Recasting Shakespeare’s Jew in Wesker’s Shylock

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Postcolonial Shylocks There have been a number of attempts by both gentiles and Jews to reclaim Shylock as the moral standard-bearer of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, a noble figure who exposes the decadence, corruption, and hypocrisy of the Christians and the evil of capitalism. It is to Shylock that German Jews looked when their rights as human beings were being challenged by the Nuremberg laws which sought to return them to the pariah status of medieval society. We recall the essay of Heinrich Heine, himself an expert in jurisprudence, in which he reports overhearing an English lady at Kean’s performance of Shylock cry out, “the poor man is wronged!” The German legal expert Josef Kohler even made out a case for moral victory in Shylock’s mockery of the law. After Auschwitz, however, the fate of real Jews in the gas chambers made a mythical treatment of Shylock unacceptable since Nazi propaganda used the stereotype of the Jew to prepare for genocide, as the Hungarian-born director George Tabori reminded us when in 1966 he reimagined a performance of The Merchant of Venice ordered by the Nazis at Theresienstadt, an anti-Semitic production in which the real-life victim of the Nazis is killed in a Pirandello confusion of the play with its performance. In Roman Polanski’s 2002 movie version of Władysław Szpilman’s autobiography, The Pianist (1998), adapted by British dramatist Ronald Harwood, Shylock’s lines about the humanity of the Jew (“Hath not a Jew …”) sound more like an accusation when declaimed, while waiting deportation to a concentration camp, on the Umschlagplatz in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. Before looking at one Jewish post-Holocaust response to Shylock, by British playwright Arnold Wesker (1932–2016), we must first understand the background of postcolonial performances of Shakespeare’s play in the United Kingdom. In this context, Wesker’s response introduces a subaltern “writing back” to Shakespeare. Recent approaches to performance of The Merchant of Venice have appropriated Shakespeare for postcolonial agendas – and when, we might ask, is drama production not appropriation and interpretation? If Jan Kott recognized Shakespeare as “our contemporary,” we might ask whether the canonic Shakespeare, handed down as fossilized cultural artifact to the television generation, might, indeed, not be our contemporary only.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationWrestling with Shylock
Subtitle of host publicationJewish Responses to The Merchant of Venice
EditorsEdna Nahshon, Michael Shapiro
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9780511845789
ISBN (Print)9781107010277
StatePublished - 2017

RAMBI Publication

  • rambi
  • Shylock -- (Fictitious character)
  • Shakespeare, William -- 1564-1616 -- Merchant of Venice
  • Wesker, Arnold -- 1932-2016 -- Merchant
  • Jews in literature
  • Antisemitism in literature
  • Jewish authors -- Great Britain


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