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Deconstructing Shylock
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Deconstructing Shylock

Split casting uncovers ambiguity in innovative ‘Merchant’ at MSU

The Compagnia de’ Colombari, including Sorab Wadia (Graziano) and Ned Eisenberg (Shylock #5) in “The Merchant of Venice.” Photos by Andrea Messana
The Compagnia de’ Colombari, including Sorab Wadia (Graziano) and Ned Eisenberg (Shylock #5) in “The Merchant of Venice.” Photos by Andrea Messana

Is Shylock a venal villain, an embodiment of negative Jewish stereotypes, or a tragic victim doomed by his enemies’ anti-Semitic antipathy? An expert involved in a visionary staging of “The Merchant of Venice” claims that a daring casting move helps avoid a reductive “binary” take on what is arguably Shakespeare’s most controversial character.

In its American premiere, Compagnia de’ Colombari’s innovative production of “The Merchant of Venice” will play at Montclair State University Sept. 19-Oct. 1 as part of the Peak Performances series.

The revolutionary production — in which five actors of diverse race, ethnicity, and gender play Shylock — was initially performed in the Jewish Ghetto of Venice last year to mark the site’s 500th anniversary and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

The play “seems to dig deeper into the heart of mankind beneath [the] two uncompromising poles of justice and mercy,” its director, Karin Coonrod, has said.

Coonrod, who is on the faculty of the Yale School of Drama and whose work has been shown and acclaimed across the United States and around the world, is also founding director of Colombari. The theater company, an international collective of performing artists, is based in New York but was conceived in Orvieto, Italy, in 2004. 

Coonrod said she discovered that it is the ambiguity that lies at the heart of Shakespeare’s “comedy” — “In the world of the play, a mercy never expressed for the Jew in the street is conveniently required of the Jew in the court” — that “opens the soul of our humanity….”

And having five distinctly different actors — including a woman — portray Shylock, she said, “opens up the character in a way that is Jewish and universal.”

On Sunday afternoon, Sept. 24, Prof. Shaul Bassi, author of “Shakespeare’s Italy and Italy’s Shakespeare: Place, ‘Race,’ Politics,” will give a talk, “Shakespeare in the Ghetto, the Ghetto in Shakespeare,” on the MSU campus. 

Bassi, associate professor of English and director of the International Center for the Humanities and Social Change at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, a cosponsor of the production, will discuss the history and current state of the Venice Ghetto — the first, and the one that gave its name to all that followed — and will compare the facts of the Ghetto with Shakespeare’s fictions. 

In an email exchange with NJJN, Bassi discussed the play and the production.

When asked who or what Shakespeare might have based the character of Shylock on, Bassi said that “Shakespeare’s meeting with real Jews — possible — is less important than his familiarity with the imaginary Jews built by centuries of Christian anti-Judaism.” The bard was undoubtedly influenced by such simplified stereotypes, Bassi said, but he “managed to complicate them.” 

Shakespeare might also have been captivated by the concept of the Ghetto, which was established to segregate Venice’s Jews but allowed them, with limits, to interact with the gentile population. Whereas England had expelled its Jews in the 13th century, the Ghetto, said Bassi, “was a pragmatic compromise adopted by Venice and accepted by the Jews for lack of better alternatives.” Shakespeare never visited the Ghetto, Bassi said, but he “may have been fascinated with the coexistence of Jews and Christians in Venice, the fact that they lived side by side.” 

Shylock’s iconic speech — “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions… If you prick us, do we not bleed?” — is often cited as evidence of Shakespeare’s tolerance. But, said Bassi, “the speech is far more ambiguous than normally warranted,” and, given that the Jewish moneylender is also depicted as a vengeful, greedy “villain” unwilling to give up his “pound of flesh,” Bassi asserted that “Shylock is ultimately a deeply ambivalent character who refuses to be constrained in the villain vs. victim binary.” 

He is “both hideous and humane” — a conundrum ideally embodied by Colombari’s bold casting move. 

Bassi said the production was a success in Venice, “precisely because it made literal the presence of multiple personalities in the same figure. It also forced the audience to confront the complexity of Shylock without fully identifying with him.” 

In this way, he said, the five Shylocks offer “a powerful message of unity and difference.”

The Venice Ghetto staging “was a great tribute to the place,” said Bassi, “but it was also a very important political and civil message for the world of today.”

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