Elizabeth Scripturient (the delinquent, ecumenical (hermionesviolin) wrote,
Elizabeth Scripturient (the delinquent, ecumenical
hermionesviolin

[ASP] "Merchant Conversations: Being Shylock with moderator Stephen Greenblatt" [2008-11-18]

Stephen Greenblatt said directors and actors are usually "evasive," but Melia Bensussen (Director, ASP's Merchant of Venice) and Jeremiah Kissel (Actor playing Shylock) like never shut up.  It was really interesting hearing their impassioned thoughts on the decisions they made for this production and their thoughts on the play more broadly.

The other two panelists -- Bernie Steinberg (President & Director, Harvard Hillel) and Michelle Ephraim (Associate Professor of English at Worcester Poly Tech) -- seemed almost extraneous.  Though I need to email the Hillel guy 'cause his blurb on the program talked about him doing bridge-building and I obv. wanted to talk to him about that but I didn't catch him after the show.

I didn't take notes, so this is all from memory.  [Oh, and it's not necessarily obvious from the commentary, but the two ASP folks are practicing Jews.] 

Greenblatt opened with the question of why (or why not) still do this play.

The WPI woman talked about how the fact that it's a play about Jews really appeals to her (because she's a Jew) -- and how it's really interesting that it's a play about Jews despite it being a play written by a Christian for an audience of Christians.

The Hillel guy talked about how he had lived in Israel for 13 years and his daughter's introduction to Shakespeare was in an American school with Merchant of Venice and she came home crying.  I got the impression that it was taught really offensively, but she also just didn't have the vocabulary for the stereotypes in the play.

Jerry invoked the Shakespeare line about "holding a mirror up to nature" and said that racism/anti-Semitism is in the eye of the beholder (which I found problematic).  He said Shakespeare's plays aren't about "Danish princes and their problems" or whatever and that you have to get through all the layers of identity to the HUMAN.  The Hillel guy said that he is a Jewish man and he can't cease to be that when watching a play or whatever.  I honestly can't remember whether he talked about how it's problematic to posit an abstract "human"-ness that exists apart from all identity categories or whether I'm just inserting that because I had read about it recently (Educating the "Right" Way maybe? -- Interestingly, later that that night I was reading about the situatedness of knowledge in Diane's book for class).
The directory mentioned Willy Loman (Death of a Salesman) and joked that these days surely there are some nasty things being said about Jewish bankers in some quarters.

The Hillel guy talked about a very Jewish-inflected production of Merchant that was done in Sweden where audience members were polled both before and after attending the show, and viewers afterward felt Jews were more principally responsible for their own suffering.

The director spoke briefly about being a Jew in England (where she had lived for a year).  She said you can live there all your life and you go to Israel and they say, "How did it feel to go home?"

Someone mentioned the idea that in Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare had to kill Mercutio before Mercutio killed the play and similarly, he had to get rid of Shylock because Shylock was too big for the play.

Jerry: "Did Shakespeare hate Jews?  Maybe.  But he loved Shylock."

I forget what in the context of, the director said, "What about the Armenians?" [hyperlink indicates my assumption of her reference -- she didn't really elaborate on the statement at the time, but what else could I have thought of?]
[Talking about the question of whether to do Merchant given its problematics/offensiveness] She said what about Strindberg -- he's an anti-Semite AND a misogynist.
She mentioned doing The Dybbuk in ... Denver?

Greenblatt, maybe, talked about how Shakespeare often has problematic but complicated representations of the Other -- that it's amazing that these characters were ever created because they were really human portrayals of Others for his time, but really disgusting portrayals for our time.  He mentioned Caliban and Native Americans, and it had never occurred to me to think of Caliban as a representation of indigenous peoples in colonized lands (possibly because I think of the island as this magic place unrelated to the "real" world in any way).

Someone commented on the fact that the word "alien" is used only once and it's at a pivotal point in the play.  Someone else said yes, it's when it shifts from a civil to a criminal trial.
Someone talked about how Shakespeare's audience would have been steeped in the idea of Judaism vs. Christianity being encapsulated as law vs. mercy... but pointed out that Portia out-legaleses Shylock.

An audience member brought up Portia's self-interest in saving Antonio -- if Antonio dies, Bassanio will grieve and some of the love he has for her will be lost.
I think it was the director who talked about how Portia's the only person in the whole play who doesn't have to worry about money* and talked about her doing it because it's a gamble (and what a gamble it is!) and mentioned the lead casket ("Who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath").

* Someone mentioned how Shylock doesn't actually have the three thousand ducats to give to Antonio/Bassanio and goes to get it from Tubal ("a wealthy Hebrew of my tribe").  Greenblatt argued that Shakespeare is purposely coding this as Jewish money; other panel members disagreed.  Someone argued that Shylock's saying, "When I don't have money, I just go get some from a friend; why don't/can't you do that?"

There was discussion about what Shylock was thinking when he first proposed the bond (especially given Jessica's line about how her father had talked about how much he hates Antonio).  Everyone basically agreed that no one at the time expected Antonio to forfeit.
Jerry talked about how great it would be to have a notarized certificate on his wall from some Jew-hater like Henry Ford or Lindbergh, saying that he could cut off his dick if he doesn't pay back his debt.
One of the panelists said that Antonio draws up the bond and it's only later that Shylock says, "I will have the heart of him, if he forfeit" (which I had missed when I first saw the production -- when Portia says, "the part closest to the heart," in the courtroom, I was like, "but he said a pound of flesh anywhere -- do we not remember the gestures at Antonio's crotch?" ... though I read Shylock's "I will have the heart of him, if he forfeit" as considering cutting out Antonio's heart because he's so upset about his daughter and everything, not necessarily as that body part being the specific term of the bond -- an audience member argued that Tubal was the one inciting Shylock to murder, but the panelists [Jerry?] contended that there are a lot of factors escalating Shylock, and pointed out that he's already talking about revenge with the boys on the dock before Tubal shows up in that scene).

The director said that in her head -- and she does not contend that this is in the text -- the bond is a forced conversion pact (I think she said that someone else had this idea).
Greenblatt quipped: "world's heaviest foreskin."

The director quoted someone: "In a gamble, someone loses, but in an investment everyone wins."

Someone asked about Shylock's reiterated statements about wanting to be Antonio's friend, and Jerry said that there's definitely a "yearning" there.

The director talked about how dark the fifth act is and how she thought about what it would mean to have fun in the fifth act and she said that often this play will be done such that Jessica is suffering all through her few lines but she doesn't think teenage girls suffer like that -- she gets to be part of the mainstream culture, she has the hots...  She said, "She'll suffer 20 years from now, absolutely, but not now."
She said that the last time she directed this play she made the choice to end the play with Jessica singing the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead (not realizing that the Olivier production does the same thing -- she said as an aside, if you think you're being original, you just haven't done your research).
Someone articulated the idea that if everyone on stage suffers for what they've done to Shylock, the audience doesn't have to.

One of the actors -- most of them were present, 'cause they staged a couple scene excerpts -- talked about how he and this other guy have this scene where they're talking about Jessica having run off and treating it like it's the biggest joke in the world but of course it's this awful thing and that it made him think about how he's laughed at other people's misfortune in other contexts.

Someone asked the director about her choice to not play the Antonio-Bassanio relationship homerotically and she said that playing it as Antonio's sexual love for a younger man seemed to her a cheap and easy way to explain the seeming randomness of Antonio's generosity and that she thought Shakespeare was exploring the platonic ideal of friendship -- what does it mean to be a friend? well, you don't "take the breed of barren metal," for one.

I think it was the director who mentioned that at the end of the play, Antonio adopts Lorenzo and Jessica, creating a new family.
Someone said that Antonio gives Shylock his daughter back -- by connecting the two of them in that monetary gift in the courtroom.  (There was some debate about this -- about how much Antonio is trying to be a nice guy.)
Jerry talked about Fiddler on the Roof and how that father has 5 daughters, but Shylock only has the one.
The director mentioned that she had cut the bits with Launcelot Gobbo's father, which provides a parallel father-child relationship.
Jerry said this play should make you go home and tell your kids how much you love them.

An audience member mentioned Shylock's "oath in heaven" and asked if Shakespeare knew what that meant in a Jewish context.  The WPI scholar said she thought Shakespeare did know and she talked about how a bond isn't an oath in heaven but that it escalates in Shylock's mind such that he thinks of it as such.  She talked about Jephthah in Judges (which gets lifted up as a good thing in the epistle to the Hebrews) and mentioned that Shakespeare uses it in both one of the Henry 6s and in Hamlet.

Oh, and near the beginning, the director and Jerry mentioned that Shylock is a Jewish name (though Jessica isn't) and yes they did find it.  But I forgot about that by the time the thing was over, so I didn't think to ask either of them about it afterward.
Tags: lectures/panels, plays: asp, plays: boston area, plays: shakespeare
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