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Merchant’ sparks heated debate

Kathleen McDonnell | Wednesday, February 22, 2006

A discussion between six panelists about anti-Semitism in William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” drew an audience packing the Philbin Theatre in the DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts (DPAC) beyond capacity Tuesday.

Those arriving 10 minutes prior to Tuesday night’s panel discussion, “Engaging the Merchant of Venice: Academic Freedom and Anti-Semitism,” had to stand throughout the presentation, as nearly 80 people attended the event expected to draw fewer than 50.

Actors from the London Stage will perform “The Merchant of Venice” in the Decio Mainstage Theatre of DPAC Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

The debate surrounding “The Merchant of Venice” focuses on Shylock, a wealthy Jewish moneylender who is often considered Shakespeare’s most controversial character. In the play, Shylock agrees to lend Antonio – the merchant of the play’s title – money on condition that Shylock may extract a pound of Antonio’s flesh if he defaults the loan. Despite offers to pay twice the price of the loan, Shylock is determined to take his revenge when Antonio defaults, until Shakespeare’s heroine frustrates Shylock’s plans and redeems Antonio in court.

Discussion grew heated as the topic transitioned between anti-Semitism and academic freedom at the University. In a Jan. 23 address to the faculty, University President Father John Jenkins said the blatantly anti-Semitic play “Oberammergau Passion” would be hypothetically unacceptable for performance at Notre Dame. Panelists drew parallels between that play and “The Merchant of Venice.”

The opening remarks from Henry Weinfield, Program of Liberal Studies department chair and English professor, were pointed jokes.

“‘The Merchant of Venice’ was absent from Jenkins’ speech – isn’t Shakespeare good enough to be a problem?” he said.

Each panelist discussed his views on the anti-Semitic implications of the text. Political science professor Michael Zuckert challenged some apparent aspects of anti-Semitism in Shakespeare’s play by examining the complexity of Shylock’s character.

Shylock is morally irreparable, but his moral offenses connect with Shylock as a human being rather than Shylock as a Jew, Zuckert said. Shylock breaks many Jewish laws in “The Merchant of Venice” – laws concerning diet, usury and morality. Antonio’s triumph therefore does not represent that of the Christians over the Jews because Shylock himself is no representation of the Jewish tradition.

Panelist Gareth Armstrong offered a point of view different from the five academics – that of an actor. Armstrong, who will play Shylock in the weekend’s productions, spoke from a unique perspective.

“When you tour this play, there is a sense of isolation if you play Shylock,” Armstrong said. “The truth is, it’s Shylock – he’s the essence of isolation. Shylock isn’t a character people speak to, they speak at him.”

Armstrong applied his experience as Shylock to the broader issue present – not just anti-Semitism, but the ostracizing of any member of society.

“This is what happens when you marginalizing someone who is different,” Armstrong said. “[Shylock] demands a pound of flesh. Is this grotesque? Yes – but he’s prepared to kill someone against all of the laws of his faith. This is what happens when someone is isolated and marginalized.”

Film, Television and Theatre department chair Peter Holland said he has seen productions of the play that were offensive to him as a Jew. He recalled a Royal Shakespeare performance that portrayed a large number of Jews accompanying Shylock to the trial, chanting liturgy in an apparent endorsement of the eminent murder.

“As a Jew, I was very upset about it,” he said.

But Holland was quick to point out that a complex, varying work is open to interpretation – and it was that particular interpretation that was offensive. Emphasizing discussion and debate, Holland placed the play in context with the larger issue of academic freedom.

Furthermore, Holland warned that important lessons could be lost if academic freedom is limited to only that which we morally approve.

“I’d be perfectly happy, as both a Jew and the chair of FTT, to see the ‘Oberammergau Passion’ play performed at Notre Dame because of the discussion it would raise,” Holland said.

Audience members participated heavily in the discussion, voicing concerns on both sides of the issue.

While opinions differed as to how to interpret anti-Semitic tones in “The Merchant of Venice” and in the morality of performing contentious plays, all panelists agreed on the importance of debate – especially on controversial issues.