As part of this year’s Cultural Olympiad in London, Shakespeare’s Globe theater will stage 37 of the playwright’s works in 37 different languages in the spring.
Among all that variety — “Love’s Labor’s Lost” in sign language, “Othello” in the language of hip-hop and “Henry VI” Parts 1, 2 and 3 in Serbian, Albanian and Macedonian — only one play has generated controversy: “The Merchant of Venice” in Hebrew by the Habima Theater of Israel. A pro-Palestinian group called Boycott From Within, outraged that Habima has performed in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, has attacked the Globe roundly for hosting the production.
Once again Shylock is at the center of a trial, and as always, the trial reveals more about his attackers than it does about him or his creator.
Each period of Israeli history seems to call out for a new “Merchant of Venice” — though no one ever seems happy with the result. Habima (which means “the stage”) gave the first Hebrew performance of “The Merchant of Venice” in 1936, 12 years before the founding of Israel, in what was then Mandate Palestine. The controversy that followed was intense enough that the theater organized a mock trial of the director, Leopold Jessner, Habima and Shakespeare. The prosecution was a wild assortment of contradictory opinions, appropriate to the uncertain place and time.
Hard-line traditionalists denied that Shylock could be Jewish, because revenge was so foreign to the spirit of Judaism. A Communist poet claimed that Shylock’s Judaism was beside the point; the man was a speculator and deserved to be punished for his profiteering. That year there was an Arab revolt against British rule and Jewish immigration, and many read the measured Jewish response to the uprising as a repudiation of Shylock’s bloodthirstiness.
The next significant Habima production came in 1959, during a precarious but hopeful time in Israeli history. This “Merchant of Venice” reverently portrayed Shylock as “a liberal rabbi, with a well-trimmed beard and a clever and pleasant expression,” according to one reviewer. (Audiences didn’t show up, and it was pulled from Habima’s repertory.) After 1967 and the start of Israel’s occupation of the territories it seized during the Arab-Israeli war, Shylock was transformed into an allegory of Jewish oppression, and a justification for the existence of a Jewish homeland in Israel. In 1980, a Cameri Theater production in Tel Aviv cut the reference to Shylock’s forced conversion at the play’s end — an increasingly religious Israel could not stomach the assimilation.
“The Merchant of Venice” and the various portrayals of Shylock have long served as a way for Habima to act out different iterations of Israeli identity and to express Israel’s changing position in the world. But the play and characters mean far more. What is disturbing about the current controversy is how entirely it reduces the play to an empty political symbol.
Israel, uniquely among nations, suffers from being turned into a synecdoche — of the part being taken for the whole. The other theater companies involved in the Globe’s program — whether from China, Zimbabwe or the United States — are simply not subject to the same scrutiny of their nation’s politics. No one would think of boycotting the English theater because Britain had been involved in the bloody occupation of two countries in recent memory. That would be absurd. Yet it is not absurd when it comes to Israel.
The controversy also reveals England’s declining sensitivity to the history of anti-Semitism. Nazi-themed parties seem to be replacing Tarts and Vicars; the London School of Economics is investigating news of students playing National Socialist drinking games; and last fall, members of the Oxford University Conservative Association were caught on video cheerfully singing “Dashing Through the Reich” to rhyme, reportedly, with “killing lots of kike.”
No one — not Boycott From Within, not the Globe, not even Habima — has effectively made the case that the Jewish nation has a right to confront the most famous anti-Semitic drama ever written at a gathering of the world’s great theater companies. And yet the problem of anti-Semitism has been deemed significant enough that the British Parliament has announced an anti-Semitism training course for its members.
Instead of a bland course in cultural sensitivity, may I suggest that the British Parliament attend Habima’s performance at the Globe? They could do with a dose of Shylock. Because whatever you think of the character, however the actor plays him, Shylock is upsetting. He’s in the middle of a comedy, but he sure isn’t funny. Nor is he a code word in some abstract political discussion.
Toward the end of the play, when Shylock is calling for the fulfillment of his bond and Bassanio tries to understand why, Shylock replies, with a claim that that has never been truer, “I am not bound to please thee with my answer.” He is himself, a human being who refuses to be an empty symbol in anybody else’s iconography, before the world or in the theater of his creator.
By Stephen Marche, a columnist at Esquire and the author of How Shakespeare Changed Everything.