer or a judge. In a sense, she’s an outsider, too. And that’s why it’s so remarkable she should do this to Shylock. She should have experienced otherness herself.”

At one point, Ginsburg left Shapiro tipping his hat to her, when she suggested an interpretation of Shylock’s behavior that he had not considered: As Shylock hears that his daughter has eloped with the Christian Lorenzo and sold her mother’s turquoise ring for a monkey, Ginsburg said, “You can interpret that as a turning point for Shylock, that he wasn’t mentally competent when he is insisting on the pound of flesh. But his despair, and his rage — I think when he exits…his line is, ‘I am not well.’ And you can understand Shylock’s insistence on the pound of flesh that way.”

When the justice finished her explanation, Shapiro, otherwise expressive and eloquent, was reduced to responding, while wearing a goofy smile, “That’s great.” 

The hour-long conversation covered Ginsburg’s early interest in the play (“It was banned in public schools in New York, so then I decided to read the play”); her feelings on censorship of Shakespeare (“I cannot imagine any such thing. Through the ages authors, composers were plagued by censors. You know the famous answer of [Supreme Court] Justice [Louis D.] Brandeis: The solution for bad speech, what we should do about bad speech, is to have good speech”); and her belief that because of his deep knowledge of the law evident in so many of his plays, that Shakespeare may have been a lawyer himself. 

She was quick to explain away the famous line from “Henry the VI,” spoken by Dick the Butcher, an anarchist (and a role she herself has played at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.): “The first thing we do let’s kill all the lawyers.” 

“That was not meant to be a putdown of lawyers,” she said. Rather, the line is spoken in favor of an anarchist rebellion, and Shakespeare understood that “you need the law to save the society from chaos.” Read in context, “It shows how much he does understand about the law and its importance, and how society does need the rule of law.” 

However, Ginsburg was unimpressed by the Bard’s choice in “Merchant” to transform a civil case into a criminal one. “Shakespeare knew a lot about the law. That’s evident from his plays,” she said. “And yet Shylock is bringing a civil case. He is suing on a contract for specific enforcement, and then it gets turned into a criminal case against him.

“In the civil-law world a person often brings a civil claim on the tails of prosecution…but this is a proceeding that starts out civil and I think that is unknown in the legal world that you can transform a civil proceeding into a criminal prosecution.” 

She shared her delight in presiding over mock trials of various Shakespearean characters in the past, including the witches in “Macbeth,” who were charged with complicity in the murder of Duncan. Were they acquitted, asked Kastan? “Yes,” Ginsburg replied. “Because they were just an excuse for Macbeth doing what his ambition drove him to do.”

Kastan and Shapiro offered plenty of their own insights, but of course, their erudition was expected and they carried much of the conversation. 

The event dovetailed with the American premiere of director Karin Coonrod’s version of “The Merchant of Venice,” performed by her company, Compagnia de’ Colombari, based in New York City and presented by MSU’s Peak Performance series, which features five different actors of different races and creeds in the role of Shylock. 

Ginsburg’s grandson, Paul Spera, an actor based in Paris, plays the role of Lorenzo. Performances continue through Oct. 1; visit peakperfs.org.

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