The “Jew” and the “Merchant” at the JCC of Manhattan

After my recent posting about anti-Semitism in the Merchant of Venice and the Jew of Malta, I received a very kind invitation from Seth Duerr founder and director of the York Shakespeare Company which, I was surprised to learn, was staging rotating productions of the two plays at the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan. I couldn’t resist. Last weekend I went to New York, saw both productions and had an extremely enjoyable and interesting dinner with Mr. Duerr. He strikes me as a most remarkable young man, and one of those rare individuals whose capacity seems to match their ambition; it’s much more typical to meet those with capacity but limited ambition, or those with huge ambitions but limited capacity. Mr. Duerr directed but, due to complicated New York City union regulations, was unable to perform in these plays.

I’m used to discussing Shakespeare and other Renaissance literature with academics rather than performers and directors, and I have to say I found Mr. Duerr’s command of and insights into the Shakespeare canon to be impressive and interestingly different from the understandings achieved by those who tend to mainly read the texts on paper or electronically. One of the more interesting things he told me is that he doesn’t derive any pleasure from reading Shakespeare, which I find remarkable, but needs to locate these texts in terms of a staged performance in order to engage with them properly. One of the reasons, I think, that I found his approach to the works unusual is that he is looking at them not as a reader/critic, or even so much as an actor, but rather as a director, concentrating on staging and theatrical storytelling that can communicate meanings from a stage to seats in the stalls. This is, of course, a restoration of the closest proximity to the conditions of the original production and initial reception and use of the texts themselves, since they were written by a manager/director of a theater, and were initially read by those involved in theatrical productions as scripts for performances rather than poems on paper. Engaging with Shakespeare as a director, or even an actor, places one in the oldest and most unbroken chain of conversation with the works themselves, far older and in many ways richer than anything academic and literary criticism can offer. And it necessitates knowing the plays literally inside out.

Regarding the productions of the Merchant of Venice and the Jew of Malta at the Manhattan JCC, the most straightforward evaluation would be to say that driving from Washington to New York early in the morning, watching one play, having dinner, watching the second play, and then driving back to Washington arriving in the middle of the night was well worth the trip. Rightly or wrongly, I’m not a fan of New York City and it takes a great deal to get me up there, and even more to make me consider that the visit was worthwhile. In this case, there’s no question. Allowing for the fact that the productions enjoyed virtually no budget and because of the aforesaid regulations could only be cast with nonunion performers, they were remarkably engaging, entertaining and stimulating.

The obvious argument at the heart of staging both plays in a rotating fashion at the JCC of Manhattan is that neither play is meaningfully, or simply and simplistically, anti-Semitic. The Jew of Malta, which has, as I explained the other day, an overwhelming and, I think, undeserved reputation as viciously anti-Semitic, especially in contrast to the Merchant of Venice, was staged in a very straightforward manner. There was no effort to recuperate the character of Barabas, because, as I wrote, a sympathetic portrayal of this character is quite impossible. However, the key is getting the audience to go past the dreadful and apparently anti-Semitic character of Barabas with which they are assaulted from the outset to patiently see how the equal or worse villainy of all the other characters (except, perhaps, his daughter) changes the context and therefore the meaning of what would otherwise be simply a racist caricature against Jews.

The Jew of Malta is something like a two part sentence in which Marlowe’s first clause says, “isn’t it amazing how horribly bad the Jews are,” only to be followed after the comma with a second clause saying, “except, of course, that everyone else is worse.” The second part of the sentence, or in this case what unfolds in the action of the play about the other characters, completely changes the context and the meaning of what is initially apparent. My imaginary analogy sentence functions a little bit like the famous dictum quoted by Winston Churchill about democracy being the worst possible system of government, except for all the others. What begins as an apparent denunciation in its full context proves to be something of a recuperation (not to suggest that Marlowe was trying to praise Jews as Churchill was trying to praise democracy, but rather that Marlowe effectively kills the notion that his stereotypically “bad” Jew is any worse — or better — than the Christians or Muslims surrounding him). On this basis I argued that the Jew of Malta should not be seen as an anti-Semitic text, and Duerr?s straightforward and uncut production — though it unfortunately albeit understandably skips the famous Machiavel prologue — bears out this case quite clearly.

The parallel production of the Merchant of Venice is also uncut, and it’s clear which play Duerr engages with more thoroughly. Duerr and I don’t agree, I think, ultimately about the question of whether or not the Merchant of Venice can be legitimately seen as containing genuinely anti-Semitic elements or not. My argument, as I explained last week, is based on the broader cultural context of the time, in which I think the Merchant, especially the trial scene, constituted a theatrical staging of an assertion of superiority of what are supposedly Christian ethics and culture versus what are allegedly Jewish ones. I think Duerr and many others take issue with this by seeing Shylock more in the context of the drama of the play itself, as a wronged man belonging to a wronged people who came by his vengeful rage honestly, so to speak, and as a survivor who is always prepared to move on to the next bitter phase of a bitter life. His staging and direction certainly reflects this reading powerfully, but I don’t think it does anything to compel me to reevaluate my own historicized assessment.

As with Barabas, Duerr presents Shylock straight, so to speak, directly as suggested by the full, uncut text of the Merchant. He doesn’t try to reframe or reconstruct the Merchant in order to attenuate Shylock’s rage, or in any other way exculpate him more than is already present in Shakespeare’s script. He also emphasizes the ?outsider? status of the Jews and others in both of his productions. In both plays most of the Jews have extravagant Yiddish accents (except for Barabas and his daughter Abigail) and the men wear skullcaps but, unlike the Christians, not ties. As for the other others, so to speak, like the Turkish slave Ithamore or the Prince of Aragon, Duerr ?others? them to the hilt with the most extravagant accents and preposterous costumes. His production ultimately, I think, supports both of our readings of the Merchant, since both are eminently justifiable from the unvarnished text.

What is more interesting and significant about this production of the Merchant is that Duerr bucks the prevailing trend of seeing the fifth act of the play as a disappointing and unworthy dénouement to the climactic and shattering trial scene, and therefore cutting it up and largely out. It has long been argued that the fifth act is an artless tack-on to an otherwise brilliant and breakthrough achievement by Shakespeare, clumsily resolving the outstanding issues and achieving an unsatisfactory set of couplings; that he was bound by the conventions of comedy to provide a ?happy ending? to what is, at its core, the Tragedy of Shylock. It has also long been generally agreed that the two stories in the Merchant — the tale of the bond and the tale of the three casks — are not equally important to either the narrative framework or the dramatic and emotional economy of the play. What Duerr understands is that, as so often happens, conventional wisdom has it backwards: the story of Shylock and the pound of flesh is ultimately of secondary importance in the overall schema of the Merchant when compared with the story of Portia?s marriage. By presenting the Merchant uncut and staging the fifth act in a manner that clearly demonstrates the unresolved tension between males and females in all three of the major couplings and the ongoing presence of Antonio as a destabilizing factor between Portia and Bassanio, he effectively demonstrates that the much-maligned “clumsy” happy ending is in fact deliberately structured to undermine itself, and promise as much unhappiness as happiness, as much faithlessness as faithfulness.

The play ends with a distinctly unconvincing and sexually charged promise on behalf of the males in the three couples to, ?fear no other thing, So sore as keeping safe [their wife?s] ring.? However, as this production clearly asks, to what extent can we credit the notion that the men have learned their lesson and will now suddenly keep true to promises in spite of the fact that the play is a litany of broken vows and commitments, and that, in spite of its profoundly homoerotic atmosphere, they will now focus their emotional as well as sexual affections on their wives and not their friends?

I don’t think anyone can seriously question the homoerotic text and subtext in the Merchant, but it certainly can be staged in a manner that foregrounds, contains or ignores this factor. Duerr, I think rightly, confronts the character of Antonio’s love straightforwardly — his affections for Bassanio go far beyond the idealized version of Renaissance male friendship they are usually understood to represent, but his overblown sense of and attachment to received versions of ethics, honor and especially religious devotion bar him from either acting on or probably even fully recognizing their nature. In Duerr?s spare production, Antonio’s crucifixes grow ever larger, culminating in a giant, ostentatious silver necklace worn at the end of the trial scene, a kind of religious erection. Both poles of this impossible binary combine to inform Antonio’s vicious, and seen in this context hysterical, anti-Semitic abuse of Shylock (which, when confronted with, he promises to repeat indefinitely): his defensive religious sentiments give him a ready-made target for his unmanageable frustrations. The link throughout the play between sexual frustration and racism, also clearly expressed in Portia?s court in early scenes, comes through masterfully in this production.

A word or two about Duerr?s semi-professional cast are warranted. Though there are plainly moments that fall short, and the entire cast of the Merchant seemed to let the dialogue get away from them a little bit after the intermission, overall the performances are impressively engaging and very sound. Paul Rubin provides an entertaining, comic Barabas who revels in his own malfeasance and rages against everyone else’s. Stephen Olender as Launcelot Gobbo and Graciany Miranda as the Prince of Aragon (in a shirt that might have been donated by an aging Carmen Miranda impersonator) ham it up marvelously, although Jed Charles? Prince of Morocco seems more Caribbean than North, or even sub-Saharan, African in a somewhat jarring way. But for me, the standout was Luis de Amechazurra, who was an extremely convincing, effective and consistent Shylock. He was also directly involved in two moments that demonstrate his own, and Duerr?s, sensitive interaction with the details of the texts.

Amechazurra has the small role of 1st Jew in Marlowe’s play, and when, as Barabas is a raging against the injustices that have befallen him, he asks him to consider the plight of Job, he is greeted by a long and perfectly hilarious silence and stare from Rubin. On a more serious note, Amechazurra?s Shylock, raging against his daughter’s theft and betrayal exclaims, ?The curse never fell upon our nation till now,? and then suddenly halts in midsentence and stutteringly backtracks, “I? I never felt it till now.? The artfulness here is that Shylock realizes in midsentence but he is about to commit an atrocious blasphemy, catches himself in the act, and corrects it in a manner that is religiously defensible. It’s more typical to see the passage “The curse never fell upon our nation till now; I never felt it till now,” as a complete thought consistent in itself, the second point following logically upon and illustrating the first. The way Duerr has directed and Amechazurra performs the passage is sensitive to a much richer interpretation in which the second passage following the semi-colon is a quick and decisive correction to the rash and dangerous first passage. It suggests that Shylock is not only religiously sensitive to his faith (though it doesn’t make him fanatical), but also reinforces his sensitivity to precision in language (which could be overtly staged as part of the Christian condemnation of Jewish “literalism” and “dogmatism,” but in this case is not) and his status as a careful survivor surrounded by dangers of all kinds from which he has no choice but to protect himself. This small, easily overlooked, moment for me summed up what Duerr was, I think, trying to communicate about Shylock and anti-Semitism in the Merchant.

Seth Duerr writes the following to clarify his views on anti-Semitism in the Merchant of Venice:

“I would say that it could be legitimately seen as containing genuinely anti-Semitic elements. I believe it contains a pile of them. However, I feel that they are lines that come out of the Christian mouths. I’m not so convinced about the actions (pound of flesh, etc.) or the assertion of superiority of Christian ethics and culture. Quite frankly, I that were so,
you’d side with Antonio, Gratiano, Bassanio, Portia, etc. in the trial, and while saving Antonio’s life is necessary, that is all that need occur. The degradation they continue to impose upon Shylock is sickening and I don’t believe we’re meant to side with it or to find Christian ethics/culture as superior. They do, but we need not. Shakespeare leaves this option possible (mistakenly equating Antonio with Christ, etc.) for those who cannot be convinced of the hypocrisy of the Christians in the court and want to see themselves as holy, merciful, et al. but of course leaves the loophole of sympathizing with Shylock. If anyone feels the slightest sympathy for Shylock after the Christians have asserted their ‘superiority,’ then that moral high-ground can’t mean much. After all, Christ supposedly laid down his life for our sins, Antonio lays down his life to impress a spendthrift boy to whom he is powerfully attracted.”

I don’t disagree with any of that.