As I noted two weeks ago, the Washington Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) recently wrapped up its performance of Merchant of Venice – the only Shakespeare play to prominently feature a Jewish character (Shylock).
I’d seen this play twice before, and I’d performed in it once (as Portia), but in none of these performances could my Jewish identification could considered above “moderate.” Now, as a very proud and active Jew, I wanted to see if I would respond differently.
My experience did change. I found myself rooting for Shylock more than ever, wincing at the derogatory statements made against Jews, bemoaning Shylock’s portrayal of some not-so-nice Jewish stereotypes, gripping the edge of my chair when Shylock’s kippah is stolen and mockingly thrown, truly feeling pain when Shylock is forced to convert as the last measure of his punishment, and (unfairly?) resenting Shylock for converting to save his life.
But the most interesting dimension that previously escaped my assessment was the commentary on inter-religious marriage. Shylock’s daughter Jessica runs off with the Christian Lorenzo. I remembered this, but I had forgotten that Jessica and Lorenzo are already quarreling by the end of the play. Rabbi Teitelbaum might use this scene to point to one his favorite books – Why Marry Jewish? – and remind us that inter-religious marriages fail at much higher rates. Did Shakespeare intuit this fact 400 years in advance?
The argument between Jessica and Lorenzo also evinces the collapse of support staffs in an inter-religious relationship. Lorenzo doesn’t turn to his friends because they wouldn’t understand; they’re useless in Jessica-related matters. When Lorenzo does mention Jessica, his friends usually laugh and say something about her being the daughter of a mad, money-loving Jew. Jessica, meanwhile, is estranged from her father and friends and has nobody to turn to. Compare this to the play’s parallel Christian weddings (Bassanio/Portia and Gratiano/Nerissa), all of whom have a ready friend who is experiencing the same challenges.
Finally, the play also points out the sense of abandonment that comes from inter-religious marriage. The audience should presumably leave the theater happy – Antonio is saved; they’re all rich; and there’s a bunch of marriages. But in this rendition, the director concludes by showing Jessica sitting alone, then briefly looking back to see – just for a flash – Shylock standing behind her. The lights are killed, the play ends, and we’re filled with sadness. Clearly, according to the director, not all is well with Jessica. She regrets leaving her father behind, and with him, her family’s faith and history.
All told, it’s still an excellent play despite forcing me into deeper thought (something I normally avoid). I am glad, however, that I took former Jewish Guy of the Week Eric as my date and not one of the two Christian girls that I had first asked.
*** The next show at the Shakespeare Theatre Company is Julias Caesar, and it’s FREE! For all other plays at the STC, you can get young professional tickets the day of the performance for $15.00.