Shakespeare’s play “The Merchant of Venice” for the first time is being performed on the spot where some of the action takes place – the main square of the historic Venice Ghetto.

The production, which opened Tuesday night and runs for a week, is staged as part of year-long events marking the 500th anniversary of the imposition of the ghetto by Venetian rulers in 1516 as well as the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

In the audience at the premiere was US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose grandson, the actor Paul Spera, is in the cast.

A key figure in the play is the Jewish moneylender, Shylock, who makes a loan contract with a Venetian merchant, Antonio, from whom he had long suffered anti-Semitic abuse, stipulating that he can cut a pound of flesh from Antonio’s body should he fail to repay the loan. Antonio defaults, but Shylock is defeated by a legal argument that he is entitled only to a pound of flesh – if he spills even one drop of blood, he will be guilty of murder.

Title page of the first quarto for the Merchant of Venice (1600)

Title page of the first quarto for the Merchant of Venice (1600)

Spera plays Lorenzo, the Christian lover of Shylock’s daughter Jessica.

On Wednesday in an accompanying event, Ginsburg was set to preside over a mock trial – an appeal of the verdict against Shylock under which, defeated, he was sentenced to forfeit his fortune, convert to Christianity and agree to his daughter’s conversion and marriage to Lorenzo. As part of the trial, international lawyers were to represent Shylock and his opponents, and the US ambassador to Italy and noted Shakespeare scholars form the jury.

The program also includes a reading by actor F. Murray Abraham and talks on the play by Shakespeare scholars.

Directed by Karin Coonrod and featuring an international multilingual cast, the production is a joint project of The Compagnia de’ Colombari theater company and Venice’s Ca’ Foscari University. New York-based Frank London wrote and performed the music with an international group of musicians.

“The first performance of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ in the Ghetto is our reckoning with an imaginary figure that has been haunting this place for centuries, overshadowing its real inhabitants while gaining enormous fame worldwide and becoming a proverbial name,” Ca’ Foscari professor Shaul Bassi wrote in the program notes.