Academic journal article Chicago Review

Shylock after Auschwitz

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Shylock after Auschwitz

Article excerpt

On a discussion night during the recent run of The Merchant of Venice, the air at the Hartford Stage Company was filled with emotional heat as a panel on stereotypes in general evolved into a clash over Shylock's character and the ethics of staging the play at all. At one point, Rabbi Leon Klenicki, Director of Jewish-Christian Relations for the Anti-Defamation League, leaned forward to look past a fellow panelist so that he could challenge Mark Lamos, the play's director. Since Lamos had already given several reasons for choosing to produce The Merchant of Venice, the Rabbi's rhetorical question, "After Auschwitz, why put on this play?" revealed how totally the horror of the Holocaust determined his response. Lamos could not, of course, effectively answer such a loaded question, one that preceded others like it from the audience. Ad hominem attacks covered buried accusations of anti-Semitism: Didn't Lamos know Jewish history? Was he ignorant of the blood libel? How could he allow an actor to wear a tallis outside the synagogue? What does it mean for Hartford Stage to assemble a panel on stereotypes with only one, outnumbered Jew?

Discussion turned to controversy, and controversy to confrontation because Lamos wanted to talk about a specific production based on broadly humane premises while Rabbi Klenicki and others could not imagine any treatment of Shylock but a stereotypical, anti-Semitic one. In their view, the "legend" and "legacy" of John Gross's subtitle(1) are now fixed and immutable: Shylock is the type of the grasping, usurious Jew, the ritual murderer who lures good Christians to their deaths. As a result, one who puts on this play after Auschwitz collaborates with Shakespeare in the "teaching of contempt" and can be compared to the intellectuals in La Trahison des Clercs. When the moderator asked Lamos if he felt responsible for a betrayal of this kind, his reply tried to steer the discussion toward performance, "My production is not the text he [Klenicki] is reading." But dialogue was not to be, for another of his remarks prompted hisses and boos from part of the audience: "If Shylock is stereotypical to Jews, they have to examine their own view of stereotypes."

Rabbi Klenicki's convictions, however, could not be shaken, grounded as they are in immeasurable pain. Near the end of his survey of the Shylock figure from Shakespeare's time to the present, John Gross reports a similar verdict on the play: "The sad truth, [Pierre] Spriet concludes...is that The Merchant of Venice...can no longer be adequately performed" (345). Gross does not accept Spriet's unqualified corollary, "The play must be abandoned," but his final paragraph subjects the play to reader responses conditioned by inescapable pressures:

Exactly where the play now stands depends on one's wider reading of European history. I personally think it is absurd to suppose that there is a direct line of descent from Antonio to Hitler, or from Portia to the SS, but that is because I do not believe that the Holocaust was in any way inevitable. I do believe, on the other hand, that the ground for the Holocaust was well prepared, and to that extent the play can never seem quite the same again. It is still a masterpiece; but there is a permanent chill in the air, even in the gardens of Belmont. (352)

If Gross is correct, no director, even the most sensitive to social and political contexts, could mount a coherent production of the play and at the same time satisfy an audience's various readings of history. At best, an enlightened post-Holocaust director is challenged to stage a timeless "masterpiece" with a timely "chill." The literary and cultural history that John Gross documents makes such oppositions between performance and text and between character and stereotype unavoidable in stagings of The Merchant of Venice. His preface notes the danger of abstracting a Lear or Prospero from his play, but argues that Shylock is "a special case": "Not only does he stand out from his surroundings in peculiarly stark isolation; his myth has flourished with little reference to The Merchant of Venice as a whole, quite often with none at all" (10). …

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