BOSTON – Is “The Merchant of Venice” anti-Semitic? Scholars, directors, actors, and theatergoers continue to debate that question and diverge greatly in their interpretations of the play written by William Shakespeare in 1596.
As reported in Smithsonian Magazine, late Shakespeare expert Harold Bloom wrote in “Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human,” his 1998 book, “One would have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to recognize that Shakespeare’s grand, equivocal comedy ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is nevertheless a profoundly anti-Semitic work.”
By contrast, many performers since the great 19th century English actor Edmund Kean have often looked to the Jewish moneylender’s famous “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech in making the role sympathetic.
Now – in a time when anti-Semitic activity has risen to a level unseen for generations – is a good time to ponder. Igor Golyak is taking his cues from the Elizabethan era itself, when audiences would have seen Shylock as a villain and the play was termed a comedy. The Needham Jewish director recently spoke to the Journal about his take for the production set in the present day by the Actors Shakespeare Project at the Boston Center for the Arts – halted after two previews by the Hub theater shutdown in the wake of Covid-19 – a revival he hopes to resume in late summer or early fall.
“For me,” Golyak asserted, “it’s absolutely clear that this play was anti-Semitic. The [Elizabethan] public would have laughed. I think Shakespeare’s genius gave birth to something that changed over time.”
Golyak observes in a director’s note that “‘The Merchant of Venice” was a prescription by Joseph Goebbels [the Nazis’ propaganda director] as part of the Final Solution and proof of why the Jewish people deserved to be exterminated.” In fact, the Nazis made the play a significant part of their radio broadcasts after Kristallnacht (1938) and presented productions in Nazi territory. “In Nazi Germany,” Golyak submitted, “people were booing Shylock.”
In the Actors Shakespeare Project staging, Golyak has audience members reacting in a variety of ways to reflect their changing emotions. “For me,” he admitted, “the journey the audience is going through is even more interesting than what’s going on [on stage].” Here, there are applause signs. Golyak recalled theatergoers both applauding and crying after the previews and at a talkback.
Golyak’s goal is to challenge audiences. Alluding to Sacha Baron Cohen’s unusual look at anti-Semitism in his in-your-face film “Borat,” Golyak explained, “We took the clichés and stereotypes that people use. The first time Shylock [played by Nael Nacer] comes out, he is wearing a mask and a big nose. This is the way Nazis would see him.”
In the ASP revival, the perception of Shylock is essential. For example, when ship merchant Antonio and his financially strapped best friend Bassanio step offstage, Shylock takes off his mask and becomes a real person. “It [the perception of him] is a shock to the audience,” Golyak alerted.
As for Shakespeare’s audiences, he contended, they would have seen the play as “a comedy that ends with a happy ending.” That would have included the downfall of Shylock for trying to obtain a pound of flesh without a drop of blood. “For them, [the play and its meaning] was very simple.”
Working with an eight-member cast, Golyak has also relied on the efforts of Jewish puppet designer Ksenya Litvak. In this production, secondary characters Gratiano, Salerio, and Solanio become puppets.
Summing up his approach, Golyak said, “I didn’t try to be provocative but I think it [the revival] came out to be.”
Actors Shakespeare Project has announced that it intends to include the company’s production of “The Merchant of Venice” in its 2020-2021 season in a run as yet to be determined (617-241-2200 or actorsshakespeare.org).