Originally published in 1600, Shakespeare’s play is brought to life at the Globe and its relevance is disconcerting
The Jewish merchant, Shylock, is seeking his “pound of flesh”. His short term loan of 3,000 ducats given to the Christian Bassanio has not been returned on time as promised, so the dark humoured bond they agreed on, allowing the lender to take a pound of flesh from any part of the body he wishes, is to be fulfilled. There seems to be no way out, until a wealthy Venetian heiress arrives disguised as a lawyer. She finds an absent clause which means Shylock cannot shed a drop of Christian blood in the process – an impossible feat. So, in a cunning manipulation of the law, Shylock’s justice fails to be upheld and in turn, he is punished.
Shylock is emphatically Jewish and anti-Christian. He is unceasingly identified as the stereotype of a cruel and cunning Jew by everyone he crosses, and his motive is to commit legalised murder. These facts sit uncomfortably adjacent to each other, yet despite Shylock’s villainy, the closing scene of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice at the Globe left us with a sense of lingering dread for him, well after we had left the beautifully lit, curved construction.
After witnessing the Conservative Party conference unravel in the past week, Shylock’s final cry is one that pierces deep into the soul. Throughout the play, we come to understand how, for him, becoming Christian would be a fate worse than death, not per the religion itself, but for its disciples’ all-pervading sense of righteousness as they become law unto themselves. Never in his wildest days did he imagine his end. As the agonising baptism drenches him, we’re unsure if any production could feel as timely.
The growingly divisive rhetoric that is taking our country backwards – and we say “our” intentionally – is a key feature and driving force for the implementation of policy along the lines of “overseas” and “home grown”, “immigrant” and “citizen”, and “UK born” and “foreign born”, as revealed in the speeches of Theresa May, Amber Rudd and Jeremy Hunt last week. This is the shameful direction of a party which is pandering to its downtrodden by pitting them against its marginalised. It is the UKIP style of language that got British parliamentarian Joe Cox murdered just four months ago – a fact which seems to have quickly dissipated from the minds of the Tories. And it is the tactful type of fear mongering that simultaneously causes hostility between communities and props up the most privileged.
Such sinister divisiveness unravels itself in Shakespeare’s text, who sought to highlight English society’s extreme prejudice and anti-Semitism in a Venetian setting, while still maintaining the stereotype of the tight-fisted Jew to the delight of his contemporaries.
Director Jonathan Munby tells the story with authentic brilliance, in a production which is deeply moving and painful, offset by comic relief in the scenes where Portia (Rachel Pickup) selects her suitor and Launcelot (Stefan Adegbola) presents his monologues. The protagonist Shylock (Game of Thrones’ Jonathan Pryce) displays the right amount of authority and victimhood, as the dynamics of inequality and hate come to fruition before our eyes.
Rich Jew. Faithless Jew. Villain Jew. Dog Jew. Jew. Jew. Jew. “The very devil incarnal”. This reduction of Shylock is repeated with immense disgust and scorn throughout the play that it causes us to wince uncomfortably, again and again. The frequency of the negative association packs weeks, months, years and decades of dehumanisation into under three hours. The language is all too familiar, as we see anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim hate crime reach a record high this year (so much so, that we’ve got a National Hate Crime Awareness Week lined up this week). Derogatory phrases and stereotypes, which were somewhat limited to tabloid publications, have now found their way into mainstream spaces and political stages.
Shylock is ostracised up to the point where he can still be a tactical advantage to society (foreign doctors anyone?), and in turn, he isolates himself and shows his contempt for the Christians. He is brutal, in so much that brutality is the only option for a Jew in this environment.
We see Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Phoebe Pryce) on a quest to rid herself of every shred of her true identity. She runs away from her home, betrays her father, steals his ducats, converts to Christianity and adapts her prayer – changes which are symbolised in the cross around her neck. Her husband Lorenzo (Ben Lamb) struggles to defend her in front of the criticism of his peers and sometimes holds himself back from reprimanding her for her practices. It seems that no matter what Jessica does to denounce her Jewishness, she will never be fully accepted in Venetian society.
Much like the ungraspable values which Jessica idealises, elusive “British values” have been injected into the daily political discourse of our lives, further widening the rift between “them and us”, leaving many in the UK to question whether they are among the favoured. As British musician Akala recently commented: “The propaganda of ‘British values’ is a distortion of history… Some of the people of this island have a much more interesting, subversive, counter-cultural set of traditions buried beneath the surface.”
Shakespeare points to the social turmoil that congeals when inequality is allowed to fester. The shocking anti-Semitism he depicts continues, just as we commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, in which 20,000 Jews, Irish labourers, trade unionists and other locals of East London came together to block the police from allowing the British Union of Fascists (BUF) to march through Tower Hamlets. The Cable Street victory, however, was shortly followed up with coordinated anti-Semitic attacks which came to be known as the Mile End Pogrom, showing just how vulnerable our democracy can be. Similar scenes are plaguing Tower Hamlets today, as South Asian communities face off with the English Defence League.
“Tolerance” – that word which feels uncomfortable in its reluctance – is currently fragile and on edge, particularly where Muslim communities have been thrust under the security lens. In this post-Brexit world, with tightening borders and dubious tactics, it is more important than ever before that we recognise alienating language and understand what manipulation looks like. Shakespeare picked up on these nuances and experimented with the script despite the restrictions in place on theatre, so we, too, can work actively in our own ways to challenge notions of identity and combat all forms of prejudice in our communities.
The Merchant of Venice is running at Shakespeare’s Globe until 15th October 2016 with limited availability. You can join the returns queue two hours before the performance.
Photo Credit: Marc Brenner, The Globe