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Shakespeare on Trial: Is the Bard Good to the Jews?

Shylock, the world’s most despised moneylender, is once again sharpening his knife in a new production of The Merchant of Venice. Do we need this, during a summer when the Jewish People have enough problems on their plate? Or can a case be made for the Bard of Avon and his troubling play?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

William Shakespeare, the Elizabethan poet and dramatist, is considered by most people to be the greatest playwright of all time. Although it’s true that not everything that he wrote was a masterpiece — his career spanned about a quarter of a century and he wrote at least thirty-seven plays, 154 sonnets, and two narrative poems — at his worst the Bard of Avon, as he is often called, is still equal to, if not better than, his contemporaries. At his most problematic, he is more entertaining and thought-provoking than the vast majority of dramatists who have set pen to page.

And therein lies the rub. Because the same Shakespeare who gave the world the brooding Hamlet and the tragic King Lear also gave the world a Jew named Shylock — and this portrayal of the Jew as an uber usurer who won’t stop even at murder to take his revenge still haunts us, Jew and non-Jew alike.

And therein lies another rub. Because even though the plot of The Merchant of Venice is a shaky structure cobbled together from several ill-fitting sources, the play is still one of Shakespeare’s most popular. Every year “Shylock, a Jew” makes his ghastly appearance in classrooms around the globe. Every year some actor somewhere is sharpening his knife, on stage, in preparation for receiving his “pound of flesh.”

This summer one of those stages is located in the bustling city of New York, where the New York Shakespeare Festival has mounted a new production of the play starring the Hollywood actor Al Pacino in the role of Shylock. Mr. Pacino, who visited a chassidic shul in Boro Park as part of his preparation for the role, has received generally glowing reviews.

But do we need this “praise”? In a summer where the world is demanding an international investigation into Israel’s conduct during the Gaza-bound flotilla raid, and where a United States court has sentenced Sholom Rubashkin to a twenty-seven-year prison term that even many non-Jewish lawyers and law professors believe is too severe, do we really need to see the spectacle of another Jew — albeit a literary figure — hauled before a court and demonized?

Should we not, instead, insist upon an international investigation into the harm inflicted on the Jewish People by Mr. William Shakespeare? And, if he is found guilty, should we not insist upon a stiff prison sentence, preferably in solitary confinement, for his play The Merchant of Venice and the play’s villain, Shylock? Mishpacha recently interviewed a few expert witnesses, to see if we have a case.


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