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Troupe questions if ‘Merchant of Venice’ is kosher for modern times

Theater in the Rough brings Shylock to Jerusalem stage, in bid to grapple with complexities and contradictions of Shakespeare’s creation

The Theater in the Rough performance troupe in a production of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, running from August 9 to August 25. (Courtesy Yitz Woolf)
The Theater in the Rough performance troupe in a production of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, running from August 9 to August 25. (Courtesy Yitz Woolf)

Featuring one of the most controversial characters in literature, Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” is coming to Jerusalem’s Bloomfield Gardens, looking to open a dialogue and promote debate on the noted playwright’s Jewish Shylock character.

The miserly, seemingly bloodthirsty Shylock is a type of enigma for modern audiences. The character has been played as everything from a stock Shakespeare comedic villain to a man beset by human jealousies and rages to an out-and-out Nazi stereotype of a Jew.

“I think in general, the Merchant of Venice has been specifically a play that’s kind of scared us for many years,” said Natan Skop, producer of Theater in the Rough, the Jerusalem performance collective that is bringing this production of Shakespeare to life.

“There’s also an issue that’s connected just to the way the play is written itself, which is that it’s a play that, like many of Shakespeare’s comedies — but I think especially for this one — the characters aren’t really nice people, so it’s very hard to connect to anyone,” said Skop.

Given its controversial nature, the question was whether a production of “The Merchant of Venice” could be kosher for a modern Jewish audience.

Shylock, naturally, is not a character without depth: If a man who has berated you for years suddenly asks for a loan for a friend to take a quixotic trip to try and marry an heiress, obviously an absurd ask, would it not be equally as absurd to ask for a pound of flesh in return?

The Theater in the Rough performance troupe in a production of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, running from August 9 to August 25. (Courtesy Yitz Woolf)

“We wanted to look to tap into the openness in the way that Shylock is portrayed as a character. And I think that we want the audience to come in and say, ‘You know, all right, this connects to this sort of collective Jewish experience of facing adversity,’” Skop said, admitting that when it comes to Shylock individually, “we’re not necessarily sympathizing with him, he’s not that nice.”

He added, “That kind of complexity or that kind of contradiction is something we enjoy, that’s why we’re doing Shakespeare.”

The play has connected with Israeli audiences in past.

A 1936 production of the play at Tel Aviv’s Habima Theater was met with a mock trial, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the play’s infamous court scene.

Despite its controversies, Skop believes that this play is very relevant to the current zeitgeist.

“It speaks to the current moment,” he said, noting the relevance of the brutal economic themes of the play, such as the infamous pound of flesh motif.

The subject of antisemitism in the play has parallels to the current day, said Skop, where these tropes persist and have resonance.

“I think [the play conveys] the sense of how easy it is to ostracize or to really turn someone into a stereotype and turn someone into a symbol of everything that you’re afraid of,” he said.

The plays will be accompanied by two talks that will explore the text and its context: One from Gila Fine, a Talmudic scholar and a teacher at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies who has researched the play, and another from Dr. Katherine Aron-Beller, a lecturer at Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University who specializes in areas such as the history of antisemitism and early modern Jewish-Christian relations.

Performances are running from August 9 to August 25, with each show starting at 5:30 p.m. They are free, and in English. For more information about the performances and lectures, visit the Theater in the Rough website.

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