The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

Classical Actors Ensemble, Minneapolis, MN 2016

Shylock (Joe Weiner) and Antonio (Michael Lee)

When Joseph Papke at Classical Actors Ensemble asked me to direct Merchant of Venice, I was both delighted to be asked to work with this fresh young company and also wary at the prospect of tackling this deeply troubling play.

Is this an anti-semitic play or is this a play about anti-semitism? Should we perform this play? Do we risk stirring up intolerance through telling this story? Are we teaching contempt? Why tell this story? What do we need to be mindful of as we work? How do we understand a world in which otherwise engaging, clever people all agree to despise and abuse another whole category of people? What do we know that is like that? We know a lot about what is like that, actually. We rehearsed this play in the latter stages of the 2016 Presidential campaign, as one candidate worked crowds up to chant phrases like “Lock her up,” and speculated about the old days when you could beat the sh** out of someone. When he used veiled language and dog whistles to work up hatred towards Jews, Muslims, Mexicans, the disabled, and other groups. I judged it to be important that we be fearless in staging the unacceptable with this production, that we look hard at all the ugliness within the story, that we not let either ourselves nor our audience off the hook with a picture-book romance.

We had to be willing to let all of these characters be as rich, as complex and as contradictory as we are. I invited the acting company to allow all the things to be true.

Critical Response

The Star-Tribune said: “sharp creations loaded with strong performances … Director Kate Powers doesn’t shy away from The Merchant of Venice’s troubling anti-Semitism. Shylock’s thirst for revenge is intensified by the barely controlled hatred of the Christian Venetians, who rail against his religion, jostle him in the street and spit at his feet. … A darker take on Portia is certainly not unique, but Stanzi D. Schalter makes her complexities almost as intriguing as those presented by Joe Wiener as Shylock. We’re not going to fall in love with this Portia, but Schalter makes us understand the complexities beneath the beauty and wealth.”

While theatrical blogger single white fringe geek seemed to misconstrue what we were fighting for, on the whole, he did observe: “The word “Jew” was spat out as an insult so many times I felt like I was at a Klan rally or seeing something straight out of pre-World War II Germany.” He gave us “4 stars – Highly Recommended” even as he took us to task for staging the play and as he contended that the anti-Semitism is baked into Shakespeare’s script. It is, I think, but not in the way the blogger means.

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