In contrast to the incendiary 2004 release of Mel Gibson’s bloody epic The Passion of the Christ, the current British film version of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice came and went from theaters with relatively little fanfare. Though Merchant’s early 2005 Seattle run registered barely a blip on the local film scene, over 60 people attended Congregation Herzl-Ner Tamid’s March 30 discussion, “When Art Offends: Shylock as Stereotype in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.”
A diverse trio of speakers addressed The Merchant of Venice from three distinct points of view: Dr. Robert Stacey, Professor of History at the University of Washington, the event’s featured presenter joined Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum of the hosting synagogue and Rob Jacobs, Director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Pacific Northwest office.
The panelists examined the most recent exploration of Shakespeare on film, past productions of the play from the Renaissance through Nazi Germany, and the script as a literary document. The conversation was not burdened by an overly esoteric distinction between these various mediums. Instead, the discussion revolved around thematic issues of special interest to the Jewish audience on hand.
Stacey, an expert in medieval history and European money-lending practices of the time, addressed The Merchant of Venice as a text whose meaning and intent is best deciphered by a careful reading of the period’s cultural signposts and historic realities. His 45-minute presentation was lively and included character and plot descriptions that were informative and concise, if not always uninflected.
Stacey framed his remarks in light of two overarching questions: before delving into his analysis, he asked, rhetorically, “Why is this play so disturbing? And why do audiences, directors and critics continue to argue whether or not it is anti-Semitic?”
These questions were the springboard from which Stacey launched a detailed and scholarly account of the “submerged, half-remembered anti-Jewish types” that would have been well-known to Shakespeare. He argued that, by extension, the world of the play would have been informed by these myths, and that these myths would have informed Shakespeare’s depiction of the controversial Shylock.
Stacey also outlined three prevailing Christian myths regarding Jews: he cited an historic notion of Jewish literalism, exemplified by Shylock’s infamous demand for a pound of flesh from a man indebted to him. In the Christian mindset of the day, slavish devotion to literalism prevented Jews from achieving Salvation. By contrast, Christians saw themselves as spiritual, not literal, and therefore, worthy of Salvation.
Stacey quoted Shylock’s arguably most damning lines, “My daughter! My ducats!” to illustrate the medieval perception of Jewish carnality. He described a society that believed Jews valued “flesh, money and material things” above all else. As a corollary to Shylock’s miserliness, Stacey noted that Shylock’s daughter Jessica “starts spending money like water” once she has converted to Christianity.
Some of Stacey’s most impassioned remarks came as he explored the disparaging “Jews as dogs” metaphor. Dr. Stacey highlighted the “Eucharistic echoes” he finds in Shakespeare’s work. He reminded the audience that “bread” had a very specific and relatively new meaning as the body of Christ during this period.
Jacobs preceded his remarks by asking Stacey, “What do we make of anti-Semitism without Jews?” Stacey again returned to the historical debut of the Eucharist as prescribed Church ritual. He postulated that “13th century Jews were the paradigmatic doubters of Christian claims [of the Eucharist],” and added that the notion of the unrepentant Jew may have provided skeptical Christians a convenient receptacle for their own religious doubts.
The presence of anti-Semitism in the absence of Jews continued to be a point of interest later in the evening. Jacobs put forth the plain but honest statement that “human beings seem to need someone that isn’t them to feel better about themselves.” Mr. Jacobs gave a convincing answer to his own earlier question by defining humanity’s long-standing need for “the other” even when that sought after “other” does not exist.
Jacobs drew a stark contrast between the 50 Nazi productions of The Merchant of Venice staged between 1933 and 1939 and today’s film. He noted that the pre-war German productions highlighted the dual myths of Jewish blood libel and the hooked-nose Jew. He concluded the cautionary tale with a note that these productions often traveled to German towns and villages immediately before Jewish round-ups began.
Rabbi Rosenbaum described his dread when he first heard of The Merchant of Venice’s release. Ultimately, he said he was not as disturbed as he had expected to be. Dismal box office results may be death to movie producers, but for Rabbi Rosenbaum, a box office bust “was tremendously reassuring.”
He made specific reference to the explosive box office success of The Passion of The Christ and the negative impact he perceived here and abroad because of its popularity.
Rabbi Rosenbaum was comforted further by the casting of Al Pacino as Shylock, whose stature as an actor as well as his ability “to play even villains heroically,” eased Rabbi Rosenbaum’s mind. He noted that the screenplay excised some of the play’s most notorious passages—a decision by the film’s director that garnered criticism from reviewers around the country. Rabbi Rosenbaum and Stacey concurred that the movie’s historically informative prologue ameliorated—at least to some degree—the most troublesome aspects of the text.
Rabbi Rosenbaum also suggested that Shylock’s well-known “Hath not a Jew” speech is a sympathetic one, “not just because of its content but also because of its cadences. It is a Jewish speech because it is filled with questions. It has the echo of a prophetic voice. The Prophets are full of hard-driving, rhetorical questions.”
Melanie Berman, Herzl-Ner Tamid’s Education Director, said she was pleased with the audience turnout—nearly half came from the greater Jewish community—as well as the partnership—the synagogue, the UW, and the ADL—that produced the event. She said she saw the discussion was in concert with the synagogue’s adult education goals “to help people find relevance in their Jewish heritage and make connections with cultural, political and philosophical issues.”