(New York Jewish Week) — When William Shakespeare wrote “The Merchant of Venice” 400 years ago, he had almost certainly never met a Jewish person. In fact, in 1596 or so, when he created the infamous character of Shylock — a greedy moneylender who thirsts for a literal “pound of flesh” from his Christian antagonist, Antonio — Jews had been banned from England for nearly 300 years.
Like most of Shakespeare’s work, “The Merchant of Venice” — which centers on Antonio’s default on a large loan from Shylock — continues to be performed in the present day, despite its reputation as “the most vexed single play in the Shakespearean canon,” as New York Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote in a 2004 review of the film version starring Al Pacino as Shylock. At the time, Scott noted that “the first task of any modern adaptation is to confront the anti-Jewish bigotry that propels its plot and informs its poetry.”
In his new play “The Shylock and the Shakespeareans,” Edward Einhorn confronts that bigotry head on. Now onstage at the New Ohio Theatre in Greenwich Village, the Untitled Theater Company No. 61 production that debuted June 1 and runs through June 17 reimagines “The Merchant of Venice” from the perspective of Jacob, a Jewish diamond merchant who is called “Shylock” as a slur. In this new version, while still set in an “ancient Venice, of sorts,” a group of white supremacists known as “the Shakespeareans” have co-opted the public discourse, and Jacob finds himself embroiled with them when his daughter falls in love with an Asian immigrant.
Using contemporary events and framing, alongside techniques associated with the Theatre of the Absurd, the play attempts to explore the continuum between the historical and the modern in order to create a conversation about antisemitism as it exists in our current time.
“What’s really interesting to me is how a lot of this resurgence of antisemitism has such old libels embedded in it,” Einhorn told the New York Jewish Week. “You can see whoever is the latest celebrity antisemite coming out and saying something [they think is] new when it’s actually 500 or even 1,000 years old. I think a lot of people don’t realize how historically embedded many conspiracy theories are.”
Despite its old age, conversations about “The Merchant of Venice” continue to be potent — perhaps even more so today, amid rising rates of antisemitic crimes and statements in the United States and beyond. Contemporary artists continue to grapple with what the play can and does mean, often making use of modern-day politics to propel these conversations.
A “race-conscious” production of “Merchant” at Brooklyn’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center last March, for example, tackled anti-Black racism, while a recent United Kingdom production of “The Merchant of Venice” by Tracy-Ann Oberman sets the tale in 1930s Britain, and Oberman portrays Shylock as a version of her own great-grandmother. Both of these versions make no qualms about declaring the inherent antisemitism of the play — and so, too, does “The Shylock and the Shakespeareans,” which sends the message that such hate is alive and well among us today.
When it comes to “The Merchant of Venice,” Einhorn said that “playing it straight, rather than staging it with a point of view [and context] is not the best choice.” In his spin on the tale, the playwright retains the main storylines of “Merchant”: The plot revolves around an unpaid debt to Jacob by Antonio on behalf of his friend Bassanio, who seeks to woo the wealthy Portia; Antonio is an outspoken antisemite who slanders the very Jewish man who is lending him the cash he needs.
The twist in Einhorn’s play is the analogy to modern U.S. politics — and the rub is that it’s not particularly difficult to make these connections. The Venetian citizens who persecute Shylock in Shakespeare’s play become white supremacists, led by a hateful politician called Shakespeare. They call out “Jews will not replace us,” an intentional reference to the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virgina. Portia, originally the central love interest who tests suitors and creates the judicial conditions for Shylock’s unraveling, is also transformed: she becomes an over-privileged brat who plays cruel games with people’s lives, treating her suitors with blatant racism and disregard.
“It’s cute in ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ but here it’s scary,” actor Jeremy Kareken, who portrays Jacob in this new iteration, told the New York Jewish Week. “[Portia] is playing games with people’s lives and their destinies. People end up married, people end up dead — she’s playing games because of her privilege. And the people she chooses to believe as judges [in Jacob’s trial] are deeply suspect. That’s why it’s a kangaroo court — it’s such an obvious miscarriage of justice.”
Justice is a central theme of the play, and something that Einhorn seeks to subvert and question. “[In the original], people just accept these things are happening,” Einhorn said, referring to Shylock’s trial, during which the moneylender attempts to get his revenge on Antonio but instead loses everything — even his own identity as a Jew.
The play also calls into question the idea of Jewish identity itself by highlighting the narrative arc of Jacob’s daughter, Jessica, who leaves her Judaism behind to marry her love.
“Even if you are no longer religiously Jewish, how does that identity impact you in life?” Einhorn mused. “No matter how you’ve chosen to identify previously, when major life events happen, do they bring you back to that upbringing?”
To Einhorn and Kareken, who are both Jewish, it’s not about how one practices the religion or even if one chooses to do so. (Kareken, who is also a playwright of Broadway’s “The Lifespan of a Fact,” is adamant that there is “no wrong way to do it, within the bounds of ethics.”) Instead, it’s about how a person connects to where they’ve come from and how their culture informs the path they take in the world.
At this fraught moment — when polarization among Jews is intensifying and antisemitism is ascendent — these questions feel palpable. Einhorn admits that some audience members have found it too hard to face, walking out mid-play, but overall the response has been one of reflection and consideration.
“It’s working best when the comedy and the ridiculous aspects are working as well as the drama,” he said. “And I could feel that working from the audience reaction around me.”
“The Shylock and the Shakespeareans” will be performed at the New Ohio Theatre (154 Christopher St.) through June 17. For tickets and info, click here.