Literature and Theatre

Boika Sokolova
,
Kirilka Stavreva
, and
J. C. Bulman

The chapter presents key developments in the global history of The Merchant’s cinematic life from the silent to the Hollywood era, from European studios and the Venetian lagoon to New Zealand’s cultural and natural sites and CGI settings. It analyses the four feature-length film adaptations of the play: the outstanding German silent, released in English-speaking countries as The Jew of Mestri, which enhanced the story of Shylock’s motivation for revenge and offered memorable portrayals of Jewish custom and community; the lavish French-Italian drama, Le Marchand de Venise, with intensified romantic narrative plots and a Shylock who refused to be victimised; the heritage drama The Māori Merchant of Venice, directed by Don Selwyn; and the Hollywood feature William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, directed by Michael Radford and starring Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons. Selwyn’s film, created as a vehicle for reviving Māori language and honour, re-visioned Shakespeare’s play as an alternative New Zealand history. At the same time, it invited a comparative consideration of the Holocaust and the traumas of New Zealand colonisation history, even as it celebrated indigenous cultural resilience. Radford’s dark cinematic drama, in turn, honoured the late twentieth-century theatre tradition of a tragic Shylock, whom it embedded in a history of extreme victimisation of Jewishness. The film complemented religious violence with the final isolation of a homosexual Antonio, and a Jessica caught between divergent identities; it still added comic levity in the romantic line, and occluded the xenophobia of Belmont’s polite society.

in Shakespeare in Performance
Boika Sokolova
,
Kirilka Stavreva
, and
J. C. Bulman

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.

in Shakespeare in Performance
The Merchant of Venice directed by Trevor Nunn at the National Theatre, London (1999)
Boika Sokolova
,
Kirilka Stavreva
, and
J. C. Bulman

The chapter explores Trevor Nunn’s 1999 Merchant of Venice, at the Royal National Theatre in London, a production positioned within the post-Holocaust performance tradition. Its action was set between the two World Wars, in the 1930s Weimar Republic, with Venice imagined as a Mittel-European place, teetering on the brink of the Holocaust. Scene and text transpositions created new situations and unexpected twists to character relationships. Casting was pointedly employed to give depth to racial and ethnic social interrelations. Key to Nunn’s interpretative approach was the palpable sense of a social milieu and his capacity to lay bare the instabilities and weaknesses of all characters, allowing for shifts of empathy. Bassanio was a decent character, which enabled a genuine emotional relationship with Portia. Portia’s biases and charm were also finely balanced. A darkly scintillating Shylock was a lonely adversary to Antonio who was erotically attracted to Bassanio. Scenes of Jewish domesticity alternated with rowdy public ones. Nunn offered a directorial view of Merchant, in a production responsive to the rich colours of the play, the challenges of class, race, and patriarchy. Along with anti-Semitism, it presented a web of societal hierarchies, and probed latent and overt xenophobia, racism, and patriarchal attitudes.

in Shakespeare in Performance
The Merchant of Venice in Mandatory Palestine (1936) and the Venetian Ghetto (2016)
Boika Sokolova
,
Kirilka Stavreva
, and
J. C. Bulman

This chapter discusses two productions of The Merchant of Venice, performed in sites of significance for Jewish history, spirituality, and identity. Their immediate resonance was enhanced by mock trials purposing to restore justice denied in the play. Their historical contexts were both marked by surges in immigration, violence, and political radicalisation. The first one, in 1936, in Mandatory Palestine, was performed by the Habima Theatre, the future national theatre of Israel. It was directed by Leopold Jessner, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. The production provoked a media frenzy across ideological lines, prompting a Literary Trial by the Friends of Habima, to argue questions of Shakespeare’s anti-Semitism and Jessner’s approach to Shylock. The second production, in 2016, marked 400 years since Shakespeare’s death and 500 years since the establishment of the Venetian Ghetto. It was performed in the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo by Compagnia de’ Colombari, an international collective directed by Karin Coonrod. A parallel mock trial was part of the commemorative programme, with a team of top-ranking legal professionals, led by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The 1936 trial found Shakespeare innocent of anti-Semitism, Habima courageous to present the play, and Jessner not guilty in conceiving a Shylock in the spirit of the time. In 2016, the trial declared Shylock innocent, ruled full redress of his losses, and penalised Portia for professional deceit, sending her to study law. Shakespeare’s problem comedy, it seems, keeps its interpreters both onstage and in the courtroom chasing after the elusive ideal of justice.

in Shakespeare in Performance
Pressures of war, ideology, and the crises of late capitalism
Boika Sokolova
,
Kirilka Stavreva
, and
J. C. Bulman

The Segue surveys major interpretative shifts in the performance of The Merchant of Venice from the 1930s through the second decade of the twenty-first century. It challenges the view of the play as a favourite propaganda tool of the Nazi regime, and contextualises attempts to place it in the service of fascist ideology. An overview of European productions from the rise of fascism through the Second World War reveals a prevalence of philo-Semitic and anti-Nazi readings. Under the different post-war totalitarian regimes, the play mostly disappeared from stage. Radical performances by directors like Peter Zadek, in the 1970s and 1980s, refocused the thinking around Shylock and brought economic clashes to the fore; in the 1990s, Peter Sellars shed light on the connections between economic and racial conflicts. After 1989, a rich panoply of approaches from Eastern Europe (Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Serbia) grappled with the social and moral crises of the post-communist transition, while new histories of oppression informed productions and adaptations from the Netherlands, France, and Germany. The chapter traces early twenty-first-century processes of revising and fragmenting Shakespeare’s text, of challenging it directly, or appropriating it to speak to the intersecting stories of victimisation of Black and Brown people, Muslims, immigrants, women, queer people, etc. Such radical transformations have used The Merchant as a source for new narratives, not unlike Shakespeare’s treatment of his own sources.

in Shakespeare in Performance
The Merchant of Venice

Boika Sokolova and Kirilka Stavreva’s second edition of the stage history of The Merchant of Venice expands the British focus of the first edition to include richly historicised chapters on Max Reinhardt’s and Peter Zadek’s sustained engagements with the play, and on its first production in Mandatory Palestine, directed by Leopold Jessner. It opens with a mapping of the interpretative shifts in the play’s performance from the 1930s to the second decade of the 21st century. The main focus is on post-1990s productions across Europe and the USA. Informative chapters on productions of the play by major contemporary directors analyse the work of Trevor Nunn, Robert Sturua, Edward Hall, Rupert Goold, Daniel Sullivan, and Karin Coonrod’s staging in the Venetian Ghetto. An extensive section engages with the cinematic history of the play, from silent-era adaptations, like Peter Paul Felner’s Der Kaufmann von Venedig (The Jew of Mestri), through Pierre Billon’s talkie Le Marchand de Venise; it includes a close analysis of Don Selwyn’s Te Tangata Whai Rawa or Weniti (The Māori Merchant of Venice) and Michael Radford’s William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. This larger picture of key theatrical and film transformations of The Merchant of Venice will prove essential to students of the play’s performance history, scholars interested in general trends and local specificities of its staging and reception, and to all who are prepared to look into the darker history of anti-Semitism and xenophobia, reflected in the stage and screen fortunes of Shakespeare’s play.

Boika Sokolova
,
Kirilka Stavreva
, and
J. C. Bulman

In performance, perhaps no play by Shakespeare has been subject to the pressures of history (or, in the words of Jonathan Miller, 'held hostage to contemporary issues') more forcibly than The Merchant of Venice. Particularly since Irving's landmark production of 1879, treatment of Shylock has focused the attention of Western audiences on the question of whether the play is anti-Semitic. If Arnold Wesker, however indirectly, exposes Shakespeare's text as both a product and a cause of anti-Semitism, others have more blatantly implicated The Merchant of Venice in the history of Jewish oppression by calling into question the purposes for which it has been performed. Furthermore, events of the past century have attached new meanings to events within the play and have compelled audiences to view The Merchant through the lens of Jewish history. Shakespeare knew that the proof of a play was in performance.

in Shakespeare in Performance
Theodore Komisarjevsky
Boika Sokolova
,
Kirilka Stavreva
, and
J. C. Bulman

Frank Benson's last performance at Stratford, on 16 May 1932, had symbolic as well as emotional significance. In a calculated move to catapult the Festival into the twentieth century, managing director W. Bridges-Adams had invited Russian-born Theodore Komisarjevsky to stage The Merchant as the first guest director at the new Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. Komisarjevsky deliberately set out to overturn the pictorial realism, the attention to historical detail, the naturalistic acting, and the moral sententiousness that had characterised Merchants for more than fifty years. Komisarjevsky abhorred the way in which bourgeois theatre had sentimentalised Shylock, and he therefore strove to desentimentalise him. The phrase 'false social motive' is the key to Komisarjevsky's dismissal of the Victorian conception of the play as a study in racial prejudice. Komisarjevsky staged The Merchant as a carnival of denial and found a receptive audience for it.

in Shakespeare in Performance
Abstract only
White environmentality
Wan-Chuan Kao

This chapter considers whiteness as a form of privileged environmental comfort and as an operation of racial recognition politics. I open with a reflection on modern whiteness as a deadly form of Foucauldian environmentality, then investigate the intersection among postmodern neomedievalism, environmental activism and nostalgic Southern pastoralism in crafting the ideology of American white supremacist groups, especially the fraternity formerly known as Identity Evropa that rose to international prominence in the aftermath of Charlottesville 2017. I also explore the intellectual underpinnings of Identitarianism in the work of Guillaume Faye, whose strategic deployments and polemical contortions of ‘ethnicity’ and ‘race’ both mimic and co-opt academic discourse within early medieval studies; the rhetorical elision of ethnicity and race provides a convenient cover for mainstreaming pan-European white nationalism and revisionist historiography. Identitarians, by upgrading ecofascist tactics and Malthusian logic, situate themselves at the nexus of late capitalist precariat and contemporary economic, environmental and political crises. In contrast to Hedley Bull’s neomedievalism, Faye’s New Middle Ages is an archeofuturistic racialist imperium that rejects neoliberalism’s multiracial globalisation, revives fictive ancestral values and envisions a medievalised geopolitical sanctum of whiteness. I then shift to a reflection on white environmentality as a technique of racial violence in The Buried Giant, arguing that it takes the form of what Sloterdijk terms atmoterrorism. I end with a consideration of the politics of white fragility and precarity in the neoliberal university. Teaching Ishiguro’s novel, part of the literature of white liberalism, demands resistance to a racialised comfort zone of learning.

in White before whiteness in the late Middle Ages
Wan-Chuan Kao

This chapter reads the Middle English poem Pearl, arguing that materiality and fragility are key to understanding the poem’s engagement with desire and salvation. Whiteness, as embodied in the Pearl–Maiden’s body and clothes, signifies not only the purity and virginity of the Maiden but also the emerging spirituality of the urban middling classes, exemplified in the figure of the Dreamer–Jeweller. I then draw on the psychoanalytic works of Lacan and Žižek to examine the play of distance between the Dreamer and the Pearl–Maiden, as well as the use of the vanishing point and Derridean framing devices in the poem. The Maiden, as the Lady–Object, or the Lacanian object a, simultaneously attracts the Dreamer and keeps him at a distance across the stream. But if distance is crucial to the poem’s affective labour of mourning, then whiteness complicates desire’s play of proximity. The Dreamer is doomed to encircle endlessly both the Maiden and the Lamb of God at the heart of the New Jerusalem, whose whiteness is marred by a bleeding wound at its centre: a sign of the Dreamer’s trauma and of the woundedness of desire itself. I then examine the poem’s deliberate silence over the physical whitening of pearls; the Maiden embodies the object’s concealment of labour. Whiteness becomes a marker of artifice and the erasure of its history of production. This temporal erasure precipitates in the Dreamer’s inability to move beyond mourning. And white fragilisation is the process by which the normativity of whiteness congeals into cultural praxes.

in White before whiteness in the late Middle Ages