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Peter Zadek’s challenges to the post-war German legacy of The Merchant of Venice
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The chapter analyses Peter Zadek’s sustained engagement with The Merchant of Venice, focusing on three of his landmark performances, which challenged the facile philo-Semitic approach to the play, dominant in German productions after the Second World War. In Ulm (1961) and Bochum (1972), the avant-garde director enhanced the entertainment qualities of the play to attract young and working-class audiences, whom he confronted with a vision of Shylock as both a grotesque exaggeration and a vulnerable human being. Even as anti-Semitic stereotypes, reminiscent of Nazi appropriations of the Elizabethan comic villain, shocked theatre-goers, the larger aesthetic mixed grotesque representation with playful irony. The desired effect was to provoke the audience to adopt morally uncomfortable attitudes to the characters and conflicts, and then to compel them to reconsider them. In the influential 1988 production for the Vienna Burgtheater, such ludic provocativeness was replaced with a disciplined study of the corporate operators of the global financial marketplace. Polished and pragmatic, Shylock (performed by Gert Voss) was an indelible part of the world of financial power brokers. Moreover, his dignified exit suggested that he would be returning with the means and determination to win the next battle with his competitors. Revived by the famed Berliner Ensemble, televised, and produced for festival tours in Paris and Edinburgh, this global Merchant dramatised the more insidious manifestations of anti-Semitism, while subverting naturalised notions of a Jewish identity as victimhood.

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Shakespeare in Performance

The Merchant of Venice

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