Delaware Shakespeare’s community tour explores nature of prejudice

Kirk Wendell Brown is seen here in 2016's performance of

Kirk Wendell Brown is seen here in 2016's performance of "Pericles." Brown plays Shylock in Delaware Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice." (Delaware Shakespeare)

Delaware Shakespeare explores the nature of prejudice Wednesday night as it opens its third annual Community Tour with a production of “The Merchant of Venice” at the Ministry of Caring/Sacred Heart Village in Wilmington.

“The Merchant of Venice” is Shakespeare’s most controversial play, giving us as it does the portrait of the bloodthirsty and greedy Shylock, whose lust for revenge on the merchant Antonio springs from the very fact that he is Jewish — a despised outsider in the Christian community in which he lives.

That is exactly why the company’s producing artistic director David Stradley chose it for this year’s tour. “We were traveling around in October and November during the 2016 presidential campaign,” he said. “Incidents of hate speech were skyrocketing and we were traveling to a lot of places with people that may have been targeted by that kind of rhetoric. It hit us that “The Merchant of Venice” is the kind of play that would allow us to have a conversation with the community about that very issue.”

Four hundred years later, scholars still debate the play’s message: is “Merchant” an anti-Semitic play or a play about anti-Semitism? Was Shakespeare himself anti-Semitic?

There is certainly some shockingly hateful speech in the play, so much so that Stradley said some of his cast requested it be edited out of their performance. That, he said, would have been counterproductive to his purpose. “We’re not editing anything out to make it more palatable,” he said. “We’re looking at it full face-on asking where do these impulses come from for people to say things like that.”

Shakespeare himself would have been hard-pressed to have had any first-hand interactions with Jews, given that they were expelled from England in 1290 by an edict which remained in force for the rest of the Middle Ages. But he would have known the anti-Semitic leanings of Elizabethan England.

“All he had was what people said about Jews and that’s why we thought [doing this play] was so useful because the policies being made on high in this country are being made by people who don’t know the people being impacted, like the Muslims,” said Rabbi Michael Beals of Wilmington’s Temple Beth Shalom Congregation.

And while there were many virulently anti-Semitic works being produced during Shakespeare’s time, scholars contend that “The Merchant of Venice” is not one of them. Shylock, they argue, is a complex character whose lust for revenge does not necessarily stem from the stereotype of him being Jewish.

“Shylock is not a typical Jew,” said Jay Halio, Ph.D., professor emeritus of English at the University of Delaware. “He starts out really wanting to be friends with Antonio, offering an extraordinary loan at no interest. It is after his daughter elopes with a Christian taking much of his treasure with her and his discovery that Antonio may not be able to repay the loan that he begins seriously to take his revenge. No true Jew would violate the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ as Shylock prepares to do until Portia — like the angel in the biblical account of the binding of Isaac does — stops him.”

Moreover, Halio notes that there is nothing in Shakespeare’s voluminous output that reveals an anti-Semitic attitude. “I have checked all his works, especially his very personal sonnets, and there is nothing to indicate that he was [anti-Semitic]. The Merchant is filled with anti-Semitism but the play itself is not.”

Stradley adds that Shakespeare often used his work to comment sub rosa on Elizabethan society. “Shakespeare was really good at sneaking in critiques of society without just coming right out and saying it, because if he did, his plays would have been shut down,” he said.

Stradley has taken the liberty of casting an African-American actor in the role of Shylock, hardly a groundbreaking step but one that enhances the message he seeks to deliver. “Part of the reason he was chosen is because the conversation we’re hoping to start about xenophobia as a whole and other groups of people who are treated differently because of who they are,” he said. “But as a pure characterization, our goal is by the end of the play to have everyone in the audience very definitely on the side of believing that Shylock has been treated very badly.”

Delaware Shakespeare’s Community Tour 2018: The Merchant of Venice, runs October 24 through November 18 at various locations throughout New Castle, Kent and Sussex counties. Performances are free and open to the public (except for those in the prisons). Seating for the public is limited and reservations are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis. Seats for public performances can be reserved by emailing info@delshakes.org.

There will be two paid admission performances at OperaDelaware Studios, 4 S. Poplar Street, Wilmington, Del., on Saturday, November 17 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, November 18 at 2 p.m. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.delshakes.org.

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