Shylock’s Ghosts: The Afterlife of Shakepeare’s Jew

Gordon, Robert J. and Peimer, David. 2011. Shylock’s Ghosts: The Afterlife of Shakepeare’s Jew. In: "9th World Shakespeare Congress", Jewish Museum, Prague, Czech Republic. [Performance]

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Item Type:

Creators: Gordon, Robert J. and Peimer, David
Abstract or Description:

The Merchant of Venice as a text exists today in the shadow of the Holocaust. Moving from medieval to modern anti-Semitism, the performance will deconstruct Shakespeare’s play in a range of different cultural contexts.

In Shakespeare’s England the play would have been viewed within the perspective of a long tradition of Christian anti-Semitism (anti-Judaism) typified by the later views of Martin Luther:
First … set fire to their synagogues or schools...This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians. But if we now … were to protect and shield such a house for Jews, existing right before our very nose, in which they lie about, blaspheme, curse, vilify, and defame Christ and us … it would be the same as if we were doing all this and even worse... Second, I advise that their houses be razed and destroyed ... Third, all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them… Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb. (Martin Luther, On the Jews and their Lies, 1543).

Regardless of what Shakespeare's own intentions may have been, the play has been made use of by anti-Semites throughout its history. The end of the title in the 1619 edition "With the Extreme Cruelty of Shylock the Jew…" describes how Shylock was viewed by the English public in the 1590s.

The Nazis used Shylock for their propaganda. Shortly after the ‘Kristallnacht’ pogrom in 1938, The Merchant of Venice was broadcast for propagandistic ends over the German airwaves. Productions of the play followed in Lübeck (1938), Berlin (1940), and elsewhere within Nazi-occupied territory.

Was there any form of filth or crime...without at least one Jew involved in it. If you cut even cautiously into such a sore, you find like a maggot in a rotting body, often dazzled by the sudden - a Jew.” (Hitler)
The Jew ... is an exploiter: the Jews are a people of robbers. He has never founded any civilization, though he has destroyed civilizations by the hundred... everything he has stolen. "(Hitler – speech in Munich, July 1922)

The depiction of Jews in the literature of English-speaking countries … bears a strong imprint of Shylock. Much of English literature up until the 20th century depicts the Jew as "a monied, cruel, lecherous, avaricious outsider tolerated only because of his golden hoard". Such anti-Semitic notions are a grotesque distortion of the historical facts. During Shakespeare's day, money lending was a very common occupation among Jews. This was due to Christians staying out of the profession due to their belief at that time that usury is a sin and the fact that it was one of the few professions available to Jews in medieval Europe, who were prohibited by law from most professions.

The performance by Robert Gordon, directed by David Peimer, deploys a number of contrasting interpretations of Shakespeare’s play in the context of the history of European anti-Semitism to explore the various possible meanings it may have today.

Departments, Centres and Research Units: Theatre and Performance (TAP)
Event Location: Jewish Museum, Prague, Czech Republic
Item ID: 9267
Date Deposited: 25 Oct 2013 08:32
Last Modified: 03 Jul 2017 11:01


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